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A Christmas card from Skunk Hollow: city lights, holidays past, and finding hope

It was possible, for a moment, to think that the old hometown has not changed much in the last 20 years, and to feel that things were indeed turning out all right.

It was three years ago, maybe four now, that the Wally Tree first rose out of the blackness along our road.
MinnPost photo by Ron Meador

I was in Minneapolis last week for a bit of business and then dinner with my son, and though I didn’t really have the time, I took a little anyway to go walking in the city’s southwest quadrant.

I lived more than a quarter of my life in these precincts, for reasons of work and career and parenting. Now I live in a rural woodland, and though the trip to town feels more and more like a homecoming as the years go by, and doesn’t really take so long, I find that I’ve been making it less and less often.

But I’ve always felt that Minneapolis looks its best in snow and holiday lighting, and it was this feeling that moved me to park the car and amble in the vicinity of 50th and Penn, looking for glimpses of Christmas past.

As it is for many people, Christmas has been a complicated and not completely merry time for me over the years. For reasons that are no longer important, the Christmastides of the early 1990s were my darkest, and I got through them by going out walking night after night in the deep winter, cultivating the fatigue that might lead to sleep.

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In this bleak period every home I passed, every person I saw within, looked to be better and brighter and happier than me and mine, and while I knew in a rational way that this simply wasn’t true, such narratives are not much influenced by the facts.

Eventually there were turning points and a big one came a day or two before Dec. 17, 1995, which is the date of a Star Tribune editorial I am about to quote. (Actually, that’s the first of two publication dates; about 10 years later, again at Christmas, some readers asked for it to be reprinted and it made a second appearance.)

A winter’s walk, 1995

I remember nothing about preparing this piece except the sharp experience of looking at it in proof and realizing that I’d written it because it was something I really needed to read. It was headlined “A winter’s walk,” and it went like this:

It is possible to walk, late on a winter night, and believe for a moment that the city has lost its voice.

The rush of traffic has subsided to a hush. Airplanes have stopped going up and coming down. Buses and trucks are bedded down in their barns.

And then a solitary car comes past, crunching and squeaking in the ruts, its modern engine thrumming so softly that the radio news can be heard through rolled-up windows.

It is possible, when the ground is snowy and the moon is nearly full, to read a newspaper on an unlamped street corner at midnight. It is possible to see your breath, hear your breath, capture your breath as feathers of rime on a scarf.

It is possible to use one sense at a time: Close the eyes and smell a log fire. Open them and see a dog trotting for home, silent and spouting steam. Close them again and hear the wind hum, thin and leafless.

It is possible, even though the houses are shut up tight as vaults, to see private life on display:

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Here a man is putting dishes into cupboards. Here another is reading a newspaper by light from a green glass hood. Here, in an undraped window very near the street, a woman is playing solitaire on a computer screen. Here, at the window of an unlit room, a shadow stands and smokes, the cigarette winking like a slow Christmas light.

It is possible, late on a winter night, to stand at the end of the street for a few minutes, still warm from striding, and watch a window go dark in this house, then that one.

It is possible to see the world dimmed nearly to black and white, though draped in places with little colored lights, and believe it will all turn out all right.

A winter’s walk, 2014

After last week’s walk was done I took the slow way home, driving east along Minnehaha Creek to drop out of traffic and into the built landscape of stucco, small lots and typically sensible, minimalist holiday lighting that create the city’s seasonal charm.

There were walkers all along the parkway, some alone but more in twos and threes, and quite a few runners despite the new slush and the dark pools between streetlights.

And it was possible, for a moment, to think that the old hometown has not changed much in the last 20 years, and to feel that things were indeed turning out all right.

Later that evening, back in Skunk Hollow, I dug out the old editorial to re-read, and after rolling the trash cart down to the road I walked for a bit.

The houses are far apart out here, and most are far from the road as well; you see other people’s windows not as portals into lives but as dots of light in the deep dark beyond the trees. There are no streetlights, so you have to watch your step in winter, and carry a light of your own.

But the lack of ground light makes for great stargazing – the Milky Way overhead is commonplace – and on this night the sky was so cloudless and crisp I pocketed my headlamp,  waited for my eyes to adjust, then let the stars light my way down to the Wally Tree.

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A tree for Wally

It was three years ago, maybe four now, that the Wally Tree first rose out of the blackness along our road.

Wally was a fine old dog, a big German shepherd belonging to Andy and Nancy, our good neighbors and now great friends.

He had died after a series of struggles, and in his memory they draped lights around one of the towering spruces at the bend where the road turns away from their house and toward ours.

It’s a whimsical sight, still, this bit of city-style Christmas lighting scaled up to such a size and standing alone in the chiaroscuro landscape of a rural winter.

And it makes me smile every single time I pass it by, warming me with its reminder that I am among friends and very nearly home.