I like that folks still ask for a birthday or Christmas wish list. It’s a generous, thoughtful gesture and I try to respond to it with all due diligence, however uninspired and stale the catalog might be: SmartWool socks, a mix CD of the giver’s favorite tunes, tawny port, red wine, dark chocolate, and if the giver is up for scavenging thrift stores or thieving from grandma, mid-century Tupperware in those great funky colors and shapes. The truth is, while these are things I never tire of and truly, can’t imagine having too many or too much of, beyond them, I don’t know what to wish for.
Christmas morning, 1977: The Barbie Dream House, the only thing this 11-year-old tomboy had sashayed right over to girly-world and asked Santa for, was not beneath the tree. Later that morning, I was sent on an errand down the steps to fetch my dad’s giant roasting pan from the basement. It was there I discovered that, in the dark of a Christmas Eve, right beneath my bedroom where only hours before I’d dreamt of Barbie’s Dream House, Santa’s magic had assembled nothing less than a championship ping pong table. No bows or ribbons, no name tag, just paddles propped on fresh orange ping pong balls, waiting for me to come find them and ask them to play.
That’s where it started, my reserve about asking for things, or maybe, more to the point, that 1977 Christmas is the foundation of my 2011 certainty that the best gifts aren’t the ones I’ve asked for. What if the profound enormity of the unplanned, the unimagined, the unseen is only waiting to be freed from the bonds of my simple and small-minded ideas? What if, however careful I am about what I wish for, I wish for something and, heaven help me, I get it? What if I don’t know that the thing I ask for isn’t the thing I want? So fine, I do get it: Let go of wishing and asking, embrace the unrevealed. Namaste, kum-ba-yah, and ho ho ho.
Oh, but as the seeming-way of life lessons, there’s even more to learn.
Forty years I’ve been watching and reading, How the Grinch Stole Christmas; I’m guessing more than a hundred reads-and-views all tolled. It, like the Charles Schulz Charlie Brown holiday productions, is a perfect little gem of poetry, art and music, brilliant in every facet and from every angle. I’ve been pretty smug, believing that I’ve fully deconstructed it, wrung out every last drop of symbolism, of allegory, of fun and foreshadowing. For years now, I’ve just settled down to passively float through the familiar pages, to enjoy the comfortable familiarity of the cells, to revisit them like old friends whom I know so well, I don’t think to inquire about what’s new, what’s unknown. That’s right, I don’t think to ask, I don’t expect, that there’s something still waiting for me, something of profound enormity, previously unrevealed.
“As the Grinch took the tree, as he started to shove, he heard a small sound like the coo of a dove. He turned around fast, and he saw a small Who. Little Cindy Lou Who, who was no more than two.”
By this time in the story, we’ve come to know Mr. Grinch, some in part because of what he’s shown us himself but largely because we see how his dog, Max -- who knows his master so well that he anticipates his decisions and intent just a split second before we grasp them -- tries to navigate whatever misery his master throws his way. The interactions between Grinch and Max constitute the only bit of Grinch-relationshipping we get to see. But Max, behaving a lot like us, is an observer only. He’s not in a position to challenge or effect change. He’s a reluctant accomplice, a yes-man, of sorts.
You know the tale. As the Grinch finishes up the last of his dirty deeds, he meets Cindy Lou Who. Crossing paths with Cindy isn’t necessary to the story’s trajectory. Without this scene, the story still works, more-or-less. That is, the Grinch can still have a change of heart (or not), can still have an epiphany about the essence of Christmas (or not), can still be embraced by a community that’s he’s mistreated (or not).
In Cindy’s character, her sound, “the coo of a dove,” Dr. Seuss plants an inconspicuous seed in our minds, and in the mind of the Grinch. A seed that I hadn’t recognized until last night’s viewing. Seuss could have characterized Cindy’s sound as a squeal, a shriek, a cry, he could have Seusserized it with Seuss language, wompelov or kwidelpuf or other Seussian word, but he didn’t. A writer who avoided expected or obvious language as a matter of principle, sets up the arrangement of lines so that Cindy’s sound, “the coo of a dove,” is the only possible completion for the sentence. We feel it, we know it’s coming, we can’t believe that this master of sense-via-nonsense is going to rhyme an ordinary, “shove” with the even-less-enthralling, “dove.” And yet, there he goes. All these years and I’ve barely noticed these lines, never once thought to ask, “why?”
A lifetime of identifying with Max and it turns out, I’m more like the Grinch. I thought I wanted a Barbie Dream House but what I’ve got, 34 years later, are bragging rights that I’m still the best ping pong player in the house. Mr. Grinch wanted to cancel Christmas but what he got was a coo that sneaked in behind his back, wrapped around his heart, and made him the poster child for what the sound of peace -- unplanned, unimagined, unseen, unwished-for -- makes possible. Mr. Grinch and I wish for stuff, think we want stuff, but in the end, are grateful that our stories give us more than we could ever know to wish for.