• Life Stories,  Spirituality

    A World of Difference

    Two Decembers ago, I stepped off a plane in Vienna, Austria, on what turned out to be St. Nicholas Day. Last December I arrived in Santiago, Cuba, in time for the Festival of San Lazaro. Two higher-contrast examples of how we humans celebrate the holidays might be difficult to find on this earth. Yet in some ways they were so similar.

    Vienna is all old-world charm. Nestled next to the Alps, its winters are all gray skies and snow. The people are an odd blend of Germanic rigidity and Eastern European culture. Beautiful cathedrals and palaces and family-run goulash houses. Coffeehouses where locals linger for three hours in deep conversation.

    There may not be another city of this size that takes Christmas so seriously. The downtown has many streets closed to cars and in their place are hundreds of trees, wreaths and crèches. Stores seemed to compete for festive decor. Long after the stores were closed, the downtown pedestrian-only streets were crowded with neighbors walking and socializing. Neighborhood squares around town had individual fairs, with children performing in costume and artists displaying their work. And throughout the city, the most popular stops were countless booths serving a warm wine concoction called gluvine. Family members of all ages drank the traditional potion from festive ceramic mugs as they tried to stay warm in the evening wind. The alcohol ignited a minor buzz that seemed to tie the entire city together into one large family with a collective electric current.

    Crossing the island of Cuba in December was a sub-tropical contrast. Thirty years of isolation and a government ban on religion have tried to smother what was once an island of deeply Catholic people into a spiritual desert. There are no nativity scenes, Santas, or reindeer and the only Christmas trees are strangely tucked into the corner of lobbies of hotels into which only foreign tourists are allowed. Until the pope visited in 1997, any recognition of Christmas was outlawed.

    But on the Festival of San Lazaro, even Castro and his guards couldn’t stamp out a spiritual expression that is as basic to mankind’s needs as food and water and companionship. Groups gather in selected homes for a 24-hour spiritual holiday called a bembe, disguised as a family party. The collective theme is Santeria, a cleverly hidden hybrid of Christianity, African Yoruban icons and voodoo.

    These people who have so little material goods are quick to invite even American tourists off the street to share in their chanting, dancing, drinking and worship around an altar of food, holy water and artifacts. Percussionists or even old tape players keep the beat going around the clock.

    One man who was the local butcher invited us back that evening for a family feast for which he was cooking a cabrito, or goat. When we arrived, he led us into a small living room totally encircled with people of a variety of ages and colors. “This,” he said to us in Spanish with his arms outstretched toward the whole circle, “– this is all my family. You are my family, too!” After he had ensured all had plenty to eat and drink, he and his wife took plates full of food to neighbors unable to leave their homes.

    Although these two cultures were outwardly worlds apart, they shared the same sense of family and desire to celebrate the season. I like to think as I celebrate the holidays this year with my own family, I can incorporate both the pageantry of Vienna and the passion of Cuba.

  • Fatherhood

    Letting Go is Hard to Do

    When the phone rings at 6:15 in the morning, you know trouble’s brewing.

    It was my daughter Sally, locked in yet another battle with her mother. I’ve been privy to many of their fights in the past few years. Though they are two states away, the marvel of modern technology transports me right into their midst. I don’t need a Web cam to see what’s going on. Just the audio is enough for me to set the scene.

    There have been times when they were each on their separate phone lines, sitting in their separate bedrooms – adjacent to each other, yet with their doors slammed shut and each on the phone with me. I would toggle back and forth between the two calls, hearing this, explaining that, but usually just listening and searching for a peaceful portal between the passion.

    I could tell instantly that this particular skirmish was the pivotal one. Though the issues were familiar, the fighting was at a fevered pitch and neither was leaving the other an escape from this day’s chosen field of battle.

    I knew that if I allowed myself to be carried away by the smaller events that triggered the current conflict, I would lose sight of the larger struggle that underlies this and every other great war in the history of man: the attempt of one to control the other.

    My daughter’s call was about whether she had the right to stay home sick from school (again). A larger context was whether she had the right to switch high schools (again). But the primary issue was that Sally was nearly 17 and Callender, her mother, wanted to protect her from making a series of decisions that, from a parent’s perspective, would lead to certain failure.

    Any peacemaker worth his salt instinctively follows the same steps during recognizable crisis points such as this: negotiate an immediate truce, draw a demilitarized zone, send each general back to his or her respective headquarters for a short cooling-off period and then quickly begin a round of shuttle diplomacy.
    Timing is everything. A short time after the early phone call, Callender called me. She was at her wit’s end. And for the first time in I don’t know how long, she signaled that she was open to advice – from me of all people.

    I painted a picture of our daughter during her first month in college, only two years from now. “Will she still be living with you and your husband?” I asked. “Hell, no,” Callender answered. “Then do you want her calling you every night from the dorm and fighting about every decision she is about to make?” “No,” she said.

    “Then as sad and scary as this seems, your job right now is not to protect her, but to allow her to make decisions that might lead to failure, but they will be Sally’s failures and from those she will learn lessons that will aid her in future decisions she must make, when you and I are not around.”

    It was easy for me to say this. I have had to learn to let go, earlier than I wanted to. Now Callender was facing the same frightening moment. The next day she told Sally she was giving her the right – and responsibility – of deciding where to go to school. The consequences would be hers to experience.

    The very next day a federal judge ruled in a landmark 20-year-old busing case that Charlotte could no longer bus kids around to achieve racial diversity. The consequence of this was that it froze Sally in her school while all is sorted out. Tell me there isn’t a God up there.

    But the fact that Callender gave Sally responsibility to make the decision changed everything. Mother and daughter report peace has returned to the land. And my phone hasn’t rung in weeks.