One for the Books

Whoever built the 52 Book Club list knows me way too well.

If you’ve never heard of the list, it’s a quirky approach to getting people to read more in the New Year. Mind you, encouraging me to read is like encouraging Batman to fight crime – it’s not exactly a hard sell – but the list has become a favorite New Year’s tradition of mine because of how it does it.

Like a lot of reading lists, it encourages people to read 52 books in 52 weeks. But only a few entries are as straightforward as “a book in (x) genre” or “a book by (y) author.” Instead, most of its prompts are on the quirky side, such as “a book you meant to read last year,” “sends you down a rabbit hole,” or “a book that ‘everyone’ has read.”

Because of the list’s flexibility, it fits my reading habits well. But because the prompts are so varied, I always find myself exploring some books I wouldn’t have thought to try before. It’s a good match.

But for 2024, one prompt hit me right in the history: “a buddy read.” In other words, two people reading the same book so they can talk about it later.

Naturally, my thoughts went to Dad.

Both my parents are huge readers, but Dad was the one who passed on a love of reading out loud. From childhood all the way into college, we would pick out a book and then read it out loud together, passing it back and forth either at mid-chapter or on chapter breaks.

Together, we explored J.R.R. Tolkien, Farley Mowat, Mark Twain and many more. We’re both a believer in “doing voices” where we can, so our living room or car pool would often resonate with our personal attempts at amateur theater. (He’s always admired my Sam Gamgee while I remain envious of his Treebeard.)

It built a bond. And a habit.

When Heather and I married, we started doing the same thing. And of course, when we began taking care of Missy, it really took off. Missy’s developmental disabilities keep her from reading the story directly but not from appreciating it, and she’s often pointed out favorite characters and moments when we run across them elsewhere. (As a result, I now know where every image of Gandalf is within a 20-block radius.)

Once again, we tied ourselves together with words and memories.

And really, that’s what the best stories do.

It doesn’t have to be performative. Silent readers can certainly share memories, lessons and experiences too (as Mom and I have done many times). But either way, the essence of a story is connection, even empathy. You walk alongside a character and live their life. You enter an author’s head and wrestle with their thoughts and ideas.  What you find may even shape your own personal story – which then touches the stories of everyone around you.

In that sense, I suppose, life is a “buddy read.”

We’re entering the next chapter now, each of us with our own stories to write and share. Together, we can create one that’s worth re-reading … or at least be a character who’s remembered fondly in someone’s tale.

I’m looking forward to that. Even if it’ll never appear on any reading list.

Happy New Year, one and all.

And while we’re at it … have you read any good books lately?

When Christmas Got Purse-onal

We still remember it as the Great Purse Christmas. 

The story starts with Missy, as so many do. Missy has a love for the season that is both passionate and unfeigned, and my wife Heather and I have learned her enthusiasms well over the years that we’ve cared for her. 

Carols? Play them anytime! 

Lights? Let’s go see them every night! 

The Grinch? Yes, please! 

It makes Christmas Day really fun to watch, especially since Missy’s tastes are pretty simple. New puzzles. Coloring books. Exciting stories for bedtime. Music by the score. 

And, of course, purses. 

It’s less pronounced now, but for many years, Missy’s constant companion was a big red purse, packed with half the universe inside it. Anyone venturing into its depths would unearth flash cards, stuffed animals, crumpled-up comics, a partridge in a pear tree …. as well as a ripped lining and bursting seams from holding so much for so long. 

So one Christmas, Heather and I saw the state of her current handbag and decided that a new red purse would be just the thing for Missy to find under the tree. 

As it happens, we had some company. 

Come the day, Missy got not one … not two … but FOUR red purses under the tree. Each one a different size, style and shade. The hilarity grew as the bags multiplied. 

“You mean you …?” 

“Oh, no!” 

“Wow, Missy ….” 

As communicators, we had failed pretty miserably. But as gift-givers, we had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. 

Missy was over the moon with joy, wealthy beyond words. And all of us had unwrapped a new story to share and re-share. 

You can’t ask for a better Christmas than that. 

It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the stuff, tempting to see Christmas Day as the here-at-last finish line of a long December march. But the day was always meant to be a beginning, not an end. And the best present has always been the gift of each other, wrapped in stories and memories and love. 

Here at Chez Rochat, it’s rare for a present to be opened without a tale or an explanation from the giver. It might be as simple as “I never thought this would get here in time” or a mighty seasonal epic of desperate searches and sudden discoveries. But with each telling, we strengthen a bond and reinforce a message: “I thought of you. I care. And I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

After all, we’re storytelling creatures. It’s how we make sense of the world, sometimes even how we transform it. Most of all, it’s how we become an “us,” tied together for the moment – or maybe longer – by a common understanding and shared vision.

The story now begins anew, today and every day. Write it well. Share it often. Celebrate it with others and watch it grow as your story joins theirs, making both richer.

Together, we can write a new year worth remembering. One where the real gifts aren’t just tucked away in a dark corner of December, but shared throughout. I’m confident we can do it.

In fact, I think it’s in the bag.

Logging Out

Once upon a time, the symbol of midwinter was the Yule log. Now it’s the forelog.

If you’ve never heard the term, please allow my Word Geek Brain™ to make the introductions. You know how after you come back from a vacation or holiday, the “backlog” is all the stuff you have to catch up with? Well, the “forelog” comes on the other end. It’s the piles and piles of things you have to take care of before you can relax.

And my oh my, does the forelog burn bright at the holidays.

We hustle here, there and everywhere like Santa without a sleigh. Gotta buy the gifts. Gotta WRAP the gifts. Only wait, did we remember Scotch tape? Never mind that, gotta plan for company. Gotta clean for company. Check the work schedule. Check the flight schedule. “What do you mean, they’re coming in on Christmas Eve?”

Pant. Gasp. Pant.

You know, I’m starting to understand the Grinch more and more every year.

If it were just sheer social obligation, it would be one thing. But for most of us, most of the time, it’s coming from the best of places. We want to be welcoming to friends and family and neighbors. We want to help co-workers out before the holidays hit. And of course, we want to give the season that we received, so many times from so many people through so many years.

And in a way, that makes it harder. When we get tired – and we will get tired – it’s easy to turn it inward as an accusation. “I should be doing more. They deserve better. I’m not a good person.”

Stop. Stop. And stop.

In a season of love and kindness, it’s time to show some to ourselves as well.

It sounds selfish. It really isn’t. In a way, it’s a reflection of the adage that so many of us learned long ago, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As my old math teacher might put it, that statement’s reflexive – it suggests that we also need to show the same kindness to ourselves that we would show to a neighbor.

No, it’s not easy. It never has been.

But we need it, as surely as any gift we’ve ever found under a tree.

We need to remember that we deserve good things, too. Not the “stuff” that gets piled up in boxes and bags, but the essential gifts. Kindness. Grace. Love. Forgiveness.

All of us are carrying a lot, whether at the holidays or any other time. None of us know the full extent of each other’s burdens. Sometimes we don’t even know the full extent of our own – we’re just trudging on as best we can, tottering under the load.

It’s OK to pause in the midst of the chaos. No … it’s essential. Take a moment to look at yourself as you would your best friend. Show the kindness you would show to them. Say the words you would say.

One of our family’s favorite bands, the a cappella group Face, had just the right words for it in a song called “Pick Your Head Up.” The chorus declares “The things that you say to yourself are words you’d speak to no one else.”

I try to remember that. To keep my words from being a weapon pointed inward.

If you’re in a place where you need to remember, too, I hope this helps. Know that you deserve the light. We all do.

The forelog will pass. But the strength you find and the flame you kindle can be a gift that lasts.

Better yet – it becomes a gift you can share.

Lift it up. And let it glow.

Peace and a Hula Hoop

“The Chipmunk Song” is a tool of peace. Really.

No, I haven’t had too much eggnog. Perhaps I should explain.

For my wife Heather, the Christmas season doesn’t really start until she hears the Chipmunks Christmas album, including the squeaky-voiced perennial about how much Alvin wants a hula hoop. (Are you hearing it in your head now? I’m sorry.) It’s one of two albums that gets played when we decorate our tree each year, along with my own family’s tradition of “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.”

But never mind our tree right now. The really important one in the story is G-ma’s.

“G-ma” was Heather’s Grandma Marilyn. Every year, Heather and her siblings and her mom (and often the rest of us spousal hangers-on) would make the short trek to help put up her tree. There’d be stories and ornaments and minor chaos and everything else you’d expect at such an occasion.

And, at Heather’s insistence, there would also be “The Chipmunk Song.” Because one does. And because G-ma’s laughter and smile at it never changed.

Time passed. And so did G-ma.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, we lost Marilyn in July. It left a hole. It always does when love and memories have grown strong. When the memories belong to a loving, strong-willed and lively soul, that hole gets even bigger.

Especially at the holidays.

There’s something about the season of togetherness that makes the empty chair stand out even more. And when December arrived, it felt off-balance without G-ma’s tree.

So Heather’s family put one up anyway.

A small tree. By the graveside. Decorated, of course. And there in the cold, Heather’s sister decided there was still just one thing missing.

At her suggestion, Heather pulled out her phone. And soon, the tinny strains of “The Chipmunk Song” were pealing out once more.  

All was right.

And that, at its heart, is the picture of peace.

We often misuse the word, shouting “give me some peace!” when a situation gets too loud or contentious. Peace becomes a simple end to conflict, by whatever means, a way of restoring quiet and keeping order.

But there’s an older meaning. One that’s still in the backdrop of a hundred Christmas carols. As a friend of mine likes to note, in old Greek the word means an interweaving, the connections between others that create harmony. When those connections are strong, when all is as it should be, peace reigns.

That’s a powerful gift. One we need badly.

We’re good at dividing, great at shouting, not always so good at listening. Peace demands that we listen, learn and try to understand. That we see those around us as our strength, not our burden. It calls on us to reach out, lift up, and make each other whole.

It’s not always a quiet process and rarely a simple one. But when we honor those connections, we make something beautiful. A beginning. A space. Something that binds us all, even if it’s in the tones of a novelty Christmas song.

The hula hoop is just a bonus.

May peace find you all. In all its meanings. Together, we just may be able to evoke, with a slight alteration, another, older song.

All is calm.

All is right.

Rolling With Joy

When Missy gets hold of a pair of dice, watch out. Magic is likely to happen. 

“YEAH!!” 

Missy’s developmental disabilities make it difficult for her to take part in a lot of games. But when dice need rolling, cards need drawing or any kind of random factor enters in, she quickly takes the spotlight. Not only does Missy roll with gusto, she typically rolls well – to the point where we’ve sometimes claimed her as our family’s secret weapon at holiday board games. 

It’s given her an impressive winning streak against my wife Heather at Candy Land. 

It helped her trounce all comers – roughly a dozen players or so – in a sprawling Yahtzee battle. 

And yes, it gave her just a little frustration at our last gathering when that famous luck went south for a while, producing 1’s and 2’s on the dice instead of 5’s and 6’s. No one’s perfect, right? 

Even so, I’ve still been tempted to have her pick our lottery numbers. We’ve learned to respect the gift – and more importantly, to appreciate the glee. 

You see, that’s the best part. Missy LOVES being “the roller.” It lets her play on an equal level with everyone else. More than that, it lets her be appreciated, even celebrated at times. 

For her, it’s a pathway to joy. 

And she’s far from the only one. 

I don’t want to throw the word around casually. I’m not  just referring to a brief burst of happiness, though that’s often a side effect. Joy is tougher than that, something that sustains you even when the circumstances don’t. If “hope” is the willingness to work toward a positive outcome that you desire but can’t yet see, then “joy” is the fuel for the fire that keeps you moving, letting you hold each moment close for what it is.

That’s not an easy thing. Especially these days. 

Many of us are tired. Many of us have losses. And when everything in the season starts shouting at us to “Celebrate! Celebrate!”, sometimes it just piles more on. We feel out of place … if we have the energy left to feel anything at all. 

But when we find a place – not the one the world wants to give us, but one that’s truly our own – something opens up.

When we can share appreciation for another – however simple and small it may seem – that something spreads.

Remember the Charlie Brown Christmas tree? Bedraggled, overlooked, but able to flourish with some support and love. Not unlike Charlie Brown himself, for that matter: mocked in the role that others tried to give him, but triumphant despite himself when he put it aside to reach out to something neglected.

We all have light to share. Not “jobs to do,” with the grinding sense of obligation that can imply, but a little spark that’s part of who and what we are. Maybe it’s just a glimmer, barely visible to anyone else.

But if you put enough glimmers together, they become a chandelier.

That’s what joy can be.

That’s what we can be.

May we all share in that gift, this season and beyond, with a joy that not only sustains but welcomes. May it become second nature, but never taken for granted.

Magic happening? Why not?

After all, this is how we roll.