The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was a discard on its way to the dump. It had been a lean Christmas for us, and in the absence of funding for elaborate decorations, my mother built a simple faux fireplace on the main wall of our living room. The mantle allowed just enough room for our stockings and for the nativity scene to rest in prominent view as the center of our celebration. The whole display was actually made of cardboard, but it was colorful and festive and she got it special for me, so I was perfectly content. My uncle, however, who came visiting the day after Christmas, found it confusing. He pressed my mother at some length for a good reason that I did not have a Christmas tree, as all children rightfully should. (This is probably a good time to note that it was my first Christmas, and he was only five years old.) Not having the financial acumen or social sensitivity required to grasp the situation, he finally resigned himself to the injustice of it all and – no doubt at the behest of the adults – decided to spend his energies playing outside. Some time later, in the midst of dinner preparations, my uncle came bursting back into the house. He was red-faced and out of breath, yet oddly reserved and mannerly for a young boy in the throes of vigorous exercise. This could only mean that he wanted something. Sure enough, not even waiting for a pause in the conversation, he donned his most cherubic face, widened his eyes with pure innocence, and inquired as to whether he might have six of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, please, right away. This was oddly specific. My mother had made plenty of cookies and was happy to dispense them to her sweet little brother generously, but there was something curious in his manner that led her to question him. Why six cookies, and why the urgency? It turns out, my uncle hadn’t resigned himself to injustice at all; he had been busily setting things right. As he was enjoying the outdoors, one of our neighbor boys had been assigned the chore of taking his family’s used Christmas tree to the curb for pick-up. Sensing providence and opportunity, my uncle immediately approached the boy and began wheeling and dealing for its acquisition. Since cookies were the only currency available to him, that’s what he offered and the neighbor decided six would be fair. All my uncle needed was to take those cookies out, and the tree would be ours. Swallowing back a rising lump in her throat, my mother opened the cookie jar and let him choose his six perfect cookies. He ran them outside, then talked his new friend into helping to carry it into our house. These two earnest young boys muscled my tree across the street, through the door, and into a corner near the nativity scene, then somehow managed to prop it up securely enough for display. This was some tree. What had originally been perfect form was now lopsided from the weight of its former decorations. There were scattered clumps of crushed icicles all over it on random branches. It had lost a fair number of needles at the hands of its young movers, too – but it was mine: my tree, my gift, bought with the uninhibited love of a young boy who cared enough to go find it for me. Love made it perfect. I don’t know whether my family added any decorations to my tree that night, or how long it was allowed to stay. In truth, I don’t actually have a visual memory of it at all, just images imprinted on my heart from the story as we’ve told it over the years. Yet that tattered old leftover tree remains as the standard to which I hold all Christmas trees, and the epitome of love made tangible and real. Oh, and to this day, my mother still gives her little brother cookies for Christmas. Every year.
Comic-Con International is coming up this week and I am irrationally, inordinately, ridiculously SUPER-pumped for it…especially for some one who’s not even going.
I don’t know how it is that I’ve never been. Comic-Con is a shining beacon of and for nerdom around the world. Teeming masses of fans, friends, artists, cosplay exhibitionists, geeks, gamers, and not a few of the just-curious descend upon San Diego every year to get the scoop on what’s coming up in all things story-related or comics-inspired.
It used to be overlooked at best and derided at worst twenty years ago; now a Comic-Con panel is THE place to unveil any project that wants to be cool (or at least, wants to make tons of money). As with any gathering of thousands united around a single cause or idea, it definitely attracts its fair share of nutcases and extremists, but at heart Comic-Con is a giant, fearless celebration of imagination.
I LOVE IT.
I keep thinking to myself, I wonder what Joss Whedon is doing right now?! – because you just know there’s something awesome on deck for the Avengers panel. I also wonder how many of the attendees are rushing around in a tizzie trying to get their costumes together, how the convention center staff feels about it (anticipation or dread?), and how Zack Snyder can sleep after choosing to enter no presentation at all for Superman vs. Batman. I am mystified by the games arena (haven’t played a video game regularly since Q*bert) and in awe of the vast array of panels open to the public. As you can easily surmise, attending Comic-Con someday, somehow is way up there on my bucket list.
Naturally, all of this has me contemplating superhero stories yet again, and how they have grown so rapidly in resonance over the last decade or two. When I was in high school, fanboys were fodder for bullies and snark, and fangirls were rare, mysterious creatures on par with unicorns. Now, nearly everyone in the general population of America has a favorite superhero, and every personality quiz will at some point ask what super power you would choose if you could. We have absorbed the stories (if not yet the fanboys) into mainstream culture and filter many of our own stories through their lens.
It doesn’t take a psychology degree to assess why super powers are so appealing; the answer is all in the origin stories. A young, bullied nerd becomes an agile, cool, smart-mouthed defender of the defenseless. A mega-rich, genius inventor of weapons is humbled and dons his armor to end war instead of equip it. Two orphans – each alone in precise and excruciating ways – derive purpose and power in the very sources of their alienation; one finds the human connection that he craves, the other the isolation that soothes his scars. It’s easy to find ourselves and fuel our ambitions in their narratives.
In this, the “real” world, I have decided that there is only one visible super power, and every human being on earth has been equipped with it from the first day they entered the atmosphere. It is the power of Choice.
Choice is everything. It determines the quality of my every day and the direction of my journey. It gives me the power to soar over my circumstances or be crushed beneath them, to overpower resistance or be driven by it, to join the battle with the rest of the called or shrink and hide and lose both the struggle and the victory.
Choice determines the course of my adventures and whether they will even BE adventures, or merely an accidental series of unappreciated moments carelessly toppling over each other.
As with any super power, Choice can be used for good or for evil. It can be mutated to generate toxicity in the form of Judgmentalism, which is the choice to condemn the way others use their power. The only thing it can’t do is be eliminated, for even doing nothing is itself an act of Choice.
Choice is the greatest power in the world; all others are merely its fruit.
Ah, Easter – that holy season of faith, new life, pastel candy…and movies! Okay, that’s every season for me, I know, but if movies reflect the hero’s journey (the best ones do), and Jesus is the best and greatest hero (He is), then it’s all a bundle of holy activity, right?
Here are my Top 5 favorite films for pondering the true meaning of Easter / Resurrection Sunday / National Day of Eating Chocolate in the Shape of Anything:
King of Kings
This is my favorite passion movie from childhood. Yes, Jeffrey Hunter has blue eyes, and there are a few creative liberties taken with the story, but the additions enhance the story and do not oppose scripture. The score is soaringly beautiful, the sermon on the mount is riveting, and Rip Torn is Judas as a young, skinny, hopeful guy!
Dare you not to cry – When Jesus visits John the Baptist in prison.
Favorite quote –
Mary Magdalene: “I am a woman of sin.”
Mary: (smiles) “…who will share my table.”
The Passion of the Christ
If you can look past Mel Gibson’s shenanigans and subsequent fall (and I’m not suggesting that it is or should be easy to do), this is by far the most artistically rich film ever made about Jesus. The unmitigated violence is hard to watch – and it’s supposed to be; I’ll never be able to watch the flogging again – but the script is unparalleled for its profound imagery and for portraying Jesus as the teacher, friend, and baddass that He always was/is.
Dare you not to cry – When Mary flashes back to Jesus as a running toddler.
Favorite scene – Tie: The Garden of Gethsemane and the resurrection.
The Easter Carol
It’s a Veggie Tale. It has bunnies, eggs, stained glass art, and a little blue fairy named Hope. What’s not to love?
Dare you not to cry: The final scene in the cemetery.
Favorite scene: The same.
The 10 Commandments
It’s impossible to appreciate the New Testament without understanding the Old, and there is no more reverent a look at the latter than this movie. To be honest, I think Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner could have read the lines sitting on a stage in folding chairs and it would have been enough, but I enjoy the spectacle of it too.
Dare you not to cry: When Rameses casts Moses out.
Favorite scene: Mount Sinai, of course.
The Shawshank Redemption
It’s an unconventional selection for Easter, perhaps, but a sound one. Based on a spring-themed novella by Stephen King in Different Seasons (original title: “Hope Springs Eternal – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”), this movie presents an unflinching look at “life” as a prisoner, and at the price, value, and beauty of freedom. If you don’t see what that has to do with Easter, I can recommend a number of good Sunday School classes to try out.
Dare you not to cry: When Andy comes clean in the river.
Favorite quote (a.k.a. the best tagline ever): Get busy living, or get busy dying.
These are my standards; feel free to leave me yours!