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Winter pleasures

Isn’t it a lovely solace that citrus fruits ripen in winter —
right when faces gasp upward for a ray or two of light, some vitamin D, anything to take the chill off?

Here’s how I feel when those globes of gold arrive…

Isis’ Grapefruit

Each fleshy wedge
its own pyramid
as divinely designed
and hieroglyphic
as if ancient, and stone.

What veiled anterooms
what rubied treasures
revealed by my serrated silver
will I take and eat,
grateful

to the god of plucked
fruit, for keeping safe
this sweet
afterlife – aaah, boat
of sunshine on my tongue.

MOGs on the Soapbox

Recently, I was emailing with some other MOGs (Moms of Girls) about commercial culture and provocative clothing and various other beasts at the door. It was one of those exchanges that moved from worry to rant – in a good way – undoing a few of the granny-knots that we lash in our bellies when our babies become kids.

My friend Robin (http://www.RobinChotzinoff.com ) went off on a lovely riff about keeping kids imaginative by keeping them free of socialized group-think. (Hers was more graceful than my rather academic synopsis, but there you go.)

This is my slightly amended response:

We’ve been pretty top-down bossy in these realms, too.

No “characters” on lunchboxes, sneakers, backpacks and the like. I tell the girls that I’m not keen on companies using their bodies as ads, and they seem to totally get that. They’ve never asked me to change my tune on this, although sometimes it’s pretty flipping difficult since there appear to be about three pairs of generic shoes in all of Austin.

On a related note, I lived ‘til I was 8 without television and I seem to have survived, intact (no comments, please, about the appalling lack of 1970s cultural references in my vernacular). So… same goes with TV for our girls. Zippo, unless they’re sick or it’s family movie night. And even then, the oversight is rabid with a leaning toward PBS or cool Japanese animé. So far, they seem relieved to have had parental filters. Honestly. And when they have found themselves in front of commercial TV, they reel and fume at all the interruptions.

All that said, they’ve both mentioned wanting “a laptop” in the last year or so. (I mean, a 5-year-old, wanting a laptop. You’ve got to be kidding me!) And on top of that, I worry about my own consumptive habits… what I spend… what they see me spend… what my ‘errands’ constitute. Do I message out of both sides of my mouth – anti-commercial idealist here, Mall-of-America wunderkind there?

(Note to self: Revisit those old lessons on want vs. need. http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/regsys/maslow.html )

So anyhow. There’s the addiction of “want” and then there’s the sexual baby blitz. Did you hear that interview on Fresh Air (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6549015 )with Ariel Levy who wrote about the rise of raunch culture? ICK. If I never see another Bratz Doll again it will be too soon. Honest to god. Bratz make you want to invite Barbie to dinner!

I am brazenly loud and opinionated about this issue too and, so far, our girls agree with me. Our house is home to neither Bratz dolls nor high-heeled shoes for elementary schoolers. (Come to think of it, I’m not exactly living in Manolos myself.) They don’t even want their ears pierced unless it’s “in their sleep”. Elder daughter builds her wardrobe around cultural themes, and younger daughter dresses so that she can hang from the monkey bars without losing her favorite flip-flops.

Lest you think I’m going to permanently tuck myself into this comfy quilt of delusion, I KNOW that someday (soon), one of them is gonna push my buttons in this regard. We’ll see what I go to the mat over…

In the end, though, I’m with Robin. A mama’s imperative is to do everything possible to keep these vital, young imaginations alive and well. All of the media and technology and sugar and belly shirts just serve to bury the good stuff. Clear it out, and we’ve got fiery girls with great ideas.

Each fall, as I send ours off to school, I think, “Teach ‘em to add, teach ‘em to spell. Just don’t tamp ‘em down.”

What will happen when my not-tamped-down daughters hit 12 or 14 and are ready to rumble? I have no idea, but I hope they take it up with society’s scoundrels and not with me.

My True Love Gave to Me

This afternoon I recycled another 20 catalogs and sales circulars hawking this year’s tacky and overpriced must-haves.

And tonight our Christmas tree fell over while we were eating dinner. Humbug.

But before I get all morose, let’s take note of some of the seasonal good stuff. Here goes (in the key of C):

1. Caroling at the Capitol: Every year we wander up Congress Avenue and gather in the luminance of the Capitol dome to sing carols – balmy weather be damned. John Aielli of KUT (http://kut.org/) leads the motley choir in everything from Frosty the Snowman to Little Town of Bethlehem. And all the snow-starved little Texans (including ours) roll like apples down the broad hills. Silent Night, sung a cappella, thrums through the crowd like a warm wire.

2. Crafts: Cutting snowflakes out of folded paper – could one ever tire of the magic? Our house is positively littered with construction paper and glitter – so messy and festive. This year we went overboard and designed our own tree skirt. (My Grateful-Dead-era Indian bedspread worked ‘til now, but why not grow up a little?) The girls and I had a veritable 1950’s craft extravaganza – felt and ribbons and buttons, oh my. (Well, except for the fact that I actually hot-glued the skirt to the hardwood floor, but it’s been freed now, so nevermind.)

3. The Circle of Light: The thing about living in Austin is that the water pipes and street signs and bones of every house ring with song. It can get a little disheartening if you’re me and your sole musical talent is humming, but mostly there are upsides. One of those is the exquisite event that is Circle of Light. Local chanteuse Tina Marsh and her Creative Opportunity Orchestra (http://www.creop.org/ ) come to our neighborhood elementary school each December for a week of workshops on Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Diwali and Ramadan, with the message that we people are more alike than different and that we are allied around our celebrations of light – the light of hope, the light of good over evil, the light of love, the light of being alive. Our kids hear stories, and make Stars of David, beaded necklaces and rice alpanas. They taste tamales and chai, black-eyed peas and latkes. They sing in Portuguese and Yiddish. And on the final day, Tina brings nearly 20 musicians to the school cafeteria for an astonishing concert that brings everyone who’s got a beating heart to their feet and to their knees, simultaneously.

4. Christmas Trees: When I was wee, we’d four-wheel up into the mountains and cut down a tree that was inevitably too big for our little hearth, much to my sister’s and my delight. In the city, though, one tends to trot down to the tree lot on the corner, select genus, species and height, and wrap it up for home. Takes a little of the wildness out of the whole thing. So this year, we drove out to the sweet little burg of Elgin, Texas, to Evergreen Farms. (http://www.evergreen-farms.com/ ) It was sunny and cool and blustery – like a Midwestern autumn – and a hay wagon hauled us out to the field to choose our tree. Next to every choppable tree stood a fledgling newbie, already growing into next year’s crop. A comfort. After much debate, everyone took a turn at the saw and we had our monarch of the forest. But we couldn’t leave without roasting a couple of marshmallows over the open fire, feeding the goats, petting the donkey and running around ‘til our boots thumped heavy with mud. Joy to the World.

5. Christmas Cookies: Everybody’s eaten their body weight in dough and the raw eggs apparently didn’t kill us this time, so that’s something to rejoice about right there. Cookies are so quintessential. This weekend we had some of our best old friends in town and on Sunday, drizzle kept us housebound. Soften the butter and sift the flour! Before you could say jolly old Saint Nicholas, seven kids gathered around the table with tin cookie cutters and jars of sprinkles. Nobody even noticed that they were mostly black and orange, left-over from some intended Halloween treats that never materialized this year.

6. Advent Calendars: Oh, the lovely, methodical anticipation that is advent. Whether the little doors open to chocolate or poems, messages or treats, this simple countdown holds excitement so tangibly. This morning, our youngest stumbled into the kitchen with her eyes still shut, whispering with eagerness, “Today we open number 11. Today, Mama. Today.”

7. Christmas Ornaments: Some homes hang their trees with matching bows or thematic ornaments or striking silver balls. At our house, we take more of a huddled masses approach. Come one, come all. No ornament is too large or small, too simple or gauche, too hilarious. Including: bejewled toilet-paper rolls, tiny beaded globes from Tanzania, needlepoint pillows my mother made when I was five, half-a-dozen ‘Wisconsin Christmas’ discs, a funny wooden pig, the beloved German-glass figures my college roommate sends me, the silver bells my godmother Sally sends me, the paper chains my daughters made just the other night. No wonder the tree fell over.

On that note, I’ll trail off, with wishes for some of this amazing good fortune to everyone, near and far. Go tell it on the mountain. Feliz navidad, shalom, namaste.

Philosophy

This week ends another semester at schools coast to coast. Kids, hopped-up on holiday sugar and anticipatory glee, teachers breathing sleepy sighs of relief. Exams, final papers, all-nighters. The academic calendar is operatic in this way; the crescendos almost breathtaking.

Me? I’m stocking up on the requisite gift cards for my daughters’ divine teachers and, at the same time, gasping for air from beneath a formidable mountain of paper grading. My students await word — an overwhelming thought when I’m just one small human with limited bits of knowledge and experience.

In the meantime, I’m pulling together my teaching portfolio so I can be evaluated by the powers-that-be. One piece of it is my Statement of Teaching Philosophy, which sounds very grandiose indeed.

Since these schizophrenic activities seem to be preventing pithier writing, I thought I’d excerpt a little of the philosophy here. Then, stay tuned — more titillating stuff on the beauty of old friends and Christmas tree farms, soon!

Statment of Teaching Philosphy, an excerpt

I am a great believer in the power of language – to inform and inspire, to move and sway, to persuade and spur on, to comfort, to entertain. More importantly, I trust in the precision of language – careful, conscious word choice – and in the unique wonder of writing or reading something vivid and evocative and true.

This power of pertinent language is available to anyone, and can be used in the realms of art and literature, medicine and science, commerce and politics alike. This, I think, is the deep secret being kept from students in our carefully delineated, product-oriented schools: words are not just for the writer.

As a teacher, I aim to open the treasure trove of language to my students so that, in the long-term, they are more confident and articulate poets and writers, students and employees, citizens and human beings. Teaching creative writing does not mean that the concerns of early literacy – grammar and mechanics, say, or the basic elements of fiction – are irrelevant. All writers revisit the basics of our craft on a regular basis. At the same time, literacy is more than making phonic sense of our language. It is about being able to read a poem or a children’s chapter book, a newspaper article or a memoir, a novel or an academic text, and fully experience the breadth and depth of what is written. Literacy is about being able to embrace literature.

My approach to teaching writing, then, is three-pronged. First, I emphasize the importance of acquiring a solid understanding of the craft at hand. This means fine-tuning the ‘rules’ that may have dulled over the years, learning to use and understand genre-specific vocabulary, and grasping the nuances of how a piece of writing works – how the puzzle gets put together. Second, I stress the absolute imperative that writers be readers. Exposing ourselves to the work of contemporary writers and those who’ve paved the way is the single most effective and intuitive way to enrich our own writing. Third and finally, I try to grow the understanding that writing is a practice, a process. As Nabokov once said, “I have rewritten – often several times – every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” (This is a particularly tough one to grasp for those of us yearning to check off items on our To Do lists.)

Outside of any methodology, though, is the muse… the lightening strike. Inspiration. Serendipity. Creative magic. I tell my students that it’s important to learn and practice the nuts and bolts of the craft and, at the same time free the mind. Living as a writer means, in part, moving through life receptive to the ideas and images that are there for the taking.

Chronicles of a P.G.C.

There’s something about this season of laden tables, bedecked halls and ho ho hos that can bring to me to my knees with guilt. It used to be I felt embarrassed by all that I had – a kind of survivor’s guilt for having drifted from the shipwreck alive and well, with nice shoes, a great bag, and an entire chest of Scottish sweaters.

Lately though, I’m more troubled by how little I do to save the world.

I haul my carefully-sorted paper and plastic to the curb only to hear on the news about the “massive” cuts we need to make in our emissions if any of us plan on our babies and grandbabies carrying on around here. (I think the word massive is truly off-putting and is enough to stop even a do-gooder cold in her tracks. Sheesh.)

But truly, pictures aren’t all that rosy of late, between the havoc we’re wreaking on the world and on various peoples around the world, not to mention the fact that even here in the heart of Texas we need winter coat drives so kids can get to the school bus and back bundled up. “Something needs to be done,” I say, often enough.

So what do I do? I vote. I give money and raise money. All of our pets were strays, and I pick up litter when I hike. I work ‘for free’ nearly as many hours as I work ‘for pay’, doing my own little shake for the people, places and organizations that could use a hand. My daughters know what it is to hoist a magic-markered sign above a crowd and shout, “Peace, Not War!” My husband now bikes and buses to work, cutting our fuel consumption by half. (But to be fair, this one should really be in his column of the scorecard.) Oh, right. And I recycle. Big whoop.

See, here’s the thing. I can currently define myself as a Pretty Good Citizen (P.G.C.) – not the radical I was born to be. My political science papers in college were thinly-veiled editorial rants. I made scenes in classes and at dinner parties. I marched and signed and picketed and polled. I went to the University of Wisconsin, for pete’s sake.

No wonder that I’m awake at night thinking about trees I should’ve chained myself to, and stands I should’ve stuck ‘til I landed in jail. But instead, I’m a P.G.C. Sigh. At least that leaves me lots of room for improvement.

So it’s this notion that I’m chewing over when I head off to teach yoga in my kindergartner’s classroom this morning. (Teaching yoga at school is one of those P.G. things that I do.)

Each Thursday, as we close our circle, we bow to one another and say, “Namastè.”

Today, M, a little boy open and sweet as a cut peach, asks, “What does that mean in English again?”

“The light in me sees the light in you,” I answer. And suddenly, spontaneously, 15 airy little voices echo me, in chorus.

“The light in me sees the light in you, the light in me sees the light in you, the light in me sees the light in you…”

The sound sweeps the room, the school, the neighborhood, the planet. It feels, well, radical, and for this one short morning I think maybe things aren’t quite so grim after all. In fact, they’re seeming Pretty Good.