Blogmas 2018 – Day 14 #christmas #blogmas #blogmas2018 #christmas2018

Today I share with you an excerpt from one of my unpublished novels, Rocks and Flowers in a Box. Below is a Christmas scene from 1945:

Tristan and I lounged on the couch. My eyes lingered on the tree, the warm glow of the strands of lights the only source of illumination in the living room. Beyond the window where I watched Tristan pace among his rocks, what seemed another lifetime, snow fell in a whimsical ballet in the silent night.
The snow had been coming down when we stepped out of the church at midnight an hour ago. When we arrived home, we stood, hand in hand, in the driveway and listened to the stillness. A world at peace. A world not at war for the first Christmas in six years.
“How are you not asleep?” I whispered to Tristan, nuzzling his ear with my nose.
He chuckled. “Some nights are worth staying up.”
“Tell me your favorite Christmas memory.”
He kissed the top of my head and placed his hand on my stomach. “This one, right here.”
“But this isn’t a memory yet.”
“It will be, one day. Every moment at passes pushes it into the past.”
“Don’t wish it away so quickly.”
“On the contrary, my darling. I’m cherishing it.” He cupped my chin with his hand and brought his lips to mine in a gentle kiss.
When we broke apart, I gazed into the low light dancing in his eyes. I rested my hand on his cheek. He closed his eyes as he leaned into my touch.
“Do you remember when we saw Meet Me in St. Louis last year?” I asked.
Tristan’s eyes popped open. “I wasn’t expecting that question, but yeah, sure. Why?”
“The song Judy Garland sang…’Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’…do you remember it?”
Tristan chuckled. “I hope you’re not asking me to sing it.”
I giggled. “No, of course not. I was just remembering the lyrics. I can’t recall all of them, but something like all our troubles being out of sight in the following year or something.”
“Yes, I remember. It spoke of hope to you. You cried during that part of the film.”
I nodded. “I was just really hoping, you know…that with it being Christmas and all, that Chucky would come home.”
Tristan sighed. “I know and I’m sorry. I know how much he means to you.”
“Would it be too much to wish for one more miracle? You’re alive. I’m pregnant. Now, if only he were here, why, it would make the perfect Christmas.”
“I’m not great at it, but…do you want to pray?”
I took Tristan’s hand and squeezed it, nodding, my eyes on the verge of spilling over.
He enclosed my hands in his and whispered, “God, I’m not good at this. I don’t know what the right words are, but my beautiful wife tells me that You don’t expect us to come with poetic words. I’m a writer. I’m used to writing eloquently, but when I speak, I mess it up. What I’m trying to say is…thank You. Thank You for everything You’ve already given us. It’s more than I could’ve imagined. Me, especially me. Now, if You could just bring back my darling’s brother safe and sound, that’d be great. I see the sadness in her eyes, even when she smiles. Thanks for listening…and thanks for Christmas and what it means. You know what I’m getting at. Um…amen.”
“Thank you.” I kissed him. “That was the sweetest thing.”
“I sounded like a fool.” Tristan yawned. “Maybe I’m just too tired to think straight anymore.”
“No, you got it all right.”
“I got it right when I met you.”
We share a lingering kiss. Then Tristan took my hand and pulled me to standing and guided me into our bedroom.

Poetry Tuesday – A Gathering of Friends

The time is upon us once again

When shorter days mark another year’s end.

“Not enough hours in the day”

Is often all we have to say.

Commercialism and materialism

Seem to cloud true holiday realism.

Impatience in the checkout line,

Illegal parking by a no parking sign,

Running and rushing from here to there,

Never having a single moment to spare–

All this sounds familiar to us,

But what is up with all this fuss?

Do we still hear the voices of Heaven

Like we did when children of seven?

Do we still see the wonders all around

That God has blessed this earth to abound?

“Today is different,” we remark,

For a holiday is a time to embark

On a journey down Memory Lane

And step away from the world insane.

No doubt, the spirit will reside

In a happy household’s inside

Around a table of family and friends,

A gathering that, by tomorrow, ends.

Come tomorrow, will we suddenly forget

And later wallow in pity and regret

For having thought that one mere day

Away from the world’s twisted way

Would be enough time to truly cherish

The time with loved ones before they perish?

Sadly, caught up in living life on Earth,

We don’t think of our heavenly rebirth.

Like waves in the ocean,

We merely repeat the motion,

Until one day we crash upon the shore.

Then life is over, we live no more–

Well, life as we know it, anyway,

So do more than cherish one holiday.

Truly live life as it was meant to be.

Open your eyes and plainly see

That earthly life is too short,

So don’t you your chance abort

To enjoy today’s gathering of friends,

Knowing it mirrors Heaven and never ends.

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Blogmas 2018 – Day 6 #christmas #blogmas #blogmas2018 #christmas2018

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Our white tree with my brother and me – 1982

According to Wikipedia: “The modern Christmas tree was developed in medieval Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) and early modern Germany, where Protestant Germans brought decorated trees into their homes.[1][2] It acquired popularity beyond the Lutheran areas of Germany[1][3] and the Baltic countries during the second half of the 19th century, at first among the upper classes.”

The Christmas tree is the most popular secular decoration in homes across the United States. I say secular, but the star placed atop the tree represents the Star of Bethlehem. Or if you place an angel there, that would stand for the angels that visited the shepherds on the first Christmas night.

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My brother and me – 1986

The Christmas tree has pagan origins, when pagans would decorate evergreen trees during the winter solstice (just before Christmas), also know as Yule, to brighten the darkest day of the year. It’s easy to see how this tradition went on to have importance in Christianity, as Jesus being born brought light into a dark world. The evergreen tree, since it doesn’t lose its greenery like deciduous trees, symbolizes life everlasting, as promised by belief in Jesus.

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My grandma’s tree with my dad, brother, and me – 1984

When I was a child, we had a white Christmas tree. These were popular in the 1970s, when my parents bought theirs shortly after getting married. Most of my mom’s ornaments were red or white, and she always put white lights on the tree. Setting the tree up was a lengthy, often challenging process, as each branch needed to be added individually, and the lights came on circular strands (instead of the straight strands you always find now). It seemed like there was at least one strand of lights that wouldn’t light up, which meant checking each bulb to see if it was loose. I was always so excited when Mom would get the tree out and loved helping her decorate it year after year. My brother and I pulled it out when we were teenagers and put it up ourselves, as we just couldn’t wait! We had this tree until 1993, when my mom decided it was time to trade in that worn, old tree for a fuller, green one.

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My parents’ green tree – 2005

When we first got our cat, Cally, in 1988, she jumped into the tree a few times, knocking it down. Over the years, she just sat under the tree, but ornaments often went missing from the bottom, as she would hide them behind my dad’s workbench!

The 6-foot green tree lasted until just a few years ago after my parents moved from my childhood home. They still have a green tree, but it’s a pencil tree, holding fewer ornaments.

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Our first Christmas tree as a married couple – 2007

As for other trees that were special for me when growing up, my grandma had an artificial tree as well. Maybe none of these trees were especially stunning to others, but they were beautiful to me. Grandma kept all her Christmas decorations under the steps in her basement, which was a tight spot with a short door. I don’t think the ceiling was more than 4 feet tall at its highest! I would cram under there and remove the boxes, often setting up her tree when I was old enough.

My mom told me when she was growing up, her dad was very particular about the real tree he picked every year. My grandparents set up the entire tree, plus put all the presents under it on Christmas Eve after the kids went to bed. My mom said Santa brought their tree, decorated it, and delivered presents! My grandparents must have just gotten into bed, only to be woken by my mom and her brother on Christmas morning!

After getting married in 2003, I had the pleasure of getting my own tree for my own house. I should give a shout out to a couple of small trees I owned previously. As a teenager, I had a 2-foot tree that I kept in my room, and when I had my own apartment, I had a 3-foot tree. I kept the 3-foot tree for several years after getting the 7-foot tree for our house. The 7-foot tree was larger than the usual 6-foot ones we had when I was growing up. I remember having very few ornaments those first few years and buying lots of cheap plastic ones from Target just to have something to cover the tree with.

Over the years, I collected ornaments from our trips, a tradition my mom had started years earlier. Now that I have kids, I put ornaments with their pictures on the tree every year, so as you can imagine, I’ve filled my tree with lots of pictures of my kids! There are handmade ornaments from my kids and ornaments of some of my favorite characters from various books. I love personalizing the tree. It’s much better than the plastic Target ornaments I first had!

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Our current tree

When we moved into our current house three years ago, I decided it was time to get a pre-lit tree. I was tired of stringing all the lights on the tree. My current tree stands at 7 1/2 feet. My ceiling is high. I suppose I could have gone taller, but this one works well!

Tell me about your Christmas tree below and your traditions around it!

Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow

“I would like it very much if you were all here with me,” Hannah said, wheezing.  She coughed several times.

“Mom!” Abbi exclaimed, rushing to her side.

The coughing spell subsided, and Hannah shook her head, holding up a placating hand.  “No, no, it’s nothing.  Please don’t make a fuss.  There’s nothing to be done.  Just, please… be here with me.  And call my siblings, please.  They need to know.  Harry would be devastated if he couldn’t come in time…”

“I’ll make the calls,” Abbi said, trying to occupy herself.

Brenda exchanged a look with Abbi and nodded, drawing up a chair next to Glen.  Abbi left the room and made the calls she dreaded.  Irma said she’d be on the first plane out, but Abbi thought, with a sinking heart, that she would be too late.  Within the hour, Harry was at the door.

Abbi supposed she could have let Alan or Tom answer the door, but she was a bundle of nerves as she flitted about the house.  When she opened the front door and saw the pain etched in every line of her uncle’s face, she couldn’t compose herself to speak.  Harry entered and hugged his niece.

“Chin up, Abbi, child,” he said in his usual gentle manner he’d used with her since she had been small.

Abbi half-laughed, half-hiccupped.  “I’m not a child anymore, Uncle Harry, but thanks.”

“Ah, you’re a child to me, old fart that I am.  It’s okay to fall apart, to be like a child, especially right now.  Where is she?”

“This way.”  Abbi couldn’t help but smile.  Her uncle always knew how to make her laugh.

Harry fell silent as he followed his niece to his sister’s side.  He took Hannah’s hand in a similar manner as she’d held his all those years ago in the hospital after he had been in the accident.

“What’s this all about, then?” he asked.  “I always imagined the roles reserved here, sis.  What are you doing in this bed, hmmm?”

Hannah’s chuckle came as a rasp, then a cough, but her eyes shone with mirth.

Recovering, she said, “You never let up, do you, silly brother?  I guess the good Lord has use of you yet here.”

“Can’t imagine for what.”

“There you go again, selling yourself short.”

“You think you know what’s best for me, eh?  Leaving me ain’t it, Hannah-panna.”

“You never stop, do you?”

They exchanged their friendly banter for a little while longer before Hannah grew serious.  “But don’t ever stop, Harry.  Don’t ever stop making people laugh and smile.  It’s what you do, who you are.  You and that big heart of yours.”

Eyes shining with tears, Harry said, “There’s one person whose smile I haven’t seen in far too long.  You tell Kathy when you see her – you tell her I’m coming for her soon.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Then it’s settled.  Maybe you can leave after all.  Don’t let an old bugger like me keep you.”

Harry hugged Hannah one last time and said his farewells to her children.  After he left, Hannah’s eyes implored her youngest daughter, then her other children, to sit with her.  Breathing was becoming increasingly difficult, so she didn’t waste her words.  Each breath, each utterance, and each heartbeat were precious, now more than ever for Hannah.

Hannah’s eyes slipped shut, and her hands fell loose at her sides.  To her children, she appeared to be sleeping with difficulty, as every breath was labored, rattling through her chest and out again.

 

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Chapter 41)

While the first year without Edward was the most difficult, Hannah found strength she didn’t know she had.  There were times when she thought everything was fine, and then something would trigger a memory of Edward – a song on the radio, a line from a book, a phrase someone said.  Then Hannah was pulled back into grief.

She supposed she would spend the rest of her life susceptible to such turns of emotion.  According to Harry, he had similar experiences since losing Kathy. He joined Hannah at the cemetery some Sundays, and when the weather was nice, they slowly walked the well-trod path from Kathy’s grave to Edward’s grave to their parents’ grave and finally to Amy’s grave.

“You know, this may sound morbid, but I’m finding the cemetery oddly comforting,” Hannah said on a July day, a year after Edward’s passing.  “There’s a certain beauty about this place. I wouldn’t have believed it before, but coming here has been vital for me.”

“I’m glad you suggested I join you,” Harry replied.  The wind gently played with his silver hair, messing it in the manner he’d often worn it when he was much younger.  Behind thick glasses, his blue eyes crinkled as he smiled. “You know you must’ve been very convincing to get me to come here this often, sis, seeing as I avoided this place like the plague for years.”

Hannah joined in the laughter.  “Anything to get you to listen to me, Harry.  You know I’ve always known what’s best for you.”

Harry sobered.  “There’s more truth to that than you realize.”

Hannah reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze.  “Hey, you old geezer, you forget that you first came to my aid.”

“Who you calling old, Hannah-panna?”

“Don’t you remember how you related to me when I was angry about Amy dating?  For the first time, I felt like someone understood me, Harry.”

Brother and sister exchanged knowing smiles.

“I have a feeling my two younger grandsons are going to cause as much trouble as you and Erik did when you were boys.  Randy’s only seven months old and is determined to crawl. He’s getting into things, and I have to keep my eye on the little stinker around the outlets.”

“Ah, grandkids.  They keep us young, don’t you think?”

“I often forget my age, but keeping up with them is another thing entirely.  What I’d give to wake up just one morning without a stiff neck or back, and if it isn’t that, it’s my legs.”

“You sound like that one old biddy friend of yours you’re always complaining about.  What’s her name, Gertie? The one from church who goes on and on about what’s ailing her.”

“Yes, that’s Gertie all right, but don’t you even start, Harry.”  

The siblings walked on in perfect companionship to the pond and fed the geese, whiling away another lazy afternoon.

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow (Chapter 40)

After Tim pulled away, Erik, Lily, and Harry joined Hannah.  She was sad that Irma wasn’t able to make it, but she understood that her sister had her hands full with caring for Ross.  Lily and Erik embraced Hannah before saying they needed to return home. As Hannah watched her oldest brother go, Harry lingered by her side, his presence comforting and steady.  

Fresh tears filled her eyes as her brother pulled her to him.  “Oh, Harry.” She sobbed into his shirt while he rubbed circles into her upper back, and when Hannah finally withdrew, she looked up into his wise eyes.

“I won’t lie to you and say the pain ever goes away,” he said softly, “but in time, you’ll find peace.  There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of Kathy.”

“And here I thought no one understood, that I was so alone,” Hannah said, half-laughing, half-crying.  “How could I have been so selfish to have forgotten? You’ve always been there for me, and I-”

“Shh,” Harry murmured.  “Grieve in your own way, in your own time, Hannah.  There are no rules for this sort of thing. No one can tell you how to feel, what to say or do.  And you forget that I wasn’t always there…”

Hannah shook her head.  “That was a lifetime ago, Harry.  We were all so young.”

“Sometimes, sis, when I’m low and feeling especially sorry for myself, I still go there.  Besides you, Kathy was my rock. Without her, the temptation to have a drink is stronger, but when I think of how it would break her heart, I know she’s alive inside me, and I hold back.  Edward will still be your strength and comfort when you don’t even know it.”

Hannah nodded.  “Thank you, Harry.  I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Harry looked like he was about to speak, but he only hugged her and smiled, turning as he went to join his own family.  Hannah gazed at the fresh grave one last time.

“Goodbye, Eddy,” she whispered.  “We’ll see each other again in Heaven, my love.”

She somehow found the resolve to walk away.  She knew Edward wasn’t really in that grave, so as she ambled across the freshly mown grass to join her family, she looked up at the heavens.  The sun brushed her cheeks and lips like a feather-light kiss.

Hannah returned often to Edward’s grave.  She brought fresh daisies every Sunday after church.  Sometimes her family joined her, but she was usually alone.  She took to keeping a folding chair in her trunk, and whether rain or sun, she’d sit with Edward for a little while and speak to him.  She sometimes read from her book of Psalms, but other times, she’d just sit quietly, listening. Closing her eyes, she didn’t have to think hard to imagine him in the rustling of the leaves, in the birdsong, or in the breeze that embraced her.  These days became Hannah’s path to healing.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post an excerpt every Saturday.

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Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

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