Star Signs

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The forecast predicts more rain, and water pools in the grass—a marshland of sorts in Hillsboro, Oregon. On our evening walk, Angel, snug in her winter togs, sniffs the trees roots while I, eager to be inside, look up beyond stripped branches to see clouds hanging low enough to touch.

I miss the stars.

From 1955-1961 I lived in Pendleton, Oregon, not only where hills undulated with wheat and wind storms left dust in every crevice, but where winter sunsets splayed across the horizon and the Milky Way poured out a pathway of stars. As night unfolded, I’d lie on my back and sing of angels lighting God’s little candles. “We call them stars. They are friends in the sky.”

The night of July 4, 1962, at Our Lady of Angels Convent, we young nuns spread blankets on the lawn and watched the starry universeI knew little of light years and galaxies, travels and vacuum, but we all knew that a few months earlier, John Glenn, cocooned into Friendship 7, spiraled out into weightlessness and entered a world of plummeting stars. Searching the night sky, I wondered what it would be like to be so close to starlight.

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On a bleak November, one year later, I sat in a darkened room with my Franciscan community, the bitter rains of mourning snuffing out the light. Our president was dead. Bobby Kennedy, adapting Shakespeare, eulogized his brother John: “When he shall die, take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night. . . “  Bobby Kennedy’s words plunged into my heart and carved a new meaning of eternal life..

Except for St. Stephen’s Indian Mission (where the summer and winter sky is a wide open book of starlight), my teaching career had kept me inside, with little time set aside for star-gazing. City, mall, and traffic lights often dimmed the cosmos. In the same year our government scorched Iraq with shock and awe, I bought a star kit. On the ceiling of my bedroom I affixed huge stencil sheets, found the open constellation hole, and dabbed each with glowing paint. In darkness, the universe twinkled, I declared it “Good,” and for three years, slept under the stars.

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This Christmas, tree lights reflected on the patio door. Rains soaked the ground and clouds still hung low, but my tree remained and twinkled on the patio, brick, branch, and air—like star signs. From inside, on a picture window, I found a replica of the universe.

From a vision outside his sanatorium window, Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. The artwork spirals with exaltation and grief, heaven and earth, light and darkness. His title captures creation’s awesome spin; his words fling one more message into space: “I don’t know anything with certainty, but seeing the stars makes me dream.”

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This coming week the forecast looks like clearer skies. When Angel and I walk, I will make sure to study the sky, look beyond suburb lights and behind flying clouds. That way I won’t miss the stars. I might dream again with the child in awe of constellations; with space travelers and heroes; with poets and artists. Yearn, in ways small and great, inside and outside, to catapult into the universe, race along the Winter Triangle, and hang on (for dear, dear life) from the Belt of Orion.

Finishing Touches

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By Monday, December 3, it was time to decorate the house. Although a hike through the woods or onto a parking lot would have resulted in a real tree, I simply pulled an elongated box from the shelf and fit together three pieces of an eight-foot artificial tree (lights already strung). Unadorned, she is a common, plastic creature, but once dressed in ornaments, she becomes a red and silver beauty.

Some of the ornaments are easy to place. Finishing touches demand a bit more skill: candy canes and pups in socks, musical instruments and miniature wrapped presents. What is missing is the smell of real pine, but cinnamon candles offer an alternative.

The challenge is the village, which every year is situated on ten feet of book shelf surface. Not much of a task to place the buildings, but oh, those little additions that complete the scene. No question that fireman and his Dalmatian stand in front of the fire station, but where to put the people with gifts? They can’t all be coming from the train station.

And how to stack tuna and tomato paste cans underneath that white flannel so that the children slide down a snowy hill? Or place the hydrants where a dog can stop and sniff and be sure to keep the mailman moving right along to deliver letters and packages? Like the final stroke on a painting, tiny details finish the annual project and leave me with a sense, not only of satisfaction, but completion.

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Within this home enters a new spirit because my sister Mary bequeathed me her holiday banners: JOY TO THE WORLD spreads across the space above the piano, and PEACE hangs over the small ceramic tree. The Magi on one wall point to Bethlehem and the star hanging on another. The Angel floats above the village. I love my sister’s banners: exquisite designs, made perfect by curved edges, beaded crowns, and fringed garments. No need to add a final flourish to any of them.

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All the while I sing along with Sissel, James Taylor, and Rene Fleming. They sing of snow drifting on rooftops, birth in bleak midwinter, and city sidewalks dressed in holiday style.  Another weary year slips away into a new Christmas. And then comes Fleming’s haunting version of the Sandy Denny song:

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go . . .
For who knows where the time goes?
who knows where the time goes?

tree-3Turning a small skater at one angle and securing the pastor who keeps falling in front of his church, making sure that identical ornaments are spaced far apart is a metaphor, I suppose, of peace: the finishing touches I seek in folds of fabric, orbs of shining glass, and the cascade of lovely music. Winter holidays never possess that completion my heart desires, but at the end of the year when the shadows and night deepen, when the wind and rain slice the air,  rituals promise that perhaps this Christmas will be the most wondrous of all.