How do you write a book like this?
I’ve been asked that more than a couple of times since 2011 when I first bundled those 24 short stories I had written the year prior and made them into a book. “How do you imagine yourself in the Nativity, holding Jesus?” The answer is…”It’s a mystery.” I don’t know. The train of thought went like this.
I was homeless. I had lost my job in March of 2008 when the mortgage company I worked for pulled up stakes and closed down its Tennessee offices. I had my own branch of the largest privately-funded mortgage company in the world, and I had done nicely for myself. I was nationally recognized as a leader in my business, a leader in my community, and manager of a model office for production, compliance, and customer service. After 5 years in the business, I had finally earned the right to have an office with these folks, (Allied Home Mortgage was the jewel of the industry back then. You had to be very good at your job just to be considered for a branch) I had mastered the business, and I was rebuilding my life after a crushing divorce in 1999.
All I really ever wanted was to be a husband and a father. I became a husband in February 1997. I became a dad in May, 1998. In December 1999 I became a divorcee. To say my heart was broken would be to say the Titanic was a “boating incident.” I was devastated. I lived for my family. I pushed myself to become the best at my job so that they’d be proud of me. Before I had ever really tasted the fruits of the early success I had, they were gone. I had no wife and I had part-time fatherhood. For me it was like losing a limb. You don’t turn off your fatherhood and then turn it back on again, once a week and every other weekend. The pain became part of who I was. I learned to succeed in business, despite the loss of the single motivating factor behind that success. I became a zombie.
But there was always Christmas.
I am a Christmas guy. I am Clark Griswold in “Christmas Vacation.” I would have enough lights on my house to divert aircraft and have them land in my front yard. My daughter was 18 months old when her mom and I divorced. From the first Christmas until Christmas 2010, I had traditions that she and I kept. We always watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (and I always cry when Linus says “Lights please” and begins to quote the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke) we watch “A Christmas Carol” (The 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge) and we baked Italian Christmas cookies, like ricotta cheese, strawberry thumbprints, and, of course, Pizzelles. (Italian waffle cookies that taste like licorice)
The other tradition we had, was that every Christmas Eve, just as she was falling to sleep, I would sneak up on the roof of our house and stomp around, jingling sleigh bells and bellowing “Ho Ho Ho! I would call out to imaginary reindeer and do my best to make my voice sound like I was fading into the distance as I drove my sleigh off into the night.
I took Morgan home every Christmas season to experience the Christmas Season as I did in my native Philadelphia. We went to the old Wannamaker store and saw the antiquated light show in the grand terrace. We put some money in the Salvation Army kettle and listened as the band played their Christmas hymns. I told her about my grandmother – her namesake- and how she loved Christmas, We went to Uncle Franny’s house for “Feast of Seven Fishes” each Christmas Eve.
Maybe the most special tradition we kept every Christmas was the Advent Calendar.
I had one every year as a kid, and when she was old enough, I got two identical Advent calendars and she would keep one at my house and one at her mom’s. Each night, if she was at her mom’s house, I would get her on the phone and we would open the door for that day and discuss the scene behind it. If she was at my house we opened it together. The Advent Calendar had a place of prominence on the kitchen counter, alongside whatever recent drawing she had made me.
This worked well for ten Christmases.
In 2008 I had lost my job, then my career, as the industry imploded upon itself. By May, I was homeless. I slept in my car, tucked behind a church in Nashville until November when I got hired as a sales rep for a heating and air conditioning company. I managed to get an apartment and that first Christmas I wasn’t actually homeless.
But the economy kept getting worse and by February, the company folded. By May, 2009 I was homeless again. This time…I had the feeling it would be long term. The economy wasn’t getting better; I was 46 and had two years of a bachelor’s degree under my belt. I had been a great success, but in an industry that had all but vanished. I was lost.
I spent that year trying to put out resume after resume and finding that my age, recent work experience, and lack of an address, conspired against me. By August I decided to enroll in college to complete my degree, hoping that would turn the tide and at least make my resume look better. By November, I had been sleeping in my car again for six months, doing classwork online at local restaurants, showering at the County Rec center, and –in my quiet moments- wondering if I would ever-again feel whole.
In the middle of this was my now-ten-year-old daughter. I was able to conceal my homelessness from her for about six months, but that fall of 2009, she figured it out. She worried about me. She cried. I cried even more. I recall one day driving along with my friend Creig Soeder, and the dam burst. He’d asked me how she was doing and I said she was okay. Then the thought hit me…”What if one of her friends find out I’m homeless and they tease her because of it?” I said this to Creig as my heart shattered all over again and I sobbed in his truck for a very long five minutes.
By November, I was planning on traveling home to Philadelphia for the Holidays again. Morgan and I were talking at McDonalds. We could no longer have every other weekend together. She lived with her mom full time now and I would spend Saturdays with her, but I had not been able to hear her bedtime prayers, or tuck her in for almost two years now. Our home in the country was gone. Our beloved pets were gone. It was all gone except for memories. I asked her one night about going home. “What do you want Santa to bring?” I asked. She grew quiet and said “Daddy…I know about Santa now.” I was devastated. I was hoping for one more Christmas like we’d had before this nightmare began. I just wanted my little girl to remain my little girl.
I needed Christmas.
So I asked her about the Advent Calendar. She lowered her eyes. I knew already. She didn’t want to do those this year either.
She struggled to tell me so I just said it for her. I wasn’t trying to make this hard for her. “I guess so” she said…”But not really.” Was her response when I asked her if she wanted to do the Advent Calendars again. A few years later, she would tell me this was because we no longer had a kitchen counter to place it on. She was trying to spare me the embarrassment. But that night, she was just growing up too soon at the very time I needed her to remain little for just a while longer.
I remember driving her to her moms’ that evening and kissing her on the forehead and saying goodnight. I cried the rest of the way back to Franklin. I can’t say “the rest of the way home,” because I didn’t have one. I probably went to the local Panera and did some school work. But inside I was dying.
The Advent Calendar was the end. I had lost everything that identified me professionally. I’d lost my little country house and my garden and my two beautiful Springer Spaniels and my cat. I lost the house that felt like a home every other weekend when my daughter was there with me.
Now…I was losing Christmas too.
The Advent calendar was the final blow. I remember walking to my car. At the time I was driving a 1995 Volvo 850. That’s what I slept in every night, bundled against the winter cold in two sleeping bags. I drove to Oak Hill Assembly of God in Nashville, and nudged my car into the high weeds behind the sanctuary. I thought about all that had happened. I thought about my home. My career. I thought about my daughter and that Advent Calendar. I remembered the night my daughter was born. How holding her changed everything that was, or would ever be. Now she was ten years old. Already gone was her innocent belief in Santa. I needed her to be little for just a while longer. I needed her to open those Advent Calendar doors one more time. Then it hit me…
I needed an Advent.
I was lying in the passenger seat of that Volvo, and I started thinking about how that night in May changed everything. Holding my baby changed my life. I started to think about Brennan Manning’s book, “Relentless Tenderness” and I thought about Jesus coming as a baby. He came as a scandalous, illegitimate, poor, unnoticed baby born to a carpenter and his teen aged wife. I wondered what emotions might have gone through Mary and Joseph’s heart as they held him. Were they emotions like mine were when Morgan was born?
Then it hit me. What if I had been there? What if I had held him when he was just a few minutes old?
I fell asleep that night with the image of Jesus in my arms. An image that would not leave my soul.
The next day, I wrote an article on my blog about what I had been thinking the night before. The day after that I wrote one story about Santa Claus coming to the manger and kneeling next to Jesus and worshiping him. The next day I think it was Joseph, and my image of what thoughts might have been running through his troubled soul as he held God in the flesh and called him “son.”
After a week, the stories became more special. More inspired. I wound up writing one story per day for the entire Advent season in 2009. That was the genesis of “The Ragamuffin’s Christmas.” Characters presented themselves at the manger in Bethlehem. A murderer and his victims. The Roman soldier who watched Jesus die on the cross. The inn keeper who had no room. My grandfather. Mother Teresa. Every story opened a floodgate of emotions and drew me to the tiny baby of Bethlehem.
There is healing here. There is an amazing, mystical encounter with Jesus as it might have been.
There is innocence, and the unassuming, disarming presence of a baby.
…who just happens to be God in the flesh.