|Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something more than itself. ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery|
Merry Christmas from Marion Station, the town that missed disaster by only five miles in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Our friends to the southwest in Crisfield didn’t fare as well, and we remember them prayerfully. This year we marked ten years living in the Vance Miles House. It’s still haunted, but it’s home. I haven’t lived in one place for this long since my childhood home in Riverdale. I always figured we’d be itching to move after a few years. But it’s our refuge – our safe place and we are comfortable here. I’ll never leave the Eastern Shore landscape, and this house makes for a warm home at Christmas.
Gracie, our seven-year-old granddaughter told me she loved this house. She loved how everything was all stacked up everywhere and you could find good stuff in those piles. I asked her what she would do if Grandpa and I ever decided to move. She thought a minute and then said, “Well .... I guess I’d just burst into flames.”
We’re staying for a while so Gracie doesn’t have to go through that nasty transformation any time soon.
It’s nice to know the little ones love coming here. We’re abundantly blessed with family. Becky and Harry and the boys are well. Ben was one of three students in his high school to make the National Honor Society. Connor is still crazy over soccer. He admitted to me last summer that he is “a soccer legend.” I loved that. Al, Ruthie and Bailea are in Kings Bay, GA where Al is serving our country in the US Navy. Bailea has curls that Goldilocks would envy and a personality that makes Shirley Temple seem drab. Dominic is busy working as the Banquet Manager for La Fontaine Blue and seems to like it, though it takes all of his weekends and most holidays. He’s recently adopted a cat that is more like a dog. She follows him everywhere, even goes to work with him.
Daniel started his own business this year installing windows and building decks and is doing well for the first year. We were his first customer, and we love our new deck. Amber has just started Pharmacy school and their twins, Mia and Grace are in second grade, and growing up so fast. Mia tends to exaggerate. On Thanksgiving I told the grandkids I’d give them a penny for every pecan they collected from our yard. Mia came in with a coffee can full and said, “I just counted these and I’ve got fourteen thousand pecans. How many dollars does that make?” Lara and Dave are thriving as the doting parents of Tristan, our blond, two-year-old prince who wants to talk so badly that he incorporates the words he knows with ones he makes up. He can talk a mile-a-minute, and does so with hand gestures and expressions more befitting a businessman than a toddler. And he plays me well, too. He calls me “Gammy” and I melt. Sometimes I say, “What do you want? Anything. It’s yours. You want me to get out my checkbook?” I can’t imagine refusing him anything. His parents know this. Could be problematic later.
Dan and I are well. Dan is fully retired and though he moves slowly, he always makes the effort to push himself a little more each day. He spends most of his days taking care of our old house, the yard, the animals and giving me the support I need to balance my job and hobby. I’m still doing rural economic development for the State of Maryland (my 8th year) and I’m still writing. Though Dan and I travel as much as we can, our best times are spent at home with each other and with the kids when they visit. We are blessed to have this tribe. And grace has smiled on us again this year. We have a new grandchild on the way. Lara and David are expecting a new baby on June 4th. Life is full and our family is our greatest joy.
For those of you who have known me for a few years, you’ll recall that there is always a spot in our Christmas letter where I write that I’m working on a book about mystical places in Ireland. Year after year I write that I’m going to finish it. This year I got serious and put a book proposal together and pitched three literary agents. All three requested proposals. (This rarely happens.) One agent placed it with a mid-size NY publisher and I accepted their offer. But as we got into the marketing process it became apparent that my book wasn’t a good fit for that publisher. They have a strong focus on spirituality and rarely touch the travel markets. My book is more travel than spirituality. We both realized the book would do better with a publisher that had a strong travel focus, so we voluntarily parted ways, but the process was very encouraging, and I will pick it back up again in 2013.
I went to Ireland without Dan this year. And while I was lonely, we had a fabulous tour. Our guests were perfect, our bus driver, Mick was not only professional and competent, he was entertaining. He taught us many Irish bus driver-isms like “Hold your wind to cool your porridge.” Our tour took us through the west, to the Burren, Connemara, the Hill of Uisneach and Holy Island. Every time I go back to Ireland, I am changed by the experience. The land has a magnetic draw, so I keep going back. In September (5-15) I’ll be escorting a tour to Northern Ireland – Donegal, the Antrim Coast, Lough Neagh, Derry and Armagh. Last September I spent a week in County Tyrone with my friend (and guide) Maura Brooks. She opened my eyes to many “thin places” in the North, and those sites will be the foundation of next year’s tour. Think about joining us. Information is on line at www.thinplacestour.com
In April Dan and I visited Charleston, SC. It was the first trip I’ve ever taken where I didn’t want to come home. What a magical place. The pulse of the town and its history, the stories, the Live Oaks, Folly Beach, the seafood, the harbor and the colors all mix together to form this exquisite soup that always leaves you wanting more. Charleston has become one of my favorite destinations.
The picture at the top of this letter is of the Angel Oak – a Live Oak near Charleston that is said to be the oldest living thing east of the Rockies. Estimations on its age run from 500 to 1500 years old. Its circumference is 27 feet, and it stands 66 feet high with branches that cover over 17,000 square feet. Arborists estimate that the root spread underground is as vast as what we see above the ground. Old tales tell about the ghosts of African slaves appearing as “angels” in the tree. The tree has a mystical quality. It sits in its own little park on Johns Island, and its heavy branches now lay on the ground so the visitor walks into the tree canopy instead of under it. There were other tourists there when we visited. I noticed that all of us walking in the tree were silent. If anyone spoke, it was in whispers. The Angel Oak is cloaked with an unspoken call to reverence.
Khalil Gibran wrote “Trees are poems that the earth writes on the sky.” The Angel Oak is like that. Though it’s made up of wood and leaves, there is an elemental presence about it that is set apart, a presence that transcends time and space and weaves it all together. Like a poem, the tree brings us into a higher level of our own existence. So Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s words about the vastness beyond and portals and openings seemed a fitting caption.
To us, Christmas is like the Angel Oak. The physical manifestations of Christmas, decorations, wrapped gifts, lights, trees, traditions, toys, celebrations, wreaths, Santa, food, candles, stars, mangers ... they all comprise this majestic, outer beauty that makes up Christmas. And we love it. But just behind the outer shell is the vast world of the heart that feeble words could never describe. It’s this world that magnifies all the good and bad in our life. If we are loved and connected we feel the love even more strongly at Christmas. If we are lonely, that too is magnified.
I’m always puzzled when people complain about the glitz and the materialism of Christmas. So many say that we’ve gotten so materialistic that we miss the meaning. Pure intent always finds the meaning. If the spirit of Christmas is in your heart, the gifts and glitter are a demonstration of joy. Some use them, some don’t. But they don’t detract. An empty heart, a lonely heart will see the outer shell in and of itself alone, because for them, nothing lies beyond. Their portals are closed. These people will always be searching. But what they are looking for can only be seen through the lens of love. And love can only be spread by love. So perhaps we should look for them and reach out.
I figure childless families should go out and get a kid to spend Christmas with. The joyful freedom and innocence children project at Christmas transforms even the stodgiest of adults. All the stories say so. It was Tiny Tim who moved Scrooge, the Little Drummer Boy who gave the greatest gift, and little Cindy Lou who pulled at the Grinch’s heartstrings. What happens to that wonder and magic and imagination? Why does growing up mean we must shed our belief in magic? Christmas is a time when we try to capture that in ourselves if only for one day. To really believe that there is “something vaster” behind the decorations and traditions, something that will wrap us in love and bind us with all who have gone before us, and all who are yet to be born. Something that will help us shed the image of ourselves that is clothed in secrets and lies, and reveal our real selves. The selves we were as children.
There is one child we all keep with us at Christmas. He’s at the heart of it. He is the one we celebrate. He’s the baby who was love - and was born into a mean, disbelieving world, and who lived to change that. His love was so strong that it is still alive after all these years. And it is reborn Christmas after Christmas.
So here’s to you and yours. We wish you love and wonder and magic. If you’re suffering, we wish you hope and strength. If you’re happy, we celebrate your joy. If you’re searching we hope you find what you need in the secrets hidden behind the landscape. As for us ...we’ll be with the children trying to absorb as much magic and wonder as possible. Know that if you are receiving this letter, it’s because you are special to us.
Merry Christmas. May God bless you and those whom you love.