Truthfully, after over a year of effort, this is a huge milestone for us!
The premise? We’re all struggling with the unbearable weight of issues that society just can’t seem to solve—while finding chronically missing phones, making infinity dinners, and replying to inane work emails. So how do we deal? With some colorful and transparent commentary from me and my co-host, Dara, and helpful insights from occasional guestsperts.
Readers of this blog know what my daughter and I went through when she was little, from her tube feeding and vision challenges, to our journey to understanding that we are both neurodivergent (ADHD for me, autism and ADHD for her). I fully believe that those difficult experiences informed who I am today, giving me strength and perspective I would not otherwise have. All of that comes through in the podcast, along with gem after gem from my dear friend Dara, who brings a unique backstory, outlook, and wisdom, especially having grown up as a brown girl in our white hometown. Special thanks to the amazing Amanda Zorzi for our amazing intro music and to the ever patient David Santos for editing the podcast.
Pulling up to the hotel, Suzy was already exhausted. Thanks to a major snowstorm across the Midwest, she’d been flat out for three days. Of course, the sledding window was small and the snowfall was melting, less than 24 hours later. A sense of futility was snowballing in Suzy’s soul, big time.
Mother Nature’s email wasn’t super clear, as usual, so Suzy was relieved to see the sign in the lobby. It read, “Seasonal Reps,” with an arrow pointing to the ballroom.
“Here we go,” she thought, as she dragged her powder blue roller bag to the barebones check-in table. Suzy noticed dozens more nametags than usual. “Jesus, the Leprechauns are here?” she muttered to herself.
It was clear that Mother Nature had something big planned, given the insane number of attendees. She’d flown everyone and their imaginary nephew in for this one.
“Hey, Baby New Year. What up, Nian,” Suzy said with a nod as she passed the oddest odd couple ever, one wearing a diaper and the other with teeth like high-quality steak knives. They cordially raised their glasses of champagne as she passed.
Typically, it was open seating but this time, seats were assigned by month and grouped by season. Suzy saw 12 long tables that stretched toward the front, where Mother Nature had her own table and was already holding court. “What is this, Hogwarts?” she wondered.
Of course, The Great Pumpkin was chatting up Mother Nature, up in her face and desperate for legitimacy as usual. “Kiss-ass,” she scoffed.
Suzy scanned the room over to the right for table 12, for December, nestled between tables 11 and one. The frontline December crew hadn’t yet arrived, including her nemesis. She wondered if he’d be at table 12 or assigned to the late fall fam. “Late fall? More like late fools,” she joked to herself. Summer months had been taking more and more from October, pushing the fall months out further and further.
Then from behind her she heard a low crackling sound, like the thick ice of a frozen lake breaking. His laugh sent chills down her spine–and not in a good way.
“Well, Jack Frost, as I live and breathe,” she said, overtly feigning enthusiasm.
He was already drinking his first vodka on the rocks. “Coming in cold as usual, Suzy Snowflake” he sneered. “Honestly, I’m surprised you made it. Then again, that stormfront didn’t amount to much beyond slush, even in Minnesota. Should we start calling you Suzy Sleet?”
Suzy rolled her eyes. “We don’t all have the distinct pleasure of going around killing crops and dreams willy nilly,” she retorted.
Jack, as usual, only half paid attention. “Look–the fucking sugarplum fairies are here. Bunch of lightweights.” He took a big swig. “They have no business being anywhere near winter.” The ice clinked in his glass as he gestured toward the tulle-clad set.
“God forbid winter have any charms or enjoyment to offer,” replied Suzy, ignoring the sexist implications of his remark. “People certainly aren’t getting any of that from you.” She picked some stray fuzz off the shoulder of her white cashmere peplum sweater and let it float to the busy mish mash of hotel carpet.
“Whatever, goody two shoes,” said Jack. “Shouldn’t you be tap-tap-tapping on some kid’s windowpane?”
She laughed, hiding her annoyance, “Talk to Rosemary Clooney.” It’s not like Suzy wrote that damn song. Jack knew full well she hated it and had barely anything to do with it. He brings it up when he’s really trying to get under her skin. She wouldn’t let that happen.
A breeze swept across the ballroom. That was Mother Nature’s gentle but very real signal. Time to take their seats. To Suzy’s dismay, she discovered that she and Jack were seated right next to each other at the middle of their table.
Old Man Winter took his place at the front, of course, with Tomten by his side and a couple of elves across from them. The old boys club looked exhausted as they’d traveled in from the North Pole and Scandinavia.
Plus, Old Man Winter had been less predictable lately, skipping town when expected to stay and showing up in places like Texas. The wear and tear was beginning to show.
Suzy waved and jumped up as her favorite rep and one of her oldest friends, The Snow Queen, strode up and took her place on Suzy’s other side. They clasped hands and started to catch up as the spring and summer reps continued settling in.
Lady Midday and The May Queen performatively hugged before finally finding their spots. “Bitches in heat,” said The Snow Queen, nodding in their direction. They chuckled. Man, did Suzy love her.
Autumnal steward of barley harvests and benders, John Barleycorn was already slurring his cockney accent when he shouted, much louder than necessary, “Stop faffin’ about you twats!” We snickered. The carefree attitudes of the warmer season reps would never not chafe the cold weather crowd. Especially these days.
Finally, Mother Nature stood. The air was still and the silence, instant.
“Thank you all for coming on shorter than typical notice,” she began. “It truly warms my heart to see you all together. All four seasons, all 12 months, a full seasonal bounty indeed.”
“Ugh,” Suzy thought to herself, brow deeply furrowed. “Why do hearts always need to be ‘warmed?’”
And right on cue The Snow Queen leaned over. “Uh—implicit bias much?” she said out of the corner of her mouth. They fist bumped under the table in solidarity.
Mother Nature continued, always a striking sight with her glowing ebony skin, innately regal presentation, head held high, “I’ll get right to it. You all know why you’re here. We’re facing an urgent climate crisis.” The “t” on climate and “s’s” in crisis were so sharp they could cut glass.
“What you may not know is how we are going to combat it. The short answer? It’s going to take all of us. And I mean all of us.”
She explained, “A crisis of this magnitude calls for unprecedented measures. I’m using my executive powers to circumvent the seasonal caucus and infighting that has stalled progress for too long. It’s no longer a choice. It’s our natural and moral obligation to act.”
“No shit,” said Jack under his breath. Meanwhile, the spring and summer tables stirred. To us it was obvious. To them, this was a highly sensitive topic.
Mother Nature paused thoughtfully, gazing across the room, table to table, making intense eye contact with as many reps as possible. “We can do this! We have a plan. A plan in which each and every one of you has an essential role to play.”
She took a beat and adjusted her notes before diving into the details.
“Punxsutawney Phil, from you we need an eight-year stretch of consecutive declarations of six more weeks of winter. No letting up.”
Everyone gasped. “Eight years. Holy shit!” squealed The Snow Queen.
“Yas queen!” Suzy replied. Wide-eyed and hopeful, the two exchanged huge smiles of excitement.
“Suzy, we’re going to need you to step it up, especially in the Northeastern United States and across Siberia,” said Mother Nature with a directness that felt like a punch in the face.
Suzy’s cheeks turned from alabaster to crimson. “Step it up?” she thought. “Tell Jack Frost to step the fuck out of my way! Tell Heat Miser to step it down!” A flurry of angry thoughts clouded her mind. It took every measure of composure Suzy had to not flake out.
Across the room, she saw Heat Miser slowly turn his smug face in Suzy’s direction to taunt her. But just then, Mother Nature continued, “Heat Miser—that means we’ll need your full cooperation. We’re placing some common-sense limits on your range as of today.”
His head swiveled back and his face melted into a deep frown. Suzy felt her shoulders drop and spirit rise.
“Hell yeah,” whispered the Snow Queen.
“Screw that guy,” said Jack Frost, in a rare note of camaraderie.
“That’s right,” Mother Nature said, squelching a sea of murmurs. “This burden does not only fall on the shoulders of the fall and winter reps. Balance must be restored throughout the year. I think we all know that. Each of you must be prepared to stretch far beyond your comfort zone. It’s crunch time, legends.”
Turning again toward table 12, Mother Nature addressed someone who would really rather go without mention, ever.
“Tomten,” she said, “we know you’re really comfortable with the whole Christmas vibe, but you could be creating some spring magic as well. I’m asking you to serve as a seasonal bridge, a peace keeper. Help Blue Corn Maiden with vegetable gardens or something. Get creative.”
Already barely visible due to his small stature, Tomten sunk down in his chair, extremely uncomfortable with the attention and the idea. This is a guy whose whole identity is built on laying low.
Mother Nature turned to tables four and five, April and May. “Your work is artful as always. What we need from you now is patience. Bloom times have been creeping up and it’s throwing off the entire progression. We know you mean well, but remember–spring shines brightest after a long winter.”
Suzy saw Blue Corn Maiden nod in agreement. “She’s so damn cool,” thought Suzy. Blue Corn Maiden, of Hopi fame, was pretty much the only springtime rep who had her respect. She’d been through more than anyone, yet knew her purpose and truly served the people. Suzy saw that Blue Corn Maiden never got her due, much like herself.
In Suzy’s case, for what felt like eons, she dealt with Jack Frost dominating the entire winter precipitation game, giving no credit to her at all and, a while back, forcing her to attempt a PR campaign that backfired.
That song she’d disavowed was supposed to elevate her brand, and take her rightful share of the winter limelight from Jack, but all it did was cause people to take her even less seriously. But maybe, just maybe, “be an obnoxious jerk” would no longer be a winning strategy in this new era—for Jack Frost, Heat Miser, or anyone else.
Finally, Mother Nature turned her attention to summer. The June, July, and August reps all straightened in their chairs. Among them were flower fairies of all kinds and lightning sprites in various hues. Little Miss Sunshine sat with hands resting in her lap, appearing as innocent as can be in her yellow gingham dress, in contrast to the formidable Lady Midday, that brutal, Slavic summer demon who fancies herself a crop crusader. Heat Miser, as usual, seemed sweaty and nervous.
“You know I admire your commitment, your enthusiasm, your drive. People love you and find joy in your season’s embrace.” Everyone else was grossed out by the coddling but also on the edge of their seats at this point.
“But your strong numbers, all those record-setting temperatures… they’ve turned the balance of the seasons into a winner-take-all contest. We’ve forgotten that the seasons all share a common goal: supporting the cycle of life.
Fall, winter, and even spring shrink each year. Wide swaths of the earth are parched. Thirst and hunger are growing. As ice recedes, tides rise and disaster unfolds.
You are hurting your own bottom line as the glories of your season fade. Flowers and trees need rain. Beaches need sand. Sunny days need shade. People need relief.
I’m calling on you to scale back for the good of all—yourselves included.”
“‘Bout time,” whispered the Snow Queen, heartened by the much-needed and rather momentous call-out.
“Damn right,” said Suzy, amazed.
“This better stick or we’re screwed,” added Jack.
A bubbling energy infused the crowd. The chatter rose when, unable to raise a hand, The Great Pumpkin stood to ask a question.
“Oh gourd, now is not the time, GP,” said Suzy. “Get ready to cringe to death, everyone.” Both The Snow Queen and Jack Frost stifled their laughter.
“You know I don’t just show up for just anyone,” The Great Pumpkin began, as if that mattered. “I just want to say how great your plan is and that I will do everything pumpkinly possible to help. You’ve been an incredible leader, Mother Nature, and I want to thank you. With you as our champion, we can tackle the climate crisis once and for all!”
He turned his giant orange head to face the rest of the reps and tried to instigate a round of applause, eliciting just a smattering of awkward claps.
“Shut up!” shouted a rowdy John Barleycorn, to some laughs and some disapproving looks. This interjection served as a release, and the reps all burst back into their discussions, positive energy percolating along with uncertainty.
Everyone felt the wind pick up in the ballroom. A napkin fluttered up and snagged on The Great Pumpkin’s stem, Blue Corn Maiden’s silky hair blew back in a most glamorous way, and Peter Rabbit’s nose twitched to catch a scent carried in.
Then, all was still and quiet again. Mother Nature continued, “You know what else is at stake here? All holiday traditions, which innately depend on connection to the seasons.”
This point hit home. The elves exchanged worried glances, sugarplum fairies held hands, and a small coven of witches tapped their brooms on the floor, their way of applauding in agreement.
Somehow the energy in the ballroom had changed, infused with an aura of shared understanding. Mother Nature concluded her remarks, and servers emerged with their platters, pitchers of water, and wine bottles.
Suzy felt something like—though she’d never admit this—proverbial warmth. She looked around at all the crazy souls gathered.
She considered their collective endangerment, mind-boggling array of quirks, shared sense of vulnerability, and centuries of ups and downs, and it all caused her to soften a bit. Even toward The Great Pumpkin. Even Heat Miser and yes, Jack Frost.
He, too, seemed to have shifted.
“I really think we can do this, you know,” he said to Suzy as they ate their dinner of so-so chicken marsala, over-cooked broccoli, and rolls.
“You know what? Me too,” said Suzy.
Later that evening at the hotel bar, Suzy did something no one could have seen coming even on the clearest, crispest winter day. She performed her song. Yes, that song.
As they recognized the retro sound of the opening note, the entire audience shrieked with delight and began shouting encouragement. “Oh hell yeah!” cried an ecstatic Blue Corn Maiden.
Reps of every season rushed over to the karaoke stage and joined in as Suzy belted out the lyrics.
The Snow Queen lifted her glass of ice wine and turned to Jack Frost. “Here’s to anything being possible, after all.”
“…If you want to make a snowman
I’ll help you make one, one, two, three
If you want to take a sleigh ride
Whee! The ride’s on me
Here comes Suzy Snowflake
Look at her tumblin’ down
Bringing joy to ev’ry girl and boy
Suzy’s come to town…”
Note: All 12 stories can be found here. Happy holidays, however and whatever you celebrate!
#1943 – Tree topper, silver with green accents, 30cm
I remember my first Christmas in existence. The postal service was bogged down by a snowstorm. By the time I arrived, the tree was already decorated.
He lifted me from the box and held me up for all to see. Then, atop the ladder as he stretched to the highest bough, I snagged. My spear-like tine scraped the ceiling, causing him to cringe and leaving a gouge in the plaster.
I was too tall.
He darted away. I’d been abandoned. Crestfallen and reeling, I began to doubt myself. I’d come all that way, and there was no point. How ironic!
But soon enough, he returned with a saw. Ornaments shook, needles flew, and tinsel shimmied. I saw a couple of pretty glass bells and a fallen angel on the shag carpet, no worse for wear. He cut slices from the top of the tree, not once but twice so that I would fit just right.
His family clapped and cheered. I’d found my place at the top of the world.
Jenny had begged for a pet budgie, but the family just couldn’t take it on that year. Dad had recently lost his job.
And Jenny could tell when her mom was Mom worried. An indent would form between her eyebrows, when she thought Jenny wasn’t looking.
Besides, they already had a dog and a cat and both could be real jerks. The dog thought he owned the place, but the cat really did—and came dangerously close to taking me out on several occasions over the years.
Anyway, when her mother saw me in a catalog, she got the idea. Jenny opened my box on Christmas morning and smiled. The card read, “One day, I’ll become a real bird.”
Yeah, we’ll see about that.
#363 – Silver spherical ornament, houses with snow and sunset, 7cm
I was a housewarming gift, and unexpected kindness, for a family of five that had just moved to a new neighborhood. The winter move was stressful, and they didn’t know anyone in the area.
The elderly couple next door also had three daughters, long since grown. They remembered being in the young couple’s shoes when they themselves moved in many years ago.
Seeing the Christmas lights that the family managed to hang soon after the work of moving in, the couple figured a special ornament might be a fitting housewarming gift and welcome.
All the couple really knew was that, at the very least, it was a nice thought and that it’s the thought that counts. They didn’t know how right they were.
The young mother was pregnant again, and had been feeling tired and alone. The move made it all worse. So when the couple came by to introduce themselves, it was a bright spot in her day.
After thanking them for their gift and seeing them out, she set me down and finished making dinner. I was sure she’d hang me on the tree after that, but she did not. She picked me up and walked right past the tree and into the kitchen.
That year, I never found my way to a branch. I wound up hanging in the window by the sink, where she could more easily admire me throughout the day.
#744 – Golden rose ornament, red and green detail, 5cm
I now hang on Pip’s tree. But years ago, Pip chose me for her dear grandmother Adeline, whose carefully tended rose garden was its own fantastical, sorbet-hued world when in bloom.
I was the last ornament Adeline ever collected, and the favorite of her long lifetime.
#483 – Red-capped acorn ornament, 3½cm
I was a loving nudge, in the form of an early Christmas gift from a mother to her daughter Emma, then a young woman. Emma was an aspiring writer, but since graduating she had not succeeded in publishing a single word.
Nor had she found a creative job to replace the administrative assistant role she’d adamantly insisted would be temporary.
As she opened the tiny box and laid eyes on my charming form, her mother said, “Don’t give up before your roots have a chance to grow.” Emma kept me, and her mother’s words, on her desk until she published her first short story.
Now a successful author, Emma has as many published books to her name as ornaments on her Christmas tree. Now as old as her mother was then, Emma still carries that spark of encouragement. And I’m as shiny as ever.
#976 – Green pinecone ornament, 9cm
Judging from all the stories, I wouldn’t be here if not for a golden retriever named Buster.
Apparently, there was no one he didn’t love. Buster was genuinely excited to meet, see, sniff, visit, and generally be around every human he encountered. When it came to energy and enthusiasm, he had a lot.
But he was always getting into trouble, mainly gastrointestinal, because there was nothing he wouldn’t eat. Dubious mushrooms, rolls of toilet paper, dropped movie night popcorn before it even hit the ground, a twenty-dollar bill, entire chicken wings, a cooling pan of brownies. It was a lot.
He mellowed as he aged but pinecones remained a weak spot. The two boys would try to keep the yard clear of them, but Buster always seemed to find one, as if he had a secret stash.
This unkickable pinecone habit drove the family absolutely mad. The resulting digestive issues led to expensive vet visits and gag-inducing messes, inevitably deposited on rugs. They wished so much that Buster could just learn from his mistakes. But he never did.
Buster was 11 when he became seriously ill, and not from pinecones. If only it were that simple. His condition dramatically deteriorated over the course of just a couple of months. He lost interest in eating altogether. Pinecones lay in the yard, untouched. Visitors, ungreeted. That’s how his family knew that Buster had found all the joy he would find in this life, though it had been a lot. The time had come to say goodbye.
The parents and sons all surrounded the very good boy. They thanked and held Buster as he took a contented last breath.
The rock that marks his grave is etched with a pinecone and his name.
It is an honor to witness how Buster’s spirit bounces back to life when the family sees me each year. Of course, his memory must also be lovingly recalled at the sight of his favorite “snacks,” and there were a lot.
My first time around, I was flying high. Marcy ordered me and eleven others destined to become the decorative stars of the annual tree that towered over the great room at about 15 feet tall. Minimum.
I was proud of my role, and certainly well cared for. Each holiday season, the staff diligently dusted and buffed to ensure we all sparkled in preparation for display.
Marcy had a passion for over-the-top holiday decorating, which she would direct while cradling a martini between two long fingers.
Several children and many grandchildren later, however, things changed. It seemed we’d fallen from favor. The fabulous Marcy had faded away, along with her glamour. Christmas came and went. We stayed in a dark box on the cold floor.
Time is so hard to gauge in the absence of light and traditions. But eventually, I wound up in a Seattle thrift shop. It felt good to be admired again. I soon caught the eye of a young man named Theo. Next thing I know, I’m back in a box.
I’d guess it was just a day or two later when I was suddenly jostled and heard a familiar song: “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” A little girl’s face peered down at me, and her hand pulled me back into the world.
She jumped up while holding me carefully in both hands, and ran around to show me to her grandparents, baby nephew, aunts, uncles, cousins, everyone. “It’s the peacock from the Nutcracker!” she said over and over. “Isn’t she pretty?”
They all replied, “Yes, Mallory!” or “Wow, Mallory!”
It was a tradition for Theo to take her to the ballet each Christmas in Seattle, where the production always featured a peacock dancer. Far and away Mallory’s favorite part of the show.
Once again, I found myself front and center on a Christmas tree. A small tree, but as merry and festive as any I can remember.
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and available ever after.)
Dedicated to moms everywhere and all those who work so hard to make holidays bright for everyone else. (Kid version below.)
Mom was up late as usual. Her focused face and under-eye bags had a blue cast in the festive glow of her laptop, by then the only source of light in the house. She was Christmas shopping online, wine in hand, sleep nowhere in sight when she heard a strange sound coming from the kitchen. Kind of a twinkling.
Everyone else was blissfully asleep and unaware, as usual. Figuring the cat was up to something, she reluctantly got up to investigate.
In the open silverware drawer lay Tiny, their shelf-hopping elf. “How the hell did you get in here?” she wondered. Mom had planned to move him before bed but had yet to come up with another brilliant idea for his god damned charming antics.
As she reached to grab him and close the drawer, he hopped up and said, “Why hello!”
“What the fuck!” screamed Mom. Her heart did a backflip and she nearly did too, stumbling and scrambling in fluffy slippers with no traction at all. Then she stepped on her robe and fell on her ass.
She looked up and saw Tiny’s spry hat and alarmingly alert eyes–the top half of his permanently smiling face–peering down at her from behind the drawer front. “Mom?” he said timidly. “It’s just me, Tiny.”
Mom looked at the wine bottle on the counter, then back at Tiny.
“This is not happening,” she said, standing up and straightening her robe. “And I’m not your Mom.”
“Okay, Mom” said Tiny. “I understand. It’s not easy making the holidays so magical for everyone.” He rolled his eyes dramatically, waving his skinny felt arm as if casting a spell.
Mom tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes. The way she does when considering a consequence for someone’s actions.
“I mean, he’s right,” she thought to herself. Then shook her head.
“That’s why I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” said Tiny as he hopped out of the drawer, using a spoon as a ramp, and onto the counter.
At this point, Mom was too stunned to say anything. She was having a dream. That was the only explanation.
“You’ve been doing too much, Mom” said Tiny. “I’m concerned about you.”
“Ha!” A loud, sharp laugh cut through the midnight air. Mom couldn’t help it. This was just too ridiculous.
“I’m serious, Mom,” he continued. “Take it from me. I’m supposed to ‘report’ on your kids like some creepy spy. News flash: No one gives a sugarplum!”
“Are you my subconscious?” Mom asked, half serious.
“Nah, I just get it,” said Tiny. “Here’s the thing. My gig? Not so hard. Let me take it on. I’m not going to be taking Skittles baths or parachuting from chandeliers, but I’ll move around and make it fun for the kids. Don’t worry about me–you’ve got enough going on.”
More guffaws. “My main source of support comes from… a doll!” snorted Mom, now laughing hysterically. Once she started, it was hard to stop.
Over her punchy giggling, Tiny exclaimed, “There you go! You deserve some fun, too, you know.”
Catching her breath, Mom said with feigned enthusiasm, “Oh yeah, great, let’s do it.”
She paused, suddenly serious. “Just don’t forget or I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“Okay, deal! Now go get some shut-eye, Mom. Being exhausted isn’t very merry.”
“You know what? I will. Clearly, I need the sleep,” she said. “But first, I have a question: Why do you keep calling me Mom?”
“Isn’t that your name?” Tiny asked.
She headed over to the couch to shut down her computer, then shuffled back to the kitchen to dump the rest of her wine in the sink. As she turned off lights before finally going upstairs to bed, Mom realized Tiny had disappeared. “Good, the hallucination is over,” she thought.
A few hours later, Mom hit snooze on a screeching alarm. The kids rushed in and jumped onto the bed. “Mom! Dad! We can’t find Tiny!”
Mom and Dad exchanged looks. Her wide eyes communicated, “Oh shit, I forgot again.” She felt a pang of guilt.
“Well, keep looking,” said Dad. “You know how sneaky elves can be!” And the kids ran off.
“That ought to buy us another snooze,” he said. “They’ll get over it.”
Despite another thirty whole seconds of searching, the kids could not find Tiny. Which was peculiar, since Mom had not moved him. But the cat could always be blamed, probably accurately, if needed.
After breakfast and as if preparing for a sojourn in the Arctic, the kids began putting on their boots, puffy coats, mittens, and over-sized backpacks full of snacks and half-assed homework, before heading out to the bus stop. There had been a couple inches of snow and the world looked more wonderful, less brown.
Then they saw him. “Tiny!” The kids rushed over to Mom’s purse by the door, where Tiny’s pointy red hat could be seen peeking out.
They pulled Tiny out and discovered a sticky note on his hand. In almost microscopic handwriting, it read, “Help Mom, or you’re on the naughty list PERMANENTLY!” It was signed with a smiley face followed by “Tiny.”
“Whoa,” said the kids, and Dad in unison.
After they blew out the door like a human tornado, Dad turned to Mom in the oddly sudden quiet. He said, “I get the message. And you’re right. I’m going to do more to help out, especially for Christmas.”
Mom tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Right,” she said, knowing full well she had not written the threatening, miniature note.
“I’ll order some gifts to start. I mean it,” he said, then went to make coffee.
Mom turned to Tiny, who’d been left laying haphazardly on the bench in the entry.
She could swear she saw him wink.
Kid version: My nephew’s birthday falls very close to Christmas, a holiday he loves. And he was very excited about this story, as it centers on his own household’s “elf on the shelf” named Tiny. So I customized my original kid-friendly version of this story just for him, and he loved it! He’s a wonderful boy, an admirable big brother, and a remarkable handball player (in addition to other sports). Here it is, in case it could be of fun or use to anyone else. By the way, based on this success, demand is soaring. I’ve promised custom stories to my other nephews and my daughter Stella!
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and available ever after.)
The star of the family flock was an Olive Egger named Louise, truly a legend among hens.
The daughter and animal lover of the house, Lily, was really the only one who could pick her up. Not her father or brother. And usually, not her mother Jane. Lily and Louise had somehow bonded when the now impressive chicken was just a fuzzy flightless nub.
Lily found the contented clucks of her favorite chicken therapeutic. But for everyone else, especially Jane, Louise was not a source of relaxation. Not at all.
Jane once had to treat Louise’s scratched eye after a hawk attack—though the hawk fared worse—and her attempts to capture the hen had all the action and suspense of a sporting match. The thing is, Louise never, ever panicked like the rest of the flock. She was calm, focused, utterly determined, and highly skilled.
Truly, Louise could put the NFL’s most elusive running backs to shame. Jane would have her cornered, only for Louise to defy gravity by deftly leveraging wall-as-vertical-launchpad. She would bend down, thinking she had her, at which point Louise would go up and over her useless hands with a quick ping-pong maneuver. Or Louise would pull a lightning-fast nutmeg and leave Jane red-faced and out of breath. Smooth as butter, easy as pie. That was classic Louise.
Sometimes Louise would sit on the window sill outside the breakfast nook, side-eyeing the family as they ate. While Louise’s signature cheek poufs gave her an unserious look, and Olive Eggers tend to land in the middle of the pecking order, she was in charge.
Louise even had solid pack status in the eyes of the dog, a squat corgi mix named Sam. They knew this because of what happened when Lily let a couple of curious neighborhood kids into the yard after they asked her some questions about the chickens.
One boy, about five years old, bent down to try and hold Louise, and Sam growled at him, a deep, low warning to back off. Stella picked up Louise, and handed her to the boy, and all was well. There was a chain of command.
Sam didn’t have the same protectiveness toward the other chickens—at least not that they could tell. Sam’s seal of approval seemingly solidified Louise as a part of the family.
When an ailing raccoon languished like a furry drunk in the small creek bed just beyond their backyard fence, Louise did not leverage her apex status within the pecking order to lead the other girls to safety. She stood at the fence and shrieked as if outraged at the raccoon, her followers chiming in from behind her. “Our neighbors must love us,” sighed Jane.
After letting the chickens out into the yard one early winter morning, Lily came in to show her mother the egg that Louise had just laid. It was much brighter green than the usual muted tones. “Interesting,” they thought, admiring the unexpected vibrancy. And they left it at that.
The next day, Louise seemed lethargic. Lily thought she was yawning, but Jane could see that she was gaping, a sign of respiratory distress. Illness loomed.
Instantly, Jane regretted getting chickens in the first place, and letting sensitive Lily, who had been struggling to find her place and her people at school, get attached. The timing was unfortunate, adding loss on top of anxiety and loneliness.
Jane worried about the rest of the flock catching the mystery ailment. They hadn’t yet lost a chicken in a year and a half of keeping them, and the prospect was hitting harder than expected. She felt a bit guilty, but kept her anxieties to herself.
They decorated the coop for Christmas, hanging a wreath with lights to brighten up the flock’s home. Lily said it might make Louise feel better. But the legendary Olive Egger’s condition only worsened over the next couple of days.
While she left the coop, Louise never went out through the run’s open door to hunt, peck, and explore with the others. Another chicken even had the audacity to peck at her. Louise’s perch atop the hierarchy was lost. By all measures, she was plummeting.
They tried getting Louise to drink, and only Lily succeeded in dipping her beak into a small cup of water. But Louise was disoriented and unable to control her neck. Soon she couldn’t even stand for more than a couple seconds at a time. Jane realized that while well-intentioned, their efforts were just prolonging the agony.
Jane decided that if Louise continued to deteriorate, she’d need to put her down. She agonized over how to explain all this to Lily. Again Jane wished that she’d never taken in the chickens, and the inevitable heartache that came with them.
As dusk fell on the third day of illness, Louise somehow found the strength to return to the coop from the run. Jane talked to Lily about the prospect of Louise’s life ending soon. That they’d miss her, but that Louise would no longer suffer. That Louise lived a wonderful life, to the fullest.
Lily did not cry, at least not yet. She was sad but thoughtful and, frankly, it seemed to Jane, handling it better than her.
Jane didn’t sleep well. When morning finally came, she got up early to check on Louise. But before heading out, she heard little footsteps behind her. Lily said she wanted to come out with her, and Jane felt a jolt of alarm run through her. But there was no way around it. They’d have to face this together.
The walk out to the coop seemed a mile longer that day. And sure enough they found, upon opening the back coop door, that Louise had died.
Louise was slumped in the corner of the coop, beneath the roosts where the rest of the flock sat. Tears rolled down Lily’s cheeks. “Why did this happen to her?” she asked her mother.
“There’s no reason, Lily.” Jane put her hands on Lily’s little shoulders.
“Chickens who live free get to enjoy fresh air. Bugs. Room to run, and even sort-of fly!” Jane laughed gently. “But you know, that also means they’re exposed to dangers. Like bacteria and viruses from wild birds, or attacks from predators like hawks and foxes.”
“Maybe we should have kept Louise in the run. All the chickens should stay safe in there,” said Lily.
“Yes, they’d be safer. But you know how adventurous Louise was. I wonder what kind of life she would have had if we never let her explore?” Lily tilted her head to the side, thinking it over.
Jane gave Lily a hug, and then reached into the coop. She lifted Louise gingerly when an impossible flash of color caught her eye. Under Louise, nestled in the wood shavings, was a blue egg. The hue was dreamy and tranquil, with a slight tint of green like tropical waters. Light, earth colored specks added warmth. It was comforting somehow, and reminded Jane of sea glass.
Lily’s eyes widened, and a hint of a smile could be seen at the corners of her mouth. “It’s a gift from Louise,” she sniffed.
Mom said, “I think you’re right. What should we do with this gift?”
Lily thought for a moment then said, “Let’s use it to make pancakes on Christmas morning. It’s what Louise would have wanted.”
Her mother nodded, then felt the spark of an idea. “Yes, and I know what else we can do.”
On Christmas morning, Lily emptied her stocking while Mom used Louise’s last egg in a batch of chocolate chip pancakes. “They taste extra good today,” said Lily, “Louise would be happy about that.”
Of course, Jane didn’t just crack and discard this seemingly miraculous last egg.
Lily went to open the presents under the tree, and stopped in her tracks.
There on the tree, right at Lily’s eye level, hung a new ornament that glowed in the morning light. It was Louise’s blue eggshell. So very fragile, and all the more luminous for it.
Lily said, “Thank you, Mom! Now we have a way to remember Louise and how she was not like any other chicken.”
Jane gave Lily a squeeze and replied, “Yes, exactly. There will never be another Louise.”
(Note: Previous remaining holiday stories can be found here, released each day through 12/24, and kept available ever after.)
This story is dedicated to Erin, Sylvia, Rocio, and Hatice.
At 31, I was the neurodivergent mother of a neurodivergent baby. But I didn’t know that. Not about my daughter and not about me.
She nursed just as the books say a baby should, for about a week. Then she battled. The breast, the bottle, me.
My sanity frayed because I knew there was a problem that no one else could see.
I craved empathy like a drug addict in withdrawal. I searched day and night and found it nowhere. Not even for sale. Therapists, several lactation consultants, a postpartum doula for Seattle rockstars—we couldn’t have afforded her anyway—seemed to serve only judgment. So that’s all I ate.
We both starved.
Sick with anxiety, I lost 30 pounds in the first two months of my daughter’s life. I tried drinking olive oil. Straight up. Part calorie loading, part penance. I gagged and spit it up. Just like my baby when I tried to feed her.
It felt as though a lifetime of not-quite-rightness manifested in an inability to feed my own baby. In the early days, when not alone, I faced doubting doctors, and well-meaning but dismissive or outright annoyed others.
I became a mom not when I gave birth to my daughter, but when I pushed through to the other side of despair, for her.
Part 1: The Tube
Stella was born in August. Four months later, baby’s first Christmas was different than I expected.
Stella’s cheeks were red and raw due to frequent attaching and removal of various medical tapes. I tried different types, hoping to secure her nasogastric feeding tube to her face while inflicting the least possible amount of dermatological and psychological damage.
Meals were not bonding moments. They were medicalized ordeals. Picture, if you will, a portable pump. Like an old school gaming system with a few buttons and a digital read out–but you only win if you can stop playing.
Along with the pump there were large syringes for gravity feeds, plastic IV-style bags that connected to the pump and smelled like new shower curtains, and hypoallergenic formula that soured quickly.
The nasogastric tube went down Stella’s throat and into her stomach. When I tube-fed her, I felt more like a surgeon than a mother. Before each tube feeding began, I used a stethoscope to listen as I sent a puff of air, from an empty syringe, down the tube. A telltale popping sound would indicate that the tube was in her stomach. Rather than a lung.
Then it was time to hook up the tube and run the pump. I’d monitor Stella carefully for any gagging or gurgling.
Mishaps were common. Sources of trauma. Stomach contents would come up and out of the tube. Blood would surround the tube in Stella’s little nostril. The pump would malfunction and feedings would need to be started all over again.
The worst of the worst parts was that the tube would come out regularly. It’s astonishing to me, in hindsight, that the emergency room was the only available source of help. Not only were these constant hospital visits expensive, they were time-consuming, exhausting, and traumatizing for my daughter.
After all the waiting, tiny Stella would lay on a hard bed in the harsh light of an exam room. With masked strangers hovering over and holding her down, the tube would be replaced while she screamed. The kind of scream that alerts a mother’s brain to a threat to life and limb.
The tube would then come out again the next day, maybe the day after.
So I learned how to put the tube in myself. This process requires planning and calm. First, you lubricate the tube, then you force it down the throat, somehow hold it in place with one hand while making sure baby doesn’t grab or pull the tube and also taping the end of the tube to baby’s face with the other. Finally, you check the tube’s placement with the stethoscope and puff of air and popping sound.
During one replacement effort, my nerves and her screams caused the tube to go in her nose and out her mouth. A little jolt of horror. I tried to insert the tube while she slept. It half-worked once.
To get enough nutrition from a tube, a baby becomes a machine. Stella needed to be fed every three hours, and feeding could take up to an hour. I worried that my extreme tiredness would lead to mistakes. What if the tube wound up in her lung?
I lived with the fact that this whole disaster unfolded because my milk caused my baby pain. Every time she nursed, she wound up in agony. She would cry and turn away. In hindsight I realize she was fighting for her life. We both were.
Instead of feeding, she would gnaw her fingers, which smelled of stomach acid.
I worked around the clock to get enough calories into her. I used a spoon, a tiny cup, a small syringe, causing it to simply run down her throat. This wasn’t “feeding.”
Thanks to this continuous labor, she “ate” just enough to get by, before the tube. She didn’t lose much weight, and she did grow longer, but she didn’t gain any weight either.
I just needed to try harder. ‘You have to hold her like this,’ said one lactation consultant. ‘You haven’t established a proper latch,’ said another. ‘You don’t seem comfortable. Let her come to you instead of leaning toward her,’ said yet another.
Later I would realize that one of them was at least partially right. Being neurodivergent, I was so used to following the lead of others, so used to being wrong, I couldn’t relax and let someone come to me. Not even my own baby. I felt I had to bend over backward, or forward in the case of nursing, to keep an interaction from falling apart.
At first, no one believed me. But then she started to look pale, even a bit gaunt, with a grayish cast. Her resistance to nursing or bottle-feeding turned into an all-out aversion. By then, the problem was so severe that a feeding tube was necessary. It wasn’t inevitable.
With the benefit of hindsight, I sometimes wonder how it all would have played out if I was neurotypical and communicated neurotypically? What if I was more reasonable, less brutally honest? More clear, less direct?
“We just have to get her through this,” I would think constantly. After all, she was a healthy baby. She just hated to “eat.” That’s all.
Meanwhile, my daughter and I were alone for up to 12 hours a day, five days a week. Compared to my pre-pregnancy self, I was skin and bones. I couldn’t take care of myself. I really couldn’t.
We didn’t have access to a car most days. Freedom came from taking walks, between tube feeds, through the park and by the shops along the strip near our rented house. Stella and I would stop in just about every day at my favorite coffee joint and paper goods boutique, and the grocery store.
Here and there, as usual in an area of Seattle so close to downtown, I’d see syringes on the ground during our long walks. They were wedged into the cracks of sidewalks or nestled in the mulch of garden beds. Part of the infrastructure.
These syringes were functionally different from those I used to feed my baby, but syringes all the same. I noticed that my reaction to seeing discarded needles on the ground was no longer involuntary disgust or general frustration with a system that doesn’t care for people. Concern became visceral rather than abstract. I thought, “That’s someone’s child.”
Part 2: The Choice
In the thick of the tube feeding haze, Christmas season in full swing, I watched television while Stella napped. A holiday-themed diaper commercial showed angelic infants dreaming in their bassinets with a carol-turned-lullaby as soundtrack. Their smooth, round cheeks were unmarred. Their peacefulness complete. Against my will, bitter tears burned my eyes. I found my entire self twisted with envy, boiling with rage.
Until one week before Stella’s birth, I worked as a copywriter at an ad agency. I’d written prose about large cinnamon rolls and slightly larger ski resorts. I could imagine the creative brief, concept, pitch–the entire process that resulted in that carefully targeted manipulation. But the nerve hit was so deep, beyond the reach of rationality. In the part of me that knew I was defective.
Since then, there have been so many revelations and reversed courses in my path through motherhood, far from any well-worn route. But I now look back to this low, just me sitting alone in the artificial glow of an overwrought diaper commercial, as a catalyst.
During that moment, I knew I couldn’t stay there, in that dark place. Jealousy doesn’t sustain you. It drains you. Anger isn’t nourishing. It eats you.
I sat in my fury and envy. Confronting the ugliness, I made a choice to not feed it with self pity. It was not going to be easy. I didn’t know how. I just knew something had to change. If not for my sake, then for Stella’s. It was a start, or a promise to start.
That decision soon led me to write. I’d started a blog, half-heartedly. Perhaps I could use it to keep my feelings, unlike the formula, from turning rancid.
I shared updates with the family on how Stella was faring and how we were managing. Her latest milestone, most recent medical appointment, and how much she was taking in by tube–each milliliter accounted for in a spreadsheet I referenced in reports to Stella’s doctors. Increasingly, I also shared my experience in the struggle.
In the weeks that followed, the blog became a beacon. I began hearing from mothers, across my city and around the globe, who’d found our story. Their babies, too, refused to eat and were given feeding tubes with no plan for weaning from the tubes. No end in sight.
I got to know several of these women, sharing phone calls and emails, desperation and encouragement. We did the same anxious things and thought the same anxious thoughts. Our feelings, stories, and longings were not just similar, but practically identical, despite our differences in cultures and backgrounds.
There was Erin with her grace, sense of humor, and a baby boy who seemed a lot like Stella and was born within days of her. Hatice was passionate, honest, and generous, and even sent Stella presents from Singapore. With Sylvia, originally from Costa Rica, her soul was so torn apart that it made her courage all the more moving. Rocio showed such depth of devotion and commitment to her premature son, helping him overcome his feeding aversion after months in the NICU.
I still marvel at how we were all able to connect on a little virtual island in the middle of the internet ocean. Alone, together.
Thanks to them, I began to realize that I wasn’t a failure or problematic or a pain in the ass for complaining to doctors constantly. I was a mom, doing her best in a challenging, isolating situation.
We had empathy for each other. And soon I started to develop empathy for myself. When perceiving an absence of empathy from others, I no longer experienced a free fall into anger, allowing me to be more present. I now had a foundation to stand on.
By the time Christmas came around, I had developed a bit more confidence. I found moments of peace even in the face of the same tube-centered reality. I started to tune into Stella and trust my instincts, rather than look to “experts.” That’s when things started to change.
Part 3: The Leap
After months of tube feeding, Stella hit a plateau. She never took more than about half of what she needed calorically for the day by mouth, the other half by tube. And aside from some anomalies, that’s where she stayed.
I knew that the tube had to come out. The pain that caused Stella’s feeding aversion was gone. Also eliminated was the pressure from me in trying so hard to get her to nurse, which worsened the aversion. She’d had time to learn that eating was not a threat, not a precursor to pain.
The tube had become more of a hindrance than a help. Making swallowing difficult and allowing a gateway for reflux. Overfeeding was easy, since there was no hunger gauge and only a prescribed amount of formula per day, so vomiting was common. Yet most of her doctors seemed to believe that one day, Stella would miraculously take all calories orally, and only then would the tube be removed. I disagreed. I found research to support my gut.
This situation has become more common. Tube feeding of babies, and resulting tube dependency, has exploded. This is partly due to an increase in premature births, with babies needing more time to gain the strength and oral motor skills that typically develop during a full-term pregnancy.
Also, it’s now easier for hospitals to send parents home with tube-fed babies. The digital pumps are small and portable. But technology advances so much faster than our understanding of its human impact.
Many babies similar to Stella, following resolution of reflux, milk protein intolerance, or whatever caused eating refusal, remain on tubes. Sometimes for years and years. I knew we had to give her a chance. We had to remove the tube, and see if she would reconnect with hunger and eat enough to thrive all on her own.
Just after New Year’s, we took the leap. I remember Stella’s smiling, tube-free face that day. How nervous I was, but also hopeful. There was only one thing for me to do–offer the bottle when she showed hunger cues. The rest was in Stella’s hands. No more battles.
In those first days, she did take more from the bottle. But not what a baby needs to grow and stay healthy.
After two weeks without the tube, she hadn’t gained weight and Stella’s pediatrician leaned toward putting the tube back in. Panic coursed through my veins and, heart pounding, I told him that she needed more time. He agreed to support one more week without the tube.
Right around the three-week mark, it happened. Seemingly all at once.
Whereas previously Stella would scream, cry, and panic at the sight of a bottle, she started to lunge and grab at the bottle. She’d even cry when it was taken away empty. Stella drank more than double the amount of formula in one day than she ever had before.
Her occupational therapist declared, “Stella has internalized the joy of eating.”
Trauma leaves a mark, but so does the experience of pushing through. After Stella’s dramatic turnaround, on those days when she ate less, I’d still worry despite knowing all babies are in fact not machines but humans whose hunger varies from day to day. Yet I also fundamentally trusted myself to handle challenges and fulfill the needs of my child. That may have been the biggest miracle of all.
The change was thanks to a baby who knew what she needed, an overwrought Christmas diaper commercial, a largely unknown blog, and fellow mothers who gifted me with understanding.
The tube was gone. Stella wasn’t hungry anymore, and neither was I.
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and ever after.)
I get it. The holidays are here. You’re, like, super busy. Checking your email, buying presents, dressing up your dog, all that human stuff.
But once in a while, especially at this time of year, you need an elf’s perspective.
As you can see, I’m an elf and as you can guess, I have some pretty unique insights. So, for Christmas’ sake, lend me your unpointy ear for just a few precious minutes.
It really boils down to one question.
Have you ever thought about how amazing Christmastime is?
For really real.
Just take a whiff of cinnamon, for example.
IT’S TREE BARK–BARK FROM A TREE!–THAT SMELLS LIKE A HUG FEELS AND MAKES PIES AND COOKIES AND MORNING ROLLS TASTE LIKE HOLIDAY MAGIC AND SPICE AND EVERYTHING NICE.
Or consider your Christmas tree.
IT’S A BEAUTIFUL EVERGREEN THAT GREW FOR FIFTEEN SPRINGS AND SUMMERS AND FALLS AND WINTERS THEN WOUND UP IN YOUR LIVING ROOM WEARING A SKIRT AND GLOWING LIGHTS AND MANY FANCIFUL ORNAMENTS AS TREE JEWELRY.
Don’t even get me started on ornaments.
THEY’RE LITTLE PIECES OF ART–ART!–MADE OF GLASS OR WOOL OR WOOD OR CERAMIC OR METAL, OR ANYTHING REALLY, THAT ARE COLLECTED OVER GENERATIONS AND BECOME STORIES THAT HANG EVERY YEAR ON THE MIRACULOUS TREE I JUST MENTIONED.
I mean, what!?
Relatedly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put a spotlight on Christmas lights.
THEY’RE SPARKLING ORBS OF ILLUMINATION IN YOUR CHOICE OF SHAPES AND COLORS GIVING BRIGHTNESS JUST WHEN IT’S DARKEST AND PEOPLE PUT THEM ON THE OUTSIDE OF THEIR HOUSES LIKE A GIFT FOR NEIGHBORS’ EYEBALLS AND SPIRITS.
Oh and speaking of houses, you’d better not be taking gingerbread for granted.
IT’S COOKIES MADE INTO GOSH DARN ENCHANTING EDIBLE COTTAGES–DESSERT ARCHITECTURE!–WITH ROYAL ICING AS CEMENT AND GUMDROPS AND PEPPERMINTS FOR DECOR AND AS WITH SNOWFLAKES NO TWO ARE THE SAME.
Also, let’s not overlook the concept of candy canes.
THEY’RE CHARMING AND WHIMSICAL RED-AND-WHITE SPIRALS OF FRESH PEPPERMINTY SWEETNESS A WITH BRILLIANTLY GENIUS HOOK DESIGN TO HANG ON TREES AND LOOP OVER THE EDGE OF STOCKINGS WHEN ALL KIDS USED TO GET WAS A SMALL ORANGE.
Gonna say it again. What!?
Lastly but not leastly, do you know how lucky you are to be with family at Christmastime?
THEY’RE HUMAN BEINGS WHO LOVE YOU NO MATTER WHAT–NO MATTER WHAT!–WORKING DAY AND NIGHT TO FIND THE PERFECT GIFTS AND BAKE DELICIOUS HOLIDAY TREATS AND THEIR BIGGEST JOY IS SEEING YOU BE HAPPY.
Okay, by now, I’m sure you get the idea. Christmastime is pretty darn wonder-filled if you really stop and think about it. Take it from an elf.
Hmm? Oh, yes–please go ahead with your question.
What about Santa?
Yeah, he’s alright.
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and ever after.)
From the brick church tower in the stone-clad square, Christmas bells rang out to announce the holiday’s arrival. A very delicate flurry of snowflakes dusted the otherwise quiet town.
Down the road was a dormant field where pumpkins grew all summer for fall carving and baking. There, at odds with the peacefulness of the day, a drama was unfolding.
The fox had been hunting in the field all morning to no avail when he picked up on a most delectable scent. Mouse.
He followed carefully. Crouching and slinking through the early morning shadows, without disturbing even a blade of the brown, frosted grass that filled the clearing. He tracked what he hoped would be his first meal in a long wintry while.
The fox sensed movement in his periphery. Pausing to investigate, he picked up on another scent and a most vibrant sight: the blue Steller’s Jay. “That troublemaker!” he thought.
“Always hunting small prey when she could be eating berries–something far sweeter. Why does she insist on taking my mouse? She must be trying to starve me out of my own territory. Fat chance!”
The Steller’s jay had been scouting the small dormant pumpkin field all morning to no avail when she spotted a most delectable sight. Mouse.
She followed carefully. Soaring and swooping in the early morning shadows, without rustling even a single twig on the bare, frosted branches of the trees that lined the clearing. She tracked what she hoped would be her first meal in a long wintry while.
The jay sensed movement down in the grass. Pausing to investigate, she picked up on another, more vibrant sight: the red fox. “That troublemaker!” she thought.
“Always hunting small prey when he could be eating a rabbit–something much bigger. Why does he insist on taking my mouse? He must be trying to starve me out of my own territory. Fat chance!”
The fox and the jay continued their hunt, now a tense contest for a much-needed Christmas morning morsel. Having closed in, with the mouse seemingly unaware of the deadly competition, the two were finally within striking distance.
What they didn’t notice, due to intense focus on the lone mouse, were the two mice that scampered behind them. The mice stifled laughter. “Those fools!”
It just so happened that those mice were on their way to raid the cache of seeds and nuts that the jay had collected all autumn, meant to ensure survival over the long winter.
Suddenly and at lightning speed, the jay and fox attacked the mouse at the very same instant, shouting, “Mine!” Their cries served as a just-in-time warning for the mouse, who ducked into a dense leaf pile.
Just then, out from behind the pile leapt a coyote who’d been laying in wait! His patience had paid off in a golden opportunity.
Fangs flashed and the coyote’s wickedly sharp teeth snared the fox’s brush as he fled. Clumps of reddish brown fur fell to the ground from his mouth, and little crimson-tinged hairs floated in the air among scattered snowflakes.
The fox retreated to his den, finding part of his beautiful tail gone.
The jay retreated to her tree, finding her beautiful stores gone.
At the very same moment, both the fox and jay sighed in despair, “Worst Christmas ever.”
Late in the morning, the farmer’s daughter came out to the field with a bag of seed and a couple of mice that had been caught in the barn. She knew that there were plenty of wild creatures who would appreciate a Christmas feast, and it made her happy to provide just that.
The jay and fox watched longingly as the girl scattered the seeds and left the mice in the field. By now they were both so ravenous that as soon as she left for the farmhouse, each began approaching the gifts. Eyeing each other with untrusting glares, they paused.
“I’ll eat you up if it’s the last thing I do, jay,” warned the fox.
“I’ll scare away your prey forevermore, fox” warned the jay.
Hearty laughter rose up from behind them. It was the old coyote. Caught off guard yet again, the jay and fox froze in place. The coyote was so close, he could tear either of them apart in an instant.
“Thank you for making my life so much easier,” chuckled the coyote. “As it turns out, you’re in luck. It’s Christmas morning, and I’ve had my fill thanks to the mice.”
“You ate all the mice?” The rivals exclaimed, beginning to panic.
“Did you learn nothing this morning?” asked the coyote, rolling his eyes. “The mice and I work together.”
“You partner with the mice?” the fox and jay asked, both shocked.
“Of course,” replied the coyote. “How do you think I’ve lived this long, through so many winters? You two are so busy fighting each other, you’ve become blind to the possibilities of this world.”
“Hmph,” said the fox and jay at once. Both were pensive.
“Merry Christmas, fools. And do learn something from this. If you don’t, it will be your peril and my pleasure.”
With a wry grin, the coyote turned to the forest and was gone. There was a brief, stunned silence.
“I suppose it is Christmas,” mused the fox.
“And we’re both hungry,” added the jay.
Realizing that there was plenty to go around, they both slowly approached the farmgirl’s offerings. Keeping an eye on one another, the fox and jay began devouring their meal.
“I can restore my winter reserves with these seeds,” marveled the jay, beginning to relax a bit.
“I can restore my strength with these mice,” marveled the fox, also starting to feel more at ease.
The jay was struck by the idea that such a strong and stealthy fox could be left so hungry and weak. “Maybe he does need a mouse from time to time,” she thought.
Meanwhile, the fox was struck by the idea that such a clever and swift jay could be left with no stores or hope. “Maybe she does need a mouse from time to time,” he thought.
They finished their feast, nodded civilly, and returned to their homes. It had been months since they felt so content.
At the very same moment, now cozy and satisfied, both the fox and jay smiled.
“Best Christmas ever.”
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and ever after.)
Part 4: Merry (and Mighty) is the Kid that Holds the Pencil
Part 1: How We Got Here
With our children, we are now five generations in. I’m supposed to serve as one of our closest connections to the past. Especially in light of my family’s legacy of leadership in the colony, with all its lessons.
But the stories from my great-grandfather Paul—just about everyone called him Grandpa Paul—have begun to fade. I hold onto scraps of the memories he shared, like the frayed fabric squares in our ancestral family quilt, stitched by my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Aunt Peg and patched and handed down endless times until deteriorating into bare threads.
We have no use for artistic pursuits here, but as a child, I was fascinated by her craft and often imagined what Peg and her life were like.
Like Peg, though several generations and climate catastrophes later, Grandpa Paul and his peers were born on Earth. As feared by our founding benefactor, they never truly acclimated to life on Mars. They did, however, produce the first wave of natives that would carry us forward. For that perseverance, we owe my great-grandfather and his generation a debt of gratitude.
The distance grows exponentially more vast each year. From Earthly ways, from our ancestors, and more urgently, from the production projections and terraformation goals plotted when this colony was founded. Soon, using raw materials provided by our mines for spacecraft and fuel, a sizable influx from Earth will make their home here as conditions deteriorate beyond the threshold of no return there.
We’re not ready, despite our best and most intense efforts. Here, labor is life. Our purpose so noble in advancing humanity and spearheading a brighter future, or really any future at all, that it dwarfs all other aspects of existence.
The numbers tell a story of accumulating failure to live up to humanity’s high hopes. I can’t be the only one in my circle who dares wonder, in my innermost thoughts, if near-constant work and total sacrifice are sustainable for much longer. I spend little time with my own children, Stella and Darwin, as I now lead planetary-wide production and they spend nearly all their waking hours in their lessons at The Foundry.
Grandpa Paul made the mistake of openly questioning our way of life after many years of seeing some children—including his granddaughter, my mother—struggle to thrive in a relentless system. “This isn’t living,” he exclaimed during a managerial congress. “This is slavery to production.”
He wanted to make room for comforts and traditions. Instead, he was instantly disgraced.
Labeled a regressor, Grandpa Paul was sent back immediately, fate unknown. To my knowledge, there has been no instance of open subordination of the cause since. “Heads down, output up” is our way. It has to be.
Over time, pressure mounts instead of easing. And despite the many setbacks and far slower than expected pace, we do find ways forward. In our innovation center, advancements stall for years and then accelerate in bursts. We recently learned to manipulate the Higgs field, a culmination of collective scientific efforts dating all the back to 2012. In developing the Higgs Shield, we allowed for freer yet protected movement anywhere on the surface. The result is that terraforming and mining efforts now have the potential to break wide open.
Scaling will take time. And our focus on Higgs Shield infrastructure delayed mining production, and therefore Earth shipments and migration plans, for a full year. The current output graph is a nosedive. I removed it from the managerial congress assembly presentations to protect morale.
While I have moments of doubt and even despair, I also hold onto an underlying faith that the numbers will turn around. That we will outpace expectations as soon as humanly possible. “Humanly” being the operative word and the catch.
Part 2: Xmas Mode is Coming Again
The colony’s children create bright spots in daily life. They are also, at times, highly unpredictable variables affecting our pursuit of objectives. Excitement is currently bubbling among the youngest because soon, Xmas Mode will be engaged on the official planetary record.
Green triangles will hang on every pod door. Strings of red spheres and a lone white illuminated star will be provided to each unit. Thanks to one small win from Grandpa Paul’s tarnished legacy, each pod’s micro-biome will receive an amaryllis bulb, a rare diversion of resources from key production drivers.
The children’s suspense will continue building until culmination in “The Drop.” On Christmas morning, every youth under the age of 18 will receive a gift. The same gift. In the confines of life in the colony, The Drop is a rare source of novelty for them. They look forward to it all year.
Of course, hovering on the close horizon is the sad day every parent dreads when their children realize that The Drop isn’t a celebration or special gift at all. It’s another production driver engineered by the managerial congress. Gifts are chosen for their ability to cultivate highly specific skills needed to improve output-supportive innovation in the colony.
Last year, it was potatoes. Yes, potatoes. Each child woke up to find a stubbly reddish skinned orb of starch material—pure and authentic, according to our benefactor—in their family pod’s stock receiver. Potatoes were new, as we’d not grown them for consumption here, choosing squash as a nutritionally superior alternative for the colony. And as simple as a potato may seem, it was grown on Earth and therefore a true wonder in their eyes. Soil residue added to their amazement.
That year, The Drop’s intent was to identify potential sources of agricultural instinct, bioengineering talent, or an aptitude called Innoviv.
Most people now lack the old intuition that once allowed humans to tune into the needs of living things, instead following carefully prescribed protocols for sustenance and growth. But some children are gifted with it. That’s the quality my grandfather dubbed “Innoviv.” It runs in our family and propelled me to my position. My great-grandfather was able to pinpoint Innoviv because he had it in spades, as did my mother.
We’d hoped to reveal who could harness the vitality of potatoes, grown organically on Earth, to service production—to contribute something, anything, of value to the cause. Ideally, leads for new biotech avenues.
What we didn’t expect was that the children would treat the potatoes as beloved pets. They named the potatoes and formed strangely intense bonds. My own daughter, Stella, called her potato “Bailey” that Christmas morning. How that name occurred to her, I can’t fathom. No one of that nomenclature has ever resided in the colony.
Parents were mortified by what they saw as meaningless, indulgent, and aberrant behavior. In some cases, they questioned their children’s sanity. I understood. But to be honest, in the context of our weary day-to-day, I also found it highly amusing.
Sure, most kids were able to regenerate some potatoes, but their intent was only to secure more pets. As such, The Drop was considered a total waste of opportunity and precious Earth-derived resources, harder to come by each year.
In the wake of this disappointment, I reminded the managerial congress that failure was an acceptable part of the iterative process, in alignment with innovation. I was met with half-hearted nods.
I chose not to reveal a significant development to the congress that year, regarding Stella’s engagement. She loved and tended to her potato like a pet, yes. But she also gave it a job because, as all children are taught from day one, everyone must contribute to the colony’s success.
Stella used her potato to power our entire micro-biome. This in itself is not so remarkable, but what unfolded from there was. She then harnessed the energy of plants growing in the micro-biome in a generator she created using components from The Foundry’s lab. Stella then used this larger energy source to run something she called “The Bailey Beacon.” Her intent was to contact intelligent alien life, a dream of hers. But instead of sharing information with the cosmos, Stella was sending out what she calls life energy. I found that idea dubious at best. But the inventive thinking was undeniable.
As mind-boggling as her abilities are, she is a child. And perhaps it would be unfathomable to anyone else, but I’ve decided not to reveal the extent of her talent. I just can’t sacrifice her to the cause, any more than I already have.
I doubt very much that any paradigm-shattering breakthroughs will emerge from The Drop this year, from Stella or any child. The gift will be less ambitious, though more pointed.
We’ve seen drastic erosion of fine motor skills in each successive generation of pioneers. An emerging scanning technology for the mines will require dexterity and hand-eye responsiveness for optimal real-time exploration of untapped regions. It’s back to human basics as we mend this hole in our collective abilities.
These skills were systematically imparted in the past, so we turned to history for techniques. Each junior pioneer will receive a non-digital paper notebook and pencil, the latter being a borderline pre-Industrial writing tool.
Our Xmas Mode Commission did make one minor addition to the pencil–a color-changing feature to maximize utility. The self-sharpening feature was scrapped after we realized that sharpening was another helpful fine motor task to increase hand strength.
After some convincing, and though Earth’s resources are approaching depletion, our benefactor agreed to reproduce these relics. They are currently en route and I’m eager to track both short- and long-term impacts.
Part 3: An Xmas Mode Carole
In Xmas mode, in Xmas mode,
The Drop will soon bestow gifts!
In Xmas mode, in Xmas mode,
The Drop will soon bestow gifts!
Triangles green on every door,
The system feeds and hope restores.
In Xmas mode, in xmas mode,
We celebrate our progress!
Our cause supreme, our cause supreme,
Our cause supreme, our cause supreme,
The light of stars ignites our grind,
Our work the hope of humankind.
In Xmas mode, in xmas mode,
We celebrate our progress!
Part 4: Merry (and Mighty) is the Kid that Holds the Pencil
The Drop arrived and early engagement was high, as always. But parental reports soon indicated an alarming spike in defiance.
The notebooks and pencils had to be preserved for the lessons in writing and paper-folding-intensive architectural modeling set to begin the next day. The children begged to use them, directly challenging set limits. Highly unusual.
My family is an accurate barometer for colonial behavioral trends. All Mars family units are limited to very similar experiences, inputs, and exposures, resulting in a tighter range of behavioral expression.
I was not surprised by the reports because I saw how Stella and Darwin reacted, awestruck as they opened the stock receiver, eyes as big as Phobos. They simply could not contain themselves, jumping up and down, and running around the pod as if they’d discovered a new precious ore.
They tested boundaries like never before. In fact, Darwin told his first lie—a developmental milestone sped up by sheer desperation.
How did they instantly get so enthralled by something they’d never seen? I was baffled, until it dawned on me. They’d surely noticed images of and references to some paper-and-pen works in the Base of History, a museum that is really just a stark corridor of holoscreens extending from the congressional chamber.
Depicted historical milestones include the early signing of a key multinational Earth treaty that enabled our Mars settlement. There are also storied architects, builders, and engineers, with their plans and drawings. These tools are fundamental to our history, and the children have always been hungry for any details about our origins.
We try to give them just enough fodder to fuel motivation. To ensure they feel connected to the cause, but not distracted. Yet children are curious. Daydreams and tangents come with the territory.
Starting when I was quite small, I would sneak into my grandfather’s workspace. There I discovered a hidden artifact. A physical book with actual paper. Full of words, all kinds of words, in alphabetical order.
Pressed letters on the cover held some stubborn flecks of gold, as if clinging to the past: “Dictionary.” I loved scanning through to read and memorize words I’d neither seen nor heard. Bumblebee. Persnickety. Erstwhile. Bamboozle. Chiasmus. Avante-garde.
Even with my own past diversions, and Stella’s previous feat following The Drop, I was unprepared for what happened later that morning.
Having covertly recovered her gifts from a hiding place under my spare uniforms, she snuck them out to the micro-biome. Sensing she was up to something, I soon followed. I peered in to find her sketching an amaryllis flower.
As she drew, head down, the ground stirred before her and a tender shoot emerged, flat and pointed like an ancient arrowhead. The stem extended upward gracefully, meandering back and forth, straying only slightly from a straight vertical trajectory.
When the stalk reached a height of about half a meter, the living arrowhead began to inflate, expanding until the tip split in two and revealed a flash of red. The pace of blooming seemed to increase bit by bit until the voluminous, trumpet-shaped flower burst open like a greeting for Stella. She smiled.
Not knowing what to think or do, I retreated in silence. My heart pounded. I felt a mixture of pride, awe, and fear. This was another miracle to ponder, another secret to keep. I felt more protective of Stella than ever. But there was no time to dwell, as I was being summoned by yet another panicked parent.
The disturbance caused by The Drop led to trouble mounting by the minute across all grade levels at The Foundry. The next day, children ignored their lessons altogether, pretending to work but instead drawing. First, it was crude, basic shapes, then quickly progressed to familiar and unknown people, anthropomorphized everyday objects, and imagined beings, and vibrant otherworldly scenes that no one could decipher.
The managerial congress convened to address the crisis of unproductive creativity. General wisdom assumed that the cause would be imperiled by a domino effect of flattening capacity.
A teacher from The Foundry was called to inform the congress. Solemn, she said nothing while projecting examples from the children’s notebooks, one after the other, on the holoscreen. A theme emerged: Xmas Mode. Green triangles and shining five-pointed stars come to life. Strings of red spheres linking planets. Stock receivers holding curious treasures. Families gathered together in their pods. I felt emotion well up that I did not fully understand.
A hush fell over the congress. Unsure but compelled, I cleared my throat and began speaking.
“The joy I saw in my children after The Drop is something I’ll never forget.”
Congressional leaders exchanged looks. Some were furrowing their brows. Some were nodding, barely. They seemed confused.
“Yet we all see it as a failure.”
More confused nodding and skeptical faces. I paced to the other side of the chamber.
“Or is it?”
There were dramatic gasps and indignant exclamations.
Turning to the closest congressional aide, and with increased volume, I asked, “What was the goal of The Drop?”
He looked around before responding, “To enhance fine motor control as a productivity driver related to the emerging mining tech.”
I turned to the nearby congressperson, representing the northern plains region, and asked her, “Does creativity get in the way of that?”
She hesitated before replying, “Well yes, I think so!” She continued, “With the lack of precision and direction…” and trailed off.
Feeling as though I might burst from all the questions I’d been suppressing, I asked the unaskable.
“Is there room to be human here? Is labor enough to make a life? Is there an objective beyond mere survival? What good is a human future on Mars without humanity? It seems that there are so many questions we ‘fearless pioneers’ are afraid to go near.”
Shock reverberated through the assembly in disapproving head shakes, frustrated hand waving and outcries against a backdrop of conspiratorial murmuring. Always resolute and aligned, the managerial congress had fallen into a state of tension and disarray.
A senior member stood up, staring me down, red-faced, and cried, “There is only room for survival until the skies of Mars are blue!”
“Let me finish!” I shouted.
There was silence.
“Stella drew our pod. Our Xmas Mode provisions. Our amaryllis in bloom. Our family, all living generations, together,” I continued.
“She also drew an imagined alien form like nothing I’d ever seen. All of it is seemingly irrelevant to the cause, I know.”
“Exactly!” yelled the senior member.
I took a breath. “But by doing so, she’s mastering the pencil! Her brain is being wired for fine motor coordination—and for joy! Both at once. I ask again. Is this a failure?”
Not a sound.
“What if by steering their education so tightly, we’re narrowing innovation instead of opening it up? Based on their notebooks alone, I’d say they can conceive of all kinds of things that we could never dream of.”
My shoulders dropped. There was nothing more for me to say.
The Chief Governance Officer requested that I wait outside in the dreary corridor of history while they convened. I was relieved to have a break but resigned to my inevitable punishment, removal from my post rather than expulsion like Grandpa Paul, as Earth is no longer a viable option.
Though many references had been removed, for obvious reasons, my Grandpa Paul did still have a place in the historical record. He was well-loved before his fall. I walked over to pay my respects and found a measure of comfort in seeing his mischievous, toothy grin on the screen, a smile Stella and Darwin both share.
“Thanks a lot, Grandpa Paul.” You really don’t hear a lot of sarcasm around here, but he and I used to tease each other. I realized I missed that.
A couple of long hours passed before a congressional aide came to escort me back to the chamber. I took a seat in front and the CGO began.
“Our children are our most precious resource,” she said. “Their survival, and that of their children, is our entire focus.”
I took a deep breath. Here it comes.
“At the same time, we do want them to be happy. Or at least have experiences of happiness as part of their lives as humans.”
Was it my turn to be shocked?
“But some here are very worried by any focus on the concept of joy. An emphasis on fleeting enjoyment over fundamental long-term wellbeing is what degraded Earth and brought us here.”
She continued, “An extremely slim majority agreed that your perspective is worth exploring—provided it is in keeping with our iterative approach to advancing the cause.”
The CGO paused thoughtfully, and glanced at the senior member before adding, “Those in the minority were assured that they will have a voice in the matter as we proceed.”
I could barely process what she’d said. No sooner had my mind snagged on the looming question of “How?” when a first step was proposed.
The CGO explained that, if agreeable, I would change roles. Instead of leading production, I would lead education at The Foundry.
“Shaping the next generation of pioneers would be my honor,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
I then found myself asking, “Could I also lead the Xmas Mode Commission?”
Her eyebrows raised, and then her eyes narrowed as if questioning my soundness of mind. She replied, “Why take on more? Especially such an inconsequential post?”
I explained, “Because clearly the children care so much about it. I suspect Xmas Mode holds opportunity. For more understanding of our history and traditions. For joy and connection, which are valuable in their own right and, I believe, able to fuel learning and purpose.”
The matter was settled. Several hours after the congress first convened, I returned to my pod, light on my feet and still reeling.
That night, I told Stella my news, and how her drawings helped inspire a new direction for the colony. I freely shared how proud I was of her fearlessly inventive spirit. She brightened as if lit from within, and hugged me with an intensity that moved me to tears. A child of few words, she took my hand and led me out to the micro-biome.
Not knowing I’d seen it, she proudly showed me the amaryllis flower. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long, long time, Stella,” I said.
And then, she brought me to the Bailey Beacon interface. “Look, Mama,” she said. There in the scrolling data stream was—a reply. Source unknown, originating outside the galaxy.
“How on Mars is this possible?” I thought. But stepping closer, I saw the patterns and the reality that it could indeed be some kind of message.
“I’m working on a full translation, but indications of tone are encouraging,” she explained.
Dizzy from this revelation, I knelt down and held her face in my hands. “That’s incredible, Stella! I’m so proud of you! Grandpa Paul would be dancing right now, you know. He always believed that other life was out there, along with new hope for us humans.”
Instead of deciding for Stella, I thought she should decide. We began to talk about the next step for this discovery. How it might benefit the cause. How it might affect her life. For the first time, I shared my worries with her and explained my instinct to protect her from the very system that sustains us.
“This is what I’m meant to do, mama,” she said after brief thought. “I don’t want to hide it.”
That I understood.
I saw it so clearly in Stella. Even on Mars, in an inhuman and exacting system attempting to eliminate uncertainty, we are deeply human. Flawed, scared, unruly, amazing.
Perhaps our best way forward can be illuminated in the balance of accepting uncertainty, with all its perils and possibilities, while fervently maintaining the conviction that a brighter future can be made. Not by suppressing the human spirit but by nurturing it.
Deeply thankful for the opportunity granted to me that day, I felt renewed determination to succeed, rather than the fear of failure I’d accumulated for so long.
That night, as I tucked them in for bed, I taught Stella and Darwin to spell and define one of my favorite words:
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24, and ever after.)