Not a Grinch, But . . .

Christmas shopping used to be fun. When our sons were small, my husband and I took the afternoon off, went out to lunch, and shopped for toys, books, and art supplies. We had fun imagining how delighted the guys would be, and on a weekday, the stores weren’t crowded. By dinnertime we were done. We hid the loot before the guys got home, pleased with our covert operation. Now that our sons are adults, we still enjoy buying them gifts, but we can complete our shopping with a few online orders.

I’m not religious, but I dislike the way Christmas has become such an excessive retail event. Besides shopping, every service imaginable has jumped on the holiday bandwagon—you need to get your carpet cleaned, ponder exciting new holiday recipes, and manage your holiday stress with a spa treatment. I even heard an ad about having your furnace ducts cleaned for the holidays! Huh?

I recall that spending in the name of Christmas offended my father, too. He wanted to “Keep the Christ in Christmas.” Mom agreed with the religious sentiment, but she loved the gift-giving and special food associated with Christmas. As a girl, I wished Dad’s opinion hadn’t put a damper on our pleasure in the festivities. Like Mom, I enjoyed the party aspect of the holidays.

Now I’m more sympathetic to Dad’s views about gift giving. It isn’t about the money. I still like giving gifts to other people. But I’ve gotten increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of making a list of what I want. There’s so little I need. The process feels foolish and self-indulgent.

teapotThis year, my husband and I have made a pact to refocus our efforts. We’ll still give each other small gifts—it is fun to open something on Christmas morning. Whatever else we would have spent can be devoted to something else. For him, it may be donations to causes he cares about. For me, the focus will be emphasizing experiences more than things. I’m asking our sons to take the same approach with me. For example, since I like tea, I could have tea at a teashop with one of our sons, and maybe he’ll buy me half a pound of special tea.

I’m not prescribing this approach for anyone else—I vividly recall how Dad’s views affected me—but this simpler approach appeals to me. By refocusing our efforts, I hope to reclaim the joy of Christmas giving.

Be the Good You Want to See In The World

14570430_10154728863962384_4945550604691041982_n1I’ve been afraid of blogging ever since the election. There has been such hate between Hillary and Trump supporters. There is fear.

I had a blog ready to go about wearing a safety pin to signal that I would stand up for the vulnerable.

The essence of the piece was that others would see me as an ally regardless of who they were. I also emphasized that I had friends, high school classmates, and neighbors who voted for President-elect Trump. The election hadn’t changed my feelings for them. More than anything, I was thankful we lived in a country where we could vote.

My WordSister, Ellen, read the blog (we edit each other’s work prior to posting) and she said that it didn’t speak of the fear that people had. I reread my blog and it was true. My children who are Latinos hadn’t spoken of any fear. Yet, others around me have told me of instances where their children, both young and adult, have.

The proportion of Richfield residents who speak a language other than English at home (26.1%) is higher than the overall percentage for Minnesota (10.9%). 34.7% of students in the Richfield schools speak Spanish at home. 3.5% speak Somali. I decided to enrich my piece by asking a Latino friend to tell me how the Richfield community was feeling.

Instead of editing the blog, life happened. Both of us, especially my friend, was caught up in the planning of a funeral for the two Richfield students who were murdered by their dad. Being present and available to our children and others was paramount to the election results.

14440642_10210326956788272_3891113084642446291_n1Juan Jose, Crystel, and two of their classmates helped carry the white caskets into the church. They huddled with their friends and watched Luis and his sister, Nahily’s life roll on the wide screen, which of course included all of them from preschool to eighth grade. My Latino friend worked hours on this video and cried for many more hours for the loss of these two children who she knew so well. During the service, Crystel and other RDLS and RMS students sang the Prayer of St. Francis that they had practiced all week. At the cemetery, Juan and some of his friends shoveled dirt onto the caskets. Other friends were too distraught and couldn’t bear to do it. After we returned to the church Jody and I helped serve the food that was donated. Not once during this day did I think or worry about President-elect Trump.

The following week at work, I planned a coworker’s funeral. He died alone. He had been estranged from his two children for over 20 years. His work was his family. Even so, he kept the people he had worked with for over 30 years at arm’s length. He was proud. He was private. I called the police to do a welfare check when I didn’t receive an expected call from him. They broke into his house. He had succumbed to illness. The biggest fear of his coworkers was that his body would go unclaimed. I told them that wouldn’t happen. We would claim him. We would give him a funeral. We would bury him. I contacted the medical claims examiner and asked if his children who were 24 and 26 were notified. They were. I told the claims examiner to tell the children that his work family were here for them and would do whatever was needed.

A supervisor and I met his children at his house. We led the way in, pointed to the framed photos on the wall that were them as toddlers. Talked about how his dad never forgot his children. We gave his children a tour of the plant. Showed them his office, and his tool box. Opening the box would reveal, again, their pictures as toddlers.

Together, we held a funeral and reception for their dad.

Not once during this time did I wonder or question who voted for President-elect Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Instead of a safety pin, my smile, my hello, and my service to others will let people know that I’m an ally.

I’ll be the good I want to see in the world–you can count on me to keep showing up for the hard stuff.

Regardless of who you voted for.

Finding Common Ground in the Essence of the Holidays

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago - Table set for 16 - before the  carnage

Thanksgiving in Ohio a few years ago – Table set for 16 – before the dinner carnage

In the class where I assist, explaining the customs surrounding Halloween and Thanksgiving to adult immigrants who are learning English is challenging. Understanding American customs helps immigrants fit in, even if they aren’t likely to celebrate the holidays the exact same way long-time Americans do. However, Halloween and Thanksgiving have evolved so much from their original meanings that often it’s hard to make sense of our current practices.

When I try to explain Halloween, it sounds absurd.

In class, I hear myself say, “Halloween” comes from “All Hallowed’s Eve.” “Hallowed” refers to people who have died—their souls are “hallowed” or “holy,” and Christians believe good souls go to heaven after they die . . . .”

I write the words on the board and think, How can I possibly explain the history? I try this, “Hundreds of years ago the Celts—people who lived in Great Britain and northern Europe—believed that October 31st was the end of one year and November 1st was the start of a new year. At that time of year, dead souls could visit earth. People dressed in costumes to trick the returning spirits, so the spirits or ghosts couldn’t harm them.” Wow. That sounds completely bizarre. Why is this still a holiday?

I say, “Most people don’t really worry about ghosts, but people still enjoy dressing in costumes.” I pause after that semi-lame comment. Moving along, I start to describe how trick or treating works, but falter when explaining the reasons why that custom is acceptable. Give me a treat or else I’ll play a trick on you? On the face of it, that custom sounds like blackmail. Umm, in America, that how we do things??

Given the language barrier, I’m not sure how much the students understand.

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Photo from traditionscustoms.com

The students from Mexico and Central America see the connection between American Halloween and Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) in which families visit cemeteries with food and mementoes, and they picnic at the gravesites. At best, the students from Africa and Asia look baffled by Halloween and Dia de Muertos, and at worst, they look repelled.

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar - originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights

Photo by Subharnab Majumdar – originally posted to Flickr as The Rangoli of Lights (Diwali)

I extend our discussion to describe Diwali (also called Deepavali). It’s a Hindu festival of lights that’s celebrated in late autumn in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and other countries in the region. People light candles and lamps, create intricate decorations called “rangoli” using colored powder, and families exchange small gifts to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and knowledge over ignorance.

The Muslim Africans and Buddhists from Asia and begin to nod. They see that in countries across the world, celebrations take place in late autumn when the days grow shorter and darker. They understand that people need light, to gather together, and to celebrate with special food.

When we discuss Thanksgiving, I feel a different sort of disconnect.

The official story of Thanksgiving is that Native Americans selflessly rescued starving Pilgrims by teaching them about North American foods—how to grow corn and squash and how to hunt local game and fish. To show gratitude after the first harvest, the Pilgrims prepared a feast and shared it with the local tribe. That’s the version I learned years ago in school, and it’s still favored today in many public schools.

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving

Fairy tale version of the first Thanksgiving Historical postcard c. 1910 from Plimoth Plantation collection

But, I think, it’s only half of the story. European settlers also introduced smallpox and other diseases to Native Americans, who had no resistance to them. Thousands died. Often the Pilgrims’ interactions with local Indian tribes were disrespectful. Native Americans were seen as “savages” who had no religion of their own. For a long while after the Pilgrims claimed New England for their own, the invading European settlers and Native Americans engaged in raids and massacres. Millions were killed.

How far do I delve into the historical details? After the trouble explaining Halloween customs, I decide to mention, but only summarize, the difficulties between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims. Perhaps it’s wrong to round off history’s sharp edges, but I decide to focus on what connects people of different cultures. I describe the current meaning of Thanksgiving—to be grateful for what you have and to share a good meal (of whatever cuisine) with family and friends. When put in the simplest terms, the students understand the point of Thanksgiving.

By focusing on the essence of these customs—remembering the dead, pushing back darkness, being grateful for a plentiful harvest, and sharing a good meal with family and friends—students who come from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam find common ground with each other and with Americans.

Living in a Parallel Universe

Usually we avoid politics in this blog, but today I feel I must speak.

I woke up to life in a country I didn’t recognize. One in which half of the citizens view what our country needs and how to achieve it very differently than I do. Guided by liberal news media and pundits, I expected Hillary to win. I am shocked and saddened that she lost. Apparently I’ve been living in a parallel universe—I thought most of the country shared my values.

Although I’m worried about our country’s future, I believe Trump supporters were just as worried. We all love our country, but we differ in our assessment of what our biggest problems are and what the solutions should be. I am profoundly disappointed, but I will continue to fight to create the world I want to see.

As Hillary says, “Fighting for what’s right is worth it. It’s always worth it.”

The Joy of Tears

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Before I even start the sentence, because I can’t start the sentence, because I can’t find a way through what feels to me a rushing creek frothing at the banks, forcing its way through a thin singular tube to my voice, I squeak, “This will make me cry.” Tears leak out of my eyes and roll down my cheeks. Now, I can speak.

Sometimes, Juan and Crystel pre-empt their conversation with, “This will make you cry.” And, it does.

I’m so lucky.

DSCN0210I quit crying when I was 9. I know the exact day. I stood next to my mother. She was sitting at our dining table holding her book open. A cold cup of coffee in front her. A Pall Mall between her fingers. I was there to tell her that a brother had hurt me. She didn’t lift her eyes from the page. She inhaled deeply on her cigarette, placed it in the ash tray, then picked up her coffee cup. Red lipstick lined the edge.

I turned and walked away.

When I was 19 years old I swore something was broken in me. I had reported the sexual abuse in my family. My parent’s response was to tell me that I was disowned. That I could never come home.

I knew a normal person would shed tears. Though I tried, I couldn’t do it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Juan Jose’ and Crystel gave me the gift of tears when I was 44 years old. They were seven and eight months old when Jody and I brought them home. I felt safe with these babies. When Juan cried because he was left at daycare all day, I cried with him, knowing the sorrow of abandonment. When they were ten months old, all three of us, the babies and me were crying. Me, because I didn’t think they would ever grow up. Those two because they looked at each other and Juan could see that Crystel was sad and he just couldn’t stand that.

I felt safe because the babies couldn’t talk. They couldn’t tell anyone that Mama Beth was crying. My tears became normal.

When they were little, I’d read to them, “Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. We’d sit on the couch, Juan on one side, Crystel on the other. Their heads resting against my body.

Crystel and Antonio June 2008

I’d read, “A mother held her new baby and very slowly rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And while she held him, she sang I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

They’d snuggle a little closer when I reached that same spot we always did where my chest filled up and the tears started. “The son went to his mother. He picked her up and rocked her back and forth, back and forth, and he sang her this song: I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my Mommy you’ll be.”

Playing games on McGruff (me).

Playing games on McGruff (me).

“Let me see,” Crystel would say. “Let me see.” She’d lift up my glasses and touch my tears. “Read it again, Mommy, read it again.”

I continue to have the joy of tears.

I cry when Juan is playing soccer and the players take  a knee when a teammate or opponent is hurt.

 I cry when Juan and Crystel are warming up before running a cross country race.

I cry every time someone says something good about them, which is often.

IMAG0013The kids know me so well. I had just picked Juan up from his work shift at Davanni’s. He said, “I thought you were going to cry when you watched me walk into work.”

I thought about it. Felt the creek starting to froth at the bank. Then said, “Well, I still might.”

I love my tears.

They make me alive.