Saturday, November 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas is... a Story

They are already playing Christmas music.

It began yesterday, on what has come to be known as "Black Friday", the biggest shopping day of the year in the U.S. Not 24 hours had passed since we sat at the table and gave thanks for our abundance, before we pushed back our chairs, and raced out to add to it. It is almost impossible to avoid the onslaught of advertising, unless one swears off all forms of media and avoids most any public place between now and the holiday. It seems to me a kind of madness, one from which I am not entirely immune. 

And so I find myself asking, "How will I be?" in relation to all of these messages that compel me to "buy more, save more!", "spend less, get more!". It seems implicit - both in the advertising and in our culture - that not giving material gifts during the holiday season is not a viable option. In fact, just yesterday on public radio, I heard someone say that what we spend/buy during the holidays is a signal to ourselves of how well we are doing. On one level, I get that, I understand how it could be so. And yet, I can't help but wonder how we have allowed our minds to be hijacked by this one-dimensional evaluation of our well-being. And it makes me want to resist.

As I contemplate ways in which to protest rampant consumerism, I think to myself, "I will only make charitable contributions on behalf of my loved ones." Or, "I will only give gifts that are handmade by myself or ecologically conscious artisans." Or, "I will give gifts that are service-oriented, whether the service is provided by me or someone else." And just as I begin to give myself over to these ideas, up rises another set of voices: "What will they think? Will you really deprive everyone of having something to open? How impersonal, handing a loved one an envelope with a message inside that says you spent your money on some organization instead of on them." 

As I said, this is a madness to which I am not entirely immune.

What I would love to do is start a new tradition entirely, one that honors abundance and generosity in ways that do not manifest in the form of concrete objects or material goods. 

Before proceeding, I must first say that I am truly fortunate, and deeply grateful, that in my family, our being together has always been paramount to the gift giving. And that our gift giving has always been very thoughtful, generous but not ostentatious, a source of pleasure for the givers and the receivers. At least, it has always seemed that way to me. 

Yet I find that increasingly, as the gap between the Haves and Have Nots widens across our country and the globe, as the basic unmet needs of so many becomes more apparent, I am yearning for something different, something perhaps less tangible but more sustaining than the traditional presents under the tree.  I find that it is increasingly difficult for me to buy things without questioning where they originated, under what conditions, and at what cost to the planet and its inhabitants. I am increasingly called to discern between "want" and "need", and still too often, indulge my wants because I can. I am working on this, one day at a time. 

At Christmas, however, I am truly uncomfortable with receiving gifts that I do not need. I am incredibly fortunate right now to be able to provide for myself when it comes to basic and other needs. I recognize my good fortune and feel it deeply. So what I really want is to see our abundance shared with those who are not so fortunate. Yet I also know that others genuinely derive happiness from being able to give something to me, and to deprive them of that stirs up some guilt in me. 

So I feel a bit caught, but not so caught that I don't have a vision of what I would love to see and experience on Christmas day:

I imagine my family gathered in my parents' living room, their fat little tree glowing with simple white lights and cranberry-colored velvet bows my mom has tied to its branches. And instead of a floor strewn with gifts - and the cards, ribbons, paper and bows that are the "necessary" accompaniments to those gifts - the air is filled with stories. 

I would love for us to gift each other with stories that illustrate why and how much we love each other, that tell the ways in which our lives have been enriched and enlivened because of the other people in the room. Some stories might be of non-family members who have touched us, and to whom we have made an offering of reciprocity this holiday season. I imagine stories of gratitude and celebration, stories that shine a light on the power of love and others to sustain, heal and transform our lives. 

Instead of searching madly in stores or online for "just the right thing", I would like to spend the next several weeks reflecting on what might be "just the right story" to share about my sisters, my husband, each of my parents. How did she or he open my heart, encourage me to think differently, show compassion, encourage or inspire a passion within me? Perhaps it is a funny story, or a poignant one, or a seemingly mundane story with a surpise ending. Maybe someone tells a story about how they are hurting, and we are gifted with the opportunity to help hold their suffering. Or maybe a story is told about one or more of our dead, and in sharing it, we invite the departed loved one(s) into our midst. 

In my imagination, all of this story telling ends with each of us having a renewed and perhaps deeper appreciation for every other in the circle. Instead of the ritual unwrapping of the presents, the ritual becomes the unfolding of stories, and the gifts are in their telling. There is no wrapping paper to recycle, there are no boxes to break down, batteries to insert, mechanical parts to collect and re-pack. There is just us, a unit, a family, a community - sharing good food, enjoying the blessings of our good health and the ability to be together. The only "new stuff" between us is stuff of the heart.

So, "how will I be" in relation to this dream for a new tradition? Will I tuck it away in an imaginary box until next year, to be taken off the shelf earlier in the season, before the mad rush has begun? Will I brush it aside as something silly and trite, not worthy of its own imaginary box, let alone a mention to anyone else? Or will I gather the courage to offer an idea for a new way to consider celebrating the holiday, come what may? 

Maybe my idea will spark other, better ideas from my family members. Perhaps this year, we will have a combination of things - traditional gifts, stories and charitable contributions.  Maybe I will bring stories and a few envelopes, and let everyone else decide for themselves how they want to express and experience the holiday. 

Whatever the outcome, I do not want to succumb to the cultural messages that tell me how to show my appreciation for others in my life. And I don't want to stay silent just because it seems like too much trouble to offer a new way of thinking or celebrating. 

Despite the temptations that assail my eyes and ears everywhere I go, I do not want my offerings to be mass-produced and for the benefit of some large corporation's quarterly earnings report. I want them to be personal, to have meaning that extends beyond the here and now, beyond my ego-need to feel that I met my cultural obligation to help stimulate the economy. I want my offerings to reflect an awareness of how my choices have ripple effects that extend beyond me and the all-too-simple swiping of my credit card. 

I want to engage consciously, deliberately, in an exchange of the heart. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sandy's Wake

A week ago today, many of us on the East Coast were already in line at the gas station, fueling up in anticipation of what eventually would become Superstorm Sandy. Memories of last year's October storm and its devastion loomed large in our minds, and we shuddered at the thought of many days and nights without power, property damage and environmental wreckage.

Sandy arrived on Monday, October 29, and I am deeply grateful to have been spared her wrath. Others in my state, particularly along the coastline, were not nearly as fortunate. The news has provided continuous coverage all week of the utter destruction Sandy left in her wake, particularly along the eastern seaboard.

An old friend of mine lost her home, out of which she runs her healing practice. She took only three items with her, aside from some clothes, when she evacuated her apartment that looked out at the sea. The items were neither large nor costly, but were dear to her heart. She is still reeling with grief and shock from what greeted her when she returned to her home on Tuesday and found it uninhabitable. Yet in the long days and nights since, as she has done the physically and emotionally grueling work of cleaning out the skeletal remains of her residence, her grace and gratitude have been unwavering. She has kept us updated with periodic posts to Facebook, and in each, she speaks with sincere gratitude for the years during which she lived happily and humbly by her beloved ocean, for her health and safety and that of her neighbors, for the power and mystery of Nature, and for the Home that lives in her heart, not in the material possessions she lost.

More than once, her messages and the stories on the news have brought me to tears. The pictures leave me agog, unable to fully process what it might feel like to stand in front of or amid the rubble that was once one's sanctuary. I think of what we build our lives upon, our attachments and dependencies, and it boggles my mind that in an instant, it can all be washed or blown or burned away. My heart aches for the people who are suffering, who have been wounded or died, and those who are faced with the task of beginning again, from the ground up.

It can be so frightening, both the idea and the reality of impermanance. How quickly our fragility and vulnerabilities can be laid bare. How quickly any one of us, despite whatever trappings we do or do not have, can find ourselves small and shivering in a great big world that suddenly makes no sense.

I think, too, of the satellite images of Sandy that filled our TV screens in the days leading up to and through the storm. I imagine that the Earth's grief is so immense that it filled a cloud nearly a thousand miles wide. I think of Sandy as an anguished mother, betrayed by children who have become lost to her, and whose heartbreak rained and howled with abandon in hopes of maybe, finally, getting our attention.

And it seems to me that our grief and her grief are still largely separate. My sense is that for the most part, we do not see what we have lost, are losing and have yet to lose, as intimately and intrinsically bound to her. Her wailing is becoming louder and more frequent, her tears more voluminous, and yet, we have not paused to listen, to hear, to heed the fullness of what is being conveyed to us. The weather is still "out there." "Mother Nature" is a colloquialism for some external set of circumstances that we have not yet fully figured out how to defend against, control, master. We have forgotten how to live in alliance with her.

I am in no way trying to diminish the loss and grief that is being borne and suffered by hundreds of thousands of people. I am suggesting that our grief is incomplete if we view it as belonging solely to us, as something that happened solely to us, without considering that this storm (and Alfred, Irene, Katrina and others before it) is indicative of a larger, systemic breakdown -- and that our losses are collective, impacting not just humans, but the system - the entirety of the planet - itself.

We can devise innovations or enhancements to the nation's infrastructure; we can build bigger levees and storm-resistant cell towers and continue to evolve our early storm detection systems. These things may be necessary, as it seems that the occurance of "unprecedented" storms continues to grow with frightening speed. And we can begin, perhaps, to ask ourselves the bigger questions about what might really be going on here, and what we are willing to give back or go without, to help mitigate the escalation -- if there is still time to do so.

If we experienced in our individual bodies wave after wave of increasingly virulent infection, most of us would want to understand the root cause. What in the system might be lacking, or occuring in excess, to tip the scales toward such aberrations? We might employ technology to help diagnose, and medicine to treat the symptoms, but without understanding the root cause, it would be difficult to restore our mind/body/spirit system to its natural state of balance. Or it might be too late. In that case, we might be forced to muddle through with a variety of band-aids that ease our suffering, but which allow the illness or disease to percolate beneath the surface, laying dormant or in wait to strike again. We might be forced to live lives diminished of their full potential and vibrancy because we have failed to attend to something unseen, but vital.

As I type this, sun is streaming into the living room through the bay window. It is a cold, crisp November day in New England. Sandy has blown almost all the remaining leaves off the trees and the hills in the distance stand out in bold relief against the clear blue sky. Everything looks normal.

It is not normal, of course, for the thousands on the Connecticut shoreline, or in lower Manhattan or New Jersey, who are sifting through what remains of their lives before Sandy, who wait for help, or for power to be restored.

And it is not normal, of course, for the Earth, whose bounty we continue to plunder without giving back anything but waste, pollution and the remains of our greed.

In the run up to the election that will take place three days from now, we have seen and heard the views of the candidates regarding the environment, and what they will or will not do to help ensure that it remains viable long after we are gone. We have seen and heard what the environment is saying about our choices up to this point. I will continue to pray that we make choices in favor of a sustainable life for all beings for generations to come; that we can be selfless and aware enough to recognize the bigger agenda that is before us - not just as we cast our votes or determine how to move forward in the aftermath of Sandy, but as we move through our days and nights as beneficiaries and stewards of this planet and all it has to offer.