{#winterlight: closer than you think}

There’s something about the end of a year that makes me think… about all manner of things. I know people who have made it habit and tradition to do a major clearing out – of clothing, of photographs and possessions, and I think it’s also useful to do a major clearing out of the mind. We always have two or three opportunities per year – there’s the Lunar New Year, there’s Rosh Hashanah, for some, there’s Shab-e-Barat, or National Day of Forgiveness, which seems as good a day as any to begin again… but as with many things, renewals and new beginnings first require distance.

Distance

The world is large, when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide;

But the world is small, when when your enemy is loose on the other side.

– John Boyle O’Reilly

Kelvingrove Park 159

The mushrooms in the photo are so teensy-tiny that it took a high-powered lens to capture them… and you can’t really tell, can you? When we’ve stepped away from something, it’s sometimes easier to see – and other times, a lot harder. I’m intrigued by how such small things can be mistaken for something large. I’m pretty sure there’s some kind of object lesson in that, but… I’ll just leave you with the pretty picture instead of belaboring it, hm?

{#winterlight: liminal}

I’m already tired of people’s predictions.

Days into the annual interstice of just-finished and not-yet, and already the air is thick with the blether of people telling us how next year will be.

As they, too, were surprised by incidents in this current year, I am disinclined to take much heed of them.

This does not, however, have much effect on their speaking.

We spend a lot of time waiting, in life. Airports, post office, doctor’s offices, only the vaguest idea of what will come next, of what more will be required of us. This week between the last holiday of one year and the first of the next always puts me in mind of the labyrinthine waiting rooms in medical centers, moving between a series of larger and smaller waiting rooms down astonishingly similar beige-and-green hallways. It’s always a relief to just get out of the whole building.

Of course, it always occurs to me later that maybe the waiting bit isn’t the worst part…

Oddly, at the time of year when we’re most supposed to be keyed in to other people, Christmas and New Year’s people tend to become super insular… which is why it’s a lonely time for many. Getting all of these jolly cards and holiday posts on social media, it might be difficult to remember that there are people waiting for an answer, waiting to feel better, waiting to see if their test comes back clear… we need that little bit of hope in Pandora’s jar.

{#winterlight: still discovering}

I had so much fun speculating on the truthiness of history the other day, so perhaps we can apply that brush to the Christian tale of The Birth, and remove the soft-focus and the endearing, talking animals today? We have to eliminate, too, the preconception that the stable was a terrible, filthy cave and open our minds to the fact that other cultures live closer to their animals than those in suburbia. In other countries, it’s perfectly reasonable that the stable is on the first floor of a home. So, not so poor and wretched – certainly not ideal, no, but not quite so “away” in a manger as all of that.

Meanwhile, the wise men wanted to go home…

Oh, to discover how to be human now… isn’t that #lifegoals.


For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio was written by W.H. Auden in 1942 – after the British entry into World War II. It isn’t one most people have heard, except for in excerpts, because it’s still under copyright AND because it’s…1500 lines long, or 52 pages. (For comparison: Shakespeare’s Macbeth is about 2100 lines long. Yes. Let the mind boggle.) If you’d like to read the whole, it’s found in his Collected Poems. If you’d like to read a bigger chunk, check this out.

{#winterlight: by firelight}

The American Chemical Society in 2018 filmed a YouTube video of four hours of a fire burning, with all the lovely attendant sounds of popping and hissing wood, snapping sparks… and overlaid it with the ethereal looking, ephemerally beautiful chemical equations that make up fire, gingerbread, Santa’s suit, reindeer, whisky, chocolate, …and Xanax, I think. This year, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has a lovely video of fiery colored jellyfish… against a soundtrack of popping, hissing fire. It is not… quite… the same. Himself calls it Sizzling Sealife, which is both horrifyingly amusing and right on the money.

…which kind of brings me to today’s poem, which is one of my all-time favorites, and which I discovered during a college English exam. I had a professor whose joy it was to introduce to us a poem during an exam and require us to write at minimum a five-paragraph in-class essay in response. For many reasons, each time I read it, I am struck anew by the aching beauty of this poem.

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
“Those Winter Sundays” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, ©1966.


I learned years later that Robert Haydn was Black, and that twinged my heart even harder. Generations of men, working in silence, putting out the fires that threaten and starting the ones that warm. Misunderstood, misanthropic, perhaps, inarticulate and unstinting. Men like my Dad. Keep warm the fires of your hearth – the hearths of your family, chosen or born. Take no love for granted.

{#winterlight: creature comforts}

In my first apartment, it was so cold I burned candles from November to February, ran the oven at night, and, when my boyfriend came over, put cherry-flavored (? scented?) pipe tobacco on a thin, warped sheet pan, to make that musty attic apartment (complete with molded avocado green carpet and an orange and white crystal beaded curtain I’m still a little sad I didn’t take when I moved out) smell nice. (Why didn’t I use incense? Because it would’ve made smoke – prohibited in that apartment. Crisped tobacco was somehow… acceptably not smoke? Look, I never said logic was my strong point.)

This poem hits me in memory.

Sugar Water in Winter

A bowl of rose water dreams itself empty
on the radiator: It’s December and we can
hardly afford the heat, our milk money
crinkling hungry over the cold counter
of our convenience store, the very last
of our cash for creamer, for pleasantries,
for cheap tea and cigarettes, for the barely-
there scent of roses burning softly. We trade
our hungers for hearth, for the clank and hiss
of warmth. Small fires, these, but even we,
in our clamorous poverty, demand pleasure:
steal sugar, our neighbor’s flowers, and never,
ever are caught thankless in better weather.

– Ted Kooser

Irvington 259

May we indeed never be caught thankless in better weather – or in better years. Will we remember this one and recall all that we avoided, the many “dangers, toils and snares” through which we came? I hope so – and that we store up our small pleasures to remember as we recall our struggle as well.

{#winterlight: come & …see}

Though I started wearing contact lenses when I was sixteen, for a ten year period, my glaucoma – and its associated drugs – changed too frequently to make that comfortable or realistic. But, finally, things settled and stabilized, and in March of this year I ordered my first pair in a long, long time… which was subsequently delayed in arrival until …yesterday. I put them in with glee!

…And then realized I could see the dust in the corners of my house much, much more clearly.

Yay?

All of this put me in mind of the Advent poem my friend Andi shared with our poetry group this past weekend.

Making the House Ready

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice; it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

– Mary Oliver

I love this poem – because more than anything else, it reminds me that nothing we do is ever complete – and we are surrounded by opportunity we might miss if we rush to make ready for “the important stuff.” Perhaps nothing is more important than now? Perhaps nothing is more vital than saying “come in” to whatever gift it is that is knocking? Today, I greet the opportunity to read with my new contact lenses – and ignore the dust in the corners for one more afternoon.

{#winterlight: a beginning in poetry}

Most Decembers, I try and begin the festive season with poetry – to wean myself from chronic irritation with the counterfeit emoting and urgent commercial requirements of celebration which cause me stress instead of serenity. This year, however, has thus far resisted my efforts… so, I’m going to start over. Not with December — God forbid, this month has been fraught enough — I’m simply starting over with my… sense of the season. I’m waiting, open-handed, in expectation of something – whether wonder or quiet or curiosity or restfulness – to swirl and settle onto me.

Tonight is the longest night – and after will come First Light.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

{if we mention ethnicity, is the whole novel about race?}

A little over a month ago, author Linda Sue Park guest-posted at the School Library Journal blog A Fuse #8 Production about default identification in book reviewing. It’s a piece which caused me to interrogate, as a writer, my often overly careful attempts to indicate the race of a character. Many people felt squeamish and uncomfortable after Kirkus Reviews’ 2016 decision to identify the racial identity of all characters in their book reviews, arguing that race should only be mentioned if it was “important” to the story. But, what’s “important” mean, in that context? One of the odder – odder to me, anyway – comments I’ve heard repeatedly about books of mine is that the Black people aren’t as easily identifiable as Black as they “should” be.

Reche Canyon 95

Honestly, I’ve never known how to respond to that.

It’s a failure of imagination when one cannot ascribe characteristics of all kinds to Black and Brown people, a blind spot when one can only see people of any sort as inhabiting one narrow space in our society. The idea that there are “shoulds” attending any human being is problematic in itself, but what troubled me more was that maybe I wasn’t doing something right. Maybe the problem was… me.

In media which defaults to white as the norm for culture, behavior, and appearance, some people tend to be uneasy when race is brought up. Until recently, it wasn’t, much. Race itself, to that point of view, is obviously A Problem. If we simply don’t point out problems, everyone is happier, right? Except for the marginalized people who would, inevitably, disappear beneath the weight of the default, if we were not deliberate in making clear that they exist and they matter. So, here we are, making everyone uncomfortable, dragging in race, and making everything “too heavy-handed.”

Irvington 473

…What brings these musings to mind, you ask? I received editorial notes today. I’m going to be sitting with them for a long time. Of course, I have to sit with my notes every single time, every single book, because that’s part of the work, but this time the sitting is troubling. For the first time, after reading Linda’s piece, I identified the ethnicity of all of the characters in the book, not with subtle descriptions but using the words white and Black. It took effort and attention because I’ve not done it before, and because I was raised in the same default as everyone else. It felt like constantly lifting a bedskirt to expose the dust bunnies beneath the bed – something one shouldn’t do, because what lies beneath clearly isn’t quite kosher. This hesitancy, this difficulty alone convinces me that naming and claiming clearly is something I need to do.

NOBODY – least of all me – IS A RACE EXPERT (except if you have a PhD or something, and that’s your life’s work, in which case, I bow to that expertise). I don’t have expertise in having hard conversations about race with people – I tend to avoid unkind people and situations rather than confronting them. And, I know wholly that if something doesn’t come through in a text, it is almost always on the writer, not the reader, to repair and revise and communicate and do better. And yet, I wonder if merely mentioning race causes some readers to don a pair of brown-colored glasses and see everything through its lenses, and thus ruin the whole story. Certainly the misunderstandings of the characters, their motivations, and their concerns that I’ve read smacks me right between the eyes and tells me that I have a lot of work to do.

I… admit that I’m struggling, and the struggle is painful. Everyone hates to be misunderstood – so, so much, but… How much of an “explanatory comma,” as Code Switch puts it, does a writer owe their readers? How much do we explain, and how much do we let go? How often can we say, “No, that doesn’t mean…” before we’re shifting the whole story so it doesn’t make anyone unhappy?

{sensitivity, cultural portrayal, and revisions}

A morning near the end of the last gasp of my revision:

It’s been an interesting process to me with my newest work in progress to use a sensitivity reader in conjunction with a publishing company. While I have used one before – a previous manuscript included me hiring someone from The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) to check out a black character with albinism – I’ve never had one paid for by someone other than me, nor have I ever dipped into trying to portray a culture wholly other than my own. My other character was black – I can write a black person of at least similar class and education as my own. Writing someone from an Asian culture with which I thought I was familiar has been a revelation. My reader was positive – I hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but I hadn’t been more than not disappointing.

Balboa Park 63

Cultural representation is …tricky.

What we may think of as just… tchotchkes in someone’s house, for instance, might be a representation of cultural pride. What we might assume is just a stereotype of ‘everyone from this place eats this food,’ may be, in fact, another touchstone that connects a people to a place of importance to them, their parents, their grandparents, and generations back. Shoes left outside? That’s what people do. Also what I found out? What I thought was going to be a slam dunk… isn’t.

I’m grateful for my reader’s direct words. She was straightforward and helpful – but I find I’m smarting a bit that I’m not as smart about this as I thought I’d be. I’ve never served as a sensitivity reader – the potential for emotional labor and the recoil from a bad rep and a tone deaf author is REAL – but someone bravely and graciously stepped up to the plate for me, and I’m so grateful to this person I want to send them flowers. Reading for cultural representation is a difficult job.

Balboa Park 62

Because what is cultural representation, really, but a collection of… little details that are nearly imperceptible to outsiders? It’s hard to put a finger on, hard to define, hard to say “THIS” is cultural rep done right, and “THIS” is not… because everyone’s personal culture, expectations, educational levels, class and aspirational class is wildly variant. For instance: I grew up in a home with the Ten Commandments on the wall – and a framed copy of “Amazing Grace,” while other black Americans grew up with photographs on the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr., “black Jesus,” the Lord’s Prayer, and during the holidays, “black Santa.” We were vegetarian in the 80’s when few people were, and my parents were vegan off and on in our lives – so while I’ve never had fried chicken, have no particular opinions on potato salad, baked mac and cheese and dislike bbq sauce, I’ve had tofu and vegetarian gumbo my whole life. We were discouraged from using slang or swearing, but had a family… shorthand dialect of things probably only we said. I have some family members who can fall into African American Vernacular English with ease, and some who have no intuitive understanding of its rules.

Balboa Park 17

I know that some people – and I’ve seen sweeping statements like this routinely on social media – don’t believe that a black character can be correctly portrayed if they do not eat the “right” foods, use AAVE, and have none of the “right” pictures. And yet… not only were those images not in my house, they were absent in the home of my maternal grandmother as well. (My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had… hundreds of porcelain roosters, a prayer card Jesus looking kind of emaciated, and sad clowns on velvet in the bathroom… her cultural aesthetic being another blog post ENTIRELY.)

Writing a cultural representation which would feel “normal” to me would have walls crammed with bad family photos and a couple of religious touchstones, but nothing representative of “black America,” exactly, except… a washboard. My great-grandmother’s washboard, which she still used well into the time when people had washers, hangs as a reminder of the extreme poverty of the past, but the assurance that one can manage. At least, that’s what I take it to be – a reminder that Miss Emily made do with her own two hands. Is that properly “black?” Is that Americana? Cultural representation is personal – and specific. And honestly? There is no way to get it right for everyone. NONE. There is nothing that will protect the writer from criticism and disappointing someone.

That is quite a thing to sit with, friends.

Balboa Park 54

So, we sit with it.

And then, we take the word of the lived experiences of others and spoon in generous helpings of their good sense, and … leap alone into the ether from there.

Now all of my own nitpicky little revisions have been laid to rest, and today I embark on the most difficult ones of all… And yet? Looking more closely and trying to see through a cultural lens just provides opportunity to lean in… and open my eyes wider. I am grateful to my reader for another chance to get it (closer to, in the neighborhood of, adjacent to) right.

{the miraculous is relative}

“The miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”