The Pillars of our Beliefs

Well folks, we made it through yet another Christmas, and I am happy to report, we are still parents to two believers.

This year, we flew to Florida to share Christmas with my mom and step-dad. A few days before leaving for our trip, I was on the phone with my mom going over some last minute details. Before we hung up the phone, my mom said, “Oh, and one more thing…Does Peyton still believe in Santa?”

I confirmed, with confidence, that she did.

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Recently a friend of mine suspected that a couple of her older children no longer believed.  She thought the kids might be pretending that they did either not to diminish the magic for their younger siblings, or not to impact the number of gifts they might receive.

While the more materialistic motivation sounds like a pretty clever tactic, I would bet that they are less worried about the quantity of presents under the tree than they are about the fairy-tale disappearing for good. I can clearly remember when I was a child and that house of cards tumbled. One question followed another. The moment after I knew the truth, I so badly wanted to go back, but it was impossible.

When it comes to my own children’s belief in Santa, I know that the number of years I have left are limited, and while I’ve read about the suggested ways a parent can break the news, I am still not sure what I’ll say when I am forced with that question, but I do know that I don’t look forward to that day.

My step-dad is a skeptic. He thinks that my oldest daughter already knows. There may have been a close call with a price tag that was accidentally left on a stocking stuffer, but we survived, despite his snickering.

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A few short days after Christmas, my daughter and I were headed to the store when she started talking to me about how she knew Santa was real. She listed all of her evidence for Santa’s existence. Should any of her friends suggest that he is not, she was going to offer up a detailed plan that involved sending parents to bed first on Christmas Eve. I’m hoping she forgets it by next year.

Back when she was learning about Greek gods and goddesses in school, we had a conversation about beliefs. She realized that some people only believed in one God, while others believed in many. Which was correct? I asked her, “What do you want to believe?”

She remembered what I said to her, that people can choose their beliefs and they can believe in anything they want, that the more beliefs a person learns about and can accept, the more open-minded they become.

She reminded me about that conversation and then she proceeded to list all the things that she believed in: unicorns, mermaids, fairies, Peter Pan, the Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, God, Jesus, all the Gods and Goddesses, and of course, Santa. She said she believed in thousands of things. And then she asked what I believed in.

So I told her, “I believe in all that too.” But I also told her that I also believe that some things, like Peter Pan, are just stories. And that stories are often inspired by things that have actually happened, yet over the years, the stories grow, and people add to them.

“Like the pillars,” she said.

I didn’t quite see the connection, but then she explained what she had learned about the pillars in school: The Egyptians had first made pillars in triangle form. As time went on, other people changed the form so that they were stronger, better. Eventually we were left with the pillars we use today, a final product of the Romans.

“Yes, just like the pillars.”

Saint Nicolas gave presents. It may not have been on December 25th, and he didn’t wear a red suit. He evolved from the man he was to the legend he has become, and that evolution began with a poet and an illustrator. People needed what he represented so they reinvented his story. They added some flying reindeer, some elves, a sleigh. They chose a day that historically was marked with loud, drunken debauchery and created a family-friendly, child-centered, religious holiday. They improved upon the pillars.

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Our beliefs are extremely personal, and in that, they have to fit within our own personal stories. I want my daughters to know that their beliefs are what will guide the way the live. That their beliefs are theirs to select, change, or abandon as they see fit for their lives. That no matter what others believe, they do not have the right to tell them that their beliefs are wrong. And vice versa.

Just this year, a unicorn fossil was discovered. Somewhere along the way, that story changed too—from a fat, hairy relative of the rhino to a majestic mare.

The stories are what hold the magic; the story tellers create it.

I am not lying when I tell my daughter that yes, I believe in Santa Claus. I do. I am creating a story and I believe in what the story represents. While I know that I will have to tell her the “true” story  one day, I hope that even after I do, she continues to believe too.

Some Families Dress Up for Halloween; My Family Dresses Up for Christmas Cards

There are a lot of things to love about the Christmas season. My sister-in-law loves shopping on Black Friday. My friend loves to host an annual cookie baking party. Ugly sweaters. The scent of pine. Eggnog. Fresh snow.

Me? I love Christmas cards. I love opening the mailbox each day in December and finding envelopes that reveal the faces of family and friends. Each one feels like a hug.

If you were lucky enough to receive the 2016 edition of the Kwasna Christmas card, you may have found yourself a little perplexed. It’s okay. You weren’t alone. Text messages to both me and my husband ranged from WTF? to Bravo!

We knew going in that there would be only a small percentage who would pick up on the allusion, but my husband argued that even if people didn’t quite get it, the picture would still be funny and awkward—his sole desire for a family Christmas card.

So we forged ahead, shopping for our outfits at Savers, purchasing the perfect wrist brace, crafting a ribbon-baton, and lovingly applying layer upon layer of red lipstick.

The result of our genius and hard work was this.

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True, my mother-in-law was disturbed by it, and I’m fairly certain that there were other members of our family who found themselves scratching their heads. The last time we sent out an awkward Christmas card some relatives speculated I was drunk. Confusing the elderly was a risk we were willing to take. My husband would like nothing more than to have a secret hidden camera that records people’s reactions when they open our card.

The other night, he stopped by our friend’s house and was thoroughly amused to see all of her Christmas cards on display. Among the smiling, loving, happy families-perfectly coiffed and polished…there was ours. Like that one Hanukkah card, only better.

But our card was not just meant to be awkward. It was an homage to the Netflix series, Haters Back Off!, a show that clearly not enough people are watching. With its Napoleon Dynamite-like humor, we were hooked from the very first episode.

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The main character, Miranda Sings, is a home-schooled, narcissistic, teenager who dreams of fame. Her creepy Uncle Jim reminisces about when he was a ribbon dancer in his high school’s color guard and attempts to catapult Miranda towards stardom with his 5-phase plan which starts with a viral YouTube video and ends with magic. Miranda’s mother-who works as a grocery store clerk-is a hypochondriac with “undiagnosed Fibromyalgia.” The only somewhat-normal member of the family is Miranda’s sister.

We started watching it on a whim and couldn’t stop. Some episodes left us laughing till we cried, and other times we gaped at the screen like rubberneckers at a gruesome crash. Either way, it was entertainment worthy of more than that one star it received.

If the goal of our Christmas card was to portray the show, as I finish up this post, I realize that on so many levels, we did a better job than I anticipated.

But the real goal of our card was simply to give everyone who got it a laugh, whether or not they got it. Yet for all those who didn’t get it, the next time you’re scrolling through Netflix and you see those tell-tale red lips, add Haters Back Off! to your list. After watching an episode, you might just find that our Christmas card becomes even funnier, if you’re not a hater, that is.

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For Those Who Serve

It was Tuesday. I was at work and it was lunch. There were several students in my classroom: one taking a vocabulary quiz that she’d been absent for, another finishing an assignment that she needed extra time on, and a third asking me to help her format her paper to MLA specifications.

My turkey-noodle soup was finished warming up in the microwave, and just as I was about to sit back down at my desk, the door to my classroom opened again. This time, it was not one of my current students, but a former student, one who had graduated the year before. He was wearing Dress Blues and I squealed when I saw him.

It felt like Christmas seeing this young man stand before me in full regalia for the Marine Corps.  This was a boy whom I had taught for two years—once as a junior, and again as a senior. He had put a rubber snake on my chair once just to see my reaction, but it wasn’t nearly as good as the reaction he got from me on this day.

I knew that he had planned on joining the military after graduation, and I knew that after the military he wanted to become a State Trooper, but teachers hear a lot about dreams. Some dreams don’t go as planned, some dreams change, and some dreamer’s lives end too soon.

Mostly when I run into graduates they are handing me a Cinnamon Dulce Latte at Starbucks or they are ringing me up at Safeway, talking to me about college. They don’t wear the giant grin I saw on his face. They’ve got miles to go before they sleep. 

As I looked around at the students working in my classroom, I thought about how this young man had been seated at one of those desks just last year, and in five months time he had been catapulted into adulthood. He didn’t make the slow and arduous transition that comes with earning a college degree. He didn’t look exhausted or uncertain. His smile beamed as bright as the gold buttons of his coat.

I’ve yet to run into a former student at their profession. I have not had one write me a prescription or write me a ticket. I have had other students come back to see me in their Army combat gear, but somehow…this time it felt different.

Maybe it was coincidence but my nephew had just left for Parris Island for his basic training for the Marines the day before. I knew how upset my step-mother was; the fear of him enlisting had tormented her for months, but I didn’t share in her woe. I prayed for his safety, but when I thought of his future and of the choice he had made, I felt nothing but pride. The same pride thrummed through me now.

As a teacher, we talk the college talk to our students, but we know that not all students are cut out for college. Even less, perhaps, are cut out to live the military life. And in a world with so many possibilities, I wonder if fewer and fewer will choose it. Whenever I see a man or a woman who has, I am thankful. Thankful of the sacrifices they have made. Thankful of the service that they provide to the citizens of this country, most of whom are complete strangers. It seems a selfless act of valor that I myself could never make.

My own father was in the Navy. Growing up, my favorite stories were those he told from his time of service. There is an old polaroid taken of my father while he was out at sea. He is sitting on his bunk with a far-away look in his eyes. You can see his last name on the breast pocket of his shirt. He wasn’t looking at the camera. I like to imagine he was thinking about home, about the woman he would later ask to marry him. It was a part of his life that was lived long before me that harbors the mystique and intrigue of an adventure novel, but only because he lived to tell.

My husband’s grandfather fought in World War II. When he recently passed, my husband collected treasures from his basement: an old phonograph that his grandfather had recorded to send to his own mother (my husband’s great-grandmother), The Bluejackets’ Manual from 1940, musty military books and sepia photographs.

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These are our heroes.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped to shake the hand of a stranger I saw while I was on my run. He had patches from Vietnam on his coat and an American Flag on his hat. Veterans Day had passed, but I needed to say those two words.

I will never know what it is like to stand in combat boots. I hope I never know what it feels like to fire a gun. I pray that I will never spend months away from my home and my family. But for all those who do: Thank you and Thank you and Thank you.