Thursday, December 19, 2013

Indigo Stars

Last year I heard a song that arrested my heart. I know, that’s super dramatic. But I felt immobilized when I heard it, so the words feel genuine. 

Naturally I played it over and over again, just to be immobilized. One does, when one finds something worth being frozen for. 

Have you ever seen something that completely captured all the things you can’t even describe to yourself? 

Have you ever smelled something that replaced a feeling you thought you’d lost?

Or like me, have you ever heard something that made you realize for a split second that you weren’t alone? 

I love when it happens, even though it almost hurts. 

I think that for most of us there is a place where the leftover feelings, ideas, and emotional runoff gather. This isn’t the place where we stuff our tears at being called ‘fat’ on the playground. It isn’t where we leave our emotional abuse to rot and fester. It’s just the bits that didn’t get swept up as life went along. 

It’s the time you forgot about, when your aunt got you the present you wanted when your parents didn’t have money. 

It’s the stuffed dog you slept with that got left on the airplane. 

It’s the childhood aspirations to be an architect, a singer, an actress. 

It’s the accumulated sunsets on the beach and laughing until you feared you would wet your pants.  

All those milliseconds when you feel that everything is right with the world, or that nothing will ever be right again…they all go to this place I’m talking about. 

It’s a terrible, wonderful place that you don’t ever want to go to and don’t ever want to leave. 

If you’re still tracking with my esoteric ramblings, congratulations! You are in the running to be my new best friend. 

I just want to be really clear when I say I was arrested and immobilized by this song. It tapped into this place I’m talking about, which we might as well call the emotional rubbish bin. 

I was decorating my apartment last year with paper stars. We were in Galway, waiting for my parents to arrive for Christmas. I missed my sister, and so I played The Indigo Girls. We’ve listened to them for years, and they make me miss her even more in a masochistic way. Listening to them is like looking up an ex on Facebook. You know you’ll regret it because the feelings will overwhelm you. But you have to do it because…well, because you have to. 
The paper stars fell down from the mantle and I had to untangle them from the thread and try again. And then again, and yet another time it would happen. Meanwhile the Indigo Girls sang of love and monsters under the bed. And then, this:

‘There’s still my joy for Christmas day’

The music is haunting even if you aren’t perched on an orange swivel chair with tangled stars in your hand. 

But the words! Oh, the lovely words. I’m not going to list them all here, because you HAVE to go listen on whatever music platform makes you happy. But if your stars are all tangled tonight and you want a visit from the emotional fairy, here’s a snippet:

I brought my tree down to the shore
The garland and the silver star
To find my peace, and grieve no more
To heal this place inside my heart

The snow comes down on empty sand
There’s tinsel moonlight on the waves
My soul was lost, but here I am
So this must be amazing grace

One tiny child can change the world
One shining light can show the way
Through all my tears for what I’ve lost
There’s still my joy
There’s still my joy 
For Christmas day


It’s good right? You don’t know what it means, but you know what it means. This, my friends, is good art. It is many things to many people, and can still maintain its original purpose. 

I stood there, paper stars in hand, not wanting to break the magic of the music that now filled my  room. It was wafting out, creating a fog that penetrated my heart. 

What does it mean? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I have to awkwardly admit that I understand it at a level that I can’t yet describe. 

So let’s awkwardly try, shall we?

The group that sings this version are lesbians. I say this not because I care that they are lesbians, but because it is pertinent. 

I’ve spent my life in church. Lesbians aren’t welcome there. Sure, if they USED to be lesbian, or maybe sort of thought about it or maybe they one time met someone who was a lesbian, they could come and testify about it. But an actual bonafide lesbian? Not welcome. 

It struck me that this woman who so beautifully sang this song about a child changing the world would not be welcome in the institution I served. Does that matter? It did to me, standing there in an Irish apartment, surrounded by someone else’s furnishings. 

The words speak of great grief, heartache, a lost soul. I identify with these feelings pretty strongly. I especially identified with this last year, separated from family and friends and not knowing where I’d be in a year’s time. 

Many people who don’t like church, hate church even, will stop by the place at Christmas. They get made fun of by the church crowd as not being faithful or genuine. In the same breath, they are lusted after to further fill the pews and the offering plates. 

‘If only they came all the time!’ We hear. “Imagine all we could do if they would commit to come all year like we do’. 

But lesbians aren’t welcome, and neither are a whole host of other people who do life differently. 

Some of my closest friends are lesbian or gay. I watched their struggles not only to identify with their own self, but to bring that into line with their Christian upbringing. It was and is heartbreaking to see the way they are treated. 

I’m not trying to make waves about homosexuality and Christianity. There are better minds than mine that can wax poetic/eloquent/crazy about those topics. 

But I do know that IF you believe Christ came into the world, he came to love. He did this in many ways, as love takes different forms. But love was the beginning and the end of the plan. 

I listened to this woman sing her soul up and out through her vocal chords, pour them out and lay them there while I stood frozen. 

For all the grief she’s been through, for all that her soul was supposed to be lost…there’s still joy for Christmas day. 

Why? Why would someone who is marginalized, demonized, dehumanized by the church that celebrates Christmas, want anything to do with this holiday? 

I’m 97 percent sure that she isn’t singing about her joy based on peppermint ice cream or Nordstrom’s sales. 

There’s an incredible longing here. I hear it every time I play this song, no matter how many times I play it, and it is overflowing my emotional rubbish bin. 

She is real to me, this singer. She didn’t write the words, but she chose them as her own. She claimed them, supported them, when she sang and recorded them. She is my best friend, my cousin, myself, and maybe even you. 

If you read my blogs, you’ll notice several themes. One is that I don’t feel at home in churches, particularly those in the American South. Never have, not ever in my life have I felt accepted or included in that institution. It isn’t because there is something wrong with Jesus. It’s because there’s something wrong with me. When I was a kid, it was because I was poor. Not truly really poor, but ‘we don’t go on the All Church Ski Trips’ poor. We had money for piano lessons, but not new clothes. We ate, we drove a car, but we didn’t eat fancy and we sure didn’t drive fancy. I waited, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d be welcome. 

As I grew into the teenage years, my clothes were a bit better and our family car was a bit more posh. But I still wasn’t welcome. I wasn’t demonstrative enough for charismatics, too mystical for  traditionalists, too feminist for the reformed. I had no place in that place, either. I hung on, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d feel welcome. 

As an adult, it was a nightmare. Maybe it still is. I’m too afraid to find out. I didn’t want to wear the right thing or vote for the right person anymore. None of that helped, in the end. I wasn’t welcome because I was me, and I am not welcome. To be myself and say what I want and question what I question means I’m not the right fit for any church I’ve ever attended. 

I can hear you saying, ‘Surely not! She’s being way too sensitive!’ or ‘Boo-hoo, you big baby. Nobody is perfect, no church is perfect, and you’ll never be happy if you expect it to be so.’

There’s validity to those statements. But there’s validity to mine as well.

When I hear her sing, I feel my own rejections again. That’s the part that hurts, of course. But then I hear her say with as much emotion as can be packed into a few notes, that her joy for Christmas day remains. 

A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

On Christmas day, the light of who Christ is and was and what he came to do breaks through so magnificently that no amount of heartache or rejection can withstand the onslaught of hope.

The soul responds to the hint of amazing grace. All souls do, in their own way. 

After all the tears, after all the rejection, after all the frustration and fear, there’s still my joy for Christmas day. I haven’t been able to attend church much since The Great Debacle of 2012. But this Christmas Eve, I’ll make my way to light a candle and remember the great day that gives me hope. 


I might not resolve the issues I have with church. The singer of the Indigo Girls might not ever want to resolve those issues, if she has them. But we both think on the meaning of the season and feel joy and peace wash over us, and it arrests us as we wait with stars in our hands. 


"There's Still My Joy"
(Beth Nielsen Chapman, Melissa Manchester, Matt Rollings)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Advent 2013: Oh Holy Night




I've been singing Christmas carols for a couple months now, truth be told. I don't care even the slightest bit about singing 'Silent Night' in October. It threatens some people, you know, though I'm sure you aren't one of them. It seems unthinkable to some folks that Christmas carols can be enjoyed before December 1st. Relax. It doesn't mean I hate Thanksgiving.

I like carols, as I say every year. To me they seem full of magic in a way that startles me anew every October when I start singing them loudly in my car. It also startles other passengers in my car, and even passengers of other cars, as I am capable of singing quite loudly. 

My inner elf picks out a favorite carol each year. For whatever reason, a particular song appeals to me and I know that it is my song of the season. My inner elf has a name, and if you keep reading I'll tell you what it is. 

This year I've been obsessed with "Oh Holy Night'. It's an impressive carol in that you cannot sing it unless you've calculated just how high you can sing for the 'oh niiiight deVIIIIIINE' part, and then worked backwards. I've had many a tragic singing experience when I just sang my heart out with no thought for my vocal range. When this happens, I'm always worried that someone has placed a recording device in my car to better understand me in my natural habitat, and they'll show it to a room full of doctors in white coats who laugh and write down things in a notebook and all secretly poke fun at me for my passionate yet not so melodic rendition of 'Oh Holy Night' in the key of Way Too High. 

BUT! It is still a lovely song, even if I strangle a few of the notes. 

I literally (and I mean literally, literally, not the figurative literally nonsense that's going around) can't sing these lines without tears in my eyes: 

'Truly he taught us to love one another, his law is love and his gospel is peace.
Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.'

The words strike me as rather progressive, and sadly, not an accurate portrayal of historical Christianity. 

My readers are both Christian and non, and I hear you both roaring at me. Be quiet, I'm talking!

Love, peace, brotherhood...these words get used by people on both sides of the religious divide. For some, they become the hallmarks of 'soft religion', i.e. that horridly dangerous religious pudding that people fall into when they just want to sin and not feel bad about it. Then again, they are the some of the most consistent words written about Jesus.

Whatever your thoughts on Jesus, you can hardly argue about the words attributed to him, that they were radically different for his day and age. They were for the most part kind words, soft words, comfortable words. 

I don't think it is a secret that I grew up in church, bled on her steps and cried at her doors. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, yes? I likewise devoted all of my adult life so far to 'the church'. I collected my paycheck there, I went to classes there, I took my children for ballet lessons there, I ate meals there, I even exercised and bought coffee there. 

I don't think it is a secret either that really, really bad things happened to me as a child and unspeakable things as an adult. Life is that way, I know. Nobody can expect perfection from an institution. But..um...let's say that I was chased out of church with a stick that was dipped in poisonous acid. Hey! No reason to be negative around the holidays, right?

What does this have to do with O Holy Night? It remains to be seen. But you want to know my elf name, so keep going. 

This Christmas carol was written by a Frenchman named Placide Cappeau. He was a wine commissioner who loved poetry, so he came up with these lyrics for his parish Christmas service. Placide decided, no doubt over a lovely glass of wine, that his poem was really a song. He asked a classically trained friend to help with the music, and so our lovely song was born. The musician was Jewish, however, which became a problem when the Church Powers That Be found out. No matter it was already a beloved French carol, it was now suspect and therefore A Dangerous Song. Placide put the nail in the coffin when he changed his religious views. 

The song was banned in church, but as that rarely stops the rabble-rousing citizenry, especially the lovely passionate French, it wasn't forgotten. 

It gained popularity among American abolitionists during our Civil War. The political issue of their day was, in their eyes, a spiritual one as well. They clung to the song as a source of hope. Like the Israelites waiting for the Savior, they would now wait for the moral tide to turn. The song boosted them during that wait.

Also of interest? This was the first song ever played over the radio air waves. A colleague of Thomas Edison was messing around with radio waves (as one does when one is bored) and broadcasted the song to very surprised newspaper offices and ships around the world. Some of them probably did fall to their knees, as the metal box that used to tap out messages was now playing music.

What do an abolitionist, an inventor, a Jewish composer, and a French wine commissioner have in common? They made people uneasy. 

In their own ways, they caused the people around them to question reality, to question morality, to question belief in what was and also what was possible. 

What is it about the words they loved that caused alarm? I think it is the words that make me cry. 'Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.’ They are alarming words, words that rouse you from your sleep. 

If you've ever been oppressed, you know the bitter taste it leaves in your mouth. Not because life is hard, but because sometimes life is so unbearably unfair. Oppression is what happens when you are silenced, when you are dealt a situation that you have no control over, when you are graded by a rubric you can't see. It smarts like sanitizer in a paper cut. It seems small, but the pain is acute. 

When I play a game with my kids (never Monopoly, as it is The Devil’s game) it isn't the losing that causes the most tears, but the cheating. When someone stands up by squashing others below them, it rouses primal anger. Losing is hard, but it is something we all understand. Even as we wail about it, we know that for winners to win, losers must lose. Maybe we will win at the next play, we console ourselves. Oppression has no fast fix. It is one thing to work by the sweat of your brow, but quite another when that sweat is whipped from you, mocked, and abused. The humiliation and inherent wrongness cannot be borne.

Oppression is a human evil, we all have done it on the playground or unknowingly by buying into a system of social class. The hard thing to realize is that it frequently happens in the name of Christ. 

If you want an example, go read about The Crusades. Need another? Slavery in America. Still more? Ask if your local church supports programs for the poor, for the fatherless and the widow. Chances are they'll direct you to the state programs, all while bemoaning the fact that the state programs exist. The State shouldn't take care of the poor, they say, The Church should! But as The Church doesn't have the funds...well...go fill out paperwork for Uncle Sam. But before you go, here…you can have a cup of dried soup and a pamphlet about Going To Hell In An Outfit-Coordinating Handbasket. 

In the movie, The Help, Hilly tells her maid that she won't lend money for the maid's son to get into college. Hilly says it is 'the Christian thing to do', because 'God doesn't give charity to those who are well and able.' God helps those who help themselves, right? Right? That sounds like the message of love and peace.

Most of us smarted at that scene, because it was so heart-breakingly unkind. But what about the more socially acceptable versions of Hilly's words? Do they fall from our lips onto the ears of someone who needs our help?

I read A Christmas Carol most years at this time. It always strikes me that if Scrooge's words about poverty and social justice could be posted online today, they’d get lots of favorable press. ‘Send them to the prisons where they can work, take away their food and let them die...then we won't have to worry about them anymore!’ I’ve seen versions of this across many media sources. Scrooge gives an eerie echo of our 'Christian' culture in the South when he says that he already supports programs for the poor with his tax money, so why should they expect any more out of him? After all, they are poor of their own choice, as he is rich by the same manner. If they want to be better off, let them do what they will to become so.

The Chains that bound Marley are the same Chains that 'he shall break'! It isn't enough to throw money at someone who needs it. It wasn't enough that the Emancipation Proclamation set people free. The law gives the order, hands out the money. But until the chains are broken, really broken, there's no change made. How long were slaves free before people of color were allowed to drink from the same fountain as whites? How long does a single mother receive food stamps and government housing before she realizes that she is the same quality of person that lives in Belle Meade? How long do we live alongside Muslim and Buddhist before we treat them as equals, made in the image and likeness of the Christ we claim to follow? Did that last sentence bother you? 

During the reign of slavery, it was very gauche to suggest that black people were, in fact, people. Same as white, inside and out, deserving of all the liberties we afford ourselves. It just wasn't proper, and many an old Southern biddy shook her head at the liberalism that had come into the world. 'What is this world coming to?' You can hear her say, 'In my day, nobody questioned their elders. If it was good enough for them, it's good enough of me. Give me that old-time fanaticism! Now, tell the slaves to bring my dinner.’

During The Crusades, you would be killed for having ideas of religious tolerance. It was Christianity for all men, if we rape and murder and pillage and plunder your entire kingdom to the ground. All in the name of Christ. Oppression is supposed to cease in the name of Christ, because his law is love and his gospel is peace. Instead we use that name to bend others to our will, to oppress and enslave. We help make the chains, just like Marley said. We lock them into place and applaud the wearer for knowing their place. 

If love and peace make you uneasy, or have no place in your religion, you should consider the idea that you aren't interested in Jesus, the Christ. This is fine, by the way, and its your right as a human to explore the vast philosophies and structures of thought that fill the world. Keep exploring until you find the one that suits you. Don't be afraid of exploring the options. The only thing to be gained by holding on to something you don't believe is self-oppression. Break your chains! 

Don’t just grudgingly allow that Muslim group to build a mosque in your town. If you believe in religious freedom, believe that it is their religious freedom to build their house of worship. Nobody asked you to attend their services and prayers. But what you must do, what you cannot ignore, is that they are your brother. They are your sister, and your neighbor, and it should be your joy and privilege to recognize them. 

I frequently think about what today’s progressive issues are. If I’d lived during The Crusades, would I have wielded a knife against the Infidel? If I lived during the time of slavery, would I share a meal with a black child? Would I have turned away from a public beating? Would I have heard Galileo give his treatise about the sun, or would I have closed my ears to his obvious heresy? Would I do what the vast majority of people did in that time, in that place, facing that difficulty?

We confuse tolerance and acceptance with approval. They are not the same thing. I don’t approve of cigarette smoking, because I think medical studies conclusively show that it is harmful to the body. But I have to tolerate the idea of it, because I’m not in charge of other people’s lungs. I have to approve at least in concept, the right of others to smoke, even if at their own peril. I won’t smoke, I’ll try to keep my kids from it, but if I say that people don’t have the right to smoke, I’ll need to admit that we also shouldn’t have the right to Oreos or too much television or even gas in our cars. Suddenly my idea of tolerance will broaden.

You have conviction? Good. Use it wisely. You have passion and belief in your cause? Wonderful. But if your convictions and passion lead you in the paths of hatred or war, you should stop using the name of Christ. Especially during this time, when the fabric between Heaven and Earth grows especially thin. All people feel the otherworldly magic of Christmas. Don’t deny them, or yourselves, the carol singing and the tree trimming and the Santa visiting. We experience the unspeakable love of Christ in ways that make sense to us. If its singing, we should sing. If its giving, we should give. If someone doesn’t believe in Jesus, the closest thing they have might be Old Saint Nick. Don’t despise the presence of love and peace in the word, no matter what face it wears. If you believe that all love comes from God, delight when you see it in the world. Delight when you see someone drop money into a Salvation Army bucket. Delight when you see a child laugh on Santa’s lap. Delight when your unreligious friend wishes you the compliments of the season. If the source of the joy is the same, why should you feel threatened? All things that give love and peace will in time point to the source. Believe in the source, and trust that the methods are used for a reason.

During this time we are reminded ‘Truly he taught us to love one another. His law is love and his gospel is peace.’ What a beautiful song that gives us a gentle nudge, alarm bells to our sleepy soul, to remember that Christ came to love. To love. The action of love and the employment of peace are especially important at Christmas. They are the only things that break chains, both seen and unseen. If you want to make a difference in the lives of those around you, remember that Christ came to love. Christ came to give peace. He came at Christmas, and the mark left on the world is still felt at Christmastime.

Break chains by choosing over and again, day after day, to see love and peace in the world. Where it is lacking, supply it. Where it is needed, give in abundance. Where it is forbidden, stand high and sing, ‘Chains shall he break! For the slave is MY brother!’ and watch as the world struggles against her chains. Cappeau broke chains by suggesting that we have them. The composer broke chains by creating beautiful notes to accompany words he didn’t even believe in. The inventor dared to imagine impossible things. The abolitionist cared to dream of equality. They broke chains because in the presence of love and peace, chains have no place. 

People get mad when you try to break chains. I’m not tooting my own horn, mostly because I hate that phrase. But I think I was chased out of church because I tried to break a few chains. I wanted to ask questions. I suggested…or insisted…that The Church is often in the business of selling chains. I set off alarms, and the sleeping weren’t pleased. Their response made me feel oppressed, silenced, and judged by a rubric I couldn’t see. In the end, the only rubric I need to concern myself with is the law of love and gospel of peace. 

I pointed out a few chains to Scrooge. You might call me the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. That isn’t my elf name, though. It’s Mistletoe Ivysocks. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ants on Food Stamps

My house is about to be taken. The bank will put locks on it, they will post 24 hour guards dressed in chain mail armour, and I will be lead to the stocks for citizens to fling rotten tomatoes at.

Like most people, I never thought that this would happen to me. Not because I am wealthier or smarter than other people, or because I had some secret that others didn't. I just assumed that something really catastrophic had to happen to lose my home. I thought people who were foreclosed on must have missed a step or be too busy looking for a kidney transplant or robotic arm to bother with the frustration of trying to keep their home.

I don't want to say that I looked down on people who lost their home, because I don't think that was the case. I certainly didn't make a moral kind of judgement against them, for which I'm thankful. No, the problem was that I just didn't know how it felt. Some things are only understood when you have stood under them.

I have now stood under the weight of renting my home, trying to sell it, trying a short sale, and now the only thing left is for it to be taken away.

Truth be told, I'll be relieved to see it go. It is a nice home and we were happy to have it. But after losing a job and quickly rearranging our life plans, the importance of moving ahead is more important than keeping a home.

Sure, there is the issue of honor. I said I'd pay for it, and it doesn't feel good to back out of that promise. It would be really great to pay it back someday. But after the paper shuffling and bowing and scraping and abuse we've taken from the mortgage company, I'm not as concerned as I was in the beginning. Perhaps that shocks you. It might not shock you if you knew the details. Don't worry, I'm not sharing them. Just imagine you are trying to call the President and ask how he feels about ice cream. That's the difficulty of getting our company 
to talk to you...for six months...until you miss your first payment.

They told us from the start they were just basically waiting the lawful amount of time until they could seize the property. I didn't know that stuff really happened. I thought there was nearly always a way out. But there wasn't.

I've told you I'm mostly ok with it, and that is the truth. We have new income now, a new life before us. We are focusing on preparing for our here and now, and as we can, our future.
The hard part is the social stigma. Nobody has to know, but that isn't practical. People ask why I live with my parents. Fair question, as I'm over 30 and have a family of my own. We get asked when we'll be looking for a place of our own, and would we like to see a great house that so-and-so has just listed?

I don't explain it to almost anybody. I just say we are trying to figure things out. This is the truth, if it isn't The Whole Truth.

The stigma still hits, though. It comes through the creditors that call me every day. It comes from the posts on Facebook about the scum of society that want government health care. It comes from the newspaper articles about food stamp users who dare to buy organic milk. It comes from overheard cafe conversations in which people scoff at poor people who are audacious enough to carry a cell phone. Today it came from a medical accountant who needed information.

She wanted to know why I didn't receive the bills in the spring. I didn't have an answer, though I don't have any of those bills. When I asked what we could do, today, to fix the situation, she was reluctant to give up her abuse. When I started to give her my insurance card information, she stopped me. "Let me guess.' she said. "You have TennCare."
What was I to say? I do indeed have that free, government insurance. She continued through her note taking, only sounding slightly human and humane when I thanked her for her time in helping me. She let me know that my credit would probably still suffer. I was tempted to inform her that it mattered not a whit in the ocean of my losing my home. Instead I told her to have a nice day.

The next related call got me an earful of 'not dragging my feet' on the process. When I asked a question, I was interrupted with the live voice stating, 'this is an attempt to collect a debt'. Then, she told me to have a nice day and hung up. After all the time and the case numbers and client numbers and explaining to one employee and then another and hearing some stranger verbally abuse me, I was disconnected. I only listened to this woman judge my bookkeeping skills because I have to resolve the issue. I was rewarded with her sneer and a dead line.

I read several articles last week about food stamps and those who use them. A U.S. Representative made headlines when he noted the 'total fraud' of some fit-looking couple purchasing groceries on a EBT card. This article linked to another, and another, and by the end I was angry and further humiliated.

The polls on food stamps indicate that I am to buy no candy, no soda, no lobster, no steak, nothing organic, nothing too expensive, and nothing that is bad for my children. Additionally, I am to wear nothing too shabby or too nice when I purchase these magical items, I am to act contrite for my actions that led to my need, and I am also to make sure that I don't have a car or a phone, because if I can pay for those things, I can certainly pay for my own, 'healthy but not too healthy, cheap but not junk food', food.
There were many things I found interesting in these articles. More people think I should eat plastic chemical crap than 'nice' food. Many customers and cashiers admit to heavily judging those using 'that card', as our government official put it. A surprising number of fellow food stamp users share that they have been addressed for using an EBT card.
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Comments about how someone could dare to buy a birthday cake with food stamps... Comments about how with the nice purse they carried, they should be ashamed to use food stamps... Comments about how they are too fat and therefore don't need food, or too thin and are therefore healthier than should be allowed...

There aren't answers to be found, not in the midst of so many differing opinions.

Do I buy candy on my food stamp card? I do. When my kids' teachers ask for help bringing in items for a party or event, I quickly sign up for anything food related. This is how I can contribute. A bag of Twix mini bars means my kid doesn't have to hear that we can't afford to participate in the activity.

Do I buy steak? So far, no. But I have bought really nice salmon. It was the only birthday present I could afford for my dad. I made him dinner, and I bought the gift with my EBT card. A birthday meal meant I could still honor someone important to me.

I mostly use my card for milk, bread, eggs, the normal stuff. If restrictions were placed on it, it would be fine. I don't mind the powers that be trying to make America a healthier place by limiting access to sweets. The real rub comes when I hear the comments. I haven't yet had them at the checkout, though I brace for them every time. Facebook is the absolute worst. Horror stories are shared weekly about someone who saw another person buy crab legs with their food stamps. The nerve! 'I don't work my butt off to feed lazy people better food than I can afford." Ouch.

I had to go to an office downtown and wait for four hours for an appointment with a social worker. I had to find a place for my kids to go, because I didn't want to explain what I was doing. It is dirty in that office, and it is full of screaming babies and people who speak little English. The bathroom looks like a hundred middle school males have used it and then died in the mess. Police officers sit nearby, reminding you not to talk on a phone or cause any trouble.

I was led back to a maze of cubicles and asked personal questions about my finances and job, the status of my marriage, if I was abused. After the questions and more paperwork, a few phone calls by my social worker (I now had a social worker!) I sat, unable to keep from crying...after all that, I got a literal red stamp of approval. I passed the poverty test. I was eligible for the whole amount. I wasn't just poor. My state government determined that my family of five lived below the poverty line. We could get food and medical insurance. I was relieved, if still ashamed. Shame hurts, but so does hunger.

If you'd seen me that day, you would have seen a nice outfit. While I've never been rich, I've been lucky enough to buy clothes for myself. I look for sales, and I can splurge now and again. I still have my clothes. I still have my nice purse from when my mom helped me buy one. I have a really nice borrowed car, from a friend who is trying to help us out. I had a really nice borrowed phone, from my dad who wanted to help out. I didn't look below the poverty line. I still don't look that way today.
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The world is changing. It always does, much to our chagrin and more to our hope. It won't always be the way it is. That means that things can get worse, or better. It also means that things aren't always going to be the way you expect. Someone driving a Mercedes might be on food stamps. Someone in a nice suit might be nearly homeless.

We are recovering from an economical collapse. We are also experiencing a huge social turnover. Like it or not, the tide turns. My money washed out to sea, but I still have expensive stainless steel bowls to cook my food stamp meals in.

My house is nearly out of my possession. I had to prove that I couldn't pay for it. I eat off the government's dime. I had to prove that I couldnt pay to feed my family. Here's something I'm not proud of: I passed the test. It doesn't feel good, standing under the weight of these situations. It would be hard enough on its own. My shame was nearly complete when I whispered to the social worker that I had 100 dollars in my bank account, no assets, no car, and no idea when more money was coming in. She had to ask me to repeat it.

The shame that was added when I walked out the door was different, however. Inside that dirty office, everyone shared something. We all had some need, and we could prove that the need was legitimate. Maybe the world disagrees, but according to the guidelines set forth by those in charge, we met the requirements. The lady that sat next to me had her nails done. Maybe in another life, I'd balk at how she could afford to get her nails done. Now I assume someone gave her a much needed gift, or her sister is a nail technician, or maybe she's in beauty school and trying to make a better life for herself than sitting in this downtown office. I'm happy she got her nails done. Hopefully she'll assume my nice purse is a remnant of yesteryear, when such a purchase wasn't out of the question.

Outside these walls, another story gets told. I need to get a job, though I'm not supposed to have a car or a phone. I've been under the impression that this is because I'm supposed to 'know my place'. I'm at the bottom, naturally. I'm socially aware enough to know that I'm at the bottom. The real issue however is that other people need to know where I'm located. If I carry my purse and drive this car, nobody will know I'm on government assistance unless they see 'that card'. They won't know I'm not one of them, and they'll feel lied to.

Some say that I shouldn't buy soda on my card, because maybe I don't know that it isn't good for me and my kids. I respect these kinds of comments, as they are often housed in kindness, even if delivered the wrong way. I agree, and I don't often buy soda. But more people said us foodstampers shouldn't eat steak, because that's too nice a thing to buy. They aren't concerned for my health. They don't want me to have something that is above my station. Steak is for the better people, and I don't deserve it.

Surprisingly but becoming rapidly less so, Christians and the conservatives are the cruelest. There's the above issues of knowing my place and having pride, but then it is wrapped in Jesus paper and it gets really, really ugly. I should know better, being the daughter, granddaughter, and wife of preachers. I should know better than to take that money for food. God helps those that help themselves, right? Doesn't that mean I need to sell my plasma and live on the street before I would dare to take a handout from the wicked government? Let's not forget the Proverbs, which obviously I didn't take to heart enough or I wouldn't be in this mess.

I've concluded that the most conservative of conservative Christians believe in Evolution. They won't hear tell of it related to primates, but they uphold the theory more than any other group I know.

Survival of the fittest is the concept that a species grows stronger and exhibits new characteristics to adapt to change. Those that don't keep up get left behind to die. The species then can slough off the offending weak spots and move towards a glorious future in which nobody has blemishes. I've heard some people joke that if we stop funding the food stamp program, the poorest would die and then we wouldn't have to take care of them anymore. I've heard this from 'God-fearing believers'.

Poverty might exist in Africa, but Americans should know better. This is the land of the free, and the home of the brave. We have no need for those who aren't hitting the marks of beauty, prosperity, and drive. If you feel called to be a teacher, but you don't make enough to support your family, you should switch careers. It is no longer about who or what God wants you to be, it is about making enough money to be self- sufficient. Pride is more important than any call you might have. Forget sculpture or anything our society doesn't prize. You will find a way to keep up with this herd or we will trample you. We might even do so out of pity.

While writing this, an ant crawled on my table. It had a large crumb on its head. No doubt it was looking for a way to get home with the spoils of war. It struck me as ironic. Many of us would squish the ant for daring to come near a human. Some might blow it away, not caring that it had life and it had worked hard to carry food for its consumption. It is of no consequence to a human whether an ant lives or dies. The ant doesn't matter. The ant isn't important to us, so therefore has no importance at all.

How selfish and how conceited we are. The ant is a different species. We are stronger, we are better.

Yes, we believe in Evolution of our own kind. We rise to higher and higher eschelons of society, looking down the beanstalk at the ants on the ground below. The higher we get the smaller they seem. If they don't make it, that's not something to cry over. If the ant doesn't make it home with the crumb, it is of little consequence. After all, the crumb came from my meal, and wasn't really hers after all. 
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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sacred Pie





I’m listening to my new favorite Christmas carol on repeat. So far I’ve heard about nineteen different bands and soloists give their best to the traditional song. I love Christmas carols particularly more than most other types of songs, and each year I nurse a secret favourite. When all is right with the world, I get to sing it with a big group of people on a cold evening while we gather around a piano with mugs of mulled wine. So far, the world hasn’t been all right yet. But I’m waiting, because I’m pretty sure the experience will be divine. Until that day, I sing quietly enough that my neighbors don’t beat on the wall and tell me to shut it up. 

When I lived in Phoenix, I learned to be amazed when I heard any reference to Jesus, or 'traditional' Western spirituality. It just isn’t done much outside the Bible Belt, and even increasingly less so in those states these days. You will hear people say that this is a good thing, and it is. You will hear people say that this is a bad thing, and it is. I think whenever we lose a piece of our own history, even in the teaching if not believing, we become diminished. We aren’t as rich, as full, or as entire. But I also know from experience that it is wrong when an elite group of masochistic narcissist religious zealots try to enslave us to their own ideas of what Jesus was trying to do. 

In the end, though, this all gets a break at Christmas time. Only the angriest elves don’t want ‘Away In a Manger’ played on the radio. Only the most zealous of the zealots don’t want to admit that Santa Claus is part of the Christmas culture. Most of us, it would seem, allow more to pass through our mental sieves during the holidays. We remember the time that we played a donkey in the Nativity play, and don’t hold ill will against those who still do so. We recall our grandmother reading the story from Luke 2, and we hear the passion in her voice for a history that was alive in her present day. It doesn’t always have to be about ourselves, in other words. It is enough that a song would make someone smile. It is enough that for now, the kids sit on Santa's lap and are delighted with the world. There are other days to learn about war, about suffering. I don't have to steal someone's happy because I don't agree. The Elf on the Shelf, for example. I simply do not understand. We have enough to remember during the season without the likes of a small impish intruder to attend to each and every morning. But if you like it, I wish you well and don't mind if you post pictures and make songs. Who knows? Maybe one day I'll join in. But we won't know unless we give room for both sides. 



In many ways, we live in a time that eschews history. Or perhaps we are very selective about the history that we cling to. Some feel safer in the 1950’s, and so they call it the Golden Age. Others think we should bring back the Renaissance, and all would be well. We are all right and all wrong, as naturally we would be. History and the lessons we learn from it are subjective. The only real danger would be to not learn anything at all. We cannot assume that we have the monopoly on truth and goodness and beauty and all the ways it is to be experienced. Why do I say this? I can never see a sunset in Mesopotamia. I don’t know the way Schubert’s music sounded when it fell on eagerly listening ears for the first time. We all have our own idea about what is important, what is good, and what is beautiful. We can argue about it, and we do. You would think that the human race would be doomed to further fracture their own kind until we have nothing in common but our DNA.

The exception once again sits in front of us all as we eagerly await the fullness and joy of the Christmas season. Everything, from pumpkin pie to awkward claymation, becomes something sacred and special. The rituals we play through from year to year become something almost holy, because they connect us with the years gone by. I can’t watch Christmas Vacation without hearing my dad’s maniacal laugh. I cannot see a Christmas tree without wanting to spend the evening under it, swapping secrets with my big sister. I now have one grandparent gone, and I see him sitting on the couch, opening his gifts at 80 years old, still somehow like a child, hoping for a train. I’m connected with these events, and one even might say with these people, forever.

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 2013, where I’ll live or who I’ll spend the holidays with. But I know that I’ll think fondly of this year and all the memories of trying to find an affordable tree for a small Irish apartment. I’ll laugh because I made cornbread stuffing out of the most hideous ingredients, and that my family was nice enough to eat it so we could have a traditional experience. My memories will connect me in a way that physical space cannot. My heart, my ears, and even my nose will tell me that Grandma Scott is still making biscuits and apples, even if it has ceased to be tangible. Her house might not be beautiful to you, or real. But during this season, most of you would smile as I relive times gone by. I will do the same for you. I can allow your mom's pie to be the best, as I claim the same of my aunt. We can both find the beauty in our own experiences without having to challenge the result. 



I think that we all secretly long for the season of Christmas, and my ideas on why change all the time. I think we crave the stability and security of times gone by, perhaps even times we never experiences. While we don’t live in the past, and hopefully don’t try to, we are looking forward into the complete and total unknown. The only assurance that things will  continue is our continued practice of the things we know. I know with certainty that my children’s children will know the names and faces of my own grandparents. I know this because my grandparents have made sure that I know the names and faces of their own ancestors. They have linked me with the past I can no longer physically experience, and so pulled themselves forward into a future they won’t physically inhabit. It is immensely comforting, at least in my mind. 

I don’t want to walk around with locket-sized pictures of my extended family tree, however. Instead I keep them in my heart and on my walls and think of Ma’am Lucy when I try to make pie crust, and of Grandpa Jerrell when I see a barrel of old-fashioned candy. It is enough to live this way, for most of the year. I am delighted when I have a thought of a cousin's childhood haircut, of a sheet of burned cookies that made me cry and my children laugh. They bubble up somewhere from the unconscious, as they are content to live there most of the time. But every now and again, we pay our dues to those places and people. It is only right, as a farmer reckons with his overlord. 

There used to be a widely celebrated holiday for celebrating the one who have left us, and for remembering their lives and likeness. Some think of such practices are morbid, but some probably haven’t lost a friend or a father. Death holds no fear when those we love have passed through. It is no longer uncharted territory, even if it is unfamiliar. This is the reason people travel to see the lands of their ancestors. We want to stand in a field and say that our great, great, great-grandfather planted this grass and it is mine somehow too, in a way I don’t understand. My heart leaps when I stand in this field, and it ceases to do so when I walk a mile in a different direction. This place has been held for me, if even just to stand and marvel at the gifts of wonder, of family, of belonging. We can belong to places we've never seen. We can yearn for people we never knew. We can then trust more firmly that the other places they have traveled will feel just as safe, be it unto death and beyond.



Christmas can’t be all about the past, though. It is only a portion of the experience. What else, then? Why do we yearn for the same songs and the same food and the same everything? What else would posses us to actually want to watch the terrible Frosty the Snowman movie? It is painful, but we have to do it. The voices don't stop until it is accomplished. Much like kissing a hairy aunt (not that I have any) we know it must be done. Might as well get it over with and try to find the humor as we do so. 


We want to experience magic, even if we call it something else. I don’t mean Harry Potter, although I would be very happy to experience his sort. Wonder, peace, love, gratitude, I think these feelings all fall under the umbrella of my description. We want to experience these overwhelmingly massive feelings more than we want to eat or even breathe. I can go several days without thinking about being thankful, but then when I do, I physically feel better for it. Not for thinking, ‘Yikes, I’m so glad I don’t look like that ugly lady’ but ‘Oh, how grateful I am that I can walk and breathe on my own. How amazing is it that I can read and have thoughts and enjoy chocolate? The world is indeed an amazing place, and I am grateful to be here.” But if you post that kind of thing on Facebook every day, you would lose most of our friends. Sad, but true, and I might be the first to drop you. It just isn’t acceptable to talk this way all the time. When people constantly remind us that we are lucky to process oxygen, we get the feeling that we are quite naughty to enjoy sitting in front of a movie with a basket full of buttery popcorn. We should focus on the important things, we tell ourselves. Popcorn isn’t important. Right? We can spend our money better. We don't have to have a tree, do we?


Take a look at Christmas again, and the days that lead to its arrival. We are thankful for our family, because we don’t always get to see them. We are thankful for the buttery popcorn that our grandfather eats while we watch a Christmas movie, because it matters. He matters, and what he does matters, and it wouldn’t be quite the same if things were different. We don’t practice tradition to stay in times gone by, but to remind us of how we arrived at the present. We don’t keep things the same 'just because' either, but change as the years change who we are. I don’t want an American Girl doll for Christmas this year, because my tastes and needs have changed. But I still want a present, and I still want it wrapped in pretty paper, and I still feel queasy when I open the box. 

Christmas ties us to the past, pulls us to the future, and fills us with the sentiments that our very soul craves to experience. It would be wondrous indeed to live the whole year through with these thoughts in mind. I don’t think it is possible, though. I think someone would go mad with the excess of feelings. Just like the pumpkin pie, it isn’t meant to be enjoyed without abandon. In small measures, in consistent applications, and not in a deluge of abundance should we eat pie. 

Just so can we stretch our insignificant tiny hearts to embrace the whole world at once. You cannot live at the pinnacle of exhilaration any more than you can live in the valley of the mundane. We forget who we are, though, and forget to breathe the heady air of the frosted mountains. Like a swimmer coming near the surface, we kick and push towards the coming breath that will give us the ability to endure and appreciate what comes next. This is why we love Christmas, child or adult, religious or non, dreamer or poet or scientist.

My cure for the world, therefore, is the thorough immersion into the Christmas season. It worked for Scrooge, and it can work for you too. 

If you find that your rusty heart is resistant, go bake a pie. It always helps. 



*All art by Normal Rockwell, master genius
Other pictures are the blogger's family, doing Christmassy things, and they belong to history.