Thursday, December 29, 2011

End of the Year Reading

End of the year writing has not gone so well (unless "spinning my wheels" and "wrestling with phantoms" and "second-guessing every second word") can be classified as writing that is going well), but the reading has been excellent:

1.  Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows, a skillfully plotted and finely written novel about three vaudeville sisters.

Google searches after: vaudeville etymology, Buster Keaton, the Talmadge sisters, Alexander Pantages, Tin Pan Alley.

2.  Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays about California in the 1960s. The opening of the title piece sounds eerily current:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-service announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers....

Except it is "the cold late spring of 1967." Has the center not been holding for 40 years?

Google searches after: Summer of Love, the Diggers, Haight-Ashbury, hippie, STP, psychoactive drug, LSD.

3.  The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, a novel about the son and daughter of performance artists who used their children as props. Descriptions of art in fiction can be tedious, but Wilson's descriptions of the Fangs' awful pieces are utterly compelling.

Google searches after: performance art, happenings, art intervention.

4.  The History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil Macgregor: short illustrated pieces on human artifacts, from an Olduvai Gorge chopping tool to the credit card. Perfect iPad reading.

Google searches after: too many to list. Ongoing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Orange

I broke up with Christmas in 1989. It was my first year teaching in Bhutan, and I went to Kathmandu with another teacher over the winter break. On December 25 we ate rice and dahl and went to the Kumari Temple. The only tinsel in sight was around the picture of Ganesh in the hotel lobby. In the dusty courtyard, I sat across from an amber-eyed owl in a cage and drank chai and thought about my family gathering for Christmas dinner in Sault Ste. Marie. I was away from home for the first time. I was not sad in the least. I was in Nepal, under a banyan tree. I was in love with everything.

Years later in Bhutan, Christmas and I got back together. We had a tree and presents and dinner with a handful of resident Canadians and other expats.  I felt no religious connection to the holiday whatsoever, but December in Thimphu is cold -- the sun drops behind the mountains at four o’clock and night falls suddenly – and it was a lovely thing, in the dark heart of winter, in a remote, landlocked Himalayan kingdom, to search for canned cream to make homemade Bailey's, and then gather for a traditional Christmas feast.

I was reminded of my grandmother’s stories of Christmas in the 1930s. She said they always got new stockings, a book, a bag of hard candy, and an orange. As a child, I had been horrified by the last item, unable to understand the rarity of a Florida orange in Northern Ontario in the Depression. But in Bhutan, I got it.

In Thimphu turkey was out of the question, but roasted chicken and mashed potatoes were possible. Someone brought Swiss-made cheese and Red Panda beer from central Bhutan; someone else made shortbread cookies. There was French wine from the Duty Free, and oranges from Southern Bhutan. There was even (alas) fruitcake.

When I returned to Canada with my five-year-old son, we continued to celebrate Christmas, but the stores swollen with merchandise made me queasy, and Boxing Day just seemed like a clarion call for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Now, Christmas and I are amicably divorced. I look forward to the season as a time of rest at the end of term, a chance to sleep in, read and write.  I put up some lights. I buy some presents. I have dinner with whatever family member I am visiting. But I never feel much of anything for the day itself, except relief when the swelling of everything goes down, and yesterday, as I stood in the grocery store listening to a soulful rendition of “What Child Is This,” I wondered why this was. A lot of unreligious people still manage to love and look forward to Christmas. I thought about the warmth of a feast in the cold dark of winter, and the pleasure of anticipation, the longing for things you could only get once a year. I wanted to be moved by that warmth and anticipation, but I was standing amid towering tins of shortbread and overflowing bins of cheese and crates of oranges, all of which I could buy with equal ease in July.

It’s hard to have a feast in a culture of excess.