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.

Quality Time

Quality Time


April 9, 2021

Today I flew out for a performance, one of the first in person (masked, socially distanced) performances I will be doing live in about a year, at AIMS Community College in Loveland, Colorado tomorrow night at 7PM. It will also be streamed.


My spirit dragged as I waited for my connecting flight in Dallas. I try to do my best in all of my interactions, personal and professional.


I am a human being: I am not perfect, but I am willing to listen. I was worn out and disheartened. When I turned my ears inside, past the clatter of failure, my spirit told me, you are making some pretty dreary thought forms.

Why not make different ones?

Our thoughts do make literally forms, of finer thought material, most of it not visible in the human seeing spectrum.

I spent the rest of my waiting time and much of the flight creating beautiful geometric forms of many colors, imbuing them with love and happiness, and sent them out to assist fellow travelers, those who would make accusations without listening, and as gratitude for the helpers who surround me, who surround all of us.

“I am a human being: I am not perfect, but I am willing to listen.”

You can learn more about the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States here: Joy Harjo Official Site – Joy Harjo

LIFE Coach: A Literary Exchange Between NICK CARBÓ and RICK MOODY

LIFE Coach: A Literary Exchange Between NICK CARBÓ and RICK MOODY

This stirring exchange between two gifted wordsmiths, one a poet and the other a novelist, shows how the power of language can easily usher a centuries-old epistolary style into the digital age with intimacy and grace. 

Rick Moody to his FaceBook friends — June 9, 2019: 

As some of you know, I operate occasionally as Rick Moody, Life Coach. My theory is that those who have sometimes botched life are in the best position to celebrate those who are doing a better job. As it happens, I need some new letters to answer. I have run out of letters. So if you’re in need, send me a letter here. My only caveat is that I REALLY think long and hard about this stuff, so sometimes it takes me a while to reply. But I attempt to answer every single request, in some fashion. 

Hey Rick, 

Here’s my letter to life coach: 

Three straight months earlier this year in the hospital, along the way a five-day coma because of renal failure, also amputation of remaining leg, then MRSA infection. Back home now and doing four-hour dialysis three times a week (Tue-Thu-Sat). Occasional incontinence, fatigue most of the day. Diabetic neuropathy–a constant pain in hands. 

So when do you say it’s time to stop all this? As a writer I’ve flirted with all that Thanatos crap and find that writers are so self-centered that they can’t see what’s just about to hit them. 

So, life coach, is life worth it at this stage?


June 9, 2019 

Hey Nick,

I’m putting you in front of the line. Count on an answer. I want you to know herewith, in public, how much love and respect I have for you and your work. I am so sorry for the suffering. Your note is immensely poignant and powerful, and I will answer in kind.

More soon,


July 1, 2019

First, as I have said elsewhere, I want to say how much I love your work, your moving, cranky, funny, profound, uplifting, tragicomic, hilarious, beautiful, human work.

My experience of your work, at first—which must have been around or between your books El Grupo MacDonald’s and Secret Asian Man, when I knew you and your then-wife, Denise—was that you were part of a group of poets, who, for me, revolutionized American poetry. In this group I would also put Campbell McGrath, and Cathy Bowmanand Dean Young, and Hal Sirowitz, etc. Wherein an accessible poetics was mixed with humor, and a sense of experiment; a kind of dense dissatisfaction and melancholy hovered around the edges, too, an indictment of Americana that was welcome, even as Americana was sort of the incubator of the work. 

I think you were the first person in the nineties I knew who was online as much as I was in those days, and I had a sense, through you and your cultural critique, that poetry was going to become a thing online.

Your work and Denise’s work and the work of these others made poetry an endeavor that all readers could delight in, and it was in every medium, in every container, and it didn’t require training in hazardous materials. There didn’t need to be a secret language, or an insider code that only the really academic writers were allowed to crack. 

I didn’t relate to the academic poetry, but I related to yours, I could locate the feelings, the melancholy celebration of it. And now that I am in a family of Asian American writers, it is even nearer to me, your model and its influence.

I love your work, and because of it, I have always loved you, from afar, as your fellow toiler in the depths, as a fellow writer who traffics (at least some of the time) in the comic. If there is a thing that lasts and endures beyond all the suffering you have been dealing with recently, it is the legacy of your work, which, however oblivious you were to the coming storm (and, as you note in your letter, this is the common lot of writers), the work is there, and it is rich in figures and metaphors andbeautiful turns of phrase, and wherever you are now that work is still kindling something in me, and I’m sure it will ever be thus.

This morning I just punched you up on the Poetry Foundation web site, and there are bunch of good pieces to be found there. This link is for the people who need to know: Nick Carbo. “Little Brown Brother,” with its welcome indictment of Hollywood war machinery, is especially excellent.

But I also really loved “For My Friend Who Complains He Can’t Dance and Has a Severe Case of Writer’s Block.”

The first line, Then, take this tambourine / Inside the sheep barnis electrifying, so deep, so right at the heart of what we are doing when we attempt to speak to writing, to the act of it. To me sheep barnas an image is just very unexpected and satisfying.

In a way you are making a case for the way writing is disseminatory, the sheep being an image of dissemination in, for example, the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, though the use of barnmakes of the shepherding business a more modern one, one in which ownership of property is a feature of the enterprise.  

We could also speak to the image of the tambourine” in this line as relating to Dylan’s song of the same, which some people think was about Gene Clark, the singer in the Byrds, who only played the tambourine in the band, and whose words were always so full of melancholy hues:

“Nowhere is/There warmth to be found/Among those/Afraid of losing their ground.

When Clark was asked to comment on “Eight Miles High” being banned because of drug references, he made a comment about poetry having more layers in it than that, and that is true of your poetry as well. From the sheep barn you go to the “anaconda’s intestines” (and both are incredibly interesting poetical words—I think “anaconda” is a ditrochee, and “intestine” is an amphibrach), and from there across a sprawl of great and imaginative images, including Kahlo’s hair, Garcia Lorca’s leather shoes, Chaucer’s liver, Anne Sexton’s face, etc.

The poem finishes with the lovely couplet: “Never feed your towel to the alligator, because he will eat you and eat you and eat you.” The loss of the towel, it seems to me, leaves the friend naked, where one often is after writing, and then the repetition of “eat you” burlesques the Frost of “Stopping by Woods.” Somehow the alligator also reminds me of J. M. Dent’s There’s an Alligator Under My Bed, which is itself a variant on Jung’s famous injunction about the lion in the basement, and how all of us will have to encounter the lion in the basement at some point, if we are to grow, and accordingly all the ages of humankind, of maturation, are there in the poem.

If “For My Friend” is about how to achieve an end to writer’s block (and also an injunction to dance) it is beautiful because it is a gift, and right now it is a gift for all, because anyone can read this poem online.

But it is a gift that is achieved through a pile up of highly imaginative and oblique images. How is the “river insect’s neon calligraphy” secret? What is the certified blue turtle? I could work on these images as I have worked on others above, but what I would amass is a system of allusions that say, in effect, that dance and language are one, and that writer’s block is resolved in nakedness and in facing one’s fears, and in the simple amassing of images, even images that are not rhetorical, but are automatic in the surrealist sense.

Everything about this gift of yours is wonderful, is funny, and humane, and sympathetic, and never is the advice condescending; on the contrary, one confronts the possibility that the poem is autobiographical, too, and that the gift is to Nick Carbó, or that he is a co-recipient, that the reminder is to the author of the poem about the matter of poetry, but the great force of the gift is simply in its status as gift, and as poem as simple item of exchange between friends.

A poem, in this matter, is a thing right at hand, that we might give to those we love, in times of need.

You ask me, Nick Carbó, author of these lines, if it is worth persisting, materially, when faced with the very significant amount of suffering that you are confronting, and my first response to this is simply that if I could take from you your suffering, I would. That is, the fact of your request, and the place of your request, a public setting, brings out this intense wish to want to shield you from what you are going through, the repetitions of it, and the apparent boundlessness of it.

I mean, it’s not possible to read your note and not feel tremendous sympathy and compassion, even in the obvious conundrum that your suffering is of such a cast that it’s beyond my experience, personally, and probably beyond the experience of what many people who read your note have felt. But, despite all the trouble in the world (and there sure is a lot of trouble these days), the feeling surges forth, and that is the feeling in which one cares deeply for a friend in a bad time 

A couple thousand miles are separating us right now, I think (I’m in Providence, Rhode Island, this morning, parked in front of a UPS store, and it’s raining torrents.) And our stories are pretty different, in that you were raised in the East, and in languages that I mostly don’t know, but in a moment of crisis little of that matters. Certainly it doesn’t matter to me right now, and it doesn’t matter in part because of the ache and clarity of your voice. Which means that language, and writing, can still do things. 

Here are some things I have seen this week.

I saw an extra large skunk in the backyard, over by the beech tree, and I had to run my son in the door as fast as I could get him, and told him not to look back. And I saw an oriole hightailing it over to the neighbors’ bird feeder, the next morning, so bright it was almost in neon. I watched a brass band play an “extinction protest” in Boston the other day. I picked up my son’s birthday cake at the grocery store on Sunday morning. It was one of those big flat ones, and the bakery lady was really laughing about how well the cake came out, what with its strange wish list of icons: astronauts, dogs, and vegetables (!). In this spot in Providence, where I’m parked, it used to be kind of desolate, when I lived here in the early eighties. But now it’s got a lot of Mexican food, and the UPS store, and a breakfast café joint called Olga’s. I can see the cars streaking along the overpass on I-95. Those people are on their urgent business, otherwise why drive in heavy rain.  

I offer this list, dear Nick, to tell you that there are still possible, even in your darkest hours, perceptions, of just the kind you store up in the poem I’ve quoted above, that are the signs that a person was there, an observer who saw, and felt, and believed, and made a mark. I am sure there are a lot of times now when you feel otherwise, when writing is the last thing you can do, but you wrote me your letter, and I have seen, in these last months, that even when you were in the most trouble, you still managed to get out a few lines. And in every one of these cases, Nick, I have felt the familiar warmth and wisdom of your voice, as I do here.  

“…the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely…”

I would never be the one, ever, to tell a person that he has to stay here on earth, if he doesn’t want to stay. And having had the disease of depression, as I have, I know that sometimes people leave–they have to leave–because leaving is less painful than staying. I respect this decision, and I still feel grief. We probably both know any number of writers for whom this has been the case. I think the world should be arrayed in such a way that mercy is possible, likely, easy to come by—a mercy that we extend, for example, to our pets, when their suffering is great, but which we deny our human friends, or else we tie them up in unnecessary knots. I hope that when my suffering is great that a friend will say to me that it is okay to feel like going, that it is okay to relinquish this place and these associations, and this material self, and to go, and there doesn’t need to be regret about doing so. I think all these things, Nick, and I’m sure I would only feel these things more if I were in your position. 

But I can think all these things and still want the world to have Nick Carbó in it, still want his voice and world view, still want the sound of his tambourine, and his recollections and perceptions, and not just the work, but the potential for more work, and I don’t think that this is a selfish feeling, or a feeling that you are obliged to entertain, or at least I really hope that you do not feel in any way obliged, because that is not the way I am trying to formulate my line of reasoning here.  

Rather I am trying to give you a sense of what others of us may think, what our love feels like, and the untapped potential for you, and your essence, your Being, in the world, even if in pain and badly compromised, and in and out of the hospital in Corpus Christi.

Even in your incredibly difficult state, as the letter shows, there is still language, and still the framing up of some beautiful edifice of words, there are still the glassy shards of your critique of this tragicomic world, and your situation within it, and I can still feel it, even out front of the UPS store, from 2,000 miles away. And if you feel you have to go and there is no other way to deal with what you have in front of you, I will respect that decision, and still grieve, but if you want to know why bother to hang on, I can think of a hundred reasons, and then a hundred more, and each one is a poem, and it doesn’t matter if it has two words in it, or if you have to have it read back to you because you can’t read very well, or whether you have to dictate it into your phone, it doesn’t matter. 

Those one-hundred poems, which are one-hundred reasons, and the hundred more, will be glorious, and they will be even more glorious for your having hung on just a bit longer to make them, for your having written what you wrote in your letter, and then hung on a bit longer to make a few more scribbles, of whatever kind, hieroglyphs, film poems, chalk marks on paving stones, crosshatchings on the arm of a wheelchair, or whatever it has to be, from whatever state of consciousness, if you want to hang on, to see what there is to be seen from where you are, then I think that is beautiful and has a sort of electrifying power to it, like it comes from the place of urgency that isn’t known to all of us waiting in line at the UPS Store or at Starbucks, how you are in your place of reckoning. 

You are brave, and you are a good man, and your journey has been exemplary, and you have made the world better, and not just for writers from the Philippines, or for Asian writers, or for Asian American writers, though you have certainly done that in a way that should be the envy of all, but you have made American literature better, and world literature better, and I won’t ever forget that, and as your life coach, today, I say take a few notes, from wherever you are, we will all be happy to read them, ever your happy audience, and then tomorrow you can reassess again, at which point I will be delighted to repeat the above, if it helps.  

With love and respect,  

Rick Moody 

July 2, 2019 

Hey Nick,

I’m sure hoping that I didn’t send something that hurt your feelings in any way, because I was trying 100% to do the opposite. If you hate it, and want me not to publish, I can…

More soon,


July 3, 2019

Hey Rick,

I thought / felt it was awesome! You earned your “Life Coach” badge with this one, and I’m honored you put much thought into this.

Publish right away!

Had appointments all week with docs and labs so could not respond sooner. Let me insert my own reference with Kazantzakis’ last scene of the movie version of Zorba the Greek where Alan Bates turns to Anthony Quinn and says “teach me to dance.” So along the desolate seashore we hear the bouzouki strings of the Theodorakis song and they dance. Quinn responds to Bates “I have so much to tell you—I’ve never loved a man more than you.” It can happen with two straight guys and your letter shows that loving spirit which, in the end, one can only dance to.

For a guy that has had his lower legs and two feet amputated, I ask you to teach me to dance. I have a great imagination.
Thanks deeply,


Ricky Moody

Ricky Moody

Author and Life Coach, RICK MOODY, is best known for his 1994 novel The Ice Storm, which was made into an acclaimed film directed by Ang Lee. His latest book is The Long Accomplishment. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Aga Kahn Award from the Paris Review, and many other honors.