Friday, December 16, 2011

Ring the Sleigh Bells That Still Can Ring

Today I’m thrilled to participate in the first annual Sleigh Bells and Ink Wells Blog Hop organized by authors Smoky Trudeau Zeidel and Patricia Damery. If you scroll to the bottom of this post, you’ll find directions to the blogs of eleven fascinating writers I know you’re going to want to discover. And before you hop to the next blog, you’re warmly invited to leave a comment below, subscribe to this blog, and explore previous posts on this site…it’ll definitely ring my bell if you do!



I love the sleigh bell imagery. I’m a total Christmas nut. What else would the child of a Russian-born, Jewish atheist father and a mother raised on the outskirts of a Sioux reservation be? Actually, it’s my mom who deserves most of the credit. She grew up in the only Jewish family residing in the small town of Selfridge, North Dakota, and feeling utterly deprived of having a Christmas tree like her friends, swore to herself she’d make up for it when she left home.

Make up for it, she did. To my father’s despair, our family celebrated Christmas big-time, with tinseled trees and elaborately wrapped presents and my mother’s gleeful face lighting up the house even more affectingly than the fabulous ‘50’s bubble lights festooning our green, white, and sometimes– after all, it WAS the ‘50s - pink trees.

Needless to say, I ate it all up. Even if on the one year my Uncle Red dressed up as Santa Claus, he gave my cousin Wayne a fabulous train set, while I had to make do with yet another boring doll. (I’ll save for another time the irony of the grownups' response to my visible dismay, “But girls don’t play with train sets” - this coming from people who filled the house with songs like This Land is Your Land and We Shall Not Be Moved!)

I would have been made of ice not to love the trees - each year’s choice roundly declared “the best we’ve ever had” - the gaily wrapped gifts, the rousing music, the outrageously yummy feasts with family and friends.  But it was really the spirit of my mother that I was responding to: the generous warmth of a woman who dispensed far more presents than she could afford on a waitress’s tips, who gave unreservedly from the heart, 365 days a year, to everyone she encountered - a temporary bedroom (albeit sometimes mine!) if you were broke, an ear to listen if you were heartbroken, an enthusiastic one-woman-band if you had something impossible and wonderful you felt called to do.

Like the goddess-worshippers of earlier times, my mother’s love of the luminous tree suggested an awe at the exquisite abundance with which our precious planet laces our lives – snow, fire, miraculous murmurations of starlings, and, as my novel The History of My Body’s Fleur Robins discovers, fiercely determined weeds.


But it wasn’t just my love of the Feminine that filled me with joy at Christmastime. Unbeknownst to my parents, an older girl in our Dust-Bowl-refugee-populated neighborhood of Hermosa Beach was leading prayer groups in her family’s garage. At least once a week, I’d join the other children in neatly putting my hands together and praying to the Baby Jesus. I loved Him. Like me - the shy, brown-skinned daughter of Jewish lefties in a town full of tow-headed, pale-skinned Baptist kids - He knew the sting of being an outsider. Like me - who prayed secretly each night for world peace and that everyone I loved made it to another day (three of my extended family having died before I reached the age of five) – He cared. And unlike me, this source of divine innocence and goodness had a direct conduit to His Father…who just happened to be God.

So when my parents made jokes about saying grace at the Christmas dinner table – “Gra-ace! Where are you? It’s time for din-ner, Grace!” – I’d be whispering my own grace, giving thanks quite earnestly to Baby Jesus and His Father under my breath.

It’s no wonder my novel’s Fleur is such an odd duck, having been reluctantly pushed by her fragile young mother from that realm of reverie we call the womb into the midst of an unhappy family the likes of which Tolstoy could never have imagined. Beset by fears of the void in a household preoccupied with its own dark dramas and her senator father’s mission of “saving babies from the devil abortionists,” she loves the Baby Jesus, too, though she struggles to make sense of “an alive Jesus followed by a dead Jesus followed by an alive Jesus.” It’s only as she learns that the God-world is populated by a considerably more vast and exotic pantheon, from the ancient Egyptian Thoth (depicted as a baboon-headed dog and said to be responsible for sacred geometry) to the Aboriginal Ungud (god of both rainbows and erections), that she finds a way to weave her unusually concrete understanding of the world into the rarified metaphors of quantum physics and the human realities of true friendship.

The path to those discoveries isn’t all rose-strewn, not even with the cabbagey David Austin variety her mother cultivates. Just as Christ’s image is as apt to be portrayed on a cross as in a manger, we each have a host of conflicting desires, attitudes, attributes - and inner crucifiers - making it damned difficult to come to peace with ourselves, to become whole, and to take in the inextricable beauty and cruelty of being alive. Fleur is no exception, and she’s compelled to stretch beyond being a solo act to find her way.


The History of My Body is nothing if not about relationship. If there’s one thing my Yiddishe mama taught me, it was that the others with whom we share this planet are siblings under the skin: how we relate to each other really matters. Fleur can’t begin to transform her fear of the void into scientific breakthroughs without being supported, challenged, and rocked by the people around her. Like our ancestors shlepping their heavy fir trees into their homes and lighting them with candles, and like Carl Jung, who declared that our task as humans is to “bring light into the darkness of mere being,” Fleur is moved by her angelic innocence and infernal curiosity, her keen sensitivity and careless self-centeredness, her youthful impulsiveness and precocious reflections, to inch her way through her own suffering into a more conscious awareness of the dark and light mysteries of the phenomenal world. As I quote from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem in the epigraph to the novel:
            
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That’s pretty much what I think about these days when I hear the sleigh bells of Christmas. Or, as the impishly wise Kate Bush sings in her December Will Be Magic Again, it’s up to us fallen, mucky humans “to sparkle the dark up.”

And now, let’s sparkle it up even more by hopping over to visit our next blogger, Melinda Clayton. I can’t wait to see what she has to say!

And just so you don’t get lost along the way, here’s the full list of bell-ringers in the hop:
Smoky Zeidel at http://SmokyZeidel.wordpress.com                                    
Debra Brenegan at http://debrabrenegan.blogspot.com/                                   
Malcolm R. Campbell at http://KnightOfSwords.wordpress.com                                    
T.K. Thorne at http://tkthorne.wordpress.com/                                               
Anne K. Albert at http://Anne-K-Albert.blogspot.com                                               
Elizabeth Clark-Stern at http://elizabethclarkstern.com/wordpress/                                   
Collin Kelley at http://collinkelley.blogspot.com/                                                           
Sharon Heath at http://www.sharonheath.com/                                               
Melinda Clayton at http://AuthorMelindaClayton.xanga.com                                   
Ramey Channell at http://SweetMusicOnMoonlightRidge.blogspot.com/           
Leah Shelleda at http://www.leahshelleda.com/                                               

13 comments:

  1. Great post, Grace. I have a Hindu friend who celebrates Christmas and every other holiday regardless of its origins. Her joy and enthusiasm for the season is contagious. As is her joy for life.

    Happy holidays!

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  2. Those who came before you in your family's on-going story gave you a great start and, what's more, a lot of ideas for great storytelling. It was fun reading about the "stuff" of which another author and her dreams are made on.

    Malcolm

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  3. Sharon, I was raised a Christian--my father was a minister for more than 60 years. I am openly pagan (or, as I prefer to tell people, an earth-worshipping hippie). Yet I think if I met Jesus today, he and I would be good friends. I find nothing wrong with a Jewish child secretly praying to him, because Jesus was NOT who so many Christians today portray him to be. He wandered the desert (he loved the earth). He healed the sick. He loved women rather than belittling them. He was a good man.

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  4. Fantastic post. I always enjoy reading about the history and inspiration behind an author's writing. Like Smoky, I'm also a preacher's kid. I grew up to figure out my own cobbled-together belief system, one that no doubt relies more on ancient teachings than on modern ones.

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  5. Ah, Sharon, I love the way your blog is woven!I'm certainly not surprised that there are Christmas/Jewish connections in our blogs and our histories. Someday we will meet and talk for ours. I think I told you that I grow David Austin
    roses, and was delighted to find them in your book!
    I send admiration and a big hug!

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  6. Oh, Anne, Malcolm, Smoky, Melinda, Leah - I can't figure out how to reply individually to your comments, but thanks so much for responding! I see a common thread relating to the universality of the spiritual impulse - Jung wasn't just whistling "Dixie!" - and the unique incarnations of the storyteller who lives inside of us. I wish you all sweet joy and lots of creative juice in this season of light and color, so needed in these dark and challenging times.

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  7. I love that you have set up this blog hop. What a fantastic idea! I only wish that I could sit down with each of you and sip some hot chocolate and talk more about the holidays and what they mean...the love, the family time, the religious significance. All of it. Blessings! m

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  8. Ooh, Mare, hot chocolate, spirit talk, and you? Yes, yes, and yes!

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  9. Wow, I'm ordering this book tonight. I can't promise when I will get to read it, but I want it in my basket! We have so much more than an Aspie character in common. I'll send you a note.
    Great post and lovely site.

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  10. Oh, goody - I can't wait to connect, T.K.!

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  11. Sharon, it is most definitely synchronicity at work! I've been a Kate Bush fan since I was 12 and she's been a touchstone now for 30 years. I'm glad to see someone else is as delighted with her as I am. I just purchased "The History of My Body" and can't wait to dive in!

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  12. Pink christmas trees? That's a new one!! I love learning new and fascinating things about our family and how you fondly share things in ways that are digestible to others and food for thought for us. Love you auntie!

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  13. Jennifer, you know the cast of characters so well and are precious beyond words.

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