Christmas Train

World War II is over. The 20th Century is about to crest its halfway point. It is a Golden Hour for the railroads in America. The big overnight trains are still running at capacity all across the country.

On any given train, the third cook will light the kitchen fire before dawn and life in the dining car will begin to stir. Soon the rest of the breakfast crew will arrive, and a buzz of activity will blend with the music of wheels. Rhythms will rise from the rails… animating every surface – floor, walls, tables and chairs – with subtle vibrations. The mingled aromas of a wood stove, percolating coffee, and a menu-full of hot breakfasts will lure expectant passengers from their beds.

As they read their newspapers, and engage in their morning conversations, it will feel as though the countryside is speeding backward at 60 miles per hour. The train will seem to be a picture of stillness – as stationary as a rock in the rapids.

Even now, in the age of jets and networks, trains have not abnegated their power entirely. Sit in your car at a railroad crossing, waiting for a freighter to pass and you might feel like you’re the one slipping away sideways!

A train is an insistent presence; it is un-ignorable… A train will flatten any coin placed upon its track – be it penny or peso or pound – silver dollar, gold doubloon or plug nickel. All will be neatly and playfully pulled into circus-mirror ovals, making clowns of the great statesmen of the ages.

A train is a kinetic geography – a locus in motion – like a mountain or a ravine or a stand of cedars, but mobile… a roaring epiphany chugging straight through all of our known landscapes.

And the words of the prophets run through the peaks and valleys of the millennia, promising the arrival of the Incarnation. The moment of God’s en-fleshing rumbles forward from the very roots of creation, its whistle echoing within the stories and songs of every village along the way, and finally emerges into time. Emerging suddenly, as though from the mouth of a tunnel punched through the sheer cliff-wall of heaven – its headlight, Bethlehem’s star …its clatter and din, the angelic chorus of Gloria in excelsis Deo!

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

The Gospel of Luke 2:13-16



The roof of the El Camino’s cab was just high enough to put me out of reach. Two of four riled-up German Shorthairs lunged up at me with teeth bared, frothy pink and black jowls flapping.

The other two were hard after Donny Van Etten. I yelled to him, “Get up on DeWitt’s car!” What I actually screamed was probably not as clear and concise as that, but he got the message just in time. He scrambled to safety atop a car parked a little farther down Codwise Street.

The El Camino and the German Shorthairs belonged to our neighbor, Meatball. It was normal for the one to be out on the street, but not the others. By the time we noticed that the big dogs were loose, they’d already zeroed in on us.

The sharp sting of teeth pinching my rump inspired a new way of thinking. I hadn’t previously seen an El Camino’s roof as a haven of escape, but crisis had caused me to redefine my cognitive categories.

We waited not-so-patiently for the ruckus to rouse Meatball to our rescue. The dogs no doubt expected their master to run out in his plaids, praise them for their work, and neatly despatch us with his thirty-odd-six.

Fortunately, Meatball was our friend so he didn’t do that. Instead, he scolded the dogs and sent them back to their pen confused and sorely disappointed.

As soon as the coast was clear, Donny and I slid down off the cars and ran home. Between sobs, I blurted fragmented details of the ordeal to my parents. Describing the drama to them while they inspected my skin for damage helped me settle down. It began the curative shift toward framing my distress in the past tense.


Bigleaf Maple

Near the southwestern corner of my property stands a bigleaf maple tree. The surrounding firs are taller; they shoot up like arrows, denying their indebtedness to earth. The maple spreads its muscular canopy in a broad, rounded dome that echoes its mother’s ever-pregnant belly.

One of the best things about trees is that they stay put. Trees are not transient; they don’t change their minds about where they want to live. So when one vacates its place, the spirit of that locale changes.

A few winters ago it lost a large limb in a storm. The following summer I climbed the bank, picking my way through tangles of ivy and blackberry vines. I carried a bow saw, thinking to harvest a few armfuls of firewood from the fallen branches.

I was surprised to find the wood was already rotten from the inside out. It turns out that bigleafs are susceptible to a blight that causes them to fall apart. Few stand for more than a couple of decades.

The tree’s imminent demise has not dimmed its palette. Each autumn its leaves are transformed from sweet green to Van Gogh strokes of ochre, lemon, russet, and flame. It is a fountain of oxygen and color telling a story about the dignity of ending.