Times is tough! Everything is in question. Worlds are on the brink of war or at war, or contemplating war, fallen to war and rising up for war. Our own country and its government can be characterized by a series of special symbols, various arrows, some pointing up, and more going in every other direction; the final symbol, an emboldened question mark.
Weather patterns are freakish and burns are paralyzing large sections of earth and homes. People live in those homes; some have died in those homes, while others are being forced from their homes.
Yet it’s Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s a season of lights and joy, of giving and receiving. Memories are made from moments of candles lit, shared stories of old, presents in the presence of people we love, or will love.
There’s never been a time when there wasn’t pain in the water or pain in the sky. And there’s never been a time when there wasn’t good happening all around us. There’s nothing new under the sun, said the writer of Ecclesiastes, and old Solomon was right.
So beyond the question mark is a series of ellipses…To Be Continued. This is the way Katie Nolan, the protagonist in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, carried on. This book, printed in 1943, and written by Betty Smith, is a story about an impoverished Irish Catholic family at the turn of the 20th century. A day in the life of the Nolan family was successful if they could get their one carrot and a stale piece of bread for dinner. A special meal would include their daily ration with a dime’s worth of cow tongue. Smith starts her book with this preamble:
“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps. It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.”
Smith then builds her story around an overcomer, the mother in the story, Katie Nolan, who’s unschooled, but can read. She sets a standard of learning in her home—one page of the bible and one page from Shakespeare each night. Rain or shine, sickness or health, drunk husband or sober, Katie reads to her children until they can read to themselves.
As the story progresses, circumstances progressively seem to be out of Katie’s control: her husband stops bringing home a paycheck, she’s uprooted from multiple houses and jobs, her young daughter’s life is threatened, and all the while her country is on the brink of war.
Many of us would shudder at such circumstances, bemoan ourselves in self-pity and circle around in fear and confusion, but Katie is steadfast and constant in her routine. She rejects charity, and together with her children, is victorious in her pursuit of a better life.
Can we all just take a minute to admire this fictitious character? Because she was written to inspire and to inform, to get our courage up to face this day. But in the end she’s fictitious, and we’re not…yet there are so many Katie Nolans in this world, people holding on by their faith alone.
But unlike Katie Nolan, we struggle from page-to-page in the face of uncertainty. We may feel like we’re blowing about frivolously in the wind with no landing in sight. Even if we were to land, we don’t trust the conditions of the soil, and we think the right conditions are necessary for us to grow and be fruitful. The right political power in office, the right amount of money in our pocket, the right school for our children, the right husband or wife to complete us, but in the end the only right we need, is within ourselves.
We have the right to carry on and the right to grow right where we are, roots so deep, no one can pluck us out, so strong we can crack the concrete and erect straight outta the substance meant to eclipse our sun. We growin’ up, people, cause we may not have a mother like Katie Nolan, or a father to speak of, perhaps we’re cleaning tenement houses like she was and barely making it month-to-month, but Christmas reminds us that something’s coming, just like it came 2,000 years ago.
Like a flash of lighting, the heaven’s open, doves descend, the music of angels begins. There is story of a tree that grows in Brooklyn, seemingly from nothingness; magically appearing one day to display its umbrella of glory over all who look and see, the invisible world spoken into existence.