Across the Dark Lake

Little by little, Christmas disappears.

The day after New Year’s, I clean off the mantel-piece, pack away little holiday figures—Ralphie from A Christmas Story in his pink flannel bunny-jamas, the ornamental Luci squishing grapes, the roly poly little BB1 orna-bot. I wrap glass bells in newspaper and slide little holiday houses into the box.

The mantel looks bare.

The next day I pack up all the nutcrackers from the mail table in the dining room, and all the Santas from the shelves in the family room.

I dust and polish the newly empty surfaces. They are sleek and clean and stark.

That night, snow falls for the first time since mid-December. The outside world looks festive and Christmassy.

I feel a little blue.


I spend some time each day planning classes. Suddenly, I see a new angle: the analysis assignment could be based on a painting or a song. Since the course theme is ‘An American Experience,’ I pull up an image of “American Gothic.”  And for the song, we’ll deconstruct “This Land is Your Land.”

I find authoritative on-line bios of Grant Wood and Woody Guthrie. I make a worksheet with the painting’s image and a link to a history of the work. I find a site that talks about different types of music, and some articles about the historical context of Woody Guthrie’s song.

My class will be a diverse one—it includes high school students and retirees, military veterans, a mom of six. There are people who grew up and spent their lives within ten miles of the college and people who relocated to the United States as young adults. There is, in other words, room for many interpretations of what an American experience means, and I look forward to what these students will derive from these two pieces of United States art.

In spite of myself, almost, I’m getting excited about a new semester.


There are just a few cookies left in the tins; they are rock hard and unappealing. I tumble them into the waste basket, and wash the tins, put them away in the basement. I can’t believe there is fudge left over: Mark takes a plate to work, and I squirrel the rest away, tupperwared, in the freezer.

Then I take the leftover Christmas chicken from the freezer and chop it up to make chicken salad, which Mark and I eat for lunch.

We celebrated our anniversary at a pretty inn the day after Christmas. I brought a box with a meaty shank of lamb and some parmesan risotto home. I ate the risotto for lunch the next day but put away the lamb bone.

Now I pull the meat from it and put the bone in a pan with an onion and some fading celery, two chopped up carrots, and a garlic bulb. I sprinkle in dried rosemary and crumble up some Greek oregano from the garden. I toss it all in olive oil, shake in some salt and pepper, and roast those bones and veggies in the oven. That afternoon, I simmer broth that is rich and aromatic, and the whole house feels warm and comforting.

The next day, I take the ‘twice-baked mashed potatoes,’ also leftover from Christmas dinner, from the freezer, and I pull out Joy of Cooking. I follow directions, chopping and sautéing, sprinkling flour, mixing in the rich broth. I spread the potatoes over the top of the thick concoction in the cast iron pan, and I put it into a hot oven.

We have shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. It is good, good, good.

So holiday food is pretty much gone, and Jim says, “Could we make some regular cookies one of these days? Like Snickerdoodles or something?”


After I mix up the cookie dough, I lace up my sneakers, pull on my tomato-soup colored jacket and my new fuzzy white gloves, and I head out for a walk. The snow is gone from all but the deepest, shadiest places. The sidewalks are dry, and the traffic is light.

At the big, half-timbered house, Santa, riding in his wagon, and the life-sized sleek brown horse that pulls him, have disappeared from the front yard. They’re headed back, no doubt, to the North Pole.

It is 4:30 in the afternoon, but still full light, and I realize that the days are truly getting longer.

When I get home, we put bacon in the cast iron griddle, gather ingredients for BLT’s or bacon salads for dinner, and, after we eat, I make the Snickerdoodles.


It rains on Saturday, so we wait until Sunday to take down the outdoor decorations. Then James and I carefully pull the ornaments from the tree, and Mark brings up the big box. We unspool lights, wrap them around cardboard, and then dismember the tree. We turn it upside down to flatten it, and we wrestle the pieces into the box.

Mark ties up the box with heavy cord while James and I lean on either end, and then the boyos drag the tree down to its most-of-the-year resting spot.

I pull out the vacuum and suck up any evidence of fake needles.

The spot in front of the living room window is weirdly bare, and even with the fire crackling, I miss the soft twinkle of the tree lights. I feel one-sided when I read.


I wash the new sheet set, and that night, I make the bed with crisp new sheets and a puffy comforter—Mark’s cozy present for Christmas Eve. A new year, a fresh new bed, I think.

I realize there are balances on some of the gift cards I used to shop for Christmas. I order mundane necessities—ice melt and potholders and measuring cups.

The measuring cups, while infinitely practical, are not completely work-a-day, though; they are shaped like Russian nesting dolls that break apart into six measures. The doll’s tops hold 1/3, 2/3, and 1 full cups; their sturdy bottoms offer up ¼, ½, and ¾ of a cup.

A little bit of whimsy—why not???—to lighten the late winter months.


I am a grown-up; of course, I am. But on January 5th, I nudge the wise men and their camels toward ceramic Baby Jesus.

The next morning, Epiphany day, the accommodating shepherds move around to the other side of the manger, nestle in with the ox and the lambs, so the Magi can get close. Mary stares adoringly at the Baby.

Joseph hovers, arms folded, wary and protective.

The kings lean in, offering their gifts, and the stable animals ignore the flamboyant camels.

That night, after everyone has gone upstairs, I pack up the ceramic figures and put the box into the closet.


On Wednesday, James and I take a road trip. We drive to a campus where I won’t be teaching this term and drop off an office key. Then we swing over roads we haven’t traveled in years, taking the back way in to a favorite butcher shop.

Boneless chicken breasts are on sale. I buy two ten-pound bags, and the butcher wraps up cubed steaks and English roasts, pork chops and ground chuck. We find a package of ham salad for Mark; we throw in some cheese curds, too.

As we head over the hills for home, Jim talks about marinated chicken breasts; he’ll resume his Wednesday cooking duties now that we’re back in ordinary time. I think about stir-fries and stews, sizzling fajitas, and cheese melting on sandwiches: everyday food that is hearty and comforting.

At home, I make tea and eat Snickerdoodles, and sit down to plan my classes.


It’s like this, I think: the year’s end draws close, and we find ourselves trudging more and more slowly,—walking, because we have no choice, into the darkness. It’s an inky darkness, cold and still, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if our companions are nearby, or if we are alone.

And then: a weak flicker of light, a glint, and we realize we are at the edge of a vast lake. Coming towards us, there is some sort of boat.

The light it brings brightens, for the sturdy wooden boat, round and high-riding, has holders on its rails for thick, glowing candles.

The boat glides silently to the sand where we wait. It lowers a landing plank, and we all—I see now my companions are truly close by—we all climb on.

The landing plank pulls up, silent and sleek, and the boat steers away from the beach and heads out into the inky unknown.

But here is the thing: I am gathered here with people I care about, and, for each one of us, there is a glowing candle in its niche. We ride through the darkest of the nights together, huddled close, knowing we’ll be safe, believing there’s another shore.

In the darkest of the dark, we hold the candles aloft and we sing our faith. The boat moves smoothly on.

We sleep, we eat, we talk; we enjoy the fellowship of this midnight time, the vibrant light our candles, shared together, makes in the depths of the year’s night.

And then one day, there’s an almost imperceptible lightening, and a gentle voomph as the boat slides up, again, onto a shore.

There is a pause; there is pondering, and then the boldest of us takes her candle and gently kicks the landing plank.

We watch her candle flicker as she heads off to explore.

And suddenly, the thought of leaving the closeness of this little ship is irresistible; I wrestle my candle from its wooden holder, and get in line, for all my companions are suddenly eager to put their feet on dry land.

I step out onto the dark sand, and, above a line of dense trees far ahead, I see a glow that promises daylight is coming. I head toward the glow.

The sand turns into hard dirt; in the new, dusky light, I see a pathway forward and a low stone wall. Lined up, flaring, on that wall are the candles of the people who started before me.

I follow that glow until I see where the wall ends, and I see that the road curves into unknown space…but there is light now, enough to see my way.

I put my candle on the stone wall, leaving a light for those who still come forward, and I find my people, and, together, we head off into this new place.


The holidays, I think, are just like that: the warmly lit vessel that carries us through the darkness and into the new year. And despite the darkness, despite the losses, the pain, the heartbreak and disillusionment we carry like bruises on our hides and in our hearts, that moment of debarking swells with promise.

A new year, an unknown adventure—time to engage, to hone my kindness tools…time to link arms with fellow travelers and walk out to explore.

7 thoughts on “Across the Dark Lake

  1. So beautiful! Oh your writing is possibly my favorite of all ever! 🙂 You have such a gift with words Pam! You really blow me away! (I do have one question that confused me… sometimes you called your son James in this post and other times Jim. It kinda threw me. Was there a purpose for that?

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