Perhaps you’ve heard about the celestial peace offering the universe will gift us as 2020 approaches an eagerly awaited end. On December 21st – yes, the winter solstice – the planets Jupiter and Saturn align close enough in the night sky that the conjunction will appear as one ultra-bright star. Such an astronomical anomaly has not occurred in almost 800 years, back during the time of Knights Templar and the Crusades, Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The phenomenon is also know as the Christmas Star, suggesting a similar (albeit apocryphal) heavenly occurrence led the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem.
This exceptional event brought back memories of my earliest experience of narrative writing. At the age of eleven or so, I wrote and staged nativity plays in our basement with my three siblings and the three daughters of close family friends. As a good Methodist boy who attended Sunday school, I knew the story well. So I simply lifted the best scenes from each of the four Gospels, added fitting Christmas carols, and voila! A mini-musical extravaganza! Simple costumes—bed sheets, bath towels, and dressing gowns—appeared to glow when illuminated by flickering candlelight, as did the cardboard crowns and glittered halos.
The first nativity play is often credited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who celebrated a midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1223 in front of a life-size nativity scene, complete with live animals. (We had to forgo the animals, except for our dog, Tracy, who was corralled into reluctant participation.) I like to imagine Saint Francis might have repeated his performance three years later under that Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Talk about a fantastic natural lighting effect! But I digress…
Even as a young author, I didn’t like the idea of repeating myself, so the following year I wrote a slapstick nativity play. I don’t remember much—banter between the Innkeeper and Joseph inspired by Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine; Three Kings and exploding cigars, straight out of the Three Stooges. I don’t think our more religious moms were so appreciative of the satiric (Satanic?) version and that’s where the short-lived tradition came to an end. But the writing didn’t stop. My brother reminded me of a play I wrote about astronauts. I remember another inspired by The Song of Roland, about a young squire and his friend on a quest for an enchanted sword. Oh, what an otherworldly imagination I had!
Which, in my usual roundabout fashion, brings me to the topics I was meant to reflect upon: change and looking forward. At the best of times, I easily lose my way down the rabbit hole of nostalgic memories. I know I’m not the only one to welcome such an escape during this unsettling year, a year when we’ve been confronted with a barrage of unanticipated changes. For me it began in March with the travel ban, which cancelled a trip to New Orleans to attend Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, one of the earliest events forced into cancellation. And of course, it didn’t stop there—not for me, not for anyone.
For the past eight years (before this one), I’ve spent the summer at a friend’s inn, located in New Hampshire’s gorgeous White Mountains. The popular restaurant/pub keeps my friend busy enough that she decided not to rent the old guestrooms, also owing to a change in fire code regulations. However, with a wink and a nod, she graciously allowed me to stay in the unused rooms and the inn became my personal writer’s retreat. It’s where I finished the final drafts of my first novel, Calvin’s Head; it’s where I received an email from BSB offering me a contract; it’s where I opened that first box of beautifully printed copies of the book.
The inn’s mid-19th century historical roots also inspired the story and setting of my next book, which I had hoped to finish when I returned to New Hampshire this past summer. That didn’t happen, of course, and I have found it difficult with all the distractions of this year to sit at my desk in Amsterdam and focus on writing. So my characters remain in a purgatory not unlike my own, seemingly helpless to resolve the entanglements in which they find themselves, not knowing if their story will ever be resolved.
On top of everything, last month my friend was forced to make the difficult decision to close the inn indefinitely. She tells her loyal customers she will reopen “when things calm down.” And I know she sincerely intends to bring the business back to life—but I wonder. When will it be safe to travel again? Will I still have a room at the inn next summer? Will I ever sit at my vintage roll-top desk (a generous gift from the longtime friend who played Mary in our basement nativity plays) and once more imagine new stories into being?
I mustn’t end on a note of such bleak uncertainty, even as Dutch officials have just announced their most strict lockdown measures—in place until at least mid-January. While it’s impossible to sugarcoat the reality outside my door, there are countless new worlds to explore sitting on my bookshelves. At the moment I’m lost in the Realm of Fire with gay teen heroes of an adventure-filled YA fantasy, The Dubious Gift of Dragon Blood by new Bold Strokes author J. Marshall Freeman. Next I might mingle with courtiers in Tudor England, or party with the literati in 1950s Italy, or delve into the spirit world of New Orleans. Wherever I go, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll find inspiration to finish my own story—even without my roll-top talisman.