Au Revoir Arbre de Noël
Goodbye Christmas Tree, goodbye 2016. Au Revoir. It was nice to meet you. Just like the year we were in, it was time to put the tree out with the rest of the trash from last year. Typically we hold on to the tree for a few days longer, maybe a week after New Year’s Day. But not this year. There was something about the tree which reminded us too much of 2016. It was time to go, time to move on. No looking back. But the tree has left mementos, little pine needles throughout the apartment as reminders. No doubt for weeks, even months down the road, as 2017 is bulldozing away the strangeness of the past year and building its own empire of absurdities, these little needles will be turning up in the most unexpected places. I remember last year’s tree. Ugly in its own way, but charming. It’s crooked, sharp little arms gave it something of a personality but the needles...even into the summer, no matter how much vacuuming, no matter the conscious effort to weed out the little annoyances, their prickly presence persisted. It was as if an infestation took hold, or they were reproducing. Just when you think the last needle has been found and tied up in a plastic bag and taken to the river, another turns up. It was something I soon had to live with. But still these little needles, after a while, get under your skin. And it isn’t the first prick, or the tenth. Sometimes it is when they don’t prick at all. Sometimes it is when you are taking a nice bubble bath with candles. Picture the scene. Drops of lavender oil are collecting at the surface of the water. The day has been long. All you want is serenity and there it is. A shallow pool of water lies before you.You dip your first toe in the water, just to check the temperature when suddenly you notice a blemish. Something floating, a thin individual object. You bend down so low your face is almost in the water. You can’t believe what you are seeing. One of these hasn’t been spotted for weeks, no, months. It’s a pine needle. That was last year’s tree.
This year we bought a bigger tree which means more needles. It drank more water which means the tree was prone to drying faster, which it did. Of course it isn’t the tree’s fault. When the tree is cut, it’s life, for all intent and purpose, is over. This is the life of a Christmas tree, brutal and short. Never has this tree been able to spend seasons upon seasons in the splendor of nature. They are bred to end in a living room, dying one needle at a time. Well, in the case of our tree this year, dying with needles by the dozens, possibly hundreds. This holiday season I found needles in obligatory spaces, of course. In a sock, on the couch, in the bed, in the rug, you know, the usual. But this tree’s needles had a real knack for inventive ways to spirit themselves to far flung locales. I found a needle in the fridge. In a bowl of popcorn. On the stove. In the oven. In my spaghetti sauce. In the toilet. How? I don’t know. Maybe it was stuck to someone’s ass. Whose ass is the mystery. Maybe I had a needle in my underwear. I found a needle in my drawer. On the window seal. In a record sleeve (Diana Ross: Greatest Hits, if you must know). In my backpack. Now I know you think I might be overly-sensitive and you are right. But sensitivity comes to being constantly surprised and with the anticipation that I will find one in a wildly unexpected place at any given moment. So, like 2016, our tree couldn’t have left soon enough.
But there were parts of the tree I loved. Nothing beats the smell of fresh pine even though the pine isn’t really fresh at all. In actuality, that smell is temporary because the tree is in a rapid state of dying. Well we are all dying, aren’t we? If there was any lesson learned from the last year, it is that we were reminded with an emphatic jolt we are not immortal! Not that we ever did think we, the people, are immortal. But Bowie and Prince. These guys seemed above the normal laws. They lived on a different plane. They were the men who fell to Earth. But it wasn’t just them. It was the others. The ones who were only too human. Leonard Cohen. Debbie Reynolds. Carrie Fisher. George Michael. But the purpose of this piece isn’t to compile a list and eulogize. More eloquent words have been written about the countless people who have passed away in 2016. Some we knew personally. Many we saw on the news through acts of violence and terror; through war; or other testaments to our inhumanity to each other. Perhaps it was an illusion or I am just being over-sensitive but it seemed like more people died this year just like the many needles which fell from our tree were more numerous than in years past.
In trying to come up with an article for the end of the year I wanted to try and avoid typical story lines. It had been a few weeks since the last article and I wanted the New Year’s piece to really be a punch to the gut or something a little bit wild. You know, something to set the precedent for the year to come. But also after trolling social media, there was such an overwhelmingly negative feeling about the past year. Whether it was the election, Syria, celebrity deaths, terrorism, droughts, fires, refugees, Mars, hurricanes, earthquakes, Zika...a lot of people were deeply affected by these life events, as they should be. How can you blame them? They were everywhere. Hyper-saturation. Up to our eyes to the point of obsession. These images you see in your sleep when you close your eyes. Everyone’s opinion flying back and forth like knives. And all the time people are wondering “why” “why” “why”. It makes me wonder, though, did anyone have time for their own lives? Anyways, I woke up this morning with these thoughts stewing in my cauldron of a brain. After a bit of coffee I sat down to write my definitive statement, not only of the past year but also moving into the New Year, 2017. Ahh, 2017. All the talk about 2016, it feels like 2017 is an afterthought. The forgotten sibling in the shadow of the more volatile older one.
The rain was incessant. After such a mild New Year’s Day, the 2nd of January was dark and cold. Rain began as snow and turned to water drops just before hitting the ground. Yesterday the world was awake but today it slept. It had been a joyous exhausting, Holiday season. Boni, Amara, and I spread ourselves around like little cups of eggnog until there was no more eggnog in the punch bowl. Today we needed to rest and I had an article to write. Yet what I was searching for was the words to articulate my feelings. Sure there were global events experienced by all but also some personal, precious moments shared with me by few loved ones. But how does one find meaning in such a sprawling, haphazard accumulation of life altering moments defined within the brackets of a single year? What words can one say and what will those words mean to those who read it? I sat at my computer and stared at a blank screen becoming more and more lost in the white void of the blinking cursor. As I stared I became more and more hypnotized. After a few minutes (it was hard to tell how long I was hypnotized) I shook my gaze away from the screen and I did some people tend to do in a desperate situation...I prayed.
“God, I said. Show me the way. Guide my pen (or my fingers on the keyboard) and let truth spew like a geyser in the tundra, thawing out all insecurities and falsehoods, to reveal the fertile grass of wisdom beneath the melting ice of frozen ignorance.” Still no words came but I was optimistic. Maybe a bit of break would do me good, I thought. I stood up and went to the window. From the fourth floor, the asphalt of Bath Avenue was glistening on the street below and in the distance the Verrazano Bridge was barely visible through the majestic fog. I walked into the living room. My daughter Amara was attempting to read some Dr. Seuss to her mom. On the counter in the kitchen stood a single fortune cookie left over from Liu’s Shanghai (best Chinese Food in Bensonhurst, no doubt). I could have sworn we ate all the fortune cookies the night before but I cracked it open hoping to find an inspiring verse in this forgotten cookie. But as it happens from time to time, the cookie was empty. I had to give a little laugh. “What’s so funny,” Boni said from the couch. I showed her the empty cookie and said “nothing.” Then I looked at the Christmas tree in the corner and walked over to it. Hundreds of needles laid on the ground and around the skirt of the tree. The branches were bare and skeletal and the pungent pine scent had an undertone of impending decay.
Together as a family we took all the ornaments off and with what has turned into a family tradition, we left the lights on. (This started last year because of the great pain in the ass it is to get the lights off of the tree and to roll them up without becoming chaotically tangled). Then I put on my jacket and my purple shoes. I took the tree downstairs, setting the forlorn corpse with all the other trash in the courtyard. I let the rain fall over me and for a few moments I was nowhere else. The mounds of trash, the pigeons, water falling on concrete. Then I noticed a man watching me. He was standing on the far end of the courtyard, past the bushes, rat’s nests and weeds. I had never seen him before so I was surprised to find him gesturing me toward him as if he wanted to speak with me. As I walked to him the rain was becoming harder and the holes in my shoes were leaking to my bare feet (I still find it difficult to wear socks even in the bitterest days of winter). As I approached him I noticed something very strange. He was completely dry and the ground around him was also dry, as if I was the only one standing under the rainy sky. But he was in the rain as I was, yet this didn’t make him wet. This wasn’t the only thing about him not ordinary. He had the look of Pinochet right down to the military regalia which made him a rather odd figure to find in the courtyard. If he hadn’t have been wearing sunglasses on this gloomy day I would have been curious to see what his eyes were like or if he had any eyes at all.
I stood for a moment waiting for him to speak then in the most natural way he said, “Hi, Seth. I felt your prayer to be nothing more exceptional than the average prayer. It was, in fact, a tad insincere, which I am used to. But what struck me about it is that I haven’t heard a prayer from you in such a long time. This is also common. As is the content of your prayer. It was a selfish prayer asking for some sort of inspiration just so you can write an article. I would say that the majority of prayers are selfish. I get nothing out of them, typically. But I am a whimsical being so some are answered and others are not. This tactic has been questioned, ignored, cursed, accepted, derided, and used to prove I am not real. Oh, I forgot to introduce myself. I am who you called God. I go by many names, though. If you have time, I would like to have a quick chat.” I nodded assent and then he said, “Good. Now follow me.”
I followed him down into the basement of the apartment complex into a stone room cluttered with tools and other discarded items. However, the room, if stripped clean, would have had the appearance of a makeshift torture chamber or a catacomb of hidden believers. There were two chairs in the middle of the room just under a dim light hanging from the ceiling. I sat in one and he (she? Maybe. If this was God it is assumed that his/her shape could manifest itself into other guises of gender. So this begs the question, why the guise of an old psychotic general?) sat in the other. I hadn’t noticed before he was smoking but when he sat before me he had a cigar in one hand and a snifter of what appeared to be cognac. He smiled and said, “I smoke because I can’t get cancer. I drink because I can’t get drunk. And the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I am here. Sure I have lost many followers over the last X amount of years. It happens. McDonald’s isn’t as popular as it once was, either. So I don’t feel too bad but I am a little more crank these days. To be honest, I feel I am becoming more like how I was in the Old Testament. But let me answer your first question…”
I interrupted, “I haven’t asked…”
“In your prayer,” he said, “you spoke for many people. You feel that they are wondering Why. Why this, Why that, and so forth But the question isn’t Why. That is the easy question. The Why is inevitable. It is part of the bargain. It was destined, prophesied, whatever you want to call it. Why could be today, or tomorrow. So that is the real question. I am telling you this so that you may learn a little something. Everyone knows you are stubborn, so you must learn. And not talk. Listen. The real question for you and for all is not Why but When? When are you going to die? See. There are millions of ways How and there are a million reasons Why. If you are bogged down in trying to figure it out then you will miss out on the really important question of When. When are you going to die? And the answer to that question is...nobody knows. Yet people are consumed with trying to figure it out. Of course this is not gonna happen. This is why some of my followers get under my skin. They are trying to organize events to bring about certain episodes which may expedite some sort of apocalypse. These are things you shouldn’t worry about. This is also why I like some of these atheists. I actually get them a bit, even though I am inclined to disagree with them. But they are a reaction to many discoveries of science and also against the radicalism of my followers. So their conclusions in certain respects are quite inevitable. Anyways, I am off topic. The key what you should be doing and what other people should be doing is to live your own life because you don’t know what tomorrow may bring. Wasting time wondering Why or When is going to take away from the word Now. Now is all you have. Tomorrow or yesterday are not really important. If you cherish the present, I mean really embrace it, with love, you will be honoring me. You see, all this violence and destruction is because people are trying to take the future and sell it or control you with it. They try to own the past as well. Yes, you can learn from the past. But you can’t own the past. The only gift I have given you is the present. The people who are in your life, the world around you at this moment. Cherish it with love. It may be the last moment you have. One can never know what is around the corner. Except death and taxes, of course.”
He sat there under the dim light, his face barely visible through the fog of smoke. I was trying to conceal my thoughts but I felt he could see into them and through them. He said, “you are wondering if I am really truly God. Or maybe I am something else. Like who? The devil? No, he is too busy. But to you these questions are irrelevant because you can’t answer them anyways. I mean, if I was or wasn’t God how would you really know? Precisely. You wouldn’t. Some people believe in me and they kill in my name. Some people don’t believe I exist and they are charitable and loving. What they have in common is their conviction. So the question is: have I told you anything you can find as truthful? If you can find truth in my words, that should be enough. So next time you pray say “hi.” Also, a little gratitude wouldn't hurt. Some people have it much worse and they are more thankful than most of you spoiled brats. One more thing, if you decide to pray again don’t ask for anything because what you have I have given you already and I don't want to give you anymore. If you need inspiration to write just open your eyes. Inspiration is all around.”
This is when my eyes began to burn. The smoke was becoming more thick and I was a having a difficult time breathing, too. I started coughing but through the coughs I said “What about Aleppo, what about the innocent children who die in wars?” My coughing became worse and worse. I fell to my knees. I couldn’t open my eyes. My body was hot and aching like I was slowly being cooked in a fire. “Help,” I screamed but the words couldn’t fight through the smoke. A piercing cry was ringing in my ears and then my world went into a darkness.
I woke in my bed. The fire alarm was ringing and there were ribbons of smoke in the light shining through the window. Boni rushed in holding Amara, opened the window and stared at me, waving the smoke around with her free hand, trying to usher it out of the window like an uninvited guest. Boni said, “Are you awake? I need your help.” I sat up a bit confused. Amara looked at me and said her favorite new word, “Papa,” and smiled down at me from her mother’s arms.
I said, “Is the apartment burning down?”
Boni set Amara on the bed next to me. “No,” she said, “I am cooking your breakfast.” I pulled myself up from the bed. My feet were cold and stiff as I slowly made it to the living room. For a moment the Christmas tree appeared to be on fire but it was just the blinking red lights glowing through the haze dangling in the air. From the kitchen Boni stood and said, “I hope you like your bacon well-done.”
After breakfast we took the ornaments off and kept the lights on. I took the forsaken tree down to the courtyard. The rain was incessant and felt it could turn to snow any moment. Except for the trash and some pigeons the courtyard was empty. For just a few seconds I let the rain fall over me. Walking back up to the apartment, I couldn’t help but notice the trail of pine needles on the stairs and in the hall. In front of our apartment door there was an even greater pile of needles. I looked all over my jacket and saw I was covered in them. When I walked in the apartment it became obvious to me as I looked at the needles all over the floor: the needles from the 2016 Christmas tree are going to be with us for a while. I walked in the living room and saw Boni sweeping the floor. She looked up at me and said “they are everywhere. We’ll be finding these things for months.”
“Papa,” Amara called me from the couch. She had her pile of books waiting. I went and sat next to her and kissed her head. A pine needle was stuck in her hair and I picked it out. Then I opened up Marvin K. Mooney by Dr. Seuss and read the opening lines, “The Time has Come! The Time has Come! The Time is now!”