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Dear Friends,

It’s the day of winter solstice, the longest day of the year, and in a few days, my husband and I will awaken to the excitement of our third granddaughter’s voice as she awakens to Christmas day.   My eldest daughter, her partner and child have flown from Toronto to spend the holidays with us in San Diego.  We decorated the tree only nights ago, sifting through the boxes of ornaments, some from my childhood and others collected each year of our daughter’s lives until they had families of their own.  It’s both tradition and a source of humor that we tell the same stories each year as we hang the ornaments on the tree…but part of our family tradition is to tell those oft-repeated stories every year…at least, every year now, that we manage to share Christmas with one another.  With one daughter in Toronto and the other in Okinawa, it’s more often my husband and I who are packing up our suitcases and standing in the long lines at the airport to reach one or the other during the holidays…not the other way around.

Today, I relinquishing the usual time I spent to post my weekly prompt in favor of spending this much too precious time with my daughter and granddaughter…so for this week, I’ve “re-cycled” a post from December 2010 and offer it to you as inspiration for writing during your holidays.

To all of you who follow this blog, I wish you a joyous holiday–filled with the warmth of friends, family, and those traditions that make your holidays unique and memorable.

–Sharon

From  December 2010 :  Memories of Holidays Past

We received a Christmas card from Germany last week, a greeting from a friend of our daughter’s, reminding us of the Christmas he spent at our house, far from his British family.  I realized that it was also the last Christmas holiday that we—my daughters, husband and I—had shared the season together in one place.  It was only a year later one daughter called from Beirut to say “Merry Christmas,” and the other traveled east to Florida to meet the man who would become her husband.  Our annual holiday celebrations have been changing over the past few years.  Sometimes we’ve traveled to spend the holiday with one or the other daughter; at other times, depending on who is living where in the world, one of them has come to us.  Now, as they create their own holiday traditions with their spouses and children, we will, as we are doing this year, be joining the throngs crowding the gates at airports, hoping the weather cooperates enough to get us to our destination as planned.

It’s a bittersweet time for me.  I don’t enjoy traveling during Christmas, but there’s nothing more joyous that celebrating the holidays with my grandchildren, reading Clement Moore’s “The Night before Christmas,” baking cookies, stuffing the stockings with clever little surprises, and Christmas morning, sharing in the children’s excitement.  Yet there’s nostalgia too—memories of Christmases past.

…Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang “Cherry Ripe,” and another uncle sang “Drake’s Drum.” It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept. 

(From: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” By Dylan Thomas)

Early this week, as I drove home in the evening, the neighborhood was alive with colored lights and decorations. I pulled into our driveway, awash with memories of long ago Christmas times.  I remembered how, as a child, we’d climb into our Ford station wagon every year, driving through all over our small town to admire the display of lights and decorations.  I recalled my father’s annual trek into the snowy wilderness to cut the perfect tree, of the bubble lights and themed decorations, packages piled high beneath the branches, and Christmas day, dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles gathered together for the holiday meal, everyone singing carols.

There are other memories too—ones less romantic but every bit a part of our family’s history of Christmas traditions:  I had always wanted to be an artist, and once I reached middle school, my mother assigned me the task of painting a Christmas scene in the front picture window, ever hopeful we’d win a prize in the “best Christmas decorations” contest each year.  My artwork was colorful but untrained, and I was a little embarrassed to have my efforts on such public display.  The year my painting earned an honorable mention only served to reinforce my fear that, despite my desire to be, I wasn’t really an artist.

There was also the tradition of annual disappointment—my mother’s– when we brought home the freshly cut tree—never perfect enough to her liking, followed by the inevitable disagreement over placement of lights, and later, my father’s failed attempts to bring home the “right” present for his critical wife.  These things became, although none of us liked them, part of our family’s holiday traditions just as the carols, hanging our stockings or opening gifts on Christmas mornings.  They have become part of the stories we tell—and re-tell—every December as we decorate our tree.

As children, we knew there was more to it -
Why some men got drunk on Christmas Eve
Wasn’t explained, nor why we were so often
Near tears nor why the stars came down so close,

Why so much was lost. Those men and women
Who had died in wars started by others,
Did they come that night? Is that why the Christmas
tree
Trembled just before we opened the presents?

There was something about angels. Angels we
Have heard on high Sweetly singing o’er
The plain. The angels were certain. But we could not
Be certain whether our family was worthy tonight.

(From:  “A Christmas Poem,” by Robert Bly, in Morning Poems,1998)

Whatever your beliefs or religious practices,  holidays are filled with our familial traditions of celebration.  Remember the holidays you celebrated as a child or at a particularly significant time.  What memories have become part of your family lore?  What’s most vivid or poignant?  Write about holidays past—traditions you remember fondly or even the ones that you don’t.  What are your favorite stories ignited by this holiday season?

Happiest of holidays to you.

 

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‘Tis the season…or so the ads proclaim.  Drive through the streets, and houses blaze with colored lights, some garish, others more tasteful.  Walk into any store and holiday decorations abound, but by now, weeks old now, my brain has been on strike, protesting against the commercial glitter and recorded Christmas carols playing since Halloween.  Although one might say, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,” the decorations and lights enticing us to buy, buy, buy, have grown wearisome.  I have avoided malls for the past several weeks to every extent possible, knowing I will only morph into a modern-day zombie unable to make any sort of decisions about gift choices.  My holiday spirit has taken cover from the full court press of commercialism, sadly unescapable in our society.  Add to that, I live in a place, unlike the places of my childhood or Canadian years where snow isn’t visible, even in the far off mountain tops.

But take heart.  This morning I baked some pumpkin spice scones for my husband’s birthday breakfast.  The kitchen was filled with the aroma of cinnamon, sugar and nutmeg.  “It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas,” I sang as I pulled the pan of scones from the oven.  Last night, we set up our tree, ready to be decorated with our collection of ornaments, a hodge-podge of figures, shapes and colors, acquired each year of our daughter’s lives they had their children, and the tradition continues for each of our grandchildren.  The tree is fake, something we resorted to in our empty next holidays when, more often than not, we’d be traveling to spend the holidays with one or the other daughter.  I missed the smell of pine, so I placed a few pine boughs around the dining table, inhaling the fragrance and remembering the Christmases of childhood, climbing into my father’s pickup truck to head into the mountains to cut our tree.  I felt the first blush of holiday spirit.

Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.  The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard.  Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.  Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away. — Helen Keller

“The eyes have it,” we often hear, or do they?   Our ability to smell is highly linked to memory. A smell can trigger a flood of memories, influence moods and even affect work performance.   According to author Sarah Dowdey, “smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.” Smell is our oldest sense, as Tom Stafford describes in a BBC online article.  It has its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them. Smell is unique among our five senses.  Unlike the other four, smell enters directly, deep into the brain.

In the 1990 book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman writes, “Our sense of smell can be extraordinarily precise, yet it’s almost impossible to describe how something smells to someone who hasn’t smelled it…

We see only where there is light enough, taste only when we put things into our mouths, touch only when we make contact with someone or something, hear only sounds that are loud enough to hear.  But we smell always and with every breath…Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us.  We live in a constant wash of them.  Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us…

The physiological links between the smell and language centers of the brain are pitifully weak.  Not so the links between the smell and the memory centers, a route that carries us nimbly across time and distance. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them…When we give perfume to someone, we give them liquid memory.  Kipling was right:  “Smells are surer than sights and sounds to make your heart-strings crack.”

 Ah, those cracking heart strings…All it took to finally enliven my holiday spirit, after weeks of Christmas advertisements and  carols playing everywhere, was the smell of a few pine boughs and pumpkin scones baking in the oven.  Memories of Christmases past flooded into my head.  Smells were doing the work of a Christmas spirit cheerleader.  Perhaps you have similar associations with pine and cinnamon, or perhaps it’s other smells, like the ones of Hanukkah, potato latkes sizzling in the pan or chocolate gelt, unwrapped, given after spinning the dreidel. Whether Christmas or Hanukkah,  smells  may bring up childhood memories or ones more recent, one that make you smile, ones that bring tears to your eyes.  Kipling was right: “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heart-strings crack.” 

The candles flicker in the window.

Outside, ponderosa pines are tied in red bows.

If you squint,

the neighbors’ Christmas lights

look like the Omaha skyline.

 

The smell of oil is in the air.

We drift off to childhood

where we spent our gelt

on baseball cards and matinees,

cream sodas and knishes…

(From “Chanukah Lights Tonight,” by Steve Schneider, in: Prairie Air Show, 2000)

Let your nose guide you to inspiration  as you write this week.  List the smells you associate with the Christmas or Hanukkah. What memories do they invoke?  Write some.

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This past week I had lunch with my friend, Sue, both of us temporarily free of schedules that left little time for midday socializing.  Sue was my “first” friend when I moved to San Diego seven and a half years ago.  We’d met in Berkeley, when she attended my summer class on writing as a way of healing.  A gifted writer, her essays on her experience as a mother of a son fighting a war in Afghanistan, published in the , Christian Science Monitor, earned her a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize.  I knew none of that then, but when she learned I was relocating that fall, she followed up with a welcoming email and an essay she’d written about the San Diego area.  When I arrived that fall, she called and took me to an art show, featuring several local artists, some I soon got to know personally.

Sue and I lingered over lunch, recalling my first year in San Diego.  “I still think of you as a new friend,” she said, as we laughed over  shared likes and dislikes.

“Oh no,” I said, “I’m an old friend now.  It’s been more than seven years…”

“Has it been that long?”  I nodded; it had.  Time had, once again, flown by.

Our conversation  turned to the topic of friends, losing them and gaining new ones in all my many moves from California to Canada to New York, Washington and back to California.  Now as my husband and I consider a possible return, at least for half our time, to Canada, I admitted to Sue that I have mixed feelings–all because of friends.

“It’s more difficult to make new friends with each move,” I sighed.

Besides, I am well aware that as we get older, it’s friends—the ones who know you well–who make a place feel like home.  Like Bette Midler sang, we all need friends.

you got to have friends.
The feeling’s oh so strong.

You got to have friends
To make that day last long.

Despite our many moves, I’ve been lucky with friends.  Two weeks ago, Sharon, a friend from graduate school days, traveled west from New Hampshire to spend the weekend with us before heading to Silicon Valley to visit her son.  She and I were close during our doctoral study years, both of us single parents who’d elected to go back to school later in life.  In fact it was Sharon who first introduced me to John, who would, a few years later, become my husband.  Despite years apart and sometimes scant communication, she and I quickly fell into our old rhythms during her visit, shared conversations and long walks.  She remains as dear to me now as she was all those many years ago.

In two weeks, my daughter and granddaughter will be here, and Lynn, whom I met while in high school, will drive from Claremont to visit.  Lynn was always “Aunt Lynn” to my daughters, a constant presence in our lives, whether we lived in Nova Scotia, Toronto or California.  It hardly mattered.  Our friendship endured our mutual moves around the continent and periods of great physical distance between us over the years.  A phone call to Lynn was always enthusiastically received, and within a minute or two, we’d be laughing.

“The good thing about friends,” a poem by Brian Jones begins, “is not having to finish sentences” (“About Friends,” in The Spitfire on the Northern Line,1975).  Do you know that feeling?  It’s something I experience with Lynn, Sharon, or Sue, all among my dearest and most enduring friends.  Whenever we manage to pick up the telephone or meet, we’re laughing together within minutes in a conversation punctuated by unfinished sentences.   It’s a particular comfort shared with enduring friends, ones who know you by heart, who you’ve shared so much of life with and despite time and distance, can still pick up the conversation where it left off, even though you’ve not seen one another for months , sometimes years.

Friends matter in all kinds of ways.  They are important in helping us fight illness or depression.  They help us recover from illness, trauma and loss.  They celebrate our good times and offer support during the tough times.  They keep us from feeling lonely.  They often become closer than family, and they raise our spirits and keep us laughing.  No wonder friends are important in slowing down our aging process and prolonging life.  As Gail Caldwell describes finding a special friend in Let’s Take the Long Way Home, a story of her long friendship with author Gail Knapp, it’s “like placing a personal ad for an imaginary friend, then having her show up at your door funnier and better than you had conceived..”

It was those enduring friendships I thought about this morning, grateful as I remembered each person’s face, their roles in my life, and knowing how much richer my life has been because of them.  Whatever and wherever my husband and I plan for our next chapter in life, I know that there are a handful of people whose friendships that will endure no matter what.

I remember the little round learned as a  Brownie Scout so long ago:

Make new friends, but keep the old.

One is silver and the other’s gold.

Think about friends or friendship this week and try writing about them.  Here are a few suggestions.  Describe a first meeting of a dear friend or a time when you discovered a friend in someone you never thought would become so close to you.  Tell how a friend has helped you through a difficult time.  Write a praise poem about a friend or friends.  Was there a time you lost a dear friend?  Write about that.   If you had to write a definition of friendship, what would it include?  What qualities matter most to you in a friend?

Through darkness, cold, and snow,
Wherever you may go,
You bear my friendship true, you bear my friendship true.

(“Blow, blow thou winter wind,” by Anonymous)

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I had one of them last night:  a nighttime defined by restlessness, tossing and turning to get comfortable, eyeing the hands of the clock every fifteen minutes.  No matter how hard I tried, a parade of thoughts marched relentlessly through my mind.  I keep a notepad by my bed, a habit begun in college, hoping that if I jotted down the repetitive thoughts, the list of “don’t forgets,”  I could quiet my noisy brain and lull myself back to sleep.  When that failed, I tried meditating, focusing on each breath, until finally, I dozed off, only to waken an hour later and repeat the cycle.  I gave up at 5:30 a.m. and lay quietly until six, when my dog, who’s adopted my routine, stretched herself awake, ready for our early morning walk.

It happens to all of us at some time or another.  Whether it’s the result of the day’s work, worry about a loved one or the doctor’s appointment you have the next afternoon, anticipating all the day’s tasks that must be accomplished, sleep eludes you and you become a temporary insomniac.

A couple of years ago, I suffered from another of those sleepless nights, admitted defeat and got up to tiptoe into my office.  I figured that if I couldn’t sleep, I might as well get some writing done.  I discovered I was not alone.   Within minutes I received an email from a friend in the midst of treatment for metastatic breast cancer.   Unable to sleep, she had written about her illness and what it meant to be given a diagnosis of “terminal,” before sending it out on email to several of her friends.  I responded immediately, and for a time, we communicated via email—solace shared in the wee hours of morning.

Poets and writers know the darkness of early morning hours well.  Long, sleepless nights have been a theme in countless poems, stories or essays, as James Joyce’s poem, “Sleep Now, O Sleep Now,” exemplifies:

Sleep now, O sleep now,
O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying “Sleep now”
Is heard in my heart.

The voice of the winter
Is heard at the door.
O sleep, for the winter
Is crying “Sleep no more…

Charles Dickens also commented on sleepless nights, illustrating what he termed, “the duality of the brain:”

But, it happened to me the other night to be lying: not with my eyes half closed, but with my eyes wide open; not with my nightcap drawn almost down to my nose, for on sanitary principles I never wear a nightcap: but with my hair pitchforked and touzled all over the pillow; not just falling asleep by any means, but glaringly, persistently, and obstinately, broad awake. Perhaps, with no scientific intention or invention, I was illustrating the theory of the Duality of the Brain; perhaps one part of my brain, being wakeful, sat up to watch the other part which was sleepy. Be that as it may, something in me was as desirous to go to sleep as it possibly could be, but something else in me WOULD NOT go to sleep, and was as obstinate as George the Third.—(Excerpt from “Lying Awake,” by Charles Dickens.)

Sleeplessness, the New York Times’ Health Guide suggests,  “can involve difficulty falling asleep…waking up too early in the morning, or waking up often during the night…or combinations of these patterns. Everyone has an occasional sleepless night…as many as 25% of Americans report occasional sleeping problems. Chronic sleeping problems, however, affect about 10% of people. The lack of restful sleep can affect your ability to carry out daily responsibilities because you are too tired or have trouble concentrating. All types of insomnia can lead to daytime drowsiness, poor concentration, and the inability to feel refreshed and rested in the morning.”

It’s true; it’s only mid-morning as I write this post, but while my dog sleeps peacefully at my feet, I’m yawning and planning for a short afternoon nap to revive me—a habit of so-called “power napping” I developed during my corporate years and continued ever since.  Although I practice sleep inducing behaviors at night—mild exercise after supper, herbal tea, a good book–like Dickens, while one part of my brain longs for sleep, the other part is busy with random ideas, details or tasks I have before me, or, in the advent of the December holidays, a list of “to-dos” that expands daily—all contributing to my temporary life as an insomniac.  Drat!

In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love’s hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

(From “Mermaid Song” by Kim Addonizio, in Tell Me, 2000)

Do you suffer from nights where your brain refuses to be lulled into sleep?  Do you endure sleepless nights?   What thoughts or images invade your mind and keep you awake?  Do you birth poetry or prose in the darkness of the night?  Is there a period in your life when you suffered from more sleepless nights than restful ones?  Write about sleep—and sleeplessness.

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I didn’t know I was grateful

I didn’t know I was grateful
for such late-autumn
bent-up cornfields

yellow in the after-harvest
sun before the
cold plow turns it all over
into never.

(From The Unraveling Strangeness by Bruce Weigl,© 2003)

Thanksgiving week, perhaps this country’s most enduring holiday.  Weary travelers willingly stand in long lines at the airport, cram their bodies into crowded and uncomfortable cabins, or pack the trunks of their cars with suitcases to drive for hours along busy highways, all in honor of the Thanksgiving, a time of family, of remembering, and of gratitude.

Gratitude.  In a world besieged by global warming, poverty, the Ebola crisis in West Africa, terrorist attacks on innocent people, it’s hard to think about gratitude.  It’s all too easy to feel anger, frustration, or fear, emotions that can seep much too readily under our skins, and we have to consciously re-direct our attention to those things in life that keep us going, provide solace or moments of joy.   “ Count your blessings,” my mother said to me when, as a teenager, I complained about all that was wrong, like the clothes I had to wear, the  boy who didn’t return my affections, the mandatory weekend chores that came before time with my friends.  The last thing I wanted to hear from my parent was some worn out folk wisdom.

But there’s something to that old folk wisdom.  Gratitude.   “If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice,” German philosopher Meister Eckhart wrote.  Since his words, something called “happiness research” has evolved, documenting the importance of gratitude.  The scientific nature of gratitude, its causes and consequences for human health and well-being are the subjects of research by Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and his team at the University of California at Davis.  Here are some of their findings:

  • People with a strong disposition toward gratitude have a greater capacity to be empathetic toward others.
  • Grateful people report higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality and optimism.                                                .  .
  • Individuals who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, and felt more optimistic about their lives.
  • Those who kept gratitude lists were more likely to progress toward important personal goals.
  • In a group of adults with neuromuscular disease, a gratitude intervention resulted in greater energy, positive moods, more optimism, and better sleep quality.  (For the full summary, go to:  http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/)

Gratitude.  Bruce Weigl’s poem served as the prompt for this morning’s session at Scripps Cancer Center.  Cancer, like other life altering experiences, makes us more aware of those things that matter in our lives, the people, and the gifts of everyday that we realize we are deeply grateful for.

“Start with the line, “ “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” from Bruce Weigl’s poem, I said.  They wrote only for a few minutes, but the writing was poignant and strong, full of expressions of gratitude, reminding me of  poems I return to again and again.

In “Starfish,” Eleanor Lerman expresses gratitude for life and what it lets us do:

This is what life does.  It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…

…And then life lets you go home to think
About all this.  Which you do, for quite a long time.

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out.  This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…
(From:  Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)

Marilyn Nelson, in her poem “Dusting,” expresses gratitude for a simple household chore:

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
for this infernal, endless chore,
for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you.  For dust.
(From:  Magnificat, 1994)

Mary Oliver, whose descriptions of the natural world are some of poetry’s most vivid, has written more than one poem entitled “Gratitude.”  In this one, she describes walking in a field flooded with water and looking up to see a hawk.  She expresses her gratitude, bound in the act of noticing, by concluding:

There are days when the field water and the slender grasses
and the wild hawks
have it all over the rest of us
Whether or not they make clear sense, ride the beautiful
long spine of grammar, whether or not they rhyme…
(From:  West Wind and Prose Poems, 1997)

Gratitude is, I think, about pausing to remember and to notice, which is the task of remembering what, in our lives, we are grateful for, as Sam Hamill notes in his book, Lives of a Poet:  Letter to Gary Snyder (1998):         
That is the real work—
reading books or bucking wood
or washing babies—
attentive lives all our days:
the real joy is gratitude.

That’s it.  Our real joy:  gratitude.  This Thanksgiving week, take time to make your gratitude list.  Why not do as my group did this morning?  Begin with Weigl’s line, “I didn’t know I was grateful for…” and write about gratitude.

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Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania,

Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,

But you must not pronounce its name.

Tell me a story of deep delight.

By Robert Penn Warren, From: “Tell Me a Story,” in New and Selected Poems 1923-1985

November, and my thoughts always return to my father,: his chuckle, the restless twitch of his foot—a sure give-away to his impatience with household tasks assigned to him by my mother, his conspiratorial wink at a joke shared between us, his strikingly handsome face in old photographs, and the weathered face of an older man whose addiction to cigarettes could not be quelled.

My father died of lung cancer in 1992, after the Thanksgiving meal and his traditional double Jack Daniels.  His death marked the end of family as I once knew it, and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, the loss of his stories, yarns spun from his childhood, enlarged and fabricated, threads of family history woven among his tall tales.  They were the stories we begged for at bedtime.  He didn’t like to read us books.  He was a storyteller, and our nighttime dreams  colored and enlarged by the tales he told, of “Big Chief,” his horse “Pard,” of a young Navy recruit in Hawaii during World War II, or my fun-loving grandmother’s practical jokes sprung on her husband.  I remember fragments of those stories, remember how, when I became a mother, he repeated the same humorous tales to my young daughters and how I would stand, listening outside their bedroom, smiling as I heard them laughing, begging him as we had done so many years before:  “Tell us another story, Grandpa!”

Oral storytelling has been part of humanity for thousands of years.  Stories were how we made sense of the world, how we passed traditions and wisdom from one generation to another.  “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel,” author Ursula LeGuin said, “but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”

I miss those family stories, the tradition of their telling and re-telling at every gathering of my father’s large extended family.  Perhaps sixty of us, all ages, gathered each year to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.  There were tables set all around my aunt’s front room, grouping us by age, and the longest (and most coveted by the younger of us) the adult table, where aunts and uncles regaled everyone with stories passed from generation to generation.  As a recent article in The Atlantic stated, “Books contain narratives, but only family stories contain your family’s personal narratives. Fortunate children get both. They hear and read stories from books to become part of other people’s worlds, and they hear and tell stories of their family to understand who they are and from whence they came.”

In the years after my first husband’s death, my daughters and I spent many holidays alone before we began to invite other friends, similarly without family nearby, to share in our holiday meals.  It helped ease the loneliness; there was laughter and good food, but something was always missing:  the sense of family that came from the stories shared year after year.  My siblings and I grew apart in the years I lived in Canada and the tumultuous years after my father’s death and mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s.  It’s become chasm I can no longer traverse, and yet, I look back to those times we were truly a family, bound together, in part, by shared traditions and stories.

It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.

At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.

Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.

(From “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, in The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, 1994)

But I left, lived in another country, admitting my restlessness, the yearning to leave that small town and see the world, just as my father did as a young man.  History repeats itself.  Now, my daughters, like so many of their age, have traveled and resided in places thousands of miles away; our family get-togethers fewer, and, as their children arrived, even less has been possible, so dispersed we all are.  Yet I think about the power of family stories once shared around the table or at bedtime.  “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,”  Bruce Feiler wrote in a 2013 New York Times article, “The Stories that Bind Us.” h

Citing research from Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush of Emory University, Feiler wrote that children who know a lot about their families appear to do better when facing challenges.  “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”

I’m trying now to capture in writing the few stories I remember, ones my father told, to fill out the gaps in family history that resulted from distance and family losses.  In this world of our mobility, of Facebook, Skype and other forms of high-tech communication, I worry that my stories will be lost–stories that told me who my family was and what they experienced, stories that cemented my sense of place and belonging.

This week, imagine you are the last storyteller of your family tribe.  What is the story you most want to tell?  What other stories do you want to remember, the ones that define your legacy?  Why not write them?

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I’ve been passing judgment on others’ writing.  It’s known by another name, grading.  It’s how I’ve spent my weekend, reading and commenting on the students’ submissions for my current course for UCLA extension Writers’ Program.  I won’t lie.  It’s complicated.  On the one hand, I have to model the balanced feedback I require from them, a blend of positive and constructive, all with the intent that feedback—which is always received emotionally—will be instructional, helpful in their quest to improve upon and develop their creative writing craft.  On the other, I’m sometimes impatient, reading a submission that doesn’t come close to my expectations for students at their level.  That’s when the agony begins.  I have to curb my impatience, silence the ever-present critic which threatens to fill someone’s submission with red marks, and call up the more benevolent, but instructional self.

I remember how I felt (and still feel) when I received critique.  I’m back in grade four, Mrs. Herfindahl’s class, and I’ve written my version of the biblical Christmas story in my most careful penmanship, careful to use quotation marks when someone speaks, to indent my paragraphs, to stay true to the story I’d been told in Sunday school countless times.  Perhaps I plagiarized a bit, opening up my brand new King James Version and copying a few phrases here and there, but surely, I thought, I had handed in a story worthy of an “A.”

In first grade Mrs. Lohr

said my purple teepee

wasn’t realistic enough,

that purple was no color

for a tent,

that purple was a color

for people who died,

that my drawing wasn’t 

good enough

to hang with the others.

 

I walked back to my seat

counting the swish swish swishes

of my baggy corduroy trousers.

With a black crayon

nightfall came

to my purple tent

in the middle

of an afternoon.

(From:  “Purple,” by Alexis Rotella, in Step Lightly:  Poems for the Journey, by Nancy Willard, Ed., 1998.)

My paper wasn’t worthy of that “A,” at least not in Mrs. Herfindahl’s opinion.  When it was returned, a “B+” glared back at me in bright red ink, and throughout my carefully penned story, a host of red marks.  I felt terrible, and to this day, I imagine my students feeling similarly when my comments are less than glowing.  Ouch!  Writing, I have since discovered many times, is an act of living with rejection many times over, and yet, I keep on writing, because it’s what I’m driven to do, what I love doing, and I learn it’s possible to improve as I begin work on another version..

As it turns out, it’s not our grade school teachers, the magazine editors or our creative writing instructors who are our fiercest critics.  Sure, we may have suffered a few harsh evaluations along the way, grown up with a demanding parent telling us repeatedly we were capable of so much more or better.  But take a look in the mirror.  Your most vociferous critic lives inside your head.  You’re looking at her.

We all judge ourselves, whether we’re trying to write, paint, perform on stage, or, more likely, parent our firstborn child or juggle the many balls in the air of our busy lives, even as we cope with cancer and the effects it has on our lives–especially when we complete treatment and recovery, returning to the altered and new “normal.”  It’s when we feel we’ve somehow disappointed others, fallen short of some unspoken level of attainment, or let ourselves down,  our self-recriminations  become especially loud—a veritable Greek chorus.  And we all have them, those noisy, old internalized voices that chide us from time to time, saying “you should do better than that, you know.”

How do we silence those critics, especially those who live in our heads?  How do we practice a little self-forgiveness and allow ourselves the freedom to be messy, woefully imperfect, or terribly human?  A little humor can help.   In a poem guaranteed to make you smile, Kaylin Haught asks God for permission to be herself—and not worry about punctuation!

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is… 

Thanks God I said

And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

(From:  The Palm of Your Hand, 1995)

In “Marks,” Linda Pastan pokes some fun at the frustration of being graded as a wife and mother by her family members:

My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass.  Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

(From Five Stages of Grief, 1978)

What about you?  How do you grade yourself?  When does your internal critic get in the way?  What kind of permission do you want to give yourself?  This week, write about grades, grading yourself, being graded by others–and as you do, try silencing those tiresome voices with a bit of humor!

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