Christmasing with Preet (a Christmas short story)

There were 104 rooms – the sign called them “smart apartments” – in Verdant Meadows, the largest assisted living facility in town. So Alli made 104 identical holiday decorations to pin to the small, eye-level bulletin boards on the residents’ doors.

She worked for hours with her colored pencils, until she had drawn a poinsettia she could bear to have people see. She scanned it, arranged four identical images on a page, and added two words beneath each image in a legible but noticeably festive typeface: “Happy Holidays!”

She’d planned for the message to be “Merry Christmas,” but the manager of Verdant Meadows mentioned that about one in four residents didn’t celebrate Christmas. So she changed it. She didn’t want to offend a single person, let alone 26 strangers, with her signature good deed at Christmas. That would ruin the feeling.

She used her mother’s photo printer with a glossy photo paper, inspected each page for printing glitches, then meticulously cut the pages into quarter-sheets with a paper cutter. That way the cuts would be neat and the size uniform, and the decorations would stack beautifully until she and the other girls passed them out. She printed and cut one extra sheet, so she’d have two spares, plus one to keep for herself and one to enclose in her thank-you letter to the manager for giving his permission.

She’d been smiling ever since she finished her drawing. As her preparations neared completion, her smile grew. So did the warm Christmas feeling inside her. She wasn’t just using her artistic gift at Christmas, which was already a happy thing. She was also using her gift for organization to give her artistic creation to a hundred people or more – and to help the other girls get a warm Christmas feeling too, by making it possible for them to help her.

It was also nice that she could probably use this in the Volunteer Service section of her scholarship and college applications, and maybe some other things. But it was the feeling that mattered.

Christmas Reminds Me

During this Christmas season, I’ve been noting the many reminders the season brings for me. By nature they are not new thoughts, but Christmas reminds me of important things, I think.

Some reminders are connected to my personal circumstances, from which yours may differ in essential ways. Some are matters of my particular faith. Some are controversial, but I’ll list them here anyway — and try to resist the temptation to explain at length how each applies to the world as I see it. Feel free to make your own connections, if you will.

There Might Be Another Way (a short story)

Pia had slept as late as she dared on a Sunday. She slipped into a pew halfway up the right side of the chapel just as the bishop stepped to the pulpit to begin the weekly sacrament meeting. She’d looked almost human in the mirror before leaving home, which was pretty good, considering.

She listened conscientiously to the announcements, which had little to do with her, then sang the opening hymn, “Jehovah, Lord of Heaven and Earth,” with as much of her usual fervor as she could muster. Her focus drifted during the brief invocation by one of her neighbors. It drifted further during some quick items of congregation business. But she managed to keep trying, at least, to ponder the Savior and his sacrifice, as the deacons passed the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to the congregation. Everyone at church called the bread and water simply “the sacrament,” but in the privacy of her own thoughts she preferred the more solemn and evocative phrase.

The bishop announced the first speakers, a girl of about fourteen and an old man she’d seen on Sundays but didn’t know, and she drifted away again. She flipped to the Notes app on her smart phone, where she’d composed a sort of letter in the wee, desperate hours – a letter full of things she could never say or send to Doug, her back fence neighbor.

She saw him in his usual place, across the chapel, sitting alone, one row further back, in a heather gray suit (her favorite) and a gorgeous green necktie. She tried to envision him sitting with a wife, when he had one, but she didn’t know him then, and she’d never seen his ex.

She should have entered the chapel from the other side, even if it took half a minute longer to get to the other door. She could have asked to share his pew. He’d have agreed, of course – and she’d have been no more distracted than now. She should have left for church a minute earlier.

Doug’s posture was attentive, but she recognized the expression of a man who was somewhere else. He often looked like that, though not when he was teaching the adult Sunday school class or chatting with her afterward, and usually not in their occasional conversations over their common fence.

What she’d written overnight, as if to him, was unthinkable, but she couldn’t resist reading it again.

Books I Read Lately – Winter 2022 Edition (in September)

When I finish reading a book, I stack it on a certain shelf near my desk in my home office, away from but in sight of the UCRC, my Unconscionably Comfortable Reading Chair. There it sits until I write of it in a “Books I Read” blog post such as this one.

The stack is now 24 books. It’s getting precarious. And I should long since have written this post and two or three more like it. Such is life.

Here are five books from that stack. I’ll tell you where I found them, unless it was Amazon. I’m trying to reduce my dependency on Amazon. I’ll never overcome it entirely, I suspect, but I do love a good brick-and-mortar bookstore.

I’ll write about the others later. Ideally, sooner.


John Steinbeck - Travels with Charley in Search of American - Books I Read Lately

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America

I enjoy telling people about one of my sons, who grew from a precocious early reader immersed in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series to a mature mind preferring thick history books and great novels. One of his acquisitions was a passion for John Steinbeck’s writing.

He gave me this book as a gift. It is memoir, not the fiction for which Steinbeck is more famous, and it charmed and delighted me, page after page. It is a rambling account of his rambling journey across the United States with his dog Charley, who is surely one of the best-written canine personalities in prose. They traveled in a custom camper Steinbeck christened Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, My Two Favorite Authors, and Mother’s Day

I recently added a small canvas print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (Madonna di San Sisto) to the wall of my study. (The original is nearly nine feet tall; my print is sixteen inches tall.) Much of its appeal to me is its connection to my favorite nineteenth century author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and my favorite twentieth century author, Vasily Grossman. (I studied Russian literature quite seriously for a while.) What this has to do with Mother’s Day … we shall see.

Beyond Ugly (a short story)

After 25 years it probably wasn’t even the same door, but it could have been. It led to the same school, the same fetid swamp of teenage cruelty. My grasping the handle unleashed a fresh deluge of memories. My arm trembled, and my knees went weak.

Obviously, the decision I’d been defending was a mistake. But it was also too late. It was too late not to go to my 25th high school reunion, because I was here.

I’d arrived in Stirton an hour early, having somehow missed the promised freeway construction delays. I freshened up in the tolerably clean restroom of a convenience store, then made my way to the campus where I’d spent the worst thirteen years of my education.

For the last half hour of my drive, my older sister’s voice in my hands-free car audio system had said pretty much what I’d told myself for weeks, even before I bought my reunion ticket online. Vicky and I were both right: “Kat, this is a bad idea.”

Stirton was a small town, where everyone knew everyone, and its only elementary school, only middle school, and only high school were right in a row, along one side of the state highway that doubled as Main Street. All three cinder block temples of learning had been built in the same decade, each just in time, give or take a year, for me to suffer in it.

Keep My Secrets? (a short story at Christmas)

I froze when Mom knocked. “Feel like driving to the airport?” she asked through my bedroom door.

“Why would I want to?” It seemed like a reasonable question.

She turned the knob but only cracked the door. “Because no matter how old you are, Mike, or how far away you go to school, I’m still your mother. May I open the door?”

I was home for the holidays, currently wrapping Dad’s Christmas gifts for Mom – which I was bad at, but he was worse. The real secret, if she could have seen it, was in my head. I was thinking about expanding the little business my parents didn’t know I ran at school, if I could do it without my grades slipping or someone ratting me out to the university. Demand exceeded my supply, even at the high end.

I buried the last unwrapped gift. “It’s safe.”

The door swung open. “Dad’s at work, Mallory’s helping me, I’m up to my armpits in cookie dough, and Jill’s flight lands in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Kathy’s by the side of the road, waiting for a tow truck.” Her voice turned tired. “That’s why you want to, smart aleck. But mostly the mother thing.”

I smiled. “Okay already. You had me at tow truck.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Not at Jill?”

I shrugged. Jill was Kathy’s daughter, Kathy was Mom’s best friend, we were neighbors, and Jill and I had been friends since we were toddlers. We had one of those comfortable friendships you could pick up where you left off, after a month or a year. The thought of seeing her for the first time since last Christmas made me a little nervous, and our first minute might be awkward, but then it would be like old times.

“Thanks,” Mom said, and closed the door.

I was downstairs in ten minutes. It would have been three, but … Jill. A guy has to have some pride.

Radiant Moments: A Thanksgiving Reflection

I began this Thanksgiving morning by setting myself a task: to describe my gratitude for specific things which are not controversial. (I have little taste for controversy today.) I thought first of the largest things, such as God, family, and country, but the very ideas of these are currently controversial. You may safely assume my profound gratitude for them, but after a few moments I turned my thoughts toward smaller things. Granted, all things are smaller than the largest things.

So I made list of specific things for which I have felt grateful in recent weeks, and nothing is too small. A hamburger is not too small. But soon it was clear that I had sent myself on a fool’s errand, because even a hamburger is controversial these days. And I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, in a time when many consider everything to be political, that a hamburger is easily politicized too. (I am not grateful for this.)

So the following are only relatively uncontroversial. Some are only relatively small. They involve people, you see, and people are not a small thing – but we are smaller than God.

Now that I have made the list, I see that every item, in some sense and degree, is a moment. Today, as on many days, I am grateful for moments. Here are ten and a spare. They necessarily reflect my own tastes, opportunities, and associations, but perhaps they will call to mind some of your own moments.

In neither ascending nor descending order …