Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Merry

Regardless of what you call the celebration where you get together with friends and family and exchange gifts in this darkest part of the year, it seems like there’s a lot of it.  I thought I cut back this year.  I skipped several Yule rituals due to double booking, rather than trying to do two things at the same time.  I declared that Santa didn’t need to come to a household were no one lived who was under the age of 18.  I am not hosting any holiday parties, attending any of the parties for my December birthday friends and am going to ONE place for New Years.

Even with that I had 2 Yule rituals, 2 Christmas dinners (I was sou chef at both), Family gift night (we can’t decide if it’s Yule or Christmas) which also meant cooking dinner, and 2 holiday parties still to come.  That’s 7 distinct events over the course of 2 weeks! I’m thinking that’s a lot even with cutting back.

When I grew up we had a long Christmas.  It started Christmas eve, went through much of the night and started up again after a long winter’s nap with Santa first thing in the morning.  We’d finish up presents, get dressed and head to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas dinner.  24 hours of Christmas.  Really one long day, even if it took two.  If there was a New Years event at all it was a small party (3 couples) just for grown-ups or being allowed to stay up and watch Dick Clark until the ball fell.

Depending on the weather we might travel to my other Grandma’s but that could wait until the following week or even until the February thaw.  That visit wasn’t really any different than any other visit to Grandma’s.  There was no special event that distinguished it as Christmas, except a small present exchange.  We usually got handmaid knit slippers or mittens.

A busy Christmas season meant getting outside to go sledding or skiing.  It meant getting to go to the movies.  It meant ice skating and cookies and hot cocoa.  The ‘busy’ part of the season was from Thanksgiving on when all the baking was going on, not during the actual holiday.

My children, who are 18 and 23, have never had a holiday season that didn’t involve multiple events at multiple households.  Their father and I were divorced when the youngest was 2.  That meant holidays at 2 households, even though we often continued to double up so Dad would stop by Christmas morning and I would go to his parents for dinner.  Practicing a different religious tradition than our parents also meant that we had Yule and Christmas.

To throw a wrench into the works, or maybe an odd spice like tamarind, my son has special needs.  He  had a caregiver who was with us from the time he was 3 until adulthood.  She’s like a second Mom to him, and her family and ours have grown very close over the years.  When they were little, we’d pack all the kids (hers and mine) up into the van and take them all downtown to see Santa.  As her kids are now as grown as mine, we’ve skipped the holiday exchange there as well.  Incidentally, they are Muslims.

I have no idea what kind of holiday traditions my children will develop as adults.  Will my son collect invitations to everyone’s party and go to as many as he can?  Will my daughter decide that she wants family traditions and invite (or uninvite) the rest of us to join her?  Will they both continue to attempt to satisfy everyone’s traditions adding more and more events to their celebrations?

I know that many of their peers will face similar problems.  We have raised a generation that has multiple families, and that considers their chosen families to be just as important.  I am grateful that, so far, pretty much everyone gets along.  There is no reason to exclude a family member just because they can’t be in the same room with someone else.  My ex-husband’s family is not so fortunate.  From what I see and hear, the ‘who doesn’t get to come’ scenario seems more common.

So as hectic or as lonely as you may find yourself this holiday season, I would encourage you to try and play nice.  Play up the love and understanding, the peace on earth.  Because the first place to start with peace on earth is in our own households.

Merry Merry!



The longest night of the year will be upon us on Wednesday.  I’m celebrating the night itself alone this year.  I’ll go outside in the dark and cold and light a candle to bring back the light.  I’ll spend some time in quiet contemplation and meditation under the stars.  I’ll enjoy the pause in the midst of a hectic holiday season.

I’ve already been to two Solstice celebrations.  Both of them were focused on remembering the community of support that surrounds each and every one of us.  I was also reminded that often times when I don’t feel like I belong or like I’m getting the support I need, it’s because of something I am or am not doing.

For instance, it’s very hard to feel a part of the community when the only time I leave the house is to go to the grocery store.  I get postings on facebook and in my email all the time about activities and gatherings going on.  There are book signings and pot lucks along with open invitations to parties and ritual celebrations.  If I don’t feel included, it’s probably because I don’t show up.  You need to be a part of a community to feel like a part of the community.

When I’m not feeling supported chances are I haven’t asked for help.  I don’t get drop in visitors, not just because I live in an inconvenient spot, but because I don’t really encourage them.  If I’m busy and don’t answer the phone and don’t return the calls people assume I’m not interested.  If I ask for help with a project and get referred to a company that can help, I have to count that as lending a hand.  If the one person I ask is the person I already know can’t do it who’s setting themselves up for failure?

I’ve learned that I don’t have enough respect for people taking care of themselves, including me taking care of myself.  I’ve learned that there are plenty of people willing and able to lend a hand, who offer, that I don’t ever call.  I’ve learned that please goes almost as far as thank you.  I’ve learned that any help counts as help, even if the whole job isn’t finished.  These are all problems with my perception and expectations.  They don’t actually reflect the world I live in.

So in my quiet and solitary celebration on the night of the Solstice I have quite a lot to meditate upon.  As the light returns to the world, I would like to find better ways to nurture my own light.  To truly welcome joy and friendship into my life.  To recognize and appreciate all the gifts that surround me.

Happy Solstice!

War on Christmas

I said this was going to be a blog about spirituality in daily life.  So, since I’m daily bombarded with comments about the “War on Christmas” I decided maybe I should blog about it.

This idea of a “War on Christmas” disturbs me on many levels.  Mostly I’m just sad.  People take up this call to war as a knee jerk reaction.  Clearly they feel very strongly about it.   I understand that they feel personally threatened, but let’s take a look at the reality.

I’ve not heard anybody suggest that Christians can’t have trees or nativities in their homes, unlike the Native Americans who had pipes, spirit shirts and drums forcibly removed from them by legislation.  I’ve not heard anyone suggest that in order to say “Merry Christmas” you must be wearing a cross or other symbol specifically  identifying you as a Christian, like the Jews in Germany.  I’m still hearing Christmas carols, even ones with religious references, on the radio and in the stores, unlike the African slaves who were forbidden to sing traditional songs on the plantations.  So from a less reactionary perspective, if there is a war on Christmas it certainly does not appear to be directed personally.

However, I have heard it suggested that all of those things be forbidden in ‘public’ forums.  Specifically that they should be absent from governmental and educational institutions.  So let’s examine this by going back in time about 50 years and using an analogy or two.  For the educational argument let us equate being Christian with belonging to the local country club.  The question becomes:  Is it appropriate for the teacher to stand in front of the class and say something like, “Looking forward to having a great time with all of you tonight at the party at the club.”  So far, not a problem but let’s look a little closer.  80% of the class, 16 of the 20 students, come from families that have memberships to the country club.  They’ll all be at the party and it’s pretty much all anyone’s been talking about all day.  But what about the other 4 students?

1 of the other 4 kids also comes from a wealthy family.  They are new to the area and don’t have a membership yet.  Chances are good Dad’s boss will extend an invite, but attendance at the party is still a maybe.  The second of the 4 comes from a wealthy family but the parents feel strongly that the extravagance of the country club is inappropriate.  They won’t go because they have chosen not to be included in the group.  The third kid comes from a wealthy family as well.  In fact, the parents applied for membership at the country club.  They were refused membership because they were black.  (In modern terms this could be GLBT, Jewish, or the ‘wrong’ sort of Christian.)  The final kid does not come from  wealth (isn’t Christian at all) and has no chance of being included in the club unless they turn their back on their own family.

There is a reason many schools have a policy that you can’t pass out party invitations at school unless everyone in your class is invited.  Excluding classmates is a subtle form of bullying.  It’s even more unacceptable when it comes from the figures of authority, the teachers and staff.  Having a winter break instead of a Christmas break is not an attack on Christmas.  It’s just an attempt to be inclusive of the entire student body.  ‘Tis the season, after all.

With the government, the issue is broader than bullying.  When the government excludes the minority in a statement, the implication is to exclude that same minority from participation in the government.  This is standard in a lot of places in the world, but it goes against everything I’ve been taught that the United States stands for.  The analogy is the Civil Rights movement.  Because of the way this is taught, many of us believe this movement was just about integration.  It was about where you sit on the bus and not having separate schools, hospitals and water faucets.  It would surprise a lot of people educated in the public school system to learn that black people were not allowed to vote.  In fact, even when black people were given the right to vote there were a lot of people who didn’t agree and who made extra rules at their local polling places to continue to keep black people from voting.

White House

When the government puts up a Christmas tree it says Christians are welcome here.  That’s great if you are a Christian.  The problem is that it’s the government’s responsibility to say ALL citizens are welcome here regardless of their religious views.  That’s what our constitution says.  That’s what the flag stands for, what we “pledge allegiance” to.  But we like decorating at this time of year.  It’s fun.  It’s festive.  We are accustomed to having decorated trees.  And some people, like governors and the president live in public housing.  Shouldn’t they be allowed to practice their religion too?  Sure they should.

The Governor or the President should be allowed to put up their Christmas tree (if they so desire), but the Governor’s manor and the White House should probably be a little more inclusive.  A “holiday tree” seems like a pretty fair compromise to me.  Making a clear distinction between the family and the office also seems like a pretty reasonable approach to me.  If there is a war here it doesn’t seem to be against Christmas, but for accountability and inclusion.  It’s an issue of civil rights not personal religious expression.

Those are the things people talk about when they say there’s a war on Christmas.  That’s why I say it’s a knee jerk reaction.  But I actually believe there IS a war on Christmas.  I just think the blame is being misplaced.

Solstice Candles by Bonita Blumenauer

I celebrate Yule.  I mark the winter solstice.  My celebration is not so much about gift exchanges as it is about gratitude.  The winter solstice is the longest night of the year.  It’s a time of quiet reflection.  It’s also about the returning of the light, as from this point the days will start getting longer again.  Silent Night, holy night.  The sparkle of starlight against the snow on a clear crisp winter evening.  Making connections and acknowledging the support of the community that gets me through the long winters. These are the things that were important to me when I identified myself as a Christian.  These continue to be the things important to me now.

Hanukah is also a celebration of the light and of gratitude.  The story is that against all odds, and outside of reasonable expectation, the presence light (the symbol of YHWH), continued to burn in the synagogue until the supply of oil could be replenished.  There are gifts involved in the celebration, but traditionally these are more a small token of thanks.  Unless you live in America.

The consumer culture has upped the ante for everyone regardless of traditional religious practice.  Santa says that our children’s desire for toys and treats should be answered.  I know plenty of Jewish and Islamic practitioners in the U.S. have decorated trees because it’s what American’s do.  Everyone exchanges gifts at this time of year regardless of their spiritual practices.  It’s almost like taxes the way the mailman, and the garbage man, and the paper carrier and all the other people who provide regular services show up with a “Christmas Card” this time of year.   There is also the push to get all your charitable giving done before the end of the 4th quarter.

That’s what Christmas means to me.  That’s what Christmas means to a lot of people, even if they don’t admit it.  Even people who are Christians, if they live in the United States, often have associations with Christmas that are outside the religious.  All the “Merry Christmas” in the world isn’t going to change that perception.  “Merry Christmas” with my latte, my grocery receipt, my charge card receipt, and fighting through a line in the toy store simply reinforces it.

So let’s stop the war on Christmas and work a little harder at Peace on Earth Good Will Towards All People.

Happy Holidays!

Great Apes

I just finished reading “The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary” by Andrew Westoll.  I read a lot and I read a wide variety of stuff.  I don’t even remember why I put this book on my library list.  I’m glad I did.

Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary

Non-fiction usually takes me a lot longer to read than fiction.  It’s harder to find a chunk of time when I know I’m actually going to need to focus on what I’m reading and think about it.  I usually do get overloaded with non-fiction and need to put the book down and think about what I’ve read.  I breezed through this one.

Not to say that the material that’s covered is easy.  Andrew Westoll talks a lot about the way Chimpanzee’s have been used for medical research in this country.  He acknowledges that the Chimps in the sanctuary are, by any wild Chimp standard, insane.  He describes in detail the kind of acting out, depression and self mutilation these Great Apes are capable of.  But he is essentially writing a memoir.  The intimacy of his experiences interwoven with the facts and history of the Sanctuary and the personal stories of each of the Chimps that are housed there makes this book a story rather than a text.

It gave me a lot to think about.  I knew of course that animals of all kinds are used in medical research.  In my naivety I believed that they were generally treated humanely.  I drank the drug companies’ kool-aid when they said that research on Apes made huge advances for treatment in difficult diseases, like HIV and Hepatitis.

I’m seeing a return on Facebook of posts about the way animals are treated in traditional circuses. Anyone who’s ever watched a TV show about a puppy mill can believe there are individuals out there who badly mistreat their animals.  But scientists are supposed to be smart people who know better.  I hadn’t connected the dots.

Our government actually owns a good many of the Great Apes being used in research.  The rest are owned by the drug companies.  If a scientist or a lab assistant recommends that an animal be retired from a trial for the sake of the animal, the same folks who cut deals with insurance companies to exclusively cover their crap medicine get to decide the outcome for the animal.

Schroder: Lowland Gorilla at Como Zoo

There are research labs, there are circuses, there are sanctuaries, and there are zoos.  I know that Como Zoo in St. Paul, MN houses Apes and I wanted to know where they came from.  I couldn’t find out on line so I spent the day at the zoo.

Jambu: male Orangutan at Como Zoo

Como Zoo has 4 Orangutans and 2 lowland Gorillas.  All of them were bred in captivity.  In fact the Orangutans include 2 females and a male, 2 of whom are the parents of the 4th.  The Gorillas are both male, as family units for Gorillas tend to kick out the adolescent males into “bachelor tribes”  Since 50% of the captive bred Gorillas are male there is a need for all male housing.

Sadly, the facilities at Como are pretty sad for our genetically close brethren.  Gorillas are shy creatures and there is no room for them to hide.  Especially now that it’s too cold for them to go outside they don’t have anywhere near enough space.  I’ve been in a hospital room for 3 weeks.  You go nuts!  They’ve spent their lives in facilities like this.  It’s a great improvement on the old sterile cages (the ones the lab animals are kept in) but they’ve got a long way to go.

Amanda the Artist: Orangutan at Como Zoo

There is money for a huge upgrade to the facility at Como.  It won’t be done until spring of 2013, if everything goes according to plan.  They are hoping to have space to acquire a family grouping to promote the breeding conservation program as well as a space for a small bachelor troop.  The conservation is great, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan to reintegrate the Great Ape population into the wild.  There isn’t room there anymore either.  It’s why they are endangered in the first place.

Amanda's finger-painting at Como Zoo

I don’t have answers.  I’m not even sure how I feel about the ethics of the situation.  Clearly, mistreating animals in research facilities is just as bad as mistreating them anywhere else.  The zoos are trying to come around but they are limited in both funding and understanding.  Do we condemn them for not doing enough or congratulate them for the work they can do?  Are we, through our intervention, creating a new culture for Gorillas?  How dare we!?!

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