The Question that Haunts: How to BE now?

It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.

I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candle glowing. She’d lit a candle for me, a gesture that opened my thoughts to a large open field I’ve been hoeing this post-election week.

In this field grows a question: How do we BE now?

How do we be with ourselves? And how do we get together with each other and refrain from either howling with fear or simply dismissing the peril with empty aphorisms?

A week ago my new writing buddy and I wrote at my house. It was an age of innocence. We talked about the photos of pantsuited revelers we’d seen posted as we lunched on curried chicken salad. We worked on our books that would perhaps be published and read during a historic presidency, a presidency that promised to represent people like us (women) and protect our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Even if we hadn’t fully imagined the future the polls promised, it radiated a bit in the upcoming calendar pages. January was just around the corner.

But that future never came and instead we awoke into a world where the meanest kid on the playground becomes the hall monitor from hell. Since then those of us who’d imagined an imperfect but reasonably sane future struggle to catch up and to absorb, alternating between fight and flight, strategy and despair. Many have already articulated the enormity of this challenge, including John Oliver who does so with such vigor and needed humor here.

Crucial conversation, protests, and campaigns lie ahead, to be sure. But today and tomorrow:  how do we just be? How can we be there for one another and continue to do the work that compels us? One tweet I scrolled by seemed to capture the essence of this worry: My boyfriend says he doesn’t know how he can deal with four years of me not being able to deal.

I felt for her and for him. I felt for myself, for my family, and my friends. I felt for all the people I know and those I don’t who never wanted this outcome. We are all just so scared! So reasonably and rightfully afraid. And yet, we cannot collapse into fear. We cannot let fear take more from us than has already been taken.

Last Wednesday–the night after the election–I had to teach my usual Wednesday night class at Hugo House here in Seattle. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk, to open my mouth and articulate ideas. In short, I did not want to give. It is my job to give, but I felt I had nothing.

I asked myself, How do I teach when I have nothing?

You pretend that you have something, I told myself.

Of course, I’ve done that type of pretending many times before—as we all have when a personal struggle has us in its grip and yet we still must show up for work. But this felt different because I knew my students were struggling too, that we were all in this together. Yes, that’s right, I remembered: We are in this together.

I stumbled into the classroom, feeling pale and awkward. “I know a lot of us feel badly today, but this work is our hope and it’s our freedom. Creativity can be offer us nothing else can right now,” I said and after I spoke those words, I realized I meant them. Creativity is the safest space I know. When I was younger, I was plagued by my external locus of control. I believed I could only be happy if someone made me happy. But writing has given me something no one else can: A place to lose myself.

Then, I led them through a writing exercise and they got to work. The little gesture—the candle I could light for them—was keeping their writing time free of distractions. That small gesture is also known as MY JOB, the thing I get paid to do.

Doing my job: An item to add to my list teaching me How To Be Now.

  1. Remember: We are in this together.
  2. Do my job.
  3. Light a candle.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and I knew I had to pull away from Facebook. In the empty hours since the election, I’d been reading status updates incessantly, scrolling and scrolling, looking for I knew not what. Solidarity, yes, and I found that. But I wanted something from Facebook it could not give me. I wanted Facebook to make me feel okay and reassured and connected.

I wanted it to teach me how to be now. Yet, it couldn’t.

In fact, it was making me feel less connected and more afraid. I resolved to log off, spend real time with family and friends, and connect with acquaintances through other channels. I bought a real newspaper, made lunch, hung out with my daughter and her boyfriend, laughing at silly memes.

  1. Avoid the places that fuel my fear and feelings of isolation.
  2. Show up in real life.
  3. Lose yourself in the writing.

That afternoon a naturalist from Discovery Park called: Did I still plan on participating in this afternoon’s Owl Prowl?

I’d signed up for a guided walk called Owl Prowl months ago when the meanest kid was NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO BECOME THE HALL MONITOR FROM HELL. Why would I still want to walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls now?

“Yes, I’ll be there,” I said, even though I wanted to stay home.

       7. Walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls.

When the father of two standing at the back of the group called out, “There’s an owl right now,” I swung around in disbelief. We’d only been standing in this grove of cedars and maples for a few minutes! What were the chances of spotting an owl so soon? We  clustered around him. He started to point, but a naturalist asked him to simply describe the position of the owl and asked others to resist from shining their flashlights at the owl. Even the owl was granted respect and autonomy in this world of twenty who’d agreed to clamber together through this park on this November afternoon that was fast dissolving into evening.

“Okay,” he said, “Look straight ahead of me at the tall tree bending in wind. Halfway up on a clean short branch, he’s there clinging near the trunk.”

We all stared into the dusk. The grey of sky and the black of branches were barely distinguishable. I’ll never see this owl, I thought. Never.

But then I did.

owl

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How to Keep on Writing that Freaking Book!

Question: When is 9 months “a year”?

Answer: When the 9 months is spent in a manuscript class.

I teach a memoir manuscript class here in Seattle at Hugo House. The class runs 9 months from September to June, and yet the class is called the Yearlong Memoir Manuscript Class. And right about now, these writers are feeling the yearlong slog of it all. They have two more months to go and an hugo_house_picture_2anticipated 25,000 more words to write. How will they keep on keeping on?

Last class meeting the group members shared with each other the strategies that are keeping them motivated and writing. I’m sharing the list they generated here as I think there are a ton of great ideas here and probably at least one or two you can use. The key is, of course, using strategies. I myself like to read about helpful strategies and can be a wee bit lethargic about the actual implementation, but maybe you’re not like that. Maybe you’re an implementer.

The Hugo House Yearlong Memoir Manuscript Class’ Best Tips:

  1. Separating generative writing time from editing time (To guard against endless editing).
  2. Working with a small writing group that meets monthly in which members take turns sharing pages.
  3. Sending work to willing and supportive readers.
  4. Writing what captivates me.
  5. Keeping an “idea book” and jotting ideas in it when they arise.
  6. Setting backup production goals (word count/quarter) as well as aspirational ones.
  7. Printing out my work (some place new pages in a binder as they’re produced).
  8. Reading work I love (sometimes over and over again). Recognizing that some writers are truly your teachers (even if you’ve never met them). These particular writers have something to teach you as a writer so rereading their work is great use of your time.
  9. Creating regular times to talk with others about writing.
  10. Resisting the urge to focus on structure (instead of generating new pages).
  11. Writing without fear of reproach. Telling myself, “This is my story to tell.”
  12. Reading the The Autobiographer’s Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir.
  13. Writing in the morning or late at night when household is quiet.
  14.  Not looking for the perfect thing to write next. Just jumping in anywhere.
  15. Using the Priscilla Long prompt that begins with listing five things you’re interested in writing about right now. Prompt can be found on  page 19 of Long’s book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.
  16. Doing planning activities (but not letting them replace generative writing time).
  17. Book proposal writing.
  18. Using Brooke Warner’s ebook How to Sell Your Memoir Proposal.
  19. Progoff journaling: Writing your book’s history as if it already exists in the world
  20. Getting out of the house and writing in a cafe or bookstore.
  21. Scheduling writing into your week.
  22. Doing Lynda Barry’s 4-Minute Diary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hiY7mU_07Y.
  23. Listening to the voice that says, “This is what I need to write right now.” (even if the topic choice seems illogical).
  24. Capitalize on times I feel inspired and use those times to write.
  25. Telling myself “just get the stories down.” Don’t worry how they’ll form a whole during the generative period.
  26. Listening to podcasts that model good storytelling, especially during commutes.
  27. Not being stopped by the fear of self-reproach. Using the Cheryl Strayed “Fear is not an option” strategy.
  28. Reminding myself, “It seems to me if you lived through this, you have the right to write about it.”
  29. Letting go of worries about structure and generating more.
  30. Getting away from the computer when stuck and writing by hand.
  31. Taking breaks.
  32. Looking at what I wrote at the end of every day so I remember it the next day and don’t have to use my writing time rereading.
  33. Moving on to a new topic in the book when bored.
  34. Go straight to the writing each morning (after walking the dog).
  35. Delaying fact checking until generative work is done.
  36. Asking myself, “If I don’t write this, who will?”

 

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For the Love of Lynda Barry

To love the work of an artist or writer you believe has not received due recognition is its own special hell. You’re doomed to an infinite loop of recitation as you eternally rattle off X’s accomplishments and chant reminders of the existence of X. For me, X = Lynda Barry.

lynda-barry-webWhile many will register recognition of Barry’s name and some will even mutter a yeah, she’s great, few seem to fully grasp her genius and realize that before comics were cool and women could fancy themselves cartoonists, a young Lynda was spending her Sundays on Seattle’s Beacon Hill copying the images of Snoopy and Nancy from the funny pages. Even here in her home state, she’s not given the full heft of the credit she’s due. It seems to be forgotten that not only did Lynda grow up right here in Seattle, but she spent four mossy coming-into-herself-as-an-artist years at Evergreen.

In fact, it was at Evergreen State College that Barry’s drawing went from a pastime to a compulsion. After a rough breakup, she started drawing strips in which “the men were cactuses and the women were women, and the cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was at Evergreen where an editor of the school’s Cooper Point Journal named Matt Groening (Yep, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening) hounded Barry to give him a strip to print, and thus began a lifelong friendship and Barry’s first published strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek.

syllabusYet, Barry does not seem to share my interest in elevating her literary status. Her own focus over the last decade has been on investigating the nature of creative blocks and helping others to regain the creative habits of childhood. Barry has taught an intensive undergraduate class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the last few years and has been a perennial instructor at the Omega Institute for several summers running, teaching image-based writing classes that rest on the assumption that everyone can write. Barry’s 2010 book Syllabus documents Barry’s intensive and sometimes chaotic teaching style, one that appears to demand as much from the students as Barry seems to ask of herself. Reading the furiously packed pages of Syllabus, we learn that, among other requirements, her Madison students must fill several composition books in a semester with daily sketches and are strictly forbidden from phone checking during class or even during class breaks.

The logic behind Barry’s immersive pedagogical style likely originates in her belief in the elixir of creativity. “I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living,” Barry said in a 2010 interview.

whatThis theme that creativity renders life livable is a strand that runs through her work as does her interest in wrangling with art’s deeper questions. Her popular 2008 book What It Is returns to the obsessive questioning of the nature and power of the image that haunted Barry in her student days as at Evergreen. In What It Is, Barry documents her deep desire to recapture “the floating feeling” drawing offered before the adult “two questions” of “Is this good?” and “Does it suck?” supplanted the joy of goalless creativity. Urging adults to return to the youthful pastime of drawing, Barry’s 2010 book, Picture This, is organized around her attempts to answer the question, “What makes us stop drawing?”

Barry’s nearly 40 years of publication include over a dozen books, a handful of greatest hits collections, and bylines in numerous mags and online sites, ranging from the slick and self-satisfied (Esquire) to the alt weekly to the early promising days of Salon when Salon was still the voice-driven precursor to The Rumpus. It was on Salon that Barry began a serialized coming-of-shame story, “One Hundred Demons,” which would later become the 2002 eponymously titled book of Crayola-bright drawings on yellow composition paper.

demonsOne! Hundred! Demons! opens with a self-portrait of the author at her drawing table facing her “demon,” a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and that horrific scenery-chewing creature from A Little Shop of Horrors. On the adjacent page—typical to the binary philosophical questions that underpin much of Barry’s seemingly simple stories—the author asks herself two questions she wisely never answers: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” The rest of the introduction shows Barry discovering a painting exercise done by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th Century Japan that gives Barry’s book its conceit. She will face her demons, and she promises to take us along for the ride. I’m in.

Her demons are a catalog of exquisite coming-of-age shame tales that take place mostly in Barry’s Seattle’s Beacon Hill childhood and adolescence. Despite Barry’s early announcement of a fictional strand in the stories, I’ve rarely read stories of growing up female in the 70s that capture that gritty reality so well. Barry is the master of the specific detail that convinces: The Jungle Gardenia perfume, the hitchhiking in halter tops, The Loving Spoonful, the frozen chicken pot pies, the beaded earring selling hippies, and the younger friend you ditched when you hit middle school.

From the first story, “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend,” Barry drops you into her very specific world without explanation, knowing you’re smart enough to figure out your way without a map. On the first page, we see Barry’s Filipina grandmother giving orders in a mix of Tagalog and English to a young redheaded Barry, who is on the next page discussing the mechanics of “cooties” with a mix of black and white kids on the school playground. Turn the page and we are in the Philippines, visiting relatives and listening to an argument among the local kids on whether head lice change color with the race of their victims. A few pages later Barry flashes us forward into a relationship with a pompous ponytailed boyfriend and reader of the Lonely Genius Gazette who calls her “little Ghetto Girl.” In the final frames, elementary school art teacher Lynda has passed lice onto her ponytailed boyfriend. In his irritation with her as they stand face to face with their heads covered with lice shampoo and shower caps, we feel this primal shame of bug infestations and spending our time with people who don’t love us and how truly alike those two experiences are.

demons strip

There is no brutal reality of female coming-of-age that Barry isn’t willing to wrestle in these pages: The random makeout sessions, the childhood molestation, and the adult expectation of resilience that really must translate into shame that goes underground and emerges in some random makeout session you’re not sure how you got yourself into (but maybe it has something to do with that wine stolen from the neighborhood synagogue). Yet, going through these 100 demons with Barry doesn’t feel brutal. It feels reassuring. It feels like being seen with all your broken parts and messiness.
It feels like genius.

 

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr blog: http://thenearsightedmonkey.tumblr.com/

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Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Writer

We writers sometimes fall into thinking that we must have the perfect conditions to write–the cafe thrumming with activity but not too much activity or the pristine den where a carefully curated playlist cheers us on. But the truth is when we truly must commit our words to the page, we will write, no matter what the conditions. Four days after white clergy published a statement urging Civil Rights activists to “go slow” and fight their battle in the courts rather than the streets, Martin Luther King, Jr. started writing. In his jail cell. Without even a pad of paper.

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication,” King said of what later became famously known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter of many enduring ideas including the resonant “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Let’s honor Martin Luther King, Jr. the writer as well as the man this week. I encourage you to read the excerpt of his letter below and be inspired to write what you must. I encourage you to take the time to write–no matter how difficult your conditions might be.

Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

You can read the full text of the letter here.

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“I want to double down on me.”

jill soloway

Jill Soloway

I’ve been pretty obsessed with Jill Soloway’s  series Transparent this winter break, which led me to reading Ariel Levy’s fabulous profile of Soloway in The New Yorker titled “Dolls and Feelings.” There are a dozen reasons why any emerging writer should read this profile, but the juncture of Soloway’s story that keeps replaying in my head is the one at which her career was at its lowest point and she made the decision to “double down” on herself (see excerpt below). Even though the sensible thing for Soloway to do at that moment in her life would have been to pay off debt, she decided to bet on herself instead. This part of the story replays in my head because I know that every writer who succeeds has made that same decision at some point. At some point–or at many points–we have to commit to ourselves and our material. We have to bet on ourselves. We have to bet on our themes, our narratives, our particular and quirky way of telling a story. We have to “double down” on ourselves.

From The New Yorker profile, “Dolls and Feelings”:

In 2011, after almost two decades as a television writer, Soloway was broke, with two kids, trying to recover from the recent writers’ strike and the recession. Then her old friend Jane Lynch, who was starring on “Glee,” told her about a job on the show, and Soloway went to meet with the producers. “Finally, here’s this moment where I’m meeting on ‘Glee,’ ” Soloway said. “Ryan Murphy wants to hire me. I’ve been best friends with Jane Lynch for about three decades—we’re sisters. It’s happening.” As Soloway drove home from the meeting, her agent called to say, “Pop the champagne—they loved you.” A week later, he called again: Murphy had heard that Soloway was “difficult,” and wasn’t going to give her the job. The agent said he’d send a check to tide her over.

That night, Soloway sat in the bathtub, while her husband, Bruce Gilbert, a music supervisor for film and television, brushed his teeth. She remembers telling him, “ ‘I don’t want to use the money to pay off our debt. I want to be a director, and I want to make a film with it and get into Sundance. I want to double down on me.’ And Bruce was, like, ‘O.K.’ ” Then, just as Soloway was making the leap to directing her own material, her father called one afternoon and came out as transgender.

Interestingly, Soloway had already been working with the theme of gender identity for years. But at this juncture her commitment to herself met opportunity and she grabbed it. I’ve interviewed dozens of writers about how their books came into being and this prior decision to commit preparing them to seize an opportunity is a common story. Many times the writers had to overcome the culture’s and their own negation of their subject. In a recent interview I did with Cheryl Strayed, she talked about how in grad school the cool topics to write about were drugs, sex, and rock and roll, but the thing she wanted to write about was the decidedly uncool topic of being sad about the loss of her mother. Accepting that her grief was her material was an essential part of her process of doubling down on herself.

What would it look like for you to double down on yourself in the coming year? I’ve been answering that question for myself this past week, and I challenge you to wrestle with it too. Let’s double down together.

Happy New Year, Readers! I appreciate you.

Theo

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Upcoming Writing Classes (in Seattle, Online, Beyond)

author photo 3 bwI wanted to let you know about a few new classes I’m teaching at the beginning of 2016. These are all introductory classes–ideal for someone looking to get started writing in the personal narrative genre.

Sundays, Jan 3-31: I’m teaching my online Memoir Essentials class four Sunday mornings in January. We meet from 10am to 11:15am Pacific Time. Class includes lecture, writing prompts, discussion, and homework. $149.

Saturday, January 30th at 10am: Introduction to Personal Narrative. FREE class at Sno-Isle Library in Freeland, WA (Whidbey Island). Contact library in advance to register.

 

A few recommended classes taught by others (Seattle):

Fiction that Dares with Sonora Jha: Hugo House Jan 13-Mar 20

The You Review of Books with Paul Constant and Martin McClellan: Hugo House Jan 14-Feb 18

A workshop I’ve heard amazing things about (Chamonix, France):

The Mont Blanc Writers Workshop with many interesting writers including Cheryl Stayed, Erin Belieu, and Pam Houston: June, 2016

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A Short Gratitude list for a gray December Morning

mandarin1.       What genius invented the Mandarin orange? I’m not a person who likes to struggle for food. Cracking and scraping my way through a plate of crab hardly feels worth it. Shelled nuts? Seriously? Sunflower seeds? No! Yet, I love the feeling of triumph that winning an easy fight brings. The mandarin’s peel shrugs off readily and curls beside me on the sofa. I am master of my world.

no camping 2.       I love the cave of winter. The gray rain forces windows shut, the noise of the city all but silenced. Rain—especially driving rain—absolves me. Kayaking, camping, and the like are now out of the question. It is right that I am huddled inside, reading and writing and snacking.

 

 

Queen's Freddie Mercury in 1982   3. Have we revered Freddie Mercury amply? As it IS gray and wet and December, I was able to devote much time yesterday to watching clips of Mercury on YouTube.  Such full-throated operatic terror! Such sturm und drang! SUCH humor! And how very sly Mercury was. How majestically he slipped into our repressed 1970s homes under the seemingly innocuous label “Queen.” How masterfully he tricked all of us into singing along with “Killer Queen” in our Pintos and Gremlins as half our carload of friends plotted their way out the closet. Say it with me, “Freddie, we love you!” Freddie, you were so ahead of your time that you don’t even have a time. You were singular and without rival.

Actor Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge4.       Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is literature’s greatest expression of the midlife experience. In a strange twist of fate, I was cast in the role of Ebenezer when I was 11, far before nontraditional casting was a thing. Even though some classmates teased me about playing a male character, I was overcome with joy to be cast–finally— in a leading role. I was convinced that all the love I wanted in life would come to me swiftly if I could just excel in some surprising way in an artistic endeavor. I threw myself into the role, growling my bah-humbugs with a severity that has no place in children’s theater.

The reviews were mixed, but memorizing the Ebenezer’s lines was  prescient preparation for my adult struggle with the Christmas season and with the cynicism of midlife. I don’t think I will ever be as convinced by a sweeping character transformation as I am by Ebenezer’s. Tormented by the ghosts of Past, Present, and–most horribly–the Future, he snaps. He loves again. Of course, he does. He’s had the crap scared out of him. This isn’t a “I will change because it’s right” transformation. This is a broken hallelujah. This is the you’ve-been-beaten-out-of-your-own-denial shift of middle age.

I remember feeling his transformation brightening inside me as I raced across the center stage my one night in the spotlight (Christmas plays don’t have a long run). I remember the joy of arriving at the Cratchit home, the surprise on their faces that this time I’d come with love and presents. Part of me knew even then that Ebenezer was all of us. He’s  often viewed as some aberrant jerk but, in fact, we all have to struggle with a heart that wants to close after disappointments. We all have to remember to stop counting and to give with abandon.

We love you, Ebenezer, and we forgive you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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