An Excerpt from "The Christmas Plains"
[Editor’s Note:Aleteia is pleased to offer this excerpt from Joseph Bottum’s "The Christmas Plains," apoeticmemoir of growing up and celebrating Christmas in South Dakota. Previously published selections can be found hereand here.]
I saw the shepherds and Wise Men once, I think. I had been by myself most of a winter drive, the cold wind whistling through the door and dashboard leaks in the pickup my father had given me. I’d been alone up the red-rock canyon, past the trout hatchery, rimmed with ice, and the gemstone-and-fossil shop, shuttered for the winter. Alone past the Trappist monastery’s roadside stand, where the novices and young monks sell their cheese and honey, fresh bread if you come by early enough, at a long pine table through the summer months, abandoned and dusted with snow that December. Alone over the pass and down into the winter meadow below. Alone across the valley floor of yellow-brown buffalo grass and up into the tree line on the other side.
But as the truck strained, shifting down into second gear to climb the winding road back into the hills, I began to imagine others rode with me, sitting beside me on that pickup’s long bench seat. Talking and arguing, making distinctions, explaining their views, attempting to teach me. I was probably a little crazed by that point. I’d been up for two days, after an exhausting week of travel, and I was trying just to get home for Christmas before I collapsed or had an accident. And somewhere in my sleep-deprived mind, the ghosts came to visit.
Or lecture or contend or clarify or instruct. There was that Irishman, a literature teacher I’d once had, who told me again the story about his thirtieth birthday, when he’d drunkenly flushed his grandfather’s watch down the toilet, shouting to his friends and neighbors, “Time doesn’t matter anymore.”
And Rosemary, a neighbor from my parents’ days in Salt Lake City, with a slow, calm kind of motherly wisdom. The professor from over on First Avenue, too: another Salt Lake acquaintance, who had written a book about urban legends and told me all-American fantasy tales about vanishing hitchhikers and hook-handed criminals: You can always tell it’s modern folklore, he explained, if the story starts with something like “This really happened to a friend of my cousin’s . . .” A quietly insane magazine writer I used to visit, who insisted that the poet Wallace Stevens really had become a Catholic on his Hartford deathbed, whatever his daughter now says. Connecticut’s conversions stun. My second-grade teacher from South Dakota—Mrs. Winton, who’d given me for Christmas a book about a young Sioux boy on a quest to find a rare white buffalo, and she returned to help me, as she had before, through the puzzle I was finding life.
I sat for a while in companionable silence with a ranch hand I had known, as he worked neat’s-foot oil into a stiff piece of bridle leather and gestured from time to time toward the passing hills, as though to remind me of God’s good creation. I tried to answer Avery’s sharp questions about my confused views of theology and the order of this world. A swirling, constantly shifting cloud of witness: Francis, spouting lines of German poetry I didn’t understand, and Richard expounding the Last Supper, and Mary logically ticking off the points of an argument about American schooling, and my aunt patiently teaching me how to wash the dishes when I was young.
The small-town pilot I’d talked with for hours, fogged in at the Detroit airport, who was heading back to Ohio to dust crops in his bi-wing plane. Sally, Uncle Joe, an old construction foreman, that farmer in Alliance, Nebraska, who was so smart about western water and the spring’s snowmelt: Some of them were dead, long slipped away. Others I hadn’t seen for years. But they came, anyway, to visit me on the drive home through the Christmas hills. All that wisdom, all that knowledge, pleading, pointing, shouting at me to see this world as it really is. To open my eyes and just