In Search of Light

I was glad to be up early enough to see the sunrise this morning, because it’s the shortest day of the year; we need all the light we can get. Sometimes the darkness goes beyond the physical.

In my capacity as a teacher, I have encountered some truly wonderful literature, books I wouldn’t have read otherwise because my children are too old for them and my granddaughter is too young. I would never have discovered Sharon Creech’s “Love That Dog” (which I later bought for my poetry loving father-in-law)  or Shannon Hale’s “Princess Academy.” I would have missed the ungrammatical and annoying but funny “Junie B. Jones,” and I might have heard of “The Hunger Games” but I surely would have missed the “Gregor the Overlander” series that preceded it. But not all discoveries are happy. I recently encountered a book called “How to Catch an Elf.” I won’t provide a link; that book hurt my heart.

Let me digress: I have always found elves to be creepy. The idea that Santa exploits unpaid labor bothered me when I was younger. The elves in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” did nothing to alleviate my unease, and more recent phenomenon like Will Farrell’s movie or the “Elf on the Shelf” have made it worse. This book, though, is worse, because it’s geared toward early readers, many of whom know nothing else about Christmas.

The book is narrated by an elf. The verses are sloppy and the content is worse. The premise is that children who wanted to catch Santa have given up and have decided, instead, to capture the elf instead. Children on Santa’s route have devised traps involving tinsel, candy canes, laser beams and an ornament who, the elf reports, “zapped my tushy” with something resembling a branding iron.  It’s not just that it celebrates greed and violence. It’s that this book defines all that, for children, as what Christmas is. And real Christmas has nothing to do with elves.

Christmas is a miracle of light in darkness, teaching man, who didn’t know how to live, how to turn toward God. God shows us how.

When I was learning how to make the Sign of the Cross the Orthodox way, the priest teaching us didn’t understand why we were still going from left to right instead of right to left. Then he realized that he was facing us. Our hands did what we saw, now what he did. “Watch,” he said, “I’ll stand with you.” He came down among us and faced as we did. “I’m holding up my RIGHT hand,” he said. “UP to my forehead, down, but not below my belly button! RIGHT shoulder! Then LEFT shoulder!” That’s when we got it. That’s when we learned what to do.

Christ did something similar, only, better. He came down to live among us, to show us how to live. He came without rank or wealth, without so much as a room at the inn. He lived as a step-sibling and a refugee, an outcast. And He called to himself similar people, the poor, the fishermen, those who were wounded by illness, happenstance, or their own series of bad choices, and showed them how to turn to God in repentance, not just to be healed, but to become a source of healing unto others.

Light among darkness. In the darkest days and the coldest part of the year, we gather together and celebrate Him, with lights and gifts that we give to each other as He gives to us.

In the physical world of my hemisphere, tomorrow will be longer than today, and the next day even longer than that. And in the spiritual realm, each of us can embrace a little more light tomorrow than we did today. We live in hope. We walk in the light. It’s a gift. And we share it.

 

Gifts, Large and Small

Today I am grateful for the gift of not one but two pumpkins.

A friend who comes to church with me asked me if I use pumpkin. I said yes, I use it my vegan beer brownies* and in cakes, in soups and in pies and as a side dish. She pointed to two pumpkins used in her landscaping and asked if I wanted them when she was ready to change decorations.
I said yes, and expected to pick them up the next week.

However, we had a freeze warning.

(I think my friend is 4’10” and north of seventy-five years old.)

Last Sunday she told me she had the pumpkins for me in the garage, and I could get them after church. When she opened the garage door, she led me to a red wheel barrow.. She had stacked them in there; each was the size of a snowman’s base. I have no idea how she managed to lift and wheel them in. “Careful pushing that,” she said as I wheeled it toward my car, “It’s heavy!” And she gave a small smile.

She also gave me two of her aloe vera plants that she’d had in her garden all summer. One will live in the living room, the other in the kitchen.

My brave husband spared my fingers by carving up the first of the pumpkin for me into chunks, and I am cooking them slowly but surely. We had some roasted with nutmeg and butter on Tuesday, and it was delicious, we ate every spoonful. And there will be more. Some for diabetic friendly pumpkin cheesecake, some to mix into chocolate cakes, some to simmer with coconut milk into soups and some to eat like a vegetable.

Sliced pumpkin, covered with a towel, waiting to be roasted. Copyright Ann McLellan Lardas, 2017

We have reached the portion of the year where Winter wishes to overtake Fall. The leaves have turned and faded; many have fallen. The days are shorter, the darkness comes faster and remains deeper.  The only way to fight the darkness is love.

Love is, among other things, someone protecting her enormous pumpkins, for you, from the squirrels and the frost, so you can bake and share it.

I am grateful.

* Beer brownies — in a huge mixing bowl, combine two packages of dairy free brownie mix, one can of pumpkin (14 ounces, or about a cup and a half of home cooked pumpkin), and one twelve ounce bottle of cheap beer. Stir. Spread the mix into two pans according to the direction on the package and bake as directed. Vegan.

A Found Writing Prompt is a True Gift

My friend Alana was writing about experiencing synesthesia during choir rehearsal. The basses sounded like mud, or sand, another voice like caramel, another like aluminum foil. Friends asked questions about the condition, and about her perceptions. Her examples were unexpected. She gave me permission to use this line as a writing prompt:

I realized my talents when I noticed that Whitney Houston sounded like tomatoes.

While we don’t all have synesthesia, we all make odd associations. If you write nonfiction, you could examine some of yours. If you write fiction, you might use one of these strange associations to help show certain facets of a character. If you write poetry, the associations you make would be a fresh juxtaposition.

For my part, I realized that I associated perfumes with colors, in that I would coordinate my perfume with the color of the clothes I was wearing. When I wore brown, I wore Chanel Number Five. Arpege went with beige. Tea Rose Oil went with light colors, while lilac went with blue. I never questioned it until I read Alana’s post.

I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained these associations were for me until they were questioned. But recently I was at a graveside service for a friend’s mother, and the sun was hot. Everyone there was properly dressed, but under the canopy set up by the funeral home where we all were standing for the shade, there was a miasma of accumulated light fragrances — sweet citrus and flowery things that one spritzes on in the summer. For a moment, I was scandalized. This was, after all, a funeral. But, what did I expect? Incense. Damask rose. At the most, lavender. (Now, I myself was wearing essential oils, rose geranium, to be exact, but that was as a form of insect repellent, and, further, it worked. Or perhaps there were no bugs.)

That’s when it occurred to me that probably nobody else thought this way. Men and women who took the time to wear proper suits and sleek black dresses would not deliberately do anything untoward when they went to apply scent. To the best of my knowledge, no one had judged me for what I wore.  It would scandalize no one if I were to have applied, even, Baby Love, Wind Song, or anything that Avon sells in a sculpted glass bottle. Why was I judging them? Where did this idea come from? That is, indeed, essay fodder.

Help yourself to my prompt. What thing occurs to you that is other than normative, that mixes senses, that conflates unusual objects, and, more importantly, why? It is a point of demarcation, both in our own lives and in the lives of those whom we invent, when we realize and then question something we have always thought of as fact.

 

Speaking at the St. Herman’s Conference

I am late posting this, but my talk is up, and it is pleasant to remember winter in July! My husband and I spoke at a youth conference for Orthodox Christian teenagers and young adults, 43 of them, with seven adults. It was a very great honor. The conference was dedicated to St. Herman of Alaska, a missionary saint who came to Alaska from Russia in 1793 both to serve the Russians who lived there and to minister to the natives, many of whom became Orthodox.

While the St. Herman’s Conference has been well established on the East Coast — I met my husband at one in 1980 — the midwest St. Herman’s Conference is relatively new. I spoke at the first one in 2008, when there were closer to 20 of us, and it was a joy to see how it has grown. The diocese now has a program to encourage the youth to sing in their parishes, and several of them conducted pieces for the services we sang together.

Each conference has a theme. The purpose of this gathering was to bring people together to discuss friendship, the internet, and God. The kids came from everywhere — Chicago, Alaska, Oklahoma, Texas. They listened attentively, asked sharp questions, shared their lives and problems, and learned to sing the services together. They played in the snow on snow tubes and in a human Foosball game, volunteered for four hours at a homeless shelter, and got to know each other over all- you-can-eat fish tacos and bowling after. We ended the services at the St. Herman parish in Hastings, where our friend Fr. Michael Carney is rector.

My talk was on how to “curate” your thoughts before sharing them on the internet. I could not have given this talk before the studying I did for my MFA in Writing. I had to learn to curate my collection of thoughts and experiences, to share them in the best light and with the right juxtapositions, before I could speak to the youth about what to share and how so we can lift each other up and support each other rather than tear people down though our online participation.

The camp where the conference was held is a place of great natural beauty. The dining hall overlooked a frozen lake, and the sky above was a study in blues and greys by day, infused with orange and pink at sunrise. I had thought of Michigan winters as bleak, because I looked at the snow on the side of the road. When you stand in nature and look up, everything changes.

A bishop friend says, “Private prayer is important, but it is only in the services of the Church that we find spiritual regeneration.” And online contact is important, but it is only by meeting face to face that we truly become close. The internet helped us to organize, but of incalculable value was the face to face contact we made, forging new friendships and deepening old ones.

The world can be so cold, both physically and otherwise. It is essential that we make every effort to overcome it, banding together to share and to spread the warmth.

When Change is Good

It was very strange to start today with eggs, because in my youth, this was a solemn fast day.

Every day is the feast of some saint, in the Russian Orthodox Church. Some days are fast days, on which we eat less and have no meat or dairy,  in preparation for joyous events like Christmas and Easter, others are feast days, others are fast days because the day commemorates something sorrowful, like the beheading of St. John the Baptist.

Today is the anniversary of the killing of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family — the  Empress Alexandra and their children, Olga, Maria, Tatiana, Anastasia, and Alexis. In the West, the deposition and murder of the Tsar is seen as a good and inevitable thing, but the exile and murder of his wife and children cannot be defended, and the results for Russia were catastrophic. The new era of equality and friendship that was supposed to be ushered in became, instead, seven decades of fratricide, genocide, misery, imprisonment — and martyrdom.

Although today is more about the Royal Family, who were killed on this day, in our parish in Boston it was a day to remember all those who died. Before the glorification (similar to canonization) of the imperial family and other new martyrs of Russia (those who died for their faith, rather than just for politics; my godfather, Serge Conus, gravely said, “My Dear One, not all those killed by the Communists were saints, but only those killed for the Orthodox Faith.” But so many were killed for their faith that Russia, in the 21st century, gave the world literally uncountable millions of saints), there was a solemn Liturgy, followed by a vegan, simple meal and long speeches in Russian by Cossacks in their church suits, some speaking with raised fists, others overwhelmed by tears. Their wives, the Sisterhood, dressed in somber colors, and made a penitential meal — kasha with mushrooms instead of sausage and potatoes. We drank our coffee black or with Cremora, and had to sit quietly and still for all the speeches in the hot, not even remotely air conditioned hall.  For us, as Americans, these events were distant and Other. But for our fellow parishioners, this was family, and now that I have lost my parents and brother (to illness, not even to evil people who still wield world-wide power), I begin to understand rather than observe their pain. Even then, we were moved by what we could see, especially when our friend who was translating stopped, saying, “This is not something for children.”

Only later did I learn Russian, and learn some of the stories. These men had lost family members throughout the years since the revolution — grandparents and beloved aunts, then fathers, and brothers and sisters. My godfather’s father, the famous violinist Julius Conus, whose exercises for students were the norm across Russia, died of starvation on the streets of Moscow in 1942; he had been declared an enemy of the State, and one could be arrested for feeding him. When I was thirteen, that was only thirty-four years previous, as if it had happened in 1983 now. Our priest’s father had been locked in a barn with other engineers at the beginning of the WWII and the Communists set the barn on fire so the approaching German army could not capture that much brain power. Others had seen their relatives die rather than be repatriated during Operation Keelhaul. Many of the people who killed their loved ones were still alive, still in power, gloating.

День Непримиримости was what the Cossacks called it, a day to come together for mourning and prayer. The Russians were mocked for their belief that Communism would some day be overthrown. I recall a reporter chuckling politely when the actor Peter Ustinov, a distant cousin of the bishop who later headed our church, was asked in an interview where he was born. “St. Petersburg,” he said, “temporarily known as Leningrad.”

There will always be someone who mocks you for having hope and faith that things will be better. They are often wrong, and always are short-sighted.

Things got better. 1981, our church glorified the New Martyrs of Russia, recognizing them as saints. In 1991, Communism was overthrown in an almost bloodless coup in Russia, and in 2007, our church reconciled with the Moscow Patriarchate, from whom we had separated ourselves until we were sure it was no longer the captive of a State hostile to its very existence, who used the Church for its own purposes. Lenigrad is back to being St. Petersburg. Churches that were turned into museums, theaters, toilets, and beer houses have been returned and restored. New churches are under construction to replace those destroyed and to hold all those who now freely pray. Miracles have happened in our lifetime.

Now the day that was a solemn time of prayer and mourning is instead a feast. As has happened so often in the life of the Church, the horrible things that those opposed to Her did to believers became trials they overcame, rather than brutal acts of suppression that ended something and someone. Their sufferings were a semicolon, not a period. The power of love for God transcends death and imbues sufferers with strength and love that can be used to help others. As Joseph said to his brothers, in the Old Testament, “ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.” (Gen. 50:20)

All over the world, in places that we know of and in places shaded by the darkness of oblivion, there are men, women, and children suffering because they choose to believe in God and to live the life that faith requires — praying, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, even when the sick and suffering have been declared less than human by the States in which they live. There are people in unspeakable conditions in prison, under political pressure at their jobs, forced into silence at home by hostile in-laws, silenced and punished by ideologically motivated teachers. But where there is love, there is hope, because God is love.

Today  this former fast day is a day for Divine Liturgy followed by festive foods, cake and ice cream and presents in the homes of those celebrating the feast of the saints for whom they are named, and we all remember that when things look their darkest, God has a plan in place for overcoming evil. If we don’t conform ourselves to evil, we may suffer in this life. But through suffering with love, we can be changed into saints.