Monday, September 05, 2011

The Toughest Writers Against the Toughest Holiday

There are things even the bravest and best among us will not face. 


I don’t care how tough you are.

It’s big enough to hurt you.

He had a soft spot for cats, so there’s that.
Consider Charles Bukowski. The last of the Great American poets along the lines, if not the precise subject matter, of Robinson Jeffers and James Dickey, Bukowski is probably best known today for writing the loosely autobiographical 1987 movie Barfly. Among his vast body of work—thousands of pages of poems, stories and essays—Bukowski wrote about his Depression-era childhood and his abusive father. He wrote about discovering alcohol and the city library as avenues of physical and psychic escape. By way of describing the complete experience of Life As It Is Lived, Bukowski made passing mentions of his bowel movements and how he would invariably vomit before reading his poetry before audiences.

The one subject he avoided was Christmas.

Bukowski recalled his father beating him with a razor strop in the bathroom doorway. He spoke of being chased over fences by bullies. He wrote of the rains that kept everyone indoors for days at a time in the spring.

Never once does Bukowski recall a boy’s happy anticipation built from Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.

Amid Bukowski’s many thousands of pages you will find one of two passing complaints about the “forced jollity” of Christmas. Bukowski devoted all of one poem to an adult memory of writing with the radio on during Christmas Eve, the sound of an ambulance signifying how life’s usual tragedies didn’t stop for O Holy Night. There are a couple of other adult memories that show up in his novel Women.

Growing up poor and abused, this is just another party you
weren’t invited to.
Yet for all of Bukowski’s memories of childhood—from appetite-killing family dinners to his father’s gratuitous alpha-dog violence against him and his mother, from having the severe acne on his teenage face drilled to the poverty he saw warping the families of other children he knew in 1930s Los Angeles—never once does Bukowski recall opening presents on Christmas morning. As unflinching as Bukowski was in describing the most hateful and cringe-inducing scenes he’d endured throughout his life, he wasn’t going anywhere near those memories.

No Red Ryder BB guns for Charles Bukowski.

For that matter, no Christmas sweaters for Hemingway. His mother was stone crazy and one can imagine what A Very Hemingway Christmas with her was like. Imagine is all you can do, because among Hemingway’s thousands of pages, encompassing locales from Spain to Africa, from Italy to Cuba, I cannot recall once reading a description of a Hemingway character participating in a Christmas scene.

There are more Great American Cat People Writers than there
are those who spare any space at all for Christmas.
Of course, he might just have found the whole thing beneath him. Unmanly, even, the domain of children not old enough to drink liquor for breakfast and fish for trout. Certainly not for men who speak abruptly with their women and think often about the war.

I’m only speculating, of course. Honestly, it’s not like I expect everyone to burst out singing “Joy to the World” or anything like that.

My contention is that Christmas season involves one full month, maybe more, depending upon how Thanksgiving lines up in November. It is the major touchstone for the entire year, the penultimate celebration before New Year’s Eve and the start of New Things. You can’t sleep through it and pretend it isn’t happening. Christmas commands everyone’s attention—except America’s best writers. Even the British seemed to give up on it after Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

Of course, there are the complainers. They can be fun to read, and why not? The best of them recognize the same things we do: the syrupy-sticky-awful music running ad nauseam in the stores immediately after Halloween, the crass commercialism, etc.

There’s a lot to hate about Christmas the way it is prosecuted in these United States. The shameless buy-something-because-fourth-quarter-earnings-drive-the-economy message we get from our “news” media, for one. I’m not arguing any of that.

In regards to Bukowski and others whose childhoods are something best put behind them, I also understand how Christmas is ruined for some people. I’m just saying there’s no reason to throw Christmas out with the filthy bathwater of our pasts.

I say these things as someone who has had Christmas ruined for him at age seventeen, who wasted the seasons throughout his 20s with nothing more than a bottle of gin and a bud of weed to get him through, I can bear witness: Christmas cleans up real nice once you decide you’re tired of getting beaten up by it.

This is not surrender. This is you declaring a different level of engagement. One that requires another kind of fight from you.

There is no better answer for a bad childhood, or against the hateful sham our Mammon-worshipping culture has made of the season than to create a Christmas that is good and true. A Christmas that reflects who we are and what we aspire to do. Or should aspire to do, assuming aspiration itself isn’t as dead for you as Christmas.

If it is, that’s okay. It’s all part of the package. A gift bigger than any box, yet accessible to all who are open to receive it.
Build your own Christmas. Let the right ghosts in.