Living

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. ❤

Picture Books · Reading

Picture Books that Inspire Creativity

One of my Teaching Assistants led a discussion in class today that ended with her students thinking about creativity and how it preserved their identity, even their humanity, in the face of mass marketing, corporate programming, and aggressive branding that tells us how to live.

One student shared that he felt most himself when he was playing his guitar—when he was alone with his thoughts and expressing his emotions without overt outside input. As they talked, the class agreed all art afforded that space, and then they realized that they used that creative or hobby time to make their most authentic connections to others—through their art.

It was a lovely moment, when students moved from reading a novel to applying some of the ideas to their lives. And it got me thinking, we need to start them young. There are, of course, picture books that can help. 😊 Here are some I love. If you have others, I’d love to hear about them.

Alison’s Super Awesome List of Picture books about Art and the Creative Process:

  1. “The Dot” by Peter H. Reynolds. One of my all-time favorites, this is a story about a kid who doesn’t think she’s artistic, and a teacher who brings out her best efforts. My favorite part is the end, where she pays it forward to the next kid who underestimates his potential. Every house should have a copy, she said firmly. It’s marvelous.
  2. “Little Mouse’s Painting” by Diane Wolkstein and Maryjane Begin. This one is also about visual art, and especially about what others see in your art (spoiler: themselves). But it’s true; we see ourselves in art—visual and other art—and the original artist can’t always predict what others will see or value. So we owe it to each other to keep creating.
  3. “Draw!” by Raúl Colón. This one is wordless, but speaks volumes about a boy’s power to explore the world in his art—to imagine and bring to life vast landscapes, exotic animals, the implication is anything, really—and to value art as escapist and aspirational. (Bonus: his later “Imagine!” takes the artist from his room to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with equally magical and empowering results.)
  4. “Sun Bread” by Elisa Kleven. Not all art has to be painted. In “Sun Bread” a baker makes a vibrant, golden loaf of bread that looks like a sun, and it revives her community, stuck in the doldrums of winter. The book includes the recipe, egg wash and all, so that you can reproduce the sunny bread and understand for yourself “all the joy good bread can bring.”
  5. “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken. This one is about a greedy king who loves presents and has everything, but he can’t get his hands on a quilt made by the master quiltmaker, because she only gives them to people in need. He has to learn to give things up to get what he wants, but of course, he gets more than he expected.
  6. “The Night Gardener” by Terry Fan and Eric Fan. A mysterious gardener is transforming ordinary trees in to extraordinary animal topiaries in the darkness, and a community wakes up to new beauty every day. It’s a lovely fable about the transformative power of art.
Living

Life is Like a Book of Chapters

You can’t skip chapters–that’s not how life works. You have to read every line, meet every character.

You won’t enjoy all of it. Hell, some chapters will make you cry for weeks. Longer.

You will read things you don’t want to read and have moments when you didn’t want the page to end. But you have to keep going. Stories keep the world revolving. Live yours. Don’t miss out.

These are thoughts and advice I wrote with a single person in mind, but I think it sounds broadly applicable, like a graduation speech for English majors (and others—I just work most closely with English majors). It was not received well. It was received with some gnashing of teeth and some pleading, and I get that, but there was nothing I could do but try to avoid repeating myself and offer a hug.

The good news is that most of the chapters are good. Most move your plot forward and expand your perspective and add to your character.

Most characters you meet are wonderful; some are helpful without being wonderful, and some are wonderful without being helpful. But many are wonderful and also make your life easier or happier or more productive.

At times when the global or national narrative seems overwhelmingly tragic and frustrating, I need to remember that those sweeping narratives are made up of millions of individual narratives, and the individual stories are usually more satisfying and more easily controlled.

And boy, are they wonderful. I know a retired teacher who stays active by volunteering in her daughter’s elementary classroom. I know a librarian who helps everyone she meets find something they need, from law code to job listings to availability of audio books—even when she’s not working. I know people who bake for others, who volunteer at shelters, who march and protest peacefully so that others can reap the benefits. People who crochet for penguin chicks, who clean up beaches, who work on cars, who lead classes at historical sites, who tell stories and sing songs and create art and offer guidance and shelter and support. 

All of those people have their own stories. They each contain their own constellation of memories and skills and heartbreaks and jokes. And all those stories add up to our larger narratives, so that when one person feels like one chapter of this book is too hard to live through, too overwhelming, too disheartening, it helps to twist the telescope a bit and focus on the microcosm, where examples of good work—of goodness itself—abound.

 So you can tag out—slap a hand on your way out of the ring and go home and restore yourself. Look at smaller scale narratives where, no doubt, great things are happening. But you can’t bow out completely, because all of the stories connect at some point, and we need your little one to help weave the big one we all share.

This is starting to sound trite (some may argue with the “starting to,” even), so I’ll close. But for those who could do with a reminder, stay for your story. Hug it tight. Live it large. And thanks for making the tapestry more beautiful.

Living · Reading

Learning to Love

At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.

But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.

This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race.  The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.

Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.

Photo of children embracing their animal natures. In children, it’s ok. 🙂

In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.

Odysseus fails with some regularity.

He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.

The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).

It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.

Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?

Apparently.

Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”