Electric Christmas, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.

Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.

I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.

And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.


She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition. 

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.


I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

Kindling the Muse


It is nearly 7:30 in the morning, and it is still quite dark outside despite the snow and icestorm that is passing through. I have been up for several hours now, writing and studying music.

In other words, kindling the muse.

There is a song by James Taylor off of the New Moon Shine album called “Like Everyone She Knows,” and it struck me this morning at the right time. Here’s the point to the song:

Hold tight to your heart’s desire

Never ever let it go.

Let nobody fool you into giving it up too soon.

Tend your own fire.

Lay low and be strong.

Wait it out, let it come along.

These lyrics come to me at a time where I am returning to a simpler approach to life. I know this sounds crazy. Next week, I begin teaching a writing course in Howard County, and the following week the semester begins at Towson. My brother-in-law’s book comes out in a few months, and I’m preparing for my own official launch of my book, Cold Rock, in late March or April.

It seems like I should be forgetting all that muse stuff and that babble about simpler living, right? I need to be on autopilot and just push through these next sixteen weeks and survive. Isn’t that the right way to get through this craziness?

No. It’s not the right way at all.

I think that a return to the muse is the best way to stay focused, the best way to remain balanced through these busier times.

Writing and music touches the core of who I am. To lose contact with that core cannot be healthy for me (or for anyone else). It is through my strength, my connection to that higher spirit that I am able to do any of these things.

To abandon that now would be foolish in all ways.

So I am holding on tight to my heart’s desire. I am reconnecting with my muse and higher spirit through my own writing and music, and cherishing the simple joy and beauty it brings to my day.

The Gretsch G5120 Electromatic Hollowbody that I have pictured above is a beautiful guitar that I am looking at for late spring, early summer. Until then, I have an incredible acoustic guitar that I will play with daily, learning all I can, and reconnecting with my muse.

Playing guitar is the greatest complement to my writing for me; together, they open doors within me that I never knew existed. Through those open pathways, I find strength and balance to experience life fully, in the present.

But all I am doing is tending my own fire, laying low and being strong, and waiting it out.

The only way to letting it come along, come along. . . .

Summer Strummin’

Jerry in 1970 playing a Gibson SG…

A few days ago, I was at the pool talking with my friend, Steve. He and I have collaborated on several photo projects, and it’s always good to chat with him about my writing, hobbies, frustrations — whatever is on that day’s plate when I see him. When I met with him last, I told him my goals for the summer.

“Steve,” I said, “every summer I do the same thing–take a spiritual journey, write a lot of stuff trying to figure things out: the past, the future. I drop a few pounds and do some writing. But not this year. That spiritual journey stuff is just too heavy, and I’m not into deep right now.”

He seemed curious about this revelation I was having. He shifted a little into his listening pose and offered, “I see. Go on.”

And I did. I proceeded to tell him about my approach to the next 66 days.

I’m still going to write, I told him, but not about the deep stuff. I’m just going to focus on my fiction, maybe get a few nonfiction pieces done. But what I’m really digging into is music.

He looked at me and smiled.

“You should do another 40-day thing on your blog, but this time make it about your music.”

Brilliant idea, I thought. And so, thanks to Steve, I’ll be blogging daily about all the regular stuff, but with a focus on my music, especially my resurrected love-fest with my guitar.

Right now, I’m playing with an Aria acoustic that my terribly-missed friend Chris gave me so long ago. And, if/when I stick with this long enough to be able to play for an audience of 2, or maybe even 3, I’ll check out that Gibson SG (now sold as a classic) that Jerry’s playing on in the photo above.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? How about this: I’m doing stuff that I’ve always talked about. Instead of pondering and studying and analyzing, I’m just doing. I’m not worried about what I haven’t done. Not worried about how good or bad I am or will be. I’m just playin’. Loving the connections and discoveries being made in just doing some summer strummin’.

Here we are, all at the starting line together. Hand in hand, promise within promise, we look forward to the possibilities that await us in this new year. We’ve all got a few things going for us, so let’s look at those quickly:

  1. We’re starting with a fresh slate. Forgive yourself of the shortfalls of 2009 and begin anew. Don’t let the mistakes made in the last 12 months follow you into 2010. Instead, make the commitment to embrace all the new year has to offer, and go for it.
  2. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. Stay grounded in the simple things: Love, Companionship, Charity, and Truth. Everything else will fall into place if you begin with these four.
  3. Believe in the You that you are right now. Don’t talk about how great it’s going to be in 4, 6, or 10 months. Talk about how great you’ve got it right now, and savor the glory of the You Moment right now. I don’t care if you are on a bus or standing in some checkout line. Love thyself. Always.
  4. Enjoy the passage of time. Every moment of it. Do not waste a single flutter of a butterfly’s wings or the final seconds of sun as it sets in the west.

The Secret O’ Life: Love, Companionship, Charity, Trust. ❤

I wish nothing but the absolute best for each of you in 2010!

What do you pursue?

Earlier this month I picked up Shady Grove by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, a 13-track compilation of acoustic folk songs and ballads that Jerry and David did between 1990 and 1995. A few days ago, I heard Jerry and David do “Bag’s Groove, Take 1” on the Dead channel on Sirius Radio, and they took me to new levels with a certain spirit and soul that seeped through the speakers and spoke to me. There was a real depth to what they were doing, and I could sense that their playing was something more than two guys getting together to strum guitars and banjos and mandolins. A purpose existed for this music.

I was right. When I bought Shady Grove, I immediately turned to the liner notes, and John Cohen, one of the original members of the New Lost City Ramblers, wrote poignantly about the passion each had for the ballad, the folk song that captured a deeper, more genuine spirit of the traditions of American music. On separate coasts in the early sixties, Jerry and David pursued relentlessly that soul of America.

This got me thinking. What do I pursue?

Some of us pursue the origins of our ancestry; others pursue our collections, ranging from Dead concerts to stamps to first editions; still others pursue that return to innocence, our spiritual births, our origins of balance. More than a few psychologists have professed that we live our adult lives striving to return to our Querencia, or home, the place that brings us complete and unconditional comfort and the feeling of invincibility.

I wonder if Thoreau had this last group in mind when he wrote about the “masses of men leading lives of quiet desperation” in “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” from his Walden collection of essays.

I can probably say that any one of these (except for the collecting of stamps) fits me to some extent, at various times in my life/year/month/day/moment. But that’s just the problem. I flit back and forth between them so frequently that none of them get the attention necessary to sustain momentum, growth, progress toward that specific pursuit.

That’s why I feel pretty good about the choices I’ve made this new year. I’m pursuing the yoga and the walking with an ever-strong pace that is strengthening with each passing day, where I can say I was committed to this small choice. And there’s this virtual walk I’m planning for this spring/summer; that will be fun.

But is that enough? Maybe I am the desperate man Thoreau speaks of when I believe that I should be pursuing something greater, something nobler.

I dig deep, deep down inside of me to see what I pursue. . . .

Remove the road blocks, the obstacles, the lesson plans and endless (but wonderful) family commitments, and I’m left with this:

I pursue the absolute, pure expression, through writing and various art media, of who I am as an artist, as an individual, so that I may leave my mark on the world as I witnessed it, lived it, wished it to be.

I write this with confidence because I had a piece of writing rejected recently, and at first, I was upset about the rejection. The feedback was that the work of fiction “crossed over” into the nonfiction genre and made it too essay-ish. Initially, I thought about how I might change it, what I might do to make it more amenable to this specific audience. In other words: what can I do to satisfy my audience?

I’ve written previously that the good writer is sensitive to her audience and needs to consider what is expected of the piece. But we can’t apply that general statement to all writing. In my work with developing the concept of the metalogical writer, I’ve created a graphic where the focus of the piece can shift to the author, the audience, or the piece itself. As authors, we decide what is best for our piece.

If you were to graph out all of my published works, I am sure you’ll find that the large majority of them were for somebody else, some audience I whored myself to with my writing. Very, very few of the pieces I’ve had published were Pure Rus: uncensored, with a focus on me and a style that I wanted for that particular piece for my particular reasons. These are the pieces that were written with what I would call “artistic intent,” where the artist knows her voice so well that she isn’t afraid to use it, even if it goes against the mainstream genres. When we do this with intent–use our voice and select our form–we need to make critical decisions about how far we will compromise our gift to give the masses what they say they want.

This rejection made me smile. I write for me first now. There was undeniable “artistic intent” when I wrote that piece, simply because that is the style I chose to connect with my readers. So now, I’m going back to Cold Rock and a few other pieces, revise the parts that I think need work, and then publish it. I’m no longer compromising who I am as an artist for the sake of giving the masses more of what they are already getting.

If I can’t pursue my individuality in this fog of conformity, then what’s the sense of writing anything at all? If I can’t claim my voice, my soul in my work, what’s the difference between these pieces and the work I’ve whored in the past?

Really, folks. Pursue you. Whether it’s in your photography, your yoga, your writing, your anything: pursue you fully in all that you do. It’s the only way to let the world know that you were really here at all.

Check Out the Music of Christine Kane

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

(actually, you can download it HERE)

Hi, Folks.

I have to admit that there’s not too much I understand about the blogging world, especially what goes on behind the scenes and, more important, how it goes on. I’m guessing that I tap into maybe 10 percent of my blogging opportunities here at WordPress and through my ISP, BlueHost. No matter, though. What I do works for me, and that’s all I really care about.

When I logged on this morning to write my entry, though, I noticed that in my “Incoming Links” section of my WordPress Dashboard, somebody by the name of Christine Kane had stopped by, or had been linked to me, or had somehow mysteriously become an incoming link, whether she or I had any knowledge of it. Curious, I clicked on the link to her site, and I was taken aback by what I had found.

Forever and a day, I’ve been posting about searching for that voice, that singer/songwriter who fits in my world of writing and artwork. I’ve mentioned Sheryl Crow and Tristan Prettyman, who are staples to my writing playlists. There’s also Alison Krauss and Susan Ashton. These are all extremely talented performers who have found a way to bring their views of the world alive through their lyrics and their music.

Today, I add Christine Kane to that list.

I downloaded her free song, “The Real World” (the link is at the top of this post), and was immediately swept away by the simplicity and the beauty of her lyrics and her voice. To me (and maybe this is just because, at my age, It’s important that the songs mean something to the person who wrote them), Christine really believes in what she sings. On her website, she writes this about “The Real World”:

“What I love about traveling by train is the feeling of being nowhere in particular. That nowhere place is, ironically, the most wild and fertile place. It’s the birthplace of songs and drawings and ideas and acceptance. I tried to capture that in this song. It’s called ‘The Real World.'”

Christine Kane’s joined my real world now, and I look forward to hearing more of her work in the future. Check out her tour schedule. If she’s near where you live, you might want to join her for what I am sure will be a night of good music.

Sheryl Crow to the Rescue

Carl mentioned her even after I said that I wasn’t looking for her, but of course he was right all along.

I’m talking about my earlier post where I was in search of a singer to soothe my soul. I said I was looking for somebody like Sheryl Crow, but not her exactly. Well, I picked up the Globe Sessions the other day, and it was exactly what I was looking for: a little raw, that ever-important studio/demo sound, and an incredible voice to bring it all together.

So it’s been an all-Crow weekend for me.

I couldn’t sleep at all last night. So I got up for good at 4 and wrote. And wrote. And wrote some more. I did a few last-minute edits on my book, wrote some more, put air in my bike tires, wrote some more, refilled the bird feeders, wrote some more, got a fresh pound of Sumatra coffee from Starboos, wrote some more, and then showered.

I’m exhausted.

Oh–I also rode that bike that sports the newly inflated tires (thank you very much) up one too many hills. First time on a bike since July of 2004.

Oooooh, boy. I’ll be lucky if I can walk tomorrow.

At least I’ll be able to listen to Sheryl and, you know, write some more. To me, it’s the definition of a perfect weekend.

Hope you are enjoying yours!

In Search of New Music

help, please.

I am in a desperate search for new music. Let me give you my love list, and maybe you can turn me on to something new and wonderful–either local to your area or an international unknown that needs to be heard.

I’m looking for a voice like Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Lorenna McKennett, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, Tristan Prettyman. Mostly unplugged, lots of acoustic guitar, real blend of voice and soul and passion. For this search, Tori Amos and Paula Cole are too rough, too raw. Indigo Girls are good, but i’m in the mood for a solo artist.

Lyrics have to mean something, but they don’t overpower the music, and the music works seamlessly with the words.

Impossible? I can hardly imagine. I spent some time at our local record and tape traders earlier in the week, and I saw so many artists who looked like they were exactly what I was searching for, but I had no way of really telling.

I’m going to spend some time on iTunes and see what I can find. In the meantime, though, please send me a few ideas. And please feel free to ask the others in your blogging circles for their thoughts on this paralyzing conundrum.

Thanks to all!


Back To School Playlist

Where in the world did Thursday go?

First, thanks to all for your kind words about the site’s new look. I wish I could take credit for the pic, but alas, I cannot. This is from a template in the WordPress directory (info is at the bottom of this page).

Second, thanks also for your heartfelt words about my sister. Both she and my mother are models of what it means to fight this ugly disease with a positive and determined manner. They have both triumphed in the past, and I have no doubt that my sister will pull through once again.

Ok. One of my things to do before school begins is create my opening week playlist. Here’s the final list of songs that made the cut from an original 24. I’ll list the songs that didn’t make it farther below.

  1. The Music Never Stopped (Grateful Dead, 4/30/77, Palladium, NYC)
  2. Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)
  3. The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan)
  4. Ain’t That A Shame (Cheap Trick, Live at Budokan)
  5. Kashmir (Led Zeppelin)
  6. Compared To What (Les McCann & Eddie Harris)
  7. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (The Beatles, White Album)
  8. Nights in White Satin (The Moody Blues, long version)
  9. Black Rock (O.A.R., Live, Any Time Now)
  10. Whole Lotta Love (Led Zeppelin)
  11. Magic Bus (The Who, Live At Leeds)
  12. Sugar Magnolia (Grateful Dead, 6/9/77, Winterland Arena, San Francisco)

There’s been much thought put behind the order of these songs. I would call all of these driving, motivating songs in one way or another, and the significance of each is very strong. At this point in my life, I’ve got to keep the music driving me through some emotional times and keep my mind and my heart focused on exactly what I need to do: Teach and Write.
And…Here are the ones that didn’t make the cut (but would make it a great 2-cd set, I think):

  1. Champagne Supernova (Oasis)
  2. Tomorrow Never Comes (Beatles, Revolver)
  3. Unbelievable (EMF)
  4. Zoo Station (U2)
  5. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (Rolling Stones)
  6. Melting (Tristan Prettyman)
  7. Positively 4th Street (Merl Saunders, Jerry Garcia, John Kahn, and Bill Vitt)
  8. Dear Prudence (Jerry Garcia, After Midnight bonus cd, 2/28/80, Kean College)
  9. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Bachman-Turner Overdrive)
  10. Born To Run (Bruce Springsteen)
  11. Make Me Smile (Chicago, lp version)
  12. Walkin’ Blues (Eric Clapton, Unplugged)

If you are interested in me burning a cd for you, just let me know. I’ll be glad to send one in the mail to the first 13 requests….

Enjoy the Friday, everyone!