No Vacancy

“There are far bleaker vistas than this, if you dare/But they lose all their mystery suddenly, once you’ve been there…”
—“Walk You Home” by Marlee MacLeod

Let’s just say I had a “Come to Jesus” moment.

Not your standard Road to Damascus, full-blown revival tent conversion.

Man, I’ve already been there, done that.

Instead, it involved the first draft of this post and sitting with its original lede, which read: “I hate the holidays.”

So I sighed deeply into the “Nada Hail Nada Full of Nada” brewing up within me, twitched nervously in the roaring silence, and stayed with it for two weeks before I realized that it was bullshit.

Truth is, I love the holidays. I’ve just done everything in my power to avoid running into them on the street.

But “the street” happens, whether you like it or not.

Case in point: On Christmas Day I ventured out for worship service at a Unitarian church in St. Paul. The sidewalks were slick with ice, so the only safe place to walk was literally in the street.

A city bus took me as far as Selby Avenue, where I doggedly crunched and shuffled toward Portland Avenue, getting to the service five minutes late.

And there I sat.

For nearly an hour I wrestled with old Christmas carols and the scary worried jangle in my head. The silence persisted and pressed in from the outside, like the pressure around a deep sea diving bell. I fought back with tears and general inattention to the worship service.

Afterward I walked up to Grand Avenue, bought a Sunday paper, and met an elderly black man outside Walgreens who begged for a handout. I gave him five bucks, then headed down to the vacant intersection at Grand and Victoria, where between icy blasts only a handful of people were out walking their dogs.

Moments later that same beggar hobbled by with his cane, walking in the street as I had been doing, flagging down people wherever he could find them. When a half hour passed without a bus, I saw him again crunching and shuffling his way back up the avenue.

I instantly felt miserable: to-the-bone cold, tired, hungry, ashamed of myself and my needy neighbor on the street, and anxious and worried about the future.

That alone should affirm the whole “I hate the holidays” thing, right?

Well, it would if you wanted to overstate the obvious.

But three gifts had been laid at my feet that I didn’t see until I re-read the draft of this post:

1) the gift of this blog itself, the process I’ve developed for it, and the journals that accompany it;

2) the gift of this particular “Season of Silence” and “what it wants to say”; and

3) the gift of songs written and performed by Marlee MacLeod.


“I have a light on, a stranger’s kindness/It brought me from there to here.”
—“Econoline” by Marlee MacLeod

Returning to Minnesota from Christmas at my parents’ Florida home, I faced a fresh new year: 2001. A journal entry from Sunday, Feb. 18 states:

“Two or three years ago I read a City Pages article on a local singer-songwriter that I took a brief fascination with, and saw that she was playing at the 400 Bar in Mpls., so checking in with previous concert-going buddies Kimberly and Lisa from work and we met up at [the 400 Bar] a couple Tuesday evenings back to see Marlee McLeod play.”

Marlee MacLeod was a transplant to the Twin Cities from Alabama. She’d been featured in City Pages and was recording albums and performing around town. She had the pipes of a country & western Grace Slick, and wrote song lyrics that sliced ‘n’ diced like a Ginsu knife.

Hot damn.

I had me a new musical hero.marleeposter

That February 2001 was the first I’d seen Marlee MacLeod live and described it in the journal: “…she seemed ill or generally disenchanted with the turnout, but we three enjoyed the show, and I was impressed with the smartness and strength of her songs. She even did a cover of The Who’s ‘Love Ain’t For Keepin’,’ which really blew me away.”

Marlee had written a song called “No Vacancy.” It’s always been my go-to Blue Christmas song. She played it that night, pretty much to me alone as friends Kimberly and Lisa had taken off after the first set. (I’m including Marlee’s brilliant lyrics and a YouTube link to the song below.)

That whole night reminded me of my Iowa City Crow’s Nest days, and I admitted as much to the journal: “I felt the same sense of excitement and possibility watching Marlee play…as listening to Rain Parade, R.E.M., Aztec Camera, the Three O’Clock….wow, great days.”

Great days.

Where have they gone? Are they still out on the road?

Or have they found their way home yet?


“I’m not scared of gettin’ lost, it’s the gettin’ found I dread.” —“Ride” by Marlee MacLeod

This blog is another gift, if looked at the right way.

The wrong way: Not as an ego toy or even as a passion project (unless you consider breathing, eating, and sleeping a “passion project”). It challenges me exactly in the way it’s doing now: figuring out what I want to say, pretty much based on what I said (which comes into play with the diaries and journals).

So why keep a journal at all?

It’s a valid question.

Outside of habit (I’ve probably written more entries in the journal this past year than in the last decade), the answer is easy: I feel less lonely.

Writing as talking doesn’t interest me as much as writing as conversation.

So, here:

In this quiet breakfast nook (at left), pour us some coffee and plop yourself down, my friend.

It’s the last Minnesota home my late parents owned, a farmhouse in Minnetrista. Our final Christmas there was in 1991…

Dad’s probably got some leftovers in the fridge, if you’re hungry. I’m content to sit here and stare out the window, watch the birds hopping in the snow, see the pines swaying in the wind.

So let’s catch up a bit.

Perhaps you recall in 2009 I left Facebook. And just after this election, I quit Twitter. I still check in at Instagram, but hate myself for it. Social media is good for only one thing: distribution of content. I’d hoped it could be used more as a tool for engagement, but that’s like trying to emcee a concert stadium packed with thousands of people—with not a soul listening to you.

Furthermore, social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Tumblr make it easy to rant—talk, talk, talk—but never listen. Or learn. Or have a conversation, you know, like we’re having here in this breakfast nook in a house I haven’t lived in for over 20 years.

So, what do you think?

Could it be we’re all screaming at each other in our selfie-made digital house of mirrors?

But I see you’re looking up from your coffee, curiously sniffing the air. It takes me a moment to understand, but then I remember.

Yeah, that’s smoke you smell. From the fire that burnt the house down in January 1992.

Guess it’s time for us to leave.


“You’re not a listener, are you? You’re a teller, I can tell.”
—“Mata Hari Dress” by Marlee MacLeod

That last gift—the silence—has been the hardest one to accept.

It’s all wrapped up with the other “gifts:” the grief and loss, the insecurity and isolation, the loneliness, the poverty and want, the noise from The Bubble—of privilege and pride easily found, expressed, and shared on social media.

I pulled the plug on that only to quickly drown in reality’s roaring silence. The pain that followed was extreme.

But it helped when I asked it one question, probably on that freezing Christmas Day after church: What do I need to learn from you?

I’m here, O Season of Silence, listening.

I wish all the happy Christmas memories could last, but every year it gets harder to create new ones.

There’s a Family Project ornament I’ll never forget: a glittery green plastic star that encased a tin center that spun wildly when heated by Christmas lights. It fascinated me as a child.

Has it found a good home? Or did it end up in a landfill? I worry about these little things.

I’m still breathing, still fighting, still writing. And still hoping my tribe is out there and I’m just late meeting up with them.

But now it feels later than late.

Marlee didn’t know where to send the postcard. I wonder if anyone remembers sending postcards.

So here’s the Christmas song Marlee sang to me on that lonely, cold February back in 2001 at the 400 Bar. I was grateful for it.

She’s singing it for you now:

“I … I drive for a livin’
And I been leavin’ shreds of my decency all down the line
I’m takin’ in more than I’m givin’
I … I see lights, what are they for?
When every day’s a holiday, what’s one more?

Is that the star of Bethlehem? No, that’s a Holiday Inn
Is that the light from a stable I see? No, that’s a sign that says
No vacancy

I … I know this cold all season
You can say be of good cheer but my dear
I won’t without a damn good reason
I … I told you already I’m never satisfied
Sing me that song, it reminds me of home
Wherever that is

Is that the star of Bethlehem? No, that’s a Holiday Inn
Is that the light from a stable I see? No, that’s a sign that says
No vacancy.”

~ by completelyinthedark on December 30, 2016.

One Response to “No Vacancy”

  1. Reblogged this on Completely in the Dark and commented:

    Even though this is a recent post, oh what a difference 6 months has made. All-new post in draft mode for publishing next Friday. Cheers, MM


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