I have always been vulnerable when confronted with Christmas decorations, and I am sitting in my living room staring at them. The lights on the tree are blinking on and off and I’m mesmerized. I have never been to a hypnotist but maybe mesmerization is the last state you enter before going over the edge into hypnosis. Maybe being mesmerized is the last thing you remember. It does seem to be a state all its own. When I was a child I did the same thing—watched the lights blink on and off, alone in the living room at night. The only difference is I know a lot more about Christmas now than I did then. I knew practically nothing then. My mother put an electric candle in each window, they were ivory-colored plastic, and at the end of each taper, near the bulb, fake drips of wax were molded; I loved the drips the most, it meant that the candles looked real to people inside the house, not just to people looking at them from the outside. What I didn’t know then was that these decorations evolved from the Jewish menorah, the Hebrew festival of lights. I don’t think my mother knew that either, but if she did she never mentioned it. And I certainly never contemplated the resemblance of a sleigh to a cradle. A sleigh is basically a very large cradle. The runners of the sleigh are what makes the cradle rock. Once there was a very eccentric man, in the nineteenth century in upstate New York, and when he was in his fifties he had a carpenter build him a cradle. I saw it in a museum, the biggest cradle ever made, and every night he slept in it, and when he entered his last illness he stayed in the cradle day and night, feeling the sensual throes of the cradle while somebody nursed and rocked him. I mean in the sense of caring for him. He died in his cradle, and the card on the wall of the museum said he was happy at the end. When I was a child one of my ornaments was a little red velveteen sleigh. I used to put a tiny doll in it, but now it is empty. I don’t even like it anymore and when I was decorating the tree I thought about throwing it away but then I remembered the man in the cradle and decided to keep it. My mother and father also decorated the outside of our house with lights. We lived in a different house every year, so it wasn’t easy—the length of the light strings kept changing. People who live in the same house every year don’t think about things like that, their dimensions stay the same, there’s no need to adjust anything, ever. After the lights were up on the outside of the house, my father would put us in the car and drive around the neighborhood, looking at the lights on the other houses. Sometimes he made disparaging remarks and sometimes in silence admired them. When he admired them he would make changes in his own lights the following year, but as we were by then in a new house none of the neighbors knew we were copycats. The most beautiful yard we ever saw had a snow scene with a frozen pond in the middle and life-sized figure skaters who floated across the pond wearing muffs. This was in Southern California, so everything was fake—the snow, the frozen pond, even the skaters were fake, and when they moved you could hear a slight whir under the ice—I guess it came from a motor. My father couldn’t copy that—I could tell from his face that he was defeated. In those days everyone had lights. Not a single house was without them. That’s one thing that has certainly changed. Today, only poor people have lights, and the poorest people of all have the most of them. At least this is true of the town I live in. There is one street that has the poorest people of all and at Christmas it is ablaze with lights, there are electric deer on the lawns and huge inflatable Santas, the roofs have more Santas descending in sleighs with reindeer, that kind of thing. The rich people think it is ugly, they don’t bother anymore and they worry about the electric bill. They try to live calm, natural lives. They bake all their own bread, they make cookies and cakes and pies from scratch, they make their own beer and their own wine and liquors and they grow their own food in the summer—and come winter, when they want a Christmas tree or some holly, they just walk out on their land and cut it. Poor people have to use money, they have to go to the store and buy food, especially the kind that is already made. It didn’t used to be that way. When I was a kid, it was understood that poor people had to make everything themselves while rich people got to buy things. My mother bought whole cakes at the grocery store and said we were lucky, not to have to make them ourselves. Now everything is reversed. If my mother and father were still alive they would be very confused. I think we would all become confused, eventually, if we didn’t die. Maybe death prevents a major confusion that would, if it were allowed to go on, eventually kill us all. When I was little, one Christmas ritual majorly confused me. My mother had a little ceramic sleigh that sat on the table. It was driven by a ceramic Santa and pulled by ceramic reindeer. Every year I had to wrap empty matchboxes so they looked like tiny presents. Then we piled them in the sleigh; they were the presents Santa was hauling. But they were empty, and it made me sad. My mother would sit at the table smoking, watching me wrap the matchboxes. Can’t we put anything in them? I asked. No, she said, they’re fake. Couldn’t we pretend? I said. That’s what we’re doing, she said. I mean real pretend, I said, but she just stared off into space and I knew the conversation had ended. One thing is for certain—I wouldn’t want to be a Christmas tree. It would be nice to be the center of attention, to be so decorated and lit that people stared at you in wonder, and made a fuss over you, and were mesmerized. That would be nice. But then you’d start dropping your needles and people would become bored with you and say you weren’t looking so good, and then they’d take off all your jewelry, and haul you off to the curb where you would be picked up and crushed and eventually burned. That’s the terrible part. Maybe that’s why so many people today have fake trees. They are quite popular. Their limbs come apart and you can put them in boxes and store them. You can have one of these trees until you die and you can pass it on to your children. They may not be real but when you look at them you can’t tell the difference. That always makes people happy—not being able to tell the difference. And happiness, to want to be happy, is the most natural thing of all. That man in his big cradle was happy, though I never understood why, when he died, they didn’t just saw the runners off and use it as his coffin. I don’t think anyone would have noticed; in the end, the difference between a cradle and a coffin is hardly worth mentioning, though then again I wouldn’t have seen the cradle later, in the museum, and if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have kept my red velveteen sleigh, I would have just thrown it away. No, never! When it comes to Christmas, when Christmas comes, I sit firmly on the lap of Charles Dickens, and repeat after him: Welcome, Everything! At this wellremembered time, when Everything is capable, with the greatest of ease, of being changed into Anything. On this day we shut out Nothing!
Once upon a time there was a bird, my God.
I am the yellow finch that came to her feeder an hour before she died. I was the last living thing she saw, so my responsibility was great. Yet all I did was eat. Through eight long months of winter the black oiled sunflower seeds had gone untouched—not a single one of my kind or any other kind had approached them. It was too much work. Even if we’d had the strength—which we did not, half-starved as we were—we were not in the mood to crack anything. On the morning of the twenty-second of April she took them away and refilled the feeding tube with sunflower hearts—sheeny niblets whose hard outer husk had been stripped away by some faraway, intricate machine. She went back inside and waited. From my branch I could see her do the things she liked to do—she picked up a towel from off the floor, she filled out a card stopping the mail, she boiled water, she stared into space. She saw me coming. Her face flickered with, if not exactly joy, the ordinary wellspring of life. It’s true there was a sheet of glass between us. But I could see the seeds of her eyes and the upturned corners of her mouth. I ate a heart. I turned my head. She looked at me as if I were the last living thing on earth. And as I was, I kept on eating.
I am rejecting your request for a letter of rejection. One must reject everything in order to live. That may be true, but the rejected know another knowledge—that if they were not rejected, heaven would descend upon the earth in earthly dreams and an infinite flowering of all living forms would form a silveresque film over our sordid history, which has adventitiously progressed through violent upheavals in reaction to rejection; without rejection there would be no as-we-know-it Earth. What is our ball but a rejected stone flung from the mother lode? The rejected know that if they were nonrejected a clear cerulean blue would be the result, an endless love ever dissolving in more endless love. This is their secret, and none share it save them. They remain, therefore, the unbelieved, they remain the embodiment of heaven herself. Let others perpetuate life as we know it—that admixture, that amalgam, the happy, the sad, the profusion of all things under the sunny moon existing in a delicate balance, such as it is. Alone, the rejected walk a straight path, they enter a straight gate, they see in their dreams what no one else can see—an end to all confusion, an end to all suffering, an elysian mist of eternally good vapor. Forgive me if I have put your thoughts into words. It was the least I could do for such a comrade, whose orphaned sighs reach me in my squat hut.