Archive | December 2012

A Time Long Gone: Christmas at the General Store


(Published in the Bellevue, Iowa, Herald Leader on December 26, 2007)

The wind had stopped howling.  Snow was piled high outside.  Mom gathered my pink snow pants and coat from the peg rack, found where I had dropped my mittens, and grabbed my boots from where I had tossed them the day before.  She gave orders as she marched to me, laden with all the bundling a five-year old needed to brave the winter in a two-block walk to the store.

“Now, Karen, see that you go straight to the store and back.  Ask Teresa to help you.  Get the mail while you’re there, just ask them for it, they’ll give it to you because they know who you are.  Do you know what you’re going to buy?”  She asked me, inserting my legs into the snow pants.

“Yep!”  I proudly stated.  “Something pretty!”

She turned to me with that gentle smile that lit up her pretty brown eyes, pulled up my snow pants and buttoned the waist.  She grabbed the boots and zipped them up, making sure my snow pants were deep inside each one.  She reached for the coat she had set on the floor, and started slipping my arm into the sleeve, “Okay.  Don’t take too long, I don’t want to send your brother for you.”

Well, neither did I.  I was five years old and having an eight-year-old brother come to fetch me was an affront to my dignity.  Besides, he’d be mad and would probably punch my arm.

Mom finished buttoning my coat.  She put the hood up, and then wrapped a scarf tight around my cheeks.  My eyes bulged.  I’d slip it back down when she wasn’t looking.

One last look from her and she was satisfied I was prepared to go out into the world.  She grabbed the eight singles out of her apron pocket, folded them carefully, and put them in front of me to see.  “This is your Christmas money now, Karen.  Don’t lose it because you won’t get any more.”

“I know,” I said, full of responsibility to be toting such wealth.

She opened the edge of my right mitten and slipped the folded currency into the palm of my hand.  “There!  You’re all set.  Don’t forget the mail.”

“I won’t!  Bye, mommy,” I replied as I opened the kitchen door and walked outside onto the porch.  I jumped off onto the sidewalk.  I heard Mom shut the door behind me after she told me one more time to be careful and come straight home afterwards

The sidewalk was shoveled, so that was no good.

I made straight for the deep snow in my neighbor’s yard and trekked deep foot holes into the new snow, pulling the scarf down and away from my mouth so I could watch my breath.  I turned the corner and headed downhill to Nemmers’ general store, keeping in the ditches and the snow.  I was feeling very grown up.  You had to cross the main street to reach the general store, and little kids weren’t allowed to do that.

When I reached La Motte’s main street, I stopped, looked for cars first, and then crossed the street — all by myself.

I tromped up the cement steps in front of the general store, grabbed the door handle and swung the door wide open.  A warm blast of air greeted my cold nose and the door slammed shut behind me.

The store was long and narrow.   To my left was a wooden counter with drawers that had glass panels in the front.  To my right was another long, wooden counter with metal boxes with combination locks.  That was La Motte’s post office.  Straight back, on the left before you got to the meat counter, was a chair and a large floor cooler full of ice cream.  Kate, a plump, gray-haired woman, was a permanent fixture.  She always sat in the same chair, knitting or crocheting. Opposite Kate was what I was ultimately after:  a glass-shelving unit full of wonderful, pretty items, just waiting to be purchased for Christmas.

I looked around for Teresa.  She walked out of the family’s private apartment through a door in the wall behind the glass shelving.  Tall, slim and also gray-haired, she was my favorite.  I walked up to her.

“Hi, Karen.  How are your mom and dad?” she asked.

“Okay,” I answered.  I tore off my mittens, proudly showed her my wad of money and announced, “I’m here to do my Christmas shopping!”  I was very excited.  I told Teresa that it was my first time all by myself, and I could pick out anything I wanted.

Teresa’s eyebrows rose at my words and she said, “O-o-o-h.”

I knew she was impressed.

She went behind the counter and asked, “Who do you need to buy for?”

I rattled off the names of seven relatives.

“Do you know what they would want?” she asked.

Teresa listened while I told her what everybody in my family liked to do.  For twenty minutes, she showed me bright combs, decorated coffee cups, shiny nail clippers, colored vases, embroidered hankies, brightly colored pens…a veritable treasure chest of wonders!   Teresa greeted people as they came and went from the store as I made my careful and well thought out choices, but she never once left my side.

Soon, the number of people left to buy for was one:  Mom. My eyes rolled over the items on the shelves, when I spotted a beautiful metal trivet. I pointed to the trivet and Teresa reached in for it, grabbed it, and gently put it into my hands.

The face was a painted ceramic tile of beautiful purple flowers with dark green leaves.

The scalloped edging folded over as legs.  I wiggled the edging back and forth.  I was completely charmed.  I looked up at Teresa with my eyes shining.  “I like it!”  I said happily, thrilled at the thought of happiness the trivet would bring my mother.

“Karen…” Teresa started to say.  She had just finished tallying the items I had chosen and a small frown creased her brow.

I stretched out my hand for her to count the money again and asked, worriedly, “Do I have enough?”   I could not imagine a Christmas without the wonderful look on my mother’s face when she unwrapped her trivet.  I waited expectantly.

Teresa didn’t pick up the money to recount it.  Instead, she continued to look at me.   I stretched my hand out further to her, since she couldn’t seem to reach it.

Her face suddenly softened.  She reached her hand out, closed my fingers over the wad of money, patted my fist, and said with surprise, “Well, what do you know?  It costs just what you have left!”

My face lit up with relief as I heard those magic words.   Teresa added the trivet to my purchases.  I followed her to the cash register at the candy counter, completely bursting with pride at having successfully completed my first solo shopping expedition.

As she began to ring up all the items from my Christmas shopping, I scanned the candies behind the glass in front of the drawers.  I pointed to some colored candy balls and asked, “How much are those?”

Teresa leaned over the counter to see where I was pointing and said, “Two pennies apiece.”

“I’m getting some if I have any pennies left,” I announced with all the seriousness great candy deserved from a five-year-old, which was pretty much.

The cash register ringed, the drawer flew open, and Teresa began to count out my change.

“One, two, three pennies.  It looks like you have enough money for that candy, and something left over.”

I slid two pennies across the counter and stated, “I want a red candy ball, please.”

“Do you want it in a bag?”

I shook my head.  “Nope,” and reached out my hand.  “I’m gonna eat it right away.”

“Okay.”  Teresa gave me the candy ball and my purchases and said solemnly, “Thank you, Karen.”

“Bye!”  I said happily, grabbing my bag of purchases and turning to go, tearing the wrapping off the candy ball.

“Karen!”  Teresa called after me.  I turned back around, candy in mid-air

“Your mom hasn’t been in to get the mail.  Do you want to take it home for her?”

“Oh, yes!”  I said, suddenly alarmed that I hadn’t remembered to ask for it.  If I didn’t return with the mail, Mom may not let me go to the store by myself again!

That was a close call.

Teresa found her brother the postmaster and asked him to give me our mail.  He put it in my bag so I wouldn’t lose it.  “There!” he said with a grin.  “Now you’re all set.”

I looked into the bag and all seemed in order.

“Thank you,” I said, remembering the manners I was supposed to never forget.  I turned to leave again.  As I opened the door, I heard Teresa say, “Tell your mom I said Merry Christmas, Karen!”

“I will!”  I shouted as I popped the hard red ball into my mouth.   I walked out, munching fiercely on my candy, mittens in my pocket and not on my hands, hood down, scarf down, tromping through the snow on the way back, clutching all the wonderful Christmas surprises I had purchased.

My thoughts were on the beautiful trivet.  I was sure Mom wouldn’t know how to fix it so it had legs, but I could show her.  She would be surprised and would tell me how smart a girl I was to figure that out all by myself.  Then she would set it proudly on the table, for everyone to see.   The other purchases I made for my family were wonderful, too.  My family would be so surprised and so happy!  I was very pleased that I had gotten everything I wanted, and enough money left over to buy a present of candy for myself.

I didn’t know I was such a great shopper.

For several more Christmases, I continued to do my Christmas shopping at Nemmers’ general store.  It was the same routine every year.  Teresa would help me, and no matter how much or how little money I had, it was always…magically…just enough.

Then the day came when I was eleven years old and the general store was too boring.  I announced to my mother that I wanted to shop at a “real” store.  Mom dutifully took me to a discount store in the nearby city, ending an era that I hadn’t a clue I was in.

It was decades before I finally understood the magic that had occurred on those Christmas shopping sprees, oh so many years ago.

Teresa took great pleasure in seeing joy on someone else’s face.  I was a little girl with little money but high hopes.  Her kind and generous spirit blessed me with awe at being able to choose from the bounty she laid out before me.  She gifted me with that full, happy feeling inside that only comes from thinking of somebody else’s pleasure first.

Each winter now, when Christmas will soon be upon us, I find myself once again hearing the howl of the December wind.  I feel the chill of it on my exposed face, and the crunch, crunch of snowdrifts beneath my feet.  I am blasted by the warmth of giving, kindness and love, and the fullness of receiving it.

Most people think the spirit of Christmas is an old man in a red suit, with a jolly laugh.

But I know better.

It’s a generous and kind, tall, slim, gray-haired woman in a silk dress.

Merry Christmas, my dear Teresa…wherever you are.








— (c) St. John 2007



Tea for Trouble – right here in Republican City

This was written in 2011 about the 2008 elections and immediately after.  I wonder, though, if anything has changed.  The Republican Party may be, as some have accused – hijacked by a fringe element.  I hope the true, intelligent and broad-minded Republicans make their voices heard louder and clearer than the Tea Party.

Whether or not the tea partiers originally had a legitimate complaint is irrelevant when one looks at their chosen group behavior to express it.   Whether viewing it from a religious, spiritual, emotional, or psychological level, their group behavior is all the same:  unacceptable, improper and detrimental to anyone’s good.  Flash back to October 2008 when the stakes were for the highest governing office in the land.

“From the deepest desires often come the deadliest hate.”  Socrates 

The Washington Post reported on the absurd negativity of one Republican rally.  When the Republican vice presidential candidate talked against then candidate Obama, the crowd shouted “Boooo!” and one man yelled, “Kill him!”  The candidate was pleased at the reaction.  The crowd (mob) even turned against the press.

In a Republican rally in Clearwater, the reporters were greeted with shouting taunts by the 3,000 or so gathered.   When the respected journalist, Katie Couric, was publicly accused of asking the “wrong” things on purpose just to make the Republican vice presidential candidate “look” unsuccessful, the mob began to wave sticks and shout abuse at the gathered reporters.  Some hurled obscenities at a camera crew, calling out to an African American soundman, “Sit down, boy.”  “Getting ugly out there,” ABC’s Jake Tapper was reported to have stated.

American News Project went inside a Republican rally to watch the vice presidential debate, where it witnessed Republican supporters booing the moderator and laughing when Sen. Joe Biden got choked up talking about his first wife and daughter’s deaths.

November 2008.  Newsweek reported that the Secret Service gave the Obama campaign reports that “a sharp and disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October” occurred at the same time that many crowds (mobs) at Republican rallies became more frenzied.  Now flash forward to the present.

In March of 2010 journalists reported on the tea baggers” abusive and derogatory attacks against select members of Congress.  Representative Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo) was spat upon.  Representative John Lewis (D-Ga), who championed the civil rights movement and became a hero himself, was called a “ni-er”.  Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass) was mocked by lisp sounds and called a faggot.

Kjell Magne Bondevik, a Lutheran minister and politician who is served as Prime Minister of Norway and is currently the President of the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights, has been credited with making this observation; “Extremists and populist movements are exploiting people’s fear of those who are not like us.

We can see the consequences in the form of terrorism and racially motivated violence.” The Republican mob is calling itself the Tea Party to invoke historic memory of the establishment of our country.

Whoa, Nellie.  I am not buying the false patriotism.

This country was established by refugees who were escaping governments that hounded them with hate, bigotry, discrimination and intolerance.  America was about religious freedom, civil liberties and the right to happiness that cones from peaceful and healthy living among its citizens.

Instead of promoting the vision of the early colonists, the tea partiers are trying to create the very same environment that the first settlers came here to escape. In addition to the slight-of-hand with the naming of the group (now you see patriotism, now you don’t), the tea partiers have chosen to follow people who are….strange.

Their primary figure is a former governor who quit public service to become a well-paid speaker and state tour guide.  Her lies, sneers, sarcasms and greed have been well documented for all to see.  But the necessary rhetoric to incite the emotions is there in spades:  sneering, sarcasm, and “reload” directives, so one can understand the attraction she holds for the tea partiers.  And on her part, she can make fun of them and be exactly what they despise and get away with it.   She coyly dismisses the low-economic population that is setting the tone and behavior of the tea partiers.  She calls them Joe Sixpack, which conjures up 1) male figures who 2) sit on their behinds and drink.  Just because a person is economically limited does not mean they are 1) only males and 2) sit instead of working hard and 3) drink away their paychecks.  It is demeaning to this class of hard-working Americans and yet the tea partiers wear the label like a compliment.  She is also sarcastic towards the dreaded “elitist,” which she desperately wants to be.

I agree with her desire.  An elitist, by Webster’s definition, is a great thing to be: the choice or best of a group, class, or the like.  Yet even though she strives to set herself apart from the group that wants her to represent them by demanding a high salary and star treatment, she knows she is not quite there yet.   So her anger is quite real.

In spite of its good purpose, anger is an emotion that has been overused by the tea partiers.  Anger was meant to be an appropriate, healthy response that alerts us to the need for a change in behavior, direction or expectations.

Who can fault anyone for being angry at the two wars we have been carrying for too long, the loss of jobs, income, security, and self-respect, or health care coverage to pay our health care bills?

But she who represents the tea partiers is not angry about any of those.  In fact, she approves of the aggressive war tactics, is making quite enough money for herself, thank you, and slams any attempt to care for the health and well-being of our most vulnerable:  her Joe Sixpacks, our children and elderly.  She has snowed the tea partiers into seeing what they want to see in her, not who she is.  It is sad until you realize it is the choice of the tea partiers to be fooled, so all empathy goes right out the window.  (Which she can probably see because she sees a lot from her windows.)

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”  Socrates 

I don’t buy the pleas from tea partiers that declare they are misunderstood, maligned and just plain ole good folks voicing an opinion; that those against their group behavior are “elitists,” “liberals,” or plain old dorky Democrats.  One has only to observe behavior to know character.   Those who proudly proclaim themselves tea partiers and rally behind a public figure who is dishonest, a cheap bully and advocate of fear mongering, are secretly or not so secretly, choosing to create and promote evil.

No one who honors truth and integrity could support what this group is doing.

In pre-WW II Germany, there was an organization that was originally focused on a healthy back-to-nature theme.  However, by the mid 1930s with Hitler’s rise to power, the face of the organization had changed.  Each member was considered a “soldier of an idea” and that the individual worth of each member was the complete surrender to the organization’s views.

Though many tea partiers are middle-aged or older, there is an eerie echo of the Hitler obsessive dedication to a group mentality. No self-respecting member of any group endorses a mob mentality, which is exactly the role the tea partiers have embraced.

What is confusing, though, is why the Republican Party does not see the harm this faction is causing.   Unless…the tea partiers ARE the voice of the Republican Party?


So where do the rest of us go from here?

There are many options.

“He is a man of courage who does not run away, but remains at his post and fights against the enemy.”  Socrates 

The reverse elitist approach the tea partiers use in their separate and conquer tactic is recognized by most Americans for what it truly is:  an anti-religious, anti-spiritual and anti-American movement.

Many people, especially women, are dismayed by the tea partiers’ intention to gain control of government by polarizing this country.  Our religious and our spiritual beliefs focus on healing the coming together of humanity in respect and dignity that mirrors a Divine Source.  It practices the Golden Rule of doing onto others as you would do onto yourself; the biblical directive to treat your fellow human as your brother or sister; the “love thy neighbor” intention.  If the god of the tea partiers who they purport to respect, were to have a second chance at the Ten Commandments, there would be an addendum:  “Incite no mob to violence, no mouth to utter slurs, and no action to shame the love that has created you.”

Write your elected officials and party leaders to insist they speak out publicly against any behavior that exhibits violent rhetoric, racism, discrimination and mob behavior.   Write to every Republican you can and insist the Party denounce this wild faction.  The Republican Party unleashed this fury, now it is time for them to reel it back in.

Vote only for those who reject this hate group movement.  E-mail your news stations and demand that they stop sensationalizing the tea partiers by limiting the video coverage of their antics.  Ask that the news substitute international events for the numerous yells and verbal abuse displayed at these gatherings.   Comment on articles of tea partiers with calm, thoughtful expressions of disapproval for their behavior.   Refuse to support any person, organization or event that promotes this group.  Voice your disapproval when it comes into the conversation.  Talk tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and civil liberties.  Model the appropriate, calm and respectful behavior when voicing an opinion or disagreement.

Or, you can start a quieter movement of one.

Dr. Wayne Dyer, in his book The Power of Intention, refers to research from Dr. David Hawkins, well-known psychiatrist and researcher of kinesiology, in illustrating the notion that one individual can impact thousands.  Based on his ideas of counterbalancing energies, Dr. Hawkins presents the position that one person who is optimistic and non-judgmental of others will counterbalance the negativity of 90,000 individuals who are not; one person who is loving and respectful of life will counterbalance the negativity of 750,000 people who are not; one person who lives in constant peace and spiritual joy will counterbalance the negativity of 10 million people who do not.   Finally, one person who lives in pure, transcended spiritual grace will counterbalance the negativity of 70 million people.

There is no way can I live in pure grace and counterbalance the negativity of 70 million people.   I am too insulted at idiocy, too vulnerable to wants, and just plain too ornery for everybody else’s good.  I might have the chance of affecting 90,000 people, tops.  I can live with that.   Of course, if another person joined me on this first level, that would lessen the negativity of 180,000 people.  A total of 17 people being optimistic and non-judgmental would positively impact my entire home city.  67 optimistic and non-judgmental people would positively impact the whole state.  Perhaps more importantly, I would only need .007 of a person to counterbalance the United States Congress.

These are good enough odds for me.


[A Tea Party bilboard hung in Iowa.  Methinks thy heading was a little too close to home in describing the good ole Tea Party itself.   Under (enlightened) public pressure, the billboard was later removed.]

December Any Where, If It Snows

DSC_0225I shall rejoice in today: the cold and pretty white that true winter should bring.  I knew last night that it was getting cold, my garage told me.  The weak fluorescent light flounders in low temperatures and refuses to go on.  The hallway at the bottom of the stairs was chilly, too.  But inside the rest of the condo, it was warm and inviting.

A winter’s storm or two has layered the entire area in quiet.  I woke up early but my bed was so snug, I was reluctant to leave it.  I kept hunkered down under the bedding, delighted to be cozy and completely relaxed.

In a sleepy daze I got up and opened the balcony blinds to let the shine of the outdoor lights into the living room.  I turned on the Christmas tree lights and puttered out to the kitchen where I switched on the coffee maker, grounds and water all set to brew from the night before.

On my way back to bed I turned the radio on to Christmas music, opened the drapes in my bedroom, plugged in the single strand of white lights wrapped around a silk plant and switched on a floor canister light that sits in a corner behind an arm chair.  I snuggled back into bed under my thick quilt and found myself enveloped in the soft glow of all the lights, the music and even the gurgling of the coffee maker.

The world outside is so dark in the mornings, with the sky taking its time to turn from black to slate to blue or gray.  One day, a ribbon of pink came floating smack dab in the middle of blue.  How sweetly odd.  This morning everything was a darker gray than I would have imagined.

Even in little things, the time it takes to change everything is a blink.  For that reason alone gratitude is an interesting emotion.  Long have I feared it.  I thought that perhaps if I liked what I had, I wouldn’t get what I wanted, or someone would take it away from me, just out of spite. But gratitude makes human existence much easier more often…instead of making each thing disappear, it seems to attract other good things.

After ten minutes I got back up, grabbed my robe and found my way to the coffee maker with its strong coffee.

All is well.

I am grateful to my readers, and I am not afraid to admit it.

Happy, warm and cozy holidays to you all, and thank you for being here.

( c ) St John 2010

Wild Horse of Childhood

The wild horse of childhood reared up its forelegs

And kicked back the rage that rushed towards me.

I held on with trust and never fell off,

Never fell down there in the dirt.

The steady strong breathing of my steed quieted me, kept me above the foray on the ground.

But I still cared, I still saw.

I reached my hand down to lift them up

So they could be above it, too.

But they slapped my wrist and the flank of my horse.

It reared up its forelegs

And kicked back the pain that rushed towards me.

I held on with trust and never fell off.

My horse raced away, carrying me with aching heart

To a safe and peaceful place

Where I breathe strong, on the ground, near my steed.

And the world is suddenly mine.

— ( c ) St. John 2009