Christmas Greetings from Rascal

Rascal’s Coat of Many Needles, my essay (blog posting) from last December, has been published in this collection of winter essays, poems, and short stories. I hope others will find as much joy and inspiration in Rascal’s goofy charm and antics that I did. He will be missed forever, but his lessons of patience and grace will never be forgotten. Merry Christmas!

The Cowboy and Miss Austen

One of my favorite short stories has found a home* (click here to read it). It is the tale of a young cowboy, looking for love and discovering Jane Austen’s novels along the way. Those of you who know me will understand why this story in particular is close to my heart, and I want to thank the editor, Jessica, for selecting it. So now all of my stories have been published–a strange milestone and certainly a reminder that I need to get busy writing. In the meantime, I have a pile of books to finish and the change of seasons to enjoy. Happy fall (and reading), everyone!

*It was accepted for publication by a small press in 2021 but that publisher has evidently folded.

Ambergate Chestnuts Accepted for Publication

Derbyshire (Image by John Mounsey).

“Trespassers, trespassers,” the trees whispered, so faint the words caught in the wind, somewhere between fantasy and reality.

And so begins my travel essay, Ambergate Chestnuts, which has been accepted for publication by the online travel journal, Intrepid Times. A huge thank you to Jennifer Roberts, Intrepid Times Senior Editor, for accepting the essay, as well as her kind words!

The essay details a hike in England’s glorious Peak District and a chance encounter with a charming grandfather and his naughty grandson. I will share the publication information once Ambergate Chestnuts is live on the site.

In the Boat With Christ

When life grows turbulent, I find comfort in imagining myself in a boat with Jesus Christ, navigating a restless sea. The imagery comes from Mark 6:45-51:

“… Christ saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn He went out to them, walking on the lake… He spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then He climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down.”  

This nautical passage and lesson were first introduced to me by Rev. Karen Hunter (Grace Episcopal Church) in a sermon several years ago. It has stayed with me all this time, as has many of her other writings and sermons. For me, they embody the Christian message of forgiveness, hope, charity, and love.

So I decided a few months ago to share her work through a website I have been volunteer-managing for St. Francis’ Episcopal Church in Grayling, Michigan. St. Francis’ is currently without a full-time priest, and I thought Rev. Karen’s essays from Grace’s newsletters* would make the perfect interim blog. You can find the the blog here, and I hope it will be as inspirational for you as it has been for me.

My niece, 13-years-old at the time, was with me for the Mark 6 sermon. We left the church and turned to each other, saying almost in unison how much we had enjoyed the sermon and that we wanted to be in a boat with Christ. It has since become a catch-phrase for the two of us, sharing a sacred moment and an important memory of how words can give spiritual solace. But even more importantly, it is a reminder of how Christ’s presence is never far away, and how gifted writers and speakers, like Rev. Karen, can bring Him even closer.

*Reprinted with permission—thank you, Karen!

Rascal and the Coat of Many Needles

Rascal demonstrates his lack of tree etiquette.

The other day, while standing in the front yard, I studied our Christmas tree. Framed by the living room window, it gleamed with red, blue, and green lights. Snow drifted into my shoes, and Rascal, our short-legged, 17-year-old dog, waddled into a snow pile.

A combination of either corgi/German shepherd or black lab/basset hound (depending on the veterinarian you consult), Rascal struggled. I scooped him up before the snow could completely swallow him and placed him on more solid ground.

Early evening settled around us in a peaceful softness—dusky blue light seeped into the white landscape, streaks of red and pink painted the sky a rosy glow, and early stars highlighted the heavens. Rascal rubbed his nose in the snow and stared into space, as if he too appreciated God’s choice of palette.

Our Christmas tree, I decided, had exceeded all expectations. Taken from the Manistee National Forest, it was one of my family’s best trees, not our typical Charlie Brown selection. Homemade decorations, from pine cones and ribbons to twig reindeer to ornaments fashioned by young nieces and nephews, hung from its branches.

While the charm of our tree might have been unexpected, even more surprising had been Rascal’s complete disregard for tree etiquette. Back inside, Rascal once again ignored the tree, refusing to skirt around it, as if the tree were invisible. He made his unsteady way toward my husband on the sofa. Cutting beneath the tree, Rascal’s back rubbed against the lowest branches.

The result of this constant short-cutting is that Rascal wears a perpetual coat of pine needles, which he scatters throughout the house. At first, I frequently swept or vacuumed, but I have surrendered, unable to keep up with the shower of needles. His lack of manners even forced us to secure the tree to the wall when Rascal’s wagging tail tipped it over.

Rascal, finally, away from the tree (and clear of needles).

Like the biblical Joseph and his coat of many colors, Rascal too was betrayed by his first family, starting life as a stray, but the similarities end there. Taken in by my sister and her family, greatly loved by my nieces, Rascal has also lived with my mother, and now my husband and I have become his caretakers.

In the end, we have been more his people rather than he being our dog. His genes might have given him a slightly odd physique, but they certainly made up for it in lovability and longevity. For the past 17 years, he has been present through some of my life’s greatest sorrows, unknowingly comforting me and imparting vital lessons.

As Rascal taught me during the Christmas of 2021, expect the unexpected, embrace it if you can. He brought the northern woods inside, spreading needles and twigs everywhere he wandered, forcing me to choose between patience and grace or annoyance and harshness. I chose the former, hoping those two attributes will accompany me wherever I go.

I have been blessed to care for this eccentric mutt, one of God’s helpless, sweet creatures who has shown me companionship, love, and selflessness, made even more meaningful during this season of gratitude.

Merry Christmas!

It’s a Wonderful December: A Frank Capraesque Memory

Snowshoeing around Lake Emma.

December 2005 replays in my mind like a Frank Capra movie. The marquee reads: It’s A Wonderful December, but no bank auditors or near-death experiences mar my memory. Time has smoothed the rough edges until all that remains are ski tracks disappearing into deep woods. In my mind, the month was spent on skis, devoid of sleeping, eating or working.

And, based on the snowfall we received, that might have been a possibility. The snow began to fall during early December, leaving our already sleepy corner of northeastern Michigan even drowsier, covered in a thick, white blanket. Ice formed over our inland lake, which moaned and groaned as if protesting the early invasion, and animal tracks crisscrossed our yard.

Cross-country skis leaned against the wall next to the front door, and snow-shoes littered our entryway, slush melting around them. Discarded boots hovered nearby. The snow eased, but the temperatures dipped, preserving our winter wonderland.

One morning, while driving to the Black Mountain Recreation Area outside of Cheboygan, Mich., we took a corner too fast and spun off the icy road. Our car landed in a ditch. Within minutes, a vehicle stopped, and three men tumbled out. Ski boots covered their feet, and they jumped into the ditch with us, pushing and shoving our little car.

Soon the conversation turned to skiing — trail conditions, deep snow and winter’s blessings. Our car was almost forgotten as we swapped stories and shared memories. It seemed as if the early snowfall had infected them the same way it had us, and nothing could damage the cheerful mood. Another Good Samaritan with a truck eventually pulled us out of the ditch. The skiers, their conversation still on snow, clambered back into their vehicle.

Later that month, just before Christmas, we observed Rogers City’s annual holiday celebration. Dozens of trees in Westminster Park brimmed with lights. The moment spun with emotion, and I half-expected Jimmy Stewart to walk down the street, wishing me a happy holiday.

Christmas in the Park, painting by Debbie Stiller.

Then, a few days later, the rain arrived, melting the snow, as well as the magic. It was the moment in a Frank Capra movie when the main character tears up, and the audience leaves with a moral message. December 2005 taught me that when nature beckons, I must stop and listen.  And if she leaves a gift at my doorstep, crooking a finger at me to step outside, then I have no choice but to follow and unwrap it slowly, enjoying the moment while it lasts.

And I hope you too have similar moments during the upcoming season, where the true meaning of Christmas reaches out and holds you, wrapping you in a peaceful embrace that stretches across the winter and into next year.

(A version of this essay first appeared in the “Quiet Sports Colum” of Whisper in the Woods (Winter 2007/2008).)

Goodreads Review: Intriguing mix of strong characters, redemption, romance, and even a touch of mystery

Shattered: A Story of Betrayal and Courage by C. Lee McKenzie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This inspirational tale of heartbreak and courage is an intriguing mix of strong characters, redemption, romance, and even a touch of mystery. The plot revolves around 19-year-old Libby Brown’s fight to regain a sense of normalcy after becoming a paraplegic when a snowboarder hits her while she is skiing. Gone are her hopes to attend the Olympics and instead she must learn how to adapt to a life in a wheelchair.

The author, C. Lee McKenzie, has created realistic characters from Libby to her parents to wheelchair-abled friends. Harley, Libby’s buoyant, optimistic friend, is particularly refreshing and inspiring. An amputee, Harley never allows herself to feel anything but enthusiasm for her future. The story is strengthened by the ongoing search for the snowboarder who caused Libby’s accident and was part of a dark alliance to remove Libby from the Olympics.

This is the third young adult novel I have read by Ms. McKenzie, and her writing never disappoints.

An enormous thank-you to NetGalley for providing me with the ARC.

View all my reviews

Saying Goodbye to Facebook

After reading the Wall Street Journal’s five-part series about Facebook, I have decided to permanently delete my FB account. The headlines from the two articles that cemented my decision are: Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Many Teen Girls, Company Documents Show and Facebook Employees Flag Drug Cartels and Human Traffickers. The Company’s Response Is Weak, Documents Show.

And, since I was my sister Kelly’s legacy contact, her account will also be removed. Please know that I didn’t come to this decision lightly, but I truly believe she would agree with my conclusion.  However, her website Quilting Cancer is still active, and you can read her writings there, reliving her courage, optimism, and amazing perseverance. You can also purchase her book Quilting Cancer through Amazon (all proceeds go to charity).

She left us five years ago on October 8, 2016 and not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. For many of us, she was truly a guiding light, someone who always listened, emanating empathy and patience, despite her own challenges. And I hope, as we approach this five-year anniversary, that her memory clings to all who knew her, making us better people because of her influence and reminding us, that no matter what life throws us, we can conduct ourselves with dignity, graciousness, kindness, and fearlessness.

Snake Wrangler and the Scorpion Kid

Another one of my short stories has found a home. Flash Fiction Magazine has accepted Snake Wrangler and the Scorpion Kid for publication. I am always thrilled when an editor likes my work, but this story became the basis for my novel Deathstalker Two-Step, a murder mystery. So, of course, I’m hoping that this is foreshadowing of more good news to come. The writing business is a funny place–you can go through literally years of rejection and then all of a sudden your work is accepted. So to all my writing friends: keep pushing forward and never give up. A publishing contract might be only a few pages away!