Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon. Remember the four basic premises of writing: clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity.” — William Zinsser

Good lord. We’re getting ready to move my mother from a nursing center into an assisted living residence. But first we must wade through a murky river of paperwork.

So, I’ve spent a large chunk of the holiday week poring over pages of butt-covering legal documents (including a lease agreement) — and getting them signed by various doctors and assisted living staffers. Why must it be confusing and laborious? Why does it require 35 pages … instead of three or four?

In the process, I can’t help but think of William Zinsser and his marvelous books on the craft of writing. Legalese (not to mention medical jargon) is the polar opposite of what the great Yale professor describes as good, clear writing. Clarity, brevity, simplicity, and humanity. I can only conclude that something isn’t “legal” unless it’s none of these. — CL

Do what you love

It’s a DIY world, but you can’t do it alone. Build your team as wisely as you would choose typefaces or words for lyrics. Embrace your place on earth as creative. Give thanks you were given this gift to share. Turn a deaf ear to those who say the path of art is hard. Doing something you don’t love is a much harder path.” — Patti Digh, from What I Wish for You

— Original mixed-media art by Cindy La Ferle —

Stealing Christmas?

And they’ll feast, feast, feast, feast. They’ll eat their Who-Pudding and rare Who-Roast Beast. But that’s something I just cannot stand in the least. — Dr. Seuss, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas

Earlier this week, there was a wee bit of dissent among Facebook friends when I replaced my profile photo with an image of Dr. Seuss’s irascible Grinch. I made the change after returning from a nerve-sizzling shopping expedition at one of my favorite grocery stores, which was insanely over-crowded with other crabby holiday shoppers. Climbing back into my car in the over-crowded parking lot, I’d encountered even more crabby shoppers jockeying for position. I wanted to roll down the window and yell: Why in the hell are we doing this?!?

Those who don’t know me personally were surprised to learn on Facebook that I don’t enjoy Christmas as much anymore — although one friend sent a private message to applaud my courage for admitting it.

After all, Christmas has become an official American holiday, so it would have been nicer, more politically correct, to keep my mouth shut. From outward appearances, Christmas is all about buying stuff, trying to digest rich foods we shouldn’t eat, spending money we should save, and reenacting Victorian family myths that don’t always work for our own families.

Bashing Christmas, I’m told, is an act of treason — at least to the most patriotic among us.

But there you have it. After years of studying and writing about the history of its varied (and admittedly bizarre) traditions, I’ve come to believe that Christmas is one of the most contradictory holidays anyone could dream up.

For starters, we all know that Jesus wasn’t really born on December 25, and that mistletoe swags and Christmas trees originated with pre-Christian Celtic pagans. Being of Celtic descent, I’m secretly proud of all the trimmings brought to the feast by my ancient ancestors. But I also know that the holiday itself was manufactured by Roman Catholics who wanted to convert the boisterous pagans to Christianity, so, voila, the Winter Solstice festival known as Saturnalia suddenly became Christmas. And so did all the over-the-top feasting and partying that went with it.

Fundamentalist Christians still insist that “Jesus is the reason for the season” — but when you look at the origin of this “holiest of holy days,” you can see that the “season” was also about something else, just as it is today.

Religious faith is not in question here. And I’m not suggesting a return to Winter Solstice revelry, though I think it’s lovely to acknowledge Mother Nature’s changing seasons. I’m just saying that it’s important to consider the origins of all that we choose to celebrate. A few ancient history lessons help to explain the seemingly random blending of Christmas customs such as baking cakes in the shape of yule logs with the tradition of buying computer games and toys for kids.  If Christmas is a time of reflection, we need think on those things too — and what they mean to us.

While I don’t feel a need to explain my religious views or church affiliation here, I do want to add that I have deep respect for Jesus and his teachings.

Which is, partly, why I wonder what the messiah would think of American Christmas rituals and the weird things we do under the guise of celebrating his honorary birthday. If Jesus were to stop by for Christmas dinner, for instance, would he feast on Grandma’s honey baked ham — a meat that’s forbidden by the Scriptures he upheld? (One of my Jewish friends and I had a great conversation about this recently.)  What would he think of all the stuff we buy? Would he be touched or appalled by all those garish plastic nativity scenes imported from China (or the blow-up Frosty the Snowman) displayed on our neighbors’ lawns? Just imagine.

I know there are others like me out there — weary folks who’d prefer to restore some sanity to what is, in essence, a beautiful holiday. I believe it would help if we could unload the emotional baggage and release some of the pressures that arrive in Santa’s sleigh along with all the presents.

A Christmas essay I wrote last year for David Crumm’s “Read the Spirit” explores my conflicted feelings about the season on a much deeper, personal level. I wrote the piece because I wanted my son to understand why I’ve struggled with Christmas every year.  Some of you read it last year, but new readers may have missed it. Please click here if you’d like to read it.

Meanwhile, I really hope you have a great Christmas, however you celebrate. I hope you have some time to be still, reflect, and know your blessings. Wishing you peace. –– Cindy La Ferle

A colonoscopy column?

Waiting is painful. Forgetting is painful. But not knowing which to do is the worse kind of suffering.” — Paulo Coehlo

The very idea of a colonoscopy — any time of the year — was more sobering than finding my first AARP card in the mailbox after I turned 50. Which is partly why I kept avoiding it.

As I recently discovered, the procedure itself wasn’t all that bad. It was waiting for the results of the pathology report that scared the dickens (or Dickens) out of me — especially so close to the holidays. Please click here to read the rest of “Blessings in a Biopsy” on Royal Oak Patch. It’s unlike any other Christmas column you’ve read before! — CL

The waiting season

Take time, slow down, be still, be awake to the Divine Mystery that looks so common and so ordinary, yet is wondrously present.” –Edward Hays

A longer version of this essay was published in The Heart of Christmas, a Guideposts anthology. It’s also included in my book, Writing Home. — CL

The Waiting Season

December 13, 2003

Advent is a time of waiting and anticipation; a time that feels as if something truly awesome is about to unfold. For most Christian churches, it marks the beginning of the liturgical year. Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day — the Sunday closest to November 30 — and ends on Christmas Eve. If Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday, it is then counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent. In many churches, a ceremonial candle is lighted near the altar every week during the season.

I still remember my first Advent calendar. A simple cardboard model, it was sprinkled with gold and silver glitter and had tiny perforated windows to be opened daily until Christmas. Behind each window was a small illustration associated with the Nativity in Bethlehem – an angel with a trumpet, a Wise Man, or a shepherd with a lamb.

My best friend in grade school was a devout Catholic and a seasoned authority on the proper use of Advent calendars. As she often reminded me, the perforated windows were meant to be opened only on their designated days. Sneaking a peak at the future was strictly prohibited.

Being a practical Presbyterian at the time, I could see nothing sinful in staying ahead of schedule. And by the second week of Advent, I knew what was behind every door and window, including the largest and final one that revealed the baby Jesus. Once I did this, of course, Id completely spoiled my own fun. Half the beauty of any Advent calendar, after all, is the magical sense of wonder and anticipation it provides. If nothing else, Id learned a small lesson in patience — or how to wait gracefully.

“Most of us think of waiting as something very passive,” writes Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen in “Waiting for God,” a lovely essay on Advent. “Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening where you are and that you want to be present to it.”

My own sons birthday also falls during Advent. Nate just turned eighteen last week — a landmark birthday that got me thinking about patience, grace, seasons, and the incredible journey of motherhood.

A senior in high school now, Nate is over six feet tall and diligently preparing for college. Every day after school he makes a beeline to the mailbox, hoping to find acceptance letters from the various universities hes applied to. He is in a waiting mode, too, anticipating a bright and challenging future.

My duties as a parent often seem paradoxical. I must help my child feel grounded and secure, yet loosen my maternal grip a little more each year. And like most parents, I often try to imagine what the future holds. I want some assurance that my boy will be safe, happy, and fully capable of managing on his own. But its not for me to know whats behind every door or window to his future.

The only thing I have for certain is the moment at hand, a moment to be seized and cherished. Its another lesson in patience for me – one little window at a time. — Cindy La Ferle