Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finding the Hallowed in Halloween

I ran across this piece by Maria Semple in the New Yorker which I want to share with you. I speaks to the essential angst so many of us feel about Halloween, the Day of the Dead and Autumn festivals. It is a series of emails from a pre-school teacher to her parents.

"Dear Parents: The Mountain Room is gearing up for its Day of the Dead celebration on Friday. Please send in photos of loved ones for our altar. All parents are welcome to come by on Wednesday afternoon to help us make candles and decorate skulls. Thanks! Emily

"Hi again: Because I’ve gotten some questions about my last e-mail, there is nothing “wrong” with Halloween. The Day of the Dead is the Mexican version, a time of remembrance. Many of you chose Little Learners (preschool) because of our emphasis on global awareness. Our celebration on Friday is an example of that. The skulls we’re decorating are sugar skulls. I should have made that more clear. Emily

"Parents: Some of you have expressed concern about your children celebrating a holiday with the word “dead” in it. I asked Eleanor’s mom, who’s a pediatrician, and here’s what she said: “Preschoolers tend to see death as temporary and reversible. Therefore, I see nothing traumatic about the Day of the Dead.” I hope this helps. Emily

"Dear Parents: In response to the e-mail we all received from Maddie’s parents, in which they shared their decision to raise their daughter dogma-free, yes, there will be an altar, but please be assured that the Day of the Dead is a pagan celebration of life and has nothing to do with God. Keep those photos coming! Emily

"Hello. Perhaps “pagan” was a poor word choice. I feel like we’re veering a bit off track, so here’s what I’ll do. I’ll start setting up our altar now, so that today at pickup you can see for yourselves how colorful and harmless the Day of the Dead truly is. Emily

"Parents: The photos should be of loved ones who have passed. Max’s grandma was understandably shaken when she came in and saw a photo of herself on our altar. But the candles and skulls were cute, right? Emily

"Ok Parents: It’s late and I can’t possibly respond to each and every e-mail. (Not that it comes up a lot in conversation, but I have children, too.) As the skulls have clearly become a distraction, I decided to throw them away. They’re in the compost. I’m looking at them now. You can, too, tomorrow at drop-off. I just placed …. Finally, to those parents who are offended by our Day of the Dead celebration, I’d like to point out that there are parents who are offended that you are offended. Emily

"Dear Parents: Thanks to their group e-mail, we now know that the families of Millie and Jaden M. recognize Jesus Christ as their Savior. There still seems to be some confusion about why, if we want to celebrate life, we’re actually celebrating death. To better explain this “bewildering detour,” I’ve asked Adela, who works in the office and makes waffles for us on Wednesdays, and who was born in Mexico, to write you directly. Emily

"Hola a los Padres:  El Día de los Muertos begins with a parade through the square, where we toss oranges into decorated coffins. The skeletons drive us in the bus to the cemetery and we molest the spirits from under the ground with candy and traditional Mexican music. We write poems called calaveras, which laugh at the living. In Mexico, it is a rejoicing time of offerings, picnics, and dancing on graves. Adela

"Parents: I sincerely apologize for Adela’s e-mail. I would have looked it over…For now, let’s agree that e-mail has reached its limits. How about we process our feelings face to face? 9 A.M. tomorrow? Emily

"Dear Parents: Some of you chose to engage in our dialogue. Some chose to form a human chain….So we’re all up to speed, let me recap this morning’s discussion:
—Satan isn’t driving our bus. Little Learners does not have a bus. If we did, I wouldn’t still need parent drivers for the field trip to the cider mill. Anyone? I didn’t think so.
—An offering is just a thing we put on the altar. Any random thing. A bottle of Fanta. Unopened, not poisoned. Just a bottle of Fanta.
—We’re moving past the word “altar” and calling it what it really is: a Seahawks blanket draped over some cinder blocks.
—Adela will not be preparing food anymore and Waffle Wednesdays will be suspended. (That didn’t make us any new friends in the rest of the school)
—On Friday morning, I will divide our Room into three groups: those who wish to celebrate the Day of the Dead; those who wish to celebrate Halloween; and Maddie, who will make nondenominational potato prints in the corner.

"Dear Parents: Today I learned not to have open flames in the same room as a costume parade. I learned that a five-dollar belly-dancer outfit purchased at a pop-up costume store can easily catch fire, but, really, I knew that just by looking at it. I learned that Fanta is effective in putting out fires. I learned that a child’s emerging completely unscathed from a burning costume isn’t a good enough outcome for some parents. I learned that I will be unemployed on Monday. For me, the Day of the Dead will always be a time of remembrance.

Happy Halloween!

Emily ♦"

Halloween is a big deal in my family. In our last church we had a huge party for the entire church and community which we called ghost town. Our entire two acre farm was devoted to the festival. Each year had a theme, one year it was Aladdin and we had live camel rides! Most of our more conservative neighbors politely declined our invitation, one neighbor, a fundamentalist, told me he was considering forming a prayer circle around our property to protect them from evil spirits.

So inflammatory is this holiday that most schools don’t try anything as creative as poor Emily our preschool teacher. Most call it a Fall Festival. Which is really too bad. It’s too bad that Halloween has been hijacked by the gruesome and satanic. A little scary is kinda of fun, clowns that eat children, not so much. It’s too bad for another reason. That this scaring little kids and forming prayer circles to keep the devil at bay are not what Halloween or the Day of the Dead are about. What they are about is honoring the dead while affirming the living. What Halloween is about is scaring off the bad and making fun of the suffering that gets in the way of living. Like Christmas, another great pagan holiday, the eve before all Saints or Souls Day on Nov. 1st and 2nd is about preparing for a celebration of life. On Christmas eve we sing of the coming of prince of peace, and new hope for the world which arrives Christmas morning.

All Hallows Eve is the night of mischief and laughing at the ills of our world preparing a way for the re-affirmation of life the next morning.

For the past three Wednesday afternoons we have been standing on Hawthorne Blvd in Torrance with a large coalition of ordinary people who want their fellow citizens to know that the system of this country is broken, and pretty scary. We were all a bit conscious that there had been bloody clashes with the Occupy movement in Oakland and Atlanta. Still we were there, “looking ridiculous” as one motorist called us, dressed up as ordinary people protesting a corporate world. There were over fifty people, the most ever. A newspaper reporter was there. One motorist made a veiled threat about our rainbow flag, many waved, one woman told us to "get a life".

It was that last comment that made me pause. If anything, we were there standing on the side of love and compassion so everyone can “get a life”, so that everyone can celebrate the life we have been given, to stand up for those who can’t stand, the hold those hurt by the scary evils of this system in our hearts. We stood there on the eve of a new beginning to do precisely that, “get a life”, not just our lives but the lives of those being shattered around us. We are holding the hallowed in our hands, so that others may know the dawn which breaks upon even the most frightening of nights. Happy Halloween.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Challenge of Compassion

Last Wednesday about a dozen of us stood in front of the Wells Fargo Bank on Hawthorne across from the Del Amo Mall protesting that banks treatment of American Vets returning from our wars to get relief on their mortgages. We were protesting under the Occupy Wall Street movement the fact that 99 per cent of us are being held hostage by a system of government and business that concentrates wealth in the hands of few fed by taxpayer dollars while 20 per cent of this country is unemployed.

We were protesting the fact that lives are being destroyed by a system that is broken and unjust and that needs to be fixed by either huge taxes on the very rich and their corporations or seeing these same corporations, who seem to have piles of cash, use that money to train the workers they claim they need. We were protesting because the system is morally bankrupt and this makes it our religious concern. We were there to stand on the side of love, to stand, at the very least, on a sidewalk in front of one of the most corrupt banks and let people know they are not alone. We didn’t expect to change the world that afternoon but we did want to witness our faith that people, ordinary people, of all colors deserve better.

Many of the motorists who drove by honked in support. We noted that they were mostly Priuses, old cars and public buses, which says a lot. At least one motorist gave us the finger. To which I and others among us felt like giving him one back. As I reflected on that obscenity and my reaction to it, I came to heart of our challenge as religious people. If we stand on the side of love and want to show compassion to those in need, how can we do it when some of those in need either don’t know they are in need or are fearful of what they think we stand for. Compassion is all well and good when the person you are showing it to wants your help. Quite a bit more challenging when they don’t want your help.

I still remember working in a soup kitchen when one of the clients threw the food back at me. I remember how angry I was at his ungratefulness until Frances reminded me that I had the privilege to think receiving a free meal was worthy of gratitude since it only reminded the desperately poor how dependent they are on the largess of the rich. A more compassionate response to either the finger flipper or the homeless man would have been to step away until my anger released its deadly grip. And to realize that it is more likely fear and her sister anger that force others to attack us, just as our reaction is naturally to return that anger and fear.

Compassion begins when we remember our own pain and then realize that anger and hurtfulness are expressions of that same pain in others.  I am not saying we let people walk all over us.  What I am saying is that we give people, even strangers, victims of injustice, the benefit of the doubt.  What I am saying is that if you sat down with them and were able to hear their pain you might be able to judge them in a different light.

With Grace and Grit,   John