#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.)
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.)
Devon wasn’t known for his patience. His mother would laugh really hard at that because it’s such an understatement. But we’ll start there.
When he was very small and buckled in his car seat during stop-and-go city traffic, he would flail in displays of unrestrained frustration at being restrained. He’d yell with all his might, “Go faster, mama!” It was during this era that Devon’s mother mastered the art of deep breathing.
At school, Devon struggled to wait–for recess, his turn, or in line. Whenever he tried to help get things moving, he’d see annoyed faces glaring back at him.
Getting bundled up to go out in the snow was always an unpleasant ordeal. He was “done” long before he was ready. Devon hated the loud, rough fabrics and the staying still. He got so antsy, he’d try to up and leave mid-snowpants-pull. Of course, escape attempts made it all the harder to button, snap, zip, and cinch. For his mother, it was–another opportunity to hone deep breathing techniques.
Being stuck in one place, when every fiber of his being told him that the snow was out there waiting for him–it was downright painful. He wondered, “What if the snow is starting to melt? Will everyone be done playing by the time I get out there?” Desperate to be released, he’d cry, “I don’t need a hat!” In most situations, however, he was the one being shouted at.
His teacher would say, “Please stay on task, Devon!”
His coach would say, “Devon! Stop playing around on the bench.”
His mother would say, “I need you to be patient and pay attention, Devon!”
Even his classmates would say, “Calm down!” or in the case of one socially savvy girl, “Can’t you see that now is not the time?” They were supposed to be his friends, so these barbs hurt the most.
He felt powerless to defend against constant daggers of criticism. Sometimes, he tuned out and faded away, retreating into a muted and murky gray area in his head. That way, he wasn’t really present. He was an astronaut floating in space, loosely tethered but not connected to other people. It was lonely. He’d lose touch with what was happening and miss what was said, but he could avoid being scolded.
Devon was at his best and happiest when playing, running around, or doing just about anything outside. Especially when there was snow, which cushioned every surface and opened up new possibilities to explore, go fast, leap, and land where he may.
One December day, after an agonizing preparatory saga, he burst outside in the aftermath of a generous snowstorm. Kids were digging forts in snowbanks, building snowpeople, sledding down whatever slopes they could find, making and stockpiling snowballs for upcoming battles, and generally making merry. His favorite kind of day.
Devon piled and packed snow to build up the modest hill of his front yard, and did run after run. While charging back up with his sled, he glimpsed a vibrant flash of green on the snow alongside their white house. He convinced himself it was nothing.
On the next ascent, he saw the curious green protrusion again before it vanished. The shape resembled a very pointy shoe. “Not possible,” he thought. But Devon was inquisitive and had to go look. Upon approach, he saw tiny footprints and a trail of brown crumbs. Devon followed them to the large holly bush by the backyard gate. His coat and gloves made it easier to push aside the spiky leaves and take a peek.
Devon could not believe his eyes, brain, or luck. On the lowest branch sat a ginger-haired elf, in a vivid green suit with silver curlicues along the cuffs and collar. Her pointy green hat was twisted like soft serve ice cream, and her green boots swung just above the ground as she snacked on a gingersnap the size of her head.
“Aw, gee, I knew you were going to find me out!” said the elf. She didn’t seem too bothered, though. “I’m Ginger, obviously. Sorry to eat in front of you, but you know, that’s dinner on the road for you!”
Devon could only stare, slack-jawed. She went on, “Aren’t you going to ask me? Whenever I meet a kid, the first thing they do is ask.”
A bug-eyed Devon replied, “W-w-what do they ask you?”
“They ask what list they’re on, of course,” said Ginger. “Don’t you want to know if you’re naughty or nice? This is highly sought after intel, D!”
“Oh, right! Yes, I do want to know. Which list am I on?” asked Devon, who now needed an answer immediately.
Ginger’s laugh sounded vaguely like a jingle bell. “I knew it, Dev!” Taking a more serious tone she said, “Listen, here’s the thing. You’re on the nice list, but you’ve been deemed ‘at risk’ for naughty classification. You’re on the edge, kid.” She finished the last of the gingersnap. “I come south to investigate these cases so Santa can make the final call before the big haul.”
Devon’s heart warmed–because he was on the nice list, which he certainly wasn’t banking on–then immediately sank at the news of his perilous position. Anxiety started to creep up from his stomach to his chest. He felt slightly ill. “Why am I ‘at risk’? I always try my best to do the right thing, I swear!”
“I believe you, Dev-O” Ginger said, “It’s just that a few instances of–how shall I put this–waiting intolerance have been flagged in your file. I’m not saying they’re accurate. I’m just saying that’s what some reports have merely suggested.”
Noting his defeated expression, she added, “Oh, Devi-Boy. Don’t worry! We’ll get it straightened out. I’ve been keeping my eye on you and you seem like a good kid. Have a little faith in yourself, ay?”
It was hard to have much confidence, given all the negative feedback he’d been getting lately. But Devon took a deep breath, the way his mother often did, and said, “Okay. But how will you decide?”
Ginger brushed crumbs off the front of her coat as she explained, “Here’s the deal, Devster. You’re going to go about your day, all la-de-da and fa-la-la-la-la, and at some point you will face–oh, let’s call it a ‘challenging situation.’ I can’t say what, how, or when. But it will happen, and it will reveal essential truths about your character. No big deal.”
“Sounds like a pretty big deal,” said Devon, his brow furrowed.
Ginger said, “Nah. You do you. Just be yourself, and I’m sure it will all work out fine, D-Money.”
Devon was not reassured.
She turned away, then swiveled back around. “Also you’re not supposed to know about this or me so none of this ever happened–got it?”
“Got it!” said Devon, eager to please. He walked back to the front yard, wondering if this encounter had really happened and if so, what crazy challenge lay ahead, and whether he was up to it. He was quite worried, and when he was worried, he knew the best way to feel better was to get moving. So he threw himself into the business of snowman making.
All was rolling along nicely until the girl next door complained that he was taking too much snow from her yard. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to!” he cried, reversing course. The ball was now up to his waist in height, dwarfing all other snowman bases in the vicinity, but he wasn’t satisfied. Devon used his body weight to nudge the lopsided sphere down the skinny side yard.
Suddenly, from the bend in the street just a few houses down came the furious whirring of wheels spinning on ice. A car was stuck on the small slope that preceded the turn onto their stretch of road. Instantly alert, Devon swiveled his head and instinctively headed in the direction of the noise.
Meanwhile, little Aubrey had just sledded down her driveway. Unlike the previous times where she bailed out early, this time she tried to go as far as she could and landed in the middle of the street. Right in the path of that car.
The kids all froze. But Devon didn’t hesitate, not for a millisecond. He sprinted toward Aubrey and pushed the sled back toward the driveway with his foot before smoothly continuing along the side of the road at full tilt. Waving his arms frantically to catch the driver’s attention, he ran around the bend and disappeared from view.
The whirring stopped. “Yeah, Devon!” The kids cheered.
Sweating in his heavy gear as he trudged up the hill, Devon re-appeared and saw his mom out on the front steps, looking concerned. “Mom! We need some sand for this car!” He knew what to do, because his mother’s car had been in the same spot more than once. She put a bag of sand in a sled and together they went to help the driver.
Aubrey’s mother had come out from her house and got the full run-down from the kids. When Devon returned, she told him, “You’re amazing, Devon! You really jumped into action. Thank you for looking out for Aubrey!”
Aubrey gave him a hug. Devon beamed. He did not feel adrift or unsure. He felt grounded.
After all the excitement, it was time for a break. Devon’s mom made peppermint cocoa with marshmallows. She sat watching him, thoughtfully, as he slurped spoonfuls.
Devon had been so engrossed in what was unfolding in the street that he’d forgotten about the elf and the challenge. The realization hit him like a lightning bolt. He shouted, “That was it!” Devon sprang from his chair and went to throw on his boots. “I forgot something! I’ll be right back, Mom!”
No sooner did he turn the corner of the house, when he found Ginger sitting on the gate. She munched on a gingerbread man as big as her torso.
“Well, this situation is pretty cut and dry,” Ginger said, taking another bite. Devon held his breath.
“You’re on the nice list, Mr. D. All the way. In fact, you don’t belong anywhere near the naughty list. This is a classic case of a get-up-and-go boy living in a sit-down-and-stay world. I see it all the time,” she said. “You always do your best, I know.”
“Yes!” Devon jumped up and down. “Thank you, Ginger!” As thrilled as he was about his nice list status, he was just as overjoyed to know that, finally, someone understood. “Thank you so much! I can’t wait for Christmas!”
“That’s what it’s all about, D-Train,” she said. “My work here is done.”
Ginger climbed down from the gate and paused. “You know it’s a shame–you’d make a great elf.” And with that, she was gone, presumably off to her next “at-risk” investigation.
A couple weeks later, on Christmas morning, Devon found many of his wishes wrapped up under the tree. The tag on the last gift simply read, “Merry Christmas! XOXO, Mom.”
Devon shook the present, hearing no sound, before tearing the silver wrapping paper. With barely a hint of irritation, he ripped the stubborn tape that sealed the box, and pulled away layers of red tissue paper.
There lay a new snowsuit. With soft, smooth fabric, a hood, a single, sleek zipper, and gloves attached to the ends of the sleeves.
To most kids, this toyless surprise might seem like a useful yet disappointing gift. Not to Devon.
His mother explained, “You love the snow, and I think this will make it so much easier to get out there! Also, I’ve been thinking, why don’t we have a run break in the middle of getting ready?”
He turned to his mother, eyes bright and arms open. “I was waiting for you to understand. Thank you Mom!”
“I just had to be patient and pay attention,” she said.
(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day from 12/13 through 12/24.)