It (Finally) Feels Like Christmas

I’m giving thanks that we don’t have to go through this for another year. Except we do, because those bastards went and put Christmas right in the middle, just to punish us.”     –Home for the Holidays

Let’s be honest.  The holidays, for the most part, suck.
It all starts with Thanksgiving – a day of gross overindulgence that requires days of planning, preparing, cooking and not a little money.  Families that don’t normally see each other on a day-to-day basis are suddenly thrown into someone’s inevitably too-small house where the children are grumpy and insistent, the adults are working on getting drunk or bickering, and the pets are consistently in the way and under foot.  The sink piles up with dishes.  The men are shouting at the television.  The women busy themselves with family gossip and eating cake.  If you’re lucky, everyone gets out alive with their relationships still intact.
But maybe that’s just my experience.  Maybe everyone else has a Leave It To Beaver holiday experience.  But even in that family, the Beav was forced to deal with Wally, and I have strong suspicions that Mrs. Cleaver was a closet alcoholic.
Unfortunately, it’s not only Thanksgiving that we have to survive.  If it were, well then, hell…that could be doable.  One day?  I can do that in my sleep.  But no, we are not so lucky.  Because, as Adele in Home for the Holidays so aptly puts it, “those bastards went and put Christmas right in the middle, just to punish us.”  Punish us, indeed.  Every year, I hear people complain about how commercial it’s all becoming, how the stores start playing that dreaded Christmas music too early, how stressed out they are.  People have been complaining about the same things for years.  Maybe even since the first Christmas.  I mean, it had to be stressful for those three wise men to find just the right gifts, travel to an inevitably too-small house, and spend time with people they barely knew.  And here we are, thousands of years later, suffering the same fate.  Only we get the added annoyance of being forced to listen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer five hundred times in three weeks.
Still…I woke up this morning with butterflies in my stomach.  It’s the 22nd of December, just three days till Christmas.  And even though the decorations have been up since Thanksgiving and the presents have been wrapped and under the tree for a week, it wasn’t until this morning that I began to feel a little excited about the holiday.  Oddly enough, today is the day that I have a zillion things to do.  Most of it cooking.  And for reasons I can’t explain, it is the cooking itself that makes the season joyful.  The decorating is fun and looks nice, the present buying and wrapping is fun too, but there’s something about cooking for my family that feels like true giving.  It’s true that I could save myself some time by going to the grocery store and buying cakes surrounded by molded plastic and loaves of bread in plastic sleeves.  But there is something grand about flour on the floor and the smell of things made from scratch in the oven.
In this age of made-up families, those consisting primarily of friends and partners who know us better than our actual families ever will, it is especially important to give something of ourselves.  Not just presents carefully selected or time spent in front of the television rooting on a common favorite team, but something that says, “Hey.  I have history with you. And even though I don’t really know you, really know you, you are important to me.”  Maybe spaghetti sauce and meatballs made from scratch or bread rolled by my hands is not enough.  The kids will still be grumpy and insistent, the adults will still be working on getting drunk and bickering, and the pets will still be underfoot.  But, for me, the food I place on the table for my family speaks volumes.  And I know that, for a few moments at least, their enjoyment of it will erase the stress and tension of the season.

Do You Know Jack Pendarvis?

For a bibliophile and writer, there are many advantages to living in a literary town.  Not the least of which is having a built in group of people with whom one can talk about books and writing.  I participate in these conversations all the time with friends and acquaintances and even, sometimes, complete strangers.  It would be a reasonable expectation that I, on occasion, have something to offer in these conversations.  And, occasionally, I do.  But most often, the conversation looks a lot like the one I just has this past Monday night.

Girl’s night in Oxford, Mississippi generally involves drinks and nonstop chatter about writers, writing, reading and publishing – at least, with my girlfriends it does.  Since we are all writers and former students at the University of Mississippi, and since we have a hard time finding people willing to indulge our obsession with words outside of Oxford, we try to get together once or twice a year to gorge ourselves on word talk.  Monday night, I walked into City Grocery, Oxford’s most literary bar only because it happens to be where Oxford’s writers tend to hang out.  The girls were in mid sentence about something when I arrived, the last to the gathering.  They each stood in their turn, giving me hugs and smiles, as we did the hello-how-are-you-how-have-you-been dance that we do once or twice every year.  Then we all sat back down and the conversation resumed.

“So, anyway, Jack is obviously vying for the Barry Hannah role,” said one girl who writes both fiction and poetry.

“Jack who?” I wanted to know.  The true poet in the group looked at me like I was from another planet.

“Pendarvis” she said, as if that should mean something to me.

“Who’s that?”

The reactions were a mixture of disbelief and excitement.  They all started talking at the same time.  “You know…he’s been the writer-in-residence here for years.” “He wrote that book, Awesome.” “He has that blog with the funny title, what’s that blog called?  Oh yeah.  The Place Where Jack Pendarvis Has a Blog.” “He’s kind of average height, brown hair, you have to know who we’re talking about.”

I didn’t.  And this is nothing new in my life.  For someone who fancies herself a writer, I am oblivious to who’s hot.  I’m oblivious to even those that are luke-warm.  It’s not that I haven’t tried to remedy myself of this embarrassing deficiency.  I have.  I scan the web for lists of books that I “should” be reading.  I ask friends in-the-know for suggestions.  I hear about blogs devoted to the very subject all the time.  But somehow, I forget the name of the author I just heard about who wrote that really great book about something I can’t recall and, truthfully, I’m too busy with my own blog to spend too terribly much time reading other’s people’s blogs.  And this is a fault.  I’m aware of that.  And I’m working on it.

It’s not that I don’t read, mind you.  I’m reading all the time.  It’s just the relatively new, up and coming writers that I can’t seem to stay on top of.  And it’s no wonder.  According to the WorkProduct blog, there are something like 100,000 new English language novels published every year.  If you say, okay, I’m only going to read contemporary literature (from 1975 to today, for example) – that’s 3.5 million novels to read before the end of the decade (15 days to go and counting).  If you don’t quite make it, go ahead and add another 100,000 books to the list.

Score one for my ignorance.

Still, I need to be more proactive in attempting to read at least the books that are making some sort of splash in the literary world.  A splash that it would seem everyone knows about but me.  And really, I’m just talking about fiction here.  The same dynamic lives and breathes, like a daunting monster in the closet, in the poetry and creative nonfiction worlds.  What’s a girl to do?  I suppose I could buy a book a week from Square Books – but even that doesn’t guarantee that I’m getting the most bang for my buck.  Because, let’s face it.  I don’t want to read crap.  And there’s a lot of crap out there.  Make no mistake.  Even some of the splash-makers are crap.  In fact, it could be that most of them are.  I wouldn’t know because, as I’ve already admitted, I have no idea who the splash-makers are.

So here’s where I attempt to make the internet work for me.  If you have a tried and true method of staying on top of the latest, greatest books out there (fiction, nonfiction, poetry), pulease share!  Here’s your opportunity to stamp out ignorance and illiteracy, to save the future of print publications and thousands of starving puppies, to finally make the world a prettier, happier place.  Or, at the very least, give me something to talk about at the next Oxford Ladies Poetry Society.

The Search for the Perfect Book

“Today you are you!  That is truer than true!  There is no one alive who is you-er than you!”
— Dr. Seuss

The holiday season is upon us, whether we like it or not.  I’ve gotten off to a late start this year.  Late for me – a person who generally has holiday cards in the mail the day before Thanksgiving and all gifts purchased and ready for wrapping by the first of December.  Today is the 12th of December.  The cards just went out a couple of days ago and only half of the gifts have arrived from the various online locations from where they were purchased.  I haven’t done the dreaded Black Friday mall-walk for many, many years.  What’s the point?  Most things are cheaper online anyway.  And they’ll usually ship things to your house for free.  Why go out in freezing cold weather and wrestle with a harried woman over the last just-released-director’s-cut-of-fillintheblank-movie?  I pre-ordered that film a month ago online.

Tonight, my kitchen table is strewn with bubble wrap, brightly colored wrapping paper, rolls of scotch tape and countless ribbons and bows.  The gifts (the ones that have arrived) have been removed from their cardboard boxes, the plastic wrapping taken off and set to the side for filling in the spaces between breakables and gift box.  The tree is lit.  The fire is roaring in the wood stove.  And the moment has finally come, the one that I wait for every year.
You could say that I’m a bibliophile.  I love books.  What’s more, I love searching the web for that perfect book.  The book that I know the person I’m buying it for doesn’t know that they want or need, but will cherish for years to come.  That’s not an easy thing to do, let me tell you.  I’ve made many missteps along the way.  And most of the time, I end up with a book the receiver enjoys and appreciates – but to find the cherished book…that’s the oft missed goal.  Although, I can usually approximate how close I am by the inscription that best fits the book selected.
Generally, the mark of a perfect book boils down to the perfect inscription.  Some books call out for lines of poetry to be written on the inside cover.  Others need the words of great philosophers or novelists or even phrases written in a foreign language.  And when that happens, I know that I’ve found a good book that will say something or mean something to the receiver at the time.  But that will be all.  It will be a book that marks time.  A book that, years later when the person who received it finds it again, dusty and neglected on their bookshelf, will think, “Oh yes.  I remember what was happening that year.”  Other books are nearly impossible to find inscriptions for because, let’s face it, if a book doesn’t call out for an inscription of some sort – any sort – it’s probably not a good book in the first place.  But the book that demands an inscription that recalls childhood is the book that will be cherished forever.  Because it is not tied to any one event, rather, it is tied to possibility and innocence.  It is tied to an idea of a life.
This year, I think I just may have found that perfect book.  I know this book is the book because there is only one inscription that will do.  That inscription comes from the incomparable Dr. Seuss.  It’s happened only a few times in my book-giving years, but I’ve found that when a book calls out for a line or two from Dr. Seuss, it is as close to the perfect book as I’m ever going to get.

On Heat and Water

So, this is exactly what I’m talking about.  I woke early this morning to put final comments on some poems for a community workshop I’ve been trying to attend for months.  I finally had all my ducks in a row: I had written a new poem for the workshop, I had diligently read and re-read the other participants’ poems, I had commented intelligently and awoken early to get ready.
And then.  The propane company called to say they would be there at 10 o’clock to fill my desperately empty tank.  The same time the workshop was scheduled to begin.  Okay.  I have to have heat.  I mean, I live in Mississippi and all, but it still gets pretty darn cold here at night.  So, no problem.  I’m committed. I call the workshop leader, tell her I’ll be late – but I’ll be there.
And then.

My trusty propane technician busted a joint on a water line while trying to light the pilot on the hot water heater…which is located upstairs and directly above my kitchen.  While I was running around finding pots and bowls to catch the water and covering the quickly growing pools of water on the floor with towels, I couldn’t help but laugh at how life gets in the way of even the best laid plans.  Once again, I called the workshop leader to inform her that I would not, after all, be making it to this morning’s workshop.
The propane people have left with a promise to repair the ceiling that will have to be completely torn out and replaced.  The fans are pointed to the floor, drying the remnants of our little indoor rain shower.  And I have thirty minutes before I have to leave to pick up a friend at the airport.  
But, you know what?  I’m smiling.  I’m smiling because I’m learning a very important lesson right now.  Even though I missed the workshop, even though I had intended to spend a couple of hours working on an essay that has a deadline fast approaching and was unable to, even though I didn’t get to hear my peers’ feedback on the new poem I wrote – I’m writing now.  Right now.  With 15 minutes left before my trip to the airport, I’m writing.  And what’s more, I couldn’t wait for the guys who created this mess to leave so that I could sit down and write.  Even if only for a few minutes.
We all need heat and water – even if it’s falling from the ceiling and dripping into our great-aunt’s antique tea cups.  Especially when it’s falling from the ceiling.  We need it like writers need words and a reminder that, well, shit happens.  Work around it.  Keep at it.  Never, ever, ever stop.

Too-Too-Too-Too Much Time on My Hands

Okay.  It’s officially been six months since leaving my tenure-track position at Delta State University where I loved working with students, hated the bureaucracy, and barely had a moment to breathe – let alone write something.  Since then, I’ve had good intentions.  Words have been slowly creeping back into my head.  My eyes are gradually readjusting to actually seeing what’s in front of me.  When I was overseas a couple of months ago, I actually wrote something new.  Whoop di doo!

As the year (and, let’s face it, the decade) comes to a close, I’m beginning to feel some pressure.  And it’s coming from inside.  By the grace of all that is good in this universe, I’m blessed with people in my life who, just by their very nature, give me ample time and space.  No one has asked what I’m working on or, that dreaded question, “How’s your writing going?”  Not one person has said, “Hey!  What have been doing for the past six months??”  Thank god.  Because if I had to answer that question honestly, I’d be forced to admit that I haven’t done much of anything but think about what I should be doing.

Well, alright.  That’s not totally fair.  The first two months of my “writing life” were taken up with packing up the old house and moving in to the new one.  Then, of course, the dreaded renovation, that was supposed to last eight weeks but is already into week thirteen and counting, began.  I travelled some.  Smoked a lot.  Put out some feelers for “future” projects and started blogging.  But I had a conversation with a friend the other evening that has me thinking.  This friend, wise and serene by all outward accounts, suddenly stated that she was unhappy with her life.  If only, she said, she could quit her job.  Then she would finally have the time to do all those things she’s always wanted to do.  Like what, I asked.  Oh, you know.  Meditate. Read. Write. Take Yoga. Play Piano.  That kind of stuff.  Ah.  Yes.  That kind of stuff.  Basically – everything that was on my own list when I left teaching.

I’ve accomplished none of those things.  And while the writing is beginning to come, painfully slowly, the rest of my list sits and collects dust.  I’m forced to wonder if time is really, in the end, what we need.  I want to go back to my grad school days when I was living art.  I mean, really eating, sleeping, dreaming art.  The writing was always there.  My camera was always out.  I attended every reading, read voraciously, and barely uttered a sentence that didn’t have something to do, in one way or another, with poetry.  Even the meditation group I belonged to (and regularly attended) was centered on writing.  I don’t know.  Maybe I was obnoxious back then.  But I was connected to something, some muse (if you’ll forgive the drama), that I lost along the way.

For several years now, I’ve been blaming my lack of creativity on the fact that, after finishing my MFA, I entered a PhD program in American literature.  The creative brain does not survive well in a critical environment.  Or so I told myself.  Then, after the PhD, it was the job.  My first job centered primarily on teaching literature.  Not creative at all, I said.  So I left that job and took another that centered primarily on teaching poetry.  Hmmm.  That didn’t work either.  And so here I sit.  With nothing but time and a blank screen.

I don’t think it’s time that we need.  I think it’s focus.  Too much time means too many options.  What shall I do today?  Oh, I don’t know.  Well, there’s always laundry and dishes to do.  The animals need feeding and attention.  The bills have to be paid and, would you look at that?  Those files are in complete disarray!  After that, well, I need to attend to my relationships – so I’ll spend some time on Facebook commenting on people’s walls so they know I’m thinking about them.  Maybe I’ll have lunch with so-and-so or drinks with the girls.  It’s actually quite easy to get to the end of the day and look back and have absolutely no idea what you did.  Even though you were doing something at every possible moment.  And I’m not even a TV watcher.  And I don’t like BonBons.

So, here is the solution of the day.  I’m going to attempt (NO) – scratch that – I am going to write something on this blog every day until the end of the year.  Yes, I know that’s only 23 days.  But one must start somewhere!  It will be a challenge because the holiday is quickly approaching and I have travel plans and guests arriving and a party to throw.  But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  There is always something else to do.  There will forever be something else to do.

Consider it my own little NaNoWriMo – only I’m not nearly ambitious enough to even try to write a novel.  For now, at least, I’ll settle with dribble.

The Sanctity of the Sanctuary

Today I’m in Salamanca, Spain.  The churches here are 13th through 17th century and absolutely amazing.  From the outside.  Now, I’ve been in enough 500 year old churches to have some idea of what’s inside.  Flying buttresses.  Michelangelo-esque paintings on the ceiling.  Spectacularly-sustained stained glass windows.  But I find my attempt to take a peek at history blocked by the inevitable TURISMO NO signs that grace the 40-foot door entrances.  And that has me perplexed.
Even though I’m not a church-going individual, when I think of churches I always think of safety and sanctity – unlocked doors at all hours of the night and a place to run, screaming “SANCTUARY” when being chased by an angry mob or the police.  I think of the one remaining place in the world where all are welcomed, for any reason, at any time.  It appears something has changed.  And for some reason, this saddens me.
Sure, it’s probably a bit uncouth to be snapping pictures in the church sanctuary (an activity I myself am guilty of doing…see above).  But I can’t help but feel that churches of this sort (the hundreds of years old sort) have an obligation to history as well as to God.  And surely more sacrilegious things have been done in and to churches.  I mean, if Maastrict, Netherlands can turn a centuries old cathedral into a bookstore, what’s the harm in allowing tourists to come flocking through with their cameras?  I’ve seen these “evil tourist types” in churches before.  Always quiet.  Always respectful.  Always in awe of the presence which surrounds them.  It’s not like the black-eyelined, leather-boot wearing, pierced and tattooed type are likely to step foot in there.  Myself excluded, of course.  Being just that type.  But even I, marked and jaded, carry a heavy dose of respect and gratitude when entering any sanctuary…500 years old or 1.
I suppose I can see their point.  Churches are a place of worship for those who believe.  They remain a sanctuary for their parishioners.  But one must wonder if the cause of the current trent toward the death of churches isn’t perhaps due, in some part, to the Church’s modern-day exclusivity?  When the Church begins closing its doors to the passersby, eventually passersby will stop coming in.