A Childhood Christmas

The childhood Christmas I remember best happened the year we could not afford a tree. I was 12. I don’t know the problems my parents faced that year, but I clearly remember what we did instead of a tree.

In the spot where the tree would have stood, we took a couple wooden orange crates from the garage, a couple of planks from Dad’s woodshop, a piece of old drapery, and created a platform. There we carefully placed the cardboard nativity scene that had been in the family since I was six. It was our centerpiece for Christmas.

Mom gave us each a few dollars and told us we could buy gifts for each other, but we could spend only one dollar on each gift. She challenged us to discover what was  possible, that the receiver might still like. (Mom wasn’t a teacher for nothing!)

We used old, familiar tree decorations to decorate the house in new ways. We wrapped our “finds” with care and laid them in front of our little manger. Unexpectedly, we were more excited than usual about our Christmas Eve ceremony of reading the Christmas story and giving gifts. Gifts were small—I remember receiving bobby pins with rubber tips. There were also a few “empty” packages, with letters of love and appreciation inside, written on colorful paper.

We loved that Christmas!

Looking back, I know that one reason I remember it is that it was an exception: we usually did the more usual things. But I also suspect there was something else happening, something deeper. We couldn’t look outside ourselves for the main pleasure of other years: choosing, buying and decorating a big beautiful tree. So we looked inside ourselves and became creative. It was a lot more fun—and meaningful—than our usual external focus.

Today, I still enjoy the external pleasures of Christmas observances. But over the years, I have also learned that inner observances—of Christmas or other parts of living—are richer and more lasting. They are more beautiful. I suspect inner practices come much closer to touching the eternal in our hearts than any external activity can possibly do. I forget that almost as often as I remember it. This Christmas, though, I’m giving it a lot more attention. Care to join me?












































Ropes Course

“Do a ropes course! It’ll help you!’ For those of you who don’t know the ropes course, it is a series of physical challenges, done individually but within a group structure. Each challenge is designed to 1) bring up your fears and 2) encourage you to make new choices, with support. The group is instructed on how best to help.

I remember the first challenge. You stood on a picnic table, facing the table, and let yourself fall backwards into the waiting arms of your group. Easy physically, but there is a moment when the body reacts with instinctive fear and tries to right itself. One of the men in our group had recently returned from Viet Nam. He started this challenge with confidence, but he couldn’t get past that frightening moment. After a few tries, he told us that in the war, he had learned to trust no one, and he couldn’t let himself fall into our waiting cradle of arms. We told him we heard, we cared, and encouraged him to keep trying.

Eventually, he did fall into our arms, and we rocked him for a long time, while he sobbed his relief. When he sat up, he was radiant. Something deep had healed.

My own big challenge was a 70-foot tree, stripped of its branches, with spikes inserted for climbing. Some distance out from the tree, a big metal ring hung, waiting for me to leap from the treetop and catch the ring. (We were in belaying harness, so there was no real danger.) I’d climbed up there all right, but there was no way I could jump that far. So I’d have to jump into the air and freefall until the belaying rope caught.

To say I was terrified is understated. Absolutely not!!! I’m not jumping into thin air! Then I started to argue with myself: they couldn’t do this if people died. Meanwhile the group was shouting, “Go Marilyn! Go! Go!” Suddenly I was angry with myself for getting so stuck. With the energy of the anger, I flung myself into space.

I don’t remember the freefall. I do remember—forever—the euphoria when the rope caught and I was set gently on the ground.

And so I learned that the energy tied up in fear canbe redirected. It can fuel what we want instead of what scares us. The choice is ours.











































The Zoo

I did it on a whim. On a zoo visit, I had noticed how people (me included) spoke to or about the animals as if they were other humans—anthropomorphizing them. It struck me that this habit changed our perception of other creatures. So I went to the zoo again, alone, resolved to try not to do that, even in my own thoughts. Instead, I would try to feel my way inside what it might feel like to be the tiger or the giraffe. It was an experiment. Could I even do this?

I went first to the tiger enclosure. It’s a comfortable modern habitat and doesn’t look like a cage. The tiger was lying at the far end, looking around. I focused on it, tried to lay aside all presuppositions, and extend my “antenna” toward it, wondering only “what does a tiger feel like?” I didn’t find it easy, only doable.

Soon, the tiger stretched and came slowly in my direction, eyes on me every step. I tried to keep my question, “what do you feel like?” When it got as close to me as the fence allowed, the tiger sat down and gazed at me! Then it pulled its lips back, away from its teeth. (I learned only later that this gesture means “you are not a threat.”) We didn’t move, only looked, for some minutes. I was a little bemused, but thanked it mentally as I left.

I went to the giraffe. It approached me too, though its face didn’t change. Now I was intrigued. I went to the elephant. It came across its enclosure to stand against the fence in front of me.

The next was the most astounding—the rhinoceros, which I had assumed to be energetically dense (dummy me). But I tried to feel toward it anyway, “What do you feel like?” The rhino did the same thing: ambled across its big enclosure to stand parallel to the low wall, as close to me as it could have gotten.

I didn’t know what to make of all this. The last one was a pacing panther. My experiment seemed to interrupt what he was doing. He came and sat before me and pulled his lips back as the other big cat had done.

It had become, unexpectedly, an experiment in wonder. Afterwards, I also asked myself: what if you try this with people? Ask only inside, “what do you feel like?”