Shiny Tin Cans on a Christmas Tree

What is it about a Christmas tree that brings back the child in all of us? 

Christmas treeThe question came to mind while reading “The Carpenter’s Gift” by David Rubel. The centerpiece of this charming story is a boy whose family has fallen upon hard times. I felt an unexpected ache as I read that they used shiny tin cans to brighten up their Christmas tree.

The image took me back to memorable Christmas trees of my childhood. The aroma of pine.  The glow of a candle-bedecked tree, lit only when you were there to watch the flickering lights across a darkened room. The dancing reflections of a lights on shards of a broken mirror, painstakingly glued to the branches. Strings of fresh cranberries and homemade popcorn.  It was a simpler world in which a shiny tin can hung on a tree could be a source of delight to a child.  

It has been decades since I had such a Christmas tree, as I too succumbed to the urge to buy pretty things to hang on the branches. True, I never flocked a tree, and I never used boxes of store-bought ornaments. I hung my tree with souvenirs of my travels or important moments in my life. But over time, as the intensity of the memories faded, those momentos morphed into inert things to be unpacked, hung, and repacked.

Last year, in an effort to simplify life, my partner and I gave them all away.  This year, our Christmas tree is metaphorical — a nine-foot tall ficus, hung only with plain white lights and bits of glass to magnify the reflection.  

It pleases me in a way that past trees, buried under mountains of things, never did. 

Am I the only one who longs for a simpler time?

Heavy Boots

Since Friday’s shooting in Newtown, I have had “heavy boots.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor those who’ve read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the reference to Oskar Schell will likely be apparent. For those who haven’t, Oskar’s heavy boots carry a powerful, if unexpected, metaphor for a sadness that a nine-year-old simply cannot describe in words. 

But the metaphor is all the more apt for the families in Newtown. Oskar is reeling from the loss of his father in 911, a tragedy that is simply unexplainable in any rational terms. And now, with Newtown, we have fathers and mothers who are reeling from the loss of their children in a tragedy that, like 911, is equally unexplainable in rational terms. 

The issue is not the language skills of a nine-year-old.  The issue is the utter inexplicability of making innocent people pay for some wrong— whether imagined or real—done to the attacker.   

I do not want to fill white space with words that cannot describe my pain at watching the endless repetition of appalling details, the endless effort to “explain” the unexplainable.

All I can say is that I have heavy boots.

A Shiver of Recognition

A shiver of recognition.  

Isn’t that what all creative writers want … to have crafted a passage so powerful and compelling that the reader physically trembles at the emotional memory or the sudden insight triggered by the words on the page.  

The first time I heard that phrase was last week in a workshop run by one of my fellow trekkers in Nepal. A full-time teacher of creative writing, Yasmina has taken on the daunting task of getting each member of the trekking group to share his or her experience in written form. Many in the group have little experience with creative writing and struggle with how to even start to record their thoughts and feelings.

Yasmina walked us through a series of exercises that were thought-provoking even for an experienced writer. But when she threw out that phrase–“ a shiver of recognition”– as the goal of our scribbling, it seemed a moment of synchronicity.  

I was meant to be there.

I was meant to be there because my “job” for the foreseeable future is to complete the final draft of my novel, A FITTING PLACE.  I’ve had great encouragement from beta readers, who connect with my characters and love the plot. But as Yasmina’s phrase echoed in my brain, I knew what is still missing from my story.  My two primary characters are interesting because they are more than a bit out of the ordinary. But if I cannot write their out-of-the-ordinary story in a way that causes my readers to have that shiver of recognition, I should stop now.

I will not stop.  I will write it so that my readers tremble.  The question is how do I do that.

And what about those of you who are writers?  Do you struggle with that “how”?

Hurricane Sandy and the Illusion of Control

Ten days ago, I went to see the memorial at Ground Zero, a visit that wound you around and through the construction zones for the skyscrapers that will replace the old World Trade Center complex.  The entire site was an inspiring reminder of the indomitable spirit of the American people who refuse to be cowed by a small group of terrorists.  Five days later, Ground Zero was underwater. 

That same afternoon, I paid a visit to Community Access, a few blocks south of Ground Zero.  Community Access is a non-profit agency that provides housing and support services to 1,600 low-income New Yorkers who suffer from mental illness and/or HIV/AIDS.  Having worked there in the late 1990’s, I was thrilled to learn they had been featured as a “success story” in the New York Times only two weeks earlier.  Today, more than 400 of their clients struggle to get meals because the kitchens in several of their housing units were destroyed by Sandy.

Both were up-close and personal reminders of how little control any of us have over our daily lives. You work hard … you do the right thing … then, pouf, something—illness, accidents, weather—makes a mockery of all your plans. 

Yes, the water has been pumped out of Ground Zero.  Yes, hundreds of people brought food and cooked meals to residents of Community Access.  Even so, it is hard, sitting here today, to find a silver lining in Sandy’s cloud.   It is hard, looking at the damage Sandy has wrought, to find the joy in “learning to love living out of control.”

The lesson I hang onto, as I think about Sandy’s destruction, is that real and personal growth only happens when you are forced to confront the unexpected, forced to step outside of your comfort zone.  But I have to ask myself how easy it would be to hang on to that notion if Sandy had destroyed my kitchen or left my house under 28 feet of water. 

I wish I knew the answer.