Thursday, December 11, 2014

Canaan's Dream

Each Christmas, Bern makes something for me. I could have a show--most are paintings but last year she made a table in the shape of West Virginia!

And Each Christmas I write something for her. I wrote "Canaan's Dream" in 2010. I thought I'd share it as my Christmas gift to each of you.

Canaan's Dream

for Bern
Christmas 2010

Canann grew up in southern Vermont, for as long as he grew, which wasn't long enough. When he looked around at his family, he knew something wasn't quite right. He wasn't as tall as the others his age and not nearly so straight. He drooped to one side and his limbs on one side were longer than on the other. The owner of the tree farm had noticed a couple of years into Canaan's life that he wasn't measuring up. Everytime Dan the farmer came by, Canaan tried to straighten up and look taller, but it didn't work. And this year, almost two feet shorter than the trees around him, Dan had come with his daughter Sara ("without an 'h'" Canaan had heard her tell the men who worked on the farm several times). Dan and Sara stopped in front of Canaan and, try as he might he couldn't be straight or lift his droopy limbs on his bad side.
"This is a bad spot," Dan told Sara. "Every time a tree is planted here it doesn't measure up."
Canaan could have told Dan what was wrong, had he been able to speak. He was planted above an ancient well that had dried up and been covered by rocks. Just two feet below ground, Canaan's roots had met the rocks and the old roots of previous trees. No nourishment had came to him to let him grow tall and straight. He listed to the side and was always hungry.
"We won't plant in that spot again," Dan was telling Sara, "and we have to get rid of this tree."
Sara looked destressed. She was only six years old but loved trees already. She dreamed of the time when she could do more work on the farm. She often caressed the needles of the firs and even talked to the trees as if they heard her. Which they did, only she couldn't know that.
Canaan's dream was to be to be a Christmas Tree for some family. He knew from the other trees that was their fate in life—to be adorned and lighted and sighed over when their lights were the only lights in the room. And presents would be put around them and photographs taken of them with their family in front. He dreamed of hearing the laughter of children, the appreciation of adults, the joy of a family surrounding him as Christmas came.
But now his dreams were being crushed. Dan was going to cut him down now, only three feet tall and his spot would never be taken again. Fear and terror overcame Canaan. What would happen to him if he wasn't someone's Christmas Tree? What horrible fate awaited him?
Sara leaned against her father's leg. "I like him," she said softly. "So many of the trees are so perfect and beautiful. This one has, what do you call it, Daddy, 'carrot er'?"
Dan smiled and rubbed her head. Canaan knew he was a good father and loved Sara fiercely. Not having real parents, there was a part of Canaan that envied the little human girl. But he was a different sort of Life. He understood tree-thought.
"Do you mean 'character'?" Dan asked.
"That's it, Daddy," she squeeled, "that's what I mean."
Dan knelt down and hugged her. "I think you might be right," he said kindly, "but no one will buy him from us. No one wants a Christmas tree with 'character', they want one that is straight and tall and full."
"Don't cut him down today, Daddy, please...," she said, "let him live until the harvest. Okay?"
Dan smiled. "Sure, honey, it's only two weeks. You can keep him until then. And I'll let you take him to the chipper all by yourself, as long as you make sure Andy is there to put him in."
Sara seemed pleased and she and Dan walked on, hand-in-hand.
"A reprive," Canaan thought. "But what is a 'chipper'? What is going to happen to me?"
For the next two weeks, Canaan both feared his fate and dreamed of a different world, a world where he didn't have 'character' but where his limbs were stong and his trunk was straight and tall, a world where he would be a Christmas tree, full of decorations, surrounded by presents, 'ah-ed' over by visitors, giving wonder and joy.
During the 14 days of Canaan's stunted growth, Sara came to visit him several times. She would sit on the cold ground and watch him, smiling. Canaan wanted to tell her he thanked her for a few more days of life, but he couldn't figure out how. A couple of times she came and leaned into his crooked branches and touched his needles. He tried to move his limbs to hold her the way her father did, but he couldn't manage such a feat. But when she was near him, he was almost as happy as he was in his Christmas dream. Her tiny body against him—though she was taller than him—was such a comfort when he pondered 'the chipper' and whatever that might mean.
The last day she came, the day before the harvest (all the other trees were straining to be even taller and straighter than they were because the trucks would come at dawn to take them to Boston or Springfield or New Haven—wherever those places were—none of the trees were sure but they'd heard the names from the workers) Sara leaned against Canaan and whispered into his trunk, "don't worry little tree, I've got a plan...."
Canaan wasn't sure what a 'plan' was, what it meant. But just feeling Sara's sturdy little body against him and listening to her voice took away his fear of 'the chipper' and his longing to be a Christmas Tree for a short time.
The next day was as full of excitement for the other trees as it was packed with anxiety for Canaan. Early in the morning, just after first light, the workers came and began harvesting the trees all around him. They were so proud as they were cut and fell into the strong arms of the men. They were on their ways to being Christmas Trees! It was why a Fir was planted, why they grew, what they were made for.... Most of his family was gone when Dan and Sara came for him. Dan took a saw and cut through Canaan's trunk near the ground. It was a strange feeling to be separated from his roots, stunted as they were by the rocks covering the old well, but it wasn't painful or unpleasant as he had imagined.
"There he is, Princess," Dan said. (Canaan had thought her name was 'Sara' without an 'h', but what did a tree know about human names?)
"Thank you Daddy," she replied and picked Canaan up. The workers had dragged the other trees away by the bottom of their trunks, but since he was so small, Sara carried him in her arms, holding him off the ground. It felt delicious to be held by the little girl. "Almost as good as being a Christmas tree," Canaan thought wistfully.
"Make sure you let Andy put the tree in the chipper," Dan called after them.
"I will, Daddy," Sara without an 'h' answered. Canaan felt her tremble and though he couldn't know or even imagine, her shivver was because she had just, perhaps for the first time ever, lied to her father.
She didn't take him to Andy and the much feared chipper. Instead she waited until none of the workers were watching and hoisted him up among his much larger relatives into the back of a huge truck. Canaan was astonished that all the other trees were wrapped in some sort of netting so that their strong, proud limbs were pressed firmly against their trunks. With them so encased, he felt larger, fuller, bigger than he'd ever felt before.
Sara pushed him in so no one could notice his presence. "Bye-bye little tree," she said. "I hope you can be a Christmas tree for someone."
"So that was her plan!" Canaan thought. She's sending me to the place where people find their trees! She's giving me a chance for living my dream!"
He wanted to shout out, "Sara, thank you! My name is Canaan!"
But, of course, being a Canaan Fir, he couldn't call out, he couldn't tell her.
Sara waited by the truck until it was full and ready to leave. She called out to him as the driver pulled away, "I put you on the New Haven truck, little tree. Have a great Christmas!!!"

New Haven, wherever that was, seemed a long way to Canaan. But he was nestled in with his bound up family and didn't mind the ride. Being so close to his relatives was comforting since they had never touched before. Canaan began to imagine he might live out his dream...he might, after all and in spite of his size, be a Christmas Tree.
He fell asleep after a while. Being disconnected from his roots made him a bit listless. All the other trees were sleeping too. But as Canaan slept, he dreamed a tree dream—people around him, presents beneath him while he drank the water of his stand, lights and ornaments (whatever they were...he'd only learned the words, not the reality) all over his branches....It was almost true, the dream was so real.
When the trees were unloaded, Manny, the driver said strange words when he saw Canaan. They were words the tree had never heard before. Something like, "What the **** is this? Oh,****, it's the tree Sara put on when she didn't think I was looking. It's not even good kindling....Gus will never pay for this....****!"
Gus, Canaan soon understood, was the man in New Haven who would sell the trees for Christmas. He was a short, extremely thin man—though the little Fir really didn't understand what those words meant. "He's like me," Canaan thought, "he must have grown over a rock covered well."
Gus, just like Manny, said strange words when he saw Canaan. He said to Manny, "What the **** is this? I'm not paying for this. Put it back on the truck."
Canaan was suddenly afraid. He had come so far to live his dream and now a stunted man, just like he was a stunted tree, was rejecting him.
"The boss's kid put it on the truck," Manny told Gus, "I saw her talking to it. It was meant for the chipper. Just take it, it's free."
Gus shook his head. "Okay," he said. "I'll use it for firewood if nothing else."
A young man Gus called 'Tommy' was helping unload the trees into what was a parking lot of a deserted grocery store. There were lights everywhere, strung along the fences, and a big sign on Yorke Street that said, "CHRISTMAS TREES—ALL SIZES, LOW PRICES".
"Tommy," Gus yelled, "put this pitiful thing back in the back. No body's going to buy this mess."
Tommy, just like Sara, didn't drag Canaan by his trunk across the asphalt. Since Canaan was so small, Tommy, who was young but as big as Dan, hugged him in his arms and put him back against the far fence, where it was dark and where there were no other trees. Canaan sighed with joy at the feel of Tommy's arms around him and the warmth of Tommy's breath on his needles. But back where Tommy stood him against the fence it was lonely. Loosed from his roots and far away from his family members, who took their places with strange trees in the light, Canaan slumbered but did not dream.
Weeks passed, but Canaan didn't notice. He was inert, unconscious most of the time. Occassionally he would notice the footsteps of people, the delighted cries of children, the snow on his branches that fell from time to time, but mostly he slumbered and slept in a dreamless sleep. If a Canaan Fir can be said to be 'depressed', Canaan was so. And there was no water or any roots to seek water. He was exhausted, broken, detached, without hope. A tree planted and raised to be a Christmas Tree could not accept the reality of not being wanted. One by one his family and the strange trees disappeared, carried off and tied on the tops of cars, going 'home' with someone, fulfilling their destiny, looking forward to water and lights and ornaments and presents and the joy they would bring.
But not Canaan. He was the last tree on the lot on the last day of the sale—Christmas Eve, about noon—but, of course, Canaan didn't know that—trees are not privy to time or to calendars.
Gus and Tommy were sweeping up the needles all over the lot—like the clipped fingernails of the trees—when Tommy said to Gus: "That last tree, can I have it?"
"Why would you want that?" Gus said, "it's stunted. No use."
"My next door neighbor, Mrs. Merry, doesn't have a tree," Tommy said. "It's a long story."
"Mrs. Merry," Gus said, almost laughing, "you must be kidding...."
"No," Tommy said, still sweeping. "That's her name. She lives next door and her husband died last March and her only son is in Chicago and, well you know about the storm in the midwest, and O'Hare is closed down and backed up for days and he and his family can't come be with her. She told me this morning." Tommy stopped sweeping. "And....", he said.
"There's more?" Gus asked. "This gets better?"
"Well," Tommy said, "she was going to give me money today for a tree—you know, since she knew I was working here. But this morning she told me she wasn't going to have one since her family wouldn't be there."
Gus laughed. "So you want to take her that pitiful tree?"
"Well," Tommy answered, "it's a lot better than no tree...."
Gus shook his head. "Of course you can have it," he said, "but tell me Mrs. Merry's first name...."
Tommy took a deep breath. "You won't believe this," he said, "it's Mary...."
Gus bent over he was laughing so hard. "And don't tell me her husband's name was Joseph....", he choked out.
Tommy shook his head in wonderment. "We called him 'Joe'," he said. "Here's another thing, Gus," Tommy said, about to join the laughter, "they always said, 'come over to our house, Tommy, we always have a Merry Christmas."
Gus was coughing now, almost choking with merriment. "Lord God," he said betwen coughs, "this couldn't be better—Mary Merry and Joseph Merry on Christmas...."
It was at least a dozen blocks to Tommy's neighborhood, but though it was cold, the sun poked through the gray sky and Christmas Eve was bright and brisk. The distance could have been twice as far and Canaan would not have minded. Tommy carried the little tree on his shoulder and Canaan wished he could always ride that way, for as long as Tommy walked with him, the tree felt safe and happy.
Tommy laid Canaan on some old snow while he went inside his house to tell his parents about the tree for Mrs. Merry. His mother laughed when she came to the door to see Canaan.
"It's so small and deformed," she said.
"I know," Tommy answered, hoisting Canaan onto his shoulder again, "but I think he has character...."
Canaan remembered that's what Sara-without-an-'h' had said about him, so it must be true, whatever it meant. He had 'character' and a chance to live his dream. He also wondered why Sara and Tommy refered to him as 'he' when all the older people said 'it'. People, Canaan thought, were beyond his tree powers of wisdom.
As Canaan and Tommy crossed the yard to the house next door, his mother called after him. "Invite Mary to Christmas dinner," she said, "four o'clock...."
When Mrs. Merry came to the door Canaan was shocked by her age. He had heard Gus and Tommy talking and knew Mrs. Merry had something called grandchildren in something called college. But in his brief time on earth, Cannan had never seen a person as old as Mrs. Merry. She was very thin and her face, when she smiled at Tommy, was creased with wrinkles. Her eyes, Canaan could tell, were full up with liquid, but only Tommy understood that meant she had been weeping. The room behind her was quite dark so it was difficult to see it was a large room with a huge window.
"I brought you a tree, Mrs. Merry," Tommy said, knowing full well the woman could see for herself. She looked surprised but opened the door wider to let Tommy and Canaan in.
"But I thought I told you...," Mrs. Merry began.
"You did," Tommy answered, leaning Canaan against a wall, "but he was left over and has some character even though he's scraggly. He needed a home. I hoped you give him one."
Mrs. Merry stood with her hand on her chin for a moment and then she smiled. "You're right, Tommy, every tree needs a home. Thank you for him."
Canaan was surprised and comforted. Mrs. Merry had called him "him".
Mrs. Merry moved a small table from in front of the window while Tommy went to her garage to get the tree stand and a box of Christmas decorations. He knew the Merry's, in years past waited for their family to arrive to decorate, so he decided to help her get started at least.
Tommy put Canaan in the stand and filled it with water. The little tree almost passed out with pleasure. He hadn't had water, except for the snow, for over two weeks. It was heavenly.
Tommy and Mrs. Merry talked about her family. She and Joe had only one child, Samuel, who was a police detective in Chicago. He was married to Lenora who was a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago. Sam and Lenora—who Mrs. Merry called 'Nora'--had two children of their own. Mark was a Senior at Ohio State University and his younger sister, Kimberly, was a Sophmore at Kent State.
Canaan had no idea about geography but could tell from the humans' conversation that all that was a good thing. What was bad was the brutal storm in the Midwest that had shut down every airport (whatever that was) on the Great Lakes (again, Canaan wondered what that meant). Noone could get to Mrs. Merry's house for Christmas—they had been due two days ago.
Tommy put lights on Canaan—the Fir now understood what they were—like the stars over Vermont in the night but different colors and some of them blinked. He felt beautiful and festive when Tommy plugged the lights in. He was, he knew, slowly becoming his dream. He was going to be a Christmas Tree.
However, he knew the dream of a family around him wasn't going to happen. Mrs. Merry would be all alone with him. There probably wouldn't even be presents beneath his branches. And when Tommy went home for what he called 'dinner', Mrs. Merry sat in a chair near Canaan and began to weep. He didn't know that's what she was doing, since trees never cry, but he sensed something heavy and dark from her, something lonely and sad.
He tried ever so hard, though he knew it was futile, to be taller and fuller and bring joy to Mrs. Merry. The only light in the room, since Tommy had left when it was still daylight, were the lights from Canaan. Before he left, Tommy invited Mrs. Merry to Christmas dinner at his house, four o'clock, just like his mother told him. She had smiled sadly and said she'd be fine. "I'll be fine, Tommy, but thank your mother for me," is what she'd said.
Now it was dark outside and the tears on Mrs. Merry's face were illuminated in red and green and white, sometimes blinking. Canaan, his dream partially fulfilled, was somber and pensive. He knew Mrs. Merry was not admiring him or happy with him. Finally a Christmas Tree, he was failing at his entire Purpose of Life. He wished he were back in Vermont, still trying in vain to draw nourishment from soil that was rock over an old well. He wished he were with Sara-with-no-'h' again, or 'Princess', if that were her real name. Perhaps it would have been better to go to the dreaded, though unimaginable Chipper than to have come so far to fail.
After a long while—time is different for trees, who can live to great ages, centuries old—so it was only a moment or so for Canaan, Mrs. Merry looked up at him and studied him for a while, gradually beginning to smile.
"You remind me of Christmas' past," she said, "why don't I decorate you?"
She opened the box Tommy had brought from the garage and began to carefully unwrap ornaments from thick swaths of Christmas paper.
"Joe wrapped these last year," she said aloud, Canaan imagined she was talking to him. "He'll never wrap another ornament, God love him, but he wrapped these."
The first thing she unwrapped was a glass angel, blowing on a horn, laying out as if she were flying, wings above her strong and unfurled.
"Oh," Mrs. Merry said, "Joe bought me this just last Christmas. He found it in a card shop. He said it reminded him of Kimberly...."
She turned the ornament in her hand. "It does look like her," she said wistfully, "such long, lovely hair and that sweet face,"
Gently she touched one of Canaan's branches and hung the angel on it. He felt the pull of the weight. Somehow it felt good, right, holy.
Again she unwrapped an ornament. "Joe was so precise with this," she said aloud. "He wanted to keep them safe over the year."
This one was made of cloth, shaped like a berry, red and white. "Lordy," Mrs. Merry said, "it's Sam's strawberry." She laughed out loud. "He was in kindergarten and all the kids got gifts from Santa. Most of them got toys or something to eat. Sam got a strawberry ornament. He was so upset....And we've kept it all these years. Every time I see it I weep for him and laugh at what a joke it was."
She hung the berry on Canaan and the little tree could almost see Sam's face and know his disappointment and cry his tears (if only Firs could weep).
The next one was made of stiff paper, brightly painted and somehow preserved. It was a little woman in a bright green dress, holding a stiff string that had balloons on it. All of the balloons were in primary colors—red and blue and yellow.
Mrs. Merry gasped when she unfolded the paper around it. Her eyes were brim-full. She sighed and smiled brightly. "Oh, my," she said softly, "this was Joe's favorite of all. He always recited a poem by e.e.cummings before he hung it on the tree." She was silent for a long time, holding the balloon woman in her hand, "I don't remember when we got it," she said to noone in particular, but Canaan was sure she was talking to him. "Just to remember how he loved this and how he was the one who wrapped her up and put her away last year...."
Canaan thought she might begin to do that thing she had been doing before she opened the box. But instead, much to his delight, she laughed and gently put the little balloon woman on one of his higher branches.
"That's yours, Joe," she said, gazing at the ornament for a long time—though less than a moment in tree time.
On through the night, with only Canaan's light to show her the ornaments she lovingly unwrapped and hung on the Fir's drooping branches, Mrs. Merry continued to hang ornament after ornament on him, talking all the while.
Canaan began to feel that what they were sharing was so intimate, so real, so important that he came to think of her as 'Mary', not Mrs. Merry. Mary was making him a true Christmas Tree and he was as close to her as he had ever imagined being close to another creature. When her hand glazed his needles he began to feel beautiful and noble and worthy of his dream.
Mary told him about each ornament she hung on his branches. The ancient, cracked ball Joe had bought her, with a baby on it, after Sam was born. The lovely little tree a friend had given them nearly twenty years ago. The home-made Santa and Rudolph that Mark and Kimberly had created in some craft class in Chicago. The expensive Metropolitan Museum Polar Bear she had bought for Joe—too expensive, but something he loved, The little plastic ice-cycle that fit perfectly around one of his branches: "That was Joe's mother's," Mary told him, "he'd seen it on a tree his whole life." Some silly ornaments of Elephants that Joe had bought through the years. A Zebra ornament Nora had brought to their family from her childhood. Lots of birds everyone had loved year after year.
Canaan was feeling heavy but joyous when Mary unwrapped an angel made of felt and cloth. She wiped away a tear. "We've had this since our first Christmas together. She's a little shabby but Joe put her on top of the tree the first year and then lifted Sam and then Mark and Kimberly up to put her on the top. Year after year, all our life together. And I've never been the one to put the angel on the top of the tree. But now I can...."
Mary held the angel high above her head, like a precious thing.
"You're so short, my little tree, I can do it by myself," she said, lowering the cardboard insides of the ancient angel over the top of Canaans trunk.
"That was wonderful," she said softly, and now Canaan knew she was talking to him and him alone. "Thank you, little tree, for that honor."
Canaan fairly swooned. No happy family, no presents beneath him, but an Angel on his head. And the first time Mary ever placed it there on any tree for many more years that Canaan had lived. (Trees do understand the passage of time and Canaan knew he had not grown, stunted in Vermont for nearly so long and the angel on his head had been on the head of trees before him.)
Mary, as he now thought of her, sat for a while simply looking at him. He stood proud to be looked at and perhaps admired.
Then Mary picked up the phone and dialed.
"Hello, Avis," she said, "I told Tommy I wouldn't come for dinner tomorrow, but I've changed my mind if that's alright with you."
Mary listened for a moment then said, "thank you so much. And the only caveat is that you'll all come over after dinner to see my tree that Tommy brought me. It is terribly small, but I've decorated it and it has character...."
After a moment, Mary said, "it's a deal. Thank you so much."
"Character", Canaan thought to himself. Three times now, it must be true. "I'm a Christmas Tree for real," he told himself, wanting to shout it to the world and especially to Mary, who had decorated him so well. And to Tommy who had brought him here. And to Gus who had given him to Tommy. And to Manny who had talked Gus into taking him. And most of all to Sara without an 'h', who had put him on a truck instead of in the Chipper, whatever that was.
"I'm a Christmas Tree and I have 'character'," he said to himself, "whatever 'character' means."
Mary had fallen asleep in the chair where she had sat for so long and watched him. Canaan watched her sleep until he started to drift away as well, inspite of his lights and the water he was drinking through his trunk.
Then the phone rang, bringing both Mary and Canaan back to reality.
Mary answered the phone and said, "Oh, Kimberly, where are you?"
Kimberly was still in Kent, Ohio, in the midst of snow, but she had heard from her parents, who in violation of all common sense, had started driving to New Haven when they couldn't fly. Sam and Nora were in Columbus with Mark. But they would, whatever it took, get to Kent on Christmas day and then head to New Haven.
"We'll be there the day after Christmas," Kimberly told Mary. "I'm so sorry, but it is the best we can do. Is it snowing there."
"Just a little," Mary told her grand-daughter. "But it will all be so wonderful when you arrive."
Kimberly said something else and then Mary said, "I have a tree and your gifts will be under it when you get here."
Kim would have, most of the time, said, "Oh, Me-maw, I don't want a gift, I just want you." But some Christmas Angel told her what to say instead.
"I can't wait," Kimberly said. "You pick the best gifts...."
Perfect, Mary thought, just what she wanted to hear. So she went to her room and brought the presents for her family and put them under Canaan's boughs.
Canaan was taller and fuller than he'd ever imagined he could be. Gifts beneath him, an Angel on his top, ornaments and lights all over him. Small and stunted and silly as he was, he knew, when Kimberly saw him, she'd say, "Me-Maw, that's the greatest tree I've ever seen. He has such character...."
And Canaan's dream, his hope, his prayer (though trees don't 'pray', being part of God as they are) would all be real.

Mary slept in her chair beside Canaan until late that night. She was so joyful he couldn't help but be.
He did not slumber nor sleep.
He watched her face for hours—a moment in Tree Time—and saw his lights blink and color her face.
And he was so conscious of the Angel on his top. It was an honor, a joy. It was, to Canaan, holy.

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.