Thin Walls

“And by faith [Abel] still speaks, even though he is dead.” –Hebrews 11:4b

Listen a moment with me in the dark hours of this holy night, as the strange new star blazes in the sky. Give ear with me to the whispers of the past. The blessed dead are speaking again, at this time of the year when — as surely as at Midsummer — the walls between the worlds grow thin.

My father once compared the separation of life and death to a holiday family gathering in a house. People gravitate to different rooms. Often it’s the women in the kitchen, the men in the living room. The point is, inconsequential walls separate the family for a little while, but the gathering takes place throughout the house. Voices and laughter spill back and forth from room to room. Not everyone can see one another at every moment, but all are together in the house, and sooner or later, all will meet up again. So it is with our families: some members have gone on ahead, beyond the veil; some remain here for a while.

Another time, someone said to my parents, “You must miss Fred when he’s in Japan on the far side of the world.” My dad answered, touching his forehead and his heart: “He’s only as far away as the distance from here to here.” (I heard about it from that friend’s daughter later, because the answer impressed them both so much.)

Listen with me: my parents, dead now to this world of snow and cold, are speaking of Christmas.

Here’s a poem my mom wrote maybe 20 or 30 years ago:

As a child I thought of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

But now it’s changed, and now I’m grown,

And I think of God’s great gift, His son.

So now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.

 As for Dad, I’m going to paraphrase / summarize him. From before he was married and I was born, Dad worked for the highway department, patrolling for dead animals, setting out flares and barricades for road construction, and plowing snow in the winter. He often spoke of one of his most memorable Christmases, which was one he spent alone.

In the afternoon of Christmas Eve that year (this was when he was still single), there came a fearsome blizzard which shut down pretty much everything. He was called out for emergency snow-plowing, so he couldn’t join in the family gathering at his mom’s place that evening. But as he went to work, he dropped off his apartment key with Grandma, so that she could swing by and pick up the presents he had for everyone. (I’m not sure why he didn’t drop off the presents themselves instead of the key. We can only assume there was some reason. . . .)

So he went out and battled snow all night. Sometime in the pre-dawn hours, they finally got the roads cleared, and he was able to wend his way home, frozen to the core and exhausted. He had parked at his place before he realized Grandma still had his key. He didn’t want to disturb her at that hour of the morning, so he jimmied open a window, crawled in through it, and tumbled down inside in a tangle of curtains, furniture, and stuff from a shelf.

He got some hot coffee going, played some Christmas carols on his record player (so he said; I’m kind of skeptical about that point — he’s frozen, worn out, wanting to get to bed. . . . but it’s his story, and he says he listened to Christmas carols), and sank at last into his warm bed, feeling somehow that it was one of his best Christmas Eves, although he’d missed everything he normally did, the church service and the family gathering, the food and the presents. Instead, it had been a night of tedium, deep chill, raw winds, and lonely labor — and getting locked out of his own house. But, yes, I can understand why he felt good about that night.

I can very distinctly remember the wild joy of lying in my dark bedroom late on Christmas Eve as a child, the electric thrill running through me at the thought of the wrapped presents under the tree in the living room . . . at the thought of the immortal “jolly old elf” who would visit my house sometime before dawn, negotiating the pitch blackness, depositing wondrous things under the tree, into my hanging stocking — eating the cookies I’d left for him, drinking the milk, and writing me a thank-you note in his spiky, illegible hand. I remember that excitement — the fierce joy of all those toys and plastic models that would make my life so much better.

I remember how the joy gradually shifted to the warm lights of the church — two services on Christmas Eve, and singing with the choir and playing my trombone at both, with a long visit at Grandma’s house in between, since she lived just a few blocks from the church.

I remember how the happiness eventually started to come from counting blessings — from the time spent with family and friends, from the good health and peace and happy gatherings; from having good writing to do and the gifts to do it with. As we age, it starts to be about our interactions with others and the use of our gifts.

It’s another kind of trembling joy I feel now in this winter dark, as the dead whisper — the dead who are not dead, but feasting just on the other side of the wall — the heroes in Valhalla, drinking the milk of the einhejar. It’s the joy of having a calling: students to teach, stories to write, and the ability to do both. The experience, the ideas . . . the chance to be here and now. Friends — the best array of friends anyone could possibly have. A past that has shaped me. Good things to do, and the passionate desire to do them. Senses. The thankfulness of being alive and stable and where God has put me.

The key to it all is found here, on this holy night, in the event we celebrate — the coming of that Child in the manger. The peace and the joy come from the knowledge of Him. There is warmth and light at the end of the winter. The paths of the living and the dead do reconverge in a good, good place.

Here’s one more dead voice that still speaks loudly: the voice of the poet Thomas Hardy, in his poem “The Oxen”:

Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock,

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said, as we sat in a flock

By the fire in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek, mild creatures where

They knelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come, see the oxen kneel

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

–Thomas Hardy, “The Oxen” 

It’s a magical time, this night of thin walls, when we ask “Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear?”

So let us give ear to the voices of the blessed dead, and the song of the angels. Let us use what we have, and strive to sound our own notes in the great Song, and make the world better if we can, and know that they are all waiting for us ahead, beside the fire, where the shadows and the tears are gone.

“Now I think of gifts and things,

And all the joy that Christmas brings,

And all the happiness Christmas brings.”

“For unto you is born this day . . . a Savior.”

Finally, here’s an announcement. Our own tandemcat, a good friend of many years and frequent commenter on this blog, has started up his own. He’s off to a great start at:

I can vouch for his writing skill and his astute observations. You’re all invited to drop in there on your way home.

A blessed and merry Christmas to all!


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4 Responses to “Thin Walls”

  1. mileposter Says:

    Thanks, Fred! (I am tandemcat, and also mileposter.) I enjoyed reading your historical progression of feelings at Christmas. I have experienced something similar. For this year, I’ve already received the best gifts of Christmas–special recognition from some of the most important people in my life, two of whom I’ve known only about a year. And the distribution of Christian fish keychains and their accompanying cards to my school bus passengers went very well today.

    There have been lots of things said about Santa Claus and Christmas, but I came across a marvelous sight a couple of days ago–an outdoor display with the baby Jesus in a manger. That’s relatively rare–most people put different things in their yards nowadays, even though the Holy Family is always out there. Santa Claus was in the display, too–that’s pretty common. But this one was special–you see, Santa Claus was kneeling, bowing down to worship the Christ Child, his head uncovered.

    Mark Shields
    Jacobus Jornada

  2. Daylily Says:

    Thank you, Fred, for this Christmas card from Japan to all of us! I wish you and your students a blessed and merry Christmas as well!

  3. John Says:

    Yes, a blessed Christmas to you! Thank you for this lovely gift.

  4. Catherine Says:

    I second my father (the previous poster); even though I’m a couple of days late. Christmas DOES have twelve days, though . . . This was a beautiful post. I loved reading it. Your father’s story of the emergency blizzard reminded me of this Christmas . . . we’ve had an odd one: too much snow where snow hardly ever falls. People have been stuck and we all worried that our Christmas celebrations would be changed and postponed. By the grace of God, not one thing has really gone wrong for this family; others in this area have not been so blessed. This will be one Christmas I remember with great thankfulness . . .

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