Friday, November 26, 2010

Blue Christmas

I’d like to finally admit something awful: I am not entirely a fan of Christmas.

There. I’ve said it.

It has been something I’ve been slow to admit to myself as much as anyone else.
It certainly isn’t the social demands and the busyness – our Christmas season isn’t much busier than the rest of the year. It isn’t keeping up with anyone.

What weighs on me are several things. Chiefly, my expectations and my conflicting expectations. At Christmas, I can never ever decide whether I want to be the world’s most lavish gift giver, choosing presents with extreme care and a carefree budget or whether I want to focus on the spiritual aspects of the holiday and eschew materialism.

The true answer is, um, both.

It occurs to me that this year is likely the last year my little girl will welcome dolls and toys. Why not go nuts? I love to find the perfect gift for people – to me, that is a chief way to express love. But I remember a few years ago when we used to make Operation Christmas Child boxes and I had a fantasy that a child would open a box only to discover toys they had made in their sweat shop. Bizarroland.

The other thing is that Christmas has had a melancholy tinge to it for me ever since I was about six years old and I started to worry that Santa did not exist. My parents told me that Santa was real as long as I believed in him. Somehow this launched into motion an enormous sense of responsibility for Christmas: that I had the ability to kill Santa or keep him alive. I will note in passing that the Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny were never real in the least to me. But somehow – maybe it was a confusion of the central male characters at Christmas – I felt a dreadful angst about Christmas.

Every year, I feel a deep sense of responsibility around Christmas, making it perfect for my own kids. For a while I had thought I would never tell my kids that there was a Santa, but I did. At this point, my oldest has chosen to believe, my middle grasps the concept of Saint Nicholas and giving, and the baby accuses me, “I know it’s you.”

I always feel a sense of sadness at Christmas, that maybe there is something more I can do to make Christmas perfect. For a long while, I would feel disappointed about whatever I didn’t do each year. I’d feel a fleeting sense of time, that my kids would only be small for so long. I would heave a huge sigh of relief as we turned the calendar to January. Then, joy could come as it would. There would be no pressure to make things perfect and memorable, to keep a minor pagan deity alive.

The other weird thing has to do with the timing of Christmas. Liturgically speaking, Advent is a penitential season, a time of waiting. Christmas starts the festive season. But nobody told the retailers or my kids. At the same time, I am decorating the house and the tree and stilling my heart. Memo to self: it’s very hard to do both simultaneously. The last few years I’ve tried to get around this by doing a fair bit of my shopping before Advent starts.

Last year was an interesting Christmas. The day before Advent started, I caught a cold which instantly turned into a sinus infection that felled me for the better part of three weeks. I was able to drag myself to the very most important events of the season and I got a plague-imposed exile from the rest. I had to let go of a lot of expectations on myself and instead find gratitude in the things I could do. And I did.

So, here we go again.

I’d like to recapture last year’s experience, sans sinus trouble. I’d like to leave Santa in Jesus’ hands, shovel my expectations for perfection away with the snow and just receive the good gifts that come.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review - Bonhoeffer

A new feature here. I write book reviews for our local paper. I will copy or link to them here. The following review is of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas Thomas Nelson 591 pages $36.99

Throughout this new biography by Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer shines through as a real, multi-faceted, inspiring human being. The thought process that brought him to make controversial decisions during the Second World War – to act as an agent of the Nazis in order to bring down the government, and to participate in a plot to kill Hitler and his accomplices – is explained in all its complexity. The material Metaxas selects from letters, diaries and conversations builds a portrait of an engaging and exemplary theologian, pastor and fully-rounded human being. At the same time, this is a hard book to review because of its flaws.

Metaxas is clearly not an impartial biographer. He notes in the Acknowledgments at the end of the book that Bonhoeffer’s writing was introduced to him soon after his 1988 conversion and was very meaningful to him as a descendant of Germans who had suffered during the Nazi regime. At times, this book read as hagiography – the life of a saint. I struggled with this because Bonhoeffer, without question, was indeed an exemplary man of faith; at the same time, though, some of Metaxas’ description of Bonhoeffer seems cloying and the reader is very clearly led by the author in matters of interpretation. While I never felt sympathy for the Nazis, I thought a number of matters had to be more complex, at the moment, than the author with his hindsight sometimes gave credit for. He also assumes to know the mind of Bonhoeffer at times: for instance, Metaxas seems to act as omniscient narrator in the section where Bonhoeffer learns from his well-placed brother-in-law about the atrocities being committed. The author writes: “Future generations would be convinced that nothing good could ever have existed in a country that produced such evil. They would think only of these evils. It would be as if these unleashed dark forces had grotesquely marched like devils on dead horses backward through the gash in the present and had destroyed the German past too.” While the crimes of the Nazis cannot be overstated, I’m not sure this is Germany’s legacy and I wondered at this hyperbole.

Other aspects of the writing are also curious. The language blends folksy casualness with academic theological language. The best example of this occurs when Metaxas describes a sermon on the book of Jeremiah as an “unrelenting homiletic bummer.” (p. 209) Are the people who understand and use the term homilectic likely to describe something as a bummer? I doubt it. The book is laid out chronologically and thoughtfully - although there are endless foreshadowings. At the same time, the author sometimes fails to note important events in their chronological place. For instance, Metaxas describes Churchill’s response to Hitler both before and after his election, but fails to note the key 1940 election of the British leader. Another omission occurs around the failure of the resistance to launch a coup in 1940: despite the extensive build-up in this biography, the reasons for the failure to act are dismissed without explanation. Some parts of Bonhoeffer’s life are given detailed moment by moment description, while others are skimmed over. The only place this is explained is at the end of Bonhoeffer’s own life when his correspondence ceased.

There is also inconsistency in Metaxas’ explanations: several times he gives not only translation of German terms but also pronunciation help. Other times, he does not explain key acronyms (such as SS and SA). There are also grievous errors – Bonhoeffer’s brother was a physicist who worked with the best minds in Germany, including, apparently, Alfred Einstein. This error even made it as such in the good index at the end of the book. Many of these errors could have been resolved by a judicious editor

In the Acknowledgements, Metaxas notes his great debt to all previous Bonhoeffer biographers and mostly particularly Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s confidant and biographer. He says of Bethge’s biography that it forms “the great foundation upon which every syllable thenceforth written or spoken about his best friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer gratefully rest.” This prompts the question of why this new biography is necessary.

The strongest part of the book is actually the final section where there is much less historical material to work with. In this section, it struck me that the author had a clear grasp of Bonhoeffer’s theology and had likely found ways to live it out. While I had difficulty with some of the writing in this book, I nonetheless came away inspired by the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I suspect, for the author of this biography, that would constitute a successful response to the book.

(Disclosure: Thanks to Graf-Martin Communications for this review copy.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer

You know the games you can play with your family - the brown-eyed group and the blue eyes; those who like ketchup on KD and those who know it is disgusting? We found another distinction this weekend: those who love to dress up in costumes and those who don't.

I am firmly in the former camp while Dave is in the latter.

A few weeks ago, I took the kids on the Uptown Waterloo Treasure Hunt. One of our stops was Queen of Hearts costume store. They asked the kids in passing if any of them were interested in being a costumed character in the Santa Claus Parade. Two said no. J. Shakespeare said Heck yeah.

I needed to remember to register him by the 15th - and remembered, on the 15th, to do so. We needed to go into the store to sign up for and try on a costume to be one of the - and I kid you not - Fancy Walkers. John had a clear idea of what he wanted to be: a Green Elf. When we made our special trip to the store we were told the elves were not among the fancy walkers, but were Sign Bearers. The SIgn Bearers had to report to McGregor School Friday evening from 7-9 for a meeting where all would be revealed.

As the designated costume-friendly parent, I went along to the meeting. It was held in the gym. The chairs were set up beautifully in a traditional semi-circle big enough for the 100-odd teens who had assembled. There were two nice Lions Club men taking waivers at the door.

We didn't have a waiver. No problem, they said. Go see those two old men at the table over there. We did. They didn't have waivers. Go see that guy there drinking from the bottle they said. The guy who was preparing to lead the meeting. So we did. Are you Catholic or not? he asked. Not, we said. Turns out he thought we needed the form to get our high school volunteer hours verified for participation. That cleared up, he gave us a waiver. We signed it, delivered it to the first two men and sat to be enlightened.

I will note that the arrangement of the chairs was the best-organized part of the event. If the affable gentleman with the forms had tried, he could not have been less clear. Never were we told any useful information. There was no assumption made that people knew what to do but he was all in a muddle. A woman with a very complicated elf hat herself climbed on a chair and explained things better, but her explanation ended with a call to action that entirely messed up the Forms Man's game plan. Several times he lost his train of thought. "I am going to..." he said. "Have a drink." And so he did.

Despite this, we had our costume, had signed up on a list and got our requisite coat check papers for the costume -- all of which were done in complete confusion and bewilderment on the part of the organizers -- and were out of there, laughing our heads off by 7:40.

"He was drinking vodka," my precocious 11-year old elf commented. I cracked up.
"That's a reasonable explanation," I said.
"No," he said. "Those men at the table said that - they said, see that guy drinking vodka over there?"
I had missed that part.

I fed him waffles and sausages the next morning to fortify him against the cold. We had been warned to be there by 8 am OR ELSE. We were there. He had his costume on by 8:01 and sat and played on his iPod, the youngest of all elves, until they assembled on the street at 9:15.

In the meantime, I went to the market, went home and put supper in the slow cooker, and biked over to the parade at 10. At about 10:45, my elf came by. He spotted me in the crowd and waved gaily. Other than that, he was what a friend described as a Conservative Elf.

At the end of the parade, he was ushered onto a bus and brought back to the school for pizza. I'm not sure anyone spoke to him the whole time. But he still loved it. I went into it, he explained, to be famous. To be on tv and to have people I know in the crowd see me. But I liked the little kids waving and getting excited about seeing Santa's Real Elves.

He explained all this to me later at home as we both thawed out. His cheeks were pink, largely with the makeup that had been drawn on them in rosy circles. Next year, he wanted to do it again, but he knew exactly what he wanted to be: A Christmas Tree. That costume, he explained, had Christmas presents for shoes.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Inside Passage

So, People Magazine came out this week with their Sexiest Man of the Year. For those keeping score at home - and I must admit, I've discovered a stats button on this site that tells me there ARE a few of you - it's Ryan Reynolds.

Now, I appreciate beauty as much as the next person. I loved seeing the toned muscles of the World Cup dudes and Michael Phelps at the last summer Olympics. I think Angelina Jolie is stunning. I'm a big fan of Michelangelo's sculptures and Henry's Moore's too. I think Reynolds' wife, Scarlett Johannson, is luminous.

But sexy? Give me interesting over abs any day.

I was listening yesterday to Sting - while I delivered flyers. Sting is a bit of a dilemma for me. I adore the guy and his music, but I worry such adoration might put me in the camp of the middle-aged women screaming and throwing their underwear at Tom Jones or Fabio. Not that I think it would come to that. Probably.

But Sting is interesting. He continues to challenge himself artistically at a time of life when other artists fall back on old standards and cover tunes or sink into lush retirement. I love that sense of exploration and intellect. It's not something that can be captured in a magazine spread. But I find it terribly attractive.

It is also something I'm examining in my own life and art. I am not self-pitying about this in the least but I find it curious that as I age, two processes seem to be happening simultaneously: the outside me is waning while the inside me is waxing. (Who was it said youth is wasted on the young?)

Now, frankly, I'd rather be waxing more and more inside and out. And, I think there would be self-pity if I were single and wishing to be noticed. But I'm mostly okay to be largely hidden behind my Mom Cloak of Invisibility. As long as I continue to grow and explore and create on the inside.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My Paper Route

It’s more than a bit embarrassing to admit but all this fall I’ve had a bit of a paper route. And I love it.

Let me explain.

My kids have long been seduced by ads promising lots of cash -- $40 a month! – in return for delivering flyers a few days a week. This fall, my middle child, who is 11, decided he really wanted to buy himself an iPod and that a paper route would be a good means to do so. We talked with the liaison at the paper, found out the details, arranged direct deposit into his bank account and waited for flyer-filled plastic bags to be deposited on our driveway.

The first day, he nearly gave up. He tried to pull stacks of papers on a go-cart, tried carrying sacks of papers on his shoulders, tried making return trips home. There were only 60-some papers to deliver but they were widely spread out on the streets around us. Two hours later, he begged for help.

I climbed on my bike and delivered the last fifteen or so.

Eventually, he figured out a strategy – he also used his bike and a backpack filled with flyers. But some days each flyer stack was about 3 inches thick and it took a long time to deliver.

I offered to help do fifteen or so.

It became part of my regular routine, a couple of days a week, and it dawned on me that, far from resenting this bailout, it was something I looked forward to.

I like the waning light of late fall afternoons, the trees silhouetted against the orange sky. I like twenty or thirty minutes of quiet as I bike around the neighbourhood, tucking newspapers into mailboxes and milkboxes. I feel sheepish if I see adults – I have a Masters degree and yet I deliver papers. One day I needed a break from editing and the day was unseasonably warm and luscious, so I delivered my papers in the middle of the day. Sometimes I wear my own iPod and listen to music – on the day the miners were freed in Chile, I listened to two of their rebirths on the radio while delivering my own load. Often I listen to the quiet and just think.

I delivered newspapers as a kid myself for a while. I don’t remember how long. I don’t remember whether I loved it or hated it. I wonder, as I walk up to a darkened house whose occupants are not yet home from their Real Jobs, whether I like this activity because it harkens back to a simpler time in my own life, when my financial goals were immediate and achievable, when I had loads of time to walk from house to house. Maybe.

What I think it speaks more to is a sense of purpose: these fifteen houses need flyers before 6:00 p.m. After thirteen years of freelancing, I am tiring of being a self-starter. I want some same old –same old, I tell someone and she laughs, but it’s kind of true. I meet deadlines and I’m productive and efficient, but I’m longing for the routine of a job and the accountability of my work each day. I’m not sick of what I do and it is a sweet deal, so what I do next has to be even better – no small order – but I’m looking ahead and making a few plans for the next step.

My son bought his iPod a few weeks ago. We’ve talked about the near-impossible logistics of transporting thick packets through deep snow. After a family meeting where we couldn’t come up with other ways to make this work, he emailed his liaison last week to give his two-weeks' notice.

I’ll miss my paper route.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Happy Garden

I have written before about my ambivalent relationship with my gardens. Really, it's all quite positive except for the big stupid rock garden. This time, last year, I decided to add a new garden.

We had a small vegetable garden already, but most of our vegetables came from the community shared agriculture (CSA) farm we had been part of for 10 years. They had decided to take a year off. We had a largeish side yard that seemed to grow mostly weeds, bad violets, and moss, and also seemed to get some amount of sunlight. I layered cardboard and leaves over the ground, and left it to gestate all winter.

We borrowed a light-table from Dave's school (and called it our grow-op). We circled the best varieties of vegetables in a seed catalogue and made our investment of seeds.

The initial plan had been for this to be a money-making project for our kids - they would, theoretically, plant their seeds, transplant the seedlings, weed the garden, harvest the veggies and I would pay them for their produce. By the time the baby plants were an inch tall, I knew this was my project.

As soon as the ground was workable this spring, we rototilled it, and surrounded it with wood from another backyard salvage project. I then dumped in the entire contents of two composters. I planted spinach and peas in early April, and lettuce and beets a few weeks later. In May, I took my chances on warm weather and planted tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, basil, sunflowers, green peppers, hot peppers, sage, sweet peas and giant pumpkins a week or two before the May long weekend. The gamble paid off and we began a summer of great eating. Only the pumpkins and sunflowers failed to grow.

Weirdly enough, I enjoyed weeding this garden. I tend toward being an "outside the box" thinker, but I was charmed by the lovely straight rows of the garden, and I was quite content to putter about it this garden, keeping the rows neat and tidy.

One day while weeding, I named the new vegetable garden my Happy Garden. It was while weeding that I got the pivotal idea for the novel I was about to embark on writing. It was a delight to discover sugar snap peas emerging from the white blossoms of the plant, to find a new green pepper hiding in the foliage. I loved brushing against the basil, the tomato plants and inhaling the fragrance.

By August, it was a hot mess. I had tried not to plant too many tomato plants, but the baby plants looked deceptively small; by August, they had to be tied to the fence, having pulled the cages out of the ground and having punched and wrestled each other for real estate. The cucumber plants snaked everywhere.

I knew you could plant cool weather crops again, once the weather cooled off. The problem was that it didn't cool at all until the first week of September. Again, the gamble. What would grow and what would be a waste of seeds? But, what did I have to lose? I replanted spinach, lettuces, peas and arugula.

This evening - one day after a snowfall - we had another meal featuring arugula and spinach from the garden. It's still going strong. The only plant that didn't work this time was the peas: the plants grew - probably 10 inches high - but never blossomed. It occurred to me today while I was adding mulched leaves to the garden that even these pea plants were good for the garden - pea plants add nitrogen to the soil, good for other crops.

It makes me happy, this happy garden.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

In Defense of November

"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."
- Emily Dickinson

My favourite season is spring when every single good thing is before us, when the days are lengthening noticeably, when every green sprout is a wonder, when the air is like a kiss, and gardening seems like pleasure and not chore. I love the smells of the promise of spring.

"No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -
- Thomas Hood, No!

I always tell myself I hate fall, but this is not entirely true. What I do not love is early fall. I hate the hot, wasp-filled, over-ripe fruit, overblown garden days of early fall in all its gaudy colours. Yes, they are beautiful. Yes, I am glad I live in a country with four seasons. But early fall is the tawdry cheap cousin of summer. Early fall signals the end of things and I protest every single time. Early fall means school must begin again. Early fall means frost may come. The pool must close. The tomatoes are done. Holidays are packed away. The days are visibly shorter.

By October, I reconcile myself. I cook squash-ginger soup and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie and pumpkin pie. I turn the fireplace on. I rejoice in the victory over the weeds in the garden – for now I am ahead of them. I snuggle in sweaters and socks. I turn the fire on and light candles. I decorate with gourds and dried Chinese lanterns. We carve pumpkins and plot costumes and collect candy.

"The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain
- John Updike, A Child's Calendar

And then it is November. So many people jump ahead in November. They rip down skeletons and spiderwebs and put up Santa and snowmen.

"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape - the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show."
- Andrew Wyeth

I think they miss the best part of fall. The air is crisp and the ground dazzles with frost. Half the leaves fall from our trees in one morning. I can rake patterns into the lawn. The trees reveal their shapes. Geese flap their wings as they fly overhead, rarely directly south.

I read a novel recently in which a character was dying of all sorts of cancer. She had come to the place beyond anxiety where she accepted the end of things and her own end in particular. I think that’s what’s behind November for me. It has been an acquired taste but I like the sparseness of November, the baldness, the noise and smell of fallen, decaying leaves. I’ve accepted the end of the summer before November and I can enjoy the ends of the year quite peacefully.

"The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine they tell of. The mite which November contributes becomes equal in value to the bounty of July."
- Henry David Thoreau