Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie


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7 Surprisingly Splendid Seasonal Reads

Ready for reading that’s merry and bright? Great! Cuz what’s Christmas without some good books?

Fresh out of ideas for the season? We’ve gotcha covered!

Here are seven uplifting, engaging reads to help celebrate the season with faith, hope, and love. In no particular order:

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12 Ways to Bless Others This Christmas

Christmas is a time for joy! For celebrating! For family and friends! It’s a time for Child-like wonder and merry-making. But shadows can also hover over the season, intensifying feelings of loneliness or loss.

For those whose family relationships are strained or difficult, the obligatory annual Christmas gathering can feel like getting a root canal. And may be just as dreaded.

 

For those who’ve lost loved ones, the holidays may accentuate those absences.

 

Singer/songwriter Matthew West understands this.

 

West came out with a song awhile back that captures both the joy and sense of loss that can accompany the season: “The Heart of Christmas.”

 

It’s a perennial favorite. Lyrics include:

 

“Wherever you are, no matter how far
Come back to the heart, the heart of Christmas
Live while you can, cherish the moment
The ones that you love, make sure they know it
Don’t miss it, the heart of Christmas.”


While you’re celebrating and making merry this season, can you slow down and remember those who may be struggling?

 

Here are 12 Ways To Bless Others This Christmas:

🎄Donate to your local food bank
🎄Befriend an elderly neighbor. Just starting a conversation can have a positive impact. You can also offer to help with practical tasks like shopping or dog-walking or getting them to medical appointments.
🎄Invite international students over for dinner
🎄Give a generous tip to a friendly customer service worker like a waiter or barista
🎄Buy a homeless person a sandwich and a hot drink
🎄Help someone who’s struggling with their luggage on public transport and/or give up your seat for same
🎄Buy your friend chocolate when they’re feeling down. Listen more than you talk if they need to vent
🎄Treat a friend to a movie or a trip to a Christmas tree farm. Serve hot cocoa and cookies afterwards.
🎄Be extra patient with retail workers, many of whom are stressed and harried this time of year. Don’t forget to thank them and say “Merry Christmas”!
🎄Bake and deliver homemade goodies to your local police and/or fire departments with a note of thanks
🎄Offer free babysitting to friends with small children so Mom and Dad can have a Parents Night Out.
🎄Forgive.

“Come on and open up your eyes!”

 


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10 Tips for Reducing Holiday Stress

You know I’m a happy camper, right? My middle name is “merry and bright”! So I don’t quite get all this barking about “holiday stress.” Mom says it’s a thing. So it must be a thing.

Well. You also know I’m a helper. I help going out on walks and hikes. Cleaning up kitchen spills. Guarding the house. Especially from menacing deer. Lurking Fed Ex drivers. Sketchy-looking plastic bags.

Being a world class helper and all, I figure I better help with this holiday stress thing. So here are my top ten tips for reducing holiday stress. Ready? Okay. Here goes:

1 – 9: Get a dog.

10. Take her for long walks. Preferably without that stupid orange doggie coat.

What?

Oh, alright. Mom says I have to try harder to be helpful. Sigh. Here we go:

  1. Take extra precautions to stay healthy. Getting sick can wreck anyone’s holiday faster than you can say “Ebenezer.” So drink plenty of water. Get a good night’s sleep. Wash your hands. (Something about killing germs?) Take Vitamin C to ward off the effects of Jack Frost. (Anyone nipping at my family’s noses is in deep doo-doo! Just sayin’.)
  2. Say “No.” I hear this all the time. It’s easy. Like, if it feels wrong, too stressful, or there’s a cat involved, just trot out this handy-dandy two-letter word. Works wonders!
  3. Make scents. No, really. Find a plug-in, candle, or potpourri pot with a favorite, soothing scent. Activate. Let it fill the whole house with a refreshing, relaxing aroma. (Mom made me say that.)
  4. Exercise. Even if you have to chug up stairs or do jumping jacks in the basement due to weather, get moving! Get that heart rate up! Exercise reduces stress. (Or you could just walk the dog, ya know.)
  5. Sing. I don’t quite get it. But Mom always feels better when she’s rocking out to Manheim Steimroller at nose bleed volume (see # 4, above). Or belting out Joy to the World at the top of her lungs. So it must work. You could also listen to this guy:

6. Take a hot bath. And lock the door. (Mom made me say that, too. You know how moms are.)

7. Practice an “attitude of gratitude.” Like me. I’m thankful for everything! Family! Walks! Chow! A new leash! A warm fireplace! Sunshine! Well, okay. Maybe not The Powder Puff on four legs. (Nobody’s perfect.) Altho I wouldn’t know myself, I hear it’s hard to be a Scrooge when you’re focusing on being thankful.

8. Slow. Down. For just five minutes, okay? Related: Apply the “KISS” principle. Keep things simple. If you don’t know how to do that, lemme help:

9. Get a dog. (That Scrooge dude? Bet he was a feline fun. Hah, bumhug!)

10. Hang out with me! Cuz I love everyone! O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy…


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How To Write a Killer Christmas Letter

Writing an annual Christmas letter is as seasonal as eggnog and mistletoe. Some Christmas letters have flair and panache. Others are like watching paint peel. How can you write a Christmas letter that’ll knock the socks of your family Saint Nick and make Rudolph’s nose dim?

Here are 12 tips for writing a killer Christmas letter:

1. Keep it short.

I’m talking one page. Preferrably just the front. The more loquacious you are, the less likely people are to read the whole thing.

People are busy, especially during the holidays. No one has time to read a Christmas epistle that’s a War and Peace wannabe. So keep it short and sweet.

2. Be yourself.

This may seem obvious. But it’s amazing how many people try to copy someone else’s style or voice. Don’t. People want to hear from you, not a clone.

3. If you include a photo, make sure you tie it in with the text of the letter. And caption it with the place, date, who’s featured and what they’re doing.

4. Mix it up.

If you used a first person narrative last year, try writing from another point of view. The kids? The dog? A neighbor?

5. Include humor.

Not everyone has an active funny bone. But most people like to laugh and enjoy some levity. Include some.

6. Choose a font that’s easy on the eyes.

I can’t tell you the number of times I gave up trying to read through fancy calligraphy or curliqued letters on steroids. It may look pretty. But if your type font is hard to read, few will.

Choose a standard font like Times Roman or Arial.

7. Handwrite the salutation and conclusion.

If you’re writing your letter on the computer and tucking it into an envelope, be sure to start it with, “Hello Bill and Marilyn” (or whatever). In handwriting.

Also hand write your conclusion and signature: “Merry Christmas from Jim and Eileen, Chad, Chloe, and Joey.”

It takes longer. But it’s more personal.

If you’re using an email delivery platform like Mail Chimp, you can customize the “To” field and do likewise.

8. Keep a list. Check it twice.

Staring at a blank piece of paper or screen and waiting for writing inspiration to strike can be intimidating. It’s helpful to keep a running list of key dates and events through the year.

If possible, jot them down real time. It’s a lot easier to just grab your list or review your calendar than it is trying to remember the last 11.5 months off the top of your head, without prompts.

9. Inclufe your contact info.

Make it easy for people to respond by including your address, email, phone, etc. In The Letter. You can do this in the footer of a Mail Chimp or in a regular email or hard copy letter.

10. Use white space generously

Resist the temptation to jam in as much copy as you can on a sheet of paper by cramming every available millimeter with type. It’s hard to read!

Instead, keep your paragraphs short. Indent for new paragraphs. Or better yet, double space between paragraphs.

Make sure margins are adequate. Choose Justify rather than ragged right for your right margin. It looks cleaner and more polished.

11. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

What do you want to know? What will be of interest? Do I really care about your second cousin’s bunion surgery or the egg substitute you just discovered?

We all find ourselves fascinating. But try to write yiur update with an eye toward news that will resonate with and be interesting to your recipient(s). Think: What will my friends want to know about and what can they best relate to?

12. Draw the reader in.

This is key. It’s also rare, as most Christmas letters tend to be one-sided. Even self-centric.

Engage your reader by “pencilling in” a question specifically for them. How was vacation? The new job? Is Norbert coming home for Christmas?

You might also close with something like, “Please let us know what’s going on with you, too” or drawing attention to your contact contact info. so they can easily respond. (See above.)

If your budget allows, print up your letter on some Christmas-y stationery.

Well, that’s it. Now get those creative juices going and make this year’s Christmas letter the best ever!


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What To Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

Someone who shall remain nameless (hi, Mom) forgot to get me breakfast the other day. So I didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy when she started sniffing about a well-worn Christmas writing contest going the way of the Dodo.

“I’ve been writing and submitting entries to that site’s annual writing contest for years,” whined Her Mom-ness. “I’ve even won a couple times. So what’s up with The Final Shutdown?”

“Now you know how I feel?” I wanted to say. I wagged my tail instead. Offered to share my favorite treat with her. She wasn’t interested. Even though these goodies are “100% natural. Non-GMO.” Made “with real mixed berries.” Okay, so it was pre-chewed. But only a little.

“Mom? Mom!” I said, trying to get her back on track. You know how writers are. “Stop that whining already. I’m trying to think here!”

Now. Where was I?

Anyway, Mom kinda didn’t know what to do after being thrown for that wet cat. I’ll let her narrate in her own words (sometimes there’s just no accounting for taste.)

Her Mom-Ness:

Wanting to get a running start on the Christmas story contest season in 2017, I wrote a seasonal story in the fall of last year, as the Indian summer of September slid into the cool kindliness of October. When I sat down to submit it, I found that the site was no longer running the contest. “We hope to be back next year,” the site admin replied to my inquiry. “Please feel free to submit your story in 2018.”

I dug up my 2017 story, One Cold Night, dusted it off and polished it up for submission to the 2018 Christmas story contest. To my dismay, I discovered that not only was the contest not going on this year, but the entire web site had been scrubbed. Closed. History. Gone.

“That was a lot of work for nothing,” I thought.

Me

So Her Mom-ness decided to do something else. “Just because that site no longer exists doesn’t mean I or my story have to follow suit.”

So she spiffed up her story. Ignored the contest-imposed 800 word limit. Added about 600 words. “Now it’s a micro story,” she chirped. “I’ll just publish it myself.”

As in, if a door closes, find another way in. Or open a window.

This right after I gently reminded her about breakfast. With the subtlety of a ton of dog chow. Priorities, ya know?

Mmm… Mom’s Christmas micro tale… crunch… arf… is called… mmmm… good… One Cold Night. And you can get it for FREE right here. It’s almost as good as breakfast! Crunch…. munch… yum…

Almost.


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20-ish Top Reads of 2018

“Clear the decks!” crows Mom. “It’s Best Books time!”

She may be a bit confused. Ever since my puppy days it’s been “deck the halls” this time of year. Well. You know how moms are. Especially when someone asks, “Which kid is your favorite?”

Okay, okay. So no one put it quite like that. But plenty have asked which books are her favorite. “It’s almost the same thing,” sniffs Mom.

Hah, bumhug! says I.

Arf you may know, Mom met her 2018 reading challenge last week: 365 books in one year. People keep asking which “kids” are her favorite from that long, long list. (For background, see: When They Tell You It’s “Impossible.” Also see: How I Read 100+ books in 90 days.)

I’m kinda curious myself. I gave her the puppy eyes look.

Works every time.

So ‘clear the decks’ for Mom’s Top Reads of 2018.

Warning: “That ‘top 20’ thing’s just not gonna happen,” says Mom.

Indeed, competition for a spot on Mom’s ‘totally subjective, 100% unscientific’ list was fierce. So bow-wow-ish, in fact, that Mom divided the list into four basic categories:

  1. Best Fiction
  2. Best Non-Fiction
  3. Best Series
  4. Favorite Authors.

Also Honorable Mentions.

Each book earned its respective spot based on quality of writing, creativity and poignancy, superior characterizations, outstanding, unique plots and overall excellence. And Just Plain Fun. (Note: No book that brainlessly, repeatedly deploys gratuitous profanity ever makes Mom’s “best” list. She calls that “sloppy-writing-lazy.” Hah, bumhug again.)

365 books in one year. And then some! November 27, 2018.

Anyway, Mom’s Top Books Read in 2018 are,in no particular order:

Best Fiction

  1. Hattie Big Sky – Kirby Larson
  2. Time for Andrew – Mary Downing Hahn
  3. A Dog Called Homeless – Sarah Lean
  4. Run Far, Run Fast – Walt Morey
  5. The Incredible Journey – Sheila Burnford
  6. There Come a Soldier Peggy Mercer
  7. Wolf by Wolf – Ryan Graudin
  8. Anchor in the Storm – Sarah Sundin
  9. The Wood – Chelsea Bobulski
  10. Man O’War – Walter Farley
  11. The Journey Back – Priscilla Cummings
  12. Sarah Bishop, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains – Scott O’Dell
  13. The Adoration of Jenna Fox – Mary Pearson
  14. Ever the Hunted– Erin Summerill
  15. Hoot – Carl Hiassen
  16. Dividing Eden – Joelle Charbonneau
  17. The Velveteen Rabbit – Margery Williams
  18. Unwind – Neal Shusterman

Re-reading a seasonal favorite, “The Christmas Box,” by Richard Paul Evans.

Best Nonfiction

  1. A Prisoner and Yet – Corrie ten Boom
  2. The Kite Runner (historical fiction) – Khaled Hosseini
  3. The Black Dogs Project – Fred Levy
  4. Before Amen – Max Lucado
  5. My Family for the War (historical novel) – Anne Voorhoeve
  6. Great Lodges of the National Parks – Christine Barnes
  7. Hidden Child – Isaac Millman

Best Series

  1. The Misty of Chincoteague series – Marguerite Henry
  2. The Silver Brumby series – Elyne Mitchell
  3. Billy and Blaze books– C.W. Anderson
  4. The Jimmy Vega mystery series – Suzanne Chazin
  5. Black Stallion series– Walter Farley
  6. The Survivors series – Erin Hunter
  7. Fire and Thorns trilogy – Rae Carson

Favorite Authors

Honorable Mentions

Well, woof the deck! Or something. All this reading and book-ing makes me hungry. About that leftover pot roast… You gonna eat that?

 


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What’s in Your Stocking?

Mom just called me in from the yard. ‘Bout time. That big yellow ball in the sky is starting to spread across the horizon like a giant egg yolk. Temperatures are dropping. The Powder Puff just sauntered past. Why that canine lets her owner deck her out in that green and red jacket + reindeer antlers, I’ll never know.

Anyway, when Mom opened the porch door, I caught a whiff of Something Warm and Wonderful inside. She says, “Kimber, dinner! Come!”

I don’t need to be called twice. No siree, Lassie! I bounded up the stairs and into the house like Rin Tin Tin after a bad guy. Sure enough. Something Warm and Wonderful was waiting for me.

A little later The Kid walks into the living room and turns on that squawk box thingy in the corner. It lights up. Sounds come out of it. Voices from people no one can see. These invisible people must be really small to live inside that box where they make their voices go up and down. They “sing” about telling it on the mountain. Angels fom the realms of glory. Letting heaven and nature sing. A little town of Bethlehem. Stuff like that.

I snuggle into the recliner with Mom for a little snooze. She says “Kimber, you’re really pushing the envelope for ‘lap dog.'”

Is she suggesting I drop a few pounds? Maybe not. She always says that. Laughs. Then gives me the signal that it’s okay to join her. I have to wait for the signal. It may take a bit. But it always comes. Especially on these cold winter nights. So I can’t complain. Besides. My stocking smells so good!

Tonight the family is watching lights wink and twinkle, among other things. They say the lights have “colors.” But they all look the same to me. Go figure.

My peeps finished “putting up the tree” the other day. (I was only trying to help. Honest. Incidentally, “tinsel” looks way better than it tastes.)

The fam has settled in with steaming mugs of something I can’t have, apparently. That’s okay. Because Mom and Dad say the Best Gifts of Christmas – faith, hope, love, joy and peace – can’t be found in red stockings. Or under the tree. But in the human heart. Like:

May the Best Gifts of Christmas be yours!


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Why I Wrote An ‘In the Corner’ Holiday Story

Candles in the window. Lights up on the tree. Sleigh bells. Mistletoe. Apple-cheeked kids rushing in from a snowy sled run. Hot chocolate and marshmallows. Carols and cantatas. Family. Friends. And…  loneliness so thick and heavy, it could crush a camel.

Yes, friends. The holidays aren’t full of fa-la-la-la-la-ing for everyone. In fact, this can be an especially tough time for some. Those facing a job loss or a cut in income. A divorce. An involuntary move. The frostiness of an unresolved conflict. Bad news from the doctor. Betrayal. Feeling utterly alone in the middle of a crowd. Too much money at the end of the month. Distance. One less place set at the table. One less gift under the tree.

If you’ve been there or are there, you know what I mean. And how difficult the holidays can be. Especially if you’re Alone. Or feel that way.

I hear you. It’s one reason I wrote Man in the Corner: A Holiday Story. About newly divorced Mae Taylor and her son Josiah. Their plans to start over solo are jostled when they move next door to Mr. Tom, a lonely widower and retired school teacher. Together, the unlikely trio finds a second chance at faith, hope and love with help from Gettysburg, cookbooks, an attic secret and two ‘Christmas ghosts.’

 

While we’re on the subject, I also want to offer a video to those who may be struggling this time of year. You’re not alone. Give this Mark Schultz piece a listen:

Grace. And Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

Candle image credit: Creative Commons Zero – CC0.

 


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Christmas, EVE

J and E

A half full bag of Purina One dog chow sits in a corner of my kitchen. I should pass it on.

But I can’t.

Friends and family say, “Our dog is expecting puppies soon. You can have the pick of the litter.”

But I can’t.

Selecting a Christmas ham the other day, I thought about which tidbits I’d tidy to the dog dish, saving them for Evie.

And then I remembered.

A boon companion of fourteen-plus years, Eve passed away on December 19. The Eve-less days that followed gimped along with the alacrity of crippled snails on crutches.  Emotions rose and fell like the tide. The traditional merriment suggested by the calendar mingled with bereavement, stirring up a cocktail both sweet and tart, like strawberry-rhubarb pie. I didn’t know which flavor to bite in to. And finally chose neither.

“I’ve decided,” I said to husband Chris three days before Christmas. “I want to scatter Eve’s ashes at the Mountain.”

Sam and Josiah, eve and blankets

Chris didn’t ask which one. In Washington State, there’s only one.

The Mountain

Our yellow Lab knew Mount Rainier well. Even though she wasn’t allowed on the trails or in any building, Eve loved camping trips to the Mountain. In fact, Evie didn’t seem to care where she was – as long as she was with us.

The first time we took her camping at Ohanapecosh on the southeast hip of Mount Rainier National Park, Eve was uber-miffed about being left outside the tent for the night. As in, “What’s the deal with this, family? How come you’re in there and I’m out here?!”  After making her consternation clear, Eve wound up inside, where she promptly plopped onto my feet and drifted into a contented sleep.

And so Mount Rainier was a natural choice for our final goodbye to Eve.

DSCN6456

Cramming a last-minute trip to the Mountain into Christmas Eve meant a long, glacial, and exhausting day. But I couldn’t stand the thought of waiting until spring. Chris agreed, which is how we wound up heading to Mount Rainier the morning of December 24.

Seclusion on the Southwest Flank

The car was quiet as we churned out the miles to Ashford and a secluded glen near the Mountain’s southwest flank. Because it requires a steady uphill climb and good land navigation skills to find, the quiet meadow sees few visitors. We discovered it on a previous hike and were dazzled by its September beauty, bursting with blueberries and late wildflowers, hemmed by a laughing creek and soaring evergreens.

The three of us – me, Chris and youngest son Josiah (14) – stopped, parked, and took our time, breath exhaling in frosty plumes as we wordlessly crunched over virgin snow to a corner of the meadow. The Mountain towered overhead in ermine mantle and white-satin snow skirts. An achingly blue sky hung out wood smoke in rungs.

Chris retrieved the urn of Eve’s ashes from his back pack and handed it to me. Clumsy in thick winter gloves, my fingers fumbled with the lid. Maybe it wasn’t just the gloves. I handed the urn back to Chris. He opened it and handed it back.

I knew the protocol. Last words. A final goodbye. Toss.

I couldn’t do it.

The three of us stood there, sniffling. None of us trusted our voices. After a few minutes Chris offered a brief prayer. We said nothing more, choosing to be alone with our separate thoughts of a gentle yellow Lab who came to us as a “cast off” but snuggled her way into our hearts as few have.

Standing in the snow in the winter shadow of the Mountain, we took turns scattering Eve’s ashes. Toes turned numb. Noses reddened. Cherry-cheeked winds scrubbed cyan skies.

Josiah and Eve

And we remembered.

“Good bye Evie” I finally whispered, holding a fine powder of ash in one gloved hand. “You were a good girl. We will never forget you.” I was the last to let her go, ashes floating on a galloping wind riding hard to Puget Sound.

We drove into the park, stopping at Evie’s favorite places. A water dog, Eve loved the Nisqually River. Ohanapecosh. Tipsoo Lake. Christine and Narada Falls. We stopped near Cougar Rock Campground to chain up. We camped there a few years back, the six of us and Eve. The campground is closed now, asleep under a thick quilt of snow.

DSCN6438

We made it to Paradise by early afternoon. The alpine aerie is usually smothered under thirty feet of snow – sometimes more – from October through May. Once thawed, Paradise hosts outrageous wildflower runs in July and August, when its world-famous meadows erupt in a glorious bouquet of Renoir pastels. If you’re quick, you can glimpse creamy white dollops of avalanche lilies, waxy-yellow petals of Suksdorf’s buttercup, clusters of fragrant Sitka Valerian, pink bistorts, red-spotted monkey flowers and purple lupine. These vast carpets of floral color brush an iridescent canvas, but their blossoms are as brief as they are dazzling.

Like life.

Afternoon faded and cotton-candy clouds fluttered over the Tatoosh Mountains like pennants over Yankee Stadium. Fog crept into valleys. Temperatures took a nose dive. We headed back to Longmire, the Nisqually entrance, and the three-hour return trip home. Just past Longmire, Josiah opted to remain in the car listening to Amy Grant croon about chestnuts and an open fire while Chris and I stopped at Tahoma Creek. We walked to the bridge and listened to the frigid waters rush to the Sound as a cirrus sunset draped the sky in peppermint, grape and tangerine.

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Remembering

Shivering in the deepening dusk, I remembered how Eve and I watched scores of Little League games together. I shivered in the bleachers until she apparently figured this out – and managed to maneuver her large self in front of me, using her thick fur coat as a wind break. I also remembered:

  • A gusty December morning in 2007, when Eve wasn’t herself. She seemed agitated, on edge. A few hours later the Storm of the Century hit, plunging us into three days without power and heat. Somehow she knew. And I learned to pay attention.
  • When son Nathan, then 14, returned from an eight-day hospital stay with a plate and seven screws in his leg, the result of a fractured femur. Eve was the first to greet him at the door. She never left his side during three long months of convalescence, crutches and rehab.
  • Eve-style fetch.  She’d plunk a “retrieving” stick down at my feet after half a dozen tosses, look up in her a matter-of-fact, clear-as-the-nose-on-my-face doggie way and say: “You want that thing? You go get it.”
  • How Eve  roamed the house when I was out of town for a few days. She reportedly checked every room over and over, looking for me. She bowled me over with joy when I returned home, tawny tail wagging in furious delight.
  • Tripping over Eve coming down ice-slicked stairs at the school. I nursed skinned hands and knees while she stood apologetically at my side, head cocked, tongue lolling, until I was able to hobble home, gripping her back for balance. …

And then I heard it. Probably from a passing vehicle. Or maybe I just imagined it: A dog bark. Just once. Then night swirled out of the sky, punctuated by the sigh of a Northwest wind.

“Christmas, Eve”

Christmas is a season when we give and receive tokens of love. Eve gave not tokens, but love itself. The Mountain gives reminders that winter doesn’t get the last word.

This season of bereavement will thaw.

Snow will retreat. Chinook winds will swim over Paradise meadows. Wildflowers will burst into Renoir bloom. Spring will come again to the Mountain, as it will to us. When it does, I will remember Eve’s last gift. It came not in physical form or tangible shape like those items found under trees on December 25th, but in the solitude of a snow-studded meadow, an achingly blue sky, soaring evergreens and the cool kindliness of memory.

Christmas, Eve. Indeed.*

Eve and snow, lick

***

Eve passed away on December 19, 2013. This post and its companion, Forever, Eve, were the highest rated posts of 2013. You can read more about our ‘best girl’ in my new book, Forever, Eve.

 

* Watch for an update on the dog front! Coming soon!