Thursday, December 15, 2011

Proud to Be a Level Four Santa

I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in people.

Believe means different things, doesn’t it? And sometimes, we instantly know it. Like saying, “I believe in people.” Well, obviously, I’m not talking about existence, that seems to be a foregone conclusion. People exist.

“I believe in people” means something more, something positive.  The writers of the Bible would use a figure of speech called ellipsis, in which they would omit certain words for effect. It’s an unfinished circle, that we tend to automatically fill in with meaning.

So part of what I would fill in is that I believe in people, that they can be generous beyond your imagination, loving to complete strangers, extenders of awesome grace.

Santa Claus embodies this instinct we have toward compassion.

Children, if they are being raised by someone who loves them, assume this. If you tell a 3 year old “People are good and often want to help,” they will look at you blankly. Of course they are! In the same way they will always say that the bigger glass has more liquid in it than the short cup, no matter the opposing evidence, it is part of their logic that grownups are good people.

To tell a 45 year old the same thing is to invite debate, a debate that has raged for the ages, through the Christian scriptures, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and all those other “original sin” themed books they made us read in High School.

I am here to tell you – people are good. And they will overwhelm you with their willingness to make things better for others.

We share our belief in Santa Claus with our children. There are different levels to this, and so we divide it up into what we feel is developmentally appropriate for them to understand.

It astounds me that so many people stop at the first level. And at a certain point, they learn that it’s “wrong,” and that’s that. It’s done.

Don’t they know, it’s only the introduction!

Level One Santa is the symbolic embodiment into one person: he lives at the North Pole, says “Ho Ho Ho,” and comes down the chimney. He gives without ever expecting anything in return. He brings presents to children simply because he loves them.  Oh sure, there are rumors of coal in stockings … but no one actually knows anyone who got that.

Myths grow and become more personal in each family; ours is no exception. With our first, it was decided that it was appropriate to ask Santa for three things (which you may or may not get). Rather early on, our son decided that the things Santa brought that he didn’t ask for were always way better than the things he did. Thus began the tradition he passed down to his sisters. “Ask for two things, but leave it up to him for the third thing – he always knows better!” As the children get older, they tend to even go farther, only asking Santa for one thing, or even nothing. They are learning about trust – trust that if you are open, and willing, you may receive gifts beyond what you know to ask for.

It is an exciting time, with our Level One Santa kids. They go outside to find chewed up carrot tops left by the reindeer, they receive personal letters from Santa a couple of days before Christmas. All of we Level Twos or above are on alert – to listen to the conversations, the casual remarks, the longing looks. And somehow, that Santa inspiration comes through, when suddenly we know what to pull out of the magic bag. Christmas morning arrives and “How did he know I wanted this???”

A personal letter from Santa – all our children receive them, regardless of age. Santa talks about their past year, what he’s noticed, what to work on, how much he loves them.

And then, one year, when they’ve had a lot of questions, and it is right … they receive a letter telling them that on the day after Christmas, they are to reach under their pillow, and there will be a special letter there that answers all their questions.

They are ready to become Level Twos.

Level Two is where you become privy to the giant mystery, the fabulous conspiracy that is Santa. You are entrusted with the secret, that Santa is SO much bigger than you imagined, that you, in fact, get to be Santa, too. The entire framework is laid out and you can see how far-reaching it is, how much more profound it is than a man coming down a chimney. People are so wonderful, that all over the world, they will go to great lengths to ensure that others have a magical Christmas. NORAD … the North American Aerospace Defense Command! – puts up video and a website so that families all over the world can track Santa’s progress. People go to the post office to pick up letters from children who have written to Santa, to actually fill some of those requests, out of their own wallet! Movies made, books written, collections taken up, all to make magic for the most powerless among us. Children.

To become a Level Two is not automatic. It is a choice. You may decide to just close the door, believe that “there is no Santa Claus.” Or you can make the choice to join in, to become a Level Two Santa.

A Level Two is someone who supports the Santa Claus efforts, promoting the wonder, keeping the mystery. Level Twos learn to listen intently, while looking casual; they pay attention to such things as what kind of thing a child plays with, what characters they like, their favorite colors.  They themselves make magic, helping to put out the gifts on Christmas Eve, eating a cookie (but leaving crumbs on a plate).

Level Three is when you become Santa for the child in your life – your daughter, your nephew, your grandchild. You give, and receive no credit. No thank-you’s.  It’s worth it, to be part of this magic.

Level Four is when you become Santa for someone not as close – an elderly neighbor, a friend, a stranger, a name on a tree. The recipient can’t know who you are, of course. If they did, you wouldn't be Santa. So there is much whispering and giggling; it is an appropriate time for secrets and ringing doorbells and running away.  And yes, you can become a Level Four before becoming a Level Three!

Level Five is the top. This is the person who becomes the embodiment of Santa (or Mrs. Claus) themselves. They put on, or grow, the beard, put on the red hat, perfect their Ho-Ho-Ho.  They wave from parades, hold squirming babies on their laps for pictures.  

Too old for Santa Claus? Ah, no. For us, the question is, “Is Jane old enough for Santa Claus?” As a Level One, she only knows the door. It’s a beautiful, magical door … but beyond it lies grandeur and awe she can’t even imagine.

And she is a part of it all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lizard Eater, Master of Divinity

I am graduating from seminary tomorrow, friends. Saturday morning.

In August 2004, two things began. My seminary experience, and Little Wren, growing in my belly.

To say I had no idea what would happen with those two things is quite the understatement. Such changes in both, such changes in me. But we survived. My seminary, my daughter, and me. We all survived.

I have attended an evangelical seminary. My first semester, I resigned myself to "flying under the radar." I told friends, and myself, that it was like learning a foreign language. "I don't have to believe Monsieur Thibaux est un ingénieur," I explained, "I just have to learn to say he is."

I stopped seminary, temporarily, I thought, to have Little Wren. I prepared to go back, and shortly before it was time, my world cracked in two. My little baby girl was diagnosed with cancer.

"I will never go back," I told a friend, flatly. I had nothing to say. Why would I be a minister?

But Spirit wants what it wants. Little Wren healed, and I healed. I went back to school.

And then ... it was back. Cancer.

I stopped seminary again. We did cancer again. She healed, I healed. I went back to school.

Okay, that's not exactly the timeline. She healed. I went back to school. I healed. Yes, that's a more accurate representation.

I found my voice. And I found nurturing professors who encouraged me to use that voice. No, I did not have to believe Monsieur Thibaux was an engineer. Explain to them why it was not so, give sources, make educated statements.

They learned more about what a Unitarian Universalist is. And I learned that "evangelical" is most definitely not synonymous with "fundamentalist." I have been surrounded by people who are not homophobic, nor judgmental. I have been surrounded by professors who genuinely live their faith in a way that is awe-inspiring to me.

Along the way, through this blog, I became friends with people, people who reached out to me, wept with me, encouraged me, mentored me. Friends who saw my heart be broken, read words that said I would never go into the ministry, never return to seminary. Friends who were there when I said, "I'm going back to seminary."

You shared your stories with me. Your own stories of cancer, of seminary, of family, of hard times, of good times. In the same way that seminary shaped me, you shaped me. Your stories have become a part of me.

They call it "ministerial formation." It's seminary, and preaching, and life, and CPE, and internship, and all the other things that help you find your identity as a religious professional.

So many of you have formed me. Fussed at me, argued with me, laughed with me, made me feel loved.

I love you, too.

Friday, December 02, 2011

On love and tamales

There are certain things that transcend the sense of "the stranger." One is fishing. Anywhere I've ever gone,  meeting a fellow fan of bait and tackle means that immediate conversation is possible. It usually starts with "Any luck today?" followed by discussions of what they're biting on, what spots are dry, and such. Now, there are certain protocols that are followed. One would never drop line right next to that person, poaching on their territory. Unless invited to, of course. A large cooler of beer you're willing to share makes that incident more probable.

The other arena in which strictures against talking to strangers, and especially someone who is "not like you," are dropped is cooking. Age, culture, even language, are no barriers to two cooks talking.

We are having a tamalada tomorrow, making lots of tamales for the holidays. I went to the Mexican mega-mart today to load up on heavy bags of wet masa, manteca de puerco, and corn husks. An older Mexican woman peeked at my cart and said, "Oh, you're making tamales!" We wound up talking for about 15 minutes, exchanging recipes and ideas. I, of course, came out much the richer for it. Cooks do not mind being bossy with each other. I told her that I was going to cut a few corners this year -- using ground chile rather than roasting my own peppers, that sort of thing. She directed me over to an unfamiliar can of sauce, used for enchiladas, and told me how to doctor it up for my pork filling. We parted, each giving advice -- she telling me that I can make spinach tamales without having to cook the filling first (use frozen spinach), and me encouraging her to tell her adult son that if he wants tamales, well, he better get over to her house and start spreading masa. "Have good holidays!" she called after me.

The BFF-DRE is coming over, after a church meeting. Not that she had much of a choice. Her boys are tamale-making fiends, and I think they were coming with or without her. Making tamales together has now become one of our holiday traditions. One year, we convinced our church cooking group to make tamales as a fundraiser. We took orders for traditional pork tamales, turkey mole tamales, vegetarian black bean and cotija cheese tamales, vegan chipotle bean tamales, sweet potato tamales.

We had orders for over a 100 dozen.

Late Saturday night of that tamalada, we were all near tears. "I just can't make anymore," our friend T cried, throwing up her hands. Sometimes you have to know when to throw in the towel. Nonetheless, I think we'd made about 98 dozen. We gave apologies to a few people who didn't get their full orders. Everyone was very nice about it.

But we never did that again.

Certain things you do for love, not money, even if the money is going to go to something you love. Tamales are one. Fishing, too.