Friday, December 21, 2012

On December 21, I was invited to the 23rd Annual Interfaith Homeless Memorial Service, a service which is held annually on the shortest day of the year. 
It wasn't a great day for arriving anywhere early: the tail-end of winter storms from the Midwest has saturated Boston with torrential rain and I was sodden. On the positive side, it certainly gave me a glimpse of empathy: there's nothing warm and hopeful about Christmas lights and winter decorations when your trousers are wet and your coat leaks. I was feeling rather sorry for myself by the time that an angry man in a green sweater cursed me, pushed me to one side and vigorously rattled the locked doors. He sloped away before the doors were opened, leaving me standing there, sheepish and alone on the stoop, apologizing in my awkward English accent as a man quickly hurried me into the church – afraid, no doubt, that I might otherwise break the door down – and then returned to the music rehearsal.
There were four men, each smartly dressed in black, rehearsing the songs for the service. I took a seat in one of the pews near the back, feeling conspicuous as the only person to have (accidentally) arrived. The church was filled with gray cardboard headstones. Some were propped against pews, some were taped to the walls, some leant drunkenly against the altar. Each carried a person’s name. Each was hand decorated: rainbows and flowers, love hearts and splashes of bright color.

A woman came and sat next to me. She travelled all over America giving homeless people vouchers that they could use in Dunkin Donuts. She was very polite and smiled a lot. She told me that she didn’t particularly like eating donuts herself. She had once bought a man in San Diego a chicken quesadilla, but he had refused to eat it. I asked her if she knew anything about the headstones: she told me that each one represented a homeless person who had died in the Boston area that year. She didn’t know how many there were. She came to this service each year, and once there had been 260. But, she mused, last winter hadn’t been as cold so there would probably be fewer.
I misread the name on one headstone - No Man – and I felt a rush of anger. These people weren’t invisible nobodies, anonymous no-mans. They were people’s friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, lovers, partners, parents, acquaintances. When I looked more closely, I could see the ‘r’, small and crooked and partially obscured by an enormous yellow felt-tipped sun, on Norman’s gravestone. He was one of 130 people to have died in the Boston area this year. During the service, each person’s name was read out and a candle was lit in their memory. Jeff Olivet, one of the musicians, reminded the congregation that, ‘We do justice to their memory by lighting candles but, God help us, we should be doing justice to them while they’re living!’ Throughout the service, people drifted in and drifted out like the ebb and flo of a tide. But, even at its fullest, the congregation held fewer people than the list of those that we commemorated.

There was one headstone which looked like one of Iola’s drawings: it was a square house with a symmetrical window on each side of a bright red front door and an inverted triangle for the roof. It was in remembrance to someone called Daniel. The woman next to me told me that the average age of a homeless person in Boston was eight years old.

The service lasted an hour, each group of recited names interspersed by a song from our four black-suited men. Each took a turn to sing a solo: a hymn called ‘It is Well with My Soul’, written by an American from the 1800s after he lost all his money and all his children were killed in a sinking ship; Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, which soon became a very loud rendition as more and more people from the congregation joined in with the words that they knew; an operatic performance of ‘Empty Chairs on Empty Tables’ from the musical Les Miserables (‘There’s a grief that can’t be spoken, there’s a pain goes on and on. Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone’); and a rousing rendition of Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’ which, Jeff Olivet warned us, contained more than a little righteous anger.
I don’t think that I knew any of the people who were being commemorated: in Cambridge, people come and go and I’m not well enough established there to be able to put names to everyone’s faces, but I was welcomed anyway. The service ended with the congregation singing ‘Peace, Salaam, Shalom’. People rose to their feet and joined hands. It was a moving tribute to the people who had died and a powerful way to come together as a community. Afterwards, we were invited upstairs for a light luncheon and the opportunity to share and celebrate the memories of those who had died. The woman with the Dunkin Donut vouchers was one of the first in the queue. I lingered in the church for a while. A group of people had gathered around the piano and were having a raucous sing-a-long, the operatic baritone leading the way in a honky-tonk version of This Little Light of Mine, while an old man in a long tweed overcoat stamped the heel of his hand against the piano top. A woman leant towards me and told me that, if her friend had still been there among us, she would have been singing too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Driving home for Christmas

There is a commonly held belief that people in countries other than England deal with snowfall and icy conditions better than we do. It doesn't seem that many years ago, although it probably is far more than it seems, that Stansted Airport had to be closed because of a snowfall of just over an inch. This could never, blurted out London's Evening Standard, happen in any other country.

I take a small measure of pride in my resilience. When we lived in the Lake District, my kitchen shelves were weighed down with enough food to feed a family of eight for two months. When we lived in the  North East of England we had winter tyres on the car, flashlights and blankets in the car boot. I've sought advice on driving in snowy and icy conditions: keep the car in a high gear with low revs, only lightly dab the brakes, work with the energy of the car, steer into skids etc.

And so, I thought that I knew a little. Perhaps even quite a lot, but only for an English woman. Nothing compared to that which a person in another country would know, right? I mean, in New England they have real snow and they know how to deal with it. You won't see airports closed and people keeping off the roads just because of a few snow flakes.

Last year there wasn't much snowfall in Cambridge - it's been nicknamed 'the winter that never was' - but even when there was enough snow on the ground for us to go sledging, there wasn't a flake upon the roads. At the first signs of snowfall, people would be out in their trucks with the snow shovels on the front. I was impressed.

Two days ago, Vermont received one of the first snow falls of this season. It was very, very pretty: just a few inches but beautiful to look at. I was staying in a writers' retreat just outside of Rochester. The snow was the icing (pardon the pun) on the cake - the entire stay was perfect. I even had the opportunity to go for a couple of walks in the snow (in the snowboots which I had remembered to pack - I was well-prepared, see!)

But, although I felt well-prepared for a little snow fall, the Vermonters who worked at the Retreat were not convinced by my competence. I needed to drive home. They conferred in the kitchen: two women and a chef called Paul.
'Had I', they called out to the dining room, 'any experience of driving in the snow?'
'A little,' I replied, fairly unperturbed. 'High gears, low speeds, avoid hard braking.'
There was a pause.
'Is there a way of putting an automatic gear box into a higher gear?' I asked more tentatively.
And my sense of preparedness gradually ebbed away. The hire car didn't have winter tires. It didn't have snow chains or ropes or flashlights or blankets. The safest route out of the Retreat and down to Rochester included a couple of very steep hills.

Paul, the chef, took off his chef's coat and took control. There were clearly two variables at stake here: the suitability of the vehicle and the suitability of the English woman who knew nothing about snow. He took the car for a drive around the block. It handled, in his opinion, acceptably well. The staff decided to give me a coaching session, telling me to go very slow, telling me who to call if I should end up in a ditch. I raised an eyebrow at the thought at ending up in a ditch or wrapped around a tree but they assured me that all Vermonters had this experience every now and again. Just take it steady, they said.

I took it very steady. Significantly steadier than the four cars behind me would have wished. It is possible that we could have all walked to Rochester in the time that I crept along the lanes.
But I was safe, the hire car was in one piece, and my wise Vermont counsellors had assured me that it would all be fine once I was on the interstate. And the interstate did seem fine. People were driving slightly slower than normal - around 60mph rather than 70 - but the tarmac was clear of snow and I passed a gritter. I smiled: I'd navigated the Vermont lanes and now it would all be plain sailing: these New Englanders know how to deal with snow, right?

The first three cars that I saw in ditches didn't worry me unnecessarily. The first had a young teenager girl sitting behind the wheel, facing the wrong way and obviously irritated that her car was in a ditch. The second had a tow truck slowly pulling him out. The third had been abandoned. I eased off the gas a little: I didn't want to end up in a ditch but I knew that I had a number in my phone that I could call if it happened. I wasn't worried: they must have been driving too fast; they must have been playing with their phones, not concentrating, changing the CD in the car stereo. The road looked fine.
The fourth car was upside down and the police had cordoned off one lane of the interstate. There was an ambulance with flashing blue lights. Within the next mile, I passed four more cars in ditches. They weren't there because of driver error as such, they were there because we were driving on sheet ice. The signs said that it was 12 miles until the next exit.

I love driving: the isolation of the road, music on the stereo, the shifting landscape and the sense of moving on. These past few months, I've daydreamed about being a long-distance lorry driver, leaving all my troubles behind and looking towards the horizon. Yesterday, I was almost sick with fright. Perhaps that's what's it like for people who are scared to drive: white knuckles tightly wrapped around the steering wheel ('grip the wheel lightly with both hands' a voice inside my head reminded me every time my hands clenched), driving more and more slowly ('keep moving in accordance with the flow of the traffic', the little voice reminded me - if I drove too slowly the car behind would need to brake and there'd be carnage), and desperately counting down the miles to the next exit.

I rolled into the gas station at the first exit. Unnerved, unsettled but in one piece. The gas attendant looked a bit cold, but otherwise fairly unconcerned about the weather.
'There's a lot of cars in ditches out there,' I said, careful to keep the tremor out of my voice.
'Which way you come from?' The attendant was perhaps eighteen, adolescent acne still decorating his chin, but his voice was that of a much older man.
'I'm heading East, from Vermont.'
'Ahh,' he looked unsurprised, almost uninterested. 'You always get a fair few in ditches on that stretch when it's cold. You keep going,' he indicated vaguely towards the East, 'And it will get better in ten miles of so.'
I waited until the gritter passed and then joined the slower cars who were crawling along behind. It took a long time to get home.
I'm no longer sure that New Englanders are inherently better at dealing with snow than Old Englanders, it's just that they're not as interested in making a fuss when things go wrong.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Riding donkeys to Brazil

I am guilty of neglecting my daughters' religious education.

Through their short migratory lives, the girls have attended a Church of England school, a primary school with a heavy Christian slant, a multi-denominational English primary school, and their current elementary and middle schools in Cambridge. Cambridge schools are without religion - religion is a subject which must not be touched upon within the school curriculum. There are no hymns. No carols. Lesson content must not link to religious stories. Within school, the only reference to God is through the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (the reference to 'one nation under God' having only been incorporated in the 1950s and not being part of the original, God-less, pledge).

With a very politically correct sense of equality, the 3 main religions have each been allocated one day's holiday apiece within the Cambridge pubic schools' calendar. Islam has Eid Al Adha (where Abraham agreed to sacrifice his eldest son as an act of submission to God); Judaism has Yom Kippur (where Jews atone for their sins across the previous year and make resolutions for the coming year, with the sorrowful recognition that these will, inevitably, be broken); and Christianity has Good Friday (where Christians commemorate the killing of the only son of God). The period of time which is called the 'Christmas' holidays in the English school calendar is referred to as a winter holiday and there are no Christmas concerts. As a liberal woman (with a gentle leaning towards the uber-liberalism of Quakerism), I think that I should think that the equality offered to these three religions is a good thing... it's just that I wish that the public school board had chosen more 'celebratory' holidays. Of course Good Friday is an important day within Christianity - kind of central to the entire plot of the New Testament - but wouldn't it have been nice if we'd recognized Easter Sunday instead. And Eid Al Fitr would be a more upbeat addition to the school calendar than Eid Al Adha - Muslims break their fast on Eid Al Fitr and they are encouraged to show adherence to Islam's basic principles of showing happiness through one's daily life (Mohammad, on that day, reprimanded a father who told his girls not to sing, saying 'Let them sing!' - that alone would  make for a great celebration - and offer an alternative insight to Islam than the media's preoccupation with showing heavily veiled apparently miserable and voiceless women). Perhaps, we could also have Hanukkah, a festival of lights, rather than Yom Kippur's atonement (Iola explained to me yesterday evening that Hanukkah celebrates the fact that some oil burnt for eight days rather than just one. I said that people believe that God is capable of creating all kinds of miracles. And she replied, with one of those 'mummy, you're really not very clever' kind of looks, 'Well, I read it in the library in a very scientific-y kind of a book so I know that it must be true').

In fact, why stop at only one festival of lights? Let's have Diwali and Tazaundiang too. The more, the merrier, I say.

I do, however, have concerns about the girls' lack of knowledge about things that I take for granted. A great deal of English literature is grounded in references to the old and new testaments - to be able to read well, the girls need to know some of the main tales from the Bible (and these overlap, of course, many of the stories from the Torah and the Quran). Because they will not be learning these stories in school, I need to teach them myself.

To be honest, I'm a bit nervous about my competence in teaching the Bible. My concept of God is fairly warm and fuzzy. The girls understand that people meet with God in different ways through whichever religion that they practice. They know that some people think that God is nothing more than the goodness which exists within humanity (and, God, I want my children to believe that some goodness exists across humanity because otherwise there is nothing more than a nihilistic pit of existentialism. That can wait until they're teenagers at least!)

So, we have a nice way of thinking about God, but it's not one which sits comfortably with the Bible. (Nathan, who has no God but a paranoid belief in the possibility of the Devil, has never fully recovered from reading Revelations in one sitting in a dark hotel room late at night and then watching The Shining).

About 3 years ago, while we were living in Newcastle, I planned to teach the girls a bible story... I chose Noah's Ark. It's important to know about Noah's Ark as it resonates with our thinking around rainbows, repentance and forgiveness, and probably has something to say about global warming. I figured that the girls needed to know the story. We were going to eat animal crackers, draw pictures of rainbows. Before I had even started to read out the story, Iola looked at the illustration in my 1970s Bible and asked, 'Why are the giraffes drowning?' The illustrations were fairly graphic. It wasn't just the giraffes who were drowning - Maya helpfully pointed out the drowning tigers, antelope, and the small dog in the corner of the picture (a far more graphic and disturbing image than the one I've included here in my blog). Iola started to cry. I explained that Noah saved two of each of the animals. Maya explained that this was completely injust as the animals had done nothing wrong. By the time I had told the story up to the release of the first bird (who presumably drowns because the waters have not yet receded), both girls had announced their unwillingness to believe in a God who would do such things and I realized that, even with a stash of animal crackers and wax crayons, religious education was not my forte.

I have a wonderfully dear, and deeply devout, friend, Lucy, who sends the girls an advent calendar each year. This year I decided to be proactive. Last night, the girls and I sat with the calendar and talked about the significance of the images. Maya knows the story of the Advent very well (probably thanks to her English education) but Iola was a little confused on some of the details. She liked the picture of Mary riding the donkey and looked at this while Maya and I discussed the political and cultural implications of the decree to pay a special tax which meant that they needed to leave Nazareth (it's the kind of detail that Maya really likes to discuss - she uses words such as 'fiscal cliff' in relation to the governance of Judea). I tried to steer the conversation back to include Iola, who was losing interest in the picture of the donkey.
'Iola, can you remember where they needed to ride to?'
Iola has a habit of putting her head slightly to one side and sucking on one of her braids when she doesn't know an answer.
'It's the place where Jesus was born?'
'Oh, I know that bit - he was born in one of those long things which animals eat out of - I can't remember their name.'
'Yes, a manger - but can you remember what town the manger was in?'
More braid chewing.
'It begins with a 'B'.'
Iola pulled her braid out of her mouth and looked really happy. 'I know! I know!' She beamed at knowing the answer to my question. 'Was it Brazil?'