Of Witches, Walburga, and Welcoming Spring

We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.
~ C.S. Lewis

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Christmas Rereads: My Yearly Literary Wellness Check

They read the same book more than once.
They are the people with way too much time on their hands.
~ Dogbert

As we drove home last evening, my daughter laid down a challenge of Copernican proportions: “Can we watch ‘White Christmas’ before New Year’s Eve this year?” Cecilia was planning an overnight with her friends to watch the ball drop, but she didn’t want to miss out on our family’s quirky annual cinematic mismatch.

WhiteChristmas“But it’s tradition,” I argued – case closed. For reasons that are clouded by decades of obscure family lore reaching back to my Boulder, Colorado (read: quirky) childhood, we’ve always reserved the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye spectacular for December 31st.

No doubt you have your own movie rituals this time of year: “Home Alone” and “Christmas Story,” “Wonderful Life”and “34th Street,” and apparently the first “Die Hard” for some (though not for us – not yet anyway.)

Aside from the Gospels themselves, how about books – any Christmas traditions? Here’s my own list – every year (with rare exceptions), these four stories, and usually in this order:

  1. The Story of the Other Wise Man, Henry Van Dyke (1895): The story of a fictional fourth Wise Man who missed out on following the Christmas Star, and who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to appropriately honor the prophesied King.
  1. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843): The classic Christmas ghost story with the original miserly Scrooge at its center – although the converted Scrooge at its conclusion is a template for Christian generosity and joviality.William_Sydney_Porter_by_doubleday
  1. The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry (1905): A short story about sacrificial giving that captures, in so few words and so memorably, the essence of Christmas extravagance.
  1. What Men Live By, Leo Tolstoy (1885): Always last, always last (preferably Christmas Eve, if I can stay awake), this gem is about a fallen angel that finds redemption in the imperfect charity of very human community.

And it’s not just the stories themselves, mind you, but the actual, physical volumes. They’re like medical records, with my dated initials on the back flaps, year after year. So important are these volumes to my personal yuletide observances that I keep them by my bedside year round – to prevent their being absorbed into the maelstrom which is our library, never to surface again.

I had just begun to work through my canon last week when I happened upon a very relevant reflection by Christopher B. Nelson. “In a sense, rereading the same book produces new insights because the reader is a different person,” Nelson proposed. “Indeed, a good book is very much like a mirror: The glass is the same year after year, but the reflection in it changes over time.”

He’s so right, although I see my Christmas rereading in terms of a yearly check-up – spiritual, moral, and otherwise. Will I still sympathize with the fourth Wise Man and thrill at the appearance of Dickens’ spirits, Past, Present, and Future? Will I still cry at the christmasbooksend of O. Henry’s tale? And what about Tolstoy’s angel – will his humility appall or appeal after all these years?

“It’s Christmas, a generous, gentle time,” Garrison Keillor suggested this weekend. “Interesting things happen.” Yes, holiday leisure and lethargy nudge us toward introspection, and interesting things indeed happen – including weighty evaluations of past decisions and sober assessments of life direction. In the midst of all that, I’ve found that rereading my treasured Christmas classics every year helps me track the pulse of my soul.

I know that sounds a bit lofty and grandiose, but so be it – ’tis the season. Anyway, how about you? What’s on your annual Christmas reading list?

Of Three Days, Two Move-Ins, and One University

Dad, Joan, and Benedict

What shall I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are either beginning or we are dead.
~ Wendell Berry

“Ready to go?” I asked my son Ben. He was returning to Notre Dame for his sophomore year, and it was move-in day.

“Yup,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

The van was packed with his luggage along with the stuff his buddies had stored with him over the summer. Ben had already said his goodbyes in the house – younger brothers and sisters, and a tearful mom – so no more stalling. I pulled away from the curb.

“What’s in the CD player?” he asked turning on the stereo. The cardboard thudding and euphonious bass line of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” were unmistakable. “Led Zeppelin II,” Ben commented. “Nice.”

You’ll have to believe me that I hadn’t cued up that song ahead of time, but it turned out to be particularly serendipitous for our short trip up to campus. “Leaves are falling all around,” Robert Plant sang, as if to evoke the back-to-school season. “It’s time I was on my way.” Ben and I listened in silence for a while. “Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay, but now it’s time for me to go.”

“Why are you taking Twyckenham?” Ben wondered aloud.

“The move-in staging area is by the Joyce Center,” I answered.

“Oh, right.”

It was so different from last year’s move-in which had felt more like a practice run – like an experiment to see how this whole college business worked. Then, after spring finals, Ben moved home again, and old routines were re-established: We argued about current events and popular culture, and we laughed a bunch as well – often about the same things. He worked, hung out with his friends, took side trips, and emptied the fridge – again, just like old times. The end of August materialized out of thin air, and suddenly Ben was heading back for another ND round. This time, however, the leave-taking was all so very palpable – the connections to home more tentative, the domestic ties less secure.

That feeling was especially acute since we were still recovering from Joan’s move onto Notre Dame’s campus a mere two days before. Joan is our second child, and we were ecstatic when she accepted Notre Dame’s offer of a spot in the Class of 2019. Now, I’m well aware that the expression “Double Domer” is technically reserved to those privileged to complete both an undergraduate and a graduate degree at Our Lady’s University – I get that. However, can I plead a special application of the term to our situation and those like ours? Son and daughter, sophomore and freshman, both blessed to be attending the finest Catholic university in the land at the same time? If that doesn’t qualify us as double-domerish, then maybe another, better term should be invented.

August 19, 2012; Motorist line up along Notre Dame Avenue on move in weekend. Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre DameAnyway, my wife and I helped Joan moved into her dorm on Friday morning, and then we attended a presentation there on Saturday afternoon. The rector introduced herself and her staff, and then they each briefly addressed various aspects of Notre Dame dormitory life. Aside from the change in venue and voices, it was remarkably similar to the dorm presentation we attended during Ben’s orientation the year before. In fact, at one point it seemed like Joan’s rector was directly quoting a talk we had heard last year in Alumni Hall – albeit with the expected gender substitutions: “Thank you for entrusting your daughter to us,” she said, echoing Fr. George. “We’ll take good care of her.”

When she said that, suddenly our unfolding family drama became exquisitely real and personal and disorienting: Joan, Ben, Notre Dame…our first two children are in college! Our kids are growing up – we’re running out of time with them, we’re running out of opportunity! Grasp, grab, cling – hold on!

It couldn’t be helped – events proceeded apace, Joan launched in the company of her new Irish family, and I was left mulling things over.

So, back to Ben – the next day, Sunday morning. We pulled into the circle in front of Alumni Hall and started unloading. A couple of his buddies came down to help, and soon the van was empty. “That’s it, dad,” Ben said. “We got it all.”

“OK, well, I guess I’ll say my goodbye here then,” I shrugged, giving him a hug. “See you soon.”

“Yeah,” he said, “see you soon.”

As I drove home to the south side, Prairie Home Companion was on the radio, and Garrison Keillor was singing a medley duet with an opera singer. “It is well with my soul,” they sang. “It is well, it is well, with my soul.” I love that old hymn, but it was hard to sing along under the circumstances. The truth was that my soul wasn’t all that well, and I had a gnawing sensation that I’d left something undone – something important, something that still required attention. My two oldest children were off to college, and the transition felt like an ending, a conclusion – but I wasn’t done yet! Fathering is an apprenticeship that seems to take our whole lives, and our kids grow up well before we reach anything approaching proficiency.

Then, thankfully, mercifully, Garrison and company transitioned into the second hymn of their medley. “For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent, child,” they sang. “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” It calmed my spirit and reminded me that my fathering role was supplementary – and always had been. “[God] is the Father in a special way only of Christ, but he is the common Father of us all,” writes St. Ambrose, “because while he has begotten only Christ, he has created us.” Moreover, as sons and daughters of that creator God, we too are called to create – new beginnings, over and over and over again, every day. Ben and Joan starting at Notre Dame wasn’t merely an ending, but a host of beginnings as well – for them, for ND, even for me.

I arrived home later on Sunday and I was humming that hymn medley as I walked in the door. “Did you get him moved in alright?” Nancy asked. “Any problems?”

That gave me pause. “No problem,” I said after a moment of weighing the possibilities – the opportunities and chances of discovery, the adventure and risk, the endings and new beginnings. “No problem at all.”

A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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