Friday, December 31, 2010

Holy Sparks for the New Year: Repairing the World

“Don’t do to others, that which is abhorrent to you. That is the law.
All else is commentary.”
The Talmud

I had a teaching colleague who confided in a mutual friend about me, “The trouble with her is when she sees a problem, she thinks she supposed to fix it.” It kind of blew me away. I thought that was what everyone did.

When my sister Sandy was alive, sometimes when I would call her, she could tell just from the sound of my voice. She would ask me, “Are you having trouble with the cruelty and stupidity of the world again?” The answer was almost always “yes.” We’d talk things over, so in a short while I usually could get back to my hopeful and optimistic self.

What if there was a way to repair the world? How are we going to fix this deeply flawed world? Is it something that is our work to do? The problems are so big, our power so small. But is it really? How can we make things better for each other and ourselves? I have an idea that might work, at least a little to alleviate the horrible troubles we are going through right now.

One idea I’ve picked up along the way is the idea of Holy Sparks. This is from Jewish Midrash (a story) that explains our obligation of performing acts of kindness and help. We can repair what’s broken in the world and restore the world to wholeness and peace by correct action. These actions are called “tikun olam,” or “repairing the world.”

The actions can be as simple as showing kindness, prayer, feeding people who are hungry, listening to a distraught friend, lending money, sitting with a person who has lost someone, visiting the sick and imprisoned, reconciling with a family member, etc. The belief stems from the understanding that sparks of Divine light are in all matter.

Imagine this: Every time we perform actions to help someone, the sparks are released exploding into the sky so that the Divine’s goodness is revealed to the world. See the sparks like fireworks. If we miss an opportunity to do any of these things put before us, that spark is trapped forever. You only get one chance for each action. If we release enough holy sparks the world will be transformed.

Last year I was driving my grandson, Aiden, home from preschool. He was 4 at the time. I pulled up to a red light. On the median divider stood a homeless man, as sad and bedraggled as any person I had ever seen. He was holding a cardboard sign asking for help. I reached in my purse, found a $5 bill, looked him in the eye, and handed it to him. The man smiled and I smiled then I drove on. After a few minutes, Aiden asked, “Why did you do that, Grandma?” I said, “Well, I just believe we need to help each other if we can.” When we got back to Aiden’s house, he ran in his room, rustled around for awhile, then came out, hugged me, then handed me $5 of play money from his toy cash register. It was such a reminder of how kids watch us to see how to act. His action made me cry .

The imagery of holy (whole) sparks speaks to my heart. When we get it right, we help, we nurture, we share, and WOW. A golden spark lights up the sky. The New Year is an opportunity for starting out on a different foot, to forgive, to get out of our own heads and troubles, to be the face of good in the world. What we need more than anything is hope that things will get better. Isn’t it worth a try?

I am speaking to myself as much as putting this idea out in the world, but I just think that if enough of us try it, it’s a beginning.

What if 1/3 of us did it? Or 1/2 of us? Would the world look like a different place?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mama's Christmas Carrot Cookies and Family Cookbook

In my family, we had tea every day at 4:00 p.m. My mom always had homemade cookies, muffins, or date nut bread to go with the tea. She was a wonderful cook and her house always smelled like heaven. She died about 15 year s ago and I still miss her every day.

A few years after my mother died, I discovered that I didn’t have all of her recipes. I had a few favorites, but was missing many more. I felt kind of panicky because I had lost something extremely valuable. I began to email my sisters and nieces hoping to find the rest. Much to my relief, the replies came quickly with so many recipes that I began to compile them into categories. That gave me an idea so I emailed again, this time asking for everyone’s favorite memories of my mom. When those rolled in I knew I had the makings of a family cookbook. While reading everyone’s stories, I understood that my mom made everyone feel special and loved. It also made me cry more than I had in years.

Everyone who has lost an important person in their life knows that grief comes in waves. It hits you hard, and then goes away. I could be driving down the street feeling fine, hear a song on the radio like “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong (her absolute favorite), then I’d burst into tears. Having the cookbook to put together gave me a mission that year and it helped me to get through the holidays.

At the time I didn’t have a digital camera, so I drew and painted pictures of the food by memory. I cut out and glued the paintings on each recipe to put together one master copy. Next I color copied each page and I made 12 copies. I let Kinko’s put a clear plastic cover and back page and they bound them in plastic, also. The cover showed through nicely. I made a copy for each sister and for all nine of our children, put them all in large envelopes and mailed them off several days before the holiday. The carrot cookies were only made for Christmas Eve so I wanted them to arrive in time.

Mama’s Christmas Carrot Cookies

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Cream the first 3 ingredients below:

½ cup softened butter

½ cup shortening

1 1/8 cup white sugar

Add 2 eggs

1 ½ cup carrots

(cook until soft, then put through the food processor or blender)

In a different bowl:

Sift all 3 items below through a metal strainer:

3 cups flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

Mix all the dry and wet ingredients together.

Put parchment paper on a cookie sheet.

Make rounded tablespoon size drops for the cookies-I use a medium sized melon baller.

Bake for around 12 -15 minutes- They don't get brown just check to see that they are firm, but watch for the bottom burning.

Orange Icing

1 package confectioner’s sugar

2 oranges grated

Juice the oranges

½ stick of butter, softened

Add the sugar and butter then mix. Use as much orange juice from the 2 oranges as needed but don't make it too runny, then add in the grated orange rind.

When the cookies are cool, spoon as much icing as you want over the cookies.

Cut maraschino cherries in half, blot on a paper towel, and then place one on each cookie after icing. Delicious- not too sweet, but the flavor of carrots and oranges together is so wonderful.

Here's what my niece Cindy wrote in her memory of my mom for the cookbook: "The joy of walking up the stairs to her home after a long, long trip-tea every day-how wonderful it was for the whole family to be together-date squares, carrot cookies, reading on the back porch, having her put her large knitted afghan over me for a nap, sweet peas growing in her yard, decorating Christmas cookies at her house with all the cousins, watching her bring plates of food to neighbors who were alone or sick. She was so loving." If you ever have the opportunity to put together a family cookbook I know you will find it an exercise in love.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

10 Ways to Nurture Your Child's Spirituality

As the holidays approach, I worry about the influence our material culture has on kids. At a young age, children are being taught to believe that if you just have the perfect toy or electronic gadget, their lives will be perfect. Being adults we know the truth. It makes us feel better for a little while, then we want something else.

A meditation teacher once told me that joy was the natural state of humans. He said in the beginning it's like our hearts are bright, shiny-clean mirrors. Then, once negative things in life happen, the mirror becomes covered by feelings of worry, fear, anger, jealousy, etc. There are some conditions in our environment that we can control that have the potential to continuously wipe the mirror clean for our children and ourselves.

Maybe you've watched as magical, happy small children you know turn into not-so-charming materialistic kids who have lost their spark of individuality and joyfulness. Wanting more and more stuff stifles all the good qualities the child originally possessed. Make no mistake, the cultural norms promote and take over a large part of your child's life. If you go to a really good church or temple, that can counteract some the cult of ownership, but I think mostly it’s building a breathing space for your kids just to be.

Materialism isn't the only cultural problem. Chronic rushing and busyness, loud music and TV, insane competitiveness, overfilled schedules, force kids to grow up too early, robbing them of their innate spirituality. My grandson, who is 5, has only been to two movies and has limited PBS Sprout exposure. On Saturday, Aiden went to see Toy Story 3. So yesterday I took him to Safeway where we walked the aisles. Little pictures of Woody, the cowboy, jumped out at him from every turn. Cereal boxes, cookies, videos, called out to him, making him want all of it. We bought a box of Rice Crispies with Woody's picture only because we were making marshmallow treats. Apparently there was supposed to be something Toy Story related in the box, but we never found it, leaving Aiden disappointed. As much as you try to keep children from being influenced by our cultural materialism, it's designed to strike home.

Here are some ideas to help you create a space that allows your child to grow spiritually and develop a rich interior life.

1. Let them know there is something bigger than themselves, it can be called God, or it can be certain ideals your hold like Truth, Social Justice, Kindness, or Honesty. Something has to be bigger than them. You can use any word you like; Spirit, Creator, just don't let your child be the center of the universe.
2. Let them see you helping others in your community. Assisting family and neighbors when they are sick or in trouble, and showing kindness is great modeling. Especially let them see you giving without expecting anything back.
3. Give your children the time to dream. It's a gift to allow them periods of silence. Some quiet and solitude-don’t keep them constantly involved in competition, sports, TV, video games, etc. It robs them of their ability to think freely, to breathe, and to relax. Contrary to the popular belief that being alone occasionally is problematic, it's important for them to learn how to think and dream. When I taught high school, the principal told the whole faculty, "Watch out for loners and report them to us." I laughed out loud, thinking it was a joke. There has to be a middle way: alone all the time bad, never alone, equally detrimental.
4. Show and teach gratitude- for everything from food on the table to a warm bed, beautiful flowers growing in the yard, to being grateful for a kindness from a stranger. You can say grace before dinner, use any words you like, but start saying it or ask the kids to say it.
5. Encourage their imagination in as many ways as possible. A chance to use their imagination-give them lots of art supplies, wood blocks to build, don’t tell them what to do, don’t praise the art or project, say instead, “Tell me about your picture.” They will.
6.Take them to Yosemite instead of Disneyland. Okay, you can take them to Disney a few times, but mostly take them out into nature and to appreciate beauty. Have your kids seen the way stars look when you are in the mountains or the desert? A full moon rise? Appreciation for the miracles around them encourages wonder and awe in yourself and your kids. Get them outside, growing vegetables, go camping, look at plants, and point out the intricate beauty of frogs, bugs, and the flight of a hawk.
7. Exhibit peace and respect for others. Watch what you say and do in front of your kids-screaming at other drivers, calling people names are noticed. When you show respect, politeness to others, when you let people go ahead of you on the freeway and in the supermarket, your kids see it. Everything you say and do is noticed. If you don't want to hear it coming out of your 5 year old's mouth, don't say it.
8. Storytelling, books, and family ritual-Children learn from storytelling, both family and otherwise, borrow great books from the library, develop family rituals. This helps kids feel connected to you, their world, and the child's ancestors. There isn't any culture in the world, except maybe ours, where the ancestors are not called upon to help them or remember them to bring them into community with their lives. Family rituals can be as simple as praying together over meals or just setting healing intentions for others
9. Be careful with TV, movies, video games, etc. Children have their own inborn temperaments to be sure, but if they are exposed to scary or adult movies or games it harms them. Especially watch out for oversexualized or violent images have a terrible impact.
10. Be convinced of your child's innate sense of the sacred and their own spiritual centers. Children have moments of shocking awareness that are periods of grace. Don't underestimate their intuitive, soulful knowledge.

A few minutes ago, I went outside to clear my head and finish my coffee. Two small deer walked into the yard not 20 feet away from me. I could feel my heart jump a bit, lifting me up, cleaning the mirror again. I went to theology school, but I don't know everything about what we are doing here on this planet at this moment. I just know children's and our own spiritual lives need nourishing and a sacred space to grow freely. It's the best gift you can give them.