Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear? Finale

Yes, I realize it is after Christmas, but you’re still listening to Christmas music, right? I don’t usually pack it up until January 1st. J

Today I just want to share a few of my favorite arrangements of popular holiday songs. So listen one more time before and enjoy!

O Holy Night – Point of Grace, Steve Camp, Harry? I have to go with the powerful pipes of Sandi Patty.

The Little Drummer Boy – toss up between White Heart, Audio Adrenaline and 4Him, but for variety’s sake, we’ll go with White Heart. Nothing like classic 80s electric guitars rocking out some Christmas tunes!

And of course…

Do You Hear What I Hear? - 4Him – absolutely LOVE this one – Lynn, hope you enjoy. J

Monday, December 28, 2009

What I Write Highlights - "Eli"

My newest project, Eli’s story came to me in a flash of light, a single instant of revelation that took my breath away. As I listened to my Daniel talk to his mother on the phone one day, I heard her say something that inspired me instantly, so really I give, besides God, my sweet mother-in-law full credit. J

Funny thing is, Eli isn’t the kind of character she would imagine, I don’t think. A combination of Lincoln Burroughs from the FOX television show Prison Break (RIP favorite show ever) and West Coast Chopper’s Jesse James (Mr. Sandra Bullock), Eli holds Atlas-proportioned weight on his shoulders – the death of his best friend during their tour of duty in Iraq, the lost love of a girl he would have married, the bitter memories of a family whose oppressive religious practices drove him away. He’s a bartender in middle-of-nowhere, AZ, rides a Harley, sports several tattoos, struggles with his temper.

Little does he know, Someone’s looking for him. And He’s willing to do anything to find him. For Eli, things are about to get a lot worse.

Here’s chapter one… like Charlie (from Someone Beautiful), please be patient with my Eli. Under the tough-guy exterior, you may find someone who just needs a little love.

For Eli Hart, life ended long ago.

Going through the motions didn’t even apply.

More like perpetual motion. Downward.

His motorcycle, a Harley of course, sputtered to a stop in front of Ron’s Roadside Run-in – Triple R for short. Without the engine grind, the startling contrast of desert silence overwhelmed him. Eli sat a moment to listen. The rest of the day promised nothing but out-dated country songs on the jukebox and barstools scratching against hardwood floors as truck drivers, motorcycle herds and a few locals bellied up to the bar to escape the Arizona heat.

Wait. Country songs never out dated.

Parking lot dust whirled as a rusty pick-up skidded to a halt next to him. Eli pushed plain, black Raybands up to his slick forehead and peered at Natalie Dancer, the petite, not to mention pretty, copper-skinned driver.

Eyebrows arched, she glanced at him through the open window. “What? I’m not late yet.” She pulled the keys from the ignition and smashed them up into the sun visor.

Shrugging, he said, “I didn’t say a word.” Just like he wouldn’t mention – again - his objection to where she stored her keys.

“You don’t have to.” She removed a windblown mouthful of jet-black hair. After snatching up a denim clutch purse and a tanned cowboy hat, she reached for the latch. She had to shove on the door to get it open. “It’s written all over your face, Eli.”

He suppressed a smirk. “You never did read too good.”

“Sorta like how you talk?” She slid to the ground and planted the hat on her head. Even with the hat, she only almost reached his biceps.

“Your brakes need a tune up, Nat,” he commented, working to keep his gaze on her face, not the hint of cleavage peeking out from her black tank top.

She slammed the truck door with all her pint-sized might. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“I don’t mind taking a look-“

“Derek’ll be home tomorrow. Thanks, though.” She grinned, then skipped off toward the front door.

Eli pressed his lips together trying not to growl out loud. He dismounted his iron steed, shoved the keys into the front pocket of his Wrangler’s and followed her into the tavern.

Deputy Harold Dancer from the Wellton Station sat in his usual place at the head of the counter where he could see the front door. Nat had her lips pressed up against his leathery cheek. “Morning, Daddy,” she cooed, then flitted behind the bar and through the old fashioned, swinging saloon doors leading into the kitchen.

“It’s almost noon,” the old man grumbled, weathered facial lines deepening into canyons as he frowned. He looked every bit his ancestry, like a Quechan Indian chief presiding over a tribal council meeting, except for the rumpled, sand-colored uniform and varnished, six-pointed star.

“Almost noon is still morning,” Natalie called from the back corner of the kitchen where employees, the women anyhow, kept their belongings.

He rolled his eyes at Eli. “Hello, Son.”

Eli gave him a nod, gritting his teeth against the dive his stomach took every time Harold Dancer called him son, which happened to be most days at almost noon. Longing cowered to guilt as he reminded himself, it had been his own damn fault.

He grabbed a rag to polish an already-clean mug behind the counter. “What’s the scanner report this morning, Harold?”

“So far, so good,” he mumbled before slurping his coffee. He cleared his throat with a quick, snarly hack. “Heading over to Asher to check out a car theft after I calm Mrs. Beatty down at the Park. New RV showed up last night. The partying type, apparently.” He shrugged and his lips turned down as one dark eyebrow went up. “Basic business.”

Eli nodded. Basic business was a good thing, considering the alternative, as well as Natalie’s particular attachment to her father. Anything other than basic made her worry. “Probably need a refill on that coffee before you go.” He picked up the urn and sloshed around the remaining liquid.

With the stubbed tip of his index finger, Harold tapped once on the brim of his cup.

As Eli poured, an ancient– at least classic as phones go – pushbutton rang a genuine ding-a-ling-a-ling. By the second ring, he managed to snag the scuffed, traditional black receiver and tuck it under his ear, squeezing it with a rounded shoulder. He winced at the twinge in his neck muscles. “Triple R, this is Eli.”

After the shortest conversation possible, he hung up and shook his head. “Fantastic.”

Natalie breezed through the saloon doors, tying a tired-looking apron around her trim waist. “What’s wrong?”

“Brandi’s kid’s sick again,” Eli reported.

She rolled her expressive brown eyes. “What else is new?”

Eli cringed and held his breath. He hoped with all his heart this didn’t ruin her good mood. Natalie resembled a hot-wired Mustang Convertible, irresistible, 0-60 in less than ten seconds, a wild ride, but a dangerous one too. He bore the tread marks to prove it. Of course, some of that had to do with his driving record.

“Well, good. Bring it. More tips for me.” She flashed a smile as she ducked under the part of the bar that flips up and headed for the dark jukebox behind the pool table.

Eli exchanged glances with Harold, both of them exhaling in relief.


Situated on Interstate 8 a good thirty miles from any real town, Ron’s Roadside Run-in provided services not unlike the old watering stops along the railroad tracks running across southern Arizona. Sure, they served a dozen or so locals, but most of their clientele consisted of unfamiliar faces, and only the kind willing to stop at what amounted to a shack in the middle of nowhere sporting those special, colorful neon lights flashing in the window. So Eli wasn’t surprised to see the trio of leather-clad members of a motorcycle herd, as he liked to call them, saunter in a few minutes after six that evening. Still, this type he liked to keep an eye on.

They took the last available table, a four top in the corner.

Within seconds, Natalie sidled up to them, tray in hand, offering her dazzling smile. The lanky one with a pitiful handlebar mustache and beady eyes sneered at her and landed a playful tap on her leg, just under her hip.

Eli’s skin prickled with irritation. It’s not like it didn’t happen… all the time.

True to form, Natalie dipped away from another advance, waving a naughty finger at the guy’s nose. A bigger fellow sitting across from raunchy biker number one beamed up at her with puffy cheeks. He said something that made his two companions bust out laughing.

Apparently, he had just introduced himself as raunchy biker number two.

Natalie’s smile turned cautious and she took a step backwards.

Shoving a long glass under the tap nozzle, Eli clenched his jaw. He’d made the mistake of stepping in too early before, but damn, it was hard to wait. Frothy, white foam spilled over onto his hand, diverting his gaze. With the towel hanging over his shoulder, he wiped clean the glass then set it in front of a middle-aged, local farmer. “There you go, Mr. Oliver.”

Bright blue eyes twinkled up at him. “Now, Eli, how many times do I have to tell you? Call me Winchester.”

“Yes, sir,” Eli answered with a half smile, but his eyes followed Natalie as she stalked back to the bar. He met her at the end where the register sat, his pulse quickening at the sight of her distraught expression. He bit down on his tongue.

“Three Buds,” she said, grabbing a bowl of pretzels. Without meeting his gaze, she headed back to the table.

Resisting the need to catch her elbow, he filled the order, keeping his eyes on her the whole time. Besides obvious and objectionable ogles, the guys didn’t attempt to touch her again. Although it grated his last nerve, Eli couldn’t react. Natalie was definitely worth ogling.

He had the beers ready by the time she returned. He watched her every movement, looking for any indication that she’d had enough. A smile almost reached his lips. Of course, she’d never let on that she couldn’t handle a couple of rough necks. Well, as long as they stuck to window shopping.

“Eli, darlin’?”

He turned his head and cringed inside. Madeline Dancer, Natalie’s almost schizophrenic mother, stared at him with icy blue eyes framed by thick, press-on eyelashes. Her Easter egg hair swirled around her head and bright pink lip gloss added emphasis to her every word. She lived in a constant state of 1950.

“Yes, ma’am?” he managed.

“Coke’s out. Might want to keep on top of that, honey.” With a crinkle of her crow’s feet, she clip clopped in platform sandals to the pool table where several local teens hovered. “Justin Quick, if you don’t have your papa’s broad shoulders, I declare.”

“You’d think she owned the place,” he muttered for the millionth time as he threw a cautionary glance at Natalie before pushing through the saloon doors. In the quieter din of the kitchen, he heard the sputtering CO2 that, from the front, Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 belting from the jukebox had drowned out.

Ward Diamond, the head grille operator otherwise known as the cook, glanced over his hunched shoulder, a smirk showing through his salt and pepper stubble. “It just started hissin’. Tell her to take a valium.” He plunged a wire wrack into bubbling, snapping grease.

Eli had to chuckle. If he could count on Ward for anything, it was his total and unrelenting loathing of Madeline Dancer. He and Ron survived Viet Nam together and were nigh inseparable… except when she interfered.

Although claiming she had put enough sweat and tears into the Triple R over the years to deserve her fair share in its ownership, Madeline sure worked hard to cozy up to the real owner, who happened to be a decent guy in Eli’s humble opinion. But like most men, especially tired, disillusioned middle-aged men with comb-overs, Ron Nivens had a weakness for flattery… and cleavage. And who could blame him? Eli had the same weaknesses… well, one of the two.

Still, it didn’t make taking her orders any easier.

Task complete, he stood and swiped his hands against the seat of his jeans.

The saloon doors snapped back, cracking like a whip when they hit the walls. Natalie gripped the stainless steal sink. “Sick bastards.”

“Holy Toledo, girl,” Ward exclaimed, ducking behind a spatula he flung up to shield himself from whatever he thought might follow her arrival… shrapnel maybe.

Eli’s fists clenched with involuntary force. “Nat?”

For a fraction of a second, she stared at him with an open expression of fear before her chiseled mask reappeared. “Oh… hey…”

“What happened?” He didn’t move, afraid of his anger, like the Hulk. He even saw green a little bit.

“Nothin’ really,” she quipped, shrugging and grinning an awful, fake grin. “Same old crap, you know. Just needed a little breather.”

He hated when she used that tone of voice, and he winced with angry irritation. His gaze took a systematic sweep over her body, a fact-finding mission only for once. That’s when he saw it. Above her elbow, red impressions blossoming rapidly into purple, the perfect pattern of a set of fingers.

His restraint snapped.

(photos by

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"Tinsel" Town - Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Charlie Brown Christmas. The Peanuts are cute, funny, entertaining, and they have what I consider the happy dance. But I like this one best because of Linus’ plain and simple, unashamed, and proud monologue -

Analogies are great, stealthy evangelism and creative renditions make powerful statements, but here, Linus simply recites Scripture, God’s own words, and nothing can be more powerful than that.

Merry Christmas, friends of Dry Ground. Be abundantly blessed!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear? Memory Lane

Music triggers memories. For me, holiday songs especially bring to mind special times.

One of those music memories sprouts from my earlier years, I think I was eight or nine years old. A stray dog had decided to stick around our small-town, middle class neighborhood home, probably because I couldn’t resist feeding the poor mutt. It didn’t take long for me to consider her my dog, and eventually she was allowed into the house. I called her Christy (absolutely no idea why) or Sneaker because during dinner she was not allowed in the kitchen, but she, with the utmost stealth, always ended up under my feet by the end of the meal.

Anyway, my dad, Christy and I would take walks down our quiet alley in the evenings. Close to Christmas, during these outings, we sang (probably too loudly) the 12 Days of Christmas over and over. The snow crunched under our boots, Christy’s leash clinked against her collar as she sniffed drifts and licked snowflakes, our misty breath accompanied our voices echoing off the garages.

I enjoyed those times.

The 12 Days of Christmas showed up again later in my life, marking another occasion as special. Although I’m an only child, I have lots of cousins. When we get together, usually at Christmas, it’s guaranteed to be a good time. When we were younger, we got to putting on an annual Christmas program. We’d do something different every year, create the entire thing ourselves, make programs (one of which is memorable for a certain spelling error that otherwise would have gotten us all a mouthful of soap if it had been anything other than a mistake!), and advertise to the parents time and place of the performance. One year, we raided my uncle’s closet for his suit coats, robed the littlest cousins in them, and made them lay in the middle of the “stage” as we sang God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (another fond music memory).

Well, one of the last performances we gave consisted of ten of us cousins and two of our husbands (including my Daniel) singing the 12 Days of Christmas. We each had a number, of course since there were twelve of us. Our ages ranged 20-something down to 8ish, something like that. And we have some crack-ups in the family. So the whole thing proved entertaining and we did manage to complete the song after a few major attacks of uncontrollable laughter.

I’ll never forget that.

Another special music memory… First holidays since getting married, Waterside in Norfolk, VA, New Year’s Eve party, outside in chilly air that smelled of the ocean waves blending in with the music, dancing to canned Christmas tunes with my Daniel.

I’ve got several others. And I’d say 90% are happy memories.

But Christmas also brings sad things to mind for some, especially if you’ve lost someone recently or during the holidays, or someone whose absence leaves a noticeable and painful hole even if the memories of that person are the happy ones.

Christmas always makes me think of my grandmother. If I have any traditions in the celebrating of Christmas, they came from her. Baking all the Christmas goodies including Jesus’ birthday cake, decorating the tree and setting up the manager beneath it, Christmas Eve candlelight service singing carols and sharing prayers and giving thanks, and many other traditions that are probably a lot like yours.

So when I listened to this Steven Curtis Chapman song Home for Christmas the first Christmas after my grandmother passed away, I sat down and cried. It’s a happy/sad song, one that resurrects vivid memories, but one that, in the end, makes me rejoice. (click to listen)

Her house was where the family gathered every Christmas eve;

A feast was set on the table and gifts were placed beneath the tree.

Everything was picture perfect, Grandpa would laugh and say,

That woman spends the whole year getting ready for this day.

One year the leaves began to fall and her health began to fade;

We moved her to a place where they could watch her night and day.

But she kept making plans for Christmas from her little room;

She told everyone, I’ll miss you but I’ll be leaving soon.

I’m going home for Christmas and I’m going home to stay;

I’m going home for Christmas and nothing’s gonna keep me away.

I’ll be with the ones I love to celebrate the Savior’s birth;

This gift will be worth more to me than anything on earth.

I’m going home, home for Christmas.

All the leaves outside have fallen to be covered by the snow;

The family comes with food and gifts and Grandpa comes alone.

There’s a sadness in our silence as the Christmas story’s read,

And with tears, Grandpa reminds us of the words that Grandma said.

I’m going home for Christmas and I’m going home to stay;

I’m going home for Christmas and nothing’s gonna keep me away.

She’ll be face to face with Jesus as we celebrate His birth,

And this gift will be worth more to her than anything on earth,

‘Cause she’ll be home.

And as we sing ‘Joy to the World’ I can’t help thinking

Of the joy that’s shining in her eyes right now.

And though our hearts still ache, we know that as we celebrate,

She’s singing with the herald angels and heaven’s glowing on her face.

And now she’s home for Christmas and now she’s home to stay;

She’s home for Christmas, and nothin’ could’ve kept her away.

She’ll be face to face with Jesus, as we celebrate His birth,

And this gift will be worth more to her than anything on earth.

She’s home, she’s home for Christmas.

She is home, she’s home for Christmas.

I hope, even if you’re missing someone specific this year, that you will be blessed with happy memories of the past and the opportunity to make new happy memories as you celebrate holy, wonderful, life-changing Christmas.

I’d love to hear the songs that bring to your mind particular memories…

Thanks for visiting Dry Ground! Merry Christmas in TWO days! Wow!

(photos by

Monday, December 21, 2009

What I Write Highlights - "Someone Beautiful"

This story originated in a place close to my heart, and as an experiment that went much better than I ever expected. From that experiment, I fell in love with a little girl I created for that test, her name is Charlotte, or Charlie as her friends and I call her. In Someone Beautiful, Charlie is about to graduate high school, facing a bit more than the average teenager. She’s “snarky,” to use an apt adjective from one of my crit. partners, modern, gritty and real, so you’ll have to be forgiving and patient with her. If you are, you might just fall in love with her too.

Today, I share the entire first chapter.

Sand flew into Charlotte Laurent’s face like ocean spray. But she ignored it. Jordan Hampton, the varsity soccer team captain, would have to do better than that to stop her. Another all-star made a steal attempt even though she already had three strides on him. Their goalie, loomed large and snarling, but he didn’t intimidate her. He was a lug, and she was lightning. Moving fluidly like the waves crashing on to Brighton Beach, she faked the remaining opposition and scored the winning goal.

The girls on her team swarmed in, knocking her down with jubilant embraces. The boys kicked sand and swore. After regaining her feet, Charlotte followed everyone to the ice chest, the soccer ball tucked up under her right arm… her only arm. “Don’t cry, guys. We’ll give you a chance to get even.”

“Give it a rest, Charlie.” Jordan scowled as he grabbed a soda and skulked away, toward the breakers.

“Sorry loser,” she scoffed, loud enough for him to hear. She turned a smug gaze back to the group. “What the hell is the matter with him?”

“Don’t you ever quit?” Nick Simperelli asked, then took a long draw on his Pepsi.

“No,” she stated as if it were obvious. “Why should I?”

Soren Brandenburg, taller and more ripped than any college football player, tossed a sweating can at her. “The invincible C.V. Laurent.”

Charlie dropped the soccer ball and caught the can mid-air.

“See?” Soren shook his head.

Her two best friends took up posts on either side, throwing supportive elbows around her neck. “Jordan should be used to this by now,” Madeline Chevelier declared.

“Yea, he doesn’t need to mope about it,” Claire Zane added.

Charlie nodded and smirked.

“There’s only so much a man can take, though,” Rowdy Taylor insisted. “You’re ruthless, Chuck.”

Rolling her eyes, Charlie dug into the cooler for another soda. Holding two now in her one hand, she headed toward Jordan who sat at the water’s edge staring at the horizon. “Damn, I hate pandering.”

She made sure to shuffle her feet enough so chunks of sand pelted his back as she approached. His rounded shoulders protruded from his tanked soccer jersey, shining bronze in the afternoon sun. Gritting her teeth, she plopped down next to him, on his left as usual. She dropped one can in the sand and held the other under his nose. When he didn’t move, she waved it around. “Come on, you big baby. Take it.”

He shoved her arm away.

“Oh, so that’s how it is?” She started shaking the can like it was spray paint. “I’ll open it,” she threatened. “So help me God, I will.

Jordan snatched the soda from her hand and slammed it into the sand beside him. He still didn’t look at her.

She sighed and looked out into the water. The sea breeze licked her temple. “What’s the deal? Are you that sore over losing?”

Glaring at her, he leaned back on his hands and shook his head. “Charlie, you’re so hard. Like… granite.”

“Why? Because I like to win?”

“Freakin’ unbelievable,” he exclaimed through a clenched jaw, his blue eyes blazing. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“I guess not. Why don’t you enlighten me?”

He stared at her, long enough to make her squirm, but then burst out laughing.

“What the hell…”

He tucked a strand behind her ear and tapped her cheek. “You’re something else, Charlotte Laurent. Sometimes, I just wish you were a little… softer.”

Her stomach rolled, but she slapped his hand away and punched him hard in the shoulder. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

He reacted in kind, first shoving her off balance. Then he pounced and raked his fingers up and down her ribcage.

“Jordan,” she shrieked. “Let me go.”

“Not now. Not when I have you.”

Wriggling and squirming, she tried to fight him off. Flat on her back, her most vulnerable position, she panicked. She had no defense… except one. Gaining leverage, she kneed him with all the force of a star soccer player, leaving him groaning and doubled over in the sand. She stood, brushed off her shorts, and stalked away. “You’ve never had me, Jordan Hampton. And don’t you forget it.”


By the time the sun went down, a bon fire shot sparks high up into the star-studded sky. Nick strummed a guitar while Rowdy prepared hot dogs and marshmallows for roasting. Tess Woodbridge attempted to help with dinner while Leslie Waters did her best to make it difficult, each having similar motives aimed at the brawny chef. Jordan and Lamp kicked the soccer ball back and forth. Soren and his girlfriend, Ollie, had long ago disappeared into the darkness.

In a secluded corner of the fire’s light, Charlie sat knee to knee with her comrades, her two favorite people in the world. Claire, cute and pert, refined and confident, was the only cheerleader Charlie could stand. She used all of her “Bring It On” attitude to make the world a better place, not create a shrine to personal greatness. That’s why Charlie liked her.

Madeline on the other hand, was as unconventional as they come. Aside from being devastatingly gorgeous, she was expressive, fearless and direct. Agreeing with her always proved fruitless because she required no affirmation. That’s why Charlie liked her.

Their arms draped around each other’s shoulders and their foreheads touched in the middle as they breathed in unison. Charlie shut out all other noises save the distant fluttering of waves kissing the shore and the impression that she could feel the heartbeat of the other two.

“I can’t believe it will all be over tomorrow,” Claire lamented.

“Shut it,” Charlie snapped, but then repented with a pout. “Don’t think about that.”

“Are you ready for your speech, Claire?” Madeline asked.

Charlie huffed at her.

“Of course, I’m ready.”

“Anything we shouldn’t be expecting?” Charlie nudged Claire.

“Are you kidding?” Madeline answered instead. “She has to keep up the angelic façade at least through graduation.”

Claire laughed. “As if mom would notice if I did slip in a shocker. She’ll be too busy counting the other parents of future Harvard alums and making sure she’s dressed better than they are.”

The other two laughed in commiseration. They both knew Claire had emotionally and mentally emancipated from her parents before turning twelve years old. The one reason she hadn’t completely written them off was the money. “I’m not an idiot,” she had said in response to one of Charlie’s tyrannical outbursts. As it turned out, she didn’t even need that. She’d secured a full ride scholarship long before her senior year.

“Is your mom coming?” Claire asked, leaning a little more into Madeline.

She shrugged. “I suspect so. She’s proud as a prom queen.”

“That’s because she thought you’d run off and join the circus first,” Charlie exclaimed. “Besides, I don’t think she gets the librarian thing.”

Madeline frowned. “Nobody does.”

“We do,” Claire encouraged.

We do. That summarized the past decade so perfectly, bringing them to the brink of the future. The next day was graduation. In less than forty-eight hours, Charlie would be on a plane to Paris where she spent her summers. When Fall arrived, they would, for the first time since fifth grade, be in three separate places.

Claire started pre-law at Harvard in August. Madeline, going squarely against the student body’s vote that she was “most likely to be famous,” planned to attend Columbia University’s School of Library Sciences. Charlie didn’t have a plan, but Harvard and Columbia lay so far outside the field of possibilities for her, they might as well have been Neptune and Pluto.

Swiping her arm over her eyes, Charlie cleared her throat. “What a bunch of pansies we are. At least, you’ll come visit me this summer. Thank God for Bastille Day.”

Giggling, sniffling and drying eyes, the three embraced.

Sand exploded around them as a soccer ball missiled into their midst.

The girls screamed as Rowdy called, “Dinner time.”

Charlie glared over her shoulder to see Lamp and Jordan high-fiving. She vaulted to her feet and bolted straight for them.

Jordan backhanded Lamp’s shoulder as he started to run. “Take off, brother. Here she comes.” They ran off down the beach into the darkness.

(photos by

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Tinsel" Town - Cinema Symbolism

Okay, so I’m a symbolism junkie. I look for it in places most people wouldn’t put out the trash. Funny thing is, a lot of times I find it. I mean, I learned a valuable and timely life lesson watching The Mist, a horror/thriller movie based on a Stephen King novel.

Really, I did.

And then of course, I’ve shared some thoughts on a certain vampire saga (see sidebar).

I know I make stretches and leaps many are not willing or interested in taking. That’s cool. I’ve accepted that I’m out there, though I cherish the times I have company.

But when it came to 2004’s The Polar Express, a breakthrough animation based on Chris Van Allsburg’s classic children’s book, I thought I’d be in more of a crowd. I was shocked to read certain critics’ warnings to steer clear, beware of Santa worship.

Really? That’s what they got out of this amazing movie?

I have a… different… point of view I’d like to share.

I see The Polar Express as a picture of the battle between Faith and Doubt.

It asks the big question in life – will you believe, or will you not?

Of course, believe what is paramount, but we’re not really talking about Santa here.

Or we don’t have to be.

Not everyone experiences a crisis during life strong enough to shake their faith, but I think it’s safe to say that most of us, at some point in life, have contended with doubt.

God, are You real? Are you really who You say You are?

Speaking symbolically (of course), that’s the question the boy in the blue robe, our main character known only as Hero Boy, asks at the beginning of The Polar Express. Doubt has come calling this Christmas, and the evidence seems to be mounting up - the jingle bell he hears is on a stocking hat in his father’s back pocket, no gifts sit under the tree, the cookies and milk stand uneaten on the coffee table, and he’s got damning journal articles hidden in his dresser. His expectations have dwindled to the point of being certain Santa will not show up, even though it hurts him to think so.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve encountered situations in life, more than one actually, that have made me feel the same way. What I see is just too convincing, too tangibly painful to believe that anything could change, let alone believe in miracles.

But a miracle does happen that night in Hero Boy’s life. A locomotive shows up in his front yard, a scheduled stop just for him, and an invitation to ride the Polar Express to the North Pole. Yet, he hesitates. The conductor shrugs and quips, “Suit yourself.” Getting on the train is entirely Hero Boy’s choice. He must accept the invitation for himself.

In the end, desperation wins. He wants to find the Truth.

So starts his journey of faith and discovery.

It’s a voyage wrought with excitement (with jazz hands, everybody, Hot Chocolate!), fellowship (he is not alone), struggle (lost tickets, bad weather, roller-coaster-like grades and speed), setbacks (sometimes Caribou cross the tracks), peril (trains are not supposed to snake about trackless on sheets of ice like that!), and outright opposition – a force actively working to keep the Truth a mystery – its name is Doubt (the Hobo riding atop the cars).

The seed has already been planted inside Hero Boy (i.e. his parents whispering about the end of the magic), causing him to question everything. He demands, “Are you sure?” every time he or his companions face a choice. “Are you sure you’re allowed in the back car?... Are you sure this lever is the break?... Are you sure you’re going the right way?”

The Hobo fuels his fears and stokes deception during their conversation on the car top:

Hobo: I’m the King of the North Pole!

Hero Boy: What about Santa? Isn’t he the King of the North Pole?

Hobo: You mean this guy? (puts on Santa hat and mocks) Ho ho ho!

What exactly is your persuasion on the Big Man, since you brought him up?

Hero Boy: Well, I… I want to believe… but…

Hobo: But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded! Seeing is believing. Am I right?

Hero Boy: What about this train?

Hobo: What about it?

Hero Boy: We’re all going to the North Pole… aren’t we?

Hobo: Aren’t we?

Hero Boy: Are you saying that this is all a dream?

Hobo: You said it, kid, not me.

Doubt butts in every time Hero Boy leans toward faith.

Still, Hero Boy wavers back and forth, partly because of positive influences – the conductor (who asks the right kinds of questions) and the girl known as Hero Girl, who’s already founded in her faith. (This journey has a different purpose for her.) Also, Billy, the poor boy who spends most of his time in the back car alone, inspires in a back door kind of way. Hero Boy has a tender heart, and reaching out to Billy helps shape his own convictions. In fact, Hero Boy helps Hero Girl convince Billy to go with them to the square to see Santa.

Another lifetime of adventure occurs in the short span of time they are in the North Pole city. I could splice every scene, phrase, word, but of course that would take up way too much space and time.

The thing that touches me most during this part, though, is the moment Billy’s faith sparks into a flame. The kids stumble upon one last present on its way to Santa’s big, red bag. It’s marked for a boy named Billy (My name’s Billy, he declares with surprise), a certain address (That’s my address!!). Once he knows it’s his, he goes after it, catches it in his arms, and does not let go. Reminds me of Jacob wrestling God for a blessing – holding on despite personal injury. (Gen. 32:22-32)

As soon as Billy gets the chance, he shakes his gift to guess what’s in it, and then, without actually seeing it, exclaims, “I think I know what it is! I’ve wanted one of these my whole life!”

Billy’s new faith is tested quickly, however, because one, there’s a sticker that says Do not open until Christmas, and two, the elves insist he give it back to put in Santa’s bag. Billy has to believe that gift will show up under his tree at home at the appointed time even though his experience has convinced that “Christmas just doesn’t work out” for him. It’s a huge leap of faith to entrust Santa with the gift that is already his… but not yet.

Been there? Have you been waiting for an answer to prayer for what seems like your whole life? Do you wonder if God has forgotten or changed His mind, or if you’ve done something to mess up your chances of ever receiving that promise?

I’m there right now. So watching Billy arrive home, see the evidence that Santa has already been to his house, and find his gift, holding it high and shouting at the top of his lungs as testimony that his faith was rewarded, makes me smile and tear up… every time.

So what about Hero Boy? Did he find what he sought? Did his faith ignite?

I’m breathless every time I watch the scene in the square, the jubilant anticipation of the appearance of the man, all the elves cheering, the reindeer prancing, everyone from the train wide-eyed and standing on tip-toe and smiling… except for Hero Boy – because he can not hear the sleigh bells ringing. Still. Even after all he experienced.

And it devastates him. His expression breaks my heart as he cries, “I can’t see him! I can’t see him!”

Do you ever feel like that? Like everyone around you cheers, prances, smiles, celebrates because The One has shown up, but you still sit there holding pain and doubt and problems crying “I can’t see Him”?

This is what you do… the same as Hero Boy… when you can’t do anything else no matter what’s going on around you… you stop, close your eyes, and say out loud with as much faith as you can muster (even if it’s the size of a mustard seed Luke 17:6), “Okay. Okay. I believe. I believe. I believe!”

And the same thing that happened to Hero Boy will happen to you. The One will appear right beside you and ask, “What was that you said?” And, wide-eyed and in awe, you’ll repeat, “I believe.” Then The One will invite you to His throne (represented here by the sleigh), put His arm around your shoulder and ask you directly, “What would you like?” (Matt. 7:8).

Hero Boy receives the first gift of Christmas, significant for two reasons. First, Santa tells him that the bell he’s asked for, and can now hear, is a symbol of the Christmas spirit, adding that he, Santa, is as well. (To me, that’s pretty clear… Santa is a symbol, not the object of worship. Anywho…) Second, it recalls to my mind the actual first gift of Christmas, Jesus, God, born into human flesh to be the atoning sacrifice for my sins.


Here’s the thing about The Polar Express – it contains layers and layers and layers of meaning pertaining to our walk of Faith. I’ve gone too long already, but haven’t even touched on the significance of the golden tickets and the words the conductor punches into them, the significance of time, the difference between (jazz hands, please) hot chocolate and the Hobo’s cup of joe, the canned Christmas music that sometimes skips, the test Hero Boy undergoes almost immediately after finding his faith (Matt. 13:1-43), his conclusion about belief, and many, many other noteworthy snippets.

I recommend watching this movie – for the fun of it, of course – but also to gain perspective and encouragement on your journey with the Lord.

Have you decided yet to get on the train? Has Doubt bullied you? Have a herd of caribou crossed your tracks and caused an unscheduled stop? Are you the know-it-all kid who needs to learn patience and humility? Are you Billy, convinced that Christmas doesn’t work out for you?

Have you spoken the words, “I believe”?

Can you hear the bell?

(photos by

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear? Modern Marvels

I love music, almost as much as I love writing or movies. Probably because music tells stories too. Poetry and philosophy and praise all can be enhanced when set to music.

As much as I enjoy traditional Christmas hymns, carols and jingles, I get really excited when I hear a (relatively) new composition, a song from the past two decades or so. I value innovation and creativity and a new idea, or an old idea presented in a new way.

A new Christmas song is a hard sell. The old ones certainly monopolize the market, and for good reason. So I want to share my favorite newbies, do my part in making them future classics.

First, Christmas Is All in the Heart by Steven Curtis Chapman, written and recorded in 1995. He and his wife sing this homey duet, covering all the usual aspects of Christmas, but the lyrics reach a more personal place in the heart of those who may be searching for joy during the holidays instead of celebrating it. It’s touching and compassionate and simple and true. (click here to listen)

Second, A Strange Way to Save the World by 4Him, recorded in 1993. Again, they strike a personal chord with lyrics from Joseph’s point of view, helping us imagine what it may have been like to experience something as strange and scary as your wife giving birth to the One True God in a barn in Bethlehem. I picture a confounded and confused, but deeply grateful and humble man having an intimate conversation with his Creator and God. Gives me chills. Makes me think. (click to listen)

Third, 2000 Decembers Ago, performed by Joy Williams in 2000. This song brought up questions I’d never thought of before hearing it. In the lyrics that follow, see if you find yourself wondering the same things. (click to listen)

Did it feel like a night any different

Then at least a million before

Was there any rare expectation

Like there was some kind of somethin’ in store

Did the sky have to hold back the thunder

Did the moon find new reasons to glow

Could the children somehow sense the wonder

2000 Decembers ago.

Were the sheep as amazed as the shepherds

At the new star that lit up the sky

Did the willow trees whisper excitement

To the rivers and streams passing by

Did the joy ricochet off the mountains

‘Til it filled up the valleys below

Did all the world sense love abounding

2000 Decembers ago.

Was anyone able to look at the stable

And not see a child but a King

I wish I could hear back over the years

As heaven and nature sing, heaven and nature sing.

Did the walls of the barn start to tremble

With the glory they could not contain

Did anyone wake with the feeling

Of peace that they could not explain

Oh the love must have been overwhelming

As it warmed everyone in its flow

For all of the earth is still telling

Of 2000 Decembers ago.

(click to listen)

Merry Christmas in 9 days!

Thanks for visiting Dry Ground.

(photos by

Monday, December 14, 2009

What I Write Highlights - "Alastrina"

I’m often inspired when visiting natural phenomenon, such as the Grand Canyon, the ocean, snow-capped Rockies, even mosquito-ridden, heavy-aired, emerald-green bayous deep in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin.

About fifteen years ago while in Branson, Missouri at Silver Dollar City amusement park, I found myself 300 feet below the surface of the earth immersed in total blackness on a tour of Marvel Cave’s Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the United States. We proceeded to 500 feet below ground, experiencing intricate, weaving passages leading us to places like a shoe-shaped room and the narrow banks of an underground river running to no one knows where. After an hour of guided exploration, we rode the mining trolley back up to the surface. I was locked in a creativity trance. An entire story flashed before my eyes before I glimpsed sunlight again.

The following is a tiny window to the world born that day. Ironically, this scene from chapter two occurs in a tree house – not a child’s tree house, but an actual dwelling – the furthest possible from the depths of Marvel Cave. All I can say is, there’s a reason for everything. Meet Alastrina, my leading lady.

Underneath clusters of needles and pinecones swaying in the top boughs of her tree house, Alastrina and her two best friends, Aine and Arlette, laid on their backs, their manes a twirl of exact raven black. Gazing at a myriad of stars winking through wisps of feathery clouds, she inhaled the heady, sweet scent of lilac mingling with the pine. She loved this spot, this time of night, these two girls.

Not having any siblings of her own, Alastrina relished in the closeness she shared with Aine and Arlette. Like sisters since childhood, they looked as if cut from the same fabric. Each about the same height, their eyes glistened the color of the Egairram Bay in the summer, their skin a flawless hazelnut. They were as inseparable as triplets, but change colored the horizon like the first light of dawn.

“I can’t believe it is still a month away,” Aine sighed, squeezing the hands of her friends. “It seems like the day will never arrive.”

Arlette returned the squeeze. “But there is so much to do before then. Why, my dress is hardly even pinned together. And yours only half finished.”

“I don’t care,” Aine pouted. “It can all burn as far as I’m concerned. Tomorrow would be better than four weeks.”

Alastrina rolled her eyes. “If your wedding was tomorrow, girl, you would have no where to live. Kanet has not completed your tree house yet.”

“What more do we need than a lookout platform? One square of living space is all we’d require… for now at least.” Her voice held a bride-to-be’s anticipation.

Arlette stifled a giggle. “I’m sure the rest of the villagers would appreciate you having more than that. Have some decency, Aine.”

“And let’s not forget what it means to Kanet for him to make your first home,” Alastrina reminded in a practical tone. “He is so excited to show it to you.”

Aine sighed again, frustration backing her pleas. “I know. But he’s been so consumed with this project I’ve hardly seen him for weeks. And he won’t give me just a little hint which tree it’s in. He’s incurable.”

“Have some patience, Aine. You’re already an old maid. You might as well wait one more month,” Alastrina teased, drinking in the light of the full moon peering over a cloudy silhouette.

“Indeed. You’ll be seeing more of him than you care to soon enough,” Arlette warned, elbowing Aine in the ribs.

“Arlette, for the love of Ianoda,” Alastrina scolded, throwing her own elbow. “Watch your mouth.”

She rolled on to her stomach and peered over the edge of the platform. Three other tree houses shared the clearing, a main route to and from many of the other Aron dwellings. Murdoc and his three children lived just to the left, Macklin and his large family lived just to the right, and Aine’s family lived across the way. An occasional hoot of an owl punctuated the otherwise silent night, the dim glow of safety lamps hooked to every tree the moon’s only accompaniment.

Arlette and Aine continued whispering silly comments in each other’s ears. Alastrina smiled, but tried not to listen. Not that she felt ill or irritated about Aine’s upcoming wedding, on the contrary, but splicing every detail about it never interested her. So she let them carry on while she concentrated on her beloved forest.

She knew the precise moment a foreign sound invaded her musings. Shivers prickled down her spine and her hand flew out toward the other girls. “Shhhh!”

Aine and Arlette hushed and twisted over to line their noses along the edge. “What?” Aine whispered.

Alastrina waved her hand in Aine’s face then fixed a keen gaze on the clearing. Set like a stage with pine curtains and a full moon spotlight, the area below lie empty and still, not even a passing firefly. But then she heard it, the sound of metal, like a canteen, clanking up against something else, perhaps a sword or knife. She also heard footsteps, though muted against the forest carpet of brown needles.

The girls held their breath.

It had been a while since any rogue Lero soldiers had made trouble, but they learned long ago to practice caution when anything seemed amiss. Raids didn’t happen often, but when they did, the consequences proved legendary. The most devastating occurred almost twenty years ago, when the girls had been wee lasses. An entire Lero battalion invaded the village, killing, among dozens of others, both Alastrina’s parents and her older brother as well as Kanet’s mother. Nine years ago, a small band of Lero soldiers slaughtered Murdoc’s wife and another couple, leaving behind eleven children between the two families. Six years later, an entire family of Arons perished while they slept, no one finding out about it for days.

Time ceased as the trio waited for the intruder to come into the light of the lanterns.

(photos by

Friday, December 11, 2009

"Tinsel" Town - Not Exactly Your Mama's Christmas Movies

Not all Christmas movies depict frolicking in the snow, caroling door-to-door, trimming the tree or decking the halls. Some holiday films come camouflaged in genres that seem almost conflicting to this merry time of year.

For example…

Gremlins – a fantasy/horror/comedy 80’s flick brought to us by Chris Columbus, the writer and director who also gifted us with Goonies and the obvious holiday-themed Home Alone. Sure, blowing up an impish monster in the microwave may not spell C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S C-H-E-E-R to most of us, but let’s face it, if Billy hadn’t received Gizmo for a Christmas present, that adventure rocket would never have left the ground.

Better Off Dead – a retro teenage angst movie, also from the 80s – the decade for teenage angst movies – starring John Cusack as Lane Meyer. Although spanning a time frame of an entire school year, when I think of this movie, two lines immediately pop into my head. The first, not seasonally related, is the dreaded paperboy stalking him with the threatening, “Two dollars. I want my two dollars!” The second line confirms this as an unlikely Christmas favorite – Mrs.Smith, Lane’s neighbor and hostess to French foreign exchange student, squeezing poor Monique’s cheeks together to help her pronounce, “Crriss-musss. Crriisss-musss!” Should be on a Master Card commercial because it’s priceless. (Of course, there’s also: wearing socks in the shower, the holes in the cereals boxes, mom’s worse-than-poison cooking, and the Asian racers who talk like Howard Cosell.) “So… get the lead out. That is all.”

While You Were Sleeping – a romantic comedy featuring too-cute-for-her-own-good Sandra Bullock as a lonely heart who has to work Christmas Day because she’s the only one without family. The bright side - if she hadn’t been working that day, her life wouldn’t have changed! The Callaghans are a typically dysfunctional yet intoxicating family full of life with plenty of love to go around. Who wouldn’t have trouble confessing to the lie that landed them in the middle of such warmth? My favorite line? I have two - “These mashed potatoes are so creamy.” And “Lucy…I have to ask you a question.” Out of context, not brilliant. But in the course of the story… ahh…

The Holidayanother romantic comedy I must mention, it’s about two women from different worlds trading houses for the holidays to escape emotionally strenuous circumstances at home. Of course, they both meet potential beaus, but the most touching relationship forms between Kate Winslet’s Iris and her new next door neighbor, a lonely 90-year-old, legendary Hollywood writer played by Eli Wallach, a legend in his own right. Although I garner many positive lessons from a seemingly amoral plotline, I love this movie for one scene… Graham, Jude Law’s character, has two daughters, Sophie and Olivia. They win the cutest-kids-in-all-of-movie-history award. From drinking hot chocolate, to Mr. Napkin Head, to laying under paper stars hanging from the ceiling of their make-shift tent, those two could charm the grouchiest Grinch and the crabbiest Scrooge. “Berry kiss it is, then.”

Die HardOf course this is a Christmas movie - Christmas wreathed with action! Besides the setting, the film is riddled with Yuletide themes - good guy verses bad guy, nobility outsmarting greed, shunned love prevailing through suffering, bloodshed, cusp of death!

Okay, so I’m having a bit of fun here. And I don’t pretend to justify every movie I like by moralizing or analogizing it.

But I don’t pretend not to either. J

Would love to hear your thoughts! What are your favorite unlikely Christmas flicks?

Don’t forget to visit again on Monday for What I Write Highlights. I'm introducing one of my leading ladies who's... not from around here. J

Merry Christmas, friends of Dry Ground. Only 14 days left!

Oh, and remember... I don't recommend these movies to all audiences. Know your boundaries and please don't claim that I suggest you cross them.

(Photos by

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Do You Hear What I Hear? Top 10 Perpetual Jingles

Have you seen the 2002 movie About a Boy? I adore this movie – heartwarming, touching, darkly hysterical, triumphant. Anyway, Hugh Grant’s character, Will, an immature, aimless rich boy, lives off the royalties from a Christmas song his father composed. For as much as we hear certain songs on the radio or in the mall, this is a perfectly believable scenario.

Although those repeaters can get annoying, I’m not a total hum-bug. Several holiday songs I dig. Besides, so many different crooners sing so many different versions in so many different genres, it’s almost like hearing a different song.

Okay. Not really, but at least variety exists.

Anyway, here’s my top ten list of perpetual jingles…

10 – Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Written in 1934 by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, SCCTT has been recorded so many times, you are guaranteed to find it in your brand of music – Ray Charles or Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson Five or The Pointer Sisters, even Aerosmith, The Beach Boys and Alvin the Chipmunk. Bruce Springsteen belts out my favorite version, though. Love to watch that boy sing! The muscles in his neck…

9 – Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree – Written by Johnny Marks in 1958, Brenda Lee made it famous. It’s toe-tapper.

8 – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Featured first in 1944 during the movie musical Meet Me In Saint Louis via the able pipes of Judy Garland, HYMLC epitomizes the Christmas feeling – family and friends, decorations, and a sense that because of Christmas our troubles can be far away.

7 – Walking in a Winter Wonderland – Beside the fact that I’d rather eat a barrel-full of black licorice or change a baby’s poopy diaper than actually walk in a winter wonderland, this one can swing, like when Avalon sings it. Lots of fun. The song. Not the image or even possibility of making the words a reality.

6 – Ring Christmas Bells – a.k.a. The Carol of the Bells or Ukrainian Bell Carol – its composer, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, really hails from the Ukraine. With a name like that, who would’ve guessed?! It’s been around since 1916, so several musicians have had the chance to record it. Lyrics were added in 1947, but I still like the all-orchestral versions, especially Mannheim Steamroller’s funky edition.

5 – Sleigh Ride – Composed by Leroy Anderson in 1948, the Boston Pops had the honor of performing it first, and it’s been a celebrated staple of theirs ever since. The masterful John Williams, the Pops’ conductor for several years and Oscar-winning movie score composer (ever heard of Jaws? Star Wars? Superman!?), can wear it as a feather in is already plumaged hat. Lyrics were added in 1950, and I love how Harry Connick, Jr. sings it – a mellow, playful, swinging jazz.

4 – Jingle Bell Rock – Written in 1957, the version we usually hear in department stores is sung by Bobby Helms. Updated rock options are out there that really do just that, interestingly enough, recorded by many Christian artists such as Geoff Moore and the Distance, Point of Grace and the wild and awesome head bangers, Thousand Foot Crutch. The best youtube video I found, though, priceless beyond description, is JBR sung by Billy Idol. You just have to see for yourself. (click here) Not quite what I expected. I DID see the infamous lip curl action, though. J

3 – Blue Christmas – Elvis, baby. And that is all I need to say about that.

2 – Silver Bells – Written in 1950 by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, the duo who also brought us Que Sera, Sera and the theme song to the television show Bonanza, SB has also been recorded by everyone in history – Perry Como, Johnny Mathis, The Carpenters, Donny & Marie, and of course Twisted Sister (of course!). All joking aside, my fave version of this song is good ‘ole John Denver. Never was a big fan in general, but his smooth, laid-back voice seems to fit these lyrics perfectly.

1 – White Christmas –Irving Berlin’s stroke of genius in 1940 showed up first in the movie Holiday Inn, but is most often associated with the movie of the same name. Either way, Bing Crosby’s velvet voice is hard to resist.

Okay – now I want to know your favorites!

Thanks again for visiting Dry Ground!

Only 16 days until Christmas!

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