Jackie’s elf arrived last night. I have to admit I’m not a fan of the elf. He’s cute and all, but he’s kind of a pain. I know that’s my own fault because I couldn’t just do the standard Elf on the Shelf routine. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Elf on the Shelf, it’s a relatively new gimmick that parents use to frighten their children into behaving, by putting a toy elf on (you guessed it) a shelf so he can spy on the kids and send nightly reports to Santa. Every morning when the kids wake up, they know he’s been to the North Pole and back because he’s in a different place than where they left him.
Don’t get me wrong. I totally get using every tool at your disposal to get kids to behave, especially this time of year when adults are busy and kids seem to have never ending access to massive amounts of sugar. One year I had so completely lost my will to parent, I offered Jackson a piece of candy for every piece of formal clothes he put on. Socks, underwear, pants, belts, shirt, tie, vest, shoes, and two for combing his hair before church. That’s a lot of candy. I’m not proud; I’m a parenting realist.
And yet, still I couldn’t bring myself to embrace the creepy elf narc. Maybe because I don’t want my son to grow up thinking police state surveillance is normal. Maybe because I believe that what you do in the privacy of your own home is protected by the 4th amendment. Maybe because the mere thought of an elf creeping around Jackson’s room while I sleep would give me nightmares. But the main reason the standard Elf on the Shelf narratives don’t work for us is that we don’t buy the whole naughty/nice Santa Claus biznatch.
The idea that Santa brings presents to nice kids and ignores bad ones caused a great deal of hurt for one of my son’s friends at a very young age. Her family is Jewish, so they don’t celebrate Christmas, but the kids at school didn’t get that. They only got that Santa brings presents to good kids, and she didn’t get any presents from Santa, ergo she must be a bad kid. Take a second to think about what that must feel like to a four-year-old.
The same can hold true for poor kids, who may get little to nothing from Santa, while kids from wealthier families getting truckloads of new electronics. If you believe Santa rewards good and punishes bad, don’t you start to wonder if maybe you aren’t as good as those rich kids? Do the rich kids start to wonder the same thing? Do either of those kids start to act according to those observations? It’s not unreasonable to think they might.
Finally, though, even if you aren’t worried about other people’s kids and the messages we send by tying gifts to someone’s self-worth, you have to admit those ideas run counter to a Christian understanding of Christmas. Christ is the true gift of Christmas. All other gifts are merely meant to be a reminder of the joy we have in Him. And if all gifts are meant to represent the love of Christ, they have to be given unconditionally, because that’s how God loves us, unconditionally. God didn’t keep a naughty and nice list that first Christmas. God sent Jesus to be a savior to all, without reservation or fine print. Peace on earth, good tidings to all. The radical message of Christmas is the new covenant written not on stone, but on our hearts, that we are saved not by works, but by the grace of God.
So what does that mean for our elf? It means no spying, no nightly trips to the North Pole, and no snitching to the big guy in the red suit. It also means no easy moves from the bookcase to the dresser. In one of our better parenting moments, we decided Santa would send our elf for a sort of pre-Christmas recalibration. Santa would tell Jackson (via letter) that the elf had spent so much time working on toys all year long that he’d started to think Christmas was about toys. Santa would then ask Jackie to help teach the elf the true meaning of Christmas.
Over the next few weeks, the elf does things like crumble some cookies overnight, so Jackson could come down and tell him we don’t waste food because Jesus called us to feed the hungry. Or the elf draws on our mirrors in dry erase marker so Jackie can redirect him to draw on cards for people who are in nursing homes, because God wants us to show love to our neighbors. Slowly, he begins to make better decisions. By the end of the month we find the elf close to the nativity or reading the story of Jesus’s birth in the Bible.
I’m proud of the thought we put into the idea in our better moments, but its also a lot of work, and I don’t just have to parent in my better moments. I have to parent in all the moments. It never fails. Four days in, Susie or I sit bolt upright in the middle of the night and shout, “We forgot the elf!” And some days I’m too busy to take food to the food pantry or mittens to the clothing drive or cards to shut-ins. I have a job and a house to clean and gifts to buy and meals to cook and errands to run. I have to admit that while I LOVE that my nine-year-old still believes in Santa and elves, I was sort of hoping he’d forget to ask Santa for an elf this year. That way I’d have more time to focus on my to-do list.
Except my to-do list doesn’t bring me any closer to Christ this year than a rich child’s wish list does. In fact, the chores and cooking and cleaning and lights and presents are a lot like an adult version of the naughty/nice list. What if they are just ways to make us feel good and important and productive? What if those things are more mature ways of trying to “earn” our Christmas. What if those things just distract me from the idea that God loves us all so much that God came into this world to be near us, to teach us, to guide us regardless of how many items we’ve checked off our lists?
What if stopping each night to ponder how I can use a creepy little elf toy to teach my son about sharing some of the love that God so freely shares with us isn’t just one extra chore? What if those elfish little lessons are actually Christmas in its purest essence?
If that’s the case, maybe that sneaky little elf isn’t really for Jackson after all.
Today’s song is a lesser known piece. I’m not sure it was supposed to be a Christmas song so much as just a Christian song, but I always listen to it this time of year because it’s about Mary and her baby king.
I like this one because it has a little bit of a bluesy undertone, but it’s not unhappy. It deals with harsh realities of Mary’s life, the unplanned pregnancy, the homelessness, the fear of Herod’s wrath, and yet at the end of each soulful verse, it returns to a call for Mary to sing anyway.
It goes back to that idea of a Christmas of conflicting emotions. It doesn’t shy away from everything awful in the world. It doesn’t even suggest we should hide from those things. What to do? What to do? The answer is to sing. To hope. To pray. To soften what was hardened.
“Soften what was hardened.” I like that line.
The call isn’t to stop mourning. The call is “Turn now in your mourning. Look to see your savior. Sing, Mary, sing.
I guess that’s what I’m trying to do this year. To turn even in my mourning, to seek my Savior right where I am, and to continue the song.
No massive reflection today. I went to church. I helped our Sunday-school kids write their Christmas play and was blown away with how good they are at this Christmas stuff. They are all fully aware of the current political situation, and they all made allusions to not just the election, but to the issues behind it. They wanted to send a Christmas message about what humans want isn’t always what God knows we need. They’re calling the play A Different Kind of King.
I’m sure I’ll write more on the play itself in the coming weeks, but for today, listening to them work, I felt better than I have in weeks.The old merged with the new, using an ancient message to renew our sense of hope.
In that vein, I’m sharing a more modern take on a truly a classic hymn. I hope you enjoy it.
My world is changing; I’m rearranging. Does that mean Christmas changes, too?
I used to think that if I didn’t dive into Christmas with the gusto of a little child, I was somehow being sacrilegious or not fully honoring the occasion. I used to think that being sad on Christmas was somehow suggesting that the birth of our Lord and Savior wasn’t good enough for me. Like what more do you want than the salvation of the human race?
Now I think my view on Christmas and how it changes can be summed up by a Mohammed Ali quote: “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Right now I know my world is changing and rearranging. My understanding of Christmas is changing, and I won’t go so far as to say that it’s better or worse than my understanding used to be, but I will say that it is more powerful. I know that Jesus’s birth didn’t wipe away all the sadness in the world. I know that Jesus’s birth brought God on high down into the fullness of the human experience, and that in doing so, God accepted the entirety of what it means to be human, all of the ups and the downs, the joy and the sadness, the hope and the fear. I think learning that really freed me to experience Christmas more fully, because I am learning to seek God in the good times and the bad. And in looking for God in more places, I have learned to recognize God in more places.
This year when I ask, “Where are you Christmas?” It’s not because I can’t find joy or hope or peace anywhere. It’s because in addition to those things, I am also looking to meet Christ in places I’ve never dared to look before. The process is not always easy or natural for me, but when I open myself to seeking the Christ child everywhere, that’s where I tend to find Him.
“Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place?”
That’s one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite Christmas songs. Do you hear the doubt and the fear and the longing? Do you feel it? I do. I live it.
Sometimes I think everyone can see it. I worry my wife sees it. I wonder, when things get hard, when emotions run high and money runs low, does she realize what a terrible mistake she made by tying her future to someone who knows so little?
I worry my sons sees it daily, when I don’t have the answers to his questions. I’m sure the nurses saw it when they put him in my arms. Did the fear in my eyes make them wish they were handing that precious child to someone more qualified?
I worry my community sees it. The days after the election people kept sending messages or posting on my wall asking for inspiration. Asking for me to help them put things into perspective. Couldn’t they see I didn’t have anything to give? Surely there was someone better, stronger, smarter to turn to.
If I have led anyone to believe I am doing anything other than fumbling through the darkness right now, I have committed fraud. These blogs, my posts, my books, hell, most daily conversations are just me thinking out loud. Every word I write is me struggling to make sense of all the confusion in my own life and mind. I thought everyone knew that.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear.
I have lain awake so many nights over the past week wishing desperately that I could be someone else. Someone who had answers. Someone who knew what to do. I am scared. I am hurt. I am lost. I am broken. And the weight of responsibility to those who came before not to let their fights be in vain and to those who come next to give him a future worth protecting, it’s crushing.
I lay there praying silently so many nights while my wife and son sleep. And I’m not talking about pretty flowery prayers. I beg God to tell me what to. Please tell me what to say, where to go, how to help. Please help me. I cannot do this alone. I simply don’t have the kind of fortitude or wisdom in me to go it alone.
In fact, that may be the sum total of the wisdom I possess. I cannot do this alone.
Still I offer all I am, for the mercy of Your plan.
The day after the election I woke up with a line in my head from an old Christian song. “I don’t know how you’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here, where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”
Well right now I am lost enough to let myself be led. I want to be led. I am starving for guidance. I want so desperately to be better. To be the person everyone deserves. To be worthy of my call. I want to give my whole heart and mind and spirit over to a higher plan.
I hope that’s an important step toward Bethlehem this Christmas. To admit I don’t know how to get there on my own.
Maybe the first step is asking for help.
Help me be strong. Help me.
Things have been quiet on the Spangloblog lately, because, to be quite honest, I’ve been seriously depressed. Lots of tears, lots of fear, lots of anger, and so much exhaustion. The thought of blogging has not really appealed to me much, the thought of Christmas blogging even less so. I actually considered not doing my annual Christmas song blog this year. I just didn’t want the extra work, thought, and emotional output they tend to take.
That isn’t to say I didn’t want Christmas. I really want Christmas. I actually broke my cardinal rule and started listening to Christmas music BEFORE Thanksgiving this year. I basically started listening to nothing else right after the election. The lights went up on my house in November. I’m planning a holiday open house and invited like 80 people. I’ve been doing my best to use the power of Christmas and all its trappings to help me get through the horror of our current political realities.
That led me to think maybe I would do the song blog, except no real blog. Just the songs. No commentary. No thought. No emotional work. You’re all smart, you’d get the point. Right?
But what point?
That the world needs love right now? Duh.
That Christmas makes people happy? Sure.
That people need to find a way to be happy even when we are scared? That too.
A little bit of musical distraction is totally warranted. I don’t think anyone could really fault me for that. Except I kind of would.
Not because using Christmas that way is inherently wrong. I don’t think it is. But I do think it’s ineffective. Or at least less effective than it could be. Distractions are temporary and surface level. A band-aid on a bullet hole. As I said before, I have been listening to Christmas music for weeks, and still I am a walking ball of fear and frayed nerves. Clearly, using Christmas as a diversion is not enough.
And the thing is, I know that. Christmas isn’t songs and lights and food. Christmas isn’t a diversion or distraction. Christmas isn’t some mood-altering mind trick.
Christmas is a life-altering experience.
You can’t do Christmas halfway. Well, you can. Lots of people do, but you can’t expect it to change anything unless you’re willing to let it change you.
In order for that to happen, we have to learn to see Christmas as more than the happy little clean-and-bright story advertisers and even some churches paint it as.
I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating that a true reading of the Christmas story reveals a harrowing tale of poverty-stricken people living under the foreign occupation of a brutally oppressive regime. Their families and friends turn against them after an unplanned pregnancy. They travel with virtually nothing through a wasteland of rugged terrain to get to a place where they are not really wanted. After being turned away by homes and businesses, they’re forced to take shelter with animals, in dark, unsanitary condition where they face a medical trauma that routinely kills woman, without trained help or even the support of loved ones. And then, when they survived that, the weight of the law fell on them, and one of the most powerful leaders in the world went on a killing spree, slaughtering innocents in order to snuff out every future hope of salvation. They were only able to escape the vast bloodshed by fleeing their homeland under the cover of night to live as refugees in a foreign nation.
You can’t sort through that narrative and choose to polish a few pieces. If you do, you lose the power of the whole. Christmas is not a happy escape from the word around us. It is not a diversion from the troubles of the day. Christmas isn’t an instruction manual for fixing anything specific on a global scale or even a local one. No governments were over thrown. No oppressors vanquished. No redistribution of wealth. Christmas is just a story of God looking down on this mess we have created for ourselves and being so moved by compassion He decided to join us.
Not fix everything for us. Not solve all our problems. Join us
Emmanuel. God with us.
God incarnate, plunked, of his own free will, right in the middle of the despair, the squalor, the violence. God with us then, now, always, in the worst of human conditions. God offered living, touchable, tangible proof that we did not have to face the pain and the anguish and desolation alone. At a time when human beings would have run, God refused to turn away. God did the opposite. God got closer.
That’s the transformative power of Christmas. It’s not replacing desperation with joy or fear for hope, or love for hate. It’s about knowing that all of these things can exist simultaneously. Christmas is not about getting away from things that challenge or frighten us. Christmas is about standing in the middle of your nightmare and knowing that God is there, too.
That might not be the kind of Christmas I want right now, but it is the one I need.
If you do, too, I welcome fellow travelers as I embrace this wonderful, terrifying, and life-altering journey in all its fullness over the next 25 days. May God’s presence bless us all along the rough and winding way.
I knew that title would get your attention, but now that I have it, settle in and let me tell you about my trip to the Naked Heart conference in Toronto this weekend.
This one really couldn’t have come at a better time for me and my family. We were feeling damn near despondent after last week’s election. I lost 8 pounds through sheer grief. Tears flowed freely. Fear ran rampant. And while intellectually I knew we’d get through, that we’d pick ourselves up and start to fight back again, I had yet to figure out how.
As soon as I crossed the border, I started to feel a little better. I’ve always enjoyed going to Canada, and we’ve made the trip across the Peace Bridge many times over the years. This time felt different. It felt like entering a safe haven. The evening got even better when we got to Toronto and made a beeline for Chinatown (per my son’s request). I ate dumplings in a packed house and didn’t throw them up. Then we got crepes for dessert (also my son’s idea), and while I didn’t eat those, I did get to spend some time chatting with one of my former students and her husband, who are in the process of moving to Toronto. We cried a little and laughed a lot, and I left feeling better than I had in several days.
The next morning the conference began at Glad Day Bookshop. And let me tell you, if the regular Canadians are nice and lovely and supportive, the book-loving Canadians are even better! The audience was packed even at 10 a.m. on a Saturday for the Speculative Brunch reading I attended. The moderator welcomed us to “Science fiction, fantasy, and horror–otherwise known as the next four years.” It’s funny ’cause it’s true. Then we were treated to readings from David Demchuk, J.M. Frey, James K. Moran, Michael Lyons, ‘Nathan Burgoine, Stephen Graham King, and Steven Bereznai. Afterward I got to meet Steven, James, and Nathan, all of whom were lovely to chat with both then and throughout the rest of the weekend. If you read M/M spec fic you should go look them up!
The next session was a Lammy session with Felice Picano, Hasan Namir, Jeffrey Round, and Trebor Healey. This was such a wonderful and diverse set of readings. It’s clear to see why the authors are big award-winners, and they ran the gamut in style and content. After that panel I got to meet a couple of readers and also talk to Trebor for a little bit. Everyone was beyond nice, and they all offered sympathies about Trump’s election. Several people offered to help in any way they could, and I breathed a little easier with each show of support.
Finally, it was my turn to read. I got to share a sneak peak reading from Close to Home along with Christopher DiRaddo, Jessica L. Webb, Liz Bugg, and Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins. Once again I was really pleased with the quality and diversity of work being shared in this session. I was also really happy with the audience, which was a good mix of men, women, and gender non-conforming folks.
Several readers and writers hung around to chat after our reading, and we had to step outside to make way for the next session. This put us on the sidewalk and inevitably talking about Trump and what his election meant for the queer community. I did the self-conscious thing I’ve gotten used to where I look over my shoulder to see who might be listening in, but what I saw this time only made me smile.
You see, Glad Day Bookshop is in the heart of Toronto’s gayborhood. As we stood there chatting openly about gay books and fears and making art in time of turmoil and dreading holiday conversations, we were completely surrounded by wonderful, caring, exuberant gay folks and allies. The conversations were much the same as I’d had at home, but the setting had changed so much it shook some of the sadness out of them, at least long enough for me to begin to rebuild my shattered senses.
This is where I have to stop and put in an all-out sales plug for Toronto, because getting through the next four years won’t be easy. The fight will be long and hard. We will need breaks to recharge our bodies and our souls along the way. Travel is one of the best ways I have found to do that kind of recharging. I’ve heard it said that travel is one of the few things you can spend money on that makes you richer. I also think that travel can help ward off a sense of isolation and desperation. Getting outside of what we know disrupts the limiting notions of what’s “normal” and shows us viable alternatives. And over the course of the next four years when those experiences become life-sustaining, I vote we spend our vacation dollars on supporting places and people who support us. There are progressive hubs in every state and progressive states throughout our country, but the Toronto folks in the gayborhood surrounding Glad Day Bookshop are among the best I’ve yet to meet, and they support our community at every level. The people, city, province, and country are all amazing. Go visit them.
Okay, moving on. The next morning I was on the first panel of the day at a place called Buddies in Bad Times Theater. They seem to do some really cool productions there, so when you visit Toronto, look them up. The panel topic was Too Queer/ Not Queer Enough”: Publisher Pressure and Reader Expectations. Joining me were authors Elizabeth Ruth,
Christian Baines, and hip hop artist Nari. I have to admit that I was nervous about this one. I had no idea what I was going to talk about. Hell, I couldn’t even tell if I was one of the ones who was too queer or not queer enough, but our moderator, Katie Sly, did a fantastic job and our audience was so wonderfully open that this ended up being my favorite session of the whole conference. I wish I could have bottled the energy in that room and brought it home to all of you.
By the time we crossed the Peace Bridge that afternoon, I was sad to leave such wonderful company, but I felt a lot better about the work I would return home to do. It wasn’t easy to come back across the border into the US, but I felt a lot strong than I had 48 hours earlier. It’s time to get back to work, and I have. I’ve made a pledge to write 8 book in the next four years. I commit to telling our stories, love stories, to the best of my ability for as long as you all will keep reading them. That’s my job, that’s my fight, that’s how I rage against the dying of the light. It’s what I have to do, what we all have to do, but I will be the first to admit that doing so is a littler easier because I know there’s a safe retreat filled with wonderful people and beautiful book lovers just three hours north.
So thank you, Canada. Thank you, Toronto. Thank you, Glad Day Bookshop, and thank you to every conference organizer and volunteer who helped to make the Naked Heart Festival possible. I owe you a deep debt of gratitude, and I have a feeling I’ll be back to visit you all again sooner rather than later.
For real. I’m not kidding. No matter what happens today, I’m leaving the country. I’m going to a place where people are liberal and nice and have a sense of human decency.
You think I’m kidding?
Well, I’m not!
I am honestly going to the Naked Heart Literary Festival in Toronto, Ontario this weekend.
All election-day stress aside, I am really excited to spend my weekend in a beautiful city surrounded by literary queers. I can’t wait to meet some new readers and writers, and the program looks amazingly diverse in ways we don’t often see in the states.
I am doing a reading on Saturday with the Sneak Peeks and Previews group from 2:00-3:15 at Glad Day Bookshop. Then on Sunday I will be part of the Too Queer or Not Queer Enough: Publisher Pressure and Reader Expectations panel from 10:30 – 11:45 at Buddies in Bad Times. If you want more information, you can check out the website here https://nakedheart.ca but all in all it looks like a great event with some fascinating topics and awesome writers. Plus it’s sponsored by Glad Day Book Shop, which is the world’s oldest LGBT bookstore. How cool is that?
If you are in the Toronto area or looking for a Canadian road trip, I sure hope you’ll join us!
Just a quick blog with a few updates for you. First of all, in case you missed my announcements on social media, Ann Etter won the Perfect Pairing Reader Loyalty Contest. She has chosen to name a future character “Cordelia Esme,” so be sure to watch for her in a future Rachel Spangler novel.
Next, Women’s Week is next week! I am beyond excited to get back to Provincetown and see so many of my favorite readers and writers. Here is the official Bywater Books schedule for that event.
In addition to my Bywater events, I will also have a reading with the Golden Crown Literary Society at the Sage Inn from 12:00-1:15, followed by a signing until 1:30.
I will also be taking part in the annual readers and writers wiffleball game on Friday from 5:00-6:30(ish) in the open field at 104 Bradford street. This is a fun, casual event, and all are welcome to play or watch the game.
Women’s Week is always a great time, and there’s something for everyone, so if you’re interested, you can check out the whole schedule here.
Finally, I’m really excited to announce that I have been selected to participate in the Naked Heart – LGBTQ Festival of Words. This three-day event in the Church & Wellesley neighborhood of Toronto includes workshops, panels, performances and discussions for writers and lovers of words. I’ll be posting more about this exciting event in the coming weeks, but for those of you in the Toronto area or looking for an excuse to visit the Toronto area, mark your calendars for November 11-13!
Just a quick reminder. You only have until midnight (PST) tonight to get me those pictures of your own grilled cheese creation next to your copy of Perfect Pairing, (print or ebook). Looks something like this:
Then post it on social media (FB/Twitter/Insta). I’ll have Jackson help me pick a random winner this weekend and post the results next week along with the name of a character who will appear in a future Rachel Spangler novel.
Hope to hear that all of you are eating grilled cheeses for dinner tonight!