Maxim Monday: Honor a benefaction

I actually had to look up what a benefaction is. I figured it meant something positive. It does: a charitable gift or deed. Honor gifts given or good deeds done.

How can we do this? I think a simple ‘thank you’ is always sufficient and in good taste. The art of thank you cards seems to have died out, but are always a nice touch. Sometimes an email or phone call to say thank you can work just as well. Perhaps this means not giving anonymously? Allowing others to thank you for your donations or efforts on their or their organization’s behalf. Perhaps this means praising others that you know give graciously of their time and other resources.

There’s not much to say about this maxim. Merely, simply: thank you.

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Giving Thanks

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. A day where we all eat the same meal containing too many carbs and too much sugar. A day where we drive some distance to be with family we only see once a year at most. Or a day where we’re plotting our shopping itinerary to take advantage of Black Friday sales that start at midnight to buy cheap shit we don’t need.

Ok, that’s the cynical view, but on a broad scale I’m not too far off. I love me a holiday, so while I am deeply cynical of the holiday and the trappings I hear about out in the world, my husband and I keep things simple and end up enjoying a delicious meal with whichever friends and family come to us.

But this year has been different. This week I got to experience Thanksgiving as seen through the eyes of the American public school system as an adult. I am shocked and dismayed to report that nothing has changed since 1980. Teachers are still making kids create teepees (which I am pretty sure belonged to Native Americans from the central plains, not the eastern seaboard), wear various headdresses, calling Native Americans ‘Indians,’ and basically spewing an historically sketchy version of events using the word ‘God’ in the story. My history degrees cringed and wept. The liberal snob in me was appalled. The mother in me smiled like a fool while my kindergartener happily (and politely!) ate up his plate of various corn products.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Oh hey look, this is not how it happened! Nothing about this scene is accurate. Painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

No, Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday of freedom. The Pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution, but they did not believe in ‘freedom for all.’ Perhaps from a white colonialist point of view their landing was a step toward their freedom. But we know how the story ends – with Native American populations more than decimated by war and disease, forced off their lands and into spaces that forced them to renounce their languages, families, customs, and gods. This is not a holiday celebrating the kindness of whites to Natives, or their friendship.

I think there are ways to discuss the contested origins and perspectives of this holiday that even 5 year olds can appreciate. (This is a good look at the Native American perspective.) I expected that in a rather liberal, hippie town such as Olympia that there would be more nuance in this unit. I was terribly mistaken.

Yes, capitalist powers have eaten into this idea by creating a national day of shopping on the Friday after. Yes, this holiday is much more easily celebrated by the middle and upper classes who can afford the standard meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and who are not compelled to work on a day that most people get off. Cynicism and criticism vented, I still celebrate this holiday and think that, in general, it is a positive one for the United States. Why? Because anything that can bring attention to the history and current status of Native Americans is a good thing. Because having a national holiday that focuses on giving thanks is a good thing. Because in spite of the cynicism and distractions of food and goods people still post all over the internet and share in person the things that they are grateful for. Gratitude is serious spiritual and magical work.

Today I am grateful for the beautiful weather my region has been having and the sun that lifts my spirits. I am grateful for my husband and children who bring love and joy into my life every single day. I am grateful for a healthy, uneventful pregnancy, and an active fetus wiggling like mad inside me. I am grateful that Adam’s parents have chosen to live near to us, that we will drive a simple and lovely 20 minutes to their house today. I am grateful that we have enough to eat and that my parents showed me how to cook, so that I can eat what I want to eat. I am grateful for the people in my life, near and far, who support me in my fullness.

Wherever you are, I hope you will take a moment to practice an expression of gratitude. If you are American, I hope you find a way to celebrate this day in a way that has meaning for you and yours. May your families, biological and chosen, be blessed. May your stomachs be full. May you be blessed by the land and your communities. Safe travels to all who are on the roads, in the skies, or on the rails this weekend.

Blessings to one and all!

Maxim Monday: Give back what you have received

I think this is basically an ancient way of saying ‘Pay it forward.’ I absolutely agree with this idea. Now that I have a family, I believe this even more. I can respect and care for my parents, who have given me much for my success in life. But I can pass on the gifts and resources to help my kids succeed as a way of paying forward the generosity shown to me.

And not just my kids, but everyone’s kids. Modern America is a divided society, segregated primarily by class. We have less upwards economic mobility than we have in several generations, and less than most other industrialized nations, particularly Western Europe. Rising inequality is primarily to blame. My husband and I talk about how much easier it was to buy a house and support a family with only one working parent 30 years ago than it is now. Yet, I feel like those of us in our 30s and 40s are still living under the expectations that we can have the lives our parents had, and raise kids the way we were raised. I don’t think it’s possible. At least, not without help.

Giving back, helping others, is much easier if we ourselves have received assistance. It’s easy to judge welfare recipients if we’ve never struggled to pay bills, afford stable housing, or get enough to eat. I guess some people are so used to having others pay their way or handle their struggles for them that they expect others to always bail them out. I’ve met very few of those people in my life. Most people I know have worked hard and accepted help when it’s been needed.

Adam reminds me that perhaps this maxim might be talking about giving back negative things. I don’t know how the actual Greek breaks down. Instinctively, I leaped to the positive interpretation. I’d like not to live in a world where we give back negative for negative. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, so goes the saying. I’d rather walk away from those who hurt me or create systems of oppression and work instead to pay forward the good.

Too much of politics and parenting seem built around the bitter attitude of ‘well, I had it hard, and I turned out fine, so you shouldn’t have it any easier!’ But what if we didn’t have to work so hard? I’m not talking being lazy and never working diligently for anything. I mean, what if we didn’t have to work obscene hours at menial jobs for pay that doesn’t afford us basic health care? What if we didn’t have to protect children from abuse and neglect? What if we didn’t have fear walking down the street at night? What if we didn’t have to have bars on our windows and make certain we locked every door? Why can’t we make it easier for our descendents?

So I’ll be voting for things that make others’ lives easier. I’ll be raising my kids with every resource that’s been given to me. I’ll be donating regularly, even when times are tough, to area organizations doing the same. (This last one is also enlightened self-interest. Who knows when I might need assistance?) Paying it forward, giving back what you have received, is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is an antidote to bitterness. Gratitude is also a powerful way to make our families and communities better, healthier, happier, stronger units.

Living Saraswati

Today begins the final three days of Navratri, in which Saraswati, goddess of language, knowledge and sound, is honored. I have an affinity with Her, as I have spent much of my life in pursuit of education and knowledge, as well as honing my singing skills.

Saraswati is comparable to the Greek goddess Athena in many ways. Both are independent; Saraswati, unlike most of the other Hindu goddesses, is not the consort of any male deity; her devotion to her studies means she has little time for domestic duties or love relationships. Like Athena who was born from the head of Zeus, Saraswati “emerged from Brahma’s mouth as the power of the creative word.” (Sally Kempton, Awakening Shakti, p. 178) Like Athena she has a bird as a companion, though a swan, not an owl. Sraswati is invoked for creative inspiration, musical skill, depth of knowledge, learning of languages, communication, wisdom, and all forms of general study. I think modern inclusions might be computer coding, scientific research, problem solving, and all forms of discernment. In a world where women have only recently had widespread access to education, I find it fascinating that a female has long been the embodiment of all these things!

Saraswati

Saraswati

As I sat in meditation yesterday I was reminded of the blessings I’ve received thanks to my education, and in the course of my studies I never forgot the privilege it was to be a woman, much less studying theology. In the United States, until fairly recently, it was a rare event for women to study theology. Several of the women that I studied under (including the iconic Rosemary Radford Ruether) received their doctorates in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of them did not write their dissertations on the topics for which they are now known. For example, Judith Plaskow, renowned Jewish feminist theologian, wrote her dissertation on the theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, two Protestant theologians. I will wager a guess that the female professors I was able to study under at the graduate level had few, if any, female professors themselves when they were in school.

Looking at the broader history of Western religion and education, I can quickly name only three great female theologians before the mid-twentieth century, Saints Macrina, Hildegard von Bingen, and Julian of Norwich. Macrina the Younger was sister to two of the three great Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory wrote about her, praising her intellect and claiming that she had a prominent role in his education. It is not unlikely that she influenced his theology, yet she wrote nothing of her own. Hildegard von Bingen lived in the twelfth century and was nothing short of a polymath genius. She was a mystic, a theologian, an abbess, a composer, and a scientist. Julian of Norwich, born in the mid-fourteenth century, is most famous for her Revelations of Divine Love, a collection of her mystical visions.

There are other mystics and influential female theologians, but not many in the grand sweep of a Christian tradition of two thousand years. Given that most people did not receive a formal education, and women not even until the late 19th century, I see my own education as a recent privilege and do not take it for granted. Even today in many parts of the world women are still denied access to an education. Many boys may receive only a basic education or are given only a religious education, without an understanding of science, arts, and the world around them.

We can see the struggle for learning in the life of young Malala Yousafzai. She is a Pakistani Muslim, so I hope she will forgive the comparison, but I see her as an incarnation of Saraswati. This is the young girl who was shot in the face by the Taliban for doggedly pursuing her studies, even after she had been warned to quit. She survived, had reconstructive surgery, and now speaks – in excellent English – around the world on behalf of education for all. Her determination and insistence that education is important, valuable, and necessary is full of Saraswati energy. Not only must she contain some fierce passion in her heart, and have the love and support of those closest to her, but surely she must be blessed by Saraswati and Athena and all the gods who love learning! I imagine Athena and Saraswati proudly blessing their bold daughter, Malala. I cannot help but think the gods love her: she was shot in the face and did not die, but held fast to her dedication to learning. With that dedication she now, at the age of 16, campaigns for everyone’s right to learn.

I am in awe of her. I will ask Saraswati for blessings upon her, her family, and her work.

As a white, middle class American it can be far too easy to take education for granted. I harbor a deep love of learning. I crave complex ideas, beautiful words, and critical thinking. And as a woman I do not take the opportunity for education for granted. I expect my children, a boy and girl, to value learning. My husband and I can talk about why and how our education and ability to learn has benefited us. I can point toward the history of women being allowed to learn at all. I can point to Malala, reminding them that in some parts of the world, it’s not just females who aren’t allowed to learn, but boys’ learning is limited as well. There are plenty of examples of how limited education is bad for all people and all societies. The rise of militant religious fundamentalism is but one very strong example.

In honor of Saraswati, I praise education. Let us educate our sons and daughters, let us honor all incarnations and glimpses of Saraswati and Athena, and let us continue to educate ourselves!

Harvest in the Pacific Northwest

At the beginning of August many of my Pagan friends celebrated the first harvest, commonly known as Lammas or Lughnasadh (from the Celtic calendar system). That observance has never meant much to me. I am not a farmer, and have spent precious little time in places where early August means first fruits of any kind. Now in Washington, it means the height of summer, and I spend my summer time waiting for the days to cool.

As August passed I began to have half-formed thoughts of salmon. Had my father said anything about his catch this year? A good catch means smoked salmon.

Lo and behold, a box arrived in the mail yesterday. 9 pounds of hard smoked, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, that my father caught, cleaned, filleted and smoked himself. I realized this to me is harvest. August is when the best fishing occurs in South East Alaskan waters; this is when the abundance arrives.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

Vacuum packed for longevity.

We’re not yet to the autumnal equinox for the spirit of the season to truly shift for me, but we’re now at the end of summer. In Washington the salmon are running, traveling upstream to spawn. The green chiles and tomatillos, strong bitter greens and garlic are appearing at the farmers’ markets. I stock up on these. I try to make as much salsa verde as possible to store through the winter. Something about tomatillos feels like edible sunshine to me.

But Salmon is the Life Giver to me.

Growing up my family was a subsistence fishing family. I don’t think I thought of this way until long after I’d moved out of Alaska. Many families fish all summer to fill their freezers. In a land where food costs are exorbitant (everything is shipped in from ‘Outside’), salmon was ‘free.’ I remember sitting at the dinner table thinking ‘UGH. Salmon? AGAIN?!’ Not until I moved away to college did I discover that fresh salmon was a meal of privilege. I imagine that Montana ranchers feel similarly about grass-fed beef.

Salmon, halibut, crab – these are gifts of the Alaskan waters. They nourish me, the salmon especially; they connect me to my roots; they remind me that the waters and livelihoods of Washington are intimately connected with those of my homeland. When Celtic legends speak of the Salmon of Wisdom, I understand that deep in my bones. When Northwest Coast peoples tell stories of the sacrifice that salmon make for the people and how important the salmon are to traditional ways of life, I understand that. In a Christian way of thinking, every bite is a Eucharist.

So I offer up first fruits to the gods, to the Spirits of this place, and to my family. I thank my father for sending me this annual gift. I thank the Salmon and the Waters. I work toward preserving those waters. I nourish my family with bounty of this Land. We are what we eat, and we are people of Salmon.

Hail to the Harvest! Thanks be to the Mighty Salmon!

Guru Purnima

Today is the full moon and this moon marks Guru Purnima, a day to honor our gurus, or teachers.

As someone who has valued learning and been successful at school, I’ve had pretty good relationships with most of my academic teachers along the way. I am also a self-motivated, independent learner, some one who is confident in my ability to find out what I need to know. I also hate being told what to do. I tend to learn best through brutal experience. I care more about the knowledge than the A grade. These qualities can make having a mentor rather tricky for me.

Today I’d like to honor the many teachers who have left their mark on me. There are many people whose names I don’t remember any more (I’ve got depression related issues with my memory from my 20s), so they will be remembered in spirit when I light my candle and list the following names.

First, there is my academic life and all the teachers I’ve had along the way. I am grateful to most of them. Mr Len Peterson, my 10th grade geometry teacher, immediately comes to mind. He was always available for assistance. Thanks to him I got my first A in math. I am grateful for Sarah Boss, my PhD adviser, for her encouragement and enthusiasm for my ideas.

I spent 20 years studying classical voice. Along the way I’ve had some good teachers, some awful teachers, and some great teachers. I am especially grateful for John D’Armand and Byron McGilvray, who early on gave me good technique and believed that I could do something big with my voice. More recently, I am grateful to Ann Moss who restored fun to my lessons and explored my voice with me when I was pregnant with my first child.

I am grateful for Carolyn Brown, yogini extraordinaire. I am grateful to Mike Miller (may he rest in peace), my swimming coach, for being like a second father to me.

Spiritually, I am grateful to my uncle Jon for sending me my very first Bible of my own, to Fr. Mark Koczak for showing me the beauty of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, to T Thorn Coyle for being perhaps my first Official teacher, and most especially to my present teachers, W & N, who are the teachers I’ve always wanted.

The list could not be complete without mentioning my ever loving husband, Adam, and our two children. Nothing has been more character building and more educational to me than the commitment to life long relationship, and all three of my immediate family members teach me this every single day.

Father and daughter

Father and daughter

Maxim Monday: Do a favor for a friend

I like this one. Probably because I’m already good at it. Probably because this one is in enlightened self-interest.

This Maxim to me is one of the foundations of community building. Now that I have children I can see the needs and benefits of doing a favor for a friend (or neighbor) even more than before! Thriving in this world takes a group effort. While I believe we have to take responsibility for our own actions, we can only thrive (and by that I mean more than just get by) when we work together. Parenting is hard, constant work. We need neighbors and friends to do the occasional babysitting favor so we can get a hair cut, see the doctor without children in tow, or maybe just get some down time.

Doing a favor is a form of sharing what we have a lot of. Maybe you’ve got time or space. Maybe you’ve got money. Maybe you have a lawn mower and your friend doesn’t. Or whatever.

Doing a favor for a friend makes their life easier. I like doing favors for my friends, knowing that often it’s an easy way to be really helpful. I like knowing that I help others often and joyfully, and that helps me feel less guilty or hesitant about asking others for help.

Little favors are a great way to build community and strengthen the everyday bonds between friends and neighbors.

(Of course, don’t forget good boundaries!)