Got up this morning to quiet. People aren’t driving their trucks up and down in front of my house this morning, leaving the small-town quiet that I don’t get often living on a fragment of a highway that crosses part of America. No barking dogs (mine) just quiet. It’s very lovely. All enhanced by the sweet good-mornings of my two dogs. “Merry Christmas, Teddy. Merry Christmas, Bear.”
I learned last night that a friend in Wyoming has puppies like Bear. The parents who gave birth to those puppies are working dogs on her ranch, Ladder Ranch. I looked around my little house and thought, “It would probably work, with Bear here to train it. It would learn fast.” Then I thought, “Martha, are you out of your mind?”
The jury is out on that.
The book reading continues. The big box arrived two days ago — so heavy that no one could lift it. As I rolled it through my front door, I saw that others had rolled it, too. It was broken in many places and taped. But the books are all in good shape and, when I finish with the e-books, I’ll move on to the physical books. I’m reading a couple of new categories this time and they present new challenges and frustrations. Sometimes I want to talk to the author and say things like, “Dude, this is NOT that,” but I’m not teaching any more.
Obviously I don’t have much to say, so I will leave you with a fragment of a beautiful poem I ran across yesterday a winter poem from a great Chinese poet, Chu Yuan:
…Lame Dragon’s frozen peaks; Where trees and grasses dare not grow; Where a river runs too wide to cross And too deep to plumb, And the sky is white with snow
It made me think of my Chinese brother and my Christmas in China. I’m very happy to have heard from him last night.
This is my annual Christmas post. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better story. Merry Christmas, everyone, however you observe this season.
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?” “Yes!” “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 built 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 he 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.
The dogs and I headed out this morning for a ramble. No one around. The silence was broken only by the call of a raven after I said “Hi” and he flew over me to be sure it was me. I saw two muskrat huts — maybe one that’s a work in progress — along a deep stream, ditch. The big pond is drying up and the shallow water is frozen. A few tracks of deer, a few goose feathers carried by a the wind from a kill spot I noticed a few days ago.
So much of the country is experiencing uncharacteristic cold. We’re not here in the San Luis Valley. When I looked at a map of the front, I saw exactly what had happened. The front with its heavy cold air had been stopped by the wall of the San Juan Mountains, a massive range with many high mountains in the Rockies. It and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains form a kind of basket that is the San Luis Valley. The front seems to have been too heavy to cross them.
Our day down here was on the warm side — a few degrees above freezing. I wore a sweatshirt and a down vest as I walked my dogs.
It’s the season of metaphors, all these holidays celebrating a belief or another, even the return of light after the longest night of the year. I was thinking about that, all the ways humans have developed to understand — even (at least in their minds) control the earth which really STILL seems immense and random — this cold spell for example.
We are facing a climate change crisis in which we humans are part of the problem. Then here is this place, this Refuge for the animals — even the small ones — where nature works its work with only benign interference from humans. Hopefully benign. Nature being nature isn’t always pretty — my raven friend is hungry. Some goose met its end at the “hands” of a coyote or fox or more than one. There’s a spot on the road where I remember in September encountering a garter snake who’d been dropped by a hawk. I wanted to move his corpse off the road so it wouldn’t be run over, but I didn’t get the chance.
I thought of that as Christmas approaches, the metaphor of Jesus, the light of the world. Dark at the Refuge is VERY dark. It will be very dark — and cold — for at least four more months. And in that darkness creatures will find a way to stay warm and alive.
As I was leaving, driving slowly, looking for ungulates out there, I suddenly got the idea that this earth holds every human metaphor just as it holds every human being. I have always felt on my hikes and walks, even since I was a little kid, that I’m walking on the hand of God. I don’t have an image for god in my mind. I tend to cringe away from religion; dogma has always felt to me like a prison of limitation, a way of eliminating people and possibilities. But this planet, the tiny parts of it that I have known and walked on and loved? It’s all of us, all of time, cataclysmic change, silence, wonder, the tiger salamander that arouses Bear’s curiosity, the lenticular cloud forming and vanishing. Snow on my nose, a deer in a thicket, staring at me, tracks of mice and voles in the snow, the smell of black sage after a rain or white sage after I brush against it, the hawk who stares into my eyes, the eagle I had never seen before, the gyre of Sandhill Cranes helping one another climb into the sky, the wild lilac in March in the chaparral, the annoying deer fly, the sweet Mayfly, the black and white fox disappearing in the mist and snow, the Mule Deer staring at me from under the train cars, the neighbor’s friendly horse, the kid running down the street, calling my name, the boys hoping to get a ride to the jumps, the baby hawks in the box who ride on my arm to the vet, the red diamondback, sleeping in the early morning sun, warming up, the rabbit butt hanging from Molly’s mouth, the fog from the ocean turning the chaparral hill into the Scottish highlands, the rain shadow that puts my left arm in the desert and my right in a spring shower, the pond that pulls the snow to it as the moisture comes up the ravine, the bare trees lit white by the sun breaking through the clouds JUST THERE, the red tail hawks mating in the dead cottonwood tree, the family of owls, the tarantulas looking for love, the hummingbird finding what it needs on the bean flowers in my garden, the neighbor who comes to tell me about the book she’s reading…
“I am walking not merely on matter, but on spirit.“
Yesterday I went to get my paintings at the museum. While I was there an elderly couple (80s and beyond), their grown kids and teenage grandkids were there looking at exhibits. The woman had grown up in Del Norte and remembered some of the people — doctors and dentists — whose old time tools are part of an exhibit. The tree had been decorated with old postcards, and one of them had been written by the old lady’s father. K, the woman in charge yesterday, asked the old woman if she’d like to take a photo of it. I think I would have given it to her. It’s just paper.
I thought about the purpose of a museum, especially a small local museum. In one more generation, the old things in there aren’t gong to evoke much of a response in people except as they might remember going there on an elementary school field trip. I wonder how they will see the ephemera, like the Christmas postcards? I asked myself, “Where do our memories actually lie and what do they mean?” Christmas is a nostalgic time.
I didn’t put up a Christmas tree because, honestly, why? BUT…when I pulled out the stained glass box that is a candle holder I found some Christmas ornaments inside it. Well, to cut to the chase, I “decorated.” In front of me right now is my “tree.” It’s a little museum to Christmas past, memories. The ornaments seemed to say, “For the love of god do SOMETHING with us!” I put them all on my tuner in front of me here on my table. The angel, in particular, with her chrome, foil, plastic, pipe-cleaner little self, her wooden ball head with its sweet expression that so enchanted a little girl that her dad bought it for her.
The real museum is probably in our minds, the stories behind the objects, artifacts, ephemera, like the elderly woman in the museum seeing her dad’s handwriting on the back of a postcard from the 1920s. I would have given it to her. “Here. Merry Christmas.” Yep. I would’ve done that.
I’ve written here from time to time about my amazing aunts, my mom’s sisters. My Aunt Jo was the one right after my mom in birth order. I spent a lot of time with her and my Uncle Hank, and more after my mom died. I still went to Montana for Christmas and my break in summer. I traveled back and forth on my Aunt Martha’s dime thanks to the person who was in charge of her money, my cousin Betty. I’m sure she was persuaded to do that for me by her mom, my Aunt Dickie. As everyone who reads this blog knows, my Aunt Martha and I were very close and I didn’t make a lot of money.
One year, I think in November, my Aunt Jo and my Uncle Hank were in a terrible accident that totaled their car. I don’t remember the details of the accident, only what happened afterward.
My aunt was driving. My uncle, who’d had retinal detachment, was mostly blind so he was in the passenger seat. They were hit on the passenger side. My aunt was knocked unconscious. When she came to, the EMTs were there. My uncle was in the back seat with a woman who wasn’t an EMT, just a lady, apparently a passerby, a Good Samaritan who’d stopped to help. My uncle ended up with a cracked rib and a minor head injury — extremely lucky. My aunt had a mild concussion. When she finished talking to the EMTs, she turned to thank the woman who was in the back seat with my uncle, but the woman was gone. My uncle was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. My aunt went with him to be checked over more thoroughly. Uncle Hank stayed in the hospital a short time, then came home. With money from the other driver’s insurance, they got a new car.
My aunt understood that this woman had materially helped my Uncle Hank, and she wanted to find her, but none of the EMTs remembered even seeing such a woman. My aunt put an advertisement in the paper to find the woman but no luck.
My aunt was convinced the woman was an angel, and from then on angels were a major motif in my aunt’s life. My house is full of little angels that she gave me every Christmas after that.
I would give a lot to be able to fly to Billings and spend Christmas with them, but death closes doors, and all we can do is feel grateful for having experienced the beautiful things we shared.
As for the existence of angels, I, personally, believe there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s way beyond our comprehension. More than once in my life some person has shown up when I desperately needed help, strangers. Were they angels? Well, everything happened similarly to my aunt’s experience. In moments of extreme duress and confusion, suddenly someone was there and then they were gone, poof, apparently into thin air. One? Well, I was in El Cajon, CA, driving home, and I hit a chihuahua and killed it. I was horrified, sad, grief stricken, sad for the little dog’s people, culpable, panicked — a lot of feelings. I picked up his little body and stood there for a moment not knowing what to do or where he’d come from. A well-dressed woman about 50 appeared and said, “He’s from this house,” and she pointed. I took the little guy to the front porch and laid him down, tears streaming down my face. She waited, with her arms outstretched. I just fell into them and cried. When I’d calmed down, she handed me a little note pad and said, “Write them something in case, OK?” So wrote a note, took it from the pad, laid it under the dog’s collar, turned around and she was gone. There was no car. Nothing.
I also think that we are each other’s angels.
Today I did my Christmas decoration — there are lights in the window for St. Lucia’s day — and I’ve pulled out the candle holder my Aunt Jo gave me. Inside it I found a little clay angel I bought in Tijuana when I went there with a friend to experience the Christmas fair in front of the cathedral. THAT is a wonderful, wonderful, other-worldly experience. I bought a tiny Nativity of unfired, hand-molded clay figures, painted with tempera as a gift for my aunt, but I kept one of the two angels. She’s not even two inches high ❤️. Inside the candle holder — which is basically a stained glass box — I also found the Christmas decorations that were on my dad’s tree on the nursing home.
I guess I’m doing Christmas in spite of myself.
A song I love performed in a place I love.
Bono “translated” it to English but changed the meaning completely.
I’m above average. I am a solid B+. All the way through school. Now. Then. All the time. I could aspire higher, but in the end, something brought the average down. B+. When I woke up this morning this was on my mind for some reason. “You’re a B+, Martha. On a good day.” I will also always wonder what it takes to get A’s.
“She has so much potential. She just needs to apply herself.” What does that mean??? Same with my little brother. “He’s so bright, but he just doesn’t apply himself.”
And why would I be thinking about this NOW 3 weeks from my 71st birthday? Maybe because “someday” is either really really close or long gone. Don’t know.
Could be that, somewhere inside me, I would really like to be THE BEST at something and, maybe, even figure out what it means to “apply myself.”
Those school things echo throughout life, I think. We are indoctrinated into a certain — mild or fierce — competitiveness (in my case mild and confused). That spelling chart on the wall with names and stars?
Most of the things I do well are subjective things. Could I be a better painter? Not in the eyes of the people who have fallen in love with one of my paintings and look at it every day. I’m not even sure what it would mean to be a better painter.
Could I be a better writer? Yes, definitely, but I work on that all the time. I figured out when I was a very little kid (and couldn’t read) that writing wasn’t going to be easy. I wrote stories back then, but couldn’t read them (you see the difficulty) and, of course, they weren’t even written in letters. Only the mysterious script of childhood that — apparently — only my father could read. Still, I don’t think of writing as “labor” — not at all. To me it’s possibility. It’s one way to bring the world of imagination into THIS world, however you’d define that.
Do I still write in that language? Sometimes I wonder.
Younger people…I have a lot of dealings with the generation who would be my kids if I’d had them. It seems my generation raised their kids differently, something I remember from the classroom when I was teaching. I started out teaching my OWN generation and over time the waves of generations came through my classrooms. My favorite generation to teach was Generation X, then the generation that would be my kids showed up. I think of them as the “self-steam” generation, “self-steam” being a phrase one of my Mexican students used instead of self-esteem. It was a mistake but a great one. I remember one of my students telling me (and the class) how she’d lose races on track day, but she always got a ribbon anyway. “It was brown. So embarrassing. I knew I’d lost. It was obvious.”
I nodded, I remember that, and said, “Losing has its own dignity. Seems to me the ribbon took that away.”
The girl agreed and said, “We’re not all good at everything.” Sweet sanity.
I’ve lost a LOT. I also learned that second place is losing. I got second place most of the time.
The last generation to pass through my classroom? They would cry if they got a B. Seriously. Or tell me to fuck off. NCLB etc. had reduced their school lives to tests and artificial measures of knowledge and achievement. Terrible. Ignorance is noble when it motivates curiosity. “OK, Sweet Cheeks, you don’t know this. What are you going to do about it? How can you do better?” It’s not failure; it’s possibility.
How did this get to be about school, teaching, generations, and self-steam? All I can say is it takes a while for the coffee to kick in.
In holiday news — St. Lucia’s day. My paternal grandmother was Swedish, the first child in her family to be born in America. I guess to honor that, we always put up our tree on St. Lucia’s day. Sometimes my mom (who wasn’t Swedish) would have a party and cook lutefisk which is a Christmas Eve dish traditionally but my mom had to navigate the labyrinth of traditions and that was the compromise. Usually I do SOMETHING for Christmas but this year I don’t feel it at all. I pretty much just want it to go away. My past life has taught me that is EXACTLY the moment to put up a tree, when you don’t want to, but I think, this year, it’s going to be lights in the window and a candle in the stained glass candle holder my Aunt Jo gave me. I’m not a “Scrooge” or a “Grinch” — just not feeling it. It’s been a really strange year. The last year I remember that was this strange was 1979. I remember New Years Eve that year, toasting the end of 1979 and waking up the next morning with strep throat… The featured photo is my Christmas tree from 2013, my last Christmas in California. That little tree won a prize in the town Christmas decorating contest and got a beautiful story of its own. I’ll share it later on…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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