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.

cemetary

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.

I’ve Never Been a Daredevil, But . . .

As I settled into my seat at the movie theater and muted my phone, an unwelcome thought sneaked in, “Is going out to the movies risky behavior?” I stifled it quickly, “A crazed gunman in the old-fashioned Edina Theater? That’s silly.” Worrying about my safety at movie theaters never used to cross my mind. I resent having to consider it now.

It’s disturbing to realize so many of the ordinary things I do put me in the kinds of places where mentally ill people or terrorists choose to murder and wreak havoc. However, I have no intention of curtailing my activities.

Shopping at malls – I don’t spend much time in malls, but while there, I have never worried about my safety. However, the shoppers in the mall in St. Cloud, Minn. or near Seattle, Wash. probably didn’t give it a second thought either.

Tutoring at the high school – I love the work I do tutoring adult immigrants and have never felt remotely threatened by any of them. The students I know are hardworking and determined to learn, get better jobs, and live the American Dream. But schools and colleges have been the scene of mass shootings in recent years. Perhaps I should be worried, but I refuse to be.

 Visiting international cities – I enjoy traveling overseas, but because of the history of terrorism in London, Brussels, and Paris, I will have to consider my safety in airports as well as in the cities themselves when I go. Losing my luggage or getting pickpocketed seem like more realistic threats than terrorism, but I can’t help being aware of the potential for an attack.

Often, public places happen to be the settings where a personal grudge is played out—I might not be the target—but I still could be injured or killed by a stray bullet. The issue is not that one middle class white person has to think harder about her safety. It’s that no matter who you are or where you live in America, you are at risk of mass shootings, because of our gun laws and cultural tolerance of violence.

Equally troubling is that zealots with knives, trucks, and bombs threaten people across the world, not just Americans.

I remain defiant. There are no easy solutions to gun violence and terrorism. But part of the solution has to be resistance—resisting the impulse to hide and resisting the impulse to shrug and say, “Oh well, what can you do?” We have to keep fighting for change.

Although terrorism and acts of mass violence are now part of our reality, I refuse to give in to fear. I’ve never been a daredevil, but I have no intention of giving up activities I love like movies, shopping malls, tutoring, or traveling.

Lost in Wonderland (or Wasting Time on Pinterest)

I was not an early convert to Pinterest. Even when a friend helped me set it up, I dragged my feet. Messing around with it might be fun, but there were so many other things I needed to do. However, when we moved to a new house, I began to see why people like the app.

At first it was strictly business—a shopping tool and resource for household tips. Our new house needed shower curtains, porch furniture, light fixtures, and a stool for the kitchen counter. The app became a good place to save photos and links for furnishings that I wanted to show to my husband.

Next, I searched for advice on nontoxic ways to clean the shower. I was immediately bombarded with pins for shower cleaning tips along with photos of gross toilets that needed an intervention. I wanted to say, “Wait, no need! I’ve already know what to do about the shower, and God help me if my toilet ever looks like that!” But like most online apps, it’s programmed to show you more of whatever you searched for in the past.

The real magic happened when I followed a few friends. They like such cool stuff—who knew it even existed? ceramic sculptureI’d never have found such amazing ceramic sculptures or incredible fiber art if I hadn’t started following a sculptor friend and seeing her pins. That led to people across the world pinning my pins. Amazing.fiberart

My friends’ pins also led me to explore in a more playful way—not searching, just wandering in playland. That’s how I learned more about jadeite glass and how to grow fragrant lemon seedlings from lemon seeds . . . in case I ever want to.

Now Pinterest is my first stop for recipes, crafts, and garden ideas. I’m not a clever person who thinks up how to make Santa hat appetizers from strawberries and banana slices, but now I can impress my friends with that trick if I ever need to.

Messing around in the quilting and sewing pins gave me a zillion ideas for projects. And I never would have seen antique sewing scissors and sewing kits without Pinterest. antique sewing kit

This year, when I started planning my flowerpots for the patio, I turned to Pinterest for inspiration.flowerpot

What I’ve discovered is that at worst, Pinterest is harmless, but addicting, fun. I can collect eye candy and daydream (without obligation) about cool projects I might do. At best, it’s a good resource for inspiration.

A Change Is Gonna Come

In 1967, when there were race riots in Detroit and Toledo, my hometown, I was 12. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated in 1968. Chicago policemen clubbed protesters who chanted, “The whole world is watching” at the Democratic National convention in 1968.

civil rights protest

In 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students and injured nine others on the Kent State University campus, I was 15. Vietnam War protests took place across the country. Students took over college campus buildings. Protesters stormed government buildings. Thousands marched in the streets.

Kent & Jackson State

The civil rights movement and war protests shook our country. The old ways—from entrenched institutions like segregation to how political parties worked, and what we wanted from authorities like police—were under siege and crumbling. As a teenager, I felt the turbulence. Anything could happen. Was happening. Although I was against segregation and the Vietnam War, the violence associated with ending those ills scared me.

However, I sensed the dawning of a new era and was hopeful that real change, as well as peace and justice, were possible.

Black protests

Today, I have the same sense. Once again our country, and indeed, the Western world (Great Britain’s Brexit and the European union’s struggles with immigration and identity) is at a crossroads.

refugees

No matter what, change is gonna come. 10 years from now, our country is going to be different.

Decades have passed since I was a teenager who was bewildered by events and worried about our future. Today, I still worry about where our country is headed, and I don’t know what the coming changes will look like, but I’m hopeful.

I believe that people of good faith will work to end systemic racism.

I believe Americans will return to our core values: we’re a nation of immigrants who are committed to religious freedom.

I’m hopeful that despite our differences, we can redirect our political leaders so they once again work for all of us.

If you feel discouraged and hopeless about the possibility of change, click to this video set to Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” to be reminded of how many unbelievably hard changes have taken place since the late 1960’s.

None of the coming changes will be easy and they will certainly be imperfect. Nonetheless, I believe that Americans’ good sense and love of justice will prevail.

“I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Disconnected and Discombobulated

I scoffed when I read about college students becoming anxious when separated from digital technology—email, Facebook, and other social media. Or rather, I believed they became anxious, but thought smugly, Glad I’m not hooked like they are.

Except that now I am.

Recently, I was camping at a state campground that didn’t have cell signal. At all. Although we were only about 30 miles from Rochester, Minnesota, we were in the land that time and technology forgot. At first I was delighted. No New York Times news flashes or Facebook posts reminding me of depressing political news. I wasn’t expecting any urgent emails.

Being disconnected felt a bit odd, but I knew my friends would understand if I didn’t respond to their texts or emails promptly.

Not having instant access to the weather app was OK. I didn’t really need to know exactly how cold it would get at night. 55 degrees or 50 degrees—what’s the difference? Either way, we’d have a fire and then burrow into our sleeping bags at bedtime.

But what if my 90-year-old mother-in-law had a health issue? Would my sons be able to track us down? If one of our sons got seriously ill, how would they contact us? Since they’re in their 20’s, that’s usually not a big concern, but one of them had had a significant health problem a few weeks ago, so the possibility seemed more real.

You see where all this was going—good ole free floating anxiety racheted up by lack of connectivity. Wow.

Several times I had to tell myself to knock it off. Everyone was fine. Despite knowing that, I still tried to fire up my phone when we visited the park office. No signal.

For years I’ve had the constant chatter: texts, email, and commentary from Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, so it took a while to get used to the sound of my own thoughts. Or no thoughts whatsoever.

At first I had to concentrate on being in the moment. Resist the urge to curate my experiences. Just live them. I noticed the lavender and white phlox blooming in the meadow we were hiking through, heard the wind in the trees and the creek murmuring behind our campsite, and squinted at the zillions of stars you can see out in the country.

I hate admitting that being disconnected made me anxious. But instant access has become too gratifying. The more I’ve gotten used to it, the more I want it. When I hear the ding of a new email or text hitting my phone, I’ve got to know who it’s from. It’s obsessive. As reinforcing as treats would be to Pavlov’s dogs.

Who's the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Who’s the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Technology is supposed to be a helpful tool, subservient to me, not my master. I don’t want to feel so controlled by it.

How did I get to be at the beck and call of this device? I let the lure of instant access get to me.

So I’ve decided to try disconnecting intentionally one day a week, as an experiment.

On those days, I’ll use my phone for calls, but otherwise avoid checking emails, weather apps, maps, Facebook, Snapchat, and the New York Times news feed. Fasting from email, apps, and social media will be hard—after all, the first thing I did after we packed up and drove away was check email. 56 of them had piled up in three days. Most of them weren’t that important, which reinforces my decision to go offline periodically.

It’s so easy to be caught up in the bizzyness of the internet and social media. I want to rediscover what else I can do with my time.