I spent Christmas at St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, CA. .

I’m used to going places by myself and finding a way to feel at home and was all excited by the time I got there December 24, thinking, Well I will just be friendly and I’m sure things will be fine. So I alit from my car, breathed deeply of the bracing high desert air, and stuck my head into the Guestmaster’s Office. The guestmaster was behind her desk and another gal in a large pink sweatshirt was sitting in a nearby chair.

Thinking to befriend the very first person I met, I gazed lovingly into this woman’s face, smiled warmly, and was quite taken aback when her eyes drilled back at me with a look of pure unadulterated hatred! She didn’t even know me yet! 

Really, it was fine listening in as people talked about their RVs, guard dogs, and jobs at Edwards Air Force Base. There was a huge common room with a fireplace with real logs in it and a Christmas tree and many snacks and every few hours it seemed a generous meal, lovingly prepared and served by the monks.

I hung around on the fringes with a look meant to telegraph, Hi, I’m a 60-year old divorcee alone in the world and my mother just died, but nobody much noticed–most of the folks seemed to have made coming to St. Andrew’s a yearly ritual and knew (if not were related to and/or lived with) each other, But as my friend Tensie had reminded me a few days earlier (after the Richard Rohr book of the same name), Everything Belongs.

My difficulty in fitting into a crowd unless the crowd is specifically about me belonged. The lifelong gap between my expectations and reality belonged. The lady with the pink sweatshirt belonged, the geese in the pond belonged, the instant coffee I got to start swilling when I woke at 3:30 (my circadian rhythm is wacked at the moment) belonged.

Plus there was tons of candy. And I got to read a good part of Ralph C. Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

I also got to spend many hours of solitude and silence gazing out the window at the snow-draped mountains and formulating my ‘Life Plan’ (right) for 2013

Of course the real heart of the place was the chapel, with Morning Prayer, Vespers, and Christmas Mass.

“Life is a night spent at an uncomfortable inn,” Teresa of Avila observed.

And then there was the mother of God, who had no inn.


I left at sun-up December 26 and drove back through the mountains in the rain and fog with a big sign every two feet saying “ICY” and every other two feet a black and yellow pictogram of a gigantic load of rocks falling on a hapless car and the road strewn with actual rocks of a size that could handily break an axle and the mist billowing over the mountains and up from the valleys, listening to Coltrane‘s Ballads and hoping to God a tire didn’t blow.

I’d gone away so as to not to feel sad for Christmas and yet coming back into town, a huge wave of sadness washed over me anyway.

Just as an alcoholic spends ten, twenty, thirty years trying to re-create the transcendent sense of well-being that comes with that first drunk, some of us spend our whole lives hoping Christmas will feel, just once, the way it did when we were kids. It never happens. That’s okay, and the hills were washed clean by rain and everything looked extra green and fresh and gilded by a new morning sun at 8 a.m. when I rolled into Silver Lake.

I cried as I unpacked. Christmas never feels the same as when we were kids, and yet we’re still sad when it’s over.


19 Replies to “IT’S EASY TO REMEMBER”

  1. Perhaps the sourly lady in the pink sweatshirt was also experiencing the hurt of spending a holiday alone and couldn't bring herself to muster up even a phony smile, although doing so may have helped her. After your first encounter with her, did you run into her again? It is, for me, challenging at times to pray for those who I feel have wronged me. You have set a wonderful example.

  2. And, I might add, you have excellent music choice! Coltrane! Mmmm!

  3. Hello Heather and Merry Christmas!

    I'm overjoyed to have found that you have a blog and website. I have been reading you in Magnificat for sometime now and once I finish I always yearn to read more of your work. Now I can! Thank you!

    I just finished reading your "Christmas" essay in December's issue and found the note at the bottom for your blog and had extra time so here I am! But I realize this spot is for responding to your Christmas Blog so I will move on.

    I 'know' the things and feelings you write of – which may be why I am so drawn to you. . . , however I am still learning to acknowledge the humorous side of things – , and my true reactions that I stifle in order to not allow the thoughts to enter my consciousness. Those are gifts of truth that I am trying to give to myself as I continue on my daily life journey.

    I too, am able to look at the details of situations I find myself in – the fireplace, etc. and appreciate them to the fullest while realizing at the same time that I am alone in the midst of a sea of people. Yet, again, I have not moved to the next step of realizing that I belong. Your writing reminds me to do just that.


  4. While it's true that everyone belongs, it's also true that a few belong behind bars, locked in a basement storeroom, or, at the very least, chained to a chair in a reeducation camp re-learning the basics of customer service. That said, I have to agree with AR on your choice of Coltrane and BB on the beauty of your Christmas reflection in the Magnificat. Have a Happy New Year.

  5. Hi Alicia, yes, that's exactly it, of course the lady in the pink sweatshirt, and I'm sure everyone there, also had expectations, and wanted their Christmas to be special, and were suffering, as we always are in one way or another, if not many ways.

    Also I probably barged in just as she'd reached the climax of a story it was important to her to share. I know when that happens to me I have a visceral reaction of rage! So what was great was seeing it is ME. It's me who always tends to find something "wrong," some slight, some way things could be and aren't, when the fact is everyone is doing just fine and is exactly how they're "supposed" to be. And I was truly able to go about my stay in a way so that every second was consecrated, if not entirely "comfortable." Really, everyone was lovely. I met and got to sit at meals a couple of times with a great woman named Jean. The dynamic of both wanting to draw inward and being thrust into a situation where you're not only invited but in some way socially/spiritually obligated to mingle, at least a bit, is always interesting. Also always interesting to note my own reactions to such situations, again, instinctively wanting to blame others instead of owning my own stuff and "forgiving" myself for it.

    And yes, I saw the lady many times throughout the two days and developed a huge affection for her (though we never actually talked). We smiled at one another at the Sign of Peace and at the breakfast buffet when we approached the milk at the same time, I let her go first after which she said "Here you go" with a truly beatific smile. I like to think it was because I'd been praying for her but it occurs to me now that maybe she was praying for me…such is the mystery at the heart of things.

    I am still thinking of the "catastrophe" that befell you that last leg of your pilgrimage and am glad you seem to have landed on both feet!

    And welcome, Barbara! So glad you found me in Magnificat, and yes, I have the blog and also three books, which more in the works. And bearing this tension of being with people, and Christ's commandment to love them as he loved us (in spite of our personal preferences, attractions, dislikes etc.) while also suffering prfound existential loneliness–this is the Cross, or a big part of it, for many of us. Humor is essential, or rather humor is maybe the sign that we're on the right track. There's a wonderful passage at the end of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy where he muses that Christ had some indefinable quality–beyond the integrity, the courage, the intelligence, the sensitivity, the nobility, the heart…he concludes that it was mirth…

  6. ha ha, oh yes, Kevin, thank you, I did not mean to imply that rude and laggard customer service people, nor the folks who invented leaf-blowers, nor the many people in my neighborhood who own incessantly yipping dogs they leave in the yard day and night "belong." They don't! If I were in charge…then again, maybe it's a good thing I'm not…

  7. Mmmm… that's a beautiful story, Heather!

    And if landing on two feet means having life then yes I have – but if it means anything else, I can't be too sure I have landed that way. It's been a struggle…

    Kevin, my name has been shortened many times but that's the first time I've been nicknamed 'AR'. Too funny!

  8. I am still a newbie at this (baptised 20 months ago). I have managed some genuine prayer for my enemies, but it doesn't come easily at all. As the callouses are removed from my heart, life becomes exquisitely painful, and holding the paradox of it all isn't always easy!

    Anyway, I have been reading here on and off for a while and I like your style. Your book "Poor Baby" is very moving.

  9. I lived in Palmdale in the high desert, not far from St. Andrew's Abbey, for three years back in the 1970s. It's tough country, which appeals deeply to some folks, but can have a very strange effect on those who find themselves there mainly because of a job. I always thought it was due to the almost constant wind, and all the tumbling tumbleweed.

  10. Ralph Wood was one of my professors at Baylor University. He is a wonderful person and I look forward to hearing what you think about his book on O'Connor.

  11. That shade of blue in the sky between the poplars — wow!

  12. Joining these responses late, as I am far from home, in hut, on a hillside …. Heather, I found this piece SO apt for where i am now. Had been brooding about brooding – feeling depressed.

    When we're disappointed, cross, etc we tend to feel unreachable, isolated, withdrawn from Christ. At least, I do. I guess this is what you call spiritual immaturity. You feel, I'll just be cross and resume being a Christian when I'm feeling better. I was thinking these thoughts this morning, not consciously, and I thought about your amazing ability to draw all things together under Christ – all imperfections, all broken and forgotten things, all petty, peevish and dark things in yourself and in others – and see them as exactly what you say in this piece – as "belonging". As belonging to Him, is how i see it. In other words, we are NOT cut off when we feel we are.

    I admire the way you really loved the cross woman in pink, and the way you accepted everything about your situation, embracing it fully. Agh! If one could just embrace oneself and others fully, accept the whole package … man, i have a lot to learn. I have this inward striving for perfection which works against me/life/reality. It's not helpful!

    Still thinking about this all.

  13. It is what it is,not so easy to accept.

  14. The Ralph Wood book is splendid, Bitkin–you were lucky to have him for a professor!–and thanks everyone for weighing in on the mysteriously paradoxical Feast of Christmas…

  15. We never know what is going on in someone else's life, do we? I shudder to think of the times that I have been snarky to someone because I was having a difficult day. You rose to the occasion, however, in resolving to pray for her. I would have glared back, probably.

    I'm sorry your return home was in tears. Christmas can be so difficult for so many. And the opinion (at least in North America) that we must be merry (or else) just adds to the burden.

    Nonetheless, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Feast of the Holy Family!

  16. Thanks so much, Paula–as I said, Christmas was perfect. The tears were as much of gratitude and joy as of sadness, and the sadness was partly because Christmas was over! Tears to me are a sign that I'm vitally alive…so I concur with your distaste for the perverse cultural idea that was must we 'happy' all the time…I appreciate your readership and wish you all the very best for a fruitful New Year…

  17. I always feel this way at Christmas, (sad).I seem never to have that joy or peace that I pray for all of Advent. I feel like I have let Jesus down utterly. Recently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer makes it seem even worse. Like I'm running out of time to become holy. I believe it is no coincidence that I have recently discovered you and Houselander. Because it would seem from the little I have read, it is ok to feel like this. It is Christ within me that yearns for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For my part, I must only allow Him to take hold of me. As Houselander wrote in "The Reed of God", I am in the advent of suffering, and must have faith that the seed is still dark and buried. Thank you for that.

  18. Mel, thanks. So glad you've happened upon the blog and that Caryll Houselander is a comfort to you, as she is to me. I don't know whether you saw this recent reflection of hers in Magnificat, but I find it helps so much:

    "During the war I was simply terrified by air raids, and it was my lot to be in every one that happened in London – sometimes on the roofs of these flats, sometimes in the hospital…I tried to build up my courage by reason and prayer, etc. Then one day I realized quite suddenly: As long as I try not to be afraid I shall be worse, and I shall show it one day and break; what God is asking of me, to do for suffering humanity, is to be afraid, to accept it and put up with it, as one has to put up with pain (if it's not druggable) or anything else. I am not going to get out of any of the suffering. From the time the siren goes until the All Clear, I am going to be simply frightened stiff, and that's what I've got to do for the world – offer that to God, because it is that and nothing else which he asks of me."
    –Caryll Houselander

  19. I am very glad to have found this blog;a place of honest struggle with glimpses of grace.

    Your books are so inspiring.I read the first chapter of "Shirt" last night.i have much to ponder.But what I took away is this:it matters not what hand we were dealt,Christ is in the business of making us whole.There is such hope in this and that is what I will share in the New Year.Thank you.


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