The Story Had To Be Told: On Writing The Christmas Rose

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday, I published my short story, The Christmas Rose. It’s been less than 24 hours since I shared it with my readers, and I wanted to answer a few questions about why I wrote it.

Q: The story is pretty long — almost 8,000 words. Most people aren’t reading pieces that take more than a few minutes to read. Why didn’t you cut it down to under 5,000 words?

A. It is one of the longer shorts that I’ve written. Most are around 3,000 words. I’ve been trained well by the competitions and requirements of the print journals where I submit most of my work. I knew this piece was going directly to the web and to an eBook format, so I worried less about the length.

There’s another reason, though. First and foremost, the story had to be told, and I couldn’t hold any part of it back to fit a generic reader’s tolerance for a sustained reading. In other words, it doesn’t fit into the criteria of a social media read (that’s one of the reasons why I created a PDF of the manuscript so readers could download it and read it at their leisure).

Q: Aren’t you afraid that it won’t get more widely distributed then? It seems like the length is a real roadblock to it taking off.

A: Then so be it. I know the formula of what makes things go “viral” in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe this is an “anti-viral” piece. I’ve stopped caring about that. I’m going to be 50 years old in a few months, and I have a lot of stories to share before I go. I’ve stopped worrying about what works in this immediate world. If my story is 50 words or 500,000 words long, then that’s what it is. I’ll let my present and future readers decide what they want to do with it.

Q: How long were you working on this story?

A: Not terribly long at all. The basic premise came to me about 3 weeks ago that “believing” in something, like Christmas or Santa Claus, is not just for kids. We have a responsibility to continue our efforts to believe in our power to change the world — whether that is the “world” in our local town or community, or an entire nation or nations.

In the middle of writing the piece, we took a trip down to 34th Street to look at the lights in Hamden in Baltimore City. We never made it because a flash mob shut the streets down as they sung “Silent Night.” I thought that was the greatest thing to happen. Shut everything down with music. Stop driving by the world and take a few minutes to celebrate the beauty with friends and strangers alike. Wonderful stuff.

Here’s the video that was released from that special night:

After I wrote the first draft, I knew there was very little I wanted to revise. It’s a Christmas story, all right, but it’s so much more about what we can do for others. Our nation is in a stressful place right now. We can focus on the pain, or we can focus on acts of kindness for all that can begin a genuine and long-lasting healing.

Q: Is any of it real?

A: None of it and all of it. Luther’s Village is a micro version of historic Lutherville; Hunter’s Valley is Hunt Valley. Emily Starling is an extension of the kind elders I knew in my neighborhood in Loch Raven and Towson who gave so selflessly to others.

Q: What about the Christmas Rose?

A: The Christmas rose itself (Helleborus niger) is not very “rose-traditional” looking. And, more importantly, it is poisonous. I loved the story behind the flower, but using this exact plant for my story just wouldn’t work. The hybridization of flowers happens all the time; it is not unrealistic to believe that Emily was able to create a hybrid that would be safe and offer a nice fragrance.

I think planting and giving flowers is the greatest gift we can give to others, both for now and for the future. I’ve always enjoyed the stories about the hope flowers bring. It doesn’t take much to bring a little color and hope to others, does it?

Q: How can I read “The Christmas Rose”?

A: You can read it online HERE.

You can also download the eBook (PDF) to enjoy on your phone or tablet: Christmas Rose Story.

Thanks, readers, for reading and, possibly, sharing my story of The Christmas Rose with others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

as always………………………….rvw

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34th Street: Missed The Miracle

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“Missed it by that much.” -Secret Agent Maxwell Smart

We decided that tonight would be a great night to take our annual trip to 34th Street in Hamden to check out the lights and lawns as only Baltimore can do. We left a little before 7 p.m., stopped at Starbucks to get a few holiday drinks (thanks, Wonderful Student, for the gift card), and headed down Roland Avenue, across Hamden’s famed 36th Street, and stopped abruptly. The line of cars started two blocks north of 34th Street, even before you made the left turn to travel the additional 3 blocks to get to the Big Show.

What the heck, we thought. Our drinks are full, the Christmas music was flowing freely on 101.9 FM, and we had nowhere to be. So, we decided to stay in line and begin the inch-by-inch crawl to the famed Baltimore block (not THAT block!) of lights and holiday magic.

It took about 75 minutes for us to make it to the intersection where the mystical show on 34th Street began. As we waited to cross the road and begin our oohing and aahing, a police officer, with full lights running, pulled up in front of us and got out of his car.

He proceeded to disappear in the masses of holiday walkers, and we were all stopped at a complete standstill. After a few minutes deliberating with two other officers who arrived at the scene, the first officer who blocked us stopped all traffic, set up traffic cones blocking the entrance to 34th Street, and gave us the big whistle and hand jive:

“You!” he pointed in my general direction. I looked a little to the left and to the right, then finally returned to his stare.

“Me?”

He nodded rather confidently and pointed away from the pretty Baltimore lights and directed me to fight with the angry traffic making its own way to– well, now to absolutely nothing.

We had waited nearly 75 minutes to be turned away. As Maxwell Smart would say, “We missed it by that much.” And that we did.

My wife, Amy, and I laughed, and I even think our son was a little relieved just to head home. All that time to get a sneak peek at some lines strung up and a few off-street attractions. Denied!

We made our way back along Roland, up to Cold Spring, then over to Charles, where we picked up Gittings and found THIS:

Gittings LightsThis photo does NOT do it justice at all. The house was covered — literally — in lights, and it brought back a smile to all of our faces. Our 2-hour trek had led us here, and as a result, we all benefited greatly (praise the Lord) from the beautiful display of lights.

We headed home, listening to more Christmas music, and planning out a different strategy in 2015. Until then, I think that we are happy in knowing we tried, and that there are plenty of other ways we can prepare for next year so that we can enjoy The Miracle on 34th Street — or any miracle, really… as long as it doesn’t involve so much traffic!

The Call Heard ‘Round Baltimore

There have been so many magical moments at Camden Yards in the last 24 hours, with the Orioles taking a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Tigers in the American League Divisional Series.

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This double play in today’s fifth inning, for instance, was just unbelievable (well, not for die-hard O’s fans).

But it was this call by Orioles’ announcer Joe Angel on WBAL Radio, with the Orioles down 6-4 in the bottom of the 8th inning, that sums up everything magical about this season.

Delmon Young’s bases-clearing double

This is a wonderful time to be an O’s fan, but just as importantly, this is a wonderful time to be a baseball fan.

Good luck in Detroit, O’s. May you muster the strength and magic to sweep the Tigers with a win on Sunday!

Instant Happy Therapy: You Are In Control

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I am fascinated with the trends on my social media feeds, or at least the ones that Facebook and other social networking sites chooses for us. If somebody with a pretty strong presence in my feed rails about the injustices of customer service, it seems as if it is nearly always followed by a run of status updates proclaiming similar unsatisfactory experiences.

Look, I know this might be a Law of Attraction thing – you want to buy a green VW Beetle, and then that’s all you see on the road the rest of the day. I get that. But FB and other networks have already admitted to using some kind of software that tracks trends in updates and flows them together, all for the sake of “enhancing” our overall online experience. Talk about customer service being a little too self-serving…

Regardless of how they end up in my feed, people are writing them, and sometimes, they are downright depressing.

Well, I’ve got some Instant Happy Therapy for you that works for me every time. I step away from the phone/laptop/tablet and get outside.

I listen. I observe. I inhale. I absorb everything that is around me.

So few of us really do this. Here’s a quick quiz for you. Name the following:

  1. The natural colors and shapes around you.
  2. The types of trees in your neighborhood.
  3. The names of the wildlife outside your front window.
  4. The sounds of birds (and their names) in your neighborhood at dawn, noonday, and dusk.
  5. The insects and animals comprising your community’s little ecosystem and wild life cycle.

Not that any one of these is super important to your happiness. What is super important, though is your awareness of such things. All it takes is a little time outside, unplugged, to become aware of the vibrant life all around you.

This is my Instant Happy Therapy. It is grounded in the present, and it is happening, despite me. I get to become an observer to the wonderful movement of my natural and community surroundings. It grounds me in what matters most in this life.

So log off, and get outside for a little Instant Happy Therapy. It’s free, and it’s always available to you (and everyone else).

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More Than A Moonrise

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I do not know whether to trip over the light of the moon,
Or walk gently along the beams that find their way,
A cool, quarter-million miles to where I stand
This invitation to abandon stress, release the burdens, and follow play.

I marvel at its simplicity,
Framed in the silhouette of a Maple tree’s silk–
Long limbs cradling the brilliant orb,
A babe in nature’s womb, rebirth’d every 28 like the fate of the phoenix.

It is enough to be alive, a witness to beauty,
A gem polished again and again by the swirl of the sun,
The spin of the Earth,  the push–pull game of gravitational love;
The opening of a heart, receiving love rising along the light-dancing horizon.

~lines composed at moonrise, 8/7/14, rus vanwestervelt

Slow Down: Abandon the Speed of Your Newsfeed

photo: rus vanwestervelt, loch raven reservoir, baltimore, md

photo: rus vanwestervelt, loch raven reservoir, baltimore, md

My newsfeeds on multiple social media sites stream by me at a too-fast rate, pushing news and updates across my screen faster than I can refresh them. Emails await my replies in an overflowing inbox, and text messages are still unanswered from last night.

The world is too much with us…. wrote William Wordsworth in a sonnet he penned 212 years ago. Talk about words standing the test of time.

It is easy to get caught up in the rush of our digital world, isn’t it? With everything screaming by us at speeds that were incomprehensible earlier in our own lifetimes, we find ourselves feeling the need to keep up and match that speed so that we can stay in the flow of this ever-pressing world.

I think otherwise. In fact, I don’t buy it for a nanosecond.

I’m standing here on the banks of Loch Raven Reservoir in Baltimore, watching the colors of the rising sun sift through a patch of lazy steam making its own ascent from the still waters. There is nothing “fast” about this process. It moves independently, a natural beauty both fluid and brilliant in its display. I am mesmerized by how unfazed it is by my presence. I am a witness to its tranquil unfolding. I am open to all it has to teach me.

I come out here to be reminded of what matters most in my world. At times, like now, I have to remember what I am not, as much as who I am.

I feel my pulse align with my natural surroundings; my muscles relax, and my feet feel rooted in the damp, dewy grasses here at the edge of the waters. This is what life is about; this is what I am about.

A Mindful Intimation

I am not part of a scrolling newsfeed, nor do I need to keep up with one. The speed of my life experience is not dependent upon, or a mirror of, the technology around me. I align myself with the rising mist on local pre-dawn waters. I will not allow the world to be too much with me — at least not the one filled with screaming technology that never rests. I set my pace; I am mindful of my independence and personal solitude. This is my world. This is my existence.