Believing In Santa


When I first told my children about Santa Claus, of course I knew there was no actual human being I was talking about. But I told my children he was real and would reward them for being good.

I didn’t care how they envisioned Santa, for there are so many variations of his image, all so innocent in spirit, lighthearted and loving. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care how they imagined he spent his time at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus, the elves and reindeer. It didn’t matter.

We all understood that Santa was real in a different way than our friends and neighbors were real. He was real in spirit, and so we could imagine all sorts of things about Santa and even read conflicting ideas about his life and accept them all without difficulty. After all, nobody really knew for sure.

The specific details of Santa’s existence were not important. It was the underlying truth, that there are larger reasons for good behavior, reasons that could last for a year or even longer. Santa was a power for goodness in the world who would bless you for your honest heart and punish those who were cruel and deceptive.

As a grownup, I replaced the idea of Santa with knowledge. I knew that honesty, no matter how unrecognized it may be among friends and family, fills your life with joy, the kind of joy that is free from shame and guilt. I also knew that those who are dishonest and mean, no matter how long their actions may go undetected, are immediately punished for their sins because of who they become. They have lost the heart of an innocent child.

Heaven and hell are here, and those who are evil live in a hell of their own making, the hell of their own existence, no matter how long they avoid punishment from others.

In this dangerous and unpredictable world there are so many good people who are so unjustly punished by life, by disease, natural disaster, political oppression or just everyday happenstance. Earth is a place where all things are possible, both good and bad. It has something to do with free will. But if we struggle against adversity with an honest heart, we will find higher ground.

So my children grew up believing in Santa, even though they did not keep him firmly in mind throughout the year. But they grew up believing that striving to be honest and good was the right way to live. And even though some of the children they knew did not believe in Santa, they did not fight with them. Some believed, some didn’t. It didn’t matter.

Most of the children who believed in Santa needed no proof. They accepted Santa as a matter of faith, buttressed by the occasional Christmas morning miracle of the missing cookies and nearly empty glass of milk. When my children began to seriously question the existence of Santa, I took them to an old stone church and we sat in a beautiful, vine-encrusted alcove and I explained that Santa was more than just one single person.

I told them Santa was the spirit of giving that lives in all of us who find joy in bringing happiness to others. I told them every department store Santa who gave joy to little children was filled with the spirit of Santa. I told them every parent who wrapped up a special gift with a card that said, “Love to you, from Santa!” was inspired by the spirit of Santa. I told them Santa was more magic than they imagined, that instead of being just one person, Santa was the spirit of kindness and love that filled the hearts of millions, especially at Christmas, and that we should keep his spirit alive every day of the year.

I told them that as we grow up, many of us replace the idea of Santa with the idea of God.

I told them the best parts of all religions were filled with this spirit, and that this is what so many people mean by the word God, that God is a force for honesty, kindness and love in the world. I told them it does not matter how we picture God or how we define God. As long as we fill our hearts with love and charity, then we are doing the work of God here on Earth.

I told them words and pictures are what we use to help us understand the spirit of Santa, the spirit of God, but the words and pictures are not what’s important. It is the meaning behind the words and pictures, the inspiration that fills each heart.

We are all imperfect, we all make mistakes and we all have times in our lives when we are so certain about things that we become blind to our errors. To fight each other over ideas about God is like trying to prove whose idea of Santa is the real idea. To fight each other over ideas of God is to be so certain that we have become blind to our own imperfection and capacity for error.

I told them some people forget that these stories are about meanings, not details. They are intended to open our hearts and help direct the course of our lives. It’s the message that's important, and what it says to each of us.

I told them to respect the religions of all cultures, that whatever ideas of God people believe in, if these ideas open their hearts and lead them toward honesty, compassion and love, then they are on the right path – all of them.

The details are not what’s important. We all speak different languages and have different ways of describing and understanding things. It’s the essence from which all explanations come that is important. That’s what faith is for, to keep the connection strong between ourselves and God because words are not enough.

We all have to start somewhere. Some of us start with Santa. The important thing is to realize that spiritual growth is like any other kind of growth – it requires change. The lessons we learn as children are for children. The lessons we learn at the beginning of our spiritual journeys are for beginnings. To grow a larger soul, we must not get stuck. We must not stop. We must keep going.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo: Christopher & Joshua Loar with Santa
© All Rights Reserved

Renegade




It was not hard to be renegade in the sleepy Los Angeles suburb of West Covina during the 1960s.


Emerging from the conservative ‘50s, all you had to be was a disagreeable teenager, especially in this Anglo-Saxonite community where most of the local power brokers attended Rotary Club pancake breakfasts with an alarming regularity. Come to think of it, regularity was also a big deal during this era.

My home town was very much like the place portrayed in the movie, “American Graffiti.” It was a teenage car culture, and after I turned 16, I had a driver’s license. Not long after, I had a car. My parents were upper middle class, so I did not have to actually earn the money to buy a car. And my mother was eager to be free of having to take me places, and then, pick me up and bring me home. Her life was busy enough, what with Women's Club luncheons to plan, bridge parties, country club appearances and the ongoing burden of supervising housekeepers and gardeners — all this along with a husband who actually expected her to make dinner on a regular basis. Yes, regularity was a pretty big deal during this era.

Nowadays there are lots of restrictions on young drivers, but when I got my license, I was free, turned loose on the streets without any restrictions or guidelines. Just a few hours of driver’s ed. But I was a pretty good driver. I’d had experience, what with all those times I took my parents’ cars out on the road when they were away for a weekend trip. Yes, I remember learning how every intersection was not necessarily a four-way stop as I propelled my mother’s lumbering, razor-finned Cadillac straight toward a passing car who, much to my surprise, had no stop sign. I hit the brake pedal just in time.

Then there was that lesson about road rage, what we used to call, “mad” or “angry.” I thought driving was a competition, and that the object was to beat the other drivers. After all, I wasn’t actually going anywhere. So I jammed down the gas pedal and managed to pull the great white whale in front of this other guy in an old, compact car who had tried his best not to let me into his lane. While I was waiting behind another car at a stop sign, he got out and walked up to my car, signaled for me to roll down my window, which I did, then punched me in the face.

By the time I had my own car, a dark green 1965 Ford Mustang — the fastback model — I was seasoned. I’d make my car too fast to catch, and I certainly would never roll down my window again for anybody.

In those days it seemed like most of my friends and rivals were working on their cars, customizing old Chevys, putting in big carburetors, high performance shifters, custom exhaust systems, giant racing slicks – even whole new engines. This was long before the state-mandated smog check. Nobody checked the condition of our cars when we renewed their registrations, so all modifications went undetected. I was not one of the more talented kid mechanics around, although I could gap a spark plug. I was a musician, a guitar player, and I did not like getting my fingers stained with grease. So I took the money I saved from teaching guitar lessons and working in a local pizza parlor and went to a speed shop in a neighboring city to let the experts juice up my horsepower. The first thing they did was rip out all the smog prevention equipment.

“You don’t need all this stuff,” I remember the mechanic saying. Years later, when I tried to trade the car in on a new model, the local Ford dealer would disagree. “You’ve got no smog equipment! We’re going to have to replace it all just to put the car on the lot.”

Oops!

Except for a little cash for dating and guitar strings, I’d put all my money into my car — a nice racket for the speed shop — and after a while I began racing my car on Saturdays at the nearby Irwindale Speedway along with all the other high school amateurs. But as a renegade teenager, the real thrill was street racing. It was like being a gunslinger in the Old West, just prowling around town, looking to challenge somebody to a shootout.

Yes, I had my share of speeding tickets, but I was never caught racing. Most of us weren’t. There were not that many police officers cruising around town in those days.

There was always the occasional race during the day, when I’d just happen to pull up next to another kid in a hot car after school. Who was faster? We just had to find out! But weekend nights were the real prime racing time. It was like jousting, trying to prove our nascent manhood to our girlfriends, or to somebody else’s girlfriend.

Sometimes the races were organized.

Some guy with greasy hair had a new Camaro 280z and swore he could take me. Bets were made and the next Saturday night my friends blocked off both ends of a sleepy suburban street about a half-mile long while we lined up our cars. About twenty high school kids gathered at the finish line. Camaro boy couldn’t catch me, even though his car may have been faster. I was always incredibly quick off the starting line.

That’s what won me the race set up by the speed shop at Irwindale Raceway. There was another kid, a rich kid whose father owned stores, who was already out of high school, who came to the speed shop with a Mustang pretty much like mine. The speed shop mechanics figured this guy would be good competition for me. After they’d done their best to expand his horsepower, we set a date.

The early part of the afternoons at Irwindale were spent doing practice runs, called “qualifying.” You had to turn a good enough time in your particular class to compete in the early evening, before the actual professionals did their stuff for the audience who sat in bleachers on either side of the quarter-mile track.

Steve – my well-financed opponent – and I both qualified at the top of our class and were set to compete. I had the advantage of nearly a year of experience, while this was Steve’s first time at a professional raceway. He was a little nervous, especially since we had an audience of friends, girlfriends and the speed shop mechanics. It had just turned dark as we pulled up to the starting line, facing the “Christmas Tree,” a series of lights mounted on each side of a central bracket that indicate when the cars are in the right starting position. Then, once the cars are positioned, the yellow lights count down to green. If a driver started too early, a red light would signal disqualification.

We both edged our cars into starting position, our engines almost window-shatteringly loud because we’d opened up our “headers” (high performance exhaust systems) to bypass the mufflers. From experience, I knew the slight lag time of my car – from the time I hit the gas pedal to the car’s forward surge – allowed me to start a half second before the green light flashed.

We waited, then the first yellow light flashed on, moving down toward the green light. The moment Steve’s brain told him the light was green, I’d already jumped out from the starting line. He was momentarily stunned, and even though he turned a faster time, he never caught me. It wasn’t really about how fast you went, it was about who got there first. Mind over horsepower. I made it to the finish line first, won the trophy and renewed admiration from my girlfriend.

Yes, it was a moment.

Of course now as a responsible adult I am appalled at my behavior, risking accident and injury on the streets of my sleepy suburban town. Perhaps that’s why it made so much sense for all of us to go just outside of town to the Chicken Ranch.

There was a long, straight road inside the Chicken Ranch property, made for trucks to pick up eggs and chickens, I suppose. Nobody stayed with the chickens at night, especially not on Saturday nights. This particular night had not been the first time high school hot rods had raced there, but it was my first time.

There were dozens of competitors from area high schools and junior colleges, and dozens more who just came to watch. It is a solemn testament to the short-range saturation of the teenage brain that none of us had entertained a single thought about potential consequences. Rubber burned and smoked and engines spit and roared as pair after pair of racers hurtled down the improvised racetrack. After I made my run, the growing chaos of beer-swilling youth amazingly enough triggered some fledgling sense of adult apprehension in me, and so I left. As I exited the entrance to the Chicken Ranch, I was passed by a long line of police cars.

That was the last race ever held at the Chicken Ranch. It was my senior year, and before long, I’d own a more practical car, have a more practical girlfriend, and grow a little less renegade as the wild anarchy of my teenage years passed. After all, I had to prepare for the wild anarchy of my twenties.



























~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

The Princess Marjorie



M y mother saved things.

She had $50 bills hidden in an envelope beneath a stack of unread magazines in the cupboard of an old nightstand.

She had a small box of Kennedy half-dollars inside a small safe, underneath stacks of envelopes bound together with rubber bands. There were $50 bills inside some of the envelopes.

There were lacquered jewelry boxes and plain cardboard boxes filled with necklaces, rings, pendants and pins in dresser drawers beneath undergarments, old mail, pill bottles, pens and a lifetime of assembled ephemera. There were some valuable heirlooms mixed without distinction among trinkets from the many countries she had visited with her late husband. Photos taken by her husband were collected in box after box of incredibly boring slides which were viewed once or twice when friends came over, then stuffed into cupboards and never seen again. Marjorie and her husband did not seem to enjoy their travels as much as they enjoyed accumulating them to be admired and envied by their friends.

My mother was 15 years old in 1929, when the stock market crashed, followed by years of economic turmoil. But her parents were wealthy and the family was protected from ruin. She was a spoiled, only child who was smart and talented. She was a top student, played the piano and the violin, and pretty enough to be pursued by legions of young men, her friendship desired by admiring young women. She was a small-town princess whose photo routinely appeared in the society pages of the local paper.

So many in her small town had fallen into poverty during the aftermath of the Great Depression. So she saved. Everything.

By the time I was a teenager, her garage had turned into a museum of the useless and obsolete. She had saved all my father’s old electric shavers, though they didn’t work very well anymore. But they had value, somehow.

She saved cookie tins, so handy for storing things, even though she had more than twenty empty tins stuffed into a cupboard beneath her dead husband’s cluttered workbench. You never know when you might need one, she thought, and if she threw them away, in just a very few days she’d suddenly have a use for them, and then it would be too late.

After her electric garage door opener had to be replaced, she would not let the repairman take away the old, greasy, rusty, 12-foot-long mechanism. There might be parts in it that would come in handy some day.

The garage was packed full of stuff like that: old corroded sprinkler heads, scrap lumber stored in the rafters, old magazines, cardboard boxes that had come with her televisions, her coffee maker, her microwave. There were cracked plastic buckets filled with tattered kitchen dish towels and rags. Boxes of old calendars, coffee cans full of nails and screws and other mysterious, hard-to-identify parts saved by her late husband.

Inside her house every drawer was packed full. Many contained unopened mail, solicitations she meant to review, stacks of envelopes bound with rubber bands. She kept every greeting card she’d ever received, every letter, all the way back to when she was a little girl.

One might guess she was a sentimental person. But sentiment was barely in evidence as she accumulated her way through life. Sentiment was, at best, a fleeting afterthought, a momentary pause in the pursuit of acquisition. She never looked at the things she saved. Much of it was packed away in places too difficult to easily access. Each card and letter she saved was a kind of honorary award, bearing testament to her worth. They were her small trophies; homage paid to the princess.

I could go on and on, describing in great detail all the unused kitchen appliances, the unread books, the cabinets full of figurines, crystal, ceramics and silver – so many things only the privileged could afford to own, things that were never taken out of their places and handled, looked at or enjoyed.

But even in this small accounting, my writing becomes a repetition of the compulsions that surrounded me as a child, the compulsions that infused my soul, against which I have fought every day of my adult life.

Inside my mother’s garage, inside her drawers, in her closets and cupboards, in her attic, in every empty space, a lifetime of accumulation gathered randomly, while on the outside, her splendid home was neatly decorated, her most expensive possessions on display, touched only by the housekeeper who kept them dust-free.

My mother married a successful salesman, too young and sheltered to realize she’d fallen in love with a sales pitch, not a man. They were far from soul mates. She was Lady Di. He was Homer Simpson. She kept her husband at arm’s length as the years passed by, in his appropriate place, untouched, on his side of the bed. After a few years, she accumulated two children. First my sister, then I were adopted – an appropriate pair to show off at the country club.

As time went by, her husband and her children proved to be quite troublesome. Instead of showering her with praise, devotion and servitude, we actually required love and affection. Since she could not put each of us in a display case, she entombed herself within a display case of her own making. She became untouchable, permanent, unchanging, unwilling to share her carefully constructed and accumulated life. Yet we were relentlessly human and asked for more than she could give, and grew to resent her.

She came to realize she’d made a mistake. Life had been perfect when she was the only child, the small-town princess, admired by all she knew. She could never become the supplicant, required to make an earnest entreaty for love. She was superior and would never admit any kind of emotional need. And so she accumulated things and pre-empted any emotional connection by treating those around her with cruel contempt.

She was known in the community as a rich and respected woman who lived in a grand house full of splendid possessions. But she was utterly impoverished in spirit, without those intangible things which are our true possessions, which are the true measure of our lives.

This was my mother, the Princess Marjorie, sovereign of a vast wilderness.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved