Archives for December 2016

New Year’s Blessing from Captain Jim

I recently finished reading L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne’s House of Dreams,” the fifth in the Anne of Green Gables series. One of the best parts of the book is Captain Jim.

Anne, Gilbert, Leslie, Marshall, and Jim are all at the lighthouse, waiting out the old year.

A few minutes before twelve Captain Jim rose and opened the door.

“We must let the New Year in,” he said.

Outside was a fine blue night.

Everyone stands before the door and waits, each lost in thought. Then the clock strikes twelve.

“Welcome, New Year,” said Captain Jim, bowing low as the last stroke died away. “I wish you all the best year of your lives, mates. I reckon that whatever the New Year brings us will be the best the Great Captain has for us—and somehow or other we’ll all make port in a good harbour.”

Happy sailing in 2017, friends.

Gloom & Joy

One more thought on Christmas before we move onto New Year’s and I resume my goodbye posts.

The first Christmas without Mom was hard. All the fly-fishing family members from Wyoming came down — something we’d talked about for years but never managed to actually do. Until then. That Christmas was one of gloom (missing Mom) and joy (everyone gathered together).

Three Christmases later, when Every Day Poems featured “The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy, I saved it because it includes the word “gloom,” which is as much a part of the holiday season as all the joy, especially when we are remembering a person who isn’t there. I reread the poem recently. It wears well.

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

“Now they are all on their knees,”

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.


We pictured the meek mild creatures where

They dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.


So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet, I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,


“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.


Thomas Hardy


Gloom, we know. Joy, we work for.

Have Yourself a Melancholy Christmas

If you don’t recognize Christmas as the season for melancholy, then you’re not paying attention. There are two places where we’re expected to be of good cheer: ads, which promise to make our days merry and bright (for a fee); and Facebook, which, let’s face it, is created by algorithms. The songs, the movies, and the TV specials are written by real, live, heartbroken humans.

Here are 12 examples:

  1. “Charlie Brown Christmas”—Not just the tree but the rejection.
  2. Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis”—The big picture window, Judy singing, Tootie weeping, then the destruction of the snow family.
  3. Speaking of snowmen, “Frosty, the Snowman”—Melts.
  4. “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”—Worse than the reindeer games, there’s parental rejection and a baffling Santa.
  5. “It’s a Wonderful Life”—Driven by a suicide attempt.
  6. “A Christmas Story”—“Oh, my god! I shot my eye out!”
  7. “The West Wing,” “In Excelsis Deo”—Featuring homeless veterans and others who die on Christmas Eve.
  8. “The West Wing,” “Noel”—Everyone’s favorite holiday diagnosis, PTSD. Courtesy of exquisite cello-playing by Yo-Yo Ma.
  9. “Blue Christmas”—Courtesy of Elvis.
  10. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”—Minor key and words to match.
  11. “White Christmas”—“Just like the ones I used to know.” He’s stuck in “Beverly Hills, L.A.”
  12. and of course, “A Christmas Carol”—I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.

As I make my melancholy list and check it twice, I realize I could easily double it. Because Christmas is the perfect season for sadness. It’s the one day of the year you actually have an excuse. Just tell the stranger who suspiciously eyes you sniffling that you can’t make it home for Christmas, and they’ll put an arm around your shoulder. Or say you miss your special somebody at the holidays, and you’ll get a sympathetic smile. If you are being visited by ghosts, I’d keep that quiet, but if the haunting has moved you to tears over the plight of your co-worker, whom you previously ignored at best and despised at worst, by all means, weep openly. Then buy them the biggest goose in all of London (or your fair city).

Maybe it hits you in church on Christmas Eve. You don’t have time to be there, but there you are, as the soloists’s attempts at glory and the pastor’s attempts at depth blow past you. Until you all light the candles and sing “Silent Night,” and somehow that third verse sneaks up on you, the word “redeeming.” Then you’re a puddle and you don’t know why. But somehow, as the service ends and you walk out into the dark, there are things you know.

[Spoilers follow]

You know singing carols around a tree is good for the soul. You know you’ll get to spend next Christmas in St. Louis. You know Frosty will be back again someday. You know that together you will defeat the Abominable Snowman. You know Clarence will get his wings. You know you will never receive a better Christmas present. You know Mrs. Landingham is coming to Arlington Cemetery. You know Leo is the guy who jumps in the hole with you. You know Elvis will never die. You know “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has been around since it was sung in Latin, so you have centuries of comfort in your “lonely exile here.” You know you can have a white Christmas with every Christmas card you write. And you know that although Christmas is often hard—oh, so hard—it’s not a humbug.


Goodbye: front door

Previous goodbyes are here, here, and here.

I made a pitch to bring the front door with us, but that would’ve meant replacing it before we listed the house, and frankly, we had other things to do.

When we bought the house, it had a plain brown interior door serving as a front door. It was the opposite of curb appeal. Also, the house was built in the ’70s, when the homebuilding motto seemed to be Whatever You Do, Don’t Let In Any Light. So as soon as we could, we replaced the front door with one made mostly of glass, to let in light anyway. The new door is red (barn red), and the glass swirls to form a cross, if you look closely.

If I want this particular door, I can buy another one just like it (this one came from Lowe’)s. Or I could paint the beige front door on the new house a barn red. The new door is half glass and also has a cross, a less swirly one. The new home was built in a different decade, when light was deemed permissible, so glass is less urgent.

Glass not only lets in light but implies a degree of transparency. When I toured Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2012, our guide pointed out that the new buildings built after the bombings of The Troubles were made of glass, “to show we have nothing to hide,” he said.

More natural light also means less artificial light. Painting the interiors of this house in white and light neutrals, opening the blinds every morning, and even cleaning the windows brings in light the original builder never intended. Sure, light does show flaws. But after the troubles, there is nothing to hide.

Goodbye: front porch

Previous goodbyes here and here.

You’ll notice a theme in these posts—from the outside in. I remember the day we first saw this house with our realtor, and we walked all around the outside before going in.

This front porch is smaller than the one at our house in Waco, but it’s still big enough for a swing. The new house has no front porch, so I’ll be leaving the swing.

It was a Father’s Day gift from my dad to my husband. Our son was born later that same June. Instead of buying me flowers, Dad filled our one flower bed with 60 petunias. I fed babies on that swing and read to squirmy children on that swing.

Once we moved the swing to this front porch I had many a phone call—pleasant and less so—on that swing. I read to myself there. I watched storms there. Often I prayed there.

Letting go of the swing and the front porch feels like letting go of the kids. But then again, this new house is our empty-nester house. Our son is gone, and our daughter goes to college soon. Tis the season to let go.

But it would really help if the new owner just happens to mention, “Oh, I love that front porch swing!” If someone is going to love this front porch as much as I have, it will be easier to leave it.

Goodbye: back patio

Continuing my goodbyes to our house, as started here.

This house was our rental when we moved to Fredericksburg, and when we realized we couldn’t afford anything else, we worked out a price with the owner, who was anxious to divest himself of rental property.

Originally, the house had a tiny back patio with a rusting tin roof. After a hailstorm brought us a new one, we expanded the roofline and the patio on a chilly day like today. (It was 18 degrees, and the workers had a little fire pit going.) Since then this patio, with a ceiling fan and an octagonal picnic table built by my husband, is my favorite room of the house.

I’ve spent countless hours writing out there. I wrote most of The Joy of Poetry there. I wrote The Joyful Partnership of Poetry and Memoir workshop there. I wrote 11 years worth of articles, features, WOTYs and columns there.

But this fall I’ve written more inside. First it was too hot, then it was too cold. We rearranged the room off the patio, which is the brightest room in the house, and now it’s easier to work there. I’ve been writing a new workshop, Tea Time: Writing Our Leaves and Our Lives, inside. I hope it will be okay, but not writing outside doesn’t feel okay.

The patio is a microcosm of our history with this house—we took hail and turned it into a home improvement project. Every square inch of this home is better than we found it, although sometimes it took a crisis for us to act.

Our new house has a smaller patio on a smaller lot, meaning no room to expand the patio, hail or no hail. The picnic table/writing desk will come with us. My writing will have a new view.

Goodbye: maple tree

We are moving … 2 miles. (I use the numeral 2 instead of the word “two” so there is no misunderstanding.) Same city, same zip. We are staying in town, buying a new-to-us house. This is why there is a For Sale sign in our front yard as of this morning.

When we moved here eleven years ago it happened fast, and I didn’t get to say all my goodbyes. So I am starting today, with the maple tree that until Monday was in our backyard.

A crew came to take it down, limb by limb. Four or five guys, a couple of ladders and a cherry picker picked it apart. It took a couple of hours to dismantle something that took decades to grow.

Now there is only a stump, a large one, reminding me how grand this tree was. My favorite. My first maple. They don’t grow where I grew up. It was twice taller than the house, and its leaved turned in the fall—no small miracle for someone who grew up with only cedars and live oaks.

The tree died—though we didn’t know it—in the drought. We’d been homeowners before but not during an Exceptional Drought (official designation). We didn’t know to mulch it and give it extra water. I would have emptied out the dogs’ water bowl on it every day if I’d known.

A year or so ago we had the city come and trim it off the power lines, and I got my hopes up because as soon as that dead weight was gone, the maple sprouted fresh greenish-red shoots. It was a sign! I started dumping out the dogs’ water on it every day to help it along.

But it was too late for signs. The tree was dead. The new growth quickly withered. The trunk turned black in splotches, like some kind of tree plague. And we would have left it there, a blackening splotch, until we decided to sell the house. You can’t tell a potential buyer, “Pay no attention to the dead tree.”

So we took care of the problem. The problem was that a tree should never have earned such a label. The maple became a problem because of weather and ignorance.

Our new house has two small trees. I don’t yet know who they are. The neighborhood is heavily treed, just NIMBY. If there is another drought, which is likely, I’ll know how to care for these little ones.

The stump startled me this morning after bringing in the dogs from our walk. The tree never looked that big until it was cut down.

I poured out the dog’s water over what was left of the maple. Not a baptism, but a preparation of the dead, which in this case means neither burial not cremation but being ground into mulch. Feeding the other trees in the backyard long after we live 2 miles away.

Poems (and Books) Grow Up

photo by L.L. Barkat

photo by L.L. Barkat

“My poem off in the world meeting other people and learning about itself.”

This quote is from an email I received from Stuart Kestenbaum, whose poem “Prayer for Joy” appears in my book The Joy of Poetry. In the process of asking permission to use the poem, he wanted to see how it was used in the book, and this was his kind response.

He sent this message about a year before the book was published, shortly before I turned it in for editing. Now that TJOP has been out for eight months, I can say that Kestenbaum was so, so right, not only about poems but books too.

When you publish a book, it goes out into the world, much like a child leaving home. It meets people you will never meet. It learns about itself. It becomes its own thing, both connected to you and separate from you.

Over these last few months as I talk with people who have read the book, I find out what it meant to them, what parts they underlined, what poems resonated. Sometimes those conversations surprise me.

In the workshop on poetry and memoir I taught this fall through Tweetspeak Poetry, occasionally I shared what I was thinking when I wrote a particular poem. And although that information was mildly interesting, what was more important was when they shared what a poem meant to them. Not why did I write “Beauty Shop” but how did it hit you, dear reader?

There’s a concept batted about in literary criticism called “the death of the author,” and essentially, it argues the author’s life and intention don’t matter. I never gave this theory any credence until I became an author. Now I think it’s valid, up to a point.

My intention in writing The Joy of Poetry may be useful to readers familiar with cancer or those who have lost a parent. Responses from readers in those situations did not surprise me because I wrote the book with them in mind, people who have experienced tremendous loss. What has surprised me is how people who never cared two bits for poetry have found themselves opening to its possibilities by reading the book, like the chemical engineer who described himself as “growing a soul.”

As the book gets out and meets people, it drags me along and makes me learn about myself. The poetry and memoir class was the first thing I’ve taught since water aerobics, when my kids were little. I’ll teach another workshop at Tweetspeak that starts in February, on tea, Writing Our Leaves and our Lives. And next fall I’ll teach a class on poetry and spirituality with the Episcopalians.

I did not expect the book to go to these places and meet these people and do these things. But it all seems to be what TJOP wants. As I try to keep up, I find myself feeling—dare I say it?—joy.

#gifts #inspiration #poetry Solve your Christmas questions with Joy 🙂