It is Christmas Eve, always a magical time for me, and I am standing beneath the trees. To what degree the sense of magic is associated with a spiritual dimension—the beauty of a holy baby being born—and to what degree that sense of magic is a holdover from my childhood when I could hardly wait to see what Santa would bring, I don’t know. But tonight, Christmas Eve, 2011, is a clear and sparkling night here in North Florida, and beauty is, literally, in the air.

I have spent the afternoon with my parents, whose 65th wedding anniversary is today. One can hardly say there was a celebration, as my parents’ mortality is standing tall in the center of our lives. My father is in a memory care unit and my mother is an in an adjoining assisted living facility. However, there were smiles and moments of lightness in the day.

Later, in the evening, I attended a Catholic church service held in a barn, under the stars. My beautiful granddaughter had been invited to sing in the small choir by the director, who needed a few extra voices for the evening. The barn was full to overflowing with church members, so my daughter, son-in-law, step-granddaughter and I sat in a row just outside the barn, directly under a heavenly host of gleaming points of light.

After the service, I drove to the property where I will soon be living. I am here now, walking about in the dark, feeling the excitement of anticipation. In the next few months I hope this will be my home. What will it be like when I can step out my door and be connected to earth and sky, right here? I love the way the stars seem to twinkle tonight, like Christmas lights, through the branches of the trees. I grab my camera, foolishly thinking I can capture this spectacle.

Either my basic photography skills are no match for a starry night, or my camera does not double as a telescope. The camera can’t catch what I see! So, I finally have the sense to put down the camera and just…gaze. After a time, I see a jet moving high in the heavens, carving its path through the constellations. Ahhh, it’s all so lovely, I think. And, then, zip! Before my eyes is a shooting star.

Christmas Eve, always magical. I hope yours was too.

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The purple coneflowers have long since given up their blooms, all except this solitary lady, a firecracker of color in a blanket of fallen leaves. I transplanted her and some others a month ago with great emotional fanfare, releasing them from pots where they’d been captive for three years. I put them in the ground on my new property, just outside the dwelling I’m preparing for myself.

Imagine my delight when, shortly after planting, this one stood straight up, announcing herself with pink petals and orange center. Each time I visit I am surprised at this tiny oasis of color in a landscape of quiet tans and browns. Surely, I’ve thought, the frosty nights would stop her show.

But, no. Three weeks, now, and here she is today, still standing, an unlikely protester going against the odds. The gutsy pink and spikey orange give me a boost of spiritual muscle, a little something to help keep me going as I struggle through the challenges of this season of my life.

It’s interesting what can happen when you mix sun and rain with one little Christmas ornament.

A few weeks ago, I stood outside my storage shed, looking in dismay at all my stuff. It is time to move, time to thin out this packrat’s stash of family artifacts, materials for dream projects, broken lamps, and wind chimes that need re-stringing.

I’ve got a plan. I’ll turn some of this mess into one big art project, a huge collage. I’ve stolen this idea from an amazing documentary entitled Waste Land (2010 Sundance Film Festival winner) about the project of an artist, Vic Muniz, which was inspired by people in Brazil who pick through the municipal dumps to salvage items for reuse and recycling. Mr. Muniz utilized garbage to compose giant portraits of the garbage pickers. Then he made photos of the collages. Not only did the process transform the lives of some of the pickers, but the photos sold for a pretty penny.

Maybe I can transform my junk and myself, in the bargain, I thought. I spread out an old sheet, hauled lampshades, door hinges, paint cans from the shed, arranging them on the “canvas”. And what about these old Christmas ornaments my daughter left behind some years back? I put them on the sheet, stood back. Hmmm. Well, tomorrow the creative muse will surely come.

Days passed. So much to do. From my kitchen window I gazed at the white sheet, rumpled corners concealing most of the objects. Inspiration lagged. And lagged some more.

Today I went out to investigate. This is no art. It’s just a mess. But look what spoke my name: this solitary Christmas ornament, scoured by the elements. With the aid of the camera, it becomes a crazy collage of red speckled sky and trees bouncing off clear glass.

I laugh. I take myself and my stuff too seriously. It’s interesting what can happen to a small globe of glass; and it’s amazing what can happen when I lighten up and laugh.


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For decades my mother and I have stood apart, neither truly knowing the other. I saw her as a pioneer woman, not so much the innovator, but a force with which to be reckoned. She is rugged, square of jaw, set in her ways, a woman who’s mostly kept her tenderness to herself. She dismissed and was disdainful of some of the material things that might have made her life easier. She’s never owned a dishwasher and did not, until the past decade, invite a clothes dryer into her home.

In recent years she’s allowed she must have been born into the wrong century, identifying more with women of an earlier era. I imagine her walking among that bonneted group that crossed the continental U.S., kicking up dust alongside covered wagons, carving out a new home and hearth each night.

Oh, this story is so old. Not the one of my mother, a misfit in this “modern” era. But the story of a daughter who becomes, more and more, like the mother she has shunned, the mother for whom she has mourned.

I bought these boots some years back. They spent most of their time in my closet until they got pulled into service recently, as I’ve been carving out a new home and hearth in the woods of North Florida. My jaw gets more squared. I am more set in my ways. And the boots, oh these boots, and the many worn-out shoes that came before them, have found just how rugged I am. These boots might have crossed a continent. But it is the one between my mother and me that still divides.

It will not be my mother to cross it. She has done her time. It is I, the first-born daughter of this mother, who must find a way to step in tenderness toward her, to see the beauty in us both: two women, square of jaw, set in their ways.

A mockingbird perched on the tender top of a cypress tree, avian witness to my morning of frustrations, plans gone wildly awry. I snapped its picture, groping for hope, for beauty, for something of meaning before I set off toward home.

Partway there I spotted a tree and stopped to investigate its colors with my Canon. In the midst of this, from a black and white bull standing in the field, came the sound that said it all. It was a moo that morphed into a growl. (See my prior post.) As if the universe were reflecting back to me, in perfect symphony, my grief and gnarly edges.

Later, near to home, with some understanding now of the reasons for the crossed signals and muddled plans (He thought I said what? That’s not at all what I meant.), I spied, standing tall on a telephone pole, a lone hawk. I passed it by on the highway, backtracked, then pulled as close to the pole as I could without chasing my totem away. I decided to chance it, pulled closer still, moving to the other side, where the bird was lit by the sun. Watching me, the beaked hunter turned and looked down. We met for a moment through the lens of my camera, and then it took flight.

It was a day of mocking myself, spitting bitter barbs, then finding a moment to smile. (Yeah, big guy, I said to the bull, I totally get where you’re coming from.)

Then gratefully, gracefully, taking wing with the hawk.


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The bull made the perfect sound. It started as a moo—a nasal, cranium-rattling siren of a sound—and ended as a growl—a throaty, gut-inspired mushroom of noise. It was just what I needed.

I’d pulled over onto the side of the highway opposite the field to look at a tree full of what I first thought were blooms, then realized were berries or fruit of some kind.

I recognized the tree, ‘though don’t know the name. It puts out yellow or coral blooms in the spring. But, it was the bull that said it all. Was he complaining about those unfashionable earrings he has to wear? Did his tummy ache? Was he wanting more room to roam—feeling stifled and bored with his companions…

or wanting one of the female persuasion?

For a moment the guy made me smile. After my morning of sharp disappointments and frustrations, the moo and the growl said it all.

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“Ma’am, you got a punkin growing over there?”

The man pointed to the tangle of vines and weeds growing under the scraggly limbs of a dogwood tree that stands to the side of my new home-to-be. He was doing some work for me and his boss had left to run an errand. We were biding our time.

“No, it’s not a pumpkin,” I said. It’s similar. I’ve heard it called Native Squash, or Seminole Squash. Full grown, they’re about the size of a pumpkin—a small to medium-sized one.”

“Taste kinda like a butternut squash?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “I grow them every year, but this year I’ve been too busy. I threw some kitchen scraps here in the spring—just to help out the tree—and some of the seeds sprouted. I don’t think I’ll get any squash, though. Weather’s been too hot and dry.”

“Ma’am, it’s already making some squash. Look, right there,” he said and pointed. “There’s two of ‘em.”

“Oh, my,” I said. “You’re right!”

There, buried under the confusion of a season’s growth were two tiny squash, shaped like small, green light bulbs, showing all the promise in the world.

I have grown these squash for several years, using the prior year’s seeds for my new harvest. Some of the squash—hardy little souls—can last several months with no refrigeration; so, even in the wintertime, I’m able to savor the sweet, orange flesh. This year I lamented that I’d miss the luscious meals, and, worse, have no seeds for next spring.

In April, once I’d spotted the determined little vine growing out of the small mass of kitchen scraps, I’d been diligent in keeping it watered. Still, I wondered: How will this plant produce anything—competing with tree roots, growing on next to nothing, strangling in the heat?

It was late August when the tiny bulbs appeared. It is October as I snap this picture. The squash is about six inches in diameter—a very small specimen—and I’ll pick it soon. It’s a small harvest, but a harvest, nonetheless.

It’s amazing, it really is, what can come from next to nothing.

Soldiering on today, I plan to continue my project—preparing a new home site for myself on a small parcel of land. It’s been scooped of trees and scrubby growth; a building has been installed; and a shed begs to be built. I imagine, as my red truck carries me down the highway, what I will accomplish when I arrive. Surely I’ll have time to drive a few screws into the new wood I bought last week for the shed, and attach some pieces to the upright posts. Maybe there’ll be time to dig two new holes for those ten-foot four-by-fours that lie in waiting on the ground. It’s a beautiful fall day, the sky silky blue, the air less laden with moisture than usual.

I arrive, backing my truck up to the building where I’ll eventually live. I swing open the door of my truck, put my feet on the ground, and am hit with a storm of exhaustion and fatigue. I slump into the lawn chair next to the building, pull the other one up for my feet, and drop my head. Disappointment and near-despair take a seat in my lap. I close my eyes, and, finally catch myself.

It is acceptance that is required, not fighting against the current pressures in my life.

After I time, I stand, begin to putter, and bow to this reality: I will not be moving mountains, or even a few ten-foot posts, today. So, I dip water from the five-gallon bucket I’ve brought, and pour it into the birdbath. This humble vessel serves the birds, thirsty wasps, and me—just by shimmering in the light. I take some steps back, survey the lines of bricks I’ve set in the ground, and find respite in this moment. Reflected in the shallow bowl of water are the sky, leaves, branches, and trunk of the young oak tree.

Some times, acceptance is all that’s required.


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Is that the moon or a dinosaur’s egg lit from within, cradled, tickled by a pine bough? The eye of my camera captures the moment the breeze pushes the sharp needles perfectly into place.

I wonder about illusion and reality, myth and truth. Who’s to say which is which? Some folks who flirt with an eternity of fairies, say everything is illusion. Others stand with thick-soled boots, put their hands in the dirt, and say, see here, this is what is real.

I say it doesn’t matter, that a fairy’s wing and a farmer’s plow are just a breath apart. Tonight it’s the moon, tomorrow an egg, both resting in my nest.

There’s something to be said for laziness…or lassitude…or a laissez-faire approach to life. It may be a combination of all three, although I’m rarely accused of taking an easy approach to life, that had me watch the rogue Mexican sunflower sprout next to my brick walk. I knew full well when those fuzzy little leaves crawled skyward that this one stalk would crowd my access to the front porch, and that guests would have to duck or sway in order to avoid bumping into a blossom.

But, laziness, being overwhelmed with life this summer, and a certain what-the-heck-let’s-see-what-happens flippancy gave me rein not to pluck the plant from this spot. Instead, I watched and even watered the brazen stems, branches, and buds as they grew.

What joy! Yesterday I nearly collided with a butterfly, the day before, a bee, both drawn in abundance to these glossy orange girls. Distracted and harried this summer, I’ve been gifted by having all this brassy beauty, literally, in my face.


Ellen Hamilton