Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Black Friday

by Margaret Dilloway

The other day, I told my 6-year-old daughter that she had a playdate the day after Thanksgiving.

“On Black Friday?” she asked.

Doh. How did she know about Black Friday? How can she not? Even if she couldn’t read, there are Black Friday commercials on all the time. Spend, save, spend.

I have mixed feelings about Black Friday.

My father worked in retail. Christmas season made us or broke us as a family. If people were willing to spend money on jewelry, our Christmas and a part of the year would be comfortable. If the retail season tanked, so did we. So one part of me, remembering this, hopes that people will spend money on gifts to support all the people in retail.

But another part of me thinks Christmas is a black hole of consumerism. After all, I am now a (admittedly kind of sporadic) church-attending Catholic. Christmas is supposed to be a time to reflect on the birth of Christ and all that this means. To spend time with beloved family and friends. Not to run out and buy essentially useless consumer goods.

What good does stuff do you in the end? In the past ten years, we have helped move three elderly relatives out of their homes. This involved having estate sales and garage sales and getting rid of every accoutrement they have accumulated throughout their lives. Boxes of collectibles, years unseen in garages, now had to be disposed of. While I went through innumerable vases and tea cups and assigned price tags, I thought about how much time it had taken to accumulate these possessions, and how, near the end of their lives’ journeys, these objects that seemed so precious were just dust-collectors. How all those hours of collecting and purchasing didn’t matter now.

In 2009, my husband lost his job, due to the trickle-down effect of a mini-Madoff criminal. The only job he could find was in Honolulu. But the move required that we get rid of almost everything. All the possessions that we had acquired through more than a decade (and three children) together. The very idea almost crippled the plan. I considered not moving to Hawaii because it required so much sacrifice, but I felt it would be stupid to not move just because I was overly attached to material possessions. Plus, as anyone in this position can tell you, a job is a job, and you go where you have to.

One of the toys we got rid of was a pink wooden Costco play kitchen set we had bought for our youngest daughter for Christmas one year. My husband had driven to Indio, out in the desert, to get the very last set they had in stock. At the time, it seemed important that she get the kitchen set for Christmas. She did enjoy playing with it. But eventually she ignored it. And then, when we moved to Hawaii, we had to get rid of that kitchen set, and I wondered why I had been so worried about buying it in the first place.

What I’m trying to say is, all Christmas season long, we spin on this hamster wheel of consumerism. Driving like madmen from one place to another, searching for the gift that will make our kids immeasurably happy, save the relationship, show our love. Spending money that is often theoretical, put on credit cards. Does the end justify the means?

I am beginning to think it does not.

Whether we have to move into assisted living, have to move across an ocean, or have a house burn down, all those things we slaved to get become all they are meant to be: inanimate objects without meaning. Junk that needs to be given away.

Not that having material things is useless.. When we moved to Hawaii (and then back, eighteen months later) not having the basics of creature comforts sucked, to put it inelegantly. Sleeping on the floor, eating off paper plates, spending every bit of extra money to buy the essentials while forgoing grocery items like milk, wasn’t a fun time.

But now that this is more than a year in the past, I remember that discomfort less than the fact that we went through a bad time together, bereft of material possessions, and came through it okay. I like to think that this experience taught the kids we don’t need to have a lot of stuff, a lot of things, to be happy and creative.

You know that movie, A Christmas Story? It’s one of my favorites. In the film, young Ralphie wants a Red Rider BB gun. But the movie’s not just about the big moment on Christmas morning. It’s about all the other stuff that happens around Christmas. Visiting crazy Santa. Fighting a bully. Getting a Christmas tree. The leg lamp. The dogs eating the turkey. Eating out at a Chinese place.

It’s not about the stuff, it’s about all the other events. The people, the funny stories. The experiences.

It only took me about 35 years to learn this. As a kid, I don’t remember much about my family’s Christmases, beyond what I got. We didn’t go to church, or out to look at lights, have friends over, go to parties or play games. It was all about the gifts and the decorations. So when those material things didn’t happen, Christmas lost its luster.

But when I remember the Christmas we spent in Hawaii, I can’t tell you what the kids got. It was modest. What we all remember is going to the uber-crowded Honolulu lights parade, eating Christmas Eve dinner sandwiches on the beach, driving up a big hill to look at newspaper-advertised lights that turned out to be pitiful.

My intent isn’t to tell people not to go shopping on Black Friday (like I could change anyone’s mind anyway). It’s to say this: if you don’t go shopping, if you don’t stand in line for eight hours to get your child a reduced-price scooter or your husband a big-screen TV, it won’t matter. Build the memories more than the objects, and you’ll never have a bad holiday, no matter how much the economy collapses.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Words of Thanks

by Susan McBeth
On the first day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to William Shakespeare for teaching me the beauty, complexity, humor, and expanse of the English language.  As a writer, I can think of no greater gift.

On the second day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to W.G. Sebald, a brilliant German writer who tragically died before his time in an automobile accident, whose works have spoken to me in a way that have helped me better understand the complex nature of survivors in history and , thus, my own roots.

On the third day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who reminds this writer daily that “I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual balance of life, work and human relationships.”  A copy of Gift from the Sea is a permanent fixture on my nightstand and offers a constant reminder to keep my shell simple and open at all times.

On the fourth day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to Harper Lee, for teaching me that every life is a story, and those stories are dictated by our choices.  She reminds me daily to think thru the consequences of making the right, and wrong choices, in life.

On the fifth day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to Ayn Rand for teaching me the capability of the human mind and what we can all accomplish when we challenge our potential and utilize our own unique gifts

On the sixth day of Thanksgiving week, I give thanks to John Steinbeck for reminding me that we must never forget our humanity.  I can think of no other writer to date whose poignant words touched me so deeply that I carry an ingrained image of them in my brain on a daily basis.

On Thanksgiving Day, I close out the week and give thanks to Yann Martel for offering the gift of hope, and the reminder that we must all co-exist, despite our struggles.  I hope for the day when we can, in fact, give thanks that we indeed have achieved a peaceful co-existence.

 I wish to close by giving special thanks to my fellow San Diego Writing Women, who, thru their support, encouragement, and unique talents, have all offered me gifts of their own, and I thankfully accept and gratefully acknowledge their value in my life. 

Friday, November 11, 2011


By Marjorie Hart

Do you have a problem with priorities? Years ago, there was no such thing as we know it today—priority was an unknown word. No lists, no two-year calendar, no cell phone and no one to remind you, “Are you finished yet?”

Now, having a priority is essential before a cup of coffee though I wonder at its usefulness. If I start the day with music, I know I should be writing, If I’m writing, I should be practicing. Let’s add an emotional element—guilt. Do we need more guilt? I looked back at my childhood for a clue.

When I grew up there was music every day: morning, noon and night. Even in those bitter Iowa mornings which were so cold the frost covered the wallpaper, I’d dash to the kitchen and huddle next to the black iron range where my sister was practicing her violin. Each morning, it was hot cocoa with Czerny violin exercises. In the afternoon, mother’s piano pupils would line up and I’d hear so many versions of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavichord, I could hum them in my sleep. At night, mother lulled us asleep playing the plaintive C Major Brahms Intermezzo. Its haunting melody and the memory can still bring me to tears.

My father had other interests—he loved books and poetry and could dramatically recite The Raven to visiting company, or show me the exotic countries in the National Geographic. My first encounter with Tiffany was their glittering ad on the first page. When we walked in the woods, he kept Audubon’s book of birds in his coat pocket to spot a new wood thrush. But my favorite was the mosquito-net tent he brought from Hawaii during WWI. He pitched it in the back yard, between a lilac bush and the purple-martin bird house. When I crawled in, it became a gauzy-white palace where I could see out, but no one could see in. There I would read or write by the hour, oblivious to the call for dinner.

Did my parents have priorities? They got up each day and did what they had to do as an integral part of their lives, without a list, a calendar, a car, or a complaint.

But I’m still looking for my priority. Shall I practice for a concert or finish my writing?

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Earth Is Round

We hear “It’s a small world” all the time, but I prefer my old Persian expression that says, “The Earth is round, we never know when we’ll meet again!” Maybe what I enjoy is its optimism, or the indication to an active world rather than one that’s shrinking in size. I recently came to experience this dynamic wave and realized how truly connected people are.

Years ago, I read Digging to America by Ann Tyler and wrote a review on it for The Iranian. Months later, I received a sweet letter from two ladies in New Jersey. Prior to conducting a book club session regarding the above book, they had decided that since parts of the novel involved Iranian characters and culture, they should look up a review by an Iranian writer and, as luck would have it, found my article. Their flattering remarks complimented me on my review and in the end they expressed interest to read more of my work and to be notified about my upcoming novel. We exchanged pleasantries and I promised to be in touch.

Four years went by and I became so absorbed in my work that I lost track. Two weeks into the launch of my novel, I received another e-mail from one of those ladies. I was deeply touched to learn that she had followed my articles and now wanted me to provide copies of my new novel for a NY bookstore, where she now worked. A year has gone by and I still can’t put a face to her name, but in my mind, she has earned an angelic image.

To date, The Blue Door Books in Cedarhurst NY has single handedly sold more copies of my Sky of Red Poppies than any other vendor - excluding Amazon, not to mention arranging several book club discussions by phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if by now the people in Cedarhurst know me better than San Diegans do! This is no longer just business because such connections convince me that I’m on the right path and generate the energy I need to go on.

So, if you happen to pass through Cedarhurst NY, stop by The Blue Door Books and visit the people who don’t just provide books, but deeply care about their clients. Good recommendations are why we all became readers and receiving such care is what makes independent bookstores irreplaceable.