This year, I spent Christmas in the Dallas Fort Worth metroplex and in all honesty, it was hard. It was sweet that Alex and I finally got to spend our very first Christmas together and it was sweet to have quality time with his family and take part in different traditions. But for the first time in many years, I didn’t get to take a starlight walk through a field and imagine the chorus of angels behind the silence. I didn’t perch atop a hay bale under a barn roof and journal with half-numb fingers about the glorious implications of lesser-known Christmas carols. There are no fields here, of course, and certainly no hay bales. What’s more to the point, there is no space for solitude in nature, and I’m finding more and more that productive reflection and rest is really difficult for me to achieve indoors.
One thing I did do was spend two full afternoons in an upscale shopping mall, hiding out in a bookstore and looking for some soul peace. On Christmas Eve, I was there the whole afternoon, thumbing through poetry books, vaguely looking for something to anchor my anxious heart.
The triviality of the world can be stifling and I think we all feel it at different times and in different ways. I feel it most when I’m in the presence of hopeless materialism, when I’m watching people get bogged down and burdened by the tightening chains of things that are without longevity, purpose or meaning. And of course, there’s nowhere like the mall if you want to get yourself a load of that.
One of the books I explored that afternoon in the bookstore was Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems For Hard Times. In his introductory notes, Keillor explains why he thinks poetry has something to contribute to people who are suffering. “The meaning of poetry,” he says, “is to give courage.” And that stuck with me. Because ah. That is what I chiefly need.
Since I couldn’t find any poems that spoke to what I was feeling, I started scratching out a brand new one, pouring my sadness and frustration into lyrical words. But, as so often happens, hope happened at the end of it.
This poem is meant to push back on the dangerous idea that what we’re up against today is somehow worse or less conquerable than what has been in the past. For a traditional artist like me, whose heart beats faster at the sight of hard-copy letters and old-fashioned style and the texture of paper, who feels a sadness in the pit of my stomach when I see isolation creeping into culture or the price of postage going always up; well, this is vital.
It’s vital that Jesus came into a horrible, horrible, world where nothing made sense and everyone was confused. Where truth was murky and beauty was treacherous and self-preservation was central. These things have always been, taking one form or another. And that’s vital.
It’s vital for post-Christmas, when we’re trying to get ready for the new year, for the sorrows that are inevitable, for the loneliness of being human, for the days when faith doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.
The title of the poem refers to the ornithogalum flower, also known as the “Star of Bethlehem.” I took an interest in it earlier this month when I was working on the January edition of the Letters From the Sea Tower. I wanted to make a little illustration for a striking line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In his exploration of the mythos of King Arthur, Tennyson employs the phrase, “wearing the white flower of a blameless life,” and I chose the small, unobtrusive, starry ornithogalum to be my model for the white flower. But as I began to write this poem, it came to me that if a white flower is a representation of a blameless life, there is someone who wore it far better than even King Arthur. Here’s to Him.
And without further ado, here’s my little poem. May it bring you some courage to face the shallowness of the world with limitless grace and cheerful defiance. May your life in some kind resemble the humble, white-flower life of Jesus.
STAR OF BETHLEHEM [Ornithogalum]
The world was just this way
Baby Jesus bloomed in the
crisp winter and the frost
couldn’t wilt him.
People then as now
were lost in the unnavigable maze of the self
little guessing there was
around any corner
a turn into a passage fragrant
with fresh air
and the urgent invitations of the gulls.
People then as now
were shelling out their small, limitless lives
for those briefest of commodities:
pleasure and applause
when Christ came low and
the white flower of paradise opening
gently in the carpet
of the grass.