Electric Christmas, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.

Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.

I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.

And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.

“Ready?”

She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition. 

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.

Wow….”

I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

The Dangers of Transactional Academics

When my students and I were in week 5 of digital learning during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, we had already established a good routine, where some students would log on a little early, and we would chat about the last few days and how we were all getting through. Then, at the conclusion of our session, others would stick around for some familiar chat time like we used to do in the physical classroom, just before the late bell would ring. Online, we would chat just seconds before the next virtual class began; we were searching for normalcy while checking in on each other. Built into the foundations of our classrooms was a relational experience that established trust, respect, and a desire to embrace learning at an autonomous level.

Not everybody was handling the sudden switch to virtual learning, though. In the final weeks of school in early June, it was easy for teachers to recognize a student in need, whose patterns of behavior were inconsistent with what we had experienced in the first three quarters while in our classrooms. We were quick to contact counselors and administrators to let them know that something wasn’t quite right with a particular student, and we should follow up to see how they were doing.

Those three quarters that we shared together in the classroom was what made learning from a distance possible in that final, fourth quarter; it served as a grounding in relational experiences that, in the past, have been a natural part of the teaching process. As teachers, we had the opportunity to know our students as human beings early on; we recognized who they were and what they were capable of doing. We also understood that each child has a background that reaches much deeper than the content we’re covering in class.

It is this relational connection that allowed us to be better teachers for the individuals in our classrooms at the end of this school year. And, in understanding each child a little better, we were able to find ways to deliver curricular content despite the challenges they may have faced, whether that had been on an ongoing basis or due to the disruption of everyday life. The pandemic caused all of us to respond in ways we could have never imagined; for young children who no longer had that chance to meet with their friends, or their teachers, on a daily basis, school still served as their foundation, their normal grounding that gave them the confidence to grow and evolve into young adults.

We were fortunate to have that foundation established over those last three quarters of the 2019-2020 academic year; what concerns me is what happens if we begin the new school year in September without that opportunity for relational experiences to occur. The real danger exists that, if we are not careful, education will become nothing more than a transactional experience, where students and teachers become focused on percentages and point values rather than how the content relates personally to each of them.

I am not advocating for in-person schooling to occur if it cannot be done safely. Our first priority must be on the safety of our students and our educators. My argument is, simply, we cannot forego that familial foundation at the beginning of the year that is crucial to effective student engagement and ownership of learning.

Without it, a transactional education will allow many of our students to become mediocre participants in learning, and it will also put minorities and poverty-stricken children in an even more dangerous place. The absence of in-person, or relational, academics only contributes to the gap in learning in these at-risk groups. According to an article posted in January 2019 at Inside Higher Ed, titled “Takedown of Online Education,” online education fails when teachers and students have no real-time contact.

However, when there are opportunities for greater interaction with an instructor, especially in hybrid teaching models, students perform better and hold themselves more accountable for the work they produce.

Without that relational element, even on a small scale, online learning is transactional, at best.

We must find ways to have students own their learning, especially with there being limitations in our face-to-face meetings.

At the beginning of each year, I introduce the acronym WIIFM to my students, and I encourage them to embrace a very selfish “What’s In It For Me” mentality in everything we do. It invites them to own the material we discuss in class and make it relevant to their own lives: where they’ve been, who they are, and where they are going.

Throughout the year, my students tell me they are “WIIFMing” the material, or the point another student is making, or the epiphany they are experiencing in synthesizing content between English and other classes.

The question for teachers in my neighborhood, in my county, in our state, and across the nation is clear: How do we have our students embrace a WIIFM approach to education when the relational component established at the beginning of the school year is clearly missing?

In my other class, journalism, the students knew each other well, even though their ages spanned the four-year spread of high school. They understood their needs, their nuances, their strengths because they had worked closely together for 6 months in an environment that encouraged mutual trust and respect. They thrived in those last two months simply because the team dynamic was already firmly in place. It’s the relational foundation that made this possible.

If and when our classes begin outside of the classrooms in the fall of the new school year, and as teachers are meeting their students for the first time in little video boxes on aging school-issued laptops, we will need to be mindful of how we make education a relational experience. Some students will step up, embrace the WIIFM mantra, and take good care of themselves. But many will rely on a solely transactional relationship of points and deadlines, based on bare minimums in playing the game of pass and fail. We might be able to figure out the logistics and schedules of making sure everybody gets an equitable, educational experience, but the bigger issue we all need to consider now is how we make those experiences relational from the beginning.

An ideal scenario would be having students somehow meeting their teachers – in person – prior to or in the first week of classes. Even though the meet-and-greet will be an event that upholds all the measures of social distancing and the use of face coverings, we need an opportunity to meet our students, and they need the opportunity to meet us.

I’m throwing around a hundred different ideas that all seem ideal on paper, like each child sharing a 60-second infomercial on who they are, and what they look forward to in the coming year. But I know that this doesn’t work for all students, for many valid reasons. Technology, privacy issues, and home environments all lead to limitations that can’t easily be fixed for short home movies, not to mention the challenges we might face with authenticity and truth.

But we must find a way for that community to be built not on a screen but in real time, in a real place face to face (or even mask to mask). Our learning environment established early in September must be genuine, where we all have the courage to WIIFM the experience and take our learning seriously, and for all the right reasons.

We cannot allow the pandemic to derail our educational goals; instead, we must rise to the challenge of becoming better teachers in providing the opportunities our students need to own the education they deserve.

Life’s Labyrinth in Embracing Our Creativity

Last night, I was gifted with the opportunity to read for Howard County Poetry and Literary Society (HoCoPoLitSo)’s Wilde Readings series. I read an excerpt from the third chapter of my novel, Fossil Five, where Cassandra reads a letter she wrote to herself five years ago.

Personally, it’s an incredibly ironic moment, as my own seniors are now writing their letters to themselves, to be opened in 2025. I had some of my seniors watching the event last night, and some even offered questions to me. How paradoxically wonderful it was to be in both the present and in the future with my reading and my own students – most certainly a highlight of my career that I will hold on to for many years.

Anyway, I shared reading time with Diane Wilbon Parks, a poet and artist who lives in Prince George’s County. I was so honored to read with her; her poetry and presentation are both deep, abstract, and powerful.

Here are the first few lines of her poem, “Music to My Ear” from her 2016 published collection of poems, The Wisdom of Blue Apples:

You play inside musical notes

that slip away to have coffee,

then linger at the base of crescendos

like drums leaving tunnels inside me.

The chord of my vein is

traced with legends of you

slanted in prepositional phrases – of love,

crooked like elbows, misplaced on purpose,

hanging out of shelves, and sentences, and me.

I can just hear Diane reading these words, silk slipping from her lips as she brings this poem to life. Yet, as much as her poetry was transforming, it was her artwork behind her that mesmerized me.

Before the event even began, I complimented Diane on her artwork, a collection of colorful and black-white creations framed and on display behind her. I expressed my failed attempts at art, and how I, for some inexplicable reason, freeze up when it comes to letting go with creating on a blank canvas.

Then, during her question-and-answer session, one of the participants (and readers during open mic) asked her if there was a creative relationship between her artwork and her poetry. Diane was quick to answer, saying that her abstract paintings were an extension of her metaphorical poetry. It makes sense, right? She writes in the abstract, so why wouldn’t she paint in the abstract?

To me, this was epiphanic in every way imaginable. My own blocks, my own origins of fear, have been based on a great deal of self-induced pressure to paint and draw in the literal sense, recreating baskets of fruits, partially opened windows, and small children picking flowers in an untended garden.

I’m not a literal person, though, and to be a re-creator of such images, to replicate life as closely as possible with the stroke of a brush or pen, is just not who I am.

It took a walk through Life’s Labyrinth, along with a lot of patience and remaining wide open, to receive such a gift as I did last night.

So, today I pick up a pen and put it to a blank canvas, and I let go of the fears of creating works that are nowhere near who I am as a writer and as a person.

And, if I am so bold, I will share my abstract and metaphorical creations with you here.

Thank you, Diane. And thank you, HoCoPoLitSo, for gifting me this freedom to grow as an artist.

 

Celebrating Poetry In April: 30. The World Is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth

Hello, everyone.

Well, we are at our end. 30 days of sonnets celebrating National Poetry Month brings us to my favorite sonnet that I’ve been using in my classrooms and citing in my writing for decades. I’m happy to end this journey by sharing William Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

As I say in the preface of the reading, I’ve been so honored to share these sonnets with you. And if I have learned anything (but I have learned so much in these 30 days), it is that the emotions, thoughts, and reflections that we have today are not unique to the generations and centuries of individuals who have faced their own tragedies, hopes, and triumphs. Universally, we have love to get us through, even when it can break our heart. Universally, we have each other to lean on, when the world just gets too much. And universally, we have hope in getting through our greatest challenges together, both in the words and strength of our friends and loved ones in the present, and in the whispered words shouted to us through poetry from those long past.

Thank you for enduring these daily posts. 🙂 Here’s to poetry, and here’s to you. ❤

as always………………………vw

The World Is Too Much With Us, by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 29. Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare

Hello, everyone.

Today, for our second-to-last sonnet in honor of National Poetry Month, I have chosen Sonnet 23 by William Shakespeare. It’s one of my favorites for so many reasons. Primarily, though, I appreciate Shakespeare’s play on words, using them to describe his inability to put into words the love he has for another. As we have seen with other sonnets, poets have expressed a “transcending love” that goes beyond the boundaries of our earthly existence. In this case, Shakespeare is talking about a love so transcending that he has no words to describe it. In the end, Shakespeare suggests that hear with our eyes love’s fine wit. 

Beautiful. 

For those of you who have had me as your teacher (past and present) or who have already read Fossil Five, I bet you can guess what sonnet I’ve saved for the last day of this 30-day celebration…. We shall see!

Without further ado, here is Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare.

Sonnet 23, by William Shakespeare

As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might.
O! let my looks be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense,
More than that tongue that more hath more express’d.
O! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 28. How Do I Love Thee? By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Welcome, all.

For the third-to-last sonnet that I will be sharing with you during National Poetry Month, I chose to read to you Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s classic Sonnet 43, “How Do I Love Thee?”

It’s such a simple poem that’s been parodied as much as it has been praised. As we have seen in so many of the sonnets that I have shared with you this month, the topic of love transcending an earthly experience is expressed in the final lines. This transcendence, I believe, is the true understanding of a greater love that reaches far beyond the limits of an earthly existence.

Enjoy… It’s one of my favorites. 🙂

Sonnet 43: “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Celebrating Poetry In April: 27. O Solitude! by John Keats

Good afternoon, all.

Today is April 27, and we are now in our final four of sonnets for National Poetry Month.

Today’s selection is a return to Keats, one of my favorite romantic poets. Like all the good romantics, it finds the beauty in nature and, in this poem, solitude.

“O Solitude! If I Must With Thee Dwell,” by John Keats

O SOLITUDE! if I must with thee dwell,
Let it not be among the jumbled heap
Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 26. Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare

Welcome to day 26 of National Poetry Month! As we near the end of the month, I will be sharing with you some of my all-time favorite sonnets.

For tonight, I am reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, one of his most famous love sonnets. It captures the common theme of love transcending life here on earth.

Without further ado…..

Sonnet 18: “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?” by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 25. Life and Death, by Cosmo Monkhouse

Welcome to day 25 of National Poetry Month. Tonight I am featuring a British poet of the Victorian era, William Cosmo Monkhouse, who was also an art critic in his prime. This sonnet, in the Petrarchan form, personifies Life and Death.

Enjoy! 🙂

Life and Death, by William Cosmo Monkhouse

From morn to eve they struggled–Life and Death.
At first it seemed to me that they in mirth
Contended, and as foes of equal worth,
So firm their feet, so undisturbed their breath.
But when the sharp red sun cut through its sheath
Of western clouds, I saw the brown arms’ girth
Tighten and bear that radiant form to earth,
And suddenly both fell upon the heath.
And then the wonder came–for when I fled
To where these great antagonists down fell
I could not find the body that I sought,
And when and where it went I could not tell,
One only form was left of those who fought,
The long dark form of Death–and it was dead.

Celebrating Poetry in April: 24. A Timid Grace, by Charles Lamb

Good evening, all 🙂

Today’s sonnet is by Charles Lamb, another romantic British poet who traveled in the same circle with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others. His biographer, E.V. Lucas, even dubbed him the “most lovable figure in English literature.”

Today I share with you Lamb’s sonnet, “A Timid Grace Sits Trembling In Her Eye.”

A Timid Grace Sits Trembling In Her Eye by Charles Lamb

A timid grace sits trembling in her eye,
As loth to meet the rudeness of men’s sight,
Yet shedding a delicious lunar light
That steeps in kind oblivious ecstasy
The care-crazed mind, like some still melody:
Speaking most plain the thoughts which do possess
Her gentle sprite: peace, and meek quietness,
And innocent loves, and maiden purity:
A look whereof might heal the cruel smart
Of changed friends, or fortune’s wrongs unkind:
Might to sweet deeds of mercy move the heart
Of him who hates his brethren of mankind.
Turned are those lights from me, who fondly yet
Past joys, vain loves, and buried hopes regret.