Christmas at Home

Christmas at Home

A friend of mine was the son of a man who had survived the Bataan Death March. He had seen men stagger out of line knowing they would be machine-gunned. He kept his head down. He didn’t talk to others. He was slow to react to the commands of the enemy herding them on, pushing them beyond their limits. He would breathe slowly, and let the air out like a monk meditating in a temple. His stoicism may have saved his life. But he had given up a precious virtue — anticipation. He didn’t want to think about the next moment, and kept his mind as empty as his pockets. He trudged. He slowed when someone staggered ahead of him. He didn’t want to fall or make a single mistake. He knew a certain guard kept his eye on him; he didn’t think anyone could be that determined. He was sure he was getting food somewhere, even though he was just a skeleton in the rags of his infantry uniform.

“…kept his mind as empty as his pockets.”

To meet such a haunted man was a trying experience. He would be sitting in his worn- out easy chair studying his fingers, barely saying a word. He had survived, but he had sacrificed everything worthwhile to do so. He made himself into a lump of clay, a reduction of his spirit into the mud of the rain forest. He had no magic in him. No jokes, either.

When his wife put a present for him under the Christmas tree, he pretended not to notice. He chose instead to sharpen his penknife on a small stone in the kitchen drawer, and polish his shoes, very slowly, with a rag and dabs of Shinola. Breakfast on Christmas morning was mostly conducted in silence, with the forks scraping against the plates and the coffee sipped at while the kids scrambled around opening gifts. He was handed his gift; he put it carefully on his lap and continued to dawdle at his poached eggs. Then, when it was already too late to join in the holiday spirit, he would undo the tape and pry up the wrapping paper to reveal a miniature chess set or a book about falconry. He would allow himself to smile and look up with muddy eyes and thank his wife with a nod.


“Breakfast on Christmas morning was mostly conducted in silence, with the forks scraping against the plates and the coffee sipped at while the kids scrambled around opening gifts.”

The march occurred in January 1942 and lasted until April, with some 650 casualties on the American side. Many more Filipino soldiers died. Along the way of the 60-odd miles they marched, guards gave out ladles of water and stale bread. The men were bearded and hollow-cheeked; their boots were worn out, with their feet showing. Some discarded their boots for fear of tripping on the broken soles. If you were found with Japanese money in your pockets, you were executed for having stolen it from dead Japanese soldiers. Even officers were not spared from the death squads. The men had spent Christmas eating out of field rations and drinking cold tea from their canteens. But the New Year was perhaps the lowest point of the war, with Japanese victories in Manila and many of the islands. General MacArthur was having to order retreats and surrenders.

Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande

His son Jake started a rock band in central Texas and would play gigs around the city, at parties and weddings, an occasional street fair. He played rhythm guitar and his drummer had been his best friend since childhood. Jake sang with a good country twang, and smiled at the girls who crowded up to the stage to flirt with him. He was a gentle soul and clung to the music he made as the only escape from the gloom of his family life.

A Christmas tree stood in the corner by the stairs shedding needles. The wrapping papers were still scattered about the floor. His father had retreated to his little corner of the garage to read the instructions on his chess set. He would later put the box away and come into the house to sit before the TV. He was among the living dead of the war and nothing could console him. But he would take out the chess set and study the pieces, then move one or two of them on the wooden board. He would think about war and how to capture the queen, how to surprise the enemy, how to pull victory from the terrible grief he suffered. But he didn’t get far. He had to surrender his pieces one by one to an imaginary player whose moves he determined and made more lethal than any of his own. The great matted canopy of the jungle clothed his soul in rain, in the hum of mosquitoes, the suck of mud against his tramping feet.

Christmas came and went. In summer, he was given time to putter in a struggling garden at the back of the yard. The train went by and the soot from the rail bed would dust the leaves of his tomato plants. He kept himself aloof from neighbors and would chase the rabbit out of his carrot patch with a leaf rake. Summer erased the vision of endless mud and overturned Jeeps, the bombed-out remains of thatched huts and tin-roofed schools.

War had ravaged the innocence of Filipino life. The rice paddies were deserted and arid, with wiry shoots of rice grass here and there. But as the weather cooled, it would back the smell of lemons and fish soup, the odors drifting out of the windows of small hamlets along their way. It would ease the pangs of memory a little.

A child stared at him as he passed by. He dared not look at it for fear they would both be shot. In a month or two, it would be Christmas. He could hear the old mission bell in a town marking the noon hour. A water buffalo walked along beside the men and then went back into the fields dragging a slender plow behind. Life went on. Marriages were celebrated; a pregnant woman stood holding the small of her back after chopping grass. The steady rumble of thunder could be heard across the river.

When the Christmas season began again, the old man would stroll with his wife and sons into the mall. He wouldn’t shop, but he liked to sit on a bench and observe the throngs passing by. Happy people. Innocent people. They were eager to get home to eat a feast, to sip wine, to turn on the TV to Christmas specials. Everyone had lights blazing on the shrubs and on the porch roofs. It was a time of resurrection, of rebirth, a promise made by whoever God was that life would persist, even triumph over the terrible failures of power. So, there he sat, listening to the throb of drums coming from the food court, and the sound of his son’s guitar playing a shrill solo while he pressed his mouth against the microphone and wailed out a love song. He felt the calming influence of that harsh sound; his son was not scarred with the memory of so much death. He was hailing the return of love into the world as the bells rang.

When the old man was led back to the car, his wife kissed him on his cheek and patted his hands. She was glad he had come out, she said. She was happy he could hear his son Jake playing music. It all seemed to add to the spirit of the moment. She didn’t know why, but she was very happy, as happy as she had ever been. She was like a voice in the midst of war, a calming, soothing voice from home.

Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande

He heard the words; he was moved to tears at their affection. He had survived. That’s what Jake said to him later when they were assembled in the living room with cups of eggnog. The old carols were playing on the radio. There was nothing silly about them, even though he had heard them so many times his brain was numb. But on this night, this cold, dry night of Christmas Eve, he was lifted from his chair and led to the porch where his neighbors were standing with a box. He was told to take it. He put it under the tree with the other gifts and opened it the next morning. It was a garden kit of hand spades, a weeding fork, packets of seeds, a nozzle for the hose. And a cartoon of his lanky body bent over a bushy eggplant vine. He was smiling and waving. He felt a dull thrill pass through him, the kind you might feel after a girl kissed you the first time in your life.

Perspectives from Across the Atlantic

Perspectives from Across the Atlantic

On March 11, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, announced that Denmark would soon be going into lockdown. In just a few days, I would be celebrating my eleventh year as an American ex-patriot living in Denmark. It felt odd that schools, restaurants, movie theatres and shops would be closing down. It was surreal to see keep-your-distance markings painted on the floors by the grocery check-out lines and to chat with the cashier through a Plexiglas barrier. We watched the horrific footage of Corona virus as it gripped Italy and Spain. Things felt strange in an Orwellian sense and I experienced uncertainty, but not fear.

The Prime Minister had a plan—2.6 billion Danish kroner had been set aside to cover 75% of the salaries of employees from private Danish companies who would otherwise have been fired. The companies would need to pay the remaining 25%. Hourly wage earners who were out of work would receive 90% of their salaries, up to about 4100 in USD, from the Danish government. Small companies could also apply for assistance in the months to come if they showed at least a 30% decrease in income as a result of the pandemic.

My husband and I run two small businesses. The main one is a tutoring practice, where kids come after school for extra help with Danish, Math or English. We also have an editing and translations company. With the kids being out of school and families being told not to visit friends or relatives, we suddenly lost our students and no new students would be signing up for a while. We wanted to avoid asking the government for help, so we tried to focus more on translations and editing while knowing that if we had substantial income loss, we would be helped. This put us at ease.

We took walks around the neighborhood, making sure to observe social distancing protocol. We saw whole families walking together, and we were lucky that the endless rain of the last two months had passed. People seemed to be enjoying the nice weather and using the time to get more fresh air and exercise. Folks seemed mostly concerned about not spreading the virus to others, especially older people. Adults felt badly for the young people, who quickly grew restless. Teens, in particular, were extremely stressed out and disappointed about not being able to see their friends. Parties were cancelled, confirmations were cancelled, weddings were cancelled and so were concerts, festivals and sporting events, but despite these setbacks I sensed a strong feeling of solidarity among the population. It seemed that most people viewed it as their civic duty to keep others safe.

“Folks seemed mostly concerned about not spreading the virus to others…”

In 2007 I got engaged to Hans-Henrik, a Dane who had been working and living in the US for 26 years. We were living in New Rochelle, New York, which we loved, but after many years of working for others, we wanted to become self-employed, preferably from home. Hans-Henrik wanted to become a freelance translator and I wanted to break into language editing and proofreading after years of teaching ESL. I wanted something flexible, something that would allow me to pursue other passions that had always been put on the back burner—writing and singing. I was 45 at the time and HansHenrik, 56. To become entrepreneurs so late in life was damned risky.  

I would know. I had previously spent 11 months in LA helping a friend launch a company that got people out of foreclosure. My job was to interview applicants to determine their eligibility. Being eligible meant that the homeowner had 1) a legitimate hardship that prevented them from being able to pay their mortgage, and 2) a solution to the hardship and/or had a way to get caught up with their payments. Our job was to negotiate a realistic payment plan with the bank on behalf of our client.  

During that time, I heard hundreds of stories from people who were losing their homes and the circumstances that had led to it. And while I occasionally spoke to a person who had been irresponsible with their finances, most of the folks I interviewed had simply run into difficult situations that could have happened to anyone. They’d lost a job or a household wage-earner, or maybe they or a family member had become ill and racked up huge hospital bills and therefore insurmountable debt. I saw how easy it was to become destitute and yes, even homeless almost overnight. (This would later become the subject of a screenplay I wrote, but that is another story.) It was against this backdrop that we ventured to start our own business. 

Meanwhile, having never been to Scandinavia or Europe, I suggested holding our wedding in Demark, which we did in May of 2008. On our wedding night while gazing at the stars in a perfectly clear sky, it was my turn to pop a question. I asked Hans-Henrik how he would feel about moving back to Denmark. I think it caught him by surprise, but he seemed happy. His mother had recently turned 90 and though she was in good health, returning to Denmark meant he’d be able to spend time with her.  

When we told members of Hans-Henrik’s family about our idea, they were skeptical. They warned us that this wonderful weather we’d been having was record-breaking. (In Denmark the official weather service counts sunshine hours throughout the year because there are so few of them.) They reminded us that we were on our honeymoon and that perhaps we were viewing Denmark through fairytale eyes. Fairytale eyes or not, I fell in love with Denmark.

After returning to New York, we contacted the Danish Embassy and started an application for me to become a resident. We had to come up with about 10,000 dollars that would stay frozen in a bank account as security that I wouldn’t become a burden on the state should something happen. A year later we relocated to a suburb of Copenhagen, living with HansHenrik’s brother while we got established. 

Enjoy life

As soon as we arrived, I registered with the local municipal office. A couple of weeks later I received an insurance card and could enroll in free Danish language lessons. I obtained temporary residence for three years. Permanent residence depended on several things, including passing a Danish language exam and being economically self-sufficient. It was not enough that I was married to a DaneI needed to demonstrate that I was a contributing member of society and would not become a financial burden to the state. I had to prove that I had fulltime work.

Danes are called the happiest people in the world or a bunch of socialists, depending on who is talking.

 Danes are called the happiest people in the world or a bunch of socialists, depending on who is talking. The healthcare, higher education and assistance to those in need are not free. Danes pay a lot of taxes, yet a Gallup poll of 2014 showed that 9 out of 10 Danes were happy to pay taxes, and here I cite why: 

The reason behind the high level of support for the welfare state in Denmark is the awareness of the fact that the welfare model turns our collective wealth into well-being. We are not paying taxes. We are investing in our society. We are purchasing quality of life.

(Source: ) 

When a government invests in its people, regardless of their race, sex, religion, or anything else, everyone has a chance to attain a decent quality of life. In terms of finances, anyone who wants an education can get it here, whether it be university, trade school or business school. If you come from a poorer family neither you nor they have to worry about whether they’ll be able to afford your education. The investment we make in the form of taxes is used to create an infrastructure that supports human resources.

Many argue that if you give people a handout, you make them lazy. This is not the case. The government doesn’t just give people handouts. If you lose your job and don’t have unemployment insurance, you can get financial aid under the proviso that you actively seek work. This means applying for jobs, going on interviews, and regularly reporting your progress. If too much time goes by, you may be urged to do some “volunteer work” (which you are already getting paid to do) or settle for work that was not your first choice. This works as an incentive for the person to look harder. I have also seen many people get offered further education to make themselves more employable. I have not even gone into minimum wage here, but suffice it to say, people do not have to work two jobs to have a roof over their heads, food and health care.

I love my life in Denmark and feel it is a privilege to be here. What has made me the happiest is that here I have been able to create a space for my art. Most of my adult life, I have allowed my anxiety about financial survival to overpower my desire to create art. I saw this keenly during the end of my Danish language school when I read a fictionalized diary of Hans Christian Andersen. I had never realized that at the age of 14, he left his home town for Copenhagen to be a performing artist and writer with absolutely no guarantee of any kind. He was a tight rope walker without a net—something I have not been willing to do but deeply admire in others.  

“Rather than making me lazy, that net is what makes me braver and more productive.”

What I discovered, though, is that I like having that net beneath me. Rather than making me lazy, that net is what makes me braver and more productive. As I have had the chance to live in different countries outside of the US—Japan and Denmark—and personally experienced how it is to live in different societal structures, I have seen that it is possible to have a civic set-up that cares for the well-being of all without endangering the wealth and stature of the country.  

I am not saying that our system is perfect. No system really is, but from what I can see, it works.

And I admit that it is unfair to compare a country the size of Denmark to the United States. However, when I sit on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and hear criticism of the “radical left,” I realize how insulated some members of the US population have become. These “radical” changes that people are so afraid of are more the norm in the rest of the developed world, and the US is decades behind.

While political affiliation and racial inequality stand out as prominent issues, I believe that the paradigm shift we need in the US goes even deeper and embraces these elements. It has to do more fundamentally with what people consider to be human rights. I believe that making health care and education available to all people falls under human rights. These are in fact stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without these basic needs being met, the playing field will never be level, nor will there be human, let alone equal, rights.  

I didn’t want to get political, but it is hard to avoid. The Trump era and now the Corona pandemic have brought about a great deal of hardship to America. Many of us have never been so confused or upset as in these last few years, but behind the turmoil, the noise and the conflict, is the purpose to have a better and more just future for all Americans.  

I have thought a lot about how this change could come about because it’s hard to imagine it happening to a country the size of the US, where there are such divergent viewpoints.

Perhaps the size of Denmark is the key. It is far easier for us to manage ourselves because we live in a country of about 5.8 million people. Is there a way to create change that does not just depend on who is in the Senate or House or in the Oval office? While we are working on change at a wider level, I believe we need to build communities at a grassroots level. Then people can choose the type of society they wish to live in. In the spirit of free competition, could a state, county, city, or even a town work to make itself “the place to be?” In other words, “Come to Maine, where you can have access to affordable health care, education, and financial assistance should you run into hard times.” If such communities were formed, they might attract like-minded people and grow.  

This is worth fighting for and I believe it is within reach.