When I was still teaching, a lifetime ago but really just last year, during a staff meeting we used to choose One Word for the upcoming year. Not a resolution. Not a pledge to eat healthy or exercise more. One Word to keep us on the path. One Word to remind us of what is important when life gets messy.
My One Word has changed over the years, including choices like hope, revise, write, and appreciate. This year I chose light.
In this never-ending darkness of sickness and hate, I want to be light. Switchfoot, a San Diego band I’ve loved since the 1990s, says it like this—“Your wounds are where the light shines through.”
2021 was a year of extremes. Losing friends. Gaining grand twins. Crushing weight of teaching during a pandemic and then retirement. Progression of my husband’s chronic illness. Enjoying nature through camping. Rejection emails from potential literary agents. A disability settlement for my husband. More time to write.
For 2022, I want to reflect light to others around me. I want to choose light for myself and my family. There will still be darkness this year, but light destroys darkness. Instead of dwelling on my losses, I will focus on what I can do. In the light, it is easy to see your loved ones. In the light, it is easy to find your joy.
I hope you choose your One Word for 2022. May it be a cheerleader reminding you of your reflections on a dark day at the end of December.
It’s Christmas Eve, and the rain hasn’t stopped since yesterday morning.
A few days ago, it was the shortest day of the year. I felt like it was time to go to bed at 4:30 pm. The darkness encroaches even further into daylight hours with this storm. Usually in December, we still have brilliant sunshine. Maybe this is what it feels like to live places where they have a real winter.
I know I’m not supposed to complain about rain when our whole state has been in a drought for years. It’s a joy to turn off my sprinklers. But rain raises the stakes for my daughter crossing the Grapevine down from Northern California. Our grandkids might get snowed in up in the San Bernardino Mountains. I won’t be able to seat some of my Christmas brunch guests outside by the pool. Complications I usually don’t have to consider.
Other places in California that are still recovering from wildfires will now have flooding and mudslides. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect our town, but we remember those displaced people in our prayers.
If rain brings nature’s renewal, I welcome it. Too bad this year with its continuing troubles couldn’t be washed away with the rain as well. It will be cozy to sit by the fireplace and sip hot cocoa. I can see the twinkling Christmas lights through the eyes of my seven-month-old grand twins.
It’s Christmas Eve. A quiet one this year but a refreshing deep breath as we turn the page to next year.
Rain pounded on the roof. I measured out flour and salt into a metal bowl. My kitchen was ablaze with light as the storm stole all daylight. In a larger bowl, I mixed butter and sugar. The dogs whined as they needed to go outside but being California born, they didn’t trust going out in the rain. I sent them outside anyway. After I creamed the butter and sugar with my hand mixer, I added eggs and vanilla. Although wind rattled the windows, it was warm and cozy in our house. I hoped the heater would not break down this year. It was time to ease in the dry ingredients a little at a time. Outside my kitchen window, water streamed off our tin patio roof and into the eager flower beds. At least we wouldn’t need the sprinklers for a while. No need to waste water in a drought.
I spooned the dough into my cookie press, chose a shape disc, and replaced the end of the cylinder. Squeezing the dough through the tube created precise patterned cookies on the baking sheet. The rain beat down harder but for now the roof didn’t leak. I shook some colored sugar over the raw dough. It would be a miracle if my Amazon Christmas gifts were delivered in this storm. The baking sheets went into the oven, and I set the timer. When the time was right, I would pull out beautiful, delicious sugar cookies. After they cooled, I would wrap them up in tins and give them to my friends at Christmas.
Sometimes I feel like I’ve been measured by others and whipped around by them. Squeezed through difficult times of my life. Sprinkled with sweet words when I felt raw. Trapped in fiery trials like in a hot oven. But when the time was right, I was brought out of the heat, beautifully shaped and full of sweetness. Ready to share.
Today I found victory in the form of a wooden stable.
As I unpacked my Christmas decorations this year, I remembered how much I had lost. When my children were still in school, someone broke into our garage and stole all our Christmas boxes. It was only a few years after my husband died suddenly and left me with three elementary age children. A special level of Hell is reserved for those burglars.
Over the years, my husband’s mother had given my children a special ornament Christmas. We even had an ornament from my husband’s childhood Christmas tree. Although none cost much money, they were priceless. At the time, I didn’t have money to replenish my decorations, but some coworkers gave me their extra ornaments.
As I said, for those burglars, a special level of Hell.
Now my children are adults, off on their own quests. After years as a single mother, I finally remarried. Christmas is special in a different way. But when I unwrap my ornaments, they look unfamiliar. They hold memories for other people but not me.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a beautiful set of nativity scene figures. I searched the internet for a stable to with them, but everything was too expensive. Every year I would set them up on a side table, but the shepherds and three kings looked untethered without the stable backdrop.
This year, another friend took me to a huge craft and decorating store. All the Christmas décor was on sale, and customers were heaping their carts with gingham trees and wooden reindeer.
And there it was. Tucked into the shelf next to wreathes and stocking holders.
A stable, decorated with natural sticks and flocked with fake snow. The perfect size for my Nativity figures. And on sale for the price of two large Starbucks coffees.
Now when I sit by my Christmas tree and glance over at the table, Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are tucked safely in a simple but elegant stable. The kings and even the cow and lamb approve.
When I was young, Halloween decorations came down November 1st, but Mom left up fall leaves and pumpkins. She added a cornucopia with gourds on the table. Before Santa Clauses set up their chairs in the local department stores, there was a holiday for sharing a feast with your extended family and being grateful for your many blessings.
This year, as soon as the tombstones, skeletons, and jack-o-lanterns were packed up, red and green lights appeared on the houses in my neighborhood. Did I miss something?
Now more than ever we need to be thankful. Over the past two Covid years, I have lost family and friends to the virus and other causes. Many of us have attended more funerals, some virtual, than we ever have in our lives.
A reason to be thankful. We are still here to gather with family and friends, eat turkey, watch football, and savor pumpkin pie with mounds of whipped crème.
We all have our own reasons to be thankful.
This is my first year as a full-time writer. Thanks to a generous retirement incentive from my school district, I was able to retire early in May. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to balance a paying job with my creative passion.
My youngest daughter had twins this year. I am so thankful to have time to spend with them. More time than I ever had when I was raising my own children, part of that time as a widow.
My husband and I have six children and nine grandchildren. We are both so thankful that none of our children lost their jobs during the pandemic shutdown. Our grandchildren are healthy.
When we quiet our hearts, we can find thankfulness. Being grateful gladdens our hearts and silences our complaints. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I’ll have Christmas music blaring through the house after next Thursday. But before we rush out to buy those perfect gifts and unwrap the presents under the tree, shouldn’t we start first with grateful hearts?
“I’ll write that book someday,” she said after sharing her story with friends over coffee.
“You really should,” they agreed.
Years went by. Her work was busy. The kids had sports. The laundry basket was overflowing.
“You should write a book about that,” her husband said when she shared her story over a glass of wine.
“I know, but this week we’ve got to get ready for camping.” She started writing her checklist for their trip.
Years went by. The kids graduated from high school. She thought there would be more time to write. Her husband got sick, so she spent her days taking him back and forth to the doctor.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Maybe when I retire.
Years went by. Her husband got better. The kids had their own kids. Both she and her husband retired. She thought there would be more time to write but her kids needed someone to babysit the grandkids.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Now I have all the time in the world.
Years went by. The grandkids went to school. Her husband passed away. Her eyes grew weak, and her hands hurt. It was hard to type on her laptop.
I will write this book, she thought. And even when it was hard to focus beyond her pain, she wrote and wrote and wrote.
Years went by. When she finally held the finished novel in her trembling hands, she couldn’t even read the words on the pages.
But she was full of joy because she finally wrote the book.
No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.
The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.
Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.
They both brought pain.
The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.
Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.
Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.
Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.
A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.
One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.
Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.
The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.
When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.
The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.
That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.
Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.
Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.
Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?
When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.
Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.
Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.
When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.
The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.
Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.
The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.
Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.
A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.
The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.
ZAP!!! Boom! Tinkle! My grandmother’s favorite teapot hit the floor and broke into a million pieces.
Staring at my hands in horror, I realized the cause. It was happening more and more. My hands trembled as I swept up fine porcelain scraps and dumped them into the trash can. Last week, I set my sister’s cat’s tail on fire. The week before that, I was pretty sure I caused my other sister’s rash.
Practicing magic is a responsibility. That’s what our mother used to say when we were young witches. I can still see her furrowed brow, her thin lips set in a straight line. Strict but caring. I still miss her, gone all these years.
After she passed, I became the most responsible witch in our family. I washed our clothes, swept our cottage, and cooked stew over the fire. That’s more than my lazy sisters, Rose and Camellia, ever did. They were only interested in coming up with new spells.
For the first twenty years of my life, my spells were obedient to my commands. Then suddenly, after last Midsummer’s festival, magic started leaking out at inopportune moments.
Practicing magic requires control. Successful spells and potions were the result of focused intent and attention to detail. A pinch more lavender than required, and the entire village could fall sleep instead of easing one anxious mother into slumber. The village elders only accepted our family as witches because we pledged to do no harm.
If I couldn’t get my magic under control, I would lose it. Literally. The regional coven would show up and drain me of my magic. Without a trial. On the spot. And I would spend the rest of my life mundane.
Think. Think. How could I tame my magic? Maybe I was working too hard. Meditation. That would help.
Rose, my older sister, helped me set up candles and pillows outside under the willow tree. Away from anything breakable. Her eyes told me she knew what was at stake. We didn’t discuss it. Any talk about misused magic could draw the attention of the coven elders. They seemed to be everywhere.
I closed my eyes, settled into the goose down pillows, and listened to the birds warbling high above me. The breeze sighed through the willow’s drooping branches, tickling my face with the scent of wildflowers. The birds called out to one another, the same melody repeated over and over again, like an inappropriate tavern song stuck in your head.
Hard to meditate with that cursed chirping. Suddenly silence fell over me like a blanket. Small objects pelted me and hit the ground, some tipping over the candles. With horror, I realized they were dead birds. My stomach churned with urgency. I leaned over past the pillows to vomit on the grass.
If I didn’t want to kill my sisters and burn down the village, I would have to either move into the woods or have the coven drain my magic. I started to pack my bag when my younger sister, Camellia, came in from the garden.
“Where are you going, Violet?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Have you been called away on a quest for the queen?”
I didn’t want to lie to my sister, but I did anyway. “Of course, that’s where I’m going. I will miss you and Rose, of course, but if the queen summons me, I must obey.”
As I stood at the door with my bag over my shoulder, Camellia hugged me farewell. As she released me, there was a POP and a cloud of silver smoke. As the smoke cleared, a small black rabbit sat on the floor. Poor sister!
I ran as fast as I could down to the main road. I guess I could have stayed and tried to turn her back, but I didn’t trust my magic. What if I turned her into a fly and Rose swatted her with the broom? Rose would figure it out when she returned.
Where could I run to escape myself? I followed the road as day turned to night. Pulling my wool shawl closer, I worried it wouldn’t be enough. I mumbled a warming spell and felt its instant effect. At least that magic still worked.
A full moon guided my steps as I reached the northern woods. I ducked under its covering, following animal trails. A childhood memory tickled in my head. There had been an abandoned hut out here where a woodcutter used to live.
The humming of insects and scurrying of unseen creatures kept me company as I threaded through the trees. I did not worry about becoming prey as my protection spell would cloak me from sight and spell.
Then I saw it. Nestled near a rushing stream, a crumbling wooden shack. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and drew a picture in my mind. When I opened them, I saw a small, thatched roof cottage with a sturdy wooden door, one window on each side trimmed with boxes of bright colored flowers.
When I stepped inside, a roaring fire in the hearth welcomed me. With a sigh, I unwound my shawl and hung it on a hook by the door. I unwrapped the bread I had brought and set it on the table. I put the kettle on for tea and then sat down in a rocker by the fire.
What would I do now? Forage for food in the woods and stay away from people? I was no hermit. Then I saw a letter on the mantle. I got up and opened the seal, a butterfly symbol that looked like the one Mother used to close her letters.
Tears leaked down my face as I read:
By now, you have learned that trying to control your magic in
your own strength is futile. This is your first step toward
mastery. Your magic is strong, but you must remember
it is not your work but a gift from the Creator.
It was not given for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.
Now that you are here, away from your many tasks,
take the time to understand your purpose.
Then your magic will be under control.
With love and hope,
Carefully I refolded the letter, tucked it into its envelope and set the letter back on the mantle.
Mother knew I would reach this point. There still was hope for my future.
I would discover my purpose and learn more about the one who was really in control.
Pumpkin spice lattes are back. Halloween decorations dominate the craft stores. And in Southern California, it’s extended summer. Especially for teachers like me who jumped ship at the end of last school year. This is the first year I didn’t spend days setting up my classroom, organizing classroom supplies, and suffering through hours of staff meetings.
Next week, instead of sweating through triple-digit days sequestered inside with kids, my husband and I will be camping at the beach. We’ll walk our dogs, grill steaks, and watch the sunsets. I’m going to work on my latest book project until I run out of power on my laptop.
After 17 years of teaching (which in teacher years is 170), I’m writing a new chapter in my life. In my first years at college, I poured all my energy into being a visual artist. Then at graduation I was cast adrift in a world where creatives had few ways of earning a living. I went to work in retail buying, using my creativity to select season colors and magazine layouts.
After 9/11, I lost my job and became a substitute teacher. Then my husband died, and suddenly I was a single parent of three school age children. That led me back to college where I earned my teaching credential.
Writing children’s books was my new creative outlet. Seven years later, I found a husband that nourished my dreams. I joined writing groups and took classes. My obsession grew until I was up every morning at 5:00 am to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the day began.
Many years passed. My kids grew up and set out on their own journeys. Teaching kids taught me a lot. About hope for the future, and a passion for doing what you love. I gathered characters and stories like shells on a beach. Saving them for when I had time to write.
So here I am in my first year of retirement. Living life as a full time creative, writing instead of making art. My life is no longer fractured with conflicting responsibilities. I still get up early. Ideas flow in the quiet time before the day opens its eyes.
As I fall into more summer, more summer flows into me.
Her magic was failing, and there was nothing she could do about it. It was her fate. When you were over three hundred years old, something was bound to wear out.
The witch knew this with her brain, but her heart still grieved. Magic had been her companion through broken hearts, wars, and witch hunts. Over many long years, she had loved and lost friends and familiars, but magic had remained a constant hum underneath her skin. Now it was a faint whisper.
The witch steam mopped her kitchen floor, her long tangled white hair hanging in her face. She took her time, making sure to get all the blood in the grout. Living in these times was a lot easier than when she first crossed the ocean. Back then, she lived in a dirt floor hut outside the village. It was convenient to have her own animals for spells, but her city condo these days smelled a lot better. And she could order the animals she needed from Amazon.
After she tucked her steam mop away in the closet, she turned her cleaning energy to her bathrooms. Her three-bedroom condo had two of them, a luxury unheard of when she first came to this country. She sprayed her natural cleaner on the toilet and sink and scrubbed with what strength she still possessed. As she wiped down the mirror, she avoided looking at her reflection. That shriveled up crone was a stranger to her. If her magic was strong, she would be able to smooth those wrinkles with a potion.
If her magic was strong, she wouldn’t have to work like a cleaning lady. She used to be able to mumble a few words and her home would be sparkling clean. These were humbling days when she needed to save her magic for the big things.
Spells that used to spill off her tongue now sputtered and failed. Last week, she used her scry bowl to see what her sister witch, Agnes, was doing. The water refused to show her anything. In her anger, she tossed the ancient ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered on the tile floor. She had to FaceTime with her instead.
Losing her magic made her so angry she wanted to transform into a bird and fly away. Usually, anger amplified her power. Now when she spoke the spell, all she got were a few feathers and a sudden urge to eat granola.
When the bathroom was clean, the witch turned her attention to the shelves in her work room. The small room, formerly one of the bedrooms, had one whole wall covered in wooden bookshelves, mismatched and of different finishes. Jars lined the shelves, some filled with liquids while others held dried plants. Using a microfiber cloth, she lifted each one and wiped it before returning it to its place. This took a long time. She needed to be careful as some of her ingredients were volatile in combination with others.
A tear rolled down her gnarled cheek. Most of these jars would never be used again. Maybe she could sell them to a younger witch.
Weakness overcame her, and she had to sit down at her desk. What would be left without her magic? An ancient crone, powerless and friendless. How could she live without her craft?
She glanced down at her phone on the desk. Maybe she was allowing her circumstances to overwhelm her. She still had sister witches who cared about her. Maybe her magic just needed to be recharged like her phone.
There was power in mingling magics. How could she have forgotten? She reached her trembling hand to grasp her phone. She scrolled through her contacts and clicked the phone symbol.