After ruminating on the nativity and reading Garrison Keillor’s profoundly disturbing
A week before Christmas, I feel compelled to write a brief bit about the ongoing nativity debate in my head. I’ll preface by saying that I was raised a Catholic, became an agnostic sometime during adolescence and firmed up that identity more as an adult. I celebrate Christmas but in a secular, gift-giving-and-getting sort of way. I find stories from all religions, including Christianity, to be symbolically fascinating and rich in meaning, but that’s about as far as I take it.
Anyway, my partner, James, identifies himself as a Muslim, though he does not practice much of Islam beyond generally believing in a creator and not eating pork. (I’m oversimplifying to a certain extent. My point is that he identifies with belief much more than practice, and Islam has always struck me as a very practice-based religion). James is my second partner and is also my second partner of a different faith. When I had a Jewish boy friend, I did not decorate at all for Christmas. I thought with all of the music and decorations everywhere from Halloween on, the least I could do was to respect the fact that he did not participate in the celebration except to attend family dinners with me. But I also felt a little
uncomfortable about expressing this tradition with him. When I dated James, I felt more comfortable trying to keep up the traditions I liked, so I decorated but swore that all of my decorations would be secular, and I kept that promise until this year. All of my tree ornaments were secular. I had a couple angels which were antiques from my childhood tucked away on a shelf, but I didn’t introduce any religion beyond the antiques into the Christmas decorating.
Then this year came, and my mother, who is not particularly religious, gave me a nativity Christmas ornament which promptly broke, because it was not well-made. But she also said, “You’re missing a nativity!”
Did I say right back to her, “Well, James is a Muslim, and I’m trying to keep religion out of the holiday.”? Of course not. I thought, “Damn, I really miss the nativity!”
I had a lot of random snippets of childhood memories connected with the nativity. I remembered the nativity we’ve had forever: all the characters already glued into place in their stable. I remember that I bought Mom a “children’s nativity,” characters that looked like kids dressed up as the different characters, mainly because I also wanted a nativity in which I could pick up each piece and examine it. I remembered being really jealous of my friend, Emily’s, family’s nativity, because it had so many animals, angels and people, all beautifully made of ceramic. I remember a couple of nativities Mom got for me when I went through my decorating the entire bedroom for Christmas phase.
So a day or two later, I told James I was going to buy one and put it up, and I did. My sheepish explanation to him was, “It’s pretty.” James took it well. Still I wonder how to incorporate Islam more into our lives when he doesn’t practice very much. I bought a nativity with separate pieces as I had liked as a child, but the pieces are wooden, so they won’t break. (I do remember some casualties from the Sieranskis’ set). And it’s sitting on the hall table for all two people who happen to visit. (Usually we go out rather than having people over. And there go my inclusion principles. I talked to a friend about this, a fellow Atheist/agnostic type person, and she said, “Oh I totally know what you mean! We used to sing all the carols–the more Jesusy, the better!” I agree about those songs! So what is it about the religious elements that hold sway over the secular? Some Jesus songs are even considered ok for playing on the radio and in stores. What is it that blurs separation between church and state?
For me, a clue might lie in my immediate fascination with religious songs about ten years ago when I was pretty vehemently antireligious. I loved the “Rose in Bloom” song. I choked up over “When a Child Is Born.” Somehow Jesus’s birth as a miracle seemed to translate into the potential miracle of each person’s existence. There was something broad about appreciation of life in the bleakest part of the year that I could take from these songs and from the nativity.
I never much cared for the “wise men.” They just seemed like rich men to me, even though they were supposedly wise enough to know that Jesus was important. I put them up, because they came with the set, but if they didn’t I would be just as happy. But the scene among the animals fascinates me. The family with the baby touches some pang of maternal instinct. So here I am: secular and liking the Jesus parts of this holiday. It’s very odd.
This article will be published in the DVIQ newsletter, a publication for the Council of Exceptional Children, in January.
I’m not the first human being who is blind to rail against the frustrations of sight language. As a verbal thinker, I’m continually astounded at the ways in which vision pervades language-based thinking, because sight words both potentially alienate sighted people from blindness and dominate language to the extent that describing my non-visual world can sometimes prove to be challenging.
There are instances of language during which I can’t help feeling as if the words people use promote sight over blindness. Clichés such as “blind optimism” and “blind faith,” which connote ignorance rather than lack of sight, pop up everywhere in my daily reading. When I come across educated people who don’t know how to interact with me as a person who is blind, I can’t help wondering whether these words affect them subliminally. There are also organizations whose work I truly admire, but their names use sight words. For instance, Ski for Light, which I’ve attended and loved because it provided me valuable exposure to cross-country skiing, implies through its name that its mission will help me gain light, or will equate me somehow with being sighted. Taken literally, I will not gain light perception through skiing, but more importantly light does not equal understanding or knowledge or freedom for me. In other words, why is darkness bad? Another organization about which I know considerably less but whose cause—curing preventable blindness—I also support, is named Foundation Fighting Blindness. I found out about their name as a high school student and felt as though my identity as a blind person was somehow being threatened. I joked to my little brother, who is sighted, that I should retaliate by starting a group called Foundation Fighting Sight. He was not amused.
As an aspiring writer, I sometimes wonder whether sight language exacerbates my own limitations as a writer and the ability of speakers of the English language to think about non-visual senses. While I can only hear or listen, feel or touch, smell or sniff or taste, sighted people can see, look, stare, gaze, watch, view, glance, peek, etc. I don’t begrudge the eyes their complexity and power, but when I struggle to describe my own non-visual experiences, I begin to wonder whether our language, along with my own language ability, need further development. On October 15, we gave in and turned on the heat. Radiators heat our apartment, and the first time we turn them on after a long dormant period, they always give off a certain smell of not having been used in months. The smell is not new to me, but this year I wondered how I would describe it. My first thought was that it smelled like gas, but smelling like gas can mean anything from farting to something truly harmful. How could I use words to capture the clear difference I discerned between the smell of the radiators and the smell of car exhaust? And even if I could eventually come up with something, why was this such a struggle?
There are two ways to handle this dilemma: to give up and accept that our language will always be visually dominated or to try, even if it takes me longer than it should, to illuminate the very real, non-visual aspects of experience: the complexities of dialogue, the sounds of crowds and silence, the smell of a radiator stirring from hibernation, which I’ve decided, at least for the moment, is a chalky smell. Describing it as chalky makes me smell dust flying from the erasers, hear its scrape across a blackboard, even taste the dust. (Do kids even experience this anymore)? And isn’t one hallmark of good description that it can awaken all of the senses, not just one? When I skied for the first time, I felt the ache of muscles I didn’t even know I had, heard skis and snowshoes taking bites from the snow, smelled wool and wood smoke, tasted a sharp, clean taste of a piece of the world which is still relatively unpolluted. I did not see light.
My colleague came into work today and told us a story about a neighbor who came up on her porch to trick-or-treat. She said he had just graduated from high school. He told her he was dressed up as “a retarded person” and was immitating his perception of people with mental retardation.
“Your parents must be so proud of you,” she told him. “Now get off my porch.”
I’m happy to work in an organization and particularly in a department that has such high awareness of these things. If she had been in my harassment training group, maybe it would have been easier. But more importantly, we need citizens like her everywhere to stand up for those who don’t wear disability as a costume.
So apparently there is a fervor going around for
Today at work we had a state-mandated training on harassment and diversity. My favorite part was a film about a third grade teacher in Iowa in the late 60s who brainwashed her entire class in order to prove to them that prejudice can happen. My one-sentence description doesn’t do the film justice. You should see it–I should probably rewatch it.
James and I had an awkward few minutes during the training. We were told to pair up with people we didn’t know to find out what we had in common with them. There were plenty of people in the room I didn’t know, but because we are blind, it was difficult to find them, let alone figure out who already had a partner and who didn’t. So rather than run into people and interrupt, we chose to wait and see if people came to us, and they didn’t. James said the experience was reminiscent of his childhood. I couldn’t help but agree. I tried to get the instructor’s attention, but that didn’t work. So we ended up talking about having this experience of not being able to find people in common, even though we definitely knew each other.
In my psychology of visual impairment class, we learned a lot about how visual impairment can make social interactions
difficult–well, my classmates may have learned it, but I definitely knew it already from my own experiences. If we’re with other blind people, they get it–otherwise we have to hope for a sighted person with the got-it gene, the kind of person who says our names when talking to us so we know we’re being spoken to.
I’m hesitant to post this sort of entry, because I’m not necessarily looking for sympathy. It happened, and now it’s over, and it certainly didn’t hinder my overall development as a human being. But I did want to share a bit of the feeling of the experience and to archive it for myself.
Ok, I figured out they’re actually discontinuing a couple of the white people–well, they call it “archiving.” Even though I feel a bit of nostalgia, because they’re discontinuing the ones I remember, it’s one way to make the collection more diverse and inclusive. Now if they would just slash their prices … um, who am I kidding? On to something more interesting.
When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me my first American Girl doll, Kirsten, who supposedly emigrated from Sweden. She was always my mom’s favorite, because she looked like me: light skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. And her name was similar. For the next three years, my grandmother bought me a new doll every Christmas. They were pretty expensive even then, but they were also high-quality. The great thing about these dolls was that they were collectors’ items, but as a kid I could still play with them, because they wouldn’t break. My friend, Emily, and I spent many hours playing with those dolls. They had different roles when interacting with each other. Kirsten and Felicity were the friends, Samantha was the snob, because she had the most ornate clothing, and Molly was outcasted, because she wore glasses. I shudder to remember this, but I’m sure making her the outcast mirrored my own experiences in late elementary school. And there wasn’t any redemption for Molly either. We couldn’t imagine anything beyond Molly’s unhappiness. The American Girl collecting ended the year after Grandma died. My sister was kind enough to buy me Addy that year, both as a remembrance of my grandmother and maybe as a bridge doll between childhood and adolescence.
Anyway, my niece, Katie, is turning eight, so her other aunt and I partnered up to buy an American Girl doll set for her. As if the company is not making enough money, they now have best friends for the most popular dolls. (I should point out that Molly also has a best friend, so the company was more positive about her fate than we were). We bought Katie the Julie collection, because she wanted her the most. It also amused me that Julie was just a few years older than her mother, Frances. And like Frances, Julie’s favorite toy is a Barbie doll head.
I asked James if his granddaughter, Dejah, also liked dolls, and he said she did. For a fleeting moment, I thought about buying her the Addy doll too, since Addy is their only African-American. For a second I honestly thought of myself as an emancipated sort of person bringing this doll to this kid and helping her learn about history. But then there were two things that bothered me about this scenario. The first is that Addy moves from North Carolina (one of the Carolinas, but I’m pretty sure it’s North Carolina) to Philadelphia where she lives out her stories. As a white northern child, that made sense to me, and I was naïve enough to think at the time that we in the north were the good people who opposed slavery and helped African Americans toward equality. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned about the exploitation of workers and the horrible discrimination that occurred here. But as a kid the stories gave me the feeling that Addy had escaped from the bad side to the good side. But Dejah lives in North Carolina, and I wonder how a story like that would affect her. (I should add that I also don’t know her very well, so it’s too risky a call to make as a stranger). The second thing wrong with the scenario is that these dolls are marketed to white girls. How do I know? Because there are white dolls representing every possible turn of events in American history, while Addy is the collection’s only black doll. And as of yet I’m pretty sure there aren’t any mixed-race dolls at all. There is one http://store.americangirl.com/agshop/static/kayadoll.jsf/title/Kaya/saleGroupId/0/uniqueId/5/nodeId/11/webMenuId/5/LeftMenu/TRUEnative American, one Latina, one recently added Jewish doll, one Asian who is the friend doll of Julie. They alone represent their entire cultures’ histories along with Addy. Also everyone in this group except the Asian friend doll comes alone. Although they have friends in the stories, those friends aren’t sold as dolls the way the white friends are.
If I ever have a daughter I can tread this more carefully and figure out a way to pass on the tradition of these dolls and still communicate to her that these histories are organic and that they do change and evolve. I can also point out to her that the North isn’t the good side, just a different side. But for a kid who is related to me through a few random circumstances, I better leave it alone.