Saturday, December 31, 2016

Reflections on 2016

As I sit here on New Year’s Eve 2016, I am reminded of the Psalm that says, 

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so we may grow in wisdom"   Ps 90:12

I am fortunate to have daily reminders of numbered days, and the harm that springs from petty quarrels and greed. It is customary to make New Year’s resolutions but it is also good to reflect on growth and changes in the last twelve months. 

I kept a hand written journal for an entire year and wrote on the last page today. This has been an useful way to keep track of thoughts, ideas, wisdom from other people, and to-do lists. I journaled significant and mundane things together because life is that way. A beautiful sunrise, a butterfly, a bird, a chance meeting, a tasty dinner all bring me joy.  Oscar Wilde was right when he wrote,

 “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Journaling made me more aware of the sacred that exists in everything. One of my goals was to appreciate the humanity and potential goodness in everyone without pre-judging by appearance or behaviour. Everyone has a back story that deserves respectful listening. I continue to appreciate the beauty of the natural world which surpasses the grandest cathedral made by man. And relationships with other people are important to cultivate as we wither physically, mentally and spiritually without meaningful social support. 

I wrote a lot of prayers in my journal. I came to realize that most of what I called prayer was self-centred and petulant. I believe the primary purpose of prayer is to change my thinking, my attitudes, and my behaviour. God is not a genie who comes and releases us from our problems. He gives us the tools to do the work ourselves. Likewise, we, by our actions, bring about change in our sphere of influence. I am reminded daily how self-centred I am by nature and how hard it is to extend needed forgiveness and grace to others.

I am more appreciative of good health and know that abuse of our bodies is not easily overcome as we age. Making good nutrition, exercise, rest and stress management a priority is a daily challenge. I became aware of the concept of “mindfulness” this year. Multi-tasking robs us of awareness of simple pleasures. We rush about, eat fast food, gorge on social media, and misuse the time we need to invest in a meaningful, balanced life. I continue to make my own bread every week. When I eat a slice at the beginning of the day, I am reminded of my connection with Jesus, the bread of life, and human kind who has broken bread for millennia. This is communion in the truest sense.

My religious background was strict and questions had pat answers. I knew the statements of faith well and taught them to many children in Sunday School. My understanding of certain doctrines and practices has changed significantly. It has been good to journal my questions and musings and to listen to others who interpret scripture differently. Unanswered questions keep us on the quest for wisdom and knowledge.

I have a brand new journal for 2017 but will keep the 2016 version handy. Every day is a gift for which I am grateful.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Whimsical Diversions

The old man on the dementia ward held a cabbage patch doll, a boy, dressed in a blue sweater and overalls. I watched as he cupped the doll’s head in his hands and stared lovingly into its face. 
“My little boy, my dear little baby,” he said as he raised it up and kissed its forehead before bringing it to rest on his shoulder. The tenderness he showed toward the doll was very real and touching. 

As a child I truly believed my toys came to life when I wasn’t looking. I was influenced by Enid Blyton’s books and delighted in the magical world of fairies, pixies and elves and goblins. I tried to believe in Santa for as long as possible, if not for myself, for my younger brothers. I still like to imagine little woodland creatures living under a Mayapple leaf or inside a Jack in the Pulpit wildflower. I would like to be one of Tolkien's almost immortal elves.

I watched the French movie Amélie for the first time this summer. I loved the scene where Amélie takes her father’s garden gnome and sends it with a stewardess friend on adventures around the world. In July, CBC carried a fun news story about a lady in British Columbia whose garden gnome was stolen. The “thieves” returned the gnome weeks later with a hardcover photo book of its adventures through western United States and into Mexico. So when I saw a garden gnome in a clearance sale for under $10 at a hardware store in September… I bought it. 

Mr. Gnoddy is a bobble head gnome who has been quite busy since he came to our home. He has his own Instagram account and has found many other travelling gnomes online. When our dog sees Mr. Gnoddy, she knows it is picture time and generously poses beside him. He has been to Montreal, Quebec City, Gatineau, Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto and several places in between. He is going on his first flight in January. Perhaps he will be able to publish a photo book as well. 

Rein Poortvliet was a Dutch artist who is best known for his paintings and books about animals and gnomes. A Gnome’s Christmas is a delightful story book about the traditions of these little people. The larger volume, Gnomes, was a best seller when it was published in 1977. It reads like a fanciful biology text and may raise some interesting questions from younger readers.

Adults who follow whimsical diversions, from Beatrix Potter to J.R.R. Tolkien and many in between, have enriched our lives with interesting literature and art. Like the old man in the hospital, these make believe characters represent something true and memorable within us. We are never too old for imagination and play. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Earth's Crammed with Heaven...

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws

Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world

Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things

And spiritual,—who separates those two

In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,

Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,

Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,

Is wrong, in short, at all points...

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware...

From ‘Aurora Leigh’ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 

I read part of this poem today and wanted to share this excerpt, if for no other reason than to remember it myself. There are so many similes that resonate with me in her writing.

And so I will go about my day looking for inspiration in my routine, in the ordinary people I will encounter, in the hustle and bustle of the city and the solitude of nature. 

Monday, December 05, 2016

Christmas Customs and Culture

Christkindl Christmas Market

We attended the annual Christkindl Christmas market in our city this weekend. Our area was settled largely by German speaking immigrants a couple of centuries ago and while we are far more diverse now, Oktoberfest and the Christmas market are well attended events.

Traditional German band with an alpenhorn 

I asked a Hindu nurse at work if there were any December celebrations in her culture. She said no, but she planned to put up a Christmas tree and exchange gifts with friends and family. To her, it was a Canadian tradition she felt comfortable adopting. Other acquaintances are celebrating St. Nicholas Day tonight and tomorrow in the Dutch tradition. There was a Krampus run this weekend along with the Christmas market to celebrate some darker European Yuletide legends. 

Krampus is here                                                                        Catalonian Caganer (source)

Catalonian nativity scenes feature a figure who is defecating in a corner or behind a tree. The “Caganer"  or “pooper” is a symbol of fertility and good fortune in an agrarian society. He may also represent the fact that Jesus was a partaker of everything that is human. I work in an environment where regularity or irregularity is recorded and dealing with excrement is all in a day’s work. It is something common to all species who eat food, whether rich or poor, young or old, famous or infamous. It is part of our humanity. 

In Mexico, Christmas posadas are community events where participants go from house to house looking for the Christ Child. In parts of Newfoundland, Mummers go from house to house looking for food and drink in exchange for music and dancing.

Joseph at the Christkindl Market
I truly doubt that our nativity scenes depicting the birth of Jesus are even close to what really happened. In my mind, Mary and Joseph were likely staying with relatives in the autumn of the year. The lower part of the building housed the animals and the couple stayed there, as the guest room was occupied. They shared meals with others who were hospitable and generous. They may have been guests for days or weeks before the birth. Mary was not alone during labour but was attended by a local midwife and caring women. They were not isolated on a hill far from town but were part of the normal hum and rhythm of the community.

Legend and tradition have become the mainstay of our December celebrations with each culture interpreting the story according to their own history and perspective. Community is central to the celebration. I am fortunate to be able to participate in my community’s Christmas celebrations. Maybe someday I will have a chance to visit Spain and encounter a Caganer as part of their interpretation of the Christmas story.