Bits of Christmas Light

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My Jewish friend once said he felt left out at Christmas, that the sparkling lights on the trees and buildings “are not for me.” A teacher we both knew told him about the pagan origins of the festivals of light celebrated around the world at the darkest time of the year. “The lights can be for you if you want them to be,” he wisely said. But what if all is not peace and light?

It’s a fraught time of year, I find, with trapdoors of angst, regret and disappointment. If I’m not careful, I fall in. Flashes of memory come and go. Dear faces I’ll no longer see. Sweet voices I won’t hear again.

Some years, I was so lonely I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. Other years were so frantic with shopping, traveling, and family dysfunction, I was too tired and anxious to be full of good cheer. A close relative used to joke with me about wanting a Thanksgiving table like the one on the wine commercial – big, happy family, everyone getting along. Then we’d laugh and say: “Those people are actors!”

This week, as I dug out my fancy salad recipe for Thanksgiving, I remembered my mother working hard in her kitchen. She was a good baker, but got pretty strung out when she put on a holiday feast. I wish I could have understood her better when she was still alive. Next month, when I bring out my vanilla-stained cookie recipes, I will think of my mother-in-law and her son’s favorite peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss in the center. I wish I could talk to her now.

I’ve come to realize that these winter holidays can be just what we need “if we want them to be.” No one knows where the path may lead, but there are things we can hold on to regardless.

Often, it helps to write or read about them. In the absorbing new novel,  An Uncertain Path, by Sandra Carey Cody,  an unexpected and tragic accident links the lives of two young women, unknown to one another, and sets them on a path they never imagined.

We had an unexpected loss in our own family this month, and our path through the holidays will feel different. But that’s okay. These days, Change is my new middle name. My perspective has shifted quite a bit. I focus on the things I love about Christmas: spending time with friends and family, making and sharing traditional food, listening to special music, driving around to see the lights, attending a Christmas Eve service.

I don’t care anymore if my holiday season is as good as anybody else’s, or like the ones gone by.  In the fullness of time, they all run together anyway.  My wish for you is that these short days are filled with all the peace, love and warmth your heart can hold.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most important part of the winter holidays for you? What can you do without?

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Post a comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a signed copy of An Uncertain Path.  

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Donna Galanti, a wonderful writer herself! She gets an autographed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving by Alice Orr. Congrats, Donna!

Your Attention, Please

 In his book, Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says what we  give our attention to literally changes our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity. I like the metaphor he uses: our “attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
This week, like many people, I’ve been giving my attention to fear because of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the barrage of news and social media posts about “smaller” recent attacks in Beirut and elsewhere. If that weren’t enough to kick my occasional vertigo into high gear, there is that particular American terror of a deranged gunman who can walk into a school or movie theater on any given day. And so I search for the reasons why, and how “we” can prevent these acts and protect ourselves and those we love.
On one level, it makes perfect sense. According to Hansen, in order to survive, our ancestors evolved to constantly scan their surroundings for threats. But are we really so unsafe? I won’t quote the statistics here about the likelihood of a gunman or a terrorist in your city or town or neighborhood. Statistics are floating all over the internet this week, and you can find what you need to prove any point. Instead, think about this: What if focusing our attention on danger is exactly what we don’t need?
Fear of terrorists and gunmen leads to fear of “the other,” i.e., anyone not like ourselves, our friends, our families. We start scrutinizing our neighbors. And fear makes our evolved brains scramble for all sorts of creative ways to protect us. Like keeping “the others” out of our country, city, neighborhood. Passing laws, writing angry letters, passing judgment on people because they resemble the latest evildoers.
The world has always been a dangerous place. The Middle Ages, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust… as Gilda Radner used to say as her comic character Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, “It’s always something.” Sadly, this twenty-first century horror is our “something.”
Yet for most of us, the world is safe. We don’t like to think about that, because we’re afraid of “letting down our guard.” But for most of us, most of the time, we are essentially okay.
After a treatment for my vertigo, I was surprised at the change in my mental state. From sadness at the killing of innocents and the demonizing of strangers, not to mention the gloomy rainy day and my creaky aging body, I drove away feeling light, safe and cared about. I saw that something could be done to help my dizziness. And I took that in, because Hansen says it activates the left frontal region of the brain which lifts my mood and grows neural pathways of inner contentment.
Yes, we should care about the suffering of others and do what we can to help. So I’ve decided to devote one hour a day to news and social media posts about the state of the world. Surely I can learn what I need to know in one hour a day and support my causes. Surely the dead are not served by my fear.
I plan to savor the lightness of feeling cared for, the smiling faces of people I meet, and the good all around me if only I pay attention long enough to see it, take it in and make it part of me.
What about you? How are you coping today?

A Veterans’ Day Salute

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My cousin Wayne rode into town with his mother on the Sunday afternoon train and arrived at Grandma’s house wrapped in a whiff of danger. My sister and I were good little girls who knew how to  behave. We sat on Grandma’s porch glider, careful to push off gently, toes to the floor, rocking slowly with just a tiny squeak on the backstroke. When Wayne arrived, things got kicked up a notch. His bottom bounced onto the seat and he pushed off the floor with both feet, the glider squeaking like a rusty gate. Wind whistled past our ears.

The grownups said to stop it right now, but Wayne couldn’t resist temptation. A few minutes later, he’d start again, faster and faster, until we heard an awful scraping sound as metal hit wall. “If I catch you doing that again…” his mother frowned.

“Let’s play inside,” I suggested. Wayne dumped a bag of green plastic soldiers onto Grandma’s coffee table and arranged them into battle scenes. Then he showed us his bag of war comics. For my sister and me, he was the perfect Sunday playmate, who brought us the fun kind of danger where no one got hurt.

After high school, Wayne joined the army and was sent to Vietnam where he earned three Purple Hearts. When he came home, we watched an antiwar protest on TV. “They ought to send ’em all to Vietnam!” he said. I was a college student, against the war. I didn’t know what to say. I loved my cousin, but he wasn’t playing soldiers anymore. I wished we could all go back in time and sit on Grandma’s glider again.  Our eyes met and his grin collapsed. “Nobody should go there,” my cousin said, looking at the floor.

Previously published in a different version in The Rocking Chair Reader, Adams Media, 2005.Image courtesy of Gualberto 107, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Kat’s Tales – first in a series

This is the first in a series of posts by Kat Kowalski, protagonist of my novel in progress, Memoirs of the Queen of Poland.

Ever since I came back from the nineteenth century, I have wanted to tell my story. It’s taken me a few years to get it all down on paper. Life intervenes, right? Stuff to do, things to take care of. But now it’s done and all I have to do is tweak it a little, then find an agent and publisher. All – hah! Any writer knows that’s easier said than done. Meanwhile, life goes on. Or not.

For twenty first graders last week, life ended in a mass shooting at their school. Here in the U.S., hearts are broken as we wonder why. How do we stop this from happening again? Gun control? Better mental health care? Armed teachers in schools? The President said “we are better than this.” Are we? I believe we can be, but only if we do the work.

With my new perspective on history, I know that children have been killed before, in cruel ways, in large numbers. And many forms of violence once thought to be part of our national character are no more.  So I believe columnists like Buzz Bissinger are wrong.  In the darkest times, it’s easy to despair, to feel hopeless. Change is hard. Getting to a safer society will be very hard. It will take a long time. As Martin Luther King once said, “I may not get there with you.” But that’s no reason not to keep walking and working for a better world.

I’ve seen a bit of history. And I believe with all my heart that when people do the work, it does get better.

Invitation to a War

I was at Staples making copies of handouts for my memoir class, when I saw something so chillingly off kilter, I can’t get it out of my mind. Someone had left a copy on the machine. It was an invitation to a child’s birthday party. A party for little boys. A boot camp party.


The mission,the invitation said, was to report to basic training at the stated address on a certain date and time. Be prepared to run Basic Training drills, it said, testing accuracy, survival, agility, endurance, strength and balance skills. You will also participate in other Survival Games. You will be wet, tired and dirty by the time you complete your mission, so please bring a towel and change of clothes. Dinner and Birthday Rations will be served. Please RSVP to the Base Commanders.

Researching this type of party on the web, I found that some parents have the kids bring items to send to troops overseas. That’s great, but the idea of a boot camp party still creeps me out.

I loved my boys when they were little, as I’m sure this parent loves theirs. I gave in to them on lots of stuff that didn’t seem important enough to fight over. But toy guns were a big no no. People gave them guns anyway, and I explained how I felt about playing at violence but let them keep the weapons. My boys thought I was kind of silly about this, and grew up to be gentle, sensitive young men.

We have been, as a country, at war for over ten years, reacting to a criminal attack on our soil by a handful of terrorists. We can’t seem to figure out how to end these wars we started. If we throw birthday parties where little boys are encouraged to play at war, how will we ever learn?