Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking into 2011

I'm not a big fan of setting goals. I know that it is what all the gurus of American pop culture recommend, but to me it is not a workable scenario. Lost in a sea of potentials it is hard to grasp what may turn out to be very important at a future date that I can only imagine now. It may be that my life has undergone such complete change in the last five years that all of my previous goals pale in comparison to what I experienced and that keeps me shy of goal-setting. Whatever it is - the thought of setting goals, making resolutions or even expecting anything of the future - seems to fill me with a sort of dread.

Remember my metaphorical peach orchard? Here in the winter of no moisture on Colorado's Front Range, I'm wondering how peach trees would survive such an experience? See. This wasn't the winter to plant the peach orchard, I pat myself on the shoulder. I stand looking out at my field of golden rye grass bending to the bitter winter winds and consider irrigation once more. I want to control future emotional flow and what ideas I develop in my orchard. Maybe I will need to invest in a system of survival that can sustain a peach orchard even during winters like this winter when there haven't even been two inches of snow accumulated. Life is like that, you know, for most writers -- a delicate balance of weather and sustainable methods of farming the mind. I've tended to lean towards weather (inspiration, climate change, and emotional storms) to write in fits and spurts, but the productivity of this method is questionable at best. For a more sustained effort, I need sustainable methods and environments.

Leading me back to setting goals. Eek.

There are a number of things that a writer must have to sustain writing:

  • a room of one's own where quiet prevails for hours at a time, not even the breath of another to shake the mind from its trudging path
  • energy for sitting that comes from regular exercise and diet that are maintainable and do not interfere with writing time
  • enough sleep that the writer is not tempted to fall asleep in the middle of any given sentence -- for going to sleep on oneself is the writer's nightmare
  • time enough to get going, and cruise along for a good long while before having to stop and do other things
  • pencil and pad for notes and doodles that pop into the writers' mind when away from writing
  • few distractions (Facebook, laundry, television, and other books are too tempting for words)
  • willingness to play with ideas without expectations, and meander down a path that may lead nowhere or may lead to the essence of a story
  • hope that someone, somewhere will be interested in the writing enough to publish or make note of it
  • willingness to sacrifice the appearance of a full life in favor of loneliness and sort of an ascetic practice that may appear damaging to others.

This last thing may be the hardest for me as it requires a rationing of social outings to the very most basic events -- family gatherings, and a shared cup of tea once or twice a month. It is only this past year or two that I have understood that my penchant for extravagance in the social arena has had the price tag of not being a productive writer. I don't know why it took me so long to understand this. I had this very information in 1996, and I've been mulling it over and resisting it with every bone in my body for what appears to be 15 years. Fifteen years! This is just to tell other writers out there that this happens to each of us in different ways...the realization that sustaining a writer's life can require certain sacrifices we are unable to make until exactly when we are able to make them.

Just this past week I was visited by an old friend who exclaimed with complete innocence and admiration that she had some of the best times of her life when I threw parties and sleepovers and afternoon teas in my big house in luxurious L.A.. I turned away from her for a moment to cement a placid look on my face. Turning back I said that I appreciated her memories of good times, while internally realizing, and sort of holding a proverbial gun to my temple, that the cost of all of those parties and gatherings and extended weekends of talking and sharing had cost me in other ways that I was only now paying -- sort of like a debt payment that finally comes in for real. Good times may be this writer's worst enemy for they are the most tempting distraction ever for me, and feel, at the time, totally justifiable. I did not manage to write at all last week, the week of Christmas, for all of the good times to be had, but this I allowed myself. I was thinking that this is the season to set aside those larger goals and celebrate the moment...still...I didn't write much.

Now, I have to gather up steam again for figuring out how to irrigate my field with these seasonal celebrations without flooding or withering my crop with neglect. How do other writers do it? Am I destined to become a miserly curmudgeon with my time and giving so that I can write sustainably? Or is my reaction simply the equal and opposite to my previous life of putting writing off for a party? Will a balance be restored in 15 years so that I may have some friendly interactions and still write enough to unspoken, unwritten goals?

If I look forward into 2011, I suppose I hope to understand the writer's life even better than I understand it now. I hope to attain the necessary tools, space and time to afford this life choice and become as prolific as I know I can be as a writer. I hope that my proverbial peach orchard will be planted and irrigated and well-planned enough to sustain a few expected and a few unexpected turns of the weather. Are these goals within my ability to attain? In part they are dependent on my choices, but in part they are dependent also on grace. As goals, they don't look like much, and they are very self-centered, but there they are, a bag of chosen potentials, that I'll be carrying for a while on my staff.

Monday, December 13, 2010

What I believe about Christmas Future...

The popular American Christmas way is for the birds. A friend commented on a previous Christmas entry about what I think a key to making this time of year meaningful: quiet. American Christmas is the extreme opposite of this truth. Even the most solemn Christmas hymns from days long past are reworked into loud and noxious sounds that exude disrespect for calm. You know when a well-known Christian singer, Amy Grant, writes a Christmas song entitled "I Need a Silent Night," that things are out of hand.

So, this is what I care about this time of year -- stories read by the fire, candlelit dinners with close friends and family, beautiful music and walks under the stars. All of my best Christmas memories are about quiet sharing on dark nights, not about gifts, but about being in the moment. I do enjoy Christmas music sung around a piano by people of varying talent, but not so much blaring over mall speakers. I loved being in La Posada one year in a far away Mexican village, ending at the inn with a piƱata for children and Mariachis singing joyfully with words I barely understood. One year I made a Hanukkiah of the earth, eight plus one candles placed in the ground, lit by me alone under the starry night sky, fragile light fighting against the long night. Another year I made a spiral walk of stones and lit candles on the Winter Solstice. Every year I've given my children each an ornament, and now they have enough to cover our small tree, and I like to watch them decorate it (often placing bunches of ornaments too close together and leaving blank spots otherwise). I like to walk a labyrinth in solitude. The deafening quiet of the world after a fresh snow deeply touches my heart, but so does a warm breeze from the ocean and waving palm fronds against the moon.

For me true Christmas is not a place, nor is it a specific group of people even. It is not about expectations from family or friends. Christmas is not about extravagance and glitter. It is not even about one day that we may or may not agree a Savior was born in Bethlehem. Christmas, ideally, for me is about reverence for the moment. A day in the Southern hemisphere may be about sitting on the beach and watching the sun rise on the one of longest days of the year. In the Northern hemisphere Christmas could be the crunch of boots in the snow under a starry sky. A great meal at a long table filled with loved ones is miraculous, but if I'm ever alone on Christmas I hope that I remember that all I need to do is let the grace of quiet waft over me to recollect the journey of a year gone by, and to look forward to the years to come, to be with the moment as fully as the flame of a candle, to breath and appreciate how a complex life can be made simple. It is one of those days to mark on a calendar, a rite of passage in a year, the winding down of expectations, the setting aside of goals for an hour or two. Christmas could be a point of stillness in an otherwise busy life, if we chose to make it so.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Christmas Present is a gift...

Happiness is always a by-product. It is probably a matter of temperament, and for anything I know it may be glandular. But it is not something that can be demanded from life, and if you are not happy you had better stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness.
  - Robertson Davies

What about that? What if we simply stop worrying about our present unhappiness, knowing that it is weather that brings unexpected gifts? Every year I swear I will do this holiday season differently only to be swept up in a tsunami of activities and expectations "other people" demand that I participate in without regard for my health, well-being or wealth. To reject the holidays seems to leave only the bah-humbug aspect of my persona grimacing with resistance. I'm searching for a middle ground that will leave me bounding into the New Year rejuvenated and raring to go. I'm attempting to overcome the two extremes of "too much" and "too little," and set a moderate course that I deeply feel will acknowledge the meaning of gathering up the people of my life with joy rather than dread.

I believe many of us unconsciously create poison jars during the holiday season to store up our forbidden resentment so that we can project all of the season's advertised aspects -- peace, good will and being of good cheer. A poison jar is usually a vulnerable person in our midst who "never seems to do anything right." My wasband was an excellent poison jar for me because he did not understand that I was never going to do Christmas like his own mother. Our conflicts over Christmas included everything from decoration and food, to exactly how presents would be opened and who was invited to share in this debacle. There was always an internal calculation on how much should be spent on the holidays that was never the same between us. Years away from this fiasco, I see my own flawed behavior and I'm really sorry about it. My gift to him is to acknowledge it. I loaded my self-loathing onto him without any thought at all about it. It was a perfect projection so that I could be the Christmas hero, and I always was the Christmas hero and he always was the Christmas villain. I'm quite sure I am not alone in this behavior.

Obviously, though it is a well-worn path, I have no desire to stay on it for this year or any future years. I will not be happy if I manage to make my current husband into my Christmas poison jar. In fact, I have been going through a sort of Christmas purge for the last four years, admitting to anyone who stumbles into my sphere at this time of year that Christmas is simply not what it used to be and that gift exchanges, holiday meals and just about anything above the bare minimum is out of the question. It was partly a financial consideration, but also it has been a sanity decision. My budget has been so tight that all I could do was meet my kids' desires as well as possible and everyone else got jipped including myself. Even so some of these past few years my kids' gifts were cobbled together from discount stores and help from my parents, my boyfriend-now-husband, and they were disappointed at times. I know that.

It's really my fault. The big neon arrow is right over my head flashing "her fault" in a variety of colors. I have chosen to focus on re-raising myself this past year. I rebooted my entire life in the past four. Every year I have an excuse now to side-step the hooplah. This year my excuse: I have had health problems that significantly slowed me down to a dependent crawl. Though my now husband is incredibly generous, I feel guilty that I am taking his bonus and overtime to create Christmas for us, and I am utterly confounded by how to make this sensible in my own mind. He wants nothing to do with planning the holidays and is happy to put me in charge -- am I a poison jar for him I wonder?  In fact, he is very non-judgmental and not apparently invested at all in any outcome except to please us as he can. He has been the Christmas hero for us in the last three years running without a doubt, and yet he asks for no credit and stands on the sidelines without commitment to anything except doing his best to meet the expectations of the culture he finds himself in. When I ask about his Christmas memories he draws a blank or mentions a hotel room in Turkmenistan with vodka and a Soviet-trained surgeon who worked to save his foot from infection. It's a totally different ball game for him in terms of expectations and I take heart from that, but then it all rests with me to figure out how Christmas et al will play out.

I'm trying very hard to be reasonable and wise with the given resources. I'm not a crafty person, and so it isn't like I can knit a sweater or hat for people, and anyway if I do those kinds of things then I'm not writing and if I'm not writing then there is no hope for a future that alleviates my husband's burden and shares responsibility. As much as my children love the character of Mrs. Weasley, I also expect that if I could knit them a Christmas sweater, they'd be about as enthusiastic about it as Ron is when he receives his hand-magically-knit monogrammed sweater with disappointment. So you see me going round and round. All the time investment it takes to make things like gingerbread houses, and give parties interfere with my long-term goals in more than just the activities themselves, but also in the fall out of getting sick, being waylaid by lack of energy, etc., and being broke at the turn of the year. I don't have it in me to create that kind of homey perfection even with months of healing behind me. I have a hard time just keeping up with the laundry and I'm trying to learn how to accept reality rather than make up more layers of fantasy. Deep down I believe that my children will, in the long-run, appreciate that I have created an option for them to embrace in the future if only the option will make itself obvious.

One thing I've learned how to do in the past year, that I didn't know how to do before, is wait rather than act on my voracious impulses. What I've discovered with this waiting thing is that the world actually spins without my involvement. You smirk, perhaps. Well, it was a discovery of importance to me to realize that things come up without my planning them, and it usually turns out much better than I guessed it would. For instance, last week I wrestled with the idea of reserving a horse and carriage ride in Denver for a special experience that wouldn't add clutter to our lives, but I waited, balking at the cost and questioning the value, and a friend just told me there are free hayrides in a town nearby on weekend nights to see the lights of small town America. Hazah! It's a different experience, for sure, but it is within my budget and has no built-in disappointment because what could one expect but something quaint and small? I return to the lessons of my own childhood low-expectations and am reminded that gratification is not necessarily for sale. Playfulness enters the picture again when you don't have every minute filled with extravagant plans. If my kids change their minds a dozen times before Christmas about what they want to unwrap, it's okay because I'm not shopping until the last minute. If the stores run out of what they wanted then the surprise they get will hopefully work out. If I can't afford their first choice, I've heard dozens of desires that will be almost as good. The point is that there will be something under the tree, and that the things take a back seat to spontaneousness possibility.

A great thing has happened with my kids' lowered expectations over the past four years. They are starting to look at the price of things in catalogs and they're SHOCKED at the cost of things they've received in Christmases past (i.e. American Girls, and Nintendo DSI). Now that my daughter earns money of her own through babysitting, she values a bargain more than ever. Even my 9 year old son looked at the Target ads for hours and decided to ask for very reasonably priced items. I have to guess that their reduced desires are a testament to the benefits of having a sane mom, and this spills over to birthdays and other celebrations too. They see the difference and it's getting better all the time. This is my hope.

Christmas Present is leading to a Christmas Future that is not dreadful, but is mysterious and unknown. I'm no longer convinced of the sales job that "giving is better than receiving" either, even hand-made gifts take up space and are not necessarily treasured as much as the time it took to create them. The consumer society locked into the idea of buying until the guilt goes away is just gross. How to bring my children down to earth, and tell them the truth that I believe about this time of year is the option I hope to at least begin finding this year...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ghosts of Christmas Past....

I love A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. What a fabulous idea he had to look at the inadequacies of a man and show where they started, where they really leave him short-changed on life's good experiences and how the future may well turn out if he doesn't make a sharp turn presently. It is so fitting to what I've been thinking about myself and talking about recently with just about everyone. Perhaps, it is because of the financial collapse of the last few years, but it seems like so many of us are reassessing our values and even our dreams for the future. I've been conscious of the word "divergence" and the idea of how we may correct our course mid-life, later in life...once we've gone as far as we can go on the course that our divergence leads us to take.

Christmas was a very happy time for me personally, being an only child and having low expectations always. I always received more than I expected. Perhaps that is why from the very beginning though I felt the tug of the bah-humbug, I rallied against it by committing myself to perpetual cheeriness to the point of insanity. I would be the anti-Scrooge most of my life, always giving much more than I had to give and wanting to give more. Did this come from guilt? Perhaps. I don't know. All I can say is that I felt driven by a belief that Christmas must live up to a promise of happiness that I could only grasp at by giving it all I had to give.

This year I've come to understand that another word for "belief" is "hypothesis," and that practicing beliefs is really attempting to prove that hypothesis and make it a working hypothesis. I hope I'm saying that right. My practices in Christmas past were attempts to make a working hypothesis of the season that I had relatively little to do with in reality. I was raised without religion other than consumerist guilt. My father used to say that Christmas shopping was an exercise in buying until he felt less guilty. So, that was half of my religion; though, for him it was important to make everyone around him feel guilty for making him do such a thing. He even designed his own "bah-humbug" wrapping paper using his blueprint copier. My mother and step-mother claimed to be giving from the goodness of their hearts, though often it felt that they were using Christmas to argue with my father. They each had their strategies for making the holidays "fun" which were related to decorations and creating tableaus of beautiful, shiny objects on every surface.

I am remembered, by some, at a certain point of my life, as doing a different Christmas tree each year...yes all new decorations, new themes, new lights. I'm remembered for festive parties (to go with the decorative themes). I am remembered for wrapping presents with enormous bows and decorative cards. I'm remembered for insisting on caroling down the middle of the street. I'm remembered for being the one with the mistletoe, the scented candles, the swag. I'm remembered for sending out Christmas cards with long-hand written notes to hundreds. I'm remembered for baking gingerbread and cookies, for designing, by hand, architectural wonders from candy and gingerbread, making extravagant holiday meals, creating decorative tableaus of beautiful, shiny objects on every surface. Not all of this was a success by a long-run, but I attempted to pull it all off every year, for many years. I know there are some of you out there who will defend your right to continue doing this, and I say, more power to you.

This is the past that haunts me, and feels like heavy chains of burden, I still carry to this day. I can't live up to myself anymore. That's the truth. I've been through too much in the past decade to believe that creating that kind of hooplah will make anyone, least of all myself, happy. It is no longer worth it to me to be in debt at the start of the next year, sick and tired, and hung over from too much everything. Yet, I also do not want to be like my Dad, bah-humbugging other people's joy. I've been seeking some sort of peace around how to relate my Christmas past experiences with the small, simple realities of my present. Truly I am more like the Cratchit family than anyone else in A Christmas Carol tale these days, in my feeling that Christmas must be celebrated no matter the limitations. How do we make Christmas season a pleasure rather than a burden, framed by past Christmases?

I'm urged on by my children's juiced up desire to have a Christmas like Christmas Past that they remember before the divorce, when I was still trying so hard to live up to myself in spite of considerable odds against me. Please note that my first marriage ended in January. Not being able to deliver that to them is painful to me, and yet I see it as a gift. The gift is recalibrating reality somehow so that joy is no longer equated with too many boxes of toys that end up shelved within a week. Without a religion to call my own, and turning away from consumerism it is definitely challenging to come up with some experience of Christmas Present that works for all of us...that has some real meaning and isn't just another day in life...and that isn't a trumped up meaningless exercise in fakery.  Maybe it will take looking at Christmas Futures, the potential outcomes of this hypothesis that Christmas matters to families and friends enough to invest in it even with limitations...