Category: Musings

the ghost of christmas past.

Christmas, 1982. Corinth, NY

Merry Christmas, friends! The girls and I are busy tidying up today and making artichoke chili dip for our gathering at my cousin’s house this evening. I’ve got the John Denver & the Muppets Christmas music playing, but I still wanted to give you something a little Christmas-y. I originally posted this four years ago, but I couldn’t resist sharing it again – it’s becoming somewhat of a Christmas tradition. It brings a smile to my face because it holds all the best magic of Christmas.  I’m wishing you lots of grins with your dear ones this Christmas. I’ll be spending this evening without that goofy older brother of mine for the first time in a while, as he is far away with our younger brother, watching our nephew witness the magic for the first time…

Ho-Ho-Ho!

– Mrs. Fresh Scratch

When I was growing up, I lived in snowy places in New England. The holiday season would start – in my memory – with a huge dumping of snow {some years it was taller than I was!}, followed by getting our Christmas tree, like everyone else.

Only… it wasn’t like everyone else.

Let me be honest here: we would start the holiday season by stealing our Christmas tree.

This was the norm in our family, so I never really thought about if it was right or wrong. I don’t know if it was because we weren’t always living high on the hog or if my parents got some weird adrenaline rush from it, but it was just something we did.

Legend has it that the first tree we stole was from the front lawn of the state of Connecticut’s governor’s mansion {at night, naturally!}. As the years went by, our tree’s locale mellowed, and we’d usually drive to a forest and search all day with sleds and cocoa and a bow saw, or we’d steal one from a neighbor’s woods behind our house.

Sometimes when I’m on my lunchtime walk home from work, meandering through the woods near my neighborhood, I get a whiff of woodsmoke that mixes just right with the crispness of the air, and it is this thought that pops into my mind: This is Christmas tree-stealing weather. And then I have to call my older brother Frank, the goofy teenager in the bathrobe in the picture above, and reminisce once more about our most covert tree-stealing operation…the time we did it all by ourselves.

The year I was probably twelve and he was twenty, our parents left it up to us. One day we trekked to some woods a couple of cleared acres behind our Connecticut farmhouse and found the perfect tree.  We marked it with my blue and brown checked scarf with the blue fringe on the ends that always reminded me of Bert and Ernie somehow. We didn’t want to get caught dragging it home, so we made plans to go back that evening with only the moon to light our way. We were forever watching old war moves and loved the prospect of this “mission.”

After dinner, the full moon was up. The temperature was below freezing. There was no snow yet. We bundled up, put on our L.L. Bean boots, and grabbed our walkie-talkies {my, how the times have changed!}. We crossed the field behind our non-functioning dairy barn after tiptoeing past its looming, ominous silhouette. We scooted over the ice that covered the stream which fed our pond, the moonlight glinting off of its surface. We ambled over the rock wall that separated our property from another’s field, then passed the gigantic rock near the side of the field that must have been too enormous for the pioneers hundreds of years ago to clear away. We did all of this in complete silence.

At last we reached the crumbling rock wall at the edge of “the hidden field.” We had names for all of the places behind our house, and this was aptly named because it was a forest of saplings that had sprung up between what had once been probably an acre of now-ancient orchard.  A rock wall and dense oak trees surrounded its perimeter, lending it a darkness that was both literal and visceral at the same time.  Whether night or day, it was a place that could only be described as downright spooky.  It was a spot my younger brother Jimmy and I dared not go when we were there without Frank, which was saying something, since we were fearless explorers of the Connecticut countryside.

The tree was on the other side of the hidden field. Somehow, both Frank and I knew that I would not be accompanying him any further that night. It was like that rock wall was a barrier between our world and another that I didn’t care, or dare, to get acquainted with, especially on the night of a full moon…I was raised on too much Washington Irving and New England lore. I parked my tush on a frigid rock while my brother made the crossing. I was armed with only a walkie-talkie, but he had a saw.  I couldn’t help but to notice the imbalance. He reminded me of my job as the look-out and to signal if anyone was coming, saying he’d signal if he got caught and we needed to book it home. I laugh now to think that if we ran into someone else wandering about in the moonlight of the Connecticut farmlands, we’d probably have bigger things to worry about than where we got our tree!

He disappeared into the barely-visible night. I beeped the little Morse code button on the walkie-talkie to make sure he was still there.  He beeped back. I sat.

My butt was freezing.

I waited.

A cloud passed over the moon. All sound stopped. It felt like hours were passing rather than moments. I was shivering; my braces-clad teeth {complete with red and green bands} were chattering. I tried Frank on the walkie-talkie.

Nothing.

More clouds obscured the moon, piling up on one another and making it an even more shadow-laden night.  I tried him again.

Still nothing.

It occurred to me that perhaps he was out of range, but that just seemed too awful a possibility to dwell on, so I buzzed the heck out of that little Morse code button.

Silence, save for the breaths that were now coming shallowly and rapidly from my chest.  Visions of the Headless Horseman started to pop into my brain.  I tried to be cool and reason with myself that it takes time to cut down a tree, but it just wasn’t soothing me.  Finally I pressed the talk button and squealed, “Frank!  Frank?  Where are you? I’m scared!”

I started to get up from my perch, when a crackle came over the walkie-talkie, “Kel? Kel? Are you there? Come in.” Good, I thought, maybe he didn’t hear me freaking out. “Roger,” {we loved to talk like the truckers we’d hear on the c.b.} “I’m here. Are you okay?” “Oh, yeah. Get ready. I’ve got our tree. See you in a few. Over and out.”

Relief. Warmth sprang from the sigh I heaved, and all was right with the world. The cloud had blown away from the moon by then, and I heard the sweet “shush…shush…shush” the tree made as it was dragged forward, footstep by footstep. Frank came into view, face aglow and eyes shining from the cold and from the adrenaline of what he –we – had just done. Suddenly, all I felt was the buoyancy of adventure, a tale that we could tell. I grabbed a branch near the trunk of the tree and started walking, victorious and ever the starry-eyed little sister.

The End.

how i got an unexpected writing retreat.

Fresh Scratch, Kelli Samson, Shelby Payne Photography

Fresh Scratch, writing retreatStay with me. This is a bit of a story.

Last week, my senior English classes were in the middle of studying the film Good Will Hunting as literature. I shared with them how much this movie inspired me as a college girl, how it made me want to take risks and go after the things I really wanted in life and not squander a single second. I shared with them that it gave me a huge crush on Matt Damon, but that I eventually saw the light and realized Benny Affleck is more the one for me, noting how good he looked in his beard for Argo.

You’d think among all these good feelings, a lesson on a film like this would be a week well spent, wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not lost on me that teaching seniors can often kind of kick-ass. But, no. That’s not how it worked last week. Last week, I cried. A lot.

I cried because the movie pointed out to me that I was a quitter.

I had slowly quit the thing I loved and the thing that made me…me. And I had made a ton of excuses along the way, masking my slow burn out with the word “sacrifice” in my mind and, at times, aloud. First it was that my blog was broken. Then it was that I was too busy writing articles that actually, unlike this blog, paid me real money. Then it was that I decided to go back to teaching English full-time because wouldn’t it be nice for the mister to get a new car and for us to finish up some house projects and isn’t that what grown-ups do? Then it was that my five-year plan was up and it hadn’t panned-out. I wasn’t making a living with my writing. So I had to spend more time doing what actually paid the bills. I had to go back to my day job. Which meant I was tired. Which meant, hey! Sleep is more important than waking up early to start my day writing. And on and on.

This is how it goes for an artist, I told myself. Sometimes we have to sacrifice what we love and what makes us who we are for the greater good.

But that’s crap. And I felt like crap for telling myself these things. They weren’t true. I was quitting. These things don’t have to exist outside of one another. They are all a part of what makes me who I am – yes, I am a teacher. Yes, I have bills to pay so I have to teach even though I’d much rather be doing the thing I’m teaching about all day. Yes, I need sleep. But you know what I need more than any of those things? To not be lying to myself that writing can wait. That it wasn’t a big deal that I was letting it go.

Because I don’t really care how much you or I or anyone else lies to other people – I have to keep it real at least for myself. Strangely, a week in a classroom I kind of would rather not be in all day taught me this.

And so it was that I came home Thursday and finally let Matt see me crying about it. I finally decided I couldn’t go on letting that flame die. And so my alarm went off at 4:30 am Friday for me to write a post here. I overslept a little, finally hopping up at 5:05, thinking about the warm mug of tea I was about to enjoy in the absolute stillness of a December morning while everyone was still asleep and while all my best words came out because I hadn’t even had to talk yet. I knew whatever the rest of my day brought, at least I’d have given myself the right kind of start by making sure I got to satisfy my passion before I did anything else.

And then I misjudged the last step on my staircase in the dark, somehow rolling my ankle so hard that I heard a nice, clear, “snap!”

I sat right down and said, “You’ve got to be eff-ing kidding me!” Then I bawled so hard I can only compare it to the nights I’d wake up and realize it was really true that my dad had died. First I was crying because I ONLY WANTED TO WRITE! AND NOW I CAN’T BECAUSE MY ANKLE HAS GOT TO BE BROKEN AND I HAVE TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL!!

Then I was crying because, my god, it felt like my leg was going through the pains of childbirth. You know that kind of pain where you can’t even decide anything and you don’t want to move or open your eyes or even acknowledge this might not be a bad dream?

That.

So, yes, in the end, it turns out I broke my fibula just above my ankle. At least, that’s what they can come up with so far. New x-rays later this week. It sucks, yes, because it’s Christmas time and I have been hip-checked out of the hustle and bustle. And now things REALLY aren’t going to go as planned.

But you know what’s great? At least I have days filled with quiet to write. And to read my books about being creative. And to surf Pinterest. And to maybe catch up on all the New Girl I missed last year.

But mostly to write. Because maybe the universe didn’t trust I’d figure it out on my own last week, so it planned a little writing retreat for me in a way that wouldn’t fail to get my attention.

Well played, universe. Well played.

And that is how Good Will Hunting, in the end, broke my leg.