Monday’s Meander: Sunset River/Park Holiday Lights

The sun is setting much earlier (by 4:30 pm) so I have to race to the river to enjoy anyt sunset walk. Last Friday it was almost too late, but I caught a few glimpses of colorful sky and water–as well as house light refelctions. I also enjoyed bright holiday decorations strung up in an area at Foothills Park. I hope the pictures show the message: May some peace and loveliness visit you, too, among the harder moments these days and nights…

I’ll close with another outing from yesterday. The outdoor mall was only one stop among several. The second photo is of my youngest daughter and me earlier, masked but pleased to be out (sunshine beamed so bright for this shot). We tallied up Christmas gifts, ate a light lunch at sidewalk tables, shopped more, had a cookie and coffee break–we were out from noon ’til night. This is a rare amount of time together (she works full time, has toddler twins) so we were very grateful for this day.

Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: What Now? The Shuttering of a Mall and its Ice Rink

(Above photos: 2017 at Lloyd Center Mall rink; granddaughter, Avery, and me; just me; daughter, Naomi, and me being silly)

I read yesterday that Lloyd Center Mall–covering 23 acres and at one time the largest shopping center anywhere–is closing. And may be torn down. Built in 1960, it was a whole new shopping experience; thousands attended the ribbon cutting as the then-Governor did the honors. Big stores moved in, restaurants. A food court was built later that overlooked the fun below. A huge draw was the indoor ice skating rink. Originally an open air mall, it was beautifully glass-roofed when I moved to Portland in 1993. Generations have long enjoyed its convenience and offerings, but over the years there has been a downturn in numbers of shoppers, as new malls have sprung up and small businesses have continued to flourish the last 30 years. With the devastation and restrictions brought by the pandemic, it appears to have finally come to a full stop and must be sold or demolished.

It’s a sad moment as I reflect upon this older local hub of activities. Many events took place there over the decades, from Clydesdale horses to gardening/flower shows to fashion shows to wildly popular midnight sales. I wonder what else went on that I missed those years before.

The mall was a primary stop for my family when we lived in NE Portland. We walked over (a few blocks from our old neighborhood) for a quick pick up of a necessary item, or to find a gift for a special occasion. Or we stopped by a couple of hours to just browse on a rainy day, grabbing a bite to eat and watching skaters below in the center of it all. Just taking a curious appraisal of milling crowds can be entertaining. And when we met family, say at Barnes and Noble Bookstore, for coffee, a scone and a new book, that was pleasant, too. Everywhere there was chatter, activity. Youthful friends often met their cohorts there to shop or while away time or attend a movie in the indoor movie theaters. It was a safe place for even young teens to be on their own, overall, though in the last years there was some illegal activity in and about the mall. And that likely contributed to its demise. A nearby corner park also became known for drug activity.

But when I had time, I certainly spent a fair share of money there. Sometimes it was a small and distracting getaway between work and other life business, or to distract myself if disgruntled or confounded by some issue. I’d get exercise walking there; I could meander a bit, get a drink, a treat. But mainly I was glad to have last minute shopping options so handy.

And then there was the ice rink. I have long been an ice skater seeking good ice.

Just thinking of that oval of slick stuff no longer existing there brings a small lump to my throat. For where else will I –and so many other ice lovers–end up with skates in hand? I can think of no place, at all. There once was a bigger ice rink at a newer mall (Tonya Harding used to practice there), but that rink closed due to less interest. Lloyd Mall rink was popular with area residents and those who came from a distance to enjoy family recreation–or just singular skating. There were classes for all ages, different kinds of skating events. It met a demand for our greater community. What pleasure to witness fathers or mothers and their children, older and younger friends with linked arms, kids zooming about on their own, littler ones teetering, trying to regain balance amid forward motion. You saw happiness out there. I felt my own. And there were hard falls, sliding off course, then skating on. There are always failed moments, mine included as I executed a barest half of a waltz jump that was easy at 30, but not so much at 60. But I tried to improve as well as just speed skate some, weaving betwen others, backwards and forwards. It got my heart thumping hard and that was good– my body sang.

Now that the mall is closing, I realize I should have skated there more. I was 43 when I moved to my first Oregon home and I quickly seized the opportunity to try the rink. And was delighted despite it being smallish. Yet I might have skated there only four times a year, to my regret. Between family obligations and long hours at work, it was a lower priority to me. When I retired from working in the mental health field, I planned to skate more but instead I wrote more….and saw more family and friends amd explored other interests. I never rekindled the habit I cultivated as a younger person.

Indoor ice skating was a bit odd, in a way. There were no biting, sleety, snowy winds as I raced around the rink. Far less layers of clothing; not even gloves were required. Of course, I’d readily adapted to northern weather vagaries growing up in Michigan. But I learned to skate at a well maintained outdoor rink, took figure skating lessons from early childhood. It was one passion of several I nurtured and though I did well, my daily disciplined study and practice began to fade by my late teens. I had skated for the joy of it as well as for competitive sport– and it was a blast. And a winter activity that was a rejuventator, one which saved me from the weight of despair many times.

Then I went to college, got married and my children were born. It was up to us to find a pond or lake frozen over each winter, which we often did. And what antics there were out there, the family gliding and falling and rushing over the rough ice nature afforded us. My first husband was a decent skater and enjoyed outdoor sports as much as did I. When married a second time we lived for years in Rochester, Michigan. Just two houses down from ours was sprawling Rochester Park with a rushing brook– and a pond. In winter it froze, thick and safe. There was a rustic warming house; we changed into our skates, took breaks to heat up hands and feet and sip cocoa. Every one of five children skated, though some were more enthusiastic than others. Marc was less enthralled but willing to try a bit, then watch and cheer us on. I was full of happiness, helping the children step and push onto ice, then find their own power and glide; to skate backwards; to stand with feet placed just so, then draw in arms quickly to create a spin. Despite the generally poor condition of snow-skimmed (or encrusted) ice–and excited hockey and speed skaters that gouged the surface and interrupted our trajectories–it was an outing always worth our time. The cold left our cheeks reddened, noses dripping and fingers tingling.

I was a skating nut, an outdoors lover way back, and grateful for all of it. And my blades on ice felt special. Thrilling.

So, now I wonder what to do with no rink. Of course I desire to skate even more now that the old standby is closing. And I long to teach the toddler grand-twins how to skate. I suppose I may have taken the rink–and the mall–for granted. Now I’ll have to search for a new ice rink. Hopefully, within an hour’s drive.

Thanksgiving is next week, then… Christmas. I for years looked forward to gawking at gaudy holiday decorations strung about Lloyd Mall, bright reds and greens with gold and silver accents, sometimes huge snowflakes and maybe icicles sparkling in the lights. It was a noisy, crowded, festive place, a spot where we shared energy of a loose community. Where groups merged briefly then separated. There was something for everyone if you looked long enough. I do feel a shopping mall is never the best place to authentically socialize. I am not supporting the idea of anyone becoming a “mall rat.” Though for soem folks this may be a safe place, the pause from a wearying or harsh life, a kind of comfort. Lots of older people could be seen sitting with coffee, eating a cheaper lunch, at the edge of such bustling life yet within the group of humankind.

I came to malls late and never missed them. There were none (other than small and ugly strip malls) in my hometown as a kid. Nonetheless, it is a place that is public, like parks, and available to all (in theory, usually in practice), offering a modicum of shelter and food. And Lloyd Mall was meant to be a people’s mall, and there are trains and buses about the area; it is close to Portland’s city center. The mall had begun to look a bit run down but it was spruced up a few years ago. Yet I had a fondness for that faded luster–it had been well used, enjoyed so long by thousands.

Not that I don’t have other choices for shopping and meet-ups. It’s a big metro area; there are multiple destinations to meet needs. My more local downtown is pretty–overlooks a lake–but small and very high-priced. There are other “downtowns” out my way, streets lined with a mix of shops and other businesses, but it is mostly so suburban. I also live a few minutes from an attractive shopping center designed like a large village square, with good restaurants and other businesses on narrow streets, with lamposts and flowers everywhere. It is a bit chi chi, or tries to be with fancier fittings, higher end stores, But I go, anyway. It suits me well enough for now–until I get more time in Portland’s unique shops, when the pandemic wanes…if and when it does.

This week I noticed a huge Doug fir tree up on the faux village mall corner, decked out in a festive spirit with shiny things. I saw more people shopping, and they looked cheerier than they have for awhile. We all want life to behave more normally, so even if it isn’t yet we pretend it is and seek ordinary but improved experiences, and the bit of lightness we bring to this more superficial activity creates a ripple effect. Who doesn’t love holiday candles? Bought one. Who doesn’t like peppermint mochas? Well, I do. Who wouldn’t want to purchase a wonderful book or ten for their family? I did so.

The pandemic has thus far impacted many businesses. Stores have been shuttered all over that could not make ends meet without daily foot traffic, a steady flow of buying and selling. We need to support small businesses, especially. And keep finding ways to get together, to safely mingle, to exchange greetings and news, to share our love and appreciation. I am counting on more of this to come, even in smaller doses, far fewer people. As far as the old mall goes: the Lloyd Center Mall real estate will be revamped, utilized for mixed residential-business spaces. I suppose we get used to new architecture, the unknowns accompanying redevelopment. At least I do hope I am not in complete shock when I drive by the palce again one day. Until then I will be elsehwere, living beyond the density and action of the big city.

But I’ll also look for another ice skating rink… I so wish for a new place. May it come true so I can glide and spin, skid and play with grandkids, adult kids or alone for years to come. I want to feel the chill air whip my hair as I skate, then come to a spetacular T-stop that discharges snowy spray into bright air.

(Naomi; daughter, Alexandra, behind her niece, Avery; Avery and Grandma/me.)

Our Continental Summers

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We were intending on staying for at least three weeks in the village outside Rome. My father had a work assignment in the city but always liked to situate us in out-of-the-way places when we traveled in Europe. He was a photographer, someone you might have heard of but only if you worked in scientific or industrial circles. He took pictures of things like cutting edge machinery or classified experiments or industrial construction that was controversial. Gerard and I thought he was a spy. Father found it amusing, said he was a boring documentarian.

We followed him all summer, and often for a month in winter when Chicago got too desperately cold for mother. He didn’t do glamorous work but he was expert at what he did and we got to be “semi-nomadic”, mother said with her airy laugh. He would be gone a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and we’d stay behind in a pensione or dusty hotel. He thought it better for the family than leaving us alone in a foreign metropolis. My mother shrugged; she was used to going anywhere on a moment’s notice and anywhere was better than nowhere. She was interested in meeting new people. If we got lucky, they might know someone who had a villa, and then my brother, Gerard, and I would be in heaven, scampering down the maze-like corridors, getting lost in the rooms that opened onto a large garden, splashing about in a spring-fed pool.

But this time, it was a small pensione that stood crumbling on a corner of the village. There was a swift, snaky river nearby. Gerard liked to explore things there and waited for some village boy to say hello. If that didn’t happen, he pestered me. I’m the elder by five years. I had no choice but to watch over him when mother was occupied, which was often. It wasn’t so hard.

Gerard was the sort of boy who, by age ten, had memorized several lengthy passages from books: Shakespeare, C.S. Lewis, Bradbury. He said it was partly in case we couldn’t find libraries or book stores with English books–he could always entertain us with his oratory, a recitation of a sonnet or climactic scene. He also wrote poems occasionally. He was certain he would be a writer or actor. Mother found it so charming she would insist Gerard perform from time to time, which father found embarrassing for us all. Gerard didn’t mind much; it was a talent and he knew it. But the point is, he was a boy who found ways to entertain himself and when he didn’t, he found whatever you were doing entertaining, as well. I guess we had that in common.

But if Gerard loved living in his active mind, I loved paying attention to the world. I simply observed and sometimes took notes or pictures. It excited me. Father suggested I was like him but I wasn’t convinced. I can’t tell you why I had no real hobbies. I suppose it was because there was plenty happening wherever we were as well as within our family. I wasn’t distracted by boredom. I think Gerard saw much, but he was circumspect about his ideas and feelings, even then. Maybe he just wanted to keep them close. He would never point out weaknesses or mistakes of others without serious thought, and then felt the need to apologize in the telling. I watched, gathered data, and when I remarked on something it was given its due, at least to the extent of my understanding. I had a surfeit of opinions, mother said more than once, frowning.

“Nina? Hello? Where did you get that?”

I was on the dirty little terrace, sunbathing on a white towel. I had bought a new two piece suit, bright blue, modest enough and begging to be tried out. I wished we were near a pool or sea and wondered how clean the river was.

I lifted my sunglasses. “Gerard?”

“I found a puppy down by the creek and he just begs to hang out with me. I can’t get him to leave me alone.”

Gerard doesn’t like dogs. He likes undomesticated animals. We once had a Persian cat he half-admired but she made my father sneeze. Though he was gone a lot, off the kitty went, to my mother’s anger. There were long white cat hairs everywhere for weeks.

I sat up. “What’s he look like?”

“Maybe the kind that corrals sheep? I don’t care. But it’s black and white. It nips at my ankles which is annoying. It’s downstairs, I’m sure, waiting to pounce. Maybe we ought to find out whose it is?” He looked down into the piazza. “Mother looked busy.”

I, on the other hand, had been wanting a dog. Not that I could likely smuggle one across the continent but I could least make friends with a stray for a week or two. I put on my cover up and sandals, crossed the breezy rooms and followed him down the narrow stairwell.

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It ran right up to us. A border collie it was, splattered with black and white and very fuzzy. It had a collar but no helpful identification tags; many dogs in the village ran free. I knelt in the grass and it licked my face and yelped. I picked it up.

“Nina, don’t get cozy. Let’s find out whose it is. What else do you have to do but sunbathe? I avoid too much sun.” He pointed to baseball cap and sunscreen on his nose.

“That’s the point of summer! Lying in the sun and doing nothing. I like to glow; it takes sun. Not everyone feels compelled to be productive. Not even you, I noticed.”

“I was thinking all morning. About world building in sci fi novels.”

“Yes, well, thoughts are like air molecules to you. You might die if your mind went blank.” I put the puppy down and the three of us started off.

It was that time of summer where everything vibrated green. The trees were conversing with each other and the river was keeping company with children and old people. Two crude toy boats turned and bounced in the current. I spoke to shopkeepers to see if they had lost the puppy or if they knew anyone who had. My Italian was halting and basic; they often didn’t understand me until I pointed to the dog and mimed my question. A woman with huge dimples and crooked teeth who ran a small dress shop pointed us toward a cafe, whether to get a hand out for the puppy or to further inquire I wasn’t sure. The little dog greeted everyone, dashed off only to return to my heels. Looked up at me with happy eyes.

When we turned the corner and headed down the next alleyway I saw them at the end. I wasn’t surprised. Mother had been spending her mornings and some evenings with a small group of people, two from England, one from the village and another from France. I didn’t see the English couple, only the two men.

“I wonder what mother would say if I asked her if we could keep him awhile.” I scooped up the puppy and it laid his head on my shoulder. “This puppy is perfect.”

“Never. Father will be back in three weeks. Then we’re off to …?”

“Berlin, then the Netherlands, then Scotland for awhile. I think father will have more time to be with us then.”

“At least we can understand Scottish.”

“Don’t count on it, it will be taxing for us there, too,” I said, then slowed my pace, as did Gerard. I put my arm around his shoulders. When he saw mother he didn’t pull away.

She was drinking espresso with Jean-Charles and Roberto. They’d had dinner with us once. Mother had talked them into giving us a countryside tour the third day we were there. She was good at that. Jean-Charles was a businessman on holiday. Roberto had a villa three miles out; we had passed it on our tour.

If you had known mother you would have had to say she was beautiful. “Exquisite” is how our father put it when he saw her after being gone. She usually dressed up for him. Young for age thirty-eight, she laughed and talked to others easily, pulled people to her as though she was a radiant passion-flower in a field of clover. You couldn’t help but look at her, listen to her soft voice, her smart words. She knew all this but acted nonchalant. Maybe that was one reason people who stepped into her presence stayed there too long. Especially men.

It was part of my job to watch over her, too, for father. For the family. It was so easy for her to be taken away by the attention, to find hands on her hands a comfort, the gazes a delight, others’ conversation filling like a fine meal. I knew that. I missed our father, too, and wished we had him more. But I also knew she was foolish at times. Careless.

So when we saw Roberto lean forward and kiss her cheek, then lingering at her ear I walked right up to him.

“Anyone’s missing puppy sitting at this table?”

Roberto blinked and smiled at the puppy, then reached out and rubbed his ears. Mother looked away from me, past Jean-Charles who just have a little wave. Her face was pink from sun or being seen.

“I know I’m missing my mother so how about a swap? One great, available dog for our mother.”

“Nina,” mother said, her lips taut.

I dumped the puppy in Roberto’s lap and the Border collie immediately jumped up and licked the man’s face. I winced. Mother’s hand went to her throat and she started to say more, then got up. She thanked them for the espresso and left. We walked to the river. She talked to Gerard, asked him what he wanted for dinner, if there had been a poem written. I knew she felt sorry. But I kept hoping the puppy would find his way back to me. He did not.

Sometimes I knew I was good this, averting small disasters. Gerard agreed, sadly. I called my father. I whined about the boring village and why couldn’t we come to the city so we could visit museums and learn the history of Rome? He knew. He came. And that is why we left after only five days and got to see Rome. We had our father with us in every country that summer. But I still think of the puppy I lost.

St. Peters Basilica, Rome, Italy

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.

??????????

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)