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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Those Who Make It Possible

Years ago, when my husband and I were foster parents, the sweetest almost 5-yr old girl arrived into our care.  Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed by a psychologist as mentally retarded confirming an earlier diagnosis prior to foster care.  Starting Kindergarten, we were told she would never learn to read.  And yet, despite her 10-word vocabulary, my husband and I remained convinced that people underestimated her potential.  She had grown up in an environment where she was under stimulated.

We began working with the doctor to wean her off the psychiatric drugs she had been started on before foster care (the birth family had convinced the doctors that she was mentally ill and self-abusing) and started talking to her throughout the day.  The response was phenomenal.  She began bonding to us immediately and increasing in vocabulary.  It was an amazing thing to see. 

In the early years, the differences between her and her peers were not so apparent but as she aged, they became more pronounced.  It became difficult for her to make friends with other children and she began to become more and more withdrawn from them.  At church, the children were kind and polite, but she was never included in birthday parties and the like.  At school, she was taunted by the other kids, but seemed to be successful making friends in the special education classroom.  My husband and I finally realized that, if she was going to make friends, it would have to be within her own peer group. 

Throughout her life, she has participated in Special Olympics, The ARC of Sedgwick County, and just this year, Laughing Feet Productions.  These organizations allow people with developmental disabilities to do the things that other people take for granted including normal social activities.  Socialization would be difficult without these opportunities.  Because of these organizations, our adopted daughter has been able to be a cheerleader; play on a soccer team, t-ball team, basketball team, and volleyball team; run track; bowl in a league; go on overnight fieldtrips and other outings with friends and without her parents; and perform on stage before a live audience in a professional venue. 

Many people support these organizations allowing those like my daughter to get some of the same satisfaction out of life that most of us take for granted.  I wonder how many of these contributors realize just what a difference they make in the lives of those served by these organizations.  This past week-end, my daughter and her friends put on a performance on stage that made them feel like movie stars and received a standing ovation.  I just want to say thank you to the volunteers and financial contributors who make opportunities like this available.  You are heroes in my eyes.  Does anyone agree?

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Walk on the Other Side

Having grown up in white, middle class America, it is sometimes easy to underestimate the impact of racial biases in this country today.  I am not quite as often exposed to the issues on a direct and personal basis,  so what happened to me recently helped bring me to a little deeper understanding of the experiences I have heard from so many others.

Finding myself in another city at dinnertime, I saw a Chinese restaurant offering a buffet and it sounded very appealing.  I like Chinese food and hadn't indulged myself in quite a while.  Not being in Wichita, I knew nothing about this restaurant but it seemed nice when I went in.  The buffet lines were full of tempting food.  I was seated promptly, and a waiter of Asian descent took my drink order quickly and invited me to help myself to the buffet.

Now it seems only fair to say that absolutely nothing objectionable happened to me while I was in this restaurant.  Yet, by the time I finished filling my plate at the buffet and returned to my table, I understood clearly that I was unwelcome there.  Why was that?  Was it the man in front of me who turned his back when I smiled at him entering the buffet line?  Was it the mother who pulled her child away and turned her head to face the other direction when she tried to speak to me?  ... or could it have been the woman next to me who moved to another line when I said, "Hello."  Perhaps these are the "micro inequities" they talk about in diversity training classes.

As I sat down at my table to eat my food I felt very uncomfortable but I wasn't completely sure why.  After all, no one had actually done anything to me.  I began to mull this over in my head and I thought about the diversity training I have taken and moderated and I started to remember some of the comments people have made.  "I just didn't feel comfortable."  "Something made me feel unsafe."  "They acted as if my being there made them nervous."  "There was no one there who looked like me."

I gazed around the restaurant and it was true.  There was no one there who looked like me.  Not one other customer had white skin or red hair.  And I began to notice that people from the other tables were occasionally giving me nervous glances like I was making them uncomfortable.  I started to wonder if, just by being there, I was ruining their dinner.  I could tell by the way they occasionally nodded toward me that they were talking about me at some of the tables.  Needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience at all.  I really didn't feel comfortable being there.

Now this king of thing is truly not an everyday occurrence for me and I found it curiously enlightening.  I don't experience this often so for me, I will welcome this as an opportunity to increase my understanding.  I have heard people, who are members of minority groups, say how wearying it can be to find themselves dealing with this sort of thing on a recurring basis.  And now I can begin to understand that a little better.  I wonder if anyone else out there has had an experience that helped them understand another group just a little bit more.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wherefore art thou, Valentine?

Valentine's Day is usually believed to have originated as a day of commemoration for Saint Valentine, a Roman who was martyred for his faith on February 14, 269 A.D. As it happened, St. Valentine's Day fell on Lupercalia, the Roman festival of wolves.   On this day, men and women would choose partners for the day and celebrate fertility.  The men would playfully whip the women and then couples would pair up for fertility rites. In more modern times, Italian couples sit and read poetry together, or listen to music though, in Rome, St Valentine's Day is still known as Lupercalia, a very romantic and pleasure-loving occasion.  

Over time, February 14th became associated with love, romance and sweethearts.  St. Valentine’s Day has spread around the globe and is even popular in many countries where the government has specifically banned it.  No matter where you are or how you celebrate, one thing seems evident…love is truly universal. 

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, single people would draw names from a bowl to determine whom their valentines would be and then wear these names on their sleeves for one week. This is where we get the expression “wearing your heart on your sleeve” to mean that it is easy for other people to know your feelings.

In olden times, women used to watch for birds flying overhead on St. Valentine’s Day.  It was believed to be an indication of whom the woman would marry:
·         robin - she would marry a sailor. 
·         sparrow - she would marry a poor man but be very happy
·         goldfinch - she would marry a millionaire

In Denmark, a transparency is sent which is known as a lover’s card. When held up to the light, you can see a picture of a lover handing his love a gift.  People also trade poems and candy snowdrops.  Joking letters, gaekkebrev, are sent with the sender’s name signed as dots.  If the recipient can guess the correct person, they will send that person a candy egg at Easter.

In France, there used to be a tradition known as Calling for Valentines. This custom involved unmarried men and women going into houses which faced each other and then calling out across from one window to the other, hoping to pair off with the one they have chosen.  If the young man didn't care for the valentine he was paired with, he would desert her.  Afterwards, a bonfire was lit where the young ladies who had been deserted would yell out abuse while burning images of the deserters.  Eventually, the French government came out against this practice as it culminated in not-so-loving incidents.

In Scotland, St. Valentine's Day is celebrated as a festival during which an equal amount of single men and women get together. Each writes their name (sometimes their real name…sometimes not) on a piece of paper which is then rolled up. The names are placed in two hats and a drawing is held, splitting the group into couples.  Gifts are given to the ladies who then wear the name of their valentines over their hearts or on their sleeves.  There is often a dance and sometimes even romances or marriage after the festival.  It is common practice for established lovers to give each other a love token or a true love knot.

Germans love flowers which is evident on St. Valentine's Day.   Large bouquets of flowers are chosen for that special lady but they must be her favorites. This shows that the man has been paying attention and doesn’t just think of her as “any girl”.

In Victorian England, elaborate Valentine's Day cards used to be given among family and friends.  This custom was then taken to Australia where elaborate valentines were made out of a satin cushion.  The cushion was perfumed and decorated with flowers and shells.  A taxidermed humming bird or bird of paradise was also included and then the valentine would be delivered in a decorated box.

In Korea and Japan, young women give candies to their boyfriends. While the Korean women buy these chocolates, the Japanese women think it is not true love unless they make the chocolates themselves. There is another special day called 'White Day" on March 14 which is just the opposite of St. Valentine's Day.  Young men give chocolates to their girlfriends and confess their love. Young people in Korea who have no girlfriend or boyfriend have another special day called 'Black Day' on April 14. On this day, they eat Jajang noodles with friends who are similarly unattached.  

In Taiwan, St. Valentine's Day is celebrated February 14th, but there is also a special Valentine's Day on the Seventh Day of the Seventh Month of the Chinese lunar calendar. This second day is based on a Chinese fairy tale from long ago.  Both are important days to send flowers.  These flowers can contain a host of messages. One red rose means an only love while eleven roses mean a favorite. Ninety-nine roses mean forever but one hundred and eight are a marriage proposal.

Here in the United States, roses also symbolize both love and forgiveness. White roses are for true love, red roses are for passion, and yellow roses are for friendship. Black roses mean farewell. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Is it Spring Yet?

We've all heard of Punxsutawny Phil, that infamous little groundhog who shows his head bright and early on a February morning in Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania each year to predict the early arrival of Spring.  And, as many know, he has a good friend named Wiarton Willy, who is responsible for predicting the weather in Canada.   Such an enormous job for two such small fellows.  How did they get such a big responsibility?

Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd, or Candlemas, which falls halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox.  Candlemas is the day set aside to remember the day of the Christ Child's presentation at the Temple on the day of Mary's Purification after His birth.  European superstition once held that if it was sunny on Candlemas, an additional six weeks of winter weather would occur.  If it was cloudy, Spring would come early.  The Germans used an animal (usually a badger or a hedgehog) as an instrument to determine whether or not it was sunny out on this day.  When the German settlers came to Pennsylvania, they brought this practice with them and adopted the groundhog as their animal indicator.  The first "official" trip to Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawny on Groundhog Day to obtain Phil's prediction was made in 1887 by a group of groundhog hunters known as "The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club." Today, the largest Groundhog Day celebration is still conducted in Punxsutawny though celebrations are held in a number of other states and various Amish communities. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Many people believe that the Twelve Days of Christmas occur during the days leading up to Christmas.  Actually, that is not correct.  The Twelve Days begin on Christmas Day (December 25th) and run through Epiphany (January 6th).  This period of time is also known to many of us as Christmastide, Yuletide, or Twelvetide.  But don't be confused... the twelve nights run from Christmas Eve (December 24th through January 5th.

Initially, gifts were distributed to their recipients during the course of the twelve days, as is seen in Drennon's famous song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  Today, however, these twelve days and nights are celebrated differently in different places around the world.  In some countries, gifts are only given on Christmas Day while in other places they are given only on the Twelfth Night or, in some places, on each of the twelve nights. 

But how did all of this get started?  Many believe that the lengthy holiday season is patterned after the Germanic Yuletide or possibly even the Roman Saturnalia, pagan customs though they may be.  We know that during the Middle Ages, these twelve days in England consisted of continuous feasting and 'merrymaking'.  Today, countries in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth still celebrate many of the Christmastide traditions such as Boxing Day, plum pudding, and Wassail.

When the early colonists came to the new world from England, they adapted their own version of the twelve days for their new country.  This version acquired variations through the years becoming uniquely American.    It is believed the the Christmas wreath originated with the colonists who made these decorations for their doors out of the local pine.  It was tradition to make these on Christmas Eve and then to hang them on the door through either the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning. 

The Twelfth Day, Epiphany, is the day set aside to remember the visit of the Magi (wise men), or kings from the east.  In many countries, a king's cake, is baked for Epiphany.  The cake is baked with a real fava bean inside.  Whoever finds the fève is obligated to provide the cake next year.  His partner, likewise, is obligated to provide next year's champagne.  In some English-speaking countries, it is believed to be unlucky to leave Christmas decorations up past the Twelfth Night or Epiphany morning, though in non-English speaking countries, they are often left up until Candlemas (February 2nd).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) Customs

Hanukkah is an eight day holiday which marks the miraculous victory of the Jews, led by the Maccabees, against Greek persecution and religious oppression. In addition to being victorious in war, a miracle occurred.  When they came to rededicate the Temple, they found only one flask of oil with which to light the Menorah. This small flask lasted for eight days. In order to commemorate this miracle, Jews light a Menorah for the eight days of Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is not a Jewish version of Christmas. Although it is celebrated the same time of year, Hanukkah commemorates the physical and spiritual victory of the Jews over the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

Hanukkah is also known as the:
o   Festival of Lights, since the flame in the Temple burned miraculously for eight days.
o   Feast of Dedication, since the Temple was rededicated after being desecrated.

Hanukkah is celebrated from 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet, according to the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, so it falls on different dates each year. This year Hanukkah began the evening of December 8, 2012. Remember that all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the evening before. 

One way Hanukkah is celebrated is through food.  Because the oil in the lamps lasted for eight days, during Hanukkah Jewish people eat foods fried in oil.  Most often this is latkes (fried potato pancakes) and deep fried donuts.  Cheese is also eaten in remembrance of how one of the greatest victories against the Maccabees was gained by feeding the enemy cheese.

Children play with the dreidel in remembrance of the brave children who lived during the time of the conquering Greeks.  Every effort was made by the Greeks to force Hellenism upon the Jews at the expense of teaching Jewish Law and the Torah schools were closed.  Hence, Jewish Law had to be taught to the children in secret in the forest.  When the Greek patrols would come by, the children would hide their books and play with tops to cover what they were doing in the woods.  Today, four Hebrew letters are on the dreidel and they are an acronym for “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”—a great miracle happened there.

Because Hanukkah is associated so closely with the education of children, it is also customary to give Chanukah gelt (money) to children on each of the 8 days of the season.  This enables the children to be taught about giving to charity from out of what one has in order to honor G-d.  The Jews remember that the Greeks did not take their possessions but rather defiled them by using them for impure pursuits.

Spiritually, Jews celebrate Hanukkah in the morning prayer service each day by reciting the complete Hallel (Psalms 113-118) and reading from the Torah about the offerings brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle.  This is a reminder to them of the Maccabean rededication of the Temple after it had been defiled by the Greeks.  A special prayer of thanksgiving (V’al Hanissim) is also inserted in the prayers and grace after meals during Hanukkah.

It is intended that the Menorah be lit by every Jew everywhere during Hanukkah in remembrance of the Menorah that burned miraculously for eight days.  Candles can be used but ideally, olive oil is considered to be more representative.  In the Torah, we see the Menorah in the first and second Temples described as having had seven branches.  After the Temples' destruction, a tradition arose among the Jewish people that nothing from the Temple should be duplicated so Menorahs began to appear having six branches.  The Hanukkah Menorah, however, has nine branches: eight to hold the oil or candles to be burned during the eight days of Hanukkah and one to hold the Shamash, which is used to light the other candles.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Evolution of Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas was born in the third century in Turkey, in a village then known as Patara, Lycia to a wealthy family.  Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

It is said that Nicholas once learned of a poor man who had three daughters.  Because their father could not afford a dowry for them, the daughters had no hope of marriage and would be sold into slavery.  This would sentence them to a certain life of prostitution.  On three separate evenings, Bishop Nicholas threw a bag of gold through an upstairs window providing a dowry for each of the daughters, thus saving them from being sold.  As the story goes, the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the fire to dry and in shoes placed on the hearth.

St. Nicholas Day is celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death - Dec 6, 343.  Dressed in his red bishop’s robes, he is said to bring gifts to children just as he did in many of the stories told about him through the ages.  And, in memory of the three daughters he saved from being sold into slavery, he comes early while the children are still sleeping and leaves presents. Before children go to sleep they place a bowl or plate under their bed, hang a stocking by the fireplace or put a pair of shoes in front of the door (varies by country).  In Europe, this early advent gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day helps to preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.

In Germany, Martin Luther replaced the name of the gift bringer with the Christ Child, or, in German, Christkindl.  Through the years, this was eventually mispronounced enough that it became Kriss Kringle, another name by which we know St. Nicholas.  But, brought to the United States by immigrants, the English speaking children often mispronounced the Dutch version of his name, Sinterklaas, and he eventually became known to us here in the U.S. as Santa Claus. 

Now, in order to convince folks that Coke was not just a summer drink, the Coca-Cola Company began featuring Santa on their bottles to depict the idea that the beverage could be consumed at any time of the year. Until that time, Santa had traditionally worn Nicholas' red bishop’s robe, as we see on early Santa figures; he changed from Bishop’s attire to a red suit with trousers in the United States when he began appearing on the Coke bottles. 

Today, St. Nicholas continues to evolve each year as songs, television specials, and movies spin new and ever changing details about Santa, reindeer, and the North Pole.  Changing at a pace never before seen, it is my belief that our children’s children will know a completely different St. Nick than we do today as he is already hardly recognizable as the Bishop of Myra.