Christmas Reflections


I am half way between our celebration of Christmas and the celebration of the beginning of a new year. We had a fun and joyful Christmas Eve celebration and I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on whether we provided an appropriate celebration of a religious holy day of such magnitude. I have struggled as long as I can remember with trying to keep the season holy while surrounded by the hyped up commercialism that begins weeks in advance. Advent is the season of preparation of your spirits, our souls, for the coming of the Christ child into our lives, bringing renewal and meaning into what it means to be Christian.

This year we had 19 people celebrating around our Christmas Eve dining table. We had to snuggle in tight for all to fit around the table but there was lots of laughter and conversation bouncing from one end to the other, back and forth. Fate has given our Christmas dinner a measure of Russian/Kyrgyz culture in the past few years, and even more so this year.

Our daughter-in-law is from Armenia, previously a part of the USSR, and still enjoys speaking and hearing her native Russian language. She also gets great joy from cooking for others, including the foods she enjoyed while growing up. Our middle off-spring lived and worked in Biskek, Kyrgyzstan and became very close to a colleague and her daughter who are now both working on degrees from Kent State University in Ohio. They came to stay with us for five nights, both are ethnic Kyrgyz, but also fluent in Russian and English. During their stay she made us plov (the v pronounced like ff), a Kyrgyz dish of rice, vegetables, and lamb.

A couple of years ago our youngest daughter met some new children when she walked her youngest to the bus stop. There weren’t playmates in the neighborhood so she went to their house to introduce herself and possibly arrange a play date. The mother had just immigrated from Kyrgyzstan with her husband (a U.S. citizen who did contract work for the military in Bishkek) and their three children. Her in-laws have not accepted her and the marriage is failing – it has been a rough couple of years. I invited them to our celebration because she is ethnically Russian and I figured she would enjoy having adult conversations with other Russian speakers. I understand this because our native tongue is the one we use to speak from our soul, what our spirit uses to express who we are.

The gathering was joyful, high energy, and for me exhausting. I went to bed very tired, with achy body, but with a warm glow within. I have also been pondering if there was more I could have done to make this a celebration of Christ’s birth. I realized that there were only about 6 of the 19 who are practicing Christians, and a maybe a few more who identify as Christian but without church affiliation. I set out the manger under the upstairs Christmas tree and had traditional carols playing. As people arrived, choruses of “Merry Christmas” rang out, along with excited proclamations of “So nice to meet you.”

Was there more we should have done? We planned the menu to meet the needs of all who attended; young and old, Western & Central Asian, family and guest. We do very little gift exchanging – mostly gifts to nieces and nephews, and the new children were included. And most importantly all were able to participate in our 15 year tradition of ‘the Christmas stocking pile’. JB and I spend a whole year looking for items to include for people of all ages and life stage, I spend hours wrapping, and all have the excitement of taking their turn picking items. They then welcome the challenge of bartering for items they would like that someone else picked. JB and I love shopping for this tradition, and all look forward to the event – from our 50-ish old children, young adults, teens, right down to preschoolers. And even guests from distant lands learn the tradition quickly.


Come on – you really would prefer the Tag-a-Moji game in trade for that boring paint brush.

Everyone leaves with gifts, and from my perspective the gifts were purchased and wrapped for the baby Jesus. They are given to family, friends, and new guests with love, good-will and the wish that the gifts will bring joy in the new year. It is a way to include all in our celebration of the coming of the embodiment of love and inclusion in the form of a holy babe. We are successful in our celebration of Christmas to the extent that all who enter our home and participate in our traditions feel welcome and cared about. This includes the old, the young, the ones with lots of tattoos, with green hair, and especially those who bring gifts to us of stories of far off places that have different ways of celebration. This year I feel more whole because of all the gifts of laughter, love, and story that were brought into our home and wrapped around me. Yes, Jesus has been celebrating with us.

Update on my hat making: I think I made over 60 hats for people getting meals at the local homeless shelter but only 40-some made it there. As people were making noises of having to leave (it was snowing and everyone had a one to two hour drive home) I brought out the box of hats for anyone who would like one. What fun they had trying on different ones in front of the mirror until they found the perfect one – or in case of the children who couldn’t decide, it was the perfect two. The day after Christmas we took the rest to the shelter and it felt so good knowing that family, friends of our family, and people I don’t know will feel some comfort in this very frigid winter. I have ordered more yarn on-line to be delivered for hat knitting in Florida next week.

View from Atop: Trinidad


This week’s photography prompt from Cheri is “Atop” and I started thinking about photos I had taken from up high here in southern Florida. And then I laughed because the highest places in my neighborhood are the interstate overpasses. There is a city ordinance that buildings can only be three stories tall. I don’t have access to these “tall” buildings so all my photos from Florida are taken with my feet firmly planted on the ground and that ground is very flat.

Then I remembered some of my favorite photos from Cuba – taken from the second story balcony of the Architecture Museum in Trinidad. There are mountains not far from Trinidad, and a second story balcony pales when compared to a mountain-top view. I’m not going to knock my view from over a balcony, however, because my aging body has no desire to hike up a mountain.


We drove to this view from a higher elevation.

And I love looking out a second story window – I have since I was a child. There is a peace that comes from being above the busy streets below, of seeing the upper branches of trees at eye level, of hearing bird songs on ear level. On the other hand, the second story still seems close to the action. I can still converse with people standing below.


Walking through the museum with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide informed us of the colonial architecture used during the 1700’s and 1800’s when Cuba was prospering from the slave trade. I felt conflicted between the beauty of this city that was built on such a deplorable source of money. I had a hard time denying my joy of seeing and photographing the beautiful colonial buildings and I refuse to deny that the kidnapping, selling and purchasing of people are so very wrong – so I am forced to hold both as true.

But this post isn’t about the beauty of the architecture but is about what I saw from atop the second-story balcony. I love seeing the tops of other buildings – a view that is hidden from the street. A “roofscape” of sorts.


And a felt a little naughty spying on people dining – far above the lack of privacy at street level. Or so they thought.


My greatest joy came from photographing students walking home for lunch. In a land that felt so different and exotic, this felt familiar. All around the world, children interact in similar ways as they go about accomplishing their social developmental needs.

I couldn’t hear their interaction but I knew what the dialog could be because I’ve been there myself as a child and observed children interacting in many settings as I was raising my own children.

To learn about the tour company we used and our travel experience, read this previous post: Cuba: Traveling on the Edge


One of the delights of our small ship cruise of Southeast Alaska was that it went to the small towns along the coast where the large cruise ships aren’t allowed or can’t reach because of navigational difficulties. Petersburg was one of them. What a delight to wander and take a peek at how they live their lives without the influence of huge numbers of people disembarking from large ships. The sales clerks seemed to welcome our questions and conversations.

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As we left the ship and walked down the dock we were greeted by an eagle, or was the eagle making sure no riff-raft got in? He let us in.

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This looks like a pretty typical main street for a town of about 3,000 people. It didn’t take long, however, to see how living on Mitkof Island, in Alaska, in a town just around the corner from Fredrick Sound, is different. My mind smiled as I observed how the environment shapes their life. For one thing, they know the bodies of waters around the many islands as well as we, in the lower-48, know interstate highway systems. It is these canals, sounds, straits, narrows, and rivers that allow the Alaskan Ferry System to operate, and what people use to visit the neighboring towns. In fact these waterways have been named the Alaskan Marine Highway.

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Fishing is the backbone of the economy in Petersburg. Tourism is also important as the Alaskan Marine Highway ferries, a few small cruise ships and pleasure boats dock there – so the frame shop and the drug store have some Alaskan made items for visitors to buy. There is a very nice gift shop with beautiful items made by Alaskan artisans – I bought some earrings. JB enjoyed our walk down main street because there are two hardware stores (he’s my hardware guy). He noticed the huge sections dedicated to fishing gear and hunting.

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If I lived here I think I would have to switch from photographing old wooden barns on country dirt roads to traveling the waterways to capture old wooden boat houses and ships. There aren’t many roads outside of town and there isn’t any farming – even the “man cave” is all about fishing.

Petersburg is at the northern end of Wrangell Narrows (called The Narrows by locals). This is one of the most difficult navigational stretches in Southeast Alaska because it is narrow and the tides can fluctuate as much as 20 feet. That could be one mighty surge of water as The Narrows fills and empties. Seems to me the people who live here must structure their day around the tides, as most fishermen and captains of larger pleasure boats carry the tide book to track high and low tides.

Waiting for high tide.

Waiting for high tide.

As we were walking around town, we saw interesting evidence of the importance of fishing for the people who live on the narrow strips of land between the water and the mountains.

This town made me wish I was younger so I could travel through the inland waterways using the ferry system so I could stay longer at each place. There was a lot to explore that we didn’t have time for – we were told when the ship would be leaving port.

Can This Photo Speak the Native American Story?

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This building pulled us off US 12 as we were traveling though South Dakota. It was in a small town of 68 residents (obtained from the town’s web site) in the middle of nowhere. At least it felt like that to me because this was new scenery. For the 68 people who live here it is somewhere – the somewhere they live in.

Since I was there last summer, this building has haunted me. I have wondered what the story is. I’m sure that the residents know the story, but we didn’t ask, and this made it possible for me to wonder and think and come to my own conclusions. Conclusions that were wrong – but still stimulated me to hear new voices telling old stories..

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this week invites us to post a photo of an object – one that might tell a story. Storytelling is a powerful potential of photography. In photojournalism it is important to make sure the photos are an accurate portrayal of the reality of the story being told. In artistic photography there is a lot more latitude to leave the story untold so the viewer’s mind can be stimulated to create a story and to explore divergent paths of discovery.

Here is the reality behind this object. It is in Morristown, South Dakota, a community that celebrated its centennial in 2008. A small sign on the building’s front says Community Building. It drew me off the highway because it has the look of an old school house that is much bigger than the community would seem to need. How quickly I diverge from the known facts.

Here is where this object took me in the 6 or so months since I photographed it. Here is the story I have been exploring – the story that diverged from this building’s untold story. I believe it was once a school, because of its shape, having two doors in the front (at my schoolhouse I lined up at the girl’s door) and the bell tower. I wondered if it was one of the many schools that were established to educate Native Americans but it isn’t on the “official” list of where these schools were located. Many of these schools were set up by religious organizations, some by the government. All of them were designed to help Native Americans change their ways, their culture, so they could better assimilate into the European culture of the US. This “education” has the hallmarks of cultural and ethnic cleansing, no matter how noble the intentions were. This is hard for us (of the white culture) to hear – especially since it didn’t happen all that long ago. Within my lifetime.

My daughter suggested I read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. It isn’t an easy read because the plot was foreign to my “white” ears. It took me about two-thirds of the way through before I could hear the story, feel the tempo, discern why I couldn’t pick up the plot. Silko lived this story and she tells it from her oral history heritage. It helped me emotionally understand, for the first time, the spiritual tie and power Native Americans experience within the natural world. I have heard about it for a very long time, but never in this way. Now I can come closer to experiencing that connection – although I never will completely because I wasn’t raised within this culture. The cultural patterns and stories and intelligence aren’t a part of my DNA. It could have been, but how and where and when I was raised gave me a different cultural pattern and stories and intelligence. Maybe with diligent effort I can nurture some of this “natural world” intelligence back.

Some Native Americans are appreciative of the efforts to educate for assimilation – it helped them be successful in the dominate European culture of the US. Some believe it was a dismal failure. I tend to think it is bad politics to take away the best environments from a group of people, so they have no means to maintain their cultural customs and ways of supporting themselves, and to then tell them that their culture is bad and they need to believe like the defeating culture. It doesn’t fit my standards of justice, fairness, and respect. It makes me angry and my anger usually is a sign that something has been taken from me or someone I love.

I know it is possible to care about people I don’t know and be angered about injustices towards them. This is a part of my anger. I suspect the anger also boils up because of a personal loss, the loss of something I never had. Is there a longing in me for this sense of oneness with creation? I know it doesn’t threaten my Christian value system because God calls me to respect and be at peace with His creation. If I allow myself to think about it, I feel the frustration of my desire for this spiritual connection with nature, while experiencing this desire being in conflict with the “developed” lifestyle I live. The one that treasures things more than life. Silko’s story of Creation is the story of this conflict.

The story lives on, even if the story isn’t accurate to this photograph of this building. To hear an example of how this story is living on for assimilated Native Americans, I urge you to read Michael Watson’s post “In a Sacred Manner.” It is powerful because Michael is very articulate in explaining the current experience of him and his friends. Here is the link.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Culture

Since I began traveling I have tried to be curious about culture. I want to experience and understand why people in other parts of the world (and outside my neighborhood) do what they do.

One of the experiences that was new and different and fun to learn about was milking a mare in Kyrgyzstan.

Milking a Mare

Milking a Mare


Drinking fresh mare’s milk. I didn’t like the fermented kumis.

To hear the whole story of how to milk a mare, click here.

To see more posts on culture, click here.