Category Archives: Holiday Blogging

I Am Undone: My Second Week of Thankfulness

At the beginning of last week it was very hard to find things to be thankful for. At the end of last week I could have named 100 things. That’s how my life seems to go these days⁠—stretches of mundanity punctuated with vibrant beauty. But I’m trying to be thankful in the mundanity too, because mundanity is when my body rests.


On Monday I was thankful for tea on tap. I’m not sure if that’s the correct phrasing, but my latest favorite coffee shop has a hot brewed “tea of the day” that they keep in an insulated carafe. Instant tea! No waiting for it to brew! It reminds me of that feeling of coming downstairs and seeing that someone else has brewed a pot of tea to share, and all you have to do is pour.


Last week my health was pretty dubious. Tuesday was the worst day, and neither Jenny nor I did much of anything. I couldn’t stomach much besides brothy soup and saltines, but I didn’t have the energy to stand at the stove and cook up brothy soup. 

Then I remembered…crock pots exist!

I filled a crock pot with pork chops, broth, potatoes, and some random veggies from the fridge. Then I went back to bed. The soup cooked itself to a digestible mush and that’s what I ate for the rest of the week. 

So on Tuesday I was grateful for crock pots.


On Wednesday I couldn’t decide what to be thankful for. I have a pretty view out my bedroom window, I thought, but it was hard to be grateful because it just reminded me of how much of this gorgeous fall weather I’ve wasted by being indoors. 

However, later I changed my mind. If I had to be indoors and unwell, having a lovely bedroom-window view is nothing but a blessing. Orange leaves and quaint brick buildings. I am grateful. 


Thursday I was grateful for a different sort of thing. I was grateful that I don’t have to carry my burdens alone.

Sometimes I get the idea that it’s just me and Jesus in this big world, but it’s not. God gave people other people for a reason. I felt a little convicted when Vanya Hooley wrote on Twitter, “I’ll tell my friends my thoughts. I’ll tell my friends my thoughts about my feelings. But I rarely tell even my best friends about my *actual* feelings, and it just occurred to me that that probably hurts both of us.”

Maybe it’s an Enneagram 5 thing. Nevertheless I decided to tell one of my best friends about my *actual* feelings, and her empathy lifted a burden from my soul.


On Friday I was grateful for old friends. The ones who understand everything about where you come from.

I drove to Pennsylvania this weekend because a group of new-ish friends invited me to go see Hamilton in Philadelphia with them. I was pretty apprehensive because my schedule is so booked up through early December that I was afraid any misstep could send my health tumbling into the abyss. I know so many people in PA that I always tend to overbook myself. So I tried to plan for as few people and as much sleep as possible.

Even though I’ve gone to PA several times since I’ve moved, I haven’t had a chance to catch up with Shanea yet, so I asked her if I could spend Friday night there. So Friday I was able to get up late and take my time cleaning up the house and leaving. I arrived at her house around dinner time, and we spent all evening chatting.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call Shanea an “old friend” because we weren’t friends growing up. She was quite a bit younger than me. But like, Shanea’s best friend’s brother, Trent, was my brother’s best friend, and Shanea’s sister Janane was my sister’s best friend, and Shanea’s brother was my other brother’s best friend. We were in the same very small circle of acquaintances.

I think we became real friends in the 2017/2018 school year when she taught grades 3-5 and I was the secretary. That was an…interesting year, and let’s just say we bonded. Shanea saw a side of Brownsville that I never did, and I really credit her for helping me understand so many of the dynamics of the church and school where I grew up. 

As we were talking, I got a text from someone I haven’t really talked to in years. “Trent just texted me,” I said. There was something wonderful in not having to explain who “Trent” was. 

“What? Why?” Shanea asked.

Turns out he was in Blacksburg and wanted to hang out with Jenny and I. He also relocated to VA from Oregon, and wanted to connect. Trent, of course, is in that same tiny group of people that Shanea is in. He once climbed in my bedroom window because he wanted to hang out with Steven and didn’t want to use the front door.

Anyway, of course I wasn’t in VA but Trent and his wife ended up hanging out with Jenny and I’m sure I’ll connect with them at some point. I was grateful, for Shanea and Trent and all the others who “get” what it was like in our tiny Brownsville universe. 


At the end of 2019 I wrote down my top 10 moments of the 2010s. In 2029, if I write the top 20 moments of the 2020s, it is very likely that Saturday will be on that list.

Saturday, see, I was grateful for Hamilton. 

Usually when I talk about the things that deeply move me, they’re very uncool, semi-obscure things. It’s always either musicals or fantasy books. I have to explain why I like them while also understanding that most people won’t like them. And not in a cool way. 

But Hamilton is extremely popular. So maybe you’d love it too, who knows!

In 2016 a friend played me two songs from Hamilton and I really loved them. However, I didn’t allow myself to listen to the full soundtrack because I knew it was a sung-through musical and I didn’t want to “spoil” it. But tickets were hundreds of dollars and hard to get so I didn’t see much chance that I’d ever see it for real, at least not for a very long time.

Near the end of 2019, I was in Delaware and I saw that the library had a copy of “The Hamilton Mixtape.” This is an album of some of the songs from the musical and a few related songs or songs that were cut from the musical. I popped it into the CD player of my car and was blown away. Which is kinda funny because I had never remotely liked hip hop music before, but I guess it goes to show that I’ll like any “genre” of music as long as it’s a show tune.

Anyway. During the pandemic I learned that they were going to release a recorded Broadway performance of Hamilton and stream it on Disney+. I watched it with my sisters and didn’t think they were impressed enough, so after it was over I went wandering over the moonlit fields by myself, feeling my feelings like I was some sort of enneagram 4. 

Last summer, a friend reached out and wondered if I’d be interested in seeing Hamilton live in Philadelphia with her friend group. At first I was apprehensive about the cost⁠—aren’t tickets obscenely expensive? But if I was willing to sit in an “obstructed view” seat I could get a ticket for $47, which was doable. 

We were waaaay up in the theater, but it wasn’t super spread out so I could still see quite well. Although it did give me that weird feeling like if I leaned forward too far I might tumble onto the stage.

As you can see in the picture, the balcony post blocked part of my view, which is why the ticket was cheap. But lucky me, no one bought the seat next to me, so I scooted one seat to my left and had a perfect view.

Then I watched the show, and it was amazing. It made me feel like I understood everything.

It’s hard to explain why I’m so moved by the things that move me. I guess I never like my stories to be too “realistic,” because life is so much more than what we can see and hear. Most of what we experience we experience internally, so we invented metaphors and music to try and convey our internal world to others. In fantasy you can use giant fantastical metaphors that aren’t “allowed” in realistic fiction or nonfiction. And in musicals you can tell the story with music, and thus everyone can feel the emotions of the story as they watch. 

Most of the time I exist in the expanse of my own ignorance*, longing to know everything. But in these moments I feel like I understand everything about myself, the universe, even Spirituality. Before seeing Hamilton I felt weak. After seeing Hamilton I felt like God’s strength would be made perfect in my weakness.

So afterwards everyone kept asking, “how was Hamilton?” And I’d say, “amazing,” and hope that if they saw it they wouldn’t be disappointed. After all, it is quite popular. But I do think that most people don’t feel that same sort of transcendence after seeing a spectacular musical. Or maybe they do and no one talks about it.


Dana, one of the girls I went to see Hamilton with, was staying at her parent’s house that weekend while they were out of town. So four of us ended up spending the night there, and in the morning we sat around sipping tea and coffee. Then they went to church and I began the long drive home.

I decided that I was grateful for those slow, tea-sipping mornings with friends. I experienced a number of them that weekend. First on Saturday morning with Shanea, then late Saturday morning when I spent an hour at Esta’s house, and then Sunday morning.

The Week in General

I was super dooper grateful because my plan worked. I specifically scheduled my trip to include lots of sleep and fewer people, and I had good health the whole time with no crash upon return. Hallelujah! 

The Rest of November

Originally I wanted to keep up this grateful-for-one-thing-every-day plan through the rest of November. However, the day after Thanksgiving I’m taking a trip to Kenya, and if I have time to post I just want to post about Kenya. 

So what I’m thinking is, next Monday I’ll write another gratefulness post, and then I’ll do a gratefulness post on Thanksgiving as well which will end the series.

Take care, and stay grateful!

*I must credit Darren Sensenig, who was part of the Hamilton group, for this turn of phrase. I asked him why he went to college and he said, “I think the expanse of my ignorance was a motivating factor.” I thought that was a really cool way to say it. 


Order my book:
Print Version
Kindle Version

Follow me on:
Instagram: @emilytheduchess
Twitter: @emilysmucker
Patreon: (This is where I post bonus blog posts, about more personal/controversial subjects, for a subscription fee of $1 a month [or more if you’re feeling generous]. I try to post twice a month.)

Blogmas 2019 Day 12: Final Thoughts


Today is Christmas Eve. I’m sitting in Max Porter’s coffee shop, with my sister Amy, working on my book. I’m not sure what she’s working on, but our laptops match, only mine is pink and hers is purple.

I ignore the Christmas music in the background, but maybe I shouldn’t. I am, after all, writing about Christmas. Last Christmas, while I was still traveling. But Christmas nonetheless.

Finishing that chapter, I pull my earbuds out of my ears. “What should I blog about, Amy?”

“Maybe you should give the Gospel message,” she says in a dreamy, over-dramatic voice.

“I know what you mean,” I sigh. “It feels like I should end this series with something very Spiritual and Deep. But I don’t know if I have any Spiritual, Deep thoughts about Christmas that haven’t already been said.”

But then I try to think of some anyway.

The song switches. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” begins to play.

As you may have noticed from earlier blog posts, I’m not a big fan of Christmas music. It’s not that I dislike it. I don’t mind it playing in the background for added festivity. But a lot of it is silly and doesn’t make sense.

However, I was struck this year by the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

If I could write the final Blogmas post of my dreams, I would write about the season of Advent. I would write about the song “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and the longing expressed therein.

I would write about how maybe the reason Christmas feels different when we grow older is that we are so much more aware, as Alison so eloquently put it, of the loss that is in this world. Of family members that have passed on. Or of children we wish we had, but don’t.

When we all gather together on Christmas Day, we’re aware of what our relationships with our family members should be like. And when we don’t have the relationship we want to have, we feel that loss.

This year I was determined that I was going to study Advent, and figure out what it was all about, and celebrate it. Because sometimes it feels like adulthood is about waiting. For a spouse. For children. For your career to take shape. For your relationships to be okay. And isn’t Advent all about learning to wait well? Waiting with hope, faith, and joy, and peace, and preparation?

So I did some Googling, and I learned some information. But honestly I still felt a bit lost. I didn’t start studying it until the first week of Advent, which was also the week of the school Christmas program, so I didn’t have a lot of extra time.

And this lack of study also means that now, when I wish to write on such topics, I don’t know what to say.

If you have books, articles, websites, etc related to Advent that you’d like to recommend, I’d be happy for some tips. Maybe with a year of study, instead of a week in intermittent Googling, I’ll know enough to do an Advent series next year instead of a 12 Days of Blogmas series.

As it stands, I don’t have the words to end this blog series the way I’d like to end it.

So I’ll just say, Merry Christmas everybody.

Emmanuel has come.


Blogmas 2019 Day 11: Countdown to Christmas


26 days before Christmas

Jenny goes Black Friday shopping with her friends and comes home exhausted, with zero purchases. The rest of us stay home and feel lazy.

23 days before Christmas

It is Monday, the last week before the school Christmas program. I glue some streamers onto some Home Depot boxes to make hedges, as a prop for the play I wrote. I go to a thrift store and buy some brown children’s pants, a fuzzy woman’s jacket, and a felt gingerbread-man-making-kit, which I will somehow craft into a puppy costume.

Several students still don’t know their lines.

19 days before Christmas

It’s the day of the school Christmas program! In the morning, I find out that two of my actors are sick. I coerce two other actors, who are good last-minute-line-memorizes, to take their place.

An hour and a half before the program is to start, I find out that another student is sick. I give her two lines to another little girl who also had two lines. Congrats, now you have four lines!

The program goes off with very few hitches. The biggest hitch of all, in my opinion, was that not everyone could see the adorable first grader in his puppy costume. Because he was crawling, and the stage wasn’t very high, and there were lots of people there.

13 days before Christmas

We don’t do nearly as many Christmas parties in Oregon as they do in Delaware, but we do have one: Our young adult Sunday school class gets together to eat and play games.

There is no theme. No one wears ugly sweaters, and no one exchanges white elephant gifts, and we don’t play any silly party games where you have to shove balloons into pantyhose to make reindeer horns.

We literally just hang out and play normal games and eat amazing food and have interesting discussions, and it is spectacular.

10 days before Christmas

It is Sunday night. I get a text from the high school teacher. Can I substitute teach, starting Tuesday afternoon and continuing to the end of the week? He has a family emergency of sorts.

7 days before Christmas

It is a Wednesday morning, and I’m getting into the swing of this substitute teacher thing. The students have begun to prepare some fun party games, because on Friday, we will have a Christmas party.

Then the principal, Mr Chris, walks in. “We’re ending at noon today, and closing school down until after Christmas,” he says. “Too many people are sick.”

6 days before Christmas

The crowds of fun people have begun to arrive for the holidays. I have tea with my friends Shanea and Esta. Shanea presents us with exotic, delicious tea flavors from Malaysia. The three of us discuss the enneagram types of everyone we know.

4 days before Christmas

Mom, Amy, and I leave the house at 5:15 am. We go to the Gospel Echoes office and climb on the bus, where we encounter a number of other volunteers. We sit around, sipping tea and munching on coffee cake as we drive north to the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

We are here. We get buzzed through the doors. I take out my bobby pins when we go through the metal detector, because the ladies in front of me set it off, and now they have to get wanded.

First, we are at the minimum-security women’s prison. We unload boxes of cookies, and Christmas cards that were hand-colored by volunteers–mostly children. We set up in the cafeteria, and they file through. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!” we say. Shaking hands. Some of them smile. Some are stone-faced. Some cry.

As we’re wrapping up, preparing to go across the parking lot to the medium security section, we see that they’re setting up for another event. There are toys, and games.

And then the doors open, and the children come in.

“Mom! Mom!” this is their Christmas visit, with their children. We watch them hug, and cry, and laugh, and talk all over each other. We’re leaving now, but I can’t take my eyes off of them. What must that be like? It’s Christmas, and here they are, separated from their children except for this visit.

On the medium-security side, there are no children. At least, not today. We go through another metal detector, and then through doors, and doors, and more doors that slam behind us with a *click* or a *clank*! More women, in rows and rows. Hand them a Christmas card. Hand them a cookie. “Merry Christmas!”

My heart hurts. I’m sorry this is all I can give you.

2 days before Christmas

Matt is home, and it feels like Christmas now. We lounge around in our PJ’s and eat cookies. We talk weddings, and bitcoin, and Matt’s new job.

“Will you be working for NASA, or for a contractor?” I ask. “I’m confused.”

“Well, technically a contractor, but I’ll be working at the Johnson Space Center,” says Matt. “NASA can only hire so many employees, so they contract a lot of stuff out.”

“I say he’s working at NASA,” Mom says.

“That works,” says Matt.

Technically it is two days until Christmas, but the festivities will not end on December 25. There’ll still be the extended Smucker family Christmas gathering, and Matt and Phoebe’s engagement party. We’re celebrating Gotcha Day on December 29 this year instead of December 24, because Steven is still in Las Vegas. And then there will be the family Christmas, and the trip to the coast.

But I’m tired of blogging every day, so I’ll end this season of Blogging, the 12 Days of Blogmas, tomorrow, on Christmas Eve.

Blogmas 2019 Day 10: What To Do When It’s the Most Magical Time of the Year, but You’re Sick

apartment bed carpet chair

Photo by Pixabay on

The least magical thing about the holidays is the way that we drop like flies as the flu rolls through.

When everyone else goes to the fun New Year’s Eve party, but you stay home in bed.

When you have an earache and a headache but you still have to go stand in the cold and take family pictures, because this is the only time all year that you’ll all be together.

When it’s three days before Christmas and you still haven’t gotten all your shopping done, but the idea of taking a shower, combing your hair, and braving traffic is more than you can handle.

This year I’ve been very healthy compared to the rest of my community, but I have spent many, many holidays of my life sick in bed and missing out on stuff. So here are my tips and tricks for surviving the terrible illnesses that plague this season.

First: Beware the finger foods!

I’m convinced that finger foods are the reason the holidays are so germ-filled. People come to holiday parties sniffing and sneezing, and we all stand around gabbing, or playing games, touching all sorts of germ ridden surfaces. And then we fill our plates with finger foods, and eat them, with our hands.

How much more unsanitary can you get?

After a really really really bad holiday season two years ago, I’ve become hyper-vigilant about finger foods during the holidays. I wash my hands immediately before I eat. I try to eat fewer of the sugary snacks, because sugar weakens the immune system. I never eat anything out of a communal chip bowl, unless there are tongs. And even then I wash my hands after touching the tongs, and before eating.

Actually, sometimes I just straight-up eat my snacks with a fork.

You can call me crazy, but hey, I’m the one who didn’t get Norovirus this year. I mean, maybe eating snacks with a fork is going too far, but making a habit out of always washing your hands and/or treating them to a squirt of hand sanitizer before eating finger foods will go a long way toward keeping you healthy during the holidays.

(Oh, and I guess I should also recommend getting the flu shot every year. I’m sure that helps, but it’s hard for me to really preach that one because I rarely get around to doing it myself. Oops.)

Second: If you’re sick over the holidays it’s okay to grieve 

Honestly, I’ve gotten to the place where I feel very resigned if I can’t do something special because I’m sick. “Oh well,” I think. “That’s just how the world works when you’re Emily Smucker.”

But I think maybe that’s the wrong approach. There are so many things that are special about the holidays, and if you miss out, I think it’s okay to grieve that loss. Healthy, even. Because if the holidays are special to you, and you don’t let yourself feel grief over that loss, it can turn into resentment or cynicism.

Third: Don’t be so hard on yourself

After grieving your loss, it’s time to let some things go.

It’s time to let go of the pressure to buy every acquaintance in your life a Christmas gift. You can buy them something next year.

It’s time to let go of your need to buy meaningful, unique, thoughtful gifts for your family members. Look at their wish list. Go on Amazon. Buy them exactly what they asked for. You can be more creative and thoughtful next year.

And for those who don’t have wish lists, buy them a gift card. Yep, you can be the lame-o gift card giver this year. It won’t kill you. And they will still appreciate it, I promise.

It’s okay to buy store-bought Christmas cookies. It’s okay to string a cheap garland over the window frame and call that “decorating.” The people around you don’t care about decorations and homemade cookies, they care about you taking care of yourself.

Fourth: Pamper Yourself

Stop! Don’t pig out on Christmas cookies. That’s a terrible idea. But do buy yourself cozy Christmas pajamas, and watch all the Christmas movies.

Oh, and here’s a tip: For Christmas, buy your friends and family members books that YOU want to read. Then, use your sick time to binge read them before you have to give them away.

Those are all the tips I have at the moment. How do you handle being sick over the holidays?


Blogmas 2019 Day 9: The End of the World (repost)

World's Funniest Jokes Humour | 2012... End of the World jokes and comics 

projects due cartoon

Image result for end of the world 2012 comic

Do you remember how, seven years ago today, the world was supposed to end (according to some ancient Mayan calendar?) Personally, I had completely forgotten until I went digging into my old December blog posts, looking for Christmas memories. Then I saw this post, and the memories came rushing back. Man, we told some great end-of-the-world jokes in 2012. 

But anyway, I was amused by this story, and decided to re-share. 

Initially I dreaded December 21, 2012, because I knew how crazy facebook was going to be, with everyone saying “well I’m not dead yet!” and feeling clever.

Later I realized that I’ve only ever met one person who legitimately thought the world would end in 2012. Since no one is really scared, I concluded that “World Ending Day” would make a great holiday. What if, once a year, people actually lived like it was their last day on earth? What would you do differently?

In reality, I would probably spend time with my family, but half my family is on the east coast and the other half was at school today and my mom was terribly sick and could hardly talk.

In theory, I would do something beautiful like drive to the ocean by myself and leap through the frigid December waves. I didn’t do that either. I spent the morning watching “The Princess Bride” in my PJ’s.

I thought that at least I could cook a big feast for my family. I’m not much of a cook, but we had a big ham left over from “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and I thought if I cooked it up tonight we could live on ham sandwiches for the rest of the week and Mom wouldn’t have to cook.

She is, as I mentioned before, quite sick.

Mom also gave me a list of errands that she would really appreciate if I did, and then she coughed and hacked and of course there was no way I could possibly refuse to do those errands for her. I probably would have done them even if it was legitimately the last day of earth’s existence and we would have no use for worcestershire sauce and ramen noodles ever again.

Now, maybe this whole Mayan thing fooled more people than I realized, because traffic in town was a nightmare. I missed turns and only had 25 cents for the parking meter and nearly hit a yellow car and started to go across an intersection even though there was a person crossing and in general had a very bad time of it.

I needed to get home and make supper. I had left for town later than I should have, due to general laziness and the charms of The Princess Bride, and traffic, as I said, was terrible. I was afraid I wouldn’t have time to cook.

After a few wrong turns, I found myself on some random road, and I wasn’t sure if I was going north or south or east or west. I was so tired and frustrated I burst into tears.

Tears are a bad idea while driving. They make it harder to see where you’re going. However, I eventually found my way to the interstate, and of course from there I knew I could find my way home.

As my tears dried, I had a sudden thought.


I laughed out loud.

Blogmas 2019 Day 8: Jenny and Emily Attempt to Make Santa Hats (A Video)


Jenny and I ransacked the sewing room and attic for fabric, faux fur, cotton balls, yarn, and anything else we thought might be useful for making Santa hats. Then we sat down on Jenny’s bed and, with only our imaginations to guide us, tried to make Santa hats.

And we filmed the whole process.

Thanks for watching! We had so much fun making this.

In 2020, I hope to buy some video equipment and make even more videos. If you’re interested in subscribing to my YouTube channel, where they’ll all be uploaded, you can go to and click the red “subscribe” button. (But don’t worry, I’ll still share them on my blog too.)


Blogmas 2019 Day 7: Childhood Christmas Memories

plastic animal toys on wooden surface

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

Today I’m googling “Blogmas post ideas,” because I spent all my blogging energy editing a video for tomorrow’s post.

Hmm…”Childhood Christmas memories” looks like a semi-promising idea. Let me recall a few Childhood Christmas memories.

Memory 1: The China Tea Set

When I was a kid I absolutely adored the book A Bargain for Francis. In it, Francis longs for “a china tea set with pictures all in blue.” And of course I longed for one too, after reading of her adventures.

One Christmas I opened my presents, and behold! There it was. A china tea set with pictures all in…well…blue and pink. But close enough.

I mean, it was a very cheap tea set, but I thought it was the best thing ever. I started having tea parties with my sister Amy. Mom would give us grape soda to put in the teapot, and I called it “purple mint tea.”

I think of myself as immune to product placement from internet influencers, but I’m totally susceptible to product placement in books. I wonder if that will become a thing. Or if it’s already a thing and I just don’t know about it.

Memory 2: The Christmas Play

When I was still young and cute, I was in the Christmas play at school. I don’t remember what it was about. I just recall that my character’s name was “Jessica,” and I had funny lines that made everyone laugh. “Clothespins anyone?” was one of them. Another was “is it raining?”

Then I grew into an awkward age where I was too young for the serious parts and too old for the cute parts. But I still wanted to be the star of the show. We were doing “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and I was the first to volunteer to play Alice Wendleken, so I should have gotten the part. But instead, the person in charge (I don’t even remember who it was) gave the part to my cousin Jessi.

Instead, I was given this dumb role that had, like, two short lines or something. My character’s name was Maxine.

Well, I decided that I was going to rise above my circumstances. I was going to play Maxine to the best of my ability. Since she seemingly had no personality, I was going to create a personality for her.

I decided that Maxine would be a shy character, and I tried to say my lines in a shy way. Unfortunately, this also made me hard to hear. “Talk louder, Emily!” Sigh. How frustrating. They didn’t understand my true acting abilities. They didn’t understand that Maxine was supposed to be quiet and shy.

In adulthood, I’ve tried to milk a moral out of this story, but I can’t figure out how to do it. When I direct a drama, I want the actors to be content to make the most out of small roles. But I also want them to speak loudly.

Memory 3: My adorable brother

As a child I thought my brother Ben, who was three years younger than me, was the most adorable, hilarious human.

One December I saw him with a pair of my purple craft scissors, trying to wrap them up. He was giving them to me for Christmas, even though they already were mine. I thought it was the cutest funniest thing ever.

Another Christmas we got a box of gifts from Grandma, and one gift had developed a small hole in the wrapping. We all noticed the hole, and we all saw what appeared to be socks inside, but we were all too polite to mention it.

Then Ben said, “I know what this present is! It’s SOCKS!!!” And I thought it was the best “Emperor’s new clothes” moment ever.

Memory 4: Forcing Myself to Like Gifts

As a kid, I made up some weird Christmas rules for myself. Like, the worst thing ever, in my mind, would be to know what your present was before you unwrapped it. I did everything in my power to not know what I was getting until I pulled off the wrapping paper, and if I did find out earlier, I felt cheated. (That was part of the reason I refused to acknowledge that there were socks in the package in the previous story.)

Another Christmas rule was that I had to like my presents. No matter what I got, I forced myself to like it. If nothing else worked, I pretended that it was magic.

One year my brother Matt got me plastic African animal for Christmas. Little cheap ones. Normally, I was much more into girly presents like china tea sets. But I was determined to like this gift. I forced myself to play with those plastic animals all the time. I made them all into characters, and acted out stories with them. I told myself that African animals were much cooler to like than china tea sets. Because even though I liked girly things, all the characters in my favorite books were tomboys, so I wanted to be a tomboy too.

And what do you know, I liked that Christmas present after all.

This has been Day 7 of Blogmas. If you’re interested in reading a (fictional) Christmas story I wrote, click here. And come back tomorrow evening for what will be (in my opinion) the crowning jewel of this entire Blogmas series. That is, a fun video I did with my little sister Jenny.


Blogmas 2019 Day 6: Peace on Earth (A Christmas Story)

boy beside christmas tree illustration

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on

Important note: While the setting of this story is eerily similar to Brownsville Mennonite School, and it features a certain piece of greenery that also appeared at BMS under similar circumstances, I promise that this story is a work of fiction. The setting is real-ish, but the characters and plot are all made up. 

Peace on Earth
By Emily Smucker

Christmas had thrown up in the corner store. Decorations spilled out of bins. Kristen heard someone curse loudly, and when she walked down the chip aisle to investigate, she saw Clive, on a step ladder, struggling to hang a giant “PEACE ON EARTH” banner on the back wall. 

“Got any coffee?” she called to him. 

“Yep,” he said, pounding in one last nail. “Donuts too. You want a nice, fresh one or a half-price one that didn’t sell yesterday?”

“Give me the fresh,” said Kristen. “It’s gonna be a long day.”

“Oh yeah?” Clive jumped off the ladder and surveyed his work. “What’s happening over at the school today?”

“It’s just crazy this time of year. Everyone’s trying to get tests done before Christmas break, and plan the Christmas party, and practice for the Christmas program. But that will be over tonight, thankfully.”

“Your Christmas program is tonight?”

“Yep. 7 PM. You’re invited, if you want to come.”

As soon as the invitation was out of her mouth, she regretted it. Stocky, balding, chain smoking Clive was her friend, of sorts. She saw him every day on her way to school when she stopped in for her morning coffee, and she usually ended up ranting to him about her job. The students who never got their homework done. The parents who didn’t care. Clive heard it all. But the reason she told him these things was because he had no connection to her little church school. And anyway, what would people think if he showed up, with his yellow teeth and tattoos? And he’d for sure need at least one smoke break.

Oh well. She couldn’t exactly rescind the invitation now.

“Where is your school, again?” Clive asked. 

“You’ll see it on the right as you drive out of town. Parkville Mennonite Church.”

“Oh yeah, I know where that is. I didn’t realize there was a school there, too.”

“The school is just a few rooms connected to the church building. But the program will be held in the church sanctuary,” said Kristen.

“Maybe I should give you the sign for your school,” said Clive, pouring her coffee into a red to-go cup and fetching a donut with his little tongs. “It seems a little religious for me.”

“Huh? What sign?”

He nodded to the back of the store. Peace on Earth

Kristen resisted the urge to laugh out loud at the thought of hanging such a sign in her chaotic classroom. “You know, it would be a shame to take it down after you spent so much time hanging it up,” she said, handing over a $5 bill.

He handed her the coffee and donut, as well as her change. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? ‘Peace on Earth’ for the craziest time of year.”

It did seem ironic, but Clive was an atheist and she didn’t want to agree with his atheism. She smiled uneasily. “Um, well, thanks for the coffee! Merry Christmas, Clive!”

“Merry Christmas!”

As Kristen walked toward the door, the radio stopped it’s progression of Christmas carols for an important announcement. “It’s just about time for our Christmas tree giveaway! Caller number 9 will get a brand new Christmas tree…”

The doors of the corner store shut behind her as she walked towards her car, in the cold drizzle of December.

“Oh there you are,” said Miss Troyer when Kristen walked into the classroom. “Did Madison hand in her Social Studies PACE to you yesterday?”


“Did she quote the Gettysburg Address to you?”


“Oh. Okay. She needs to do that before she can take the test.” 

Kristen felt her heart sink, partially from the subtle failure vibes, and partially because this was one more thing she had to push a student to do before they’d be ready to leave for Christmas vacation.

“Can’t she just take the test, and study the Gettysburg Address over the holidays?” Kristen asked.

“Did Madison suggest that to you?” Miss Troyer asked. “That is a classic example of a student trying to make you forget. Don’t fall for it.”

This was the problem with being an assistant teacher instead of the head teacher. She had no power to give Madison grace, but she would, she knew, have to do all the grunt work to study with Madison until the Gettysburg Address was memorized forwards and backwards.

The door opened. Xander and Skyler Miller ambled in and stood sleepily by their desks. They were closely followed by Amber Troyer, Miss Troyer’s niece and Xander and Skyler’s first cousin. She usually rode to school with them.

“Miss Kristen, did you make my Mary costume yet?” Amber asked. She always whined when she asked questions, and it set Kristen on edge. 

“I told you, I didn’t have time to make a whole new costume,” Kristen replied. “I just shortened the lavender robe from the costume closet.”

“But it’s waaaay too big for me!” Amber whined.

“We’ll add a belt. You’ll be fine.”

More students were pouring into classroom. Danny, who always had a slight mildew smell, as though his shirt had sat in the washer too long before getting dried. Philip, who was at that stage of life where he thought making fun of people would make him cool and likable. And Madison, who was supposed to memorize the Gettysburg address.

“Wow Miss Kristen. You’re drinking corner store coffee again? What, there was no pond scum available?” said Philip, with a sideways glance at Madison.

Madison, as usual, ignored him as she walked past to her desk.

“Wait. Madison?” Kristen was just about to ask her about the Gettysburg address, when Terance came bursting into the classroom.

“Hey! Hey!” Terance always reminded Kristen of a puppy with too much energy, but today he was in rare form. “Hey, is Dave here? I need to borrow his truck.”

“Borrow his truck?” Mrs Troyer looked up from her computer. “Why on earth do you need to borrow Dave’s truck? The bell is going to ring in five minutes.”

“I won a Christmas tree!” he almost yelled.


“Yeah! They were giving one away on the radio, and I was the ninth caller!”

“You need my help too, right?” said Xander.

“And mine!” said Skyler.

“I can help! Please Mrs Troyer, can I go help?” Philip chimed in. “Terance is too scrawny to heft a Christmas tree by himself.” 

“A Christmas tree? What’s this about a Christmas tree?” three more students were entering the classroom.

“I won a Christmas tree on the radio!” said Terance. “Where’s Dave?”

“You what?!?”

The bell rang, but everyone ignored it. “Quiet!” said Mrs. Troyer, her calm, chilling voice inches from being raised. “Quiet, or you’re all getting demerits.”

The students shushed. Then Dave walked in, late, and the uproar started again.

“Quiet!” Mrs. Troyer yelled, this time. She rarely yelled. Everyone, including Kristen, shrank into their desks. “Terance, I’m happy for you, but there’s no use picking up the tree now. Wait until after school, when you can take it straight home.

“But I don’t want to take it home, Mrs. Troyer. I want to give it as a gift to the class. The girls were talking about decorating the class for Christmas anyway.”

“There’s only three days left of school before Christmas break!”

“But don’t you want them to be pretty days of school? And don’t you want a real Christmas party on Friday? We can put the gifts for the gift exchange under the tree! Please please please?” He fell down on his knees before her, dramatically.

Mrs. Troyer couldn’t help but smile. “Fine.” Terance leapt up, a grin on his face. “But you have to be back by first break, because that’s when dress rehearsal starts.”

The uproar started again, as all the boys tried to convince Mrs Troyer that Terance needed them to go along and help with the tree hauling. Kristen just sat back and sipped her coffee. It was funny, she thought, how some students could get by with so much more than other students. Amber, for instance, was technically an angel student, as far as grades and demerits went. But her terrible whine made Kristen want to never, ever, give her what she wanted. But Terance, who was actually a rather naughty student, could get by with a lot just by being his happy, charming, joking self.

The bell jangled extra loudly as Kristen entered the corner store for the second time that day. 

“More coffee?” Clive asked. 

“Actually, I need a tree stand,” said Kristen. “You sell those, right? And some of those little Snickers bars to bribe kids with. And do you have some extra strength double sided tape? Is that a thing? The bricks keep falling off the Bethlehem Inn. Oh and safety pins. And yes, coffee.” She paused. “Rope! Do you happen to have rope?”

“I have thin twine, but if you’re planning to hang one of your students, I’m not sure it’s strong enough.”

She laughed despite the morbidity, because it hit a little too close to home right then. “Nope. Belts for the wise men.”

“And the Christmas tree stand?”

“Don’t even ask,” she said wearily, hunting down the twine and tape as Clive filled another coffee cup. She put all the items on the counter and he rang them up for her. 

“I hope your program goes well,” he said, handing her the receipt.

The “your program” grated on Kristen’s nerves. It wasn’t supposed to be her program. Mrs Troyer was directing it, and Mrs Bontrager, Madison’s mother, had volunteered to teach the music. When asked, Kristen had agreed to be assistant director, but she didn’t think it would mean very much. Maybe telling a few students to speak up or pay attention.

But before she knew it, it was her job to find costumes for everybody, and her job to scour Pinterest for set ideas, and her job to make sure the students knew their lines. Besides telling the students to speak up or pay attention.

Mrs Troyer sat on the front bench, directing, but that was it. It was similar, Kristen thought bitterly, to the way the entire school was run. Mrs Troyer did the important stuff, but Kristen got the brunt work.

But after Kristen had a few sips of warm coffee, and was alone in her car for the few minutes it took to get back to school, she decided that this assessment of Mrs Troyer was really unfair. Mrs Troyer was a great teacher, she really was. She was pragmatic. And while sometimes abrasive, you always knew where you stood with her. There was nothing false about her.

Kristen’s annoyance at the moment was mostly centered on Mrs Bongrager. Mrs Bontrager was a sweet lady, but…well…she was supposed to be the music teacher. Just music. But, “oh, don’t you think it would just be so much nicer if the wise men had belts?” She’d said. “Those costumes are just so shapeless.” And so there was Kristen, the afternoon before the program, buying twine at the corner store.

Her arrival back at school caused quite a stir. Everyone was in the church, going through the dress rehearsal. But Terance saw her and leaped out of his seat. “Did you get a stand for my tree?”


Before she knew it, all the older boys had fled the sanctuary and were racing down the hallway that connected the church portion of the building to the school wing. “It’s just the little kids singing. We’ll be back soon,” said Terance, when Kristen tried to stop them. 

The tree was leaning against the wall in the school entryway. Dave and Terence wrestled it into the classroom, where they tried to set it up.

“It’s too tall!” Skyler called out helpfully. 

“We need to cut the top off,” said Dave.

“Let’s just set it up in the entryway,” said Kristen. “There’s plenty of room out there. Terance! Where did you get that knife?”

Terance looked at the giant knife in his hands. “Umm…”

“You know knives aren’t allowed in school, right? Hand it over. And let’s haul this back into the entryway.”

“But then the little kids will get the Christmas tree too! I want it to be just for us older kids!” Terance complained, somehow managing to still sound charming. “It’s my tree, I should get to decide where it goes. Come on. I’ll just use my knife to cut off the top, and then you can confiscate it,” he said, giving her puppy-dog eyes. 

Kristen’s patience was wearing extremely thin. But was this a battle worth fighting? Mrs. Troyer wouldn’t have allowed it. The girls would have gasped in shock at the very idea of mercilessly chopping off the top of that beautiful tree. But they weren’t here, and they didn’t have to deal with this.

“Fine,” said Kristen. 

The tone of her voice made all the boys straighten up and get to business. Terance hacked off the top of the tree, and the boys set it up in the stand and added some water.

Then it was Kristen’s job to get everyone back to dress rehearsal, including some girls who had wandered off to the bathroom and never come back. Amber’s voice drifted out of the bathroom door as Kristen walked up to it. “And I told her I had a nice dress I could wear to play Mary, and she told me I didn’t need to because she’d make me something, and then she made me wear this. Miss Kristen just wants to control everything.”

“You’re needed on stage,” said Kristen, opening the door. Her voice was tense. She’d decided, once and for all, that it was useless to try to liked by her students. 

The girls filed past her. Amber’s chin was up, but at least Madison looked ashamed. As they walked away, Kristen found herself confronted by Mrs. Bontrager. “Oh, Kristen!” said Mrs. Bontrager brightly, waving a program that Kristen had designed the day before. “Don’t you think it would just be so nice if the programs had a picture of the nativity on them? I just think that would be so nice. And I noticed there were no Bible verses in it. Don’t you think it would be so nice to have some Bible verses in it?”

By 6:50 pm, Kristen found herself perched on the back bench of the sanctuary, where the makeshift lighting and sound booth was located. She surveyed the program in her hands, still warm from the printer, but containing both a picture of the nativity and several Bible verses.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. Kristen read the familiar verse and sighed. She was inches away from believing in Clive’s atheistic notions about Christmas. It did seem awfully un-peaceful, and currently, Kristen felt very little good will toward men. 

Oh! It was 7:00. She dimmed the lights, and the children filed in, singing as they came.

The program went relatively well, all things considered. Dave only forgot one of his lines. Only two bricks fell off the Bethlehem Inn. The sound system only glitched a couple times. And then they were singing the last song, the whole school, standing on the risers with their battery-powered candles which gave them all an angelic glow.

Peace on the earth good will to men

From Heaven’s all-gracious King

The world in solemn stillness lay

To hear the Angels sing

Afterwords there were finger foods in the fellowship hall. Kristen passed through the din, collecting costumes from all the places they’d been haphazardly strewn.

“I liked it. You did well.”

Kristen looked up, but the smell of cigarette smoke had already alerted her to who it was. “Clive! You made it!”

“Yep! Wouldn’t miss it. I’m not religious, but it’s a nice story. And the little kids sure look cute in their sheep costumes. You did good.”

“Thank you,” said Kristen. This acknowledgement of all the work she’d put into the production was gratifying. 

Then, “I brought you something,” said Clive. He held up a torn box of Christmas lights. “Someone knocked it down, and it busted. I was just gonna pitch ‘em, but I thought I might as well bring ‘em for you. You just got a Christmas tree today, right?”

“Yeah, well…”

“Hey Clive!” Terance was rushing by, his plate piled high with cookies and chips and green rice krispy bars. “Hey, what’s that?”

“Clive brought some Christmas lights for the tree,” said Kristen. She was surprised that the two of them knew each other, but it actually made sense. Terance was forevermore forgetting his lunch, and begging to be allowed to go to the corner store to pick up something to eat.

“Cool!” said Terance. He balanced his water cup between his plate and his chin, and took the lights in his free hand. “Xander! Madison! Look, I got lights!”

A crowd of students collected around him, and they all disappeared into the classroom. Great. Now they’d all be eating in there, leaving one more room to vacuum after everyone was gone. 

It’s over. The worst is over. You should be relaxing, Kristen told herself. So after one last trip to return the rest of the costumes to the costume closet, she got herself a plate of food and sat down next to Daisy, an old friend from high school. Daisy was already half done with her food, but Kristen launched into conversation anyway. “Remember when that was us, acting in the Christmas program every year?” she asked.

Daisy laughed. “Oh yes. Remember the year when I played Mary, and Mr Krabill wanted me to wear that awful costume that made me look actually pregnant?”

“Yeah!” said Kristen. “And then Myron was so jealous that Rob got to play Joseph, and help you hobble your way to Jerusalem.”

“Mr Krabill didn’t think my wobble looked pregnant enough. Or that Rob was helping me enough. It was so awkward!”

They laughed at the memories. Funny, Kristen thought, that only several years after that incident Daisy was pregnant for real. And married. To Myron.

“Oh, hey Kristen!” It was Myron himself. Before Kristen could respond, he’d turned to his wife. “Are you ready to go honey? I want to get home before the snow starts.”

“Wait, it’s gonna snow?” Kristen asked.

“Yep!” said Myron. Then, “Where’s Cassie?” he asked Daisy.

“Last I saw her she was in the rec room with her friends.”

Myron went off to fetch their daughter. So strange, Kristen thought. Only a few years older than me, and they already have a first grader.

“Well, I have to go,” said Daisy, shoving the last bits of her food into her mouth. “It was great catching up.”

“Of course!” said Kristen. “Drive safely!”

With the threat of snow looming, it didn’t take people long to clear out. Some people stuck around for a bit to help with cleanup, but soon it was just Kristen, Mrs Troyer, and Mrs Bontrager left. “I just think we should make things nice for church on Sunday!” Mrs Bontrager said, grinning sweetly, and Kristen rushed off to make sure the sanctuary was vacuumed, and the urinals were flushed, and the sticky juice residue was wiped off the table upstairs.

 She met Mrs Troyer in the foyer. “I’m taking off,” said Mrs Troyer. “It’s starting to snow, and I live up in the hills. But I think things are pretty much cleaned up. Maybe just double check that the lights are off.”

And she walked away, through the large front doors of the church.

The church was empty. Dark. Almost hollow feeling. Kristen walked down the hall, switching off all the forgotten lights. The women’s bathroom. The utility room. The far light in the kitchen. Then, into the school section, where she switched off the light in the office.

It was completely dark now, except for the faintest glow seeping under the door of the main classroom. Oh yes, the Christmas lights on the tree. Should those be switched off too? 

Kristen opened the door, and for the first time, saw the tree in all its glory.

In the dimness, you didn’t notice that the top was lopped off. It was strung with Clive’s lights, which twinked, faint and alluring. And there were other decorations too. Things the children must have cobbled together with construction paper, and tape, and some glitter and pipe cleaners from that random drawer in the yearbook room. All enchanting, and dangly, and festive.

The absolute stillness deceived her, and it took her a second to notice that she wasn’t the only person in the room. It seemed that Mrs Bontrager hadn’t left yet, and she sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree, flanked by her daughter Madison. Dave was here, and Terence. And Clive, too. Crusty old Clive, staring up at the beautiful tree, transfixed.

The snow began falling in earnest, tumbling softly in the glow of the lamppost outside the window. And it occurred to Kristen that the hard part really was over. Tomorrow it was just a couple self-tests and a bunch of tests, and then the Christmas party on Friday, and then there’d be a whole week-and-a-half of vacation. 

She should leave soon, she knew. Before the snow started sticking. But first, enchanted by the atmosphere, she, too, sat on the floor and enjoyed the moment. Because for the first time that season, she actually felt it.

Peace on Earth. 


Blogmas 2019 Day 5: My Favorite Christmas Traditions (And Giveaway Winner!)

Image may contain: ocean, sky, cloud, outdoor, nature and water

An actual snap of last year’s Christmas

Alright. The moment of truth has arrived. The giveaway winner is…

Mary Lynn Derstine

Congrats, Mary! I sent you an email and haven’t heard back from you yet, so check your inbox!

Now, on to the bulk of this post. Last year, a reader suggested that I write about my favorite Christmas traditions.

My family isn’t really the type to intentionally craft a meaningful collection of Christmas traditions. I mean, we buy each other gifts and open them on Christmas morning as, I assume, most families do. Although as time goes on, we’ve shifted that “Christmas morning” around to accommodate various family members. Last year we celebrated on January 5. This year it’ll be December 30.

Nevertheless there are some random things we’ve done so often they’ve become traditions. And also one very intentional, very unique tradition, which I’ll talk about first.

Tradition 1: Gotcha Day

On December 24, 2004, my family drove up to the Portland Airport. We walked inside and waited, standing expectantly on the famous teal carpet, waiting for our new brother to arrive.

And then we saw him, coming with my dad down the hallway. We were now a family of eight instead of seven.

Ever since that day, my family has celebrated Christmas Eve as “gotcha day.” We cook traditional Kenyan foods: chapatis and ugali and sukuma and chicken gravy and pineapple and Kenyan chai tea and soda in glass bottles. We spread a bright leso on the table, and decorate with carved animals we brought back with us when my family was in Kenya.

And then we sit around talking about how amazing Steven is, and how glad we are that he’s in our family, and stuff.

Tradition 2: Festive Pancakes

Growing up, my mom did most of the cooking, but she didn’t often cook breakfast. We usually made our own breakfasts. But my dad rather enjoyed cooking breakfast foods. Particularly pancakes. So if there ever was an occasion to make breakfast, my dad often did it.

I think this is where the pancakes-on-Christmas-morning thing came from. Someone needs to cook breakfast on Christmas morning, right? So dad would make pancakes.

And not just any pancakes. Fancy pancakes. Pancakes shaped like turtles. Pancakes colored with red food coloring. Pancakes colored with green food coloring. Blueberry pancakes. Chocolate chip pancakes. All the pancakes.

Tradition 3: Complaining about the Christmas Stockings

I’m trying to remember where the Christmas stocking thing even started. Originally, we just gave presents and didn’t bother with stockings. But at some point I bought a red velvet stocking at a garage sale. And then Amy traced around it and made her own flimsy cotton stocking. And Ben got a cheap felt stocking from someone…a Sunday school teacher maybe? His name was etched on it in red fabric paint.

So, since we had this meager collection, sometimes we’d hang up Christmas stockings. But we never bothered to collect a decent set.

Sometimes we’d supplement our collection with real socks. At one point, we took the stocking that had “Ben” fabric painted on one side, and painted “Jenny” on the other side. I don’t remember why. And one year, someone bought a stocking for the dog at Dollar Tree. And then the dog died, and we started using the stocking for humans. Even though it was covered in little green paw prints, it was the least pathetic-looking of the bunch.

Somewhere, somehow, we acquired these decorative fabric bags that were supposed to hold wine bottles. I don’t know how or why…we don’t even drink wine. But we started using these wine bags as extra stockings to fill in the gaps of our collection.

For some reason we’ve never bothered to purchase or make nice stockings. Instead, this is our tradition: every year we pull out our terrible collection of stockings and mock it mercilessly.

But Mom whipped up this really cute Christmas stocking the other day, so that particular tradition may be on its way out.

Tradition 4: Going to the Coast

For the past…I don’t know…five-ish years? We’ve started a new tradition: We go to the coast every Christmas. We rent a house and just hang out oceanside for several days.

Sometimes we bring our presents along and exchange them in our beach house. But that’s a lot of work, so this year we’re having “Christmas Morning” at home, before heading out to the coast in the afternoon.

Again, I’m not sure how this tradition started. I guess as my siblings started leaving home, we wanted to do something a little more special when we all came home for Christmas. So the coast it was.

Oh, I just remembered. We went to the coast in 2011/2012. So maybe it’s been eight years? Wow!

Anyway. It’s a tradition that’s developed during my adulthood, not my childhood.

So there you have it! My favorite Christmas traditions. And by “favorite” I mean “the only ones I could think of.” But I like them all, so it works.

Come back tomorrow for Day 6 of Blogmas. We’re almost halfway through the entire 12 Days of Blogmas challenge!

Blogmas 2019 Day 4: Take a Sad Song and Make it Better (repost)

Four years ago today, Ben and I went to Thailand to visit our sister Amy for Christmas. What happened next was one of the most dramatic Christmastime experiences of my life. Today, I decided to revisit that memory by reposting my blog post about the experience.

I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.

What was wrong? Let me make a list:

  1. I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
  2. Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
  3. Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
  4. However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
  5. And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
  6. And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
  7. But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
  8. And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
  9. And I was very confused.

Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.


Source: Wikipedia (Not exactly the same as what I saw, but the closest I could find.)

What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!

We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.

Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.

A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.

It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the  the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.

And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.

In short, my spirits were refreshed.

Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.

I typed a message, and clicked “send.”

“Message held in queue,” it told me.

I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.

Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.

Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.

I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.

“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.

Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.

It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.

Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.

They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.

“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.

“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”

“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.

“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”

“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”

“I told them we were brother and sister.”


We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to.  I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead  I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”

“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”

We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”

Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.

“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”

It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.

“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”

“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”

This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”

It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.

“Success!” I shouted.

“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”

And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.

The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.

Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.


That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.

Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.

“What? Really?”

“Yep. See the snow on that car?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”

“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”


Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.

Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”

Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.

I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.


“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.

“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.

She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.

“What’s hot pot?”

“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”

A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”

We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.

“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.

“Does it not usually snow here?”

“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”

We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.

We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.


This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.

The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.

“Syea-syea,” she said.

“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.

But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.


Photo credit: Ben

My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.

We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.

“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.

“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.

But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.

We had finally arrived.