Monday, December 24, 2012

Castles in the Clouds and Christmas on Earth

Passing down that enchanted lane that is St. Charles, with castles and plantations and ancient churches drifting by, one gets the strange, stunning and simple feeling that the most dignified ages of mankind have convened a parliament right there along the road. A stone work structure gives way to white lattice, is followed by red brick reaching to dizzying heights, and is met by a row of Tudor windows that could fit in a London skyline. One feels as if Napoleon might walk out the French Gables of one house, that Churchill would breeze past the red-brick of another, that Charlemagne would fit in perfect next to a certain public library, and that Robert E. Lee would feel right at home on any one of the plantations' porches. The incongruence of period, style and culture is lost in the train. Despite clashing techniques and aesthetic methods, the golden thread of prestige and power unites all the facades into one long procession of architecture. It is the buildings that march, and the spectator, though moving, seems to merely watch them pass by. In a few weeks parades will start rolling down this street, but I fancy that it is only because the street itself is already a parade. If Carnival floats are a matter of dressing up cardboard and plaster to look like relic from ages past, then the houses of St. Charles all together represent a perpetual Mardi Gras, only the material used is far more lasting and far less gaudy.
And about halfway between downtown and the point where St. Charles ends at the river, there is a series of private schools each built in a unique period. One such, stationed between the Jewish Synagogue and Sacred Heart School, is built in the style of an Authorian Castle. As I drove my red truck past it, I was struck by the size of the stones. Each was easily as large as a barrel and as jagged as saw. If it were not for the fact that the geology of our city is so blatantly that of an estuary  I would have turned quickly around looking for the mountain from which such stones had been quarried. It defied explanation that such large rocks should be cut and transported so many thousand miles only to end up in pristine condition in the side of a wall on St. Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA. It must have been a monumental endeavor to erect such a monument above the streets of a swamp. And all to build a school whose architecture could hold its own against that of a Parisian-Styled Catholic School and a German-Jewish place of worship. I imagined the architect, working with the stones as if they were massive Legoes or alphabet building blocks. Each piece was its own veritable world, filled with nooks and crannies peculiarly its own. Had the mortar suddenly vanished, the blocks would have come toppling down like hundreds of dice rolling out on to a game board. Fitting them all together into such a symmetrical and congruent whole must have been like making a mosaic while balancing book on your head and and chomping a tree down: fitting, balancing and cutting all at once. The thought then struck me: why build such a house for children? As an educator, I searched my brain for some pedagogy that would account for taking the time and energy to erect such and edifice only so that children could study multiplication tables and learn to write in cursive.
And in the middle of such prudent speculations, I passed the gate and saw all the students sitting out on the steps with Christmas gifts in hand. For today was the last day of the semester, and parents who can afford to send their children to such a school probably make certain that the kids don't leave without some token of yuletide cheer. Such are the way with the affluent: they care much for the details. It is their virtue and their vice: to labor over every nickel and dime only to forget how many they have and, therefore, how many they could afford to share. Anyway, some conscientious parent of this variety had made certain that each child, though all with different gifts, be given these different gifts in the same package. This is yet another characteristic of the wealthy: they stress the appearance of equality so as to avoid having to be responsible for actual equality. In any event, the feelings of my heart were not with the unfortunate parents, but with their beautiful and innocent children. Each stood on the steps of the castle of academics with their uniform gift-wrap in hand. The wrapping for the gifts was a bag of deep red, smooth as a mirror and bright as blood. Out of each bag, the students were pulling their gifts: a soccer ball here, a teddy bear there, a doll or a scarf or a necklace. Regardless of the size of the present, the container it came from was the same: a 2x1.5 foot bag of brilliant crimson. By some odd coincidence, these bags were the same size as the stones against which they were laid. So imagine with me a large castle wall and stair case with large sand-colored stones punctuated by these countless red bags of equal size. What strange thoughts whirled through my head. I pictured a mythical battle that soaked with blood the entirety of those stones that had touched a corpse but left entirely untouched all other stones. I saw a wall built of alternating sand-stone and bricks made of compressed rose, forming a wall of chivalry that would attest to both beauty and strength. As a child picked up a bag here, or left a bag against the wall there, I imagined a castle constantly under construction by children as part of some tetras-like game. And through it all, I was haunted by the re-occurring speculation: why spend some much time and energy on children? They care not whether they learn in a castle or in a plantation or in a synagogue  provided what they learn is fun and good. They pay no mind to the color of the gift wrap provided that the gift inside pleases them. For children, more than adults, have a keen sense of substance-over-style. They know that they value of something is can only be improved by a positive appearance, but cannot be replaced by one. In short, they don't give a fig for the architecture of their school provided their school is where they can meet their friends and find their fun.
Then the answer to the riddle dawned on me like some colossus astride on the avenue, like the giant facade of the buildings that bordered me along the street. Whether or not it is fiscally viable or civically sound to invest in such school architecture is not the question. Nor does it even matter whether or not the kids notice that they are learning about human life in a monument to an outdated form of it. It doesn't even matter (in the first instance) whether or not their parents are greedy buffoons or just absent-minded members of the bourgeoisie  The point is the kids. Yes, I said it: the point of the discussion is the children. At Christmas, is it necessary to surround children in an atmosphere of imagination, even if they do not notice the details? Is it 'worth it' to take the extra time and energy to give them winter castles and wrap them matching presents? Well, why wouldn't it be worth it!? What could possibly be more worth our time or effort? When God spared no effort to surround his own Son at his birth with a such a colorful contingent of oriental kings and woolly shepherds, why should we spare any act of imagination on own our children? The question becomes, why isn't ever street and boulevard more like St. Charles Ave? We spare no expenses so as to be a cable bill: why not spare no expense to line every street with a cable car like the street cars that run on St. Charles? If God was able to turn a stable into His castle at the time of His birth, why not turn a school into a castle in order to teach others about Him?
The answer to all of this, as far as I can tell, is that we are far too lazy in our exaltation. Our eyes grow weak gazing heavenward, as the psalmist complains. Indeed, it is too much for us to realize everyday that the plot line of our lives is greater than any Greek tragedy but can reach a climax more stupendous than even the most romantic faerie-tale. The splendor of St. Charles is limited to one street, the crescendo of Christmas only occurs once a year, precisely because our hearts are not yet ready to see all the glory that we are destined for. Were all the ages of men to roll before us, as they seem to on St. Charles, and were they to all bow before that Infant Messiah, as someday they will, we would not now understand what it all meant. We are like children playing in a castle but thinking of it as nothing more than a school. Are hearts are still far too small to sing like the angels and celebrate like the gods. No, my friends, the joy of the Christmas story is that we are still too selfish and melancholy to understand heaven. That is why heaven had to come down to us! And for one day, we all return to childhood and proclaim Christ as the only Man who never grew out of the joy of childhood.