Light-up Plastic Baby Jesus

I’m not going to lie; I’m a snob when it comes to aesthetics. That’s mostly because I think my sense of what’s beautiful, what’s nice, pleasing to the eyes is the right one. I feel I have a clear and superior sense of what looks and feels good in this world.

Or I thought I did, anyway.

I did not grow up in one of those houses filled with things from previous generations, things that had ancient beauty and meaning with longevity built into the dovetailing. We did not have Grandmother’s silver or Great Grandfather’s rifles. That’s because there was no grandmother or great grandfather to speak of. None that had ever lived long enough for me to meet them or for them to amass any kind of collection of things valuable enough to write into a will.

I have no idea where my sense of what is and isn’t beautiful came from, save wandering through this world and encountering art and landscapes and other homes and people with stuff I thought was cool.

In the weeks leading up to the Advent season I heard a rumor that a plastic nativity scene would be going up in front of the church. I will confess that I have always had mixed feelings about Ye Olden Nativity Scene. We had one as a kid, of course—no good Catholic family would dare go without, and it was a source of both wonder and confusion. I didn’t really understand why all the animals were milling around; a cow and a camel. How? I didn’t really get the whole ‘in a stable’ thing, especially when Joseph and Mary always looked great in their clean and fancy clothes. And the baby Jesus looked nothing like a newborn. He always had a lot of hair and appeared to be laughing at something.

I learned early on in my time as a congregational minister that my opinion in regards to church decor doesn’t count that much. I may not like the curtains or the carpeting, but it’s not my church to go all Fixer Upper on; it’s everybody’s church. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. Still, when I heard this rumor my heart sank a little … plastic? Can’t we have something with wood and hay, something organic? Made by a craftsperson? You can’t throw a stone anywhere in Vermont without hitting someone doing something clever and crafty. Plastic? Really?

T’was no rumor, indeed, this one was truth. One evening a couple of weeks ago I came home after being away for a few days and saw in front of the church a large plastic nativity scene, all lit up. And because I live across the street from the church and several of my windows give me 24/7 visual access to my place of work, I got to see the giant plastic light up nativity scene every single time I looked out the window.


My first thought: Oh my … sigh.

My second, third and fourth thoughts: What would Jesus think if he happened to stroll up Route 133 in Pawlet? Would he laugh? Cry? Wrinkle his nose in confusion? Would he show up in church on Sunday and tell us we got the skin color all wrong?

But then something funny began to happen. There was something very sweet about looking out into the dark December nights and seeing that thing all lit up over there at the front door of our church. I could feel myself softening with each passing day. My heart didn’t expand rapidly, like the Grinch’s growing three sizes in a few seconds, but it did begin, slowly, to fill with wonder.

And then that Sunday, the clincher: Platt, who brought the whole dang shebang down from his attic and set it up, electric cords, lights on a timer, star hanging over the baby Jesus and all, stood up in church and announced that he was donating the scene to the church. And everyone clapped.

When I first came to the church a little over three years ago Platt didn’t come to church at all. He was on the board, but he didn’t come to church, which I thought was weird, so I kept encouraging him to join us on Sunday. His wife, Mabel, got sick and eventually died and then Platt started coming to church. I could see that it was a nice outing for him, this town elder who just celebrated his 90th birthday. He would arrive each week in a nicely pressed shirt and sit in his spot way over on the left. Eventually he started to come a little early so he could put out the flag and get the place ready. And then he started handing out bulletins and greeting everyone, too.

When Platt stood up in church and announced that he would be donating the nativity scene to the church I almost cried and not because it meant a hundred years of plastic Christmas decorations either. Because it was a big and important deal: Platt’s participation, his gestures of kindness, his showing up each week and finding ways to be useful. Platt and all the others who have shown up and integrated themselves into our little scene, our little ragtag group of searchers who come together each week to mingle our voices and hearts in prayer and song, hoping beyond hope that it makes a difference in this beleaguered world.

The other day, after church someone asked me what my message would be on Christmas Eve. I wanted to say something worn out and tired along the lines of … is there anything new under the sun when it comes to the Christmas message? … weary travelers, no room at the inn, donkeys and sheep, a really bright star … yadda yadda yadda.

Four Christmases into this and I’m already yadda yadda-ing it.

But then I realized how dumb that was. And it slowly dawned on me, what was happening right here this Christmas season, right outside my door and inside my heart.

It goes something like this:

Prepare in your hearts room for the light-up plastic baby Jesus, because it’s coming, whether you want it to or not. It’s coming by way of a kindhearted old man who says I love you all the time. It’s coming even if your heart has been hardened by too many dentist office waiting room minutes filled leafing through Architectural Digest; too much attention paid to Elle Decor and all that other this is very fancy and important and you want your life to look just like this bullshit.

That little plastic baby Jesus is going to set itself down right in your line of vision and stay lit up until you can’t stop looking, until you start to realize just how great it is and how dumb you were to think you somehow had it right all along. As soon as you start thinking that way—that you are right and everyone else is wrong—I guarantee that your plastic baby Jesus will arrive to soften your edges and melt your ego. The question for you this Christmas season is… will you make room? Will you be ready when the blessing comes?


Winter Stories

Dearest Friends and Readers,

It was about two winters ago, two winters ago? Christ it feels like it was a lot longer than that. Two winters ago when I subjected my loyal readers to the strangely well-received concept of paying for my stories. As opposed to receiving them here, for free. I loved you all more than ever for wanting a book. For ponying up a stupid amount of money to read stuff I wrote. But, you know, once you unleash that beast, there’s really no turning back; it’s all your fault. Plus, I have a LOT to write about. So, well, here goes.

When I wrote The Accidental Pastor (now out of circulation, so hold on to your copies. I’m hoping you might be able to sell them at a five or ten-cent profit after I die) I was mostly reflecting on some of the weird and unexpected events that had led me to carrying a card in my wallet that identifies me as a licensed pastor. It’s good for basically nothing; it won’t get me a prime parking spot at a concert; it won’t get me out of a speeding ticket. I don’t even get special access to the secret areas of the hospital. Recently I tried to play the pastor card at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort so I could park in the skier parking lot and run into Starbucks to grab a coffee before our service at the chapel.


“I’m sorry, Miss, if I let everyone who told me that park in this lot, it’d be full before 10.”

”Everyone is telling you they’re a pastor about to do a service at the chapel?” I asked, incredulously and also a little pissed-off that I, A PASTOR, WASN’T GETTING MY WAY!

“No,” the poor guy answered, “Everyone wants to run into Starbucks for 5 minutes.”

Right, of course. No one wants to be a pastor, I already knew this. And no one can live without a double venti caramel pumpkin no-fat triple backflip doesn’t even remotely resemble coffee Sunday morning beverage, either.

It does however, that little card, signify that I continue to live a life filled to the brim with great stories and gorgeous imagery.

And I continue to want nothing more than to capture those things to share with you.

You’ve all been very brave and kind and generous to stay on this carnival ride with me for these last many years. A lot has changed. And a lot of change is coming soon. The pile of change is about to grow. Kind of like a bunch of dirty laundry, only more fun.

Instead of a book this time around I’m creating a publication … a journal. A quarterly. Each season I’m going to create a thing that holds my stories and photographs. And the plan is that each one will be unique. I have this incredibly hairbrained idea (Harebrained? Will someone please look that up?) that I’m going to make each journal by hand, using a traditional Japanese bookbinding method that my friend, Gail Grow, taught me when I was a teaching assistant in her second grade classroom in 1991, I think. I know this sounds truly absurd, but I have to try. I’m tired of what I would call the Kinfolkization of magazines and journals these days. Everything is so dang cool that it’s not cool anymore. Everything is so hip, so edgy, so important that, well, I’m getting tired just talking about it.

I’m going to write stories and take pictures and I’m going to publish a magazine book-like thing four times a year. It won’t have a fancy name, but when you have it you will be holding something very beautiful in your hands, made here in Vermont by my hands.

In the coming weeks my life is going to be like a little snow globe. You can shake it and see sweet little things happening: snow falling and people smiling. Probably kids crying, too, but we’ll try to stay focused on the snow and the glitter. I am going to be traveling to interesting places. And while I’m there I’m going to be meeting new people, trying new things and taking notes and photographs. I will need your love and support. Please subscribe to my new enterprise.

The first issue will be delivered to you in mid-February and will include stories of me floating in the Dead Sea and being (re) baptised in the Jordan. Stories of me sitting fireside on chilly January nights, missing my boys. Stories of the Christmas tree falling down and a four year old kid thinking “Vermont” is “Gourmont” without a clue as to how real and funny that is. I’ll be going to Kansas and Lake Placid and Charleston and wherever disaster strikes, not that I wish disaster upon any of us, but I look forward to being there for Heart to Heart with my pencil and camera.

I find stories everywhere, as most of you know; they are the gold in our lives and the glue that binds us together. And I am honored, always, to share them with you. Humbled beyond belief that you read them. Thank you, for coming along, in my pocket, on this good and beautiful ride called Life.

You can subscribe here. And yes, there absolutely will be a surprise inside every edition and you won’t have to dump out a whole box of cereal to get to it.

Love and warmest blessings,

does not need 1.jpg

To which I would add … the planet does not need more crap, either. Stop making junk we don’t need and start making a difference.

Good Ideas #4

There are lots of good stories happening right now, trust me. There’s the one about Sam and some crutches and the introspection that small set-backs often brings. There’s the one about getting the trees with Nanny and Pa and how wee Burke, who is almost 4, kept running around on the coldest morning, turning the regular trees into talking trees and laughing like crazy the whole time. There was Platt standing up in church on Sunday letting everyone know he was donating the light-up manger scene out front so we can use it every year. My own amazement at how much I like looking out my window and seeing that crazy thing all lit up on these chilly Advent season nights. There was Matt, also in church on Sunday, suggesting that we sing Silent Night: “Why just once a year?” he asked, so wisely.

There was Amy showing up in church Sunday morning, so beautiful and bright and unexpected, and when I asked if anyone could read the German part she raised her hand, the only one! How does that happen? That people and things often show up precisely when we need them?

There are the folks who have been coming to me quietly, asking how they can help. Who do I know that needs help this season? I’ve become a kind of clearinghouse for information, of connection, from those in need to those who have time and the heart to ask where to go.

There was Sunday when everyone I ran into said I love you. It was kind of funny. Everyone was expressing love that day. Hugging and saying I. Love. You.

The smells. My god I love the smells so much! The tree in the house, the orange and clove things we make every year, ever since I learned how, in fifth grade. In olfactory terms alone this is the greatest time of the year.

There are the people who need our prayers, some desperately, right now, and the people who are lifting up their voices and hearts in prayer, with strength and conviction. And how the prayers are working the magic that prayers so often do.

And then there are the surprises, the little things that catch you off guard when the season is tumbling forward so quickly and you can’t keep up: someone asks to buy a photograph long since removed from any public space, the collaboration on a project comes together so beautifully and new friends are discovered and old ties strengthened. The message from my brother telling me his table design, “Missy’s table” is in final stages—the metal fabrication person has done his part; the photo showing me it is beautiful, so beautiful.

Polly sends an Advent calendar from Martha’s Vineyard right when I am wishing for an Advent calendar.

We build, we make, we create, we sing, play, chop, hope, pray. We extend the blessings we hold in our lives. The season, these days are full of it.

And there is, of course, the anticipation of the days coming: the boys returning home; Revels at Emma Willard with my beloved Katie; trying to find the pickle among the hundreds of ornaments on the absolute most amazing tree at 11 Fifth. Christmas Eve and the candlelit Silent Night when the members of our little Whoville join their voices in song, raising light up through the darkness, standing so close, a pileup of humanity in a circle of love. All is calm, all is bright.

I learned from watching the wonderful Fred Rogers documentary that he consciously kept his weight at 143 pounds his whole adult life. He saw those numbers this way:

1 = I
4 = love
3 = you

Good idea #4: love.

There have been hard days, most certainly, and there always will be. Continue to love, like crazy, through the hard days. In spite of. Really. Choose love.

And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Amen.


Good Ideas #3 + a Poem

Get it. Get it. Get it.
I’m not going to tell you anything about it, beyond that you must have it.


Also, my friend, Meredith, sent me this the other day, which I love tremendously, too. Nothing like a good Tony Hoagland poem to set the world straight … so if you really care, as you claim, would you kindly sit still and work your shit out. I wish he was still alive and writing more brilliant stuff.

On Why I Must Decline To Receive The Prayers You Say You Are Constantly Sending

Because first of all, I have a feeling that they didn’t cost you anything,
and so I have to wonder: What is their actual market value?

For you, is the prayer like a radar-guided projectile
mounted on the hinged-together wings of several good intentions,
propelled by the flawed translation of a Rumi poem?

Anyway, my mailbox is already pretty much occupied for the season.
At the beginning of May a big mother wren started moving in,
one mouthful of straw and twig at a time.

For three days she flew in and out, in and out and in,
building a nest the size of a small soup bowl.
Then she sat on her eggs for two weeks, cooing and fluffing to keep them warm.

Then she was busy feeding her young.
I think the heat passing through that mother’s body into her brood
has already surpassed the endoplasmic vibrational voltage
you’ve mentioned as a feature of the prayers you are sending me.

I understand that you are doing your best
to hoist yourself up toward a spiritual life,
even if it is through the doorway of a kind of pretending.

But if you really care, as you claim, please
will you kindly sit down and work your shit out?
Stop stealing reality from the world
and replacing it with make-believe!

The newspaper says that poorly aimed prayers
are causing flat tires on I-25.
The sandalwood incense blowing across the valley
is already causing cab drivers a lot of allergies.

So sit still and just look at the colors of the changing sky.
And could you stop burning so many candles, please?
My god, think how many hours and hours and hours —
think of how hard those bees worked
to make all that wax!

At Least For Now

Recently I had an interview. It was a terrific interview. The two people who were asking questions asked really good questions. It was part of the process I’m going through to become a member of the team of volunteers who do crisis response work for Heart to Heart International, as a photographer and story-gatherer. Dream come true, truly. Many of the questions were ones you would expect, having to do with how I would respond to unfamiliar circumstances and challenges, but one question came out of nowhere and I found I had a lot of trouble answering it: If you could be any animal, what would you be?

I stuttered and sputtered and thought of all different kinds of animals and their appealing attributes: a snake can slither and I love the desert; a horse can run really fast; a Labrador Retriever gets petted a lot; frogs can live on land and in water; my dog, Daisy, has a really nice life … I had no answer, and those of you who know me know that I never have no answer.

Then it occurred to me … of course! I would be a bird! I almost cried when I said it: I would like to fly with wings.

I am not a bird person, not a birder, I don’t know much of anything about the different kinds of birds, but I love watching the ways they play. I love watching them teach their young to fly. I am mesmerized by birds. I love the way the barn swallows team up and make a huge configuration, then swoop like mad through the air, all together. I love it when the geese are leaving town, honking to each other to get back in formation. I friend of mine was in South Africa recently and sent me a recording of a bird there. It was so funny! And, too, it often seems that birds have a closer connection to the spirit world. Maybe we become a bird for a while, after we die. Who knows? I’ve heard lots of stories of birds showing up in curious ways just after someone has died.

A bird, yes, that’s the ticket. But, sigh, I remain glued here to the ground, bound by gravity to the earth, at least for now.

I have realized, however, that twenty-three years ago I gave birth to a kind of bird/human. Sam has been posting lots of video clips of his skiing life in Tahoe and it seems he is flying higher and farther this winter. I watch his clips over and over, enchanted and amazed by the ways he soars through the air.

Next best thing, most certainly: my boy, SammyBird.
Short but sweet: Sam flying.
Even higher.


Mirth + Mischief: Good Ideas #2

Technically speaking the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on Christmas and lead up to the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), but who’s really counting? And who wants all those gifts after Christmas anyway? The time to be thinking about partridges and golden rings is now, my friends.

With that in mind I offer to you a suggestion of one of the finest and most beautiful things you could give someone you love this year: Stick Candles.

My friend, Doug Collum, began making these clever candles, inspired by his surroundings in magical Old Forge, New York — cast from sticks, twigs and branches, in 2010. I loved them so much that I had to open a shop, Abel & Lovely, so I could get them wholesale. He’s come a long way since then: Martha Stewart and the likes, and he moved his operations from the Adirondacks to North Carolina. Doug and his candles remain two of my most favorite things on Earth. Give them generously to everyone you know this holiday season.

Side note: Apparently the earliest known version of the Twelve Days lyrics was published in London under the title "The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin's Ball", as part of a 1780 children's book, Mirth without Mischief.

To which I would respond, why bother?

Mirth, mischief, candlelight, December holidays … all of it. The best.


The Book of Love

I don’t remember which year she wrote this, but it’s as fabulous now as it was then and perhaps more relevant than ever. It shows that she was always funny (qualification: “real puppy”) and compassionate. She was asking for water and blankets and not any old crappy canned food but yummy canned food for homeless folks in Burlington that winter.

Please, if you will, take a page from the good Book of Coco this holiday season.


Let There Be

Good morning friends. Sunday morning, raining and quiet. The tree is up in church, magnificent, tall. The start of both Hanukkah and Advent converge today: light, hope, waiting, patience.

Coco went to the Dominican Republic over Thanksgiving vacation and brought me back a gift: a thermos full of sand from the beach with seven small amethyst shells, “for each of the seven years you have been sober.”

There is so very much to be aware of and grateful for this season, not the least of which is a teenage daughter with compassion, respect and an understanding of the battles we fight in this life and the need to continually celebrate each other and what we accomplish.

Some very nice things are brewing.

I have been alluding to, for a while now, a new publication. After many months of thinking about it and trying to figure out what it should and could be, I have finally arrived at a place that feels right. I will be sharing more about that very soon.

And, too, I am really delighted to be working with the terrific, wonderful, kind and creative folks at State 14 to capture stories and images of this place, Vermont, and the beautiful people who call it home.

Happy birthday this week to my beloved Ellie, her sensational daughter, Piper, and to my fascinating and funny nephew, Dylan, aka Zippy.

Thank you for being a reader.
Let there be light, xomo.