Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Night Before Christmas

Editor's Note: This entry originally ran on Christmas Eve 2012. A close reader recently asked for the video at the end of the blog. Here it is!

From 1974 until 1988, my extended Stevens family had a tradition of reading "The Night Before Christmas" on every Christmas Eve. After we participated in what could best be described as a constant ripping and opening "gift orgy," we capped the night with the classic Christmas tale.

A total of 15 Stevens family members attended Christmas Eve during the stretch from '74 and '88, and each one read the book, starting with the oldest.

So my Grandpa Stevens read first when I was only 15 months old. I am the youngest of those 15 Stevens, so I read last in 1988 when I was a sophomore in high school.

I am not sure everyone feels this way. But for me, looking back, I had such comfort, excitement and good feelings during the holidays and on Christmas and Christmas Eve.

After we had Christmas Eve at my parents' house at 9911 Garfield Drive, Garfield Heights, Ohio, we opened presents on Christmas morning. We then had Christmas day at my maternal grandparents in Slavic Village, then Christmas evening at my paternal grandparents on Edgepark Drive in Garfield.
All of my grandparents have passed away with my Grandma Stevens the most recent to pass away in October 2010. Shortly, after that, my Stevens family turned topsy-turvy with pain and death as my dad, the XMan, unexpectedly passed away in February 2011. Then my Aunt Nancy Stevens was diagnosed with a brain tumor in August 2011 and passed away this March.

Only 11 of the original Stevens 15 remain, and despite conventional wisdom, the Stevens family is mortal. I am flooded with good memories from the great times the 15 of us shared during the holidays and engaged in our gift orgies.

I venture to say that all of us 11 - Uncle Ed, Sally, Ed Jr., Jen, Uncle Bob, Aunt Lynda, Rob, Melissa, my mom, Fred Jr. and me - share similar memories. We are adapting to our new lives, and if I ever truly need to hear "The Night Before Christmas," I will click on the video below.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Creativity replaces mindless consumption

One of my favorite scenes of all movies comes at the end of "The Candidate" (1972) with Robert Redford. Spoiler alert: After an entire movie about a seemingly unwinnable election, Redford's character wins the race.

With a throng of reporters approaching after the victory, Redford turns to his campaign manager and asks, "What do we do now?"

No answer. Bang. End of movie.

This type of moment pops up in life every so often for me. Now, I am experiencing that "what do we do now?" feeling because I have completed a full-length book and am figuring out the next step.

Today, I'm not going to talk too much about the book itself. Rather, I will explore the writing process itself and how I turned stories and ideas into a 60,000-word book.

First off, I feel a sense of accomplishment to have written a book that is needed, honest, useful and hopefully entertaining. Secondly, the creative process of committing to such a project enhanced my day-to-day life. Who knew that the collateral damage of writing so much would help other aspects of my life, too?

Some friends have asked, "How did you find the time?"

It turns out that time actually does exist to follow one's passion. For me, my writing passion trumps Netflix, social media, my phone and a lot of daily time killers that don't spark joy for me.

A major lesson is how creativity in my life is much more valuable than consumption. Man, we consume a lot, especially in the United States. I realized that I would often find myself in time-jacking Internet searches or YouTube warps or just watching whatever looked interesting on Netflix. Way too much time was wasted on that stuff.

My public service to readers today is to wonder if you experience mindless consumption like me and if it's possible to turn that into mindful consumption. I am wondering this: Are you OK with your usage of your phone, technology and your consumption, or do you feel you waste your free time too much on certain things? Please comment, and let me know where you are.
For me, writing the book brought out my waste-of-time demons. The main devils were social media, Words With Friends and texting. I deleted social media from my phone and stopped the Words game. I realized that checking texts morning, noon and night (that's three times per day) suffices.

It is wild what happens to the mind, and life, when personal time shifts. I experienced this awesome reboot type of feeling to not be tethered to my phone. It was freeing! But without social media, no phone games, less Netflix and texts, what was I to do?

I read even more (I already was reading about 40 books a year), spent more engaged time with my family and wrote the book, which I had never done. Somehow, other aspects of my life aligned, too. I work out consistently (twice a week, that's enough for me), and I feel more connected to family and friends. I've even experienced the power of deep breathing and Pandora Meditation Radio. What in the world is going on here?

I never committed to a full-length book previously because I over-thought the audience and publishing world and always found excuses to not do it. This time around, the book had to get out. In away, it wrote itself.

I fear that many of us just consume and don't create. We offer the fake excuse that "we don't have time." That way of thinking undoubtedly will lead to frustration, unfulfillment and emptiness. To create is to be human.

As a teacher, I often roll my eyes because creativity isn't explored as much as it should. Isn't understanding and cultivating creativity a crucial component of education? In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Pearl S. Buck talked about how creativity makes one's senses more alert and life more profound. It produces a "heightened activity of every cell of his being, which sweeps not only himself, but all human life about him."

Nowadays, many low-level capitalists devalue creativity because they don't see it as profitable or marketable. Plus, in the era of Amazon, Netflix and the "smart" phone, there is so much out there to consume that it is easy to forget about creativity and just consume, consume and consume.

So even though I'm wondering "what do we do know?" with a finished book, I know the answer. I'm moving on to book two. OK, sure, I'll write a book proposal and get the first one into print. I just know that the journey of creating something out of nothing is magic, and I believe magic bounces all around us. As I write this, I am hearing it in the form of my daughter singing and composing a song on the piano in the background.

Heck, it doesn't have to be writing a book or composing music. But my advice to anyone is to add a creative endeavor to your life and see what happens.