WILLIAMSTOWN — During a holiday season when many of us feel isolated, writer Regina Velazquez offers a story that may soothe the soul.
In the latest edition of "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Christmas is in the Air," Velazquez' essay "The Brightest Little Tree" talks about her first Christmas away from her family as an adult, with little monetary resources to recreate the holidays as she knew them growing up.
"A lot of people can relate to a time in their life when they didn't have enough money, or weren't able to give people the things they wanted to give them," said Velazquez in a phone interview about the newly published essay's message. "I think for me, what's always been so self-appealing about the story is that it could have been a bad experience, but it turned out to be something good that I've carried with me all these years."
The story — which the Williamstown resident admits is "sappier" than her usual work in her day job as assistant editor and senior writer in the Williams College communications department — is about the first Christmas she spent with her now husband in a rented beach house in Massachusetts; a long way away from her family and their home in Tennessee.
"I had been adamant that I would be happy celebrating Christmas by simply having a nice meal and relaxing together," she writes. "... I was trying to be tough. But as the wind whipped the waves into a gray froth beyond our kitchen window, I felt all the loneliness of being away from my family in Tennessee."
When the writer submitted the essay to the popular book series in 2019, she had no idea how the story of finding hope in a new, unknown holiday season would resonate in 2020. She also didn't know if her essay would get picked to be published.
"I've always been a closet writer — I write things and never send them out to get published," she said. "Last summer, in 2019, I got involved with the Williamstown Theatre Festival Community Works Program and I started with the playwriting group. Something about the spirit of community there; I got a lot of good support from the leader of the group. It gave me the confidence to say, 'I want more of this' and I put it out there."
The mother of two — a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter — said it feels like the right time to start putting herself, and her work, out there. She's currently workshopping her first play "Space and Time" with Dramatists Guild Foundation Fellows, and her humor article, "Quarantine Dreams," will be published in Syndrome Mag's upcoming book, "Show Us Your Wits." She's also looking forward to working on a young adult novel during the college's winter break.
"It feels like long time coming," she said of her personal writing career. "I shouldn’t have done this, but a lot of times those of us who have kids tend to put them first. It's all about taking care of the kids and working to keep the lights on, and sometimes there's not very much energy left. It can all feel so pedestrian, but it's really not. It's a trap a lot of women fall into: if I'm not excavating dinosaur bones or something like that it's not exciting enough to write about. But we all have stories to share."
In between helping home-school her teenagers while staying at home with her husband, Velazquez answered a few questions about her favorite books.
Q: What is your favorite book set during the holidays?
A: I'm going to lean on children's books here. My favorite from childhood is "The Sweet Smell of Christmas," by Patricia M. Scarry. It's a scratch-and-sniff book about a little bear who's anticipating Christmas. We forget how much scents trigger memory. One of my favorite children's books that I used to read to my kids is "Great Joy," by Kate DiCamillo, which has lush art and a beautiful story about a girl who's worried about a homeless man. The book so simply and perfectly captures the spirit of the season — at least, what I think the season should be about.
Q: What is your favorite memoir?
A: "Naked," by David Sedaris had me howling. I remember my husband and I took turns reading it to each other, and sometimes we could barely get through a chapter because we were laughing so hard. Yet it's honest and sweet in the way he talks about his family.
Q: Who is your favorite playwright, and what works from that writer are your favorites?
A: I'm a Southerner by birth, so I find a lot of resonance in Tennessee Williams — the dark humor and dirtier parts of human nature that Southerners especially try to obscure. "The Rose Tattoo" is a little different from most of his plays, but it's a great story of heartbreak and redemption.
Q: What is your favorite children's book?
A: I never read "The Secret Garden" when I was a child, but I read it to my own kids and was obsessed. The landscape is so rich. I have always had a soft spot for "Bread and Jam for Frances," by Russell Hoban. It's about Frances trying new foods besides bread and jam, of course, but in a larger sense, I think it's about broadening your horizons and being open to variety and change.
Q: What's the best book you recently read?
A: I was co-leading a girls' book club with some coworkers, and one of the girls chose to read "The Book Thief," by Markus Zusak. Wow, did that blow me away — the incredible language, the big ideas, the sorrow and joy. When I got to the last 50 pages, I holed myself away behind a closed door and ignored everything else around me. I hadn't done that once since becoming a parent.
Q: What books would you give as gifts and why?
A: I like to give poetry books because I love poetry, and it's not a big commitment you're foisting on someone — just short little poems that they can read whenever. I also like to give cookbooks that are pretty and useful and remind me of the person I'm giving them to.
Q: What books are currently on your nightstand?
A: The graphic novel "American Gods Volume 1: Shadows," by Neil Gaiman, which was a birthday gift from my husband; Kelly Barnhill's "Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories"; "¡Yo!" by Julia Alvarez; "All Over but the Shoutin'" by Rick Bragg; Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"; and "A Bittersweet Season," by Jane Gross (which I have attempted to finish for years but am apparently only able to digest a little at a time).