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Chandra's Blog

 

Thursday
Dec122013

12 Days of Christmas (Cards) Day 1

As my favorite holiday, I take Christmas very seriously. I have written odes to my favorite books of the season as well as my favorite songs.

And every year I try to tone it down a little more, so that I don't miss the magic in the moment. The first and most obvious cut to go should be cards. It's not like the old days--we have social media to keep us connected, for better and for worse, throughout the year. So why do I keep creating, sending and cherishing the dying artifact of the annual holiday card, preferably with photo, with or without letter? I wrote this post about Christmas cards a few years ago. But I find I cannot let them go, and I keep circling back to the idea that the series of cards tells the story of a family in flip-book time lapse style.

My mom saved every Christmas card our family ever received--she actually made whole albums each year of our received cards, and sent out over 500 of our own every year. (In fact, if your family was tight with ours in the 70s-90s, and you want a good archive of cards, come see what didn't get destroyed in the great fire of '91.) I can still picture my mom dutifully inscribing and hand-addressing and calling out commentary to my dad--"Did we get one from the Fraziers last year? What about so-and-so at the office?"--over the second half of every Thanksgiving weekend. 

Whenever I try to scale back Christmas prep and stop myself from making a card, I imagine our growing collection of annual cards that tell the story of our own little family over the years. I'm scared to miss one year in part because what might that gap say about our family narrative? For example, though 2011 was pretty shitty and I almost didn't care to capture it , still we did a card, if only to say, we're still here. Still standing. I don't want my kids to look at the display of our own cards and see the space, and notice what's missing. Maybe that is how all traditions become entrenched?  

Regardless, I thought as we head into the 12 days of Christmas countdown for this year, it would be fun to go through our cards over the last 12 (13) years.

Christmas 2000

 

Our first Christmas card was handmade. Not coincidentally, this was also our first and last holiday without kids underfoot. We had recently moved from Breckenridge to the town where we live now, and in a vain attempt to save my parents' marriage, had just started renting the house my father had bought for himself in anticipation of moving out. I was starting my own event planning company, and J was working for a venture capital firm, and we rattled around in too many rooms, in a house with historically bad ju-ju, with one dog and one cat, and tried to find our stride in this new chapter.

Back then, I had endless hours to handtie raffia knots on vellum overlays, and I wanted our first cards to be special, reminiscent of our wedding program, which also involved a lot of raffia, vellum, handmade paper and muslin. I was really into raffia and vellum. 

 

I love this photo, even though you can't see it very well under the vellum here, it had a little lift-the-flap feature. Our expressions, that rise in J's chest, as we exit the church on our wedding day earlier that year, look very much like we've sucked in a quick breath before diving into the unknown. In fact, seconds before this was snapped, I remember J leaned down and whispered in my ear, "Here we go!" 

The youth in this picture strikes me, of course. J looks like he is about 12--the kids can't believe the CURLS he had. But I also think with the gift of hindsight about all the things we didn't know were coming. Good and bad. When I see this picture, all I can see is radiating optimism, everything unfurling in front of us. I love this young couple, in all their breathless hopefulness. 

2000, the new millenium--the first and only year when we would simply be Mr and Mrs. Hoffman. 

Sunday
Sep082013

Writing the Crazy Quilt

Recently I got to sit down and chat craft with my high school creative writing teacher. We have been sharing work in the past year, and my children are enthralled by her simple, heartfelt and other-worldly stories of the Moon Darlings. She conveys meaning with a sparse prose, ethereal imagery and language that hints of another place while deeply tethering the reader to the characters.

She listened to me explain what I have been working on this summer, a revisiting of a dual narrator novel that explores the relationship between two women on either side of a man. I rambled on with a plot summary, and explained it as a study on natural beauty and its merit, and the moral compass, and undoing the damage of the past and ... I paused for a breath.

Janna nodded. She then said diplomatically, "I think you would do a very good job writing for a television series. Something complex and intricate, that spins out for many seasons. I'm not sure a novel is the right medium for this kind of writing."

Basically, she said again what an agent who was considering CHOSEN told me years ago in a thick, gravelly Brooklyn accent, "You don't got to be so tricky, doll!"  

Janna went on to say that perhaps, this is the outcome of me knowing that I am talented--see all these balls I can keep in the air!--and intrinsically insecure about the actual merit of what I have to say. A 'don't mind the man behind the curtain, now look over here! she's about to get on another plane/in bed with another man/wreck her life in a new way!' Maybe I'm afraid my story doesn't stand on its own, in the same kind of beautifully simple voice that carries Janna's stories, so I heap on layers, and plot twists and funny side scenes, quirky characters, sex scenes and dredge up some backstory. 

I was reminded of my quilting. I don't actually know how to quilt, and I'm not particularly interested in learning. I don't want to be hemmed in by the rules of quilting, don't want to fuss with ironing interfacing to fabrics that don't have the same amount of give or pin before I sew every little bit. I want freedom to use anything I like, slash up and incorporate a fabulous thrift store find, whether or not it will hold up to a washing machine. Because of this, I rely on the medium of the crazy quilt, where my shortcomings and lack of quilting skill can be covered up with another overlap, another layer, some top stitching or embroidery. In the end, I hope that the person looking at the quilt will see the beauty in the midst of the chaos, because I do. 

(You can read about my daughter's Incentive Quilt, here.)
Piper's crazy quilt

Janna's writing advice: step back from this rolicking, wild, plot-heavy story. Tone down the neurotic characters I have woven. Write a scene from this story in simple prose, and see if the heart is there. There is a reason I am stalled out--see if this is why. I'm excited to try. She may be on to something that explains why I keep circling this story, never feeling like I understand the essence of it.

And on the other hand, I'm not sure that my methodology is totally problematic. Instead, perhaps it is simply my style? There are things I am good at in both mediums. It's not that I'm hasty or sloppy or can't write/sew something beautiful. I hand-embroidered thirteen painted ponies for Piper's quilt, with carefully blanket-stitched edges and flowing, colorful manes and tails, and they're lovely. I can craft dialog that rings true while conveying character and moving plot along all at once. I can seamlessly incorporate elements of pop culture that lend verisimilitude to my work.

I don't only crazy quilt because I'm too lazy to iron before I sew--I do it because I am attracted to this style more than perfectly symmetrical calico stars. I feel inspired by the beauty in layering and odd angles and textures and riotous colors. I am drawn to Murano glass, and cherish J's aunt's miniature layered collages. One of my favorite descriptions of our home was 'Pee Wee's Playhouse Grows Up' because of the bright colors and ecclectic mix of styles that somehow ... work.

Maybe this is true of my writing too. I cringe every time I feel myself edited towards chicklit, pat or formulaic writing. I demand that my characters be messily three-dimensional, with ugly, wobbly, secret underbellies and defining backstories and childhood friends and ex-boyfriends and snarky coworkers and things they do when they think nobody is looking. Maybe I write this way because I am attracted to the beautiful chaos of real life? 

I'll let you know how it goes this week.

Wednesday
Sep042013

Twelve years is a long time

This time of year is always tainted by the bittersweet. The return to routine, letting go of the ease of summer, everything exploding, then disappearing like the spring-loaded touch-me-not seeds in the jewelweed clumps my brothers and I used to set off on our September walks to school. 

Twelve years ago on September 4, we welcomed little Jonathan Hayden into our lives. For years afterward, the anniversary effect of this event, coupled with the September 11 attacks and almost losing Hayden after his first surgery have made this time of year bittersweet. I wrote about it several years ago, here, and here.

But twelve years is a lot of distance between now and our baptism by fire into parenthood and the anxiety of raising a family in uncertain times. Twelve years later, I would say while our greater world is no more certain, things here have progressed to a point where I only see and feel the joy. I can still remember the dark, hissing pumping closet at the hospital, and how bewildered I was to find myself in there in a long dress and tights, what seemed appropriate attire for early fall but totally inapprorpiate for pumping milk for my baby living on machines in the next room. I remember seeing the footage on CNN while I was trying to negotiate this small dilemma, the jumpers from the burning World Trade Center, stick figures, really. And feeling numbness. I remember walking outside of the hospital, escaping for a brief breath of fresh air, and seeing the cabs by the UPenn with turbaned drivers and handmade signs in the back windows that read WE ARE SIKH, FROM INDIA. WE LOVE UNITED STATES. I remember all of this, but with distance and the luxury of hindsight. Twelve years is a long time. 

Today, Hayden is healthy. I no longer worry that the hospital will take him back, an irrational fear from the early half of his life. I sometimes Google anxiously, about the other shoe dropping, but mostly I try to just enjoy who he is and where we are, even in the face of world uncertainty. 

 

Hayden, Water Cay, 2013

Tuesday
Aug272013

First day

Today was the first day of school. The first time, since becoming a mother almost twelve years ago, that all three of my children will go to traditional school together, at the same time. For twenty eight and a half hours a week. After several episodes of homeschooling and traveling, of book touring and then leading our two lives, one here and one on Isla de Utila, I don't know what to think about this.

Hoffspring leaving their island life

 All the things I thought I'd be so excited to do--go on a long run, start writing on a brand-new project--turned into me rattling around this morning with a second cup of coffee, laying out a few hands of Aces on the Bottom, obsessively checking my email and finally getting out of the house, and browsing (without luck) at the carpet store.

Off to school, Aug 2013

It's funny, in their other life, they learned to tie nautical knots to keep the boat from drifting away from the dock cleat, and leapt barefoot from the boat to their tutor in town. In the other, this past Sunday my father and brothers taught me a hasty and sloppy half Windsor for prep school ties and I obsessed over the minutiae of dress code approved footwear.

 

After Skyping with them early this morning, J remarked privately to me that the kids look great, though maybe a little like they're auditioning for an Annie Lennox music video. That's ok. It's part of why this two lives thing works. Hopefully, we are shooting for the bigger picture--presenting them with all kinds of options for a life, and hoping we are raising people capable of playing by the rules, (and breaking a few) and figuring out what really matters.

 

Last night, I wallpapered Hayden's pencil keeper (a wooden Honduran cigar box) with photos of Amigo and Sampson, the dogs he loves in both places, and a tiny cameo of his family, just in case a hip sixth grader whose side part in the photo at left was 'ironic, mom, get it?' wanted a glimpse of familiar faces.  

The hoping we're getting it right is what had me up again at 3:30 am, cutting out Max and Piper's sandwiches in the shape of our stateside house's roofline, and leaving little notes on red paper where the front door would be, telling them I couldn't wait to hear about everything when they came HOME. 

 

Here's to a great year, and all kinds of new adventures for us all. 

* *** *

 

 

Friday
Jul192013

Favorites on Friday...

This. Coming to a bed near me soon.

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