Watching a Christmas Star

Daystar
Like so many others, I sought out the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in last night’s evening twilight. Less than a degree apart, their shining presence brought to mind a favorite experience from childhood, retold here for a new Christmas season.

Perhaps she noticed my absence. Perhaps she only felt a draft from the partly-opened door and rose to investigate. In either case, drawn onto the porch that cold Christmas night, my grandmother discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, and entirely unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Good heavens,” she said.”What’s wrong? What are you doing out here?” Surprised by her question, I confessed the truth. “I don’t want to go home.” “Of course you don’t,” she said, lowering herself to sit next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to meet her gaze, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children: “I wish it wasn’t over.”

A front porch in winter is no place for conversation, but my grandmother seemed lost in thought, and reluctant to move. Finally, she said, “But it isn’t over. Not yet. Let’s go in the house and have some cookies.” As she led me through the sea of relatives that had flooded the front room, someone — an aunt or uncle, or perhaps a parent — asked, “What’s going on?” “We’re going to the kitchen,” she said, and that ended the questions. Everyone knew better than to interfere with Grandma when she seemed bent on a mission.

While she brought cookies from the pantry, I filled my glass with milk. We settled in at the table,  and I waited to see which direction the conversation would take. “Did you watch for Santa last night?” she asked. I had. “Did you see him?” I hadn’t, of course, but the heap of presents in the living room provided all the proof I needed to know that he’d stopped by.

“What if I told you there was something to watch for tonight?” I stopped in mid-dunk, milk dripping from the bottom of my cookie. “What?” Busy with her own cookie, Grandma said, “Miss Luksetich says that if you watch in the east every night at midnight until the Feast of The Three Kings, you might see the Star of Bethlehem.”

I’d never known my grandmother to lie, and Christine Luksetich was one of her best friends. It was worth pondering. “Really?” I said. Wisely enough, Grandma sounded a few cautionary notes. “You have to look right at midnight, and not a minute before or after. It could be cloudy, or you could fall asleep. But if you keep looking, you might see it. It’s there.”

Entranced, no longer reluctant to leave Christmas Day behind, I headed to the living room and began picking up my gifts: more than eager to return home, scurry off to my east-facing bedroom, and begin scanning the skies.

I didn’t see the Star of Bethlehem that year. I didn’t see it the next year, for that matter, or the year after that. Given my grandmother’s fondness for Swedish folk tales and her friend Christine’s Croatian heritage, it occurred to me that their reappearing Star of Bethlehem might be a legend akin to tales of animals talking on Christmas Eve, or oxen kneeling in their stalls.

Still, I watched: scrutinizing the skies each year to see if something might appear. And then, it did. One night there were only the usual faint twinkles in the eastern sky above our cherry trees. The next, a brilliant star shone there: pulsating, glimmering — so bright it seemed to light the snow-covered countryside. For as long as I could stay awake, it never moved. The next night, it was gone.

With the deep, pure certainty of childhood, I knew that I’d seen the Star of Bethlehem. I told no one — neither friends, nor parents, nor even my own grandmother — although no one could have convinced me that I didn’t see it. Still, I was reluctant to be ridiculed, or tempted into an argument.

Over time, the memory faded, and my habit of looking eroded. Most years found me otherwise occupied in the days after Christmas — traveling, or visiting, or cleaning up kitchens — and if I remembered at all, I gave the skies no more than a cursory glance.

But one year in Kansas, halfway between Monument Rocks and the Cimarron Grasslands, I stopped to admire some cottonwoods. A brilliant star, created by sunlight shining through leaves, erased the decades. Remembering my vision of the Star of Bethlehem so many years earlier, I thought:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Star follows us, just as surely as the Wise Men followed the Star?

This year, it was the same sun but a different tree which brought that childhood experience to mind, along with the fanciful, centuries-old legend of kneeling oxen and talking animals.

‘Fanciful,’ of course, is our polite way of describing events we imagine to be impossible. Unwilling to appear naive, stupid, or silly, few adults admit to clinging to such legends. Still, barns continue to beckon on Christmas eve, and hills laid bare beneath winter skies shimmer still, awaiting Bethlehem’s star, and those with eyes to see.

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold,
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh, the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                             “Christmas Poem” ~ Mary Oliver

 

Comments always are welcome.
To read Thomas Hardy’s poem about the legend of the kneeling oxen, please click here.

A Season to Celebrate Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock: unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure: no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes still tidy in original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Where two closets nestle side by side, hers is an obvious jumble of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, has been arranged more precisely into a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in the weeks before Christmas, a child might forego caution after being tempted by the faintest whisper of possibility: There might be presents…

It’s a special kind of hide-and-seek, this business of children searching out what parents have tucked under the bed, into the basement, or on those out-of-the-way shelves behind the washer. Inevitably, any child will be tempted toward the best hiding-place of all: a parent’s bedroom closet.

When I decided to invade the closets, I found their locks less of an impediment than a bottom hinge. It had needed oiling for months, and protested with a rising, audible whine whenever the door eased open. Hesitation only increased its volume; pulled firmly, resolutely, it remained silent.

More dangerous was the oak floor board lying halfway between the room’s threshold and the closet. However firmly or lightly someone stepped, it creaked beneath their weight: the sound sharper by far than the scrape of branches on winter-frosted windows. Counting from the threshold, it turned out to be the twenty-eighth board that complained. Careless or inattentive, I sometimes failed to watch, count, and count again before crossing the floor. One step on the vocal board would be enough to raise a different voice from the living room below: “Get out of that closet!”

I lived for several years with that twenty-eighth board, plotting and planning my way across the bedroom floor like Meriwether Lewis confronting a cataract. Even today, faint beneath the raucous holiday traffic and insistent, obnoxious advertising, I sometimes hear that murmuring hinge and the floor board’s muffled creak. Their memories evoke more than amusing sorties and nostalgic sounds. There is the sting of regret; the slight, bitter taste of deception; and the chagrin of learning what life can hold for a child who refuses to wait for Christmas.

The year impatience overcame me, the tree already was upright and strung with lights, ready for cranberry garlands and tinfoil bells. The first of the Christmas cookies had been baked and decorated, and the menu planned for Christmas dinner. Still, the house felt empty, bereft of the excitement and anticipation stirred by the sight of gifts.

No bits of wrapping paper decorated the trash; no extra Scotch tape or out-of-place scissors suggested seasonal activity. Most suspiciously, no tell-tale car doors slammed after I’d been sent to bed. I wasn’t precisely worried, but recent exposure to Santa rumors had left me cautious, and just a little nervous about my best friend’s contention that kids who don’t believe in Santa don’t get gifts. Eventually, I thought, I’d need to check things out.

A week later, our family was invited to a neighbor’s open house, and my mother allowed me the choice of coming along or staying home. Sensing opportunity, I choose to stay home, muttering vague justifications about needing to work on school projects. From an upstairs window, I watched my parents cross the yard, then disappear into our neighbor’s home.

With my parents safely occupied, I sprinted out of my bedroom and into their room, heedless of the squeaking board. As I opened the door to my dad’s closet, the thin, lambent sunlight of late afternoon barely lit its contents.  I pulled the chain hanging from a single, overhead bulb, and the sudden explosion of light confirmed my worst fears. Nothing was out of place. Half-heartedly, I pushed back some shirts, and peered at the familiar shoe boxes. No packages huddled in the gloom, no paper or ribbon hinted at Christmas glory. Perplexed, I shut the door.

Despite my conviction that any gifts would have been secreted in my father’s closet, I glanced into my mother’s closet, then stepped inside the already-opened door. Even after turning on the light, I nearly missed the glint of candy cane striped foil. Lifting up what appeared to be a hastily tossed heap of mending, I gasped at the pile of waiting boxes, neatly wrapped and ready for bows. Each carried a tag, and of the few that I could see, most carried my name.

At the time, I’d not heard the phrase ‘crime of opportunity,’ but on that day I had opportunity, and I fell easily into crime.

Carefully, cautiously, neither moving the mending nor unstacking the boxes, I lifted the clear tape from the neat, vee’d fold of paper on one end of a box. The wrapping paper, heavy, smooth, and slick to the touch, remained intact. The tape peeled up perfectly, the sharp, crisp folds of paper popped open easily, and I discovered the contents by reading the end of the box.

Oddly, I no longer remember the box’s contents. I recall only my sudden sense of guilt, a dread of being discovered, and the disappointment I experienced when unwrapping the package on Christmas morning. Guilt, disappointment, and dread would have been punishment enough, but worse by far was my first, unhappy taste of dishonesty’s primary consequence: having to pretend all was right when, in fact, everything was wrong.

My unwillingness to wait, born of a child’s desire for immediate gratification and an inability to trust that gifts would be given, had left me unable to celebrate. I spent that terrible day wishing only for Christmas to end, and I never engaged in untimely unwrapping again.

Today, during this strange season of demands and disappointment, the beginning of the season called Advent extends a gracious invitation to delay gratification, and learn a deeper patience.

A season of silence and shadows, Advent whispers an uncomfortable truth: waiting is the condition of our lives. From birth to death, from our coming in to our going out of this amazing, implausible world, we live our lives in a state of perpetual waiting.

We wait for arguments to be resolved and peace to be restored; for bitterness to ebb and pain to flow away. Season after season, we await the budding of spring and the gathering of the harvest: the coming of the storm and the clearing of the sky. Sleepless after midnight, we wait for time to pass until the coming of the dawn. Exhausted by the day, we wait for the blessing of darkness, and the restorative powers of sleep. Always, we wait for laughter; for love; and for the simple, unexpected gifts of life.

Of course, in the process of waiting, there are choices to be made and consequences to be suffered. Like over-eager children before a pile of gifts, we can be tempted to rush our lives, demanding immediate satisfaction even though our willingness to slip away a ribbon, lift a bit of tape, and unfold a sheet of love-creased paper may destroy our joy.

But when patience is learned, waiting becomes a mysterious and compelling experience that arrives hand in hand with whispers of possibility. T.S. Eliot clearly understood that waiting can become the greatest gift of all: a gift that nurtures and deepens our humanity.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading

The Poets’ Birds: Robins

Proust had his madeleines. I have my robins.

The murmuring of robins evokes for me a quieter, more gracious world: childhood summers filled with the soft, shallow breathing of curtains at the window; faint scents of spirea and lilac; quiet, melodic wisps of song as parents encourage their nestlings toward sleep.

Baby robins wait for worms in Mena, Arkansas

Robins migrating through Texas will call to one another from the treetops, or create a tell-tale rustling of leaves as they search out insects and fruit in wooded areas, but coastal dwellers rarely hear this thrush’s song.

Last week, after sighting a first robin in Muskogee, Oklahoma, I luxuriated in their calls and songs as I traveled through Missouri and Arkansas. Occasionally, amused but sympathetic, I moved away so that parents could feed their babies.

The babies’ parent with a worm, nicely turned

The nature of robins — their cheerfulness, their industry, their almost self-effacing demeanor — helps to make them delightful icons of midwestern life. The trill of the corn-clinging blackbird might be more obvious; the rush of air past a nighthawk’s wings more dramatic; but the dependable robins are the ones whose song begins and ends the day.

Mary Oliver, born in Maple Heights, Ohio and a resident of Camden, Maine as a teenager, certainly heard the robin’s song throughout her formative years. But she more than heard it; she experienced, internalized, and reshaped the song, returning it to us here in soft, solemn, and perfect words that honor the well-loved bird.

 

It was spring
and I finally heard him
among the first leaves––
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness––
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree––
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing––
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfect blue sky–––all of them
were singing.
And, of course, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
For more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.
                           “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” ~ Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.

 

Santa, Virginia, and Me

Santa Comes to Visit Me  ~ Christmas Eve, c. 1952

From the time I was old enough to recognize him, until well past the time most children would have been done with such things, Santa visited our house on Christmas Eve.

The first present I received from him, a floating rubber bath duck with a hollowed-out back meant to hold soap, both thrilled and terrified me. Delighted by the gift, I feared Santa’s early visit would mean no presents under the tree in the morning. Continue reading