Wednesday, January 3, 2018



Yesterday morning I took down the Christmas decorations.

I would have left them up through the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year the day after the Solemnity of the Epiphany, when the liturgical season of Christmas officially ends and we re-enter "Ordinary Time."

But I'd booked an 11-day stay at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, January 2 through January 13. I could arrive anytime after 2 and was planning on an ETA of 2:01.

And I wanted to come home, after the residency was finished, to a fresh start and fresh year.

So, I took down the decorations. It was like striking a stage set--this apartment, in particular my little prayer corner, where I'd spent so many mornings and evenings the previous month in the semi-dark with my Advent calendars and candles and incense and lights and cards and bulbs and garlands and wreath. Hoping, Praying. Waiting. Watching.

I took my time, which is not always like me. I often use my purported desire to "give a good account of myself" at the end of the day to engage in slightly frenetic activity. I like to think adhering to a timetable that is not totally of my own devising and that often puts my time and energy at the disposal of others in a way I wouldn't have chosen myself builds faith, or love, or at the very least, character.

But I think a lot of the time I'm just trying to mask the terrible existential pain of the human condition and thus devise extra tasks and deadlines.

However, I had done a huge watering of my garden and ridiculously large collection of plants the day before. I had a good head start on my packing. So I took my time taking down and re-stowing the Christmas decorations. And the couple of hours turned out to be the most special, liminal, somehow sacred hours I've spent at home in quite some time.

One of the things I have is a ton of vintage mercury glass bulbs, some as tiny as a pea, that have their own ancient cardboard nests with a little depression for every single bulb. I could of course throw the nests out and just dump these tiny items in a baggie. But no--I loved putting each and every one in its little bed for another year--cerise, teal, parrot green, silver, burnished gold.

After the bulbs, there are two creches: one of whittled wood that my friend Patrick gave me and that goes in a black zippered bag--I kissed each figure goodnight--and another fashioned roughly of clay that comes from Africa--each of these figures gets wrapped in black tissue paper and placed tenderly in a special paper bag with the palm tree and its green pipe cleaner foliage going in last.

There's the paper snowflake, somewhat permanently squished, that my nephew Allen made for me, as well as a paper bag and sparkles "ornament" that hangs every year by a length of red ribbon from a doorknob.

And on and on it goes--the terra cotta Italian angel that got dropped one year and now has a super-glued torso, inexpertly disguised by a length of striped green grosgrain ribbon. The teardrop-shaped striped bulb of magenta and green I bought years ago at the gift store of Yoken's Restaurant ("Thar she blows!") in Rye NH after dining, the way I remember it, with Nana and Cousin Dickie. The creme de la creme cards saved from year to year that are arranged on top of each of four door lintels. Every year a new ornament or garland or two or three.

For every item, a blessing bestowed until next Christmas.

Anyway, after I had labored, cleaning and dusting and sweeping as I went along, I got everything, as I do each year, easily, into two medium sized cardboard boxes. A whole world in two not even very large boxes.

And when I started packing in earnest, for my trip, the reflection continued. There are four main categories when I travel: Books and work material, food, clothing and toiletries, in descending order of importance. Just as my Christmas fits into two boxes, really my entire existence, apart from my car, would fit into a 5 by 10 storage space. In fact for almost five years, my stuff WAS in a 5 by 10 storage space, and there was some room left over.

I've bought some furniture since then, but my apartment probably tops out at 600 square feet, not counting the balcony which is crammed with succulents and agaves. Then there's my native plant garden, which is a huge part of my existence but is not "mine" as I'm a renter, clearly,

The point is that the whole construction is a kind of "portable kingdom" (the phrase is from the exiled German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine). Emily Dickinson, another poet, wrote: "The Brain--is wider than the Sky," and my real world is inside. It's my curiosity, my questions, my conflicts, my reflections, my prayer, my hopes, my fears, my memories, my experiences, my many journeys, my love.

So much packed into one smallish person! Which is of course true of all of us.

I thought about how someone else would come in to my little apartment in which every single object is cherished, tenderly cared for, observed and sweep it away with a rough fist into the garbage bin. What to me is an empire, the fruit of a lifetime of battle scars, a living monument to the ongoing crucifixion and ongoing resurrection,  would be, to someone focused on money and bling, trash.

I thought about what will happen to it after I die. How even a friend who loves me could, and should, for we must make room for the next person!--clear my painstakingly-created place in an afternoon.

I got everything packed, and the drive was smooth, and after my 2:08 arrival, I got settled in, and went for a walk at dusk.

I came back to an email from a friend of a wonderful, deeply talented artist and deep man of faith about whom I'd written a column last year, Tomasz is the artist's name. His 12-year-old daughter Grace, and her mother, had been killed in a car accident on Christmas Day. Could I pray for him?

In my cabin, I lit a candle and prayed the Office of the Dead for his daughter and ex-wife.

And I knew all over again how right I had been, that morning, to take the time to lay each of those tiny bulbs in their nests, and to wish them goodnight.



  1. I'm hugging you for this beautiful essay. Ach, it's so gorgeous I want to paper my wall with it. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Beautiful Heather. Merry Christmas. I worked at Yokens!

    Prayers for your friend Tomasz.

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