Tuesday, December 15, 2020

It's Tradition

I’m sure you’ve all heard some variation of this story: the young person is making the holiday meal for the first time, and their parent explains how to prepare the roast for the oven. One must cut a slice off each end before putting it in the roasting pan. Why do we do it that way? They ask. I don’t know, the parent replies, we’ve just always done it that way, it’s how my parent taught me.

When the holiday arrives, and they sit down to the holiday meal with the grandparent, the proud new cook asks the grandparent “why is it that we cut the ends off the roast each holiday?” “Because” replies the grandparent, “we had a small roasting pan, and that’s the only way it would fit.”

This story is a clear example of the wisdom and foolishness of tradition. We wisely cut the roast to fit the pan, but when the pan changes, we keep the tradition that is no longer useful.  

Traditions are an intricate and mysterious web of life hacks. Our winter holiday traditions contain generations of wisdom gathered over decades and centuries from cultures all over the northern hemisphere. How wise to have a celebration to anticipate during the difficult transition to winter. How wise to reach out to family and friends at a time when we might easily become isolated. The blue and white and silver of the Hanukkah tradition reflect the beauty of the winter night sky. The red and green colors draw our attention to the persistent life around us- the green of the evergreen tree, the red of a holly berry. The traditional foods are ones that could be made from local seasonal larders, like the traditional beef brisket and potato latkes, made from the potatoes and onions that most folks could have on hand in the winter. Like the fruit cake that lasted through winters before shrink wrap and refrigeration, long after the fresh fruit of summer and autumn were gone.

In my own family the holiday traditions are an intricate set of family accommodations that have evolved over the years. I grew up in a family that did most of our traditional celebrations early Christmas morning before breakfast. My husband’s family did most of their celebrating Christmas Eve before midnight mass. Now we have to consider things like my Christmas eve work schedule, and a complicated dance of visiting relatives who celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s challenging to sort out, but once the traditional holiday dance is working, miraculously meeting all those conflicting calendars and expectations, it tends to continue on its own magical rhythm, until something changes- a marriage, a death, a new child, a new job. One change can throw the whole family tradition into flux, until we find a new balance again.

This is the miracle of cultural traditions, as hundreds of thousands of people try to sync up their collective seasonal spiritual, logistical, emotional and economic needs and desires to observe and celebrate.A good symbol, like the light that does not go out for 8 days, means something to the spirit in a prosperous year, and still has relevance in a year of scarcity. It offers hope when hope is hard to find. It speaks of resilience. Over the thousands of years people have celebrated Hanukkah, those traditions have been touched by generation after generation, smoothed into a shape worn by the touch of ancestors, the warmth and wisdom of each generation adding to its richness.

Thomas Moore, who was a Catholic monk for 12 years before leaving for secular life, writes:

“Traditional rituals and images rise out of an historical fog in which the founders and authorities are more mythological than personal, and in which so many different layers of meaning lie packed together that the sacred literature becomes genuine poetry. .. Tradition is a pool of imagination...”
But the humans and cultures that create those traditions have shadows, and so inevitably our shadows find their way into those traditions too. I agree that our traditions carry a great depth of wisdom, but they also carry our oppressions we never intended. A patriarchal culture tends towards patriarchal traditions, for example.

Or consider the shadow side of cultural hegemony- the American Christmas calendar is so powerful, that it shuts down banks and schools, giving folks a much needed pause to spend time with spirit and with family.

But that machine has been used to fuel consumerism as well, hijacking the traditional wisdom of the winter holidays and cover our screens with images of an empty soul filled with a new car, or with a pile of toys to open. Our superficial, materialistic culture brings a superficial focus to our traditions, eclipsing the true miracle of new life, a miracle that comes to us out of the long nights of waiting, the labor of birth.

The Christian calendar also eclipses the wisdom and traditions of other cultures. No American school will schedule your final exam on Christmas day or on Easter in our Christian culture, but it is not uncommon for folks to have exams, or other secular obligations on the Jewish High Holidays, or during Ramadan. Traditions can be oppressive to folks who find themselves on the margins. If you were listening to Weekend Edition yesterday, you might have heard Jewish Author Arthur Levine talk about feeling “really erased by Christmas” as a child.  Even the most beautiful traditions cast a shadow.

That’s why Unitarian Universalists have always had a complex relationship with tradition. For parts of our history, we have even tried to let go of all traditions; when the chalice lighting was first introduced in our congregations it was met with skeptical resistance, even so innocuous a ritual felt dangerous. I believe, with Thomas Moore, that tradition is not what is dangerous, but the authority it holds.
“Tradition is often confused with institution, yet we could be guided by countless generations of ancestors without becoming oppressed by the words and structures they have left behind. We could be members of an institution without sacrificing our intelligence and our capacity to think and choose.
Tradition is a pool of imagination, and not a basis for authority.”
This sounds like a wise way for us to engage with tradition, that we allow ourselves to be guided by our generations of ancestors, while continuing to think and choose.

This year, when many things will be different, it’s a chance to re-evaluate the traditions, and find those that serve us today. This winter holiday season will not be like last year, but we are not the first generation to observe the winter holidays during a pandemic. We are not the first to observe the holidays during a time of great economic and political stress. Consider the wisdom that both Hanukkah and Christmas ask us to share what we have with folks who are struggling. In the Jewish tradition sharing with those in need is called Tzedakah. Union for Reform Judaism encourages folks on the 6th night of Hanukah:
“On the 6th night of Chanukah, we encourage families to teach their children about the needs of those less fortunate and donate the value of the gifts they would ordinarily exchange (or the gifts themselves) to local or national organizations assisting the poor..”
Or consider the origin of Hanukkah itself- it comes from the need to purify the temple after it was destroyed by King Antiochus IV. The desire to honor tradition as part of healing that devastating loss to the community created a new tradition that now speaks to people of hope, of religious freedom, of light in the darkness.
mask card from https://lafamiliagreen.com/

The changes we are pressed to make to our traditions this year may help shape and add to the wisdom of the traditions we inherited. Maybe years from now some parts of these new traditions will live on. The Christmas masks? The Hanukkah zoom call? Because we are wise too. We will add our wisdom to the centuries of wisdom that have shaped our rituals,

Traditions are like touchstones, made smooth as they have passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. As we hold these traditions in our hands in this very difficult year, we connect back to all those who have struggled with illness, with pandemic, with poverty, with political oppression, with sorrow, with depression. We connect with all those ancestors who have found hope and creativity and affirmed life in difficult times. We know when we enter into these traditions that we are not alone, that we are not the first to pass this way, nor will we be the last. May our wisdom, our choices, our imagination connect us to our children and our children’s children, their struggles and hopes. However you choose to observe the holidays this year, let our traditions be a reminder that we stand in a long line of humanity’s struggles and hopes that holds and supports us in this difficult time.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Wise Dark

The sun set yesterday at 4:33, giving us almost 15 hours of night. We are now 2 weeks away from the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Even though we have electric lights and can stay up all night working or playing if we choose, still our psyches and our bodies are affected by the long dark nights. My husband and I were done dinner by 6:00 last week, we both noticed a strong desire to go to bed. We resisted this on principle, of course. But there is a powerful inner urge to curl up with a blanket on the sofa as the nights grow.

To help us consider what makes this time of year special, I’d like to speak of “yin” and “yang” a duality that comes from ancient Chinese philosophy. Yang is the bright, active quality. Our culture loves this yang energy- we love doing, love knowing, love productivity, those active “yang” activities. “Yin” - associated with darkness, the moon, passive, cold, wet -is rarely celebrated in our culture.[i] Our culture is out of balance.

Here at the start of winter we feel like the absence of bright active yang, but in Chinese Philosophy, the Yin and Yang are both needed for the universe to exist. The long dark nights are not merely an absence of sun, they have a subtle quality of their own, special gifts unique to this early winter season, where nights are long and getting longer, Our human bodies, minds and spirits need the long nights at winter solstice as much as we need the long days at the summer solstice.

American teacher Jeanie Zandie speaks about this cultural imbalance, and our need to value Yin. She talks about the moments in the human life cycle that are yin moments; when we are gestating in the womb, when we are toddlers wobbling, when we are healing from illness or injury, when we sleep or rest, when we come to die. In our culture which values Yang so strongly, we tend to devalue those yin times as inefficient, wasteful, keeping us from doing what matters- our active productivity.

But some things can only happen in the dark. Consider a child growing in the womb, being held, surrounded, fed by its parent’s body. It grows without conscious intention. The parent too, while in the process of the great miracle of growing another life, embodies this yin energy. I remember when I was carrying Nick, I was often so tired I couldn’t make it through the workday without a nap. I would look at my book about baby growth, and see “ah, I’m tired today because we are growing lungs.” I noticed that not only was I tired, but my mind was less focused, and I joked “thank goodness growing a new life is an unconscious process- I can’t even remember where I put my keys, how could I be responsible for something so complex as forming a human lung?” Gestation is just one process that requires that dark yin energy to flourish.

Many religious teachings use imagery of moving from darkness toward light, as if light is sacred, and darkness unsavory. Our Unitarian tradition was born out of the enlightenment, rooted in the idea that humans could and should shine the light of reason and science into all the dark corners of our unknowing. This revolutionary new way of understanding the world empowered individuals to know for themselves based on the evidence of their senses. It was a turning point for humanity and our culture, shaping who we are today.

But the more we explored, we also came to understand the limits of our knowing. Jung, in his work with the psyche, along with many other psychologists how shown us the unconscious patterns and processes that inform our actions. Neuroscientists today understand that a large part of human processing happens without our conscious awareness[ii]. Even if we work our whole lives to shine the light of consciousness on the workings of our psyche, there will always be unconscious material. There will always be both yin and Yang.

Starhawk, author, activist, teacher in the Reclaiming tradition, writes in her book The Spiral Dance: “Starlight vision, the “other way of knowing,” is the mode of perception of the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind. The depths of our own beings are not all sunlit; to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.”

This dark time of the year is ideal for such “starlight vision.” At this time of year, when the sun is fully set before dinner, the light is more subtle, and it allows us to see more subtle things. By being quiet and still and listening deeply to ourselves, we notice all sorts of subtle, interior movements, like a feeling of peacefulness, or a settling of all the debris of daily life, of tenderness, of softening towards some old wound or tension. This is the reason many people close their eyes in prayer or meditation, to reduce the visual and auditory nose of our busy cluttered lives. Sometimes we will stop a business meeting and ask “how is everyone doing” and in that pause, folks will notice they feel angry, they feel frustrated, they feel anxious, they feel exhausted. Even big feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety can be hard to notice in the bustle of our activity. But as soon as we pause, they become immediately obvious. Perhaps that is part of what this bustling season is about- we keep busy because we may be afraid of what we will notice, what we will feel if we slow down.

We are a bit afraid of that inner dark I think that yin. But as Starhawk says: ”to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.” The transition from the long bright hot days of summer, to the cool dim velvety nights of winter is challenging every year, for humans and for other living beings, But as our eyes and psyches adjust, there are many beautiful things to see.

Consider the star-lit sky on a clear night. From my back yard in downtown Ithaca, I can see no more than a couple dozen stars on the clearest night. There is just too much human-created light. But I’m told the further one gets from the city, the more stars become visible. Some things are just too subtle to be seen in the full light of sun.

Often we talk about these early December weeks as a time of waiting for the return of the sun. But there is another quality of waiting I’m thinking of this year, like the waiting of an expectant parent, that cannot be rushed, where will and effort are not helpful. Like waiting for a loss or illness to heal. Preserving our energy for the unconscious processes of knitting tissue together or allowing the tears of grief to flow.

This month, as we celebrate the growing darkness, I encourage you to notice its subtle gifts to the psyche, to the spirit, and to our eco-system. Release the urgent striving of the harvest season, be, as poet Wendell Berry says “dark and still.” May you notice the many ways that “the dark, too, blooms and sings.

If you are inspired to take some time for a meditation on the wise yin of darkness, let me recommend this beautiful meditation by Jeannie Zandi


[i] . The philosophy also traditionally ascribes malensss to Yang and femaleness to Yin. but I don’t want to get trapped into a gender binary today- so I am going to talk about the duality without gender, which is a departure from traditional philosophy.

[ii] In a current text on the topic, Gozyaniga, Ivry and Mangren report that “The vast staging for our mental activities happens largely without our monitoring.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Humanist Practice for the Holidays

 As we approach the dark of winter, our practices are more important than ever; they keep us grounded and keep us pointed in the right direction in a quixotic world.

In the humanist tradition, our practices are grounded in the life around us in the present moment. Humanism strives to building a future that is ethical and just for all, that draws out the human capacities for goodness and helps us realize our own gifts in service to the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. This practice is about remembering what is truly important to you.

My ongoing touchstone space

Creating Your Touchstone Space:

  • Find a place in your home that can be undisturbed by cats or other roommates throughout the season.
    • Using your own aesthetic sense, do something to remind yourself that this is a special, set aside place. That might mean taking a cloth and polishing the space, or it might mean finding a scarf, doily, place-mat that you enjoy to mark the spot. It can be a simple or flamboyant as feels good to you right now.
    • Take a moment while the space is empty to think of what values and qualities you want to be reminded of this winter. Compassion? Truth? The scientific method? Democracy? Love? Make a list either in your mind or on paper.
  • One at a time, choose an item that reminds you of those qualities from around your home and place it in the space you have chosen. Items can be as mundane as a calculator that reminds you of reason, or a photo of a loved one to reminds you of compassion. It can be an object you already have, one you search for on a walk outside, or a word or image you draw on a card or slip of paper.
    • Take a moment to think of how you feel when you are really grounded in yourself, when you feel strong. Chose an object to remind you of that feeling of inner strength.
    • Remember where you get support when you don’t feel strong. Chose an object to remind you where you have experienced that support in the past.
    • Think of someone (a living being, a community) whom you know needs support, and add an object to keep them in your mind and heart. Maybe an object from the gift bag to remind you of your community?
    • What about words? Consider including a Favorite poem, prayer, or just write a word on paper.
    • Be sure to add some things that delight your senses. If you like things simple, enjoy the simplicity. If you want to add seasonal decorations, or a sprinkling of sequins, add something that draws your eye to this special place.
  • Next, Check for balance and harmony. Does it seem too heavy? Lopsided? Move things around, add, change, remove until it has a unified feeling as a whole.
A temporary space from spring of 2020

Throughout the season:
From time to time take a moment to stop at your touchstone place, and notice if there is something that catches your eye, or something you want to remember. Take a moment to hold the object in your hand- (we remember best when multiple senses are engaged). As the season progresses, notice, is there anything you would add, change, remove?

When the season Ends:
Take a moment with each object to remember why you added it, and notice if anything has changed or shifted in you or in the world since that time. Perhaps say a statement of gratitude as you feel moved, remembering that science tells us gratitude is good medicine. Return the objects to their usual places, knowing they will hold the power of memory wherever they are.