Monday, April 13, 2015

American hanami

So, as you may know, Japanese people have this annual tradition called hanami (or yozakura, if you do it at night). Here's how it works: in springtime, people pack up a bento of traditional foods (and, if they drink, sake) and find a flowering cherry tree under which to sit and admire the blossoms, eat, drink, play and listen to music. The blossoms, which only last a few days before withering and falling from the trees, are symbolic of both the beauty and the fleeting nature of life.

My question: why don't we have something like this in America?

It's not as though we don't have any cherry trees here. Right now in the Puget Sound area there are gobs of flowering cherries everywhere. (The picture above was taken in a strip mall parking lot in Bellevue.) Yes, it rains in springtime, but it likewise rains in Japan during the hanami season. And American foodies hardly need another excuse to come up with a seasonal picnic. Maybe it's the reminder of mortality, of the briefness of life, that gives us pause? Americans don't much care to contemplate death, especially their own. And yet I see hanami parties as a celebration of life and all the facets of life, of beauty and pain, tension and calm, joy and sorrow, of taking delight in the time we have on earth. Why wouldn't we want to celebrate that?

Besides, it's a chance to sit under a tree, play a guitar, sing and feast with friends. Even if you're not much for contemplation, I bet you're still up for a celebration -- especially one involving food.

Friends, I say we find a likely spot and make this happen! Who's with me?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Atonement

It's Easter Week, so this particular Mormon girl is once again pondering the nature of the Atonement, at least as I (very imperfectly) understand it. Specifically, I'm thinking about the way I might answer an interesting question I heard a while back: "If God really wanted to motivate people to be good, why only tell them 'Jesus died for your sins?' Why not just leave Jesus permanently suffering in hell instead?"

Well, I can't speak for every Christian, so perhaps the idea that Jesus Christ is constantly, actively being made to suffer for their sins might well provide some Christians with motivation to be better people. But that's not the way I see it.

I think the primary motivator in the situation described above would be guilt. And yes, guilt can be a powerful motivator, but guilt is also more of a short-term emotional response. If you do something wrong, the feelings of guilt associated with that activity are meant to goad you into action, to right the wrong as soon as possible. But if you repress or ignore feelings of guilt over long periods of time, you can become inured to them. The belief that Christ is permanently suffering for your sin, and the complete inability to bring that suffering to an end, would be far more likely to inspire a kind of guilt burnout.

Another possible motivator is a sense of duty or obligation. If someone does something for you, you feel compelled to do something in return -- either by paying back, or by paying forward. The problem with obligation as a motivator is that payment for sin is a debt that cannot be repaid in any meaningful sense. You cannot take the sin or the suffering away from Christ, nor can you in turn "pay it forward" by suffering for someone else's sin -- Christ's payment for sins, Christians believe, is a unique contribution that no one else can duplicate. So a mere sense of obligation, like a sense of guilt, has no way of being acted upon and therefore also inspires emotional burnout.

Perhaps another motivator in this situation might be fear. Surely a God who has the capacity and desire to torture an innocent person for all eternity would inspire fear in sinners. But I don't subscribe to the Jonathan Edwards style of theology, the idea of a vengeful God waiting for people to slip up so He can send them straight to hell. A God who tortures the innocent solely to keep others in line would not be, in any manner of speaking, a deity worthy of our praise or worship; He might have the ability to inspire terror, but little else. Simply put, a God who is not good is not God at all.

So then, what does motivate people to be good?

Let's look at the Atonement in a little more detail. What exactly did Christ come to do?

Here's the conundrum: life is a learning experience. We go through life to struggle with and overcome challenges, to be tested, to face situations only the experience of mortality can provide. In the process, because we are imperfect, we all commit sins, which separate us from God. God dearly loves us and wants us to return to Him, but there are fixed, eternal laws in place which even He cannot abrogate. Justice demands that we suffer for our sins. Mercy, on the other hand, must be extended to all who ask for it. How is it possible for God to satisfy the demands of both justice and mercy in order to draw us back to Him? We need a mediator: someone who is capable of paying the price of sin to satisfy justice, and who may therefore extend mercy to those willing to accept it.

While we don't know the precise mechanics of how it was done, in Gethsemane and on the cross Christ provided the necessary role of mediator. He took upon himself the sins of all humanity, and the suffering associated with those sins, for all who should desire to repent. He, who had never done wrong, experienced the pain, the guilt, the shame, the sorrow, the mental anguish, the withdrawal from God associated with every sin, every mistake, every error it was possible for mankind to commit. Therefore, of all those who have ever gone through mortality, Christ has a uniquely empathetic perspective: no matter what you have done in your life, no matter what you have suffered, he understands what you're going through -- because he went through it too. As Isaiah put it, Christ became intimately "acquainted with grief" in a way no other person has ever experienced.

But simple empathy -- the act of suffering with us -- is insufficient to remove sin. So the Atonement goes further. After taking upon himself all sin, Jesus Christ died. Again, though we are not certain how it works, this act -- of an innocent person willingly taking on the burden of sin and then offering himself as a sacrifice -- expiates sins. Had no one been able to atone for us, the burden of our sins and the demands of justice should drag us down to a prison of the soul from whence there could be no escape, even in death. Instead, we receive a promise that we can be free of that burden as long as we continue to turn away from our sins and try to follow Christ.

It goes still further. The Gospels all proclaim that on the third day, Jesus Christ rose from the dead as a fully restored and perfected living being. He was the first to be resurrected, but he would not be the last. His resurrection is an even greater promise -- the promise that even death can have no permanent hold on us.

All this Christ did for us, not merely because he had to, but because he saw us as his friends and he loved us enough to save us through his sacrifice. He said so himself: "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Believing all this, knowing what Christ did for me and why, what would my primary emotional motivator have to be? Not guilt, nor duty, nor fear -- but love, a kind of love that can scarcely be articulated in words, and therefore must be spoken through acts of kindness and service. A love born of gratitude for a supreme act of grace that cannot be repaid, but whose mediator makes only one request: "Follow me." A love that inspires the courage to do what is right, even when it's hard to do.

And that's what Easter is about. It's the celebration of an act of love that bought our freedom.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What about anti-social media devices?

(I originally posted this on -- where else? -- Facebook, but since I tend to wipe my posts there after about a week or so and since I sorta like this concept, I'm reposting it here.)

I
 had an odd idea at the Faerie III opener. Lots of people were buzzing around the small space, most of them talking and observing, but quite a few also taking pictures and video to share later. I thought about a conversation I'd had with CM about how, more and more, certain people are obsessively documenting almost every stray event in their lives on social media, and that not everyone who accompanies them to various events has that same level of keenness for social media participation -- that there may come a time in the very near future when people turn down offers to go out with friends because they don't want the whole experience shared with the world for the sake of likes and comments. Those events in turn connected with several articles I've read lately about virtual cloaking devices that, under the right conditions, can make objects "invisible."

And I thought: How long will it be until you can go to a public event with some sort of tagging device on you that automatically renders you "invisible" to smartphones, digital cameras, etc. so you can mix and mingle with folks who physically attend the event, but you don't appear in any visual documentation for social media purposes? As someone who usually hates to be photographed, I see a blossoming market for a device like this.

You could call it Vampire Mode!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Running silent

In the last few days I've decided I spend too much time writing on this blog, and not nearly enough time writing for publication. Which is probably why I haven't been published in a while, ne?

So, time to back away from the blog and social media for a while and do some living (and writing) in the real world. See you all on the flip side!

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Gnome pranks and related shenanigans

Are you familiar with the gnome prank?

"Oooh, gnomes now!" --Mr. Tweedy
The TL;DR version: surreptitiously steal a garden gnome, have it send "letters home" explaining that it's gone on vacation, then photograph it doing various things on its adventures, sending them back to the owner. Eventually return it along with some mementos of its vacation. The Travelocity gnome mascot is loosely based on this prank.

But it doesn't have to be a gnome, and it doesn't have to be done without the consent of the owner, either. A friend of mine (hi Helena!) created a little wolfman toy named Grimmie and sent him on a trip around the world, visiting various famous places with her friends; Grimmie's adventures have been documented on Facebook. My sister Julie did something similar with Mr. Pubes, her naughty monster. Some friends of our family have a little Legoman who likes to explore the world (and who also has his own Geocaching account, but that's another story). And of course, there was Simeon von Pumpernickel, who set out seeking fame and fortune and ended up with a family in Tel Aviv, as you do.

If you'd like to host Legoman on one of his adventures, you should certainly let me know... but recently I've been thinking about starting another round of adventures with a traveling critter. Perhaps a monkey? Simeon comes from a large and illustrious family, after all. If I were to do this, would anyone be interested in participating?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Salt

I am salt.

Salt crystals image from Wikimedia Commons
You can find me pretty much everywhere on earth. I'm flaky and can be abrasive. I'm not perfectly pure. Not everyone likes my strong, unadulterated flavor. And there are some folks -- doctors and other people of learning -- who even argue that I'm dangerous and unhealthy, and should be minimized or removed.

But salt has been a prized commodity for millennia, and people have traveled long distances to possess it. Human beings need a certain critical amount of salt in their diets; without it they can become drastically ill, both physically and mentally. Salt, used as a preservative, keeps worthwhile foods from spoiling and protects against damaging invaders like mold and bacteria. And you just try cooking anything edible without salt; it's pretty much an exercise in futility. Salt makes frozen roads safer, extinguishes fires, and cleans everything from clothing to teeth. Salt fills the seas that cover nearly two-thirds of our world, and makes possible the teeming diversity of living things within them. Salt even runs in our blood. Just because it's everywhere, and just because it may not be to your taste, that doesn't mean you don't need it. Salt is crucial to life.

Now: I am a woman of faith.

You can find people like me everywhere -- in churches and synagogues and mosques, at potlucks and PTA meetings, in soup kitchens and orphanages and prisons, even running around two by two on foot or on bikes. Sometimes I can be flaky -- yeah, I know, some of you have been telling me this for years now -- and I, and people like me, can be fairly abrasive to others if we don't take the time to think before we speak or act. People of faith aren't pure or perfect; they're usually working to become better. Not everyone likes faith or its associated traditions, and there are some very learned and well-respected people who believe faith poisons everything and that our society would be better off without it.

But faith, like salt, is necessary to sustain life and civilization. People have gone to great lengths to search out and find a faith that feeds their souls. Without a modicum of faith, mighty empires -- the first French Republic, the Soviet Union -- have crumbled from within, the ultimate emptiness of their ideologies unable to sustain their people over multiple generations. People of faith, in mosques and monasteries, have done what they could to preserve worthwhile knowledge and keep it from extinction. Music, painting, architecture and all the realms of human creativity have been enriched by artists of deep faith. Faith-based holidays -- Holi, Christmas, Purim and numerous others -- give zest and joy to all who participate, and enhance the quality of life. Faith can soften the hardest of hearts, gentle the wildest furies, and cleanse the souls of those who thought they were beyond saving. Faith can fill the world with deeper understanding, brings a greater joy into life, even brings context and meaning to suffering and death. Even if you don't think you need it, faith, like salt, is crucial to life.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus taught that his followers were "the salt of the earth" -- that is, a small but essential ingredient that would bring its positive, needful influence to the mass of mankind. Insofar as his disciples refused to be thus -- if they gave up their savor, that unusual quality that made them what they were, and tried to be just like everyone else -- they would become worthless, good only to be cast aside and trodden underfoot. Being a person of faith sometimes means having the courage to be different. Not everyone will appreciate this difference or relish your company because of it. But if you stay true to who you are -- that is, if you continue to grow in your faith and refuse external pressures to lose your particular savor -- then your small acts of love and kindness, like a sprinkle of salt in food, can have a disproportionately positive effect on the world around you.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Respecting single people's time

(This piece has been sitting on the back burner for some time, but a comment I read today reminded me that it was long overdue.)

My sister Jenny teaches sixth grade, and she's very good at her job. Not only does she spend hours of time on her class during the school day, but she also expends many hours before and after school preparing lessons, grading papers and otherwise doing whatever she can to provide an excellent education to a hormonally-charged and squirmy group of tweens. After work, she has a place of her own with its attendant responsibilities, bills to pay, meals to cook and functions to attend. In other words, like most professional working adults, she has a full and busy schedule.

But Jenny also has to deal with a frequent social irritant. Some of her friends -- unfortunately, it seems most common among those who are married with children -- often contact her at the last minute, asking her to drop everything and do something with them. Their justification for this behavior? Well, she's single, so she must have loads of free time, right?

Uh, no.


Jenny's experience is far from unusual. A number of other friends and acquaintances -- including Linda, a graphic designer who runs marathons, participates in long-distance bike races and operates a major fansite in her spare time, and Rebecca, a professional singer who currently works two jobs to make ends meet -- have publicly expressed frustration over this same recurring social irritant. Their bosses, co-workers and friends repeatedly assume they have gobs of time to attend social functions, work extra hours and take on additional projects, simply because they're single. To put it bluntly, in Western society most married or partnered people show little respect for single people's time.

This is a social blind spot, and I suspect I know where it might originate. For many adults, the last time they were single was in high school or college, when they had relatively few responsibilities and far more free time. If they don't stop to consider, they may fall into the reflexive belief that single adults have the same kind of open schedules they once enjoyed in their student years. But this simply isn't so. Single working adults have as many responsibilities as couples do -- with the added stress of making do on one income, single-handedly running their own errands, cooking their own meals, taking care of their own finances and doing all the household chores, since they don't have the luxury of delegating these responsibilities to a partner. They are not footloose and fancy-free teenagers -- they are working people, and they are staggeringly busy. When you operate on the thoughtless assumption that they can just clear their schedules at the drop of a hat, you are strongly suggesting that you do not acknowledge their status as full-fledged grownups. That stings. And the more often you do it, the more emotional corrosion it causes to your relationship.

I'm far from free of blame in this regard. On many past occasions, I blithely assumed my sister would be free to do something without taking the time to consult her first. Now that I see what a bonehead I was, I've been making a greater effort to be as respectful of Jenny's busy schedule as she is of mine. But it isn't really that difficult to make the necessary mental adjustment, to recognize and respect the time of friends and acquaintances, whether they're singles or couples. It just requires a few minutes of your own time to stop and think about it -- and to change your behavior accordingly.

(By the way, if I've ever disrespected your time, my sincerest apologies. I know I can do better.)