Christmas Presence

We like to say, “It’s not about the gifts,” when we talk about Christmas, but it really is about the gifts. It is just that some of the best gifts are intangible. That said, some of them are tangible. My old man penpal, — who loves China and is originally from Del Norte — and whom I “met” because at some point he visited the Rio Grande County Museum and loved my note cards most of which are scenes of the San Luis Valley, sent me a gift. A wonderful little bracelet made of old, real ivory, Mah Jong tiles. Neither he nor I know how to play.

That got me thinking about all the connections we make in our lives, how random they seem. In a real way, we are gifts to each other.

The other day I took a few presents up the alley to the kids. I’ve been kind of distancing myself from them because — hard to explain, but I’ll give it a shot. Partly it’s just not wanting to be a part of something when I know I can’t be consistent. Then, realizing that I’m 70 years old and, even IF I live the long life many of my family has lived, I know it doesn’t get “better” in terms of physical ability. I want every precious minute of this time to do the things that pertain to me. That was a lesson from 2020 when mortality was suddenly right in front of my face. But I love the kids and their parents, and I don’t want to vanish.

After I inherited all of the acrylics in the beautiful 1970s tackle box last fall, I took out all the paints and integrated them with my own paints. My studio is small, and the box was big, very heavy and kind of smelly from cats. It fascinated the dogs…

Alex’ Acrylics in the Tackle Box as it came to me ❤

Once it was cleaned up, I took it out to the garage. I got the idea of giving it to the little boy for Christmas and that’s what I did. I couldn’t really wrap it, so I just put ribbons on the handles. Before we were halfway to his house, he had it on the ground and was opening all the doors and looking at everything. It was a huge hit. I wrote a little about the story of the tackle box and put it in the top. It has Alex’ (original owner’s) name on the front.This little boy loves old things, so the fact that the tackle box is older than his parents adds another element of cool.

I told the little boy’s mom that the box belonged to a man who was descended from some of the original white settlers of the San Luis Valley, and that I thought it should belong to a San Luis Valley little boy who loves to fish. “I’m going to have to go to Walmart and get everything to put in it!” said the little boy. He’s also a talented artist. I think the box has found its right home.

Waiting for Snow

When I got up, there was a snow sky outside. The humidity is up to 40% and the temperature is warm for this time of year. All signs point to the possibility that we’re finally going to get some snow (as is forecast, sort of), but I don’t think we will get much. Bear and I are no longer picky. We’ll take a centimeter, half a centimeter, we’ll even take inches and feet. We’re not even going to measure it at this point. The good thing about this is that it absolutely clarifies decision making. If snow then go outside. But it’s not looking good. The sun is back out.

Facebook, which faithfully shows me my memories, had this to offer today, an image of Teddy’s first winter and first experience “tracking.” He hasn’t had a second chance, really.

I recognize that white stuff and the tracks of my deers, but man!!! OH well… The featured photo is five years ago.

And so… From here in the back-of-beyond…

Angie the Centerpiece Angel

Yesterday, finding I was going to be “stuck” with the tea party centerpiece, I decided to decorate it. It’s not much of a “tree” but how much of a tree does a woman living in the back of beyond with two lively dogs need? THIS is about right. So…

The angel on the top came from Philips Department Store in South Omaha, Nebraska in 1960. My dad and I went shopping for Christmas presents for my mom and brother and he let me pick out an ornament. At the time, I was enchanted with “Sweet Angie the Christmas Tree Angel” and I wanted to exchange the star we usually hung with an angel. We never did, but that strange little angel was — and perhaps still is — “Sweet Angie the Christmas Tree Angel.” I loved her and she’s been with me throughout this whole time when other things I cared about have vanished into the mists.

Yesterday I glue-gunned her broken wing back in place and refreshed the glitter on her dress. Her skirt is cotton thread starched into a mesh with gold glitter on the bottom. Her bodice is foil with some plastic stuff with holes punched out over it. Her arms are pipe cleaners. Her wings and halo are heavy-weight aluminum foil. She has a wooden head painted with a gentle expression that hasn’t changed through all this time. I believe she is supposed to be singing.

The bright, red ornaments came with the centerpiece but the others were on the tree we put up for my dad when he was in the nursing home the last two years of his life.

The little clay angel in front came from the Christmas fair held in Tijuana each year in front of the Cathedral. It was so much fun to go to that, this crazy, two-block-long open air market of vendors and spontaneous restaurants, the doors of the Cathedral wide open, the elaborate, life-sized, hand carved Christmas scene ready to receive the Christ child at midnight on Christmas Eve — not a Protestant thing at all. The way I was raised, “If crèche, then Jesus.”

Speaking of broken wings, on the injured shoulder front I have good news. Yesterday I was able to get down on the floor, do some simple yoga poses and get up again. First, if you can’t get up off the ground, you shouldn’t put on skis. Second, it felt good; it was a huge relief psychically and physically. It’s been a long haul.

Wonderful Tea Party

It isn’t much in the grand scheme — or even in the normal scheme — but that we could meet in my actual house, drink from my actual coffee cups, and eat from my dishes? Not bring our own tea and our own cookies and sit out in the dust and cold? This is something that hasn’t happened since sometime in 2019. It was very lovely and simple and real and normal.

Friendships have been one of the boons of my post-retirement life. When you work ALL THE TIME (writing teacher with 7 classes), planning and teaching classes, grading infinite numbers of papers, and all your social energy is drained by the classroom, you don’t make friends. I had some in spite of all that, but sweet, simple socializing was very rare especially in the last few years of my career, during and after the recession.

I moved here 7 years ago without knowing anyone, but, to my great good fortune, two really great women live within a hundred yards of me. I made the snowball cookies my Swedish grandma always made. Elizabeth made Saffron buns, Karen made Spritz cookies. I made coffee in the French press. We talked about nothing in particular for an hour and a half. It was great.

I wonder if any of us will take this kind of thing for granted ever again. I hope I don’t.

Julte

Bear and I took a ramble yesterday as per usual and the changes happening in the Refuge right now are right up our alley. On the way, I watched a murder of migrating crows — maybe 100? — take flight from the field they were gleaning. That was the first time I’ve seen that at all EVER, and it was spectacular.

“There’s nothing out there” seems to be the word of the day as far as other people are concerned which means it’s empty and silent. The ducks and geese have adapted to the mostly frozen ponds. It’s hard to say what they will do in the next weeks. That depends completely on what the weather does, but my guess is that soon the Refuge will be mostly deserted except for me and my dogs. Temps are still warm(ish), but 1 F/-17C night temps are predicted for the end of this week. Of course, I’m not out there 24/7 so there could be all kinds of stuff going on that doesn’t coincide with my activities.

We talk a lot about change and have a million memes and clichés to advise ourselves and each other. I remember when I was young (25) thinking that change is the only constant. I thought I was pretty deep. If I were as deep now as I was at 25 I’d say change is infinite, but I’m just not that deep any more.

In a couple of days the ladies and I are going to have a real tea party, our first one INSIDE SOMEONE’S HOUSE since the big sudden change wrought by Covid. Everyone is very happy, even excited, about this. I don’t even have to cook! I just had to have the idea, then to set the table and make coffee.

It is more or less in honor of St. Lucia’s day which is Monday, December 13, but that’s not a good day for all of us so we’re doing it earlier. The last time we celebrated that was 2017 and it looked like this, including Swedish fruit soup that I made and Swedish Saffron Buns made my my Aussie friend.

When I was a kid, we put up our tree on St. Lucia’s day. It was the start of Christmas. One of the two ladies is a Swede, and the day means something to her, too. This year the big change is purely and simply that we’re doing it. I may make the cookies my Swedish grandmother made.

Change is not always change per se. Sometimes it’s just that we don’t know something and then we find out. On one hand, I don’t care about the European nationalities that comprise my ancestry; on the other hand, I find it very interesting as a matter of curiosity and strangeness. I did Ancestry’s spit test some years back. They consistently refine their findings as new techniques evolve. In the beginning I was told that I’m mostly British with a big splonk of Irish. Well, yeah, I have an Irish last name and even legit, brogue-speaking Irishmen have asked me, “When were you last home?” as they sang sad songs into their beer in Irish pubs in San Diego, but Ancestry’s newest even MORE accurate assessment is that I’m barely Irish a’tall. I’m a Scots bohunk, a Scandahoovian, a Swedish Viking. Consider that the Vikings invaded and colonized Scotland over and over for 500 years? Still, I know where my mom’s DNA originated; in the Tyrol. I don’t care WHAT reality says, I’m sticking with that. Me, Ötsi and Reinhold Messner. 🙂


Ancestry could revise all that tomorrow, but for now I’m preparing my ships and strapping on my skis…

As for the meme — I don’t know if Stephen Hawking said that and I’m sure he didn’t write it like that, but it’s still cool.

And THEN…

The most important news — for those of you who’ve been on tenterhooks since I let you know there are little mammals swimming in the ponds at the Refuge — the San Luis Valley Refuges people got back to me telling me it’s a muskrat, that they’re very common in wetlands. Lois and I watched them some more yesterday.

We were a little disappointed that the little beings were muskrats and then realized that out bias against muskrats and for river otters came from that horrible song that came out sometime in our youth, that song would be (cringe) “Muskrat Love.” Should I encroach on your peace of mind by ending this post with a YouTube link to that song? Muahahahah….

Yesterday our wandering took us first to the museum where I collected $30 and could take Lois for lunch. Before lunch I took her to the river — Del Norte has a pretty walkway along the Rio Grande. It was a gorgeous day (I’m started to wonder about my obsession with snow…)


After lunch we headed out to the Christmas craft fair at the Nazarene Church. I had mixed feelings about that since the anit-vax/mask contingent is powerful in that subculture but I’m glad we went. I saw friends and bought some soap that wasn’t made for cleaning brushes but is excellent for brush cleaning. Lois did Christmas shopping. It was nice to see all the table set up and people trying very hard to regain their footing in this strange world. I was actually able to suspend my frustration long enough…

Then we took Bear out for a walk. Lois described the Refuge as “meditative,” and that’s exactly the word.

Our walk was followed by the Monte Vista Christmas Parade which was even more lame than usual. I don’t mind the lameness; it’s part of its beauty. It was roughly 4 city vehicles and 3 business trucks, no floats. Still it was there and even though it was clearly orchestrated by the Mayor (Mr. Anti-vax demonstrator) it was still cool to see kids on the street waving at Santa. There were only three horses — two painted quarter horses and a mini. A few people were walking in the parade with their dogs.

Small towns are small towns and a small town that’s been through what we’ve all been through for the past two years, needs time to heal.

This photo captures my town so well. Lois took it.


Then I made Lois a really awful dinner of canned split pea soup and grilled cheese sandwiches and that was more or less a wrap.

Maybe This is a Christmas Sermon…

It seems like November 28 is my day to “do” Christmas. Facebook memories told me that last year and the year before, I DID Christmas. I woke up yesterday with the same urge and pushed until the packages were wrapped and the cards written, all the while telling Bear, “I hate this.”

Christmas always makes me feel like something is expected of me and I have to stop everything and DO Christmas. That’s a lifetime of training, childhood, of plane trips home, of this and that and the expectation that everything would change and presents and then? Dry pine needles all over the carpet and putting the lights back so they won’t tangle next year. I dunno… My Christmases as a single, family-less adult have been much better, sweeter, shorter, less predictable, but it is still something that has to be done.

I like Christmas cards, though. I saved that task as a reward for doing all the rest of it yesterday.

The reality of Christmas here is that it is Vvvvveeeerrrrrryyyyyy long. My friend’s boutique is the first weekend in November. The show at the museum happens at the end of November. The big (I use that term in a relative sense) parade is this coming weekend — the first weekend in December. Seriously by the time the actual DATE of Christmas rolls around I’m over it, or like, “What? You mean it hasn’t happened YET???”

I read a blog post last night about Black Friday and yeah, I don’t get it, either. My ONE experience with that nightmare was with the Evil X who was not one to layabout when there was money (mine) to spend. He decided he had to go to a particular (popular and immense) electronics store in San Diego on Black Friday. It was unreal. People were lined up for MILES to get into the store. I was a little happy (comparatively) to learn that it’s called Black Friday NOT because the forces of evil are making one last earnest attempt to capture souls, but because stores that have been in the red for months have a chance of operating in the black. It’s a major day for the US economy.

That’s sad. And I go back to my forces of evil comment. It’s not that no one needs to buy stuff or the sales aren’t good — I definitely benefited from them in my purchase of surfaces to paint on. But what’s the deal? What if prices were that low all the time? Would stores make money or lose it? I have no idea.

I had a little conversation with a friend recently about the question of wealth. He’s been out of work for a while (he has savings so it hasn’t killed him) and now he has a really good job that he likes. He was about to buy a computer. He asked me which one. I’m not the person to ask. I’ve been a Mac user since the 80s and while I’ve used PCs a lot, I am not likely to buy one. No special reason other than personal preference. “Buy the best you can afford.”

“But how do I know what I can afford?”

Then I tried explaining that the computer is REAL wealth while the money he buys it with is symbolic wealth and its value isn’t constant while the computer — as long as it works well — continues to have the same value over time. I told him I was exposed (??) exposed to that idea in my college ethics class. Our professor was an Anglican priest and one of our books was Alan Watts’ Does It Matter? I explained that idea was a major force in forming my adult values. I’m glad of that because I never went into a field that was going to bring in a lot of symbolic wealth!

So are all those rabid Black Friday sales an attempt by stores to be sure people have more REAL wealth in exchange for their symbolic wealth? I don’t know. I do know that people have bitched about the commercialization of Christmas at least since 1952 when I was born. And then they talk about the “true meaning of Christmas” as if that discussion would compensate for all the shopping? I don’t know or really care. For me Christmas is a quotation from the Bible that I’ve loved all my life and which (it seems) I did not properly understand until a few years ago — apparently. More on THAT to follow.

It’s a strange thing for a person who’s written four novels centered on Christianity that I’m not exactly a Christian. As Goethe said of himself, “I’m not anti-Christian, I’m not unChristian, I’m simply not Christian.” I’m just grateful that the people around me are OK with that. And why not? For the very reason I’m not sure about the quotation any more. It’s the scene (Luke 2:8…) where the shepherds are out there with their livestock guardian dogs and their sheep. The angels show up and scare the shit out of the shepherds, but it works out in the end. Here’s the King James Bible:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

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


I read a newer version of this verse that implied that God’s gift was ONLY for the chosen people, not all men and, since I don’t have my fancy-schmancy English Hexapla (six translations of the Greek into English, headed by the Greek; greatest book of my life) any more (Ariel — my wolf dog — destroyed it when I was traveling and she was angry) I can’t check the Greek. Christian or not (in the normal sense) I love those shepherds and how they rushed over (with their sheep, of course) to check out the doings in Bethlehem. Really a peace offering from God is no small thing. And, I have chosen (since it seems people can change/reinterpret the meanings of words in the Bible at will) to believe that light in the darkness is offered to ALL people of goodwill. And why “people of goodwill”? Synonyms include compassion, kindness, openness to others. It’s not all that elitist, still, it’s elitist. The way I learned the verse was, “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward men.” I’m sticking with it.

“Will We Get More, Martha?

…not like this isn’t nice.”


You’ve waited SO LONG Bear.

Last year — or any other year — I wasn’t walking out at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. It never occurred to me to walk there until this past March when Covid hit. My usual walks were at the beautiful Shriver/Wright Wildlife Area and Rio Grande Wildlife Area, but when Covid hit, the trails at Shriver/Wright became too often frequented by people who let their dogs out of the car at the parking lot to run, and the Rio Grande Wildlife Area closes from February to July so birds can nest.

I’d gone out to the Refuge to walk once when the cranes were at their peak and saw that it would be a GREAT place for the dogs and me. Well enforced leash law. Wide trails so rattlesnakes would be visible come snake season. Animals. Few people and most of them in cars. Wide, soul-filling vistas.

It took a little while for my Big White Dog to accept it. Livestock guardian dogs don’t like change, but I knew the more often we went, the more content she would be and soon she would turn it — with its smells and landscape — into her territory, and so she has. I’ve written a lot about it on this blog because it’s been one very good thing in my life during this time. I’ve (obviously) loved every moment I’ve spent with the cranes. Endured the deer flies and mosquitoes of summer, the admission price to summer sunsets. And best of all (so far), fall with chill days, cranes and beautiful skies. At one point this fall my friends became interested in going along and that has been very nice. Once in spring, my next-door neighbor and I took a long walk out there and talked about so many of the things that were troubling us.

Still, winter is my favorite season, and I’ve been anticipating the experience of the Refuge in snow and cold, in winter’s angled light and often silvery skies.

The migraines have been a little worrisome and the approaching holiday? Well, as it happens, I’m not crazy about Christmas as a celebration anyway, but it still has a quiet and important place in my heart and life. Over the years, as many of my Christmases have been solitary since all my family has died, I’ve experienced some miraculous Christmas Eves, so many that I no longer plan anything. I just let them happen. One year my stepson and his wife showed up with German Christmas (my step-daughter-in-law is German) and suddenly I was celebrating Christmas Eve exactly as I’d celebrated it growing up — dinner and a gift exchange. Sandi, who’s from the area near Dresden, brought all the foods she was used to on Christmas Eve. I baked mince pie. It was a warm and lovely evening spent with two people I love dearly. Another year I was surprised to find myself riding a horse when I’d thought there was no way I could get on one.

Lately, in the midst of this strange year, I’ve felt (as many of us have) the melancholy of the holidays combined with the sad statistics of Covid-19 and lurking dread of 45 who just won’t stop. And so…

This morning I was finally feeling brave enough to face the glare of snow, and I took Bear to the Refuge. It was the first time I’d walked there in winter and it was magical. Silent and immense with the infinitely varying sky that’s a feature of the San Luis Valley. Bear was blissful — snow holds smells to the ground the way grass doesn’t — and I was happy that animal tracks told me something about what she was smelling. Hundreds of ducks had taken flight the moment we arrived and I watched them circle and dive and land back on the pond. Walking on snow is dream walking. I felt like I could go forever. I saw how great this place will be on X-country skies and felt a lilt of anticipation. When we turned around and the angle of the sun changed, I watched a hawk circle in the silvery winter sky.

“Spend Christmas with us,” said the Refuge. I looked around at the few trees and bushes, thought of the hungry birds, and of putting suet balls on one or two of them on Christmas Eve.

“I will. Thank you for the invitation,” I said, excited to be spending Christmas Eve with someone I love.

The War on Christmas

I didn’t believe this was real. After saying, on Twitter, that I didn’t believe the War on Christmas COULD be real, I learned a lot. Maybe it’s an urban thing or a Southern thing, but there’s no war here in the Back-of-Beyond. It makes me very sad that people would believe what Fox and Offal say and weaponize something that is, intrinsically, so good. So, here is my stance on Christmas and religion in general.

There is, IMO, nothing more personal than an individual’s faith. I grew up in a church that stressed that each of us develop a relationship with a “personal savior.” I took that on face value. Of course, back in the day, I called that entity “Jesus” but it turned out that Jesus was just a way to say that which I still can’t say, don’t have words for. Moses and the bush? One of the funniest things I’ve ever read yet profound — “What’s your name?”

I am. That’s all you need to know.”

“Yeah, but what’s your NAME??? Those guys down there are not going to believe a thing I tell them without a footnote and a source.”

That bush was very wise. It knew that when you start naming God, you get wars. Oooops. I named him. My bad.

My town is in a very red part of Colorado, still the holiday banner across my street (a national highway) says, “Happy Holidays.” It goes up a few days before Thanksgiving and is meant to comprise ALL the wintery holidays. It faces west so anyone entering Monte Vista from that direction is greeted in this inclusive and gentle way. Most of the time this time of year people wish each other Merry Christmas, but often I hear “Happy Holidays.” I see no war on Christmas or anything else. The opposite.

Just now, as I was walking home from the golf course with Teddy, a delivery man leaned out of the open window of his van and said, with his whole heart and whole soul, “Merry Christmas!” and he waved. He wasn’t starting a fight. He was giving me the best he has on this day, Christmas Eve.

But, apparently, in some places, Merry Christmas is uttered as a provocation. I have thought about that. It seems that half of provocation is the willingness to be provoked. I think this is a war we — each of us — can choose not to fight.

As for me — Christmas begins at the beginning of December when my friend Lois comes to visit for all the holiday markets in the valley. This year I had the opportunity to read from the China book. That turned out to be a wonderful thing. I teeter through the month — bad days and good — but usually good. It’s impossible NOT to reflect on the past if you’re 67 years old and live by yourself. Impossible not to remember Christmases you shared with family that you loved and can never see again. I learned some time back just to surrender to whatever emotional rollercoaster shows up. That stragedy has proven to be a great way to live through the holidays. Every day for the past two weeks some lovely thing has happened as a result of my just being receptive and looking at it not only from the actual perspective, but also the metaphorical.

Yesterday, I took the skis to the golf course (I drive because the skis are awkward to carry and no one can walk in those boots). When I got out of Bella I saw a guy approaching that I know, Fred. Dusty loved Fred and Fred loved Dusty. Whenever we met, I let Dusty loose and he ran to Fred as if Fred were the realization of all Dusty’s dreams. I told Fred I’d lost Dusty this past year.

“He was a great dog,” said Fred. “Whenever he saw me, he hugged me.”

It’s true and Dusty didn’t hug anyone else. We shared some Dusty stories, reminisced about their first meeting on the golf course. Dusty was barking his head off, scary, at Fred. I said, “Do you like dogs?” Fred said he did, if they were friendly. Dusty didn’t seem friendly, but Fred held his ground while I let Dusty go. Fred spread his arms in welcome and Dusty ran some 50 yards and hugged Fred who hugged him back. Now Dusty was big. If he stood on his hind legs (which seldom happened) he was taller than I am, over five feet.

Fred and I remembered the first big snow last winter, in January, and how we were out there post-holing and Dusty almost knocked Fred over because the snow was so deep. Telling Fred about Dusty, I felt like the circle of Dusty’s life was now completely closed. It was a kind of memorial for my barky black dog that I still miss.

We talked about how we never see anyone else outside walking in the snow.

“What’s wrong with everybody?” I said. We laughed because, honestly, it’s kind of nasty out there. Today is the first day in two weeks the temperature has gotten up to freezing.

“It’s great here on the Valley floor,” he said. “It never warms up. The snow stays.” Both he and I think that’s a good thing. Then Fred said, “What are you doing for Christmas, going to family?”

I said I didn’t have a family anymore, or, rather, that I did, but I’m at the point in life when I can choose my family. “I have a great family, but we’re not related to each other.” I laughed.

“Thats the way to do it,” said Fred. But I could see he felt sorry for me. Fred’s Italian and, you know, la famiglia is everything. “You mean your parents and all your siblings are gone?”

“Yep.” Then I decided to tell him a little about my brother and how, after he died, many of his friends and I became acquainted and some are now family to me.

“Some people wouldn’t see it that way.”

“Yeah, well, I lost my dad when I was 20. I’ve had a long time to get used to it.” I laughed.

“And you’re happy.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Why not?”

“Lot’s of people wouldn’t be.”

“I miss my family,” I said, “But I’m glad for the times we had. They were precious. Anyway, how could I not be happy with those mountains,” I motioned toward the Sangres, “this sky, the snow, living here?”

“Lots of people can’t be happy.”

Somewhere down the road of my life I had decided that happiness is a choice, just like, for me, believing in “it who shall not be named (aka God)” is a choice. I chose that, too. I’m happy with anyone’s celebration. I’ve learned that people seem to need something when the days are at their shortest. I understand that I’m a little different in that for me this is the BEST time of year, dark and cold.

We talked a little more, he wanted me to remind him what I did before I moved here, then he said, “Merry Christmas!” whole-heartedly, warmly, sincerely.

“Merry Christmas to you, too!” I said, equally heart-filled. Is it possible to MEAN that without being a Christian? Absolutely. Its meaning is, simply, “I wish you all the good things, peace, joy, love and beauty.” Because that is what that little baby in the manger symbolizes, what we all hope for whatever faith or non-faith we follow.

Dusty and I in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California, Christmas 2012

SO, from Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog, Teddy Bear T. Dog and I…

Merry Christmas!