Merry Christmas, in Love and Squalor

This is no time for a child to be born […]
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

— Madeleine L’Engle

It goes without saying: Things are not okay. Most people I know are downright soul-sick from ten months of cabin fever, anxiety, ennui, social/physical famine, episodic mental health collapses, and the various forms of unhealthy self-indulgence we’ve relied upon to survive—and we’re the lucky ones who can still pay the bills. Things are not okay—and yet, Christians still maintain, somehow, everything is okay. The world is profoundly unwell, and yet “all shall be well.” Amid the chaos, Love reigns. That’s the basic paradox of the Christmas.

One of the most important things I think middle-class folks like me need to experience from time to time is a little squalor—if for no other reason than that it reminds us of where we came from (and where we’re going). For most of human history, from cradle to grave, we’ve been thoroughly immersed in filth—slimy, feculent, festering, oozing, rancid, rat-infested filth. Putrefaction beyond our wildest imaginings. Of course, there are still times even in our sanitized modern world when we all get smeared with a little filth, but for the most part we do a pretty good job of hiding it and avoiding it.

I think the pandemic has made that harder. Yes, flush toilets and plumbing and sewage treatment plants still do their vital work, but for many of us, a degree of squalor seems to have encroached on our tidy lives. And you know what? God loves us anyway.

One reason I think the Parable of the Prodigal Son is so powerful, on an emotional level, is the squalor. Jesus paints a riches-to-rags portrait of a man who has squandered his inheritance in “dissolute living” and is reduced to sharing slop with pigs, but who, stumbling homeward, still finds an open-armed Prodigal Father who loves him as much as ever, shit-stained rags and all.

Squalor is one of the most beautiful things about the Christmas story, too—the idea that the very God of the Cosmos chose to be born in a stable surrounded by mud-caked animals, by flies and dust and manure, and is first laid to sleep in a cow’s feed trough. Our Lord was born into squalor.

If I think back on my childhood, some of my most formative experiences involved filth. I grew up spending the summers on my grandparents’ ramshackle farm in Kentucky—putzing around by the creek or the barn, in the junk-strewn yard or the diesel-perfumed basement, playing with flea-ridden hounds, whacking thistles, digging holes, flinging rocks and dried turds, bearing all manner of filth homeward. I spent hour after hour trapsing around after my grandfather, listening to his crazy stories about growing up dirt poor in Appalachia—of living in wooden shacks with no electricity or running water, working in tobacco fields, never bathing or brushing his teeth, having to hunt, trap, forage, fish, and just generally scrounge around for enough food to survive.

In person or vicariously, these encounters with less-sanitized versions of life were always a breath of fresh (and sometimes pungent) air for a kid otherwise raised in glittering upper-middle-class enclaves in major cities in Europe and the Middle East.

Other experiences of squalor stuck with me too. My family took trips to Egypt, Kenya, and India. In each case, it was impossible for me to avoid or ignore the encounters with intense poverty—filthy, shocking, heartbreaking poverty. It’s always seeping through the cracks in those places. They can’t quite hide it as well we do. As an adult, I worked at a summer camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses or conditions, and had to get really comfortable showering teenage boys, changing their diapers, wiping away the filth from their bodies. Later, in nonprofit jobs, I visited homes of constituents that can only be described as squalid—homes with leaking sewage, broken windows, exposed electrical wires, mounds of hoarded junk, or barely a stick of furniture. I visited one old woman in D.C. who was heating her entire home in the winter with her oven.

These were formative moments for me. The point I’m getting at is this: One of the things that has struck me about this pandemic is how we’ve all slipped inexorably towards squalor. The dishes always seem to be piled high, the trash needs emptying, bathrooms and bed sheets go weeks (months?) without getting cleaned, floors are rarely vacuumed, surfaces rarely dusted, grease stains and crumbs and food splatter seem to be ubiquitous, and perhaps most troublingly, piles upon piles of our tremendous crap just seem to be strewn everywhere all the time. Somehow we never quite have the energy to get ahead of it. We just sit on the couch covered in cheese dust vaguely hating ourselves and chalking it all up to just getting by. Perhaps you can relate?

When I was working in a maintenance department in college, there was a guy in his mid-30s who worked the forklift, and one day about mid-morning he went to rip a huge fart in front of several other guys and accidentally shat his pants straight through. Naturally, the other guys in the shop just tore him apart—it was the source of endless laughs and ridicule for weeks thereafter.

Of course I felt sorry for the dude. But looking back now, it occurs to me that one of the best things about this human condition we share is that no matter who you are, sometime, somewhere, you too will accidentally shit your pants, and it will be both hilarious and completely humiliating—and what a gift it is to know and accept that! We’re all in this squalor together. Humility is always a gift that’s imposed, and yet in some sense it’s the most natural and liberating response to life we could have. Perhaps the pandemic will remind us of that.

But 2020 has also forced many of us to confront a perhaps more unsettling kind of squalor, the inward kind, which, like Lady Macbeth, we can never quite scrub away. The mind itself, as John Calvin morosely attested, is a “sink and lurking place for every sort of filth,” and this pandemic has driven many into some pretty dark psychic corners.

There’s a fascinating short story by J. D. Salinger called “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” in which a bookish American field sergeant is faced with just this kind of mental squalor at the end of World War II. The story begins some months earlier when he’s stationed in Devon, England, in preparation for the D-Day invasion. It describes how lonely and adrift he felt, and how, on one particular day, he strolled into a church to watch a youth choir practice. Later, at a nearby tearoom, one of the kids he’d seen singing—a precocious girl named Esmé—runs into him and decides to strike up a long, awkward conversation, peppering him with bizarre comments and questions. We learn that Esmé’s father and mother have both recently died—her father while fighting in the North Africa—and that, for some reason, she hopes to move to Ohio after the war. Before leaving, Esmé demands that the narrator write her a story someday (“about squalor”), and she, in turn, promises to send him letters from the home front.

The story then jumps forward almost a year, to a few weeks after V-E Day, and we find our protagonist convalescing in a small Bavarian town. But all is not well. He seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown in the intervening months, and to be haunted by a gaggle of demons. He finds himself unable to do much of anything. He tries to read, but can’t. He tries to write a little, but his hands shake so much it’s illegible. An army friend comes to visit him and tries to engage him in some cheerful banter, while offering flippant pop-psychology theories on his mental condition, but the sergeant irritably drives the man away.

Disconsolate, he at last starts to rifle carelessly through some unopened mail beside his bed, and eyes a small package postmarked almost a year before. It contains a touching letter from Esmé and a precious memento—her dead father’s wristwatch—which she hopes he will accept “as a lucky talisman” for “these difficult times.” The story ends thus:

It was a long time before [he] could set the note aside, let alone lift Esmé’s father’s wristwatch out of the box. When he did finally lift it out, he saw that its crystal had been broken in transit. He wondered if the watch was otherwise undamaged, but he hadn’t the courage to wind it and find out. He just sat with it in his hand for another long period. Then, suddenly, almost ecstatically, he felt sleepy.

You take a really sleepy man, Esmé, and he always stands a chance of again becoming a man with all his fac—with all his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

The implication in the end is that this young girl’s strange act of compassion is just the crack of light he needs to begin to rest his weary soul and heal from the trauma of war. It’s this unexpected moment of grace breaking through upon him that gives the sergeant the space of hope within to start to recover. To me, that’s as beautiful of a Christmas message in this brutal year as anything.

Sometimes life is feral. Sometimes we all shit our pants. (Yes, even our Lord.) Sometimes the mind itself is a place of squalor. That’s been one of the more humbling reminders the pandemic has gifted me. But it just makes me all the more grateful for the astonishing grace of Christmas, the ultimate message of hope—that God broke into our grimy little human world and shared in our squalor, that we are loved, redeemed, and forgiven in spite of it all, that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, and that even when nothing’s okay, it is all somehow okay anyway. So, in love and squalor, let me say, Merry Christmas.

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