December 24, 2015
Merry Christmas from Marion Station, our hometown on the east side of the Chesapeake where there are more chickens than people. Life is still good here, though very slow paced. We’ve been here for over 13 years now, and I know that I’ll never return to the craziness of the Western Shore. Here on the Eastern Shore, people seem to live their lives rather than rush through them. There’s time enough to experience each day, and savor it. That means something to Dan and me as we grow older. And though there may not be a lot of amenities and things to do, there are no lines to wait in, no traffic, no scathing headlines in our newspapers, and neighbors still reach out and help each other. It’s a good life here.
This is the tenth year of my long Christmas missives. In my imagination, I hear my mother saying, “These letters are too damn long. Who cares about all this boring crap?” I can’t seem to help myself though. There are just so many things I want to say. But I will not bore you with the activities and happenings of every one of our six children and ten grandchildren. Instead I’ll ask you to pray for our eldest grandson, Benjamin. He’s stationed in Afghanistan this Christmas and naturally we worry about him. Such young people – most of them have only seen a little snippet of life and we’re sending them halfway across the world to an unfriendly region and arming them to the teeth. Regardless of our opinions on the USA’s military efforts, most of us can agree that it’s damn worrisome to have these kids standing in harm’s way so far away from home. And gosh … we miss them at Christmas, when families are supposed to come together. God bless you and keep you, Daniel Benjamin Coppage. We pray for you every day and look forward to your return.
This year Dan and I loaded up the camper and took our ten-year-old twin granddaughters, Mia and Grace on a road trip to Maine. If you haven’t vacationed with ten-year-olds, I highly recommend it. They don’t need much. They can take care of themselves. They’re so easy to please and entertain, and they magnify all the good stuff that we take for granted. Everything is awesome when you’re ten, and at this age they still think we’re fun and wise. We didn’t do anything extravagant – no amusement parks, museums, go carts, miniature golf, movies – none of that. We made do with what we found in our surroundings, and I wasn’t exhausted when it was over. The simple joys of spending time with these two – talking, sharing, listening and watching them have fun –it was enough to fill our summer days and our memories.
We pitched camp in Stonington on Deer Isle and stayed there for six days. Deer Isle is just south of Mount Desert Island where Acadia National Park is situated along with Bar Harbor and thousands of tourists. Deer Isle is quieter with a thriving arts community and a strong working class. We found a great waterfront campground there years ago, and we were excited to return there with the girls. We never ventured too far. Our site was right at the water’s edge on Stonington Harbor, which is one of the largest archipelagos in the eastern United States. We fell asleep to the call of loons and the sound of the water lapping at the shore beneath us. We awoke to foggy sunrises and the buzz of the lobster boats leaving the harbor.
The twins loved fishing with Grandpa, cooking over the fire, eating lobster, swimming and kayaking, and riding their bikes down to the camp store to buy candy and torment the staff. We visited Nervous Nellies and danced in the woods with life-size sculptures of knights, witches, giants and kings. We drove past E.B. White’s house in Blue Hill and saw the reversing falls nearby. We found heart shaped stones on the beach, swam in an old quarry (the girls did anyway) and learned all about the pink granite that was mined in Stonington and Deer Isle and how it appears in many famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and the tomb of President John F. Kennedy. We also took time out to visit Dan’s brothers in Carmel, ME, which is always so much fun. After that visit Mia told me that she was glad she got to meet “real” Maine people where they talk that different language because most of the ones in Stonington just sounded like us. Occasionally Grandpa would entertain them by slipping into the “Maineiac” dialect – just for fun.
This was also the first year I’ve led three tours to Ireland. While many associate Ireland with Guinness, pubs, leprechauns, men with tweed hats, fields of sheep and children with red curly hair – a brand my friend Tony Kirby calls “Shamrockery” – I’m drawn to Ireland’s ancient standing stones, holy wells and old ruins that cling to long lost memories. The land literally pulses with energy. The Irish people, past and present, have this innate sense of a world that exists just beyond our present world, and an understanding of those liminal spaces where the two worlds come together – where we walk in two worlds. We call these places “thin places.”
These are places like the Burren, Connemara, the Sperrin Mountains, the Hill of Uisneagh. I’m forever trying to put into words why I love that country so much and why I keep going back. It’s not my home – Maryland is my home. But Ireland has some kind of pull or draw with a mystical, subtle essence that has gotten under my skin. The landscape is ever changing. In minutes it can shift from gloomy drizzle to blue skies and cloud-filtered light that illuminates every element of the landscape. And even today, tokens of devotion litter the countryside. In every county you can find clooties and rags left on fairy trees; medals, coins and candles left behind at shrines. They are all signs of a people who come to particular places in Ireland to mark them as sacred – to reach through the veil and touch the other side with a prayer or an intention.
The image at the top of this post shows an 11th century church and round tower on Inis Caealtra – “Holy Island” in east Clare. This little island in the middle of Lough Derg has the ruins of seven churches and a holy well that were originally part of a monastic settlement founded by St. Caimin. It is a site we feature on our tours because it is surely one of those thin places. I shot this photo when our tour group visited there in May. Ten minutes before I took this picture, our guests were standing in the middle of a freezing rainstorm – getting pelted by hailstones. We had no place to run for shelter. We were totally exposed to the elements out on Inis Caeltra, and could do nothing but absorb the brunt of that storm. The storm ended as quickly as it began, and when the sun came out and lit up those old stones, I grabbed a quick shot just as the storm was moving away from the island. The raw beauty that became ours in the silence after that storm was worth all of the pelting. The exhilarations, the sense of wonder and the energy inside moments like that is why I keep returning to Ireland, and why I love bringing people with me.
We’ll be going back again with two tours in 2016 – Western Edges in May where we’ll explore the western coast of Ireland from Donegal to Dingle, and Discover the North in September where we’ll visit that unspoiled northern landscape that so few visitors ever get see. Consider joining us. We’ve taken a lot of our friends on past tours.
This year has also been a tough year for Dan and me – a year of losses. For eleven years we’ve had three big dogs – a Newfoundland and two yellow labs. Our old Newfy, Fergus lived well past the life expectancy of this giant breed, and he finally passed away in January. Two months later, one of our lab girls – the most faithful dog I’ve ever had – followed Fergus over that rainbow bridge. There was no sign of any illness or problems with her before Fergus died. She just faded away once Fergus left us. They are both buried together out by the barn. Dan planted a rose bush over their graves. Sometimes I forget they’re gone and I expect to hear them barking and running for the car when I come down the drive. That’s hard. We miss them so. For those who think animals don’t have souls and don’t go to heaven, I say “Nonsense!” What kind of heaven would it be if Fergus and Grainne weren’t there to greet us?
There was more sadness in 2015. I lost my sister Peggy in January. She had just turned 66 and was so enjoying life in retirement with her husband, Lee and their children and grandchildren. Then one day, she was gone. She suffered a heart attack and died quickly. Peggy and I didn’t grow up together. We didn’t meet until I was in my thirties, but we conversed nearly every day on Facebook. Peggy opened the door to a wonderful family that I never knew I had. I am so blessed to know so many of my Corcoran relatives, though I miss the sister that brought them to me.
And shortly after Peggy passed, my dear friend Vickie lost her battle with cancer and left two young boys without their mother. The hardest part of this loss was not just losing my friend. It was knowing how badly Vickie fought to live to be there for her boys – and how worried she was about leaving them. There’s no way to make sense of things like this. Then in October, Dan was diagnosed with a brain aneurism and we’ve been working through the best treatment for that. It’s inoperable and it could be that he’s had it for a long time. So we are eating better and trying to get healthy and cherishing all the moments in between hoping that the aneurism will behave itself and allow Dan to live a good long life.
Now that I’ve typed the two biggest “downer” paragraphs ever put into a Christmas letter, I will note that we are very happy. The losses have only helped Dan and me realize that all we ever have is now. No one is promised tomorrow, so living in the moment is what we strive for and it makes us happy. Every day we tell each other how grateful we are for the presence of the other. So there amidst the bills, the house, the yard, the cars, the headaches with the day job, ups and downs with the kids and health issues we find peace in knowing that those things are mere decorations in our life. The real stuff of our life is a thread of love that connects us. And every day, that thread flexes and tightens as our emotions rise and fall. But it’s strong. And it’s giving us strength so long as we recognize that love – the tie that binds – is all that matters. When we hold on to this and try to live in the moment, all those “decorations” fade into the background of our life. We’re faring well with abundant blessings
I love the Christina Rossetti phrase printed on the front of this card because it links this same concept of living in the moment to understanding that some moments transcend time. The moment Christ was born – the world changed forever. Even non-Christians and non-believers can be inspired by the Christmas story. The birth of the Christ child. A gift from one world to the next manifested as a naked baby born in a barn with no possessions. There were no clothes for him, no home, no influential parents, and no trappings of the world – just complete humility enshrined in the most perfect symbol of hope, love and all that is good … a newborn baby. This is the infant who became the threshold linking the two worlds forever. He is the reminder that we are loved and not forgotten by the loving Creator who made us. And every element of the Christmas story has meaning. All the characters get to visit the baby– the rich and the wise (Kings), and the poor and simple (shepherds) demonstrating that the “gift” is for all of us. No one is left out. Then the eternal world blesses the birth with a great shining star and choirs of angels celebrate in song. And the story happens just after the darkest and longest night of the year – the winter solstice. The Christ child’s birth marks the end of the dark times and introduces a season of light.
There are so many messages and teachings that we can take away from the simple Christmas story, but the message we’re hearing loud and clear this year is that no matter how dark the days get, the light will come and there is always hope. And just on the other side of that veil separating this world from the eternal world is a Creator who is constantly reaching through with love, support and gifts of hope. If we look with our hearts, we’ll see the reaching. And if you, dear friends and family are receiving this Christmas letter, then we are recognizing you as being one of those gifts He gives to us. Please know how special you are to Dan and me, and how much better our lives are for having you in them.
May God bless you and those you love this Christmas.
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