Monday, December 24, 2007

what christmas can mean

For so the children come
And so they have been coming.
Always in the same way they come--
Born of the seed of man and woman.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses
No wise men see a star to show
where the babe is that will save humankind.
Yet each night a child is born is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers--sitting beside their children's cribs--
feel glory in the sight of a new life beginning.
They ask, "Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?"
Each night a child is born is a holy night--
A time for singing,
A time for wondering,
A time for worshipping.

-Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876 - 1978)

I often wonder how many people in our country celebrate Christmas and don't even think about why. In this land of predominant Christianity, it's tradition, I suppose. But very few people I knew growing up affirmatively believed in the divinity of Christ. They just weren't Jewish, or Muslim, or Hindu...they fell into the vague "other" category of those who are descended from Christians, but stopped practicing Christianity for one reason or another along the way. And yet just about everyone celebrates Christmas who doesn't have an obvious reason not to. Everyone goes out and drags home a tree, makes cookies, gives presents, learns the carols. Because it's what they did when they were young, and what their parents did, too.

I can sort of include myself in with those folks. I don't believe in the divinity of Christ, my parents are no longer Christians, and yet every year we celebrate.

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Like many Unitarian Universalists, I think I've had a somewhat awkward relationship with Christianity. It's the recurring conflict of a syncretic religion that wishes to draw upon the good values while at the same time remembering the reason we're somehow different.

I have vivid memories of a friend on the playground in elementary school, who came to us, her group of closest friends, in a panic one day. She had learned in Sunday school that only those who had accepted Christ into their hearts as their Savior would go to heaven, and that those who didn't would be condemned to eternal suffering. The other four of us were a UU, two Jews and a girl in the secular "other" category. Our friend was freaking out and told us we'd have to start reading the Bible and becoming Christians or else she'd go to heaven and we wouldn't. I was about six or seven years old.

As I grew up, I began to explore my religious identity, declaring that I was an atheist at my Coming of Age ceremony when I was 13 (much to my Episcopalian grandmother's shock and disappointment), then experimenting with earth-based religion in high school. Every year at Christmas I'd wonder what it was we were doing anyway. Was it just for a lack of something better? I felt fine putting up a wreath after I learned that the circle can symbolize the return of the sun on the Winter Solstice. But I couldn't deny that Christmas is about Christ (oh, and Santa Claus). At best, I can believe that Christ was a leader, a teacher and a healer--the parts about being a prophet and a martyr and the son of God...well, to me it just never added up.

Around the same time as the playground crisis of faith, a local production of Menotti's television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors came to my school. Something about the story captivated me--the music, the characters, the lyrics, something else. Santa Claus (being omniscient, of course) brought me a cassette of the soundtrack in my stocking that year and I listened to it over and over.

Amahl is about a boy of about ten and his mother living near Bethlehem at the time of the nativity. The mother is a young widow; Amahl walks with a crutch. They are extremely poor. The night visitors are the legendary three kings, following the star on their journey to the child who will be the new Savior. In the times that I've listened to the soundtrack (which I now have on CD) more recently, the part I still find the most moving is a responsive "duet" between Amahl's mother and the three kings wherein they ask if she has seen the child they seek, a child of poor yet somehow noble birth, to whom they are bringing offerings of great riches. She responds,

"Yes, I know a child the color of wheat, the color of dawn.
His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a king, as king he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold,
though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own."

"The child we seek holds the seas and the winds on his palm. The child we seek has the moon and the sun at his feet."

"The child I know on his palm holds my heart. The child I know at his feet has my life. He’s my child, my son, my darling, my own, and his name is Amahl."

For some reason, this always brings tears to my eyes. This mother, like all parents, can only believe that her child is the one, just as deserving of praise and prosperity.

In the end, Amahl offers his crutch as a gift for the baby, and he is miraculously healed and able to walk again. I never liked that ending. Well-intentioned as it may have been, it always seemed like another lesson of sacrifice in the name of God.

After all of this, what sense can I possibly make of Christmas? Here is what I have been able to figure out:

Christmas is a time for me to reflect on the best teachings of Christianity, not those of martyrdom and sacrifice, not those of the saved and the unsaved, but those of genuine love for all humankind. In terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Peace on earth and good will toward men.

It's a time to honor and appreciate those we love the most, and those we barely know. It's a time to give to the potential of all to do good. It's a time of hope.

I imagine the hope the people in the nativity story must have felt at the birth of the child they considered their Savior, the one who would change this world for the better. I feel that hope when I look into the face of my stepdaughter, my best friend, every one of my fellow humans. Most importantly, I must feel that hope when I look in the mirror. No one person, divine or mortal, can be looked to as a redeemer. But we can each do our part. We are all capable of great love and great change in our time on this Earth.

Peace on Earth, Joy to the World. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

you know...

You know you put together too much IKEA furniture when you're doing laundry and you keep finding Allen wrenches and wooden dowels in the pants pockets.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

the deal with gamelan

Long ago, in a town uncomfortably close to here, I was in my third year at the University of Maryland. I was a member of the Maryland Chorus, but I had decided, for pretty much no reason, to join one of the university's non-western ensembles. They offered West African drumming (always full), Japanese koto, and Balinese gamelan. I chose the one I had heard the least about. I couldn't have found Bali on a map if you had asked me, and I don't think I knew that it was part of Indonesia. I also thought a gamelan was an instrument. I found out that it's the name for the whole percussion orchestra, the set of instruments or the people who play them.

I started out playing one of the biggest, lowest, instruments there was, called jegogan. It's a huge metallophone that comes up to a person's waist, with five heavy bronze keys, and a large, heavy padded mallet. Its function is sort of like a bass instrument in a western ensemble. Maybe that's why I liked it so much. As a soprano and violinist, I had spent a lot of time on the treble end of things. And this kind of music was totally new.

Around this time in the semester, our teacher told me and the other girl playing jegogan (there are two of almost everything in Balinese gamelan) that he needed people to play that same instrument with his independent DC-area group, Gamelan Mitra Kusuma. I started coming to rehearsals and I've never looked back. Even during the time I lived in Baltimore, I'd drive an hour each way to weekly rehearsals. And I've moved on to more difficult instruments.

A year after I first signed up for the gamelan class, at a small liberal arts college in Ohio, Jacob was starting his senior year. The college had just hired an ethnomusicology professor and procured a set of gamelan degung instruments from Sunda, or West Java, another Indonesian province. Jacob was in the gamelan for his last two semesters in college, and the next year, he moved to DC.

Jacob had really enjoyed playing gamelan in college, so once he was settled in DC, he looked around for a group to join. There was Gamelan Mitra Kusuma, the Balinese gong kebyar ensemble I had then been a part of for about two years, and there was the Central Javanese gamelan at the Indonesian embassy. Neither group's music was like the Sundanese gamelan Jacob had played in college, but he chose the group at the embassy because of their proximity to the Metro and to his apartment. For the next couple of years, Jacob learned about Javanese gamelan and dance, and started taking Indonesian language classes, and I continued to play Balinese gamelan, and never the twain did meet.

A little over a couple years ago, at a local DC Irish festival, I met an Irish music enthusiast about my age. When I introduced him to my gamelan instructors who had come to hear my Irish band play, he enthusiastically exclaimed, "Apa kabar?!"

The rest, as they say...

Maria playing with "Jacob's gamelan," the Central Javanese gamelan of the Embassy of Indonesia (Jacob is hidden behind the gongs). Melissa and Totok are performing a traditional Javanese social dance.

This fall, Jacob decided to try his hand at playing Balinese gamelan, which he describes as "loud and insane." I think he's doing pretty well. For the past couple of months, we've had special guest teachers visiting from Bali, teaching us as well as teaching dance and gamelan classes at the embassy.

This Friday evening we've got a big concert at the embassy with lots of dancers, music and light refreshments. If you'll be in the DC area and we haven't pestered you about this yet, send me an e-mail (maria AT dcgamelan DOT com) and I'll send you the invitation. It's free, but it's RSVP-only. As of last night there are still seats. The embassy is a great place to visit just to see the building.

Visit the link on the right to learn more about Balinese gamelan and our ensemble. We'd love to see you there!

P.S. Check out this video of GMK performing with dancers from Indonesian Performing Arts Chicago last year. The montage includes "Panyembrama" (a women's welcome dance), "Cendrawasih" (the bird-of-paradise dance, done beautifully here by sisters Mirah and Chika), and a crazy instrumental piece called "Jaya Semara."


Sunday, December 9, 2007

small white tooff

Precious and dear are the milestones of youth: haircuts, reading, losing teeth, and so forth. If you're a noncustodial parent, you kind of get used to downplaying all the stuff you miss because the little time you spend together is precious in itself. But once in a while, you do get to be there for one of those milestones, and you can't help but feel a pang of sentimentalism, nostalgia, tradition, poignancy...

So anyway, after months of wiggling this one and twirling that, Khymi lost a completely unexpected tooth on a piece of cucumber. It was a Chanukah miracle! She's looking forward to being a jack-o'-lantern next Hallowe'en.

Although this was her third tooth, it was the Tooth Fairy's first visit to the Small Red House. And because tiny incisors are in high demand right now in the Tooth Fairy Aerie (or so Dad theorized the next morning), the ol' Fairy left a golden envelope with a shiny quarter and two sets of butterfly stickers. After the familiar rustling and gasping that warmed the hearts of the bleary-eyed, reminiscing grown-ups in the next room, Khymi came running in to show off the envelope. It MUST have been the Tooth Fairy, she declared, because the envelope was sealed with a butterfly sticker!

She also decided that the Tooth Fairy lives in Baltimore. You see, back when Maria was living in Baltimore, we would drive past a sign for a dentist's office that was shaped like a big white tooth. This sign fascinated Khymi because she could tell it was a dentist even though she couldn't read it yet. But as she's become more aware the Tooth Fairy's existence, what more logical place for the Tooth Fairy to live than where there's a big tooth sign?

Maybe next time the Tooth Fairy visits, we'll sniff the quarter to see if it smells like Old Bay.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

white chanukah

We lit the Chanukah lights together last night for the third year running. This morning was the first snow of the season.

Hope your holidays are full of light, love and surprises.