On Writing

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I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s newest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. In it, Tan describes the inner workings of her process as a writer. She details the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties that accompany a writer’s life.

I have always considered Amy Tan one of my most admired writers. Her stories of motherhood, childhood loss, and the Chinese experience are deeply moving and, it would appear, deeply felt by Tan herself. Indeed, she describes how her life experiences have informed her fiction, sometimes at a subconscious level.

It’s a writing cliche to say, “Write what you know.”  For Amy Tan, that dictum seems to hold true. While her stories play out in other times and places, the emotional themes of love and loss reflect the tragedies Tan experienced in her own life.

Over the past three years, I have merely dipped my toe into the writing life. My twice weekly blog posts have helped me express my beliefs, vent on politics, and, most importantly, delve into my past and present life experiences. Like Tan, my urge to write comes from a need to explore and make sense of the joys and tragedies in my life in order to understand myself better.

It also helps to realize that a successful and critically acclaimed writer such as Tan struggles mightily with her writing. She dissects every sentence and discards whole chapters – sometimes even whole novels – in an effort to write something worthwhile.

The writing life is a solitary and difficult one, one without many signposts to show the writer she is on the right path. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages artists to press ahead, creating and expressing themselves on a daily basis no matter what, knowing that the jewel of a good idea will emerge if we can push past resistance and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity.

As a new year approaches, I plan to use the insights of Amy  Tan to renew my writing efforts and to learn how to use adversity to inform my work in a deep and meaningful way.

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You Better Watch Out

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The-Elf-on-the-Shelf-The-Forgotten-CRMParents have always been a little mean-spirited at Christmas time. When I was a child, I took to heart the admonishment that Santa was watching me. If I was naughty, no presents for me. Looking back, I think that was a terrible message to send about Santa Claus and the giving and receiving of gifts.

As a parent, I realize that it’s important to have many discipline techniques to deal with child misbehavior. And sometimes we’re so desperate to stop our kid’s annoying or destructive behavior that we jump at anything we think might work. But in the case of Christmas threats, I think we are headed down the wrong path.

Take the Elf on the Shelf. Mercifully, my family missed out on this custom due to the age of my children. But my understanding is that the elf is some sort of spy for Santa who lurks in the house and keeps moving around so as to catch the kids in any sort of shenanigans. This is not only a bit creepy, but it gives children the sense that their parents see them as basically naughty and in need of watching at all times.

Many internet memes have blithely skewered the image of the Elf on the Shelf by posing him in compromising positions with Barbies and such. But others are troubled by the surveillance and reporting aspects of the toy. Digital technology professor Laura Pinto worries that the Elf on the Shelf is normalizing a police state mentality for a generation of children. (Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2014)

Another new technique I have seen popularized on Facebook is this: A parent wraps a bunch of empty boxes with Christmas wrap. Then, when the child misbehaves, the parent tosses one of the gifts into the fire. Whoever came up with that idea most likely thinks of themselves as clever, but I think it’s downright cruel.

At the very least, the idea of tying children’s behavior to receiving gifts on Christmas is the antithesis of what Christmas is supposed to be all about. The birth of Jesus was a gift for all mankind to save us from our sin. Quite the opposite of being expected to “behave” in order to receive it, the gift of Christ was given precisely because we do not deserve it.

Christmas should be a time of selflessness and love. Let’s retire these mean-spirited traditions and confine Santa and the elves to jolly singing in the workshop at the North Pole.

 

Winter Solstice

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A few days ago, I arose at 4:30 in the morning. My head was spinning with holiday to-dos, and I just couldn’t sleep. At 6:45, I went up to my daughter’s room to wake her for school. But it was so incredibly dark in the hallway that I had to check the clock again to make sure I had the correct time.

As we approach the winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness seems to envelop us. Night comes swiftly and lingers into our morning awakenings. We are approaching the day of shortest daylight and longest night.

Early cultures marked this winter solstice with festivals of light, such as the Scandinavian Jul, from which we derive the Christmas word “Yule.” It is no coincidence that Hanukkah and Christmas, two festivals of light, are celebrated around the time of the solstice.

We are a people afraid of darkness. At the holidays, this darkness can take the form not only of physical night, but of sadness, loneliness, and depression. Loss of loved ones feels more keen at this cold, dark time of the year. The holidays themselves, of course, can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Hence my 4:30 am awakenings.

But for me, the winter solstice is a time for rejoicing. Not only is the great feast of Christmas around the corner, but the days will begin to lengthen again. In the midst of January’s sometimes bitter cold is the reality that the brilliant sun shines more often and lasts longer into our days. The New Year will give us new resolve and hope for a better life.

The whole season of Advent is one of waiting in darkness for the coming of the light of Christ. HuffPost writer Caroline Oakes sees the meaning of Advent enriched by the ancient pagan traditions surrounding the solstice. In them, she recognizes the Celtic culture for “its keen awareness of humanity’s deep, inner connections with the rhythms of the natural world.” (HuffPost, December 21, 2012)

So we wait in the darkness. In Oakes’ words, “This is Advent — when, as sleepers, we awaken to our own light of love, deep within us, waiting to be reborn again in the dark stables of our own souls.”

 

Christmas Is For Lovers

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IMG_1485Our first Christmas together, my husband did not want to get a tree. He reasoned that we would be spending the holidays with our families and were at home so little it wasn’t worth the effort. To me, no Christmas was complete without a real tree shimmering with lights and tinsel. So I was feeling glum as I made my way home from my teaching job one cold and wintry December evening. When I walked in the door, I was surprised to find my beloved kneeling at the base of a lovely tall fir tree, screwing the posts of a tree stand into its trunk. Next to the tree were boxes of lights and shiny ornaments he’d bought. He had carried the tree on his back for three blocks and up the three flights of stairs to the condo where it now stood in all its majesty at the big picture window. I was thrilled and touched.

Something about the holidays moves us to be kind and generous to each other. And over the years, it has been a time when my husband has gone out of his way to show me how much he loves me.

One of my favorite Christmas tree ornaments was given to me by my sister. It is a Precious Moments ornament with the inscription, “Our First Christmas Together 1988,” and I have always given it pride of place on our tree. One Christmas, one of my kids was attempting to hang it on the tree when it slipped out of his little hands and broke in two. I was inconsolable. Of all the ornaments we had collected over the years, that one was irreplaceable. That Christmas morning, in the pile of presents from my husband, was a small box with the very Precious Moments ornament I thought was gone forever. My husband had searched for its replacement and special ordered it for me.

Through the years, somehow my husband has found ways to give me gifts with deep emotional meaning. One year he had restored and tinted a favorite old photo of my sisters when they were little. Another year, I unwrapped three fancifully decorated letters of the alphabet representing the initials of each of our three children. But there was a fourth box of identical shape. When I opened it, tears came to my eyes. It was the letter “O,” representing our hope for the fourth child we were in the process of adopting.

Christmas is an emotional time for many people, and I am an extremely sensitive and emotional person. The year my father died, I could hardly bear to celebrate Christmas. The holiday that had always been marked by my father’s birthday on Christmas Eve would feel so empty without him. That year, my husband gently coaxed me through the season, helping me decorate the house and reminding me that our kids needed to feel the joy of the season – but also allowing me space to grieve.

The true magic of Christmas is that it can bring us closer to the people we love. That has certainly been the case with my husband and me over the years. I cherish the memories of almost three decades of Christmases together and pray that we have many, many more.

Fake News

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Every time conservatives see a report that is unflattering to Republicans, especially Donald Trump, they cry, “Fake news!” I even see this with some of my reasonably intelligent friends on Facebook. I just hope they don’t hit themselves in the head with all their knee jerks.

Remember the story about the child sex ring being run by Hillary Clinton out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria? Now that was fake news. There is a big distinction between news media outlets sometimes getting their facts wrong and a story like PizzaGate.

What is alarming to me is that Donald Trump’s fans rely on sites such as “Trump News” and the “Donald J. Trump” Facebook page for their news. I’m sure Kim Jong Un’s and Vladimir Putin’s acolytes get all their information from similar news outlets. The other day in my Facebook news feed, I saw a post from the DJT page with flashing headlines that said something to the effect of “Fake news is trying to destroy Donald Trump!” These sites make Fox News actually look fair and balanced.

I’m not denying that media entities make judgments every day about what content to publish and that some of those decisions might be colored by the publisher’s political bent. But that does not mean the the mainstream media is a purveyor of made up stories.  And suggesting that all news coming out of these outlets is fake is dangerous to our democracy.

Recently, a woman from an organization called Project Veritas tried to peddle a false accusation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore to the Washington Post. The Post, however, subjected the claims to the same journalistic rigor with which they approach all of their news stories and found no merit to the phony claim. Project Veritas was apparently trying to prove that the mainstream media will jump at any fake news that puts a Republican in a bad light. Clearly, their gambit failed.

The irony of all this is that Donald Trump has made so many false statements since he became a candidate for president, that it should make Americans’ heads spin. Independent organizations such as PolitiFact and Fact Checker have recorded hundreds of inaccuracies and lies spouted by Trump since he announced his candidacy in 2015. But what do they know? PolitiFact only won a Pulitzer Prize.

I have news for all you Trumpies out there. Journalistic integrity is a thing. Sadly, your news sources don’t have it. And while you bask blissfully in your ignorance, Trump and his cronies are getting away with just about everything but murder.

The Worst Noel

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A one-hour listen to the all day Christmas music on my local radio station has taught me something. There are a lot of lame Christmas songs out there. Aside from the fact that the station runs through the same 50 songs on a loop 24/7, many of them are just unbearably cheesy or even offensive.

For instance, just yesterday I was listening to the Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which was written and performed as a fundraiser to stamp out world hunger. There’s one verse, though, that has always bugged me. After describing the terrible plight of many people in the world, the song admonishes us, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” What kind of Christmas message is that?

For years women have been complaining about the veiled date rape message of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: “Say, what’s in this drink?” To be sure, that and many songs that find their way into the all day Christmas song marathons were written in a pre feminist era. Still, it’s cringeworthy in this day and age to hear a man plying a woman with drinks and pressuring her to stay overnight. (I must confess, though, that I like the rendition of “Baby” sung by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in Elf.)

There are some incredibly tacky and inane holiday songs out there, such as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and the annoyingly lisped old charmer “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” And then there’s the plain schmaltz: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the interminable “Feliz Navidad,” the song that really put Jose Feliciano on the map. Feliciano, who had been booed and catcalled for his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at a World Series game (Atlantic, Dec. 16, 2015), reasoned that if he inserted the English language line “I Wanna Wish You a Merry Christmas” into his song, the radio stations would have to play it. Unfortunately, he was right.

I know some people love these songs. Some of it, I suspect, is nostalgia. How else to explain why anyone would listen to Jimmy Durante rasp out “Frosty, the Snowman”? And it’s easier to do a remake of a popular song from the 40s or 50s than to come up with new music and lyrics. Hence, the 80 millionth version of such gems as “Santa Baby” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

My objection to these radio station playlists is that they miss so much classic and great holiday music. All the beautiful carols I learned as a child: “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and on and on. These kinds of songs get little playing time. There are some hauntingly lovely songs such as “The Coventry Carol” and “Breath of Heaven” that speak to the dark beauty of the Christmas story. And even more contemporary Christmas songs, such as Amy Grant’s nostalgic, “Tennessee Christmas,” never seem to make their way onto the air.

If stations playing holiday music 24/7 during the season really put their minds to it, they could play a list of songs with virtually no repeats all day long. Maybe then I’d enjoy some of the fun but currently overplayed hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Still, there are some holiday classics that, for me, never get old. Nat King Cole’s silky smooth “A Christmas Song” comes to mind. I guess I’ll spend the Christmas season listening to my own holiday song collection in the comfort of my home.

What are your favorite songs of the season?

 

 

Let Them Eat Cake

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The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case to determine whether the Constitution protects the rights of a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The baker insists that as an artist (of cakery, presumably), he is protected by his First Amendment right to free speech.

I’m sure there are laudable arguments on both sides of this Constitutional question, and I’m neither qualified nor interested in engaging in them. But for crying out loud, baker, it’s a cake!

I’m sure in the course of their day to day business, bakeries make cakes for all kinds of morally questionable people. Generally, businesses don’t require their customers to pass a moral litmus test in order to serve them. A cake made for a gay couple would have all the same ingredients and requirements that the baker would use for a  heterosexual couple. There is absolutely nothing morally compromising for the bakery here.

After all, it’s not as if refusing to make the cake will cause the gay couple to decide not to get married. I could understand if a Christian minister refused to marry two men or two women. But a cake is just a traditional aspect of the celebration part of the wedding. It’s not marched down the aisle as part of the actual marriage ceremony. So the idea that a baker’s making a cake for a gay couple would compromise his or her religious beliefs is ludicrous.

Let’s face it. The baker saw two men in love walk into his bakery, and it disgusted him. He didn’t want any part of their business because he didn’t like what he saw. This is the same situation blacks faced at lunch counters all over the American South in the Fifties. Refusing to serve customers because of their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is illegal. It’s that simple.

So I have a solution for the squeamish baker: Let gay couples have their cake and eat it too! Just tell them they need to supply their own same sex cake topper.