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Christmas—Held Over!

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

Seasons Greetings from Edgewater, 24 January

This has been an odd Christmastide for me. Odd even that I am still thinking of it in the present tense. I was late to decorate for Christmas, and even later to feel like I had slipped into the “Christmas Groove”. I followed the set-up of the holiday train diorama in the lobby of our Thanksgiving hotel with frequent check-ins, yet baked not a single Christmas cookie.

Christmas at home, once I finally got there late Christmas night, was as festive and enjoyable as ever. I fell into the Groove immediately. It snowed, I skied. We cooked, I ate. Family gathered, I mingled. Gifts appeared, I unwrapped. Corks popped, I drank. Lights twinkled, I gazed.

Snow drifted, I stayed an extra day. Readily.

When my partner and I went our separate ways at the end of Christmas time in snowy, bucolic Hamilton, neither of us wanted to see the celebrations end. When I reached Chicago on the 4th of January, I still had two days left to celebrate. I squeezed in Christmas shows and movies, CDs and stories.

Epiphany (January 6) came, and I hadn’t had my Christmas fill, so I left the decorations up. The Christmas tree hadn’t lost any needles, so I gave it another week. I continued shopping the post-holiday sales for Christmas decorations with particular verve. My Lego® Holiday Bakery is still on the sideboard.

We have a family fondness for Sesame Street, and we usually watch the 1978 special “Christmas Eve on Sesame Street” when we’re together. This year, the show’s signature song, “Keep Christmas with you” has become like a battle cry for some of us. It says,

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, You can keep it near. Think of this Christmas day When Christmas is far away.

“Keep Christmas with you All through the year, When Christmas is over, Save some Christmas cheer. These precious moments, Hold them very dear And keep Christmas with you All through the year.

“Christmas means the spirit of giving Peace and joy to you, The goodness of loving, The gladness of living; These are Christmas too.”

It’s the 24th of January, and I’m watching “The Bishop’s Wife”! What is happening to me this year? As Christmas comes round every year, I think I enjoy our homecoming, my family home, and my hometown more and more. It is tinged with nostalgia, but also revived and refreshed with new tastes and experiences.

I wrote the following article for the weekly newsletter of the church where I work as Director of Music. (If you’re in Chicago, I hope you’ll come visit us <www.sp-r.org>.) As a church worker, I have a multi-layered—some may say ‘complex’—relationship with Christmas. Perhaps reading this now will help *you* “keep Christmas with you” for at least a little longer this year.

“Christmas is the Church’s ‘Try to Remember’ Holiday”

Merry Christmas. Except for the two years when I had flu (maybe even then), I’ve been blessed with Merry Christmases. Fun, food, family, friends, snow for skiing and sledding, games, movies, singing, wonderful worship… I love Christmastide! More than any other holiday I celebrate, Christmas is a smörgåsbord of experiences, origins and meanings. Complex, like me.

While at Choir Camp last summer, an hour from New Haven, where I spent nine of the most wonderful, friend-filled years of my life, I sat in on a colleague’s boy-choir rehearsal. They rehearsed “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks for a concert. Listening to my godson, his younger brother, and their fellow choir members sing this simple tune, I began to cry. I felt deeply how much things have changed in my life.

The irony wasn’t lost on me, however, that the singers were all preteens, some as young as eight. What could they possibly be nostalgic for? Christmas, maybe.

Christmas nostalgia is often born at a tender age, when one discovers that all is not as it had seemed earlier. Through the years, the revelations keep coming, as one’s view of life and loved ones becomes more nuanced. Relatives die, friends and family move away, new ones arrive. Sibling rivalry, aging parents, challenging children, irksome in-laws. Who wouldn’t be nostalgic for earlier, simpler Christmases? “Try to remember…”

When I began my work as a church musician during graduate school, I had to miss Christmas Eve and Christmas Day family gatherings to play for services. Those first few years, I decided to divorce my new Christmas routine from my memories and old expectations. It was time to “remember the reason for the season”, and respect Christmas as the religious holiday it was meant to be.

The Vulcan treatment worked for a while, and helped to ease the grief that came when one of my grandparents died shortly before Christmas each of the first two years. As the years passed, though, nostalgia trampled my holiday compartmentalization. Ah, Ye Happy Olde Tymes!

Church plays a complex role in the Christmas drama. The trappings of Christmas liturgies are intimacy, warmth, beauty, and—yes—nostalgia, but the message of Christmas is forward-looking. Who else gets myrrh (for embalming) as a baby gift? The crèche is only a brief stopping place for Jesus. Before the nursery is painted, the Holy Family is off to Egypt, fleeing for their lives.

My mother cries when she sings Christmas carols, perhaps because they evoke some latent nostalgia. We want children to be adorable in pageants so we can wax wistful about how precious and fleeting these moments are. Church traditions—the same six hymns year after year; “Silent Night” on our knees, the lights dimmed—connect us to our tribe and our memories.

There is no harm, and much joy, in these moments. We should celebrate them. The Church’s Christmas commemoration, however, is not simply for cooing over cute children or luxuriating in intimacy and beauty. It is, instead, to show the great power of humility and the bottomless well of God’s love for humanity. Through the incarnation, God helps us frail humans to see and understand Godself more fully, and to chart our path to care for the world, and gain our salvation, by following Jesus’ example. Christmas is only the prologue, the flash that fixes our gaze. God knew we humans are suckers for a cute baby, having evolved that way so we wouldn’t get distracted and walk off and leave little Norbert to be eaten by pterodactyls.

But followers of the story, like singers of the hymn “Once in royal David’s city”, may get distracted before they get to the point. We are entranced by the nostalgia and homeyness of the manger, but in the second half (as we sing it from The Hymnal 1982), the message comes forth:

“For he is our lifelong pattern; daily, when on earth he grew, he was tempted, scorned, rejected, tears and smiles like us he knew. Thus he feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness.

“And our eyes at last shall see him, through his own redeeming love, for that child so dear and gentle is our Lord in heav’n above, and he leads his children on to the place where he is gone.

“Not in that poor lowly stable, with the oxen standing round, we shall see him; but in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high; where his saints his throne surround: Christ, revealed to faithful eye, set at God’s right hand on high.”

As you gather your beloved around your own hearth and memories, as you tell the story and sing the old Christmas hymns, listen for the message that goes beyond the wonder of God’s arrival in infant form, and be transformed, so you will be ready to transform the world. Merry Christmas. May it be ever so!

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I wish she hadn’t asked?

At the end of Spring 2012, I was having coffee with a new friend in Chicago, where I had been living for three months by then. She, also a relative newcomer to town (and the United States) knew firsthand about making a dramatic, long-distance move, something I’ve done four times now (albeit only within the United States). Through her new relationship, she had also come to know the little corner of the world (Central New York) that, even after 20 years of living away, I still instinctively call home.

After I answered her question about my hops around the country since college (Orlando, Santa Barbara, Washington, and now, Chicago), she asked, “When you were in high school in Hamilton, did you ever think that you would live in so many faraway places?”

I replied, “No.”

The next question was like an electric shock. My answer, which sprang forth reflexively, has changed my perspective like few other things in my life.

“How do you feel about it?”

“I’m homesick every day.”

In that one statement, I finally found the reason for my daily obsession with summers that are too hot and humid, winters that are too mild and snowless, streets that are too crowded for bicycling, roads that are too heavily trafficked for high beams at night, landscapes that are too flat for inspiration, distances that are too great for escapes to my spiritual refuges, local populations missing the ethnic diversity I knew as a child, farmers markets that are too expensive, and an utter lack of tomato pie or half-moons.

Longing and exploration have been frequent subtexts in this blog, but now I want to make the search for home an explicit part of my output. We may not all be homesick, but many of us could benefit from a deeper sense of home wherever we are; or wherever we must, or choose to, go. I invite you to join me on this ramble through woods and villages, peering over ridges and into windows. What makes a place home?

I’m glad she asked.

Niagara to Navarino and Beyond

Monday 2 July 2012

I had an interesting encounter over the “limited continental breakfast” at the two-star we stayed in last night in St. Catharines, Ontario. I overheard the elderly gentleman at the cereal station in front of me pronounce the Italian phrase “questo quà” like “keesto kwah”, which sounded a lot like the way Zia Silvia pronounced it in our family’s village in the hills near Formia, Italy, south of Rome. I asked him in Italian, “Excuse me, sir, where are you from?”, and after some prodding, got him to be specific about his hometown: Caserta, about 70 kilometers southwest of my relatives. I may have lost much of my proficiency speaking Italian, but I can still identify the family dialect!

Putney and I left for Hamilton, New York, after breakfast, and wound our way through Niagara-on-the-Lake and the northern part of the Niagara peninsula in Ontario. It’s such a lovely area, lush with orchards and vineyards and dotted with some one hundred wineries, many of them very fine. I bought two bottles of wine, but had to resist the temptation to buy fresh fruit, because we couldn’t carry it across the border into New York. At the third stop, however, I gave in, and bought a pint of red raspberries, which I put paid to in fifteen minutes. We ascended the Niagara Escarpment and looped around onto the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge to the US; for the first time in memory, the American border agent was friendlier than his Canadian counterpart.

It was out of the way, but I was lured into driving a few miles further north to New York State Route 18 and the Lake Ontario Parkway by the azure sky and warm air, and again stopped to taste wine and buy fruit, this time sweet cherries to eat out of hand and sour cherries to turn into a cobbler later in the week. As we cruised along on the great plain of western New York, the vast surface of Lake Ontario glimmered under the sun to our left; I was reminded of how diverse the terrain of New York is, as I anticipated the dip southward to the dramatic hills east of the Finger Lakes around Skaneateles, Navarino, Lafayette and Pompey, and eastward pretty much all the way across the state.

I don’t live there now, but my heart lives in a beautiful, unsung part of the world.

Meet My Farmer

Adam Perrin wants to be your farmer.

Hello. I'm Adam Perrin & I Want to Be Your Farmer.

Two seasons ago, I bought a dozen eggs at the Hamilton (NY) Farmer’s Market (held on Saturdays and now in its 36th year), for export to Takoma Park, where our Farmers Market’s eggs are always sold out by the time I arrive after church, if I can even get to the market before the 2 PM closing bell. Sunday morning markets are great for Seventh-Day Adventists, thick on the ground in Takoma Park; Roman Catholics, with their Saturday Option; Jews; Muslims; Wiccans; Atheists; Occasional Churchgoers… but not for your garden-variety Professional (read: paid) Protestant, who has to be there every week from before dawn (most of the year, now that Daylight Savings Time has become a farcical eight-month extravaganza, Thank You, George W. Bush and your Republican-controlled Congress and your Skanky Bedmates: Lobbyists for Movie Theaters and Shopping Malls and Big Box Stores, but I don’t want to use up all my blog ideas in one article) through the lunch hour, and on toward mid-afternoon. I opened the paper carton (remember my eggs?) and was taken aback, delighted by subtle color variations among the dozen individuals before me. Each egg was unique; together, they cast a tawny rainbow.

Last year, during another of my too-infrequent visits to the Hamilton Farmer’s Market (and to my homeland), I stopped at Quarry Brook Farms’ stand, and was again dazzled by a dozen beautiful eggs, this time artfully, enticingly displayed. I told the tall, thin, bearded young man working the booth that I had previously bought his eggs, and had gotten particular joy out of looking at them, almost to the point of not wanting to eat them. His response was quiet, laconic. (Maybe he thought I was some effete city boy who viewed food as art more than sustenance? Go figure.) He spoke in the local rural accent, the one that first intrigued me, years ago: how can people who live so close to each other, and who interact so much, possess such different inflections? I picked up his business card, and eggs, and moved on through the Market.

Back in Maryland, I visited Quarry Brook Farms’ website <http://quarrybrookfarms.com/&gt;, where I found out that Adam Perrin wants to be my farmer. I was pleased to meet online a young, articulate (if a bit taciturn in person) heir to a family farm in our area, who is working to change the terms of family farming in Central New York, an area full of struggling dairy farms, abandoned pastures and hope in short supply for the future of the industry and the culture. Pro-fracking signs seem to be more common on the grassy verge of a farm field than anywhere else in the region.

Around the start of Lent, my partner, who’s work has taken him deep into the difficult history of the Holocaust, began reading a troubling book called “Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust” (by Charles Patterson, ), and was moved to keep vegetarian for Lent, later continuing on well past Easter. I returned again to the Hamilton Farmer’s Market in late May, and, drawn back to Adam’s stand by my vivid memory of the beautiful eggs and his website, found myself caught in the collision between supporting Adam’s commitment to organic, humanely raised livestock (by buying some meat) and my ethical failure of eating any meat at all. I took the “low road”, and bought some veal, of all things; Adam cautioned that this wasn’t like supermarket veal, that it wouldn’t be as tender or mild-flavored, that the calves were pastured with their mothers and treated humanely. He said that each year, the cows produced more young than he could keep, and, rather than ship them off to be raised and butchered in the cruel, industrial way, he held onto them until the end of the season, giving them the best short life they could have.

But I was still troubled. Back in Maryland again, I e-mailed Adam to ask if, during another trip home, he would meet with me and talk about ethical farming.

“Gas Land” at 34 000 Feet

Gas Land at 34 000 Feet
Thursday 26 May 2011

Returning from Germany today on a high-carbon diet, I decided to watch Gas Land, a 2010 documentary about the natural gas industry, the process of hydraulic fracturing (AKA “fracking”) used in natural gas extraction, and the health and environmental crises rippling out from the increasingly-pervasive gas wells sprouting like weeds around the USA. Do Washington’s Metrobuses, proudly proclaiming “powered by clean natural gas”, lie to us?

Energy has been on my mind throughout the past nine days, as I have wandered the streets of Munich, where gasoline sells for the equivalent of US $9.00 per gallon and where bicycle lanes and public transportation are ubiquitous and popular; noted from several train windows tile roofs overlaid with solar-panels all over the Bavarian countryside; ridden a jet-powered tour boat up an unnaturally fast river in Salzburg; and read of a glacier in the Alps covered by an enormous tarp each summer the past few years to minimize its accelerated wasting as our little ball of a home warms up.

The young filmmaker, Josh Fox, responsible for Gas Land lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania, not far in miles or culture from my homeland in central New York – a rural, hilly, green-in-summer, white-in-winter, economically-struggling area populated by diverse people who love their homes yet face difficult choices to earn a living where progress has yet to arrive or has already passed by. The scenes of forests and streams that bookend his travels through Gas Land – all around the central and western United States – made my heart beat a little faster. We both grew up atop the Marcellus Shale, a huge rock formation stretching from central New York south through several states, and one of the richest repositories of natural gas in the world. He, like I, probably had no idea about this mother lode of fossilized energy until recently, when the “FRACK NO” signs began appearing on neighbors’ lawns.

As the film advanced and the toxic effects of the drive to slake our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels became more vivid, I felt sick: both heartsick and slightly nauseated, hearing person after person talk about how they and the ones they love, exposed to toxins by the gas industry, have lost their sense of smell, their ability to taste food; how they have suffered dizziness, mysterious pains all over their bodies, or neuropathy; how birds, frogs and rabbits have died from exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) bubbling up through stream beds since fracking began nearby; how wells have sprung up on their land because they don’t own the mineral rights to what lies below their homes; how cattle drink contaminated water and eat grass poisoned by chemicals illegally dumped on the ground or rained back down on it from evaporating tanks. The ranchers’ herds and livelihoods risk cruel and selfish death. Contaminated wells are supplanted by reverse-osmosis filtration systems or deliveries of water by truck, presumably at great cost and yielding yet more air pollution. The cattle, the wildlife, however, have no trucked-in water supplies. How will they fare?

This blog sprang mostly from my cultural curiosity, an explorer’s lust to see the world and know its inhabitants and their distinctive approaches to surviving and thriving. But my travel is a costly luxury, and much of its cost is, or will be, borne by those whom I will never meet. Do the traveler’s and the host’s increasing understanding of, and appreciation and compassion for the other exceed the environmental cost spread across the globe? The now-famous polar bear, starving as the Arctic ice melts beneath this jet’s contrails, doesn’t have a voice in that calculus.

As I jet across the Atlantic, how can I take responsibility for the thousands of gallons of fuel I am passively consuming? How can I repair the damage done by the tons of carbon dioxide pouring out of these enormous engines? How much of the blanket spread over that ancient glacier in the Alps do I own?

I am stopping off in Central New York, my homeland, briefly, en route to where I live, and as always I will want to stay longer where the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches reconnect to something deeply spiritual within me. During Gas Land, I though with frustration and anger of how much pressure the energy industry is putting on New York State and its communities and its citizens to develop the huge gas reserves below my home. Those streams and trees in the film look just like the ones I have walked and biked and waded and hiked and picnicked and skied and sledded by and through throughout my life, and I was saddened to envision them fouled by greed.

Some of our neighbors see dollar signs in the rock beneath. As an undergraduate geology student, I learned about the Marcellus Shale, about its ancient secrets, its record of the previous “landowners” and of the effects of wind and water on the land: sediments, ripples, fossils. I don’t recall a single mention of natural gas. Now, it seems that it’s the only thing that matters about the Marcellus Shale.

I fight back a few tears as I think about how friends and family and neighbors in Central New York will be affected by the toxic stew that will bubble up from the earth, spoiling the pure water, fouling the clean, sweet air. In a landscape still populated by more cows than people, where old wooden barns and houses call out to painters and poets to tell their story of melancholy and beauty intertwined in sweet, sad marriage, I ask, is this not worth nurturing until we can fly, drive, heat, cool and cook more gently?