Christmas carols! (my favorite being when the barristas break out in song!)
I have a new game: Pick a holiday song... any holiday song, and I am immediately brought back to a random point in my past.
"Baby it's Cold Outside".... It's evening 2002 and I am busy restocking the knobs at Restoration Hardware where I have a holiday job. My co-workers are sick of hearing the song, but I love it and sing along. The shoppers are jolly.... casually shopping while they wait the required hour for their table at the Cheesecake Factory (the same one described in my second novel, Untying the Knot)
"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer"... The year is anytime between 1971 and 1975. My two sisters, brother and I are standing up in front of a room packed with Lane Bryant employees enjoying their Holiday party (back when companies still celebrated... included the families of employees... and even called it a Christmas party). We have on our matching Christmas outfits and little white gloves (my sisters, obviously; not my brother). After we sing and have our breakfast we get to go to the top of Macy's San Francisco and see Santa. It is the basis for every nostalgic Christmas moment I have.
"Can They Tell It's Christmastime At All"... It's 1984 and I am on a campaign; I WILL earn enough money to live at college rather than commute from my family's home. I have four part-time jobs over the holidays.... retail at Nordstrom and a small local shop, teller at a bank, and baby-sitter extraordinaire. It's probably that I am exhausted, but every time this song comes on I cry. Rather embarrassing while waiting on customers.
"The Best Gift I Ever Got"... By Barbara Streisand. My sister and I are carrying trays, serving hors d'oeuvres to my parents' friends at our annual Christmas open house. Our tree, a 10 footer at least this year, is leaning precariously after requiring ties to keep it upright to begin with. It is flocked (shudder) and decorated precisely with silver and pink glass ornaments, white lights and big bows. My faux silk shirt layered under a velvet vest is making me sweat unattractively. I'm desparate to escape to my room and gorge on fudge.
"The Best Gift I Ever Got".... Same song but now it is 2010. I am standing in my own kitchen making my traditional bubke bread (btw - best version is at Cheryl Anne's in Brookline, MA). In my mind my daughter is helping or reading.... but in all likelihood she is probably watching a Christmas special on TV. The song starts playing on my iPod and I hum along, familiar with the tune if not the specific words. I stop..... the words sink in and I begin to cry as I look at the most perfect gift I ever got and think... Christmas without the songs would be like the entire season without my daughter.... a pale version of the real thing.
"Is 4:30 a.m. too early for cake? What about pumpkin pie?"
4:30 a.m. is too early for anything I thought when I overheard this. Still.... it is the time that these Starbucks employees get to work every morning; a time I am mostly unfamiliar with, (no, not even on black Friday.) If by chance I am awake at this crazy hour I simply feel relieved that I still have more time to sleep.
On the other hand, there is a stillness about the early morning that is enticing to many writers. I once read a quote: I never regret the thing I get up in the middle of the night to write. After a rest, I can imagine the brain is ready to accomplish great things in the quiet of those early hours; pre-children, pre-traffic, pre-to-do lists and dirty dishes and cell phone conference calls. These are the hours that count, and I am missing them. It would be sad if I wasn't self-enlightened enough to realize that I could only manage six hours of sleep for a couple of days before taking it out on my children, husband and friends.
What I think I could, and should, manage however is to experience that time of the morning once in a while; just to better understand the rhythm of it. Writing time, without spelling it out on a clock, has always been a challenge for me. But there are clues, when a writer knows them, that can help describe time of day without the need for a colon.
Smells like coffee and toast versus garlic and candlewax can show not only when the character is but also where. The sounds from traffic, or the lack of it, birds singing, music, children all of these things can be clues; assuming they are targeted at the right audience. Children's bickering, for example, would help a mom place time of day at that hellish hour before dinner. The same noise, to a young single reader, however, would probably have little meaning.
So, starting today, my notebook gets a new category: setting descriptors. For a while wherever (and whenever) I go someplace I plan to use all five senses to describe what is around me. A side benefit is that I will be meeting another goal I have for the holiday season.... to live more in the moment.
If I specifically do this at familiar places but during unusual times I bet I'll discover all kinds of new words to describe my environment; And (if I am really lucky) I might even get oa slice of cake.
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