#Outlander, Christmas, and Rereading Books

Books are my touchstones. I carry them with me…battered copies tucked in my bag, a library of books on my phone, and always, always books in my heart. So many of my old photos have books in them, and I can tell you what was going on in my life by what I was reading.

Christmas 1984 – loved stories, and history, and losing myself…that was my Laura Ingalls Wilder period. Still love history.

Christmas 1985 – middle school, awkward, one foot in adolescence and one in childhood…ahhh, yes. Sweet Valley High and Flowers in the Attic. Don’t’ judge.

Christmas 1987 – young, broody…that would be my Sylvia Plath period.

Christmas 1991 – idealistic, romantic, and nostalgic…that was the year I discovered Norman Maclean.

Fast-forward to 2015, and I am re-re-re-reading Outlander. Yes, yes, I know. I have read it a *cough* few times. But there is a very good reason for that: It’s worth rereading.

Outlander-blue-cover-198x300I have mentioned before that the Outlander series, quite literally, helped me survive my husband’s heart attack this past March. I read while he rested in the hospital. The books were my refuge, my companion, my escape, my comfort. They still are.

So, when I realized that I wasn’t feeling all Eggnog-and-Holiday-Cheer, I tried to slow down and take a breath. It helped…a bit. I felt less stressed, but there was still the voice in my head whispering about the Christmas lights that were still in boxes, and the decided lack of Christmas cookies, this year’s non-existent Family Christmas Card, and the fact that Christmas is two freakin’ weeks away and I have done exactly NONE of my Usual Christmas Traditions.

We have not gone driving around to look at Christmas lights even once, I have not watched my traditional Christmas movies (The Family Man; Love, Actually; The Holiday, or It’s A Wonderful Life), and I have bought exactly…nothing. So, basically, I feel like I am sucking at this whole Mom Thing.

*Insert holiday induced pity party here.*

So, after a nice cup of fortifying tea, I started wondering what the holidays would have been like for Jamie and Claire. (Well, not that first Christmas. We know exactly what THAT was like for poor Jamie…let’s not go there. *shudder*  Oh, and not that incredibly rage inducing and misguided Hogmanay with Laoghaire. *makes sign of horns*)

No, I mean the later Christmases…those at Fraser’s Ridge. Actually, in The Fiery Cross Diana told us (she’s good like that) what the holidays were like. Spoiler: They were nothing like the holiday season as we have mangled it.

Despite all the of the responsibilities of being Himself, Jamie still found time to carve Jem a wooden horse, and he also carved Claire a new wooden ladle with the image of a mint leaf carved on the handle. And, despite all the time spent physicking, Claire gave Jamie “a new shirt with ruffles at the throat for ceremonial occasions.”

As Diana reminds us:

Catholics as many of them were—and nominally Christian as they all were—Highland Scots regarded Christmas primarily as a religious observance, rather than a major festive occasion. Lacking priest or minister, the day was spent much like a Sunday, thought with a particularly lavish meal to mark the occasion, and the exchange of small gifts.

I imagine a lovely meal courtesy of Mrs. Bugg (God rest her soul), and perhaps Claire would make some of her molasses cookies. And I am quite sure there was a wee dram to be had. Perhaps a song or two as well. Likely no cherry bounce or jigs and reels. But it was enough.

There was no tinsel, no movies, no stampede of crowds. There was no competing to get the biggest or best present for kids or grandkids. There was no social obligation filling every spare moment. There was food, and family, a fire in the hearth, and food on the table. And it was enough.

Once again, books steady me, comfort me. And this is why I reread books…because, like an old friend who knows me well, books bring me back to what matters.

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Finding the Quiet

treeIt just doesn’t feel like the holidays yet.  Perhaps it is because the past week or so has been nothing but obligations: running errands, tending to unforeseen things that have a tendency to arise when there is no time to deal with them, and trying to “get ready” for the festivities (or rather, stress about buying all the things that have not yet been bought).  The end result, however, is more Bah-Humbug than Happy Holidays.

The days slip away, and each day I count down how many more days before the holidays are here.  I contemplate what event I can mark off next, as if they are hurdles to be overcome rather than moments to savor.  I—so caught up in preparing for fifteen minutes of unwrapping—have forgotten to slow down and enjoy the quiet sense anticipation of the season.

I do know how to manage it, which helps.  I need to find the quiet.  Sometimes I need to go outside and stand in the winter’s chill and lift my eyes to the heavens.  Or perhaps it is enough to wrap myself in a well-worn tartan and, with a wee dram in hand, sit before the flickering fire and let the stress rise and float away like the crackling embers.  Or solace may come to me in the still of night, while I listen to the rise and fall of breath next to me, and—reaching over and laying my hand across his chest–find blessings enough in the warm and solid presence of my husband.

There are too many commercials, too many parties and luncheons, too many forced celebrations.  I will find my joy in the quiet moments in between.  In the twinkle of Christmas lights in the darkness and in stars overhead, in the smell of gingerbread baked “just because.”  And in ancient carols spilling from smiling lips…rather than tinny sounding sounds blared over department store speakers.  I’ll take comfort in the pile of wood next to my hearth, in a pair of warm mittens when I tend to the chickens.  And, as I add more hay to their coop, I’ll recall another manger, another night, another twinkling star…and I’ll remember what is important.

The Duality of Jamie Fraser (or Religion in #Outlander, Part I)

The best stories keep you thinking long after you read them.  They hang around and whisper to you…they nudge and prod you…they force you to consider (or reconsider) what you believe.  These are the stories I read, and the stories I try to write.

So, of course, that make me think about Outlander (feel free to go grab a cup of tea—or some whisky, I won’t judge).

SPOILER

 Ok, now that we have that out of the way…

One of the things that I love about Outlander is the spirituality it encompasses.  I mean, obviously Jamie is Catholic.  The books have an amazing number of prayers, in an impressive array of languages (English! French! Gaelic!)*  And, of course, it makes me feel guilty because I do well to mutter a few prayers in my one language, whereas Jamie seems to have about a million prayers—really long prayers–memorized…but I digress.

Jamie is a highlander, and the superstitions of his time are as much a part of his life as his Catholicism is.  He knows the patron saint for every occasion, just as he knows how to keep a spirit from leaving its grave (salt!).  He takes blood oaths, and he recites the Act of Contrition in French.  He carries a dried mole foot in his sporran to ward of rheumatism, and he prays nearly unceasingly for Claire and their unborn child after he is forced to send them back through the stones.  (If you have not read “The Scottish Prisoner,” yet, why the heck not!!  Seriously.  Also, I am normally not an audio book person, but it was amazing.)

There are entire books and blogs and discussion boards that happily deconstruct the symbolism and superstition in Outlander.  But what really interests me is Jamie’s duality—the way that his Catholicism and the pagan traditions of that time and that place are inextricably woven together.

One bit, in particular, comes to mind.*** It is from Echo in the Bone (so, if you didn’t heed my spoiler warning, consider this your last chance)…

…that particular spring always had the air of being remote from everything.  It lay in the center of a small grove of white ash and hemlock, and was shielded on the east by a jagged out-cropping of lichen-covered rock.  All water has a sense of life about it, and a mountain spring carries a particular sense of quiet joy, rising pure from the heart of the earth.  The White Spring, so called for the big pale boulder that stood guardian over its pool, had something more—a sense of inviolate peace.

The closer I came to it, the surer I was that that was where I’d find Jamie.

‘There’s something there that listens,’ he told Brianna once, quite casually.  ‘Ye see such pools in the Highlands; they’re called saints’ pools—folk say the saint lives by the pool and listens to their prayers.’

‘And what saint lives by the White Spring?’ she’d asked, cynical.  ‘Saint Killian?’

‘Why him?’

‘Patron saint of gout, rheumatism, and whitewashers.’

He’d laughed at that, shaking his head.

‘Whatever it is that lives in such water is older than the notion of saints,’ he’d assured her.  ‘But it listens.’

I walked softly, approaching the spring.  The jays had fallen silent now.

He was there, sitting on a rock by the water, wearing only his shirt.  I saw why the jays had gone about their  business—he was still as the white boulder itself, his eyes closed, hands turned upward on his knees, loosely cupped, inviting grace.

I stopped at once when I saw him.  I had seen him pray here once before—when he’d asked Dougal MacKenzie for help in battle.  I didn’t know who he was talking to just now, but it wasn’t a conversation I wished to intrude on.

It was there that Jamie uttered the prayer that defines his life, his love, and his heart:  Let me be enough.

Despite the many long litanies that Jamie had memorized over the years, in his times of greatest need, his prayers were always simple, direct, and heartfelt.

Let me be enough. 

And for those that have read “The Scottish Prisoner”…

Lord, that she might be safe.  She and the bairn.

When there is nothing else he can rely on (not his strength, or determination, or sheer willpower), Jamie takes his fear and desperation and quietly “offers it up.”

When I read “The Scottish Prisoner,” I thought about how overwhelming it must have been for Jamie.  To simply not know if someone was alive and safe.  No wonder that Jamie considered it his own purgatory on earth.  I imagine the desperation nearly suffocating him, and the only way to keep the panic at bay was to repeat the words and to hold onto them like a lifeline.

Lord, that she might be safe.  She and the bairn.

No answers, no certainly, no closure.  The only possible path to peace is through acceptance.

I always thought in the first two books Jamie is rather like a shield.  He is happy to put himself between Claire and danger.  He doesn’t flinch from taking whatever pain or suffering is directed at her.

But in the later books, Jamie is more like a stone.  Yes, he can still be a barrier, but age and wisdom made him more than that; he is also a foundation…and Claire (as well as the rest of their family) builds her life upon him.

Jamie’s spirituality, his Catholicism, and his deep and abiding faith also influence those around him.  I was amazed by the changes in Claire, of course, but I was also intrigued by the changes in Young Ian (have I mentioned how much I adore him?).  [And, for the record, I am planning to do additional blogs to talk about religion/spirituality as it relates to Claire and Young Ian.]

And, honestly, the books have changed me…they made me want to be a better Catholic.  I have highlighted huge sections of the prayers on my Kindle, and I have tracked down quite a few old prayer books and books on the saints.  I have also picked up a book on Highland superstitions.  It has a lot about plants and blessing to say when you plant and harvest certain wee herbs.  (With my gardening skills, a few prayers certainly wouldn’t be amiss!)

I have found that I find a great deal of peace while puttering around the garden and feeling the wind in my hair and the cool grass underfoot.  And the chickens help, too.  Perhaps it is the sense that you are responsibly for something other than yourself.****

But then Jamie already knew that.  Claire was right, he was too quick by half.

 * I keep promising myself that I will collect all of the prayers** in one place where I can refer back to them.

 ** This would be much easier if the publishers would, someday, offer the full collection of novels (and novellas), in order, as one digital file, so that I could use the search function for this purpose.  Please, please do this someday, book publishing people, because I would throw money at you to be able to have this!

 ***Yes, I know there are tons more.  So let’s talk about them!  Leave a comment with your favorite snippet or scene that shows Jamie’s spirituality.

 ****No, for those wondering, I did not name any of them Laoghaire…or Claire or Jamie, for that matter.  Although, in the interest of full disclosure, they are all named after Scottish clans: Seton, Maxwell, and *ahem*…MacKenzie and Fraser.