Joshua Tree Diary: Christmas in the Desert

[Desert view outside Joshua Tree. Photo is mine.]

This is where it all began, right?  I don’t mean California…I mean the desert.

The Nativity story is set in the desert; much like the one I see from my bedroom window.  Very much like it, except that desert, with the Star, is half a world away.

Two years ago, we celebrated this season in Fort Myers, Florida.  There, the temperatures were in the low 90’s.  I remember wearing shorts and sitting outside my favorite Java cafe, sipping an iced coffee.  I had to position myself at an outdoor table so I could catch the AC’d air rolling out of the brand name outlets.  The palm trees were wrapped in holiday lights, Bing Crosby was singing on the PA system, shoppers were hurrying into Bass, or Tommy…but the feel of the season wasn’t inside me.  Red and green lights and Bing didn’t fulfill the images on Christmas cards.

Now, this year, we are enjoying the high desert of Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Yucca Valley and the Mojave Desert.  And, it’s chilly if not downright cold.  Yet I know there’ll be no white Christmas here this year.

It’s hard to imagine experiencing the Yule without even the probability of several inches of white powder.  That’s because I was raised in Upstate New York, where snow was mostly guaranteed.  I built snow-people, skated with my childhood friends and tobogganed the longest slopes I could find.  I studied the crystals of the flakes when I caught one on my mitten.  I believe it’s true that no two snowflakes are alike.

But deserts are alike in many ways.  Strange and exotic plants, sand, crying coyotes and the limitless sky…filled with stars and a crescent moon.

Ironically, though, it’s here, in the California desert, that I can feel the true sense of the Nativity story.  When you’re raised with religious images of Joseph and Mary traveling across the desert, it’s hard to meld that into a backyard in New York, twelve inches of snow and a snow person.  I’ve never traveled to the deserts of the Middle East so I can’t speak to the winters there, but I can’t believe that the winter in the Holy Land is much different than it is here.

True, they probably don’t have storefronts like these:

[Souvenir shop. Photo is mine.]

Or,

[Storefront lights in Joshua Tree.  Photo is mine.]

But, maybe they do.

I can imagine the solitude, the expansive star-filled sky…and the silent peace that fills those scenes we were raised with, in the pages of the Bible.

About an hour from where I write this, a raging fires is destroying hundreds of thousands of acres near Santa Barbara.  Peoples lives will be ruined.  No holiday cheer for them.

No fires will come to the desert.  There’s nothing much to burn.  It’s vacant and austere backed up by isolation and loneliness.  That’s the way deserts are.  Places to get lost and places to stand and contemplate the ways of the world and to confront the Great Empty.  That’s when you find that the Empty is not only a physical description of a desert…but also of your own mind.  The Desert Fathers of the Old Testament sought these places out.  The three great religions of the West were founded in the sands.

How different the high desert is.  There is, outside my window, all of the above (along with our rented Toyota), but there is something missing.  Beyond our sandy yard, beyond the Welcome to Joshua Tree sign, beyond the glow of Palm Springs and Los Angeles…something is dreadfully missing.

The peace.  Where is the peace and love that the whole Nativity narrative implies?

It’s just not there.

[Note to my readers: The next post is very special to me.  Please take time to read and comment on it.]

 

 

 

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Christmas, 2015

blizzard

On a Christmas Day, we were mushing our way over the Dawson Trail.

Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold, it stabbed like a driven nail.

If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;

It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

     –Robert Service “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

Wait! Wait a minute!  I lost my place in the book.  Oh, here we are:

On a Christmas Day, we were sitting on a beach on sunny Sanibel Island…

MeBeach

Holiday Time In Fort Myers/Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?*

“I don’t know Doc, I just seem a little disoriented lately.  Maybe it’s the time of year?  Maybe I should stay away from the egg nog…”

–Notation in the files of Dr. Hugh Roebottom, Psychiatrist, on the recent session with Patrick Egan.

wreath

It’s a pretty Christmas wreath.  I’m looking a one of the prettiest plastic Christmas wreaths I’ve ever seen.  I snap a photo of it to include in my “How I Spent The Winter” slideshow on my website.  There is an iced coffee in my free hand.  The condensation from the plastic cup of iced coffee has covered my iPhone with drops of water.  It’s not easy taking pictures with an iPhone and a dripping plastic cup at the same time.

I turn around and snap another photo.

mall lot

The PA system at the Outlet Mall is playing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”.  I’m supposed to be seeing snow on the ground and happy shoppers with bundled children walking through the falling flakes.  Where are bundled children, the red scarves, the woolen caps and the bright blue mittens?  Where do the children make “snow angels”?

kidatoutletmall

It’s not happening.

Then I remember.  I’m not in my hometown of Owego, NY, or shopping in Binghamton in a snow storm.  I even remember that I’m not a child anymore.  I’m a senior citizen.  Here, I’m surrounded by senior citizens, and golf carts and adult tricycles.  No, I’m in Fort Myers, FL trying to escape the cold and snow.  Thanksgiving is next week.  Soon it will be December.  Soon, it will be Christmastime.

I go up the steps to the boardwalk at the Outlet Mall to think things over.  This is a little surreal to me–being here this time of year.  Even just being in Florida, for me, is a bit out-of-character.  I have Celtic blood in my veins.  It’s thick and doesn’t do well in sub-tropical climates.

Sipping on my iced coffee gives me a chance to digest the last seventeen days since we parked and unhooked our r-Pod. In the shopping centers I’ve seen Salvation Army Santas in teal colored shorts and Hawaiian shirts ringing the little hand-bell.  At least they have a red fleece Santa cap on their heads.  (They must be sweating under that cap.)

This place called Florida, this place where the Bush/Gore drama played out years ago, this place where Disney and Spanish culture collide like a bad I-95 accident, is a study in contrasts.  There is profound beauty in the Mangrove swamps and mind-bending varieties of shells on Sanibel Island.  The mosquitoes bite and the sunsets amaze.  The ants crawl on the cement and the storks take wing alongside the herons and egrets.

shorebirds

At the same time, the RV resorts and hotels and private marinas have taken the rawness out of the landscape.  I did a Google search on local beaches–I found a list under the link of au natural.  Thinking this was a place where I could walk naked, without shame, along the shore, communing with nature like Adam.  I checked one particular beach on Sanibel.

“Are you joking?” said the guy who was tying up the trash from a can in the parking lot.

I found that au natural basically meant that attendants didn’t pick up the litter and the driftwood stayed where the falling tide left it.

Yes, it’s a different world here for a small town Yank like me.  I’m going to miss the bleak grey skies of Thanksgiving and the snow of Christmas.  Most of my friends from high school are retired now and many have moved to the Carolina’s or here, to Florida.  I can’t speak for them, but I suspect that leaving behind the snows of yesterday with all the attendant activities, was a little hard.  Maybe not.

I remember being in New York City years ago.  They had just finished filming a scene from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York on 5th Ave. and 59th street.  The set was made to look like Christmas in New York, and the Hollywood magic worked.  When I saw the film later, I was totally convinced Macaulay Culkin was indeed in the city in the heart of winter.  In truth, the scene was filmed in July or August.  An entire corner of Central Park and the plaza in front of the Plaza Hotel was covered in fake snow.

On my drive back from the Outlet Mall to our RV resort, I turn on the clearest FM station I can find.  I expect something, some song, that speaks to me in mid-November.  Instead, I hear the song: “Have You Left The One You Left Me For?”, it was quickly followed by “I’m Old Enough To Know Better But Young Enough Not To Care.”

They were kind of catchy.

There will be no family gathering for dinner next Thursday.  There will be no Christmas parties for us.  We are going to exchange presents, but there will be no tree to decorate.  It’s hard to hang lights on a palm tree.

New Year’s Eve?  No noise makers or funny hats or those things you blow into and they unravel.  (I never knew what they were called).  We’ll be going to bed early with everything packed and road-ready for our departure from Siesta Bay Resort on New Year’s Day.

On Christmas Eve, when I wrap the gift I already bought for Mariam, I will be singing a song inside my head–to myself–to the memories of my childhood.  I’ll probably have a CD in our player of Bing Crosby holiday music, but it’s the music in my head that I’ll be listening to.

I don’t know about the PA system at the Outlet Mall, but I’ll be quietly singing: I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas

palm sunset

Happy Thanksgiving!

[* “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coal For Christmas: A Holiday Story For You

My father grew up poor.  Not the kind of poor where he would walk through ten inches of snow barefoot or go from house to house asking for bread.  Just the kind of poor that would keep his father one step ahead of the rent collector.  His parents provided the best they could, but, by his own admission, he was raised in the poverty that was common in rural America in the 1920’s.  My grandfather and my grandmother should be telling this story.  Instead, it came to me from my own dad and it was usually told to his four sons around the time it came to bundle up and go out, find and cut a Christmas tree.  I heard this story more than once when it was cold and snowy in the 1950’s.  In the years when my father was a child, the winters were probably much colder and the snow deeper.

It was Northeastern Pennsylvania. It was coal country and my grandfather was Irish.  Two generations went down into the mines.  Down they would go, every day, before dawn only to resurface again long after the sun had set.  Because of some misguided decision on his part, my grandfather was demoted from mine foreman to a more obscure job somewhere else at the pit.  Later in life, he fell on even harder times and became depressed about his inability to keep his family, two boys and two girls, comfortable and warm.  It all came crashing down when their simple farmhouse burned to the foundation.  After seeing his family safely out, the only item my grandfather could salvage was a Hoover.  My father could describe in minute detail how he stood next to his dad and watched him physically shrink, slump and then become quiet.  He never broke the silence after that and died in a hospital while staring mutely at the walls.

But all this happened years after that special Christmas Eve.

It was in the early 1920’s.  The four children were asleep in the remote farmhouse my grandparents rented.  Sometime after mid-night, my father woke up to a silence that was unusual and worrisome.  It was too quiet.  There were no thoughts of Santa Claus in my father’s mind that night…the reality of their lives erased those kind of dreams from his childhood hopes.  There was no fireplace for Santa to slide down.

He pulled on a heavy shirt and pushed his cold feet into cold shoes and went down stairs to the kitchen where he knew his parents would be sitting up and keeping warm beside the coal stove.  The room was empty and the coal fire was burning low.  The single electric bulb, hanging from the ceiling was turned on.  My father noticed the steam of his breath at each exhale.  He called out.  He heard nothing.  Shuffling over to the door, he cracked it open to a numbing flow of frigid outside air.  In the snow there were two sets of footprints leading down the steps and then behind the house.  He draped a heavier coat over his shoulders and began to follow the prints.  They led across a small pasture and through a gate.  From there the trail went up a small hill and faded from his sight.  He followed the trail.  Looking down at the footprints he noticed that they were slowly being covered by the wind driving the snow into the impressions.  A child’s fear swept over him.  Were the young kids being abandoned?  It was not an uncommon occurrence in the pre-Depression years in rural America.

At the top of the hill, he saw a faint light from a lantern coming from a hole near the side of the next slope.  He slowed his pace and went to the edge of the pit not knowing what he would see.  He looked down.

At the bottom of the small hole were his parents, picking fist-sized lumps of coal from a seam that was exposed on the hillside.  They had nearly filled a bucket with the chunks of black rock.  They looked up, quite surprised, and saw my father standing a few feet above them.  They looked back at each other with a sadness that was heart breaking.  They certainly didn’t want to be caught doing this in front of one of the kids…on Christmas Eve.  They stared at each other and then up at my dad.

“Boy,” my grandfather said, “The stove is empty.  Come on down and help us get a few more lumps, will ya?”

My father hopped down and after only a few minutes his hands were black from the coal.  The bucket was filled.  They helped each other out of the pit and walked back to the house together.

In a very short time the coal stove was warming up again.  My father sat up with his parents until they finished their coffee.  He went up stairs to bed and fell asleep, he always would say, with a smile on his face.

Years later when I was a young boy, my father took me aside one Christmas Eve.  I had not been a very good boy that day, and I was afraid.  Neither of my parents, however, had mentioned “The Threat” that would punish a child if you were naughty and not nice.

My fear left me.  Father’s voice was warm and full of understanding.

“Pat,” he said, “If anyone tells you that you will get a lump of coal in your stocking if you’re not a good boy. Tell them ‘I hope so’ and then tell them to go to hell.”

 Snowman

This drawing was done by the author in the early 1950’s during art class at St. Patrick’s School, Owego, New York.

The story Coal For Christmas has been taken from my book, “In All The Wrong Places”, a collection of short stories.

HAPPY HOLIDAY!