Monday, December 24, 2012
For weeks on end, it's in the air,
Sounding often like a dare;
I don't do dares, I do not care
What others think, or if they stare.
I will not say it when ghosts are nigh;
I will not say it over pumpkin pie;
I will not say it by menorah light;
And not while Labor Day is in sight.
I will not sling it in a war;
I will not swing it in a store;
I will not chirp it bright and early
While competing for cheap crap, all surly.
At the risk of sounding snide,
Christmas is for Solstice Tide:
It's time for songs, it's time to feast,
It's sharing with those who have least;
It's time for greenery and lights,
It's time to brighten cold, dark nights;
It's time to warm our hearts with cheer,
To remember life is very dear.
Most of all, let us recall
That Peace on Earth is a wish for all:
Whatever our faith, or none at all,
One people, one planet, divided we fall.
Now, at last, the day is here:
So Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Every December, sure as the turning of the Earth, the Great American Holiday Debate begins another round. Likely every one of us has had the experience of witnessing a cheerful "Happy Holidays" being met with a "MERRY CHRISTMAS" that sounds not so much like a wish for peace and goodwill as a declaration of war. Jesus is the reason for the season, they proclaim, and "Merry Christmas" is the only proper greeting at this time of year.
The season is what it is: the onset of winter. Days grow shorter, nights grow longer, the air grows colder, and our world feels darker as we approach the time of Winter Solstice.
Throughout human history, humans developed many traditions, holidays, and celebrations to make the season bright while awaiting the return of the light. Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas are, in fact, rooted in other and more ancient celebrations, not with the religious observation of the birth of Jesus. The only reason Jesus now has anything to do with this particular season is because a handful of bishops in the fourth century made it so. According to biblical scholars, Jesus was probably born in the spring. The church calendar was developed for liturgical purposes, not for historical accuracy.
It's also fair to say that the Great American Greed Fest, beginning as early as Labor Day and increasingly crowding out the traditional celebrations of fall, has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus; nor would Jesus likely want anything to do with it. That this cultural holiday bears the name of "Christmas" is simply an artifact of the religious roots of the culture in which it developed. Some Christians, looking with dismay at what the American Christmas has become, do not lament but rather welcome separating the secular aspects of the American winter holiday from the religious holiday of celebrating Christ's birth.
Yet the cultural holiday, even apart from any specifically religious elements, does have its positive side. It's not all greed and materialism and smashing in thy neighbor's head to compete for a cheap computer on Black Friday.
Against the lengthening times of darkness, we light candles and adorn our homes with colorful lights. We deck the halls with holly and spruce and we decorate an evergreen tree, all to remind us that even in the Earth's time of dormancy, life endures. Red and green and silver and gold brighten the bleak midwinter. We gather with friends and families and coworkers and neighbors in song and story and dancing and feast. We tell tales of mythical figures, ancient and modern.
And, at our best, we invoke the spirit of giving, generosity, love, and compassion, not only in the gifts we give to friends and family but also to the help we extend to our neighbors in need at this cold, dark time of year. We take time in solitude, we gather in community, pausing for contemplation and reflection and taking stock of our lives as the year draws to a close.
As an American who firmly believes in religious liberty for all, I welcome the trend towards a more inclusive label for our year-end festivities. Personally, I prefer referring to our broader cultural celebration as the Winter Solstice, something all inhabitants of the Northern Hemisphere have in common, but the popular designation "The Holiday" serves well enough, even if it sounds a little less poetic.
In making our holiday season inclusive, we are not denying Christianity, only shedding the long-standing illusion--reinforced in times past by the dominant culture--that everyone in our society is Christian. We are evolving beyond the idea that the First Amendment freedom of religion means merely freedom to choose your favorite flavor of Christianity: We are growing into the understanding that freedom of religion means freedom to practice any religion, as well as freedom to practice no religion at all.
While it's not true that Jesus is the reason for the Winter Solstice season, it is certainly true that Jesus is the reason for the specifically Christian commemoration of his birth. As long as we realize that some people celebrate the former but not the latter, we can all get along in peace.
And for those who do celebrate the holy day of Christmas, please remember: "Merry Christmas" is a wish for peace on Earth, not a challenge to a duel.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Each of us learns lessons from the people around us. Some of these lessons are helpful, giving us true knowledge and understanding of the world in which we find ourselves; others hinder our ability to take our place in the world with confidence and strength.
One lesson many of us learn is fear: Lie low or you'll just get hurt. The nail that stands out gets hammered down. Resistance is futile. Stay safe; stay invisible. Survive.
Another common lesson is insecurity: Self-worth is built up by tearing other people down. Ridicule and put-downs reassure us of our own superiority. Triumphalism masks deep-seated vulnerability. The need to be right, versus the desire to understand what is true: Truth spoken can threaten certitude, and thus threaten the sense of security that depends upon certitude.
Beneath these lessons, as well as many other lessons that hinder us, the bedrock belief is powerlessness: The world is unfair; the cards are stacked against you; good people can't get ahead; you can't have the life and work you want; oh, well, what can you do; and just who the hell do you think YOU are, to believe you can have what you want, realize your dreams, create and shape your own life? Do you not know that you are a powerless pawn in the hands of fate and at the mercies of a corrupt world? You can only succeed if you become corrupt like them. Power is bad. You don't want it.
And many of us, whether as children or as adults, tried to challenge these disempowering messages. We declared our determination to decide what we wanted and to figure out how to create it. Set the vision, stay focused on it, and do the work to get us from Point A to Point B, with maybe a few speed bumps along the way. Simple.
And, allowing for the ninety-nine percent perspiration of which Edison spoke, accomplishing a goal pretty much does boil down to those simple steps. What we often fail to account for are not the concrete external obstacles but the subtler internal resistance which has been deeply ingrained in us--and will be thrown at us with renewed vigor should we persist in thinking we really can effect change.
Far from being seen as hopeful or encouraging, to speak of empowerment in the context of a disempowered system is perceived to be very, very threatening. The communal story is that we are fundamentally powerless. To suggest--or even worse, demonstrate--that we can find power within ourselves, whatever the circumstances, to shape our own lives is to threaten the truth of the communal story upon which communal security is believed to depend.
True security, however, does not lie in any of our stories. True security lies in being at peace with life as it is, both the circumstances we encounter without and our power within to work with whatever we encounter, and in living each day from that sense of inner strength and power.
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
I first became interested in matters of food and health during my freshman year of college, when I realized I knew precious little about either cooking or nutrition. From the campus book store I acquired two books to begin my dietary education: a quintessentially 70s tome entitled Cooking With Love and Wheat Germ and a little paperback called Diet for a Small Planet. The former introduced me to granola-hippie whole-grain whole-foods cuisine; the latter, to the idea that a vegetarian diet was the best thing I could do for my body and for the planet. Ten years and many books later, after much experimentation with vegetarian meals and vegetarian foods, I made the leap and adopted a wholly vegetarian diet.
For most of those years my diet still included eggs and dairy, eliminating only meat and fish. For a year or two, however, I did try a wholly vegan diet. Having read that dairy foods can worsen respiratory allergies, as well as having encountered a popular wave of "plant-based diet" writings in the 90s, I cut out all animal products in anticipation of the soaringly vibrant health that a plant-based diet was supposed to bring.
One thing I learned from my dietary adventures is that some common ingredients in meat-free and dairy-free diets are hazardous to my health.
Nutritional yeast makes me feel ill and gives me a bad case of thrush. Most soy products affect my digestive system in ways that nobody really wants me to write about. As for wheat, that "healthy" whole grain which played a central role in my diet for a couple of decades, especially in my vegetarian and vegan years? Of all of the dietary changes I've ever made, eliminating wheat from my diet created the single most dramatic improvement in my health and well-being: I went from being semi-crippled from severe inflammation in my knees to being able to walk and move about in a normal manner for hours on end. Respiratory inflammation, all but gone. Mornings with lungs and nose full of gunk, gone. Gurgling stomach and other digestive troubles nobody wants to read about, gone.
While attempting to live on a vegan diet, even one that included plenty of vegetables, I felt enervated and gained a lot of weight. The diet was too low in protein, too high in carbohydrates, and too full of foods that made me sick. Experiencing improved well-being by reintroducing animal products into my diet, I later learned that the forms in which some vitamins and minerals occur in plants are not necessarily absorbed by the body as well as those occurring in meat and other animal foods.
I am healthiest when I eat a balance of both vegetable foods and animal foods, excluding wheat and yeast, minimizing dairy, and not going too heavy on the carbs. You'd think that would be a safe statement to make in discussions of food and health.
Yet it's not. Do a search on stories of ex-vegans and see how much venom has been directed towards anyone who writes anything, however politely worded, that is remotely critical of the diet. Saying "I tried veganism and it didn't work for me" seems to make die-hard advocates of plant-only diets even more angry than if they were confronted by a club-swinging cave-dwelling carnivore simply drooling at the prospect of a blood-dripping hunk of dead critter.
And, being the inquisitive, philosophical soul that I am, I ask: Why? My own focus is on making the choices that are best for my own body and my own health, not on telling anyone else what's best for them. Likewise for most of the others writing on the subject of returning to an omnivorous diet for health reasons. Why should anyone feel threatened by people simply relating their personal experiences?
I think back to why vegetarianism and veganism appealed to me in the first place. First and foremost, I sought to be healthy, and these were supposed to be the optimal diets for human health, well-being, and longevity. I wasn't particularly idealistic about the matter of killing animals for food, probably because even the most rudimentary understanding of Ecosystems 101 tells us that life and death are intertwined, but if helping myself also helped avoid harm to other animals, so much the better. I did find raw meat aesthetically unappealing to cook with, and used to joke about being an "aesthetic vegetarian." As for having a "taste" for meat, I could take it or leave it. Were it possible to live on vegetables and hummus without any nutritional deficiencies or other health difficulties, I could probably do so quite happily, as long as I had a reliable supply of chocolate on the side.
Yet even my health-oriented rationale for vegetarianism had an ideological aspect to it. A meatless diet wasn't just a diet, it was an ideal, a vision, the cutting edge of human evolution, the wave of the future for a more enlightened human race. It was associated by some authors with a simpler, more holistic, less materialistic way of living. Who doesn't want to be on the cutting edge, riding the crest of the wave into the future? Who doesn't find it appealing to believe they have found Ultimate Truth about some fundamental aspect of living?
It was the story about the meaning of vegetarianism, as much as the vegetarianism itself, that attracted me and committed me to pursuing that way of life.
And this concept of story, I think, is the key to understanding the hostility with which the personal experiences of former vegans and vegetarians are met. Saying "it doesn't work for me" undermines the story upon which the vegan ideal is founded: that killing animals for food is wrong and therefore all human beings can and must thrive on a vegan, or at least vegetarian, diet. If the conclusion is not true, then the truth of the premise upon which the conclusion is based is called into question.
Someone who is overtly adversarial--the critter-craving carnivore flaunting meat-lust in front of a plant-based crowd--is still reinforcing the fundamental paradigm of Good versus Evil. The conviction that Plant Eaters are on the side of Ultimate Good remains secure against the attacks of Meat Eater heretics rebelling against what, deep down in their heart of hearts, they really know to be The Truth.
On the other hand, a former vegan or vegetarian who attempts the amicable agree-to-disagree approach, saying, "If it works for you, great, but your way doesn't work for me," is challenging the other person's deeply held conviction that their way is the One True Way for all people to follow.
The reality is that sometimes the One True Way simply doesn't work for someone. And that means accepting that the One True Way is not, in fact, the One True Way, just one way that happens to work well for one particular person. And that means separating our way, the thing in itself, from whatever stories we have created about the meaning of that way.
There may be some ways in this world that are worse than others--junk-food diet, hate-based religion--but there is no single right way that will fit every single human being on the planet. Instead of expecting the diet that works for us to work for everyone else, we can recognize and respect each person's right to make their own choices for optimal health and well-being and create their own stories based upon their own experiences, rather than attempting to make their experiences conform to someone else's story.