The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” Plato quoted an older Greek thinker about life’s being constantly in a state of flux or change. We can’t dive into our rabbit holes at every quivering leaf or shadow of every cloud passing over the sun. We rabbits know the world is changing all the time, even if we don’t like it, but we still have to venture outside of our den and hutches to find tasty carrots and spinach leaves.
Fear of Change—
Yet some rabbits have a fear of change or fear of changing the order of things. This goes by another Greek word, Metathesiophobia. This is a new word for this old rabbit, so I guess I’ve modified a few brain cells in learning this. In fact, when we learn new words, we actually get happier! There’s even science behind this. In a study, “increased subjective pleasantness ratings were also related to new-words remembered after seven days. These results suggest that intrinsic—potentially reward-related—signals, triggered by self-monitoring of correct performance, can promote the storage of new information into long-term memory through the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop, possibly via dopaminergic modulation of the midbrain.”
Even if we don’t understand the scientific jargon of that sentence, we know learning new things gives us a feeling of pride and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we accomplish a new trick or master a new skill. Repeating the same experiences over and over leads to dullness,even if we find safety in the predictably.
If we were small bunnies, we’d never find the refrigerators in our homes, since they’d be covered up in our latest glorious art project. Every rabbit parent raves about their genius offspring, if they’re raising them right. We always want to catch our small ones doing something right and praise them for it. We’ll get more cooperation than if we’re always telling them NO, and GO TO YOUR ROOM.
I ask you, which rabbit among us doesn’t want to be happier in this world? Currently we’re in the midst of the worst crisis most of us have ever experienced. We rabbits need to name it and face it, rather than deny it, for this pandemic isn’t not going away anytime soon. This causes some of our bunny friends to find a “boogeyman lurking in every dark corner.” When I was young, my parents scared me, or scarred my memories, over my messy closet.
“You’d better clean up that pile of clothes in there, young lady! If you don’t, a rat might come crawling out of those clothes piled up on the floor!”
EEEK! I was so frightened, I untwisted an old metal coat hanger and stood outside my closet while I fished out my dress up play clothes, one article at a time. If a rat were to come out with them, I wanted a running head start. I was on my own in art school over a decade later before I could sleep with the bedroom closet open. This was a long standing fear to shake. Not everyone can put aside their fears and coping mechanisms, however.
I’ve had rabbit friends who get up in the middle of the night to make sure their closets are neatly arranged, with all the shoes in the right boxes and all the clothes facing the same direction on the hangers. I have no such anxiety, for I hang my clothes up and don’t worry once I’ve done it. I have other tasks to tackle. Uninterrupted sleep is a worthy goal for rabbit health. Plus I have other creative tasks to engage me, and I’m learning new things every day. In any event, I know my salvation won’t be impaired by this failure to act on my part, just as it won’t be earned if I keep a perfect closet.
Change is moving swifter than the atmospheric river that’s currently dumping rain and mudslides on the Pacific coast and ice and snow on the Atlantic coast. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow regions in the atmosphere—like rivers in the sky—that transport water vapor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Drastic swings from extremely wet to extremely dry and vice versa will be nearly twice as likely, occuring on average once every 25 years, by 2100. Dramatic swings are becoming more common and will continue to do so in the coming decades thanks to man-made climate change.
Of course climate change isn’t the only change we’re dealing with in February.
Today we have one holiday to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Back in this rabbit’s kitten days, we had two holidays for these two presidents, but the times change and the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.
At the time, Congress thought setting three day weekends would end employee absenteeism. Today the coronavirus pandemic has put most white collar workers out of the office and many blue collar workers out of a job. Until we get this pandemic behind us by vaccinating as many of our people as possible and continuing safe practices, we won’t get back to any semblance of normal any time soon. This virus hunts a host, and it’s sure to find a rabbit to use as its own personal Petri dish.
Super Bowl LV—Next Super Spreader Event?
On the first Sunday in February, the big game goes down. While the 7,500 health care workers who’ll be the stadium attendees will be following COVID protocols, the fans at home remain susceptible to infection. A recent Seton Hall Sports Poll collected answers from 1,522 adults spread all over the country from Jan. 22-25. That data shows 25% of respondents said they would gather with people outside of their home (defined as those who aren’t roommates or cohabitants) to watch the game. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would not attend a gathering and 11% said they weren’t sure.
Among avid fans however, 40% of that group said they would indeed gather with members outside of their household. The CDC doesn’t recommend holding these types of gatherings, especially if they are inside and last for the duration of the game. The Super Bowl will be played in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and is scheduled for Sunday, February 7, with a 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff, with an estimated game length of four hours, not counting the additional four hours of preliminary extravaganza programming.
I’ve always gathered the various rabbits who live in my condo building for the game festivities. It’s a good opportunity for us to socialize and since everyone always waits for “someone to take charge,” I just step up. We won’t do it in person this year, however, for we rabbits can best observe safely the whole shebang from the comfort of our couches and Zoom or find other other media connections with our loved ones and friends so we can have a real party next year.
Super Bowl LV Firsts—
There are new changes to the Super Bowl this year. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, will recite an original poem before Super Bowl LV, as part of both the in-stadium pregame ceremony and the TV broadcast. The poem will honor three everyday heroes who have been chosen as honorary game captains by the NFL. These people include Trimaine Davis, a Los Angeles teacher who fought to secure internet access and laptops for his students amid the pandemic; Suzie Dorner, a Tampa nurse who managed the COVID ICU at Tampa General Hospital; and James Martin, a Marine veteran who has helped veterans and their families connect virtually through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Gorman isn’t the only pregame excitement. Miley Cyrus will perform as part of the TikTok Tailgate event for the Health Care Heroes. This will also be televised. Then there’s the The Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show, which is the most-watched musical performance of the year, with more than 104 million viewers tuning in to last year’s show. The rhythm and blues artist known as The Weekend (Abel Makkonen Tesfaye) will be the featured performer.
“The Weeknd has introduced a sound all his own. His soulful uniqueness has defined a new generation of greatness in music and artistry,” said Shawn JAY-Z Carter. “This is an extraordinary moment in time and the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show is going to be an extraordinary experience with an extraordinary performer.” This rabbit has been listening to his oeuvre on Apple Music, and I’m quite excited to hear the show. It ought to be a bang up program with no wardrobe malfunctions.
JAY-Z and his company, Roc Nation, have worked over the past year on the selection of artists playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show as the league’s official Live Music Entertainment Strategists. The partnership aims to “nurture and strengthen community” through music and support the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice initiative, and also has Roc Nation serving as a co-producer of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
GRAMMY-nominated artists Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan are set to pair up for the first time to sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LV pregame festivities. Grammy-award winning artist, H.E.R., will join the pregame lineup with her rendition of America the Beautiful. In addition, on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Warren “Wawa” Snipe, acclaimed Deaf rapper and recording artist, will perform the National Anthem and America the Beautiful in American Sign Language. For Super Bowl LV, the National Anthem will be arranged and produced by Adam Blackstone.
“Sarah Thomas will made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.” She will be a down judge on a seven-person crew of distinguished game officials. You go girl!
This is just one more change for a world that spins 360 degrees daily and moves around the sun on its invisible circular river which it completes every 365 1/4 days. Our planet never stays in in one place as it courses through the unseen river of time in the heavens, but we see ourselves think we have a fixed place in the universe. If we observe nature, the rising and setting of the sun moves along the horizon line as the seasons change and it rises higher into the sky during the summer than the winter. These changes are part of our ordinary life, and give a structure and rhythm to our days and time upon this world.
Speaking of firsts, the Chiefs are trying to become the first team in 16 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The last team to do it was Tom Brady’s 2003-04 New England Patriots. Tom Brady is set to become one offour quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl for multiple teams and he could join Peyton Manning, who is currently the only quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl start with multiple teams. So while the seasoned champion with a brand new team goes against a young champion trying to make the magic happen two years in a row, we should have a good game, rather than watching it for the commercials.
In other firsts, the Super Bowl is almost always the top rated TV show for audience numbers. Only the final episodes of M.A.S.H. and Cheers have ever pushed it to number two. The commercials are first class also. CBS’s asking price of $5.5 million per 30-second spot is merely the cost of reserving the requisite airtime; after production expenses, ancillary social-media investments and agency fees are accounted for, the actual outlay for a single Super Bowl ad can swell to $20 million. That’s a lot of rabbit feed.
We won’t see the Budweiser Clydesdales for the first time in 37 years, for the company will be focusing on supporting Covid vaccine awareness education spots instead. Other companies related to restaurants may be missing due to lower sales and profits, but this gives other companies an opportunity to take their place. The pandemic has changed our economy in many ways. Avocados are in demand because we rabbits eat our salads at home, not in a restaurant. This is good for grocers, but bad for cooks, wait staff, and restaurant owners.
While parts of our economy are currently staggering along, the middle class and poor are lagging behind, as if they had chains and a huge millstone binding their bodies. Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. People would go to work, but the businesses are either closed or the parent needs to stay home to school the child. Unpaid rents affect landlords, and roll on to the bankers who hold those notes.
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time weekly data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation. Nearly 24 million adults—11 percent of all adults in the country— reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. Adults in households with children were likelier to report that the household didn’t get enough to eat: 15 percent, compared to 9 percent for households without children. Hunger in America or food insecurity is linked to a greater chance of cardiovascular mortality in counties throughout the U.S. Researchers believe if the pandemic goes on long enough, more people will begin to die of hunger or famine related circumstances than the disease itself.
Some want to spend a little and let it “trickle down,” but my grandmother rabbit always said that was “penny wise and pound foolish.” After WWII, American generosity rebuilt Germany, the home of the Nazi enemies. If we rebuilt the country of our enemies, I wonder what keeps us from rebuilding our own land? We need a Marshal Plan for America.
St. Valentine’s Day—
As a small bunny, I fondly remember classroom Valentines Day Parties, mostly because I got to decorate a shoebox as my “Valentine Mailbox” and enjoyed all the dime store paper valentines from my bunny friends. Mostly I really enjoyed the pink icing on the chocolate cupcakes and those Necco candy hearts with their pithy, saucy, love quotes. In this pandemic world of Zoom classrooms, gone are class parties, valentines for everyone, and a special gift for the teacher. As a former teacher, my hope is we can get our school teams vaccinated and get our little bunnykins back in a communal setting, so they can learn socialization skills as well as educational materials.
Some grieve about this year as if it’s lost year, and it’ll never be gotten back. This is true, however, there’re other great crises our little bunnies went through in our history, through no fault of their own. The Civil War was one, for it disrupted some youth we wouldn’t let have keys to a car today. One of my grandfather bunnies dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work on the railroad when his own father left home. He made sure his own little bunnies got their education, even if he didn’t get his.
Just because we have a twelve year program for public school doesn’t mean we have to finish it in that length of time. If we have a large monkey wrench thrown into our best laid plans, we might need to cram those twelve years into thirteen years. If we live to seventy-nine years, the average life span in America, this extra year is only 1/79 or 1% of our lives. We spend more time than this sleeping, since we spend about 33% of our lives asleep. No one seems to grieve about this broad swath of time in bed in fact, more of us rabbits are trying their best to get either more or better sleep! Perhaps we need to reframe then way we look at some of these problems to reduce our anxiety about them. Then we’d have more strength to cope with the day to day struggles, which are real and difficult.
Ash Wednesday is moveable feast day, so its date varies. It depends on when Easter is celebrated, and that too is dependent on the lunar calendar. My old daddy rabbit had this ancient piece of lore memorized: “Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” While we may be able to move certain holidays around the calendar, Easter and its connected rituals of faith, Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, move every year.
Because of coronavirus protocols, the hands on imposition of ashes by pastors, priests, or worship leaders will change in this pandemic year. Some churches will sprinkle ashes upon people’s heads, while others will give out packets of ashes for self imposition. The ashes are a traditional sign of humility. We may ask, if the ritual changes, is it as effective as it once was? The better question to ask is, “Does the ritual save us or does the power of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through the moment change us for the better?” Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the outward and visible elements, rather than the inward and invisible experience of God at work in us.
The Constant in the Midst of Change—
In the midst of a world intent on stoking our fears to a fever pitch, some of us rabbits find ourselves pulled down the proverbial rabbit hole into vast conspiracy theories, which purport to connect unlikely coincidences, but actually push anti-Semitic, far-right or white-supremacist ideology. Some of these ideas are as old as the Middle Ages, while others came from Russia and got passed into the American milieu during the first Red Scare in the 1920’s.
One of the worst examples is “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a classic of paranoid, racist literature. Taken by the gullible as the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave convened in the last years of the nineteenth century, it has been heralded by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are plotting to take over the world. Since its contrivance around the turn of the century by the Russian Okhrana, or Czarist secret police, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
When the world is in chaos, fearful rabbits look for a demonic figure to blame, when they should look instead to a positive source of power and strength. Fear paralyzes us, but the power of God sets us free to change our world for the better.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
~~ Psalms 46:1-3
May you make enough small changes every day to get new wrinkles in your brain, rather than on your brow.
Joy and Peace,
Intrinsic monitoring of learning success facilitates memory encoding via the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop | eLife
Millions of Americans are heading into the holidays unemployed and over $5,000 behind on rent. Hefty bills will come due in early 2021 for rent and utilities. Economists warn many unemployed families won’t be able to pay without more stimulus aid from Congress. By Heather Long
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.
When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.
I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.
Writing Santa a letter
Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
Hanging Christmas lights on the house
Finding the perfect Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree
Making Christmas decorations
Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
Watching the bubble lights
Hanging the Christmas stockings
The brass Angel chimes
Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
Candy lifesavers in a book
Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
Drinking from the Santa mug
Christmas plates and mugs
Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
Wrapping and hiding presents
Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
Visit to Santa Claus
Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
Christmas candlelight service at church
Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
Staying up late to assemble toys
Never enough batteries
New red robe or pajamas
Christmas letters from all our friends
A vain hope for snow
Wreath on the door
Wrapping paper everywhere
Handing out presents
Making a Christmas list
Candles in the window to guide the wise men
Advent wreath candles
Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
Christmas clothes and Sox
Garish Christmas sweaters
At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.
Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:
4 weeks and 2 days or
8.20% of a standard year
These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).
When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”
I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.
Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.
My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.
“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper. “It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.” “Gross!” I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.
All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.
None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.
As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.
When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.
Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.
My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.
All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.
Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.
If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.
While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.
Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.
The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:
1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.
2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.
3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.
4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.
5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.
My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.
December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.
Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”
I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.
The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city.
In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”
Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet.
Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept.
The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.
Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.
May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Nearly a century ago, no one had “Pandemic Shuts Down Halloween “ on their bingo card. The Great Influenza Pandemic griped the nation back in 1918, so most Halloween celebrations were cancelled due to quarantines. At least 195,000 people had died of this novel disease in America by October, 1918. The CDC estimates about 500 million people—or a third of the world’s population—had come down with this killer virus. By the1920’s, at the end of the Pandemic, at least 50 million people died, with 675,000 victims in the United States alone.
At the time, we had no vaccines to protect against influenza and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. Many doctors and nurses were serving in World War I, so the civilian medical professionals around the world tried to control infections with nonpharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, masks, use of disinfectants and limitations of public gatherings. An interesting side note is all the flu pandemics which have happened since — 1957, 1968, 2009 — are derivatives of the 1918 flu, according to scientists at the National Institutes of Health.
The world back then was falling apart on two fronts from the first world war and disease. People at home were dropping like flies. Bodies were stacking up like cordwood and were placed in mass graves. Then, as now, we rabbits, like people, can only take so much stress before we need to release it. Many of us are pots with tight fitting lids: as soon as we reach the boiling point, our lid begins to rattle and clatter. If the cook doesn’t remove the lid and stir down the goo inside, we’ll be an over flowing volcanic mess, much like my morning oatmeal I’ve neglected when I’ve had too little coffee. Then Halloween, with its ghouls, goblins, witches, and other demons of the dark, arrives like Washington Irving’s ghost of the Headless Horseman, which we meet in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, written in 1820.
Flu Pandemic Inspired Fiction
H. P. Lovecraft was one of the great horror writers, famous for his zombies, which may have been inspired by the grisly experiences of the influenza pandemic. Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s hometown, wasn’t spared the pandemic’s ghastly atmosphere.
As one local witness remembered, “all around me people were dying… [and] funeral directors worked with fear… . Many graves were fashioned by long trenches, bodies were placed side by side.” The pandemic, the witness laments, was “leaving in its wake countless dead, and the living stunned at their loss” (letter by Russell Booth; Collier Archives, Imperial War Museum, London).
Lovecraft channeled this existential horror into his stories of the period, producing corpse-filled tales with infectious atmospheres from which sprang lurching, flesh-eating invaders who left bloody corpses in their wake.
In his 1922 story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” Lovecraft created a ghoulish doctor intent on reanimating newly dead corpses. A pandemic arrives that offers him fresh specimens. This echoes the flu scenes of mass graves, overworked doctors and piles of bodies. When the head doctor of the hospital dies in the outbreak, Dr. West reanimates him, producing a proto-zombie figure that escapes to wreak havoc on the town. The living dead doctor lurches from house to house, ravaging bodies and spreading destruction, a monstrous, visible version of what the flu virus had done worldwide. Lovecraft wrote about a zombie super-spreader even before we knew such a thing existed. Who says “life sometimes doesn’t imitate art?”
Infection, Prejudice and the Viral Zombies
In other episodes and stories, Lovecraft’s proto-zombies suggest an additional thread of prejudice that runs through the zombie tradition, one fueled by widespread fears of contagion during the pandemic. Even before the outbreak, Lovecraft believed that foreign hordes were infecting the Aryan race generally, weakening the bloodlines. These xenophobic anxieties weave their way into his stories, as contagion and pandemic-soaked atmospheres blend into racist fears of immigrants and nonwhite invaders. We hear these same themes repeated today in our pandemic times by white supremacists and far right groups who want a sovereign nation within the land of the free.
Indeed, many of Lovecraft’s stories are unwitting templates for how prejudicial fears may be problematically amplified at moments of crisis. Such fears are evoked and often critiqued in later depictions of viral zombie hordes, such as the infectious monsters of Romero’s 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead” and the film’s subtle commentary on race, as when the white police force mistakes the main African American character for a viral zombie. Amazing how systemic racism persists in making “walking while black equate to viral zombie” even today.
Small Rabbits Fear Large Monsters
Lovecraft’s proto-zombies also provided a strange compensation for some of the pandemic’s worst memories. Like the covid-19 virus of today and the flu of the last century, these monsters consumed the flesh of the living, spread blood and violence, and acted without cause or explanation. Lovecraft assures his readers that these monsters are far worse than anything they saw in World War I or in the pandemic, the twin defining tragedies of his era. Unlike the virus, though, these literary monsters could be seen, stopped, killed, and reburied. Every decade seems to need its own monster or zombie, and Lovecraft offered his readers a version that spoke deeply to the anxieties of his moment.
Modern Fears Birth Modern Monsters
Our modern monsters are more in tune with the unimaginable horrors of our present world. In the 1950’s we had nuclear terrors, so our monsters were Godzilla and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. In the 1990’s, cloning was a scientific advance we knew could go amiss, so we had dinosaurs run amuck in Jurassic Park. Aliens have always been the most foreign of foreigners, so whether it’s the Thing from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, we can scream into our popcorn all afternoon long. If we don’t scream, everyone will know we’re one of the “pod people.” Even before cinema took over entertainment, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds caused mass panic among listeners who believed Earth really had been invaded by Martians on October 30, 1938.
Dangers of Dualistic Thinking
Maybe this is why we rabbits need structured experiences which bring us up to the edge of fear, but in a safe environment. We need to learn to deal with our feelings and emotions as they threaten to overwhelm us. We need reassurance we can handle the frightening experience. We don’t need to be thrown off a cliff, but tested appropriately. If we don’t deal with our inner fears, we’ll see a ghoul in every dark shadow. This is why movies today have ratings for age groups.
When I was young, I was certain monsters lived under my bed and in my closet. I couldn’t sleep unless my closet door was shut. I was in art school before I could leave that door open. Something clicked in my mind, or I realized I was now at the age of responsibility. If this were so, I needed to give up this childish fear of invisible monsters. It was time for me to be the monster slayer in real life.
My daddy had a fear of monsters all his life—he called them communists. As a member of the now discredited John Birch Society, he claimed there was a “commie in every breadbox.” We’re no different today, for we rabbits seem to need our own monsters in the world beyond us. If we can’t deal with the brokenness or fears within us, we’ll project it outward onto an outside “other” group. Just as we too often put certain rabbits on a pedestal and are shocked when they fall, we also put some rabbits in a pit and wonder why they can’t get out of it. We tell ourselves “they don’t try hard enough” or “they aren’t worthy enough,” but neither of these statements are true. People are individuals, so we can’t make conclusions about them as a group.
Mischief Abounds All Night
By the 1920s, Halloween in America had become synonymous with mischief, which young people used as an excuse to break windows or damage property. Mischief comes from the Middle English word meschief, or “misfortune,” which itself derives from the Old French meschever, “to end up badly.” In the U.S., mischief has a legal definition: “Criminal mischief” includes true vandalism, such as the defacement or destruction of property, but also includes fully reversible pranks, like toilet-papering a house. In some states, it covers even vanishingly minor annoyances, like ding-dong-ditch, or ringing the doorbell and running off before the homeowner can answer the door. In 1923, the police chief commissioner in Omaha, Nebraska, went so far as to designate the “city’s worst boys” as junior police officers on October 31 and relied on them to report criminal behavior in an attempt to curb vandalism.
I met two of my young students dressed in black garbage bags as my daughter and I returned from trick or treating one Halloween night. Their too guilty grins as they said hello and hid their hands underneath their costumes was a dead giveaway they were the likely culprits for the artistically draped toilet paper on my giant live oak tree. I let them pass on by and got my car keys to go visit their home, which was just up the street. After a drink and a chat with the parents, we agreed the boys would clean up my tree. My parents also were visited with this “sign of endearment” more than they liked when I was young. I imagine it’s still going on today.
Reflections on a Non Traditional Halloween
While we grownup rabbits think our little bunnies are going to miss Halloween traditions, the smallest ones don’t know what is tradition yet and the older ones can understand why this year will be different. Trick or treating began in the USA after WWII, as a way to discourage mischief, for if the kids get candy, they’ll be less likely to wreck havoc. As far as long term memories go, I’ve stretched mine, and can remember only one neighborhood walk about. I was slowed by my Carmine Miranda costume, while my brothers ran two houses ahead. I was delayed by holding my fruited headdress on my head.
Another Halloween we had a party at home with apple bobbing, snack making, and games. This was probably due to a fear of poison or pins in candy bars. This fear comes around every year, but it seems to be an urban legend. I also remember attending a school haunted house and walking through the dark and spooky cloakroom. There I touched all sorts of icky, gooey substances purporting to be “brains, eyeballs, and assorted body parts.” I do remember I did everything I could to not be banished to that same cloakroom for bad behavior the rest of year. No sense tempting fate, for sure, my eight year old mind reasoned.
If this holiday is for four year olds to twelve year olds, I can only remember one third of the years. In the short run it seems important, but in the long life of a person, only a few extraordinary moments will rise to peak memory. If this isn’t a year for house to house galavanting, or trunk to trunk acquisitions of treasure, then we’ll use our creativity to make it special, for that’s what we do.
This Is Not the Apocalypse
We rabbits live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios, yet we have safer, healthier, and longer lives than people in any other point in history. Still we constantly imagine our whole world could all fall apart in a heartbeat. We take our worries and translate a lot of our anxiety into fears about our children. If we listen to the new or hang out on social media, we might get caught up in “doom scrolling.” This is the internet version of rubbernecking at a gory traffic accident. Halloween began as the dark and terrifying compliment to the following bright and glorious All Saints Day celebration of November 1st, when the faithful remembered the saints, martyrs, and ordinary believers who have touched the lives of all the living.
The World of the Living and the Dead Meet
In both these festivals, the world of the living and the dead is permeable and fluid. These two days help us meet our fears about death, the uncertainty of our world, and our inability to control the seeming chaos of a world spinning out of control. We look to fallible individuals today for the change we seek, forgetting that we ourselves need to become the change we want to happen. Moreover, we forget the power of faith and the purpose of our combined faith communities called to work for a just and better world, which reflects the heavenly world to come.
The prophet Isaiah (65:17-18) speaks of God’s glorious new creation:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
The promises for the Hebrew people in exile belong also to us today, for we find ourselves living in “exile from the life we once knew.” If we live in the past, we’ll always live in exile from the present. Perhaps we should choose to live in hope for a better future and spend our time in this now making that promise come true.