Santa Claus

Earlier this month our school hosted a family Christmas party. The conference hall tables are set with white cloths and Christmas decorations. There is holiday music and a slideshow of family photos playing while we eat our potluck meal. And the potluck set on a long L of tables reminds me of Christmas day growing up, when we joined my mom’s extended family in a church basement or American Legion, all of the kids skimping on mains and sides to fill on cookies and fluffy marshmallow salads. Always the church basements or rented halls were a little chilly at the start, warmed after an uncle turned up the clanking heat or enough of us were gathered in one place, and the family Christmas party was like that this year, held on one of the coldest days yet.

We took the city bus to the stop at the bottom of the hill, and walked up to our school. We arrived early with a few others to set up, but most was ready. Justin filled the hot water dispenser for tea, and he and Gene sorted how to give a crowd their Sunday morning coffee (there’s a coffee maker in the business office, and they brewed pot after pot to fill a thermos dispenser). As families arrived with crock pots and serving platters we made room on the tables. Light conversation about holiday traditions or upcoming travel, a little commiseration about getting the kids out the door on time. But like the family Christmas gatherings of my childhood, once we are all arrived at the conference hall, any bumps or arguments of the morning are smoothed by the camaraderie of us just being together. We all made with our socks on or off, gloves remembered or forgotten, the dishes just right or a little burned.

I meant to start this piece about Santa Claus, but setting the scene gave me these connections to my growing up Christmas day celebrations. This is how my writing works. I drafted the Santa Claus piece in my mind while out on a run, but when I sit to commit the words, the words lead another way. Yesterday on a walk we were remembering our past Christmas days. On the beach in Australia, along the Gulf in Kuwait. Kenya, India. So I was already thinking to write about the holiday, and how Justin and I have made our own family celebration from our separate growing up traditions. Maybe those thoughts, and my own nostalgia (I want to spend a Christmas in Wisconsin, soon) are in the way of drafting the piece about Santa Claus.

So let me start again.

Before the family holiday party, I reminded Claire and Grant not to ruin Santa Claus for any of the other kids. Each year I say something similar at the start of December. I did not grow up in a Santa Claus family but I also did not feel compelled to correct the Santa Claus kids in my class, or to do anything but smile politely and nod when a bank teller or store clerk asked if I was excited for Santa to bring me a gift. I have a dim memory of once saying that my parents were the ones who brought me gifts, and the clerk and my mom laughing together. This kid is in on it.

I only became impatient with Santa Claus as a parent. The story of Saint Nicholas is beautiful, but he isn’t the Santa of songs or malls or holiday parties. But my real qualm is the lie. I don’t want to lie to my kids. And for years I could say to Claire and Grant that Santa is a fun story, but some families pretend the story is real. So don’t tell kids that Santa doesn’t exist. Please don’t call the Santa who shows up at our holiday party a fake. Keep your mouth shut, kids. Santa is the opiate of the child masses. Which takes me to the reason I resist this easy lie. I do believe God exists. I talk to God, I talk with my kids about God. We attend church as a family. I read that old book full of beautiful poetry, yearning, hard answers and wild, uncomfortable stories. Faith is a stretch. And as I live my faith for my kids to see, that they may know who God is by the way I walk through the days, I am aware that I am asking my kids to call real the very being many reject. But if I say Santa Claus is real and God is real, what happens one day in elementary or middle school when another kid wise to the unreality of Santa spoils the belief for my kids – do I still insist that this other, crazier story of God really is real, really? So I do not present God as pretend. God is God. Santa is a fun holiday story.

This year Claire asked did she have to sit on Santa’s lap. No, I said. (In light of the MeToo movement, is anyone still insisting their daughters and sons sit on an old man’s lap for the photo op? Sure. This is Santa, not your boss, CEO or director). Grant wanted to know the same. Look, I said, Neither of you have to sit on Santa’s lap. He’s going to give you a present. You can say thank you, smile for the camera, and that’s fine. Claire and Grant agreed to play the moment as they felt most comfortable.

While I didn’t stand in line at the mall to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas, Dad’s company party had a Santa who gave generous gifts and we went a couple of times. I probably asked for art supplies. I might have admitted my unbelief to the man with a fake beard. As a kid, I remember feeling a little smug or superior that I understood Santa wasn’t real, not like God was real. I felt smug about God too. (That may be another essay entirely). For now, understand the intervening years blessedly stripped my pride, though I continue to swell and fall. What I want for myself and my kids is a wrestle with belief in God, and not smugness but humility as faith increases.

The only reason I am writing this at all is because a few days after the family Christmas party, Claire and I were walking to Hyundai department store after school to get black pants and a black shirt for her winter concert. The walk was longer than expected, we were cold, and Claire started a debate with her position that all kids should believe in Santa Claus. It isn’t fair that any kid shouldn’t get Santa Claus. It’s magical. At least the toddlers should have Santa Claus. I thought of the howling toddlers held in place on Santa’s lap for the quick photo while the other kids and parents laughed or made sympathetic faces. I thought of Claire and Grant during their own toddler years wanting nothing to do with the Santa Claus who showed up at holiday parties. I doubt most toddlers would protest being kept safe, away from the totally unfamiliar costumed man, magical or not. After I said this to Claire, that most toddlers didn’t seem to actually enjoy Santa very much and was it kind for parents to make their kids feel afraid, Claire repeated that Santa is fun, Santa is magical, before arriving at her point, that we should celebrate Santa too.

I like the story of Saint Nicholas, I said.
That isn’t Santa, she said.
You’re right, I said, But we can celebrate Saint Nicholas. We can give to the poor.

How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Why celebrate Christmas with coerced good behavior and wish lists when we could celebrate with an excess of giving to the least of these? Claire was unmoved. I get her feeling of loss. Every family has its culture, its beliefs that inform who we are, what we are about, and as kids we learn the differences between one family and the next, one way to believe and another, and as we grow we wonder and ask. Just as Claire was then doing. I tried again to explain why we didn’t do Santa. We don’t hide Santa from the kids. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas we watch Santa movies: Miracle On 34th Street, The Santa Clause, Arthur Christmas, Elf. We like but don’t elevate Santa. And for years I just did not think this was a big deal to Claire or Grant. Then on this cold walk, Claire unraveled her certainty that because Santa is magical, it is cruel for parents not to let kids have him.

One day I will talk with Claire and Grant about ways I have failed as their parent. I told Claire that on our walk. There are things that I did wrong or feel badly about, I said. I apologize as I go, but one day when the kids are older, I will open a dialogue to address my own regrets and hear any hurts they harbor too. I value honesty. I value perspective. I value truth.

But I am not sorry my kids missed thinking Santa Claus is real. Claire, I said, You know I tell you the truth. She nodded. I said, You know I answer your questions. She nodded again. I said, Claire, I don’t want to lie to you. Sometimes I don’t tell you everything because of your age. But I don’t lie. That’s why we don’t do Santa. I don’t want to lie to you.

This did not soften Claire. She was belligerent at the injustice of me keeping Santa Claus from her, at ruining Christmas magic. Just suck it up, Mom, Claire yelled at me. Call it a Christmas miracle I did not push my screaming daughter in the river. Instead I thought for a moment. I sat down at the edge of the path, even though it was cold and we both wanted to get the errand done, have dinner. I sat down because sometimes I need to physically still my body to really know what to do or say next. I wasn’t bothered by Claire questioning our decision to skip Santa, but I was upset at the tone, the irrational banging on and nonsensical yelling that I needed to just suck it up. If I laughed, the conversation would end and Claire would be too wounded to hear anything I said. If I yelled, I would only fuel Claire’s anger. Oh the many crucibles of parenting.

What I did was say I am sorry she feels like she got left out of something fun. I am sorry she feels gypped a dose of magical thinking. She softened a little. And then I repeated that I am not sorry we didn’t pretend Santa was real. Before Claire could relaunch her lines, I asked what all of this was about. Why is this a question now? What prompted this conversation? Claire told me she is practicing debate. Fifth graders are working their way toward presenting arguments about the urgency of environmental problems, and how to share potential solutions. So they are practicing debate strategies. Telling someone to suck it up is not a good strategy, I said. She laughed. Really, I said, Don’t say that again to me. We walked on. By the time we reached Hyundai department store, our feet were cold. We were hungry. We sat side by side at a noodle counter.

I know the conversation isn’t over. Maybe Santa Claus isn’t a big deal, but there are other ideas we explore too, because ideas and beliefs inform our actions. I don’t think it is a mistake to make Santa a story, or to emphasize the greater work of Saint Nicholas, or to altogether axe Elf on the shelf in favor of Christ in a manger.

Because I started the writerly asides: Here I wonder how to end the piece. I want to go on about my own parenting questions. There are lines I draw that may prove inconsequential. Santa seems like such a stupid argument. But I remember a colleague telling me he was devastated when he learned Santa isn’t real. Why would parents risk that betrayal? As for magical thinking, isn’t childhood woven through with pretend and fantasy by way of practicing how to be a person? Even now, at age thirty-eight I live in stories. I crave fantasy. Simple fantasy constructed in a moment, like gorgeous hair, or smart conversation. Wild fantasy constructed over years, like a craftsman house I inherit in Seattle or a collection of my best work. I am a fan of magical thinking. I like to think how what is real might tilt just so at the unfurl of a thought or prayer. And perhaps because I write, drink too much wine on occasion, and talk freely, my imagination is no mystery to friends and family. (At a revision of this piece, I would parse imagination and magical thinking. Or cut this altogether).

Here is where I am, a few days after Christmas: At my kitchen table. Dinner is in the oven. I am eating blueberries and pomegranate arils and have already had my small fear of the day, wondering if Justin and I will make it through marriage and parenting and still like one another in fifteen years. God have mercy. This morning I thought how to end this essay. This is probably not how to end this essay, but if my aim is to generate (churn/ toss on the page/ draft/ spit/ fling) thirty-nine pieces before I celebrate thirty-nine years, well: cannot be picky. One day, maybe, this gets revised. One day, maybe, I’ll say it perfectly. But saying things just so keeps me from sharing here. That isn’t fair to my practice. It isn’t fair to the process. One day I’ll write another essay about Santa Claus and you will recognize a few lines from this first piece. And one day Claire will argue about more than Santa Claus, with such conviction and clarity she won’t need to shout to be understood.


Four of thirty-nine stories. 2379 words, including asides. I’m counting it all. Drafted over a week, mostly during a two hour chunk the day after Christmas.

Bush Burning

I returned to an old story idea today, working out the way I might move the plot. Thinking about a character. Knowing I would post tonight, I daydream drafted today and am ready to write one or two scenes but that isn’t what I’m giving here. When I started this project (I need a catchy nickname for Sustain Creative Momentum – SCM sounds like a medication – if you say it like Essee-em – or a pyramid scheme, or dirty shorthand, but it might work), I thought I’d be posting lots of new work. Just blow through all my top ideas. Instead I am bush burning.

The metaphor came early. I’d sit to write with the intention of not whingeing about writing or Korea or my old school or the handful of people I find it so, so easy to judge because years ago I was insecure enough to take a sideways glance as condemnation and now it makes me feel better to imagine their veneers are wearing thin. Years ago I was insecure? Make a pie chart of my notebooks and depending on the month or hormone levels or if one of my kids just got pulled into the principal’s office, at least a quarter and up to ninety percent of the pages are worries that I really don’t know what I’m doing. The bigger worry underlying the reality that I often don’t quite know what I’m doing is that you also recognize I don’t know what I’m doing.

Maybe six or seven years ago I got reckless with my writing. Those are the journals you want to steal. Pretty much anything I wrote in Kuwait. And whatever I’m writing now. And probably whatever I’m writing when I die. After Grant was born I got so dark at times and writing everything helped. Much of my notebooks are prayer or working my way toward prayer. Anything sensational I write can probably be bulleted on a single page or may show up in a collection of essays at some point, an entire book of my worst moods and moments. (Please yes, please no).

Anyway. Bush burning.

When we were in Australia for Christmas I ran in the mornings. For Christmas we were on the beach and I ran inland up and down hills, past a golf course where I’d see kangaroos on the green, to a road that widened as it turned to gravel. There was a chain link fence and gate bordering the property on one side of the road, and a sign that warned No Trespassing. I think there was a picture of a security camera. It was a mine. On the other side of the road was a ditch, tree line and sparsely treed field. The tree trunks were blackened to about my height from a controlled burn. I stopped the second morning I ran out that way and thought a. I should have brought my phone so I could take a picture b. no one knew where I was c. I would miss my children if I were murdered d. (more likely) I would miss my children if I got bit by one of the thousand outback creatures that kill. Then I went back to looking at the burned trees and midsummer growth.

Sometimes I use my writing practice as an excuse not to push ahead with a new draft or revision. Instead of giving myself an assignment (for what! for what! why! who reads any of this!), I return to a habit of writing whatever mess my headspace is until the time is up, the pages are filled and I’ve ended with a prayer of Dear God, Help. Etcetera. We all need a good bush burning sometimes to keep us from burning down the neighborhood. But what surprises me is that when I sit down to Sustain Creative Momentum, embers flick my page and instead of writing an essay about a weekend in Salento, I end up burning a ditch. Is this a part of the composting process I so adore? Or am I just bush burning fields I could as easily walk by on my way to knock out a good scene or two?

(697 words)

Drafting Real Time

This is the opposite of what I’ve been doing for years. I have notebooks full of starts (some finishes) and files of the same. When I started this blog a year ago, I wanted to dig into the writing process. For a most of the last year I wavered about posting any finished work, for a few reasons:

a. I’d rather an editor validate my work for print
b. I don’t want my work stolen (though it will be eventually, won’t it?)
c. It’s show-offy (and a little sad?) to showcase work that isn’t anywhere but on my blog, red by tens*

There’s some overlap there. When I started this blog, I was writing intensely introspective stuff about marriage and parenting. While early posts allude to those pieces, I probably won’t post them here. But I can post new fiction drafts and revision. Something changes when I’m writing to share. I’m still drafting, but with a new pleasure that this next chunk isn’t landing in a file, but going out for you to read.

Part 3 of Tally Draft (though the whole, revised piece will be read without divisions)

We don’t catch anything that Saturday but the next we catch a couple of small ones we pan fry at my house. I feed Shane slivers of white flesh, lick the oil and salt from my fingers. One Saturday we catch seven fish and invite Charlene to join us for lunch. She brings potato salad and sits across from Carl.

You’re Jenny Ross’s boy, aren’t you? she asks him. He nods and Charlene says, Such a sweet girl. I’m so sorry.

He shakes his head, pays close attention to the end of his fork. Mom mouths something at Charlene who stands, goes to the sink to refill the water pitcher. I don’t realize I’m holding myself tense until Carl looks up from his plate and says, It’s okay. This is a good lunch.

When he leaves, he tells me he might have to go somewhere next Saturday but he’ll let me know. My chest squeezes. I say I might have something else to do too, but the way I say it tells the truth.

Most Saturdays Mom puts Shane down for a nap and the two of us watch a dvd from the library. We microwave popcorn and sit close on the couch, cry at all the good parts. When Jessica still lived a few blocks over, she’d join us. Once Dad came home at the end of Sense and Sensibility and saw the three of us bawling. He went pale, thought some terrible news was on the tv. He clutched his heart. When he saw Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson on the tv, he said he thought it was another 9/11, the way we were crying.

While Mom settled Shane in his crib (Such a big boy! You need a big boy bed!), I made popcorn and put ice in our glasses. I cued the dvd. But when Mom sat on the couch she told me to wait. She angled herself toward me. Look at me, she said. She smiled at me. Carl is nice, she said. I nodded.

Are you kissing?

I shake my head. I’m embarrassed she thought we might be kissing, embarrassed because we aren’t. And after a month of standing out on the dam with nothing to do but fish and talk, is it okay that we haven’t kissed? But Mom seems relieved. She pats my leg. She says, Someday you’ll kiss and it’ll be the right time. I’m not sure if she means me or me and Carl. She tells me to be careful and I know she means about sex, but that’s all she says, just be careful, and then she turns to face the tv and I press the tiny forward arrow on the remote and we watch Sandra Bullock be sassy.

When I see Carl at school, he’s with the baseball players, blocking the hall. They’re high-fiving and joking so he doesn’t see me until one of the guys bumps me and I stumble into the lockers. Carl yells, Watch out for the lady, and the player apologizes. I’m sweating, dying. I can’t look at Carl. I just need to get to Mr. Halverson’s room. He calls me later that week to say he’s going to Richland, to visit his dad. It feels funny to talk on the phone with him. He pauses and asks if I’d like to fish on Sunday morning. My stomach flutters. I wish Mom hadn’t asked about kissing.

That Friday night I wait for Mom to fall asleep and reach under my bed for the water bottle. I’ve listened to Wolf and Midget talk about drinking. I know I don’t do it anything like that. I’m afraid to ask Carl for another water bottle, so I’m putting less in the jelly glass. It hardly does anything except make me sleepy. I prop myself on my elbow and listen to Shane breathe. Sometimes I reach between the crib rails and rub his back. He’s a sweet boy and I think of Carl going to Richland to see his dad. I don’t know if Shane will ever see his dad. We haven’t heard from him in a year. If I think about that for too long, I become the most unloved person in the world.

I almost think about it too long and pull myself upright. I think instead about Carl driving to Richland tomorrow, or maybe already there tonight. Charlene told me about Jenny Ross, one afternoon while we watched Shane drive trucks up and down the front walk. Carl was six when his mom and younger brother died in a car accident. The jelly glass on the floor is empty but I’m wide awake. When I was six, I had a box of watercolors I took everywhere, I ate toasted peanut butter sandwiches and begged for a baby sister.


*tens refers to TBTL, whose hosts celebrate their “tens of listeners.”

No Fancy Way To Say Apathy

Oh man.

I started a short fiction piece this week because if I want to write short fiction, I need to write short fiction. Probably because of Fiction Workhorse, I want to write like I’m ripping off a Band-Aid. Fast. Get a story, write a story. Feel it, leave it. That’s what this current draft is. Another fast piece covering a lot of time in a short space. Spare details. I’m thinking of slowing it down, except I’d like to get the suffering over with quickly. The character deserves to sit in limp regret but I can’t think why I’d draw that over more than a thousand words.

Here’s why: because when I sit in limp regret it always takes well over a thousand words. This month I returned to an old itch, why I didn’t quit teaching  and get an MFA and go on to publish in floundering journals and then in more widely read journals and, maybe, put together a collection. I think I’m nearly done scratching because I realize that

teaching
marrying
moving abroad
having babies
traveling

and whatever else (all the unglamorous issues and insecurities I manage):

it all adds to a much richer current writing experience. I am banging away at learning a craft, mostly having fun. I am writing my way to okay being small, okay waiting for anything I write to find its way to a reader who does just what I did this morning when I read a sentence and stopped to cry a little; or what I did yesterday when another character made me laugh.

So I spent three weeks moping that I know nothing about writing when that isn’t true. I just wanted to mope. What is true is that I need to decide (again) it’s fine to write just to write. I send pieces out. And one day I’ll publish. But right now, this is it. Do I have the endurance to keep writing narrative for the practice of constructing better narrative in five years? I pray about this. Because art is important to me. I write nearly every day. I figure things out on the page. Stories run through me. I have to remember that I am not so special. I do not deserve an audience. But I have been writing to write for years and this month I again asked why.

Packed into my list of why is pleasure. Writing gives me pleasure. It’s so good. We need a little art each day. Every time I ask why, I remind myself of the metaphors the writing process contains. Drafting, revising. Experimenting, discovering or uncovering. Please let all of this be enough.

Fiction Workhorse Recap

I give myself these projects because I’m not in an MFA program with actual assignments. And if I didn’t make up assignments (ex: sestina, Postsecret flash fiction, one more page in the notebook), I would probably just go on thinking maybe someday I’ll write that thing about a thing. And it’d be brilliant when I did. But I know better: between here and brilliant is a lot of workhorse.

In five weeks, I managed just over 18,000 typed words total, a thousand of which are wails and whines and a couple of thousand more of which are stutter starts. Some of those stutter starts might find their own finish, someday. Two of the starts are third or fourth goes at stories that are kicking around upstairs, looking for a way out, but unwilling to be rushed. One week isn’t enough time and five thousand words not enough space for either story.

Here is what I gleaned:

Knocking out a story without pretense is fun. I like to start stories with the idea that someday readers (like, hundreds or thousands) will read the piece and love it because in the turn of ten or twenty pages, they are transported / connected / entangled. Up front, I demand a lot from an itty bitty five hundred word start, putting immense pressure on everything that follows. Such an unfair and un-fun way to draft! Telling myself that all of these stories were only practice gave me no obligation to consider revision or submission.

Still, I like to practice revision too. One or two of my Fiction Workhorse drafts will give me that.

My 1000-5000 word parameter is on the low, low end of short fiction. During the first two weeks, I was reading a lot of published short fiction and noticing how long most of the pieces are. For one-a-week, 1000-5000 is easily done. I spent between three and five hours writing each draft, including light edits. More hours if you count headspace.

Working on a story in my mind before going to the page is a great strategy. The challenge from one week to the next was dropping the previous draft and its characters and finding a new story. I took a day or two after finishing a draft before starting the next, but that time wasn’t wasted. I was looking for what might turn into my next draft: BBC, news, podcasts, overheard conversations. When an idea came, I let it sit for a day. I’d go to my notebook and write a few notes, but not much more. Then, if I came to a turn while drafting, I took a break from typing and l played out a scene in my head. Try visualizing a scene a few different ways before choosing the better option to write. Take notes on the other possibilities if you want to revise later.

Fiction Workhorse was a good time. I almost missed writing another short fiction piece this week. Almost.

One of my next assignments: tell variations on a single story, after “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood or “The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris.