Making sense

Anne Lamott, on writing ...

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

'Tis the season to get your read on

It's almost October. Which means November is right around the corner. And then my favorite month: December. Duh. Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, Christmas carols, Christmas sweaters, Christmas presents.
The 'Ber months are always good for my writing, for my reading. Temps have finally dropped to agreeable numbers (I would much rather be cold than hot.) Summer recipes have given way to crockpot meals and soups and stews. Pumpkins and gourds and magnificient fall colors delight the eyes and simmering pans of cinnamon and cloves tickle the nose.
I am more inside the house than out, so let's just say that I get a lot of page work done. Typically, I blog more frequently, write more often, and read with feverish intensity, trying to reach my fifty-book goal before January One arrives. Typically, I re-read several favorites. In October, I reach for Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Fall reminds me of Scout and Jem, who finally find courage to peek into mysterious windows,  and thus begin stalking Boo Radley. ("Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom. ...) Fall is when mysterious gifts begin appearing in the knot-hole of a nearby tree standing tall in the Finches sleepy Southern neighborhood: "That fall was a long one, hardly cool enough for a light jacket. Jem and I were trotting in our orbit one mild October afternoon when our knot-hole stopped us again. Something white was inside this time." I won't tell you what the secret and sacred item is; I want you to read the story. I believe strongly that every single human being in the world needs to read To Kill A Mockingbird. It teaches you never to judge books by covers; it teaches you to stand up for what you believe in; it teaches you that you must walk a mile in another person's shoes before you can truly understand him or her. When I still taught high school English, I always began teaching Mockingbird when October arrived. It was fun to tell students that Dill, in the book, is based off Lee's real-life neighborhood pal, Truman Capote, who came to Maycomb, Alabama, several months out of the year to live with his Auntie.
Speaking of Capote, who is my favorite dead writer ...Once mid-November rolls around, I head to A Christmas Memory, which is the most bittersweet short story I have ever read. It makes me smile; it makes me weep. Although it's about a Christmas memory (hence the title), the story opens with this line: "Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. ... A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. ... 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, 'it's fruitcake weather!'"
Well, fruitcake. Yes, fruitcake! There's much maligning of the lowly fruitcake, which, to me, is an extraordinary dessert chock full of nuts and diced stained-glass fruits. I love me some fruitcake. My best childhood friend, Michelle, for years sent me a delectable fruitcake each holiday season, all the way from Santa Clara, California, from a beloved recipe her sweet mother-in-law employed in her own sunny kitchen. Probably I wasn't thankful enough; those (fragrant) cakes, dowsed in strong brandy, ceased arriving several seasons ago. I tell you: If you too enjoy fruitcake and reading about imaginative children, you need to get your hands upon Capote's coming-of-age story.
And then there's December, my favorite month. Time to revisit David Sedaris's hysterical Holidays on Ice, which is an accounting of the lovably neurotic essayist's experience working as a department store Christmas elf. This holiday collection of essays opens with this: "I was in a coffee shop looking through the want ads when I read, 'Macy's Herald Square, the largest store in the world, has big opportunities for outgoing, fun-loving people of all shapes and sized who want more than just a holiday job! Working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand means being at the center of the excitement' ... ."
This opening paragraph gives little clue to the hilarity that is forthcoming: "... I am a thirty-three-year-old man applying for a job as an elf. ... I am trying to look on the bright side. ... In order to become an elf I filled out ten pages' worth of forms, took a multiple choice personality test, underwent two interviews, and submitted urine for a drug test. The first interview was general, designed to eliminate the obvious sociopaths. ... I am certain that I failed my drug test. My urine had roaches and stems floating in it, but they still hired me because I am short, five feet five inches. Almost everyone they hired is short. One is a dwarf." Sedaris does not disappoint. When I read him, I have to be at home, alone, so that when I laugh and snort and say lines out loud and gesticulate wildly, no one pulls her kids closer and whispers into their ears: Children, there's something wrong with that woman.
Sedaris does not know this about me, but I will state it here, publicly. If I ever have a terminal illness and death is approaching and hospice nurses are setting up a final life request for me, I am going to tell them (through the wheezing and approaching death rattle), that I must get a chance to Skype with Sedaris. I want him to be talking to me and making me laugh as I go gently into my good night, which, hopefully, will also feature my children and grand children gathered around my hospital bed that's been set up in the hearth room of the family home.
Also on my December reading list is a collection of Christmas poems, essays, and short stories (Capote's Christmas Memory is here, too), selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy (yes, that Caroline Kennedy). The hardcover book, red and dressed up with a silver bow as though it is a present in an of itself, is simply called A Family Christmas. The book contains nine chapters, and though each is rather boringly titled ("Deck the Halls," "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," and "Joy to the World,") there's a nostalgic familiarity within that will lead you to the grocery store, where you will plunk down approximately $200 for holiday baking supplies; you will play Christmas music when you get back from the store to unload your flours and sugars and various chocolate chip pieces.  In addition to reveling in feel-good holiday sentiments, you will also learn what the exact words are to certain Christmas songs -- you know the ones, where only the chorus is obvious and you simply hum along to other parts. For example, I offer this educationally fulfilling musical nugget. (If you start studying now and commit to memory the hard parts, you'll be singing the loudest at church in a few short months.)
                                                           O Come, All Ye Faithful
             (Translated by Frederick Oakeley & William Thomas Brooke; Music by John Francis Wade)

O come, all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him, Born the King of angels:
O come, let us adore him; O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

      (This is the part you already know. Get ready for the lesson.)

God of God, light of light,
Lo! he abhors not the Virgin's womb;
Very God, Begotten not created:
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

       (I know, I know, you already know the last two lines there ... ).

Sing, choirs of angels, Sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of heav'n above;
Glory to God, In the highest:
O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, Born this happy morning,
Jesus, to thee be glory giv'n;
Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing:
O come, let us ....
          (You know the rest.)

Happy Halloween! Have a blessed Thanksgiving! Merry Christmas!

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