Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Letter to Santa


Dear Santa Claus,

Sebastian says, I want to give Atanasia tons of ponies. I want Papi to have some of his family culture and some stuff from his family. I guess he misses them very much.

Atanasia wants a dog for Christmas. A puppy is her favorite. And a special new pony.

Sebastian wants to give Indiana tons of baby toys that make sounds she likes. He wants to give Mommy a brand new drum, a mini-sized drum. And he wants a kitten. And he wants something really special for Cousin Rosa, maybe the same kind of thing as for Indiana.

Atanasia wants a sword and a shield.

(signed) Atanasia and Sebastian

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Charity: Saving the World One Life at a Time

I've been thinking about two things this year. One is a news blurb I saw, that said that the most effective way to give money to families and communities is to give it to women. Apparently, women are far more likely to spend the money in ways that benefit their children and families in the long term than men are. Men, it seems, use the money to buy the community a round of beer, while women are more likely to buy a cow. Gender stereotype or not, it stuck with me.

The other thing that's stuck with me this year is a My Turn piece in "Newsweek" written by a young Haitian woman, who wrote about how difficult it is to be the child of a parent with AIDS in the developing world, how she became the only caretaker for her father, in a community in which AIDS was so stigmatized she couldn't say why her father was ill or why she couldn't go to school any longer. Since reading that article, I've been more aware of similar reports; there was a program on National Geographic (I think, but it could have been Discovery) about how very young children in Africa find themselves the heads of households full of younger siblings, following the death of their parents.

So, as I was thinking about what charities I wanted to give money to this year, I started looking for organizations that addressed those specific problems. And ran into a problem of my own: how can you tell if a charity that isn't well known is legitimate, or a scam? I've found three websites that evaluate charities based on how much of their money goes to the causes they address (instead of as administrator's salaries or toward fundraising expenses). I found to be the most useful, but I also looked at the American Institute of Philanthropy and the BBB's site. If you haven't yet decided how to spend your charitable dollars, browsing any of their lists is sure to give you plenty of ideas.

This is where I decided to donate: Toys for Tots (of course; it's a USMC charity), Doctors Without Borders (a Nobel Peace Prize is credibility enough for me!), the Save the Children HIV/AIDS fund (which helps communities of children orphaned by AIDS and provides assistance to child-headed households), and Women For Women International (which provides micro-credit loans to women, job skills training, rights awareness programs, and helps women register to vote). The life that Ed and I have lead for the past fifteen years has maybe made us feel more like citizens of the world than many Americans feel, which is why most of our money is going to help people outside of the U.S. But I don't think it matters the nationality of the person you help, as long as you help someone. After all, we Americans are among the most fortunate people in the world. Every year, I find myself realizing how very lucky our family has been over the past year, to have good health, to have each other, to have all of the necessities of life, and of course to have the love of our friends and families.

Did you know that the average American this year will donate 2.2% of his or her income to charity, and that the average American living during the Depression donated 2.9%? I made a rough estimate of what 3% of our income would be, and was ashamed at how much more that was than what I'd donated. When I thought about how little 3% is of every month's pay, I realized that I could probably do more. So besides this holiday's donations, and the times during the year when we all sent money (for the hurricanes' victims, to important campaigns like Cure Autism Now), starting now I'm also sponsoring a woman who's been displaced by conflict, through Women For Women, and a child's community in Nepal (the choice of place was random, although I guess I could have specified) through Save the Children. Yeah, I only just started working again after a gap of seven months, but even so I know I spend that much a month on things I don't really need. This way, I can make a little headway on giving my 3% and know that I'm making a real, immediate, measurable difference in at least two people's lives. How cool is that? Something I do can absolutely, clearly make another human being's life better. It's an amazing ability.

I hope all of you have had an equally fortunate year this year, and are having an equally joyful and inspired holiday.

Monday, December 12, 2005

There Are Many Ghosts in Okinawa

We were fighting.

We never fight. Sure, during the first year we lived together we had our clashes, some epic. We were 30 years old and trying to get used to living with someone else, butting heads over territory like a pair of mountain sheep. After we knocked each other silly (figuratively) a few times, we worked it out. So no, we don't fight. Over the eleven years we've been married, we've polished the code of our disagreements until a rolled eye (me) or flared nostril (him) can contain the sum of our frustrations with one another. But that weekend, we were fighting.

And we were fighting over not very much. A misunderstanding. A gallon of milk. The holiday blues. A bad mood. I'm not even sure where it started, but with startling speed a minor breach of the usual happiness in our house descended deep into some bubbling pit of anger. I had a vivid image of myself throwing a dozen eggs at him, one at a time. He had a flash of absolutely startling fury. We went to bed riddled with anger, and woke to a fresh day without speaking.

He was taking the older children on a day trip, and after they left I took Indiana and went to have some photos developed. Of course, that takes an hour whether you're in Japan or Jerusalem, so I wandered the PX annex killing time. The annex is an adjunct to the base shopping center, where independent vendors have small shops and kiosks to sell not-terribly-expensive items from several parts of Asia to an American audience held captive by their fear of walking into a Japanese store where people may not speak English. I looked at all of the titles on the sale table at the bookstore. I admired the embroidered tablecloth, but decided it was too small. I watched the Hello Kitty clocks wag their tails. Even so, I still had 40 minutes until my pictures were ready, and Indiana had fallen asleep in the stroller.

After the great explosion of anger had passed and all the fires had burned themselves out, I found myself settling into depression. And so I wandered in and out of the annex shops, tired, hungry, depressed, wheeling a sleeping toddler. In one store, I read the cards next to the displays of little Chinese zodiac symbols carved out of various stones. One of the cards read: "Jade --- for happiness in the house." My fog lifted, slightly, and I thought, jade . . . maybe I need some jade. But none of the little carvings seemed like quite the right thing, even though I circled the aisles three times (keeping the stroller in constant motion). But at least now I had a goal. Jade. I needed to find some jade.

Nothing seemed right. None of the jade zodiac symbols were our signs. The dragon balls seemed too intricately twisty to promote family harmony. Jade bracelets didn't seem helpful. Finally, I wheeled cautiously into a store overflowing with Asiatica, from the great (gigantic enameled vases, statues of Kwan Yin almost as tall as I) to the small (lotus flowers carved out of semi-precious stone, tiny golden dragons).

"I need a piece of jade," I told the woman busily trying to bring some order to the chaos. And then I recognized her. She also ran the "good jewelry" kiosk, and she'd helped me before. In the disorder of our first weeks in Japan, my amber bracelet had broken. I never take it off; it was the last straw in a difficult week, and I'd been near tears then, too. She restrung the bracelet, and so I associate her with both kindness and a change in luck. "I need a piece of jade. There's some bad luck in my house."

"What kind? What you need depends on the problem." So I explained. "Oh," she said, "you need something with a lotus flower on it. You know, Buddha is often shown with a lotus flower..."

"And Kwan Yin," I said.

"and Kwan Yin, too. It's a symbol of peace. Let me look in the back and see if I can find something."

I looked around while I waited, and found a little, disk-shaped jade perfume bottle with lizards on each side. It was almost invisible, displayed on a shelf behind a pillar, crowded in with a hundred other things. The price sticker was so yellow and faded that it was hard to tell what its original price had been. Not a lotus blossom, but already I felt better. It felt like that perfume bottle had been there for ages, on that shelf or others like it, waiting for me to see it. My advisor came back with a jade charm with Kwan Yin and a lotus blossom carved on one side and said, "This was the in the first box I opened, and I have a good feeling about it."

As I was paying, she offered me some advice. "There are many ghosts in Okinawa. We have the highest divorce rate in Japan --- Japanese people, not just Americans. We have people who go crazy, kill each other with knives." This I knew --- the local English-language paper carries stories every week of sons killing fathers for beating them, grown brothers stabbing brothers for shirking the burden of caring for older parents, husbands beating their wives because dinner was late. "But," I said, "our building is new. It can't have any ghosts."

"Oh, sure. It's the ones who used to live where the building is, they come back to see what's happened to their land. They see people living there, and they cause mischief.

"Some people," and here she was being cautious, in case I was likely to be offended by non-Christian advice, "some people say that the way to get rid of ghosts is to sprinkle salt in the corners opposite all of your doors --- don't forget the sliding doors. You sprinkle salt, then you light incense or candles and say some prayers. Japanese people believe that on New Year's you should clean your whole house and sweep all of the dirt outside, to get rid of the past year's bad luck, and open the windows to let in good luck for the new year." This reminded me of something my husband told me once, about his mother washing their home with holy water. It all made perfectly good sense to me. There are some times when it seems obvious that something is not as it should be, and if it takes jade or holy water to set it right, that's what you need to do. "But don't forget the salt."

As soon as I got home, I sprinkled the salt, burned the incense (and carried it into every room, including the showers and closets, just to be on the safe side), put the jade on the alter between Buddha and Kwan Yin, and spent some time meditating on the four immeasurables (May all beings be endowed with happiness/May all beings be free from suffering/May all beings never be separated from happiness/May all beings abide in equanimity, undisturbed by the four worldly concerns) --- which seemed to apply equally to family harmony and to soothing restless ghosts, and opened the windows to blow away the old air.

Who knows? Ed and the children came home, we stared at one another for a minute, and made up. The gallon of milk had turned back into a gallon of milk instead of looming on the horizon like a harbinger of doom. We've been fine ever since. Was it the jade, the incense, the salt, the four immeasurables? Did jealous ghosts stir up whirpools of anger with their insubstantial fingers, or was it only low blood sugar and the holiday blahs? It hardly matters, I think. We've been returned to ourselves: best friends, lovers, twin pillars holding an endless golden sky over our children.

But you know, at New Year's I think I'll get out my broom.