This holiday season, I am reminded even more of the importance of exercising compassion and empathy.
I shouldn’t have to be homeless to imagine the bitterness of winter temperatures for those who have no roof over their heads and no bed with fluffy pillows and a down comforter to keep them warm at night. I don’t have to miss meals to feel the nausea, lethargy, and distraction from not having enough nourishment in my belly.
I don’t have to experience the anxiety of pulling out a bank receipt that shows a balance that won’t (in any stretch of the imagination) be enough to cover the monthly bills, or worse, seeing a negative balance to sympathize with those who are unemployed or still struggling in the current economy. I shouldn’t have to experience cancer to empathize with someone who’s going through chemo and radiation therapy.
I don’t have to care for an elderly parent, say goodbye to a friend struck down by disease, or bury a murdered child to have my heart break, or to reach out to comfort, hug, hold, and support a family member, a friend, or a stranger who has lost someone essential to their lives.
For Americans, our season of officially giving thanks begins on the third Thursday of November, Thanksgiving. Oftentimes, with the stress of planning and preparing feasts; purchasing gifts or stressing about finding extra money to purchase gifts or going without gifts; end-of-the-year additional work and subsequently extra hours at our jobs; attending holiday school performances, work parties and social get-togethers; dealing with family dynamics or having no family at all—it can be difficult to remember that this is a time for giving.
This season, I am reminding myself to give—with consciousness and clarity, discharging my stresses and anxieties (even if temporarily), so that I may give freely and openly, without judgment or expectation.
When a friend’s stress is overwhelming, I tell myself, ‘Cut your errands short and lend an ear, turn off your phone, and pull your sleeve down over your watch face.’
Painting by Lisa Monica Nelson
When my eyes sting because they’re so tired and all I want is to get that next load of damn laundry folded and the dishes cleaned before I call it a day, and my child calls for…me, I let the laundry wait and leave the never-ending chores to remain undone a bit while longer. I go to my daughter, curl up in the bed with her, and release the day from my mind so that the only world of which I’m aware is the child right in front of me.
When a wee tiny wisp of an elderly woman spends 20 minutes mailing a package while the line at the post office extends past the door and down the steps, I tell the person in front of me that I like her intriguing coat and then we move on to how we will be spending our holidays and to whom we are mailing our packages. Finally, I simply wait my turn, mentally sending good wishes to the old woman with her cane, her hand shaking as she writes her check, her lips quivering as she tries to get her words out, and know that I, too (with luck), shall reach her age and deal with the consequences of old, old age.
This season, I remind myself to take that unwrapped gift to the local firehouse, take the end-of-the-day extra baked goods from my favorite bakery and drop it off at the food bank, and prepare to hand out lunch bags of turkey sandwiches, cucumber wedges and holiday cookies to my neighborhood homeless like my daughter, ex-husband and I used to do when we lived in Hollywood. Show people, tell them, ‘You are not alone; I see you.’
Sometimes, the whys and wherefores don’t matter, the old baggage, the open wounds. Sometimes I need to push myself past what grips me in hurt and pick up the phone, call an estranged sibling and say, simply, “I love you.” Issues don’t magically disappear, but the freely offered sentiment can open a way forward, even if just for that moment.
The odds are, if we all give, then we shall all receive.
Give with a free, loving heart, and receive in the same way. I remind myself that when someone brings me an unexpected gift—a tin of holiday cookies, a card, a phone call, or even a hug—to receive that gift with a thankfulness that seeps throughout my every inch. Don’t flick it aside with, “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” or “But, I didn’t get you anything.” Welcome his gift and his thoughtfulness. Let it fill and soothe, nurture and replenish.
We need the love and compassion of others, especially when tragedy hits so close to the holidays. Let’s not shy away from it, from the pain and loss, but embrace each other and help each other stand up. We are only alone if no one reaches out, if no one offers a hand…or if the offered hand is not taken.
Let this holiday season be a time of selfless giving, true compassion and empathy, honest love and kindness, and altruistic benevolence.
Let our humanity excel and radiate—in the way we give and receive, share and comfort, support and love our children, family, friends, and neighbors, as well as our beloved towns, cities, country…and our precious world.
Every stranger is a potential friend.
Open your heart.
Love is essential.
Copyright © Kat Ward, 2012 at Hometown-Pasadena.com
Photo by Doug Knutson
An interview I conducted this week for Hometown Pasadena.
Not surprisingly, as the son of Guatemalan parents, a L.A. native, a former Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Buenos Aires, and a weekly local columnist, Héctor Tobar’s fiction is infused with the desire to illuminate the complex layers, significance, and consequences of cultural and ethnic differences and conflict.
His latest novel, The Barbarian Nurseries, is an incredibly dense reveal of the city of Los Angeles. Within the details of the varied sections of this metropolis, he has created a story that focuses on Araceli, a Mexican maid, who after four yours of service is suddenly thrust into the additional role of nanny when the parents, Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, make the executive decision (independently of one another) to give themselves a “time-out” from their suddenly taxing lives. The ensuing adventure, and clash of class and culture, reveals the abundance of deep-seated issues at play, and a mistrust and misunderstanding that can relegate society to stagnancy.
HP: How did the title Barbarian Nurseries come about, and what were you hoping to convey by this title?
HT: It’s a play on the two meanings of the word “nursery” as a place where plants are cultivated and as a place where children are cared for and raised.
Both of these jobs are performed in the U.S. by Latino immigrants to a large degree. Mostly people from Mexico. And in talk radio and right-wing commentary, Mexico especially is considered a place of barbarism, a place without civilization; people think of it as a place dominated by drug gangs and lacking in culture, a perverse and inaccurate vision of what the country is, to be sure.
HP: How did you start writing this story, was it with this particular theme in mind? Was it a discussion you wanted to start, continue, or contribute to?
HT: I started off more than a decade ago, and wrote a first draft of a novel that was a response to the growing anti-immigration movement in the U.S. and a response to this rhetoric that sees the newly arrived immigrant as the dangerous ‘other.’
The initial inspiration came from the protagonist of Camus’ The Stranger and from the idea of the first image in my novel: a man trying to cut his own lawn without a Mexican to do it for him.
I didn’t really want to start a discussion, as much as I wanted to write an artistic and intellectual response to the moment in which I was living as a native Californian and the son of immigrants.
H-P: Right from the start, you set up the divide and distinction between employer and employee. Could you comment on that?
HT: A big part of the novel is how social class seeps into everyday actions in the home. This is deliberate, of course. It comes from having crossed the class divide myself, or, rather, from having seen my family cross that. We come from Guatemala, a country that’s synonymous these days with service work here in L.A. My father parked cars, worked in hotels. We ascended to the middle class. At one point, I lived abroad as a writer with servants in my home. So I’ve been lucky enough to see that class divide in my own life from both sides.
H-P: Even secondary characters get back stories, even if they’re mini ones, such as the young woman of whom Araceli asks directions in the fashion district. What was the aim in doing this?
HT: I’ve been privileged to be a journalist and writer in L.A. for a long time. I’ve been to many different kinds of neighborhoods, rich and poor and in between. So I figured I had the chance to share with the reader a real tableau of the social differences and gaps and the variety of experience in the metropolis.
H-P: We have to say, we thought the most alarming part of the book started on page 241 and lasted a mere 38 lines.
HT: Yeah, I was a reporter for a major newspaper covering crime many years ago. I saw firsthand the way the media can assemble melodramas from complex, ambiguous human events. It’s become a big industry in the years since, but the basic manipulation of the truth is the same: take complicated lives and boil them down to issues of good and evil.
H-P: Was the ending of the book, the way the three main characters head off in new directions, just the way the story came to you, or was it a conscious decision?
HT: Maureen and Scott at the end are being set up for another fall. They’ve been humiliated, and forced to lower their expectations. As for Araceli, I wanted to leave her in an in-between state, her story leading to either Mexico or to the U.S., because to me that’s what it means to be an immigrant in the U.S. This country changes you, you can’t go back home and be the same, while at the same time living here can be a fraught experience, as Araceli has learned.
H-P: From the very beginning, we were drawn into the story by your wording and the images you create with your words.
HT: Thanks so much for the kind words. Yes, I’ve spent many long years working on my prose style, trying to develop something that’s evocative and accessible. I’ve had a lot of influences, from short story writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Sandra Cisneros, to novelists like Gunter Grass and Don DeLillo. I like to think of it as reaching for a kind of accessible transcendence, if that makes any sense.
Photo by Elena Dorfman
H-P: In reference to being a writer, how do you know when a manuscript is finished?
HT: When your editor pries it from you hands. I think we are perpetual tinkerers. The real question is: when does the writer stop working on his manuscript and show it to his agent/editor? That’s hard to answer. Personally, when I feel nauseous just looking at it, I know I’m done.
H-P: Do you have a particular connection with Pasadena? We know your children attend Sequoyah School, but is there anything else?
HT: One of the final sections of the novel takes place in the Arroyo Seco, in that hazy area near the border between South Pasadena and Pasadena. I use the Craftsman architecture, with its Midwestern influences, as a symbol of Maureen’s desire to return to the values of openness and simplicity of her youth. Also, there are a couple of Sequoyah parents and their kids who served as inspirations for characters.
Héctor Tobar, author of The Barbarian Nurseries
He will be reading at the L.A. Central Library
Thursday, January 26th, 7 p.m.
630 W. 5th Street, L.A., lapl.org/central
Image by Jong Soo(Peter) Lee via Flickr
Yesterday, I submitted my 4th post for review to the Hometown Pasadena publisher/author/boss-woman Colleen Bates. She responded, approving of the piece (“lovely job.”), and indicated that she wanted to speak with me about a “steady freelance gig.”
After swapping emails, I can now scribe in the annals of Kat Ward that this is my first official WRITING job.
I AM BEING PAID TO WRITE!
Yee-ha & hoo!
Between physically holding Lori’s workbook Where Are You Stuck? and seeing my “Editor” credit; experiencing Kevin Bertazzon’s ISMS and being asked to help edit his next espisode; and beginning to write blurbs for the Hometown Pasadena website and within submitting 4 posts, being hired!–this has been the best week in like a decade!
Hallelujah and thank you, Baby Jesus!
Just saw that my 3rd blurb for the website hometown Pasadena has been published.
“Eaton Canyon – Nature Calls”
I’m supposed to present the facts, but the boss says the material for these kinds of blurbs can be dry, so I can add a touch of flourish, humor, etc. I find it hard to be funny on demand–and know I can go overboard–but she hasn’t ripped my pieces to shreds yet–I’m happy!