Write Like a Toltec

This past holiday season, the sight of an occasional Santa seated in a mall or ringing a bell at a street corner has brought me back to the memory of one of my oddest jobs—as the house Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue in White Plains, New York, way back in 1974. I was only 23 at the time, not exactly the go-to age for a Santa, but that white beard hid all the wrinkles I didn’t have.

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The first day on the job I was flown, in full holiday regalia, in a helicopter to the department store, where hundreds of children and their parents waited on the rooftop parking lot for my arrival.

Staring down at the crowd massed below, I waved my hand at them through the curved window, almost idly, and in response hundreds of hands rose and waved back. This was my first hint of the power I’d been given.

It was an impersonation of power, to be sure, but still a form of power, and I was a little nervous about how to handle it. Luckily I had time to consider the issue while I sat on my throne (yep, I had one, flanked by a giant stuffed toy elephant and a giraffe), since I gazed out at mainly empty spaces of that elegant store. It was a time of economic recession, and Saks had no real toy department.

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Except for those busy times when throngs of children were shipped in from local schools, I often sat alone, and I took to reading from a book I thought might help me better inhabit my role as a magical holiday figure: Technicians of the Sacred. It was an anthology of spiritual poetry from indigenous peoples from around the world, and one poem in particular has stayed with me these many years, a work on the craft of making art, written by an unnamed Aztec poet:

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;
Maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.
The true artist: draws out all from his heart,
Works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
Works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents;
Arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
Makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things,
Works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

I’ve taught this poem in various fiction writing workshops, and my students tend to find that last stanza a little judgy, but I have to say it sounds a lot like my secret critical interior voice when the writing isn’t going well.

That first stanza, though, that’s the real keeper. It describes so well the buzz of inspiration, combined with the sweat of revision and reconsideration—the sturm and drang of creation.

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And that first word is perhaps the most important one: disciple. But a disciple of what? The world, I’d say, or better yet the worlds—both inner and outer. To be a writer, an artist, one should avoid the pretense of authority and instead be an apprentice, always willing to learn, to reevaluate, to be surprised, and delighted, and humbled. Perhaps humbled most of all, by the task of applying one’s limited skills to the vast and patient Everything Else.

But what’s this about working “like a true Toltec”?

I’d always wondered about that reference, until one day I realized that, duh, the internet existed, and with a few swift clicks discovered that the Aztecs had a kind of mythology about the Toltecs, an earlier (going back to around 800-1200 AD) Meso-American culture. A little like the Romans’ regard for the artistic achievements of the Greeks. So much so that the word “Toltec” came to be synonymous with “artisan.” An example or two of Toltec art will easily explain why.

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Here’s some poor soul being devoured by a coyote, catching his last glimpse of the sweet world before the final gulp. The animal’s “fur” is made of mother-of-pearl, and those teeth are real bone. Beautiful and terrifying art.

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Even more telling, to my eyes, is the face of this clay vessel. Someone with a lot of power, I’m guessing, and not a lot of respect for who or what he’s regarding. Or maybe those eyes express a life-weariness, an expression of I’ve-Seen-It-All-So-What-Have-You-Got? Or maybe he’s about to pronounce a verdict that will not be especially welcomed. Or he’s just received one. This is a face that contains a life history I’d like to imagine. Thank goodness that ancient Toltec artist worked like a Toltec.

Right now, I’m in the throes of a novel, a season of inspiration (but how long will it last?), skating on possibilities and unforeseen connections that fly up before me, and facing the multiple paths that open new territories while closing off others. Choices, choices, each filled with opportunities and pitfalls. It’s an exhilarating time, and humbling, too, because all I have to do is draw out all from my heart, and then adorn it, make it adjust.

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For a complete account of my adventures as a Santa, you can take a peek at “The Man Behind the Beard,” an essay which originally appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, here.

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December 27th, 2013 by admin

The Man Behind the Beard: Santa Confesses

The fall of 1974 wasn’t the best time for me, at least at first. The country was in deep recession, and in the past several months I’d been bouncing from one odd job to another: maintenance mechanic, newspaper truck driver, construction crew laborer, upholsterer’s apprentice, you name it. Then I took a job as a bartender in Tuckahoe, New York, in a mansion that had recently been converted into a dinner theater. The huge building had once been the home of Dutch Schultz, the 1930s gangster, and rumors flew among us about possible hidden passageways to ill-gotten loot. I should have been content with this gig, but in my second week I received word that I was a finalist for another job I’d applied for: a department store Santa. Why not? I thought, and went to the interview, where apparently some scrap of potential jolly peeked out of me, and I was offered one of the plum assignments: my own throne in the Saks Fifth Avenue department store in White Plains, New York. With only a little hesitation, I accepted. I was marking time anyway—in January I’d enter midyear into the graduate creative writing program at City College, where I’d eventually study with Frederick Tuten and Donald Barthelme—and I reasoned that I could always find work as a bartender. But how many opportunities would I have to play a Santa? Maybe I could get a story out of it.

Ten years later, in the fall of 1984 and on the eve of the release of my second book, The Art of the Knock: Stories, the editors at the Washington Post Sunday Magazine (who had recently published one of my short stories in their summer fiction issue) contacted me and asked if I had any holiday memories for an essay they might feature in the Christmas issue. Oh, I have a few, I’d replied.


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The Man Behind the Beard: Confessions of a Department Store Santa

I sat nervously before a mirror in the employees’ dressing room of a large suburban department store: 23 years old and without a wrinkle, I was about to begin my first day as Santa Claus. It was the day after Thanksgiving, the beginning of the holiday shopping season. The week before I had been a mere bartender.

I started to dress by strapping a pillow around my waist with a length of rope which, when knotted, rubbed hard against my back. Then I pulled the baggy red pants up and around the pillow, and I tied the waist cord. Next came the jacket, also bulky. Finally, I fastened the wide black belt around my belly and put on the black boot fronts that fit over my shoes. Already I felt quite warm beneath the thick layers. I remembered when I had first dressed as Santa: in the employment agency I had stood sweating in the suit before the woman who interviewed me. She had cautiously asked me if I had ever flown in a helicopter before. “No,” I had said, somewhat surprised. “Well,” she had then asked, “would you mind flying in one?”

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December 10th, 2011 by admin