Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What Did you Get? by Ellen Jensen Abbott

“What did you get?” As a kid, that was the question I asked and was asked beginning around 11 AM on Christmas morning as I got on the phone with friends to compare hauls. Sure, I liked the giving, too. It was exciting to see family members open gifts from me and smile—sometimes the smile was bemused. But when talking to my peer group, it was all about “What did you get?”

So, in the spirit of “what did you get,” but hopefully tempered with a little, ahem, maturity, here is a list of a few things I got this Christmas season:

  • My son, in the middle of a gap year we feared would stretch into several, applied to college. 
  • My daughter, home from boarding school, brought a friend from Germany and a friend from Palestine home for part of the vacation, reminding us of the world beyond our small suburban town.
  • My mother-in-law, in a nursing home, received a super soft, beautiful blanket from her secret Santa and her face just lit up when she opened it.
  • Good friends joined us for Christmas dinner, the first year that we did not have either my mother- or father-in-law with us for the holidays , and made the evening very merry. 
  •  Although I have stacks of Othello research papers moldering in my back-pack waiting to be graded, I have actually taken time off this vacation to be with family, read, knit, run, walk the dogs, ski, stare at the Christmas tree, and watch the Harry Potter marathon on ABC Family.
  • Our family skied for three days at Hunter Mountain in NY with dear friends, one of whom can recite world cup skiing winners, male and female, for the past 20 years. Skiing with this guy is JOY.
  • Each morning for breakfast I’ve eaten a cinnamon bun made using the recipe my mother always used when we were growing up. 
  • I received a Christmas card from a former professor I thought I had lost touch with.

Okay, I also got some stuff (a cool sweater from the Loft, a ski-boot bag, a super cozy infinity scarf) but these other things—gifts of time and relationship and family—are a bigger part of the holidays than what’s under the tree. I know, it’s a cliché—but it’s true. And it’s been nice to be reminded of this Christmas truism in such specific ways.

Monday, December 29, 2014

It's a wonderful life, by Brian Katcher

Christmas, 2001: I'm sitting in a bar in the red light district of Hamburg, Germany. I'm so desperate for companionship I pay a prostitute TO TALK TO ME for twenty minutes. Miserable and lonely as I am, I can't help but reflect that things have improved since last Christmas.

Christmas, 2014: I watch the joy and excitement in my daughter's eyes as she opens her presents from Santa, as my wonderful wife stands next to me.

Here's hoping that the new year brings lots of new and wonderful things for all of you. Believe me, life does get better.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holiday Blues (by Margie Gelbwasser)

I love the holiday season. We celebrate Chanukah, and I like playing dreidel with my seven-year-old, who's really gotten into it this year (you can never get enough pennies). We also put up Chanukah decorations on the windows, light the menorah, and eat latkes. This year, we invited my son's friend and his family (who are not Jewish) to show them how we celebrate, and it was so fun. I also love looking at all the Christmas decorations, and we check blogs and Facebook pages for the hottest light displays. This year, we visited a house in our town that set its light display to music. Another holiday favorite is the song Same Old Lang Syne. But why that song is only played alongside Christmas songs is beyond me. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this song and wish I could hear it year round.

So, all this said, there's no reason I should feel down, but December has been a hard month. Maybe it was the onset of cold weather, shorter days, the excitement but also the knowledge that there's so much to do within a small space of time. I don't know. Last week, my anxiety hit a high, depression creeped in, and I was staring at a blank computer screen (that is when I even bothered to look at OpenOffice) and chastising myself for not getting with the program and writing something.

My thinking snowballed into my career insecurities, lack of accomplishments, and all that stuff I'm sure other writers are familiar with. I talked with people, posted on a writing forum (that has the best YA writers ever) and finally realized something. IT'S OK TO TAKE A BREAK.

It's not like I haven't had this epiphany before. It's just....I never listened. Or, by the time I did, it was already days/weeks after being mad at myself for taking a break and, thus, not even enjoying the break.

The thing about writing full time is that it's all kinds of awesome. The thing about writing full time is that it's all kinds of self-induced pressure. When I worked outside the house, days off meant days off. I've tried writing full time in the past (pre-kid) and have never been good at giving myself days off. I embarked on the full time writing path again this September (first time in 7 years of really making writing a full time focus), and realized I'm doing it again. By the time I realized I needed a day off, it was too late. But that's my goal for this year. Make a schedule, write, write, write, and then give myself a day off at least once a week to do whatever. To recharge, to not feel guilty for sitting on my couch and watching old 90210 reruns.

At least I caught myself before the holiday season totally ended and am now giving myself permission to enjoy what's left of it. If you're like me, I hope you're giving yourself permission to take days off too.

Happy holidays!!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The beauty of holiday breaks

The stretch of time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s has always been one of my favorite times of year.

I love all of it: the lights, the decorations, the music, the food. Even the shopping (though I don’t venture out on Black Friday, since I don’t find That Holiday Spirit in stampeding crowds).

Mostly what I love about this time of year is that we allow it to be special. We go out of our way to make that family recipe, host that party, send that card, put up those decorations. We take days off.

Regular daily life is an endless, predictable round of work and chores. No tinsel, no gifts, no sleeping until 10 AM and having leftover pie for breakfast. January is heart-breaking: we tear down the silver and gold, the multi-colored lights, and return to the cement-gray world of regular life. Ugh.

This post appears on December 27, which is part of that quiet pre-New Year’s week when offices are lightly staffed and social expectations are low. We’re all just recovering from the holiday bustle, and possibly preparing for one last party on New Year’s Eve. Although it is not so for everyone, it can be a very restful week.

So, this week, if you are one of the fortunate ones on vacation, wrap some tinsel around you and have one last piece of peppermint bark. Take one last afternoon to curl up on the couch with a good book, or play cards with the family, or assemble the new toys (batteries not included!). Take the wrapping paper out of the dog’s mouth, make a sandwich from leftover turkey, and settle down with the crossword puzzle.

Regular life will resume soon enough.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Twelve Days (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

So I'll be honest with you. I love the holidays. I am a holiday dork. I love pretty much any holiday. I celebrated Valentine's Day long before I ever had a Valentine, and I never gave up hope that someday a real boy would actually act like a boy in a YA novel and reveal himself to be my secret admirer on the day of hearts and flowers. (That...did not ever happen. But I enjoyed the anticipatory thrill, nonetheless.) I eat green food on Saint Patrick's Day. 

So...I love December. I decorate. I send cards. I make delicious gluten-free cookies which I eat all by my celiac self because no one believes me about how good they are. (Whatevs...suit yourselves. More cookies for me.) I read and reread my favorite holiday books. This year, I volunteered to participate in a public reading of A Christmas Carol. You might guess that I love A Christmas Carol. I confess, this time of year makes itself easy for me to love. I have always celebrated both the religious and the larger cultural aspects of Christmas and have never felt the tug between the two which both my devoutly religious and my devoutly atheist Facebook friends lament. I don't see why it has to be either/or or both/and. I have been known to accuse all of these people of being "Christmas buzzkills" and also of not really understanding the history of the holiday. Christmas is big enough to go around, and many cultural and religious moments have shaped Christmas as we celebrate it. I love that about it while also recognizing that I occupy a place of distinct holiday privilege, not only because my holiday is culturally dominant but also because I don't get grumpy about how it's celebrated or if someone wishes me a happy holidays, season's greetings, or happy holiday-that-is-not-my-holiday. 

I have no problem being merry or jolly or whatever, but the whirlwind between Thanksgiving and New Year's can be crazy, and here are two reasons I think I've been able to maintain my love of Christmas well into my adult life.

This guy, amirite?

1. "I don't have to do anything but pay taxes and die."

This was an oft-repeated refrain in my house. My dad said this whenever we kids told him he had to do something. He was kidding. Mostly. I knew I was a real grown-up when I started saying it. The thing is, I love Christmas so much that I want to protect it from becoming a mad rush from one obligation to another. I do nothing, or very little, that I don't actually want to do. I do the things I enjoy, not the things I'm supposed to do. So even though I am busier than usual, it's a merry kind of busy. One of my biggest stresses is will I finish all my Christmas books by New Year's?

2. The Twelve Days of Christmas

I heard all this stuff would cost like $150K.

I used to think December 26 was the biggest bummer of a day in the whole year, but now I love it. I even love December 25 more than I used to because it kicks off a solid twelve-day holiday for me that lasts until Epiphany on January 6, or until Christmas sort of winds itself down naturally. This came about by accident, but I wouldn't change it for the world. My husband and I live about 750 miles away from our families in South Carolina, and spending our Christmas traveling in order to be there was okay for everyone else, but not so great for us. Also, you never know what the weather's going to do this time of year, which can make travel dates unpredictable, so who knows when we'll arrive, anyway. My husband's parents are divorced, which gives us three families to visit. Every year, we end up with at least four separate Christmases: our own, and one with each set of parents and that side of the family. Trying to cram those into one day would be nuts.

Now we schedule Christmas celebrations through the New Year. Sometimes we also take a little vacation with one or two of the family groups. This year, because we have a three-month-old, we traveled to South Carolina in November when the weather was a bit more predictable, and all three sets of parents are coming to our house in the week between Christmas and New Year's because it turns out that Baby's First Christmas is a pretty big draw to get other people to travel for a change.
Speaking of Baby, she's made the Twelve Days of Christmas beautiful for me in ways beyond the practical awesomeness of not needing to celebrate with everyone on one day. Last December, we finally got all the medical interventions I needed to conceive in place, but no one, including the doctor who gave me a three-month supply of hormone supplements, expected it to work that time. But I knew that Christmas is magical, and if it would work any time, it would work then. I decorated with mistletoe and pinecones because how do I know which of those old superstitions are actually true?

I spent all last Twelve Days of Christmas wondering if I was pregnant and discovered I was on January 6. Epiphany. Baby was the last and best gift and sometimes I call her "partridge."

She's being baptized on December 28 this year.

I shut nothing out of my Christmas celebrations.

I want all the stories to be true.

I suspect that's how I became a writer.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Natalie D. Richards -- Recc'ing Around The Christmas Tree

Recc’ing Around The Christmas TreeBy Natalie D. Richards

It was the night before Christmas…. Yeah, wait, that’s a lie.  It’s not the night before anything.  It’s not even technically night anymore.  It’s about two in the morning, so it’s tomorrow.  Or just way-too-freaking-late-to-be-wrapping. Or maybe oh-God-I-can-taste-the-hours-of-sleep-slipping-away. 
But as I sit here surrounded in bits of wrapping paper, wondering aloud with my husband how many Christmas movies feature a main character named Holly (or “Nick” if we’re talking boys) I feel like it wouldn’t be a Christmas post if I didn’t come at this with a spirit of giving.
With that in mind, I’m dearly hoping are bookstore gift cards burning a hole in your pajama pockets this Christmas morning and I’ve got some ideas for what you could do with them.  (As an aside, I do hope you’re reading this in pajamas.  There should be a law against wearing actual clothes on Christmas day.  Isn’t it all about lounging around the house all day, eating cookies for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and watching an endless loop of A Christmas Story?) 

So, when your festivities begin to wind down and you find yourself browsing online for a way to spend some of those pretty little gift cards, I have a few recommendations.  I’m lucky enough to know dozens of incredibly talented teen writers and I could easily make you a list of twenty or thirty books I’d recommend, but for the sake of space and time, I’m choosing a few of my absolute favorites today.

For the reader who wants to be freaked the freak out:
Geoffrey GirardProject Cain or Cain’s Blood.  Girard decides to take serial killers (creepy) and cloning (creepier) and mash them into something truly horrifying.  For more mature readers, go with Cain’s Blood, but if you’d prefer something a little less terrifying, start with Project Cain.

For the reader who wants reality with a side of woo-woo:
Jody CasellaThin Space is a beautifully crafted tale about a boy struggling with the loss of his brother.  Desperate to reconnect, he spends his days roaming around barefoot in search of a thin space (where the wall between the living and the dead is thin) so he can communicate with his brother one last time.

For the reader who wants a book they can’t put down.  Like, at all:
Romily Bernard:  Find Me series.  Start with Find Me, but go ahead and buy Remember Me too, because once you get a taste of Wick and Griff  (along with Bernard’s gorgeous and often gut-wrenching prose) you won’t be able to get enough.  Wick is a hacker heroine with fire running through her veins.  This thriller grabs you from the first line and will keep you burning through the pages way past bedtime.

For the reader who wants a romance…with a side of quirk:

Erin McCahan: Love and Other Foreign Words
.  Love and Other Foreign Words is far more than a romance.  This enchanting book delves into the nature of love in its many forms and how young Josie (easily one of the most original, endearing characters I’ve ever read) navigates those relationships.  One that will bring you sigh after dreamy sigh. 
For the reader who enjoys a little this-could-really-happen terror:

Mindy McGinnis.  Start with Not a Drop to Drink and move along to In a Handful of Dust.  Not a Drop is a spare and haunting account of a girl living in a world where fresh water is running out and Handful of Dust is a companion novel.  These books take a long look at a future that’s a real possibility and it won’t be easy to shake the fear off when you’re done.

For a reader who wants a whole new spin on a mystery:
Edith Pattou: Ghosting.  This free verse mystery told in multiple points of view by master story-weaver, Edith Pattou, mesmerized me from the start.  It follows a group of teens through one terrifying evening, an evening that will change the course of their lives and relationships forever.
Here’s hoping you find a new book or two to fall in love with this Christmas.  I’m not sure there is a greater gift than discovering a new author you really enjoy. 

Happy Holidays to all of the YA Outside the Lines readers.  We’re all so glad to have you with us!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Thank You Notes

Figure 1. Thank you for being such a beautiful complex human being, Norman. This has nothing to do w/ YA or gratitude.

I was raised by a woman who insisted on thank you notes. Not only did she stick a package of them in my Christmas stocking, she also hounded me about writing them for weeks and weeks after any occasion where I got a gift. I resisted, at first, but finally, I just did them, to escape her harassment. She would take the bundle of notes and address and stamp them for me.

Now I am a lady who does this kind of thing herself. I buy thank you notes constantly so I have just the right note for the right occasion or person. This is a very good piece of training to receive from one's parents. I can't think of a reason when sending a thank-you note is a bad idea.

This brings me to the part where I tell you something wise and important.

When I get emails from people who have read my book and tell me nice things about it, it's pretty much the best thing ever.

I mean, first off, it's great they read my book. It's great they maybe even bought it. It's great they might recommend it or write reviews for it online.

But when they send me a note saying that they enjoyed it for this or that reason, that it moved them in some way I didn't expect, that it inspired them or made them cry (sorry! I don't want to make anyone cry!), it's the best feeling ever. Their mom didn't foist the package of thank you notes on them; they weren't being MADE to write for an assignment or to be polite. It's an entirely voluntary and kind thing they are doing and if I have any advice for aspiring authors (advice, ICK, sorry; it's like making people cry) it's that when you are moved by a book and you love it and you enjoyed it and it maybe even taught you something about your own writing, sending this kind of note is probably one of the best moves you can ever make. You are entering into the community of writers and readers and you are putting in motion a beautiful action that will have an equal, positive reaction. You are sending your thank you notes, via email, of course, but they are still thank yous, and they are coming from a real, true place. You are giving a gift for no reason, for no occasion, with no motive beyond extending gratitude.

Authors can't live off those notes. They need to be paid, yes. But there is something transformative about getting them and I suspect that there is in giving them as well.

So here I will say thank you, to all those people who have given me these unexpected gifts: thank you. Your words have made hard days better and good days sweeter.

Thank you for being a reader. Thank you for sending me and other writers kind words. Thank you for taking a minute to acknowledge the ways our fake people and invisible worlds matter.

Thank you; I wish you all good things in 2015.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Decembers Past and Present (by Patty Blount)

It's the most wonderful time of the year...

More than just a song lyric, December meant Christmas and presents and trees and NO SCHOOL and family gatherings and cookies and a host of other traditions -- some of which I continue and some of which I now skip.

It's kind of sad, really. But with a full time day job plus a writing career, there are limits to how many Christmas traditions I can carry on.


  • Christmas cards: I no longer obsess over the perfect photo and stamps and writing out all those envelopes. Instead, I spend an afternoon calling the people I haven't spoken to all year. 
  • Christmas shopping: Gone are the days of buying the perfect present for every person in our families. We now do a family grab bag with a $50 limit. 
  • Christmas dinner: Over the years, we've handled Christmas dinner in a number of different ways. First, my husband's parents used to take everyone out to dinner. But as we added children to the family, this became very expensive. So, we started sharing the holiday. Each year, one sibling hosted the entire family. Then, that became too difficult as we began moving further apart. 
  • Christmas trip: For a few years, we all met in a central location and rented a home big enough for all 18 of us. 
  • Christmas baking: Since I was a little girl, baking cookies at Christmas time was a thing. Mom used to bake hand cookies... she'd roll out dough and I'd place my hand on it. She'd carefully trace around my hand with a butter knife, then cut through that outline with a sharp knife. We'd "paint" the nails with sprinkles and other decorations. A whole day was set aside for Italian struffoli, also called honey balls. Over the years, the cookie recipes have changed a bit, but I still bake boatloads every year because my family and friends enjoy those treats so much. 
  • Christmas decorating: When I was a kid, my grandparents had one of those white trees that rotated on a stand along with a color wheel that changed the tree from white to blue, green, red, and purple. Our own tree was an artificial evergreen. My mom used to do ceramics so we had a little swiss chalet that she'd made and a whole Nativity set. Sadly, those pieces have not survived the years, but I remember unpacking them and setting them up each year. Today, my family decorates a real tree. 
  • Christmas gathering: We choose an off day -- mid December or early January -- and get together to pick grab bag gifts and just hang out. 
  • Christmas breakfast: Since my husband and I got married, we've been going out to breakfast on Christmas morning. 
  • Christmas reading: I looked forward to the same stories. A Christmas Carol. The Gift of the Magi. Even though I'd read thoses stories dozens of times, I looked forward to reading them each year. 

Earlier this year, I released my first grown-up romance, a Christmas story called Goodness and Light. Traditions are super important to main character Elena. I borrowed many of my own traditions for this story -- Elena bakes cookies, shops for friends and family, decorates a tree and so on. Like me, Elena mourns for the traditions she no longer continues.

What traditions do you continue? Which ones do you miss? Whether it's Christmas, Hannukah, or Festivus, I wish you all a joyous holiday.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Have Yourself a Merry Little Workweek (by Cyn Balog/Nichola Reilly)

Weeks like the one coming up, it’s hard not to be swept up in that feeling. You know the one I’m talking about, don’t you?

The one where everyone else in the world has is on vacation but you?


Right, that’s probably because you’re on vacation. You’re a teacher, or a student, or have a lot of time off that you need to use before the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting behind a desk on Christmas Eve, crying on my keyboard, wondering how my life could have gone so drastically wrong.

Times like these, when the radio station at my work plays tunes like I’ll Be Home for Christmas, I think . . . NOT!  And Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, I think of Judy Garland singing to Tootie and I’m like, all they were boo-hooing about was moving to NYC and missing the World’s Fair. Big deal. They could easily hang that shining star upon he highest bough because they had Christmas off, and enough free time to make a slew of snowmen in their yard.

I am working pretty much every day this week, which makes for a lot of fun figuring out who will babysit the kids, who have 2 glorious weeks off. Not that there aren’t PLENTY of people available to sit with them… so many people are facebooking about their winter vacation escapades that I’ve already had to put my news feed off-limits. 

It’s weeks like these I start to rethink the full-time job idea. But it’s necessary for me, without a trust fund, a rich husband, or a multi-million-dollar book deal.  Still, there has to be a better way. After all, it often seems like most everyone else in the world has found it but me.

Happy holidays.  I salute you from my office, where I will be knee-deep in spreadsheets. But in the remote chance someone like me is reading this, fist bump. You’re not alone.  Have an after-work hours egg nog on me, my friend, and let your heart be light.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Santa Paws is Coming to Town (Alissa Grosso)

If I had a fireplace, and Santa Claus dropped in by way of the chimney, I'm pretty sure my dog Jack, would do his best guard dog impersonation and bark and growl until Santa headed straight back to the North Pole. The closest we get to Santa around these parts is the oil delivery guy and Jack has, on many occasions, voiced his opinion that this man and his big noisy truck are not welcome here.

Jack waiting to protect me from Santa, oil delivery guys or any other potential threats.

Lucky for Jack that he doesn't need to rely on Santa Claus for his Christmas gifts. That's my job. While many people know December 25 as Christmas, I'm pretty sure Jack considers it New Squeaky Toy Day, and as far as he's concerned there is nothing more exciting than a new toy, especially one that squeaks. One Christmas my boyfriend gave Jack a toy that had 10 separate squeakers in it. My father noted this was something of a passive aggressive gift, my boyfriend not having to actually share a house with Jack and his 10 squeakers.

Jack getting ready to try out a squeaky bone, a Christmas gift I gave him. It only had one squeaker in it.

Jack will be getting a new squeaky toy this Christmas and a tasty new bone to chew. I would say, "Shh, don't tell him," but honestly I think he already knows. It's like when I get a small, heavy, rectangular gift-wrapped package, and I have to pretend like I wonder what it could be, when I know, of course, that it's a book. My parents' old Golden Retriever, Winston, had the Christmas thing so figured out, that one year when the humans were taking too long eating breakfast, he took matters into his own paws, rooted around through the dozens of packages under the tree, found the correct one, tore off the paper and started happily squeaking away. Impressively, the rest of the packages remained untouched.

My cats used to get more excited about Christmas. For one thing, the tree, though artificial was a great source of entertainment. Of course, there was the usual batting of the ornaments off the tree. My cats also enjoyed climbing the tree and sleeping in the branches. There were often fights over who got to sleep under the tree. One year I went away for Christmas, and came home to find the tree on the ground. I don't go away for Christmas anymore.

Sadly, I lost one of my cats earlier this month. I now just have one cat, and he's become something of a crotchety old man. He has no interest in toys. He spends his days sleeping, eating and pooping in inappropriate places. There's a very good chance he'll leave me a present under the tree. Let's just say, I won't be getting excited about it the way Jack does over a new squeaky toy.

My crotchety old man in his more playful days attacking a George W. Bush cat toy (a gift from my parents) while my two girls wait patiently for their turn to chew on the president.

But one gift I am grateful for is all the love, joy and cuteness that animals have brought to my life over the years -- both those that are still here and those that have crossed over the rainbow bridge where every day is like Christmas with new squeaky toys and catnip mice (or presidents, as the case may be) for all.

I'll be giving out lots of gifts this Christmas, but I guarantee that none will be greeted with the joy and sheer exuberance that one small, squeaky present will generate, and so that's why I urge you, if you are able, to give the gift of a warm, safe home to an animal in need be they a shelter cat, a free-to-a-good-home dog or even a pair of stray kittens. And if you can't adopt any new furry friends, please consider your local animal shelter in your holiday gift giving. Even a small donation can help keep the tails wagging and the kitties purring.

May you have a furry (and merry) Christmas!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

That Gift-Giving Feeling? (Natasha Sinel)

I love the aesthetics of the holiday season—snow, lights, trees (especially since, being Jewish, I don’t have to deal with the hassle part of procuring, decorating, undecorating, and disposing). But the other part of the season—the gift-giving—has been lost on me for a long, long time. December has become nothing more than a month filled with to-dos lists—Chanukah presents (three kids, eight nights, do the math), teacher gifts, tips, cute holiday card to everyone we or our parents have ever known, new unwrapped gifts for charities, checks for end of year fund-drives. It’s just one novel-length to-do list. On top of that, I'm bitter that the list takes up my writing time. And gift-receiving? No thanks. When I need something, I just get it.

But…but! The other day, I caught a glimpse of the giving spirit, and I’m hanging on to it for dear life. Our elementary school had a holiday boutique. Generous parent volunteers arranged gently-used stuff—jewelry, books, ties, mugs, stuffed animals, toys—on tables in the gym, and priced everything for about a dollar. I sent my kids in with a few bucks each.

That afternoon, my sons came home with their booty. While Z (2nd grade) chose to wait for Chanukah, J (Kindergarten) could do no such thing. He was bursting at the seams, talking faster than I could listen. And out of re-used plastic bags came each thoughtful purchase. A small soft teddy bear for Dad, a stuffed Tigger for Z, whose favorite color is orange, and a real-looking plush cat for me (I like cats, but some of us—I won’t mention names—are allergic). And then, out came the pièce de résistance—a truck for his oldest brother N (4th grade), whose current special interest is cars. J couldn’t wait for him to get home, and when he finally did, N, thankfully, was appreciative and sweet, even though the toy was a bit too young for him. J was so happy to get his brother’s approval, he almost cried.

This whole scene brought back a vivid memory from my own childhood. I was in 2nd grade. My mom and I walked to Higgers Drugs (now CVS). Incidentally, it is right next to Politics & Prose. Suddenly, I saw it. The perfect gift for Mom. I was absolutely sure that it had been placed there magically for the sole purpose of me finding it. It was the most beautiful key ring I’d ever seen—a large clear plastic rectangle with the name ELLEN etched in white letters. I ran to find my mom (in those days, it was okay to be out of your mom's sight in a store), asked for the amount of money I needed, then paid for the key ring. All. By. Myself. That was pure joy. Excitement. I could not wait until my mom opened that present. And I’m sure, like J, I didn’t wait. I don’t remember her reaction (I imagine she was appropriately enthusiastic), but I do remember that she kept that bulky thing on her key ring for years and years.

Turtlenecked Me in 2nd Grade

I want that feeling back—the innocence and pleasure, so completely devoid of cynicism. I want gift-giving to signify more than just checkboxes on my list of things to-do. I want to stop wishing for December to end so I can get back to “normal” life. I long to feel the way J (and 2nd grade me) felt when choosing and giving a gift.

Maybe it’s not too late for this year. After all, Chanukah’s only just begun.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Unexpected (and much needed) Moments of Peace by Jody Casella

Confession: I'm not a huge fan of the Christmas season.

Instead of feeling peace and good will toward men, I am usually stressing about elbowing my way through crowded stores to buy gifts that no one really needs, and hauling boxes of decorations up from the basement to festoon the house that a couple of weeks later I'll be unfestooning, and gearing myself up to host out-of-town guests which involves cleaning my train wreck of a home.

Fortunately, every year there are few happy glimmers of what the Christmas Season is all about.

Our family's annual watching of It's a Wonderful Life.

The fresh piney scent of the tree (every year I say I don't want a live tree because they make such a damn mess and every year we get one and I love it.)

Buying gifts for kids at a local community center and helping at their holiday party.

Hanging out with my family and the visiting relatives. Playing cards. Making puzzles. Listening to Bing Crosby and Charlie Brown Christmas. Cooking and eating tons of food. 

Okay, I'll admit it: I like Christmas, once I get into the swing of it. 

One year I didn't think I was going to. 

We'd just moved from Lexington, Kentucky to Columbus, Ohio a few weeks before. Money was tight. We hadn't sold our house in Lexington yet and it looked like weren't going to for a while. The furnace in the Lexington house broke and we were afraid the pipes were going to burst. My husband kept driving back (three hours away) to deal with each new maintenance issue. 

The house in Columbus was giving us other interesting maintenance issues. The place was drafty and old and cold. So cold we were walking around, inside, wearing our coats, hats, and mittens. Snow built up on the inside of the windows and we were glad because it meant that the icy wind could no longer blow in through the window cracks.  

We had radon in the basement. The guy installing the radon pump had to drill into the attic. He poked his head up there and came rushing back down to ask me, and I quote: "Did you know you have a Circle of Life type thing going on up in your attic?" Apparently, mice, birds, and raccoons had taken up residence and left behind a 3-foot high mound of straw and feces that the home inspector had failed to notice.

Our entire backyard flooded. And froze over. 

Our kids (in 8th and 5th grade) were stressed too. They were missing all of their Lexington friends and were trying to navigate new schools and routines and social groups. 

A week before Christmas things reached a breaking point. My husband had gone back to Lexington to fix the newly broken kitchen sink. It was 6:00, and my son informed me that his school was having an orchestra concert at 7:00. He had to be there in thirty minutes.

We ran around trying to finish up dinner and get out the door. My daughter started pitching a fit because she didn't want to go to the concert.  My son didn't know what he was supposed to wear. At his old school, orchestra kids always wore white shirts and black pants. But who knew about this place. I made him wear khakis and a blue collared shirt, figuring that would work no matter what. 

I still didn't know how to get to the school without looking at a map. I drove over in the dark (no streetlights in our little town. I know. What the HELL??) There were like two million people dropping off their kids and going off to park who knows where. My daughter was still whining in the back seat. My son mentioned that he thought he was supposed to play a viola solo and he was a little nervous about it. 

The kids being let out of the cars were all wearing black and white. 

Daughter and I joined the crowd of strangers streaming into the still unfamiliar middle school. We followed the mob to the auditorium. On the way I bumped into my son, who looked out of place in his khakis in the sea of black and white. 

"Can you go back home to get my black pants?" he asked me, voice quivery.

"No," I snapped. I barely knew the way home in the dark. I didn't think I'd make it back and forth in time. Daughter was still attitude-ing by my side and I couldn't bear to drag her back outside into the cold. I'm ashamed to admit that I berated my son, something along the lines of "This is your own damn fault for telling me at the last minute about the damn concert. You need to be more responsible." Blah blah bitchy bitch. 

He shrugged dejectedly and went off to find his class.

I remembered he had a solo and realized that I hadn't wished him good luck and what kind of crap mother was I making my kid feel crappy right before a concert?

But whatever.

Nobody even knew us in this stupid place. Daughter and I found a seat surrounded by strangers, all of these people calling each other by name and waving and chatting around us and I sank down into my chair thinking about my husband sleeping on the floor of our old house that I had loved so much and how later me, my whiney daughter, and irresponsible son would be going home to our Circle of Life Frozen Wasteland house that I hated.

The orchestra filed out in their black and white and there was my gangly 8th grader slumping and looking miserable. 

I've never felt so out of place and helpless and anxious and filled with self-loathing.

The music started. The usual kid orchestra deal. Decent music, but not what you'd probably choose to listen to for an hour if your kid wasn't one of the kids up there playing. 

The last song listed in the program was some song I'd never heard of called Dona Nobis Pacem. The music teacher introduced it, explaining that Dona Nobis Pacem, in Latin, means "Grant us peace." If the music is sung, those are the only words. 

Yeah yeah who cares, I was thinking, let's just get this show over with.

The 8th graders left the stage and scattered throughout the audience. I saw my son make his way down the aisle. He trudged upstairs to play somewhere in the balcony.

Suddenly I was nervous for him. What the hell kind of solo was he playing? I'd never heard him practice at home. Did he even know his part? 

The music started. One violin playing, and another, and another. Violas and cellos joining in. It was one of the most beautiful songs I'd ever heard. And it kept going, a round of the same tune, over and over. It ended as it began, one child after another playing their part and stopping, until it was just one. 

A viola. 

By then the music had risen to a crescendo and had fallen away and that one strand, by that one child, had me choking back tears. 

I don't know how I knew it, but I realized it was my child, playing, alone, up there in the balcony, in his khakis, surrounded, as my daughter and I were, by strangers. 

Does it seem silly to say that a three minute song could break a person down and fill her back up? 

For three minutes time stopped and there were no khakis or broken sinks or raccoons in the attic. No money worries or parental guilt or loneliness. 

When my son played the final note, there was another moment silence.



(Note: This video is the Jones Middle School Orchestra in Upper Arlington Ohio playing Dona Nobis Pacem in 2010. Daughter is the violist.) 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lang May Yer Lum Reek (Amy K. Nichols)

Photo courtesy of Steve Collis, Melbourne, Australia 
Once upon many years ago now, my husband and I celebrated Hogmanay (New Years) in Edinburgh, Scotland, with a couple of friends. Being on Princes Street is Scotland's equivalent of Times Square. This was before it became a ticketed event, and the streets were teeming with revelers. It was incredible. People from all over the world had gathered below Edinburgh Castle to celebrate the new year. I’ll never forget how the fireworks looked as they exploded in the hazy winter-night sky or the sound of 300,000 people singing “Auld Lang Syne”. Shortly after midnight, the four of us linked arms and headed off into the crowd in search of the shuttle back to our hotel.

We only got as far as The Mound when the crowds grew too thick to move. Before we realized what was happening, we found ourselves in a crushing mass of people with no way out. Have you ever been on your tippy toes in the ocean, tossed by the waves and trying to keep your head above water? Imagine that, but with people. Bodies crushed against me so tight I couldn’t expand my ribs to breathe. I lifted my face up into the sky, trying to find fresh air as more and more people packed in. I remember staring at the chimney tops and praying. At one point I thought, This is it. I’m going to die in a crowd on New Year’s Eve in Scotland.

It was one of the scariest moments of my life. One minute we were singing “Auld Lang Syne” and being kissed by drunken merrymakers. The next we weren’t sure we would be around to see the sun rise on the new year.

We did make it out, though, thank God. Something shifted and the crowd began to move like a swift current, carrying us along with it to our right. It spit us out right in front of a police barricade, where a number of injured people sat behind scaffolding. With room to move, the crowds dispersed. My husband and I hugged each other and cried, happy to be alive.

I found out later that that year's Hogmanay holds the Guinness World Record for being the world's largest New Year party, with 400,000 people in attendance. (I also found out 600 people were injured. Yikes.)

That night marked a turning point in my lifeIn high school, my best friend and I had made lists of things to do before we die. After Hogmanay, I found that list and started completing the things on it, because there’s nothing like facing mortality to make you realize life is short and there's no guarantee of tomorrow.

One of the things on that list? Write books.

My Christmas gift
this year
On Tuesday, my debut novel, Now That You're Here, was published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, and I've spent the last six days promoting it both online and with author appearances. It's been a dream come true. It's like Christmas came early this year. I'm grateful for all those who took time to come out to the events and support me. And I'm grateful for that scary and amazing night all those years ago in Scotland. If it weren't for getting squished at Hogmanay, I wonder if I'd be where I am now. I wonder if I'd have continued letting that list gather dust. I wonder if I'd have forgotten about it altogether.

My wish for you this holiday season is that you would dust off your own list--or make a new one, if necessary--and use the start of a new year to begin crossing off your own To Do's. You don't need a deadly hug from thousands of drunken merrymakers to help you understand that life is short. Just go for it. What have you got to lose?

Happy Hogmanay to you and yours! Lang may yer lum reek. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Holiday Toast (Nancy Ohlin)

This holiday season, I want to send waves of gratitude and love to an underappreciated demographic in my life:  my fellow writers.

Writing truly is a solitary profession.  That’s one of the things that drew me to being a full-time writer:  no bosses, no office politics, no annoying colleagues. 

But over the years, it got to be a little too solitary for me.   The writers I knew rarely came out of their caves, myself included.  We hardly ever talked shop or traded war stories.  Some subjects were totally hush-hush, like advances, royalties, and how we got our agents; it was like we were engaged in our own version of the Hunger Games, quietly battling each other for a tiny, tiny pool of book contracts and readership dollars.

We definitely did not talk about how terrified we were most of the time.

Something seems to have changed, though, or maybe I’m the one who’s changed.  Now, if I’m having a bad day because of writer’s block, a rejection letter, marketing fatigue, creative fatigue, no self-esteem, no money, or all of the above, I know that I can pick up the phone, send an email, or post on Facebook, and you are all right there with support, hugs, advice, and virtual chocolate. 

I have no idea how I made it this far without you guys.

I raise my glass to all of you.  Happy Holidays!