I see how you’re looking at me, your eyes and your Twitter feeds filled with hope. 2020 was a dumpster fire, you say. 2021 has to be better, you say.
I know you mean well, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on a brand new year.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been working hard, and I have big plans. Right off the bat in January, I’m rolling out a new president. Pretty exciting, huh? In March the economy will get a boost from my new infrastructure initiative, and in August, supporting teachers will officially become a national priority. Kids will get to go back to school; adults will get to keep working from home. By December, you’ll even be able to hug your children without setting off a deadly multi-state super-spreader event. How great is that?
And you guys are going to just love the new panda species you’ll discover next fall. Oh my gosh, those big brown eyes.
But I’m not perfect, okay? No year is. People are already saying I don’t have enough vaccines, and they’re probably right about that. Three hundred seventeen species you’ve never heard of and two that you have will go extinct, I haven’t fixed racism yet, and don’t get me started about global warming. With just hours to go I still don’t have a plan to reverse climate change, and as you like to remind me, time is running out.
I can’t do this.
Things have been rough lately. I get that. You need to believe it’ll all get better. You need less doomscrolling, more cat pictures.
I can’t give you that. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I’m just not the year you need right now.
2020, you’ll have to fill in for me. I know an experienced year like you will be fine. See you in twelve months, okay?
The first time I told my daughter the truth about Santa Claus, she was three years old.
She came home from child care full of excitement and anxiety, hoping, hoping, hoping she’d been good enough for Santa to come. We’d never really talked about Santa in our Jewish-Quaker household, though we did visit my in-laws for a secular Christmas celebration each year. But I looked at my child now, full of earnest hope and anxiety, and I knew I didn’t want her to see her Christmas gifts as some sort of reflection on her character or worth.
So at bedtime I said, tentatively, “You know, some people believe Santa Claus is real. Others believe he’s a story.” Saying something was a story was a common way of explaining things in our household. As the child of two writers, my daughter already knew that stories were important, even precious. To say something was a story was to describe it, not to diminish it.
This time, though, when I said Santa might be a story, my daughter looked right at me and said, “That’s not true.”
Faced with such strong conviction and will to believe, I didn’t press the matter, not then.
And I did quietly—if a little uneasily—relabel one of my husband and mine’s Christmas gifts to be from Santa, rather than us.
Lots of Jewish kids grow up wishing they could celebrate Christmas, but I don’t remember doing so, maybe because I grew up in a town with enough Jewish kids that schools closed not just for Christmas, but also for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the first couple of days of Passover. On the playground Jewish and Christian kids fiercely debated whose winter holidays delivered more presents, but the idea that we all should celebrate one or the other wasn’t even on the table.
I did grow up believing in Santa Claus, though. I listened for sleigh bells Christmas Eve, opened a token gift beside a neighbor’s tree Christmas Day, and accepted without bitterness that of course Santa Claus couldn’t deliver any gifts to our house, seeing as we were Jewish and all. My family’s Hanukkah gifts were numbered by day and laid out on top of my father’s oversized stereo system, where my brother and sister and I could try to guess at their contents as we shook them and tried to see through the wrapping paper.
I don’t remember when I stopped believing Santa was real. I think it must not have been any one big moment at all. I just remember continuing to watch the usual round of animated Christmas specials this year, knowing they were stories, knowing they weren’t my story, and feeling no sorrow at either of these facts.
I did wish, though, that we could have had a few Hanukkah specials, too.
When I was 11, my mom brought home our first Christmas tree. She’d been at a party for work, and when the party was over they were going to throw the tree away. She told us she couldn’t let that happen, so she rescued the tree instead.
It was my first hint that maybe my mom, or the child my mom had been, was a little sad the Christmas story wasn’t hers, even if I wasn’t.
For me, the tree was an uncomfortable and alien presence, and I hung homemade paper strings of dreidels and Jewish stars on its greenery to make it feel less Christian. At 11, I liked being Jewish, and I had no desire to be anything else.
My brother, who was attending a private Christian kindergarten that year, loved that tree, and he cheerfully moved all our Hanukkah presents under it. I grumpily moved them back to my dad’s stereo, where I was sure God intended them to be. My brother moved the presents back to the tree again, I moved them back to the stereo again. I’m pretty sure this went on until the presents themselves were finally opened.
I assume God had more important things to worry about than where my family put their Hanukkah gifts, but this was never really about presents or trees. It was about identity. In America, Christmas and Santa cultural forces that pull everyone into the discussion, no matter what they believe.
A decade later, our second Christmas tree stretched from floor to ceiling and was covered with store-bought Christmas ornaments. It came with a new step family who laughed at the Hebrew words of our Hanukkah prayers, and with a new town where our family‘s presence was enough to double the local Jewish population. The identity and cultural issues that raised could easily fill a blog post of their own.
My daughter didn’t continue believing in Santa forever, of course. When she was ready, she came back to me and asked, “Is Santa real?”
She was five then, and no longer worried about being good or bad enough to get presents. Instead she was just trying to figure out how the world worked, what was true and what wasn’t true, as so many children are.
I gave her the honest answer her honest question wanted. With two years to think about it, I was less tentative. “Santa is a story,” I said. “A story that some people enjoy believing.”
For a little while after that she went back and forth between believing and not believing, sometimes at the exact same time. She repeated her question a time or two more along the way, but then she knew. Santa was a story. This wasn’t a great tragedy, for her or for us, and it wasn’t the beginning of some mysterious loss of innocence. Nothing was diminished by the knowledge that Santa was real, least of all my daughter’s sense of wonder.
In a universe where dinosaurs really did once walk the earth and planets really are spinning through the vastness of space, it’s hard to imagine honest answers to honest questions ever diminishing our sense of wonder.
But that’s not the end, not quite. Because it turns out all my honest answers had caveats.
“Some people believe Santa Claus is real,” I said when my daughter was three, before I told her what I believed, that Santa is a story. Even when she was five, it wasn’t enough to tell her Santa was a story. I felt the need to add, “A story that some people enjoy believing.”
Of course they do, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that—except that I felt the need to defend the lie even as I told the truth. The reason is no great mystery. We all feel the pressure not to “ruin” Christmas for kids who believe Santa is real, no matter our traditions or what we ourselves believe.
Different families have different customs, something I’ve used to explain everything from screen time rules to why we have to wear shoes outside to who is and isn’t getting a slushie on the way home from the park. Yet I don’t ask other parents to make their kids put on shoes just because mine is wearing them, and I don’t expect other parents to get their kids a slushie after a play date just because my kid is getting one. The story of Santa is different from other stories. It’s the one story where we’re not content to respectfully let different families have different traditions and beliefs. It’s the one story that we all, even children, are expected to deny our own truths to protect.
That has implications for identity, too.
Or as Rabbi Ruti Regan put it in a twitter thread a few years ago, “It bothers me that Jewish children are expected to help Christian parents lie to their children about Santa Claus. Minority culture kids should not have to be afraid that they will face retaliation from majority-culture adults for saying things that are true.”
Families have the right to teach their children to believe in Santa Claus. They have the right to celebrate the holidays any way they choose, and to take joy in doing so. But it’s not my family’s job to lie about our beliefs to protect your traditions, any more than it’s your family’s job to pack kosher-for-Passover meals so my kid won’t feel left out at the lunch table.
It’s a tricky, sometimes uncomfortable juggling act, this business of raising children in a world where not everyone believes as we do. Members of minority religions, along with those who don’t identify with any religion, already have a lot of practice with this act. Maybe it shouldn’t all be on us. Maybe it’s time everyone else take on their share of responsibility and juggling, too.
What I’m saying is, yes, listen for sleigh bells this Christmas Eve, if that’s your thing. Find all the magic and joy there is to be found in that, as well as in opening the presents your traditions say the sleigh and its driver will leave behind. We can all use magic and joy, and the fact that we find it in so many different places is wondrous, too.
Just stop asking the rest of to say that we hear sleigh bells, too.
Variations on the line had been bouncing around in my head for a while before my husband and fellow writer, Larry Hammer, reminded me where it came from.
I’d been thinking about Frost (without knowing it was Frost I was thinking about) because I’d been thinking about how once we reach a certain basic level of craft, writing is no longer about avoiding mistakes or carefully not doing anything wrong.
It’s about the things we do right.
No one ever loved a book, after all, simply for not making any mistakes, for all that there are (varied, individual) things that can throw each of us out of a story. But we don’t love a story just because we aren’t thrown out of it, either.
We love books for what they do, not for what they manage not to do. We love them for the thing or things that hit each of our particular story buttons, that reach out to bridge the gap between story and reader, that pull on us and make us want to or need to read on. A flawed book that does the things it does very right is far more powerful than an unflawed book that doesn’t.
None of my favorite books—the books I imprinted on as a child and teen, the books that have remained touchstones for me throughout my life—is perfect. I can see that clearly enough when I look at those books as a writer focused on craft—and that has never once stopped me from returning to those books, from treasuring them.
We don’t love books for the things they aren’t, but for the things they are.
But there’s more to it than that. A while back, in a stray moment when I thought I was thinking about a manuscript-in-progress, I found myself thinking instead: And the same thing is true for people.
On one level, I’d always known this. On another I hadn’t, or had forgotten, or needed to relearn it on that particular day in that particular way. People no more need to be perfect than stories do.
As writers who spend much of our time looking inward that we can become as critical of ourselves as of our stories, this is worth remembering, too. I doubt many people hold their friends and loved ones dear simply because they never make mistakes. Lack of mistakes is not the place love comes from.
We love one another for the same reason we love stories: not for what we aren’t, but for what we are.
As I dig deep to put words on the page, I find that a comforting thought.
Okay, you don’t need me to tell you that. What with the election and the pandemic and the wildfires and a thousand thousand other things, 2020 has seen to it that it won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
But February 2020 was also, as this ten-year-old post just reminded me, my writingversary. As I explained then:
Back in February 1990, just a few months out of school, I spent the last of my student loan money on a computer with two 5 1/4″ floppy drives, promised myself I would write at least something every single day when I got home from my new day job, and decided to see if I could make a go of this writing thing. I knew enough to know it would take time, so I gave myself ten years before I would step back, evaluate, and decide whether to keep going.
In February 2000, I’d sold the three middle grade Phantom Rider books and a couple dozen short stories, though the Phantom Rider books were by then out of print and I was feeling more than a little anxious about not having sold any more novels. But I stepped back, looked around, and decided I was in for a second ten years.
I completely missed February 2010, because I was frantically finishing a draft of a sequel the YA fantasy I’d started on that first student-loan funded computer but not finished and sold until late 2006. That was the third YA fantasy I’d sold in the second half of that decade; along the way I’d also sold another middle grade novel. Being too busy to step back and decide whether to keep writing is, of course, an answer of its own. Still, it’s good to actually state these things, so: I’m in for a third decade. I’m in, as I pretty much knew before the end of that first decade, for the long haul.
I completely missed February 2020 because, well, it was part of 2020. Writing has brought its challenges over the past decade, as it does; parenting has brought its own challenges to the second half of that decade, as it also does. But I’m still here and I’m still writing and it feels good to say it aloud:
I’m in for a fourth decade. I’m in for another ten years.
Bones of Faerie, the first book of my Bones of Faerie trilogy, is about uncontrolled growth: plants that bloom in every season, crops that fight their harvesters, trees that seek human blood and bone to root in.
Faerie Winter, the second book of the trilogy, tells the opposite story. It’s about endless winter, failure to grow, and the fear that spring might never come.
During our current physical and psychological winter, Faerie Winter is the book I’ve been thinking about.
The story’s protagonist, Liza, is surrounded by adults who remember countless other winters, followed by countless other springs. Liza was born after the war between faeries and humans banished winter from her world, though. She’s never known anything but deadly, unbounded growth. When that growth stops at last, Liza’s first thought is about how much safer the forests have become. Later, when she realizes that those forests have also stopped producing the things humans need to survive, she has no mental roadmap for what might happen next.
When Jayce, a member of Liza’s town’s council, talks about preparing for spring planting, Liza wonders at the fact.
If he feared that the spring crops wouldn’t grow, he gave no sign. Adults believed, somewhere deep inside, that spring would come, for all that they were careful of our rations. Some part of them couldn’t imagine that green wouldn’t return to the world, as if green was something we were born to. I did not understand it. Deep inside I felt as if this gray had surely gone on forever and the forests I’d fought all my life had been merely illusions.
Not all the adults in Liza’s world share Jayce’s certainty, though. As the story progresses, Liza flees a danger that comes from beyond the dying forest with Karin, a fey survivor of the War. Karin is a plant mage, keenly aware of the changes winter has brought to the world, and she asks aloud the question that human adults have not.
The grasses sighed wearily and retreated back into the snow. “They’re not dead,” I said. “Not completely, not around you.”
“They are not dead.” Karin sounded as tired as the grasses had. “But they are dying. Tell me, Liza, do you believe that spring will come?”
Why ask me? I was no plant mage. “The adults in my town believe it.” They believed in spite of the gray trees and the gray skies, the failed crops and the too-long winter.
“So it is with the human adults in my town as well.” Karin held a hand out to the falling snow as we walked on. Snowflakes melted against her skin. “Yet I have never heard the trees so quiet. They yearn for darkness, and some have given way to it. Others slip into sleep, accepting that they may never wake. I am told this is the way of your world. It is not the way of mine. I have never known a forest that was not green. What do you believe?”
Do you believe that spring will come? It’s a question I’ve returned to many times since I wrote Faerie Winter. It’s a question I was asking before I wrote that book, too, before fiction led me, as it so often does, to put into words the things I was already saying.
Because Faerie Winter is fantasy, the question of spring’s return is not merely metaphoric. It turns out the danger of endless winter is real, and so Liza’s inner crisis is echoed by the world’s outer one. Fantasy does that, sometimes—lets us transform internal struggles into external realities so that we can face those struggles head on and in a more concrete way than other types of stories allow.
Do you believe that spring will come? Things have changed so much already—in Liza’s world, in our world. There’s no changing them back. Do we believe that forward change will continue instead, leading us on to someplace new, someplace viable, someplace where things can grow once more?
Do you believe that spring will come? There’s a strange comfort simply in putting the question into words.
On one level, I know the answer, always have known it. If I didn’t believe, deep down, that spring—that the future—would come, writing a book where spring was called into question would have been too much to bear.
On another level, I need, just as deeply, to hear the question asked, and I need to travel the hard path toward its answer, again and again, not just in the books that I’ve written but also in the countless books that I’ve read through the years, ever since I knew how to read. Stories were the thing, after all, that got me trough childhood and adolescence and all that came after. Every misunderstood kid who had adventures and saved the world and found their place in that world was, in their way, another needed answer.
An answer, and also a map—the map Liza lacks—for what the journey might look like. Spring comes. Not always easily, not always painlessly, not always as quickly as we want or as we need, but in the end and at the last. Spring comes. Deep down, I know that.
Can we take a moment to recognize the strength and resilience of elementary-school-aged kids during this pandemic?
They’re putting on their masks and their backpacks and walking into school on their own every morning, even the littlest ones, whose parents couldn’t follow them on campus for their first day of kindergarten this year. They’re learning how to learn at a distance, no more hugs from their teachers, no more sharing a pencil or a snack or a high five with their classmates. Even so, they’re still finding ways to have fun with their friends. They’re still growing, socially and emotionally as well as physically.
Or else they’re booting up borrowed laptops at home, working their way through packets of worksheets on the couch or the bed or the kitchen table or a quiet corner of the closet. They’re learning surrounded by the noise and chaos of their families, or else in the silence of a home where everyone else is busy working, too, even the grownups. When they’re missing their friends, they bring their cats and their dogs and their stuffies with them into their virtual classrooms. They’re learning how to learn on their own, even as they keep their friendships alive through video chats and outdoor play dates and shared Minecraft worlds
Or else they’re simply hanging in there, day after day, while learning and friends become increasingly distant memories. They’re caring for themselves and their even-younger siblings full time while their parents work, or they’re struggling to survive on their own, in homes where emotional or physical violence are—or have become—the norm, without the option of escaping into a classroom for a few hours a day.
For some kids, the victory is that they’re continuing to learn and grow and connect with their friends. For others, the victory is that they’re surviving at all.
They’re heroes, every last one of them.
As adults, facing so many of our own real challenges right now, it’s easy not to notice this. Let’s stop and notice it now. Remember how, when you were a kid, summer seemed to last forever? For today’s kids, Covid-19 has been three summers long—so far. But they’re still here, still surviving and, on good days, even thriving. They’re handling an impossible situation, if not perfectly, still with more strength and grace than many grownups.
Let me not to the counting of true ballots Admit impediments. Votes are not votes That alter when they alteration find, Or bend with the remover to remove. O no! They are an ever-fixed mark That wait on counting, patient and unshaken. They are a star for every governing bark, Their precious worth shall not be taken By those impatient fools who lightly seek To bend time’s sickle to some baser goal Than truth. The truth is not so weak, But bears its witness, to the edge of doom, Wary of error, careful and unmov’d, Until the people’s will at last be prov’d.
A few days ago I woke to a muted orange sun, shining sluggishly through layers of haze. This wasn’t the orange of sunrise—the subdued light lasted well into the day—and it wasn’t caused by the clouds of a late-season desert thunderstorm, either.
It was wildfire smoke. Again.
It’s been more than a month since Tucson’s Catalina Mountains burned. That fire, too, filled the daytime sky with smoke. It made my eyes itch and left ash on our backyard trampoline.
The fact that these wildfires are hundreds of miles away doesn’t matter. Air moves, after all. Wind blows. Ash and smoke travel. The entire planet is in motion, and what happens in one place affects all places, in small ways and in large ones. Smoke in California becomes smoke in Arizona, and New York, and Europe.
If your air is polluted, my air is polluted, too.
This is, of course, the lesson of the current pandemic, as well. I breathe air out. You breathe the same air in. I cough, and where that cough lands determines whether someone I’ll never meet lives or dies.
It’s not enough to keep ourselves safe and ignore everyone else. It’s not enough for you to wear your mask if I don’t wear mine. It’s not enough to only douse the fire we can see, not if we ignore everything else that’s still burning.
Judaism has taught me that, “If you save a life, you save the world.” As I move toward Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I’ve been thinking about that teaching a lot.
Thinking about the ways it is may be literally, and not just figuratively, true.