You know how sometimes your kid locks himself in a room and starts turning the circuit breakers on and off? It’s not for the faint of heart. But it’s slightly redeeming the next day when he flips out at me trying to catch a lizard in the house because IT’S A LIVING BREATHING THING, MOM, DON’T KILL IT DON’T KILL IT DON’T KILL IT. Like I would. I love lizards! Small ones.
In such instances, an urgency shapes his thoughts to the point of near panic; he can’t bear to be part of extinguishing a life. Forget about the lizards around the world – around the block – that perish every day; the lizard that’s front and center is the one taking up space in his brain.
In her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?, Judith Butler talks about the varying degrees to which we mourn people. She uses the term “grievability,” which is not actually a word, to measure how much we value the dead. Merry Christmas! But seriously. Example – as a nation, we rightly mourned the horrible death of journalist James Foley, who was held captive by Islamic State terrorists then beheaded in a video that was seen around the world. And yet we’ve barely acknowledged – much less mourned – the four Iraqi journalists beheaded by the same group last month. Foley – because he’s an American – has a higher degree of grievability than the Iraqis, at least for us.
At this point I’d like to call on all of you people who were obsessed about Ebola and wanted to close the borders and stop flying and keep your kids home from school. Remember how worried you were? So frightened for the four people in the country who contracted it? Glad that’s over in time for the holidays, right?
I recently read a New York Times story about a 4-year-old girl whose parents had perished from Ebola. She now lives in an orphanage. No one knows her name, so everyone calls her Sweetie Sweetie. And I felt sick to my stomach because this child has no grievability, and in a just world, which is a fantasy, I could bring her home and name her Mercy, because may Santa have mercy on our wretched souls if we don’t start grieving more people.
There have now been over 18,000 cases of Ebola in Africa, and nearly half of those patients have died. The number of children left orphans by Ebola is staggering: thousands of children, mainly in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, have been rendered parentless and cast out from their villages for fear that they carry Ebola. Are any of these victims grievable? No. Not to us. Because it’s Christmas here and we have to purchase teacher gifts. And if we can’t work up the compassion to grieve them, how in the world can we be motivated to save them? You know, to prevent the grieving?
All of this was on my mind the other day when my darling Diva said to me in a low, sad, voice, “I know that Santa isn’t real.”
She knows. I mean, I had assumed she knew, and I know that in her heart she has known for a while. She reads grown-up books and watches the news. She’s 13. Yet I felt unprepared. “You must believe in order to receive,” I said, and as the words floated between us I could see how lame they were. My girl was looking to me for comfort, for understanding, for some sort of reassurance that the magic of the season remained. Because this is how she figured it out – she had grown old enough to feel bewildered that Santa wasn’t bringing toys to poor kids. Those kids were grievable to her, and damn if her father and me are not doing something right that she cares about them. She’s normal, too – she totally wants an iPhone 6 and/or $600 to redecorate her room – but the injustice of the world isn’t lost on her, and thank you, St. Nick, for that.
I will probably show her the Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus letter from the 1897 New York Sun editorial – Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! – but honestly, as poetic and iconic as it is, that won’t bring much comfort to a girl who now grieves for a superman she thought was saving the world one child at a time. Also, you know me – I wanted to write my own letter anyway.
Dear Darling –
You are right. There’s no fat man who comes down the chimney. So this year, I will make sure we put out your favorite cookies for him, and I will let you eat them all. I hope that takes away a bit of the sting.
Honey, remember when you were little and asked me hard questions? I always had the same answer: MAGIC. Mom, when people die, how does the blood and guts get up to heaven? MAGIC. How does a baby grow? MAGIC. How did you learn to sing so good? MAGIC.
I still believe in magic, my sweetness, more today than ever before, and never as strongly as when I look into your lovely dark eyes. Santa isn’t a white-haired guy in a red suit – Santa is that feeling we get at the dinner table when your sister tells a joke AND WE ALL LAUGH TOGETHER and forget about the argument over who sits where. Santa is last night when you went to bed with a sweet dog asleep next to you and the rock-solid notion that today would be a good day.
Santa is a place in your growing, glowing, heart that believes every person on this earth deserves a chance at life. He’s you insisting we give money
to the homeless man and your brother getting mad at me for cursing out the Sears customer service idiot. Santa is the reason for the season, but not because of gifts or even eggnog. If we believe in Santa, we open our hearts to a compulsive urge to give to people who need gifts, to help pull them up, to shout at the top of our lungs that We get it! Hang on! We grieve for you! and when we’re done shouting, we don’t just go back to our iPhones and reruns of NCIS, but we look for ways to infect ourselves with an awareness of the world’s human condition.
Finally, my daughter, Santa is U + ME. He’s the magic that brought us together from two points 8,857 miles apart, and the glue that adheres us to your brother and sister and dad. Rest assured – there will be gifts on Christmas morning. Great gifts.
And it will take great magic to pay them off. But I know, and you know, that the greatest gift will be the hugs and the smiles and the kisses and the excitement of a day just for us.
Yes, darling Diva, Santa exists, but he’s a spirit, not a man, and if that spirit lives in you, then yourself become Santa. You can help change the world, one small act of kindness at a time, and you can keep believing in the goodness and worth of people you may never know.
And that’s what Christmas is all about.