Grandma’s New Year’s Toss

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled the thirty-five miles to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship in the early 1900s. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

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Capturing Christmas


Of all the gifts I enjoyed each Christmas, new books were among the best. Over the years, they changed: childhood’s Little Golden Books turning into The Bobbsey Twins, and then into Cherry Ames. In time, I began receiving ‘big girl books,’ and one of the first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith.

It quickly became a favorite: so much so that the next year, during our annual read-aloud time on Christmas night, I chose one of the passages from the book as my selection. This year, I happened upon this fine reading by accident, and enjoyed it so much I thought it worth sharing here. Granted, the reading is nearly seven minutes long, but those seven minutes will be well spent. I hope you enjoy it, too.


Comments always are welcome.

Tongued With Fire ~ A Solstice Remembrance

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in our more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her smartphone in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. While my own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years, occasionally I find myself thinking, I could stand some peace and quiet.

The season often reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Mariah Carey or Brenda Lee blaring through the produce aisle can be more annoying than festive, and the the irony of Silent Night drowning out restaurant conversation speaks for itself.

Even the shores of sleep are washed by ebbing and flowing internal questions: What have I forgotten? Will someone be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   By Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Who needs twelve days of Christmas when only one day of Christmas culminates in exhaustion, disappointment, or boredom?

Seasonal excess aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that human celebrations of every sort take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

The hidden world surprised me years ago, during a holiday in England. After a brief stop in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn with an available room; before long, I’d met a few other guests and joined in their conversation. Soon, the innkeeper and his wife appeared; cheerful sorts, as bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns ought to be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to trek to Stonehenge — ‘that pile of rocks in a pasture,’ as another guest put it. Aghast, they insisted. “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might better be visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that in retrospect seemed to be saying, “Can you believe this poor, benighted American?”

After acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations were better publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of cold weather visits. With only a hint of a smile, the wife said, “For one thing, in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” In those years, that certainly was true.

Enticed by promises of unclogged roads and pleasant conversation, I agreed to make the trip and, as promised, my hosts unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore as we traveled.

While I already knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, that time when the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word ‘solstice’ is derived from the Latin solstitium:  a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one charming legend, more than the sun ‘stops’ at the time of solstice. In a silent place, anyone with a quiet mind and stilled heart may hear the earth herself take pause: catching her breath as she waits for the sun to turn, and move, and begin again his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old ‘pile of rocks in a pasture.’ When we arrived, any crowds that had gathered to celebrate the day were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds;  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle of stones a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. I found no human presence; the rocks, the sky, and the hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain were my only companions.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering; the pause will come, and the solstice will arrive. Those who are wise will find a bit of space, a portion of emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of an over-filled life to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing over our world’s cold-singed plains will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.


Comments always are welcome.

Reclaiming the Gift of Wonder

My visit from Santa ~ 1952

Looking down from the second-story window of our spare bedroom, the family collection of shovels, sleds, salt bags, and skates filled the front porch: limned at night by the faint glow of the corner streetlight. Protected from wind and blowing snow by heavy plastic sheeting, even the metal-framed glider remained on the porch, ready to accept a full complement of boots, mittens, and scarves.

Still too young to have begun sneaking books and flashlights into my closet, I was old enough to have experienced Santa in person, and each Christmas Eve, shivering with expectation and excitement, I’d watch from that second story window for the arrival of the Great Gift-Giver.

After one of his first visits to our house, only clever parenting saved me from a slide into disbelief. Peering into the recesses of the porch from my second-story perch, I noticed something unusual tucked into a corner of the glider. The light may have been dim, but a yellow body and orange bill clearly suggested a duck: although what a duck might be doing on our front porch, I couldn’t say.

Before I could solve the riddle, the sound of bells, a heavy knock at the door, and a parental call from below meant Santa had arrived for his yearly visit. Flying down the stairs, I found St. Nick waiting for me, holding a yellow rubber duck with an orange bill. It was, in fact, the porch duck: a floating soap holder for the bath.

After Santa left, I had questions: particularly, why had he brought me a present I’d already spotted on our porch? I didn’t yet know the word ‘chicanery,’ but I suspected it was afoot.

My father had the answer. With so many children to visit, Santa needed help; his elves made sure each child’s Christmas Eve gift was in place so Santa’s bag wasn’t so heavy. Other elves stayed at the North Pole, filling bags with toys for Santa’s big around-the-world nighttime journey.  After finding more gifts from Santa under the tree on Christmas morning, I decided the explanation made sense, and never again questioned Santa’s Christmas Eve visits.

The ritual never varied. At the sound of sleigh bells and heavy boots, my father would look up from his newspaper and say, “Better see who’s at the door,” Always, the door opened to hearty laughter; shiny black boots; a beard as white as a falling snow, and a present from the hand of Santa himself.

Eventually, I understood that my parents almost certainly knew Santa’s true identity, but they swore ignorance, and Santa kept arriving. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, the rubber duck soap dish had gone by the wayside and Santa was bringing Chanel N°5.

 Then, with college looming on the horizon, my parents finally confessed. ‘Santa’ had been one of my father’s co-workers, and one of his best friends. While yearly visits to children of colleagues had been great fun, the already retired engineer decided it was time to retire his role as Santa, and those of us who’d enjoyed his visits finally learned the truth.

Since my parents regularly played bridge with ‘Mr. and Mrs. Claus,’  I saw them often, and we had more than a few laughs about those yearly visits.  During my first return from college for the Christmas holiday, we shared a short visit on Christmas Eve, talking again about our long-standing tradition.

Then, we heard sleigh bells. And heavy stomping. And a pounding on the door. “What in the world?” said my mother. “What the heck’s that?” said the former Santa. My father said, “You might want to answer the door.”

Mystified, I went to the front door and opened it to find Santa himself standing on the front stoop. A little chubbier, more bearded, and a good bit heartier in his laugh than my childhood Santa, he said not a word. Bowing, he handed me a package before turning and disappearing into the night.

Back in the living room, I confronted the adults, who swore ignorance. Finally, my mother had the good sense to say, “Well, open the package.” 

Limned by candlelight, the silver and pearl necklace shimmered.

I still have the gift, although I never learned the identity of the giver. Whenever I wear it, I always think of Virginia O’Hanlon and her own concerns about Santa’s existence. Young Virginia sent her question to the New York Sun in 1897, and Francis Pharcellus Church, asked to respond to her letter, produced what has become  history’s most reprinted editorial.

Virginia O’Hanlon
I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, “If you see it in THE SUN  it’s so.”
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
Francis Pharcellus Church
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.
Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God!  he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Although not writing in response to a particular child, and despite not being specifically concerned with Santa Claus, the poet T.S. Eliot clearly shared journalist Church’s convictions about the importance of wonder. In this excerpt from “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees,” Eliot writes:

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (pubs open ’til midnight),
And the childish – which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.
The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement

Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree
May not be forgotten in later experience —
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert —
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children.

Both Church and Eliot clearly respected children, and both understood that the spirit of season is a spirit of wonder. In the eyes of a child like Virginia Hanlon — or any other child, of any age — the line between wonder and miracle can be exceedingly thin.


Comments always are welcome.


When Old Rules Meet New Situations

It seems the receptionist stepped out for a moment

It’s an old joke, but in certain circles it still gets a laugh:

“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might be working.”

To a degree, the joke’s rooted in reality. Boatyards have their share of hard workers, but they also shelter a variety of reprobates: scam artists, hustlers, and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. Skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.

On the waterfront, skilled craftspeople, under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms, and dedicated boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides. In the easy-going camaraderie that develops, there’s more than enough room for the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the listless, and the flatly mysterious drifters who show up from time to time.

By the time I began working in local yards, Varnish John had been around for years. Although not precisely a drifter, an aura of mystery surrounded him. He didn’t seem to frequent the local cafés or bars, and I never found him sitting in the sheds after work, drinking beer and swapping stories with other workers.

Despite his constant presence,  no one seemed to know his full name. When asked, he’d say only that he was from ‘up the coast.’ Tall and slender, showing only slight traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts; he considered tee-shirts too informal for work at ‘the office.’

Despite his age — generally assumed to be around seventy or seventy-five — he seemed impervious to difficult weather conditions, working gloveless in winter and sometimes barefoot in summer.  Still, his brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen. He worked for only a few select customers, and during his occasional months-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.

Break time in the Boatyard

When in the yards, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod in passing, but avoided the easy banter typical of such places. In his own way unsubstantial as a wraith, he seemed wrapped in silence.  Always polite, he never invited approach. He simply ‘was’ — like the ospreys or herons watching from the edges of our world.

One day, bending over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden presence. Looking up, I discovered John standing a few feet away, watching. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, until he surprised me by commenting on the weather and asking a few questions about my varnish and my brush.

Unwilling to stop working but not wanting to be thought impolite, I answered his questions as I moved down the rail. As I reached the rail’s end and straightened up, he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.” Then he turned, and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many such encounters. John would materialize, watch, offer a pronouncement, and leave. Sometimes he offered technical tips so casually they hardly were noticeable. Some people were using this solvent rather than that; a different caulk might not mildew so badly.

Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower, clean clothes, and a new brush were mandatory before final coats of varnish. Over time, as he taught me to varnish on clean winds blowing from the water, to recognize the first tendrils of winter fog, and to guard freshly-applied varnish with a vengeance, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor.

One afternoon, in the course of a conversation about rebuilding businesses and communities after Hurricane Ike, John revealed one of his inviolable rules for life:After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.”

At the time, his words seemed ordinary, and perhaps even trite. But over the years they’ve continued to resonate, particularly since they’ve applied so well to every circumstance of life: from the  realities of recovery from actual hurricanes to the wholly unexpected and utterly frustrating set of circumstances one of my vendors calls ‘the supply chain storm.’

Not every storm is as predictable as a hurricane, and I didn’t see the most recent one coming. Just after Memorial Day, when my car’s air conditioner began blowing warm air, I assumed a service call had to be added to my to-to list. Then, the AC began working again: until it didn’t. In fifteen minutes, it went from cold to warm and back again several times. When the ‘check engine’ light came on, I did the only reasonable thing and drove directly to my dealership. While I sighed over the need to leave my car while they ran their diagnostics, I accepted the offer of a complimentary Uber ride home, and prepared to wait it out.

The next day, the storm made landfall in the form of a casual phone call from my service representative. “It’s not the AC,” she said. “It’s the coolant bypass pipe. It has to be replaced.” “Great,” I said. “When will the car be ready?” After an extended pause, she said, “We don’t have the part in stock. We’ll have to order it, and it’s on backorder.” Suddenly nervous, I asked the obvious question. “How long is this going to take?” “Oh,” she said, “it should be here in three weeks.”

Yes, it’s a real sign. Danbury, Texas understands life.

As I outlined the list of difficulties presented by three weeks without a car, the service rep was sympathetic, but the options were limited. No loaner car was available, and the daily cost of a rental was exorbitant. I was going to be on my own.

When a friend working in the same marina offered to pick me up each morning and bring me home from work, that solved my most serious problem, and other friends took me to the grocery store. Still, I hadn’t been that grounded since I was in high school, and I wasn’t pleased.

When I called the dealership for updates, I learned that a shutdown of Toyota plants in Japan might be involved. Then again, the part might have been shipped; it might still be lingering in a container off a west coast port. When I pressed, a new date sort-of-certain was offered for completion of my repairs: June 25th, or perhaps the end of the month.

That’s when I remembered Varnish John, and his admonition to “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” I started by getting the number of the required part — 162680T090 – Pipe Water By Pass — then did what I should have done much earlier. I went online, and began searching.

The next morning, I talked with a very helpful man at a Toyota parts dealership in Olathe, Kansas. They didn’t have the part in stock, but could get it. If I wanted to expedite things, the part could be sent air freight, and I could have it the next day. Of course I agreed. Never mind work; expeditions to places like Walden West demanded expeditious shipment.

For once, everything went smoothly. The Olathe dealership received the part in only hours, then forwarded it via FedEx Air Freight. When it arrived at my house the next morning, a friend took me to the dealership, where I handed 162680T090 to the Parts Manager. The service tech retrieved my car from the dealership’s back forty, and by that evening Princess and I were on our way home.

I still smile when I remember walking into the parts department with the water bypass pipe clutched in my hand, and the amazement expressed by the parts manager “How did you do it?” she asked. “We couldn’t find that part anywhere, and yet here you are. How’d you manage it?”

“Easy,” I said. “I started where I could start, and did what I could do.”


Comments always are welcome.