Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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Moral, legal have different meanings

(November 20, 2020)

I’ve not been impressed by some of the recent antics of politicians. Instead of just fuming about their behaviour (and to help lower my blood pressure), I reflected on the tangled relationship between law and morality:

First, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean immoral. In fact, laws often lag behind morality by at least a generation — which means, of course, that there is at least one generation of injustice before the laws begin to catch up.

But things can change, and quickly. Once again, cannabis stores are on the list of essential services exempted from lockdown. My classmates perpetually dodged the drug police, fearing one arrest for marijuana possession would close the door on future careers. From prohibited to essential in one election cycle — makes your head spin, right?

There are many other examples. I also grew up being smothered by cigarette smokers, everywhere. If I had protested too vigorously, I would have been arrested for causing a public disturbance. Yet smokers are now banished outdoors to the circle of shame.

Laws work when they reflect the better (moral) angels of our nature — or, at least, those of the majority. Half-hearted legislation, however, means that our moral consensus needs improvement — which is why, despite changes over the years, laws against drunk driving are still weak, enforcement is erratic and punishments meagre — and why I still overhear people saying “I drive better when I’m drunk.”

The problem, of course, is that laws by themselves can’t create morality, though some governments seem compelled to try. Pierre Trudeau’s famous line “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” eventually led to changes in Canadian law on issues such as same-sex marriage. Yet too many other governments worldwide have done the opposite and tried legally to entrench discrimination on the basis of orientation, gender or race.

These efforts may be legal, but they are certainly immoral — and they won’t work. You can pass laws and publish decrees against the tide, but the water still comes rushing in, regardless.

Second, legal doesn’t necessarily mean moral, either. Laws, at all levels, too often reflect the power of those in control, not the moral consensus of a good society. This is why, in our collective history, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, residential schools, and even genocide were sanctioned by the law, despite their obvious immorality. Overcoming injustice meant overturning the law, which is not easily done.

To be fair, however, it is not impossible for laws eventually to direct social change for the better. Sixty years ago, because the law changed and was enforced, a Black first-grade student walked by herself to a white school. Ruby Bridges must have relished the moment Kamala Harris became vice-president-elect, watching as a wave of first-time Black voters made the difference in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere.

Yet it took 160 years after the battles of the U.S. Civil War for this to happen, because the United States still remains divided and unconvinced about the immorality of systemic racism.

All of these thoughts then brought me back to those recent antics of politicians:

Soon-to-be-former U.S. President Donald Trump’s post-election Twittering might be legal, but his refusal to concede and to enable a smooth transition to president-elect Joe Biden is certainly immoral. The subsequent spineless behaviour of many Republican congressional leaders in support of Trump’s delusions is an even bigger moral disgrace. Instead of capitalizing on the largest voter turnout in American history, the future of the nation’s democracy (and the country itself) is now more at risk than ever, as a result.

In Canada, the inept wrangling of opposition parties organizing their own twisted version of WE Day in Ottawa is matched to the pandemic opportunism of a Liberal government that continues to prefer pipelines over people, planet or profit. We can’t wait for another generation of injustice to roll by before the laws eventually reflect respect for the land, for the water, and for future Canadians.

We don’t have the money to waste on pipelines no one wants, to carry fossil fuels no one wants to buy, to guarantee a future in which no one is able to live. (Worst of all, in Alberta, and soon in Manitoba, anyone who protests against this fundamental immorality could be thrown in jail.)

Here, Premier Brian Pallister’s government persists with an ideological agenda — in the midst of a pandemic — that aims to slash essential services, undermine education at all levels, dismantle public utilities, abandon small business, ignore farmers, dismiss the youth, privatize public parks, antagonize public servants, fumble public health, erode public trust, and then will just wring its hands when the wheels start to come off.

Is it all legal? Absolutely. Is it moral? Not a chance. Is it just the premier? Or is it the Progressive Conservative Party, too?

The jury’s still out on that one.

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Plan now for return to school

(July 28, 2020)

You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children, or a teacher, to be worried about what will happen come September.

The summer months trickle away, and we have no more to go on than vague ideas about reduced classroom size, alternate school days, and expecting children — even teenagers — to embrace physical distancing instead of each other.

As caseloads soar in the United States, this educational paralysis needs to stop. We have to plan for the reality that either there will be no face-to-face teaching this fall, or whatever meagre attempts are begun in September, the wheels will quickly fall off and schools again will be closed.

Because it’s summer, we are keeping things under control, for now, so the push is on to return people to work — even if the government has to bribe them. In this political and economic climate, however, parents and teachers can expect no overt help from educational officials to prepare for the next school year. They need to make contingency plans of their own.

So, drawing upon my 30-plus years as a teacher and almost as many as a parent, here are some suggestions.

Sit down with your kids and make a list of what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. For both lists, figure out why, then ask what could be done to fix the problems. There may be answers that can be worked out over the summer (such as special study spaces, or new equipment, or better schedules), and other things that can’t be changed. Enlisting your kids’ help to analyze the situation will enable their co-operation, and may even offer solutions you hadn’t considered before.

Don’t assume distance education is automatically worse than face-to-face. It is different. In fact, it is really only missing two elements — touch (which we are not supposed to be doing anyway) and smell. Now, classroom odours might help students remember things better, but I’ll bet daily cookie-baking would be a better memory aid.

So, work with that difference. If you have the technological tools, there is much that can be done over the internet to engage students with more interactive learning (say, in math) than most would ever get in a physical classroom. Video tools can be used on tablets to have students interact with each other and with “teachers” (grandparents? Other relatives at a distance?) Reading out loud is easily supported that way — or if a telephone is required instead, a headset is a cheap addition.

If the kids have smartphones, they are an easy distraction, so boundaries of when to use them might be necessary — but they can also be used for making videos, researching assignments and lots of other (supervised) interactive activities.

Most importantly, don’t assume your kids will “fall behind” in this next year — whatever that means. Survey the curriculum with a critical eye, and you will find that, apart from basic math, reading and writing skills, the information they learn is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, even Grade 12 sciences are normally retaught “the right way” in first-year university courses… making Grade 4 science more fun to do than life-altering if it is missed.

If Manitoba Education started grappling with real-world pandemic issues, the department should announce right now that once the vaccine is available, students will be able to get credit for their missed grades by passing a challenge exam on the materials required for that level — and then circulate a study guide for parents to follow.

Even without that, focusing on the real 3R basics (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) would still be an important way of improving your kids’ educational outlook and opportunities. The pandemic may, in fact, offer a blessing in disguise — and, for once, make the digital divide irrelevant.

Over the years, I have seen a substantial decline in literacy — not just the inevitable complaints about students’ inability to write, but especially a decline in their ability to read. Parents are partly to blame — check around your house, and count the books there… and then count how many books your children have seen you read yourself, in the last year.

The inability to read quickly is disastrous in any field of study. So, can’t afford the new computer? Lousy internet? Get them to read books instead — any books will do. Simply words in a row.

A pandemic educational plan should include increasing your library. Perhaps we need a neighbourhood book swap every Sunday morning until fall, with books left at the curb. People whose kids are grown have lots of books; it is a matter of arranging safe local distribution, which could be organized over the summer through social media.

Make improved reading skills (and writing stories) the focus of home education this next year, and your kids will ace those exams in the fall of 2021, and beyond.

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