Thursday, December 27, 2012

One bright and shiny night

I know I've talked about this more than once, both in this publication and others, but let me say, once again, that some of the best things about Christmas are the enduring legends, traditions, fables and stories generated over the years.
My family has come up with its share, starting, probably, with my mother's startling discovery--way back when--that her father, my grandfather, was the genuine, real-life, much-loved Santa Claus.
That, in itself, is a pretty darn cool place to start my own family holiday history, and it has continued over the years with more and more great tales that we all love to share and re-tell whenever the opportunity arises.
There was the rose jar, a tall, lidded antique vessel that served, I guess, as a sort of Victorian-era room deodorizer a long time ago. Though there were still dried rose petals in it in my day, its main purpose, as far as I was concerned, was as a mail drop, where we'd place our carefully crafted letters to Santa Claus. I'd keep a close eye on that jar, hoping to catch sight of one of Santa's elves slipping it out for delivery to the North Pole. After a few days, I'd convince my dad to lift me up to the high spot where the jar was kept, just so I could make sure those delivery elves were doing their jobs.
Of course, they were. The letter was always gone.
The presence of St. Nick's snoopy, pint-sized helpers was a constant thorn in my side back then. I was already pretty put off by the whole "he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows if you're awake" thing, thinking it was a direct invasion of my privacy. Add to that the fact that he "knows if you've been bad or good" and I was absolutely desperate for someone to blame for what I figured was one black mark after another under my name.
Well, I couldn't openly criticize Santa, of course. But I wasn't about to singlehandedly take the fall for a never-ending list of transgressions that almost always included items like undone homework, unwalked dogs, unshoveled sidewalks and uneaten vegetables. Instead, I'd blame those pesky little red-and-green guys. Thus began the Elf War of 1958.
But that's another story.
The tale I'm about to tell took place just a few days before Christmas this yar, when our youngest grandson, John, was taking a walk on the beach with his grandma and me. It's been good weather for shelling on our small piece of the North Carolina coast, partly because of the windy, wavy early winter weather we've been experiencing, and maybe because of the turbulence caused by the massive dredging operation going on at the mouth of an inlet a couple of miles up the beach. Whatever the reason, its been a great time to find different types of what we commonly call "twisty shells" scattered up and down the sand. I was walking the waterline, while John and grandma explored the flotsam left by the rushing waves at the high tide mark, when they stopped to take a closer look at something.
"What is this?" she asked.
I walked towards the dune to take a closer look. There in the hard-packed sand were a series of deep, regularly spaced indentations.
Now, I'm no Mark Trail (look it up, kids) but I know deer tracks when I see them.  Where did he come from?" said grandma.
And she was right. The tracks appeared suddenly as if the deer had, uh, sort of flown in.
Were they REINDEER tracks?
As we followed the trail, we considered the possibilities.
"Maybe Santa sent his reindeer to check us out," said grandma.
John froze and glanced at the sky. So did I.
"Or maybe an elf rode that reindeer and landed on our roof, so he could look through the window at us."
We kept on walking, following the trail of that beachfront bounder, until, just as suddenly as they appeared, the trail of deer tracks disappeared--just as if the maker of that trail had surely and suddenly taken flight.
Later that night, I stepped onto the deck that faces the intercoastal waterway behind our house. It was a bright and shiny night, with a sky filled with glistening stars and a beautiful crescent moon.
High in the sky, I saw a tiny light, moving quickly from east to west; flying, in fact, kind of like the down of a thistle
"Probably a plane," I thought. "Or a helicopter from the Marine base."
Suddenly, the light stopped.  It turned and twinkled and glowed bright red.
"What the...?" I muttered to myself. "Could that be...?"
Suddenly, as quickly as it appeared, the light vanished.
And as I searched the sky, I heard the faint sound of  jingling bells.
"Hmmm," I thought. "This is going to be a good story to tell."
Here's hoping your Christmas Day was merry...and that your New Year will be as happy and hopeful as the new box of crayons you found in your stocking.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A prayer for the world

Christmas is coming soon. For many, there's still a lot left to get done.
But one of them has nothing to do with shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning and all the other things we do as we're getting ready for the big day.
We need to stop. We need to think. We need to pray.
This is a hard column to write, because for me--and for most of us--it's nearly impossible to think of anything but those lost children in Connecticut and, of course, their utterly devastated parents.
Our president said, "Our hearts are broken."
And that pretty much says it.
No one really knows much beyond that, no matter what they say.
Life will go on. It always does. And as days and weeks pass, we will, as we always seem to do, gradually adjust to the inexplicable realities of a time and day and society that sometimes entirely eludes understanding. Because I think evil really does exist in our world, and the only way to counteract it is with goodness, faith, truth, time and love.
I took a walk this morning, trying to think of something else to say today. Something that might make some sense in the midst of a time so filled with unspeakable sorrow.
I was so sad. I was so afraid.
As I walked something suddenly came into my head; something that was said over two thousand years ago, at the beginning of this great, glorious season.
"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."
And I decided that, for me, that was it. Not an answer, but a reminder for those who love and believe and dare to dream.
Because from despair comes hope.
From darkness, wondrous light.
And from fear and sorrow, a season of great joy.
Pray for those babies. Pray for their moms and dads.
Pray for the world.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In search of December treasures

December on Topsail Island.
Surprisingly, it's not all that different from December in Illinois. At least, not temperature-wise.
"Do you realize it's warmer in Galva than here in North Carolina?"
Her tone at this not-uncommon revelation during our recent November/December Carolina swing might best be described as aggrieved, because, hey, we're in the South, below the Mason-Dixon Line and smack dab in the middle of the land of cotton, collards and lard-based biscuits. But thanks to a sustained mild-weather pattern in the middle of America that now sees parts of the midwest setting all-time no-snow records, hometown friends report summery conditions that include top-down convertible rides and heroic holes-in-one. Meanwhile the Weather Channel now names Winter Storms because, I guess, they're becoming as rare as hurricanes.
There is one difference, though.
Kind of a big one.
Bigger, in fact, than Mill Creek, the Edwards River, Fitch Creek, the lake at Johnson-Sauk Park and even the Windmont Lagoon.
It's called the Atlantic Ocean.
While I'm fairly sure she probably wouldn't have let me perch part-time in these beachside digs of ours without the added attraction of nearby grandkids, ocean access for a pair of landlocked midwesterners like us is quite an amazing thing. It's mostly quiet on the beach these days, with falling water temperatures chasing all but the most determined surfers out of the waves. But the restless waters of late fall and early winter now provide new bounty for those of us who still walk the shore in search of treasure.
There's a lot to find. A lot to see, too.
Just a couple of miles up the shore, there's a beach renourishment plan underway to replace some of the sand lost when Hurricane Irene bounced off our beach last summer. It's actually a win-win process, whereby a floating dredge sucks sand out the the New River Inlet, which helps keep that important waterway navigable for the shrimpers and other fishermen who work our waters.  The massive dredging vessel has the power to transfer an amazing 25,000 cubic yards of sand back onto the shore every day, where it will naturally widen the beach, help rebuild protective dunes and form offshore sandbars that provide an added barrier when storms come a' calling.
Though the Superstorm called Sandy mostly missed the southern North Carolina coast, its winds were enough to stir up water and waves and uncover a unique piece of island history, when a chunk of the sailing ship William H. Sumner was uncovered on the beach a few miles south of us. A section of the three-masted schooner, whose young captain died under suspicious circumstances after running the ship aground in 1919, was discovered protruding from the sand earlier this fall, the first sighting of the artifact in over a decade.
We've enjoyed offshore sightings of dolphins, seabirds and stout-hearted sailors, while folks further down the shore were treated to a rare view of a migrating humpback whale in November. One of my all-time favorite finds occurred a couple of weeks ago when we encountered a visiting family down the beach a piece who were excitedly digging away at an unexpected treasure--an entire car door, probably circa 1950s based on its large size and vintage pushbutton handle. The treasure hunters were startled to learn that the stretch of beach they were digging on was once a well-traveled main beach road before the double-whammy of Hurricanes Fran and Bertha in 1996 changed the entire shape and infrastructure of our sandy barrier island.
But the best of all waited for a sunny day, when it was just me and my grandsons on the beach. We were playing a game that could be called "grandpa, the gas truck."  For those of you who think this sounds remarkably apt, let me explain that the rules state that the little boys run ahead of me on the beach, then wait for me to catch up so that I can "gas them up." I'm especially good at this game, as it gives me an opportunity to show off my slow-walking skills, which are of olympic caliber.  I was meandering along when I saw something half buried in the sand under the gently lapping waves.. It took me a second to compute just what I was seeing, whereupon I bent and gently scooped it from the water.
It was a sand dollar, the skeleton of a sea creature related to sea stars and urchins.
Whole, round and perfectly intact.
It's pretty darned unusual to find one that hasn't been cracked or broken apart by waves and water on its long trip to the shore. It is, I think, a nice reminder of how complex and fragile, yet tough and enduring that life can be. It's also a special symbol of these December days.
According to tradition, the five holes on the outer edge of the sand dollar commemorate the five wounds of Christ, while at the center on one side blooms the Easter lily, and at the lily's heart the star of Bethlehem. The Christmas poinsettia is etched on the other side, making another reminder of Christ's birth. The sand dollar contains five small v-shaped jaws that the animal used to feed with when it was alive. According to legend, if you break the center, those five white "doves" will be released to spread good will and peace.
I looked at the small, beautiful, delicate thing in my hand and thought for a minute. I thought about this Christmas season and our custom of sending and giving special messages and gifts to those that we love.
I had to smile.
Maybe, just maybe, someone had just sent one to me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Learning and growing

Now it's December.
It's an interesting time of the year.
A time when the world seems to kind of collectively catch its breath and wait for something else to happen.
Elections are over, harvests are in, and even the school year is well on its way to being half over already. Even with the crazy-warm weather that's bounced its way across parts of the U.S. recently, it is still, from time to time, beginning to look and feel like it should at this time of the year, with bare trees, cold nights and little-boy dreams of snowstorms just in time for Christmas.
But there's something else going on, as well. Something even more important than Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the unending rush to shop and buy.
It is the season of Advent, a four-week period of preparation and anticipation that is filled with rich traditions of its own. For many, those four weeks pass by virtually unnoticed, shoved aside by the hyper-commercial December days leading up to Christmas. But the time of Advent can offer us an opportunity for thinking, hoping, watching, waiting, wondering and praying about the real reason for the season. It is a time to learn and grow, as Father Ernie Ruede, our local parish priest noted in his first Advent homily this year.
Because really, it's not Christmastime yet.
Sometimes,  though, that's a tough one to remember.
First off, it is, most definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here. While Church tradition says that Christmas decor, music and other red, green and white trappings of that glorious season are really supposed to wait until Christmas Eve, we caved in quick to our own desire to share the fun of the upcoming season with our youngest grandsons, who are, after all, the key reasons we decided to stay in North Carolina through December this year. So, we've got a tree already, along with some wreaths and a long garland of lighted evergreen trailing down our outside staircase.  Letters to Santa Claus have been written, and both grandsons are well aware of the need to be extra good lest their tiny transgressions reach the ears of Saint Nick. In fact, it occurs to me that the tradition of Advent as a time for prayer, fasting and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope and joy has had some strong influences on the concept of "good for goodness sake" that drives the behavior of many young souls this time of year.
We've tried to blend a bit of Advent wisdom into the season we're sharing with our grandboys, while working on our own behavior, as well.  For me, its been my first-time-in-a-long-time participation in a church folk choir, where I've struggled, at times, with the need to play well with others, rather than just doing my own thing.
"Learn and grow," she reminded me as I grumbled about a piece of music I felt we were performing at too slow a pace. "Learn and grow."
She learned a lesson in patience and humility when she whipped up the batter for some bread she planned to share with her knitting class buddies, only to discover that the special pan she dragged out from Illinois because it holds a dozen mini-loaves was much too big for the tiny oven at our beach house, which is more akin, size-wise, to the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven she played with as a girl. I attempted to save the day with a mindless set of suggestions involving our outdoor gas grill and approximately 150 yards of aluminum foil. The results, no kidding, were less than stellar--undone on top and coal-burnt black on the bottoms.
"Learn and grow," she repeated in a surprisingly perky and philosophic manner. "This would have made a good episode on my reality cooking show."
But it was the little boys who surprised us with their capacity for learning and growing in the midst of the busy season. Six-year-old Cyrus, who, I swear,  never seems to really hear me unless I'm mentioning ice cream, checkers, basketball or bouncy-houses, showed he was listening when his dad--quite by chance--tuned in some Christmas music on the car radio a couple of days before Thanksgiving was even over. Paddy suggested they join in on a chorus of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," when Cyrus startled him with his reply.
"Grandpa says it's too early for Christmas music," he said.
Paddy laughed and said that I probably wouldn't mind.
"No," said Cyrus. "We'd better wait for Christmas."
Even four-year-old John got into the act when, after a long discussion on elves, toys, sleighs and reindeers, he fielded a question with exactly the right answer.
Me: So who's coming on Christmas?
He: Jesus.
And so, we do our best to appreciate a season of both reflection and anticipation.
We try to remember to look deep into our own hearts. To listen. To wait. To wonder.
To learn and to grow.
To rejoice.