Wednesday, December 22, 2010

You Know What I'm Going To Do This Week?

I'm going to do what people have been doing for centuries this time of year. I'll be doing something that humans have done since they first began to notice the cyclical nature of of the universe and the patterns inherent in nature.

I'm going to celebrate a day known in today's culture as the national holiday of Christmas.

On the modern western calendar it's called Christmas, but humans have celebrated this day for centuries before that. We all know winter is rough. But even though we have hit the darkest days, we know light is returning. So let's get out the party trappings, eat lots of food, celebrate with family, and give each other gifts for no real reason. Just celebrate because we're alive and on this earth and everything on this earth tends to go according to patterns. Sometimes the universe is chaotic and unfair and nature is unpredictable, but there are some things that are reliable. As of today, the days grow longer. It always does every year. Yay!

Why must people try to spoil my fun? Yes, I know it's called Christmas currently and is meant to mark a religious event (although historically inaccurate). I know I'm not going to church on Saturday and I know I'm a skeptic on religious matters. Why does that bar me from celebrating?

Maybe I'm not celebrating the exact same thing you're celebrating, or celebrating in the same way, but that doesn't make it wrong. I don't tell you that you're wrong for celebrating the way you do. I don't say that it's bad or hypocritical to co-opt Solstice/Yule/Saturnalia, etc. I think you should enjoy your holiday in whatever way pleases you the most. I will do the same for myself and my family. My expression of a holiday isn't meant to denigrate your religion, or stop you from having a religious observance. It's just me, doing what I do on a day that's been designated for it.

If you don't like the way I celebrate Christmas, then don't celebrate it with me! It's that simple. Of course I would be very happy if you did. You might find out my celebration isn't so bad. I think I'm a fun person. I have a nice family. The food is always good in my house. Try it my way. You might like it.

Just don't tell me I have no right to do what I do because it doesn't follow the confines of your religion. You don't have to celebrate it my way. I don't have to celebrate it your way. In the end, if we do it right, we all still enjoy the day and that's what counts.

Go in peace, my friends.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Libera Canto

I just finished my second semester of singing class this week.

It has been an interesting journey in this class. The idea of Libera Canto shouldn’t even have to be a technique. It almost seems like something a singer unlearns in a lifetime of singing. I still had a hard time with it.

My first session of the class had me thinking of who I am as a singer. I understood that my teacher wanted me to understand what it meant to just sing a song, and not perform it. There really is a difference. We were doing all kinds of strange techniques to make this happen.

I still wasn’t sure if it was working. Was I really getting anything out of the class? My singing rarely received any individual attention. During the 6 weeks of the course, most of us only were able to sing our chosen songs solo once or twice. Was it helping me?

After the October disaster with the Harrison Players, I knew I hadn’t learned nearly enough.

I liked the teacher. I liked the other students. After meeting for a few sporadic, informal classes over the summer, I decided to try another semester as LMCCE was offering it again.

We kept working on the same techniques of course. There was lots of bodily and facial relaxation involved, and the usual exercises of taking the words of a song and making them into unintelligible nonsense.

Somehow it started to click. Brenda, my teacher often talked about singing as if you were a “drunk puppy” telling a story to other drunk puppies. Open your mouth. Wiggle your jaw. Stick your tongue out. Let the lyrics be sloppy but enthusiastic. I might be singing at home or in my car and a note would trouble me. I’d back off and go to the drunk puppy mode. I sang so sloppily I could hear the late Prof Stites (former Elizabethtown College choir director and King of Consonants) spinning in his grave. Suddenly things did feel freer. Notes were less difficult. I would gradually bring diction back into the song, gently closing my mouth around the words.

I began to learn that I could really open my mouth up and let the song flow, and still sing with diction. If I sang notes instead of words, the words would eventually follow the notes. I didn’t have to close my mouth and clamp my jaw and stiffen my tongue tightly around every word. I also found it easier to find a note when I made thinking of the note my priority rather than performing the song. The notes won’t always be right, but I can sing the song as if I didn’t care and it wouldn’t be so terrible.

I wondered if I had come far enough that I no longer needed the class, but I think I still have a little way to go. For one thing, I am just not at the stage where I can really make a song resonate with me, both physically and emotionally. If I don’t feel the emotion of the song, how will anyone else (hence why no one laughed when I sang my song in October)?

During a recent class one of my classmates sang a beautiful version of The Christmas Song (the song most people think is titled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). She varied it – played with it. After she sang it, Brenda complimented the “musicality” of her voice. I remembered my own attempts to put a few spins on the same song and had another flop. I couldn’t handle it. The whole thing was forced. I want musicality. I want that playfulness to be natural and beautiful.

I guess that’s why I know now that I’ll be joining the spring semester of this class. Now that I can understand a bit more how to let my voice flow more freely, I can stop being in my head so much when I sing and just find what I’m really meant to sound like. Where is my own “musicality”?

Friday, December 10, 2010

You Can't Say I Didn't Try to Do Good

This morning when I left my car and headed into the office, I left the bag containing my day's snack foods in it. I had an apple and some nuts.

At lunch I realized I still had a teensy bit of Christmas shopping left to do (I know I said I was finished, but one of my gifts isn't going to make it, so I had to find something else for this person). I went out to the Borders two exits up the highway from my office to find something.

When I exited the highway I saw a homeless man standing at the traffic light. I used to come through this area quite often and that man has been there many times before. I realized that I still had my bag of snacks with me. I thought it was some kind of cosmic coincidence. I had food in my car so I could give it to someone who needed it more than I did.

The light was red, so it was the perfect opportunity to offer my food to this man. I rolled down the window. He looked at me expectantly. I shoved the bag out the window and asked, "Would you like an apple?" He shook his head and gesticulated a lack of interest.

I'm a pretty sympathetic person. I know that I really have no idea how many paychecks separate me from the breadlines. I'm not heartless. I know hard times can happen to any of us. I want to help. I want to give someone who appears to be in need the benefit of the doubt.

My position is this: If you're truly hungry, you will accept food. I'm not saying I never give money. I just prefer not to give money because I have no idea how that money will be spent. I'm not buying some homeless person's cigarettes/booze/drugs. I'm happy to help fill an empty belly. I just want to make sure that's what the person really wants. I'd rather offer food. If you need it, you'll take it.

Am I wrong to feel a bit miffed in this case? I've been told that homeless people don't often like to be given hard fruits like apples because they often don't have the teeth to properly eat them. Despite this, I have seen homeless aid organizations give away free lunches that contain apples. I once gave an apple to a homeless person in the past and he took it gratefully.

On my way home I bought some soup for my lunch. Maybe I should have bought an extra one for that guy. How could he not want hot soup when he was standing outside on this freezing cold day? If had done that and he had refused it, I know I'd never take him seriously again.

If I'm on that road again and I have something soft to eat in my car in the future, maybe I'll give it a test. I don't want to lose my faith in humanity, especially in my own, but even I have my limits.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Decoration Equity

Hey look! I'm not doing the typical Christmas rant this year and am handling another topic entirely.

When I was a young twentysomething, making my way in the working world, I found myself working part time in a real estate office one December.

One afternoon the brokers began putting up the holiday decorations in the office. There were standard decorations with garlands and trees and pictures of Santa. The brokers wanted to be as ecumenical as possible and put up some decorations more evocative of Hanukkah as well. This also led to more discussion about how Christmas-y the Christmas decorations should be. Should they put up a crèche? They decided that both a crèche and a menorah were considered religious symbols. If you had one, you had to have the other and they weren’t sure how religious they should be. In the end, the decorations stayed with trees, santas, and pictures of dreidls (because a dreidl is a game and doesn’t have any real religious meaning behind it). Most of the brokers were Jewish, so I thought their reasoning was fair.

A year or two later I was working for a different company. December came and the decorations came out of storage. Most of the decorations were the kind one associates with Christmas. We had a cheap fake tree and pictures of Santa and probably some cheap garlands. We didn’t have many decorations for the tree, so we covered it with the merchandise the company sold. (We sold advertising tschotskes like pens and key chains – not the most festive or attractive stuff in the world.) Decorations couldn’t be more generic, but it was still “Christmas” in the traditional sense. A small contingent of employees lobbied for Hanukkah decorations. They made do for a while with some pictures of dreidls.

One day a coworker who was a devout Catholic put up a small, nicely decorated tree next to her desk. Beneath the tree was a crèche. She had it up for a day or two before she was ordered to take it down. She wasn’t sitting in the main part of the office. Customers would never see it. She was still told it was “offending” people. A day or two later a menorah appeared in the conference room. I felt a bit bad for my coworker. Why was she not allowed to display something religious when other religions were?

Right now in the lobby of my apartment building there is a Christmas tree. It’s a tall, tastefully decorated tree with no religious ornaments at all. There is no crèche to be seen. There is not even an angel. Next to the tree, on a table covered by a blue cloth printed with Stars of David, is an electric menorah, with a bulb lit for each of those 8 Crazy Nights. It is flanked by two teddy bears dressed in yarmulkes and tallises. One holds a Torah scroll and the other holds a dreidl.

There are two things I’ve learned from these various displays.

The first is that I may have to concede that the War on Christmas people may have a teeny-tiny-minuscule point. Christmas, a holiday celebrated in a religious way by what is likely a majority of the members of the majority religion in this country, is being a tad constricted publicly.

The second is that it’s really hard to decorate for Hanukkah. Can we decorate for any Jewish holiday using anything that’s the color of the Israeli flag? Come on! Teddy bears in yarmulkes? We have exactly two symbols that most shlubs will associate with the holiday. Inclusion is cool, but how does that inclusion happen when you’re talking about a minor holiday that isn’t exactly rich with seasonal symbolism?

What does a good holiday display need and how do we make it for everyone? How many holidays do Americans celebrate this time of year? Are we supposed to include Ramadan and Diwali? Do Muslims and Hindus have special decorations for these holidays? If they do, they must keep them in the house and aren’t compelled to show the whole neighborhood their holiday displays.

Now that I think of it, I rarely ever seen homes decked out in millions of pale blue lights and giant electric menorahs and inflatable dreidls in the neighborhood. I know plenty of Christians who like displaying electric menorahs in the window just to show how open-minded they are. My Catholic grandmother had one. I don't see much else in the way of Hanukkah decorations.

As I go along this line of thought, I have to ask why are we so pushed to decorate everything in sight anyway. It's not enough to put up a tree or some symbols of the season in our homes. We need reminders of the season everywhere we go. It's as if we're afraid we'll forget the holiday if we don't decorate everything everywhere. Not only do we need constant reassurance that it's Christmas, but we also have to make sure everyone is reminded too.

I suppose there is a point to this. Christmas and all of its trappings can generate some serious warm fuzzy feelings. Those decorations can engender a sense of joy and festiveness. We want to be surrounded by that joy. We want everyone else to feel that joy too. If everyone is feeling those feelings then we'll all get together and try to love one another.

The problem is that it doesn't always work. Not everyone will automatically feel festive if they see these decorations. They may not celebrate Christmas and don't enjoy being pressured to share the joy. Sure they can try to ignore it, but it's not always easy when it's in your face. If you don't celebrate Christmas, you may not want to feel compelled to enjoy the season. Also, those who are very sad or depressed or suffering may find the relentless effort at cheer and good will to be even more depressing.

The only thing decorator-happy people can do it try to represent everyone. That's not easy when there are a fair number of holidays to go around (hence the term "The Holidays") and more than one religion to deal with. Certain holiday symbols are often said to be offensive, even though their intention is never to offend, but only to represent a certain set of beliefs.

Is it really an offense, for example, to simply display a nativity scene? I don't really celebrate Christmas in any sort of Christian way anymore, but I don't think a creche is "offensive". I find them sort of fascinating really. Some are lovely works of art. Some are hilariously tacky. I find how the scene is depicted to be interesting. Who are the characters and how many of them are there? How many shepherds? Is the Little Drummer Boy included? How diverse are the players? Is one of the Wise Men black? Do Jesus, Mary, and Joseph look properly swarthy and semitic, or do they look as if the came off the assembly line at Mattel properly outfitted with golden hair and blue eyes? (Now that I think of it, while Mary and Jesus tend to be depicted with light brown hair and blue eyes, Joseph is always dark haired.) If a nativity scene is meant to convert me, it's doing a lousy job.

No one takes similar offense when Hanukah decorations are on public display. In every single situation I mentioned in this post, I seem to be the only one who noticed that Hanukah was the only holiday allowed to display its religious symbolism publicly. While I'm sure there are Christians who are fuming over this perceived inequality, would they ever go so far as saying they are "offended"? I would think not. After all, Christianity couldn't exist without Judaism and even if they're not lighting Hanukah candles, they know Jesus probably did.

Then there is Santa. Why Santa? Santa is supposed to be a secular figure, but he really isn't. Sure there are some right-wing Christian wackos who claim Santa is just an anagram of Satan, but it would be incorrect. Santa means Saint or holy . Santa Claus is just a bastardization of St. Nicholas (Niklaus or "Klaus" in the Northern European traditions from which modern Santa legends were born). St. Nicholas's feast day is in early December. It just made sense to integrate him him into Christmas just as it made sense to integrate yule logs and Christmas trees and a major holiday on the Solstice. When you think about it, Santa is probably the most Christian decoration you put into a holiday display with the exception of a nativity scene. Most other decorations have Pagan origins.

In other words, when you come right down to it, the Pagans are the only ones truly and consistenly represented by your average holiday display. Now who is going to be angry over that?