Sunday, April 13, 2014

I found heaven in a cap gun: an Easter memory

"That Easter morning, the mysteries of heaven and the realities of human existence came together for me..."

Better than Christmas
As a child, I liked Easter morning as much as Christmas morning.  In some ways, it was even better than Christmas morning. Easter lacked the element of doubt that was embedded in Christmas. Unlike Santa Claus, who was intimidating with his long memory of naughty and nice children, the Easter bunny was a happy-go-lucky character that dropped its chocolate eggs indiscriminately. 

Our Easter bunny was always generous. Typically, along with our basket of treats, the Easter bunny left my sisters and I a small gift - something like a slinky, yo-yo, or matchbox cars. Perhaps there was something more "girlie", like barrettes or hair bands, but those things were never very interesting to me. 

Had I died and gone to heaven?
One year, the Easter bunny outdid itself, and the memory of that Easter stands out vividly in my memory. That year, as was the custom in our home, four beautiful baskets were lined up on the kitchen counter. I took a quick look at my basket, and my heart leaped for joy; I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  There in my basket was a cap gun and a cowboy hat with a red whistle. I was incredulous because despite incessantly begging for a cap gun for weeks, my parents had steadfastly refused to purchase one. 

I was chomping at the bit to try out my cap gun, but before I could don my cowboy hat and strap on my holster and gun, we had to go to Mass, which, in my little mind, was certain to be long, tedious, crowded and stuffy.  Fortunately, I had a new Easter outfit; my pride in wearing it lessened the agony of waiting until after Mass before I would be free to run around the neighborhood, blowing my whistle and shooting off my cap gun.

Once home from Mass, I shucked my pretty, feminine Easter bonnet for the cowboy hat, strapped the holster and gun around the waist of my dress, and bolted out the door, my little sister in pursuit, to test the whistle and gun. Before long, as was typical for the two of us, my sister and I were fighting, arguing over whose turn it was to shoot off the caps. While my mother put an end to our bickering by insisting that I put my fabulous cap gun away, I stubbornly wore my cowboy hat in protest until we sat down for brunch.

A love far beyond naughty or nice
It may seem odd that my fondest memory of the Easters of my childhood revolves around a cap gun. There were, after all, a host of meaningful, annual traditions (the Good Friday fast, coloring hard-boiled eggs on Easter Saturday, baking hot cross buns for Easter morning, Easter hunts, and family dinners) that characterized my family’s celebration of Easter, and while they are firmly fixed in my memory, none of them evoke that blissful moment when I first laid eyes on my cap gun.  It was then that I became consciously aware of the sensation of joy.

My parents’ Easter gift to me was perfect, and that day my joy was complete.  Although I was too young at the time to articulate my sensibilities, that Easter morning, the mysteries of heaven and the realities of human existence came together for me in the gift of a shiny steel cap gun and a straw cowboy hat with a red whistle. Those two simple toys were symbols of a love that had nothing to do with being naughty or nice. The joy that I felt that Easter morning because of the unexpected gift was a moment of grace; I was in the presence of a  divine love that delighted in me more than I could ever delight in a cap gun, and not even a spat with my little sister could diminish my happiness nor tarnish its memory. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

What do cookies have to do with funerals?

"The lowly cookie, tantalizing the taste buds of successive generations, re-presents a life well lived in love, vanished from our eyes, yet still present in the memory of the heart."

I do not enjoy attending funerals. And yet, I frequently come away from a funeral feeling peaceful and uplifted, in a subdued sort of way.  A well-celebrated funeral puts me in touch with humanity, and reminds me that each life has a transcendent meaning. 

As a funeral I recently attended illustrates, the transcendent meaning of a person’s life might be uncovered in something seemingly trivial, like cookies.

Cookies re-present a life well lived in love
On the back page of the memorial card for this funeral, there was a recipe for ginger snaps. During the eulogy, we learned that this was not the standard recipe for the cookie. The daughter of the deceased told us that one time her mother added too much flour resulting in a snappier cookie. Since she liked the cookies that way, she continued to make them with extra flour, and the cookies became a family favorite. As her daughter spoke about her mother’s love for her family, which, in typical Italian fashion, often manifested itself in platters of food at family gatherings, I could picture multiple generations of her family enjoying the crunchy cookie.

Usually memorial cards end up in my blue box, but the one from this funeral found its way into my black binder of recipes.  I have already made these cookies, and I must say, they are the best ginger snaps ever. Who knows, maybe this recipe will one day be inducted into my family’s cookie hall of fame, joining another cookie recipe – my mother-in-law’s famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. 

For two generations, before she passed away a number of years ago, my mother-in-law made copious batches of her signature cookie.  When her six sons were growing up, she would make 12 dozen cookies at a time, and on one occasion, two of her sons polished off almost the entire 12 dozen as the cookies cooled on the counter while their mother was out. While her grandchildren were slightly more restrained, they, too, relished her chocolate chip cookies, as I am certain her great grandchildren will in the years to come.

Ginger Snaps and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Of course, cookies can never sum up the complexity of a person’s life, but they may point to a person who lived and loved well. The legacy of the unique crunch of a ginger snap, and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies cooling on a counter trigger memory, and make the person, whose love continues to surround us beyond the grave, present to us once again. The lowly cookie, tantalizing the taste buds of successive generations, re-presents a life well lived in love, vanished from our eyes, yet still present in the memory of the heart.

We do not go to enough funerals
Cookies and funerals remind us that our lives are greater than our physical presence in the here and now. We are relational beings, and our life impacts others long after we are gone. The impact we make on our family, friends and community is very much evident at a funeral in the eulogy, in the readings and prayers, and in the tears that freely flow.  It is there, too, in the reception that follows, where the sharing of cookies and other foods symbolically recalls the loving hospitality and generosity of the deceased.

We do not go to enough funerals. Indeed, funerals seem to have fallen out of fashion, with many people opting out of traditional funeral services, or any kind of communal service at all.  In my view, this is unfortunate because apart from helping us through the process of loss, funerals give us a glimpse of the totality of human life from birth to death and beyond.  In the life of the deceased, we recognize the basic ingredients of all human life, although we each have our own unique recipe for living. 

The recipes:
Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies:
(I reduce the sugar, and often omit the nuts)
1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup quick cooking rolled oats
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Cream shortening, sugars and vanilla. Beat in egg and 1 tablespoon water. Sift together flour, soda and salt; add to creamed mixture, blending well. Stir in the oats, chips and nuts. Drop by rounded teaspoons onto a greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. Bake at 375 for 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from pan. Makes 3 1/2 dozen to 4 dozen. (I never get four dozen - guess I make them too big).

Ginger Snap Cookies
(Again, I reduced the sugar)
1 cup butter
1 1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 eggs
approximately 4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp salt

Cream butter and sugar; add molasses. Beat in eggs. Mix flour, baking soda and spices in a separate bowl, and add to creamed mixture. Cool in refrigerator for at least one hour. Roll into 1" balls then flatten with a small glass dipped in sugar. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Women are making the desert bloom

In recognition of this year’s International Women’s Day, I attended two events. Though the character of the two events differed, they shared a common element: women around the globe are a force for change in their communities and in the world. From the macro to the micro level, women are creating streams in the desert places of human society.

World Day of Prayer 
The first event that I attended was the 2014 World Day of Prayer. The World Day of Prayer has its origins in the 19th century in the missionary activity of women. Held annually since 1927, women from 170 countries participate.

This year, the women of Egypt prepared the ecumenical service, and not surprisingly, given the importance of the Nile River for life in the Sahara Desert, water featured prominently in the readings and prayers. The spiritually evocative theme, “Streams in the Desert”, pointed to God’s love and mercy in the parched places of human life.

As the women reflected on Egypt’s history and anticipated the future, the life-giving character of water was a metaphor for individual and community transformation.  Through faith in action, the women of Egypt aspire to “become channels of living water to the world” (Women's Inter-Church Council of Canada Ecumenical Service World Day of Prayer 2014). 

Egyptian women are continually discovering ways to make their world bloom with possibilities. From the daughter of Pharaoh, who in the biblical story of salvation defied her father to rescue the Hebrew baby who would lead an enslaved people to freedom, to the women who stood with men in Tahrir Square protesting a repressive regime, Egyptian women are agents of change, claiming their “right to freedom, justice and equality” (Ecumenical Service World Day of Prayer 2014).  Their vision extends into the future as they look for ways to preserve the waters of the Nile for future generations, and to enhance opportunities for women and girls. 

Unbreakable: One Girl Changing the World
The World Day of Prayer service prompted me to look inward for the parched places of my life that could use a little sprinkling of life giving water, and it prepared me for the second event, the screening of the film Unbreakable: One Girl Changing the World. This event took me out of my self, leading me to reevaluate my commitment to social justice at home and in places oceans away.

“Women Creating Change”, a project in the Lower Columbia region where I live, screened the film.   Before the film, we watched a video presentation that depicts some of the barriers – isolation, unaffordable housing and childcare, food insecurity, transportation costs, and claw backs to social assistance – women with low incomes struggle to overcome.  

Unbreakable: One Girl Changing the World tells the story of Malala Yousafzai who is internationally renowned for her courageous efforts to promote education for girls. Malala survived and recovered from a Taliban attempt to assassinate her, and remains committed to her mission. Not unlike Pharaoh’s daughter, the baby she plucked from the waters or the women who protested in Tahrir Square, Malala refuses to be silent against injustice; her inspiring example to empower girls through education is a stream in the desert of ignorance.

The Malala film was a natural fit with the goals of “Women Creating Change”. Tara Howse, project co-coordinator, explains, “Our project is based around identifying what prevents women in our local region from having a secure and stable future. We know that education is directly linked to the empowerment of women, which has been demonstrated to a better quality of life for their families and the rest of society.” To this end, the project hopes to establish a bursary for women. Projects like this one are made in Canada examples of women working towards the transformation of society.

The women of Egypt, Malala and “Women Creating Change” share a common goal; all want to see an increase in the opportunities for individuals to live with dignity, to realize their potential, and to live in harmony with others.

Collaborating with others, we become streams in the desert
These are matters of social justice in which we can participate, although I admit that there are times when I feel quite useless in the face of injustice. Despite these sometimes feelings of uselessness, I believe that often even a small action makes a significant difference, and that when we collaborate with others, we become like streams in the desert, helping individuals and communities to bloom.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Barbie doesn't belong in a men's magazine

"The partnership of Barbie and SI Swimsuit has nothing to do with empowering choices for girls no matter how the executives spin it."

A controversial marketing campaign
Advertisers have long used women’s bodies to make a buck, and every so often a controversial advertising campaign, like the marketing of the Barbie doll as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit supermodel, creates a stir in the marketplace.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary issue of the magazine’s swimsuit edition, Mattel released a limited edition SI Swimsuit Barbie. Barbie sports a contemporary version of the doll’s original 1959 black and white swimsuit, fashionably accessorized with strappy black high-heeled sandals, jewelry and sunglasses.  

The magazine includes a four page-advertising feature of the doll, and features Barbie as an SI Swimsuit supermodel on 1,000 cover wraps with the headline “the doll that started it all”.

The Barbie debate
This latest rebranding of Barbie has reignited the debate about the appropriateness of the doll.  Some say the doll’s proportions give girls an unrealistic idea of beauty that is harmful to their self-esteem, and as evidence, they point to the number of mutilated Barbie dolls on tables at garage sales. Others argue that Barbie represents choices for women.  Mattel describes Barbie, who apparently has had about 150 careers including a run at the presidency of the United States, as “unapologetic” about her career as a SI Swimsuit supermodel.

A blast from the past - my "swimsuit Barbie"
I am neither a Barbie doll detractor nor apologist.  Like most girls growing up in the 1960’s, I had a Barbie.  The only thing I ever learned from Barbie was how to mix and match outfits and accessorize them.  I never confused Barbie with reality. I was quite sure she came from an impossibly rich family while everyone I knew worked hard for a living. No one I knew even remotely resembled her physically, let alone possessed her extensive and glamorous wardrobe.  Nor did Barbie have a negative affect on my self-image. I never felt inadequate because I had no hope of looking like her, and once I outgrew her, I never gave Barbie a second thought. She was not a major factor in my emotional development.

But then, the technology to bombard my impressionable young psyche with sexual images and messages did not exist. I grew up in the age of black and white television, watching wholesome shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. We had party line telephones, not smart phones. There was no such thing as social media where today’s marketing gurus have Barbie blogging and tweeting her “#unapolgetic” message that it is okay to be a model and wear a bikini. 

Of course it is okay; girls can and do model swimsuits - for catalogues like Sears, and other department stores that sell kids clothes.  They should not be posing in swimsuits for a sexy issue of a magazine for men, and those women who are old enough to do so are not playing with Barbie dolls, following her blog, or tuning into her tweets.  

The messaging says something quite different
The marketing of this Barbie, and not the look of the doll itself, bothers me. The marketing conveys and reinforces the idea that women are sex symbols. Playing to both the imagination of children and adults, the marketing campaign links a little girl’s doll to a magazine for middle-aged men devoted to provocative photos of scantily clad women.  

Company executives want us to think that Barbie’s association with successful SI swimsuit alumni celebrates women’s accomplishments as entrepreneurs, but in proclaiming Barbie as “the doll that started it all”, the messaging says something quite different; women are dolls, and in this case, dolls are playthings for men. It is a poor, if not disturbing, message for everyone.

The partnership of Barbie and SI Swimsuit has nothing to do with empowering choices for girls no matter how the executives spin it. It is, unapologetically, about making a profit for companies. And while there are those who think the campaign is clever and witty, in my view, it is unprincipled and sad.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Finding spirituality in the Olympic Games

"In sport and journey, men are known." George Herbert -17th century poet

The modern Olympic Games are a secular pursuit. However, we might find in them some connection with spirituality, with the inner life that motivates all individuals. 

The Olympic Charter (page 11) talks about something called “Olympism”, which it defines as “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.”  Olympism sounds a bit like a religion, only without a divinity or any mention of the spiritual side of the human person.

Some ancient history
The ancient Olympic Games were part of a religious festival. From at least as early as 776 BCE, male Greek citizens gathered on the plains of the sacred precinct of Olympia every four years to compete in athletic events in honor of the god Zeus. Although less well known, the ancient Greeks also held competitive games at Olympia for unmarried women in honor of the goddess Hera.

In the 5th century BCE, there were other athletic games in honor of Zeus. King Archelaus held nine days of games in Dion, a small Macedonian village on the slopes of Mount Olympus. Mount Olympus, in Greek mythology, was the home of the gods. While Archelaus’s games were not the famed Olympics, they are an example of the value that the ancient Greeks placed on the connections between body, mind and spirit.

Spirituality: the inner fire of our restlessness
In ancient Greek philosophy, there was a notion that the gods fired people into existence. Contemporary theologian Ron Rolheiser builds on this idea, and on the Christian idea of human restlessness that harkens back to Saint Augustine, in his discussion of spirituality.  Deep within every person, there is a fiery energy.  Our spirituality is what we do with the interior fire of our restlessness. In Christian thought, spirituality begins within the individual, moves outward to the community, and ultimately, culminates in a sense of mission.

During the Olympics, we witness a high level of fiery energy in the dedication, determination and competitive spirit that pushes athletes onward in hopes of owning the podium.  And while the athletes command center stage, there is a bevy of people behind the scenes who assist the athlete in realizing their dream. No athlete becomes an Olympian without a community; the community plays a pivotal role in helping the athlete channel their inner fire.

While some might consider restlessness something to avoid, I think that human restlessness, when appropriately directed, is beneficial for us as individuals, and for human society. On the personal level, the fire within us can prod us towards higher levels of achievement than we might ordinarily expect to attain. And, when a group of individuals harness their collective energy in support of a shared goal they can make a difference in the world.

Olympism: Sport at the service of human dignity
Although I have no wish to idealize the Olympic movement, because like any human institution with lofty goals (including religion) it contains the potential for hypocrisy, I detect something akin to spirituality in the goal of Olympism defined in the Olympic Charter: “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” There may be a spiritual aspect to Olympism in the passion of the athlete, in the guidance and commitment of the community that surrounds the athlete, and in Olympism’s goal of service to the common good.

Within the last few days, there have been some inspiring stories that demonstrate the harnessing of the fiery energy of athletic competition and a willingness to serve the common good.   The sportsmanship of Canadian cross-country ski coach Justin Wadsworth who rushed to help a Russian skier, and the selflessness of speed skater Gilmore Junio who gave up his spot to teammate Denny Morrison may have nothing to do with faith or religion, per se, but there is a spirituality to these actions that reveals the inner life of the individual. 

As the 17th century poet George Herbert observed “in sport and journey men are known.”