Category Archives: deep thoughts

Creativity in times of despair

Lindy West summed it up rather astutely in the opening paragraph of her 14 Feb column titled, “The first 25 days of Trump have been a zoetrope of galloping despair” [The Guardian]:

“Today, during my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming, I made the astonishing discovery that Donald Trump has only been president of the United States for about three weeks. Which is weird, because I could have sworn we had fallen through a tesseract into the airless crush of a two-dimensional void at least seven eternities ago, or what would have constituted seven eternities if such a place had a linear concept of time. Turns out, though, it has only been 25 days, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it.”

No, I’m not going to get all political over here. Not today, anyway. But I do want to talk about the effect all this upheaval is having on me, and on almost every writer I know. This feeling of being emotionally crushed or creatively flattened and unable to write.

It’s a problem I’ve been hearing about both publicly and privately on an increasing basis since the inauguration. Several well-known authors have addressed it in blog posts– some of their advice has resonated with me and some has fallen flat. That’s to be expected. We’re all in different places in our lives and careers. But the underlying assertion is that stories are vitally important, and there’s no denying that.

We all know, often first-hand, how stories can make an important difference for people going through overwhelmingly difficult times. We’ve all heard accounts of how the escapism or optimism of fiction has literally saved people from despair.

But what happens when writers are among those who need to be saved? How do we continue to create when we’re the ones overwhelmed and not feeling up to the task?

I realize that right now some of you are thinking, Well aren’t you all just speshul creative snowflakes. Buck up and do your job like the rest of us. And, well, maybe you’ve got a point. Maybe.

Except . . . doing a job where you create something out of nothing but imagination IS different. I know, because I’ve done those other jobs too. Answering the phone, waiting on customers, wielding a shovel or a hammer, typing a legal brief . . . hard work, yes. But a completely different kind of effort.

It’s tough enough to be creative when you’re feeling normal– well, as normal as writers ever are. But when you’re feeling outraged or hopeless? Helpless? Oh, man. It’s almost impossible to maintain the belief that what you’re doing matters. That it even should matter, in the face of more dire things. It’s so damn hard to tamp down the anger and pessimism and cynicism — and yes, the fear — to focus on writing stories that will entertain by somehow being clever or funny or romantic or scary or even just delightfully different. All those things you’re not feeling and don’t think you can fake.

I’m not saying it can’t be done. It can. I’m still doing it, or trying to, albeit more slowly. But it isn’t easy. Not for most writers I know, anyway, and certainly not for me. I’ve had to devise strategies to try to achieve some daily balance, to invent a new normal in my life. I’ve had to make several adjustments to my routine in the past few weeks, so hope and creativity aren’t being continually crushed into oblivion.

Here are some things that have helped, for me:

1. Limit time spent on social media. I’d like to ignore all SM entirely, forever. But I can’t actually do that and still call myself an informed citizen, something that’s important to me. But my curiosity and [so-called] self-restraint are such that I’m quickly down the rabbit hole, reading that in-depth article about sea urchins that I randomly decided was fascinating, and then two hours later realize I’ve also read a political history of the Ukraine (talk about upheaval) and bookmarked five new ways to prepare salmon and have watched perhaps twice that number of cat videos. And, yeah, read a half dozen political articles. *sigh*

So I decided I needed a timer. I really wanted an hourglass, because it just seems like such an interesting thing to have and I know a couple writers who use one . . . except I’d constantly be looking at it to see whether the sand had run out, or ignoring it entirely since they’re silent, and that’s not exactly productive. So I got this thing (quarter for scale, but it’s about 2 inches each side):

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I love it. It’s so simple to use, it’s genius. To activate, you turn it so the amount of time is on top and it beeps (loudly, unlike sand) when time is up. To stop it, turn it so the zero is on top. The one I got has settings for 5/15/30/60 minutes. There’s a little digital screen on the bottom doing a countdown, but I never look at it.

The key is to remember to use it. I set it before I venture over to twitter or facebook or my blog feed and I STOP WHEN TIME IS UP. Knowing I have limited time makes me read faster (or skim) and stops me from wandering off. Mostly.

Also, because sometimes just getting started is the tough part, I’ve used the timer a couple times to convince myself to write for “just 15 minutes.” After which I turn it off and keep writing, obviously.

2. Re-arrange the workday. This is related to limiting time spent online. I used to check email and news and blog feeds and social media first thing, then write in the evening and into the wee hours. This was no longer working for me, even with using a timer. The outrage was accumulating to new levels every day and messing with my head and my creativity. And probably my blood pressure. So I flipped my schedule.

There are still a couple things I check at the start of the day, in case someone needs me urgently or there’s a more than twenty percent chance of mushroom clouds, but the vast majority of that is now relegated to the end of the day, after I’m done writing.

I haven’t completely adjusted to this new schedule — it is NOT easy — but on the days I manage it, it’s really sort of amazing how peaceful life can be. Sure, crap still happens and I miss hearing about it right away. But that’s okay. *twitch* Really. Not like I’m the one in charge of stopping it or fixing it or anything. Unfortunately.

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3. News curation. Probably most of you have already seen this site, “What the fuck just happened today?” There are days I just want a quick summary of the mayhem, and this is a good resource for that. I appreciate that there are links to news sources if I’m feeling all masochistic and want more detail. Again, setting the timer is invaluable.

4. Pacemaker Planner. No, not the medical device for your heart. This is a tool for planning and tracking your writing. It also has settings for exercise and finances, for you non-writers. I’m finding it helpful in setting a goal and focusing on it. Accountability at a glance. It’s easy to see whether I’m falling behind and need to step up the pace, or if perhaps my projections were unrealistic and need adjustment. Plus, the graphs are just cool.

I created a sample to see how it works, and below are a couple screenshots. I set a goal of 25K words between 21 Jan and 10 Feb, with a provision that I wasn’t going to write at all when my daughter was here the weekend of 4-6 Feb (there are a lot of options; adjustments are easy to make). The blue line shows consistent distribution of words-per-day to meet the goal. The green line represents words written each day (these are made-up numbers).

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Here’s the same info, but using the option of the blue line changing so you know how many words you need to write daily to meet the deadline, given what you’ve written.

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Here are a couple more screenshots showing a different sort of timeline, one that will look familiar to NaNo participants. Again, the first one uses the option of keeping the original target blue line and the other one changes it with input.

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The basic plan is free to use, but I signed up for a paid subscription. There are a few additional features with the paid version, but that’s not why I got it. I just think it’s important to pay creative people, even if — no, especially if — they’re generous enough to put their work out there for free.

They’re currently running a special promo for an annual subscription (link to blog post with discount code), good through March 31. If for some reason that link doesn’t work, I got a code when I signed up, which they encourage people to share, so let me know in the comments or via email and I’ll give it to you.

NOTE: I am not in any way affiliated with any people or products mentioned in this post. I don’t get a commission or even a pat on the back for sending potential customers to these sites.

5. Maintain focus on physical health. Yeah, all those boring but necessary things like balanced nutrition and staying hydrated and moving body parts other than my fingers on a somewhat regular basis. Going outside to breathe some fresh air, feel the sunshine on my face. Getting enough sleep, taking naps if needed.

It seems too obvious to even mention this stuff, but I often need the reminder. Just because I want to curl up into a little ball and hide under the covers doesn’t mean it’s a sensible long-term plan. And a long-term perspective is important.

6. Have faith in history. Or humanity. Or something. As catastrophic as current events seem, these are not historically the worst times we’ve ever known. Nor will they be the last of the worst times we’ll ever know, sadly.

Oppression relies on widespread deception and social isolation and fear of the unknown, all of which have become almost impossible to achieve, let alone maintain, in the internet age. Never mind the eventual futility of employing those tactics in a country that cut its teeth on rebellion and principles of freedom and equality. Our collective memory is not impaired.

We haven’t been told we are not allowed to write or create. Yet. But imagine we have been, if that helps, and imagine how that would spur motivation. History is rife with examples of people who found a way to create in spite of chaos and tyranny. There’s strength in the knowledge that bringing beauty or laughter or diversion into the world is as much an antidote as an act of defiance. And there’s hope in realizing that sometimes we just need to outlast the bastards. To take care of ourselves so we’re able to do the hard work of fixing things once they’re gone. To hold tightly to the certainty that they will indeed, one day, be gone.

Speaking of which, my timer just went off. Good thing, as I’m bordering on the political when I said I wouldn’t. Time to get up and move.

Quickly, to wrap up, those are a few strategies I’ve found helpful in trying to maintain sanity and creativity in uncertain times. If you’re struggling similarly, whether you’re a writer or not, maybe some of them will work for you as well. If you have other tried-and-true suggestions, I’d be more than happy to hear about them in the comments.

 

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Filed under creativity, deep thoughts

Reflections and resolutions and the requisite splatter of blood

You all know I don’t make resolutions at the New Year. I’ve said it more than once over here, and explained why. Mostly because it seems like an artificial point in time but also because this time of year has historically been so stressful (for me) that resolutions would tend to be along the lines of “burn it all down.”

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But this year . . . this year feels different. I feel different, more resolute. Actually, in going back to re-read a few older posts, I see that last year at this time felt different as well. I resolved then that 2016 was going to be the year of me being selfish and saying “no” and focusing on what I wanted to do, which was write fiction.

To a great extent, that’s what I did. I made significantly more progress in 2016 than the year before — just shy of 100,000 words, a vast improvement — but not as much as I had hoped.

This past year has been really tough for a lot of us, myself included. It has gotten to the point where things that I’d normally take in stride have felt devastating. Things that would normally not feel personal have piled on top of troubles that are very personal and their combined weight has been overwhelming. It’s been an accumulation of tragedy. Following waves of communal grief. Shared anger and frustration and a feeling of helplessness. It has all added up this year and become a relentless self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

That’s not healthy.

There are so many awful things I can’t do anything about, I’ve lost sight of what I can influence and achieve. But I do think recognizing a problem is a necessary first step in doing something about it. So, there’s that.

*   *   *

I’ve been re-reading portions of my novella, A PLACE TO START — looking at some details for the sake of continuity in the second book — and came across this scene toward the end where Mac (our hero, for those who haven’t read it) (why haven’t you read it?) and Charlie (a wise old mountain man) are having a little heart-to-heart. I skimmed it, as it wasn’t the scene I was looking for, and then stopped and read it again. And again.

Why? Well, see for yourself:

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

You know, sometimes I read a thing I wrote and can’t quite believe I wrote it. It’s as if past me was giving advice to future me, like I knew I’d need to hear those words someday.

So, that’s one of my resolutions for 2017. Change the way I look at things, try to focus on the positive and happy and peaceful in between the inevitable moments of pain and grief.

While I can’t change certain things, I can limit my exposure. I’ve been doing that already, to a degree, since November. I can certainly set a timer before I look at twitter or facebook or news sites. I can unsubscribe from RSS feeds that I tend not to read anyway and get rid of some clutter. I can mute a good deal of the negativity and anger, and try not to engage in it myself. Maybe. Probably.

In the week since Christmas, I’ve resumed my focus on good eating habits and cut back on consumption of adult beverages and chocolate which, to be honest, had increased a wee bit since November. *sigh* I can’t avoid the fact that my work involves sitting in one place for hours each day, but I can set reminders to get up and move more often. Release some endorphins. Or, failing that, a kraken or two.

I can’t control when people send me text messages and emails, but I can control when I read and reply. In fact, yesterday I spent hours getting rid of hundreds of old unread emails from various group feeds, admitting I’m never going to read them. Given the rapid changes in publishing, most of them were obsolete anyway.

I definitely can’t control whether some idiot mouse decides to enter my house, as one did the night before last, nor can I stop The White Ninja from playing with it to the point of bloodshed. Again.

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Cats are barbarians.

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But I guess I can be glad all I have to do is clean up the mess and not chase the stupid doomed thing myself. Small mercies.

So, those all are positive and constructive things I can do to improve my mental and emotional state. It’s helpful as well to keep in mind that there were a lot of really good things that happened worldwide in 2016. If you need a refresher, take a look at this powerful listing in the twitter timeline of Commander Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and all-around good guy (keep clicking “show more” at the end to see the entire list of 46 items):

Really, go read it. I’d missed hearing about several of them.

*   *   *

I’m also resolving to do something I hope will improve the consistency and volume of my writing output. No promises about what it’ll do to the quality.

The other day I was scrolling through twitter and saw a spreadsheet graphic someone had made where she’d not only tracked her writing, she’d blocked out time during the year for vacation and sick days and flex time and holidays– just like she would if she were working a “real” job. It was complex and colourful and highly organized. It was also a real eye-opener.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you need to treat writing like a “real” job. No surprise there. And I thought I had been doing that, until I saw that schedule and realized . . . I don’t have one. What an idiot.

Thing is, I know how to work hard. I know how to get stuff done. I know what it takes to meet deadlines. And I know I haven’t been doing it. Not the way I would if it were a “real” job with a real schedule.

How do I know? Because for the past two years I’ve been keeping track in my own complex, colourful, highly organized spreadsheet of all the words I’ve written. I can see exactly how and when I’ve been slacking off. Not holding myself accountable. Indulging myself when I should be demanding the results I know darn well I’m capable of achieving. Getting lost in the escape of reading when instead I should be writing.

If I were my boss (and I am) I’d have fired my ass by now.

Yes, I’ve had reasons for some of that behaviour. As I said, tough year. But that certainly doesn’t account for all of it. Some of it, I’m now convinced, is due to a lack of structure.

So I’m going to make a writing schedule for the coming calendar year, with concrete goals. Not just to keep track of what I’ve written, which is good and necessary (for me), but to plan out what I intend to do and when. Create a familiar framework within which to get shit done.

I’m going to schedule four weeks of vacation, something I’ve never had at any job, ever. I’m giving myself a week of sick time and all the weekends and holidays I didn’t get to take off while working in retail finance, even though I wasn’t part of the sales team. In some ways, it feels like I’m still stubbornly making up for that lack of time off, even now.

That sounds like a lot of non-writing days, doesn’t it? I imagine you’re wondering just how, exactly, I expect all that time off to improve output. But here’s the important part, the part I’ve been missing: The rest of the days will be for work.

No more vague feeling of every day being the same, of not having a sense of whether it’s a work day or a weekend or vacation, which makes it way too easy to procrastinate and simply take the day off since there is always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I’m going to hold myself accountable for sticking to it, even if it gets all irregular and pear-shaped at times. Which it will. But I can already tell that having a schedule mapped out will make it easier to get back on track when life tries to derail me. Which it will.

I wonder whether this sudden enthusiasm for a schedule is just a sign of getting older and sensing time slipping away more quickly each year, feeling the need to control it somehow or at least force it into neat categories. I’m sure that’s part of it. I never worried about this when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I had schedules and expectations imposed on me by others. In this strange new stage of self-employment, the first couple years without a schedule was the most liberating feeling of sheer relief– I have no words for it.

But it feels like it’s time for some order and routine again. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and doing this will be setting myself up for failure and future feelings of inadequacy and guilt and shame. Or maybe it will work.

Won’t know if I don’t try. So that’s my new plan of attack, even though I’m wondering why it took me so long to figure this out. Nope. Not going there. Regrets are useless.

*   *   *

For a change, I’m feeling all resolute at the same time of year everyone else usually does. Time to move forward and make the coming year what I want it to be. And every year after, for however many more there might be.

One thing 2016 demonstrated quite clearly is that none of us are guaranteed more time than this moment right now. And as old Charlie might say, “Not makin’ the most of the time you got just ain’t no way to live.”

We all have varying interpretations of what it means to “make the most” of our time, our talent, our energy. However you define it, my wish for all of you is that you manage to accomplish that in the coming year.

May it truly be a Happy New Year, for all of us.

 

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Ten years ago . . .

In September of 2006, I signed up for a Google ID and somehow also ended up with a blog of my own. I had no intention of writing a blog and this was the entirety of my first post:

“Not sure how I ended up with a blog, I didn’t ask for one. Blogger must think I have something to say here.
Blogger is mistaken.
Go read something else.”

And I meant it. I was not going to start blogging. I didn’t have time for that. I was convinced I had nothing to say, never mind knew anyone who would read it.

Pffft. As if that was going to stop me. A mere two weeks later, I wrote another post that began:

“All this white space has been bothering me, you know. It’s just sitting over here waiting for words. So I’m thinking maybe this blog is good for something after all.”

I would not have believed anyone who told me then I’d still be blogging ten years later. And enjoying it.

But I’ve been writing over here, on a somewhat regular basis, ever since. I switched to WordPress after three years with Google (best decision ever) and the stats say I’ve published 307, now 308 posts. Seems like way more than that. Then again, at an average of 1,000 words per post (yes, I do go on, and on, and on) that’s well over 300,000 words.

I’ve made friends, good friends, by way of this blog. And also by commenting on other blogs. Some of those friends have wandered off, as people do. Disinterest, busyness, death. The latter are the tough losses. The people who live on only in your memories. And your heart.

Margaret. Louis. Bryan.

Gone too soon.

But some of the people who have simply wandered off and no longer read my blog, or who do so only rarely, have remained good friends. A handful of them came to visit me, and each other, last week. We had lunch for five hours and it seemed too short. A few came bearing gifts, including this gorgeous orchid, which I have not yet (it’s only been a week) managed to kill.

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The instructions say to give it three ice cubes, once a week. You’d think I’d be able to manage something that specific. Far more helpful than the advice “don’t overwater.” I’m cautiously optimistic.

After ten years of writing blog posts, I feel as if I should be able to impart some similarly specific advice or wisdom. Other than the obvious, “Don’t try to post every damn day, it will destroy your will to live.”

What makes for a successful blog? Hell, I don’t know. I stopped caring about the “success” of this blog so long ago, it’s not even a distant memory. That’s not why I do it.

My thoughts keep returning to Brené Brown and her TED talks about the power of vulnerability, and understanding shame, and how those things are important, even necessary, for creativity. For establishing connection.

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And I think, if there’s any measure of success to communicating on the internet — via blogs or twitter or facebook, or even through fiction — it’s that. The connections you make with other people.

Speak your truth. Even if people ignore or disagree with you, maybe especially if they do. Be vulnerable. Find your connections.

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And if the world gives you a blank space, fill it. Be courageous. Create the thing that only you can create. However long it takes.

 

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When you least expect it

Today is the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death and I’m surprised to find myself feeling all nostalgic and melancholy. You’d think, after so much time has passed, that feelings of loss and grief would have faded. And, of course, they have. But there are still times — odd times, not necessarily the times you expect — when it all comes flooding back, as fresh and raw as if 20 years were just a blink.

Today is one of those times.

Here’s an old picture of my dad and mom (holding my son, who is now an adult) and me, squinting in the bright Arizona sunshine. Dad looks shorter by comparison than he should (I’m 5’8″ and he was 6′), as he’s standing in the grass and we’re on the sidewalk. Dad hated having his picture taken almost as much as I do and it was a rare event that someone managed to torture capture both of us at the same time (photo credit: my bossy older sister).

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So many memories and such excessive eye moisture I’m having today. My very stoic father would be rolling his eyes at me with an expression of affectionate but pained tolerance on his face. So would my mom and sisters, for that matter, if they ever read this. I’m telling you, it’s not easy being the sappy emotional one in a family of Scandinavians. Whatever. Might as well just wallow for a bit and get it over with.

I guess it doesn’t help that earlier in the week I asked my older sister to send me a copy of the eulogy the two of us wrote, and delivered at his memorial service, because I couldn’t find mine. Twelve typed pages of memories, so many things I’d forgotten saying. I had thought I might share some of it here, but it’s too personal. Too evocative. Too much an invasion of private grief.

But the day feels like it needs some sort of tribute, so I decided to share something else instead. My dad knew a lot of people. Quite a few of them were involved in politics, as political and civil rights issues were a passion of my dad’s. He never ran for office, preferring to remain behind the scenes in the role of teacher and advisor.

One of the people he knew was Pete Stark, a US Representative from California. We discovered, quite some time after dad died, that Mr. Stark made memorial remarks during session that became part of the Congressional Record. I’ve decided to share those remarks below, redacting dad’s name and some details– not in an attempt to protect his privacy, but mine.

Mr. Speaker, today I wish to pay tribute to an educator, activist, and my longtime personal friend, [xxx], who passed away recently in [xxx], MN, at the age of 68.

I was privileged to know [xxx] at a special time in our lives and in our Nation’s history. As a grass roots activist, Mr. [xxx] took special interest in civil rights issues and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1970, a group of 31 Americans, including [xxx] and myself, traveled to Paris with the People’s Commission of Inquiry to discuss solutions to the war. [xxx], along with our group, participated in a week of talks in France with North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese delegations and the American ambassador. During our stay he encouraged an open discussion in which he questioned, challenged and explored solutions to this problem of international scope.

[xxx] . . . dropp[ed] out [of high school] during his senior year to join the Navy. He was stationed in Bermuda for part of his tour and was chosen to run the admiral’s launch that took President Truman deep sea fishing. An avid sportsman, he played offense and defense and was captain of the Navy football team. He contracted rheumatic fever during his service and suffered from its effects for the rest of his life.

[xxx] finished his high school equivalency degree in the military. He went on to the University of Minnesota, the Wahpeton State School of Science, and graduated magna cum laude from Moorhead State University. He later earned a master’s degree and completed doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. During his early college career, he played AAA baseball with the Minot, ND, Mallards and pitched against such notables as Satchel Paige and Roger Maris.

As an English, drama and debate teacher at [xxx] High School for 30 years, [xxx] was a mentor to students in and out of the classroom. He led several debate teams to State championships, served on the faculty senate, and supported the American Field Service Program.

[xxx] will be remembered as an avid reader, a lover of language, and a remarkable individual whose ideas reached far and wide. His genuine enthusiasm for American politics prompted people of all ages to become interested in government and civil service. Because I experienced [xxx]’s vitality and wisdom firsthand, I’ve no doubt that this tireless role model made [xxx], MN, a richer place to live.

As friends and family reflect on his lifetime of achievement and scholarship, it is only fitting that we also pay tribute to this great man and good friend.

Quite a tribute to the legacy he left. Dad would have been touched and deeply honoured. But it’s just a small sampling of who my dad was, publicly, the things other people knew and admired him for. And why the world was a richer place for him having been in it. He was by far the most intelligent person I’ve ever known and among a handful of the wisest.

I can’t even begin to find words for what he meant to me personally and why there will always be days, like today, when the void he left seems immeasurable. Other than the obvious ones: I miss you, Dad.

 

 

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On gifts and giving

My sisters and I have pretty much stopped sending each other gifts for birthdays and Christmas. There have been some notable exceptions, but this has been the mutual agreement for many years. So when my youngest sister mentioned she’d sent me something for my birthday, which was a week or so ago, I assumed she meant a card.

I was surprised when I received a package that was somewhat larger than a card, and far heavier and thicker. Of course, there was a birthday card enclosed. It was funny and made me laugh. Here’s a picture of it [from baldguygreetings.com] which is not good quality because I’m propping this stuff up on my laptop screen:

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And the inside:

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If you can’t see it, that last item says:

“THEY HAND WRITE YOU A LETTER ON COLLEGE RULED BINDER PAPER:
This would be the most caring person in the world — if you were in the 4th grade. But since you’re not, this is weird and to be honest, a little creepy. This person has the potential to be a stalker. Be careful. Seriously.”

So it totally cracked me up when she did indeed enclose a hand written letter on college ruled binder paper, written as if she were in 4th grade (yes, I deleted my [real] name).

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She also sent photocopies of two different things I had written and sent to her, although not when I was in 4th grade (which might have been a plausible excuse).

One of them was a photocopy of a letter I’d written (in cursive, no less, demonstrating I was once capable of legible penmanship) when I was living in Atlanta and she had just moved, or was about to move, to Chicago. I referenced sending two “silly gifts” but don’t say what they were. I don’t remember writing it and neither of us can remember what I sent. It’s pretty sappy. You don’t need to see that.

The other paper is a copy of a poem I apparently wrote for her when she turned 13 and I was a month shy of being 17. It’s too ridiculous not to share:

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Can you read it? Probably just as well if you can’t. I have no memory of writing this either, although I do remember that I used to write “poetry” [ahem] ALL THE TIME when I was younger. Some of it I put in writing, but most of it was just in my head, usually composed while in the shower (I was hell on my parents’ water bills). But there you have it, proof that I’ve always been more than just a little weird. It must have been pure torment to have me as an older sister. Or a younger sister. Or daughter, for that matter.

And then I got to the gift-wrapped item in the package, which turned out to be a book. It made me cry.

It’s an old book, slightly water damaged and musty smelling and perhaps even a bit moldy around the edges. A book my sister “rescued” from the basement library in our parents’ house several years after the epic flooding back in . . . whenever it was. Mid-80s? It’s one of the books deemed to be “not too badly damaged,” therefore escaping the heartbreaking dumpster fate of so many other tomes. This book:

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You might think this is a really weird gift. I mean, it’s pretty much just an ordinary school textbook. You might wonder why seeing it made me cry and why I will always treasure it. Here’s why:

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This is one of my dad’s books. My dad the high school English teacher/debate coach who died way too young almost 20 years ago. That’s his distinctive writing in the margins, his characteristic underlining of words and phrases. That’s the look of every student paper he graded for his own classes over the years, every book he read, every thought-provoking article in some publication or other. It’s the look of every single paper I ever wrote, after it had been turned in to and graded by some other teacher and then grudgingly, at his insistence, handed over to him for the red (or blue) pen treatment.

And damn, I’ve missed seeing that. Of all the hundreds of books in my house, this is the only one (now) in my possession that was his. It’s an amazing gift, one I never would have thought to ask for. A gift I didn’t even know I wanted. My sister knew. It holds the same value and memories for her, after all, and I was moved by her thoughtful generosity in parting with it.

Since this is a traditional time for giving, and not solely because of MY birthday, it seems to be a good time to say I hope the gifts you receive — and the ones you give — this holiday season will be similarly meaningful and worth treasuring.

And apart from material things, or perhaps more accurately, in addition to tangible forms of generosity . . . in the coming year, I hope more of us will give the gift of attention and understanding and compassion to those who suffer and struggle. I hope more of us will grant that precious gift not only to those we know and love, but especially to those we don’t, who live in nearby and far off places we’ve never seen, whose hardships we might recognize or will never know, whose humanity is exactly like our own.

Thoughtful generosity.

If I could give each of you a gift to share, it would be that.

 

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