Life, Texturized

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My head feels as though it wants different nerve endings, ones that cannot transmit this particular pain. It starts at the top of my spine, crosses to the base of my skull and thereupon spreads out like tenacious ivy overlaying my brain’s domain. I have had communication issues all day due to the fog that has made itself a barrier between internal and external stimuli. My eyes have felt like tiny balloons waiting to explode. My mind whirls and floats a bit like when I have had migraines only with less intensity. I need a new neck to hold up my head.

Last night’s sleep was heavy and tinged with dreams about visiting a hotel in a village that felt familiar, where people were vaporous yet colorful, half-ghosts or characters let loose from stage left in a play. I knew this place yet not every corner or staircase. There was also an unnamed man whose hand on mine felt familiar and vibrant. Our words meant things without spoken language as often happens in my dreams. Some of these people and rooms glowed. The furnishings were beautiful, brocade and velvet curtains, furniture to last centuries. In the end I slowly made my way out, then didn’t know where I was and asked myself, “How could I be lost?”, irritated, as though I was responsible for knowing my way around a seemingly infinite and complicated structure. But it was the architecture of dreams, an oddly cantilevered netherworld, supported by one thing only: REM sleep.

Why would I write of this today? Why not lie down nice and easy? The answer is three-fold: 1) I know many others can empathize, 2) I write daily and 3) pain is not generally a good enough reason to not do whatever I want or need to do. I have had familiarity with all sorts throughout my life due to a few chronic health issues. I know its nuances and what each kind augers, how I can best handle it as well as when to ignore it. I don’t mean deny its actual existence. I give it a nod but then deny it its fearsome and full power as long as possible. Often it dissipates when I am busy looking elsewhere.

So I wonder: why the odd dream? Why do we tend to dream of unusual spaces mingled with the common? Why do both loved and unloved, alive and passed on all appear like sudden visitors, as though they have been waiting for us to swing open the door? And they inhabit the same conversations as strangers do, making me feel there are no strangers, really. And that landscape that is so familiar to me, as though a second home… Who knows what exactly happens as we close our eyes? It is an adventure which allows us to experience things differently. Sometimes it is a revelation.

In the morning, icy air sneaked in through a cracked window. And that old companion, pain, told me I had slept askew. I took stock of the past week as discomfort drummed against sinew and bone, squinting past the quilt that wanted to be pulled closer.

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It has been a Christmas season that I would note as a “10” on the rating scale for holiday satisfaction: three of five children with their families here for various events, a perfect tree from an Elysian tree farm, food that fed us well, made us happy. A candle light service at our Presbyterian church: music sung from the core, flames casting flickering halos, communion as conduit for mysteries of faith. Not even once was perfection my goal; I wanted to share love and it happened. I embrace my family’s quirkiness: five children who include an artist/professor; a grad student who will manage a performing arts venue; a professional skateboarder/painter; a budding sociologist/activist; and a chaplain. They each are called to do service for others in some way, are strong-willed and live a bit (or more) on the edge. Five grandchildren, as well. Two daughters were visited via Skype, something I never expected when they were born. How good it was.

Actual gifts were the extras. Among other things I received three fat books to savor. One is about American residential architecture, one about exceptional children (dwarfism, autism, genius, and other traits that fascinate me), another a biography of great composers. They reflect some of my interests; my spouse knows me well. I can’t imagine a lifetime long enough to learn all I want to learn. Sometimes I gaze out a window at the scenes unfolding before me and think of it: in this sixth decade of my life there is so very little I have mastered yet I remain passionate about learning. It both distresses and thrills. The engine of curiosity thrusts me forward.

The days will proceed of their own accord and rhythm as before, now that Christmas is over. If all goes reasonably well. It is just as likely not to, I know. Last January started out with challenges including an inner ear disorder accompanied by a nagging malaise I loathed to call depression. The last half of the year I have been recovering from severe muscle toxicity due to taking a statin for thirteen years. I have to save my heart from its disease now only through beta blocker, blood pressure medicines and vigorous exercise. I can and will do the best I can. My siblings are older, too, I notice. But the world is ancient and confounding. Marvelous and horrid. Who knows what is next? It keeps me present and attentive to what matters. How swift, how tenuous life on earth can be, like dandelion fluff carried far, then no longer visible.

So I move through time on faith, flying on light wings of grace so I may engage in life’s creation of a rich warp and weft. I want my being and doings to make some difference. I sweep up this fullness of life in my arms and wrap myself in it, unfurl it like a flag, throw it around another’s shoulders, offer it as a bridge over deep chasms and use it with gusto, pain or no pain. We all suffer somehow; we all make our way as we see fit.

Ah, you see? That pain in my neck and head is lessening. Writing makes me strong. Love makes me brave. Music (today: Bach and Gilberto) grants me pleasure and peace. Spiritual practices keep me lithe of soul, unifies the pieces. And I think I’ll head to the gym or take a brisk walk to give my heart a chance to work with me better. What is it that you will nourish and honor as one day slips into another, then soon–so soon!– melds with a whole new year? I trust you are making good weavings of your own distinctive threads.

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Power of Place

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When I leave behind the congestion of the city and move into country stillness fills me inch by inch. There is an alertness coupled with serenity that blooms in my core. As Portland subsides with its array of tantalizing offerings and entertaining moments, it is like a long-held breath released, mind emptied of scattered thoughts, lists, a vagary of wants and needs. I begin to be at ease within the world again, and feel gentler towards self and others. Countryside affects me profoundly.

This is common for me and likely many people, though I have met those who prefer city’s jangle and jumble, its towering paeans to human progress and folly. They rarely leave it. I can’t imagine such reluctance. If I can’t find my way to less populated land regularly I feel less than content, full of longing. I am lonely for nature’s balm and beauties.

Place holds strong energy for me, be it human or not, constructed or deconstructed. I believe they are infused with remnants of past or present inhabitants’ and events. Buildings, houses, neighborhoods, parcels of land, anywhere there is or was life feels benignly neutral, compelling or repellant, with shades in between. I have felt this way all my life, impacted enough by it that my daily decisions are informed by it. I find it as natural a way of perceiving as with physical senses.

People are influenced, even if unconsciously, by intuitive responses. Think of real estate shows and how often folks reject or appreciate a house based on how it “feels.” It is a conscious experience for a great many people. Throughout our years of moving, I have chosen housing based on my internal perception of it far more than outward appearances. I intensely feel aftereffects of violence that has occurred, when great sorrow lingers, or if those who have inhabited it harbored various destructive behaviors. At times it seems like people have inserted their personalities and are still there. There have been many occasions I have driven up to a place and immediately left. Or knew instantly this was the place that would be home. I do not second-guess; I’ve learned it’s not worth it.

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I also am attuned when hiking, detouring when I feel unusually close to wild and possibly threatening creatures. There was the time in the Columbia Gorge that I knew bears were very near and I lagged behind my spouse. A few moments later I heard soft huffing sounds of cubs. Of course their mother kept an eye on things close by; they exchanged communications. I told my husband it was time to leave. And once hiking in a city forest something had created a wide swath of flattened grass and weeds where I was walking. My feet suddenly would not budge another step. I wasn’t certain yet what was near, only that it was wild, large and perhaps guarding or enjoying a meal. Despite my spouse’s stating it might be something but likely nothing, I turned and walked away, quietly calling him. At the nature center we were informed of a cougar’s recent sighting. Would we have been harmed either time? My instinct said “beware” and I don’t regret it.

We all have such guidance if we pay attention. It could be an angel or God or our own animal nature or all. We cross a street or become more guarded when we feel ill intention attached to a passerby. We have strong first impressions before we even know someone well; later we recall that first response. It isn’t the physical world we respond to but the inner one, the soul’s intention radiating outward. It is the measurable, palpable life energy of who we truly are. We can be as enchanted by one another or by a place as we are not. If warnings are given us, so are calls to come much closer.

We know people can inspire and draw us. So, too, places can move, heal, awaken and strengthen us. Think of a time you needed respite and found a spot where you felt deeply relieved, energized or calmed. Or when you needed hope and an experience of place gave you opportunities to release pain and embrace joy anew. Some people claim a spot and return to it always. Others search and discover them worldwide, like my family who regularly follow the call of unknown roads and the wilds.

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Just last Sunday some of us headed out to a Christmas tree farm. We had chosen a place new to us. As soon as we left the tangle of cars and houses and entered a misty, hilly terrain we knew we were onto something especially good. Foggy patches opened and closed about us, yet afternoon’s golden light brightened everything as though from inside out. The acreage stretched far and wide; the sky opened. We inhaled deeply the redolent, chilled air: damp earth and evergreen scents permeated all. The lots were overseen by a tall, burly man who was laughed readily, was helpful and liked to chat amiably. He seemed the quintessential lumberjack but he has a day job behind a desk. He loves this work on the side.

It took less than ten minutes to find what we wanted: a rotund, sturdy Douglas fir, straight of trunk. Nearby were equally lovely Nobles and Grand Firs. Every tree looked healthy and strong, showing off their needles of rich emerald or bluish-green. They cost a fraction of what we usually paid, as well. Our son cut it down quickly and his Noble, as well.

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We walked up the muddy road to the house and pole barn where attractive, fresh wreaths and coffee awaited. On the way we met sheep who mildly gazed back at us. Their thick wool, random voicings and gentle faces cheered us further. I gazed at the tree line against an alabaster and robin’s egg blue sky, heard brisk birdsong and wings caressing air, sheep baaaing and my family softly talking and laughing. A thick mist began to spread around trees and fields. We had stepped away from all the world and its worrisome matters, through a portal to a place where work built muscle and was valued; kindness thrived; peace prevailed. Though the cold increased I felt steady warmth gather within and around me.

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We met the owners, Tom and Harriet. They chatted easily with us. They had bought the land and house over twenty years prior; it called them. The older gentleman worked in the forestry service and worked the tree farm on his “off” hours. Impressive in their knowledge and congeniality, they are people one would like to have as neighbor, break bread with on a cold winter’s eve. We praised his trees and shared our city-folk love of their land.

“Every time I leave the city and country rolls around me, I feel all is aligned in the universe, and I’m happy,” I told Tom.

He smiled warmly. “Yes, that’s it.”

I was reluctant to leave. We all were. This was more than an exceptional business, it was a place of power, a spot of land where people, creatures and earth conspired to support and tend life together. Its magnificence was there long before it was settled but it had been respected and loved. It is still appreciated for the blessing it is. And it was shared with us, a gift we thankfully took home.

On the way back I saw the nearly full moon through a vaporous veil of fog and thought of Bethlehem. I wondered over the manger where animals surrounded an infant Jesus and his parents. The Wise Men and shepherds had travelled far from home to be part of a place and event of sacred power. What did they feel as they witnessed all? What was it like to stand beneath that star’s radiance as it fell upon them, obliterated darkness for a short while?

I hope for each of you that you claim your special place and moments of power are found this Christmas. Then share them with others. Count yourself fortunate to be able to be still and present, to acknowledge the perfect glory of God, the gifts of life now and through eternity.

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(All photographs taken by the author; please ask before using. Thanks!)

Christmas, Anyway

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Jasper Dye was not feeling benevolent toward Christmas and he didn’t apologize. The past five years he’d put up with it. Alright, he maybe liked it a bit once or twice but since the wife was gone he didn’t, of his own volition, choose to meet a decorated tree face-to-face. He had plenty of trees, right out back; they already had decorations courtesy of Mother Nature. He lived on more land than he now needed and could have made money if he sold off a few dozen white and jack pines or whatever people wanted. But he liked their company. Balsam fir, hemlock, black and white spruce, tamarack with some oaks and maples and birches thrown in: they all looked good around his farmhouse. Jasper found it a terrible waste to chop them down for a couple of weeks and then trash them.

His son, Shawn, threatened to oust him from his haven and drag him to Marionville where they could admire the goings on and spread great good wishes.

“Dad! It’s a couple weeks a year! You miss out when you hunker down and refuse all the cheer. You need to stop by our place and see the wreaths Olivia’s made. That woman has skills. Or we can go to her shop, then have lunch.”

Jasper grunted and poked at the crackling fire. Olivia was new to their realm. The way Shawn gushed about her craftiness you’d think he was a real art lover. She’d moved from “down below” and brought entrepreneurial spirit galore, just like other refuges from the cities. Jasper didn’t say it but she would never be enough north country for him. He worried Shawn had lost his sense thanks to her lively looks and ways with nature’s bounty.

“I’m not promising anything. You been ice fishing this week?” Jasper chatted another minute and hung up. He could see Shawn roll his eyes.

The next day he woke up and heard the silence, then saw the new snow. His acreage glistened and glittered like a carpet laid out for a Queen. It was a comfort to Jasper although he didn’t favor the cold like he used to. His wife would have put the suet up and her own quilted and bowed wreath at the door and there’d be fresh bread. They’d make brandy-soaked fruitcake together. He usually got out the wreath, but this year things felt hollowed out and useless. Big Yancy had died last winter around New Year’s yet Jasper still found himself commenting to the old mutt. Between the dog, Shawn and his wife–who had been sick too long then finally let go–he’d had it made once.

After breakfast, Jasper opened the door for a blast of Arctic air so his mind would clear. It felt like a big breath of life. He grabbed his coat and hat. He stepped out and walked down the slick pathway toward the road.

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Down beyond the road was the psychic’s place owned by Heaven Steele. He preferred to think of her as the artist and not mull over the rest too much. Heaven’s glass chimes were unique, melodious, and this time of year she’d reap the rewards of her work. Last summer his vote was still out on whether she was nuts or sort of special, dangerous or good-hearted. He’d determined she was reasonably talented with both her skills. When she’d made him her watchman, entrusting her property to him when she travelled, he slowly opened his mind. He even helped her out with a few cases when clients proved to be a handful for one reason or another. And they managed to save Riley, a young woman from town, from her monstrous father. That had done it; they had good teamwork.

Heaven’s house looked quiet. Her car was parked behind it, as usual, lately. He thought about her tea and company, so headed down the worn path, boots crunching on the snow, hat straps flapping in the wind. His nose ran and his cheeks were beet red by the time she opened a once-green but now yellow door. She’d added a different kind of wreath. Artists! He looked around to confirm it was her place.

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She nodded and let him in. He took in her wavy white hair and violet and brown eyes, all still a shock. She was probably twenty years younger yet beyond age. Jasper didn’t like to think about that. She was different enough.

“Jasper, good you came. I was about ready to go to town. Wait and I’ll get my coat. You’ll come along, of course.”

“Uh, no thanks, I’ll head back up and catch you later.”

But she left him, then returned with voluminous woolen cape and a heap of small boxes which she placed in his arms. She went to her studio again and came back with more in her tote bag. She gave him another bag to fill up.

He started to protest but he saw she could use his help. The bags were laden with her chimes, last minute orders to post.

“I have to send one to Iceland and two to France, can you imagine?”

Heaven unlocked the car doors, they put the bags in the back seat and were off.

Marionville shone like a giant necklace of rainbowed jewels as they entered town. Jasper squinted at the colored lights on buildings, at windows, around lamp posts and wished he’d brought sunglasses. Cherry bright flags were flying for an outdoor holiday market, and Lake Minnatchee was no longer an undulating swath of blue but a frozen playground. He counted twelve kids skating and a few adults. Traffic was dense and noisy, people were laden with bags bulging with trinkets no one could possibly want. He wanted to open the door, make an excuse and run back home. The thought of the steep road back stopped him since he’d neglected to bring gloves. A muddle of anxiety crept up his chest. He swallowed it back.

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Heaven parked a block from the post office and turned to look him full in the face. He froze.

“Go. You will like it out there. You’ll do just fine.” She smiled and her teeth flashed in a shock of sunlight. She patted his arm and got out. He relented and did the same.

Oh, the garishness of it all, he thought, as they grabbed the bags. Why couldn’t people be more restrained about things, keep life simple, not make so much stink over things that didn’t reflect Bethlehem and that star and the Baby, anyway? He followed her, then entered the post office and got in line.

More people spoke to Heaven Steele than him. They felt better about her after ten years, despite her heralding from Chicago and reading the future without even a tea leaf. A few said hello to him, acting as if he’d been gone for months when Jasper had come into town three weeks ago for supplies. They buzzed with curiosity: what had he been up to, and had he given thought to a another dog yet and, man, that Shawn had sure found himself a winner, hadn’t he?

“Doing fine, no need to replace Big Yancy. Yes, Olivia’s okay. Just came down to help Heaven with her orders.”

When they finished business, he headed back to her car but Heaven didn’t follow.

“I have something to pick up at the bookstore. Then I’m going to the fabric store. Be about a half hour. Want to come?”

Jasper knit his brows at her, waved her off, and said he’d meet her in thirty minutes. All around him people streamed, lights twinkled until he felt blind and doors opened and closed. When there was a break in the crowd he entered the first place that appealed. His intention was to disappear in some corner.

Inside it was all dressed up, full of beautiful things, nothing he’d want but it smelled good. Berries, woods, something that made him recall the baking he and his wife had enjoyed. A tender melancholy squeezed his heart as he stopped to examine a bird house with a tiny wreath below the perch. Thirty-five bucks when the creatures could enjoy a whole tree for free.

“Mr. Dye!”

Olivia walked with that loping stride, red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She held out her hands and he found himself gravitating toward them. Her strong fingers were warm.

“I’m happy you came to see my shop!”

“Well, I came downtown on an errand and…well, yes, your shop. Shawn mentioned it to me earlier.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it? It’s been almost a year and business is picking up well. Shawn helped me hang some wreaths. Do you need one?”

Jasper studied them on the walls: the source of the fragrances. He admired the shapes, noted natural ribbon and sprays of flowers and handsome feathers. Olivia had a feel for this.

“I’m not a reliable critic of arts and crafts but they look nice. I don’t need a wreath, no.”

The young woman gave him a wide grin. “You’re coming for Christmas Eve dinner, of course!”

He stepped back and was going to note his regrets, say the arthritis had been bad and he wasn’t liable to come back down for a while, thanks all the same. But her eyes were brightly blue with pleasure, excitement shimmering off her. Whether it was the holidays or her success or his son, he didn’t know.

And then she reached for and placed a wreath in Jasper’s hands, one made with a tasteful bow with ruddy berries, pine cones and dashes of greenery in a triangle shape. Small enough to fit his door. Something in him resisted the gifting of it.

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“I couldn’t, really, thanks.”

“But it’s my pleasure, Mr. Dye. It’s the Christmas season, after all!”

The door opened and people arrived; voices and laughter rattled around the warmth. Olivia turned away with a wave thrown back. He hooked the wreath on his fingers and left.

Heaven was waiting for him. When she saw the wreath she knew better than to say one word. He almost suspected she had beamed a message to Olivia, set it all up, made sure he got bit by the holiday bug. His mind was still set on emergency brake mode, but straining despite it.

“Let’s get a peppermint chocolate coffee,” she said and put her arm through his free one, acting like he was a gentleman she’d long wanted to catch up with. It was one of her ways with him.

He was suddenly terribly thirsty. It was going to be Christmas, anyway. Jasper’s will might as well give a little. Then he could return home. Make a good fire. Muse about the wife, Big Yancy, that dinner he’d likely share on the holy night.

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(Painting by Pisarro courtesy Wikipedia;”Winter Landscape” photo by dan/courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Making a List and Keeping it Right

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I start to feel almost domestic around the holidays. This is no small thing, as my talents and interests do not include a burning desire to cook or decorate, sew or craft. But I experience a longing to do so at this time, and I find simple ways to compensate. This year, since I am not currently working, I got into the holiday mood before we even consumed platters of turkey, mounds of vegetables, and four delicious pies. It wasn’t about the preparation and sharing of great food; Marc, my spouse, does the bulk of that. I happily weigh in while he plans: perhaps yams instead of sweet potatoes without gooey marshmallows, stuffing without chestnuts this year, and every pie possible–that sort of thing. My usual contributions are getting the drinks and slicing the sausages and cheeses, getting them all nicely arranged with water and wheat and rice crackers on my special glass platter, the one with the graceful swans gliding on water. I also look forward to setting out the blue, rose, and clear glass candy dishes, the best ones my mother gave me. Mixed nuts, chocolates and peppermints fill them and I think of her, and how her table looked: elegant and welcoming.

I start envisioning how my table will be when everything is arranged on holiday tablecloths–usually a yellow for Thanksgiving and a red for Christmas. I look for the best deal on brilliant fall bouquets and spend a long while arranging the flowers and green sprigs in tall vases. I buy softly scented pine or cinnamon-spice candles for odd spots in the apartment, and plain tapers for the dining room table. Generally a fragrant green something adorns the front door. People shall feel cheerful entering this domain.

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After Thanksgiving the adult children choose names for gift-giving. That rings the start bell for me. I begin to scan the online shopping sites or the neighborhood stores and wait for whatever calls to me. I ask for their short lists even now, in the hope of finding something they really would enjoy or need. But the truth is, I always think of many things I want to give them. They have varied interests: skateboarding and snowboarding, art and music, fashion, food, reading everything from anthropology to religion to the natural world, all genres of fiction, poetry, and so on and on. I am cautioned by my husband to not get too enthralled, but it is hard to resist the tantalizing call of all the wonderful things–not generally expensive–I want to share with them. They are my children, after all. Then there are my grandchildren, who need surprises. Marc reminds me we have twelve to buy for at the least, often more. And I am not working this year. I get that. But I have ways to manage on any budget.

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Next I study the events that are happening about Portland. There is the ScanFair which we enjoy despite not being Scandinavian and the Grotto’s glorious Festival of Lights which is a tradition for the whole family even in the rain (an alomost sure thing). The Pittock Mansion displays all her grande dame finery. The Zoo Lights are an awesome experience for children of all ages and Peacock Lane is a whole brightly lit block of fun for the younger ones.

And the music that surrounds the holidays! We will start with a Trinity Christmas Concert, Bach for the Holidays. Follow it up with the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols later in the month. There is The Nutcracker which we have seen a few times; I remain enchanted. There is a Singing Christmas Tree which has not yet been experienced. The symphony always has a rousing program or two. This list will grow, as music is an embodiment of what I most appreciate about this time of year.

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I am making my list as I write, but wondering how we will find the time to enjoy it all,  how we will get together all the kids and their kids, too. The unadorned truth is, we won’t. Three children live near us, and two do not. Four grandchildren live here, but one does not.

Between the cost of travel and the time their work duties require, the two daughters far away will not be here this year. One is a chaplain needed by many; her son is in college and working. Another is a college professor and an artist whose art works require a lot of money and time to create and exhibit. Our youngest daughter is in graduate school in a city two hours away but will be here a few days, then return home again for more work and study. How fortunate that our only son will be here as well as a fourth daughter, both with their families.

But, oh, how I long to have all my children gathered together at one time in this home, the dozen white candles I set around the living and dining rooms pulsing with light inside the soft shadows, the tree gleaming in all its decorative beauty. I want them here talking, dozing, singing, eating, being quiet as they look around them. I want them to stop and really see one another fully as I do: deeply. See their kind eyes so reflective of souls lit from secret places. To hear what I hear: a symphony of laughter and smart ideas delivered readily. To know what I know: their great, good courage, for they each have undergone painful trials and twists of fate. Their talents of imagination,  empathy,  adventure and insight. And their unique imperfections, for who can say what they–we–would be without the rough edges of personality, those cantankerous thorny parts that make us think twice and then reconfigure things? Deficits teach us compassion; may they never forget.

I want them to have one another not just this season but every season of life to come.

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These grown up children: three were birthed by me; two were shared with me to raise. Each one has been a surprise in my life, a flurry of energy and needs, hands wide open, hands circling the breadth and depth of life. They have been bright lamps upon my winding path, made my wild heart tamer and stronger. When I make lists for the holidays, prepare for feasting and music and light shows, I am mindful of these things. How can I give enough to those whose lives have given me far more? Who I am is this aging mother-vessel filled with complicated human love. I have been mended, redefined, transformed by this life, both with and without them. Without a lot of hope of having the necessary skills to mother back in the beginning, I have learned by doing, have been taught by the giving and receiving that has happened.

In the end, what we do this season and the ones to come reflect who and what we most value in our lives. And there is another who is always welcome in my home. Long ago, two parents had a child in Bethlehem under a holy star. Jesus was embraced by them with such joy. He grew up to be a rule-breaking, radically minded revolutionary, all for the sake of perfect Love. He offered and still offers us healing, grace, mercy. May I keep my door open. Let the light shine on me, on you, the family of humankind.

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Writing the Life Eternal

The short man in a bulky tweed coat and brown fedora stepped around a young woman who sat on a camp stool. Her reddened fingers stuck out of gloves that looked sadly as though they hadn’t been finished. They tapped on an open notebook and she held a pen aloft. She smiled vaguely in his direction, as though she wasn’t really expecting a smile back. He was about to reach for a dollar but there was no cup or box for donations. When he looked back, she was scribbling away on a rumpled page. He sighed and rushed on. He had much to do before Christmas dinner with his sister, Rose, and her family.

The fact of the matter was that Earl Jay had never liked Christmas as much as he did other holidays, like Memorial Day or Labor Day, days that you got to take time off from work but didn’t have to fuss over at length. There were fifty-two public holidays in the United States; he had looked it up once and was astonished. But just a few seemed to command all the attention and Christmas took the prize. It wasn’t that he was irreligious–he attended church enough and he prayed nightly for everyone he loved and then some as he fought off sleep until the “Amen.” His faith was a given, but he was not a showy man, not one to make a public hullabaloo about what mattered. But there were obligations, traditions. He did what he thought best and participated.

A simple window display caught his eye as he trotted down the street, a large shopping bag in hand. All those garish, blinking lights seemed designed to blind you if you stared longer than three seconds. He pressed his nose against the glass and looked beyond six neat little elves amid giant stuffed stockings. Reese Hardware was not the place he had thought to shop for any gifts on his list. He did have a blank space after the name of Carl, his eight year old nephew. The window fogged up and he cleaned it with his gloved palm. He could see on a front shelf a grouping of child-sized tool kits. Earl rushed into the warm store, nodded at the salesman checking his watch, then studied them.

Everything was there: hammer, pliers, screwdriver, small  boxes of nails and screws, a wrench–all scaled to fit the hands of someone (a bright-eyed boy grinned at him from a decal) nine to twelve, it was noted on a large tag. Earl mused that it was  poor marketing. He imagined his neighbor’s daughter, age thirteen, pounding nails into the wall to secure shelving so she could display her collections of sea glass and shells. (That’s what she needed, a nice pine shelf). But Carl would like it a lot. He had inherited a talent with his hands. Tools, with some candy, would be the ticket. Maybe not chocolate Santas–did boys that age even still like those?–but something with good peppermint.

He turned the tag over to read the price and gasped. Forty dollars. Earl was thrifty. He saved change in a tall glass jar and turned it in every six months, at which time it went into his growing savings. As a single man for twenty-two years (all of his adult life), the only kids he knew well and truly liked were his two nephews. And also, of course, Keira the neighbor girl and Tate, the toddler grandson of his cleaning lady, Mrs. Hallender.  They were all on his list. He picked up the toolbox. This was not the time to second guess what he wanted to do for them all: give them a little happiness. He certainly  had the means and his interest had increased the last few months.There had been trying times with that mean, stubborn tumor. Yes, the children had seen him through without even realizing it, with their exuberant locomotion, good questions and laughter that turned the greyness of his days into vivid color.

When he stepped into the deepening darkness, Earl Jay looked up and felt a miniscule, chill snowflake land on his eye, and then several more on his pale cheeks. He watched the snow gather velocity and thicken in the lamp light. Cars were honking and people rushing by before the snow fell faster and there was one more delay in the completion of their tasks.  He pulled up his collar and felt the comforting weight of the coat about him; the  hat was pressed firmly on his bald head. He started down the street, then slowed as he neared his car.

She was still there, the girl with the notebook, writing away by the light of a tall candle that someone must have offered and which she held tightly with her left hand.  A faux fur coat was draped over her legs. A fuzzy hat covered her hair and ears. Earl Jay wondered why she didn’t put the coat on; her sweater didn’t look substantial. He stepped toward her. Although she didn’t stop writing, she looked up and smiled as before.

“What are you writing?” he heard himself say and was embarrassed. It was really none of his business. You never knew what people were up to. Street kids often used drugs, came from terrible situations and landed in worse. She might be waiting for someone, for all he knew. For something that might not be so commendable. He was a stranger and he ought to have the good manners to let her be. Earl shivered and reminded himself he had to get to Rose’s.

“I write whatever seems right,” she answered amiably, and her pen stopped moving. “I write little poems for the kids. Or stories that take us away.”

She brushed her stringy brown hair out of her eyes and he saw them clearly in the soft darkness: they were palest, melting-ice blue. Blue like an early March sky. They took him all the way back to childhood and the train he boarded on raw spring mornings to visit his beloved grandparents for the week-ends. Those eyes carried him back to the sea where his mother had lived and painted and truly loved him, even from a great distance. They took him back to a blizzardy winter replete with snow blindness–and to where his anger-powered father cut dead and downed trees for extra cash. Until the time he slid into the ravine and broke his leg. He called out for Earl until he went hoarse. But Earl had found him; they made it back to the cabin, eyes aching and useless. Back to each other when they had thought it was too late. And her eyes even took him back to true love, just once. A blue dress, a blue night, a perfect last dance before he left for the Army. And left that splendid girl.

“Who are you?” he whispered, clutching his coat as the wind pressed  against the wool.

“I write the life that no one should forget, but got lost somewhere or hidden way or longed for so hard that it stopped breathing. I just write what seems good. And tonight I have written what I love most, one more life eternal, because it is nearly Christmas and you saw me and stopped to talk. I write until it seems enough and it always works.”

She looked at Earl steadily and this time he felt she really saw him standing there. It struck him that she still smiled and yet her young eyes held a most sobering gravity.

“A life eternal?”

But she pulled on the coat and gathered her notebook and pen,  then headed down the street. “Oh, you know.”

“But exactly what life eternal?” Earl called after her. He didn’t move, couldn’t move.

“Merry Christmas Earl Jay Jr.,” she called over her shoulder and slipped in between the gauzy windswept snow. It looked to Earl like the dark was raining jewels under the streetlights, or maybe wintry tears or bits of crystal breath, the breath of God. And he knew it, what she meant. Soon, maybe months or a few years, there would be no more happening here that he need attend to. But there was the life eternal. His life. His own quiet, rather fussy being. First he had more to do here, gifts to give. He had a Christmas dinner to share. It was that simple and he had to remember.

Earl walked  over to the abandoned camp stool and looked around. There was nothing much to see. No trace that she had been there all that time. But there was one glove lying in the shadow that looked as if it hadn’t been finished. He took his thermal-lined gloves from his pocket and laid them with the snowy forgotten one. Then he left to visit Carl and Rose. Tomorrow, Keira and Mrs. Hallender and his littlest friend, young Master Tate, were coming over for brunch. Earl truly did make excellent cinnamon rolls.