Saturday, December 31, 2011


I stopped believing in Santa when I was 9 years old, but I didn't tell my parents I didn't believe for another 2 years.  At that point, I'm pretty sure my mother thought I was never going to stop believing in Santa but, the truth was, I knew I had to pretend anyway for my younger sisters, and I didn't want to disappoint my parents or have them think I was less excited about the holiday.  My mom sat me down at some point to have the "there is no Santa" conversation, at which point, I finished her sentence and told her I hadn't believed in Santa "for YEARS."  It was a short conversation.  I even told her that at Christmas I could pretend pretty well, but damn if I didn't feel like a fool for pretending to believe some big bunny hid eggs in my front yard a couple months later. 
While I officially stopped believing when I was 9, I'm pretty sure I never really bought the whole Santa thing.  I know the year I stopped believing in Santa because, like most of the major events of my life, I have it documented in one of the bagillion journals I have kept over the years.  When I was 9, I started a "tradition" of my own, that has come to mean a great deal to me over the years.  Sometime between Christmas eve and New Years day, I started writing a letter to myself.  As I continued this ritual for years and years, part of the tradition became reading my old letters.  At 12, and 16, and 21, it was strangely comforting to have this tradition that was all my own, away from the hustle and confusion and chaos that seemed to be associated with the holidays.  Until now, this tradition of mine has always been "secret."  I never wanted anyone to know what I was doing, why I did it, or how much it meant to me.  I didn't want to answer any questions about why it was important, or what I wrote in these letters.  In a family that was often into, on top of, underneath, and in between everyone else's business, having this one private tradition was essential.

As a child being raised with parents of different religions, celebrating Christmas, Chanukah, and sometimes the solstice too, I was not always sure what this time of year meant.  To be perfectly honest, I am still trying to determine what means the most to me, how I want to celebrate it, and how I want to conceptualize it in my mind so that the traditions feel meaningful and the holiday spiritually fulfilling.  I haven't gotten there yet.  My tradition, though--my secret tradition--is special.  It gives me the permission to take the time and space to reflect on the year.  To talk to myself and take stock of what is going on with me, what's good, what's bad, what's changed, and what needs changing.  As I read some of my letters, I laugh remembering the craziness of that year, or laugh at how I thought I would never forget it, and I can now barely remember what I thought was so important.  Some of the letters, though, make me sad.  There were some rough years in there, and I wish someone had told me things would be okay.  I wish someone had told me somewhere along the line that I was a pretty cool kid.  I don't think I would have listened or been able to hear it, but I wish I could have told me that I was definitely pretty okay.

I haven't gone back and checked, but I'm pretty sure that I have a letter written every year from the time I was 9 until I was 25.  Last year, though, I didn't write a letter.  I wanted to write a letter.  I tried to write a letter.  I'm pretty sure I even started a letter.  But I didn't write one.  I even remember starting a post for this very blog about the fact that I was not writing a letter, and trying to justify not writing one.  I told myself that traditions change, and that this is a good thing.  I was lying to myself, though, and I knew it, so I didn't write the blog post OR the letter.  Halfway through January, I was still thinking about the damn letter, feeling like it should be written.  At that point, I told myself the chance was already past, and I didn't really want to write the letter anyway, and soon, I forgot about it.  (I swear, I am not normally this rigid about things).  I guess 2010 was just a rough year, and one that I was not ready to think about or remember. 

When I was very young (and in some of my older letters, too), I started out by writing a bulleted list of "who I am."  This ranged from lists of adjectives to descriptions of how I wore my hair to long lists of what types of music I liked and my favorite books.  Looking back at some of those letters, you would think I was putting them into a time capsule, or explaining myself to an alien who knows nothing about this culture, much less me.  There was a time when I could write long lists of who I am that was punctuated by exclamation points, smiley faces, stars, hearts, and positivity.  These lists gradually faded away and have become increasingly difficult to write.  Last year, even the act of writing the letter was an act of self-care and, potentially, gentleness, that I was unable and unwilling to venture into.  That I was unwilling to give myself.  Perhaps I was unsure of who I was.  Maybe I still am.

This year, though, I am going to write a letter.  I haven't written it yet.  I'm not going to post it here when I do write it, because this tradition is secret, remember, and it is just for me.  This tradition is something that, in my core, is important to me.  It is something I want to continue to do--for me.  Perhaps you could even say this tradition I developed is part of who I am.

Do you have a personal holiday tradition that is meaningful for you?  Have you/do you write yourself letters?  Would you consider writing down who you are--now?  Be gentle with yourself as you write.  Remember that the events and memories you share with your paper are precious, and that every part of you is deserving of love and gentleness because those memories make up the person you are today.  I will try to remember this as I write, too. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Makings of a Writer

Not me, but I was totally this cute

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember.  I think one of the earliest pieces of writing I have is from when I was in 1st grade.  I wrote my parents a letter that states: "Dear, Famile. (insert several stars and hearts here).  I am goeing awoy becuse (sister) has ben agervading my incibes incides out.  Love, (Autodidactpoet).  (Translation: Dear Family, I am going away because (sister) has been aggravating my insides out). 
Another prime example of my early writing comes from a journal when I was in 2nd grade.  It reads like this: "Thesmorning whan The bus came my sister (name) kisted me so hard and so closeto my nose that my nose bone started to hert."  There's a picture of us at the bus stop with me with a "herting nose bone."    What about that doesn't scream of greatness?
In 1996, however, my writing exploded and my talent soared to heights I have yet to recreate, and it was all due to one character.  I have no idea where this character came from, but my 11 year old mind created this character, who will one day be loved by children everywhere: Sam Funny.  Sam Funny is a 5 year old hippo and, after the success of "Sam's Hanukkah" (which won the 11-15 year old fiction prize in the county's writing competition, thank you*), I wrote "Sam's Ballet Class," "Sam Becomes Vegetarian," "Sam Goes to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship," and "Sam Becomes Homeschooled."  Of course, I was also vegetarian, homeschooled, and Unitarian Universalist, celebrated Hanukkah with my dad's family, and was a dancer.  I like to think of Sam's Ballet Class as the first example of a time I tackled writing about gender politics, as Sam was a boy who was made fun of for taking ballet (as was one of my best friends at the time). 
Here today, in its original form, complete and unabridged,  for the first time since 1996, I am going to share the story of "Sam's Hanukkah," (otherwise known as "The Story That Inspired It All").
Sam was going to Hanukkah dinner.  This year, it fell on the 13th of December, but that was the day Sam's playgroup went to the swamp.  So Sam's mother tried to pick him up early, but he didn't seem to want to leave.  Sam's sister, Maxine, carried him to the car in her best dress.  "To think that I put on all that perfume just to get to smell like a swamp!" said Maxine disgustedly.
"I always wanted to smell like this," said Sam.
When they reached their yellow house on Neighborly Lane, they saw their neighbor, Mr. Grump.  He took one look at the muddy family and turned away. 
"I guess Mr. Grump isn't being very neighborly today," sighed Maxine.
"No wonder!" said their father who had been waiting for them.
"DADDY!" cried Sam as the muddy figure ran and hugged his clean father.  There was an uneasy silence until his father said, " I guess I'll go change."
Not Sam.  He's definitely cuter.
Then came the trouble of getting Sam in his suit and tie.  The trouble was his mother practically had to shove him into it.  Sam howled, "why can't I wear my Bahama shorts and top!?!"
"Because it's the...whew, you really are getting big, Sam...middle of December...and...and..."
"It just isn't appropriate," said Maxine walking in.
"Exactly!" said his mother.
When the whole family was dressed and on their way, Sam's mother said, "now remember Sam, BE POLITE."
"And eat your kugel even if it is hard," added his father.
"And be kind to Aunt Ern," said Maxine as they drove up the drive to Aunt Ern's cottage.
They all piled out of the car and walked up to the door.  Mom rang the bell and they heard a thousand voices saying, "I'll get it!"
"Let Johnny get it," said a voice.  The door flew open and so did Sam's mouth because there stood his cousin in his Bahama shorts and top.  Sam's family swallowed hard.
"Look at Sam!" exclaimed Uncle Bert.
"Isn't he cunning?" said Aunt May.
"He's really adorable," said Aunt Ern.  Sam hid behind his mother.
"Has the cat got your tongue?" asked Uncle Max.  Sam peeked out and stuck out his tongue.
"Uhhhhh!" his aunts gasped.
"He's really literal about things," said Sam's mother with a fake laugh. 
"Dinner's read," said Aunt Ern in a flat tone.  Everyone ate in silence until Aunt Ern asked, " well, is the food good?"
"The kugel's hard," said Aunt May.
"I think it's wonderful!" said Sam.
"Bless his little heart," Aunt Ern said sweetly.
"I think the bagels are too dry.  I guess I'll have to talk to the baker," said Aunt Ern.
"Not when you put cream cheese on them!" said Sam, happy to be getting on his aunt's good side again.  Somehow, everyone found something to complain about, but Sam liked everything.
After dinner, Uncle Bert said, "well, well, is it time to say the blessing over the Hanukkah candles?  Jonny, will you say it this year?"
"Um...ahh...sure, I guess so."
Believe it or not, Google Images
did not have a picture of a hippo
lighting a menorah.

"Um, what is the blessing?"
"All right, I guess Johnny won't say it this year.  Veronica?  Naomi?  Kristen?"  They all looked at the ceiling.
"I'll say the blessing, Uncle Bert!" cried Sam.  Uncle Bert looked touched.
"Why yes, say it Sam."
"Adorable, just adorable," sighed his aunts.
"Go ahead, Sam," said his father.  The lights dimmed as Sam sang, "Baruch ata adonai, eloheynu melach ha-olam, asher kid-shanu b'mitzvotav, vitzivanu, l'hadlik ner, shel Hanukkah."
Everyone clapped and cheered, "bravo Sam, bravo!"  As they turned up the lights, they saw Sam fast asleep on the chair. 
"Bless his little heart," Aunt Ern said.
"Well, we really have to go.  Thank you for everything, it was lovely," said Sam's mother.
"Oh, don't mention it," they said.
"Well goodbye, goodbye!"
As the family piled into the car, Sam popped his eyes open and said, "did you see Johnny in his Bahama shorts and top?  That sure wasn't appropriate, was it?"
"Go to bed you stinker," said Maxine.
"I can't wait till next Hanukkah," sighed Sam as he fell asleep.

*I think I was also the ONLY one who entered the fiction writing competition in the 11-15 year old age group, but that's hardly my point.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On Being The Ugly Friend, or, the one in which I remember how gender stereotypes are harmful

I'll be the first person to admit that I am not like my peers.  I never have been.  I never will be.  The majority of the time--99% of the time, even--I am quite alright with that.  I can fit in enough in enough, but I am definitely different.  Most of the time, actually, I don't even think about it anymore because I hang with people on the same wavelength as me.  My friends are people who get it, and get me, and are people I feel good around.  I guess that's why we're friends.
This weekend, though, I had a holiday party thing I had to go to for work, and I stayed with some of my colleagues from work--friends from work--who invited me to stay and go to a Christmas festival near their apartment the following day.  What fun!  I love working with these folks.  They make great colleagues, we laugh, we help each other out, we support one another, and we serve as sounding boards and idea generators for one another.  I could not ask for better people to work with.
So I went, I hung out, we had fun, we laughed a lot, and I came home.  Driving home yesterday afternoon, though, I had this distinct sinking feeling in my stomach.  It had been coming for a while and had been building throughout the afternoon.  I ignored it, because I knew I had fun, I knew spending the weekend with them was better than spending the weekend at home in SmallTownUSA by myself, and I knew my friends had fun as well.  What's the problem?
I'm not good at ignoring things for long, though.  My mind likes me to think things to death, and if I attempt to avoid that, it only serves to make it worse.  So I started thinking.
My friends, Amanda*, Sarah*, and Matt*, were the primary cool kids I hung out with this weekend.  Other people were there at various points, but Amanda, Sarah, Matt and I were the fearless four who went adventuring.  Amanda and Sarah are, in a word, gorgeous.  They both in different ways exemplify our culture's ideas of beauty.  Although we were just going to a street festival in the cold where people drank beer and bought gingerbread cookies,  Amanda spent at least half an hour doing her make-up before we left.   She straightened her hair.  She tried on three different outfits before settling on the skinny jeans, tall boots, sweater with a cowel neck and a belt that emphasized her skinny waist, and I swear to all that is holy, her purse matched her boots.  When we met up with Sarah, she was also in the skinny jeans, with boots, a cute holiday-ish shirt, and an adorable little peacoat.  Every hair was in place, her eyelashes were aligned, and she had a cute little purse that Amanda flipped over.  Their jewelry all matched and I'd bet money that their underwear matched their bras.  And Matt?  He wore a red shirt with a black tie and a pullover sweater so he looked like he stepped out of an L.L.Bean catalog.  I was, without a doubt, the ugly friend.  If I'm honest with you--and I do believe in honesty--I spent much of my time walking around focused on the fact that I was the bruised or misshapen banana in this bunch, and praying to the Goddess-of-Women-Who-Don't-Fit-In that nobody had a camera in their adorable, shoe-matching bag.
To be fair, I was at a distinct disadvantage because I had only what I had packed, did not have access to my full wardrobe or make-up or accessories, and...let's get real.  Even if I had, I wouldn't have looked like that because that's not how I dress.  My hair is always in some sort of disarray, my body is far from perfect, my accessories never match, and I don't own any matching bra and underwear sets.  Sure I'll wear some mascara, but that's typically the extent of the makeup, and my eyes are terrible and have been rejecting of any contact I have tried in the past 5 years, so I seem to be stuck with glasses until I can afford Lasik.  To make me feel even better, Amanda and Sarah commented routinely on their appearance, asked one another for opinions, and commented on how much they had eaten, or hadn't eaten, and which clothes were going to fit or not fit after the upcoming holiday season.  When Sarah posed questions about what to wear to an upcoming winter wedding, and which purse would match her dress, Amanda was able to think it through and come up with an answer.  Me?  I just agreed with whatever was said as I, honestly, have no opinion or experience to offer on whether a clutch with feathers or a clutch with sequins would be better with a black strapless dress with gold sequins and a little poof in the skirt at a winter wedding.  (The answer, for anyone curious, was feathers).
So we're walking down the street and we started going into stores along the very expensive stretch of road we walked along.  There were jewelry stores, purse stores, shoe stores, and expensive cupcake stores.  There were random expensive clothing stores, insanely expensive furniture stores, and another jewelry store.  We walked through the festival, sometimes going into stores to warm-up, and it was in these stores that my sinking stomach feeling originated.   See, when women shop together, I've found, we all comment on what we see and what we love and what we don't like and what we can't imagine anyone ever buying.  This proves difficult, however, when the women you are with act like they would buy out the store in a heartbeat and, had someone given you a thousand dollars upon entering the store and told you to buy whatever you like, you would have left empty-handed.  There is something in me that just can't justify ever spending that much money on a purse.  And the shoes?  I would either break my leg, wobble like an elephant on stilts, or never get my foot in the damn things to begin with. 
But you know, even being the ugly friend, even having nothing to say about the $500 purses, and even being the only one who didn't try on a pair of $185 heels didn't bug me as much as this: the signs/mugs/plaques.  You know what I'm talking about?  They have signs like these in all cute little shops.  They can say anything, but these signs held primarily quotes about lipstick and shoes and what it "means" to be a woman.  What women should be like.  The way, supposedly, that women are.  "A girl should be two things: fabulous and classy," said one, with pictures of high heels and lipstick around it.  "Shoes are the foundation of all fashion," said another.  My friend pointed to it, and nodded knowingly.  "That is so true," she said.  I nodded.  "Yup," I said.  One can only crack so many jokes to avoid the awkwardness, and one can only disagree so many times.  "Just around the corner in every woman's mind - is a lovely dress, a wonderful suit, or entire costume which will make an enchanting new creature of her."  "A dress makes no sense unless it inspires men to want to take it off you."  The quotes were endless.  My friends agreed, "yes, that's TOTALLY true."  I laughed with them.  As The Ugly Friend, it seemed only appropriate: one can't be The Ugly Friend and also disagree about things every woman wants!  That would indicate being perhaps a hopeless cause, or worse. 
At one point, I was desperate for some sort of validation.  As Matt and I stood waiting for Sarah and Amanda, I pointed to a sign that said something to the effect of "All a woman needs is a good pair of heels and some great lipstick."  I nudged him and motioned towards the sign: "I've gotta tell you," I said, "I just don't buy it."  I motioned in the direction of the $500 purses.  "And that?  I just can't understand."
"Oh," said Matt.  "Huh."
"Yeah," I said.  "Just not how I was raised, I guess."
"Hmm," he said.  "Every woman I've ever known went crazy for this stuff."
And just like that, the final bottoming out of my stomach happened.  Perhaps, because I was different, because I don't wear skinny jeans and match my earrings to my purse and my purse to my shoes, perhaps I am less of a woman.  That feeling--that feeling of being less of a woman, of not quite meeting the criteria I am supposed to fulfill to keep that title--is what stuck with me in the car ride on the way home.  I am different, and somehow less than, and not what I am supposed to be.
It's not anything my friends said or did.  If anything, it's my own insecurity playing out and has nothing to do with them, but it's also the effect of a society that has taught men and women alike that, just as "all men" are macho and strong and manly and brave, women are interested in shoes, moody, cry at the drop of a hat, are sweet, and match their lipstick with their purse.  When people--such as myself--don't fill that stereotype, and are among people who either fill that stereotype because that is genuinely who they are or because they drank the Kool-Aid, the only logical conclusion that can come up in the moment, sometimes, is that they are less than what is expected.  Are there women out there who love fashion and shoes and lipstick?  Absolutely.  Is there anything wrong with that?  Of course not.  Is this trend representative of all women?  No.
I don't generally mind marching to the beat of a different drummer.  Sometimes, though I wish the drummer would just, at the very least, be in tune with the music of the others around me. 
*All names have been changed.