Thursday, December 23, 2010

Addendum To The Previous Post

Here's the clip from The Vicar of Dibley I was talking about, with a bit of context.  Just be careful where and when you watch it, because of a couple of the jokes are definitely not work-safe, and abslolutely not kid-safe.

A Yule and Christmas Reflection

So here we are, about halfway between the Solstice and Christmas; I've had this post halfway in mind for the past week, but it finally seems to have come together.

In many ways, the Winter Solstice is my favourite part of the year.  Up to that point, the amount of sunshine we get has been getting progressively smaller.  We tend to get large amounts of snow where I live, sometimes all at once (the second huge snowfall we got here was actually so bad that when the guy we hired to plow our too-long-to-shovel driveway came to clear a bit of the snow, he got very badly stuck and a tow truck had to come to pull him out of it), it's usually very cold even if this year's been fairly mild, and both because of ice/snow accumulation and the carelessness with which a lot of people approach the operation of a motor vehicle, the driving can be downright miserable.

And yet, there comes a point in the year when the night can't get any longer—and the next day it's a little shorter.  Soon we're noticeably closer to the springtime than we thought we were.  Even though the winter often seems to really drag along up here, and even though Spring itself can be a bit of a pain in its early days, with its mud and odd smells and occasional heat wave followed by a really wild blizzard (yes, it's happened, we've even had snowstorms as late as May some years), it's nice to know that something warm and not quite as uncomfortable is somewhere around the corner.  This, as much as anything else, is why this time of year symbolizes hope to me.  Things can really suck now, but they can—and will—get better, and all it takes is time.

Which brings me to Christmas.

Some say we should be celebrating Christmas in June.  Astronomers have determined that in the time period when tradition says that Jesus was born, the planets Venus and Jupiter were so close together that they produced so much light that they could be the Christmas star, since a very bright light really did show up in the East.  Furthermore, because the shepherds are described as watching their sheep in the fields, it makes it extremely unlikely that Jesus was born in December; by then, the flocks would have been moved into pens, since sheep were only out in the fields in the warmer months.  This is all very fascinating to me, of course, for more than one reason, but sometimes I think that for more than the usually-cited reason (the appropriation of a previously-existing celebration to make Christianity more acceptable to converts), it's better to have the celebration at this time of year.

It's all about hope, after all, and love—and goodness knows we need more reminders of these things, especially at this point in the year, particularly in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere.  Or at least it should be about those things, and I think that sometimes we lose sight of that, especially since the holiday's gotten to be such a big commercial deal.  So many people are in such a hurry to find "that perfect gift" or are so wrapped up in their gift-giving obligations (Since when should a gift be obligatory, anyway?!) and worrying where the money's going to come from to pay for it all, and trying frantically to throw together that huge dinner they're supposed to provide for everyone and how it's all got to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT that the words "peace", "joy", and "love" are often the furthest thing from their minds.  It's almost as bad as what weddings have become (though that's another rant for another time).  But for those of us who celebrate Christmas, even if it's not for a religious reason, I think it would be a very good idea to think about why we go through what we do every year, and I truly hope that the answer isn't simply "because we have to".

Family is great—when you love each other.  Giving presents is great—when you want to give them, and when you don't go beyond your means to procure them.  Decorations are great—in moderation, at least.  Getting presents is great—when they're something truly thoughtful from someone you love.  Even that ridiculously large turkey/ham/goose/whatever dinner is great—if you have help preparing it and cleaning up afterwards.  But none of this should be obligatory, none of it should be something that you don't really want to do.  It shouldn't be a burden.  Even in secular tradition, Christmas is a time to settle down with your family and friends and have a good time, and even give a helping hand to strangers who need it.  (I wish this would continue throughout the year, but again, that's another rant.) I may shock some extremely religious Christians by saying this—though probably no more so than I'd shock them by anything else I say here, come to think of it—but I do think that even a purely secular Christmas, without any mention of Jesus or shepherds or angels or three Eastern kings, can be a tremendously rewarding and enriching experience, provided that it's not turned into an obligation or a burden.

As for what I think, as someone who does celebrate Christmas the religious way as well as the cultural one?  Well, I think I'll leave it to the ever-fantastic Dawn French, playing the Reverend Geraldine Granger in The Vicar of Dibley, to explain what I think about celebrating Jesus' birth, no matter what time of year we do it:

Two thousand years ago, a baby is born in a stable. The poorest of the poor. And yet during his lifetime, he says things that are so astonishing that millions of people are still living their lives by them today.  He said, "love thy neighbour".  He told us to turn the other cheek, whatever people might do to us...most astonishingly, I believe that this tiny little baby boy actually was the Son of God. And when he was younger than I am today, he was brutally crucified for simply telling people to love each other. And the men who killed him thought "That’s it, that's the end of it.  He’s dead, he’s gone."  And yet, here we are.  Two thousand years later, in a village in the middle of England, doing a play about his birth.

That's it exactly.  Though admittedly I'm Canadian, not British, and the "younger than I am today" bit doesn't really apply to me either, as I'm only 28 and when he died Jesus was apparently about 33. ;)

To those of you who celebrated the Solstice, I hope you had a truly blessed one.  To those of you who celebrate Christmas, I hope that it will be equally blessed.  To those of you who celebrate both, I hope the same.  And to those of you who celebrate neither, I hope that you can still take time to do something that you enjoy, because we all need to relax sometimes and even if this time of year has no special significance for you, it's still nice to slow down a bit and have some fun once in awhile. :)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On Teaching The Privileged

This afternoon, I was re-reading this post by Tasha Fierce; she was reflecting on the series of posts she'd written for Bitch Magazine about fat and pop culture.  There was one line in this post that really got me thinking; for context's sake, I should probably tell you that she was talking about the fact that because of the hostility that her subject had aroused in so many readers, she quickly realized that she'd have to also include a certain amount of "Fat Acceptance 101" just so that she could make her commentary about fat people in pop culture to an audience who couldn't claim that they didn't know what she was talking about.  She also said that she didn't feel inclined to coddle people who felt that she owed them a lot of explanation, and she says:

"As so many have said, oppressed people are not a learning opportunity and you need to take it upon yourself to become educated on a topic."

First of all, I can say that I completely agree with this.  My life is not a learning opportunity for people with types of privilege that I lack, and the lives of people who don't have the privileges that I do are definitely not learning opportunities for me.  I agree totally with the idea that it's up to privileged people to teach themselves about privilege and the way it affects people's lives, and that nobody—whether they're fat, female, LGBTQ etc., non-white, non-Christian, or anything else that deviates from this (largely imaginary) "norm" that consists basically of temporarily able-bodied white middle-aged Protestant men, should have to answer questions about their lives that they don't want to answer, nor do I think that their lives should be used in any way of which they do not approve.


Sometimes it's just a good idea to point people in the right direction, especially if they really do want to learn how to be a good, supportive and effective friend and ally.  Telling people "If you want to learn, go teach yourself about it, it's not my job!" can be pretty damn unproductive.  Say you have a five-year-old kid who wants to learn to play the violin.  The best way to go about that wouldn't be to present her with a full-sized violin and sheet music for a complicated violin solo and tell her,  "Here you go, you've got your sheet music, you've got your instrument, now go teach yourself how to play."  How can you learn if you can't even figure out where to start?  To someone who's not familiar with the idea of privilege, or of the problems that various groups of people face, it can feel an awful lot like that.  I know; I've been there myself when it comes to an issue or two, and there have been times when I've thought that a bit of extra help might have been, well, helpful.  That's a large part of the reason why I've been so open about some very personal things on this blog.

Just to be clear: I don't think that anyone has a duty to educate other people about things that they could easily look up for themselves.  But I do think that sometimes, when we're sure we've encountered someone who truly wants to be an ally, it might be helpful—to us as well as to them—to at least let them know about one or two resources that they can use to teach themselves about something that may, in time, come to mean as much to them as it does to us.  Otherwise, the constant refrain of "go teach yourself" can sound an awful lot like "go fuck yourself" instead, and that's no help to anybody. :p

Friday, December 3, 2010


My paternal grandfather died just a bit over a week ago; his funeral was a week ago today.

He'd been in the hospital for about three months, at first just for something that could be treated; he was diabetic, though not insulin-dependent, and he developed gangrene in one of his toes. Unfortunately, even after the toe was removed he developed gangrene in his lower leg; it was amputated below the knee and all seemed to be going well with his recovery and physical therapy, though most of us couldn't visit him for most of that because someone in his ward had a MRSA infection. He and Grandma were trying to figure out where they'd be living when he was discharged as their actual home is in a small town about an hour's drive away from here, though a few years ago they started renting a tiny apartment in the city for overnight stays. Neither place is really equipped to accommodate someone in a wheelchair full-time, and at the time we never would have thought that he wouldn't actually be going back.

Then, in the middle of November, he caught pneumonia.

When it was obvious that his situation was getting dire, he was moved to a private room on another floor and the whole family received permission to be at the hospital at any time. Like pretty much everyone else, until last Wednesday I'd been spending the major part of my time either at the hospital or in transit between home and the hospital. It was a mess of worry, sleep deprivation, occasional panic punctuated by small moments of humour (because everyone in my family has some form of sense of humour, and even when we're preparing ourselves for something like the death of someone we all love, we can't ever resist the temptation to make each other laugh). But as awful as most of that was, the very worst of it was seeing what Grandpa's illness was doing to him. I'll spare you the grisly details, but if you're really all that curious, look up pneumonia's Wikipedia entry and imagine someone you love experiencing the worst of it. It was utterly heartbreaking.

And yet, even as I hated to see him suffer so—I don't know how many times I prayed for Atropos to cut his thread just so he wouldn't have to keep going on the way he was—I learned an entirely new kind of respect for him. I had always respected him as a person, a grandparent, a veteran of World War II, and an extremely knowledgeable historian, but in his final days, even when he could hardly move and had mostly lost the power of speech, he fought to stay with us (the nurses were actually astonished at how long he managed to hang on) and he found other ways to communicate with us. And his sense of humour was certainly intact; when he could still talk, he joked that the weekend when he got pneumonia would have been a lot easier if he'd had a 40-ouncer behind his pillow. His strength and stubbornness, even when he was so ill, is nothing short of inspirational to me because he never gave up.

The last week has been pretty difficult. The wake was last Thursday night and his funeral a week ago today; I was one of the pallbearers. (My bagpipe-trained muscles came in handy; even as thin as he'd gotten with his illness, that casket was heavy.) I haven't slept well since Grandpa got pneumonia, and I've been terribly worried about my grandmother, my dad and my aunts and uncles. But as we adjust to a world in which we can't see Grandpa anymore, I suspect that it will be the small things that will hurt the most—hearing a joke he'd have enjoyed, reading a book about local history to which he contributed something, or even just looking in the mirror (I strongly resemble both him and my maternal grandmother) or driving past the hospital where he died. I feel like crying at the weirdest times lately, as well as some that aren't so weird, and even though I'm glad that he's not suffering anymore I do wish that his relief hadn't come at the cost of his life…even at nearly 87 years of age, he had so much he still wanted to do.

So if I write a little less frequently than I usually do, or if my musings sometimes seem a little more downbeat than usual, this will probably be why. I have my reasons—probably more than most people who believe this—for believing that death isn't really so much "the final goodbye" as "see you in another time and place", but even so, I'm still grieving and it will be awhile before I'm really back to being myself again.