In the Glow

We turn off all the lights, except the Christmas decorations. The tree sparks with red, gold, green, and blue. White strands frame the window, reflecting off the glass, doubling or even tripling the luminescent specks. The only other light in the room is the glow of the fire in our big stone fireplace.

It’s quiet, but for the soft crackling of the logs and occasional pops of moisture escaping the wood. The light of the flames dances on the walls around the room, flickering and fading, growing and changing. I have always been drawn to the warmth of fires, where the world seems to slow down, where there is space to ponder and ruminate, where I find reassurance, peace, hope.

* * * * *

You start with the small stuff: twigs and shredded paper, maybe some dryer lint or pieces of cardboard. Then come some bigger pieces of wood, thicker branches and split logs. Be mindful of the air: leave spaces for oxygen and heat to move around. Strike the match.

The flames spread slowly at first. Sometimes they need a little help, a little breath: don’t blow them out, blow them through. Let the air pass over and under and through the cracks and spaces between the twigs and logs. Be patient. As the smaller fuel burns away, the bigger pieces start to catch and you’ve done it: you’ve created something that breathes.


* * * * *

Camp outs in our Girl Scout troops were long days of hiking and cooking and relishing the outdoors, and they ended with campfires.  In the red glow, flickering and fading, growing and changing, we’d sing songs, mostly silly and nonsensical, and roast marshmallows, promptly squashed between graham crackers and chocolate. Our moms — our troop leaders — called us firebugs. These were days of learning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, working together and connecting with nature. We didn’t know it then though, or maybe we did but we didn’t care. For us, it was just friendship. There was so much world out ahead of us yet.

Summers at home growing up were often punctuated with similar campfires: out in the backyard on the edge of the woods, my dad would build a little fire and set his lawn chair up close enough to reach the flames with a long stick. As the twilight faded and the stars showed themselves, the glow of the campfire lit up our faces. We would sit out in the backyard, listening to the frogs trill by the pool or watching the bats flit by overhead. We would talk, sure, but we would also sit in the quiet of the warm evening and stare as the flames licked the logs, charring them, breaking them down, consuming them.

* * * * *

At our own home now, my husband and I track seasons by where we lay wood for the fires: in the winter and spring, the fireplace, in summer and early fall, the back patio in a small fire pit, surrounded by benches and cushioned seating. Backyard parties always end with friends and family gathered around the red-yellow gleam. As some friends call it a night, others just gather in closer, filling their glass of wine or grabbing a blanket to wrap around their shoulders. This is when conversations start to change: boisterous talk of friends catching up turns to slow, more thoughtful topics. This is sacred time.

Under the cover of mostly-darkness, faces lit only by a gentle blaze, we let down our guards and talk of the things that have troubled us, the things that have changed us, the things that have given us hope. Our voices lower and conversations become quieter as they become more serious. We choose words carefully, laying out offerings at the feet of our friends, which are picked up gently and turned over thoughtfully in the light of the campfire.


* * * * *

In the soft light of the fire and the Christmas lights, we can stop the world. We can stop the worry and the bustle and things that up-end us.  We watch the lights flicker and fade, grow and change. Then, the flames die down low. The charred logs crumble and the ash settles. We lay down our weariness as we look toward the new beginning coming soon to save us, to give us another chance, to give us hope for brighter days. And we sit quietly in this space, in the glow of the last red embers.


Jamie Y. Watkins is a wife, sister, daughter, and friend. She works at a non-profit by day and goes to school at night, trying to find time to write in between. Her biggest passions are travel– France in particular– film, and good conversation. She lives in New Jersey, where she and her husband open their house to others with good food and wine. She blogs at Seek.Follow.Love about wrestling with faith and church, looking for meaning in the every day, and feeling her way through life.

Twitter: @jamieywatkins, Facebook: @jywatkinswriter, Photos by Obed Hernandez and Rahul Rekapalli

Hope In a Bowl of Soup

Every year, we ate Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Driving there in the car,  I’d pull my nose out of the book about the time we’d hit the big hill on her gravel road. A few minutes later, we’d see the small, white house – her closest neighbor.

I got a lot of reading done in the 45 minutes it took to get from our house to hers.

As we slowed down to turn into the long lane that was her driveway, I wondered which of my cousins were already there. Was there still enough daylight to go exploring in the barn? Would we get in trouble if we climbed on the roof of the pig-less pig pen? Would the roof cave in under our collective weight? Regardless, I knew just up ahead was an evening filled with cousins, presents and good food.

I’m not sure whose idea it was, but at some point we got away from our traditional holiday meal of ham and cheesy potatoes. Maybe it was because, as grandma got older, the adults wanted to take some of the responsibility off her hands. My aunts started offering up soups-usually chili, potato, and vegetable.

It’s the vegetable soup I remember most. As a kid, I wouldn’t touch the stuff. At home, when I started smelling a roast cooking in the oven, I became disappointed, rolling my eyes and hoping Mom would at least remember to cut me some raw carrots. I couldn’t stand them cooked. Until I discovered ranch dressing, I didn’t like the potatoes prepared with the roast either. Pot roast was definitely not my favorite meal. To make matters worse, I knew the leftovers from this meal would end up being vegetable soup.

My mom and her sisters liked vegetable soup though. In our family, it was a tradition all its own. Grandma liked hers with a can of Brooks chili beans in it. Most of the men didn’t like diced tomatoes in theirs; but at Christmas dinner, the women put them in anyway because the men gravitated toward the chili. A little cabbage, carrots, corn, green beans, potatoes. Celery was optional. Is it any wonder I didn’t like this soup as a kid? It was downright healthy!


While the soups simmered on the stovetop, we’d dig into the appetizers. One of the many hunters in our family usually offered up venison summer sausage, partnered with squares of cheese on a round Ritz cracker. Someone would have picked up a cheeseball from the local grocery store deli. It was my favorite, the perfect balance of cream cheese and shredded cheddar. Years later, I’d write one of my aunts, asking if she could get me the recipe.

Long before Pinterest came on the scene, the women in our family served up trendy appetizers and sides. I remember ranch-flavored oyster crackers, apple salad with Snickers whipped in, marshmallow cream fruit dip, Chex mix and Puppy chow. Every inch of counter space and the entire kitchen table filled to overflowing.

Grandma always mixed up a pitcher of Kool Aid. One of our aunts would stand near the disposable cups, ready to hand off the Sharpie marker to ensure we’d only use one – our own – the entire evening. The adults always had coffee. Cup after cup of coffee.

If us kids ate all our soup – as if any of us were still hungry by that point – we could move on to the dessert table. One of my aunts shares her birthday with the Christ child, so we’d sometimes have cupcakes or a birthday cake. Also cheesecake, Rice Krispy treats and pecan (pronounced puh-con) pie.

I know what love is if it can be offered up on a platter of cheese and crackers. If it smells anything like a stovetop full of soups. If it looks like my grandma and her adult daughters bustling away in her kitchen. If it tastes like cherry cheesecake. If it can be heard in the uproariousness of thirty-plus people in one single-story farmhouse.

I know what love is. It’s these very tangible things giving me hope that love will always emerge victorious. Love looks, sounds, smells, feels-and tastes-like Christmas dinner at Grandma’s house. Like home.

* * * * *

Traci Rhoades lives in southwest Michigan, somewhere in a triangular section connecting Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids with all things Lake Michigan. She and her husband parent one daughter. They have dogs, cats, ducks, pigs and chickens–a number that is always changing, as farm animal counts tend to do. She enjoys watching sports, reading, cooking and all things Bible study. She is  a writer. When she first started blogging, she wondered about what unique voice she could bring, eventually landing on this one line: A country girl goes to church.

Ukrainian Soul Food

“Mine look like bananas!” I apologized.

I was assured that, first of all, they did not look like bananas. And even if they did, who would care? Once they’d been boiled, smothered in sautéed onions, and served with a giant dollop of sour cream, they would taste amazing.

“It’s more important that they’re sealed tightly so they won’t break apart when we boil them,” my mother assured me. “The shape doesn’t matter at all!”

It was late December, and Mom, my younger brothers, Aunt Mary, Uncle George, and I were gathered around our newspaper-covered kitchen table. Hands dusted with flour, we had each set up our individual work stations with the proper tools: a square of waxed paper, a communal canister of flour, and a narrow-mouthed cocktail olive jar, which would serve as a mini-rolling pin. When we finished our project, the olive jars would be returned to a corner of the pantry to await next year’s pierogi-making party.

In the center of the table was a wet loaf of sticky sour-creamy dough, from which Mom cut small chunks to distribute to each of our work stations. We sprinkled flour onto our waxed paper and coated our olive jars with the same, and then we rolled the dough into something approximating a circle the size of a flattened tennis ball. We dropped a spoonful of filling—either the mashed potato and cheese concoction or my favorite, the sauerkraut, onion, and cottage cheese mixture—onto one side of the circle. Then we folded the dough over and sealed the filling inside by pressing our thumbs along the edges.

Voila! A perfect pierogi.

Which may or may not resemble a banana.


homemade-pierogi_kz6bdbGrowing up, the pierogi-making party was an annual ritual, an Advent tradition as familiar as candles and wreaths and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Our Christmas Eve dinner, or “Holy Supper,” followed the tradition of my father’s family, imported from his parents’ native Ukraine. It was a completely meatless meal, to follow the tradition of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. I think its original form involved multiple courses and a lot of symbolism—including straw under the tablecloth, to represent the baby Jesus’ manger birthplace. And raw garlic cloves served up like pickles or olives.

The version of Holy Supper with which I grew up was significantly abridged. We skipped the straw and the raw garlic and served only two courses: kapusta (a sauerkraut and split pea soup, which looked and smelled as appetizing as it probably sounds) and pierogies. Both of these were topped with onions sautéed in a pound or more of butter and were accompanied by unleavened bread, stuck with cloves of garlic before it was baked, and served with generous drizzles of honey. The strong flavor of the garlicky honey bread is the only thing that made the kapusta even remotely appetizing to me.

But I loved the pierogies. We would boil them on Christmas Eve, and for Christmas morning breakfast, we would fry up the leftovers in a skillet, along with the buttery onions.


My mother grew up a decidedly White Anglo Saxon Protestant dairy farmer’s daughter, and she used to tell me that she never tasted garlic before she started dating my father. She was raised with a predictably bland meat and potatoes diet, but she grew to love the food of her eastern European in-laws.

To my father’s delight, after a couple of false starts, she mastered how to prepare most of his childhood favorites. They often laughed about her first attempt at making halupki—or stuffed cabbage, or pigs-in-a-blanket, depending on your vernacular. She didn’t realize she had to steam the cabbage before rolling it around the ground beef and rice concoction, so she fastened the rolls together by securing them with toothpicks.

pierogiesWe ate pierogies and kapusta on Christmas Eve, and on Easter, cold kielbasa and potato salad and hard boiled eggs dipped in a shredded beets and horseradish mixture. The one delicacy of my father’s childhood that my mother never attempted to prepare is studenina: jellied pigs’ feet. My Uncle Paul likes to joke that, “You can spend an hour convincing someone that you can make jello out of pigs’ feet, and then you blow it when you tell them that you pour vinegar over it and eat it for breakfast.” My dad loved it. I’ve never been able to bring myself to taste the stuff.


When Mom first asked my grandmother for her pierogi recipe, Grandma shrugged. After decades of making pierogies every Friday, she cooked by instinct, not by measurement.

So Mom followed her around the kitchen, writing down everything she did to prepare the dough and mix the fillings. A pinch of this, a handful of that—with the end result enough pierogies for us to eat well that evening and for many meals to come. Our freezer would be well stocked for the twelve months that tended to lapse between pierogi-making parties. And we were following the steps my grandmother had followed week after week, when the “recipe” yielded only enough to feed my dad and his many brothers and sisters for a single meal.

The irony is not lost on me that what we have come to regard as an exotic, once-a-year treat is really eastern European peasant food—or what my dad affectionately used to call “Ukrainian soul food.”

It continues to feed our souls.


Amy bio YAH

Stumpy the Christmas Tree

“It’s going to be a small Christmas this year, kids.”  

My mom. Almost every year. And yet, I never remember small Christmases.

Perhaps they were small in comparison to the expensive gifts or the multi-hundreds of dollars in cash and gift cards our classmates talked about receiving each year. But even then, I just found it odd that they received so much.

Some of the early Christmas photos of my family show our tree in the background – an 18” high green ceramic tree with colored pegs that glowed from a light bulb stuck inside. We put our gifts under and around the small table it sat on. We hung garland in a scallop from the ceiling and hung our ornaments from that. I remember being particularly enthralled by the ornaments and how certain I was that no one else decorated for Christmas in quite that spectacular way.  Blame it on my steady diet of  Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, but I was just genuinely the kid who was (mostly) thankful for what I had. I thought of Laura Ingalls treasuring her tin cup and peppermint stick for Christmas and I knew our celebration was lavish.

One year, there was a knock on the door and I answered it to see Pastor Bill standing there. He asked for my parents and then gave them an envelope. “This is for Christmas” he said. Inside – money for gifts for us and food for Christmas dinner. Mom tells me that was the difference between having those things and not that year. But most years weren’t like that, at least not that my memory recalls.


On a summer Saturday when I was about six or seven my mom and I woke up early to track down garage sales in our town as we often did. At one we found a treasure – an artificial Christmas tree selling for cheap. The top part that makes the point of the tree was missing, but we got it anyway. That next Christmas the tree earned the affectionate nickname “Stumpy.” We bent the branches of the top layer up and into a point and stuck the red Christmas angel on top. As a child, the tree seemed massive, but it didn’t even come to the top of the window.

Stumpy one year with presents piled around.

Stumpy one year with presents piled around.

On the day after Thanksgiving we’d get out our ornaments and hang them on her branches one-by-one, telling the story of each ornament. Mom bought us a new ornament each year – something that represented our year. They were our travels, our dreams, our interests, our talents. There were curled papers covered in glitter that had resembled angels at some point. Hallmark collection figure skaters. Silly snowmen. Model cars.The ornaments were the stories of our lives and Stumpy held them well. As much as I had loved the ornaments hanging from the garland on the ceiling, I thoroughly embraced and enjoyed our upgrade to Stumpy.

We eventually got rid of Stumpy when I was around 11 years old and bought a brand-new artificial tree. This tree had full, fluffy branches, a top piece that scraped the ceiling in our short-walled living room, and no name. I suppose I would have done the same thing as an adult, but as a kid I missed Stumpy. She was part of my Christmas, part of the magic and wonder that we found such a treasure. She was short enough that I could reach the tip top and stick the angel in her place.

Stumpy was enough for my child-heart. And really, Stumpy was more than enough. The scalloped garland hanging from the ceiling and the ceramic tree on the end table were enough.  


I was better at it as a kid, but I still strive to maintain that seemingly unshakeable contentedness. I’m currently the poster child for the boomerang generation: 30-something. Grad degree. Back living with my parents. I’m working and my business is growing, but money is tight. As I’ve struggled the past 18 months with the fact that this is my reality, I’m constantly reminding myself that this is enough.I have parents gracious enough to accept my home-cooked meals and contributions towards the utilities as rent. I have a bed, a dresser filled with clothes, a car that runs, a cabinet full of food, and a computer on which to make an income.

My life is a little haphazard. If I compare my current reality to the dreams, my life seems to be missing that crowning piece that makes it look complete. But, I know, what I have is more than enough.


Nicole bio YAH

Disorient; reorient.

It’s the Saturday before Advent begins, and a few of us are at church preparing—setting up the wreath with its purple and pink candles, pulling music from files, and rearranging all of the chairs.

Typically, the Advent wreath is the only visual cue that we’ve entered into a new time, a new space. The chairs haven’t been rearranged in our sanctuary since I started coming to this church a decade ago. Who knows how long they had been that way, divided into three sections, the rows straight and predictable? From an aesthetic standpoint, our church is simple, straightforward, unfussy. The people provide the color and complexity.

Now our goal is to draw all of those complex people in, arranging the chairs in a way that makes us more concentrated, more connected.

It’s been a difficult year in our fellowship, in individual ways that spill over into the community, and also in corporate ways, as we’ve gone through a leadership transition. As the year comes to an end, I feel the need for us to be close, shoulder-to-shoulder, like a large family squeezing in around the dinner table.

I start by removing about 20 chairs from the back rows. Churches will always have back rows, and people will always gravitate toward them, but our new back rows will be closer to the front. Then I divide the remaining 100 chairs into two groups rather than three, curving them in toward one another in an asymmetrical swoop that reminds me of the shape children create when drawing ears on the sides of a circular face.

My helper is Josiah, a teenage boy I’ve been close to since he and my youngest daughter were both in kindergarten. It takes us a while to get the new arrangement right. How close can we gather the chairs in without being too close? We consider wheelchairs and walkers used by members of our community, infant car seats and older babies who often play at their parents’ feet during worship. We congratulate ourselves as the new arrangement masks some coffee stains on the carpet, only to discover that different stains, once hidden, have been revealed.

Finally, we “test drive” various chairs we’ve set up, from each vantage point looking at where the musicians’ microphones and stands are, where the Advent candles will be lit, where song lyrics and Bible passages will be projected. At one point, Josiah and I are sitting on opposite ends of the swoop of chairs. We can see each other without turning our heads. We smile and exchange an air high-five across the empty worship space.

*  *  *  *  *

In America, our love for buffers is clear. Just watch as people choose where to sit in any cafe, movie theater, train or bus. Our tendency is to leave one or two open seats between us and “them.” Are we simply respecting the personal space of others or protecting a selfish need for our own? Or do we go through life with an underlying aversion or suspicion of anyone we don’t know?

I suspect most of us aren’t reasoning out complex justifications for where we sit. These buffers have become largely a matter of habit, both personal and social: This is how we do things. This is what people expect. This is why our ancestors came to America in the first place—for space.

But in church?

Even in churches, we are prone to sidling into a row of chairs, smiling kindly at people sitting in the same row, but leaving a seat or two empty between us. Have our world-weary habits seeped into a place that should by definition be counter-cultural? Have we forgotten what this particular gathering is about?

In this place of worship, after all, we have come together to be together. Yes, we have come to worship God, but we could do that alone—at home or walking city streets or sitting in a park. If we are at church, we are there to be together: To step out of the cold. To gather in a way that creates a margin between the despair we hear on the news and the glimmers of hope we have deep within. To recall moments of balance, of a rightness we’ve caught fleeting glimpses of once or twice in our lives. They are just glimpses, but they’re enough to make us long for more.

*  *  *  *  *

On the first Sunday of Advent, we don’t particularly look like a group of expectant people. We straggle in like usual, looking ragtag and weary, even as we exchange smiles and hugs. Most of us might not even be sure why we’re here, but we are here. There is something in this mysterious mix of ingredients we are wondering about or hoping for.

22783562843_175aa231ba_zIn the worship space, the newly arranged chairs are generating some hubbub, waking people up as their minds scramble to translate old habits into a new arrangement. I hear extra murmuring and some uneasy jokes, meant to cover the confusion; a blend of nerves and excitement fills the space.

As people find places to sit, I watch them scoot in to make room, looking down the curve of  newly formed rows to see who might be nearby. It is a small change in the scope of things, but we are seeing things differently. We are disoriented, which is often necessary if any reorienting is to happen.

This is, after all, Advent.

*  *  *  *  *


Kristin bio YAH

The worship space photo in the post is used with permission (and thanks!) to

Having Whiteness

My first clue should have been the way the Assistant Principal immediately recognized me. She turned around from her seat in the first row and smiled, “I just have to tell you about what Juliet said.” My oldest daughter is in pre-k at the local elementary school. We were there for the Christmas extravaganza.

For a split second I was surprised that she knew who I was. I am at work the whole time Juliet is at school. It could have been I was sitting next to my husband, who is around more often. It could have been because my daughter mentioned me recently. Yes, it could have been these things. But more likely it was because my child is the only white kid in  her pre-k class. I’m one of three white moms in the entire school.

The  assistant principal started shaking her head jovially, “That Juliet, I was in her class to observe her teacher and she said to me, ‘I am SO CUTE.’ So I told her, ‘I am so cute too!’ And then she looked at me and said, ‘AND! I am WHITE!’ So I told her, ‘Well I am cute and brown!’”

I chuckled with the woman at the audacity of my oldest. But inside I was cringing a little. My daughter had recently began talking about her whiteness with me. A few weeks earlier, in the kitchen baking cookies Juliet had noticed the flour I had spilled on the counter. “Hey mom, that flour is white.” “Yes, yes it is.” “And us too,” she continued. “Hmm?” I responded, not wanting to lead the conversation.” “Mom, we are white.”

This was not news to me. I know I am white, and I know my kids are white. We live in a predominantly black neighborhood, and for a period of time my husband and I were both teaching at schools that were almost exclusively black. For a white woman, I have spent a lot of time thinking about race. But there, in the kitchen with the spilled flour, I had no idea where we were going with this conversation, so before I handed my four year old a copy of Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria, I thought I would ask her what she already knew.

As casually as possible I asked her, “What do you think that means?” She sighed, exasperated at the question. She pushed her sleeve up and pointed at her arm. “Like this mom” she then pointed at my arm. “You got this too.”

Indeed I did have this, have whiteness. I was still trying to figure out exactly what to tell Juliet about our white skin when it was mentioned in my kitchen. Though I don’t want her to be ashamed of her race, it is a historical fact that white people have often been the oppressor. The basic understanding I tried to give her of Martin Luther King brought that to the forefront pretty quickly. I also did not want to feed her exclusively stories about white people as the freedom giver. I spent my first three years as a teacher unlearning that story myself. I had tried to find some age appropriate books about whiteness and found only books published by the KKK. I couldn’t be the only one dealing with this, could I?

I was pondering all of this again when the lights dimmed and the curtains came up on the elementary school Christmas extravaganza. I sat awestruck and delighted as each group performed. But I was also, often, a little confused. While I recognized the words and music to most of the classic Christmas songs, I was not familiar with any of the versions. My daughter danced to Santa Claus is coming to town sung by The Jackson Five, not Bing Crosby like I am used to. When the beat dropped on the hip hop version of the Sugar Plumb Fairies, the whole audience erupted. I too was delighted, but the explosion of cheers freaked me out a little. I just didn’t know that was a thing you did at a kids’ assembly.

The unfamiliarity of the whole thing, coupled with the conversation I had before the show began, left me feeling alone and confused in an environment I had anticipated being familiar. The cues I knew from my own experiences were missing, and the ones in their place I had difficulty understanding. It was a little lonely, being the only white parents in the room.185965286_38af90fa7b_z (1)

After the show I collected Juliet from behind the stage. I told her what a good job she did, just like every other mom there. She introduced me to all the other kids by name (or just asked them when she forgot). She started each introduction with, “This is my friend….” She hugged her friends goodbye so much I had to bribe her with ice cream to get her out of there. We thanked the teachers and she walked backward out the door, waving and smiling. She loves it at her school, and she really loved that night.

Juliet knows she is white, but she also knows she belongs. I was reminded of the truth that was, even if it didn’t quite feel like it: We weren’t alone; we were welcomed.

* * * * *

AbbyAbby lives and loves in the city of Atlanta. She swears a lot more than you would think for a public school teacher and mother of two under three. She can’t help that she loves all words. She believes in champagne for celebrating everyday life, laughing until her stomach hurts and telling the truth, even when it is hard, maybe especially then. You can find her blogging at accidentaldevotional and tweeting at @accidentaldevo. Abby loves all kinds of Girl Scout cookies and literally burning lies in her backyard fire pit.

Bing Ice Cream photo by Richard Lemarchand.

Setting the Family Table

red-plate I miscounted the place settings for Christmas dinner last year.

As we approached the table to sit down, I saw the extra plate. I quickly whisked it away, returning all the accompanying pieces to their proper place in the kitchen cabinet.

I tried to brush it off as a silly mistake, a “Ditzy Mary!” moment. But, with my face in the cabinet, I brushed the tears off my cheek and took a deep breath.

When I had done the mental tally of plates to set out, I started with five. The same five that I had started with whenever I set the table throughout my childhood: my mom & dad, me, my brother and sister. Then, I added a plate for everyone else who was with us for that meal. Last year, in an unthinking moment, I had included a place setting for my brother. But, my brother no longer had a physical place at the dinner table. Five years ago, he was killed in tragic bicycle accident on a windy California road.

In that flash of realization, with the red plate in my hand, I ached with the memories of our last Christmas with him, the last time that I had seen him alive. Like all of his adult years, several history books had been wrapped under the tree with his name on them. He had been in active flirt mode with a pretty girl, texting her and grinning as he glanced down at his phone. One evening, we sat outside in the brisk winter air and he offered me the sage dating advice: “Get a little more sizzle.” It was the last Christmas of my childhood five.

After a moment of regrouping in the cabinet, I re-joined the table and everyone settled into their seats. Everyone was aware of his absence, having learned to hold their grief in their personal ways. I didn’t need to draw attention to the error I had made.  Perhaps everyone knew and was pretending; perhaps the moment passed unaware.

This year setting the table, my reflexive mental tally was different. Mom and Dad. Me. Sister, brother-in-law, their twins girls. A fundamental shift had taken place.  My sister and her family have become a unit of tally in my head, a number that expands as their family grows. The place of my brother-in-law and those precious girls who call me “Aunt Mary” has become a fixture in my sense of family.

I never knew my brother-in-law and nieces were missing from the family. But, now that they are here, it 10525806_10152577461657943_3529085354067141334_nis plain to see that the family tree has long had the perfect spot for their branches to grow. They have filled a gap we didn’t know existed until they arrived; they have generated love we didn’t know was missing until it was exchanged. Perhaps additional branches are still hiding in the roots of our family tree–my own husband and children? more children for my sister? other branches that will get grafted on in a mysterious way? Only with the passage of time, with the insight of setting the Christmas table for years to come, will those answers make themselves known.

Until then, I am so grateful for those who have a place at the family table.

And so aware of those who no longer do.10620700_10152666817242943_4425648014993846216_n

Searching for a Home, Via Alaska (part 2)

And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?
– T.S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi

Let your beauty manifest itself
Without talking and calculation
You are silent. It says for you: I am.
And comes in meaning thousandfold,
Comes at long last over everyone.
– Rilke, “Initial”
apt xmasAt the risk of proving too dim – more so than usual – how in the world do you even begin a tradition? And how do you decide which traditions to adopt or dismiss? What makes our family traditions lasting, what makes them stick?

These were and are my burning questions this holiday season, beginning – as I described in my last post – this recent Thanksgiving, accompanying me through Christmas yesterday, and traveling with me into the coming New Year. This year I admittedly found myself at a loss. Part of the reason for this conundrum was because, having just flown East for my brother’s wedding in Philadelphia this summer, there was no way to afford another trip from Alaska to the East coast this holiday season. However, I think, too, this mostly-financial matter only forced me to face a deeper, ultimately unavoidable fact of my situation as a single father up here in Alaska, far from Pennsylvania, my home place of origin:

What am I offering these boys, who, at ten and six, are rapidly passing through boyhood and coming of age in a landscape and time period so vividly and markedly different from my own? And how do I attempt or manage to shape anything resembling traditions, for now at least, mostly solo and on too-frequently-limited resources? And how can I deliver legitimate holidays to my boys that don’t blithely or solely coast along the thin surface of the media, Target, or versions of what the day supposedly means?

Over the nearly four years since my sons’ mother and I split up, I found familiar comfort and reliable ease in flying the three of us east to spend the holidays with my family. This effort required little to no thought in my mind, no question of the role I assume or play in the context of extended family, or what I’d be offering Sam and Matt once our plane touched down. Order the gifts early enough online that they’d be at my parent’s house before our arrival and then Sam, Matt, and I would just effortlessly slip into the stream, the flow of everything I’ve inherited throughout the all-American, uber-traditional holidays of my own childhood.

Admittedly, the traditional Bower family Christmas back east has for as long as I can remember also been defined by nothing less than a requisite degree of full blown, manic chaos. Albeit an adorable, welcome brand of chaos, largely because the holidays are perhaps the lone, annual opportunity to find every niece, nephew, sibling, cousin, aunt, uncle, and surviving grandparent reliably collected in one place, even if it is at the price of temporary insanity for all involved.

bower vile family

Jonathan’s Wannabe-Whitman/Thoreau/Teen Wolf phase circa the mid-1990’s

Though an entirely well intended, big-hearted affair replete with randomly occurring acts of familial affection – walloping to near-smothering hugs, earthquaking belly laughs, spontaneous guitar jams and more – the day is no less defined by a never long-sustainable level of noise and borderline confusion. These are riotous events that reliably tax every child’s emotions, ultimately requiring that some assortment of offspring collapse in tears before we can really determine whether the day proved successfully over-stimulating enough or not. Our gatherings have also been annually governed by the persistent din of new devices being fired up or tested, new instruments relentlessly strummed or pounded on, new stereos and/or albums blaring from multiple corners of the room. Of course, someone also always receives the one toy that will send the terrier into a yapping frenzy. It’s a brand of nuttiness that leaves the adults gleefully resigned to caffeinated autopilot from shortly after morning coffee until they can collapse for the rumored winter’s nap at night’s end. By evening, the day’s relentless barrage of good cheer and sugared, fatty foodstuffs and shiny new material possessions and the full brunt of unending social engagement finally reaches critical mass, driving a select batch of us – those too cowardly or soft to live the teetotaler lifestyle of our forebears – to covertly duck into a secret room or to launch out back to grab a nip of an adult beverage. That small band of us pauses and breathes outside, some anxiously grasping for their smokes as we attempt to sit still long enough to raise a glass in the nearest dark space we can find that will afford us a moment’s respite or silence…

Every year in Alaska’s deepest, darkest winter hours, I’ve longed for this single day of unsustainable chaos the way I imagine the polar explorers longed for the affections of their faraway wives and the comforts of home.

The question of traditions and rituals we instill among family – blood relations or adopted or “friend” families – seem to me actually part of the larger question of how you in fact make a home…which is precisely what I’ve circled the wagons trying to do since becoming a single parent a few years ago.

And so, with no ready-made or fixed traditions in place, this holiday season became a kind of riddle, a query lobbed to no one but myself, especially since both my sons, born and raised (so far, mostly) here in Alaska identify no other place they’ve visited or traveled to as home:

What if (huge gulp) we were already home for the holidays?

And, on that notion, what if we started making a day that grew (sanely, maybe even quietly) out of – in the words of Andy Williams, from a Christmas album that has since childhood marked the arrival of the holiday in my mind – “a few of [our] favorite things”? What if we dared test the waters of a new, different stream, perhaps even one that proved a little less chaotic? What then?

sam acolyte xmas eveWe attended the 11pm Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church we frequent, because Sam was scheduled as an acolyte that evening. Afterwards, close to 12:30am, he raced up to me, bleary eyed and still in his robes, and threw his arms around me announcing, “Merry Christmas!”

I drove him to his mom’s and said I’d see him and his brother in the morning. When I woke the next morning, it was snowing. I took a short walk. As I walked through the neighborhood, muted as it was by the snowfall, I remembered out of the blue, for the first time in over twenty years, that one of my English professors once introduced our class to a recording of T.S. Eliot reading his poems. For the first time in as many years, I wanted only to hear Eliot read The Journey of the Magi.

I returned to my apartment, made tea, and found T.S. Eliot reading The Journey of the Magi at the Poetry Foundation’s website. I played it twice. A day was in motion.anchorage out back

The boys’ mother texted that the boys were awake. Good friends texted and invited me to dinner later, an offer that provided a flush of comfort I wasn’t fully aware I even needed then. I loaded the boys’ gifts into the car. It was still snowing and that hush was only periodically interrupted by the melodic trill of waxwings dashing back and forth between trees out front.

Like the snow’s steady drift and accompanying, welcome silence, and the waxwings passing to and fro briskly overhead, this day required nothing of us. That morning, the boys demanded only that I make it to their mom’s apartment with their gifts, pronto. But the day asked nothing, save perhaps only an invitation that we live into the day we were given. There was no script, no prescribed agenda, no long ago-ascribed roles, no demands to be anywhere specific. Not even any clues for how to proceed with the day. The day only unfolded. As perhaps a good and most memorable day may wont to do – “without calculation,” to borrow from Rilke.

In that way, this Christmas was a lot like writing, like starting a new story. As with composing any new story, the writer plays a critical part in its unfolding. But so much in the details and what happens is left to mystery, too. So much so that, as with any story’s beginning, you have no idea, no clear sense of how any of it will end either. Taking that plunge, then, can often prove frightening, or at least initially a little intimidating.

But in that flow, in the quiet stream of unfolding and unknowing yesterday, the whole birthing of the experience proved at moments quietly thrilling and then also terrifying. In that way, the day also resembled the landscape in which we daily find ourselves piecing together our lives, our family – a striking landscape, and a place that my sons know only as home.

ak wish you were here

Wish You Were Here xo, JJB


Out of Place

For me, it was a moment of confirmation.

We were huddled, one last time, around a table. The conference was almost over, but before we left New Mexico, we had a few decisions to make. First order of business: choose the monthly themes.

We were friends, and we were about to become colleagues. Our joint blog, You Are Here (ever heard of it?), was about our diverse places, but it was also about what we had in common. We brainstormed a list.

Food and Place. Family and Place. Work and Place. Nature and Place. Out of Place. Home and Place. Justice and Place. And many, many others… let’s just say that writers like words.

We chose six, and began assigning months to the themes. November was easy. Food and Place was a good fit for Thanksgiving stories. We moved to December, and I waited for the inevitable suggestions: Home and Place, Family and Place, Warm and Fuzzy in Place (okay, that wasn’t on the list).

There was a long pause.

“How about ‘Out of Place’?” someone asked, and there were murmurs of agreement around the table. Yes, December was the perfect month for Out of Place. It was obvious, unanimous. Mary typed it into her laptop. Without further discussion, we moved on to January.

But for a moment I stopped, surprised. I looked around the group, these writers with whom I was about to throw in my lot. No one had even suggested the more traditional themes. Out of Place for the holiday season. Perfect. I grinned and nodded, re-joining the conversation.

These were my kind of people.


It’s a good thing there wasn’t much discussion about December’s theme because I couldn’t have explained why Out of Place seemed so natural, so right. It was more intuitive, a sense in my gut that this theme would give us an authentic way to share during a month that is, oftentimes, full of heightened contradictions and unresolved longings.

And it has.

Scrolling through the stories I see Lisa sitting primly on her new mother-in-law’s couch, pining for the joyous festivities of her own family. I walk through the halls of the nursing home with Kristin “where nothing smells right, sounds right, or feels at peace.” I sit in an unfamiliar pew with Abby, yearning for a sense of belonging that is now past, and keep vigil with Jonathan as he cares for his sick child and tries “to navigate the terrain of single parenthood” without familiar landmarks.

And away from my computer I encounter the same tensions amid the twinkling lights and inflatable snowmen. Our housemates barely sleep, trying to finish up renovations on their almost-home down the street. Another friend, brilliant and talented, endures a seemingly-endless job search. Two of the wisest parents I know struggle to care for a six year old with an auto-immune disease. And many, many others, like Julia in her mourning house, ache for departed loved ones, “trying to find our way to another kind of home where we can co-exist with what is here and what is not.”

What is it about the month of December that makes this tension between what is here and what is not so poignant?


I am not one for figurines, but today I bought one that I have been thinking about for a month. Just after Thanksgiving I discovered Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, perched on the roof of a bus, in our local Ten Thousand Villages store.


When I saw it I remembered the longest bus ride of my life. It was 1997 and I was in Haiti, traveling from Port-au-Prince to a town seven hours to the north. We were packed into seats that belonged in a school bus for kindergartners, six grown-ups across each row, the two middle passengers barely on the seats but so tightly squeezed together that they stayed upright.

These were the good seats. On the roof were those who couldn’t afford to sit inside the bus, clinging to the roof racks amid suitcases and baskets of live poultry. They were, quite literally, hanging on for dear life.

Just like Mary and Joseph with a baby.

Whatever the month of December has become in our culture, the Christian version of the season begins with poor peasants on a journey. Christmas is, at its root, an Out of Place holiday. When I look at the holy family perched on the roof I remember: it is not strange to live amid unresolved tension in the month of December.

And I remember this as well: if they keep hanging on, if they just keep going, they will find joy-and even miracles-along the way.

Between here and there

Going home, for me, involves many of the cozy things you might expect—fires in the fireplace, my mom’s apple pie, snow falling outside the windows while we play board games late into the night. But for the past decade, being at my parents’ house in Michigan has also involved hours spent in a place where I feel least at home: Among the dying.

Yes, we’re all in the process of dying—we walk every day among the living and dying. But death feels so much more palpable and impossible to ignore in the nursing home where my grandmother lives. Grandma turned 100 in May, and is no longer strong enough to make it out of her button-controlled bed into a wheelchair and then into a car for the 15-mile trip to my parents’ house. All of our visiting with her now happens at the nursing home, where nothing smells right, sounds right, or feels at peace.

Last week we visited her on Thanksgiving, a piece of pie in hand to sweeten her day with a taste of home. Grandma was sitting in bed asleep, a spoon still in her hand and dots of bright, abstract chili splatters marking her “bib.” She still feeds herself (mostly, if she can stay awake), she still exercises, pedaling a bike-like device with her hands, and her mind is usually surprisingly sharp.nursinghomeroom

Still, Grandma is 100. It took us a while to wake her up enough to see a spark of recognition in her faded blue eyes, as my dad gently removed the spoon from her hand, dabbing at a bit of chili on her chin with a napkin dipped in her water glass.

As we chatted, we raised our voices to an unnatural level, allowing us to be heard above the TV on the other side of the curtain. At this volume, we were loud enough to attract the attention of Grandma’s roommate Leta, who is tireless in her attempts to get in on our conversation. Leta has Alzheimer’s, and while we hate being rude, engaging her is like opening Pandora’s box: There is no end, which only makes Grandma grouchy. We are her family, and she wants our full attention. We want to give it to her, too. Each time we end a visit, as I kiss Grandma’s cheek goodbye and smile into her eyes, I am forced to inwardly acknowledge this might be our last visit.

*  *  *  *  *

I have never gotten comfortable with the idea of death. Of course, I have plenty of company in that place of discomfort, especially here in America. But even though my aversion to death is common, I’ve still always felt a certain amount of guilt about feeling this way.

The guilt, I suspect, mostly stems from being raised in the church, where there was a sense that, as Christians, we were supposed to “long for heaven”—that heaven was our true home, and God was our true father, and anyone who wasn’t praying for Jesus to return and whisk us all away (somewhere up in the sky with gold-paved streets) was probably not a true Christian.

While death is something I avert my eyes from, aging, so far, has been a good thing. I like being wiser and knowing better who I am with each year—feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin as time passes. I was surprised by how easily I embraced turning 40. It was a celebration of making it through so much and finding myself on the other side more whole and happy than I had ever been. But I assume there is a tipping point, a moment when growing older ceases to be an unfolding and begins to fold back in on itself—a realization that my body doesn’t work like it used to be, and that chronic pain has the power to eclipse joy.

*  *  *  *  *

For now, though, my family is young and we carry that joy around in us, like a bright light that emits warmth for others to bask in. Taking that joy to my grandmother’s nursing home may not be fun or comfortable, but it is our responsibility, even as we long to shrink away from the sights, smells, and sounds of the old and dying.

carolingpicIt has become our tradition when we’re in Michigan for Christmas to sing carols up and down the halls of the nursing home, pushing Grandma in her wheelchair at the front of the parade, where she feels like queen for a day. When she was young—even well into her 70s—Grandma’s trained voice was a beautiful soprano, and she played the piano like a dream. Now, when her family is surrounding her, making music in four-part harmony, Grandma is as close to heaven as she will get on this earth.

We pause and sing for a while to a group of people sitting in the lobby just outside the dining hall. As we finish singing and turn to go, wishing them a Merry Christmas, several of the residents reach out to touch our hands—especially the hands of our three teenage daughters, so young and soft they seem to radiate goodness powerful enough to be contagious. Others seem to have forgotten us, lost in reverie. Their eyes are misty with tears, focused on a faraway spot that takes them beyond the nursing home, beyond place and time. Here, we are all out of place in our own ways, suspended somewhere between young and old, life and death, the now and the not yet.