an impossible horizon

ghosts, grief and hope at maximum tilt

an impossible horizon
A little collage I made. The Organ Mountains, near Las Cruces, New Mexico. The Isuzu Trooper my parents had when I was very small. The stars that touch the ground.

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. The north pole will reach its maximum tilt away from the sun, giving us the shortest day of the year. And the longest night, too.

There is something about the maximum tilt that seems to pull the stars in close, to abide with me. I’ll be staying up tonight to sit that impossible horizon, trying to see impossible things by impossible light.

We treat solstice like a day or a night, but it is really just an instant, the one single moment of maximum tilt. We can’t really observe the instant on our own; our eyes can’t track the movement. But it can be calculated with astronomical data. This winter solstice will occur tonight at 8:27 pm MT. I’ll be thinking of you at 8:26, hoping the stars pull close to you at 8:27.

I’ll be back here on January 1st. With some news! So, that’s exciting.  But mostly, I’ll be back here to check on you. To see how tonight went. To see what you saw by the light of your own impossible horizon.

I wrote a bit about stars that touch the ground, ghosts, grief and Christmas last year. I am sharing the piece again here with you. If you don’t mind. 

Talk soon.

A Homecoming, Of Sorts

I’ve written a lot about the persistent sense of homesickness I feel for places I’ve never called home. Last week, I finally got to go to one of those home places. Well. My words got to go to one. I had an essay published in The Gloss Magazine, a publication with The Irish Times. It’s about grief, ghosts and the impossible promise of Christmas.

I know we’re not all in Ireland! So the Gloss co-founder and editor, Sarah McDonnell, was kind enough to send me the article so I can share it with you.

Seeing Stars

The Gloss December 2022 Issue

I was five the last time my family travelled at Christmas. We drove from our Orange County, California rental to my dad’s childhood home in Mesilla, New Mexico. His dad had cancer, multiple myeloma. No one knew how many Christmases he had left. I didn’t know my grandpa was sick. I was just excited to see my grandparents. The night before we left home, my parents packed our Christmas presents in the back of our car.

They covered the presents with a quilt my dad’s grandma sent from Kentucky when he and my mom got married. She’d stitched their wedding date on it, September 19, 1983. It was the wrong date. They were married on September 13. Still, it was a warm quilt. And big enough to keep Christmas covered for the drive.

The next morning, I climbed in the car slowly, surveying the hand-stitched landscape with peaks and valleys made out of the present’s shapes. I knew our gifts from Santa were under the quilt because I knew Santa wasn’t real. Earlier that week, my Sunday school teacher asked some of the kids what they’d asked Santa for Christmas. I felt my stomach twist, because I suddenly know Santa couldn’t exist. Flying reindeer, infinite presents and a never-aging making man just didn’t make any sense. I felt guilty. I thought not believing in Santa was a sinful loss of faith. I kept my disbelief a secret.

My mom told me it was my job to keep my three year old sister from turning around and peeking under the quilt. I kept an eye on her. I didn’t want her to see the presents and lose her belief too. It was night by the time we crossed into southern New Mexico. Somewhere in the Mimbres Valley, I gasped, “The stars touch the ground here!” After I said it, I knew it mustn’t be true. But it looked true. We were far from any towns. There was no light pollution, and there were no other cars on the road. The sky was thick with stars. It seemed like if my dad stopped the car, I could get out and walk until I could touch the place where the light met the ground.

When we got to his parent’s house, I felt a little pride when I heard him telling his parents, “Meggi couldn’t get over the stars. She said they touched the ground!” I hadn’t meant to say something that mattered, but I was glad I did. And I was glad my grandparents, who I didn’t see often, thought I was wise to notice the stars too. I wanted them to love me. and they did. Sometimes life is just that good. My grandma snuck me candy and my grandpa held my hand. His hands were warm and big, one was big enough to cover up both of mine.

My dad’s hometown felt enchanted. I lived in a suburb surrounded by freeways. My dad grew up in a town bordered by pecan groves and acequias, centuries-old irrigation ditches. We cut down a tree in the mountains with my Aunt Nancy. And on Christmas Eve, some people lined the walkways to their doors with luminarias - little paper bags with candles flickering inside, meant to light the way for the Holy Family. It seems like if the stars were going to touch the ground, they’d do it there.

On Christmas Eve, I slept in my dad’s old room. When I hugged my grandpa goodnight he said, “Get to sleep, so Santa can come!” And I felt a bit of pang of worry. I didn't want my grandparents to know I didn't believe in Santa. I thought they’d be disappointed. I had a hard time falling asleep. I was excited about Christmas morning and worried about my disbelief. I calmed myself down with questions, “What if Santa is real? What if I am wrong? Wouldn’t that be nice?” I listened for footsteps on the roof, just in case.

When I woke up the next morning, I walked into my grandparent’s living room. The lit tree was surrounded by presents - a dollhouse, books, crayons and dolls. I knew the presents under the tree meant the back of the car was empty. But it also felt, for just a moment, entirely possible that one or two of the gifts hadn’t travelled with us from California. That they’d been borne aloft by magical reindeer and flown through cold air before being laid gently under the tree. Wouldn’t that be a surprise?

My sister, Lindsay, and me. Getting ready to drive back home from Christmas in New Mexico with all of our unwrapped presents.

My grandpa died the next spring. One of my aunts carried me up to his casket at the viewing, “Say goodbye, Meggi.” I touched his hand, but it was cold. My dad said he was in heaven, and I believed him. Heaven was where love conquered death. My grandma died two years later. I believed she went to heaven too. There was nowhere to drive a car full of presents by the time my dad was 31 years old. So we stayed home. I didn’t listen for footsteps on the roof again.

My dad and my mom always made Christmas Eve special. It was a celebration of anticipating the impossible - the birth of a savior for all mankind, sure. But also finding the Charlie’s Angels sunglasses I wanted under the tree, even though I was sure they’d been sold out for weeks. A true Christmas miracle. My dad worked a lot, sometimes on Christmas Eve. When he went into work, I’d listen for his footsteps. When I heard his boots on the hardwood floor, I knew he was back. The celebration could begin.

The last time I heard my dad tell the story about the stars, he was telling it to my four year-old at a family dinner. It was a week before Christmas. She laughed, “Mom! You thought stars could touch the ground?” I did. Two days later, my dad was diagnosed with leukemia. My sisters travelled home from out of state. I hung Christmas lights across the window in his hospital room and put a little Christmas tree in the corner. We spent Christmas Eve there. We put the grandkids on his bed while we talked about the next morning, when anything was possible. Still, on the drive home I cried. I didn’t know how many more Christmases he had left. He had one more, a Christmas at home.

Dad’s last Christmas, 2013. We thought he was cancer-free. He wasn’t. He died on February 15 2014. He’s holding Margaret Zuzu while Viola Honey looks on. Brontë never met him. They would have liked one another.

In the years since he died, I’ve thought about that drive to New Mexico a lot. When I was five I thought my parents were as certain as the sun. But they were so young, so broke, so afraid. They’d scraped together money for the trip. My dad knew it was one of the last times he’d ever get to go home. He was already gripped by grief on that drive when the stars made me gasp. I think he told that story over and over again because his little girl thought an impossible horizon was real. And maybe for a moment on that dark drive, that made impossible horizons feel real to him too.

This will be my eighth Christmas without my dad. That first loss of faith in Santa preceded many other little and big losses. It’s been a long time since I sat in a church pew. And my belief in heaven is far less sure than it was when I was little. Maybe only children can see impossible horizons. Still, every Christmas Eve, I find myself awake long after the rest of the house has gone to sleep. I don’t know why. Maybe I am listening for impossible footsteps, for boots on my hardwood floor. Maybe I am hoping I will wake up in the morning, surprised.