Books for your inner child

DSCN6639Theres a bookshelf in my home office that might make you question my sanity, if not my age. Its crowded with titles like Madeline and the Bad Hat, The Polar Express, Green Eggs and Ham, Eloise Goes to Paris, Little Women, Alices Adventures in Wonderland, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series.

Some are worn around the edges. Others are brand-new replacements of old favorites I read as a child. Several belonged to my son, now grown, who will get them back when he has a home of his own someday.

Nestled around these books are nostalgic toys and dolls, including the infamous Thing One and Thing Two from Dr. Seusss The Cat in the Hat. When I bought my blue-haired “Things” before Christmas last year, I swore Id give them to my little nephew in New Jersey. But then I changed my mind. Im not always good about sharing my toys.

My kids bookshelf has become an altar in the true sense of the word. It pays homage to the stories and characters that made me fall in love with reading. Every time I sit down to work, Im reminded that literature can inspire kids to overcome challenges, explore new ideas, and even grow up to be writers.

And heres the craziest part: Ive never outgrown these books. Sometimes, when Im feeling stuck or uninspired, I revisit their pages.

Way out at the end of a tiny little town was an old overgrown garden, and in the garden was an old house, and in the house lived Pippi Longstocking…

So begins my all-time favorite tale by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.

DSCN6641An only child and a little too sensitive, I was at the critical juncture between childhood and early adolescence when a grade-school teacher introduced me to red-haired Pippi. By todays standards Pippi would need Ritalin, but I wanted to be exactly like her.

She was certifiably wacky — the first free spirit Id encountered. I admired the way she bent rules and colored outside the lines, yet always handled the consequences with charm and tact. Best of all, Pippi lived by herself at Villa Villekulla, managing quite nicely with her own horse and a pet monkey.

Pippi was indeed a remarkable child. The most remarkable thing about her was that she was so strong. She was so very strong that in the whole wide world there was not a single police officer as strong as she!

My love affair with the printed word has pulled me through some of the toughest times in my life. When I was recovering from hip surgery, for instance, books eased my pain and helped me take flight — even when my legs didnt work. Books helped me heal and grow strong, though I never figured out how to lift a horse like Pippi did.

Last Tuesday was the 100th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the beloved Dr. Seuss. Since 1998, the National Education Association has used the authors birthday to launch its Reading Across America program. And this month, schools, bookstores and libraries will host numerous activities to get kids excited about reading.

But you dont need a formal program to get started. Round up some kids — your own or a neighbors — and read your childhood favorites aloud with them. Arrange an impromptu field trip to your local library. Find a character your kids can relate to, and help them learn more about its author.

As Aldous Huxley once wrote, “Everyone who knows how to read has it in their power to magnify themselves, to multiply the ways in which they exist, to make their life full, significant, and interesting.”

Books do change lives. And thats worth celebrating any day of the year. – Cindy La Ferle, March 7, 2004  

This column was excerpted from my essay collection, Writing Home, and is available in local shops and on Amazon.com. See the link at the top of this page for ordering information.

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

Banishing the Grinch

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before.  What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store?  What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more?” — Dr. Seuss

On Thursday I posted a link to a piece about dealing with grief and loss at holiday time. This week, on Royal Oak Patch, I share a few responses from Facebook friends who answered my question: “What do you like least about Christmas?” I also offer an antidote to the Christmas blues that haunt so many of us this season. Please click here to read it. Next week, I’ll be writing about my year as a background extra in TV and film projects, so there is a break from Yuletide commentary! –CL