A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.
The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.
This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.
For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!
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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.
I am reclined this morning on one end of a well-worn brown leather sofa, black coffee near at hand, my laptop atop my lap. Conveniently, it is held in place by that protruding portion of my abdomen that overlaps my waistline and also serves as a convenient snack tray. I try to see this is as a blessing, but most blessings I enjoy are well-wrought and gleaming. This one is pasty, soft, expansive, and lumpy.
We are told our bodies are temples. To what heathen god, then, has this been erected? I am 230* pounds of flesh and bone (flesh mostly), underworked and overfed, misshapen and hairy and graying. I am weary from too much rest—so comfortable it hurts. The portal is expansive, the veil is stretched; my altar, I fear, is all table and no sacrifice.
There is a time and place for opulence, but it is not my midsection at 42. Time to tear down this sprawling pagan jumble and put up a tent, a table, a candle, and a cross.
Three days may not be enough.
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* More or less…
The first thought for today is what a tremendous sense of relief I feel knowing that, as of this evening, both soccer and baseball are done for the summer. Jodi must feel ten times more relieved, since my job was usually just to relieve her at one of the fields after work so she could head to the other. She’s been Supermom – she deserves our awe, my thanks, and her own comic book.
The second thought is that every time I read Hemingway, I want to go fishing, and every time I read about Spain, I want to go to Spain. So The Sun Also Rises is thus far making me restless. It also makes me want a drink every twenty minutes or so. They drink a lot in these books. Constant buzz. At one point, the characters notice that a busy French waiter has sweated through his shirt. The stains beneath his arms are purplish. The first assumption is that the waiter must drink a lot of wine …