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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.

Ideas and Things

Last week, my good friend W. Joe Hoppe visited with my poetry students at Austin Community College. http://www.austincc.edu

Joe read bits of his really meaty new book Galvanized (check out http://www.wjoehoppe.com), and talked about everything from baby jaundice and the inventor of Bugs Bunny to working in homeless shelters and the myth of Kerouac. My students were rapt, as was I.

There’s nothing like hearing good poetry read aloud by a good voice. It’s art-making all over again.

So on his way out the door, Joe mentions William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” theory. This is the notion that conceptual thoughts and emotions require concrete images to be truly felt and understood. Thus the need for good metaphors, vivid verbs, incredible specificity of language.

I’m absolutely on that train and I spill a good deal of ink circling chunks of my own work (and my students’) with “word choice???” scrawled in the margin. I’m on my third copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder and its already missing its cover. At Joe’s urging, I left campus newly committed to finding just the right ‘thing’ for every ‘idea’ I want to explore. I hoped my students had, too.

Then, that same afternoon, I partnered with a group called Austin Jazz Workshop (http://austinjazzworkshop.com/) to facilitate a school assembly on jazz, thankfulness, community and a whole host of other loose threads. (Believe it or not, it all made good sense that day in the Cedar Creek cafeteria.) The kids, I think, went away knowing that “it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that swing.” I left with something murkier in mind.

I’d written a piece comparing individuals (with their unique habits and temperaments, strengths and challenges) to single lines of music, whereas a whole community becomes a living, breathing jazz composition. All well and good, except for the fact that the emphasis on improvisation – on the distinctive appeal of our own, ever-mutating jazz notes – seemed juxtaposed with my morning lesson on anchoring ideas with exactitude.

Now, having mulled it over for a few days, I’m working out how these schools-of-thought enrich each other. Precision and spontaneity. It’s like having the trunk of the car well-stocked for a wild road trip. Maps to anywhere in the back seat.

So today, trolling for words, I’ll say to my students and to myself, “Wing it. Roll with it. But be specific, dammit.”

Fish-owl wings, rolling like a plastic bag on an updraft…
Signing off…

Happy Thanksgiving

This is the first Thanksgiving of my life spent un-grandparented. Not that we were always with Gram and Pop or Mame and Bob for the holidays, but they were omnipresent, even a couple thousand miles away. Since coming of age, I’ve laid holiday tables with place-cards, because of them. I’ve put on something pretty, hummed the Episcopal Doxology, and offered up gushing toasts. It’s what I know.

To their generation, most meals ranked highly enough for cloth napkins and fine manners; holidays elevated food and family to holy rituals, even when there was a cheeky hint of the sacrilege in the air. (My paternal grandparents hosted ‘fake church’– a bizarre fusion of biblical parables and grade-school drama club.)

In the context of meals-made-to-go at every stop-and-shop, this reverence is almost inconceivable today. Cooking everything from scratch? Provincial. Our grandmothers arrived at dinner with a wrapped index finger (onion-cutting accident) and a burnt wrist (trying to scrape the burnt sugar from the bottom of the oven before it stuck), but also a fresh application of lipstick and Chanel No. 5 behind the ears. Our grandfathers kissed their wives before carving into the big bird.

This year, without my multi-generational grounding, I ready my own family to carry our portion of the feast to a friends’ table. There will be 19 of us, an emphatically kid-heavy group sure to spill some cranberry sauce. My grandmother would approve. She possessed a spot-on sense of how to balance the divine and irreverent, the formal and relaxed. Would that I could phone her this morning for a recipe, and call back tonight with a report.

Instead, we’ll do today what millions do – piece together our own crazy quilt of inspiration and influence, and call it Thanksgiving. As whispers wrap ‘round tables laden with pasta or poultry, Beaujolais or beer – from neighbor to mother-in-law to uncle to friend. “This is what we’re thankful for…”