Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Halloween or not to Halloween

I grew up trick-or-treating, relishing in that one day a year that it was okay to take candy from strangers. We used pillowcases to collect candy, because they held much more weight than flimsy plastic bags, and the now-ubiquitous reusable shopping bags were not yet commonplace. I remember limping on a twisted ankle one year because it was my sister's last year to trick-or-treat before it would get really awkward, and we wanted to rake it in. I still remember the houses that gave unusual treats, like our neighbour who worked for a souvenir pin company, and gave out a collection of surplus souvenir pins every year; the house that gave out juice boxes, which were a coveted status symbol in school lunch boxes; and a house that made fantastic candy apples with their name and address on the popsicle sticks to prove that they weren't going to anonymously poison us. We ran from house to house until our parents reigned us in, and then gathered at my neighbour's fantastic annual Halloween party. It was the one time during the year that all of the neighbours gathered together and visited. The hostess's attention to Halloween-themed details in the food and decorations was amazing, and this was in the pre-Pinterest era. I wonder if I've had an original creative thought since Pinterest.

This year's creations.
It never occurred to me that some Christians wouldn't celebrate Halloween until I started attending a private Christian school in grade seven. Among my classmates, a sizeable minority of them experienced Halloween in a much different way, peeking out the windows of their house at trick-or-treaters with absolutely no lights on in the house. Some others attended the Halloween alternative "harvest festivals" or "pumpkin parties" at their church. I hoped, for their sake, that they didn't know what they were missing. It seemed, to my twelve year old brain, a grave injustice. It turns out that those church parties were actually pretty fun too.

O trick-or-treating
Now that I am a parent myself, I have more understanding for those parents, although I choose to let my kids take part in Halloween. Parenting is rife will hard choices. Should I let my kids watch this show, go to that birthday party, play with at that kid's house? Should I throw out that brand new Scaredy Squirrel book I scored at Value Village because Scaredy consults a horoscope? We make judgements according to what we think is best for our children, and for some people that means choosing not to partake in any of Halloween's offerings. Parenting is hard enough without feeling like we are judging each other. I don't wish to persuade those who don't celebrate Halloween to start doing so, but rather to encourage those who do celebrate Halloween, including myself, to see some of the opportunities.

Super-O at the Strong Start Halloween party last year
At first I wondered if I was just letting my kids celebrate Halloween because it's so much fun. There are things that make me uncomfortable, like the gore and the ghouls, the vampires and the mummies. But I love the fun of imagining (or searching Pinterest) a costume idea and creating it, and the excitement of trick-or-treating. I love the candy. And, I hate the candy. Thankfully, I think there are more redeeming features of Halloween than simply having fun (which is not a bad thing either).

Halloween fixates on and celebrates fear. Is there anything positive about such a negative emotion? In my experience, there is a difference between true fear, and amusing fear. For most people, there is an element of amusement in the jolt of fear induced by spotting a fake spider in your Halloween punch, or by somebody you know jumping out from a hiding spot and startling you. After all, even the fun of the earliest game we play with our kids, Peekaboo, is the thrill of momentary fear followed by relief.

O and T as Bert & Ernie, the costumes that my Mom sewed for my sisters and I when we were little
Real fear is different. Real fear in my life was thinking my husband was not going to beat the Lymphoma monster. Most of the fearful elements of Halloween are intended to be amusing. There are reflections of real fear in Halloween decorations, like tombstones and zombies, though they should actually make public speaking decorations for Halloween since most people are more afraid of public speaking than death. A zombie doing public speaking would be the penultimate Halloween decoration or costume. Perhaps in using these decorations and costumes, even unknowingly, people are only able to give voice to what we fear most (other than speaking in public, shudder): death. I wonder how many fake front-yard graveyards actually give people pause to think about life after death.  Do the witches, gargoyles, and devils give people pause to actually think about the spiritual realm of life? There's an opportunity to engage with people who need hope, I'm sure of it. With the focus on fear and evil, isn't it a perfect opportunity for the One who defeated death and evil to shine?

O's first year trick-or-treating. He was too little to know that we ate all his candy.
For those who don't ponder the spiritual aspects of Halloween, it's really just a fun, imaginative, sugar-filled night. It's one of the few non-awkward chances to knock on every door of my townhouse complex and introduce ourselves to neighbours, and maybe stop to chat for a while. It's a chance to be a good neighbour, and be hospitable and generous to neighbourhood kids. I was accidentally the stingiest person on the block last year. The first trick-or-treaters were three young adult men who didn't even have costumes on. One tried to placate my obvious hesitation by passing off his cat shirt as a costume. I wondered if that was the kind of trick-or-treater we were going to get in our new neighbourhood, so I left a bucket of candy on the porch when we left to trick or treat with the lame backup candy I bought in case we ran out of the good stuff, and put a sign on it saying "Take one, not two...we are watching youuuu!" So, all the cute and appropriately aged trick or treaters that came after that saw our sign and the individually wrapped single gummy bears or whatever they were. Awesome.

Last year's pumpkins
The dark side of Halloween is undeniable, but it's easy to forget that aspects of our Christmas and Easter celebrations evolved from early pagan festivals and rituals as well. If holidays that Christians consider to be religious holidays, like Christmas and Easter, can be celebrated by the secular world with Santa and the Easter Bunny, why can't Christians appropriate the non-religious aspects of Halloween for some simple fun? Even better, why can't we use the holiday to engage with our friends and neighbours, especially when they might ask what we think about the spiritual aspect of the day? Why should the devil have all the good music?  We've taken back drums, electric guitars, dancing, movies, card games not limited to Rook; how about Halloween next?

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reflections on the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, Vancouver

My husband asked me yesterday why I don't blog anymore. He said that he misses it, and he also brought me a giant bouquet of red roses, so I'm giving him about five thousand points.

I somehow thought that the pace of life would slow down with O in school all day and only T at home to care for. How come nobody told me that the pace is actually 3.4 times faster? In addition to the busyness, I feel like I'm just finding my bearings again emotionally. The truth is that even though I knew it was going to be difficult sending O off to school each day, that foreknowledge didn't pad my fall. A nurse friend (side-note: don't nurses make such wonderful friends? I have several friends who are nurses and they seem to all have the common traits of empathy, flexibility, calmness, and are not easily grossed-out by my grossest stories) recently told me that the times in life when a woman is most susceptible to depression are post-partum, and when the children leave the nest. I'm pretty sure she was referring to when they are young adults, but I can imagine that the third peak must be when all the kids are in school, especially for stay-at-home moms. I'm bracing myself for 2.5 years from now, unless I pop out a third child. The changes in my life have prompted me to retreat a bit away from writing and into compulsive crafting (to be exposed in a later post) and watching the entire series of Doc Martin on Netflix in a short length of time in the evenings while said crafting was happening.

Other than O's commencement of kindergarten, the most significant event for me recently was attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event in Vancouver, which I previously wrote about here. Last month, I saw courage and it looked like this:

Imagine speaking about the darkest, most desperate moments of your life to a hall of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Beyond those seated in the room, your words and your face are being viewed by tens of thousands of people across the world via the internet. 

There is a moment when survivors share their stories when they close their eyes and pause. In that moment, you can see that under the bandages of any healing, there is always going to be a fresh wound. In that pause, however unremarkable in length, you can see the survivor's struggle to stay present in the moment, resisting the mind's pull to experience anew events from the past.

As only a witness and observer to the sharing of their stories, I cannot assume to understand all of their reasons for having the courage to speak. Whether it was their intention of not, I hope that sharing brought the survivors some measure of healing, a sense of vindication, and a release from the feelings of shame that victims of abuse often have. Some of them spoke to honour the memory of siblings or dear friends who lost their lives at residential school, or due to the emotional effects of abuse later in life. Their willingness to embrace vulnerability helped me to learn more about Indian Residential Schools, and their devastating intergenerational effects.

In addition to the Indian Residential Schools, I learned for the first time about Indian Hospitals, including the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, from a woman who was kept there from age two to four, enduring unbearable treatment. I learned about the "day schools," which were much like the residential schools except that students returned home every night. The abuse they suffered was horrific too, but their experiences have not been addressed by any financial settlements from the government or churches. I learned about forced sterilizations, medical experiments, and children freezing to death after trying to run away from abuse at residential schools.

In hearing their recollections of their childhood traumas, I couldn't stop myself from imagining the horror of my own children experiencing what these once-children did. I imagined their pain through the eyes of my five year old, and the pain that their parents must have experienced, having their children wrenched out of their arms and taken to residential schools.

The timing of this experience for me was especially poignant given that I had been fretting in the past few preceding weeks about O beginning kindergarten. The juxtaposition of his experiences and the experiences of these former children was not lost of me that day. I worried about whether his home-haircut was dorky and nobody was telling me. The survivors all had identical bowl cuts on arrival at the school, with some careless ear snippage for good measure. I worried about if his lunch containers might have BPA, and whether kids would tease him about the food I packed. I was the kid with the "boring" lunches, but now I'm thankful for all the healthy food, Mom! Survivors were doused in DDT for twenty four hours on arrival to kill any imagined creepy crawlies, and they were fed grossly inadequate food for growing bodies. I wondered if O would be overwhelmed by French immersion; survivors were beaten for using the only language that they knew. I wondered if my heart would break a little every day when I said good-bye to my oldest baby for six hours; those kids and parents probably wondered if they would ever see each other again.

"Aboriginal children waving farewell, Fort Providence Indian Residential School."
Library and Archives Canada
On the last day of the commission, we skipped church and took the skytrain into Vancouver to participate in the Walk for Reconciliation. We were a little concerned that the characteristically ill-timed Vancouver rain would put a damper on attendance, but approximately seventy thousand people showed up. Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered a powerful address, which I encourage you to listen to here. The weekend of courage ended on a note of hope, listening to her powerful words and seeing so many people in our city coming to learn, listen, and support.

We need to update our cultural narrative to include awareness of these atrocities in our past, and their intergenerational effects. We would think it strange, would we not, if German schoolchildren didn't learn about the horrid history of Nazism, or if Americans didn't know about its history of slavery? We too must be culturally literate in our own failings if we are to experience healing as a nation, and to prevent injustices from continuing to happen. I don't recall learning much of this in school, or even at university. I am hopeful that my children will learn more in school about it than I did, but, if not, they will certainly learn about it from us. Not yet though, five years old and two years old are too young to bear the weight of this knowledge that we all must begin to share with those who have been bearing it alone these many years. For now, I want my kids to be as carefree and joyful as those children should have been with their families.

Two M├ętis Children with an Inuit Child at All Saints Residential School, Shingle Point, Yukon
Library and Archives Canada

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