Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween takes on the meaning we give it

Is there any harm in participating in the annual celebration of Halloween?  Some think so.

I first encountered the opinion that Halloween may be spiritually dangerous when my children were young.  I was surprised when a friend announced that her children would not be dressing up and trick-or-treating.  She objected to the pagan roots of the celebration with its emphasis on evil spirits and death.  

I don’t know if my friend was ahead of the curve with her objection to Halloween because at the time not many shared her concerns.  But, there is a lively debate in some Christian circles about the appropriateness of allowing children to participate in this cultural event.

An extreme view holds that Christians who participate in Halloween open themselves, and their children, to evil. There is a literal belief that evil spirits roaming the earth on Halloween might catch hold of an unwary soul. A more moderate view holds that Halloween is contradictory to the Christian message; Halloween celebrates the “lord of death”, while Christianity proclaims a God of life. 

While I don’t share these particular concerns, the darker side of Halloween has captured the cultural imagination.  Every year the emphasis on creepy, sinister things seems to gain in popularity. Skulls, skeletons tombstones, bloody masks and sinister table pieces hit the shelves of big box stores earlier and earlier each year.  Spooky graveyard and macabre horror scenes spring up on front lawns across the country, often weeks in advance of Halloween.

But, Halloween is not a religious celebration in our society. The pagan aspects of Halloween only become an issue if one gives them credence.  The fear of spirits roaming the night for the purpose of creating havoc and harm pales in comparison to the darker and more wicked aspects of human existence that are reported daily in the news. There are more pressing and immediate concerns in the world with which to be concerned.

If I object to anything about today’s celebration of Halloween, it is the commercialism that has taken hold.  Halloween is big bucks, second only to Christmas in consumer spending. In 2014, Canadians spent almost $400 million on candy alone.  In 2015, Canadians spent one billion dollars on Halloween related purchases.  Waste goes along with all of this spending on costumes, candy and decorations.

The Halloween of my youth was more of a homegrown event.  Neighbours doled out candied apples, sticky popcorn balls, caramels or special baking, all of which they made themselves.  There was a house in our neighbourhood that was famous for its candied apples.  Even though many people handed out candies, the candied apple was the treat of the night.

Costumes, too, were mostly handmade, fashioned from items that were at hand.  My mother had a knack for creating the costumes of my imagination out of old clothing, scraps of fabric and pieces of cardboard.

Halloween treats and costumes have changed with a changing world. For reasons of convenience and/or safety the purchase of both is the norm.

None of these changes dampen my enthusiasm for the celebration.  Opening the door to the neighbourhood kids decked out in their costumes rekindles the child in me.  Their infectious excitement recalls that of my own when I once traipsed around the neighbourhood in costume collecting treats on a dark and spooky night.

Participating in Halloween is an important part of maturing for many children.  Dressing up nurtures the imagination and is akin to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes; masquerading aids the development of empathy. The spooky aspects of the night help to master fear.  It takes courage to walk up to a house cloaked in darkness and playing eerie music.  And, the feeling of independence when a child can finally go trick-or-treating with friends, not parents, is exhilarating.

There is nothing inherently evil about the celebration of Halloween in our time. It becomes what we believe it to be – a night of darkness, or simple, good, clean fun with a developmental purpose.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Women are at the heart of change

(This column was written for International Women's Day 2017)

Women are at the heart of change around the globe.

A group of socially conscious women in my home community of Trail, BC designed and implemented a project called Women CreatingChange: Working Together for Economic Opportunity” (WCC).   The purpose of the project, funded by the Status of Women, was to “determine and address barriers to women achieving economic security and stability.”   The project’s research identified low wages, access to education, childcare, transportation and housing as barriers to economic and social well-being for local women.

With the research completed, the project leaders cast about for practical solutions to overcome some of the barriers that keep women in poverty.  They are making strides in education and non-traditional areas of employment for women.  

In consultation with local education and employment counselors, the project identified a significant gap in opportunities for women who were exploring access to education as a means of getting out of poverty.  With generous contributions from a number of organizations, WCC created the Stepping Out Bursary to help with funding gaps. Recipients of the bursary work with an employment counselor to identify goals, learn about the range of services and funding available, and determine where a bursary would fill in important gaps.  Jan Morton, director of the GreaterTrails Skill Centre and a member of the project team, describes the bursary as “a small resource that makes a big difference to the women who receive it.” 

Morton speaks enthusiastically about the project’s Mining and Refining for Women (MR4W) program.  Working closely with Teck Metals Trail Operation and Bock and Associates, experts in workplace training, MR4W has developed and is delivering an innovative mentorship program that supports the retention and advancement of women in non-traditional roles. 

“The program was designed to support women but also with a view to improving opportunity for everyone,” said Morton. “Teck has put a lot of heart – and hard work – into this. The impact will be long term.”

Globally, there are numerous organizations at work to improve the lives of women and girls.

Plan International Canada is doing extensive work globally to promote the rights of millions of girls in developing countries.  Education is a key component of the program. “When girls are educated, healthy and empowered, they can lift themselves and everyone around them out of poverty” (Plan International Website). 

Development and Peace (D&P), the official international development arm of the Canadian Catholic Church, is working with partner organizations in countries worldwide to secure the rights of women. D&P is highlighting the work of women in overcoming injustice in this year’s Share Lent campaign, Women at the Heart of Change.

Mike Bouchier, a Development and Peace parish representative, explains this year’s theme. “Women at the Heart of Change conjures up more than just the desire to reiterate the centrality of women as an engine of change.  It is also to open people’s hearts during this season of Lent to the sufferings, injustices and obstacles faced, every single day, by millions of women and girls all over the world”.

Through its annual Share Lent campaigns, D&P seeks to raise awareness about injustice. It seeks to prod the conscience into a response, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as someone once said of the Christian message. To this end, over the next weeks D&P is hosting women from Haiti, Colombia and Syria who are agents of change. The women will be speaking in select communities across Canada about the status of women in their region. They will talk about the work being done to overcome discrimination, abuse and poverty, as well as the important role that international aid plays in advancing the human rights of women and girls.

Across the globe, individuals, institutions and organizations are seeking ways to empower women.  Even though gender analysis is the impetus for action, the changes wrought in the lives of women benefit everyone.

These collective and collaborative efforts illustrate the need and the desire for more equity and justice at home and abroad.  “Fundamentally, we are still struggling to respect the dignity of the human person,” said Ann Godderis, from the WCC project.

From one small village to the next, women are at the heart of change, shaping a brighter future for all people.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day is about feeling special

Valentine’s Day is about feeling special - making others feel special and experiencing the feeling of being special.

As a celebration of love, Valentine’s Day gained traction in medieval times.  Prior to the 14th century, it was a feast day in honor of Saint Valentine.  Valentine was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II’s edict that forbad young men to marry, until he was caught, condemned and executed. As the legend goes, he healed and fell in love with the daughter of one of the judges who had condemned him.  On the day of his execution he sent her a note and signed it “From your Valentine”.   The salutation, as we know, has become standard, and frequently expresses the romantic attachment between two people.

Today’s culture emphasizes the romantic aspect of the day, probably because romance translates into dollars.  Last year, Canadians spent a whopping $3.38 billion on jewellery, $6.38 billion on wine, and $70.9 million on flowers in honour of romantic love.

The National Retail Council estimates that this year total consumer spending for Valentine’s Day in the United States will reach $18.2 billion.  To be fair, some of that amount includes spending on gifts for children, parents, teachers, friends, co-workers, and pets. Still, lovers will spend, on average, over $85 on their significant other compared to about $27 on family members.  They will spend $4.3 billion on jewellery, $3.8 billion on an evening out, and $2 billion on flowers.

Spending aside, the rituals of Valentine’s Day, from candlelight dinners at tony restaurants to cupcakes with pink icing and cinnamon hearts shared in an elementary school classroom, express many different forms of love.

The English language is not very inventive when it comes to describing love.  We use the same word to describe the way we feel about all sorts of things. We might love to ski, our morning coffee, the movie we watched last night, or a special outfit.  We love our pets.  We love our spouse, children, parents and friends. 

The ancient Greeks were more sophisticated when it came to describing emotional attachment. They spoke about six forms of love.  
  • Eros expressed passion or intense desire. It was the fire within, and like a fire, eros could get out of control and become destructive. 
  • The concept of philia included friendship, appreciation of others, as well as loyalty to family, community and even the workplace. 
  • Storge referred to the love between children and parents. Unlike eros and philia that depended on an individual’s personal qualities, storge arose from feelings of dependency.  
  • Ludus could be the affection between young children, puppy love, or flirtatiousness. Ludus relationships were playful, casual and uncomplicated. 
  • Agape referred to the love of God for man and of man for God.  Agape was selfless and encompassed all humanity.  
  • Pragma described the mature love found in successful marriages. Where eros expressed the feeling of falling madly in love, pragma reflected the will and commitment required to maintain a loving relationship for the long haul. 
  • Philautia described love of self.  Like eros, philautia could be good, as in having healthy self-esteem and treating one’s self with kindness, or bad, as in being narcissistic. 

Valentine’s Day gives us a chance to celebrate the critical human experience of loving and of being loved across the spectrum of these various types of emotional attachments.

The simple acts of loving kindness that we enact on Valentine’s Day can move passion towards a mature and life-giving relationship, express friendship, enhance family bonds, communicate our concern for others, and nurture a sense of self-worth.  In an otherwise ho-hum, often dreary month, Valentine’s Day rituals brighten the landscape of the heart. 

My appreciation of Valentine’s Day has remained undiminished over the years. While never a big spender on the day, I like to mark it in some way.  It’s a playful, light-hearted way to celebrate something that is of great importance - the beauty of relationship and the uniqueness of the individual.

Valentine’s Day celebrates our ability to love. While we may not have the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks to distinguish between and define the various forms of love, our Valentine’s Day rituals express them all – passion, friendship, self-giving, commitment and healthy love of self.  Our rituals, large or small, are visible signs of the regard in which we hold one another.  Regardless of spending, love makes everyone feel special.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Leave a legacy: be your own "Person of the Year"

It was no surprise that Time magazine selected Donald Trump as 2016 person of the year.

The magazine’s annual pick recognizes someone who has most influenced events, for better or for worse, and like it or not, Trump’s influence was extraordinary.  

With the exception of a select few, we won’t see ourselves gracing the cover of Time.  We won’t be garnering person of the year honours.  We do, however, leave a legacy.  We touch the lives of others.  We exert influence on someone, somewhere at sometime.

“All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare. “And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and entrances/ And one man in his time plays many parts.” While Shakespeare was reflecting on the stages of life from infancy to old age, the manner in which we play our parts over time will determine our legacy.  

For better or for worse

Time editor Nancy Gibbs has said that occasionally Time chooses someone who is “unassailably worthy.  Normally that is not the case.”  Since the inception of person of the year in 1927, the selections are a mixed bag of the illustrious and the infamous. The recipients represent the broad spectrum of human traits from the laudable to the deplorable. For better or for worse, all have left their mark on human society, as you can see from my arbitrary list.

Some more recent recipients include: Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (1999), Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono (2005), Putin (2007), and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (2010).  Looking back further in history the following caught my attention: Charles Lindbergh (1927), Walter Chrysler (1928), Mahatma Gandhi (1930), Wallis Simpson (1936), Adolf Hitler (1938), Josef Stalin (1939, 1942), Queen Elizabeth (1952) and Richard Nixon (1971).  (Every sitting United States president has been named person of the year.)  Three Roman Catholic popes got the nod: Pope John XXIII (1962), Pope John Paul II (1994), and Pope Francis (2013). 

The reader can decide if any of my arbitrary examples deserve to be called unassailably worthy. Even Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, whom Pope Francis elevated to sainthood in 2014, were flawed individuals, and had their detractors.

We might reasonably conclude that saints led impeccable lives during their time on earth.  We would be mistaken for saints, as Francis said, were “not born perfect”.   They just tried harder than the rest of us to live holy lives, to be unassailably worthy in the sight of God.

You leave a legacy

In 2006, “You” were the person of the year. That year the cover featured a blank computer screen made of reflective material.  Readers could look at their reflection in the screen and envision themselves as person of the year.

The 2006 choice linked the shaping of human destiny to the actions of ordinary people engaging with the World Wide Web. You and me, the choice proclaimed, were changing the world through online collaboration and community building.  

Social media has exploded since 2006. It has a profound influence on attitudes and behaviour.  It can magnify the best and the worst of our shared human traits, and influence our actions in a heartbeat.  Social media provides us with a platform for influencing others, for better or for worse, within our immediate circle and beyond. We can blog, tweet, post, comment, criticize, laud, organize and spew “alternative facts” (aka lies) to our hearts’ content in an environment that frequently lacks accountability.

The 2006 choice for person of the year was both controversial and gimmicky. It was a clever marketing ploy that reverberated in people’s imaginations for years. As recently as a few years ago, people were still listing themselves as 2006 person of the year on their twitter bios.

Yet, there is a distinctly serious and personal aspect to “You” person of the year.  All of us are called to unassailable worthiness.  We are called to be saints, to live our life as blessing to others and for the world. 

I am reminded of the Carole King song, “Legacy”, which challenges us to be a driving force for the good.   The song asks of us, “Don’t you want to leave a better world than you find?” 

We may not get the nod from Time magazine. But, each of us leaves a legacy.   Regardless the size of the stage – international or intimate – we play a part in the unfolding of human society – for better or for worse.   

“It’s your legacy.  Baby whatcha gonna do about it?”  How will we answer King's question?

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Struggling with resolutions

I haven’t made New Year’s resolutions for a number of years, and a few weeks into 2017, I am reminded why.  My resolutions have already fallen by the wayside.

My first resolution was to avoid the chocolates and cookies left over from the holiday.

But, the chocolates presented a problem.  They were artisan truffles with a best before date. There were two options.  I could eat them or put them in the trash.  Since I really dislike wasting food, the best tactic was to finish them as quickly as possible.  Get it over with, so to speak, which I did with great satisfaction on January 3 when I restricted myself to eating one at a time until the box was empty. 

The cookies, conveniently frozen in neat layers, pose a continual challenge to my willpower.  The freezer is a short distance from the TV viewing area in the basement of our home.   As any teen will tell you, there is something irresistible about frozen cookies.  And, it is indisputable that commercial breaks trigger a trip to the pantry, or in this case, to the freezer.   If I continue to watch even one hour of television per night, I will have decimated the cookie supply in a few more days.  I resolve to bake less next year.

Fortunately, I exercise faithfully so there was no need for me to resolve to get fit, which is one of the most common New Year’s resolutions of all time. Still, those sweets are definitely not good for my waistline, and I might have to kick up the workouts a notch this month. 

I could rationalize my chocolate and cookie consumption.  Dark chocolate is good for my memory, and the pistachios in the shortbread add a little extra protein, energy and anti-oxidants to my diet. Overall, though, I have to admit that my nutritional resolutions are a bust. 

I’m not doing so well on my other resolutions either.

One of those caused my daughter to roll her eyes.  On New Year’s Day when she asked if I’d made any resolutions, I responded, “Yes. I’m going to do more edifying reading.”  I should have known from her reaction that I was being way too ambitious and ambiguous, (not to mention pompous as well).  

Like most people, I struggle to keep my resolutions. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.  We set ourselves up to fail with resolutions that are too broad, too sweeping, too vague.  If we are serious about achieving our goals, we need a better strategy than just making a pronouncement about our resolutions.

So, I’ve decided to start over.  With the chocolates out of the way, I will deal with the cookies in a sensible manner.  First, I will not watch television downstairs, thus removing the temptation to snatch frozen cookies during commercial breaks. Second, I will treat the cookies as a dessert and not as a snack. (It really is quite obscene to treat cookies like potato chips. Cookies deserve more respect.) Third, I will enlist the help of my husband, and encourage him to eat frozen cookies.

As to my grandiose goal to read more edifying material, I will make a modest list, set aside a specific time and place to read, and go at it, slowly.  

Goodness, I have just made a bunch more resolutions.  

I hope my strategy works, but if not, next year I will take my cue from my son-in-law.  He readily admits that he doesn’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions.  He tries to live well, always, every day.  Now, there’s a resolution worth struggling to achieve.