December 16, 2011
Merry Christmas from Marion Station where this time last year there was snow on the ground. Today it is overcast and a mild 53 degrees … typical for this temperate part of the Eastern Shore. 2011 completes our tenth year here in the Vance Miles House. It’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one place - since I left Riverdale when I was fifteen. It’s home.
Dan and I hope this letter finds each of you mostly done with the stress of holiday preparations. We hope you’re relaxed, soaking in the season dedicated to new birth, new life, peace and the remembrance of everything we’ve ever loved.
Our children are and their families are all well, though this has been a year of illness for us. Dan continues to deal with the complications of tearing two discs in his back in a work accident. Becky has been struggling this year too, but thankfully her illness is not as serious as we’d initially thought. Little Daniel just finished up his eighth month of chemotherapy, and can hopefully get back to dreaming about things common to eight-year-old boys. I broke my foot in February on a trip in Savannah. It wasn’t until September that I could walk without assistance. And just last Tuesday, I was admitted to the hospital after suffering from a mild heart attack. I write this on my first day home. There’s nothing like a life-threatening situation to get a person all “deep and meaningful.” I’m hoping I can write this Christmas letter without becoming morose.
On the cheerful side of 2011, travel colored the year for Dan and me. I started a new blog called “The Travel Hag” and set out on travel adventures I could write about. We went to Savannah, the Outer Banks, and Ireland. We completed a cross-country rail trip on the California Zephyr. I also started a local women’s travel group called the “travel hags” – women with goddess attributes who love to travel. We went kayaking down the Transquaking, Pocomoke, and Annemessex Rivers, camped at Janes Island and Elk Neck, had dinner at Old Salty’s, went to the Chestertown Book Fair, and shared several exotic meals in torrential downpours whilst listening to a live, full rendition of Robert Burns’ Address to a Haggis. We hope to do more this year. Please join us. Hagmen are welcome
For those of you who have been receiving my Christmas letters since 2006 (and have read them), I’ll now type the line that has appeared in every letter for the last six years. “I continue to work on the book about Irish mystical places entitled Thin Places: Celtic Doorways to the Otherworld. “Who knows when – or if – I’ll ever write that book? The mystical sites, the people I’ve met, the stones, the trees, the landscape of Ireland – all these things have a magnetic draw that keep pulling us back there. Being able to encapsulate that draw and its meaning into the pages of a book would fulfill a real purpose for me. I figure I’ll do it when a publisher gives me a deadline.
Dan and I led a small group on a tour of Ireland’s southern region last May. Our guests were from Canada, California, Washington State, New York and Virginia. We started in the Boyne Valley and then went to Kildare, then Cashel, then Ardmore, Cork City, Kinsale, Gougane Barra, the Beara Peninsula and Dingle. Her Majesty, the Queen cramped our style a bit when she arrived on our heels for her Ireland tour. She was a day behind us, with a similar itinerary. I can understand her going to Trinity College in Dublin, but Cashel? Really? Then Cork City? Sheesh! Was her staff looking my website when they scheduled her stops? Then we had President Obama following Her Majesty. There’s nothing like being an American in Ireland when the Prez visits. It’s kind of like having a rock star in the family. The Irish absolutely LOVE him, and you have to bite your tongue to keep from saying, “You know, he’s not all that.” Jesus himself could have walked down Grafton Street and not seen the excitement the Irish showed for President Obama – who took the adulation humbly, with class.
The recent crash of the Irish economy didn’t harm our tour. Hospitality was as warm as ever – if not better. Ireland’s landscape was no less magical. I never tire of seeing these holy places. But watching others experience them magnifies the personal thrill. Being able to lead travelers to the very spot where the Children of Lir are said to have perished after nine hundred years in exile, or introduce friends to the Hag Beara, or watch a group try to make sense of a stone circle that predates the pyramids, or help a pilgrim collect water from an ancient holy well… these things create spiritual bonds with new friends – soul friends. We have another tour coming up this May. We’ll be traveling to the West of Ireland – the Aran Islands, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Connemara and Clare. Consider joining us.
Every year Dan and I try to get away for our anniversary in September. It’s hard to come up with affordable places that we haven’t been to already. This year I discovered a deal on a US rail pass for $389 that allowed 8 stops in 14 days. I crafted an Amtrak trip for Dan and me that began at Penn Station in Baltimore, hit Chicago, went across the prairies of Nebraska into the Colorado Rockies, then across Utah and Nevada into California. Our first stop was Granby Colorado. We got off the train, rented a car and explored the Grand Lake area and Rocky Mountain National Park. We had a cabin on Lake Granby and three days to explore some of the most stunning scenery in America.
The photograph on this Christmas card was taken on the Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, a 48 mile winding road that is the highest continuous highway in the US reaching elevations above 12, 000 feet. If you look closely in the lower left of the photo, you can see the road snaking across the mountains.
Traveling along this road was like riding into a painting. All the surroundings were woven together into a spellbinding landscape. At every bend in the road there was something new to see, or hear, or smell. The Never Summer Mountains, still capped in September with last year’s snow – or a herd of elk in the valley whistling to one another – or the scent of pine that descends on every wooded trail. Even the quiet consumes the senses. This part of the Rockies has such a sense of place. It overwhelms you when you stop and notice the details. The John Denver songs played constantly in my head. …. Come dance with the west wind and touch all the mountaintops, sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars. And reach for the heavens and hope for the future, and all that we can be and not what we are.
They say the California Zephyr is the most scenic train ride in all of North America. I believe it. There’s something about passing through a vista of connected canyons and mountains and rivers, while being able to relax to the rhythm of a moving train. For Dan and me, that trip was a comforting end to a great travel year, and a memorable celebration of our love for each other.
At Christmas, our focus is always on home. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Mark Twain made a reference in one of his letters to his mansion in Hartford, CT. He wrote … To us, our house was not insentient matter -- it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome -- and we could not enter it unmoved.”
I’ve read that quote so many times. I’ve been to the Mark Twain mansion in Hartford, and the home does have an aura – a spirit about it. But it’s not connected to me. It’s not for me. The spirit of that home is something outsiders can only observe.
I believe most houses ARE insentient matter. The house becomes a home when a family consecrates it. It’s the people that live in the house who share meals, tell stories, make music, grieve for loved ones lost, put up a Christmas tree every year, and rejoice when little faces find the magic in the season – it’s these people – the families - that fuse with that insentient matter to create the heart and soul and eyes to see with and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies that Twain refers to. And sometimes the fusion is so deep that it lives on in a home long after the family members fade away. The home retains the spirit. And if we’re lucky enough in our lifetime to experience “home” like that, we’ll return to it every Christmas. We’ll try to recreate wherever we are.
Dan and I laid the foundation for our home, and each family member from Becky to Tristan has added his or her unique piece to the charism. I remember when Grace and Mia used to applaud when their car turned into our driveway. They feel that heart and soul of our home. I hope in time they - and all the grandchildren, and their parents - know that they not only are a part of it, they helped to create it. All of them are of this home – and it is of them.
If at Christmas all roads lead home - you are part of our sense of home, and this Christmas has led us to you. We want you to know that you matter to us, that we remember you at this special time. We’re praying for you. We’re grieving for you if you’re experiencing sorrow, and rejoicing with you if you’re celebrating. And though this letter is but a simple gesture that we extend to those we love at the end of the year, the love we have for you exists every day.
May God bless you and all those whom you love this Christmas. Have a happy, healthy, prosperous new year.