Christmas Presents

Dusty, Mindy, Bear and I made it home safely, driving over La Veta Pass, listening to punk and new wave Christmas songs. That was lovely. No traffic, either, no big trucks slowing things down and making people do stupid stuff like pass when they shouldn’t.

Christmas in Colorado Springs was beautiful in the way Christmas has of surprising us.

A little backstory. I spent six of the worst years of my life in that town as an adolescent. It was the darkest time of my family’s life. Soon after we moved there from six years in Nebraska where my dad worked for SAC, my dad got a terrible eye infection that signaled the beginning of a rapid decline from MS. Six years later he was dead. During those six years my mom, brother and I tried to grapple with our own rapidly changing lives and that immense sad change.

When I left Colorado Springs for good in 1972, I never, ever wanted to go back. But in 2004, I did go back to give a paper at the conference of the Interdisciplinary Society for the Study of Social Imagery. It happened that the room in which I gave my paper had a window overlooking the locus of a very happy memory of my time there. I began to think the town was trying to tell me something. When I returned in 2010 for my high school reunion, more of what someone might call “healing messages” came my way. In 2013 when I returned again to give a paper, I looked for houses and scattered my brother’s ashes. I came back in 2014 to give yet ANOTHER paper. I looked again at houses, but I wasn’t ready to buy. I had not retired; I did not know what my income would be. But, after looking at houses that day, I filed my retirement papers… Living in Colorado Springs was not to be. By the time I was able to retire, I could no longer afford a home there.

That turned out to be lucky break. I’d rather live in the San Luis Valley than anywhere else in this country. 🙂 ❤ I’m always happy to get to the west side of the pass and the sign that says, “You are entering the San Luis Valley.” It was right for me to find a new home, my own place, somewhere untinged and beautiful.

And, Colorado Springs remains haunted. The people I know have not moved far from “memory central.” Some are in the same neighborhood where my family first lived. A little part of me still dreads the city, but mixed with dread are beautiful memories that more and more involve people I know now. It’s good. It’s an enormous blessing to me.

I got presents this Christmas, really lovely ones, the best ones, the kind that show your friends know you. One very precious present is a set of paint brushes given me by my friend Lois’ husband, Michael. Michael got macular degeneration when he was very young, and lost his sight gradually over the years. That, in itself, is harsh, but to top that off, he was a painter. This morning in my Christmas stocking, I found his brushes, bound together with a rubber band.

Last night we were driving home from the amazing cocktail party my friend Lois put together and held at her brother’s house. The party was a true labor of love that took more than 24 hours to prepare.

As we were going home, I said to Michael, “I wish so much you could see.”

“I do too,” he said. “You know what we’d do if I could see? We’d have painting parties. Lois and I would come down and visit you in that beautiful valley, and we’d go outside some place and paint it. Have you ever done that?”

I wonder if, in the night, after our conversation, he played Santa with his brushes.

“I thought a real artist should be using them,” he said this morning. “They shouldn’t be lying around in a box. I bet you even know what to do with that Chinese brush.”

“I do,” I told him.

“I thought you would,” he said.

I will cherish them and not only because they are his; they’re great brushes!!

I know it’s all about giving, but this year, the giving of others has meant a lot to me. Up in that photo is homemade chokecherry/apple jelly (my favorite), Michael’s brushes, my new watercolor pencils — Swiss made and my favorite kind, a Sacajawea dollar with the Code Talkers on the back, and a sheep — a goofy, half-joking, memorial to Hellnarian memories of Iceland.

Thank you all my friends for such a wonderful Christmas. ❤

Quotidian Christmas Rant # 93

What’s the deal with Christmas? This past Saturday I was walking with the dogs and I felt, suddenly, like someone was hammering a hot railroad spike into the space above my right eye. Since the ONLY headaches I get are migraines, it was strange. I walked and thought, “Shake it off, Kennedy.” It actually did go away.

But not really.

By Monday my sinuses were more like a concrete truck than the brilliantly designed drainage system they’re supposed to be. I KNEW what it was. I have PLANS this week. I didn’t want a sinus infection (who ever wants one?). I just had one last summer. Two in one year? Where’s the justice in that? I called the doctor. No way to see her, but I could see the nurse practitioner late that afternoon. I went.

It was gorgeous out there in Del Norte, I have to say.

“Yeah, the sinuses on the right side are very inflamed.” So, I had correctly diagnosed myself. She sent out a prescription (we don’t have to carry them any more). I drove the 14 miles home, and stopped at the pharmacy that hides in a dark corner of the local IGA grocery a block from my house. The kind and friendly people who work there — and live here — took care of me. I came home with Zithromycin. I was hoping for a quick fix.

There is no quick fix. Not quick enough. I spent yesterday trying to prepare for the drive north that was to happen today, but I was and am so tired. One particular characteristic of a sinus infection is fatigue. I don’t know if it’s the infection or the problems breathing and getting less oxygen, but not even my brain was working right (shut up). I went to the vets to get meds for my dogs, put them in my pocket and when I started to leave, I went back thinking I’d forgotten the meds… Sigh.

Even Bear got the idea yesterday that things were not right with her person and didn’t harass me for a walk. I couldn’t have done it. I don’t think I can do it today. Maybe. But I did pack, I did get the car cleaned out. I did some stuff.

What is the deal? My mom used to bitch at me every year, “You always get sick at Christmas!” It’s kind of but not totally true. I probably get sick at lots of other times that are not printed in red numbers on the calendar so no one notices, days that didn’t affect anyone’s plans.

I have no calling this morning. I just have plans I  have to reconfigure because I honestly am too sleepy to drive.

Most of the time I wish Christmas didn’t exist. I don’t fear the dark of winter’s short days. I don’t think Jesus did, either, seeing as he was born in a place where the days stay pretty much the same length all year, AND where the dominant culture was busy celebrating Saturnalia which must have been pretty wild. I actually think that celebrating Christmas should be a personal and quiet thing considering Christmas doesn’t even mean the same thing to any two people.

I hate the flash and expense of consumerism, but I have noticed that stores starting the Christmas thing WAY in October means that by the time Christmas is actually about to arrive, the whole sparkly mess has lost its power by being around so long. For me, the best part of Christmas is making Christmas cards, but that got messed up this year because my aunt Dickie died right as I was involved in that. I didn’t write them all at once or check off names in my address book. I don’t know for sure to whom I sent cards! I also enjoyed drawing gift tags this year; that was really fun. Painting rocks was good. I enjoyed hearing The Messiah with my neighbors. But now? I just wish I wasn’t sick.

Thanks for listening to me whine.

Sweet Day

When I was teaching, I had almost no social life. I taught literally all the time. I taught writing which means hundreds of essays to read, correct and respond to. And, I taught seven classes. A full load for a tenured faculty member is four classes one semester, three the next. This means in a whole YEAR that person teaches as many classes as I taught in a semester. Usually they had grading assistants to help with their load. I had grading assistants two semesters in my entire 35+ year career. Seven classes means I normally taught three classes a day. My seventh class was usually on Saturday morning. I really didn’t have the time or inclination to get to know anyone.

When I moved away from California, I left virtually no friends behind except the one who, a year or two later, moved to Colorado Springs, and my wonderful neighbors who’d already moved to work and live on a ranch in Northern California.

Moving to Monte Vista changed my life in almost every way, but the desire to know people has been one of the best. I moved into a neighborhood and, in my neighborhood, I found friends.

Yesterday we got together for one of our infamous tea parties (but we had coffee). This was kind of special because it was on St. Lucia’s Day which, in my family, was always the first day of Christmas. It was the day we put up our tree. Sometimes my mother invited guests for dinner and she cooked Lutefisk of song and legend. She wasn’t Swedish, but my dad’s mom was. It was a huge event if that’s what happened.

Lutefisk is dried, salted whitefish that’s been preserved in lye. (Cue Viking music.) Lutefisk wasn’t easy to find, but my mom always managed to find it. It had to soak over night, transforming from a whiteish, silverish, grayish boardlike thing to a gelatinous mass. It was then boiled, served on boiled potatoes with a creamy white sauce that my grandmother made with real butter, my mom with margarine. Along with it we had lingonberries and potato sausage (yum). Sometimes Swedish rye bread.

My neighbor, K, is Swedish and last year we talked of a tea party on St. Lucia’s day, but I was very sick last year and it didn’t happen.

But it happened yesterday. My neighbor, E, made traditional Swedish saffron buns and I made Swedish fruit soup. Remembering that no Swede in my life EVER drank tea, I made coffee.

Our conversation went from cooking to memories to family to the future in the hands of upcoming generations (none-to-soon, IMO) to the sudden preponderance of complaints by women of sexual harassment. It’s a hot-button topic for me, not the most congenial subject, but there we were. Having been — most of the time — a single, working woman — I have had WAY too many experiences with it. When I complained to bosses, supervisors, I was NEVER believed. “He didn’t mean that,” was one response I got from a boss when a fellow teacher stood behind me while I was working on the shared computer in our office and said, “You know you want to stick your hand down my pants. Why don’t you?” He harassed another woman, too, and rather being reprimanded, he was told to get psychiatric help. Another case involved a fellow teacher who was on the tenure review committee when I was going for a tenured position. He made it very clear to me that if I didn’t “do him” I could forget tenure. I didn’t “do him” and I didn’t get tenure. When I complained, a supervising colleague believed me, but the Dean did not. These are just two stories of a long litany that left me thinking that some men (most men? all men?) will demonstrate dominance in whatever way they can whether it’s sexually or, as in the case of a boss at SDSU, by verbally abusing me in front of staff.

E seemed to think the “Me Too” movement would have an effect on changing the society. My take is that it’s human nature and that’s pretty hard to change, but maybe it would make people think twice. We didn’t reach a conclusion.

I don’t know. I am just grateful not to be on the road any more. Not to be walking into classrooms or called in by some boss who doesn’t understand what I do because he’s a system’s analyst and I’m a writing teacher. I love this valley with all my heart and soul. I like my neighbors very much and I’m grateful to have been dropped into this little nexus of kindness and old-fashioned values and manners. I don’t know the answer to the world’s problems, but I suspect more Swedish saffron buns, more fruit soup, more congenial conversations, more good neighbors, more generosity of heart and soul could fix a lot of things.

The Messiah

Yesterday my friend, E, invited my friend K and I to go with her to hear The Messiah which was being performed at the catholic church in Alamosa by the Valley Community Chorus and the San Luis Valley Symphony.

Remember. The “community” is as large as Connecticut and has fewer than 50,000 people in it.

The sanctuary was PACKED. We were a little late because of me. I had some problems with the dogs while I was getting “gussied up” (elegance? not quite) and ultimately forgot to close the back door and we had to turn around, but we still got seats.

The first singer was a young man with an amazing tenor voice.

I listened to the music and its story and thought of Jesus.

I think a lot about Jesus. People’s belief in Jesus is about all I write about. And, it’s a big thing for people. When I bought my new table, the very nice people from whom I bought it asked me about my church. It’s a normal thing here. I am also OK telling the truth which is that I’m good with God, I don’t want to join a team.

Some atheist friends of mine in San Diego who were using a Christ based curriculum to homeschool their kids got around it by calling it the “Jesus story.” I think it’s a lot more than that. I think it’s a very important story beyond the boundaries of any organized religion. It’s humanity’s story. I was conscious of it again listening to the Messiah.

This little baby is born — a birth that is miraculous because we can’t have an ordinary birth or an ordinary baby if we’re going to make this an important story.

In The Messiah (and in the Christmas story) my favorite part is where the angels appear to the terrified shepherds and say, “Be not afraid…”

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Luke 2

Compassion, in the sky.

When they got to “…peace, good will toward men” I wanted to cry.  I saw the whole thing.  Thousands of generations people at war with someone, mothers and fathers mourning the deaths of their children, cultures destroyed. I saw acrimony and anger everywhere FOREVER. Me in an argument on Facebook about whether my “remote” valley “deserves” tax money from the good people of Denver to keep operating our tiny, rural, life-saving airport.

And all the while, people are yearning for peace, including me, but I also want to punch the guy’s face in for not getting it.

Why is it so hard? Jesus — and others — have laid it out very clearly. “Love God and love your neighbor.” It’s totally possible to do those two things whether God’s name is Yaweh or Lamont. It doesn’t matter. And if there IS no God, you can still love your neighbor.

And I thought — not for the first time — “Poor Jesus.”

The story spun itself out climaxing in Jesus resurrection in the “Hallelujah Chorus” for which everyone stood and some sang along. It was a beautiful moment observing the people who live in ‘my” valley.

It’s not Just Picnics and Turkey

I’m not big on traditions. I don’t even like them very much. One reason is that I live a solitary life and most of the traditions in a culture involve the tribe (the family). I have no family. I’m not going to “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” and carve up a turkey on Thanksgiving. I’m not going to have a big family cookout on Memorial day.

Truth be told, when I was in a situation where these things were part of my life, I hated them. I think a lot of people do. Beyond what people have told me about their holiday experiences (shudder), there are many films made about family meltdowns at traditional holidays. “Let’s bring a bunch of people together who have NO affiliation beyond childhood history and blood and see what happens!”

But… None of this means I cannot be touched by traditions.

Though I don’t have much in the way of family, I do have a “family” though I’m not related to them by blood. One “branch” of this family is my stepson, his wife and their kids.

Long, long ago in a stone cottage in far away Southern California, it was Christmas Eve. S, the German wife of my stepson, B, had decided to make German Christmas Eve dinner because she was homesick for German traditions. She also loves me (it’s mutual) and as they had no other family pressures for that day (Mother-in-Law) they decided to bring Christmas Eve up the road to me. I was then living in the Cuyamaca Mountains about 30 miles east of San Diego.

I did not know what to expect, but I was definitely open to it. Many unexpected and superlatively cool things have happened to me on Christmas Eve.

They arrived with baskets and boxes and bags of food and — what? Presents??? They put the presents under my tiny (12 inch) living Christmas tree (that means they put the presents on the dining room table). S immediately set about organizing things (she is German). I said, “Why don’t we take a hike before dinner?” I had mentioned decorating a pine tree up in the forest in the nearby mountains on Christmas Eve. This was interpreted as putting birdseed on a pine tree in the mountains and S had brought bird treats. I also knew (and they didn’t) that up there in the higher mountains was…


My gift to S was a white Christmas.

We got in my car with Dusty T. Dog and headed to the Laguna Mountains. S couldn’t believe what she saw — a foot and more of snow on the ground. We got out and took a snowy walk. We hung a bird seed bell and suet rack on a tree, took some photos, and headed back for dinner.

Dinner was great, and after cleaning up we sat around in the living room and exchanged gifts.

Exchanging gifts on Christmas Eve is the tradition in my family. As I said, most of my family is dead. It’s a custom I enjoyed as a little kid with a huge extended family and in my own little family with my mom, dad and brother. There came a point in the Great Vanishing when it stopped. I think that was about 2004. I didn’t notice because it didn’t stop right on Christmas Eve, but choices I made in my life and events in my life, meant I wasn’t going ‘home’ to Montana (where the remainder of my family lives) for Christmas. Meanwhile, things were changing up there, too. I never thought about it. Never thought, “Well that’s it for the Christmas Eve exchange of gifts with my family. It was good while it lasted.”

So there we were, S, B and I opening gifts together on Christmas Eve in my little stone cottage in Southern California. The fire in the wood stove kept us comfy and warm. I felt deeply happy, connected, to all the years of tradition, my family, my grandma, all of them, that I love so much.

And that, folks, is the magic of tradition.


Bounteous Hoarfrost for Christmas

Near where I live — near in San Luis Valley terms is within 25 miles — is the town of Bountiful. There’s nothing there. I imagine it was named by Mormon settlers; it has that kind of name.

This Christmas Eve we have a bounty of hoarfrost, so Bear and I headed out this morning to enjoy it. It comes with freezing fog, and the fog has lingered, muffling the world in white mystery. I love this and Bear had no complaints. Here is a bounty of images to show you…

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It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Part One, 1956

I am 4 or 5. Small enough to sleep in two arm chairs pushed together, facing each other. One of the arm chairs has velvety grey upholstery in a swirly design. The other, my favorite, is red velvet. I sleep the strange sweet sleep of that place, of childhood. Outside the window is cold Montana, the clear dark pierced by stars and lit by a distant radio tower. Some nights there’s dance music coming from the Red Barn down the road. Among the songs is Gene Autry singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Trains whistle through the night.

It’s still dark when I hear her, coming out of her room, humming softly, tying on her apron, buttoning her sweater. She walks to the kitchen and lights the stove. I smell the fire catch. She comes back singing.

It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old.

“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”
“Yes, Gramma.”
“You want to go with me to get the eggs?”
“Well, get up then. Put on your socks and your boots and your coat. Be quiet!”

Peeeeeaaace ON the Earth, goodwill to men

In the back room she reaches for her coat and a wool head scarf. She ties it over her ears.

“Put this on your head or you’ll catch your death.” She hands me a paisley scarf. Well, she has good reason to warn me. Already by then, I’d nearly caught my death in more than one Montana winter.

Of angels bending near the earth, to touch their haaaarrrrps of GOLD!

The snow crunches under our boots. She opens the hen-house door, “Shoo, shoo,” she says to the hens, “Shoo!” She reaches under the sitting birds, putting their eggs in our basket. “There now. We can make breakfast for Helen and them when they wake up.”

“Helen and them” is my mom, dad and brother — and anyone else who showed up for breakfast.

The snow crunches on our way back to the kitchen. The light comes through the small window of the back room, yellow and human. All around is cold grey/blue light of dim December Montana morning.

And through the cloven skies they come, with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their Heavenly music floats, o’er all the weary world.

I open the door. The kitchen now warmed by the stove is friendly in the light. “Set the table, baby. There are,” she stops to count on her fingers, “there are four of you, and Jo and them will be down, that’s four more, set it for nine.” I still have to climb on a chair to reach everything. The big table fills the kitchen with its chairs and benches from all epochs of Montana history. I love the chairs. Even then I know that they are chairs with stories.

Gramma’ lays the bacon slices carefully in the black iron skillet. The December sun struggles over the horizon, appearing as a golden gleam. Blue shadows stalk the trees. Morning.

And all the world send back the song, which now-ow the angels sing!


Part Two, 1979

I snarl at the lousy weather, the hanging gray cold, and all the people, I push through the crowd on Seventeenth Street. After two blocks, I catch up to a crippled blind guy banging his cane against the two-by-four supports of the narrow entrance to a construction sidewalk.

“What is it? What is it?” he screams frantically, “Would somebody please help me? Help me!”

“Damn it,” I think. But I squelch my inner asshole, not because I’m a good person but because clearly going WITH this obstacle is more productive than fighting it.

“It’s a new building,” I tell him, catching up. “They’ve build a covered sidewalk. It’s like a tunnel. Here, take my hand and we can go through it together.”

He tells me he is catching the Colfax bus which is now a block behind us, loading passengers. He is about five feet tall, if that, a little shorter than I. I look at him and see that every aspect of him is wrong. His watery pale sightless eyes, his pinkish hair flattened from sleep, his crooked, red, too-large nose, his feet twisting toward each other just enough to make his stride unsteady. Some of his teeth are gone and his fingers are gnarled. He seems to be my age, in his mid-twenties. His helplessness compels my trust.

“Can you run?” I ask. “Your bus is behind us at a red light. I’ll hold your hand. I think we can make it. There’s no ice on the sidewalk here.” We have a half a block to go and the traffic light behind us has just turned green.

“OK,” he says, and we run to the bus.

“This is fun!” he laughs a snorting little laugh.

The bus driver must know the blind guy because holds the bus at the corner. The man struggles up the steps and shows his pass to the driver. He turns around, facing me. “Merry Christmas!” he says, “Thank you! See you again!”

I raise my hand to wave goodbye, but at the last minute, I put it in my pocket. “Merry Christmas!” I say.

I reach the Presbyterian church on top of the hill just as the carillon begins;

“It Came upon a Midnight Clear, that glorious song of old, of angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, the Heavenly host proclaimed. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.”

Suddenly my grandmother is alive, singing in her kitchen, and I am only four years old, stretching awake on the bed made for me of two easy chairs pushed together. A Christmas tree stands in the corner of the tiny living room. My mind’s eye sees her in the dark Montana morning wearing her egg-gathering jacket and hat, putting wood in the stove.

“Are you awake, Martha Ann?”


Originally published on December 13, 2015 on Martin of Gfenn

Quotidian Endeavors

Bear has put a rawhide chew under the sofa. This might seem like a problem to you (and to Bear) but to me it’s great. She’s going to spend part of the morning attempting to get that thing and succeeding only in pushing it farther back. Or, as has just happened, she’ll succeed in figuring it out and get the chew.

Yesterday I took the dogs for a long walk in the beautiful light surrounded by white peaks. There was a rock or a thorn or nothing in my shoe and one of my toes hurt mightily. I stopped a couple of times and attempted to fix that, but didn’t find a solution. When I got home, and took off my hiking shoes, I saw my sock was all bloody. I thought about how cool it was that blood dries and forms a nice friction barrier between my toe and whatever. I thought of All Quiet on the Western Front and I thought I’d better wash my foot and see if I could find the injury. I didn’t find the injury. I think it is/was a blister between my 3rd and 4th toe that opened…

This post (above) is out where I was walking yesterday. I think it’s amazing. The old wooden gate itself is on the ground. Next time I’ll take a photo of the latch that once went into one of these horse shoes. It’s been replaced by a steel gate that is always open even though, this past summer, someone strung electric fencing. The thing about hiking/walking in the same place every day is your eyes get tuned to details, and you start seeing things you hadn’t seen before.

A week from today I’m giving my first ever reading from one of my books. I spent time this week writing a short introduction to the book and the reading and yesterday I recorded and timed it. It’s about 7 minutes. I’d like it to be shorter, but I might not be able to manage that. At least the chapter I’m reading isn’t very long.

Never having done this before, it’s difficult to know what exactly I should read. I decided to read the chapter that was the first one I wrote — and it’s NOT the beginning of the novel. I began the book with two words, “Andreas, RUN!” I could see that scene in my mind like a film. The book grew in two directions from that point. It’s also a pretty exciting chapter and it’s rich in history.

I’ve never even GONE to a reading — well, poetry readings, back in the day when I thought I was a poet, but never a reading someone gives from their novel, so it will be different. AND I have brochures, bookmarks and a pen that writes.

Now, what to wear? I’m thinking clean jeans, denim shirt and the Icelandic sweater I bought last summer. It’s beautiful, and I’ll be more nervous if I’m dressed up. It will also remind me of Iceland.

AND now that Thanksgiving is over, and this is so called “Black Friday” (where did that come from?) our culture says we have to start buying stuff. I wonder why no one (but me?) thinks that we could change our world quickly if we just stopped buying all the crap we buy. I get catalogs (that in itself is a problem) full of stuff, beautiful stuff, that costs a lot more than I can afford and apparently I’m doing pretty well as Medicare refused “extra help” on the drug part of the program so I’m going to be out another $107/month starting next year. And that is Medicare making me pay $1000+/year that I never had to pay before. This is AFTER I paid some $600+/month for 20 years into health insurance for my retirement…

Christmas lasts a long time in my small town. It’s the season of craft shows.The first Christmas craft fair was the first weekend of November. I went because my neighbor is a big contributor to that one, and I bought almost everyone on my list a warm hat made by her two small, arthritic hands. Her prices are ridiculously low and any hats that are not sold she takes to the pre-school for kids who don’t have warm hats.

Next week we have our Christmas Festival which includes a parade (that lasts about 5 minutes), a craft fair and a concert of cowboy music in the auditorium. Last year I did everything and by the time Christmas itself arrived, I was completely sated and sick of the whole thing.

This year I’m going to take it a little easier. Besides, it looks like this December I’m a famous writer. Not only am I doing a reading next weekend, but the following weekend I’m attending a reception for people whose work was accepted into the Alamosa library’s literary magazine. There are also prizes and who knows? Maybe I won something.



Today WordPress informs me that my blog has earned 1000 readers! 

Thank you so much!


A Leper’s Christmas

Daily Prompt Getting Seasonal The holiday season: can’t get enough of it, or can’t wait for it all to be over already? Has your attitude toward the end-of-year holidays changed over the years?

Christmas Eve morning, Brother Hugo spoke to Martin, “Come with us. We are going to the forest to cut a tree and boughs to decorate the sanctuary. The Preceptor arrived last night.”

Martin had no interest in the chapel though all around him saw it as a great boon, a sanctuary for those banished from all others, but his habit had become simply to go along. He followed Brothers Hugo, Lothar and Heinrich outside the gate where a peasant waited with a sled. The sun had finally risen, though fog- bound and dim.

The four lopsided men in long black tunics followed the sled across the frozen fen and into the wood, the ice-covered pine needles clinking like crystal as they passed. Martin felt the forest’s magic pull and filled his lungs with the open air, cold though it was. “Take care, Brother; you are not used to this. You’ll catch your death,” warned Brother Hugo.

They stopped in a small clearing surrounded by pines. With a sharp saw, the peasant cut branches, while the four lepers looked for a fir the right size for the Paradise Tree.

“Will this one do?” called Brother Heinrich a few yards away.

“We may find nothing better.” Brother Lothar was anxious. He and Brother Heinrich were assisting at the mass and he feared they would not return in time.

After a few strikes of the peasant’s axe, the tree fell in a cloud of fresh snow.


Martin and Brother Hugo lay the pine boughs around the base of the altar and set high candelabra and large candles throughout the chapel to light the dark corners. The peasant made a stand for the tree, and Sisters Regula and Ursula tied apples and candles to its branches. For this day, the sisters had sewn a new altar cloth of white linen embroidered in white silk thread, with symbols of worship and the Lazarite cross entwined with grapevines. Benches were set near the front for those who could not stand or kneel. Minutes before the midday mass in which the chapel would be consecrated, the dark room had been transformed.

Martin stood in the back against the wall.

Brother Lothar entered first, swinging a censer to purify the air. He wore the white cape with the black cross of a Teutonic Knight. Brother Heinrich followed, in the black robes of the Knights of St. John, Hospitaller. In one hand, he held a branch of hyssop and in the other a silver dish from which he splashed holy water to cleanse the way.

The Master General entered wearing a sword and carrying an ornate silver cross. On the left shoulder of his black woolen cloak was appliquéd the cross of the Knights of St. Lazarus. He knelt before the altar, then stood to remove his sword and lay it upon the altar. The sword lay beside the gleaming silver chalice, reflecting the light from dozens of candles. At first, Martin could not tell if the Master General were a leper, but the wrappings on his hands answered Martin’s questions.

The Master General then stepped to one side, and the ritual was repeated by the Commander who served as Deacon. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar helped the Commander to kneel and then lifted him to his feet. He removed his sword and laid it on the altar, and made again to kneel. The Master General, who had seen his difficulty, motioned him to remain standing. The Commander bowed to the crucified Christ and said his silent prayer. Brothers Heinrich and Lothar, in their turns, laid their swords on the altar.

Asperges me,” said the Master General to the Commander who, in reply, dipped the hyssop twigs into the holy water and sprinkled the Master General. “Domine hyssopo et mundabor; lavabis me. . .”

The lepers spoke, together, those who were able, wheezing and hoarse many of them, “Thou shalt sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. Amen.”

The hyssop was used in the Bible, yes, Martin remembered, for cleansing lepers, but these were the words of Mass when all of God’s world was cleansed of the accumulating filth of human life. “Everyone is unclean,” had said the wandering priest of the Zürichberg.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, have mercy on all,” responded the Commander.
Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.”

Expecting no mercy from God or man, Martin crossed himself in an automatic gesture of pious anonymity.

The Master General offered the Host as a sacrifice to God, and asked for God’s forgiveness. All those around Martin responded, “Amen.”

Ejus divinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus et particips Jesus Christus Fillius tuus Dominus noster…

Martin had heard this in every Mass since his boyhood, that Christ was God humbling himself to participate in the bitter, confusing struggle of man. Martin wondered if being human were not more difficult than being God.

The Commander waved the censer over the chalice to purify it before this first communion, purifying it for lepers. No clean lips would ever drink from it.

The air grew heavy with incense, the scent of fresh-cut pine, wet wool and human breath. It took a long time for the lepers to take their communion, and Martin stayed, kneeling on the stone floor, head bowed, eyes closed, his mind dragged through time on the voices, the singing, the words and the smoke of the incense. Confusing present and past, he listened for Michele’s pure Latin accents. The sun broke through the clouds and sent a bright flash through the chapel’s east window, the body of Christ. Startled by light pressing his eyelids, Martin lifted his head. He opened his eyes, but the sun was gone, and he was surrounded not by bright paintings, but by bare rock. Memory and hope collided, and he crumpled unconscious on the stone floor.


This is an excerpt from my novel, Martin of Gfenn.  If you like it, you can read more at In those days, people did not have Christmas trees as we know them, but they did put up what they called “the miracle tree.” It was an evergreen tree with apples tied to it.

Ghosts of December 23rds Past

Christmas is a ghost. Not when you’re a kid, maybe, but when you’re old enough that most of the people who brought you Christmas are dead, and the world they lived in (and provided for you) has all but vanished except in artifacts you might find on Etsy under “Vintage” described  most of the time with misidentified dates, you know, like those fur-lined, five-buckle ski boots are NOT from the ’80’s. You owned them in 1968.

So you’re driving, a long drive for most people, 30 miles home from work (work is school as it has always been, always will be, at this point). You have an iPod but you like the radio. You still have the sense that messages are transmitted, omens and blessings, through the random songs, Mohammed’s Radio. You push the buttons (the paint is worn off) “old school” just like your dad did in his 1958 Rambler. Oh man.

 “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

Yeah, you used to hate that song. You used to think it was stupid. You didn’t want a “little” anything. Pop Christmas music. Bleah. Yeah, but then?

It’s 1999. You’re walking on the beach with a friend who’s now dead. It’s pretty much you and he and a small Christmas tree for 1999. There’s the usual window painting in the taco shops and Starbucks is still somewhat new. You stop in at Filippi’s for a “Slice of pie,” as your friend calls it in his Staten Island accent. Funny Irishman he is, or was, stopping to take a pee along the way, saying, “Wait here darlin’. I need to shed a few tears for Ireland.”

You’re kind of in love with this guy, but something just doesn’t happen. He even kisses you once by way of proving that there’s just NOTHING there. So the walk on the beach comes to an end, the pie is eaten, you walk around the town for a bit and buy a Johnny Cash CD, a present for another friend. You get into your car and turn on the radio. There’s that stupid song, again. “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” but suddenly — and you don’t know why — it isn’t stupid any more.

 “From now on our troubles will be miles away.”

They won’t be, but you wish they could. You wish your brother would sober up, you’d find the great love of your life, your novel would be published, you’d find a real job and stop having to patch together an income from teaching at multiple schools.

A few days later you find out what it means to “Party like it’s 1999.” You’re glad that party can’t happen twice. Shudder. At midnight the phone rings. It’s your friends in Zürich. You’d planned to spend this holiday season with them as you had most holidays for five years past, but money…

“Buon Anno!”

“Buon Anno!”

Only a week or so later that friend succumbs to lymphoma. His son — frustrated at the slow arrival of the ambulance — has carried him in his arms out to the beloved Mercedes and driven hell-bent, no doubt, through the tunnel to the university hospital. In a few hours, your friend is gone. Poof!

“Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”

2013. After Thanksgiving, the radio stations start playing Christmas songs. You push the buttons. The red taillights going “up the hill” (you live in the mountains) are close together. You climb a small hill and slow down, seeing what’s ahead. A cop car, flashing lights. The guy tailgating you flips you off. He can’t (yet) see what you see. You sigh; what’s the point? The world does indeed seem more “reactive” these days. Traffic starts moving. California drivers are great in a real emergency (like a large fire beside the road or a body lying in the slow lane) but not so good when there’s just a random cop car on the shoulder. You pick up speed and eventually get beyond the bunch of cars and the last exit leading to a well-populated area. Though only 25 miles from “town” your home is “remote.” The city lights fade behind you as you climb and there you see the bright full moon cresting a conical hill. To the right Orion comes over the horizon in the Santa Ana scoured sky. Wow.

Such beauty. For a minute you think about something incredibly stupid you heard in a documentary about Viking oceanic navigation, “All they had to navigate with was star light.” All? And they could actually DO that, unlike us. We can’t do that. Throw us out to sea without our modern tools and we’re lost. “Hell. UPS can’t even find my HOUSE!” you laugh to yourself.

 “Faithful friends who are dear to us, Gather near to us once more.”

 Your eyes fill with tears. It’s true. All of them are with you all the time. All the ghosts, the people who have been your Christmases through all your life. “Fate” does not “allow” us all to be together through the years; memory does. Our litany of loss is longer than our manifest of gain. Still, in moments of solitude, motion, beauty, even through the mechanically invoked nostalgia of Christmas through Mohammed’s radio, faithful friends return. Somewhere between the Belt of Orion and the windshield of the car, a little white-haired grandma holds the backdoor open as your dad carries your sleeping brother inside at the end of a two day drive through ground-blizzard white-out  Wyoming. You run, your brother behind you, pulling your sleds through the snow-drifted open meadow toward the forest trails. You stand at the chain-link fence at the airport happy because you see Aunt Martha in her fur coat and high heels walking carefully down the steps; eddies of snow swirl around the landing gear. “Buona Pasqua!” laughs a teenage boy with black hair and blue eyes who takes tips and dispenses hand-towels at the restroom at Milano Centrale. He wears a Santa hat. You walk on the beach talking about poetry with a wildly gesturing Irishman. Your friend stands beside the rails at the Zürich Bahnhof, with a carton of Comella. Outside the station, mist rising from the river mixes with starlight. Your grunge fashioned fourteen year old niece from Colorado summons a smile in spite of her affected Weltschmerz. Truly, there is something funny about a Christmas tree made of beach sand, decorated with lights and paper starfish. A little boy from Sicily teaches you Italian as you cross the Gotthard Pass, “Cascata, cascata,” he says, pointing through the train window at a frozen waterfall. His grandfather opens big sacks containing bread, cheese, and homemade wine, “Un po?” he says. You nod, grateful.