[Dumb Movies] The Polar Express

the-polar-express-(2004)Every year, and I mean every year, I hear the same argument start sometime in October or November. It used to just be a lot of “Keep the Christ in Christmas!” shouting. Now, people are angry over cups that don’t have snowflakes and gingerbread men on them. They don’t understand that Xmas is the correct Greek shorthand for Christmas, and isn’t sacrilegious at all. They even go so far as to demonize other holidays that occur near Christmas as some sort of usurper upstarts, because they either forgot or never learned that Christmas is on December 25th because the early church wanted to stop people from celebrating the much more popular Roman holiday The Feast of the Unconquered Sun, which had occupied the date for centuries. People are angry about words, images, plays, and songs. I’m angry, too.

I’m angry that when I greet people with a Merry Christmas, certain people will nod in approval, as if I have done something correct rather than something kind. I’m angry that people tell me what they have contributed to charity this year, as if it’s noble rather than something that is required of all people with enough to give. I’m angry that people use this time of year especially to pervert words like kindness when they mean pity or joy when they mean luxury. I’m angry that I’m angry. I’m angry that I do all these things that make me angry, too.

I used to believe in something. At least, I think I did. I believed in the magic. I believed that Christmas was the best holiday because of presents and food and movies and music and having a break from school. I used to believe in something. Then, sometime when I was ten or twelve or somewhere around there, I started to see the silver tarnish. The beautiful wrapping paper started to tear, and I saw what was underneath. It was a holiday made of half-truths and knowing winks. I was being fooled, and I couldn’t say anything because it would mean that the holiday where I got to eat as much as I wanted, the holiday where I got presents might be ruined. I realized that the magic was fragile.

In The Polar Express, this doubt is represented by an inability to hear Santa’s sleigh-bells. The hero of the story, a boy whose name we never learn, struggles with his doubt, fearing that, should he ask his parents about the nature of Christmas, it would mean an end to the magic. Throughout the story, he encounters representations of those traits that become grating when the magic loses its luster, childish avarice and starry-eyed excitement, and he also encounters the traits he most fears taking over, depression and cynicism.

Near the end of the film, where the boy is surrounded by true believers, he looks up to see the sleigh-bells being rung and everyone around him saying how beautiful they sounded. He could not hear them. A bell breaks off and comes rolling toward him. The boy picks it up and rings it but hears nothing. This is the moment that a fun family film becomes a great film, one that I love. The boy, at the edge of tears, closes his eyes and, with the pain of growing up in his voice, whispers, “I believe. I believe.” With that, he rings the bell again. The others were right. The sound is beautiful.

I had spent so much time worrying that I would do or say or think the wrong thing, and that would shatter the fragile magic. What I failed to realize was that, while I focused on myself, on my thoughts and my actions, the magic had already been broken. But, much like a stone table in another novel about the true meaning of Christmas, beneath the broken surface of the magic I had relied on for so many years, there was a deeper magic. It was a magic that could not be bought or sold. It wasn’t encountered while eating or singing carols. It was and is the gift of peace.

Maybe the reason that what we perceive as the magic of Christmas fades to doubt over the years is because we can’t find that magic in food or presents or other people or anything as simple as that. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to get angry. It’s easy to point fingers at the ones who you think are attacking your holiday. It’s easy for me to point fingers at people I think are missing the point of Christmas. It’s easy to be angry. It’s hard to feel peace. It’s hard to understand that freedom is admitting you don’t have or need control. It’s hard to accept that the way I feel about people who proclaim their righteousness is just as self-righteous as their Facebook posts. It’s hard to admit that we can’t take Christ out of Christmas, because we didn’t put him in it. So, instead of admitting that the magic doesn’t need our protection, we begin to doubt its very existence. One by one, we fall away.

There’s a line at the very end of The Polar Express spoken by the narrator after the boy shares his bell with his sister and parents. His sister, Sarah, hears it, but his parents don’t and assume the bell is broken.

“At one time most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.”

On Christmas day, I celebrate the gift I was given. It was not a gift in name only. It was a true gift. It was a gift that I couldn’t buy myself. It was the gift of deep magic, of peace, of being known. It was the gift of love in the face of my self-righteousness. It was the gift of never being alone again, not in this life and not after. Yet, even still, with all of my self-assurance, I still find myself often holding the bell to my ear, closing my eyes, and, just before ringing it, whispering the only two words that ever truly mattered: I believe.

[Dumb Books] Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 1

A few weeks ago, I read a really funny tweet written by this girl who lives in my city. Now, I read a lot of tweets during the day, and most of the people I follow are very funny. What this girl wrote caught me off guard, though. I started reading more of her tweets during class, laughing at every one, which bothered the students I was attempting to ignore, and I spent the next several hours working on a funny reply to that first one I had read. Please, note that this effort was expended to make first contact with a girl who I did not know and was not in any way talking to me on Twitter. She was talking to my friend, but, much as I do at parties, I attempted to worm my way into the conversation by being funny. Funny is sort of my go-to in most situations. Every situation, really. Anyway, it worked. For a second, at least. I was part of the joke for a few tweets. Then, she was on to something else, and I had to wrack my brain to figure out what else I could do to catch her attention. Since then, I’ve probably popped up on her radar a few times with a joke or comment or something, but I haven’t made real contact, yet. Maybe, one day, I’ll actually meet her. Maybe not. The thing is, I barely know anything about her, other than she is one of the funniest people I have ever encountered. She could be a horrible person who drowns kittens for fun. Like Hitler for kittens. Kitler. But, from what I’ve seen her write, I think she’s amazing. Why am I mentioning this? A few reasons, but mostly because I want you to pity me before I mention that I read comics.

Telling people you read comics is a bit like farting in the line for communion. No one knows how to react. So, most often, they pretend they heard nothing. If they do react at all, the reaction normally happens in three stages. The first reaction is commonly incredulity. “You read… comics? Like Spider-Man?” Yeah. Well, no, I don’t read Spider-Man. I do read other comics, though. Comics like the one I’m writing about today, Saga. The second most common reaction usually follows quickly after the first. It’s the sound people make when they see a really ugly dog. It’s an “aww” with a slight head tilt and a scrunching of the eyebrows into a worried look, like they just saw a toddler with brittle bone disease attempting to descend a spiral staircase. The third reaction is palpable pity, especially noticeable, if you attempt to explain why you read comics. It’s like they found out that the reckless, brittle-boned toddler has leukemia. In light of that, I wanted to set you up to feel pity right away and skip the other two reactions. Someday, I may write an article about why I read comics, but, today, I just want you to know why I love Saga.

Saga is a story about a little girl that two armies fear. Not fear in the way I still have nightmares about the troll from Earnest Scared Stupid, but feared in the way the US government fears people like Edward Snowden. They aren’t so much afraid of the baby girl herself, unless some of them have pedophobia or something, but rather what she represents. To them, she represents the worst possible fate for their people: peace. See, the armies come from a planet called Landfall and its moon called Wreath. They have been fighting for so long that what was once a war has now become a blood feud. The feud powers the governments of both the people of Landfall and Wreath. Since they look a little different from one another, it’s easy to keep the bloodshed going with propaganda calling the people to kill “those animals from the (planet|moon; circle one).” Thankfully, unlike they do in this story, we don’t have the problem of being goaded into hating people for insignificant differences like the way we look.

The girl’s mother and father are from Landfall and Wreath, respectively, and were once soldiers in the never ending war. At the time of the story, they have long deserted their armies to be together and live outside of the conflict. It’s not that easy, however. The governments of Landfall and Wreath, wanting to go to war without all the messy bloodshed on their front lawns, have outsourced the battle to every corner of the galaxy. With the governments of both sides trying to kill them and their daughter and the war being waged on nearly every planet in the galaxy, the only choice the new family has to survive is to keep running.

What I love about this story isn’t that it’s set in space; though, I do love good space opera. It’s not that it involves both sci-fi technology and magic, which is cool. It’s that, at the heart of it, it’s about people that just don’t want to fight, anymore. They have realized wars of ideals are stupid and pointless. The only people that ever suffer from conflict are the peons and the bystanders, and the only people who ever gain anything are the ones already on top. They don’t care about stopping the war. They’re not revolutionaries. They’re just tired parents. They’re running from two governments who see their little girl as proof that the people of Landfall and Wreath aren’t really so different. The governments know that, if other people find out about her, they would come to the same conclusion. Then, the perpetual motion machine of war might be brought to a halt by the mere existence of a little girl whose parents decided fighting wasn’t for them. That emotion is even mirrored in the people that the government sends to kill them, from the robot prince who is about to become a father himself to the freelancer who can’t escape responsibility no matter what he tries.

This isn’t the first volume of a story where love conquers all. That’s certainly not the moral. It’s the story of a two people who saw that they had something in common with each other, and decided that taking a risk to be together is better than the relative safety of being apart. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I should have the courage to just ask out that girl. Maybe.