Friday, December 28, 2012

Creative Ways to Celebrate the Holiday Season

Stephanie Van Belle, a new friend of mine on Facebook with a young family of four children, wrote her own Advent Calendar. I didn’t see the first posting of it at the beginning of December, but was thrilled last week to go through all the pictures she’d taken through the season as each of the activities were completed.

It’s not one of those open-a-window-everyday calendars while you gaze at a pretty Christmas scene or think about something written for that day. It’s an Advent Activity Calendar that calls on you to experience the spirit of generosity surrounding the Christmas season.

I copied it all down, but sharing Stephanie’s list exactly is not the same as creating activities that fit you, an individual, a family member – mom, dad or sibling, or a community member.

Stephanie’s idea grew out of her need to dig deeper into the meaning of Christmas – or Chanukah or whatever you celebrate, religious or otherwise. She felt the core value of the season was generosity and most of her activities ask her children to look outside themselves to teachers and office staff at school, to neighbors, to someone who may need a kind word or a thoughtful gesture, to community workers (they chose a station house of Flagstaff firefighters), and even to the environment to extend their generosity there (picking up trash in a favorite park and spending time in the park one afternoon).

I like that her first activity was attending a concert celebrating the season. In Flagstaff, Arizona where Stephanie and her young family live, there is a Nutcracker Lollipop Performance they attended. You can find a version of "The Nutcracker Suite," whether in ballet or concert version, or a band or orchestra or choir performing seasonal music. It really starts the celebrating off with something that reaches into all our hearts and spirits in every language: music.

From there, they look for the neighbor with the nicest house decorations and leave an anonymous thank you card and candy canes, to teachers and helpers and making them gifts, to fellow classmates for whom they make simple gifts to give to all, to a child in need for whom they dig into their piggy banks and go to Goodwill or a dollar store and buy a gift and wrap for them, to choosing a child or more than just one who needs more love (like one or several in a hospital) and making them gifts and cards.

Another special element to Stephanie’s list is the inclusion of family traditions. Her husband Gerard is Dutch and they call the jolly bearded man Sinterklaas. One of the deeds they perform for Sinterklaas is to gather plain wooden clogs for each family member and decorate them colorfully and fill them with goodies, like a little wooden stocking. The children decorated these early in the month so they could gather his spirit into the house and be ready for his arrival.

Is your family from a country where they call Santa Claus something else? Did you have some activities you always included – maybe all sitting down together to address Christmas cards, or singing carols in the neighborhood, or donating time at a community center to serve meals or help others in need? Include that on your list, too. And create some new ones.

You don’t have to go to the store to buy this Advent Activity Calendar! It’s in your heart and your memories and in your own very special concept of what Christmas (or whatever you call it) really means to you. You can now make your own list and enjoy the activities yourself and you can share that with others, even friends and neighbors. Let them in on your creative fun.

Stephanie types up a list and numbers the days and activities, then she cuts the big piece of paper into separate strips so the exploits for the day are revealed when that day arrives.

I ended up having a very special Christmas season this year. I just changed my mind about it. It was much more about giving than receiving. While it is good to learn how to receive things with an open heart and mind, it is the best fun when you are the one giving, however small that gift may seem to you.

I thanked my liver doctor and her nurse this year because they have given so much and so willingly to me over the years. I still have thank-yous for my pharmacy team because they see me every week and go out of their way to help me. And then there is my oncologist who has listened to my tales of woe and my triumphs over the past year with great patience, along with his very special nurse practitioner. My internist and his staff deserve special thanks because he’s such an incredible and caring doctor, and he receives and answers emails from me on any topic in just a few hours. There are others, too, who deserve my special gratitude.

A very special thank you right now goes to my friend Adrienne Baker who introduced me to Stephanie. Those two have been friends for decades and truly love each other. So, thank you, Adrienne, for introducing and sharing your friend Stephanie Van Belle with me.

Who is special in your life all year long? Who does things for you that you take for granted or who you are grateful for when they aren’t around to thank? This is your special time to shine some light on that person and let them know you do notice, all year.

As an early reminder to you next year, I promise to re-post this blog after Thanksgiving next year so you can create and experience a new and custom-made holiday season for yourself, your loved ones, neighbors and community workers.

Have a wonderful year in 2013!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Life is Short – Enjoy It, Love It Now

We never know how long our lives will be. I’ve been pondering this since the brutal murders of 20 six- and seven-year-olds in Connecticut. And now last night with the news that one of my professors from grad school, Jake Adam York, just 40 years old, had died this past Sunday of a stroke. In perfect health. Just beginning to climb the pinnacle of his poetic expression, awarded a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship of $25,000 last month, getting published left and right. And he’s gone. Along with those 20 children. 
I don’t follow the news very closely because I don’t have cable TV, but I used to watch CNN, ABC News, and MSNBC news and rarely a TV show outside of that. Now I get my news late. It’s not so bad because I have more time to read, to write, to communicate on Facebook and through email. I received the news late about Jake.

I hadn’t read all Jake’s poetry collections, published since 2005, when I was taking his poetry class. And now I owe him that.

One of the little girls buried this week in Newtown was Jessica, 6 years old, and she was studying and reading about orca whales. I owe Jessica some research about orca whales.

What I owe myself is to live my life in the best way possible each day. To be grateful for every minute I spend on the planet. To live and realize my own passion for writing.

What is it you follow, what unsaid things are on your mind today? Today. Do it today. Say it today. And if you have lived a life according to your passion, pat yourself on the back and keep going.

I saw this quote recently at the beginning of Mary Karr’s second of three memoirs, the one called Cherry:
“Time’s march is a web of causes and effects, and asking for any gift of mercy, however tiny it might be, is to ask that a link be broken in that web of iron, ask that it be already broken. No one deserves such a miracle.” —Jorge Luis Borges, A Prayer
 Odd as it may sound, that gives me peace. We are not privy to the why of life. Only the what.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Visiting Vincent Van Gogh

     Going to the Van Gogh Exhibit at the Denver Art Museum is a stunning experience – not just to view the beauty of the works but to watch the development of Van Gogh’s artistry over his short lifetime. 

     I went to the exhibit with two friends, Leigh Dehne (he and I have ridden trains together but never visited an art museum) and Adrienne Baker, friend, co-conspirator and both of us former college writing teachers. Adrienne and I made comparisons to learning how to first write a five-paragraph essay (thesis, three supporting ideas, supporting details in each of the middle three paragraphs, and conclusion) to Van Gogh’s learning basic tools and techniques of painting, sketching, drawing and then developing those so he could reveal his ultimate artistic genius.

     Along those same lines, a writer would learn that five-paragraph essay first and then using that same format be able to write a much longer, more complex paper...and even a book. Or a poet might be learning the elements of poetry and developing along those lines. An artist is an artist, but all of them, in all genres, must learn their craft and many skills to evolve fully.

     Van Gogh took these basic lessons in art and then would turn them into his own style. Copying admired artists is a technique for becoming competent across all artistic disciplines. Van Gogh joined the Impressionists in Paris and later in southern France, at first copying some of their expertise, but then always making the techniques fit his own unique and growing style. It was always Vincent emerging. No cutout copy of another artist.

     We saw early works that used mostly dark, basic colors – blacks and browns and all versions of those. Sketches, drawings, then paintings. He liked to paint people, real people and not models. Peasants. Working in the fields. Their bodies and faces were real, and you could feel the emotion coming from their faces, their implied body movements.

     Then he began to add color. Just highlights at first. A touch of blue here, a bit of the French flag and the red stripes in it. Then the people changed. No longer peasants, they were people with their faces blurred and their clothes that of urbanites, walking in parks in Paris. Much more color was added, but beginning with the less brilliant – mostly variations of blue with vibrant touches of red and orange.

     The more he learned, the more he painted, the more colors appeared and began to dominate his paintings.

     Texture and brush styles were definitely his own. Many times he applied paint thickly so there was a depth just from the amount of paint on his canvasses.

     As we moved through the rooms signifying his stages, we learned more about his artistry and his unique brush marks, choices of color, and choices of setting.

     When I walked into the final room with his last paintings, my breath was stolen from me. By the vibrancy and fullness of the colors that I felt enveloped by – emotionally, physically, mentally. All his distinct signifying style marks were depicted in these paintings, but they had all come together to make a whole. He had literally disappeared into his canvasses. He was the poetry, he was the color, he was the brush mark.

     He painted forests of violet trees, skies with clouds so grand they were only possible from his heart and mind and hand, mountains with thick outlines impossible in nature, but certainly Vincent’s mountains. Colors so brilliant they stung my eyes yet I wanted more and more evidence of his artistic passion, more paintings, all of them.

     I wish I had turned around and gone back to the beginning of the exhibit and then walked quickly through the rooms, taking in his development, his distinct style, and then lingered even longer, in wonder, in the last room, in the crowning moment and cohesive whole of Vincent Van Gogh, the artist.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Many Ways Reading Has Changed My Life

You know how you read a book and feel consumed by the world of it? It is changing your life and you believe the change is radical and permanent. And then a few years later, you can barely remember the title or the author’s name. Some books, though, remain with you and they aren’t the ones you expected to still be alive in your memory and affect how you think today.

I have that kind of piercing, all-consuming sensation sometimes with nonfiction books. Most of the time, though, it comes only with books of fiction. 

One of the first books I recall clearly in this way was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I was so excited when I discovered Vonnegut’s books, and this one in particular. He includes the "Books of Bokonon" in Cat’s Cradle and I took the time to write down all the lines from those Books. Years later I turned the lyrics into part of a musical composition for a music theory class at the University of Hawaii. 

When I first read Vonnegut's book, I was deeply mired in the depth and darkness of my own depression while experiencing my first temperate zone winter – in Washington, D.C., age 23. Reading the book was a huge respite for me.

That year I also read Watership Down by Richard Adams and was delighted and surprised by the warlike rabbits. I bought a tiny notebook and wrote down all the names of the plants in the book. I still have the notebook somewhere.

It seems that all books assigned to me in school – until I got to graduate school – were meaningless and trite. I’m sure the list was impressive but I just didn’t care about them. Beginning with Jack and Jill.

The one novel of all the ones I read in my master’s program (probably 50-60 total) that stays with me is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

I eventually discovered that it begins with a sentence that is exactly 100 words long and that sentence contains, in its perfectly grammatical and punctuated form, the entire architecture of the novel, from beginning to middle to end. One hundred words. How many times did I read it without really seeing it, understanding it?

Eventually I wrote a paper about the book and this coded sentence. When did Woolf write that sentence? After she finished writing the book? Who would know? Perhaps Leonard Woolf, but he’s gone now, too. Did anyone ask him, ask her about it?

The book still holds my attention.

Since then other authors have moved me, enthralled me, puzzled me. Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day. Many puzzling, intricately drawn characters and scenes, plus multiple themes and sub-plots. Atonement by Ian McEwan, though not so much his other books.  

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, a memoir about a person and writer extraordinaire. The book was published in 1995 and changed the world of memoir writing forever. The genre took a hard right turn and everyone writing memoirs has been playing catch-up to Mary Karr ever since. I read it before I wrote my memoir in 2007 and received implicit permission to express myself courageously.

Thank you, Virginia Woolf, for writing because of your talent and in spite of your depression. (And damn, I wish there had been antidepressants for you.) Thank you, Mary Karr, for your big-as-Texas heart and your wide open writing – skills, storytelling, sharp memories, all of it.

These two women (plus Dorothy Sayers for her perfectly designed and charmingly written murder-detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey) inspired me to write and to keep on reading and searching for books and inspiration and telling my own stories.

Who inspires you and what did they write that changed your life?