Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bowel Movement

Forgive me for moving back in time here.  When Jan came back from spending a few days with the kids at his parents this fall, and brought with him the delicious fruits of what has become a traditional father - son autumn photographic outing, I was quite touched and knew that I wanted to share more than just the pictures themselves.  But, as I confessed in my last blog entry, I let my Christmas addiction squeeze out any time for such reflections, and am just now finally allowing them to surface. 

Loading this latest batch of pictures up into iphoto, I became aware of how familiar these German countryside vignettes are:  rolling hills, each topped with their own fortress, like a cherry on a sundae; apple orchards; steep hillside vineyards and the beloved town of Beilstein, with its long history reaching deep into the Middle ages, the traces of which are slowly disappearing.  These are some of the themes of which there are countless versions in albums on our shelves dating back to long before I ever even met Jan and his family.  This is a world which father and son have captured again and again, from every corner of our four seasons, framed by an ever maturing and changing perspective, through the lens of an ever advancing instrument, first on slides, then paper and now digitally.   This is a world which a father loves and a love, which this father has passed on to his son.  Precious.

But the love that Jan’s father has for his romantic surroundings goes deeper than the hobby he shares with his son of reducing it to two dimensional images stored on our hard drive.  It is a love that is demonstrated in the various other projects that my father-in-law has engaged in over at least the last 20 years.  Some of these projects connect him to the organization Friends of the Earth (BUND für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland) and have their beginnings in the mid- 80’s, when the Fischer’s Protestant church held seminars and sermons promoting Intentional living with an emphasis on Peace, Justice and Creation Protection.  With a strong urge to get practical and inspiration coming from another area in Germany (Marktdorf), Jan’s father, Klaus, and two of his acquaintances set out to preserve natural habitats for local fowl, small field animals and useful insects by giving local farmers an incentive to maintain their organic fruit orchards. 

What began as a group of about fifteen people gathering 5 tons of apples from organic orchards themselves and financing the cost of cider production for consumption within their small community, has turned into the Steinkautz label, which produces up to 350,000 liters of organic apple cider/juice per year and is sold in a variety of stores in the wider area.  There are more than a hundred organic fruit orchards scattered over an area of approximately 20 kilometer, together comprising 2-300 hektare (about 800 acres) natural habitat for some 50-60 species of birds plus hedgehogs, wasps, bees, polecat and hazel dormouse, to name just some of the creatures enjoying this natural environment.  To motivate farmers to maintain these less productive organic orchards as opposed to the low growing, chemically protected and fertilized plantations, the Steinkautz Natural Habitat project, a non-profit organization, ensures farmers a much higher price for their fruit, when they sign to follow strict organic growing policies.  They have just recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.  

Related to this project, are the regular inspections of the orchards and the nesting facilities that have been placed in the apple trees.  It is a real treat for our children, when they can accompany their grandfather on winter afternoon “house cleaning” duty!  They eagerly take turns clamoring up the ladder to inspect and sweep out the nesting houses, being careful to first check for dead eggs, which, when found, are collected like trophies.  

In the nearby hills of Prevorst, Klaus supports an amphibian protection initiative, which has erected a system of fences and tunnels to keep the frogs, toads, and salamanders (newts?) from being killed by traffic when they make their way to the ponds to lay eggs.  Jan’s father is part of a team which checks the fences, makes sure the tunnels are free of leafage, and counts the survivors from year to year to determine the success of their methods and alter their strategy as needed.

My father in law is also a history buff, as the many boxes and armoires full of historical family documents and photos substantiate.  Having saved at least three, 300 year old houses in his home town from destruction, it is a given that he is also a member of a German-wide organization for conserving historical landmarks.   But I won’t say anything more about that, because the story of Klaus’ houses is my favorite story, and it will one day get a blog entry all of its own!

But Klaus’s charity is not limited to bugs and birds and buildings.  For almost 4 years, Jan’s father has been the local coordinator for an initiative to offer affordable, practical assistance to the elderly or infirm called Citizen for Citizen.  It is a program of volunteers who are listed with specific skills or services, and whom can be called upon when needed, for example, to drive someone to the doctor, fix a sink, or just come by with some chicken soup.  The recipients pay a small fee, but nothing close to the cost on the open market.  In the Fischer’s town of Beilstein and the neighboring town, Abstadt, my father in law coordinates 60 volunteers, who meet about 800-900 service-requests per year (although this number has declined more recently).

It is always a slippery business to second guess someone else’s motives, and I don’t want to be presumptuous here.  However, through the many years I have been a part of this family, I have come to witness my husband’s father as a deeply compassionate person.  He is someone who seems to feel pain himself, when others, even the smallest creatures, suffer due to loss, illness, erosion, decay, physical discomfort or pain.  It sometimes appears that his very insides churn and tangle with turmoil at the thought of someone else’s misery.  In fact, this is exactly the meaning of one of the Greek words in the New Testament used to describe Jesus’ response to human suffering.  

Splanchna means inward parts, entrails, bowels, and is metaphorical for the seat of emotion.  When someone “splanchnizomai,” literally their entrails are churning, their bowels are moving in response to someone else’s suffering.  And usually always this churning produces some course of action meant to relieve the observed suffering.  When I reflect on my father-in-law’s acts of compassion, I can’t help but think of Paul’s declaration that all of creation is groaning and awaiting salvation...from atrophy, entropy, disunity, erosion, decay, death, alienation, abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence.  (19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Romans 8).  If this is the case, then it certainly couldn’t hurt if we all had more bowel-movement.

I am so thankful that my children have a grandfather who shows them by example how precious all life is, that we are connected with our environment as well as with each other, and that we each can do a small part to counter the forces of alienation, exploitation, decay and disconnection in the landscapes and communities around us.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Christmas Junkie

Something just doesn't seem right when one holiday, even if it is my favorite one, takes up a whole two months!  Do the math,  one sixth of the year!  I mean, my life is busy enough without holidays, and then this one comes crashing in on our existence like a comet from outer space.  So much for the cute little star of Bethlehem,  this thing has gotten huge and leaves a crater in its wake!!  I'm writing this looking at the most perfect Christmas tree we have ever had (a far shot better than the ones we crafted out of two trees in PNG with saws and drills), an obligatory manger in a decorated bay window and  christmas cards on the mantel.  I can boast of a tasty turkey with all the mandatory side dishes; a few, not all, of the sweets I planned to bake; homemade Christmas presents;  a dining room that could be right out of a swedish Home & Garden; even funky new handmade decorations in front of our house (well, they would look good if they were in front of any other house);  and a merry time was had by all (including my parents who spent Christmas with us for the first time in 15 years!).  But I'm exhausted!  and I am asking myself, where did those two months go?

I only have myself to blame (and the Home & Garden).  I don't know why all my artistic inspiration and zealousness seems to be concentrated on Christmas, but that original hand size snow ball has quickly rolled up into a large, unmanageable snow boulder of ideals, promises, expectations, new craft and deco ideas, obligations, hopes and demands.  Inevitably all of those things add up to more than the amount of time usually left over to honor any holiday sanely.  The temptation, then, is to start earlier and be more organized (how many years have I been vowing to do that?), but we wouldn't want to take that approach with our bank accounts.  If we have used up the money alloted for one  thing, we wouldn't want to just start using the money alloted for food or rent to cover the excess.  I think my Grandmother must have spent at least ten months out of the year on Christmas, and with ten children and 28 grandchildren, no one can fault her for it.  But I don't come close to having that kind of excuse for my over indulgence.  Two months for Christmas is too much. Something's  gotta give!

The problem is that I feel strapped to a horse that will never tire (to quote Sting).  

I'm a Christmas junkie.  

I've bought into the storybook version of Christmas lock, stock and barrel, and I try to recreate it every year.  It captures my imagination like no other holiday, maybe because it involves many of my favorite things: paper, candles, ivy, wreaths, pretty things, yummy smells, chocolate, and “brown paper packages tied up with string.”  Maybe it is an addiction to Anticipation itself, a feeling of something better is yet to come, the tension that builds and presses against the rib cages until you feel that your whole chest cavity will burst.  Maybe it is some childhood deficiency (what in my life isn’t motivated by my childhood deficiency?), zeroing in on this particular season to gorge itself on the fancy and illusion that all will be well if i am just able to bake enough cookies to feed the 100+ kids and parents divided among my three children’s classes and sport clubs, and still have enough left over for Christmas day, the relatives, the neighbors and new years eve; write cards to every significant individual that has come and gone in my biography; get the right Christmas tree (very high on my priorities); don’t disappoint anyone at the gift opening ceremony; take the turkey out of the oven on time and make a good gravy.  This year i decided to test my bionic powers* and “supervised” the kids, who made more than several sophisticated Christmas presents for their Grandparents and aunts.  I had myself going there for a while, but I am now convinced that I have not even one bionic part in me!(my kids, on the other hand, are all machine!)

I bet this is exhausting just reading about all this!  I’m sorry to put you through it, but I wanted to go public with my addiction.  It’s the best thing for us junkies to do, so that others   can steer clear of any kind of co-dependency behavior. I’ve already begun forming a rehabilitation strategy for next year:

 finish the christmas poem i started a few years ago, which explores the dilemma of Mary’s pregnancy from 3 different angles.

 celebrate advent as a family (we totally missed it this year) once a week (every night, as we have done some years is quite ambitious for someone just climbing onto the wagon), by naming and informing ourselves about one particular form of darkness (injustice, suffering) in our world each week.

 Ask ourselves: what does, “I bring tidings of peace on earth and good will toward man!” mean to the people in those respective “dark” situations?

 Ask ourselves if there is anyone in our lives toward whom we need to take a creative first step of reconciliation

 (to be prepared well in advance)Find out if there is anyone, whose “world” we, as a family, can enter incarnationally to offer comfort, compassion and companionship.

These are just a few rough ideas I’ve had so far.  Doing this well might cut into my baking time, squeeze out a few of my shopping trips, and limit the number of new decorations i make next Christmas, and even then I’m not sure I’ll fit it all into one month.  Come to think of it, it might just take me all year to prepare for Christmas this way. 

Incase I fall off the wagon, you know your part: don’t eat my cookies, send back any Christmas cards I might have sent (unless there is a poem about Mary and her obnoxious neighbors in it) and don’t remark about how delightfully seasonal my house looks. The tree is still a “non- negotiable.”   

* i know that this reference dates me as being just shy of prehistoric, but the Bionic Woman/Man shows were far better than Superman/woman, and I am not ashamed to admit it!