December 14, 2016
Merry Christmas from Marion Station, our little remnant of an old railroad town on the Eastern Shore. It’s quiet here, and now that the tourists have gone, I can sometimes drive the seven miles out to the highway without seeing a single car. The only sounds here after 8pm are barking dogs that neighbors have let out one last time before they go to bed. Living here still suits us. We love the quiet and the gentle waterways and the endless marshes and the trumpeter swans and our friends and this old haunted house.
A colleague asked me a few weeks ago, “What gives you joy.” I said, “Christmas.” She said, “But that’s only one day.” I said, “That’s true. But it still brings me joy.” No matter what our life situation, I always welcome Christmas. There’s something about the tree with white lights covered with decorations that chronicle my family’s existence. From the little ceramic Santa bell that my mother had before I was born, to the ornaments my grandmother gave me, to the tiny pinecones Dominic and Daniel decorated in nursery school, to each of my children’s “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments … and the ones we bought on vacation and the ones the grandchildren have made for us … my whole life and everything good in it is represented on that tree. How could that not bring me joy? The music, the colors, Santa Claus and the kids screaming on his lap, the toys, the hopes, the anticipation, the Salvation Army volunteers ringing their bells outside of Acme… all of it brings me joy. I wish for that joy for you this season.
The children are doing well and the grandchildren brighten our lives when we get to see them. Danny and Amber and the twins moved to Florida this year. We miss them terribly, but they’re all very happy and that’s what’s important. Dan still struggles with his health issues, but he pushes himself and is happy to do what he can. He’s a trooper. He wanted to go to Ireland so I booked him on our September tour of the north. After the tour was over we hopped on a plane to Paris and celebrated our anniversary there – just the two of us. We ate dinner on the left bank, and as we walked back to our hotel this skinny kid on one of those bicycle-rickshaws stopped us and asked if we wanted a moonlight tour of the city personally guided by him. His bicycle connected to a 2-seater, red velvet cushioned bench with a fringed roof looked fragile, and he looked like he weighed about 100 lbs. I looked his little puny self and thought, “Buddy, there is no way you’ll be able to pull our fat bodies around town in that thing.” He must have read my mind because he quickly said, “I am strong. Get in.”
We piled into his little horseless surrey with the fringe on top, and he proceeded to give us a comprehensive tour of old Paris. As promised – in the moonlight saw Notre Dame Cathedral, the Conciergerie where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned, the Champs Elysées, the Louvre and finally the Eiffel Tower, which was so bright under that black Paris sky. What a magical time that was – unforgettable. We were so lucky to share those moments on our anniversary. And that kid driving the rickshaw! His commentary was remarkable, and the way he maneuvered that thing in and out of traffic… he never lost speed or even seemed tired. Of course, about ten minutes into the ride I realized that there was a motor on the bike that he could switch on when needed – which was most of the time.
The next day we boarded a train and headed for Brittany – the part of France known for its Celtic influence. The most impressive site for us was the Stones of Carnac. 3000 standing stones erected 5000 years ago – positioned in long parallel lines resembling a marching army. An old legend states the stones were once pagan soldiers chasing a pope. But the pope got tired of running and was about to reach the sea, so he turned all of the soldiers into stone right where they stood. And they’re still there frozen in that moment – 5000 years later waiting for the curse to be broken. After we saw the Carnac stones we took a ride along the coast. There’s a particular spot on that drive where the water violently swirls around the cliffs. This spot is known as La Côte Sauvage – The Savage Coast. The photo of Dan and me on the inside of the Christmas card was taken there … another great memory of 2016.
This year has been a tough one for us. Dan struggles with constant pain, but he plods through. He does what he can and enjoys reading and beekeeping. He can laugh at himself, and he makes me laugh every single day. I’m still working for the State of Maryland but also trying to grow the Ireland tour business and Ghost Tour business and write one book a year. Lara does all the administrative work for the ghost tours and is a great help, but the schedule is tough and I’m tired. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hire some help this year and I can relax a bit. I dream of the time when I get less than 100 emails a day. If I haven’t answered your text, your phone call, your email, your Facebook or Twitter message — please keep trying. I’m drowning here.
The photo on our card this year (shown at the top of this page) is of White Park Bay in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. I took the photo shortly after walking down the cliff face with our guests on tour this past September. This isn’t just any beach. They say that the sand sings at White Park Bay – and I’ve heard it a few times … but not every time. This little enchanted beach on the Antrim Coast is strange like that. You never know what little miracle you’ll get when you visit there. The stones you see on the right side of the photo are the beginning of a cliff face that winds around in a semicircle creating this sweet little sheltered bay along the wild Atlantic coastline. Scotland is just a few miles out to sea. That ring of cliffs that rise up from the beach are said to have ancient tombs embedded in them. There is also a dolmen – a megalithic tomb -on a hill above the cliffs across the road. The ancients believed White Park Bay was a sacred place. They had rituals there and perhaps buried important people there. Those cliffs bordering the beach have a high chalk content, which also appears in the fine sand below. Sometimes when the wind whips around that horseshoe of cliffs, it disturbs the chalky sand and causes the sand to vibrate. The vibration makes a soft noise, and if you listen closely you can hear the subtle hum of the sand singing in the wind.
On the day this photo was taken we didn’t hear the sand sing. Once we reached the beach, my group of guests fell into a natural rhythm of walking meditation. It wasn’t anything I asked them to do. White Park Bay brings out a kind of reverence in walkers. Few of them spoke. Several wandered off. All seemed to be inspired… to be filled with wonder. Then the rainbow appeared. It seemed so close. Everyone was snapping photos. I just stared for a minute and the rainbow seemed to pulse, like it was talking.
Rainbows always capture our imaginations and get us thinking. They are symbolic in every culture. When a rainbow appears, we wonder, “Is it a sign? A promise?” Maybe rainbows are just rainbows and have no deeper meaning. None of us really knows. But it’s okay not to be sure. It’s the not knowing but still wondering that fosters faith. I don’t think faith comes to us because someone tells us that there is a God and that we should believe certain things. I think faith comes in the “not being sure”… in the imagining… in considering the possibilities. It’s during that process of wondering that we use our intuition. Then one thought leads to another, and a kind of emotional poetry is born. Revelations occur, and suddenly …we understand one new thing.
To me, rainbows are symbolic of a mystical place beyond this world – yet still in this world. I developed that association during a crazy, unexpected life-changing five minutes at a Christian Booksellers Association trade show in 1995. It was lunchtime, and the tradeshow floor was deserted. I was manning our booth, and a tall priest walked into our space. He didn’t speak to me or look at me. I walked over to him to see if he needed help. He picked up the book “Sacraments of Life” and then looked up at me as I approached him. I never saw such sad eyes… big round brown eyes. I thought he might cry. I tried to break the tension of the moment by saying, “Great book, Father.” He nodded, then gently put the book down and left. It was so strange. He had such an energy about him – a good energy, almost loving… but so sad.
About an hour later, I went over to where they were serving lunch. There was a speaker who was talking about rainbows. He said that he’d been kidnapped and held hostage and tortured. He said that he was held in a kitchen for a while, and that sometimes he would cry out of sheer loneliness. Then he would look out the window of his kitchen prison and see the birds in their freedom swooping and diving about, and he would sing to himself “Somewhere over the rainbow…” and dream of home and being free … like those birds. The speaker was Fr. Martin Jenco, a Catholic priest who was kidnapped by terrorists in Beirut in 1985. He was tortured in unspeakable ways and held for 19 months before he was released and sent home. He had just published his book, Bound to Forgive and was a featured speaker at the conference. He was also the priest that was in my booth – the one with the sad eyes. And even though it was a small part of the story, I never forgot what he said about rainbows. His vision became my vision in that moment and I can’t undo it. I wanted to follow up with him after the conference and tell him how much his speech moved me. But I put it off and he died the following year.
Fr. Jenco and his little comment about rainbows reminded me that not everyone is joyful at Christmas. Some people don’t have the big families or the traditions to celebrate. Some are broke or addicted or missing loved ones or living with pain and illness or the frustration of not having time to get things done. Christmas always magnifies the drama in our lives – good and bad. Sometimes I look around at Christmastime and wonder where the time went. When did I lose these kids? They’re all grown up busy with their own lives, but somehow in my mind part of them is still little….yet they’re gone. When did that happen, and how did I not notice?
It’s just Dan and me on Christmas morning now, and while we are so fortunate to have each other, sometimes I miss the kids and it’s a bit lonely. I struggle to get things done and fail. And I get a little melancholy too. But the symbols give me comfort, as do the memories. And though the rainbow isn’t a symbol of Christmas, for me it represents that realm just beyond this one where time doesn’t exist and no one grows old or struggles with pain, and love sustains us and connects us even though the miles separate us. And that is why I chose this photo of White Park Bay and its rainbow for this year’s card. Please see this gift of the rainbow as a blessing from us to you, for you are either a special friend or part of our family.
When we think about it, the Christmas story is packed with everything we dread – angst, pain, poverty, abandonment… the homeless baby with no clothes, the unwed mother who has to leave her home town, the foster father who knows the baby isn’t his and is worried about keeping his family safe, being refused when you’re desperate for help, being turned out in the cold, running from persecutors who want to kill your child. What could be worse? But there is a joyful side – a much more hopeful side, and the story ends with a great promise. The joy and hope are in the symbols woven into the story – the angels singing, the lowly shepherds being the first to hear the good news, the bright star in the night sky that cannot be overcome by the darkness, and the wise men bringing gifts. But no symbol is as powerful as the new baby … the baby, who like the rainbow is simultaneously of two worlds – this one and the one just beyond this one. He brings the promise that our suffering will be lifted by love – his love. It’s always present and always greater than the burdens we shoulder. His love will connect us to all of the good things that never fade away – that are constant in this life and in the next. We’re never too old or too flawed to be reborn into that love. This is our wish for you this Christmas, special friend or loved one.
Dan and I wish you every blessing and much happiness in the coming weeks. May all of your prayers be answered May your new year be happy, healthy and prosperous, and may God bless you and those you love this Christmas.
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