Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The neatest thing I've seen all year.

Thanks to a sidebar link on Belladonna's blog, I have found the greatest thing. Probably many of you have already heard about it, but for those of you who haven't...

It's a microcredit website called I first learned about microcredit almost ten years ago when Mohammed Yunus came to my college campus and several departments went hogwild trying to help further awareness of his movement and measure its effects on poverty. My mother discovered a local woman who runs a small microcredit business, and I have periodically given donations to her to help provide loans to women entrepreneurs in Third World countries who want to purchase pigs and goats to further their home meat and dairy businesses. It's a great feeling to give to something like that, but it seems to me that there are a few things that make Kiva new and exciting in the world of microcredit: 1) lenders are allowed to read about those who are requesting loans, see photos of their farms and businesses, and based on that information choose which specific applicants they would like to help fund; 2) there is no "middle man" whom you have to trust to not misuse your money -- 100% of your money goes to the entrepreneur and as soon as the whole loan is repaid, every lender who contributed to the loan is repaid in full (though lenders earn no interest); 3) periodic updates are given while the loan is still in repayment, providing the excitement of seeing exactly how your financial aid is improving the life of a specific person; 4) the loan repayment rate is currently 100% (the average percentage for other microcredit programs is 97%).

In past years there have been other programs such as "Adopt a Child" that have tried to personalize giving in order to make it more meaningful for the giver, but according to the Kiva website, such programs were expensive to operate and so the money donated was not efficiently used to help those in need. Kiva's overhead costs are currently paid by optional lender donations and by Silicon Valley business, so every penny of your loan goes directly to the person in need. I was also interested to read about how their local loan administrators are chosen and how the responsiblity of potential loan recipients is determined.

According to their website, stories about Kiva have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Business Week, and on NPR, the BBC, PBS, and CNN. I think it's a remarkable movement because it both works with human nature (the desire to not only do good, but see the results of that good) and is incredibly efficient. And it's open to anyone with a PayPal account. In fact, is the first business for which PayPal has waived their processing fees. It's a great cause, and you can give in increments as small as $25. So if you have a Christmas bonus coming this week, I recommend at least visiting the site. It's really exciting!!! <--- (not one of those exclamation marks is gratuitous)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Today is my dancing day.

Tonight my family and I went to the caroling service at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake. The Cathedral is just four blocks from my apartment (the bells woke me this morning with a glorious racket!), and so I attend musical services there whenever I can. Truth be told, I had already attended the caroling service last week with some friends, but I'm a bit of a Christmas music junkie and I begged the family to come with me today so that I could get another fix. This year the program included a couple of my favorites that are somewhat unusual: the Middle English lullaby "Myn Lyking" and "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" which I've slooowly been trying to adapt for a quartet of women. I also fell in love with a couple that were new to me: "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (Regent Square) and "Of the Father's Heart Begotten" (arr. Willcocks). Today the service started at 4:00, so the sun was setting through the nave windows. The nativity window was opposite us -- a blood red robe foiling the pearly white baby Jesus. It was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve. Sometimes the Mormon Christmas experience cries out for an injection of Catholic pageantry.

Another of my favorite unusual carols is "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," in which the voice is Christ as the Bridegroom. The unusual thing is that the first verse he apparently sings the night before he is born:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day:
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,

To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance;
Thus was I knit to man's nature,
To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.

Then in a manger laid and wrapped I was,
So very poor this was my chance,

Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,
To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.

Then afterwards baptized I was;

The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father's voice heard from above,
To call my true love to my dance:
Sing O my love, O my love, my love, my love;
This have I done for my true love.
Maybe I'm taking the word "tomorrow" too literally, but the reason I like to think of it that way is that it recalls a passage in the Book of Mormon in which a prophet on the American continent hears the voice of Christ on the night before the Nativity, reassuring him that the prophecies have not been false. I'm probably wrong, but I like to think that this carol is about a similar moment.

I hope you'll post any of your favorite carols that are less well known. "Silent Night" is beautiful, and that's precisely why we shouldn't sing it to death.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

To drive the dark winter away.

Greetings from the bottom of the year. The longest night. It's a shame we Mormons don't believe that Christ was born this time of year, because it's lovely symbolism – coming to a shrouded Earth, slowly pulling the light down with him.

I should start being hopeful right about now. Start ordering my tomato seeds and all that. I am trying, and it is getting better. But it's hard to face the cold three-month trudge to the spring Equinox, especially when you have to put Christmas away at the darkest moment and endure the chill without eggnog or sparklies. I've always been one of those stubborn people who leaves the Christmas lights up until the third week of January – I think as long as we're celebrating Jesus's Unbirthday, we should move it to late February so we can have the pretty little lights to help us through more of the long, cold winter nights. Not as meaningful as having Christmas at the Solstice, perhaps, but way more humane, and Jesus was nothing if not humane, so I figure that he would approve. Maybe I'll start a petition to have it moved – I'm sure the retailers would get behind me: think what they could do with a Halloween-to-Presidents' Day Christmas season! I know the cat would like to keep her beloved Christmas tree hideout for a few more weeks. She's been lurking under there trying to unwrap the presents, the brimstone beast.

I am grateful for the seasons, however. I don't know if I'll feel that way when I'm 80 and the cold makes my knees ache and no Boy Scouts magically appear to shovel my walk, but at this point I can honestly say I'm glad I've always lived in a place with dramatic seasons. I might grumble about it during July's cruel cookers and while scraping my car windows in the piercing chill of late January, but in my core I am glad for it. I sometimes wonder why God created the Earth in such a way that there are large segments of the world that see very little seasonal change – the seasons are such a physical way of preparing for death and building faith in the resurrection, it seems that our mango-munching brethren have been robbed in that department. I'm hard pressed to not cry each year when I find my first crocus in the snow. There's always a little part of my winter self that fears the miracle won't happen this year, and then it does. And when it comes it hollers in purples and reds and hot pinks. Blissful, singing spring. Each winter I'm getting a little better at remembering that that riotous April morning couldn't exist without this dark, cold Solstice night, and somewhere in me I'm grateful for it. Sometimes only a tiny bit grateful, but it's progress.

Everyone loves the image of a baby who is the embodiment of love, believers and nonbelievers alike. We love that we get to sing of and think of this helpless, lovable little creature at the time of year when we are most in need of cheer and warmth. He demands nothing of us but that we love babies. Then Christmas is over and before we know it, we've arrived at Easter. Christ has made good on his promise – everything is coming back to life – and yet we don't celebrate the same way that we do at Christmas. Most of us don't love Easter like we do Christmas. I sure don't. This is a Christ who has raised the stakes. He offers more than the baby did -- he offers Everything. But in return, he asks for more from me -- he asks for everything. Easter is a bigger miracle and requires greater faith -- and faith, for me, anyway, is work. Like I said before, there's believing and then there's Believing, and when you're wrapped in the snuggly blanket of youth and health and have had less time to stockpile regrets, it's easy to let Easter slip by with nothing more than a respectful nod. That brings me to a quote that hovers over my head every Christmas season, from A Prayer for Owen Meany. I hope it doesn't come across as Scroogeish, but it pops into my mind many times each Christmas season, in moments when I have let Jesus's story get too front-heavy in my imagination:

Anyone can be sentimental about the Nativity; any fool can feel like a Christian at Christmas. But Easter is the main event; if you don’t believe in the Resurrection – if you don’t believe in Easter – don’t kid yourself. Don’t call yourself a Christian.

So I will shiver here on the longest night of the year and remind myself that Christ is not a bandaid on death – he did not come to help me cope with the winter. He is not sparkly lights on the snow. He is the sun that melts the snow. He is winter's cure. I believe that, and as more and more years cycle, I expect that I will Believe it more and more.

And tonight I will dream of yodeling yellow tulips!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Feed the #&$%! birds, tuppence a bag.

I'm no pet worshipper. I could go on for hours about how the book of Revelation clearly foretells that in the days when otherwise intelligent adults start dressing up their dogs and taking them trick-or-treating, the End is near at hand. In all seriousness, it gives me the willies.

That is why I'm a bit sheepish about my recent escapades. I live in a small apartment on the third floor and my cat is home alone all day while I'm at work. For most cats, no big deal -- two hours preening, six hours napping, and my, my -- wherever did the time go? My cat, however, gets very bored, and by the time I get home all she wants is to be chased. I feel sorry for her, having her psycho spirit broken by the long hours of nothingness. During the summer I crack the window open so she can see and hear the birds in the trees outside, and that keeps her fairly happy. But in the winter the windows are closed and the birds make themselves scarce. All is stillness and kitty anguish. So I decided I was going to find a way to lure birds to the naked tree outside my bedroom window.

Problem #1: Window three stories up, how to get birdseed up that high? Research telescoping poles -- think could use to raise birdfeeder to high branch. Dead end. Telescoping poles cost-prohibitive. Alternate plan: fling rope over desired branch, tie bird feeder to rope, hoist up, anchoring ends of rope to base of tree. Purchase clothesline, attach keys to one end, throw keys over and over and over and over in sissy-girl fashion until they clear desired branch, pulling clothesline with them. Highly entertaining show for neighbors.

Problem #2: What sort of feed to use? Birdfeeder with loose seed awkward to raise through branches. Would have to be refilled often -- undesireable, given convoluted rope system. Decide on suet cake: "high in nutrients," lasts longer, won't spill on way up. Attach suet cake to rope and hoist up. Watch for birds.

Problem #3: Two weeks later, no birds. Suet cake still pristine, cat still bored. I am miffed. Plot to trick birds into eating their birdy vegetables with some birdy candy: birdseed peanut-buttered onto pinecones. Return to store. Purchase loose birdseed. Take walk, collect pinecones. Assemble ooey-gooey pinecone treats for ungrateful birds. Untie clothesline, lower suet cake, attach tempting pinecones to suet. Hoist ridiculous-looking rig back up in tree. Hope no one watching, wondering if am inept terrorist planting bomb. Watch for birds.

Problem #4: Birds briefly condescend to nibble at pinecones, but ultimately too clever. Realize suet nastier than Brussels sprouts, will not touch. Pinecones now pecked clean = no more birds. Kitty is sad again. Marie is miffed again. Marie fantasizes about shooting herself fat little warbler, bringing it inside half dead, letting cat finish it off. Marie wants to punish all of Bird-dom for mocking her toil from their high perches. Marie is at the end of her rope (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk).

So if any of you have an in with the birds or an instinct when it comes to luring woodland critters to your windowsill (say, if your singing voice resembles that of Snow White), please let me in on the secret. Kitty and I would be ever so grateful.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Sweet and low.

I'm simmering in Christmas music. With the tree lit and most of the house lights out, I might as well be in heaven. A dim, warm, pine-scented corner of heaven.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, I want to plug one of my favorite Christmas CDs. It's by a band called Low that I discovered three years back. Their slow, quiet sound and beautiful harmonies were a conscious reaction to the grunge movement, and while they're not for everyone (especially if your blood pressure runs dangerously low), they have recorded a lovely, deeply felt Christmas album. I love my big Christmas choral extravaganzas and my Messiah recordings and my angelic boy sopranos and even the occasional funkadelic "Rudolph," but this one has its own niche. Low is technically a pop group, but they choose mostly religious music for Christmas and even write three new Christ-themed songs, the prettiest one being "Long Way Around the Sea," about the magi making their way home after visiting Jesus. Their version of "Little Drummer Boy" was featured in a Gap ad a few Christmases ago, but that track's not the best this little beauty has to offer. It's got everything -- presents, trees, snow, but most of all, non-kitschy Christian pop music. Talk about a Christmas miracle!

You can buy it on Amazon or for $10 (including postage) at their website. And if you don't think you can afford it, think of it as giving to charity. The band is using some of their Christmas proceeds to build a school in Kenya.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A disappointed Madonna.

I was browsing at Barnes and Noble and found some beautiful Madonna and Child cards. Those are my favorites, usually. Whether or not you're Christian, who can argue with the beauty of a mother and child?

Then my mind wandered to the movie Enchanted April in which one of the characters, played by Miranda Richardson, is told repeatedly that she looks just like a "disappointed Madonna." It's a funny idea, but it made me wonder if Mary was somewhat disappointed. We know from Luke that she observed the unusual occurrences around the birth and pondered them in her heart, and I have no doubt that she believed what Gabriel had told her, but there's believing and then there's Believing. In many ways I'm sure the experience of bearing and caring for the small Jesus was very similar to that of mothering any other child, and fully as exhausting. That's why I love the Spanish Christmas carol "Los peces en el río" in which the miraculousness of the event exists side by side with the dirty and hand-roughening task of washing Jesus's diapers. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh don't arrive for quite some time and in the meantime, there are just shepherds and cows and probably poverty. I'm sure it was at times hard to believe, as she raised this child, that he would really become what Gabriel and Anna and Simeon had said. Together with the scorn she must have endured as an unwed mother, who knows whether the overall experience of giving birth to Jesus might have been somewhat anticlimactic? Maybe not, but maybe so. Maybe some post-partum depression? Who knows? It's interesting to think about. If I were to learn that that were true, it wouldn't subtract from her strength and beauty in my eyes -- many miracles are couched in the mundane and even the painful moments of life, and can be hard to see or fully comprehend when you're mired in the moment. I would imagine full belief in the miraculousness of her situation only came over years of pondering bits and pieces of divinity, keeping them in her heart, and then finally witnessing the glorious ministry and resurrection.

Incidentally, Miranda Richardson is one of only two actresses whom I've ever been told I look like, and by multiple people on multiple occasions, so it must be true. :) And then I guess it logically follows that I resemble a disappointed Madonna? I'll have to prop my baby niece up on my lap and ask my family if they think so...

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kitty glamour shots, take two.

Sophie (the blogger) and her cat Lucie have challenged me and The Cat Formerly Known as Sophie to a cute cat picture contest. So I offer this shot as my next entry. This is what a wet, hyper cat with a shaved belly looks like when you taunt her with an irresistable feather toy. We only got the bottom half of her because it's really hard to photograph airbourne felines.

I'm not claiming it's cute in a traditional Shirley Temple sorta way -- more in a Mork from Ork sorta way.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Love burns.

Sharon was telling me with a laugh about the music-consumption rule imposed on her little brother by his mission president: all music composed over 100 years ago was fair game. She said that her other brother quipped, "So, does that include the musical setting of 'Nine Inch Will Please a Lady' by Robert Burns?" I was shocked (and a bit amused, I confess). I had been unacquainted with this bit of old-timey musical smut penned by our most venerated Scottish poet. I will not even provide a link to the verse, as it is not in keeping with the tone I wish this blog to have.

Sharon, on the other hand, had not been aware of Burns's genuinely sweet side. For this same Mr. Burns also wrote one of my favorite poems about married love, which must be recited in a lilting Scottish brogue:

John Anderson, my Jo

John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonnie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snow;
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;
And monie a canty day, John,
We've had wi' ane anither:
Now we maun totter down, John,
But hand in hand we'll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.

GLOSS: "jo" = sweetheart, "acquent" = acquainted, "brent" = smooth, "beld" = bald, "pow" = head, "clamb" = climbed, "thegither" = together, "monie" = many, "canty" = cheerful, "ane anither" = one another, "maun" = must

Why the love poetry out of the blue? In December, all is good and right and full of love and sparkly things. I'm feelin' it. February 14, on the other hand, is a good one-and-a-half soul-chilling months outside of the true Season of Love and I predict I will be in no mood to quote my favorite love poems as I sit home on Valentine's Day and watch the five hour Jane Eyre DVD with a spoon in one hand and a carton of Haagen Dazs in the other.

So Valentine's has come early this year, kids. If you've got love poems or sweet nothings, fling 'em in my direction. If you are not of a literary bent, truffles will also be accepted.

Will you be mine?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Of Christmas trees and charities.

I'm going to buy a Christmas tree today! Real, of course. I love the smell of nature so much that I am compelled to kill some of it and bring it in my apartment. I don't know how Christmas could be Christmas without the scent of pine wafting through the house.

I've got the tree stand all ready and a place chosen by the window and I've had a stern talk with the cat about the agonies inflicted in Kitty Hell upon felines that attempt to climb their owners' Christmas trees or remove glass ball ornaments for entertainment purposes. I think she understands. And if she doesn't, there may be a future blog entry featuring a photo of a strangled cat lying near a toppled Tannenbaum.

Last weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to our local Ten Thousand Villages and got these beautiful handmade ornaments in anticipation of the tree slaying. If you're not familiar with Ten Thousand Villages, it's a chain of shops founded by the Mennonite Church that provides fair trade opportunities to third world artisans who would otherwise be paid too little for their goods. Most of the stuff there is strictly decorative, but it is all beautiful, and so it's the perfect Christmas destination -- you get to pretty up your holidays (and the holidays of those on your gift list) and contribute to a worthy cause at the same time. For many of the products you can request an information card that tells more about the artisans who made the item you are buying and what the earned money helps them accomplish in their communities and families. If you're interested, here's their website, where you can shop or find store locations.