It’s Christmas morning. My kids are sleeping softly…or are lying awake, quietly counting down the minutes til they can finally open presents. I’ve gotten up early to do homework, the perpetual student. But my mind can’t seem to focus on ArcMap and GIS. Instead it keeps rolling back to stories.
I have been given books filled with stories written by past relatives. They have become part of the fabric that makes up our Christmas rituals. Old Santa Claus (1) and the Wheeler boys is particularly fun with three boys of my own. I read the names. I don’t know any of them, but they are mine – my people – and the realization that I am theirs brings a subtle pride and sense of belonging. I love that they wrote their poems, songs, recipes, and traditions. They are the notes that anchor our family to a song that continues in time as long as we don’t stop playing.
At our annual family Christmas party I was given a book by my grandmother. She had written memories of her eight children and gave us all a copy. It got me thinking about my own kids, things I would want to pass on to them and stories I’d like to put down for posterity.
Due to a recent conversation about Christians and climate change with a good friend of mine, my mind was already churning up memories of events in my life that were significant in shaping me and the way that I think.
My friend had written a scholarly article that had triggered the conversation wherein he referenced the conversion of a man to Catholicism and eventually to becoming a monk that was in response to reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
My friend argued that Joyce’s description of his early Christian experiences was so authentic that they swayed someone toward the faith through his novel and then suggested that most people are swayed by experience rather than intellect.
My conversion to accepting climate science was wholly the opposite of that, but strikingly similar to that of the Catholic monk who read Joyce. It happened through reading. I read great minds argue tenets of environmentalism and every one of them gave sound and compelling arguments – ones that I couldn’t help but acknowledge had merit.
Even though I didn’t accept any one philosophy in its entirety, I did accept; however, that each was valid, and they swayed my thinking. This was the primer that opened the door to accepting climate change science and connecting the dots from what the science was saying to my own choices. I could see the ethical imperative to do something about climate change, if possible, because of the ripple effects my choices would have on others – particularly the poor and disenfranchised.
Unfortunately you cannot un-know something and the by-product of knowledge is action. If you know someone is being abused, you should do something about it. If you know a stop sign means stop, you should stop. If you know that climate change is real, then you must examine your life. There is a certain danger that comes with knowing – in knowing, you no longer have the comfort of living without conscience. You know you should act. Of course ignorance has its dangerous consequences too – and those can be just as painful – but they don’t carry the weight of guilt that comes with knowledge.
Because I love my children, it’s not hard to love others’ children and to ache for those who will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change. Because I can put myself in their shoes and can imagine the fear, pain, and heartbreak it would bring me and mine, I am compelled to do my part. Which brings me to another story.
Anton Chekhov’s, The Bet, has had the single biggest impact in my life and it happened in second grade. My teacher, who I don’t even remember, showed a video of the story. It took me until about a year ago to discover that the story was not some obscure educator’s tool, but a famous classic. I don’t know why she showed it, but her decision to do so dramatically shaped my life. It may also have been the beginning of my love of Russian writers, but I digress.
In my little eight year old head, I learned that there are things much more valuable than money and that many confuse God with money. I also learned that it matters how you spend your time, and that learning was one of the most valuable ways to spend it.
As I sit here on a dark Christmas morning awaiting the ritual of opening presents around the Christmas tree with my family, Chekhov and the wisdom in his story is not far away. How we live, how we consume, what we leave for our children, and their children, matters. This may very well be the story that I add to the annals of our family history.
- Old Santa Claus by Jennie Snow Christensen
Old Santa Claus put on his boots and his coat and buttoned a muffler snug round his throat. “I have dolls, books, skates and what-not and yet there is something I must have forgot….Now what can it be?” he said with a frown, “But I must make haste, or be late into town.”
So he jumped in his sleigh and rode off through the snow, for the jolly old fellow had miles to go. And hours before the bright moon went down and Old Santa was happily riding through town.
“Oh Ho! I am here!” he said with a shout, “And the lights in the windows are nearly all out. Now first to dear little John Wheeler’s I’ll stop, for his book and his skates and his sleigh are on top.”
He came to the Wheeler’s and what did he see? Pa Wheeler, Ma Wheeler and the Wheeler boys three. Old Santa Claus chuckled and listened awhile and his face was a light with a mischievous smile.
“Oh Ho! So the Wheelers are planning to see Old Santa Claus, are they? Well, bully for me! I saw just in time to spoil all,” chuckled he. “Why, boys ought to know its against Christmas laws for children to see old Santa Claus.” So he hastened away with his bag full of toys and filled up the stockings of good girls and boys.
Back to the Wheeler’s he came very late, jumped out of his sleigh and passed through the gate. “Now that chimney looks rather narrow and high,” said St. Nicholas, looking up into the sky. “But all it requires is one pinch of snuff — to go through that chimney I’ll be small enough.”
He owns a small airship as everyone knows, and up to the roof in his airship he goes. Then into the chimney he creeps very sly, but when half way down he sends up a shrill cry: “Oh where is my snuff box — my snuff box!” calls he, “The thing I’ve forgotten, it surely must be! The snuff that I carry to make me grow small! Help! Help! I am fast in a hole in the wall!”
“I cannot get either one way or the other. My sides, I declare, are both crowding each other. Too fat to go up and too fat to go down! Get up, Mr. Wheeler, and wake up the town! I cannot grow smaller — my snuff I’ve forgot, and I’m fast in the chimney all covered with soot.”
Then he kicked and he yelled , and he yelled and he wriggled, and the Wheeler boys hearing his plight lay and giggled. But Santa sent up such a very loud shout that the family arose and went hurrying about.
Pa Wheeler got ropes, and Ma Wheeler got worried. And off to the neighbors the Wheeler boys scurried. They called out, “Help, help!” and they woke up the town and the people in nightcaps came hurrying down.
The crowd gathers fast, and excitement increases and some begin tearing the chimney to pieces. “Go slow,” cried St. Nick, “Or my head will be damaged, with judgment and care this affair must be managed.”
The neighbors worked slowly, each striving to pick, piece by piece from the chimney the plaster and brick. Soon they had uncovered Old Santa Claus, and the night air was filled with a hundred hurrahs! As out from the chimney he came with a bound and bowed right and left to the crowd gathered ’round.
Then slyly he winked at the Wheeler boys three. “You’ve seen me at last, my find lads,” chuckled he. “And now to your beds, and I’ll return when you’re safe and sound, sleeping and snoring again.”
“The chimneys now days aren’t wide enough, nearly, however, I’ll visit the boys and girls yearly. My sides are all bruised, and I feel very sore, so hereafter, I think I’ll come in at the door.”
With a jump and a bound and a twinkling of eyes, he left the crowd gaping in open surprise. “Merry Christmas,” he called, “and a happy good night!” Then he jumped in his sleigh and was soon out of sight.
2. The Bet