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Home Planet

Archive for December 2011

Facing the New Year with Optimism

    We sat around the table at a downtown restaurant, a group of women all well into middle age and beyond, savoring a few easy minutes in the final crazed days of the holiday season.

    Looking around, it occurred to me the eight of us would make an excellent focus group. One is divorced, one widowed. Four are married, one is in a committed relationship and one is comfortably single and says she plans to keep it that way.

    There is one attorney, one CEO,  one retiree, one stay-at-home mother (who, in fact, had been in banking before marrying at the age of 40 and quickly producing two newborns in as many years) two self-employed, one unemployed and one clinging to a job she hates.

    One of us is a vegetarian, one is sensitive to a long list of foods. The rest of us agree we eat too much of everything.

    We are all very different women from different backgrounds. Between us, we have 12 children and three grandchildren with one more on the way, we speak three languages and at least two of us play a musical instrument. Our incomes range from “barely making it” to high six-figures. Our levels of education go from “some college” to advanced degrees.

    But, by the end of December we all have one basic thing in common: we’re exhausted. And this year it seems worse than usual. Talking about it, we finally realized we’re suffering from a deep collective uneasiness; a lack of confidence we just can’t shake.

    Usually, as one year ends and another begins, it’s human nature to salve any wounds with the belief that there are better things to come. The political climate will thaw. The economy will bloom. They’ll finally discover a chocolate-based cure for cellulite. But this year, one of us finally said it out loud. As we lifted our glasses to toast the end of one year and the beginning of another, one of the women around the table asked,  “But what if next year is even worse?”  We laughed but then all fell silent.
What, indeed.

    No matter what social strata you call home, the state of the world is fragile these days. So many people are out of work and many have been for quite a while. And some who’ve managed to hang onto jobs are bringing home significantly less than before. Retirement dreams have been put on hold and skyrocketing college tuition is taking a toll on family budgets or, more and more, becoming a luxury many can’t afford. And, then there’s Europe’s leaky financial boat, tethered to our own.

    Finally, after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, I raised my glass again.
    “Next year will be what it will be,” I said. “And I’m willing to believe it will be a good one.”

    “Always the optimist,” a friend said as she smiled at me, and I shrugged. It’s true.

    There are some who believe that optimism is baked into our DNA. It is a part of who we are from the moment we’re conceived. I don’t know about that but I do know it just isn’t in me to be anything else. It keeps me moving forward and helps me find my way. The way I see it, optimism, another word for hope, is like a candle on a dark path. And we’re only truly lost if we lose that light.

   So, here's to another year, and all it might bring. Here's to a bright and optimistic future.


Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Joy on Christmas Morning

    I hope that when you opened your eyes this morning—no, even before you opened them, even earlier than that—I hope that when you first found yourself swimming into morning light and out of whatever dreams you’d been having, somewhere in your mind there rang out the words Christmas Morning!  And for a moment or two you were a child again, thrilled by mystery, consumed by possibility.

    As an adult, I know that doesn’t always happen.

    It’s so easy to lose the holiday spirit when all you can think about is the fact that you’re the one who is responsible for making the magic. That you’re the one who shops and wraps and cooks and cleans and plans and then makes new plans when the old plans fall through. It’s easy to lose the joy and let any happiness you might find in a song on the radio or a kiss under the Mistletoe slip through your fingers when you are already looking ahead to Visa bills and taking down the tree and packing away the decorations and standing in line to return gifts.

    This time of year, the darkest part of the year, is laden—some might say booby-trapped—with reminders. There is the dragging weight of all the invisible holiday baggage each of us carries. Nothing is safe. Food, music, celebrations and even movies and books come wrapped in memory and association. Some pleasant, some not so pleasant. And, to add to the fun, for those with young children, there is the suffocating parental pressure of creating the mythical perfect holiday; the self-imposed quest of taking on the impossible task of sending our children into the world without the legacy, the thousand little failures, of an imperfect parent. Good luck with that.

    So much of the stuff of life is out of our hands. Forget holidays, on any day the big things, war, weather, economic turmoil, toxic bosses, family issues, bad fortune and lousy luck, are beyond our control. But the one thing we can choose is how we will face each day in world that perplexes and frequently exhausts us.  Even the weariest among us can, if we so choose, celebrate the gifts of sleepy eyes that open on a dark December morning and a childlike heart that unfolds to let the spirit in, and with it the mystery and the possibility of another Christmas Day.


The Boy Who Believed

My son, who has been working in Japan, is on his way home. We haven't seen him in several months and I'm hungry for some time with him. My son has grown up to be a wonderful man; an adventurer, a tinkerer and a master of creating complex machines from bits of metal.

He'll be home for Christmas Eve and wrapping his gifts and putting them under the tree, thought about the boy who loved contraptions and I was reminded of something he taught me one Christmas years ago.

(I had to do some digging to find a copy of this early column.)



For some, Santa's magic a guarantee

The Spokesman Review The Spokesman Review
December 25, 2003 | Cheryl-Anne Millsap The Valley Voice

Early each Christmas morning, as I turn out the lights and make my way to my bed, knowing I will be pulled out of it again when the sun rises, I stop for a moment, overwhelmed by memories and the knowledge that time is flying past me.

The children, who have been the reason I wake each morning and fall into an exhausted sleep each night, are growing up so quickly. Already one has left the nest, and another is perched on the edge. Their Christmas lists are more sophisticated now, with high-tech gadgets replacing Easy-Bake ovens and G.I. Joe.

When my son was six, he fell under the spell of a miniature arcade game, the kind where you manipulate a giant claw to pick up prizes and stuffed animals and drop them down a chute. He wanted the game more than anything and put it at the top of his Christmas list.

He was thrilled when he found the game under the tree and played with it constantly. But it was a complicated toy that was never meant to go the distance. When it stopped working, he was disappointed and put it away in his closet.

I didn't think about it again until the next year on Christmas Eve when I was getting everyone ready for bed and another visit from Santa. He walked in and placed the broken game under the Christmas tree with a note asking Santa to please repair it.

I could only gape at him, speechless. It was already midnight and to paraphrase the poet, there were miles to go before we could sleep.

My little boy had no idea that his mother was staggering under the weight of postpartum depression or that his father, who was in graduate school and wearied by final exams, was scheduled to work a 24-hour shift on Christmas Day.

My son wasn't jumpy and distracted from listening for the cries of the colicky baby sister or thinking about the 2 a.m. feeding that would cut into the few productive hours of the night.

The way he saw it, Santa brought that game to him and he would want to know there was a problem. And since the big guy was going to be in the neighborhood, it wouldn't hurt to have him take a look at a broken toy. So he left it with a note asking that Santa “make it work again.”

Somehow, the two elves-in-residence, Sleepy and Weepy, did everything that needed to be done. The baby got her 2 a.m. feeding and Santa placed the surprises, including the refurbished toy, under the tree before the children woke with the dawn.

I was watching my son the next morning when he found the game. He was pleased but he wasn't surprised. It was just where he expected it to be. His face shining with pleasure, he took it to the kitchen table, turned it this way and that to admire Santa's handiwork, and began to play contentedly while new presents waited under the tree.

Whenever I am confronted with the reality that life doesn't come with guarantees, I think about that Christmas morning. And when I think about it, I wish I could be seven years old again, with that much trust in everyone around me to do the right thing. I wish I hadn't learned that sometimes things break so completely that no one can fix them, not even Santa. Not even for a day.

Now, years have passed. Dad got through graduate school, Mom got over the blues, and the new baby stopped crying. The toy, which wasn't built to last, stopped working again and found its way back to the closet, to be eventually taken apart and its parts scavenged for a little boy's inventions.

For my son it was proof that Santa cared enough about him to take the time to try to make something work again. For the elves, it was an exercise in patience. For all of us it was a sweet reminder that love has responsibility.

Maybe this year under the tree I'll leave my heart, just to see what Santa can do.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

The Tintin Within

 (Image courtesy © Hergé-Moulinsart 2010)  




   Deep in the heart of almost any child, there hides a secret wish to, at least on occasion, be an orphan. Free of all parental control, rudderless, able to decide what one will eat, where one will go and how one will live. Disney knew this.  Most contemporary Middle Reader authors know this.  They cater to any child’s hidden desire to be independent with protagonists who live like miniature adults, with all the benefits and none of the prosaic worries of mortgages, grocery bills and taxes.

    I don’t know how old I was when I first encountered Tintin, probably 10 or 12 years old. The books I remember reading must have been something my grandfather had around the house. His appetite for reading material was boundless and he was always bringing home something new and occasionally exotic from the cavernous bookstore downtown. I remember the comic books were big - like a magazine - and like nothing I’d seen before. And neither was Tintin. This was not Archie, Veronica and Jughead.

    I grew up on a steady diet of Nancy Drew mysteries. Not the namby pamby 1950s Nancy Drew who was as stiff as a tulle petticoat. I preferred the older versions of the novel. Where Nancy sped along in her roadster, chasing after the bad guys with the wind in her hair. Or, the 1970s Nancy - my contemporary - who had nascent feminist spunk. Nancy wasn’t exactly an orphan, but she was close because she had only her father, a busy judge, to answer to. And everyone knows you can get away with more with your father. Mothers see everything. They ask too many questions. They look at you and through you and manage to pull information out of your brain without you even knowing it. What young detective or journalist needs that kind of interference?

   Tintin, the hero of a long-running Belgian comic strip, was all contradiction. His creator, Herge, once said that when he was a boy it seemed to him that journalists had freedom, that they were the ones who had all the adventures. Considering the time when Herge was growing up - post WWI and pre-WWII Belgium - it’s no surprise the freedom to come and go as you pleased, freedom from privation and occupation, was the ultimate fantasy. So, when he created his boy adventurer, Herge made him a journalist. But true to form, he didn’t encumber his boy with real-world entanglements. Tintin was just 16-years-old but he had no parents. He was a reporter but had no editor. No deadlines. No photographer. No paper or magazine. He had a dog, a trusty sidekick, but his dog was a fluffy terrier, not the fierce hound you might imagine. He lived alone. He could fly a plane. He could battle the bad guys. His best friend was a drunken captain.

    Nancy Drew was smart and gutsy and willing to head out on an adventure. But she was tethered, and her best friends were two girls named Bess and George (What was with George, anyway?) And nobody was ever drunk.

   The Belgians love their comics. (There is an entire museum in Brussels devoted to Belgian comics.) Herge’s gift was bringing to life - through the imagination of the reader - the swashbuckling life of Tintin one frame, one clifhanger adventure, at a time. Tintin was a multigenerational hero. Children, especially boys,  grew up to be adults who still followed his adventures one carefully inked frame at a time.

   I was in Brussels at the time and attended a premier showing of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. The city, still in the throes of European Union economic crisis meetings, was in a Tintin party mood and the theater was packed. After the credits rolled, I asked a couple of Belgians what they thought. They admitted they liked it but each had the same comment: Too much action. In Spielberg’s hands their beloved comic strip character, the lead actor in movies that had, until now, played only in their own heads—has gone Hollywood. 

    I brought home a few Tintin books and watched my daughter read them.  And when she asked for more I bought the only copies on the shelf at the local bookstore.  We’ll be at the theater when the movie opens here.  Most of those around us won’t have any prior experience with the young Belgian who traveled the world, sleeping on trains and hopping behind the stick of a float plane when he wasn’t riding camels or blasting off in rockets.  But that won’t matter. Because deep within each of us, young or old, there will be a flicker of recognition.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Our Christmas Story

    Each year, after Thanksgiving dinner, some time after the last of the dishes are washed and before the pie comes back out again, I bring up a big handwoven basket from the storeroom in the basement. The basket is the size of a bed pillow, a split-oak rectangle with a sturdy handle, and it is filled with books.

     There are one or two that my husband and I brought with us when we married: his old copy of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. My 100-year-old edition of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Stories with A Christmas Carol, a story I’ve read and reread since I first opened the book as a girl. But mostly, it holds an assortment of holiday books we’ve collected since our first daughter was born more than 25 years ago; familiar titles like The Night Before Christmas, The Gift of the Magi and The Littlest Christmas Tree.

    Some are old toddlers’ board books, with broken spines and peeling pages, showing the wear and tear of little hands. Others are children’s classics filled with familiar illustrations.

    To me, the basket is a time capsule. A record of time spent together as a family and in the company of beloved books and stories. Each year another book is added to the collection. The new book is left propped under the tree late on Christmas Eve and is passed around on Christmas Day before going into the basket and, eventually, after the tree is undressed and all the decorations are put away, back down to the basement to wait until Christmas comes again.

    It pleases me to see my grown children sit down and pull out a book when they drop by during the holidays or on Christmas Day when we’re all together. Especially the older books that were in the house when they were babies.  I steal glances at them as they read. I like to think they hear, in some shadowy corner of memory, the sound of my voice and the feel of my arms around them as we read together; that they hear again the creak of the rocking chair and recall other rooms in other houses and are reminded of the sweetest years.

    So much of what happens during the season is rushed and hurried. So much is new and shiny and meant to be tossed away as soon as the New Year arrives.  But the basket, with it’s cargo of paper and ink and memories is evergreen. Like a precious ornament taken off the tree and put away for another day.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

Dark December

(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)

    We sat quietly in the car as I drove across town, the road-grimed headlights piercing the twilight ahead of us. I didn’t even think to turn on the radio. It was only 4 o’clock but it felt much later. I had a sense of being displaced; even the familiar route looked strange and suddenly unfamiliar in the indigo light of the late afternoon. For a moment I felt as though I’d lost my way, before the eerie feeling faded and I was back on track.
    The effect of the early darkness and the warmth of the car after the sharp and biting wind outside, silenced us and we kept our thoughts to ourselves as I steered over slushy streets. The sky, pregnant and heavy with the wet snow that would fall later in the evening, hung over us as dull and gray as lead.

    December, especially in this northwestern corner of the country, is the darkest time of the year. The sun can hide for days, giving at best only a weak and watery light, rising late and setting early. Little surprise then that decorations go up early and stay up long after the holiday. We are starved for the light.

    Still thinking about this, I am struck by the feeling of comfort that washes over me as I turn into my driveway. Light shines warmly through the front windows and I know that once I am inside I will be surrounded by the familiar smells and sounds of home: Dinner in the oven. Music. The sound of boots being kicked off and footsteps on the stairs. The bother of the cat and dogs under my feet, hoping for treats in the shopping bags I am carrying.

   So many aspects of the holiday season are centered around images of home. Candles in the windows. Lights on the tree. The Welcome mat. A wreath on the door.  A fire in the fireplace. A glass of cheer once you’re in the door. A shared meal. An embrace. Winter isolates us, changes even the most familiar landscape, blanketing us with snow and silence and darkness. No wonder we sing and celebrate and gather. No wonder we act on an ancient impulse to dress up and dance and make noise to keep the wolves of winter at bay.

    We may have evolved, but somewhere deep inside each of us beats the heart of a cave-dweller who wants nothing more than safe shelter and the comforting light of the fire.

   We are still lost in the dark until we’re home.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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