Category Archives: Fiction

The Pregnable Fortress    

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2016.

John did not like his new home very much. He thought he should like his aunt and uncle, but he didn’t. And he was quite sure his mother’s sister and her husband did not like him very much either. And it was almost Christmas. And mom used to like Christmas before she disappeared after Dad apparently died.

He still did not quite understand what happened. There was talk about bad heroin and angry phone calls about being a terrible mother. He stood in his aunt’s kitchen one time and listened while she walked up and down the hall yelling. She stopped and looked at him blankly when she came around the corner. He walked silently out the back door.

That cold afternoon, he began to build his fortress of solitude.

He had seen one in an old Superman movie and wanted to fly into the ice and hide there. He was already someplace in the wilderness, still not used to the noiseless nights in the mountains after growing up with sirens and voices in the dark.

They had not told him there was a property line, so he assumed the forest spreading out behind him was a safe playground for a ten-year-old. He stepped around prickly bushes and over fallen trees until he came to a gully and a log that was just right to sit on. Without too much thinking, he began to make a fortress out of fallen branches right there.

After a couple of hours he had a roof and space enough to feel like he had a little house. He discovered he was not out of earshot when his aunt finally called him to find his way back to the house in the dusk.

Everyone in the house was always mad or crying — and irritated with his silence. They called it sulking. He called it nothing, as he sat at dinner eating little and closing in further — like his fortress in the woods.

Soon it had walls through which he could barely see. He took some trash bags from the closet and made it so rain did not get in so much. He put more branches over them so it looked to him like a big bush and he was a bushman, far off in the desert where no one could find him.

But someone did find him.

He went into his fortress one afternoon and turned on his flashlight to decide where to put a piece of foam he had found in the neighbor’s trash. On one of the flat rocks he had brought in for a table there was a cookie and a note. “You better wear orange or you are going to get shot.”

He panicked. Someone knew about his hideout! Someone had been in his fortress. Someone was going to shoot him. There were other people in this forest and one of them could fit through his doorway.

Maybe someone was spying on him right now! He carefully drew back the towel he found in the rag box that served as his door, peeked his head over the edge of the gully and looked around. He wasn’t sure who to be afraid of more: whoever was going to shoot him or whoever was watching him – maybe they were the same person.

He saw no one in the quickly-darkening December light. The forest was smoky and wet, and suddenly he felt very cold and alone. He went into his hut and wondered whether to tear it all down and give up. He ate the cookie.

The next day school was even more annoying than ever. He had been in his class just a short time. Being the new kid was bad enough. But the teacher would not leave him alone. The fact that she felt sorry for him made him feel things and he did not want to feel.

Then his classmates became emboldened and started questioning him. When he answered with one word or angrily told them to go away, one boy mocked him with a loud voice. “Oh, so we have a baby in our class. It’s the fourth grade, baby.” He was glad it was the last day before the break.

That day, when he went to his fortress, he did not know what to expect. He wore an orange vest that was too big for him that he found in the shed with the fishing poles. He drew back his towel and shined his flashlight around the shelter, finding his rock table. Nothing. He lay down on his foam bed and went cold. The darkness seemed to wrap around him like some damp, new skin. He closed his eyes and let it take him.

The next day he did not wear his vest. He did not care if he got shot. When he got to his fortress, he almost kicked it. He wanted to take a big rock and throw it through the roof. He wanted to hurt something or someone. But he didn’t. He just crawled in with a grunt of irritation and slumped down on his foam and looked at the dim light seeping through the spaces between his branches, filtering under the trash bags.

Before long, his eyes were acclimated enough to see the contours of his wooden cave. On his rock table was a sparkle. He turned his flashlight on it and saw a small angel ornament made of thin gold metal. There was another note on top of the first one: same paper, same writing. “This place needs a little Christmas. Hang me up.”

He was not sure whether to be terrified or elated. Someone was waiting for him to leave before they invaded his space. They knew about him but he did not know about them. They liked him.

That night he ate a piece of chicken. His aunt cried. She suddenly got up and left the table with her napkin on her nose. He silently looked at his uncle. His uncle gave him another piece.

It was almost Christmas and dad was still dead and mom was still gone somewhere no one would say. At his new house no one played Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer over and over. No one ever came home and acted silly and danced with him until they fell on the couch laughing and then sleeping. No one came home with little presents that never got wrapped saying, “I could not wait until Christmas when I saw this in the store.”

Instead, there was a very neat Christmas tree with white lights and ornaments that were all red. The packages were all wrapped with the same paper. He avoided that room and usually went to bed after dinner unless they made him watch TV in the den.

Mostly he went to his fortress of solitude.

There were no further angels, just the one hanging at the very top of the ceiling from a twig. He would shine his flashlight on it and watch the reflections. He knew very little about real angels or even if there were real angels. But he began to believe in this one. He even talked to it sometimes. One time he whispered, “I hate everyone and they hate me.” The angel was silent. He shouted it, “I hate them and it doesn’t even matter!” The angel did not reply. But he did not get the feeling it did not care.

The next day was Christmas Eve, mom’s favorite day of the year. People were coming to his uncle’s house. He had to take a bath and wear special clothes his aunt bought. He had to be introduced to a bunch of people he did not know, to whom he did not speak or even smile. His uncle told him he had to do it before they got there and he was too afraid to resist. But inside he wanted to scream, “Do not touch me!”

Before long they drank enough wine to be loud and unaware, so he quietly slipped out the back door and headed into the deep dark of the forest. He took a blanket and wrapped himself against the cold.

His flashlight made a beam that caught the eyes of a deer off in the distance. He did not care if an animal got him. Just as he arrived at his fortress he heard a crack nearby. He froze with fear. Then the sound of hooves and running — he wildly threw his light toward the noise. He thought he saw a flash of orange, but he could not be sure. By then the sound was far away.

He climbed into his dark, dark house and shut the door. He lay on his foam and shivered under his blanket. Dad. Mom. Mom. Mom. Alone. Alone. Cold. Crying.

He had not cried at his father’s graveside memorial. It was chaotic and felt embarrassing. And people kept shuffling him from here to there. He could barely remember what happened. The tears leaked out of the corners of his eyes. He could feel the cold streambeds on his cheeks. No sobbing. No release, just an overflow of sadness in his isolated hut, surrounded by fearsome, unknown things.

He lay there a long time listening to his breathing settle down until he could feel himself exhale warm clouds that were already cold by the time they settled on his nose.

He wondered if he had really seen orange in the woods and looked at his stone table. There was a piece of candy. At least he thought it was candy. He had never seen anything like it. A third note was on top of the others, “Jesus will be born tonight. God sees us. Have a sweet.”

He lay back down and set the sweet on his chest. He wanted to eat it but he didn’t. He felt like he would spoil his appetite for anger if he ate that candy. He felt like he would betray his dead father and his lost mother if he sat in his solitude, free of them, eating sweets. And he knew they would like to share his sweet. So he fell asleep that way.

He awoke with a start and sat up, disoriented. People were shouting his name. He could see light beams crossing his walls. He realized he had fallen asleep in his fortress, which was about to be discovered. He lunged for the door, ready to meet them before they got too close.

Before he could leave he remembered the candy. It had been on his chest. He frantically shined his flashlight on the floor, threw the blanket on the table, stirred leaves. He was desperate.

Finally, he spotted it, just a little brown thing that looked much like the other brown things in his fortress of solitude. He sat on his heals for a few seconds, kneeling in the dirt, breathing hard, candy cupped in his hands, head bowed.

He stuffed it in his mouth and bolted through his towel.

A bus full of dogs — Part 4

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part four of four parts for the fourth Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.
Part Two – The Bible and his Canterbury story open him up to respond positively to Gabe’s invitation. Then the dog eats his story and his sister completes hers.
Part Three — Joseph has a terrible day but goes to the party anyway where he meets a nice girl. Then mom and dad show up.

Joseph had a long ride home and an even longer night. His mother was beside herself when he could not be found. And when she got into the safety of her own home, Dad could no longer restrain her out-of-body experience. Joseph had very little to say. He was caught red-handed and was fully humiliated. His parents picked him up at the party, which someone was sure to have seen. So much for Mary Jo and so much for ever being invited somewhere again. At the moment, his mother’s distress meant very little, since nothing bad had really happened. He was fine, sober, and back in custody.

He slept like a rock. But he woke up with a start before anyone screamed or nudged him. He looked around his room by the light of the neighbor’s floodlight and could not immediately remember where he was. It all seemed a bit new. He got up and took a shower, which he never did in the morning because he never had time. He got dressed and penitentially opened up another box to unload.

Soon Dad came in and Joseph looked at him with a with an almost-smile, like a tentative dog. His story-eating dog had followed him up the stairs and was much less tentative. He scratched her ears while Dad said, “I’m taking the day off and so are you. You are in English class all day. Finish your story and bring it to me before dinner.”

He could not remember much about his previous, dog-eaten story. At this point it seemed pretty dumb anyway. But anything he came up with today was bound to be dumb because he was dumb and everyone was stupid and his whole life was stupid. Nevertheless, he knew his father was going to make this work for his mother, who was apparently forbidden to talk to him just now, which was good. So he decided since nothing was going to work out anyway, he might as well just do whatever. By 3:30 he had two pages to give to Dad. He fell asleep. It was already dark when Dad came in. “JoJo wake up,” he gently whispered and nudged him.

He rolled over and told him, “It’s on the desk.”

So Dad went to the desk, sat down and started to read. “I am not sure I can see the pencil that clearly” — which meant he couldn’t read his handwriting or figure out what was written over the eraser smudges. “So I am going to read it out loud so you can correct me.” It was awkward not to get yelled at.

Joseph said, “OK,” took a breath, and sat on the edge of his bed. Dad read with as much expression as he could.

A Bus Full of Dogs

It was the second-to-last day before Christmas break and the bus was loading up for the rowdy ride to school. When the driver opened the door, dogs burst through in their school uniforms. The uniform fit German Shepherds well. Bull Dogs looked like bulldogs in it. And nothing fit Chihuahuas. Pomeranians refused to wear it at all and just came in naked fur, thinking they looked marvelous, which always got them in trouble, but you try to tell them what to do.

One dog got on the bus last, as usual. Nobody knew what kind of dog he was and neither did he. He was one of those dogs. He had giant paws from some ancestor and a skinny hindquarter from another. His uniform fit him OK, but nobody cared because they never really looked at him anyway.

Jesus shut the door behind him. Jesus was driving the bus because it was Christmas and he wanted the ride to be special.

The last dog had to sit by the drooling St. Bernard no one else would sit by because she was too big and could not resist licking. She did not resist this day either.

The dogs were very excited for the second-to-last day. Several had bits of Christmas paper stuck on their mouths where they had already been gnawing on presents. Others had cinnamon on their breath from stealing cookies off cooling racks.

Who knows how these things happen? But at one point a Pit Bull leaped from his seat in the back of the bus and latched on to a Poodle’s ear. She shrieked with such terror that everyone started barking and other dogs started biting. A Rottweiler pulled out a sword and stabbed a Russian Wolfhound. A Bloodhound and a Huskie began to howl together.

The bus began to swerve as Jesus tried to see what was going on in his big rearview mirror. He slammed on the brakes and all the dogs tumbled somewhere and looked up at him, dazed. He stood at the front of the bus facing them with his arms raised. “Peace. Be still.”

Every dog who saw him had eyes that swirled around like the teacups in Fantasyland. There was no more barking. It was like they got a shot of something before an operation.

The only dog that didn’t see him was the last dog. He was laying under a seat, half-conscious. The giant St. Bernard had immediately pounced on him when the fight started. He thought she might have broken his ribs. He tried to get somewhere, but someone grabbed on to his tail. Just as he jerked it out of their jaws, he head-butted a Pug who was flying overhead. He fell to the floor, dazed, and crawled under a seat.

That’s where he was when the bus stopped and Jesus said, “You can get off. Merry Christmas.” As the dogs filed off obediently, tails between their legs, Jesus kept saying, “Father forgive them because they don’t know they’re barking up the wrong tree,”  which their own fathers had already warned them not to do.

The last dog was too afraid and too dizzy to get off the bus. He was afraid of Jesus too. So he just stayed under the seat. When Jesus took the bus back to the bus lot, he was still there when he locked the door. He got up and peaked around the little barrier by the steps to look at him walking away like Gandalf, talking to the sky and going wherever Jesus goes. He went back under his seat because he didn’t know what else to do. He went to sleep.

The next day it was still dark when he heard the bus door open. He got startled and hit his head on the bottom of the seat. Jesus heard it ding and said, “Who’s there?” The last dog said nothing. “I can hear you breathing,” Jesus said. “I basically know everything, you know.” The last dog stayed hidden. “I can smell you. I know exactly how you smell.” The last dog looked at his paws and shivered. Jesus got down on all fours and went sniffing along the bus floor until he got to his row. He slowly turned his head and looked him right in the eyes. “At last, I have found you, Wonderdog,” he said.

For some reason, the Last Dog stopped shivering and his head stopped hurting.

 “You must be hungry,” Jesus said. “I made cinnamon rolls for 5000 dogs one time. You probably heard about that.”   

 The End

Dad sat for a minute and breathed kind of funny. It felt like a long time. He rubbed his eye. Joseph thought he might have to write the story over.

He finally looked up and said, “I hope this is the first of many stories you tell, JoJo. You are quite a wonder dog, son.”





A Bus Full of Dogs — Part 3

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part three of four parts for the third Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Pin on Cute

Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.
Part two – The Bible and his Canterbury story open him up to respond positively to Gabe’s invitation. Then the dog eats his story and his sister completes hers.

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” Joseph fumed in his overheated brain as he put on his coat and realized the sleeves were inside out from when he ripped it off the day before. His brother pointed this out gently because he knew the look.

With several “Ughs!” he fixed the coat and groaned out the door without saying good-bye. He hoped to get ahead of his brother and sister and be alone for the trudge to the bus stop. A big problem with their out-of-town house was riding the bus, which his parents found sensible since they already paid taxes for it and the world did not need an extra car trip due to global warming and, “Be sure to watch out for you sister,” etc. “Mph!” Their particular bus made stops at all the schools, from elementary to high school, since there were less people as far out as they lived. So they had to get up early and he had to have his elementary sister on his bus. And this sister intended to sit with you.

His brother and sister caught up as he stomped along the road. “What’s wrong with you?” Johanna asked.

“Ugh!” he answered.

“Was it the dog? You ran out!” his brother, Mark, offered.

“Stop talking” he grunted.

“Maybe this is about your coat,“ mused Johanna. “That happened to me once at school and Cecily Barnstable snickered in a mean way. She dropped her pencil case the other day and I said nothing. Then that cute new boy from New York picked it up and she turned all red.” Joseph let out a long groan. Fortunately, the bus came around the corner a few blocks down and they needed to run.

They got on the bus in birth order. The seats in their usual row were empty. Mark thoughtfully sat on the other side of the aisle. But Johanna decided to sit with Joseph. “Seriously? Sit with Mark.”

“I’m not supposed to get up when the bus is moving,“ she said righteously.

Two stops away, Gabe got on looking a bit frightening and strangely handsome. Very few kids looked at him directly, but very few missed him stopping by Joseph’s seat and giving him a folded up piece of notebook paper. “See you later,” he said. Then he went to the back of the bus.

Joseph did not open the note to find Gabe’s address until second period. At the awkward moment he got the paper he just thought, “You make invitations?”

Right now, he had to deal with his sister. JoJo asked, “You know Gabe? I know his sister. She’s going out of town.” Joseph put up a hand. She halted with a huff.

It was a terrible day. He wandered around like he was in the dark, periodically blinded by the light, like when he saw Miriam Parker outside General Humanities. But that was brief. All day he wondered why he was fated to be himself. “Did the dog eat my story because I let her roam? Was it punishment for being a jerk to mom? Is it because I hate JoJo? Do I have something wrong with me? Is everyone going to hate me? Am I going to end up like Gabe if I go to this party? If there is a hell, will I go to it for lying to my parents?” There was a lot going on.

By the time he got to the afternoon, he didn’t really want to go to the party. But he was embarrassed when he thought about what he would say if he didn’t go. So after school he walked fast, trying to stay off the main road all the way, a long way from school, trying to keep his mind blank. But he was also half-excited to be doing something new and wrong. The door to Gabe’s house was cracked open, so he went in.

He half-knew most of the people like he recognized most people in town. Gabe handed him a beer with a conspiratorial look that silently included, “Don’t be afraid.” So he had his first beer in his hand. He sat in a not-too-central place and started working on the nasty fist-full. About a quarter way through the can, a girl who looked quite a bit less nerdy than he felt, sat next to him with an unopened beer. Joseph was feeling unlike himself enough for an unusual word to pop into his mind: maidservant.

“My name is Mary Jo,” she said. “I’m kind of new in town. I don’t think I’ve met you yet.”

“That’s weird,” he said.  “My dad calls me JoJo and my mother’s name is Mary” And he thought, “Why did I tell her that?”

She said, “That is weird. So what’s your name?”

“Oh yeah,” he said with a slight blush. “I’m Joseph.” From then on, the party got much better. She even got him to play darts with her in the basement. He even laughed. There was a moment he even looked her in the eyes.

Right after they locked eyes, his phone started vibrating in his pocket. He got it out just in time to see the last image of his father flicker off the screen. He thought of not calling him back, since he was bussing tables and all. But his father almost never called him, so something terrible might have happened and he would miss it because he’d been drinking beer at an illegal party. He called him back just in case.

“What’s up dad?” He tried to sound busy.

“We’re outside Joseph. You need to come out.”

“You’re outside? Where?” he asked.

“Outside Gabe’s.”

“Uh. OK.” Then he prayed his second prayer in so many days, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

He opened the front door barely wide enough to get through so no one inside would see them. And there they were at the end of what turned out to be a very, very long front walk. When he got to them, his fury-faced mom took a deep breath. Without a word, Dad took her hand and she deflated. “I got off a little early, so I went by the café for a cup of coffee,” he said. “Johanna thought you might be here. Their address is actually searchable. So we found you.“

That girl could really read between the lines. He got in the backseat.

A Bus Full of Dogs — Part Two

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part two of four parts for the second Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

In  Part One – Joseph wanted to sit in his big new room and toss shoes, but mom and dad were dragging him into Christmas because the grandparents were coming – and expecting a story.

The next morning, Joseph vaguely heard mom screaming. But he managed to block the sound out with his pillow. Dad startled him when he lightly touched his shoulder and whispered, “JoJo, get up.”

He had a love/hate relationship with the nickname JoJo. Dad could not part with it, but he felt obligated to act like he ought to. Besides, his much younger sister was named Johanna and now that little usurper was called JoJo. As with everything, she wore the name proudly.

“OK. I’m coming.” It was still dark. He was still basically asleep. He had stayed up in his new room where someone could stay up until who knows when. And since his alarm clock was still in a box, he did not know when.

The main reason he decided to stay up was to get the story out of the way. He took a while to find the Bible he had been gifted one Christmas, probably by Grandmother. He looked up the story in the index, which was nice to have, since he had no idea where to look. He got to Matthew and there were no angels in the sky as expected. So he Googled Christmas and got to  Wikipedia.

It took a while to get through article, since it had a bunch of blah blah about the solstice and such. A lot of it he had never heard of. But he did see why he needed Luke and not Matthew if he wanted shepherds and angels.

He sort of skimmed most of it. But one section on-down-a-ways (as Dad might say) caught his eye when he saw the word “riots.” He did not quite know who Puritans were — apparently stick-up-the-you-know-where-Christians, who took over England and banned Christmas in 1647.  Their opponents occupied a city called Canterbury and had a big in-your-face party full of banned traditions like roasting apples on a fire (oh yeah, that needed banning), card playing, and some dance with “plowboys” and “maidservants” that sounded kind of pornographic. All sorts of people were singing the old Christmas songs in secret all over the country. This made Christmas carols seem much more attractive.

So he decided to write his story about 1647 in Canterbury. He made a rather elaborate outline, so he would not forget any of his ideas. It was about a Puritan boy who is kidnapped and taken to Canterbury (he did not have a clear motive for this crime in mind, but it still seemed like a good plot point). Once there, he escapes and tries to tell people Christmas has been banned and other kids beat him up. He gets threatened by a sword (since they surely had swords) and eats a roast apple for the first time, too (his tongue might get burned since that often happened to him in similar situations). He had yet to get Jesus in there much, but he had time to think about it. The whole outline was about a page long which made him proud.

The story was, actually, the second reason he was up late. The first reason he was even awake was a text from Gabe at around 11:30. Gabe was his secret friend because there was no way Mom and Dad would ever approve of him after one look. Even Joseph was concerned the first time he sat by him on the bus. He was a bit from the dark side — usually black clothes, out of the norm hair, odd accessories, a piercing. To his surprise, in the dark of night, the unusual Gabe appeared on the rather usual Joseph’s phone to invite him to an after school party. It was not OK to go to such a party, but he said he would go. It was in Gabe’s empty house, which was also very not OK, but he said OK. He thought of Joseph in Matthew having something come upon him in the night and telling him not to be afraid. So he decided to see what it was all about and not be afraid.

Then next morning, when he went down to avoid eating breakfast and get on his way, he told his parents he got called in to work at his random after school job bussing tables. Someone was already out for the holidays. They said, “Fine.” They’d save him a plate.

Just then, one of the dogs came into the kitchen with a quarter of his story outline in her mouth. He ran upstairs but never found the other pieces. Mom screamed. “Joseph, it is time.”

Right when he got back to the kitchen, his sister came in and presented mom with her finished story. “Look, I made some pictures too,” she purred.

“That’s wonderful, JoJo,” Mom said.  JoJo looked at him and smiled.

Continued next Sunday…

A Bus Full of Dogs — Part One

Every year I write a Christmas story to share with the family. This year I decided to “go Dickens” and publish it in installments. So here is part one of four parts for the first Sunday of Advent. I hope you enjoy it. 

Joseph had a new bedroom and it was very large. Finally, he did not have his brother cleaning things up all the time and he could get some rest. He could take his shoes off and not get yelled at because his feet were (admittedly) stinky.

Right now, he had his shoes off and he was sitting on his desk chair holding a shoelace, swinging a big sneaker three (and only three) times and then lofting it clear across his huge room into an empty box. The box had been full of clothes until his mother forced him to put them away. He told her, “You packed it so well, why can’t I just use the box?”

She said, “You can put them away just as neatly.”

He said, “Why did you pack them to move up one flight of stairs?’

She left with “You’ll see you father shortly.”

He called after her, “No need. I’m moving.” He eventually moved.

His only movement now was reluctantly getting up every two shots because he had yet to miss the box with either shoe. This finesse was unexpected. It was nice. But it did require he get off the chair and retrieve his shoes. His arm was actually getting a bit tired. Size 14 ½ shoes are surprisingly heavy. But he could not stop until he missed. And not missing had the added benefit of effectively avoiding his latest assignment.

Joseph was supposed to write a Christmas story, which seemed a little ironic, him being named Joseph and all. What’s more, his mother’s name was Mary, which was also a little ironic, if not awkward. Dad’s name was Mitch. It was not surprising that Dad’s parents were not the grandparents showing up for Christmas this year, for like the second time since he was in second grade. He could hardly even remember the last time. They always went to see his mom’s parents at their spectacular house in Maine during the summer. But they usually stayed in Florida during the winter. At least he thought it was Florida.

Joseph was not well-known for paying attention. So Grandma and Papa (accent on the end) could be anywhere at any given time. But they were scheduled for Christmas. Mom was a little anxious about the whole visit. Thus, his clothes needed to be stowed. Her parents wrote books for a living. Since they were successful at it, they needed no present s for Christmas and made that very clear. The only gift they wanted was a Christmas story from each kid. They thought that “would be very charming,” is how Mom put it. He felt a bit of pressure, being the oldest. So instead of feeling pressure, he was throwing a giant shoe into a box in his smelly room.

Dad came up to check on progress, huffing and puffing a bit after three floors. He was not as thin as he used to be. “Can you believe what’s happening in Ukraine?” he asked.

“What?” A shoe dangled from his finger.

“You have to know about Ukraine,” he said.

“I haven’t been following it that much.” He knew everything about Ukraine, but he did not feel like chatting with Dad about it.

“Your mom says you are avoiding your story.”

“Not really.” But how did she know these things? He hardly knew that himself!

“Look. I know this is a hassle. But your mom is going through some personal stuff right now and a lot of it has to do with her mom. I won’t bore you with the details. But it would be nice if you showed up a bit. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but it would be good if it had some religion in it. They are very Christian, and it is a Christmas story. You want some help with some ideas or something?”

He had to admit it. Dad could be very helpful. “No. I’m good.”

“OK. I’ll leave you to it. You do know it is Christmas Eve in three days, right? And you have to go to school for two of them?”

“Yes. I know.” He knew slightly. But now he had Christ all over everything and it was kind of freaking him out. “Jesus!” he did not say out loud.

Continued next Sunday…

Achmed the Angel — 2017

We invite each other to write a Christmas story every year. Here is mine from 2017 after a trip to California and a year of concern about Syria.

Achmed noticed the old nun sitting in the bus shelter on Brookhurst. This was not unusual since an assortment came to the stop in their unmistakable outfits. Even though she was clear across the parking lot, he could tell she was the same one he saw at the Thrift Store when he was there with his Auntie the previous week — she was the shortest and roundest of them all. At the time, he was showing his mother’s sister and her little children around the shops. They were just in from Lebanon and he was helping them get acquainted with the neighborhood.

Now he saw the nun from his perch on a stack of pallets in front of the grocery store as he attempted to do as little as possible. He was acting like he was not slyly watching people. But he carefully scanned the streetside boundary of the strip mall where his parents had a restaurant fronting on the back lot. He had a feeling his father might kill him if he were caught with a toe off the property, but he enjoyed seeing as far through the boundary as he could. He looked and looked for hours. He also needed a reason not to venture into the back lot, where one of his busy parents would find something for him to do. For instance, he was good at peeling cucumbers, even though he was only nine, and his mother did not mind who knew about it. But he did not want to peel cucumbers. They felt slimy.

The restaurant was doing well enough. He knew this because his parents yelled about how much money each of them was spending and what exactly should be bought for the new baby on the way. There was a lot of fighting. In a way, the name of the restaurant: Aleppo, was a good name, since it often seemed like it was the site of a civil war. Achmed knew all about the war in Syria because his aunt and uncle, who had just arrived, told them all about it. New refugees had basically crowded his uncle out of Lebanon, so he had to come to little Syria in Anaheim.

No one who worked at Aleppo had actually lived in Aleppo. His father was from Jordan, but mainly from the United States. His mother was from Lebanon. She’d been to Aleppo as a teenager, before the war started, and before pictures of starving people and bombed out buildings made everyone cry. Aleppo was an old city. He had heard this over and over when she told the story to old Americans with nice clothes and careful haircuts who came to the restaurant because they had never had Syrian food yet. Aleppo was Turkish, Armenian, Lebanese and who knows what else all mixed together with a cuisine all its own. Aleppo was like a jewel, combining all the many lights of ancient peoples.

So they had a new jewel in Anaheim, a little pocket of memories in a strip mall along with a barbershop, a hookah parlor, a little grocery — which was one of the few places you could find old copies of Lebanese newspapers, and a store where Muslims could buy clothes. Technically, Achmed’s family were Muslims and they did Eid and Ramadan in their own way. But his father did not go for praying and did not own Muslim clothes. He said, “I did not come to America to stay in Jordan.” But when the Imam came to the restaurant for lunch he acted Muslim enough.

Achmed saw a lot and heard a lot. He was quiet and stayed off the radar as much as possible. There were not a lot of kids his age in the families who managed the shops. And since he could not go off the premises, it was somewhat difficult to have friends among the native Americans, many who spoke Spanish and thought he was weird, and many who were as white as Disneyland and stared at him like he was in a display case.

The bus came by and the nun did not get on it. Pretty soon another came by and she still did not get on. Achmed was curious. He secretly thought she might be dead like a character on TV. He had never seen a dead person and did not want to, really. But he also did not want to tell his father there was a dead nun in the bus stop if she were not really dead. So he quietly went across the parking lot and stood right outside the shelter like he was waiting for a bus. His mother would have rather died than see him get on a bus, but he did not expect the nun to know that; besides she might be dead.

He turned his head ever so slightly so his eyes could see her from their farthest right corners. Was she breathing?

She was not only breathing, she was crying.

This scared him mightily. The nuns, dressed in their black and white armor, seemed impervious to bad things. But this nun was proving to be surprisingly human. He could not help himself, and he felt responsible for the honor of strip mall. So he went over and sat on the bench next to her.

She did not immediately see him. But when she turned to get a Kleenex from her sleeve, she was startled. She took off her eyeglasses, wiped her eyes and looked at him more carefully. “You must be an angel,” she cried.

Achmed did not know a lot about angels, so he let that pass. “I saw you crying,” he said.

“And why wouldn’t I? The world is full of sorrow and I have almost no idea where I am!”

“You are on Brookhurst” he said.

“Yes, so the bus says. But I have forgotten my way home. I have become too old to be of any use to a needy world. I have been sitting here waiting for someone to find me and so you did. God must have sent you like a little Jesus to save an old lady.”

Achmed had even less idea of Jesus than angels, although he had heard the Imam say “Isa be praised” a few times.

“Aren’t you a nun?” he asked.

She straightened her habit and said, “What was your first clue?” And for the first time she smiled. “What is your name?”


“I don’t think I have ever seen a more handsome angel. Would you like to save my life?”

Before he thought clearly he said, “I guess so.”

“All you have to do is get me home.”

“But I don’t know where you live, either.”

“Oh, you probably do. You’ll have to think about it. It can’t be far or why would I be here?”

That made sense, somehow. So he said, “OK. Let’s go.” He got up and so did she. When she got up she was not much taller than he was.

“You are not very tall are you?” she said. He wasn’t. Then she took his hand in hers. Achmed looked back at the barbershop to see if anyone was looking.

He usually saw the nuns coming from the direction of the fireworks at Disneyland, to which he had never thought of going. So he crossed Brookhurst. He figured it was OK since he was with an adult. The nun took his arm in the crosswalk like they were husband and wife.

There were two white girls on the far corner. He decided to ask them where the nuns lived. But as soon as they saw him they started laughing. By the time they got across the street, one of them said, “A penguin and a terrorist. Merry Christmas!” Then they ran off laughing.

“Those were nasty little girls. You’ll have to pray for them after you save me,” she said.

They kept walking, even though he had no idea whether they were really going the right direction. Halfway down the block an older man was up on a ladder putting up Christmas lights. He couldn’t see anyone else, so Achmed took the nun up his walk.

“Hello?” he softly said.

The man dropped his lights and grabbed on to his ladder. He looked down on the two little people on his walk and said, “What are you two doing here? You scared me to death.”

“Do you know where the nuns live? This one’s lost.”

He looked at her and she smiled back through her glasses. “No. I make it a practice not to know where nuns live.” And he turned back to his lights.

So they kept going. It seemed like a long way. Pretty soon they were at Euclid Street and Achmed thought he might forget where he lived, too.

She noticed the puzzled look on his face. “God is with you wherever you are,” she said.

“That’s nice. But I’m not sure where you live.”

“I know. It is quite terrible isn’t it? But you shine like a star. I suspect you will figure it out.”

He stood on the corner stuck to a nun who thought he was a star. This was only the first time in his life he would be in over his head. But he did not know how that felt yet. It was terrible.

Just then a Honda van rolled up and out burst three more penguins. They all started praising God, one in Spanish, “Gloria a Dios! Gloria a Dios!”  One in some Asian language, “Vinh danh Thánh Chúa trên trời,” and one in English. “Thank God! Sister Clare, we found you, you naughty woman! We will need a tracking device soon.”

They hugged and kissed and then did it all again.

Sister Clare wrested herself free of their clutches and straightened her habit a bit. She formally turned to Achmed with a little bow, and directed their attention to him with a sweep of her hand. “Sisters, I would like to introduce Achmed the angel. He graciously decided to save me.” They descended upon him.

He did a respectful amount of wriggling, and protested, “I really did not do anything. I don’t really know where you live.”

“We will show you!” And they dragged him into the van.

“Oh my god,” he thought. “I will never see my parents again. I should be peeling cucumbers right now.”

They were only on the road for a minute. “Here it is. We would let you in, but we don’t allow men in.”

“But he is an angel,“ protested Sister Clare, “And I have a tin full of cookies from Michigan.”

The nun who seemed like the leader was having a theoretical problem. “He is obviously a male angel.” She turned to him with a jolly but inquisitional attention, “Where do you live?”


“Isn’t that in Syria?”

“No it’s on Brookhurst.”

Sister Agnes took him home in the van.

When they reached the strip mall she turned to him with tears in her eyes, “Thank you so much for caring for Sister Clare. She used to love this entire area so well. She would still like to do it. But she can’t keep her mind on it anymore. Here, have a sucker. She handed him a red tootsie pop and he popped out the door. She roared out of the parking lot, assuming cars were going to stop. They did.

He sat back down on his pallets and determined to never tell his parents one bit of what had just happened. That would work out as long as no one in the nail salon saw him take a tootsie pop from a nun; if they did, everyone would know within half an hour. He decided it would take about a half hour to dissolve the sucker, so he unwrapped it.

The only problem was, on December 24 his mom came into the restaurant and yelled, “Achmed!” He turned away from the futbol rerun he was watching and saw that she had a shiny red and green package in her hand. She came right up to him as soon as she saw him and showed him the tag. “Do you by any chance know anyone named Achmed the Angel?”

“Um. Uh. I have no idea?”

“Your friends the nuns were glad to meet your mother. One of them took one look at me and called me Mary, then gave me this.” She held up another red tootsie pop.

The Last Christmas Eve of the Past

“Maybe it was not such a good idea to meet for Christmas Eve,” he thought. The virus still raged. Everyone was told not to fly. He flew anyway. Then there was a nor’easter and his rental car had to plow through the last few miles to Grandmother’s house in Western Massachusetts. The “GPS knows the way to carry the sleigh,” kept running through his mind as the wipers tried to keep up with the downpour. When he finally burst into the house he expected his sister to already be there. Now he was worried she’d never get there at all, even though she was just coming from New York.

There was still a bit of evidence of the funeral meal they’d hosted in August. They had made an incomplete job of cleaning up the house they had inherited — and the caretaker kept it warm, not clean. As he put his gym bag on the dining room table, he looked around and realized he had made an incomplete job of saying goodbye, too. He slowly took in a very empty house, something like the body one sees in a casket at the viewing. The spirit just wasn’t there. This was his first real visit to the past.

The best part of his past, his sister Mary, was yet to arrive. His parents had named their only children, the twins, Joseph and Mary. It was never as funny as people thought it was. And their parents did not think it was funny at all. They lived a very serious life. They had died during one of their mission trips to South America, studying on site so they could translate the Bible into yet another indigenous language. They were in the back of a pick-up, their kids were told. It was too big for the burro track it was on and the cliffside gave way. It took months to retrieve and ship their bodies. Now they were buried — inseparable in death as in life, in the ancient family plot behind Grandmother’s house, now the twins’ house.

Joseph loved the inside of the house. His sister loved the outside, every part of the ten acres. But they were not really sentimental about it. The property felt like a burden for the most part. It mostly reminded them of being teenage sojourners with no place to stay — it had been one of their stops. Their parents had not expected to die, for some reason, since they spent an entire adulthood risking their lives. And they made no provision for their young teens should it happen. The twins were surprised with the bad news by the headmasters of their respective boarding schools. They spent the rest of their teen years going from relative to relative, mostly in New England. Winter breaks were spent with Father’s mother in the big Victorian farmhouse. So Christmas belonged to Grandmother. It was always Grandmother and Grandfather just as he was always Joseph, never Joe, never Joey — and certainly not Jo Jo!

Grandmother attended to propriety, but she was never a very attentive caregiver. The same year as their parents, Grandfather died and she became even more distant. Her last fifteen years were spent deteriorating with her house. It was like her cell membrane dissolved and she merged into indefinition. The men in her life had apparently been in charge of faith, because she realized she did not have any. She did not say anything about it, but the Christmas ornaments were slowly culled of angels and manger scenes and the exiled pieces were replaced with glass balls designed to reflect light without having any meaning of their own. They once found a box of lonely pieces in the attic.

As he waited, Joseph gravitated to his favorite room in the house where he had spent many hours alone — nursing his attachment wounds and avoiding his grievances. The dusty library was all his after Grandfather died. Grandmother barely touched it. He loved the novels, shelves of them.

But the book that probably made the most impact on him was an old hardback he found of not much more than 100 pages called Joseph the Dreamer. It was a short book because it had a small point: We all have a dreamer in us and the two Josephs that figure prominently at the beginning of the Old and New Testaments represent how primary this energy is in us all. Our dreams are the well-evolved capacity in us for spiritual experience. They are the doorway through which everyone can enter into their inner dialogue with God.

In the Bible, both Josephs are on a journey of becoming. They are both led beyond their ordinary sense of self — the sense of “I am;” I am myself, which is just the shoreline of the ocean our true selves. The dreams of the first Joseph lead him away from the shadow his brothers represent and into the darkness of his prison where he wrestles his desires and realizes his capability. Later, when he again meets his brothers, he does not use his power to get even, but teases out their confession and restores their relationship. He realizes he has always been serving a deeper calling than he could see in his pits and prisons and productivity.

The dreams of the second Joseph are often seen as bolts out of the blue given to direct salvation history. No doubt his parents interpreted their own dreams that way. But, chances are, like the little book claims, the second Joseph’s dreams represent a well-developed spiritual capacity, a deep connection to the Spirit. Joseph knows how to listen deeply. He’s not just a reluctant security guard for the Savior.

The second Joseph’s dreams also have an interesting parallel with the first. Like the first Joseph had unusual dreams that made his brothers furious, there is a good possibility that the second Joseph was always a bit more dreamy than most people in Nazareth. Other men were kings and warriors but he was more a magician and lover.

There is a good possibility that his furniture did not sell well because it often had an impractical flourish that made it look odd or look Roman. While other workers held their noses and did the job, he probably liked working on the restoration project of Herod Antipas in Sepphoris because it was the only interesting thing going in Galilee – beautiful new houses needing new furniture and new rooms decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Sepphoris was a city on a hill to which he walked with his sons, a city which could not be hidden.

His neighbors in more homespun Nazareth were not in the market for imaginative carpentry skills and liked to think their practical, simple tastes were exactly what the Torah prescribed. In truth it was exactly the opposite. Their narrowness revealed their lack of basic self-awareness. Their self-protective legalism revealed their lack of appreciation for the transcendent qualities resident in Moses, whose law was like a veil blocking the view of his face burning like the bush from which God called him. So the second Joseph was a good partner for God in his plan to share the spiritual bounty imprisoned in the fallen creation. Jesus came to bring it all out of the pit, to welcome it back home like a prodigal child who needed to be blessed with a multicolored coat.

When Joseph found his second wife to be with child, he was tempted to let the engagement go and find a way to save her dignity. After all, there was only so far he could afford to stretch the sensibilities of his main sources of income. And one could never know how people might get whipped up into a murderous fury by some angry young man, of which there were many in Galilee. Mary might be sold off as a slave, or worse.

But after years of planing down the bark and imperfections of his soul as he patiently planed his finely imagined furniture, Joseph had a receptive awareness that only needed a whisper in the night to gain his attention. After the angel gently spoke to him in his dream, he shuttered his business, defied his relatives, and ended up in Egypt like the first Joseph, nurturing the Answer to the riddles of life. From that place of shadow an even greater salvation was given as a gift to the new remnant of God’s people, the people who change their minds about who really manages creation.

Joseph loved this book and had read it many times. He hid it high on a shelf where he expected no one would ever look. He climbed up to that shelf now and found it again, just to make sure it was still there. A flood of memory hit him as he held it in his hand. He had just had a dream of his own. In it was a woman a lot like his sister Mary. She was relying on him to reveal things to her since she never remembered her dreams. She attended to him like a companion. He was painstakingly teaching her things and she was taking them all in without fear or jealousy. It was like they were having a spiritual meal together.

In this way, the woman in his dream was much like Mary in the Bible, he thought. She could listen too! As soon as she got a message she understood exactly how it applied and she put it into practical or poetic form. She was always on her donkey visiting an Elizabeth and regularly came up with a Magnificat. His own sister was a bit like this. She could not stand church or silence, almost the opposite of him, since he could hardly stand anything but smoke and prayer. He admired his sister’s pragmatism, the shadowy, turbulent yin to his airy, light yang. Like her namesake in the Bible, Mary was more political, angrier. Her angel was a shining man, Gabriel, while his angels were all women.

Some people think the angel Gabriel oversaw the Galilee territory, and he was the one assigned to contact Joseph like he had Mary. But no one says who appeared to Joseph. It was probably a woman angel. No doubt his parents thought that was impossible since the Bible always talks about angels appearing male, even though angels don’t have the same kind of earth-bound, gender-bound duties as humans. Having been connected his whole life to a Mary, he just couldn’t see it. Joseph needed something more than enough spine to stand up to his brothers who were considering stoning his betrothed. God had always met him in the dreamy places and his companion woman must have carried the word.

Joseph was so deep in memories, dreams and grief, so far away from the library, lost in his thoughts, he was not really present until snow began to fall on the book cover. Mary had gotten up the drive, through the door and clear into the library without startling him until now. He jumped out of the reading chair, looked up at the ceiling before he turned around and saw her ready to shake the rest of the snow off her coat. Before any word was said, she came around his womb of a chair and embraced him. He set the book on the cushion and let the snow melt through his shirt. “My dear brother,” she said.

She let him go, brushed the flakes off her shoulders and shook snow out of her knit cap. “You must put your shoes back on and find your coat. It is already 10:15. The ride up here was a beast and I am surprised I am not dead. I would be if the snow had been any deeper when I fished that woman out of the ditch.”

“You stopped the car?”

“We can talk about that later. We need to get over to village for the vigil.”

“They are having a vigil?”

“This is the middle of nowhere. Wear your mask if you must. We never miss the vigil and, virus or not, I intend to be there.”

“Wasn’t it hard enough just to get to the farm? The road over to the village is no more than a lane. I’m sure it won’t be plowed until the 27th!”

“Then we can walk. We have those snow shoes somewhere. Where do you think they are?”

Joseph stood back and looked at her. She had begun to pick up stray utensils and plates on her way to the kitchen. He followed her to the sink where she began to sort and rinse and admired her bustling. She didn’t want to go to the vigil; she just wanted the dangerous journey. What she liked about the story was Mary traveling to Bethlehem pregnant. She secretly imagined birthing her first child in the barn. “You are amazing, you know,” he said.

She turned off the water and turned to look at him smiling. He smiled too. And then they laughed like only twins can amuse each other.

“I know you don’t want to go,” she said. “But I also know you don’t want to miss the vigil.”

“Let’s create a stable in the barn and you can give birth there.”

“How did you know that? Did one of your angels tell you?”

“She did not need to. It only makes sense.”

“Well. I suppose it will be hard enough to get to the barn, at this point.”

They started in the attic and found the box of repressed figurines and were glad to spot an old advent wreath with some used candles still in the holders. Mary overturned a frame and there were their parents, just married. They decided to let them join in. As a whim, Joseph grabbed a very old stick horse, since an animal needed to give witness.

When they left their inn for the stable the snow had stopped and a cold, round moon gilded the scattering clouds. A noiseless barn owl leapt through the missing board in the hay window door and flew through the light. They both gasped as they watched it move through the silent night in the clouds of their breath. If the nesting were late, they might meet the rest of the family up in the rafters.

There was no need to talk. They got to work like missionaries making do with what was available. An old milk crate could be a manger. A milking stool had been sitting in a corner for decades waiting for its chance to be an altar. The witness horse was propped up between two cinder blocks. Mom and Dad sat facing it on the other side on a block of their own.

Mary sat on the ground, determined to get quite dirty. Joseph lit the candles slowly and deliberately named each one: the hope candle, the peace candle, the joy candle and the love candle. And they waited.

The waiting allowed Mary’s exhaustion to catch up with her and she slowly rolled into Joseph’s shoulder. He put his arm around her as she dozed.

They had not thought about what to do at the appointed time. The rector would ring the bell in the village; maybe they would hear it across the field. They knew the organist would be playing Silent Night and everyone would have a candle. Mary said, “Oh Joseph, we have forgotten the baby! What will we put in the box?”

“Shall I go find a doll?” he asked.

“Oh no, you can’t go anywhere. You are my blanket.”

“Then God will have to provide the baby. If no other way, I can imagine you acting like a baby right here in the barn. Remember when we were about ten years old and I would not let you swing from the loft? Father heard the argument and said we would not be able to come back if we did not get along.”

“I would like a do-over with Father,” she whispered.

“I am glad we had each other when were growing up, especially when Mother and Father died. I felt so left alone. If it were not for you…”

“Maybe that’s it,” she interrupted. “We could claim Joseph and Mary once and for all and let them produce the baby. Our parents and grandparents tended to send the baby into cold storage for much of the year. But we kept welcoming that poor child.”

“I love that,” he laughed. “This gets better all the time. How about if we joined Joseph and Mary in the scene, even became one with them, and swaddled the newborn king ourselves?” He thought, “In some sense it is like I have been here in a dream and God was telling me what was going to be born. It is a whole new day. The earth is clean with snow and somehow we got here.”

They both got up out of their spectator seats on the floor and silently moved beside the manger box and knelt there. Joseph saw the cradle light up. And somehow the word came to him, “Do not be afraid.” He spoke it. “Do not be afraid, Mary.”

She began to sing, “O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining.”

The next morning a hush was still over the house. They did not speak until breakfast, but then they marveled at the parts of themselves they gave to each other in love — and how it all came together in the barn like it came together in the Bible: man and woman, dreamer and doer, past and future, old and new. God was with them like in a dream — candlelight and the mystery of tragic circumstances touched with glory. It was a story of improbable, willful, scared people  welcomed into their own birthing process. They could hardly remember it all. They couldn’t be sure if they ever needed to have Christmas Eve in the same way again. It was quite enough for now and surely something else was ready to fly into the moonlight.

The Innkeeper’s Wife

This is the second Christmas story I ever wrote for public consumption in 1990. I presented it to the Riverside Brethren on the Sunday before. I hope the lack of factuality does not bother you too much, since that’s not the point of this little fable of hope for the hopeless.

Pin on Bible: Jesus & His Birth

Miriam set down the tray of dirty bowls and greasy bones she was carrying so she could tuck that always stray strand of hair out of her eyes. But when she caught sight of her dirty hands she didn’t want to touch it, and her apron didn’t have a clean spot left on it after a day of seeing to the needs of the crowd in their busy inn. Quirinius had everyone travelling all over the country to be registered in their home town so he could keep track of them and tax them more effectively. The Romans were very good for business. Her husband’s inn was packed. But her hair was clinging to her wet forehead, and that one strand! She stuck it behind her ear with a sigh.

Across the smoky, crowded room, her burly, loud, husband laughed with a boom and slapped a man’s back. He picked up his glass and raised it to the young girl who was dancing in front of the fire. She had come with her father and brothers to Bethlehem and now she closed her eyes and felt the beat of the tambourines in her hips and the whine of the flute in her arms. The innkeeper’s eyes glowed.

The innkeeper’s wife was beyond being angry. It was just another girl. How many more would there be to take her place? She picked up the tray to move on to the kitchen where she couldn’t see, but then she made the mistake of taking one last look just as the young girl reached for the cup her husband held out. He grabbed her arm and swung her to his lips. The music stopped, the brothers jumped to their feet and the room burst into laughter. The innkeeper could be heard above them all booming and yelling again and again, “I mistook the little morsel for dessert!” And the wine poured again.

Miriam no longer had the urge to rush over and claim her rights. She had heard the joke too many times since the first night, long ago now. Then, she had danced before a younger innkeeper. He seemed handsome then and alive. The inn was new and he seemed rich and rich with love. The innkeeper loved everyone, for a night, at least. Years later he loved everyone but her, it seemed.

What had it been like to dance? She could hardly remember. It seemed like another life when he had taken her out into the field that night when her father was stupid with wine and spoken words she never forgot. “You are more beautiful than Miriam the sister of Moses when she danced before the children in the desert. You are more precious than the myrrh for which you are named.” And he even kissed her, which she never told her mother. Her hand felt the necklace beneath her blouse. Three amber beads he had given her on their wedding day. His own mother had worn them. There was one for him, one for her, and one for God in the middle. But God seemed as far away as the past. And kisses like that one stolen in the moonlight were distant memories.

Now there were so many guests and so much work to do — and not even a child to comfort her and give her worth, just a kitchen to clean up before she could finally go to bed. There was no room in the inn for fond memories or anything else tonight. She picked up her tray and started for the other room.

But as she passed the door, which was already bolted for the night, she heard a knock. Naturally, her husband was too involved with his new-found friends to notice. But she didn’t want to answer. She was too busy and there was not an inch left. The knock came again, louder. “Why do I do these things?” she thought, and drew the bolt.

Before the man even had a chance to speak she said, “People are sleeping on the benches in here tonight. We’re charging two denarii to lay out a mat on the floor.”

“But my wife.”

“You should have brought your wife earlier. There is no room, now.”

“But here is my wife.” And he gestured toward a figure on a donkey in the darkness. Miriam peered out the crack in the door. She almost shut it in his face. But as she stepped out with the lamp and held it up to see more clearly a door seemed to open inside her. What piercing, pitiful, knowing eyes on that young girl, pregnant, on one of the hungrier donkeys she’d seen lately.

“What is your name child?”

“Mary,” she answered.

And yet another memory flooded her thoughts. Her own mother had called her Mary which is just another way to say Miriam. She used to play a game with her when they sat carding wool. “Miriam, always be a Mary, not a marah,” she’d say — marah being the name of the bitter water Israel found in the desert. “Myrrh is for worship and healing, but without hope it is a bitter taste and a dying smell.”

Tonight was a night for myrrh to heal, she decided. Let her husband clean up the bones. Let him beat her if he even noticed she was gone at all. Tonight there was another Miriam on a donkey with a husband who loved her and a baby who needed a place to be born. So she took them to the stable.

She had been right. Her husband did not even notice she was gone. She left most of the mess in the kitchen, telling herself she could face it all better in the morning. Staring at the rafters in their room she heard his drunken stomp on the stairs. When he collapsed on the mat with a snore it seem to squeeze a tear from her eye for all the nights she longed for a tender word, even a small, “Thank you,” maybe even any word at all except, “Get me this,” or “I need this,” or some angry “Why haven’t you?”

“To what have I lost my life?” she cried inside, and she tried to stifle her sobs because she would have to explain to her husband. “What has become of me? Lonely, like my own mother looked before she died. About ready to die from loveless work myself. Just a fat, dirty face who no one knows. My own children, if I ever have any, will grow up just like me with a father like him and a mother like me.” And she winced from the pain of letting herself long. “Oh God. Where are you?” And she laid her hand on that middle amber bead, the only precious thing in her life.

She didn’t know how long she had been asleep before she awoke to shouts out near the animals. She gently slipped off the mat and crept beneath the window covering. There in the brightest moonlight she had ever seen were some men who looked so scruffy they could only be shepherds acting so excited they were either dancing or fighting. But before she could wait to find out, her husband whipped up the shade and screamed into the night, “You idiots. Don’t you know decent people are sleeping?”

“We have seen the baby in your stable,” one shouted back. “The angels have told us about our Savior.”

“More drunk shepherds,” the innkeeper grunted. “They’re worse than wolves. Then he bellowed, “Go back into the fields before I come down there and beat you myself.”

“Come down’.” another shouted. “See for yourself!” And then they hurried off, still looking like they might be dancing.

“Tired as I can be, my head splitting off, and the riffraff wake up my guests,” he grumbled as he stumbled back to bed.

“Go back to sleep,” Miriam said soothingly. But he needed no encouragement. With a grunt and a snore he was gone. But Miriam threw on her shawl and quickly and quietly hurried down the stairs, over the bodies in the dining room and out to the yard.

The night seemed so alive with strange light that she almost forgot to wonder why she had bolted out the door in her night clothes. Everything looked a little different, as if she had never really seen it before. It felt like the look in that young girl’s eyes — deeper than it ought to be. It drew her like the shepherd’s dance — unusual enough to make your heart beat faster, like when you wonder what will be behind the secret door you’re about to open. Out of her husband’s bed in the smelly inn, out in the moonlight in her night clothes, she felt a surge of excitement – and the fear that came with her freedom. The shepherds were right, a baby had been born that night.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus did not return to Nazareth right away. There was no sense travelling with a new born. Even though her husband objected on financial terms, Miriam managed to move them into a little house they owned. She had taken quite an interest in the family. They were a mysterious bunch. Mary so quiet and serenely religious. Joseph a bit nervous and cautious about visitors — and many came, because those shepherds had started some extravagant tales going around about the baby Himself, who was treated like God’s gift to humankind. The inn practically fell apart because Miriam spent a lot of time making sure her guests were all right and making sure she didn’t miss out on anything. The fact is, things happened to Mary and Joseph that never happened to her. Just being around them promised something. It was a welcome change to looking forward to dying in a greasy apron!

Her husband did not like her new interests one bit. On the way out the door one day he caught her arm and dug his heavy fingers into it. “It is bad enough that you have become Marah to me,” he said. She had made the mistake of revealing her mother’s game to him. “But now you will not even keep the inn. You have duties as a wife. You work for me, not your freeloading friends,” And it was no good to fight him when he had made up his mind. Others had crossed him and she saw the results herself. So on that day she kept the inn and he kept an eye on her. She kept herself, too, happy on the outside, but full of longing on the inside. Suddenly the chains on her ankles seemed visible for the first time. The ropes around her heart were so tight she expected they might burst. She made up her mind she would escape that evening.

It wasn’t hard. She just kept filling his cup and he felt well cared for. The less he felt responsible, the more ignorant of her he could be and the better he liked it. Soon his head was on the table and she was flying down the street.

Strange things were happening at the Child’s house. Camels and servants were outside and richly dressed men were entering the door just as she arrived. She was afraid to crowd in so she stood outside the window in the shadows and listened with barely a breath to break the silence. Many things were said by the strange visitors but the last one spoke so clearly she could not mistake his words: “For the King of the Jews I bring myrrh to anoint Him as a king should be. May He be the healer the stars have promised us.”

When she heard “King of the Jews” the blood rushed to her cheeks and the warmth made her dizzy. She put her hand to her heart and there were her amber beads. “What has come upon us?” she wondered. But she knew. It was God. She sat down in the dark and stared into the night as the visitors talked inside, laughed and prayed. “Behind this wall something is happening that is so amazing,” she thought. But here I sit outside again, left out, uninvited. She knew that soon Mary and Joseph would leave with this child and she would face the rest of her days unloved and struggling to keep her desires locked away where they didn’t hurt so bad.

She was the last to leave the house that night. The door was slightly ajar and she meant to pull it softly shut as one last piece of help she could give before her husband locked her away forever. But, instead, she opened it up to get a last look at the Child who was worshiped, who made news all over the countryside, of whom angels were said to sing, whose birth made her leave her bed and risk the wrath of her husband.

Mary was dozing in the firelight. The baby quietly moved in the cradle. Miriam crept up to his side and knelt there. She could have sworn he looked at her, but whether He did or not, something seemed to open up the locked places in her heart. Into her mind flowed such a bitter flood of sorrow that she was ashamed to be near such an innocent child. She knew she had to leave. How dirty she was. How jealous. How unworthy. How afraid to be sneaking in to stare at someone else’s beautiful, special child. She straightened up to leave, “Just one touch little Jesus and I will return where I belong and you will go on to whatever wonderful life you are meant to live.” When she reached out her finger the tiny hand grasped it and hot bitter tears rolled down her cheeks for all the days yet to be that seemed already lost to loneliness.

She woke Mary up with her sniffling. But she did not seem anything but welcoming. “He’s going to save us all, dear Miriam. Don’t cry. Dance. Let your heart dance again.”

Miriam reached around to untie the cord around her neck and without a word placed her gift at the newborn king’s feet: three amber beads, one for her husband, one for her, one for God, but it was really her heart. Because deep within it Mary’s words planted a bit of hope that it was all true. She could dance again.

We are all Miriams in our own way, aren’t we? Locked in our despair or hoping that what we expect will never happen to us. May the Mary in you grow and the Marah disappear. May the Lord touch you in your deepest longing and promise you dancing. And may He receive that precious hope from you. Let it go. Lay the treasure of your heart at His feet and learn to be free.

The Crèche — Three Days Before Christmas       

For the Family, 1998…

Kurt Adler 9.5-Inch Musical LED Nativity Set with Figures and Stable — Out of stock, Wal-mart.

This may seem a little disjointed, I just finished jotting it down for you upstairs. It isn’t a very well-crafted story, as I wish you could expect from me.

Let me just start with this. Many times I have heard the adage, “Be careful what you pray for” from people who think it is funny that we try to control prayer. Today, I know better what they are speculating. But I’ll try not to be careful, nonetheless.

This is hard to explain, but a lot has happened to me in the last three days.

As far as I can tell, I was flopping around restlessly in my bed about 1 am Tuesday morning, alternately cursing AAA for not coming to change my tire and worrying about what I had left to do and buy for the holiday, when something extraordinary happened. As far as I can explain, my soul began to slowly lift from my body. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to your mom. Before I knew it, I was staring down at her in the bed, breathing her little sleepytime zephyr. Next to her was my body, still writhing like a fish on the deck.

But my soul was strangely mobile, and strangely drawn. I squeezed under the closed door to our bedroom, rose to the ceiling of the hall and floated along it until I reached the dark stairwell. I was drawn down and down until I reached the third floor. I wasn’t drawn down the stairs themselves, I descended through the middle. Like an elevator, I paused at the second floor and floated toward the light coming from the illegal late-night gathering in the TV room. You men were screaming at the screen and periodically beating on each other. I screamed, “It’s after one in the morning, go to bed.” But you couldn’t hear me. When a commercial came on for the softer side of Sears everyone ran out of the room for Cheezits and passed right through me. Without my permission, the pull began again and I continued my descent.

The Christmas tree lights were still on in the living room, empty candy bowls were on all the tables, pine needles were all over the floor. But I began to float toward the mantle, toward the crèche – the one with Joseph half-melted from an errant tree light and the place on the stable roof where the star had fallen off. I’m not sure how this happened, but I began to compress. It was like a little tractor beam was pulling me into a very tiny spot where only a spirit can fit. I conformed until I was back in a body. I was looking up at a gold ceiling. Bits of straw were sticking out over the sides of it. Although my body couldn’t move, my sight could, and I saw a huge plastic faces staring down at me in my peripheral vision.

Just then the lights went out on the tree and I heard footsteps clomping up the stairs. I was terrified. I had no idea what my body was doing upstairs. I had no idea how my soul got where it was. That’s when I remembered my prayer: “Lord I don’t have time for Advent.” I’d prayed it twice, but it seemed like a long time ago, now. I prayed it once when I was trying to find a hotel room for our anniversary trip and I realized I hadn’t thought about Christmas yet. And I prayed it once when we were writing Christmas cards and watching TV feeling like half these people needed to fall off the list. There must have been an angel backup on the heavenly Schuylkill, because the response to my prayer had come with just three days to go until Christmas. Now that I look back on it, maybe it was all I could take, and God knew that all too well.

I was stuck in Jesus. Little plastic swaddling clothes covered my naked little plastic body. Outlines of plastic animals and Mary and Joseph made shadows on the roof of my little stable as headlights passed the house. I couldn’t move my head or my arms or even wiggle my tiny toes. Only my eyes could see and my ears could hear and my little plastic nose could smell. But I had no voice to tell you, “Whatever-is-Dad-about-Dad has moved to the mantle.”

Maybe it all came to a head on Monday and the Lord just got fed up. “That’s it!” he must have said, “You are wasting your protoplasm.” I was getting sort of dazed, as I do sometimes. I had these huge projects sitting on the agenda at the office. I was toying with the idea of them eating up the whole vacation. Then Mama and I went to Wal-Mart and we got stuck behind innumerable large-bottomed ladies wrestling for gifts like the Eagles trying to recover one of their fumbles, all for the privilege of standing in line for a half-hour to buy things that would likely go underappreciated. That was an out-of-the-soul experience. Then, to top off a disgusting day, the AAA didn’t come to rescue the car. I suppose I could say I was effectively driven out of Jesus. But more likely, I just wasn’t trapping time. Time has a life of its own. One should capture it, not just chase it around. It takes some strategy. Had time been wild game on Monday and I was the hunter, I’d be starving. I was starving.

When I woke up on Tuesday after my first night over the fireplace, I was ready to get out of Jesus. I had slept on my new revelation about myself and now I was a reformed ignoramus. But when Ben clomped down the stairs and woke me up I still could not move. All I could do was listen to what was happening in my house. Ben bellowed up the stairs for Joel to hurry up. The telephone rang five times. My body came shuffling down the stairs and read the paper. Mama clicked down and kissed my body and was quickly out the door. Later on, my body left without even a word and I was alone with all this time. The only distraction all day was Bu, the cat, sticking her nose way into the crèche. I didn’t know she could get on the mantle and I assume she wanted it that way. She seemed to be the only one who knew someone was there. All I could see was her little nose sniffing the air over me.

I got lonely. I wished I had a friend who noticed that my soul was distracted somewhere else. But no one had the time or energy or interest to notice, apparently. At least no one called the posse to search for me. It reminded me of the time I hid in the closet as a child and waited for someone to find me — for three hours. I finally had to come out and tell my mother I had been missing. She frowned sympathetically and then told me she’d talk to me when she got off the phone. But she forgot all about it. So did I, until I was stuck in Jesus.

My first full day drew to an end. The light in the room was changing to ghostly gray. Before long it was a dark Tuesday night and the college boys arrived. Luke unveiled his tattoo. At dinner my body joked and yelled with the rest. I began to get nervous.

Early Wednesday morning, two days before Christmas, it happened. It was the early light of dawn and I was still sleeping. Bu had managed to stick her head clear into the crèche until she was eye-to-eye with baby Jesus. Even in my senseless sleeping I could tell someone was staring at me. I flung open my eyes, our pupils met. Bu leapt back like a startled cat. Her head caught the roofline. Cat and crèche flew off the mantle, one landing with a crash and one with its usual graceless thud. Bu went skittering up the stairs and I went skidding across the floor. It seemed like I was rolling forever. It seemed like I was propelled. I rolled and rolled like a smart bomb until I seemed to find a small hole in the floor about which only mice knew and headed right through it. I landed in the dark, between floors, right under the living room. I heard Mama clicking across the floor and discovering the crèche, “Joel David!” she yelled. The stomping and clattering and sweeping was soon over, the crèche replaced with a finish-scarring screech. Doors finally slammed. Big men still slept. I was alone in the dark.

I wanted to yell. “Hey everyone, I’m under the floor!” But no one was there. I wasn’t even there. And I had no voice. I began to wonder if anyone else was really there, either. Maybe they’re soul was stuck in the St. Francis statue or somewhere less descriptive, like one of college boys’ old shoes. I decided I shouldn’t worry about whether you all were going help me get reconnected. You might be having your own problems. I thought I might be getting a lesson about what it meant to actually live. Living doesn’t happen when people notice me. I happen whether anyone notices me or not. I wondered how I could happen in plastic. It tested my faith.

Here I was stuck in Jesus in the dark. It was embarrassing to be there and embarrassing that no one seemed to notice that either of us was gone. Then I was lonely. No one was tromping around looking for each of us, either. “So OK,” I thought, “I always go those places whether I am a figurine or not.” I began to talk to myself, although it was a little confusing. “OK, uh, Jesus, what would you like to tell me?” In other words, I finally had enough time to have at least one day of Advent.

Talk about being “in Christ!” I used to say “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me!” Now it was, “Christ is under my living room and I live in him.” So we talked. What else was there to do? “Are you showing me what it is like to be ignored? Are you showing me what it is like to live in someone who pays you no mind? Have I really been this plastic all season? Are you just trying to immobilize me and get me in the dark long enough to change me? Am I thinking deeply enough to please you; can I go back now? Are we done yet? Can I get back to normal? How long are you planning on this going on? How long have you been planning this? Was this a spontaneous thing? Do you lay awake at night devising these things? Do you have a night?”

With that question the questions began to change. “How do you experience ‘day?’ How do you experience your relationship with me? What did it feel like to be born?” In the back of my mind I realized — “Oh yeah, this is what it is like to think of someone but yourself. This is not being self-referencing. This is exploring the life of the Spirit.”

I finally stopped thinking about that, too, and just thought about Jesus. I finally stopped thinking and just sank into the new warmth of the darkness and the pleasant sensation of my confinement. I finally went into a deep peaceful sleep. I slept and slept.

I awoke with a start. A mouse was nibbling on baby Jesus’ nose. But I was not there long to find out what happened. My soul began to squeeze through that little hole like Casper appearing in Wendy’s house. It was like I was being taken on a retrieval mission. In the basement I got a little art from my notebook and some strength from the tools. In the kitchen I filled up a little on the warmth of food lovingly served. Back in the dining room I soaked up the tears of laughter. In the living room I incorporated the din of many friends and important conversations. Up the stairs I got back the lessons of hard knocks. On the boys floors the men gave back some beautiful examples of development. On the fourth floor I remembered the years of love and growing and happiness with my good wife. And I took a long stop at the prayer room. I rested for a moment above my journal and luxuriated in the confidence that God has been with me. I drank in the joy of having an adventurous life of failing and following along the right way.

I hovered over my body sitting in front of the computer trying to write a Christmas story at the last minute today. I asked one more question. “Do you really need me to go back? — I am hard-pressed. I love it. But I struggle so with time. Am I up to the challenge?” But I didn’t hear a direct answer. I just settled back into that time-worn body, still struggling to find enough minutes to actually live.

I’m telling you the truth. My body came to its senses right in front of the screen. I just wrote it all down. Make of it what you will, if you have the time.

As for me, I’m still trying to figure it all out. But one thing I’ll remember for next year when the crèche comes out is this:  the scene is suspended in time, and there is something eternal for me in it as well, especially when I’m in it myself.