Reading · Uncategorized

Journey to the Center of the Real World, Part One

My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.

But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.

To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.

All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.

My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.

My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.

So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.

Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.

There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.

In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.


An Ode to the Holiday Card

Of course I love holiday cards. I’m a card person sort of generally, and while there have been years when I gave New Year’s greetings because I didn’t have time before then, or even Valentines, or even nothing—yes, many years—I still love to send holiday cards. Some years I have been strapped or rushed or distracted and only done what my mom called “Emergency carding”—only sending a card when I received one. But this year was a good year for cards.

I consider the sending of holiday cards a luxury of time and a tradition worth maintaining.

These days I make them myself, but there have been many years when I bought a box or two at the store. The point is the connection, not the work. The work, though, is play for me, and that’s a luxury too. To have the time to hand craft as many cards as I want to send, and the time to write a greeting in each, and buy the festive postage stamps—all of that bespeaks the glorious season of seclusion for my introverted side. (Yes, I also host holiday gatherings from crafty parties to holiday dinners, but I also have a strong introvert streak, and I love to create in the privacy of my kitchen, listening to my cheesy carols or the Nutcracker on a loop, and make and address cards to send to people I don’t see during the season.)

Some years I have a favorite stamp set and make a pile of the same card. This year I didn’t make more than two of any style, and mostly I made one of each, so the process of determining who would like which card was delightfully time consuming.

I make Christmas cards and Hanukkah cards and vaguely wintry/Yule-ish cards for people who prefer “Season’s Greetings” to anything else. Families with little kids get cards with cute animals as a rule. Some people prefer elegant cards, and some funny, some rustic, and some artsy. Sometimes I have one on hand that I think will be good for a particular person, and sometimes they call for a special one, and I have to make one on the spot before I can send it out.

All of these little decisions I make serve to refuel each of those friendships and attachments that I cherish despite time and mileage separating us. And they all take a little time to make, write, address, and stamp. Sometimes I even stamp the envelope to make it “matchy” or otherwise fancy.

And because I have time to do this, and the materials, and the friends and family to write them to, I am grateful.

As my friend Liz says, “We belong to each other.” And as my other friend, Mr. Dickens, says, “We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices.” This holiday season I wish each of you abundant time and opportunity to reach out to people you love. And if you didn’t get a card from me and want one, hit me up. I have some left, and I have plenty more paper and ink. ❤


Hygge and Craft

The winter holidays are upon us. I know because I’ve started adding my chili chocolate mix to my coffee, and my house is full of twinkle lights and paper chains. I love this time of year; I’m a world class celebrant. But apart from celebrating and visiting and family-snuggling, I’m also really looking forward to crafting so hard my hands cramp.

Winter is a time when I make a bunch of cards and tags and gift wrap all at once. I send holiday cards and use the tags, of course, but I also gift people boxes of cards and packets of tags that I have hand-crafted piecemeal in the fall and flockmeal in the third week of December.

(Tangent: do we know that “flockmeal” was a word in Middle English? The opposite of “piecemeal,” it means to do or have a lot of something all at once. You’ve just witnessed my first attempt to bring it back.)

Handmade ornaments from years gone by. It’s too big a world for just one hobby.

But back to crafting. I’ve talked about craft as occupational therapy before, but since a number of articles have appeared in my feed recently extolling its mental health benefits, I’m thinking seriously about it again. It seems to me useful for all those reasons they list: the meditative, zen sort of flow, that distracts us from the problems of the world and gives us something productive to do. And one of the benefits, of course, is social; quilting bees and “stitch and bitch” sessions leap to mind.

Tonight I’m thinking of the introverted half of me. I do have a weekly crafty time, and I also host a few parties throughout the year where I have people come over for a crafty cocktail party, where we make stuff and munch. I am also very happy crafting by myself.

My hobby is making cards and papercrafty sorts of things. And like knitting or quilting or some of the other crafts getting props these days, it has an end that aims outside myself. I make cards with the intent to send them. I make tags and gift wrap with the intent to give them away. I use them; they’re functional, so they serve me. But they’re also cute or pretty and that is aimed at serving someone else. It means they have as their end goal making someone else happy. That is social too—just Introvert’s Paradise kind of social. That I can be thinking about other people and forging connections while in my pajamas, listening to music I don’t have to explain… it’s like the crafter’s equivalent of telecommuting. And it’s awesome.

Tags and Parts That Will Become Tags.. Mwa ha ha!

So after the finals are in, after the last committee has met, and after the grades have been submitted, I’m going to be stamping and punching and coloring and cutting till the cows come home. And then the tag-bombing of the neighbors and co-workers and other wonderful people will commence. And then there will be peace in my happy-ass little heart this holiday season. May you find yours as well.

Here are links to a couple of those articles I mentioned:


On Iceland’s Yule Book Flood

I have loved Iceland since grad school. I took some Old Norse classes, read some Icelandic history, and even found a way to study one summer in Reykjavik, glacier-climbing and geyser-watching in person. The Icelandic language is quite conservative (read: “it hasn’t changed much”) due to isolation and intention, so folks who speak modern Icelandic can read Old Norse. And they do—Icelandic kids read sagas like American kids read Tall Tales. My favorite word in the world (which is saying a lot—I like a LOT of words) is the Icelandic noun uppivǫzlumaðr, which means a “pushy, contentious/tempestuous man.”
All of this awesomeness pales in comparison, though, to the best thing about modern Icelandic culture: the Yule Book Flood. On Christmas Eve in Iceland, people exchange books and turn in early to read and eat chocolate in bed. These are my people.
Iceland has always been exceptionally literate, producing long, complicated sagas and dense, interlocking poems since the Middle Ages, as well as vast corpuses of legal texts and proceedings. Today Iceland remains extremely literate, with more books printed per capita than any other country, and with one in ten people publishing a book.
The Yule Book Flood, though, has a little more to do with happenstance than spontaneous awesomeness. During World War II, strict restrictions on imported giftware made paper, which wasn’t taxed as highly, more desirable. So everyone started buying books for gifts, and it stuck.
On November 1st, the catalog of all the new books comes out and is delivered all over the country. Fiction and biography sell the most, so I love to imagine a whole nation settling down to storytime, chocolate in hand.
How do we bring this kind of book-love to the US? 
I once saw on Pinterest a cute idea of wrapping up a picture book for every day of Advent to read a special holiday story. That was great, and I bought a few new books for it and dug out some other, less recently read books, but it failed ultimately, because my kids were never satisfied with one picture book. They were used to five or more a night, so they wanted me to wrap five a night instead of this one-book nonsense. Thus ended the Book Advent tradition.
I do give books for holidays—birthdays and Christmas—but since they also get family presents on Christmas Eve at my house (an age-old Baker strategy to stretch out the holiday), we tend to play games on Christmas Eve together, not read books by ourselves.
But in the years to come, when our munchkins have established their own households and traditions, I see a Baby Book Flood in our future.Two little old married people snuggled down with new books (though Rob will likely be listening to his on ear buds or whatever replaces them) and plenty of chocolate. I’ll insist on the chocolate.
Happy holidays, everyone.
Picture Books

Picture Books for the Holidays

It’s the Week Before Christmas and Hanukkah too,
And I’m thinking of books that I’d offer to you.

Storybooks have played a huge roll in my family’s holidays.  When I was a child, my dad read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on Christmas Eve until he thought I’d outgrown it, and then I started reading it.  One of my favorite picture books of all time was “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes,” by DeBose Heyward, which I faithfully read at Easter but also throughout the year.  When my husband and I were ready to start a family, one of our most precious preparations was deciding which books our children needed immediately and all through their childhood.  And as the years went by, our collection grew faster than the kids, which is saying something.
The kids are way past picture book age, being appropriately surly teenagers, but I still haul out the holiday books for the month of December.  Some of them are tattered, some are duplicates (we must have half a dozen versions of “A Visit from St. Nicholas”), but they are still good.  I thought I’d share a few favorites here, especially since some are off the beaten track of the regular classics.  Yes, we have and love the Grinch.  But there are others.
The first pictured here is a Hanukkah book.  Eric Kimmel has written several, but the one we keep going back to is “Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins.”  First—what a great title.  I just like to say it.  (I’m kind of kooky, though.)  Second, this edition is illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, whose work I adore, and third, it’s a lovely folktale about outsmarting the demons and restoring celebration and worship to a dark place.  And there are goblins—silly goblins, creepy goblins, and a really, really scary goblin.  When the goblins are outsmarted, the light returns.  What a lovely message for the winter holiday—just keep your wits about you, and you can survive anything.
The rest are Christmas books.  “The Jolly Christmas Postman” is the sequel to the Ahlbergs’ “The Jolly Postman,” and they both follow the postman as he delivers mail around the forest, to Little Red Riding Hood, Humpty Dumpty, and the Big, Bad Wolf, among others.  Each letter is interactive in some way—the letter comes out of the envelope-page, and there are games and puzzles and extra, interactive tidbits along the way.  It’s a delightful, witty little book.
“Who’s That Knocking on Christmas Eve?”  is Jan Brett’s retelling of a Scandinavian folktale about a house that always gets invaded by trolls when they smell the Christmas goodies, and how a clever houseguest with his tame polar bear (oh, we can only dream, here in Southern California) scares them away for good, leaving the family in peace as they celebrate and share their good cheer.  If I were a cynic, I’d point out that they share with the boy, but don’t share willingly with the trolls, but I’m not, so I won’t.  The trolls are hoodlums and thieves, of course, cute as they may be, drawn by the generous hand of Jan Brett.  The bear is awesome–categorically.  Who doesn’t want an ice bear for a pet?
The last book I’ll mention today is “Santa Calls,” by William Joyce, whose greatest genius, I think, lies in negotiating the different media his stories take (I’m thinking of his Guardians of Childhood series, which contains picture books, novels, and a movie, all with the same storyline or universe.) This one, though, is a Christmas book.  It’s also an adventure, and also a sibling book.  The younger sister wants to be taken seriously by the older brother, and Santa arranges not so much a gift as an experience–an adventure, and an opportunity for them to bond.  It’s not about getting presents; it’s about love.
And that’s a good place to end—with love.  All of the winter holidays celebrate a return of the light after the dark winter, a new commitment to life and a celebration of love, whether it comes from a deity, a jolly elf, or our fellow humans.  Whatever and however you celebrate the turning of the year and the return of the light, I wish you joy, love, and wonderful stories to keep you warm.  Happy Holidays!
Living · Reading

People Are Not Meant to be Like Oysters: Reflections on Scrooge

I collect editions of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s one of my favorite stories. I collect film versions and print versions and even have the audio cds of Patrick Stewart’s one-man version in my car. I love it. And by this time in the season, I’ve usually seen or read it a couple times already.

I love how awful Scrooge is at the beginning, and how some of the clear, crisp images Dickens uses to describe him stick with me and ring in the back of my head when I meet people who bear him a resemblance. “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it” could be good or bad, really, but in Scrooge’s case, it’s bad and associates him with dark-heartedness and meanness, not just frugality. He was “solitary as an oyster.” He was closed off from the world, utterly alone, and practically hermetically sealed against companionship. Poor Scrooge. His greed supplanted his humanity. His need to amass wealth cut him off from all his friends and family. I can’t imagine a life more wasted.

I love that there are three spirits who visit after Marley—it’s such a lovely, fairy-tale truism that we have to think about the past, the present, and the future, that it takes three times to work the charm. The fact that the past is sad and the future is completely wretched if he stays this course is broken up by some of the most wonderful scenes of joy and contentment. The present is beautiful—it’s more than enough to make up for the past—but he’s missing it.

Most productions and abridgments choose to cut here. Dickens really lays it on thick, though. Scrooge sees the Cratchits, of course, and their small but satisfying feast. He sees Bob’s eldest daughter, Martha, come home and begin to play a trick (that she can’t make it home for Christmas) that she cuts short because she can’t bear to see her father sad, even for a joke. The middle children are described as being “up to their eyeballs in sage and onion,” and the Christmas pudding is described with such detail, I’ve kind of always wished I were British. He watches the family sing together and pass around the proverbial cup of cheer. It is a vividly depicted, sentimental, and I find, utterly charming scene.

But it doesn’t stop there. Scrooge gets a tour of London, stops at his nephew’s, flies out to sea and finds sailors and near solitary lighthouse workers sharing meals and stories and being variously contented on what feels like a cellular level. All of this is happening all around Scrooge, every single year, and with his scope tightly trained on making more and more money, he has not seen any of it.

When medieval priests described the Seven Deadly Sins, they offered contrasting virtues that one could practice to overcome, or “cure,” a sin. Practicing humility is the answer to pride; diligence cures sloth, etc. But for greed, there is no cure, only a “relief.” One can practice mercy and generosity, but they will only relieve the symptoms; nothing really gets at the root of the sin. The medieval implication is that greed is the one sin that will not be overcome.

But here is Dickens, and Scrooge, proving them wrong. I think it’s not just the fear of dying unloved and unmourned that gets him. By the time he gets to the third ghost, he’s mostly cured. The real action is with the second ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, who reveals to him the warmth and love all around him, that he’d been sealing himself off from, like his little oystery self. All he has to do is peel open that shell. And he does. The spirits pull back the veil and give him a glimpse of what he’s missing, and he is so stirred by the sight, he wants it badly enough to change. His first, stuttering attempt at singing a Christmas carol is a delight. He literally finds his voice and learns how to use it. (This may be my favorite moment in Patrick Stewart’s version!) It’s a beautiful thing.

Here’s wishing all you lovely readers find some holiday miracle that makes you want to sing and share and love.  (That’s Lucie, my cat, by the way, named for an entirely different Dickens hero.)