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Phyllis Tickle


INTERVIEW

December 10, 2003

In the midst of a busy life spent writing, rearing seven children and running a farm, renowned author and journalist Phyllis Tickle has found that both prayer and the rhythm of the land frame her days --- and draw her closer to God. In her books, such as the STORIES FROM THE FARM IN LUCY series, Tickle reflects on her life in relationship to both, and in CHRISTMASTIDE: Prayers For Advent Through Epiphany From the Divine Hours, she offers an accessible entrée to fixed-hour prayer for readers.

In this interview with FaithfulReader.com's Cindy Crosby, Tickle talks about her life, writing and work --- and how she and her husband Sam approach the Christmas season.

FR: You mention in your new trilogy, STORIES FROM THE FARM IN LUCY, that one of the primary reasons you left the city of Memphis for rural life in 1977 was so your children would grow up close to the land. Did this influence your writing?

PT: My work is called "gritty" with a good deal of frequency. That used to surprise me until I realized that that is exactly what it is, or what a good bit of it is, anyway. What I think the book reviewers and I all mean to acknowledge by using the word is that when one lives on the land, there is a clarity that does not accrue in urban or heavily populated existence. There is no ambiguity, for instance, about a coyote circling your field and all the while watching a newborn calf. Given that, you kill in order to preserve. You also kill without debate. All of reason and human history fires the rifle with you, for all of reason and human history says that in this way only will the natural flow of life be served.

The sacrifice of life for life is a holy principle more easily entered into when one's own life is immutably tied to the balance of all other life. Thus, when in deep winter the pond is frozen solid, you risk the severe falls and potential gashes that can happen in order to break open the ice and let your herd drink. You risk yourself in order to preserve, and you risk without internal debate. All of reason and all of human history slide the banks and wield the ax with you. The flow of life must be served for, in doing so, one serves with the greatest immediacy the God Who is both Spirit and the text of all substance.

FR: Did you grow up in a rural area?

PT: Sam and I both grew up in a town in Appalachia, and both words --- town and Appalachia --- are central here. When one grew up in a town in the 1930s and 40s, one grew up usually among those who had but recently come from the land and who still bore its rhythms and wisdom with them. One also had the advantage of a kind of nascent urbanness, which has its own wisdom and rhythms. It's a little like being a violin strummed by two masters of similar art and vastly different styles. Appalachia, moreover, was in those same decades a hard-tack world without much man-made elegance, but with a great deal of natural beauty that drove us at every opportunity from the town out to roam the mountains and hills. My childhood, in other words, was that of a kind of geographic and perceptual vagrant, belonging everywhere in general and restricted to nowhere in particular. It is that combination, though it is certainly not unique to me, that I think most affects my writing. Lucy, I suspect, merely gave me the stimulus and the materials with which to remember and re-apply the rural parts of my youth.

FR: Come to think of it, how did you get any writing done at all while married to a physician, running a farm, and raising seven kids?

PT: (Laughs) I'd be a very wealthy woman if I had a dollar for every time someone asks that question. Looking back, I'm not sure, but I have my theories. First, it is much, much, much easier to rear children on a farm than in a city, especially in communities like Lucy with good rural schools. The distractions are minimal and the work is real, all-consuming, and unavoidably exhausting. That work especially not only keeps youngsters honestly and physically tired, but it also bonds them to the land and animals and family in whom they have invested so much of their own sweat and strength.

Second, though it is counter-intuitive, after two children, the number of children seems to matter almost not at all ... up to a point, that is. I have no doubt that had we had sixteen children like my paternal grandmother, things might not have been so easy. But with our more modest family, the children entertained, mentored and tended each other, in a way. There used to be a joke among them --- true as all good jokes are --- that the way the Farm ran was by the principle of "Mama says...and pass it down," each child being responsible for seeing that the one just below him or her got the undiluted message of what was expected or planned to be done, usually "right this minute."

Obviously, no one person can rear children alone and do much else, save feed, water and tend them. Sam, though a specialist in the constantly urgent field of lung disease, was also a strong father who has his own joke: "We reared them," he says, "by saying to each other 24/7 for a lot of years, 'Whoever has the strength, please change that baby.'" He's right. In the way (again) of rural thinking, it was the family that was the focus and the center. We entered the outside world of professional and social affairs, he and I, when and as we had to, but we always did so with the children and the Farm as the thing to be served by our efforts. In a more urban or contemporary mode of thinking, the home is often the construct not to be served, but to be approached as a place for refueling, for rest and restoration, for preparation in once more facing the world. That is a significant and informing difference, but it is also built into situation and circumstance.

FR: In the first book of the trilogy, WHAT THE LAND ALREADY KNOWS: Winter's Sacred Days, you wrote a beautiful passage: "Religion has always kept earth time. Liturgy only gives sanction to what the heart already knows." What does this mean to you?

PT: I grew up in the hills and mountains of East Tennessee, and I knew what David meant with his observation, "I shall lift up my eyes unto the hills. From where is my help to come? From the Lord Who made Heaven and earth."

One does not have to take much more than a seventh-grade history class, of course, to be introduced intellectually to the full realization that the liturgy or praxis of any religion arose at some distant point in the past from humanity's sacramentalizing of the flow of physical time. Intellectual acceptance is not, however, in and of itself reverent or awestruck or exhilarating. For example, living within the first few days of the glorious death of autumn with its goldening of the fields and that stillness of life that, briefly, is but is not growing ... that fortnight of eerily clear light and slender shadows makes the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels on September 29th more real in the gut and the heart than could all the ecclesial textbooks or anthropology lectures in the world. The God I worship is the God I know in His fashioning of my reality. Twice blessed the worshipper who can live the interface between the two.

FR: THE DIVINE HOURS series has de-mystified fixed hour prayer for many Christians, and CHRISTMASTIDE: PRAYERS FOR ADVENT THROUGH EPIPHANY FROM THE DIVINE HOURS should be a good seasonal introduction. How did you begin keeping the hours?

PT: I was reared Presbyterian; and though I left that tradition fifty years ago, I still have moments in life when the hand of God is both so off-the-wall unexpected and so beneficent that I have to return to at least a popular Calvinism and say some things have to be purely predestined graces.

Fixed-hour prayer has more names than any other part of Christian practice, I do believe. We call it keeping the hours, or praying the hours, or observing the offices, or the Liturgy of the hours, etc., etc. And many Christians still associate it most immediately with monks or nuns chanting in choir when the monastery bell rings every three hours. In reality, though, the keeping of the Divine Hours is, along with observing Sabbath and the re-enactment of the Last Supper in communion, the oldest and most authentic part of Christian spiritual practice. Unlike the other two, however, observing the offices requires one to be able to read; and as Rome began to crumble and fall in the fifth and sixth centuries c.e., illiteracy began to characterize the culture Rome had once nurtured. As a result, in order to keep the offices and prevent their loss to the Church, the fathers of the Church --- St. Benedict, most notably --- more or less rescued the prayers and practice by removing them to the more stable world of monastic life. Christian laity, thereby, lost for almost sixteen hundred years the prayer practice that is our spiritual birthright.

I did not know any, much less all, of this as a young matron in the early sixties when, in an antiquarian bookshop, I stumbled across an old breviary and was fascinated --- no, that's the wrong word, much too lightweight a word. When I stumbled across an old breviary and was immediately welded to it by touch and voice and instruction. It was to be my way.

FR: What exactly does fixed-hour prayer look like?

PT: Fixed-hour prayer means stopping each day seven times a day at the appointed hours of 6 a.m., 9 a.m., 12 noon, 3 p.m., sunset, bedtime, and either midnight or cockcrow. Fixed-hour prayer is not for everyone. For those like me for whom its discipline is also its freedom, the observing of the hours is the balm, the gift, and the instruction that shape the soul as well as the earthly day. When one stops and enters for some four or five minutes into the non-geographic space that is the praying of an hour, one enters into the company of one's fellow Christians within that same time zone. For some few moments, regardless of where we are within our time zone, we speak the same words of praise and thanksgiving before the throne of God. When we are done with a particular office, we pass its words on to our fellow Christians in the next time zone.

Just as we have ourselves received the prayers from those in the time zone before ours, so in handing them on, we not only participate in a "constant cascade of prayer before the throne of God," but we also hold ourselves briefly within the literal communion of the saints horizontally across the diurnal times of our day each day, every day. Beyond that, the words of each office, while they change with each office and by each day of the Church's calendar, are still the words of the Psalms, of the Gospels, of the Epistles, of the early Christian fathers and mothers, and of the Church's most ancient prayers. By speaking them, we pray as our forebears in the faith prayed, and we join them in a vertical communion of the saints that stretches from before King David right up into our tomorrows.

FR: What is the difference between The Divine Hours and previous brevaries?

PT: Almost forty years ago when this poor Presbyterian-turned-Anglican was trying to grasp what it was I was being told to do, a breviary was a daunting thing ... or at least it was for me. Because each day's offices are different not only from each other, but also from every other day's offices, observing them had, by the 11th century, come to require so many different books --- psalters, hymnals, bibles, etc., that even the Pope himself could not manage the stack. As a result, the Vatican librarian wrote what has to have been the world's first set of Cliff's Notes in which he simply listed the opening lines of familiar prayers like the "Our Father" or psalms like "Lift up your heads, O ye gates." He thereby created essentially a book of little mnemonics, and the Latin word for "little short things" is breviarum, thus our word breviary.

Over the centuries, the breviary has evolved, as most things are wont to do. It picked up the habit of often including a psalter, so that the script for a particular office could refer one not only to the opening line of the appointed psalm, but also to the page where that psalm could be found. Early on, a ribbon was used to mark the place where one was each day and another to mark where the appointed psalm could be found in its entirety. In order to save space and keep the breviary brief, it also became customary to print a particular prayer the first time it was appointed to an office and then, when it was appointed again for some office later in the year, to refer the observant to that earlier page. In order to keep the pray-er from being distracted by chasing pages, another ribbon was added to the binding so that it could be moved to the proper page for reading that prayer when the time came for speaking it in the office. Finally, the thing got so complicated that a breviary had seven ribbons bound into its top, each a different color and each color a code to whether it marked a gospel section or a psalm or a prayer or a hymn, again etc., etc. One positively had to be born to the system to ever learn to use it with dexterity. To this day, I stumble on which ribbon marks which thing.

FR: Pretty daunting!

PT: All of which is a long way around to answering your question. When it became obvious that more and more American Christians were seeking a return to the spiritual disciplines and practices of the early Church --- and that automatically means fixed-hour prayer --- Doubleday asked me to try to fashion a method or system of observation that would be more accessible while still adhering to the traditional givens of the practice. It was like a magnificent chess game, at first. Every time I moved one piece, another piece fell out of the whole and had to be worked back in in some different way. But we stayed with it, both my daughter, who worked side-by-side with me for two years, and Eric Major, Doubleday's Religion Publisher at that time, and I. Eric was, and is, a devout Christian, and he was determined that "being liturgically challenged" was not going to get in anybody's way any longer, or he would know the reason why.

FR: How did you achieve this?

PT: As a result and in accord with Eric's edicts, THE DIVINE HOURS has only one ribbon, the one marking the pray-er's place. It prints on the same page with each office everything needed for that office, with the exception of the Gloria and the Our Father, which are abbreviated into only their titles. In keeping with the practice now of many monasteries, it allows for the flexibility of observing an office on the hour or the half-hour according to the rhythm that best fits a pray-er's daily patterns, asking only that whatever pattern is established be that observant's fixed one. Also, THE DIVINE HOURS presently contains only the three day-time offices and Compline, or the office of retiring. Eric's thinking was that the manuals were not, above all else, to be daunting either physically or logistically and better to begin with the "Little Offices," as they are called, and go from there as circumstances might direct.

Certainly in CHRISTMASTIDE, and in the forthcoming EASTERTIDE: PRAYERS FOR LENT THROUGH EASTER FROM THE DIVINE HOURS, you see one of those "as circumstances might direct" developments. Here the manual is intended not only for the ease of those who already keep the hours, but also as a seasonal discipline for those who, never having kept the hours before, wish to observe the holy times of Advent/Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter/Ascension with an especial discipline or observance. The physical book itself is softback, reasonably slender and totally ribbonless because, being dated in terms of days before and after Christmas, there is almost no way to miss one's place.

FR: It's interesting that such an old practice is gaining a fresh audience.

PT: Another "circumstance" that thrills me has to do with the launch within a few days of THE DIVINE HOURS on the web. With the cooperation of Doubleday, the Vineyard Churches of Ann Arbor will be posting each day's offices at www.annarborvineyard.org for the use of their congregants and all others who wish to join the communion of saints in cyberspace for the hours. So we shall see what comes after that, if anything.

FR: How does fixed hour prayer impact you on a daily basis --- and in a more long-term way?

PT: You know, I am frequently asked that question, and I always stumble on it. I stumble, I think, because I cringe at the notion that anyone would ever begin this Benedictine-style life in the hope of some kind of gain or result. That's not the reason for taking up what the Church has always had, any more than observing the Sabbath or sharing in communion should be done --- even can be done --- in terms of some end result or benefit. Praying within the communion of shared times and shared words is a great gift and a great privilege, one to be received with a kind of stunned gratitude and almost naked humility before the wonder of such a thing.

I think I stumble as well because my own life as lived and as observed by other people must never, ever, be seen by anybody as some sort of proof text for what keeping the hours produces. I would rather die, quite literally, right now than have such a juxtaposing occur. I can only cringe to imagine, on the other hand, what my life might have presented as without the offices --- which, of course, is a way of saying that the hours have had some kind of observable or tangible personal result, the most obvious to me being that I have more time as a result of keeping them. For some reason, the interruption of time every three hours for prayer either disciplines time or disciplines me or some combination thereof. Whatever the mechanism, it is still true that I get more done with them than without them. Beyond that very physical fact, I would hope, though I can't prove it, that my soul has undergone much instruction and much curbing of its natural follies as a result, as well.

FR: Tell us a little about your writing as a journalist for Publishers Weekly.

PT: (Laughs out loud) Let me tell you a true story. Daisy Maryles is the executive editor of Publishers Weekly. After I had been with the journal for about two years and after she had tried every editorial trick known to man or woman for changing my ways, I filed yet another long piece of copy about what I had thought was one of the most exhilarating meetings I had been to in a long time. After she had read it, she more or less tossed it into the air and said, "May God deliver me from ever again having a writer on my staff!" What she meant was what she has also said many times since, namely that a writer burns to tell her readers what a thing means and why it happened, while a good journalist just reports the thing itself, albeit often subtly guiding the reader's impressions or interpretations by word choices and positioning.

Journalism, in other words, is one of those things I do with minimum competence and almost no elan. Give me a nice, long book any day, and a reader I can talk to in terms of all the contexts and ramifications and wonders involved in the things that are mutually interesting. That having been said, however, in fairness and self-protection, I have to add that Daisy says I have shown some improvement over the years. For this I am grateful.

FR: By the looks of your website, www.phyllistickle.com, you have a pretty busy speaking schedule. How do you find speaking different than writing?

PT: I can't tell you how glad I am that somebody finally asked that question! Thank you!

I am a recovering academic and always will be. I think in 55 minute sound bytes and a rambling style that will always go somewhere, though it may or may not go where I once had thought to send it. I love to watch the faces in front of me, to see where they look confused or where they scrunch up or where they outright grin. I love to play an audience and be, in turn, myself played by them. It's almost like making love in public, if you can accept that metaphor. I leave a speech (except the bad ones, of course) as deeply rested and content as ever I can be.

FR: Does writing leave you feeling the same way?

PT: Writing is intense for me, exhausting and isolating. Sam says I should not be around moving vehicles and sharp objects when I am writing, and he is right. I become downright fey, totally at a remove from my body and where it is or what it is doing. All of that physical response, I think, is the result of my having to move so far inside myself as to create there an audience to play to, so to speak. That is, I think, but can never know for sure, of course, that I make an audience in my head and then measure my words by their responses. One can say that such a thing is pure schizophrenia or one can say it is sheer imagination. I don't know and don't much care, actually; for at a practical level, it makes little difference in either my process or its result. All it does is just make me a little peculiar and a lot spacey while it's going on.

FR: One of your speaking engagements was GREED: MATRIARCH OF A DEADLY CLAN in the "Lectures in the Humanities" series on The Seven Deadly Sins at the New York Public Library, which Oxford University Press will publish as a book in April 2004. Is this the "deadly sin" you most identify with?

PT: Well, I must begin by saying that the sin I originally asked for when Oxford and the NY Public Library first approached Joe Durepos, my agent, was Lust. Joe refused to ask for it, however, saying that any woman with seven children could ill afford to speak publicly about Lust. Upon thinking the matter over, I had to agree with him.

Lust aside, then I went for Greed and I argue, in both the lecture and the resultant book, that Greed is "the matriarch of a deadly clan." That is to say that I argue, as do scholars like David Noel Freeman, for example, that Greed is the sin, and from it all others evolve. To lust is to be greedy for more physical pleasure. To rob is to be greedy for more tangible possessions, just as to envy is to be greedy for more intangible ones. To be apostate is to be greedy for control, etc., etc. From the beginning, St. Paul taught that Greed, or avaritia, to use the Latin word, was the root of all evil. Radix omnia malorum avaritia, he wrote to the early Church. It was not until Thomas Aquinas came along that Pride finally came to, pardon the pun, take pride of place as the deadliest of the sins within the Roman Catholic scheme of things.

As for me, I believe as I wrote ... I would like to think, in fact, that I could not have written as I did had I not been already persuaded that Greed in all her awful presentations is the snake's nest out of which all the other offenses of our souls wiggle forth. As I go to my prayers, both the fixed-hour ones and my own individual ones, I am always aware that my confessions and my sins have had their beginning in my need to be more than that lean, focused thing that can walk a narrow path without falling off the sides and pass through a straited gate without abrasions.

FR: You've written a drama, FIGS AND FURY. What is the difference between seeing your words in print and seeing them enacted as drama?

PT: Ah, drama! Now you have touched the heart of me. Liturgical drama ... or if you prefer, chancel drama … where the words of God are played out in dance and music and poetry in the house of God. I began life as a poet, and I suspect that I shall end life by a return to it, if for no other reason than that the language of sacred-space-as-theatre requires that medium. Actually, I have received two or three commissions over the years to create a play for a particular nave or church structure, but you are right. The revival of FIGS AND FURY by the Community of Jesus in 2002 was a turning point for me.

FR: How so?

PT: For the first time in years, I got to take a month off from everything else and sit in rehearsals while actors spoke my lines, while we all winced when those lines were awful or even sometimes unspeakable, while gifted theologians questioned a action or an implication, while costumers and set designers deeply involved in their own Christian course struggled to accommodate theatre in a space without any offstage areas. For a month, as a team, we critiqued and modified and adapted until FIGS fit the Community's new basilica as smoothly as if it had been created just for it, as indeed it in a sense had. FIGS AND FURY is a dramatization of the life of the prophet Jeremiah, and I will be returning to the Community, d.v. ("God willing"), in about fifteen months to begin work on a play based on the life of Ezekiel and after that, another based on the life of Daniel, thereby completing a trilogy or cycle of plays about the prophets of Judah's captivity.

FR: So, the difference between seeing your words in print and hearing them performed is…?

PT: Unspeakable! In theatre, I do not have to invent my audience in my head. I can manipulate it in real time and real bodies until we all know the words, and the pacing and the tension are as good as we together can make them. Theatre is plastic and dynamic, like clay in the sculptor's hands, and I could die from the joy of it at times --- those times when the line is right and the actor is right and the holy magic of them is strong upon us.

FR: In your book, A STITCH AND A PRAYER: A MEMOIR OF FAITH AMIDST WAR, you tell about your father's response to the chaos of WWII --- sewing a rosette coverlet. What has helped you mark your days in response to the current chaos of war and world events?

PT: That's the wrong question to ask an old woman, because age itself particularizes and prejudices the answer. That is to say that there is no doubt in my mind or life that the kingdom of God will come and that humanity in all its myriad cultures and forms will at last be brought to conclusion in accord with divine intention. I wish at times --- though very fleetingly --- that that surety wasn't quite so firmly rooted in my heart and thoughts, but it is; and its presence is like a centering pole that will not let me wander too far away into scenarios of despair or even into anxieties, though such moments of wandering would undoubtedly make be more comfortable to be around.

Instead, I know my job in this hideous, current, unspeakable mess is to pray that kingdom is in terms of the right now and the right here and the immediately involved --- a grandson who is in the service and two great-grandsons who may be left fatherless before we are done with this; an Iraqi woman shrieking on the front page of the Times, as immobilized by grief as she was ineffectual in preventing its causes; my priest-drafted-as-chaplain friend who has words to say that are not even in his theology, but are in his pastoral heart. For these and all of us, I pray as if I were at work in the doing of it.

When Rome reached its apex, its pax augusti, under Caesar Augustus, it began its decades of decline, ending at last in such disarray that it and all of Europe around it fell into what we call the Dark Ages. Do I think we are beginning that process again of devolvement? Yes, I do. Do I think we have been God-abandoned? Absolutely not. His hands ever move upon the waters of human affairs, and I must pray my life in harmony with such certainty. May God help all His peoples now and forever.

FR: What's next for you, writing-wise?

PT: Funny you should ask … or too bad, perhaps; for the answer is embarrassingly long. I am just now putting the last words to THE SHARING OF A LIFE: A RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE that is the complement to THE SHAPING OF A LIFE: A SPIRITUAL LANDSCAPE and, hopefully, completes it. In addition to the two chancel dramas that I am itching to get at, I have signed a contract to write a kind of experiential history of the Community of Jesus, another piece of work my fingers and brain itch to get to.

I am working now with an old writing buddy of mine, the poet Margaret Ingraham, on a Book-length --- or perhaps the better word is epic --- poem that treats of the Hebrew mothers of our faith, primarily in dramatic monolog. That particular piece of work is like building a cathedral, and Peg and I may both die leaving behind us only a sturdy fragment of what was to have been. Beyond that, I have an idea or two that I've not signed up for just yet, but I know myself well enough to know they intrigue me, which means that, given enough years, I'll probably tackle them as well.

FR: Since we're in the midst of the Christmas season, let's talk about some of the holiday traditions you enjoy.

PT: This is a question whose answer has grown quieter and softer with the passing of the years. Somehow, that fact in and of itself always suffuses me with peace. As a younger woman, I suppose I thought of Advent and Christmastide as being forever frenzied in their routines and only punctuated by beautiful moments of worship or private devotion. Now that our children have all long since grown up and established their own homes, the ratio of quiet to busy has almost reversed itself. Sam and I still haunt the toy stores, of course, but now that exercise is more a romantic date between two old lovers than was the focused buying that accrued when we had long lists of specific requests. There's more money now, of course, than there was when they were all here to be fed and clothed and educated; and undoubtedly that makes Christmas shopping sprees less freighted. But mainly, much of the joy of Advent afternoons for Sam and me is going out together to buy for the younger grands and the great-grands what we want them to have as memories of us and of who we have been in their lives.

FR: What sort of rituals do you begin the season with?

PT: The immutable tradition is that each year, on the first Sunday of Advent, after the Advent wreaths are in place --- one on the kitchen table and another on the big one in the dining room --- and the first candle lit, I always go to my closet and unwrap the Christmas pillow. It is square and fairly small and has across it in green and red, needlepointed columns the words, "Noel, Noel, Noel." Noel means birth in French; and for years, while the children were here with us, I kept the pillow on our bed during all of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. It was a way of reminding myself at odd hours of the day during those holy seasons that birth was the sacred mystery. It was like a shorthand message to myself of what mattered and was to be celebrated and proclaimed above all else. Now, I put the pillow, each First Advent Sunday, in the rocker in my office. The message and the pillow's uses as icon of meaning have not changed, of course. Only the place where I spend most of my time has shifted. Besides, for a writer in her maturity, the office is the place of birth.

FR: Do you have any favorite Christmas books you read every year?

PT: At some point each Christmas season, I always read Henry Van Dyke's THE STORY OF THE OTHER WISE MAN aloud, as once upon a time my father did in the Christmases of my own girlhood. Usually, I read for a group somewhere, but not always. Sam and I enjoy the gift of that substantial fable more, though, when we can share it with friends or fellow Christians.

FR: Are there any traditions that have been passed down to you and Sam?

PT: We take more time now to savor what we are doing during the Holy Season, inviting into our rituals all the good ghosts of Christmases Past. Especially, and perhaps most fancifully, we always put holiday lights on a positively ferocious, vicious and virulent thorn tree that is really quite handsome in its huge jardiniere, even without any lights. The tree belonged to my mother-in-law. She died over twenty-five years ago, but we still decorate it now because she always did then and because lighting her thorn tree brings her in again to the circle for a while. None of us ever asked her, so far as I know, about why a thorn tree, and it's quite possible she herself didn't know … but she was a deeply faithful and observant Christian and I have always thought it was the thorn tree's suggestion of a crown to come that was to her as my pillow is to me.

FR: What else do you do to celebrate?

PT: We also have our silly rituals. Sam, like every four-year-old you know, has to wind hundreds of feet of outdoor lights around the railings of the side and the front porches. He says it makes him feel like we're greeting the world every evening when he turns them on. That's merely a justification, in my opinion. The truth is he just likes the lights as much as he did when we were growing up together in East Tennessee. I can't say much, however, because I have to have four candliers in the front room windows for it to be Christmas at all. As Sam reminds me every year, "They're the cheesiest things in the world, so 1930s it's ridiculous." There's no unsaying the truth of that assessment, except to say that those orangey flame bulbs atop the ends of fake paper candles glow in my windows and in my memory. Through them I greet not only the world each eventide, but also the past into which soon I myself will go. It is a beautiful thing, that knowledge, and much of what Christmas is about, I think.

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