Friday, December 28, 2012

'Twas the Week After Christmas

Okay, Christmas is pretty much over for this year. People have cleaned up, some have gone back to work, and we're still making sandwiches out of the leftover ham. Gifts have been given and received. Hopefully, you were given something you needed/wanted. More hopefully, you gifted others similarly. Most hopefully of all, you didn't get a fruitcake for Christmas.

I don't understand the purpose of fruitcake. Why does someone take bits of dried, tasteless fruit and other less identifiable things, suspend them in a dense organic paste and bake it all to the consistency of a cinder block? Seriously, you could build a fall-out shelter out of some of the fruitcakes I've seen. Do people really eat that stuff? Have you noticed that no matter how long a fruitcake sits around, it stays the same? These things have a shelf life to rival the most preservative-infused snack food on the rack of any local convenience store. Even the bugs won't eat it. I really think that there are only a relatively small number of fruitcakes in existence. They just get re-gifted year after year until it seems like they're everywhere. I believe it to be some kind of conspiracy.

Now that Christmas of 2012 has passed, we are staring into the headlight of the oncoming locomotive that is 2013 (insert screams of panic and prophesies of doom here). We've passed the ending dates of the Mayan calendar, so we're heading into uncharted waters. Some people find that frightening. I find it encouraging. We're going off the map into territory where things might not go as predicted. We might not be able to impose our will over everything and make everyone march to the same familiar drum beat. It's a whole new game.

Or at least it can be.

There are so many things that don't have to be the same as they were this year. Certainly there are things we have no real control over. Politicians will still prefer to pound each other into political powder than to actually address the issues that face our country. Americans will still vote for them because the aforementioned politicians have good rhetoric. Nothing else - just good rhetoric. Perhaps worst of all, reality TV will continue to grow as a staple of broadcast entertainment.

Even so, we can still do things to insure that 2013 doesn't become the juggernaut that many of us fear. So, here are a few things - in my opinion - that will help make the next year something special. In a good way.

1. Extend your charity to beyond December. There are all knids of stories about feeding families and taking care of children in December. Christmas makes us think about the people who don't have toys for their children or a Christmas dinner or a home in which to park a Christmas tree. Those who can do something about that should do something about that. Here's the thing: people will still be hungry and homeless in February or March or June. Often it seems as though our "Christmas spirit" is really just a temporary good mood. Not many people are as interested in feeding, clothing or housing those who need help if it's not December. There are people still hungry or sleeping in the streets in the Spring, Summer and Fall. Where are the people who believe in Christmas?

2. Start looking at people as human beings, not as stereotypes of their nationality, religion, race or gender. They have beautiful gifts to share. Let them.

3. Stop watching reality TV. You're not doing Honey Boo Boo any favors.

4. Spend more time with family. I know, sometimes they're irritating. Sometimes it seems like you'll have them forever. You won't.

5. Say "thank you" to someone who has influenced your life for the better. They deserve to hear it and we'll be better people for having said it.

6. Stop watching reality TV. It needed saying again.

7. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Take notice of small, quiet things. It is from the small, quiet things that God speaks most clearly and eloquently.

These are just a few things. I could think of a lot more. So could you. In face, you should. Make your own list of ways the world could be made better in 2013. Then, take your list and live it.

Be the 2013 you want to see.

Friday, December 21, 2012

After the Apocalypse

As I write this, the date is December 21, 2012. The apocalypse has come and gone – again. I look around me and see that everything is pretty much the same as it was yesterday. I can only assume that someone messed up – again.
Today was supposed to be the day that would bring either: (a) the end of civilization, (b) the physical end of the world or (c) peace, love and understanding. None of those things has occurred. This gives me the time to think about things and wonder about all those who have been caught up in the speculation/preparation for the End of Days.
There have always been people who delighted in telling us when and how the world was going to end. They gleefully told us that they would be saved and justified while the rest of us would be doomed to (a) eternal torture, (b) instant annihilation or (c) watch reality TV forever without commercial interruption. Given the choice, I would go with ‘b.’
I’m not sure why so many people are obsessed with determining the exact day and time that the trump of doom will sound. I guess it’s their way of feeling in control of things when they really aren’t. They want so much to be right and to be the ones who are totally in with God’s plan for the world that they bludgeon the rest of us with their statistics, their interpretations of mystical writings and a Mayan calendar. It must be really embarrassing when the day comes and goes and we’re all still here.
Remember Harold Camping? Back in 2011, he and his Family Radio organization told us that the end would come in May of that year. When it didn’t, Harold told us that the May date was a “spiritual apocalypse” and that the actual physical end of the world would come in October 2011. It didn’t. What can you expect from a radio preacher whose middle name is Egbert?
Still, to his credit, Harold Camping has said that he and his organization were wrong – not only in the dates that they set but in setting a date at all. Camping admits to presuming to know the mind of God. He calls it “sin” and apologizes for it. He has no interest in considering another apocalyptic date and only seeks to be more understanding of the sacred writings. Well done, Egbert.
In France, the tiny village of Bugarach is flooded with people. Someone decided that there is a mystical mountain nearby that is regularly visited by UFOs. Today there was to be a vortex to another dimension, provided by our friends from off-world. Police and reporters came to keep order and report on the many believers that wanted to climb the mountain and enter the vast underground area that is, apparently, a cosmic parking lot. “The circus has come to town,” one resident commented. Another resident, a transplant from Glastonbury, spoke of her friend Ian who had left town to buy clean underwear for the occasion (I’m not making this up!). Sadly, upon his return the gendarmes refused to let Ian back into the village. Now he has clean shorts and nowhere to wear them.
The rest of us are left to ponder the fact that the world is still here and to decide what we’re going to do about that. We can, of course, do the same thing that we did yesterday. When you’ve been threatened by the end of the world so many times, there seems to be no reason to panic or make any changes. We’ll just keep on keeping on.
Another option is to look at the meaning of ‘apocalypse.’ The word actually means ‘revelation,’ not the end of the world. I’m wondering if anyone came to any revelation today. Maybe someone realized that there are better things to do than to win a political battle or make another million dollars or look out only for himself. Maybe someone realized that when the world really does end, he or she would want to be found doing something good and worthwhile instead of something self-centered and petty.
Somewhere a child is dying of starvation. Somewhere someone is living on the street, cold and sick. Somewhere else a marriage is falling apart, a parent waits for a child that has forgotten them, and a young person is getting his first handgun.
Perhaps someone somewhere will receive a revelation telling them that it’s possible to change one of these things. Even one change would leave the world better than it started this morning. Maybe it will be revealed that, since the world didn’t end, we can actually do something. Today. There’s no time to waste.
After all, the world might end tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Thank You, Ray

Let me say it up front. I love books and I love reading. There are some who would say that is kind of a wimpy statement. If so, let me say also that I love so-called manly things like football (especially if chili or buffalo wings are available), rock and roll, and wearing jeans to church. But before loving those things, I loved books.
I was raised an only child. Very early in life, I learned that books can make wonderful companions and friends. I read all kinds of things, from elementary science to history to fiction. I enjoyed science and history. They allowed me the chance to explore the universe in a way that I never could on my own. Still, it’s the fictional stories and novels that really captured my imagination and thereby set me truly free.
Jack London, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and others showed me what adventure could be. It was wonderful! Whether it was The Call of the Wild or The War of the Worlds or other stories like them, I relished the opportunity to experience the danger, the action and the heroism found in those pages.
As I grew, I found other things to love in my books. I began to see that real storytellers can show us what it is to be human by allowing us to get to know the people in their creations. Even in a work of fiction – or especially in a work of fiction – we can see what it means to be real. When we immerse ourselves in the dramatic interplay of person and life situation, we can understand what it means to be a true and living person.
Piers Anthony helped me to understand that, through his writings and through a number of conversations we had through the mail. Others did as well. Head and shoulders above those others is Ray Bradbury.
Ray Bradbury is known by most as a science fiction writer. The truth is that he was so much more than that.
We lost Ray in June. He had been sojourning here on earth for 91 years and it was far too short a time. Even at the end, Ray was still writing, still thinking and causing us to think. It wasn’t his science fiction content that kept me coming back to his novels and short stories. It was what he knew of being human.
The latest edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading was published recently. Each year a creative artist is invited to write an introduction. This year the invitation went to Ray Bradbury. Editor Dave Eggers and a committee of students working on the volume were surprised and delighted when Ray accepted the invitation and contributed a story. They were completed just before Ray’s death in June 2012.
In the words of his introduction, I found the essence of why I love Ray Bradbury. He writes about visiting the Waukegan library at age 7 and borrowing 10 books a week, astounding the librarians. Here is what he says:
“The books I brought home from the library caused me to think about the origins of life and the universe. How did it start? Where does it end? I recall Midwestern summer nights, standing on my grandparents’ hushed lawn, and looking up at the confetti field of stars. There were millions of suns out there, and millions of planets rotating around those suns. And I knew there was life out there, in the great vastness. We are just too far apart, separated by too great a distance to reach one another.”
Ray Bradbury looked at the stars and was convinced that there is life out there. It is only distance keeping us isolated, unable to join the community of the universe.
Today I look around at a world that Ray understood and, I suspect, grieved over. I look at the great constellation of humanity, brightened by shining examples of what we can be. I also see the dark emptiness between the points of illumination. The darkness tries to separate us and make us believe that we are not great cosmic sources of light, but are only weak candles fluttering against the utter absence of light.
I want so much to believe that it’s a lie – that we are separated only by choice and not by a gulf of darkness that cannot be bridged. If we can believe that the separation between human beings is a separation of choice, then we are free to choose otherwise. We are free to reach out to one another and to share our warmth and illumination.
Ray Bradbury was able to help us see the universe and understand ourselves a little better. We can look at the stars burning in the deep black and see a reflection of the divine fire that burns within us all. True, there is a distance between us that sometimes looks insurmountable.
It isn’t.
We can bridge the distance. We can traverse the gulf of empty darkness. We can, if we choose to make the effort, understand (or at least appreciate) the light within another human being.
Ray was right. There is life out there.
Thank you, Ray.