Thursday, December 29, 2016

Christmas 2016

Here are the elements of Christmas, 2016.

The family. My son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter; his dad and stepmother; and his step-brother with his wife and their daughter. I love my family.

The scene. A large house on the Oregon Coast, with enormous windows in the living room providing unending entertainment: waves crashing onto the rocks below with great masses of foam and spray; long rolls of gray-green, foam-crested, curling swells four, five, six lines into the ocean; the stretch of ocean to the horizon and glorious sunsets of pink-tinged clouds and shining-foil gleams of sun reflected on the water.

The children. The two little girls, eight and a half and nine years old, were incarnations of what Christmas is all about (love, shiningness). Their love for each other spilled out of their hugs and onto us all, like the waves of the ocean washing again and again onto the beach. Their laughter and creative energy sparkled more brightly than the gold foil decorations dangling from the turning fan. Their games drew us all in. Their laughter blended with the Christmas music, keeping us all always in good humor. Their mirrored beauty kept us enthralled: the golden blond girl and the dark-haired exotic one, the porcelain white skin and the creamy-rich darker color, constant reminders that all children, given love, are beautiful.

Good food. Turkey and all the sides. Good home-made soups. Salads with the freshest of vegetables. Breakfast burritos. Tacos for first-night dinner. Zuppa inglese (an Italian custard cake) for Christmas dessert.

Games. Card games with the children. A game based on video game vocabulary that the grown-ups gave up on understanding how to play. (To be fair, the girls were too young to figure it out, too.) A diabolically difficult picture puzzle that in the end, in spire of all we could do and all the time different ones of us put into it, remained unfinished. Charades. A quick-response game with an electronic prompt. Giggles and shrieks of laughter from the children.

Walks on the trail above the ocean rocks, 

then down on the beach itself, where the two girls chased, and were chased by, the rolling surf until they were drenched. 

Drawing a maze in the sand, then watching as people twisted and turned through it. 

Walking – I walked so far down the beach (and still so much beach to go beyond me) that I began to feel like I was on a treadmill. My feet kept moving, but the scenery never changed, always the ocean ceaselessly rolling, unchanging, eternal, as the ocean is. At the rocky shore, I stood for long spells watching the waves explode into spray and the foam collecting on the flat rocks as the tide receded.

Gifts. We made a cardboard Christmas tree and decorated the room with streamers. Everything was festive and shiningly beautiful. 

There were ample gifts for everyone, and I'm glad to report that even with the children, there was no frenzy of gift-getting: paper ripped off impatiently, the gift snatched from its box only to be tossed aside for the next paper-wrapped gift to be ripped into. Gifts were appreciated. My granddaughter's eyes shone when she guessed by the size and weight of the box that I had given her Katie Kubes. Homemade gifts, practical gifts, kitchen gifts – gifts that said, "I thought you might like to have this." Heartwarming, soul-satisfying gifts. Gifts that tell us what Christmas giving is really all about.

All in all, it was the kind of Christmas that is what Christmas is really all about.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

My New Book Is Here!

            Last week artist Barbara Kostal and I had a book launch party for our co-authored book, Wisdom of the Heart
Book cover

 It was a fabulous party. Everyone loved the book, marveled over its coffee-table-book size, admired the paintings that Barbara had on easels around the room, and enjoyed my readings.
I am reading from the book, far left. Barbara Kostal is at lower right.

I am apparently reading something ecstatic from one of the essays.

         This party was the culmination of more than three years of collaborative work, which started in September 2013, when I was guest speaker for the Applegate Trails Association's first annual fundraiser. Barbara, whom I didn't know, approached me there, introduced herself as an Applegate artist, and said that she had been working on a series of paintings called Wisdom of the Heart and that her vision was to publish a book of those paintings, with essays. She said she knew me through my commentaries on Jefferson Public Radio. Would I be interested in collaborating on the project and writing the essays?
         I was immediately interested and even more so when I visited her in her studio, with its lovely views of meadows and mountains, and saw the paintings. What I wanted to do, I told Barbara, was not to interpret the paintings but respond to them. Essays and paintings would be two interrelated pieces, one in words, one in paint. Barbara agreed, and so we began.
         We quickly developed a process. Barbara would bring a painting to my house on the mountain and hang it carefully on the wall. We would have lunch, talk, discuss the book, take a walk. I would live with the painting for several weeks or a month or more, meditating on it, watching it in different lights, letting its essence speak to me. Then I started writing. When the piece was finished, I called Barbara. She would come over with a new painting; I would read the essay to her; we would have lunch, talk and laugh, discuss the book, take a walk. Then, with a new painting on the wall, the process began again.
         Not the least part of this project for me was to have a revolving exhibition of Barbara's art in my house. Perhaps the best part was the deep friendship that developed between Barbara and me.
         The production process was arduous, but thanks to the patronage of Barbara's husband, David Calahan, the published book is in hand. It is a beautiful book. Barbara and I thought so when we got our authors' copies, several weeks ago, and the response at the book launch and afterward has corroborated our own, admittedly biased, opinion.
         Barbara thinks of the book as having healing power. If art and words have healing power, then perhaps so. I think of the book as bringing pleasure to readers and maybe a little bit of encouragement to see the beauty in the world around us – in the people we know, the experiences we have, and the natural world that is a part of ourselves. The book launch was the start of what I hope will be a long journey for Wisdom of the Heart as its images and words bring to other people a hint of the pleasure and beauty Barbara and I find in life.

Me with Barbara Kostal and her parents at the book signing table
(Copies of Wisdom of the Heart can be ordered from $35 plus $10 shipping and handling. We also have greeting cards, each with a painting from the book and a quote from the accompanying essay. Inquire for more information.)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Lights

            Last week I walked into my woods with a bow saw and, with apologies and thanks to the druid, cut down a little cedar tree. As I was hauling it into the house and setting it up, I thought what a strange custom it is to bring a live tree inside the house and decorate it with trinkets. It looks so out of place, its limbs holding up not snow or birds' nests but paper stars and ceramic Santa Clauses, golf-ball Rudolfs and metal snowflakes.
            When all the decorations were on the tree, I refilled the eggnog, plugged in the Christmas tree lights, and turned off the house lights. And then everything fell into place. My Christmas tree was joining the Christmas lights of millions of other households around the country in making a statement to the world at large, a statement I am grateful to be a part of.

            It's the statement of Christmas lights. I live way up a mountain, where winter evenings descend with thick velvet darkness. Tonight the rain pours down relentlessly enough to alarm Noah. No stars twinkle in the dark heavens tonight. No moon, tonight, gives luster of midday to the objects below. The darkness, outside, is complete.
            Inside, my Christmas tree sparkles and glitters with its spirals of lights. They reflect in the dark windows, tripling the effect. If anyone were to drive by (an impossibility, since the house doesn't sit on a road), maybe the Christmas tree lights, shining through the windows, would suffice for my statement of light within the dark.

            Driving up my road at night, I silently thank every household that has put up Christmas lights and given us this statement. I silently beg the people who haven't strung lights around their houses and yards to do so. "Don't give in to despair," I plead. "Show us that you, too, are a part of celebration, joy, and good will." It doesn't have to have anything to do with the religion of Christmas, but it has everything to do with the symbolism of light. I exult in the extravagance of light at Christmas: icicles hanging from eaves, swirls of lights around trunks of trees, lighted silhouettes of deer lowering their heads to graze – something, anything, to say, "I refuse to give in to dark times. I refuse to let cynicism and bitterness win."
            That's why we bring a living tree into the house and string it with lights. That's why, although at any other time of the year I decry lights that abolish the dark and the poetry of the night, I join the communal effort, for this one brief season, in banishing the metaphorical darkness with the symbolism of our lights: "I keep the magic in life and a light in dark times. I combat cynicism and bitterness with a belief in the power of all that is good, beautiful, and uplifting."
            It doesn't take much. Just a string of lights, a little electricity, and a heart that can still rejoice.