Essay: Jesse Lynn Madera “Plugging in the Lights”

Essays Musicians' Posts

By Jesse Lynn Madera

Last December, while we were decorating our tree, our eight-year-old son asked me about Santa.


“Yes, George?”

“Is Santa real?”

Oh god. Here it is. That was sudden, but aren’t most natural disasters? Every article I’d read, or piece of advice I’d been given, flashed through my mind in one garbled knot of recall. On one hand, I knew that there were kids his age who knew, but on the other hand, he’d been through quite enough in 2019.

Like most kids his age, he was edging toward the process of disenchantment; but in this case it wasn’t simply due to his advancing years. We’d just moved from his first and only home in Los Angeles, all the way across the country to Nashville, and he was seeing with wearier, wiser eyes. As a burgeoning existentialist, he was already grappling with some of mankind’s bigger questions. “What if there’s a fire?” he would ask as I was tucking him into bed. “What if I’m the only survivor?” He would wonder aloud the next morning on the way to school, having obviously brooded on it overnight. And now here he was, questioning the existence of Santa. I looked into that face and thought about his year of trials and tribulations.

The pronounced lowlights of his second grade year had included bullies, the loss of a family member, a robbery, a mean nanny, a brand new sibling we still call Boss Baby, mom’s postpartum hormones, and dad being away for work. His education had suffered, especially thanks to his teacher – a rattly, wooden rollercoaster of a woman with no teaching degree, who referred to an incident where George was choked by a kid twice his size as a “learning experience for both boys.” As a result of all of this, his confidence was dragging across the floor. The boy who once interrupted a dinner party at the age of three to inform us all that the opossum was the only marsupial in North America, now wept uncontrollably at the thought of picking up a book. I felt he wasn’t ready for third grade. He certainly wasn’t ready for the more academically rigorous school in Nashville, and I didn’t want him to drown. Over a sushi lunch, his favorite, better than chocolate cake even, I talked him into it. I tried to make it sound like no big deal, and stressed (as I tend to do) the perks of repeating the second grade in a brand new place. No one would know! He’d have a leg up! He’d been one of the youngest in his class, now he’d be one of the oldest! I mean, the decision was totally up to him (it wasn’t up to him), but he would be one of the first to drive in his class now, so…say no more! Deal closed! Shake on it. Notarize it. George would get a do over. What can I say, he’s a forward thinker.

My husband had reservations. He’d been held back in the fifth grade, by the school, not his parents, when he transferred to New York from the Dominican Republic. It was really just an irritating formality and a waste of time, but it did a number on his relationship to formal education. He warned me that George was less okay than he was letting on. As it turned out, my husband was, like, maybe a little right. The first semester was brutal. George’s self-esteem was already low, and now he was the New Kid in a Bible Belt school, where football and Jesus were king, and the friendships had already been carved into stone. I’d been there too many times myself. You couldn’t pay me to go back to second grade, no-siree-Bob.

So here we are, settling in, second time in second grade, new kid in a new house, in a new city, handling each familiar ornament like a precious stone, or maybe a life preserver, asking me with his sweet, loving, big green eyes – my eyes – that have always bounced with their own magic…. Nope, nope. Now was not the time for disclosure.

“What do you think?” I asked. Yes. Masterful move, Ninjago. Make the kid think. Let the child lead. I’d bought myself some time. I silently thanked my brother for this sage advice.

“I don’t know.” He said.

Shit. Ok. I tried to appear nonchalant, and mysterious, with a low-key twinkle in my all-knowing eyes, like how I imagined someone who holds the keys to an enchanted castle might look. Crickets and Christmas decorations, we went on designing our holiday cheer, my mind spinning and grasping for the right thing. Say something inspiring. Say something that won’t ruin everything. Maybe it was divine intervention, I suddenly noticed his Harry Potter pajamas. Be Dumbledore.

He was in the corner, behind the tree, plugging and unplugging, plugging and unplugging, the lights.



“You see how when you plug in the lights, the tree looks so magical? And how when you unplug them, it looks less magical?”


“Well, baby,” I swallowed, then continued along my tight rope, “you know it’s you turning on the lights, but does that make it any less beautiful?”

“No, it’s still beautiful…”

“Well sweetheart, life is like that. Remember when we went to Disneyland, and there were all of those miserable looking adults with Mickey ears on?”

“Yes!” He laughed.

“Well, they were expecting Disneyland to give them happiness. They were hoping that by going to Disneyland, and buying some mouse ears, they’d feel how they felt when they were kids, and they were disappointed. They couldn’t plug in their own lights.”


“George, just because it’s you plugging in the lights, it doesn’t make them any less beautiful, okay? This is one of the most important things I’ll ever teach you. Are you listening? I hope you remember it. We are the makers of our own magic. We choose to believe, not believe, see or not see. It comes from inside of us. Ok, George? Georgie?”

He went quiet, and seemed to go thoughtful. Either that or I’d overloaded his processing system, and he’d departed the conversation and maybe the planet. We haven’t talked about it since.

Some people say I’m an intense mother.

There are no straight paths through the woods. The one that led me to where I am today was long and rife with anguish. I’m proud to have survived some of the people and situations I did with my joy and hope still intact, and to not have those most precious resources hanging limply from a pole, like torn and meaningless flags on the losing side.

Together we stood, my son and I, in our unfamiliar home, both of us streaked with fissures, trying to heal, and trying to keep hold of that secret ingredient, as wondrous and as magical as fairy dust: hope. As the words “You make your own magic” traveled from my brain to my mouth, and into my child’s still impressionable ears, I was desperate. I was panicked even. Darkness, by definition, is the absence of light. How do I get this through to my son? You can’t force a person to keep their lights, their curiosity, their belief in possibility – in magic – plugged in. You can only try to remind them to get lost in the ‘small’ but actually magnificent and magnanimous miracles that surround and, if we allow them to, take residence inside of us. Some people don’t get why it is that I become so ecstatic over a great meal, or another beautiful sunset, or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I do so much appreciate these little joys. I tend to the little happinesses because I need so desperately for them to keep returning to me.

To bring this into our present situation: It’s nearing two weeks into December now and we have no tree. We have none of our ornaments with us, as we have found ourselves unexpectedly on lock down away from our home in Nashville. But Santa is, thank you baby Jesus, still coming. We shall open the good wine, make the best meal we can, and love the people we love with gusto. We’ll make new decorations. Because don’t skip the decorations, no way. Come hell, high water, or Covid-19.

I say to myself, to you, to all of us, our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren, go right ahead and believe in Santa as long as you want. I hope you never miss the lights for the cords they’re attached to.

As I watch George plug in the lights this year with a knowing grin, I think to myself: Electricity is a mysterious miracle anyway.

In celebration of the holiday season, Jesse Lynn Madera has released a cover of the classic tune Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, produced by and featuring Grammy Award-winning piano virtuoso Matt Rollings. The two artists hope their listeners find joy, comfort, hope in their new single. Check out the track and the pair’s other holiday favorites on Matt and Jesse’s Christmas List on Spotify

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