Returning to Cold Rock

In 2011, I finished writing, and published, my first novel. Actually, it was my second novel-length manuscript; the first one, Night Terrors, has still yet to see any public light. That was way back in 1992 when I finished that one.

30 years ago!

As you can imagine, my writing style has evolved quite a bit, and to bring Night Terrors to any kind of publishable level, it would require a serious rewrite. I’ve tried to do that on several occasions, but failed each time because the original writing was so, well, flat.

Cold Rock, written and published 20 years later, is more on the early edges of where I am now as a writer. It’s got a good strong voice, and for the most part, it works.

Except the ending.

When I was deep in revision, I received feedback from two individuals, whom I both trusted, that could not have been further apart in how the end of the story might be revised. After considering both options, I went with the one that made the most sense to me at the time.

What I neglected to embrace, however, was a third choice: my own revision of the ending. Instead, I felt, for some reason, that it was either suggestion no. 1 or suggestion no. 2; there were no other options.

Now, 11 years later, I’m picking option no. 3 and finally writing the ending that I think is more perfectly aligned with two areas: 1, the main character’s journey arc; and 2, the intimations of the supernatural throughout. Yes, it’s a pretty scary book at times, and I’m going to run more with that and less with the creepy priest angle that still makes me uncomfortable.

All things considered, this is going to be a quick rewrite, and we’ll be publishing the revised edition under The JAR Writers’ Collective “Vault” collection, maybe as early as this summer.

Here’s the thing, though: since publishing Fossil Five and now Prisms in the last two years, it is absolute fun to rework an old book and make it better for all of you. I hope you like it. I’ll be sure to let you know when it releases.

Back to edits. See you all tomorrow.

Watershed moments

Sunday, 13 March 2022

I grew up on the shores and waters of the Loch Raven Reservoir watershed here in Towson. First, it was all about the picnics my family enjoyed in the wooded area just off of Dulaney Valley Road. The site closed when I was in my late teens because of fights and unruly behavior that kept breaking out in what was always a sanctuary for me. Now, it is a parking area for hunters and walkers.

When I got a little older, my father started taking me on long walks in the woods along narrow footpaths that would lead to obscure shores where the fish were supposed to be plentiful. Sometimes they were, especially the bluegills and the crappie. We even caught a bass or two if were were lucky. But that wasn’t what those long walks in the woods were all about; it was about spending time with my dad in those quiet moments, singing little songs to the fishies to jump on the bait so we could reel them in.

Soon, I graduated to being old enough to take a boat out on the water, and we fished some of the hidden fishing holes that were supposed to be secret. Here’s where we caught the odd fish: sometimes a carp, sometimes a northern pickerel, and always a good laugh cracking stupid jokes that no one would ever understand.

As I became more independent, I would often go to Loch Raven with friends to hike, or enjoy the sunset, or just to get away from the world for a few hours. It was still my sanctuary, and we savored those quiet moments together.

Now, as I return to the trails and shores as an older man, now that my children are all nearly grown, and now that I have endured the experiences of loss and hardship, this watershed brings its own watershed moments in my life.

Today, we stopped by to take some photos, and as I meandered through the mucky trails and brittle brambles, I realized that Loch Raven has been there for me in so many turning points of my life. And that’s true for so many others, too. As you walk along the shores, you can’t help but see memorials, or initials etched in trees, or sacred grounds where lives have been lost tragically.

Just a few years ago, I happened upon a car where somebody had died, and as they removed her body from the car, her white hand slipped from their grip, and it offered me – us- a final wave goodbye, a salute to all Loch Raven has provided, perhaps, or a reminder to cherish what we do have – what we have always had – in and around this watershed we drive through nearly every day of our lives.

A watershed, by definition, includes all of the surrounding area around a body of water that captures runoff and contributes to the overall ecosystem that reservoir, or river, or bay, creates.

I can’t help but think that we comprise a watershed area, too, in our friendships, our relationships, our neighbors, our everyone that matters in our lives. If we saw our connections being as vital to our own ecosystems as the watershed area is around Loch Raven, or Chesapeake Bay, or any other body of water, then maybe we would do a better job of taking care of each other.

It’s so easy to neglect that, as it is easy to neglect the land around Loch Raven. But it has been a lifetime sanctuary of memories and experiences to so many, as we have been to each other in our own communities.

Watershedding over watersheds. I appreciate the water a little more today, as I appreciate you a little more, too.

Writing Prompt #5: Unconventional Relationships

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #5: Write, reflect, or create an original work on the most unconventional relationship you have ever experienced, past or present. You define what “unconventional relationship” means for your response, as this may be based on society’s rules, or yours. Regardless, to you: it is unconventional!

My Response: Prior to the world of global connectivity via the internet, my relationships were more about the environment in which I lived more than anything else. When I was growing up, it was all about our neighborhood – our street specifically. Schoolmates that were comparable in age but lived a few blocks away might as well have lived in another state. Neighborhoods were so territorial then, that when I dated a girl from “The Oaks” just about a quarter mile down Joppa Road, I was told by some bigger guy in that ‘hood that they were going to “introduce my face to my locker” in high school if I didn’t stop dating Donna.

Jets and Sharks kind of crazy stuff going on, even though I was not – nor was I ever – in a gang.

Later, when I began teaching and moved to Calvert County, my relationships were centered on Chesapeake Bay. I was so fortunate to teach several of Tom Clancy’s children, and so I spent time on the shores of Chesapeake and its tributaries talking about writing with the world’s bestselling writer at the time.

That connection would have never happened had I not been there, on the water, in that space.

Now, even though I am settled in Towson with my family and in Ellicott City with my students, some of my strongest relationships are with Jodi and Adam, two incredible human beings who just happen to live in Australia – a place I’ve never been, and two people I have never met “in real life.”

As much as I rail on the internet and technology (and if you don’t know that about me, give Fossil Five a good read and you’ll see where I stand on the digital world wiping away our human-to-human relationships), my relationship with Jodi and Adam is as close as any of the relationships I have known in Calvert County, Towson, or Ellicott City.

We connect through words, art, music in such a collaborative way that is stronger than any of the countless hours I spent on Chesapeake Bay sailing, or fishing the waters, or wading through low tide finding blue crabs shedding their shells for a good soft crab sandwich later that evening. What we have transcends all of that through mutual respect for each other as artists, individuals, and spiritual manifestations of something bigger that exists all around us.

Our 14- and sometimes 16-hour time differences are perfect for working on each other’s drafts, or mulling over ideas to be shared over our “even-morns.”

In this unconventional relationship, somebody is always awake, watching over our words, pondering art and life and the world that spins so wildly around us.

But it is one world, and we are held together by the unconventional bond we have created regardless if the world tilts off its axis every once in a while. Like the pull of the moon, we ebb and flow this journey together, having never met, and never having to.

Writing Prompt #4: Energy. 1.20.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #4: Write, reflect, or create an original work on the energy held in a seemingly inanimate object, such as a rock, a handwritten letter, a pressed flower.

My Response

For just about 33 years now, I’ve cherished a book of spiritual essays by Joni Eareckson Tada called Secret Strength. A student gifted it to me in the days following my father’s death in 1989, and I leaned on the lessons Joni shared in my toughest hours.

Joni (pronounced “Johnny”) grew up in Baltimore and lived a very active life until a catastrophic diving accident in Chesapeake Bay in 1967 caused damage to her spine, and she became a quadriplegic as a result. After battling anger and depression, she devoted her life to lifting others, and she is still doing it today.

That book, an inanimate object itself, carried great energy from the words she wrote. Just holding it in my hands – even decades later – brings me strength.

Even more powerful than the book, though, is what my student wrote on the inside cover, and the flower she pressed there to remind me of how everlasting beauty and hope can be.

Now, 33 years later, that flower (and those words) are filled with the same energy that they possessed on the first day I opened the book to find such a timeless gift.

What does that tell me? What does that remind all of us?

That it is possible to capture the energy of a single moment, bottle it in some inanimate object that miraculously cues the heart to beat a little stronger, to pulse the emotional moments we experienced so long ago as if we were there once more.

A book, a flower, and words pressed into the inside cover hold for me the energy of hope, of kindness, and of timeless compassion in a time when I was hurting greatly. Today, I still open that well-worn, gently loved book to return to a time where I was given a touch of secret strength that I would get through.

And I did.

And I do.  

Writing Prompt #3: Silence. 1.19.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #3: Write, reflect, or create an original work about a time when the sound of silence was deafening.

My Response

My first thought is, most immediately, the late afternoon hours on September 11, 2001, when no planes filled the air and the roads were empty – a world stunned into silence as we all collectively held our breaths.

That was a deafening silence that we all felt, though. Anybody who was old enough on that day to hear the sorrowful sounds of silence will never forget it.

Personally, however, all I can think about right now is a sound that my generation is hearing all too often: the deafening silence that follows the news of the passing of a loved one.

The news is shared, but the words begin to drop off, as if falling from a cliff, word by word, into some void where they are enveloped – smothered – in a dark and heavy fog. And in those seconds that follow, when the final words fall into that abyss, we all feel the deafening silence of sorrow that weighs so heavily on our hearts. We don’t know what to say, even if we really could or remembered how to. Are there any words that could ever fill that space?

The sound of the weight, like some kind of jet engine on overdrive, courses through your veins, inflating them with fear, dread, grief.

Deafening.

Invariably, though, despite the heavy silence that lingers longer than we can comprehend, it is what rises from that deep, heavy fog:

Shared memories, laughter, that last smile or embrace that held there in the light, a lingering moment treasured for reasons we could not yet understand.

But now we do. Now we hold tightly to that lingering moment.

Yes. We are beginning to know that deafening silence too, too much. But we also find new comfort in these memories that fill the silence with sounds that imprint our hearts forever with what we will remember, hold dearly close, until our own last hours on this earth.

Writing Prompt #2: Weather. 1.18.2022

I share these prompts to encourage writers and creatives of all ages to journal uninhibitedly on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. 

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. Write, sketch, paint, or compose your response wildly in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty. 

If you do share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response. 

Writing Prompt #2: Write, reflect, or create an original work based on a time when the weather changed your life.

My Response: Specific weather events have changed all of our lives. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, hurricanes and nor’easters are common life-changers for most of us. But for me, it was never a named storm that changed my life (agreed, though, that Super Storm Sandy in 2012 was pretty bad); instead, it was the weather that blew off the Susquehanna River – a trib of Chesapeake Bay – and found its way to our small cabin in River Hills, Pennsylvania when I was a child.

And, just as powerful as the storms might have been that moved in, keeping us tucked in on the long screened-in porch as the rain moved through the heavy leaves like a steady chorus of soft, melodic rain sticks, the memories we made as a family were what really changed me.

Everything was different at the cabin. It was my father’s haven away from the world of work, the mundane grind of suburban living. In that small plot of land between a bass-stocked pond and acres of corn fields, the rains that kept us inside did not matter to me at all.

The cabin’s interior was one large, “great room” divided thinly by a half-wall that separated the living and sleeping spaces. In the front, facing the woods that filled the sloping hill that led to the large pond, was the porch; in the back was a small dining table and kitchenette that looked out over the fields harvested annually by local farmers. It was a simple space, but rainy days brought us closer together playing cards, building fires in the fireplace, and just listening to the storms roll in and roll out in a seamless peace that could not be found at home in Baltimore.

[Quick Reflection: I’ve never written about this before and will definitely expand on this later in a stronger draft. I never realized that the storms that forced us inside actually created an opportunity for us to be a stronger family in a way that never really seemed possible in our home in Baltimore. More to come for this one, for sure.]

Writing Prompt #1: Courage. 1.17.2022

Today, I begin sharing daily writing prompts to encourage writers of all ages to journal on a daily basis. No marketing, just prompts. If you wish to share your writing to the daily prompt, please feel free to leave a link in the comments or use the hashtag #RVWritingPrompts wherever you might be posting your response.

Don’t feel compelled to spend days or even hours crafting the perfect response. A few weeks ago, I subbed for one of the art teachers at my school. In that group, one student emerged and shared with me that she paints a new picture every day. When the bell rang and I moved along to my own classroom, she tracked me down and gave me her daily painting: a beautiful lobster that she painted in about 40 minutes. Paint your response in words or colors, musical notes or dance interpretations, and then share it with the world, in all its raw beauty.

Writing Prompt #1: Reflect on a time when you displayed great courage when the world was not watching. 

My Response: One of my colleagues was quick to post a comment earlier today when I shared this prompt. She alluded to the profession of teaching, and having the courage to show up every day and do the unthinkable, the inexplainable, in teaching in such challenging times when most of the world does not understand what we are doing to teach effectively, to push away all of the noise that is around us, and – most especially – the doubters and naysayers that question our profession on a daily basis.

That part – the questioning of our profession – is something that I have endured in these 35 years of being in a classroom with my students. In fact, I was fighting for the prestige of the profession when I was still 21 and in college, arguing passionately against fellow education majors who were in it until they figured out what they really wanted to do.

Like it was some kind of job that held a space until something better came along.

So to Frances, I say yes. The world has its opinion of what we do, but the courage you and my colleagues display on a daily basis, mostly when the world is not watching, is appreciated and recognized.

For me, it comes down to those small chats with students at the end of class, or in that brief period of time between the last bell and when the buses pull out for the day. Talk about courage. So many of these students have been holding that fear of talking with an adult, or gathering the courage to share a concern, for the entire day. That’s somewhere around 16 bells shuffling them off to other classes or to lunch as they grapple with a dizzying shift in content in those 7 hours.

They display great courage every day, and nobody really knows it except for themselves and the teachers and counselors and coaches and administrators and SROs they talk to.

As the recipient of those chats, I am incredibly grateful that I am with colleagues who continue to show up, continue to listen, continue to hold space for our courageous students who need us to be there for them.

But for me? Courage? When the world is not watching? Well, it is in my art, my writing that takes place in the space beyond the public eye as I sort through the ideas, the philosophies, the wishes, the hopes that I might be able to bring to all of you one day in a form that is best received, best served for a world wandering, reaching, hoping for many of the same things as me, and you, despite what we may be, or share openly, with the world.

I am no more courageous than you.

And that, my friends, brings me strength and energy to carry on, to show up, to share authenticity with the world, or even in classroom 203 on a weekday afternoon at 2:15pm.

Now Accepting Pre-Orders for 2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light

Rus VanWestervelt’s latest work, 2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light, is scheduled to launch worldwide on 21 December 2021, but you can pre-order your copy today through December 15 at a reduced price. 

Benefits of preordering include:

– Personalized copy signed by the author

– Price reduced to just $11 for hand-delivered copies

– Shipping only $4 for mailed copies

– Special invitation to launch celebration in January 2022

Preorder your copy HERE.

From the Back Cover:

Prisms is about the life of a teacher, a writer, a simple human, shared in the hybrid form of a collage essay that reflects and refracts epiphanies borne out of moments of regret, joy, tragedy, fear and love. It is a review of the colorful experiences of life and their re-assembly into something more powerful. In each segment, we come to understand ourselves, and each other, with greater compassion, kindness and grace in our own transformation. 

Prisms is a literary binding and fashioning of fact with a touch of fiction, illusion, dreaming, and reimagined memory. 

VanWestervelt invites you to witness a statement of existence, just like your own – unimaginable without the contribution of each hue-touched shard, that reveals an abstract map of individual evolution, illuminated through love-stained light.

Advance Praise for Prisms:

An artfully composed, complex tapestry of interwoven memories with vivid characters. Poetry, philosophy, prose. Powerful pieces that will linger in your soul and pop up later, in moments when you need to be reminded.

~Cara Moulds, Midlife Women’s Coach

Rus VanWestervelt in his, “2732 Prisms of Love-Stained Light” offers more than an essay collage of Love and Hope, it can inspire us to explore our own healing collages. Rus is a  little bit of Thoreau, Matt Haig and Mark Nepo: from pain comes transcendence.

~Carol Reed, Educator, Poet, Advocate for the Arts

The intensity of Rus VanWestervelt’s writerly gaze splinters the visible world into glittering fragments that stare unflinching into light’s–and life’s–center. In the interstitial space between memory and narrativity, material melts down to immaterial, making a cathedral of the body, amplified by love and lit by memory. The undercurrent of fear and a desire for safety is a tender alchemy, a catalyst for the terror and joy of pure being.

~Suzanne Gold, Hair Club

Preorder your copy HERE.

Questions? Interested in having Rus join you for an upcoming book club meeting or for a public reading? Contact him directly at rus@rusvanwestervelt.org.

Jessica Bell’s Icasia Bloom Touches Readers With Happiness

Review: How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness (Vine Leaves Press), by Jessica Bell

Scheduled for release 21 September 2021

By Rus VanWestervelt

***NO SPOILERS***

I don’t know about you, but I have a full shelf of books that I return to often. Sure, I love the plots, and they are entertaining in a way that makes me want to keep reading to the very end, even though I know every plot twist and turn as if I had written them myself. I come back to them time and time again because I need to remember a certain message about life: believe in yourself, don’t get too caught up in the world’s drama, the power of love. You get the picture.

Jessica Bell’s newest novel, How Icasia Bloom Touched Happiness, now has a permanent place on that shelf.

Here’s why.

The storyline is simple enough. Four characters find themselves in various stages of paradoxical oppression, as they face the challenges of a dystopian-ish leader who requires the acquisition of perpetual happiness to be guaranteed eternal harmony in what Bell terms a “Second Life Phase.” When “The Globe” is getting a little crowded, leadership thinks it’d be a bright idea to chop a few decades off the life span of those still pining for that happiness.

Bell delivers in two key areas: complex character development and story structure.

First, Bell builds characters that are immediately accessible to us as readers. Icasia and Selma are young moms who have fought against the system and don’t believe they are destined for Globe salvation. Jerome, Selma’s husband, is just months away from his Death Inducement, and he struggles to find happiness in every aspect of his life – in his job, with his wife Selma, and especially with Selma’s daughter, Leila.

Each of these four characters is on a unique but relatable deadline – none more terrifying than Jerome’s – to discover truths about themselves and about life itself, despite the governmental gaslighting that seems to have the world convinced that their way is the only way to eternal happiness.

Through an intricately woven tale told from multiple perspectives, Bell grabs us by the wrist in the first chapter and doesn’t let go until after we’ve turned over the last page, desperate for more.

The structure of the story is as intriguing as the plot line, including a volley between chapters titled, “Listen” and “Watch.” Even more compelling are Icasia’s first-person entries in the “Listen” chapters, addressed to a character named Eve who is not even part of the story as it is being revealed. Yet, Icasia writes to her as if she is talking directly to her – in the same space – as she is sharing the story with us.

Like the situation the characters find themselves in, Bell’s approach is equally paradoxical, a crossing of boundaries between characters and readers that is hard to pull off. Bell does the job, though, delivering a meta-experience for the reader that keeps you thinking through the entire read.

Just one example: We do not know how much time separates the telling of the story to the actual events unfolding. Every time we read a new “Listen” chapter, we are reminded that there is a deeper sense to this plot. Bell delivers on this promise in the end in one of the many twists. It’s this simple: the structure mirrors the storyline at every turn.

I have to say it: Icasia Bloom is a meta-novel crafted to make you think beyond the story. It will work your mind without you even realizing it.

Without giving away any spoilers, this is what I was thinking as I was reading the novel (and this is why it is a top-shelf book in my library): Don’t believe everything you are told, or even that you see. The path of truth leading to authentic happiness lies deeper within, for each of us. No rules, no mandates, not even any life secrets heralded in the best of self-help or spiritual books can determine that truth for any one of us.

By the time we get to the ending, we realize that we are strapped in to a roller coaster of twists and turns, all highly unexpected.

There is urgency at the end, no doubt driven by the countdown to Jerome’s scheduled Death Inducement, and at times I wanted the converging plot lines to slow down. Bell does such a great job developing suspense through the evolution of her characters that I could have easily enjoyed another 50-75 pages of the climax and resolutions at the end.

Regardless, the reader is left with a good reason why Bell’s story is – and must be – told often. And why we must never tire of tales of hope, redemption, self-love, and of course, the essential pursuit of perpetual happiness.

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.

“Ready?”

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.

Wow….”

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.