When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew. Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.
In honor of Mother's Day and moms everywhere, where sharing a few of our favorite Mom moments in Beacon books. In these passages we've posted on the Beacon Press Scribd page, we have three varied perspectives on motherhood. Michael Patrick MacDonald reflects upon his mother's strength in a passage from All Souls: A Family Story From Southie. Amie Klempnauer Miller recounts the decision-making path she and her partner went down on their way to becoming moms in an excerpt from She Looks Just Like You. And, in Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words, Kate Whouley tells the story of the challenges funnier moments of one Mother's Day with her mom.
In honor of Mother's Day and moms everywhere, where sharing a few of our favorite Mom moments in Beacon books. Today's passages illustrate two beautiful gifts the authors received from their moms: for Kevin Jennings, a love of books; for Chris Stedman, a sense of gratitude. Please feel free to share your own mom memories in the comments!
My childhood was marked by simplicity and hard work and love—which is to say that it was actually quite carefree. My mother did a good job of instilling in us a deep sense of gratitude for the things we had; I didn’t really notice that we had less than other people until I was older and began to look for differences everywhere. It never seemed odd to me that we wore hand-me-down and home-spun clothing, or that we used homemade remedies like covering our hair with mayonnaise and saran wrap when we got lice from someone at school. When we were young children my mom made sure my siblings and I were well cared for—it was only later in life that I started telling myself that my story was that of “the poor kid.” The life she provided was rich, filled with complex colors of every hue, with trips to the beach in the early hours of the day before the parks became overcrowded with people desperate to escape the summer swelter, with arts and crafts and makeshift blanket forts.
Her inventiveness masked the meagerness we lived with; I never even realized until later in life that during my youngest years she had only owned two pairs of jeans and a few sweatshirts. She had an unparalleled aptitude for spinning straw into gold—our Christmases were full of hand-crafted and recycled gifts, and for birthdays she would set up elaborate party games, hanging pretzels from the ceiling with ribbon, hand-painting a bunny for cotton ball pin-the-tail-on-the-rabbit, and writing up thought-provoking trivia. My earliest years were characterized by imaginative games my siblings and I invented such as “Mean Diseased Cat,” where we manned our alert stations in anticipation of the return of a particularly feral cat that once meandered down our street; by the birthday cakes my mom painstakingly prepared; by the hand-crafted skip-its, teeter-totters, and pajamas that were our most prized possessions; by sitting down together as a family for dinner every single night, even if it was just bottom-shelf macaroni and cheese or saltine crackers topped with melted Kraft Singles, which we ate near the end of particularly tight months. I didn’t realize that you could buy Play-Doh at the store until I was nearly in middle school; we always made ours from scratch. I think we enjoyed it more that way, having concocted it ourselves before using it to build new things. We were deeply invested in everything we did, because most things were an act of creation and an act of love.
Above all, she taught me to love books and reading. Mom was a voracious reader, a trait she passed down to me. The highlight of our week would be our Saturday trips to the downtown public library in Winston-Salem—the “big one” and just about the only site that would get Mom regularly to venture out of the safety of Lewisville into “the city.” It was always just me and her, as the only thing that bored Paul more than Civil War battlefields was a library. I loved the downtown library. It was beyond a church—it was a cathedral, filled with holy objects, books, so many that I despaired that I would ever be able to read them all. The librarians were friendly and thought it was great, not weird, that I liked to read so much. I would check out as many books as I could carry, usually a stack so large I couldn’t see over them, and would devour them all during the course of the week, returning the next Saturday, eager for more. Library trips were the best. They even beat new trailer shopping.
At first I would go to the children’s section and Mom to the adult section. By fourth grade or so, I had read all the books that interested me in the children’s section and decided that the rest were too childish for this budding intellectual snob to bother with. I told Mom that I wanted to go where she went, the adult section. This created a crisis for Mom: in the adult section, there was a replica of the Venus de Milo. Mom felt it was inappropriate to have a nude statue in a public place, period, and especially inappropriate for a young boy to see it. (If she only knew...) I begged and pleaded and finally she relented, but only if I first promised not to look at the statue of the “naked lady.” Ignoring the naked lady, I raced in and returned with a forehead-high stack. I was in heaven.
Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Stedman is Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post's On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches.
In case you missed it, we are now in the month of December. That means that many of us have been enduring public displays of Christmas-affection for at least a month now, if not more. And while I admit that hearing a tinny rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” blare from the overhead speakers in a shopping mall in October is almost enough to turn my heart two sizes too small, I can’t help but feel excited that Christmas is just around the corner.
But why? You might ask. You’re an atheist. You’re not supposed to do that.
I’ve heard that argument before, and I still don’t buy it.
Christmas is perhaps my favorite holiday, as it is the one time during the year that my entire family is able to come together. Growing up, Christmas was never really about Jesus (I mean, if anything, it was about Santa) — it was about family. I’m the only person in my family who no longer lives in Minnesota, so I cherish the time I get to spend with those who have loved me the longest and the most, and the binding traditions that we share. (Including poking fun at one another incessantly – hey, who doesn’t engage in this tradition on any given holiday?)
As one example of why I have very fond associations with Christmas: the year I started to come out as gay, after several painful years of self-loathing, my mom got me a book about gay people and enclosed a special, handwritten note about how much she loved me and how proud she was of me. She hugged me tight, and I could see the lights from our Christmas tree reflecting off of the glossy tears in her eyes. Could she have given this to me on any other day? Sure, of course. And she did — throughout that year, and at many other times during my life, she has given me resources and support. But I remember that Christmas as a special moment in a year full of them, where she took the time to do something extra. And she, along with my entire family, has continued to do so — the year I moved out of the house to begin an independent life, she created a quilt made from scraps of the fabric she had used to make handsewn pajamas throughout my childhood. On the bottom side, she stitched in a note: “Pieces of memories… stitched together to wrap you in the love of your family.” I continue to pull out this Christmas gift every year to combat the December chill. As I wrote in a post earlier today, we ritualize our lives in various ways. For me, Christmas has been among the most significant.
A couple of Christmases past, my dad’s girlfriend asked me something just as I was preparing to leave home. “I know you’re an atheist,” she said, “but is it okay for me to wish you a ‘Merry Christmas’?” At first I thought it a rather silly question, as we had just spend the last day eating cookies shaped like trees and exchanging shiny boxes filled with gifts. But she explained that she had once dated an atheist, and that he had refused to join her for her family’s Christmas celebration. “As he put it, he’d never celebrate a ‘hol-lie-day’ for a made-up god,” she said to me.
The Humanist Community at Harvard offices, December 2012.
That same season, headlines roared over a new American Atheists billboard campaign, which exclaimed: “You KNOW It’s A Myth… This Season, Celebrate Reason!” In interviews, their president explained that the billboard campaign was not intended to turn Christians into atheists. Instead, he said that American Atheists wanted to encourage atheists to stop “going through the motions of celebrating Christmas.” And less than a week ago, Tom Flynn (who I met less than a week ago at the Center for Inquiry – Transnational) wrote a blog post advocating a similar sentiment — but he went a step further, suggesting that atheists should not celebrate secular seasonal holidays like HumanLight or the Winter Solstice, either. He has shared his perspective about why he doesn’t celebrate Christmas in the past, but reading his most recent post, I still found myself unpersuaded.
You see, for me, Christmas didn’t begin as a religious holiday. As I said, it was always about family — about coming together during the coldest and darkest time of the year to create a little more light and a little more warmth. That continues to be the case for me, and it is only bolstered by my increased awareness of the origins of religious narratives, and my expanding knowledge of the triumphs of human achievement — triumphs that have enabled me to live long enough to celebrate my twenty-fifth Christmas this year, achievements that ensure my ability to quickly travel through the air from Massachusetts to Minnesota in order to be reunited with my family, advances that allow me to communicate and coordinate my plans long before I am reunited with said family, and human efforts that will allow me to stay warm throughout the season. My appreciation for Christmas, and the family that I celebrate on that day, has grown in concert with my appreciation for the marvels of life and of human ability.
This year, I had to miss the Humanist Community at Harvard’s annual holiday party because I was on my book tour, and I admit that I was pretty disappointed that I couldn’t be there. Our office was transformed with twinkling lights, mistletoe, and stockings hung along the room divider with care (see the image earlier in this post). People came together as a community to celebrate one another and the year that has passed, but we also used this event as an opportunity to kick off our monthlong cereal drive to benefit the Pine Street Inn — and, so far, we’ve collected over $400 worth of cereal for those in need, with more donations set to come in later this week.
So, in short: I believe that you should celebrate Christmas, or HumanLight, or Hanukkah, or the Solstice, or Festivus, or whatever you’d like. Or, you know, nothing. But the increasing politicization of Christmas — a discourse often polarized by many believers, who use Christmas as an opportunity to exclude those who don’t share in their views, but also by some atheists — doesn’t account for those of us who see Christmas as a tradition that gives us an excuse to huddle together in the face of an all-too-often cold and dark world, relishing in good food, good music, and the company of good friends and family. And as an opportunity to help make a dark, cold world just a little warmer, a little brighter, and a little more inhabitable for others, through compassionate service or loving action.
There are many problems in the world that demand our concern and attention — I don’t think that some atheists celebrating Christmas should be near the top of that list. Our lives are short, and they are precious. If you have found a way to make your life and the lives of those around you that much richer, whether by celebrating Christmas or by ordering takeout that day, then I celebrate along with you.
Order any book at Beacon.org (including the ones featured in our Buzz Report below) by December 31st and receive 20% off your order and free standard shipping.* And orders of $75 or more will receive a free King Legacy Series tote bag.
* December 13th is the last day we can guarantee that our free shipping will get you your order by December 24th, so don't delay!
Susan Katz Miller is both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her book on raising children with two religions, based on hundreds of survey responses and interviews, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. You can find her interfaith essays at interfaithfamily.com and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She served as an expert on interfaith children at national conferences, and has chaired the Board of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, the interfaith group with the largest religious education program in the country. She is a former reporter forNewsweek and New Scientistmagazines, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Discover, Science, and many other publications.
After almost two decades of raising interfaith children with two religions, I realize I am about to be laid off from my parenting job. I must content myself with the idea that my husband and I have done all we could to educate our kids in both family religions: Judaism and Christianity. The controversial pathway we chose long ago has served us well. Now, it will be up to these new young interfaith adults we produced to decide whether or not to continue to tell their own stories. And I will be stuck chronicling the experience of interfaith empty-nesters.
So, Hanukkah feels strange and slightly melancholy this year, with our firstborn away at college. With only one teenager left at home, I declared the official end to kids hunting for little Hanukkah gifts hidden under sofa cushions and behind bookcases. My son was fine with this. Adults rarely give each other Hanukkah gifts in my extended family, and he is well on his way to becoming an adult. But as it turns out, I did not actually have the authority to make this abrupt and unilateral proclamation. Just because I represent the Jewish side in our interfaith family does not make me the boss of Hanukkah.
So after we lit candles and said blessings and sang “Rock of Ages” on the second night, my (Christian) husband surprised me by saying he had hidden little Hanukkah gifts for me and our son. I was touched, and irrationally excited: I hadn’t hunted for a present since I was a kid and my (Christian) mom instituted this Hanukkah tradition in our family.
My bemused son and I quickly located the little tissue paper packets–in a clay pot on the mantel, and on the windowsill behind the curtains. They turned out to be utterly fabulous, completely cheesy blinking LED Hanukkah pins–a menorah and a dreidel. I wore them both at a Hanukkah party the next night.
So my husband created a moment of role-reversal comedy (mom acting like a kid and receiving a goofy “kid” present). At the same time, he distracted us all from missing our college girl. And he paid sweet tribute to the interfaith family created when we got married 25 years ago, and to the tradition instituted by my pioneering interfaith parents, who are still happily married after more than 50 years. Such small gestures, combining tradition and innovation, respect and humor, bind interfaith families together.
Susan Campbell is the author of Dating Jesus and the upcoming biography, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker. For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage.
Back when my parents were still married, we celebrated Christmas with all the trimmings. I sang “Away In a Manger” at a Christmas fair. One brother was a shepherd, when he wanted very much to be Joseph. We talked about Baby Jesus in the manger.
And then my parents divorced, and my mother married a fundamentalist Christian for whom Christmas was nothing more than those Catholics trying to get one over on you — Christ-Mass. Get it? So we celebrated, but only the secular part (tree, Santa, gifts) and we did so quietly because some of the more dedicated members of my church didn’t do even that.
I remember asking about that in Sunday school, and having it explained to me that Jesus couldn’t have been born on Dec. 25, and that holidays like that weren’t really our style, that we celebrate every Sunday and isn’t that better than just once a year?
I wasn’t stupid. Sundays weren’t nearly as interesting as Christmas, and as I grew up, I found that theology growing smaller for me — and my Christmas trees getting bigger.
Ah, but the sword of fundamentalism plunges deep. You can think you’ve walked far from that whole thing, and then? Something snatches you back. I decorated our tree last night, and drowned myself in a maudlin retelling (mostly, to the ornaments themselves, as who wants to be around a maudlin hillbilly?) of each ornament’s history. The Mickey Mouse ornament I bought the year of my own divorce, when I won a writing contest and spent every penny to take my son to Disney World. The cheap, buy-’em-by-the-half-dozen ornaments I got the year I thought I’d lost all my Christmas gear. The fancy glass ornaments I saved up for, just like the ones my dad brought back from Germany. Sprinkled throughout are precious homemade ornaments from my sons, a poem, a pair of cotton skates, a carefully rendered manger scene.
As I decorated, I listened to Nat King Cole, who has accompanied me every year as I make my (slow) way back to Christmas. And every year, when the choir behind him swells, I get a little choked up. It’s a good kind of choked up, I promise. So what if Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25? It’s a beautiful holiday when people show a little more kindness, and a lot more love. We really do need a little Christmas.
So when I die, and I stand before God, and She asks, “Did you have a Christmas tree?” I will answer, “Hell, yes, I did.”
Order any book at Beacon.org by December 31st and receive 20% off your order and free standard shipping.* And orders of $75 or more will receive a free King Legacy Series tote bag.
Plus, Beacon Press will donate 15% of total sales to the Teachers College Literacy Lifeboats Initiative. Use Promo Code GIFT20 at checkout.
*Due to the increased volume of mail shipping during the holiday season, we cannot guarantee orders submitted after December 13 will arrive by December 24. If you would like to ensure your package arrives by that date, we offer paid shipping options via UPS. A 15% donation from each sale using promo code GIFT20 will be given to the Teacher's College Literacy Lifeboats Initiative to aid those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
Whether your Thanksgiving dinner is a small affair or a feast of epic proportions, you probably have a favorite dish or two (or eight) that you look forward to eating this Thursday. I asked around the offices of Beacon Press for cherished Thanskgiving recipes and got several tasty replies. The most intriguing came from Crystal Paul in editorial, who teased me with: "I’ve got a killer sweet potato pie that I am the only one in my family who knows the recipe to (my grandma passed it down to only one lucky kitchen devotee). So I’d share it, but clearly, it’s a secret…" Thankfully, others weren't so mysterious.
½ cup butter
½ cup sugar (white)
1 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup corn meal (yellow)
4 cups corn (whole kernel sweet, frozen)
1 tbs paprika
CREAM butter and sugar together
ADD eggs slowly & MIX well ADD creams & MIX well
ADD corn meal & MIX well
ADD corn & MIX well
TURN batter into a buttered cooking casserole
SPRINKLE with paprika
BAKE @ 325F for about one hour, until custard is set
Kate Noe in Production sent a newspaper clipping of this Harvest Bake, which she has adapted to be vegan by subsituting Earth Balance spread for the butter.
Harvest Bake (6 servings)
1 23-oz can sweet potatoes or yams, drained 8 TBSP unsalted butter 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed 1 TBSP flour 1/4 tsp ground cardamom 2 TBSP chopped pecans 1 apple, cored and thinly sliced
In 1-quart round casserole, mash sweet potatoes until smooth. Melt 7 tablespoons butter and stir into sweet potatoes.
Mix brown sugar, flour, and cardamom in small bowl. Cut 1 tablespoon cold butter into mixture. Stir in pecans and sprinkle 1/2 mixture over potatoes. Arrange apple slices on top. Sprinkle with remaining mixture.
Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes or until apples are tender-crisp.
Rachael Marks in Editorial sends her recipe for Hummingbird Cake with this note: "The original recipe appeared in Southern Living in 1978 courtesy of a certain Mrs. L.H. Wiggins of Greensboro, NC (my hometown… yes, I’m clearly biased). I’ve always been a fan of Southern Living’s updated (read: less artery-clogging) version. It can be either 3-layers or 2-layers but should *never* be made in bundt pan (that would be ridiculous and borderline offensive)."
3 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon salt 2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 3 large eggs, beaten 1 cup vegetable oil 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 (8-ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained 1 cup chopped pecans 2 cups chopped bananas Homemade Cream Cheese Frosting (see below) 1/2 cup chopped pecans
Combine first 5 ingredients in a large bowl; add eggs and oil, stirring until dry ingredients are moistened. (Do not beat.) Stir in vanilla, pineapple, 1 cup pecans, and bananas.
Pour batter into three greased and floured 9-inch round cakepans. Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes; remove from pans, and cool completely on wire racks.
Spread Cream Cheese Frosting between layers and on top and sides of cake; sprinkle 1/2 cup chopped pecans on top. Store in refrigerator.
Cream butter and cream cheese. Gradually add powdered sugar, beat until mixture is light and fluffy. Stir in vanilla.
*I always double the frosting recipe because I simply won’t tolerate a lightly frosted cake.
Abby Mayer in Production sent us a link to this recipe for Apple Salad from Emeril Lagasse, about which she says, "I make this every year, and it is a HUGE hit. No one thinks salad on Thanksgiving… until you force them to with (gasp) blue cheese-encrusted croutons."
As for me, my responsibility at Thanksgiving is the stuffing, or really "dressing" since we never stuff the two Kosher turkeys my mother-in-law prepares for our two nights of feasting: Thanksgiving evening and Shabbat leftover night. Let us know if you try any of these recipes yourself, or share your favorites below. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving! --Jessie Bennett, Blog Editor
Challah Stuffing (serves a bunch of people)
1 large challah 2 TBSP olive oil 1 large sweet onion, diced 2 green bell peppers, diced 3 stalks of celery, diced 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried) 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped (or ¼ teaspoon dried and crumbled) ½ tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped (or ¼ teaspoon dried) 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots 1 cup of apple cider 2 or 3 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
Rip or cut the challah into small pieces and set aside. You can do this a day or so ahead of time.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until slightly carmelized. This will take a while. When the onions are nicely browned, add bell peppers, celery, and herbs and saute until softened.
Rub olive oil around the inside of a large baking pan. Add the challah pieces, sauteed vegetables, and apricots and mix. Mix the broth and the apple cider together and pour over the bread and vegetable mixture until all of the bread is completely saturated (use more than I indicate if you need it). Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to an hour, until the top is browned and crispy.
Happy Fourth of July from Beacon Press! To celebrate, Elinor Lipman has written a special Independence Day poetic tweet inspired by "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus. Lipman is over a year into her project to chronicle the 2012 election cycle in verse on Twitter. Retweet it and follow her @elinorlipman.
Independence Day celebrations began this past weekend, with picnics, parades, and fireworks displays all around the country. In honor of the holiday, we asked several of our authors to share their feelings about Independence Day and what it means to them-- good and bad. Three authors who grapple with the complex history associated with the holiday quoted Frederick Douglass from his speech, "What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?" We've grouped their responses for today's post.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a long-time racial-justice, labor, and international activist, scholar, and author. He has served in leadership positions with many prominent union and labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. Fletcher is currently the director of field services for the American Federation of Government Employees. He is the author of the forthcoming book "They're Bankrupting Us!" And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.
The 4th of July is always a complicated holiday for me. That is largely because it has a complicated historical significance. When I think of July 4th I immediately think about how my African ancestors were largely ignored-- except with regard to labor power and some soldiering--in the course of the events that were transpiring at that moment, and particularly ignored in the context of great minds thinking about the future of the new nation that they wished to create. I also think about how the War of Independence was in part ignited by the indignation of the settlers over restrictions imposed on them by the British regarding going further West-- into the lands of my Shawnee ancestors and other Native American nations.
As a result, I cannot uncritically celebrate July 4th. I consider, of course, the ideal that is contained in the Declaration of Independence, and am aware of those among the colonial settlers who may have had a more egalitarian vision of the future. I am equally aware of the ideal that July 4th is supposed to represent. But I am saddened each year that there is little historical examination of the contradictory nature of the War of Independence, and that for entire populations the War of Independence came to represent yet another stage on the road to their annihilation.
In the 19th century the great Frederick Douglass posed a question in a now famous speech "What to a slave is the fourth of July?" I would expand that and pose the question that today needs to be asked and answered: For those of us who believe in democracy, justice and equality, how do we disentangle the web of myth that surrounds the Fourth of July?"
We live in fearful times. War, racism, social, economic, employment, environmental, energy, health and food security issues are on the long list of things to be worried about. And I do. Worry.
On July 4, 1776, the day America declared its independence, one fifth of the population was in a state of bondage. Seventy-six years later, in 1852, abolitionist and former slave, Frederick Douglass, articulated, “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Although legal freedom came in 1865, when four million people were released from slavery, evidence of true emancipation did not come until 143 years later, when Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States. In his inaugural July 4th address, he extolled, “That unyielding spirit [that] defines us as American... It is what has always led us, as a people, not to wilt or cower at a difficult moment, but to face down any trial and rise to any challenge, understanding that each of us has a hand in writing America’s destiny.”
This July 4th, I will be thinking about history and destiny... And celebrating my commitment to be an agent of change in the world independence has wrought.
Celebration of Independence Day ain’t what it used to be for me. What I’ve learned along the road I’ve traveled the past decade-- much of which is horrible, shameful and has been deeply buried or glossed over in America’s collective psyche-- has led me to reevaluate how I view myself and my country. On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass said, “Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” The deep wound of racism-– the legacy of slavery-– about which Douglass spoke has never been fully acknowledged and healed. I no longer celebrate “independence” that resulted in the annihilation of millions of indigenous people and the enslavement of millions of Africans. I don’t celebrate drone strikes in the name of freedom. I celebrate truth-tellers and peacebuilders. I celebrate the progress we have made and continue to make in the face of strong resistance. Mostly, I celebrate hope – the hope that one day we will live up to the ideals upon which this great country was founded.
We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.
By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.
My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”
Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.
We do have an ace in the hole, though: our other companion today, my buddy Steve Howe. Steve has been Backpacker Magazine’s Rocky Mountain Editor for years—which is how we became friends—and runs Redrock Adventure Guides. Having lived in nearby Torrey for more than two decades, he knows Capitol Reef’s backcountry quite possibly better than anyone. He and a friend of his made what was probably the first descent of this slot canyon only months ago, and Steve went down it most recently two days ago.
Although this slot has no known name, for purposes of organizing this park’s largely anonymous wilderness in his own mind, Steve has dubbed it Stegosaur Canyon, and the unnamed but distinctive white fin soaring above us The Stegosaur. He calls the narrows section that we’re looking down on a “butt-crack slot”—a highly visual descriptor meant to inspire a mental image of a slice in the rock that continues narrowing as it drops deeper, eventually pinching down to just inches wide. Someone losing their grip on the walls in the chimney section could fall and become wedged in.
It is definitely serious stuff. But Steve and I had also discussed the difficulty of the slot canyon in painstaking detail at his house last night, and he showed me his pictures of it. I thought about the challenging situations Nate and Alex have handled well before—particularly rock climbing, which most closely parallels this endeavor, and where they had to follow instructions and remain calm. I became convinced that they could manage this.
When I tell Penny again that I think the kids will be fine—and Alex and Nate both insist they want to do it—she gives in to the implacable momentum of will to move forward. But she tells me, not entirely in a joking tone, “I’m holding you responsible.”
Yes, well then. It’s good to know where you stand.
We’ve come to Capitol Reef in the last week of March, on our kids’ weeklong spring break from school, to spend a couple of days on off-trail dayhikes with Steve and then backpack for three days into Spring Canyon.
Dominated by the Waterpocket Fold, a spine of sandstone ridges, cliffs, canyons, and spires that extends nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is one of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System. Situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, with minimal infrastructure and roads to attract the masses of tourists who never stray far from their vehicle, Capitol Reef (like Canyonlands, another easterly neighbor) sees a small fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk here on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a permit for wherever you want to hike, no reservation needed. Try that at Yosemite or Grand Canyon.
On previous visits, I had discovered that Capitol Reef has scenery comparable to its neighboring parks—but it feels wilder, less overrun. I’ve squeezed through other slot canyons here, hiked trails through a landscape of rock formations that look sculpted by a giant child with an unlimited supply of mud and crayons, and camped below night skies lit up like Times Square with stars.
During conversations at home before the trip, the kids had eagerly suggested we go backpacking and descending a slot canyon during their spring break. So we came here fired up for an adventure.
Nate and the rest of the party scramble up a rising, flared crack on an off-trail hike in Capitol Reef. Click on the photo to see the complete photo gallery.
Yesterday, our first day in the park, we dayhiked with Steve from the end of the park’s Scenic Drive into Capitol Gorge, a wide, sandy-bottomed canyon of sheer walls. Steve pointed out petroglyphs of bighorn sheep, deer, and sun figures that are 900 to 2,000 years old, carved by Fremont Indians who once inhabited these canyons. After walking 30 minutes down Capitol Gorge, we turned onto The Tanks Trail, ascending steeply a quarter-mile to rock basins the size of small swimming pools, filled with water—features found throughout the Waterpocket Fold, explaining its name.
Then we left the trail behind, following Steve up and up onto the almost barren, wildly contorted, otherworldly rock-scape of the reef formation. Domes of rippled white, red, and golden sandstone, petrified sand dunes from the age of dinosaurs, rose above us on all sides. Alex noticed something moving in the distance, and we all turned to watch a bighorn sheep grazing on one of the rare patches of vegetation growing up there. We scrambled, often on all fours, up a steep slope of loose, shifting talus blocks, traversed a sidewalk-like ledge across a cliff, and wriggled our way up a flaring groove in stone.
Explore Capitol Reef off-trail and you quickly understand why it remains so unknown: It would take years of patient, hit-or-miss forays over its convoluted, labyrinthine topography—and countless episodes of getting turned back by impassable cliffs and canyons—to piece together a twisting, seemingly improbable route that actually got you from point A to point B. In other words, it would take the kind of time that Steve has put into getting to know this park.
At a high pass, we sat down in warm sunshine and gusts of cool, early spring wind for a break. Below us unfolded a valley lined by white and golden cliffs and spires, a spot also unlabeled on maps but Steve says is known to a few locals as Sand Blow Canyon. We hiked to its upper end, to the base of a feature that actually is named on maps and visible from many points in the park, a massive dome called the Golden Throne.
Whenever we walked across beach sand yesterday, I looked for other footprints, but saw none. In 22 years of exploring Capitol Reef, Steve told us, “I have never, ever encountered another person while hiking off-trail in the park.”
As if to punctuate that point, near the end of our rugged, six-mile, mostly off-trail dayhike, as we descended a gully of loose rock, Steve noted, “Probably no one has walked through here since I came here 10 years ago.”
That gully narrowed into a slot that abruptly turned vertical. We pulled out two ropes and we adults rappelled about 12 feet over blocks of stone jammed in between the slot’s walls; we lowered Alex and Nate over. Then we descended one at a time, helping the kids as needed, through a vertical chimney that was sort of like a twisting sandstone laundry chute. That dropped us into a short, narrow hallway that terminated at a cliff, where we made a 25-foot rappel—lowering the kids again—to the ground. As the late-afternoon March sunshine started throwing long shadows across the cliffs and domes in the distance, we picked up the Golden Throne Trail and hiked the two miles back to our car.
After seeing how Nate and Alex did on that rugged day, Steve told me, “Your kids can handle Stegosaur Canyon.”
Now we are about to find out.
On the rim of Stegosaur Canyon, we put on climbing harnesses. Steve makes the 100-foot rappel first, followed by Nate, who rappels on his own, though I back him up with a belay on a second rope. I lower Alex, then Penny and I follow—and we are in the hole.
I see none of the usual signs of human traffic, like a beaten path or the branches of the occasional bush broken off. We scramble over rocks deposited by periodic flash floods, push through brush, and use a rope to lower over two vertical drops of about 15 feet. The walls steadily close in and rise maybe a couple hundred feet above us, keeping us in cool shade. Then the canyon makes a 90-degree left turn, and we stop at the mouth of the narrows.
The walls close in to two feet or less apart—too tight to squeeze through wearing our daypacks, which we take off to carry in one hand while edging sideways over sand and rocks. At the chimney section, Steve and I cross first with Nate between us, talking him through placing his feet, hands, and back side against small features in the walls to inch gradually across the traverse. Maybe 20 feet below us, the canyon constricts to a crack less than a foot wide with several inches of standing water.
Leaving Nate at the other end of the 100-foot traverse, Steve and I chimney back and repeat the procedure with Alex. Both kids traverse it slowly and calmly—just the way they should—and beam with pride at the other end. Beyond the chimney section, we hike through more sandy-bottom narrows, the walls still not much more than shoulder-width apart, to emerge from the canyon’s mouth, where it ends in a 100-foot pour-off that we rappel and lower off.
Later, back at Steve’s house, he and I measure Stegosaur Canyon’s length on his mapping program: it’s 0.6 mile long. It took us three hours to descend the slot canyon itself, sandwiched between an approach hike of about three hours and an exit hike of another hour or more—a pretty full day, and one of my kids’ most exciting adventures to date.
Backpacking Spring Canyon
At the park visitor center on our third morning in Capitol Reef, the ranger at the backcountry desk tells me that we’re the only party that has obtained a permit to backpack into Spring Canyon today, our third day in the park. We’ll see a few dayhikers in Chimney Rock Canyon, the tributary of Spring Canyon where we’ll begin and end our three-day hike. Beyond that, we’ll have the entire canyon to ourselves.
It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where it meets the Fremont River. While some hikers knock it off in a day, backpackers often do it as an overnight trip, to spend a night below Spring’s soaring red walls. But at the canyon’s mouth, you have to ford the river to reach UT 24. When we eyeballed the river yesterday, we decided it was moving too fast and deep to ford it with the kids. So we’ll hike in six or seven miles and camp two nights, giving us a day to explore farther down canyon before hiking back out the way we came in.
The temperature sits around 60 degrees and the sun filters through a slight haze; we wear T-shirts and shorts without breaking much of a sweat starting up the Chimney Rock Trail. To our left, burnt red and orange walls rise some 300 feet tall above steep slopes of broken rock and fine sand; to our right stand darker burgundy cliffs of Moenkopi Shale with horizontal striations in hues of red, including the severe pinnacle called Chimney Rock. A 30-minute climb through switchbacks on a good trail brings us to a pass, where we start the gentle descent into broad, sun-baked Chimney Rock Canyon.
Towering red cliffs with patches of white and orange and black water-stain streaks rise up on both sides; enormous boulders pile up below the cliffs. In the canyon bottom, the trail ends and we follow the dry, sandy channel to the junction with Spring Canyon, about three miles from the trailhead. The route continues down the canyon bottom of sand, cobblestones, and slickrock, beneath walls several hundred feet high.
At a pour-off, we walk a wide slickrock ledge above a narrow gorge maybe 12 feet deep, with walls sculpted in dramatic, smooth curves. At another pour-off, we detour up onto a goat path across a steep, crumbling slope. Some six to seven miles in, after more than four hours of hiking, we pitch the tent on a grassy bench beneath cliffs topped by domes and spires—our home for the next two nights.
Accessible and not very difficult, Spring Canyon is one of the more popular backpacking destinations in Capitol Reef. But “popular” has a different meaning in this park. While we’re not exploring virgin terrain, as we were Stegosaur Canyon, not seeing anyone else in here allows my kids to feel like explorers.
On our middle day we hike a couple of miles farther down the canyon and back. We scramble over boulders and I boost Nate and Alex up into cave-like “windows” in the rock that they crawl inside. Even though daytime temperatures have reached around 60 degrees every day since we arrived in the park, in a narrows that rarely sees direct sunlight we find thick plates of ice in the inch-deep trickle of water flowing from a spring—a reminder that winter only made its exit a week ago.
The kids spend at least an hour of our walk telling me about wild dreams they’ve had. Their stories sound to me like a perfect soundtrack to a dreamlike landscape—one that we have to entirely ourselves for a few days of hiking and exploring.
In a 1974 New York Times column, the great Craig Claiborne offered the following instructions for filling home ovens with the steam necessary to produce crisp-crusted European artisan bread:
Take two iron ingots, about 6-10 pounds in total, and heat them on a stove burner until “fiery hot.” Then, “using extreme caution and wearing padded asbestos gloves” transfer the glowing ingots to a baking pan at the bottom of your oven. Next, place your loaves in the oven and pour boiling water over the ingots. This will immediately produce billows of scalding steam so “shut the oven as hurriedly as possible.”
I was hooked after “fiery hot” and “asbestos gloves”—what a great project to try with kids! A perfect Fathers’ Day activity!
“Or maybe not,” my wife commented from the other room, reading my mind.
I’m a dad and a slightly obsessive amateur bread baker, but those two sides of me don’t always mix that well. My kids don’t really like to bake bread. They like to eat it, and they like to putter around the edges while I bake. But they don’t yet have the patience to see a European artisan loaf through its 8-15 hours journey from mushy white paste to glorious golden richness.
Or maybe it’s me who lacks patience… Either way, instead of fighting against short attention spans, I weave my kids into the baking process with quick, fun activities. Since I’m a food historian, they usually derive from an oddity of the past.
Here are two favorites that provide a dash of instant gratification during baking day and a way for fathers (0r mothers) to connect with their kids in the kitchen. Even better, there’s only a small risk of explosion.
In 1939, scientists at the Wallace and Tiernan Laboratories in Newark hooked a ball of dough to two electrodes, cooking it perfectly evenly with no crust formation. This demonstrated something that most bakers already knew: bread’s rich, nutty flavor comes primarily from browning reactions in the crust. No crust, no flavor.
When I asked another dad, who is an experimental physicist and beer brewer, how to reproduce this test, he offered a surprisingly simple option: microwave the dough.
It was an immediate hit, and a great source of pleasure at precisely the stage in baking when my kids start to lose interest.
Here’s how it works: have your kids shape a small lump of rising dough into a ball (about the size of a golf ball). Then microwave it on low for about a minute, or until the dough has doubled in size (and just before it bursts into flames). The result—as predicted by science—is a doughy, flavorless gumball. But my kids love it more than anything. Hands down it’s their favorite thing to do on baking day.
Finish with a Pizza
European artisan breads need to cool for at least an hour, if not more, after baking. Tearing into a loaf too soon interrupts key chemical processes of flavor and texture development—but try telling that to your kids.
Instead, I distract them with an old Italian bakery tradition: set aside a hunk of raw dough (it can sit on the counter under a damp towel while you proof and bake your loaves). Then, as soon as you take your bread out to cool, take advantage of the hot oven and baking stone by making a pizza out of the set aside dough.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how to make “the perfect” pizza crust--all kinds of complicated formulas and mystical thinking circulate on this topic. But, really, any well-fermented Italian or French bread dough will make a delicious pie.
Let your kids stretch out the crust. It will get dropped on the floor and torn full of holes, but they’ll love it (and it’ll distract them from the cooling loaves). Top the crust with whatever you have around. A simple pizza bianca (topped with olive oil, salt, and rosemary) is easy.
In anticipation of Father’s Day, the International Museum of Women put together a gallery on “the changing role of the modern dad,” which includes a global facts and figures, a three-minute video on how mothers around the world view fatherhood, a documentary about stay-at-home dads in Hungary, and profiles of fathers in South America and Africa. They also invited me to contribute an essay on why and how fatherhood has evolved in North America. This was originally shared on the Berkeley Blog, and reposted on Beacon Broadside in honor of Father's Day.
In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”
By the time my mother and father met in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, the United States Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.
By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.
For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited playgrounds, I met many other dads who took care of their kids while their female partners were at work.
This personal reality reflects one that has been empirically measured. For almost every decade for the past 100 years, more and more women in the United States have gone to college and work. For most of the past three years, men have been much more likely to lose their jobs than women, who are concentrated in fast-growing, high-skill industries like health care and education. Between 2009 and 2010, men with college degrees saw their median weekly earnings drop three percent while the income of women with degrees grew by 4.3 percent. Today, young women’s pay exceeds that of their male peers in most metropolitan areas.
Not coincidentally, fathers now spend more time with their children and on housework than at any time since researchers started collecting comparable data. I call it “the daddy shift” — the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses a capacity of caregiving.
The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.
Indeed, I don’t believe that a political force like feminism has driven men and women to share roles more equally; it seems more accurate to say that feminism has tried to teach people to personally adapt to broad, deep economic and technological changes that made equality more possible and desirable—and the movement has fought for public policies that would support our new roles at home and at work.
Rising inequality and economic instability has meant that many families can’t afford specialists anymore, with one focused on career and the other exclusively on taking care of the family. And so couples are moving from a family model that prioritizes efficiency to one that tries to build resilience in the face of economic shocks. In the ideal resilient family, both women and men are capable of working for pay and working at home.
But families often fall short of this ideal, partially because of lingering structural and interpersonal sexism, and partially because men lack support for their new caregiving roles at both home and work. Studies consistently show that 80 percent to 90 percent of mothers still expect fathers to serve as primary breadwinners (and very few will consider supporting a stay-at-home dad). At work, only seven percent of American men have access to paid parental leave, among other structural limitations.
How can the daddy shift continue? The to-do list is long. It includes an education campaign to help men of all social classes understand what workplace and public policies can help them be the fathers they want to be — and legal campaigns that will defend their jobs against backward attitudes at work. Men whose mindsets are still shaped by the sole-breadwinner ideal need explicit permission and encouragement from both their female partners and their bosses to take advantage of leave policies and participate in family life.
We also need to shift the language we use to discuss work-family issues in a more inclusive direction, so that it includes fathers as well as mothers. That language should stress resilience and meaning to men instead of the language of equality that has mobilized women. In the end, it’s up to guys to tell the stories of our lives and speak up for what we want. No one will do it for us.
Our blog is on a bit of a vacation for the holidays, since the blog editor is celebrating Pesach with her in-laws while also putting together Easter baskets for her kids. This from Susan Katz Miller's On Being Both blog really struck a chord. The author of a forthcoming book on interfaith family life offers her family's solution for honoring their religious traditions when holidays overlap.
This year, I am fielding calls from reporters wanting to know how we handle the dilemma of Passover starting on Good Friday. I know that, especially for young couples just starting their interfaith journey, this convergence of important holidays may create stress. Say, for instance, your in-laws are expecting you for a raucous Passover seder featuring four glasses of wine and glazed brisket: this could be an alienating experience if you are also commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and avoiding meat on the solemn Friday of Holy Week.
As interfaith families become the norm in our culture, rather than the exception, all of us must learn to empathize, to see our own practices through the eyes of the “other.” And as each interfaith couple learns to listen deeply and to support one another, I can imagine that serving salmon, rather than brisket, might be a reasonable accommodation in some families this year. [Read the rest of the post here.]
Whatever and however you are celebrating--be it Easter, Passover, beautiful spring weather, or a mix--we hope you have a wonderful weekend.
Today's post, a poem written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is from poet, activist, and scholar Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez, one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, is Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University. She is the author of thirteen books, including Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, where this poem appears.
On December 29, 2011, Philadelphia selected Sonia Sanchez as the city’s first Poet Laureate. A proud resident of Philadelphia since 1976, Mayor Michael Nutter called her the “conscience of the city.” As Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate, she is responsible for selecting and mentoring a Youth Poet Laureate, participating in spoken word and poetry events at City Hall and the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Sanchez is now collecting haikus about peace from fellow writers and the public for a mural in South Philadelphia, which will be unveiled in June 2012. Her most recent book of poetry, Morning Haiku, is available from Beacon Press. Read some selections from the book on SoniaSanchez.net. For a complete list of works by Sonia Sanchez, visit her website. Read more about her selection as Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate here, or visit Poetry Foundation.
Photo Credit: April 4, 1968: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before making his final public appearance to address striking Memphis sanitation workers. King was assassinated later that day outside his motel room. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Morning Song and Evening Walk
Tonite in need of you and God I move imperfect through this ancient city.
Quiet. No one hears No one feels the tears of multitudes.
The silence thickens I have lost the shore of your kind seasons who will hear my voice nasal against distinguished actors.
O I am tired of voices without sound I will rest on this ground full of mass hymns.
You have been here since I can remember Martin from Selma to Montgomery from Watts to Chicago from Nobel Peace Prize to Memphis, Tennessee. Unmoved along the angles and corners of aristocratic confusion.
It was a time to be born forced forward a time to wander inside drums the good times with eyes like stars and soldiers without medals or weapons but honor, yes.
And you told us: the storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament and you told us: the storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables men (and women) everywhere to live in dignity and human decency.
All summerlong it has rained and the water rises in our throats and all that we sing is rumored forgotten. Whom shall we call when this song comes of age?
And they came into the city carrying their fastings in their eyes and the young 9-year-old Sudanese boy said, "I want something to eat at nite a place to sleep." And they came into the city hands salivating guns, and the young 9-year-old words snapped red with vowels: Mama mama Auntie auntie I dead I dead I deaddddd.
In our city of lost alphabets where only our eyes strengthen the children you spoke like Peter like John you fisherman of tongues untangling our wings you inaugurated iron for our masks exiled no one with your touch and we felt the thunder in your hands.
We are soldiers in the army we have to fight, although we have to cry. We have to hold up the freedom banners we have to hold it up until we die.
And you said we must keep going and we became small miracles, pushed the wind down, entered the slow bloodstream of America surrounded streets and "reconcentradas," tuned our legs against Olympic politicians elaborate cadavers growing fat underneath western hats. And we scraped the rust from old laws went floor by floor window by window and clean faces rose from the dust became new brides and bridegrooms among change men and women coming for their inheritance. And you challenged us to catch up with our own breaths to breathe in Latinos Asians Native Americans Whites Blacks Gays Lesbians Muslims and Jews, to gather up our rainbow-colored skins in peace and racial justice as we try to answer your long-ago question: Is there a nonviolent peacemaking army that can shut down the Pentagon?
And you challenged us to breathe in Bernard Haring's words: the materialistic growth--mania for more and more production and more and more markets for selling unnecessary and even damaging products is a sin against the generation to come what shall we leave to them: rubbish, atomic weapons numerous enough to make the earth uninhabitable, a poisoned atmosphere, polluted water?
"Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," said a Russian writer. Now I know at great cost Martin that as we burn something moves out of the flames (call it spirit or apparition) till no fire or body or ash remain we breathe out and smell the world again Aye-Aye-Aye Ayo-Ayo-Ayo Ayeee-Ayeee-Ayeee Amen men men men Awoman woman woman woman Men men men Woman woman woman Men men Woman woman Men Woman Womanmen.
As Beacon Broadside heads into hibernation for a week, and our staff heads off to gatherings far and near, we offer you these posts, recent and from years' past, to give you some thoughts to reflect upon for the holiday season. See you in 2012!
Today's post is an excerpt from Arms Wide Open: A Midwife's Journey by Patricia Harman, Certified Nurse Midwife. Harman has published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health and the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, as well as in alternative publications. She is a regular presenter at national midwifery conferences. Her first book, The Blue Cotton Gown, was published to acclaim in 2008. Harman lives and works near Morgantown, West Virginia, and has three sons.
Today is Winter Solstice, The longest night of the year. We will light candles here in West Virginia and pray for the cold, the hungry, the frightened and for our endangered earth. -- Patsy Harman
Winter has locked around us for sure, now. As I leave from work, the storm begins. Snow coming in from the West. By the time I get to the freeway, the tops of the mountains are covered with white.
Despite a recent bout of melancholy, I’m excited. I always love the first good snow and it’s winter solstice night. “Hello Snow!” I greet the lacy clumps that whirl from the low grey clouds. It’s going to be a good one! They’re predicting eight inches.
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…” I sing along with the radio.
On Turkey Run, the short cut behind the University Agricultural Farm, the traffic slows and I find myself thinking of Ruby. I saw her in the clinic this afternoon for her first OB visit. Six weeks is early to start prenatal care, but that’s fine with me. I like to see the women as soon as they call, talk to them about how to have a healthy pregnancy, answer their questions, get lab work and go over their history for risk factors. Despite her spotting, on the early ultrasound we could see the fetal heart flicker.
I hand Ruby a thick green folder with our Women’s Health Center logo printed on the front, a pine tree with the slogan, Take care of yourself. Your health is valuable resource.
“What’s this?” Ruby asks.
“These are your OB handouts. You don’t have to read them all tonight,” I make a little joke of it.
There are hundreds of books on childbirth, but in our practice, the patient’s educational and socio-economic levels vary so much… some women have their PhDs…others never finished high school. Some have read Spiritual Midwifery and The Working Woman’s Pregnancy Book, before they come for their first visit and others don’t read at all. For this reason, I like to start the educational process early.
I take the flyer called What to Eat When For a Health Pregnancy out of the packet and place it in Ruby’s Lap. “So what did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“I don’t usually eat breakfast. No appetite.” She shrugs as if that’s the end of it. But I don’t give up easy.
“I know what you mean. Me neither. But when you’re pregnant that has to change. So what could you eat? Do you like milk?”
Ruby and I problem-solve together on healthy food choices, things that are handy and not hard to cook. I have to be careful in my suggestions, because Ruby is on a medical card and doesn’t have much money. I tell her how to get signed up for WIC, the women’s, children’s and infant’s federal program that gives pregnant and nursing mothers coupons for free healthy food.
Ruby still smokes a half-pack of cigarettes a day, has limited understanding of nutrition, is underweight, doesn’t exercise because of her chronic pain, is unmarried with a lot of family problems and is still on narcotics. This will be a challenge, but I like challenges and I like Ruby.
Once I’m on the freeway the traffic thins out but at the top of our steep drive, I stop singing. If the snow gets too deep, I won't be able to get my Civic back up. I take a deep breath and drive down, anyway. “Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it…”
Since returning from a recent trip to Moscow, I’ve been lonely for my boys and have had a hard time getting into the holiday spirit. I managed to get a tree up, a wreath on the door and the manager scene laid out, but that was the end of it.
Inside, I toss my briefcase in my office and shake off the blues. Soon it will be Christmas and Zen will be home…we haven’t seen him for six months…and Orion and Ari and Lissie and baby Abraham will be here.
Though it’s still afternoon, I put on an album of seasonal music and scurry around the house collecting candles for our solstice ceremony. This year, as last, it will be just the two of us. I glance out the window where snow now blows in at an angle, thankful that I made it home early. The gazebo is already covered. Six inches of fluff coats the porch rail. If the roads get too bad, it might be just me.
A blast of wind jolts the house and the lights go off. The microwave beeps. The stereo goes off. When I check the telephone there’s no service. When I flip open my cell to call Tom, there’s no connection. No refrigerator sound, no fan from the heater. No heat, I remember. Even though we have a gas furnace and gas fireplace, electricity controls the pilot.
It’s nearly dark now and from the corner windows I can no longer see the oaks twenty feet in front of the house. I light one of our old kerosene lamps we brought from the farm. The wind slams the other side of the house and the whole building shudders. I’ve been in storms like this before, in Minnesota and at the commune. You’d think I’d be afraid, but I’m strangely excited.
“Whoo! Whoo!” Someone calls from out on the porch. I hurry to the front door. When I pull it open, white swirls in.
His arms are full of groceries. His LL Bean jacket and hair are plastered with snow.
“Happy Solstice!” It’s Tom.
In twenty minutes, the two of us are seated at the dining room table. The room is dark except for the circle of yellow from the kerosene lamp. I can almost imagine the fragrance of wood smoke from a cast iron cook stove and can see our little boys, Mica, Orion and Zen sitting with us.
Tom strikes a match to light the first taper. "This yellow one is for the sun, giver of life," Then it's my turn. “This gold candle is for family.” We take turn saying prayers.
“This pink one is for little kids.” I picture Rose, Abraham and Lissie.
“The white one is for love.” I look in Tom’s eyes and am so grateful to be here with him as the blizzard rages around us.
I glance at the candlelight flickering on the ceiling. The wind still howls in the trees out front. “I love the house like this in this light. Wouldn’t you like to live with kerosene and candlelight always, maybe in a little log cabin?”
“We tried that before, Pats, remember?”
“Oh, yeah! How could I forget?” I laugh at myself and we keep lighting candles until they’re all gone.
“This one is for change, the only constant.”
“This one’s for the earth.”
“This one is for the yet unborn.” I think of Ruby and her baby.
At this time of year, a blizzard of articles about the so-called December Dilemma swirls up like snowflakes rising from the floor of a snowglobe. Every year, I take calls from journalists looking to, perhaps, shake things up: to dramatize what they are sure must be a conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah, and between interfaith parents. And yet, having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the dilemma essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Our pathway is controversial: not every interfaith couple can or should choose both religions for their children. For many families, choosing one religion makes sense, and there is a vast literature out there to help these families negotiate the holiday season. But in our local community of more than 100 interfaith families, we believe that both Christian and Jewish stories and rituals can be inspirational, are essential to literacy in Western culture, and are part of the heritage of our children.
So as Hanukkah and Christmas approach once again, here are eight reasons (some weighty and some as light as tinsel) why my interfaith family celebrates both holidays:
1. To get right to the main point, I see no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus). If you want to argue that Judaism and Christianity are incompatible, Easter presents more of a dilemma.
2. Generations of Jews in America grew up celebrating what they considered to be a secular Christmas. Some of these same people now turn around and tell interfaith families they shouldn't exchange Christmas presents or carve a roast beast. For my perspective, this is ironic.
3. My family believes our interfaith children should be allowed to experience the major holidays represented by both sides of our family. You could even argue that forbidding the Christmas tree only makes it more desirable.
4. Christmas trees, Yule logs, holly and mistletoe are apparently pagan pre-Christian European traditionsanyway, absorbed into the modern celebration of Christmas. I want my children to acknowledge the origins of these ancient customs, not simply write them off as "secular."
5. On Hanukkah and Christmas, the shared theme of the miracle of light (whether from a guiding star or oil that burned for eight nights) is probably not a coincidence. Both traditions function to ward off the dark of the winter solstice. This synchronicity, and the evidence that religions co-evolve, influence each other, and respond to the same human needs, provides a key moment of identity integration for interfaith children.
7. The Christian partner in an interfaith marriage may experience holiday blues if prohibited from experiencing beloved family traditions such as singing carols and baking gingerbread. Children do not benefit from having depressed parents.
8. Children thrive on ritual, and on a feeling that their parents are equal partners in the family culture. My children love the ritual of lighting Hanukkah candles, and they love the ritual of tree-trimming. We do not mix these rituals together. We do not hang dreidels on our tree or stuff gelt in our stockings. We are not creating a new religion. We are simply sharing with our children each of the separate traditions into which they were born.
If anyone doubts that the young people locked up in our jails are children they should spend some time in one of those prisons around holiday time.
I did just that for the 10 years I taught high school students, some as young as fifteen, in an adult county jail, and every year it got tougher to deny the impact being locked up for the holidays had on these teens.
Jail’s a pretty isolating place. That’s one of the ideas. But in lockup they watched a lot of TV—that great purveyor of culture—and so despite all that concrete and steel and lack of freedom the holidays still seeped in. Christmas carols. Happy families. Cozy couples in front of the fire. Children happier than any of my students had ever been. Promises of peace and joy. And of course, the must-have merchandise. The holiday message blared out day and night on the blocks. Even the din of 40 teenage boys in an overcrowded dorm shouting, rapping, arguing, cursing; of correctional staff barking out orders; of the PA system announcing clinic, lockdown, lights out couldn’t compete with it. Christmas just wouldn’t leave you alone.
So day by day I watched as the holiday spirit got to these young guys. Of course they would never say out loud that it was hard being locked up for Christmas. After all they were tough and had been around more than the block. But like many troubled teens they had their own language of grief. As the weeks of cheery ads piled up, as the carols grew louder, and the TV images of happiness became more insistent, life in lockup became more tense and violent. Food trays got thrown. Noses broken. Food extorted. Threats made and followed through. Codes were called and the emergency response team, sinister black-clad, helmeted Santas, ran down the halls to haul off kid after kid to long days of 23 hour isolation in disciplinary lockdown.
“Home for the holidays” held no magic for my jailhouse students. For most of them there wasn’t much out there. Many had long been abandoned or thrown out by whatever remnant of family they had left. Like Ray who was taken from his mother at 5. “She was really messed up on drugs, and my pops was doin’ his first long bid up in Attica,” he explained to me with a fierce family loyalty I couldn’t quite understand. But he didn’t defend his Aunt Sally. She took him out of foster care when he was a little older (“She needed the money”) and locked him up at night with a bucket to pee in. Then one year just a few days before Christmas she kicked him out into the streets. But she didn’t dump him completely. She kept getting and cashing his SSI checks. I taught a lot of Rays over my 10 holidays in the county lockup.
My first Christmas in jail I brought all my students small gifts, mostly car, sports or music magazines, colored pencils, favorite candy bars, just something they could open Christmas morning. I managed to do it somehow; I wasn’t aware that I had broken procedure. But I heard about it soon enough from the warden who gave me a thorough dressing down for “bringing in contraband.” Luckily I kept the job, but more importantly I’ve kept the construction paper “Thank you” card the guys contrived to make and sign for me. After that Christmases became even more bleak and barren.
While I was writing my book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, my working title was Children of Disappointment. The more I got to know these young throw-aways, the more I heard their stories of struggle from an early age, the more I realized how all the adults in their young lives had dismally failed them—families, schools, churches, communities, the child welfare system, the very nation that claimed children as a cherished and protected resource. This time round I was the slow learner. My students, still so much the children they had always been, had gotten the lesson years ago and had been living with these disappointments most of their lives. It took me awhile but I finally understood.
Nevertheless it is still the season of hope and light, of rebirth and possibilities. I’d like to think that we as communities and a country can do what must be done so that the lives of other at-risk children are shaped not by the cold, recurring reality of poverty, neglect and disappointment but by the compassion and good will we all hope to feel at this time of year.