A Reading Fast

For a variety of reasons, I have an uncommonly high stack of books and magazines waiting to be read. All recent acquisitions, all personal choices I look forward to savoring. And it’s the perfect time of year to spend days in a good book. Weather is iffy, garden is sleeping, and holidays are for kicking back.

What timing, then, to be assigned a week of no reading! No books, no magazines, no morning paper. No NPR. No books on tape or listening to the news.

“If you feel stuck in your life or in your art, few jump starts are more effective than a week of reading deprivation.” So says Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way. I had been following her program for a few weeks, and came onto this assignment just as Christmas preparation was settling down enough for me to tackle my book pile.

Why reading deprivation? “The nasty bottom line is this: sooner or later, if you are not reading, you will run out of work and be forced to play.” Or, I would add, you will run out of excuses not to write and be forced to “show up at the page.” Play, dream, refill the creative well from which you draw. And then show up at the page, or the canvas, or the forge.

Reading deprivation is a form of fasting. I recall that Lauren Winner (Girl Meets God) describes a reading fast assigned to her one Lent. Six weeks is a long time; surely I can do a week.

On Sunday, Deacon John came down from the pulpit during his sermon on gratitude and wandered the aisle to give parishioners the opportunity to express their gratitudes. Grandchildren, children, spouses, the church community or particular members of it. As I listened to, and seconded, these and others, I was trying to articulate another thought. Only later did I get the words in place. One of the post-eucharistic prayers has the clause, “send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” I am grateful for that work, in all its many forms.

I will not try to explain the “how” of The Artist’s Way (TAW). I must try, however, to explain the “why.” Because if you go to the website, you will come away with the mistaken impression that TAW is another self-help program—a formula for pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps of will and determination. But if you read the book carefully, you will see that the program and its disciplines are founded not on will but on submission; on a belief that creativity is an ongoing act by the Creator, and that we are, once the blocks are cleared away, participants in this creative process. The disciplines—morning pages and artist dates and reading deprivation—like any spiritual disciplines, help to place us in the way of grace so that we can recognize and respond to it. They open us up so that we become channels for God’s creativity to flow through us.

And with that understanding of creativity, we see that it is not limited to “the creative arts.” This creative energy flows through all “the work you have given us to do.” Through my gardening and singing and child care. Through playing with my grandchildren, selecting Christmas gifts for my children, caring for an elderly parent. Through attending to the needs of my family and myself. Through housework and the work of being in relationship. Through improving this website and writing this blog.

So, how was my week of reading deprivation? I am happy to report that I only cheated a tiny bit; I took a few brief internet research excursions and glanced at a few headlines, but left my reading pile untouched and my news feeds unread. I did play; discovering some lovely music by local singer-songwriter, Jennifer Niceley. And I did “show up at the page” more often.  One prayer in the book goes, Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity, you take care of the quality.

There Must Be A Reason

I am an economist by training, and somewhat by temperament. I understand the concepts of self interest and incentives. I understand the profit motive. I understand why Rachel keeps calling me. You do know Rachel, don’t you?

“Hi, this is Rachel at Cardholder Services. There is not problem with your card, but … “ [click] I have never heard the rest of her spiel, but she keeps trying.

We’d thought to get rid of our landline, because Rachel was practically our only caller on it. Then she began calling our cell phones, from local numbers. Do Not Call lists to the contrary, no phone is safe from Rachel. She even recently called our landline FROM ITS OWN NUMBER. At least, that’s what showed up on Caller ID.

Someone invests time and money and creative energy to get me to answer when Rachel calls. Why? Because someone else out there is buying into whatever she is selling! They keep trying because there is profit in it. Because it works. Why send out tons of junk mail? Because it works.

So I am sure there is an economic rationale for the phenomenon I call Annoy the Customer Marketing. There is probably a whole academic literature on the topic: PhDs in marketing awarded on clever theoretical models explaining why my grocery store moved the Hawaiian Bread 15 yards away from the bakery section into the middle of the meat department; Masters theses prompting a leading big box store to split its inventory of desk calendars into thirds and locate them at random around the store; graduate courses teaching the profit potential in noise pollution: Add un-mutable TVs to the gas pumps; replace towels with deafness-inducing hand blasters in public restrooms; crank up the volume of in-store music to headache levels. Watch your profits soar!

It’s unseemly to be so curmudgeonly here at Christmas time. Merry Christmas, Rachel. Season’s Greetings. Happy Holidays. I wish you well.

Are You Ready … ?

My non-scientific survey suggests that the most common greeting this time of year is not “Merry Christmas,” but “Are you ready for Christmas?”

Is your tree up? Are your garlands and wreaths hung? Are your wireframe reindeer nodding and your blowup Santa bobbing in the wind?

Is your shopping done, the gifts wrapped and shipped (or hidden from curious children and pets)? Are your cards mailed, your invitations delivered, your party eats and drinks laid in the larder? Are the guest beds made, or the travel tickets purchased?

Have you procured the turkey (or ham), the cranberries and yams, the rolls and relish, the beans and beets, the pumpkin pie? Are the table linens ironed, the yule log laid, the scented candles burning? Have you bought your party dress?

It’s a formidable list. And I am sure I remember someone asking me that question the Monday after Thanksgiving. Am I ready? Of course I am n…  Well, wait! Maybe I am.

Time was, I spent many hours Christmas shopping for my family—extended lunch hours and afternoons off from work wandering book stores and toy stores and department stores and hardware stores. Happy hours for the most part. I enjoyed the looking, at least until the pressure of unfilled stockings and the approaching big day began to accumulate between my shoulder blades. More than once, I settled for a book that I had enjoyed, in hopes that my teenage son would find a similar pleasure or inspiration in it.

But as our children grew older and moved away, the drive to pile presents under the tree gave way to the convenience and fungibility of a check written out on Christmas Eve. As the number of people around the Christmas table shrunk year by year, so too did the complexity of the meal.

Xmas Tree-Wreath1We’d already simplified the decorating. We use an artificial tree. No need to argue the merits—tradition and aesthetics vs. convenience and cost. Allergies to conifers dictate the artificial route. The pre-lit tree is half-way done when unwrapped from its 11-month slumber, and the other major elements are similarly quick to unwrap and hang. We have foregone the Christmas card tradition, abandoned the annual newsletter, and rarely entertain, seasonal or not.

The upshot is that I could almost respond, Yes, to the question of the season, even on the Monday after Thanksgiving. Yes, give or take a few hours.

Why? Why the countercultural approach to Christmas? We are not Scrooges, contemptuous of the season. We are not hair-shirt, it’s-Advent-until-late-on-the-24th types; in fact we bemoan the tiny, less-than-12-days window in which our church lets the carols sparkle between the Advent and Epiphany hymns. Nor are we militant about keeping the secular out of the religious holiday.

Lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe, however, that we are making conscious decisions to have a merry, not a madding, Christmas. We have watched friends and family driven by the season, and decided early on to enjoy it, not be consumed by it.

This year, however, I find myself wandering book stores and hardware stores and big boxes again. I baked cookies yesterday. Gluten-free cookies. Just for the fun of it. Just for Nancy and me. Maybe it has something to do with having grandkids. Even though we probably will not see them during the holidays, I have an urge to see packages under the tree.

Am I ready? Well, I wouldn’t mind finding another gift for one or two of those on my list. We are expecting some company, and I haven’t decided what to serve. The guest beds are not made, the floors not vacuumed, the de-cluttering not done. But if you jiggered the calendar and it was suddenly Christmas Eve, I’d be OK with that. I am ready.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Seasons Greetings.

A Hamster’s Christmas

Recently found in a remote corner of my hard drive:

Humans think they are so smart and we hamsters are simple-minded.  Humbug!  I sleep all day, play and eat and poop and pee all night.  They clean my cage and feed me and supply fresh water.  Tell me, who’s the smart one?  

And my family is still wondering where I spent last Christmas!  To them, it’s a great mystery.  It’s no big deal, really.  I was bored, the Big S needed help, so I took a vacation … a working vacation … to the North Pole.

I was jogging on my treadmill and had just taken a break to gnaw enamel off the cage bars when this elf popped up on the other side of the bars.  Yep, a real elf — green suit, pointy hat, the whole bit — singing his own tacky, made-up words to the familiar tune.

“Snowball, with your teeth so tough, won’t you help us out of the rough?”

Turns out that big operation at the North Pole had almost ground to a halt for lack of cutters.  For ribbons and wrapping paper and such.  And the Big S had heard of me and my fine cutters.  I guess my sleek white coat didn’t hurt either.  I’m a natural for all that snow.

Anyway, Elvis (that’s what he said his name was, cross my heart) was practically begging me on bended knee to come on up the North Pole and help them out.  

“Please, Snowball!  We need you, Snowball!  You’re our last hope, Snowball!”

Honestly!  He was laying it on thick.

I can’t say much about my time away — trade secrets, they claim. But we got the job done. And those elves do know how to party after a hard day’s work! I was so worn out, getting back to my treadmill was a relief. 

Silly humans! They’ll never figure it out. 

Some may doubt parts of this story.  This much is certain.  On December 20, 2003, Jay’s hamster cage was found open and empty.  On December 26, Snowball was back in her cage.  No trace of her missing week was ever found in the house — no nest, no chewings, no pee, no poop, no evidence of stolen food.

Advent, So Far

We are a third of the way through December and halfway through Advent, and the fall leaf show keeps on coming. On this morning’s walk with Mona, I saw two different Japanese maples, only half denuded; their fallen drapery carpeting the ground underneath with the same scarlet as that remaining on their limbs. Farther down the street, bright yellow adorned a tree I cannot identify. Nor could the lady of the house, out retrieving her morning paper.

Apparently, we are not very social; the holiday busyness others brag/complain of has never afflicted us in past years. This year, however, is an exception, due mostly to music groups that Nancy has joined. Her community band is busy giving concerts in nursing homes, and another group performed two sing-along presentations of “The Messiah” this past weekend. Our Sunday morning ensemble also has new music to learn.

Nancy’s now the proud owner of full-sized concert bells, a beautiful instrument weighing nearly 40 pounds, which is lugged back and forth between home and church or home and band three or more times a week. Adding in the bass drum she also uses in the band, inventing schemes for transporting musical instruments has become a major part of our lives.

As to Christmas decoration, we traditionally tend toward the church calendar more than the secular one. That is, the decorations do not go up on Thanksgiving to be taken down on the 26th. Rather, we wait until closer to Christmas, and leave them up until Epiphany. The big star is the exception. We like to get it up early in Advent. This year, like our holiday busyness, our decorating schedule is topsy-turvy. Nancy was in the attic shortly after Thanksgiving, and dragged out the Christmas stuff while she was at the other task. So the tree, the lighted wreath adorning our dining room picture window (two-sided, so attractive from indoors or out), and the twinkle lights above the door went up early. But rainy weather prevented hanging the star, which still sits on the porch. I willingly procrastinate on that task; I hate ladders.

That star is a convex sheet metal construction, 36 inches point-to-point, mounted several inches in front of a larger plywood background. A light bulb is fixed in the concavity, so what is seen from the street is the white outline of the metal star. It is a fairly large device, hanging in the peak above the second story. Three years ago, a gust of wind lifted it off its hook. I found it the next morning, quivering above the point embedded in our son’s window ledge. Lethal when flying! So I added a safety screw, driven into the siding. Hanging it now requires two trips up the ladder; one with the star, the next with the drill-driver. Did I mention that I hate ladders?

I am writing this while sitting in the waiting room of Nancy’s doctor. Little more than a year ago, I accompanied her on these trips because she was nearly immobilized. Then came bi-lateral hip joint replacement, enabling her to return to gardening and hardscaping and other physical activity. Today, I am here in my role as sherpa for the musical instruments; her band is playing for hospital staff at lunchtime. In Nancy’s return to music, to painting, to health, we have much for which to be grateful.