Puzzling Traditions

Like most families, we have tried over the years to develop our own holiday traditions.  These, like all things, evolve.  When I was a professor the semester break meant, after a flurry of grading, a month of a more relaxed schedule.  We would travel to family outside of Wisconsin every year, and worked on what a “usual” holiday might look like for our small family in the remaining time at home.  Now that I work for a company, and my wife works for a company, the holiday break is severely curtailed, but it has allowed us the opportunity to invent our own traditions.  One of them is to put together a quality jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day.  (Two of these puzzles were destroyed in the flood that ruined so many books, and will need to be replaced eventually.)

I’m aware how nerdy puzzle-solving might sound.  I’m not spending the day out riding an ATV through the woods, discharging a firearm, or watching sports on television.  Piecing together a puzzle is a quieter pursuit, and the puzzles we have are of quality artworks, and completing one makes it feel like all is right with the world for a little while.  As with most things on this blog, it also serves as a metaphor.  Yesterday as we watched the movie The Man Who Invested Christmas (which portrays very well the life of those who try to write; the exception being that Dickens had little trouble finding publishers and the benefit of early success), it occurred to me that as we put together the puzzle of our lives, we do so with the box top missing.  We don’t know what the picture is.  Slowly some sections start to come together, but overall, we don’t know what we’re doing.

Long ago I learned the folly of planning out a life.  Moving forward is good, yes, and making plans wise.  You cannot, however, know the way those plans might fit elsewhere in this decades-long unfinished puzzle.  There’a a fairly large section of mine called Nashotah House.  I would never have planned that intentionally, and thinking back, it was being there that renewed my interest in horror.  I thought I’d be at a university where I might continue my research into ancient deities and how the world of biblical Israel developed its own conception of that world.  That’s what I thought the cover of the box would look like.  Instead I’ve found myself editing the books that others write and using the scant time left over to write my own, on a topic far different than that in which I earned an advanced degree.  As the last piece slips into the puzzle, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much, but I’ve used the limited time off to step back and try to take, however briefly, the larger view.

Remembering Catherine

Literature has been on my mind lately. Although I’ve not read all of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, he’s been in my consciousness what with the new movie and somewhat older book, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Those who analyze literature sometimes claim Dickens invented the modern novel. In my unprofessional opinion, however, the roots go back a bit further than Boz. Still, it’s an enviable position to hold, even if it’s just in the minds of admirers. Dickens came back to me yesterday in one of those apparently random emails from WikiTree. WikiTree is a genealogy website to which I’ve contributed from time to time. I have no famous ancestors, so WikiTree sometimes helps me borrow them. Turns out I’m 28-degrees separated from Charles Dickens.

Perhaps their algorithms are getting better, or perhaps one of their robots is reading my blog (goodness knows few actual people do!) but the connections are getting closer. I posted earlier that I’m 37-degrees separated from Bob Dylan and 43-degrees from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m closer to Dickens than to either of these famous individuals. This is the beguiling aspect of genealogy—it shows how unexpected connections can be part of our unknown background. The maze back to Dickens is through my grandmother on the Tauberschmidt line. This is the one of the four grandparental lines for which I have the least information. Nobody in my family even knows my great-grandmother’s name. She died young and, as with women in that era, was known in census records only by her husband’s surname. I may never learn who she was.

Although the reason for women changing surnames makes sense in its historical context, it is one of the great injustices of both gender equality and history. Signs are indicating that society is finally waking up on this point: women are half of the human story. As a dabbler in fiction writing, knowing that half the story is untold is a troubling phenomenon. Reading about Dickens I learned that he left the wife of his youth for a younger woman. Although such things are common, my reaction was to wonder who Catherine Thomson Hogarth might’ve become, had women had the opportunities they’re starting to have today. She was, after all, from Edinburgh. She has biographies, but not nearly as many as her feted husband. And if my math’s correct, I’m only 29-degrees separated from her. And this may well be the more important connection; the story untold.

Inventing Christmas

While not always classified among the most intellectual of writers, Charles Dickens was a complicated man. Able to conjure words that reflect emotions, often making readers laugh and cry, he was the undisputed bestselling author of his day. This holiday season the movie The Man Who Invented Christmas explores one of the probable reasons for Dickens’ celebrity—the resuscitory success of his first holiday novel, A Christmas Carol. The film was based on a non-fiction work by the same title, written by Les Standiford, subtitled How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. As an author who found early fame, it might seem counterintuitive to those of us who’ve never found any that Dickens’ career would need rescuing. In the publishing world, fame has to be sustained since few books keep on selling and selling. And Dickens didn’t always help himself.

Dickens’ choice of Christmas as a theme was, obviously, driven by his own warmth regarding the season. As Standiford makes clear, however, it was also driven by money. Like many in today’s world, Dickens had established his comfort at pecuniary liability—he lived on credit. He also supported other family members and although he cared for the poor he often resented those who cost him money through irresponsibility. Christmas was a time when, he hoped, people might be encouraged to give. Some of that money, naturally, would go toward the purchase of his book. Although the story was secular, it gained the approbation of many in the church—it encourages thinking of others and being generous. Complicated.

As we get closer to Christmas this year, it seems that Dickens’ message bears loud and constant repeating. Here in the States, our government has taken on a decidedly Scrooge-like cast when it comes to the poor and unfortunate. Indeed, “bah, humbug” might well be the new motto of the Grand Old Party. Shown evidence of the guilt of the miser in chief they only claim that those who discover such truth are lovers of false truth, such as claiming that the poor really suffer with want. They close ranks to ensure that the downtrodden can never vote them out of power and claim that Bob Cratchit’s problem is that he’s lazy and Tiny Tim is a burden on the misunderstood wealthy who only ever wanted to help others. A huge difference is that Dickens knew his novel was fiction. This holiday season the ghosts visiting us will be the emaciated spirits of democracy past, present, and future, and that of human decency.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.