December 24, 2023
Merry Christmas from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
I’m writing this as I sit at my kitchen window on this chilly day. My front yard is covered with leaves and pine shats. This kitchen window is my favorite spot in the house. Actually, any window is a favorite spot, but they’re not all conducive to writing. Boris the cat also likes windows, and he likes me, so I’m typing this with a 12-inch, orange cat tail flapping over my right arm and his big butt pushing on my elbow. And for some reason – a reason only cat owners would understand – I don’t make him get off my arm and give me more room. I allow his invasion into my working space. Boris loves windows because he watches for old girlfriends that he had on the outside when he was feral. He remembers when he ran free … a macho-tomcat with a nice set of gonads. He strutted his beautiful male self in front of all the girls. I sense he’s longing for those good old days as he watches the local female kitties amble across the front yard. He gets super excited when they glance his way and goes cuckoo-bananas when they approach the window.
But alas, Boris has no more ‘nads, or macho attractiveness. He seems to have forgotten those painful parts of his life just before I got him. He was torn up by the local male ferals. His hind leg was chewed up and infected. His front toe was missing. He’d nearly lost an ear. Boris was on his way to the Rainbow Bridge. Well – maybe he does remember those days. Sometimes he peers out the window with a vacant stare – no cats or birds in view. What is he thinking? What is he looking at? Then he’ll break the stare and rub his head up under my hand – looking for love. And when that sweet, fluffy, feline wizard snuggles up next to me in bed at night, I sense that he’s grateful and that I am his human, and he is my spirit animal. Those moments scare away the old bad memories when life was unkind to Boris, and I was so lonely after losing Dan. So Boris gets his space at my window.
After two years of living in this little house in Salisbury, I’m still in awe. It’s a big change after living twenty-one years in wild and wonderful Somerset County where Mother Nature was always at her best and worst – giant blue skies over the quiet farm fields and marshes; bitter winds in the winter, storms in the summer, weeds on steroids, indrawn tides around every corner in every possible shade of blue and green; mosquitos that could fill a blood bank, blazing sunsets over the Tangier Sound and Coulbourne Creek; Skipjacks against the horizon, herons, eagles, hawks and osprey in the marshes and treetops; a fire whistle 100 yards from my front door; a 35-mile-drive to ANYWHERE; and close, dependable neighbors who were always there for you. That’s my old home – and I cherish the memories of a great life lived in that rural setting.
But now I’m here, in this little cedar-sided cabin, in a subdivision on a small one-third acre. The house is surrounded by forty Loblolly Pines that create a canopy of shade over the property. For those of you not from the Eastern Shore … these trees are a southern yellow pine that grow sixty to ninety feet tall with a spread of about thirty-five feet. But they only show their branches at the very top. They fight for the light – and shade out all the other trees and shrubs. When closely clustered, they’ll bend and lean into the light so that their feathery tops leave only little snippets of sky visible. While I do miss seeing the night sky, I’ll trade that any day for the sound of the wind rushing through those pines and the sight of their regal, rising trunks connecting solid ground to a feathery green canopy above. It creates an enchanted, mystical feel to the place. As soon as I step outside or pull into my driveway – day or night – I can feel a change. The energy shifts. And I’m always grateful and amazed that I get to live here.
About twenty years ago, I was at a Celtic Spirituality conference in Ireland where I met Dara Molloy – a writer and Celtic monk who lives on one of the Aran Islands. At that conference he made a statement about his island home. He said, “Inis Mór is my place of resurrection.” The statement was more like an afterthought in a conversation – not meant to be profound at the time. But the phrase stuck in my mind – like a quote you want to remember. I never forgot it. I even named one of my Ireland tours Places of Resurrection. I interviewed Dara on the Thin Places Travel Podcast and asked him what he meant by ‘place of resurrection. He said, “It’s a place where you fulfill your intended destiny.” He went on further to talk about the connection to a particular place, one that nourishes you spiritually and mentally. The connection is a constant – a sense of belonging. Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about how a connection to a particular landscape can influence one’s work or accomplishments.
I figure I’ve found my place of resurrection here under the pines. Small and suburban as it is, it’s a landscape that ignites my creativity and elevates my spirit. My daily prayers of gratitude always start with where I am in the present moment, and usually that is in this house. I’m grateful to live here. I hope you can all visit sometime and tell me what vibe you feel.
I led two international tours last year. In April I was off to Scotland with a group to explore all the thin places between Iona and Lindisfarne, and in October I traced the Northern Edge of Ireland with a wonderful group of guests – many were repeats from previous tours. The north has always been my favorite part of Ireland. We hugged the coast from Sligo through Donegal, traveled the Inishowen Peninsula, came across Malin Head, stood in awe of the sites along the Antrim Coast where we experienced all four seasons in one day. It’s a wild landscape.
The photo of me and three other women above was taken on that tour. The setting was Dunluce Castle – a magnificent 16th-century ruin jutting out into the sea – clinging to the cliffs with the waves crashing below. If you’ve never been there – go. It is one of those places to see before you die. It’s inspired poets, writers, artists, and dreamers for centuries. I never tire of visiting Dunluce. It’s like seeing an old friend. All of the sites along the Antrim Coast are like family you travel to visit. Each member is a different joy – a different wonderful connection. Once the trip is over and you’ve parted, the next visit is expected. Of course, you’ll see them again.
The image at the top of this post (which I post again here) was also taken on that tour near the village of Rostrevor in the Carlingford area. The picture shows a favorite stopping place for one of the greatest spiritual writers of the 20th century, who – in letters to his brother wrote that the view from that flat rock in the foreground inspired him to create a fantasy children’s book that became the best-selling book (by far) of all forty books he wrote in his lifetime. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has sold over 100 million copies, been translated into forty-seven languages including Braille, and has been in continuous print since 1956. It was this view that sparked C.S. Lewis’s imagination to create the mystical land of Narnia. He stated in letters, “I have seen landscapes which, under a particular light, made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge. Nature has that in her which compels us to invent giants: and only giants will do.”
The view features Carlingford Lough – a glacial fjord forming part of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The backdrop shows the Mourne Mountains which inspired the traditional song of longing for home with the repeating line “To be back where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea.” It’s likely that sixteen-year-old St. Patrick was transported by his kidnappers right up this Carlingford Lough waterway. He was enslaved in the nearby mountains as a shepherd until he escaped six years later. But he chose to go back to this place of persecution and suffering when he was given many choices as to where to serve as a bishop. Patrick later stated that he felt a connection to the land and the people. And now he’s revered as Ireland’s most famous saint. This enigmatic landscape is filled with stories, myths and legends, but they’re all rooted in that “connection.” As a writer, it was a thrill to sit in that same spot some fifty years after Lewis’s death and think on that view… and how different landscapes ignite our creativity – whether we are writers or painters or poets or spiritual leaders. Some landscapes heal, some inspire, some frighten, some offer comfort and some become a place of resurrection.
Even with two wonderful tours to Europe, 2023 was a year of loss … and for many in my world, a year of grief. I’ve had health issues that have caused me to limit my mobility and wear a leg brace for the next year (long, uninteresting, boring story). I’ll be fine, but illness has caused me to reflect on life’s vulnerabilities and eventual endings. When you get to be sixty-four, you know you’re in the last act (hopefully it’s a long act). All events and relationships sit in a different context. Resentments, anger over past slights or not being treated fairly lose their vigor. Priorities become clearer, and some of those lifelong dreams and goals slip off the horizon because we’re running out time and energy. If we’re lucky, we can let go of the hurts, fears, and any trace of bitterness, and accept who we are and we gain tolerance and patience. That’s certainly happened for me, but I so wish it had happened sooner. Bitterness, resentment, and fear only serve the worst part of ourselves.
This year we lost my niece, Sarah in May, Dan’s brother, Steven passed away suddenly in August, and my friend, Andréa died of pancreatic cancer in September. And so many friends have lost spouses, children, and parents this year. And December 5th marked the third anniversary of Dan’s death. At a time when we remember everything we ever loved, Christmas is a little harder when loved ones are missing. Grief is like being tossed into churning waters. It’s all around us – this great, endless tide with a power all its own. Sometimes we think we might drown from the pressure…or from the quenching of our strength to endure the tides washing over us. But slowly, gradually, the waters calm, and the waves come less often, and we emerge. We come onto the shore as different people. That’s where I am right now, I think. After three years, I’m different. I’m better. I’m grateful for what I had, and I’m looking forward to what comes next. As the Psalm of Asaph, one of King David’s musical leaders goes, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”
That’s the Christmas message, isn’t it? Life isn’t without loss. There will always be suffering. But as life circles around us, there’s always hope for the joy that comes in the morning. Where there is love, there is hope for a new beginning … for a lessening of the darkness. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis tells the story of four children who find a doorway to a parallel world that is cursed by a White Witch who has made the land cold and sterile where it’s always winter but never Christmas. And somehow in their innocence and willingness to believe they can conquer a world at war, the children manage to fulfill the prophecy. The never-ending winter was gone, and it was finally Christmas. The greatest victories are often achieved by those who appear powerless.
Last weekend we headed to Washington, DC reestablishing that tradition of taking my daughter, Lara, and her daughter, Primrose for a two-night stay at the Willard Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue next to the White House. All of DC is lit up for the holidays. The vibe is exciting, hotel rooms are cheap and the crowds are absent – revving up for the coming week between Christmas and New Year’s. We haven’t done this trip since the Covid shut down. This year our Christmas trip to the Willard will be extra special because my daughter-in-love, Amber, and her twins – Grace and Mia will be flying up from Florida to join us (Grace got sick at the last minute and was unable to come). We saw the National Christmas Tree, the Smithsonian museums, and the Christmas markets, ate fabulous food, and took a nighttime tour of the DC Monuments – but mostly spent time enjoying each other…making memories. I’m lucky to have this awesome family to make memories with.
What would Christmas be if not connected to memories? We wouldn’t know what to expect. We wouldn’t know what to eat, how to decorate, what songs to sing. Christmas and memories are like coffee and cream, holly and berries, wine and cheese. Even if you don’t embrace Christmas or have good Christmas memories, the message of Christmas is in the World’s memory.
The end of the darkest night and the longest winter delivered by a savior we never expected…the least among us. Whether it’s four children in the land of Narnia, or as the Christmas story tells, the Christ Child born in the humblest of circumstances – a baby who came as a sign that there will always be new beginnings, and death isn’t the end, and that every tear will be wiped away, and above all, we are loved. And in turn, we should love each other and carry the message forward… until the next Christmas and the next and the next.
Here’s to the end of the dark nights and any winter in our hearts. It’s finally Christmas, my friends. Wishing you love and abundant blessings. And, I hope you can kiss a baby this Christmas. It’s good luck for the coming year.
May God bless you and all those whom you love.