Tag Archives: Christmas

In That Spring When Stars Are Made

Photograph by Jose Padua
Though we don’t turn them on at night,
the strings of Christmas lights are still up,
hanging in a line from the porch roof.
The red and white candy cane lights, pulled up from the ground,
lie at the top of the front steps
next to the all-season Dutch gnome.
Plastic Santa we managed to take to the back porch;
we’ll eventually carry him to the garage
where he will stand in silence
like a bored security guard
until next year. So go
the small things
we never have time to do,
the arbitrary ordering of our lives and times
into four seasons and various rooms
and days that pass so swiftly,
so invisibly
when nothing that’s considered
productive is being done.
But oh, all the tiny victories
not worth mentioning,
I will mention them anyway:
sitting on a rocking chair
when it’s warm and
I am in a blue-green, almost noisy funk,
talking about what was once the recent past;
an evening when dark objects in the sky
collide and fall to earth
as brilliant points of light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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Joy and Comfort

Photograph by Jose Padua
Whenever I see the word Joy
stitched into the bright red
cloth of the Christmas towel
hanging in the bathroom
what I hear in my head
isn’t “Joy to the World,”
a song I learned to play
on guitar by listening to
John Fahey’s version
when I was fourteen,
but “Joy,” a song sung by
Teddy Pendergrass in
1988 when I was 30
years old. For a few years
I could sort of play guitar
like John Fahey, sort of
re-create his sting and
drone when I plucked the steel
strings but my voice could
never come close to the smoky
sweetness of Teddy Pendergrass.
And in the several years after
I turned 31 I took the train
back from New York
to DC then back again
every year at Christmas,
coming home and going
back again like a sentimental
song in a major key that
sounds so much sadder
than you think it should.
I went back to the Lower
East Side where “crackhead”
wasn’t another word for an
asshole or a loser and was
only used when you were
talking about your friend
who was addicted to crack,
and art was created by
the people for the people
and product was what was
left on the floor and swept
into the trash or flushed
down the toilet once we
thought we’d made sense
of everything. Sometimes
we were wrong. Now I live
in a small town away from
the big city and I rarely
ever take the train or even
the bus and I’m rarely ever
away from home. Now joy
is like a bird on a sidewalk
somewhere off Main Street,
flapping its wings briefly
before deciding there’s no
hurry, no reason to rush or
leave the warm, calm comfort
of the middle of things.
John Fahey died in 2001,
Teddy Pendergrass in 2010,
and whenever I hear their
music in my head or in
the world I am reminded
of days gone by, and I turn
away from the bright red
of the cloth that hangs
against the deep green of
the bathroom wall and walk
out into the shadowing yellow
and slow, lowering blue of
this beautiful, young morning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Further Notes and Observations on the Spirit That Moves Us

Photograph by Jose Padua
It’s been a long time since the word Catholic, much less Christian, could be used to describe my approach toward spirituality. Yet, at this time of year, I do get this feeling that I must admit comes from that time in the past when I was a follower of such things. It is, certainly, a manifestation of a side of me that is unapologetically sentimental. And, perhaps, a concession that for my children, a lot of the old Christmas traditions are actually quite enjoyable. Or even, dare I say, magical. All of which is to say that even though I myself am not now a believer in any traditional sense, I am happy to have come from a state of believing. I am also happy that when I was a believer I was not involved in the manner of believing as practiced by the Skyline Baptist Church.

This morning I took a photograph of that church, which is down the road from us here in Front Royal, as they prepared for their annual Born to Die festival. Well, I suppose that they officially refer to it as their annual live nativity presentation, which is how they describe it on the sandwich board they place down by John Marshall Highway every year at this time. But, when you look to the church itself, what you see is that Born to Die banner—and an approach to spirituality that I find troublesome at best.

Although the Catholic church certainly has its own macabre elements. My favorite example of this is the hymn about Jesus on the crucifix that went, “Oh sacred head surrounded, by crown of piercing thorns”—with the musical accent being on that crown of piercing thorns. Still, I don’t think this compares with the Facebook posting I once saw of a Baptist minister in the Midwest who to illustrate his observation that it was a “glorious day in God’s creation” chose a photograph of himself holding a muskrat impaled on a stick. This same minister then went on to speak of God’s “violent acts of love.”

It’s precisely this sort of so-called spirituality that seems push me from my usual agnostic stance toward one of pure disbelief. Yet I find atheism, and its utter certainty that there’s no such thing as God or deity of any sort to be just as depressingly lacking in imagination as the fundamentalist Christian vision of god as an all-powerful spoiled brat who demands that you worship him or else face the horror of eternal damnation.

Of course, if I had to choose one over the other, I’d opt for atheism over the spoiled brat vision of god any time. Still, there are those moments about which atheism has nothing to say. As with the other day, after I’d picked up Maggie from school with Julien and we went home and sat in the living room as Julien watched an episode of Dora The Explorer. Maggie and I came up with the idea for a show in which Dora is a bad guy, called Dora The Corporate Executive. This Dora would ask her viewers things like, “Can you say hostile takeover?” and “Strikers, stop striking.”

After watching Dora, Julien started playing with his trains, and Maggie went to the hall to practice on the piano. I took the opportunity to check my work email on the laptop I have setup at the dining room table, and it was there that I heard a song that sounded familiar coming from the piano in the hallway. It took me a few moments to recognize it, because somehow it wasn’t the sort of song I expected I’d ever hear being played on our piano at home. And what I was hearing were the opening bars of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.”

The song was part of the soundtrack Ryuichi Sakamoto did for director Nagisa Oshima’s eponymously titled film, and I’d always been surprised that this peaceful bit of melancholy is what stays with me from that prisoner of war drama. That out of war, violence, and death, what I always came back to was this. And on hearing Maggie playing these notes, I somehow felt this connection to decades long gone—my mother, living through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines; my father, working at a hotel, after the end of war and their separate journeys, over the ocean, to meet here in the states; and all of the separate journeys—mine, Heather’s, Maggie’s, Julien’s—that brought us to where we are now.

And so, this season, it was the music—and certainly not any “violent acts of love” or the notion that Jesus was “born to die”—that put me in the spirit of things. And although this spirit may still have something to do with “Christmas,” it’s not, for me, a Christian thing. Or any rate, not the sort of Christianity that focuses on death and violence and the annihilation of its enemies.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking about those who oppose me and my kind this season. That, for the sake of celebration, I will banish all consideration of the crimes of torturers, racially profiling killers, oligarchs with their obscene wealth and power, the heinous demagogue with twitter compulsive disorder who will soon be the president of my country, and all the other murderers of both life and spirit. It’s just that I’ve accepted that for any person of conscience, struggle is a way of life; and that those true moments of peace and connection can’t be manufactured—they have to be found, over and over again. Which is why the best among us are always looking for something.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

For These Rainy Days on the Road at Christmas and Other Hours Lost and Found

MomDadAuntie_NoveltyPhotos_GlennEcho
The first song that got me teary eyed during the drive to Pennsylvania that December was Bonnie Raitt’s take on Joel Zoss’s “Too Long at the Fair.” It was probably the line that goes, “You can give my soul to Abraham, give my soul to Saul, and give my bones to Canada…” that got me when the traffic, after the quieter country roads, picked up in Frederick. We were somewhere around Dilsberg, PA when Stevie Wonder’s “Please Don’t Go,” the final cut from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, came on, and I was like, Christ, this is pathetic. I’m like that sad drunk at closing time who started weeping when the song order on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers was reversed and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was followed by “Wild Horses.” Yeah, it must have been a shock to the system, but that hipster must have had a full evening’s worth of whiskeys. Me, I was stone cold sober, getting over the flu, and the only even slightly intoxicating beverage I’d had in weeks was nighttime cold medicine.

But it was all OK. It was those fuckers who never cry who pissed me off, those assholes who are only half living their lives. If Bonnie could set me off, so be it. Stevie, Mick Jagger. Sometimes it was Al Green, Alex Chilton, Aretha, Dusty. It was a long list. Sometimes it was my own words, while I was writing at night, high from a lack of sleep or an inability to sleep, or from a train of thought that wouldn’t stop until I let it go wherever it wanted to take me, those times when I was possessed by a consciousness whose source never ran out as long as it was dark outside. And, sometimes, that sleeplessness was what I needed.

As a friend had recently noted, it was the death of a parent that made her feel more strongly her sense of being dependent. I was feeling that strongly then, myself, especially now that both my Mom and Dad were gone now. I was, in that way, completely on my own–and yes, it only served to heighten that feeling of dependency.

Lately, I seemed to be finding so many of the things I needed in the car, in the chaotic mess of clothes, books, and papers that got left behind there. They weren’t practical things like house keys, bank cards, or things of that nature. They were things I needed for my recovery from this period of mourning. Which isn’t to say that that recovery itself wasn’t a practical thing. But the things that keep you alive aren’t just the things that keep you breathing.

Earlier that week I found the November 19, 2012 issue of the New Yorker in the car. It was something I’d brought along to read while waiting for Maggie to get out from school. This issue I’d never gotten around to opening—maybe Maggie had gotten out from school early on those days, or maybe I was running late and didn’t have the extra time I usually had when I picked her up. But that Monday, when I took the car to the mechanic, I noticed this issue lying in a pile on the floor of the car and brought it in with me to read while the car was being worked on.

What I saw in there was an article by Roger Angell titled “Over the Wall.” A reflection on death, it was prompted by the passing of Angell’s wife in April of that year, and he began it by detailing all the recent history his wife never got to know: Hurricane Sandy, Obama’s re-election, her grand-daughter’s attending nursery school.

I needed to read this, because this was something that had always obsessed me as well—the news, the stories, the information the dead will never get to know. Whether it was good or bad, the many things one will never get to know always seemed like the most horrible part about dying. For me, it wasn’t the trips to the beach, the good meals, or even being with friends and loved ones that mattered most. It was the knowledge, including the knowledge that my friends and loved ones, whether I was there or not, were breathing. And alive.

My mother never got to know about things like the collapse of the World Trade Center and all the other horror that happened on September 11, 2001. She never knew about the space shuttle Columbia’s falling apart on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. She also never got to know my wife Heather, or experience the coming into this world of her grandchildren, Maggie and Julien. And then, eighteen years after my Mom’s death, I was wondering what the things were that my Dad would never know.

And so, much of the time, what I seemed to obsess on were all the bad things they’d never get to know about, the tragedies, the things that were frightening. Because there was always something about my parents knowing things—no matter what they were—that made me feel safer.

I began to understand that you’re never really grown up until you recognize that there will always be a part of you that remains a child, remains dependent. That you’re never really an adult until you realize that dependency is a fact of life, and that to deny your dependency is to deny your humanity.

And also, I began to wonder if all this was just an act of vanity. If each word I wrote was simply part of preparing for death, for that time, whenever it is, when I’ll no longer be here. If all I was doing was keeping a chronicle, a history, a monument marking my time here on earth. Words which, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, would prove that I was here, speaking to the people I knew as well as those I didn’t, the people who in the future would pass through the spaces I once passed through, when I was flesh and blood solid, breathing, and known for what I created rather that what I destroyed. A person who, in his better moments, perhaps even possessed an unmistakable glow.

I wondered, too, if when I’m gone, people will still be reading my poems. If one late night, in a bar—after they’ve shut down the juke box, and there’s no music, just the hum from the refrigerator—if some drunk will remember some line of mine, maybe even an entire poem, before going outside, catching a cab, and going home, alone.

Or maybe not alone.

These two pictures were taken around 1952 at a novelty photo booth in Glen Echo, Maryland, where there was an amusement park up until 1968. The prisoner on the far left is my Auntie Lucilla, who died in 2008. The prisoner to the right of her is my Mom, who died in 1994. The intoxicated man on the right, holding onto the lamp post, is my Dad, who died in 2012. There are so many things they’ll never know about. But then again, there are so many things they lived through that I didn’t, in that long slow time I took being born.

-Jose Padua