A Holiday Classic, and a Reminder to Imagine

We all have certain favorites that we like to turn to this time of year–go-to movies or television episodes or songs that beckon like a lighthouse in the dark.  And certainly, in my adopted state of Vermont, “dark” is an apt description.  The winter solstice occurs during the heart of the holiday season.  Sunset is early.  Sunrise is late.  In between, there are frigid, snow-filled days, gloomy with gray clouds that hover low over the frozen land like unwashed, soiled laundry.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that many people look for a tonic, some reliable holiday classic that never fails to elicit a feeling of warmth and thankfulness, of appreciation and goodwill.  For me, movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Trading Places serve to brighten my December, offering annual strolls down memory lane, retaining their luster and their shine.

 

The list of holiday classics is long, though.  I never have the chance to watch as many movies or select TV shows as I’d like to in any given holiday season.  But this month, I thought of one movie in particular that I hadn’t viewed in years, and I made a firm decision to remedy that oversight.  So, just last night, after a day in which nine inches of fresh snow had fallen on the Green Mountain State, I popped in the DVD, settled in with some popcorn and hot chocolate, and enjoyed . . .

 

Surely, Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas classic.  Filmed in 1947, it as endearing now as the day it debuted in theaters seven decades ago.  And though I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it, many of the scenes instantly came back to me as I watched, like being reacquainted with an old friend, too long absent but the memory of whom burns bright and vibrant in the soul.

 

The plot of Miracle on 34th Street is simple–corny, even.  And yet–there is a magic to this movie, and when the final credits roll at the end, you feel better for having watched it.  While Miracle on 34th Street is undoubtedly a Christmas movie, and deals with the theme in specific point of view–the true gift of this film runs deeper.  The crux of the plot centers around a lawyer’s attempt to “prove” that Santa Claus exists.  And in true vintage Hollywood fashion, he accomplishes this, and then goes one further by “proving” that an eccentric old man, who calls himself Kris Kringle and who plays a department store Santa at Macy’s in New York City, is, in fact, the genuine article.

 

For me, though, the heart of Miracle on 34th Street has very little to do with Santa, or even the holiday itself.  It has to do with faith. with the limitless power of thought, the vistas of our imagination, the lifelong struggle, and opportunity–even as we grow older and assume the responsibilities of adulthood–to retain at least some spark, some essence of our youth.

 

At one juncture in the movie, old Kris Kringle has a talk with Susan, a serious, thoroughly sensible little girl.  Susan tells Kris that she doesn’t like it when her friends and classmates play pretend games.  Such things are “silly,” she says–echoing her practical and everything-is-factual-and-tangible-minded mother.  Susan thinks to pretend is to depart from the real world, and is therefore a waste of time.

 

Kris flips the argument on its head, turning the perceived flaw into a strength.

In order to pretend, he tells the girl, you have to have the ability to imagine.

“Imagination is a place all by itself,” Kris explains.  “A separate country.  Now, you’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation.  Well this . . . is the imagi-nation.”  He promises her it’s a wonderful place.  “How would you like to have a ship all to yourself,” he asks, “that makes daily trips to China?  And Australia?  How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, fly south with a flock of geese?”

 

Susan nods, moonstruck.  The old man is unlocking something heretofore buried inside of her, something real and essential, and needing to come out.

 

We all need the occasional flight of fancy.  We all need the ability to take a step back, temporarily forget about the bills, the doctor appointment, the in-box, the stack of papers on the desk, the planning for the party next week.  Granted, planning for the party next week is important.  And those bills won’t pay for themselves.  But it’s all too easy to get stuck on a treadmill, or caught on a straight and narrow path, hemmed in by featureless gray walls.

 

The Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, in crisp black-and-white, the department store Santa Claus from the 1940s, the physical, earthy, jocular fellow, is a relic, the sights and sounds around him a living, moving time capsule.  But he has much to say to us even now, on the cusp of 2018.

 

The imagi-nation is a magical place, not just during the holidays, but the whole year through.

I’ll be sure to see you there.

 

Have a wonderful and blessed holiday, and thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Do You Believe in Miracles?

During the waning moments of the hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics, broadcaster Al Michaels uttered the now famous line, “Do you believe in miracles?”

Certainly, prior to the game, a miracle was the only hope anyone gave the American hockey team.  Composed of a collection of college kids, the U.S. team was a hard-nosed, well-conditioned group, but way out of their league squaring off against the Soviets.

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The Soviet team, which had won every gold medal since 1964, was considered the best in the world, more powerful, even, than professional teams in the NHL.  In fact, just months before the start of the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets had thrashed an all-star team of NHL players, 6–0.  And days before the Olympics began, the Americans faced the Soviets in an exhibition game, losing 10–3.

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For Team U.S.A, it appeared to be a case of Mission Impossible.

To everyone on the outside, that was.  But Coach Herb Brooks believed in his team’s chances, and instilled in them that same belief.

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Most teams, he explained, were afraid of the Soviets, didn’t think they could compete with them, and, in essence, had already lost the game before it even began.  It would be different with this U.S. group.  In the locker room before the game, Brooks told his team, “You were born to be a player.  You were meant to be here.  This moment is yours.”

Team U.S.A. had talent, of course.  They represented the best amateur players in the country.  But it wasn’t talent that would enable them to defeat the “unbeatable” Soviets.  It was an ability to believe in the near-impossible, a faith to hold on to their dreams in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

It was, in short, a belief in miracles.

**********

In the Twilight Zone episode “Kick the Can,” this same principle is explored, tested, and, ultimately fulfilled–for all who believe.  For those who don’t–the ending is quite different.

Charles Whitley is a retiree who lives at the Sunnyvale Rest Home.

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One summer day, while looking out the window, Charles can’t help but notice a group of children playing Kick the Can and Hide-and-Seek on the grounds of the Rest Home.  He’s delighted watching them, and remembers playing the same games in his youth.  His roommate, Ben Conroy, is less nostalgic, and just wants the kids to go away so he can have some peace and quiet.  “They’re making enough noise to raise the dead,” he moans.

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But Charles continues to ponder.  Kick the Can.  Hide-and-Seek.  “All kids play those games,” he says.  “And the minute they stop–they begin to grow old.”  And miracles?  Magic?  He and Ben used to believe in magic once, too, when they were kids.  But not anymore.  “What happened?” he asks.  “What changed?”  Ben says they grew up, that’s all.  “Everybody gets over it.”

Charles, though, is undeterred.  Thinking out loud, he says, “Maybe the people who stay young  . . . maybe they know a secret that they keep from the rest of us.  Maybe the fountain of youth isn’t a fountain at all.  Maybe it’s a way of looking at things, a way of thinking.”

Listening to this, Ben thinks Charles is going crazy, and worries about him.  And when Charles persists in his new outlook, when he starts acting like a kid, playing tricks and running through sprinklers, the other residents of the Home begin to wonder about him, too.

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That night, late, Charles wakes the residents up, asking them to remember the way it used to be, when they were kids, how they would sneak outside and play Kick the Can.  The others reminisce, too, wistfully.  “Seems like a million years ago.”  “Look how I’ve changed,” they say.

Charles tries to encourage them to join him, to go outside and play.  He looks out the window, into the night.  “Can’t you hear it?” he says.  “Summer.  Grass!  Run!  Jump!  Youth!”  “Wake up!” he pleads.  “I can’t play Kick the Can alone.”

The others join him–all except for Ben, who thinks it nothing but foolishness.  They’re old, he says.  They’ll hurt themselves trying to play a children’s game.

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Charles won’t accept that.  “There is magic in the world,” he says. . . .  “And maybe–Kick the Can is the greatest magic of all.”  But Ben won’t go–he remains inside while the others head out to play.

Later, when he does go outside to see what’s happening, Ben is amazed to find a group of children playing Kick the Can.  Only then does he realize–Charles had been right.  The magic did exist.  It was real.  Wanting to join his friends, now magically transformed into children, Ben, begging for a second chance, asks the suddenly young Charles to take him along, too, to make him a kid again.  But Charles the boy no longer recognizes him, and returns to the game.

The gravity of it hits Ben hard–it’s too late.  For the miracle to happen, for the magic to work, he had to believe when the others did.

***********

It is no different in The Eye-Dancers.

After Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are marooned in the variant town of Colbyville, they discover that the only way to make the trans-universe journey back home is rife with question marks, uncertainties, and risks.  After everything they’ve faced, the challenges and dangers they’ve overcome, their chances of getting back to Earth seem all too bleak.

On the night they intend to go back home, utilizing methods they don’t understand and relying on the same “ghost girl” who got them into this jam to begin with, Joe Marma struggles to try and find a reason for optimism.  He does.  Reflecting on everything that’s taken place, he believes that, somehow, some way, someone must have been watching out for them the entire time.  Too much had happened, too many fortuitous “coincidences” had occurred, to chalk it all up to blind chance.

The text reads:

” . . . Or so he wanted to think.  Maybe it wasn’t true.  Maybe they were just lucky.

“But he didn’t buy that.  He wouldn’t accept it.  Now was not the time to doubt.  It was a time to hope, to trust.  To have faith.  In what or whom, it didn’t really matter.”

All that mattered was that they believe. . . .

So, to return to Al Michaels’ question at the end of Team U.S.A. defeating the vaunted Soviets.  It might just as well have been rhetorical.  No one would have blamed Michaels for not providing us with an answer.

But he did.

It was an answer that the four protagonists in The Eye-Dancers would, by novel’s end, agree with.  It was an answer the residents of Sunnyvale Rest Home not only agreed with, but lived out.  All but one, anyway.

It was an answer, I hope, that we all can echo . . .

“Do you believe in miracles?”

“Yes!”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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