Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Accurately Away In A Manger

We sang Away in a Manger on Christmas Day. No surprise that, but I noticed that one line had been changed -- while I was belting out the traditional verse and everyone else was singing the new one.

Instead of reading: The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes, it had been rewritten that The little Lord Jesus a sweet sound He makes.

Well, in the tradition of St John the evangelist who saw the Incarnation in all its 100% humanity, and 100% divinity, I say that stinks as a replacement.

If Jesus was a real little baby, then he made sounds -- lots of them, and noisy ones. So don't go replacing a silent baby with one that coos, because I've had a couple of babies and they rarely coo, especially when they're lying in straw, and especially if it's filthy.

So please, whoever rewrites the carols, could you please go the whole way and say like it is?

A Bad Hair Day and the Art of Perfection

In the continuing saga of my quest for a good and blessed Christmas, I must confess to vanity.

It was Christmas Eve day. Putting the finishing touches on wrapping. Fielding last minute letters to Santa. Checking to see if we had enough carrots on hand for all the reindeer. Preparing for a sister's birthday celebration, as well as my in-law's big Christmas Eve dinner.

And wouldn't you know it -- unsightly hairs had sprouted on my upper lip. (Mine is an age when the balance of hormones, dipping a little too far on the side of testosterone, does this to a girl.) Time to try out the new hair removal kit purchased expressly for the moment.

According to the instructions, it's dead simple -- apply the premixed wax strip to the skin above your upper lip, press down, then yank in the opposite direction of hair growth.

At first I only accomplished squishy blue stuff stuck to my skin. But I live by the adage try, try again. So I did. Several times. My lips hurt and so did the skin all the way to my nose. Fortunately, soothing gel's included.

Not until I was in the car heading out of town did I notice faint red marks above my lips. Cover cream fixed that and I continued on my way.

Later that night, when I slipped into the powder room, I shrieked at the sight of the third degree burn victim staring back at me in the mirror -- my upper lip was a series of concentric circles like fields of wheat that have been visited by UFOs.

And what is with these husbands who sit right next to you and say nothing!?! I took him aside. This is the deal, dear: When I ask you if I look fat in something, I expect you to lie. But when I look like this, I expect you to whisper in my ear that I need to fix my face.

He had on his scared owlish look, so left it at that, and slathered on the cover cream.

By Christmas Day there were scabs -- and a lesson learned about the fruitless pursuit of perfection.

So when one of my church friends started talking about the numerous faux pas the minister had committed in both the Midnight Carol Service the night before and on Christmas Day, I was unsympathetic explaining my bad hair day and subsequent capitulation to vanity.

Since the Church Universal is filled with all manner of people who sing off-key, behave in strange ways, make offensive comments and who don't agree with us theologically, we can never hope to fix all the stray dark hairs -- imagined and otherwise -- that sprout up willy-nilly. And we can waste a whole lot of time obsessing on the superficial imperfections and overlook our main reason for being there: worship and the fine art of building up the Body in each other as flawed and sinful as all of us are.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Merry Ho-Ho and Home Decorating

The Globe's Style Counsel this morning landed in my inbox with some lovely Santa-inspired temptations -- Open-concept kitchens have spawned a survival-of-the-most-stylish competition for tools of the trade -- it starts off.

It goes on to describe the product -- the Circle Knife with Board is so perfect that we'd even go out on a limb by calling it the Vitruvian Man of cooking utensils. The possibilities are endless, as nuts, chocolate and fine herbs all surrender to the blade. And the thick beech wood board shows off proper proportions by cradling the knife beautifully when not in use.

At $149- Santa will be tossing them down chimneys with gay abandon!

The Santa thing is a bit of a conundrum for Christians. While you don't want the emphasis on it, you can't exactly shrug off the red-clad old gent -- try explaining the true mystery of God becoming human, while denying that reindeer can fly or that a fat old man can deliver a billion presents in a night.

I found out the hard way. Two years ago, my son was 10 and asked The Question -- whether Santa was real. I thought he already knew/suspected and was merely looking for confirmation, but when I told him the truth (adding the true St. Nick origins to soften the blow) he did not react well -- bursting into tears and running to his room.

I should have known better. The previous year, after I told him his Christmas list was too expensive, he shrugged it off with a "Why worry? Santa's paying." A lie came quickly to my lips: Well, Santa has financial limitations, and parents have to top things up with a check made out to the North Pole workshop.

Which kinda brings me back to the style counsel email -- the quick answer is do the ka-ching thing and hope, like my son did, that someone else is paying (a benefactor with an arsenal of ATM-like qualities perhaps).

It's made me think about the desire for mystery -- we all want to inspire our children and each other with true beneficence and there's nothing quite like the delight on a child's face when they get a letter from Santa (as my 6-year-old did the other day -- she's so excited, she's already planning what kind of special repast to leave out for him).

It's this promise of wonder in exchange for the buying and delivering of delight that motivates much of our Christmas shopping. At the risk of sounding like Scrooge, it's like candy -- tastes good for a bit, but has absolutely no nutritional value. And the post-sugar letdown is not so magical.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Creche, the Witness, and Action Figures

While putting up the Nativity scene on the mantel, I'm reminded of an exchange I had with my son Aidan when he was about six. I had told him to clean up his room, and put the "dolls" away. He responded, predictably, with a gasp: "Those aren't dolls, Mummy."

Well what are they if not dolls, I asked. They have a head, legs, arms, a body.

"They're action figures," he replied, indignant that I didn't know.

And so it is with the Creche -- these are not dolls, they are "action figures" and they are acting out the greatest, most dramatic story we could ever be told.

As the kids put up the nativity scene, I tell them the story, so they can get the sequence right. Chronology is very important because we are, after all, a historic faith. God acts in time and space, he acts in our lives, but does so in an ordered sequence of time. And it's important that children get a sense of how God intersects -- and creates -- time and space.

And so we talk about the shepherds watching over the sheep and being totally surprised by this sudden appearance of an angel. And how it took the Wise Men 2 years to get to Bethlehem. My son thinks it's pretty cool that they took so long walking those camels right across the desert, carrying their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh.

Ironically, it's the historical perspective that makes our faith vital and fresh. Chagall has this sense in his art, as the divine characters swoop down into the human realm, elevating the profane to a sublime condition by its brush with the sacred.

History helps us understand where we've come from, and give an inkling of where we might be going. That's what makes for identity.

The creche and its "action figures" is one concrete way of expressing the sequence -- the birth, the shepherd witness, the coming of the Magi -- that occurs within the greater sequence -- Creation, Incarnation and Resurrrection.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Witness to the Light

My friend Flavia found such a lovely poetic translation of the Incarnation according to John's gospel that I thought I would post it here:
A man came, sent by God.
His name was John.
He came as a witness,
As a witness to speak for the light,
So that everyone might believe through him.
He was not the light
Only a witness to speak for the light.
The Word was the true light
That enlightens all men;
And he was coming into the world.

This is appropriate right now during Advent, while we keep a darkened vigil for the coming of the real Light. I love Advent, representing a special time of waiting for Jesus' birth. Since it is supposed to be dark, at one time weddings were prohibited during the season.

Last night, we lit the last Advent candle. It's interesting that the wreath has its roots in pre-Christian practices of Europe when people sought the return of the sun by lighting candles placed on a cartwheel decorated with evergreen. For them, as for Christians later, the circle was to represent eternal life.

This is a great time for us as parents to witness to our children. In that vein, my intention was to have meaningful discussions with them about darkness and light. And to play a little What If? game -- What if Jesus was never born, or came to earth? What if God never was? Where would we be right now?

Problem is we never get that far in the discussion -- by Sunday nights, they're too much in the thick of sibling discontent, though I have at least discovered a way to keep them from glaring at each other during the reading of Luke's gospel account -- I get one of them to read.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holy Week Countdown

Last Sunday in Advent. Today we have the Christmas pageant, when all the children will restlessly tug at their home-made costumes -- angels in pink and lavender and stable animals that include assorted jungle creatures. Some children sing off key, others shout, but they do it so enthusiastically.

Tonight we have our Parish dinner which brings our parish together once a year, flung out in all parts of the city as it is.

Then afterward we will light our Advent wreath for the last time and my kids will fight over who gets to light which candle, then they'll try to outdo each other extinguishing the flames with their thumb and forefinger -- inevitably someone gets burned -- and I read the last portion of Luke's gospel while they fidget. Whoever said ritual sinks in at some level I sure hope is right.

This week, we'll put up the tree. Since the outdoor electrical outlet is not working, we're foregoing the outside lights. I've never liked fiddling with them anyway.

Besides, there's someone around the corner from us who is making up for our dearth of exterior illumination. This family has mastered the art of loud, tacky and cheap -- which is wonderful in its plastic way. While Santa (a couple of them, in fact) cavort madly down the banister rail, and a string of multi-coloured lights rim the front yard and the 6-foot reindeers, the whole of it surrounds a 10-foot manger scene with plastic interior-lit Mary and Joseph around the manger with Jesus. There's even a donkey.

There is NO WAY you can ignore this utterly tasteless spectacle -- a little like the street corner evangelizer who may or may not be an outpatient of the psych ward but who is nonetheless shouting out that Jesus is Lord! And every year, I look forward to seeing it put out -- Christmas in our neighbourhood wouldn't be the same without it.

These are exactly the bizarre and grotesque touches so common in Flannery O'Connor's work, who said you must shout so they hear.

May we all be so enlightened.

Lights Out on Christmas

Today's the last Sunday in Advent, and .... it's also the last Sunday before New Year's that some churches in the US will open on Sunday. While there's even been talk in the secular press about this, the mixed reactions of Christians surprise me. Many I've spoken to, even in my own church, think this is perfectly all right.

What I didn't realize before now is that many Protestant churches don't celebrate Christmas when it falls on days other than Sundays. Why this is, I have no idea. But Christmas on a Sunday forced them to decide whether they should hold services at all, because Christmas belongs to the family, right?

What gives? It's a case of the god of Family Values reigning supreme over all else, in an age of inappropriate emphasis on many things, family included.

Don't get me wrong, I love my family and would do anything to defend them. But isn't the whole point of nurturing children in the right sort of way all about the Incarnation? John 3:16 and all that?

We seem to have things a bit turned around in that case -- I thought Advent was all about keeping things dark and ratcheting up the illumination factor on Christmas. Instead, we blaze the lights through Advent and turn them out, and lock the doors, on Christmas.

Besides, if the laity is so worried about the minister not getting his day off with the family, then why not do the charitable thing, help with the service? That way, all can worship and praise the God who gave you that family in the first place and then made it possible for that family to have salvation.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Use It Or Lose It, or how Constantine saved the day

Blogging might be the saving grace of faith. If you consider that Constantine's development of the postal system, such as it was in the 4th century AD, was the way churches flourished in a hostile environment.

And so it is today with the internet. It's a good medium for staying in touch, linking us like strings on a Christmas light.

I wonder if persecuted Christians have blogs. Maybe that's just my middle class ignorance thinking that they'd have blogs, but if they did it would be a great way to link up, give them encouragement, let them know that we are praying for them. I should check it out.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The mice are gone, may they rest in peace

This may be the dawning of the Age of Design, move-up buyers are in their seventh house, and urban chic is aligned with sophisticated elegances, but I have an admission to make.

My clean-lined interior had mice. Lots of them.

The first sign was a subliminal blip on the household maintenance radar – half the fringe on my lovely wool Berber seemed to be missing and not in a typical pattern of wear and tear.

Next were the not so subtle pellets, bits of compost appearing mysteriously in odd places, and abstract drawings etched in potatoes like those stamps your kids make in kindergarten, only with tiny sharp teeth.

One night at one o’clock in the morning, when the friend of our son couldn't sleep at the sleep-over, my husband sat and talked him through his anxiety. They were just getting through the bit about how he needed to go home (halfway across the city) because he loved and missed his mom and dad, when the little fellow sat still and stated: “Excuse me Aidan’s dad, but I think I just saw a mouse.” From where they sat, they had a bird’s-eye view of the kitchen.

My husband pretended he didn't hear and continued to praise Sean for coming all this way from home to sleep over and how proud his mom and dad would be. (He left out the part about having to drive an hour each way to return him to his home.)

“But what about that mouse,” Sean persisted.

The next day, after Sean was returned home, we discussed strategy. Getting a cat was ruled out because of allergies, poison because of the kids, and moving would require too much energy, so we opted for mousetraps. Although I was familiar with the mechanics of death having grown up in an old house, we picked humane traps, the kind with spring locks and a trap door.

We started with two, fitted them with cheese and set them. Next morning, the door was down, the cheese was gone, and so was the mouse. This went on for several days. We asked around. Try peanut butter suggested one friend. Try jelly beans, said another. Try the real mousetraps, said a third, making a throat-cutting motion with his right hand.

All we discovered was that our mice liked peanut butter, but not jelly beans. And they know how to spring out of locks and trap doors. On to option three – the Little Nipper, that 1897 invention by British inventor James Henry Atkinson, which has a snapping speed of 38/1000s of a second.

We started with four “little nippers,” set them with cheese, and waited. Nothing. These mice were fast.

We next tried peanut butter, which worked. Occasionally. Sometimes only their paws would be caught. Other times it would be messy. And we were only catching a few at a time. Meanwhile, under the sink, mouse pellets were increasing, paw prints marked the bacon drippings, and rugs continued losing fringes.

We decided to get professional. Called an exterminator by the name of Acme. The name is an effective sales tool, because by the time you're ready to call, you'll take the first thing going. He told me he used poison, nonchalantly chewing gum in my ear. I asked if it was okay around kids or dogs. Course he countered, then asked if we’d used poison already. No, I said. Good, because the mice get immune to it, he claimed. Is it a quick death, I asked. Well, we give enough to kill em, but not so much that they won't eat the stuff.

Next found myself at Canadian Tire trolling the aisles in search of ways and means. Asked one of the myriad 17-year-old girls on hand which extermination method was likely to work, the large bag of rat poison pellets, or a device that transmits high-pitched radio waves. Although I wanted to be humane, the mice had to go, and if the radio waves would send them screaming from the house clutching their ears, so be it.

She told me that the siren “thingys” work, as she too worked on a large piece of bubblegum, so I picked up three sirens and went home. Set them up in the areas of infiltration. They claim to cover up to 500 square feet each, but since radio waves can’t bore holes through walls, you really need one per room, so I bought three more and waited two weeks. Nothing happened, though the dog developed compulsive ear scratching.

The day I took the blender out from under the sink and discovered a mounded little nest of pink insulation, shredded paper, and wool, I returned the devices and bought pesticide. One big box, and several smaller boxes.

With trepidation, I set one under the sink, since I knew what the poison did – burst their little blood vessels, and make them so thirsty they raced outside in search of water.

It was also around the same time our five year old daughter seemed to have an inordinate number of bedtime stories aobut mice – winsome tales of purpose driven mice with personality plus, who either befriended or thwarted their human hosts in sweet and amusing ways. Heck, I even wrote a story myself like that long ago.

In the morning as the coffee went on, my husband and I huddled like some deranged field marshals, checking cupboards, whispering findings. No dead mice in death throes anywhere. But we did find a pack of paper towels with a stash of apple seeds and rodenticide pellets in the bottom. Like nuts being stored for the winter.

Meanwhile, the pellets had increased. Not surprising, considering they were gobbling down the poison. Maybe the exterminator had a point.

So I called him again. “Surrender?” he said in his I-told-you-so voice, before I had a chance to state my name. Yes, I admitted.

I tried everything humanly, and humanely, possible.
This time, he told me all about the diseases that mice carry. He also told me how much they breed, how many they have in a litter, and how many mice were likely populating the interior cavities of my walls.

He also had doubled his price.

a little tip

Here's a tip for the day, seeing as we've got a ton of snow -- and salt -- on the roads and sidewalks. Rather than spend a fortune on expensive sprays for your leather boots, try this: rub salt stains with a cloth dipped in vinegar (so what if you smell like a salad for a few minutes, it really does work). Then polish with shoe cream and buff as usual. Last step is to coat the boots, especially where the sole is attached, with Dubbin. It's a grease that they use in the far north, and it really protects leather.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Narnia - saw the movie, didn't get the t-shirt

After all the media hype about whether the Chronicles of Narnia would be heavily Christian or not, I wasn’t sure what to expect when our family went to see it on December 9.

Though my children loved it, my husband and I weren’t entirely sold.

There are moments of magic such as when Lucy pulls the wardrobe’s white shroud swirling to the ground or when the children back out of the wardrobe through a thicket of fur coats and pine branches and fall into the snow.

And moments of terror: the bombing of London, and the race to an air raid shelter; being chased into the river by the White Witch’s nine snarling wolves.

There’s comic relief – Mister Tumnus furiously stamping his hoofs free of snow on the mat, the bickering banter of Mister and Missus Beaver.

And pathos – when Aslan is mocked, beaten, bound and shorn by the wild crowd around the stone table.

Although these various parts are all good, the whole doesn’t quite hang together.

The movie's story line is thin and lacks complexity, though the book itself was layered so perhaps it was a problem of adaptation. And maybe the message -- if not Christian exactly, then at least moral -- was forced.

A good movie can convey a message but it must be clothed by well-defined characters who do things for clear reasons and who interact appropriately with others.

While individual characterizations are clear, and the children’s family relationship strong, the connection between characters are not. The result is stakes that are not high enough for us to suspend the necessary disbelief of the unfolding plot.

I was left wondering why Pevensie children would engage in Narnia’s battle between good and evil. And without reading into it that Aslan is actually Jesus, then I would have a very hard time believing that this lion would live out the Atonement story.

All that said, the movie is still well worth seeing. My six-year-old daughter loved the lion, because “he’s a good fighter, and he was dead but then came alive, and he can protect children.” My 12-year-old son was moved by the scene at the Stone Table where Aslan is mocked, beaten, then killed by the White Witch. He turned to me and whispered: That’s just like when Jesus died on the Cross, isn’t it Mum?”

So, this may be a case of what C.S. Lewis once wrote to a little boy – that sometimes children see what adults do not.

Holding Mammon at Bay

With a 12 year old and a 6 year old, I would have expected a lot more Christmas angst and whinging about toys than we've had. The only reason I can see for this lack of greed is the fact that we have a) not put up a tree yet b) not put up lights outside yet c) light the advent wreath every week (though Sundays are so busy, we don't usually get to it til Monday nights), and d) we have nativity characters like a trail of happy campers all over the living room mantel.

When it comes to decorating, we try to follow the 12 days of Christmas approach as much as possible, that is, putting the tree up on Christmas Eve or the Sunday before (or like this year probably the Thursday before) and doing the exterior lights the week before, but not lighting them til the night before. (We may not even get to it this year at all seeing as our exterior electrical outlet seems to be on the fritz.)


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

things you just can't live without

Every day I get a nice little email from the Globe and Mail "Style Counsel" and believe me, I need counselling in this area. Today's offering, at $359, is a lite book (one that offers illumination).

The manufacturers claim it "is a small, portable device that uses bright light therapy to raise serotonin levels and combat the decreased levels of sunlight that affects those with S.A.D. The makers claim it treats symptoms such as weight gain, sadness, social withdrawal, fatigue and the mild depression some women suffer (called the "body blues"). It may also be of use to shift workers and students."

I never realized I suffer from the body blues. I thought it was menopause.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

trees for witness?

The other part of that Dec 1 story in the Star about Christmas trees was the trouble and expense some go to for exterior lights.

As it says, "There are plenty of contractors who will do the labour, saving a homeowner from climbing up a ladder in the cold, but a growing number of companies will sell the whole decoration package, such as Illuminations (http://www.illuminationscanada.com). Owner Mitch Levine, working with a small crew, provides a lifetime guarantee on the products he sells, for as long as he continues to put up and take down the decorations. His clientele averages $800 for a first-year installation, which includes lights, extension cords, timers and the take down, but he also has clients who spend $3,000 and more."

Apparently, these guys operate lawn care companies in the summer, but the Christmas stuff keeps them going through the long hard cold winter.

Domestic Deconstruction

I wish I had the picture that accompanied this Toronto Star article last Thursday (Dec 1). Here's the headline:
Flipping Christmas
You can turn your tree on its head or cut it in half and bolt it to the wall

The picture showed an upside down Christmas tree. At first I thought how ugly is that? Then on careful consideration, I realized it had merit for practical reasons. In a house as small as ours, with most of the furniture items at ground level, this could actually raise the tree above all the domestic detritus, thereby making its full lower branches visible for all.

There's also less mischief that a dog, cat or small stubby fingers can get into with ornaments gracing the (now) upper branches. And the design and decor options are endless: the broad expanse of branches at the top mean that many more stars.

Apparently, you can also nail the tree -- split in half down the trunk first -- to the wall. Or you can dangle it from the ceiling -- dangerous in our house with its uncertain structural strength.

Then there's the merchandise angle -- according to the article, this upside down tree also leaves a much larger floor expanse to stack all those presents. This could be a bit of a problem at our house, since we're putting on a bit of the old Scrooge when it comes to toys and things.

But, was this also the latest in a wave of deconstructionism sweeping interior decor?

No, because what the new Christmas tree afficionados don't realize is that this upside down Christmas tree thing is NOT new! A Christianity Today article reports that: Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God's Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Anna's Popes

My children both attend a Catholic school, although I'm not Catholic. (Their father, who is an atheist, was raised Catholic, but more of that later.)

Last year, when Anna was an impressionable five years old, the beloved Pope John Paul II died. There were pictures adorning the walls of her school and many prayers said. To me, this was all good.

But it also happened that her dad and I were heading to Rome two days after the pope's funeral, and would be there during the election for a new pope. This was completely unplanned.

When I asked the children what they'd like us to bring back for them from Rome, Anna immediately said a picture of the pope. And just in case there was any mistake, she clarified: The dead one.

We brought back the picture and she delighted in putting it up over her bed. She even took to kissing it on occasion.

One time, I invoked the poor deceased pope's name when she was naughty. I said what would the pope say if he saw you do that? She said: Nothing. He loves children.

Soon, the Globe and Mail was advertising a new book about the new pope, Benedict XVI. His picture was on the front cover of the book section. Anna made me cut it out so she could tape that to her wall as well. Her dad was a little distressed, said he thought something was seriously wrong -- most parents complain of their daughters plastering the walls with rock star's pictures, whereas his daughter was in love with popes.

When we were in Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian museum of air and space, and walking along the second floor. Anna looked over the half wall to the first floor. Spying an orthodox Jewish man with yarmulke walking below her, she yelled out: Look, there's a pope. Then she saw his son walking beside him, also with a yarmulke. She said: Oh, and a little pope.

Narnia's media whirlwind

When my 12-year-old son showed me his latest National Geographic Kids magazine, he pointed out the two-page spread on Narnia -- the hair styling, the fake flakes, the “huggable” lion Aslan.

AND the Mythology, which described the fauns, minotaurs, centaurs, goblins, giants as components of Greek and Roman mythology, with nary a mention about the C-word – that is, Christian. The magazine states: "Many creatures in Narnia first appeared in legends long ago." Just in case anyone might get the wrong impression and think they were Christian.

I had half a mind to write the magazine and cancel the subscription, with the explanation that their fair reporting (overlooking the other “mythology” at work here) is not to my liking. But then I checked with a few friends who thought that might be a bit precipitous, and possibly even calamitous. After all, if I went off half-cocked, and cancelled it in a fit of pique they’d think I was just another irate, right-wing, fundamentalist Christian. Which I’m not. At least I don’t think I am. Maybe I am, though.

My letter might go something like this:
Dear Editor,
You may not be aware of this, but there have been many newspaper articles written about the upcoming Narnia movie and almost all of them have talked a whole lot about the Christian content of the movie. Some are very worried in fact that the audience will not notice the Christian parts, and the journalists have taken great pains to caution them about those bits. With the suggestion that some of them might like to cover their children’s ears or eyes for the terrible bits.

No, that sounded too condescending, as if they don’t read other magazines and newspapers. So I tried this:

Dear Editor, I noticed you didn’t mention the Christian roots of the Narnia series, movie and books, and was wondering perhaps if you were worried about appearing pro-Christian. Although the creatures in Narnia certainly do hail from the pages of Roman and Greek mythology, there is a far stronger mythology at work here.

That wouldn’t do, either, since they’d think I was suggesting Christianity was mythology, which it isn’t, although the mysterious bits sometimes read like it.

How about the direct approach – Dear Editor, Here’s a hint: the lion, Aslan, is the perfect symbol of the innocent one who lays down his life for his friends. What would Jesus do? Well, he did just as Aslan did.

Someone pointed out that since dogs act like dogs, cats like cats, I couldn’t expect non-Christians to act, think, or see like Christians. Well, that’s not exactly right, either, since Nicodemus the rabbi didn’t have a clue what Jesus was talking about and the tenth leper did.

Another person pointed out that they prefered having the real meanings as a secret, so as not to scare off potential readers of the books, and so that they might stumble on the real nature of the books on their own. Hmmm, I thought, that sounds an awful lot like one friend of mine who said she wouldn't take her children to church because it was better that they decide on their own whether to follow the faith once they were grown.

At any rate, I decided that before writing a letter to the editor, I should sit my son down and go through it with him. You see these animals here, Aidan? The faun, centaur, goblins and so on? They’re not Christian. To which he'd say, yes, Mom I know they’re not.

Well, Aidan, I’m not happy about this. Not one bit happy about them explaining the Roman and Greek mythology of the creatures, and not explaining that they’re part of a created order. You know, the one that God created.

To which he'd say, but Mom you know fauns aren’t real and they are mythological creatures. I realize that, I would counter, but Aslan is real, and they have said nothing about the mythology he’s rooted in and then explain about the sins and lies of omission, as opposed to commission. And how all creatures are part of the created order and that in the books and the movie, that Aslan, is king over all the created order, and how when the white witch makes him give up his life for Edward that it’s really a perfect re-enactment of the Atonement of Jesus.

As I rehearsed all that over in my mind, I could see it was not going where I wanted it to. Since the movie isn’t even out yet, I have decided to wait for this discussion until I can take him to see it, then we will sit in a cafĂ© over some hot chocolate and wonder about the true nature of secret cupboards and frigid cold worlds where the sun doesn't shine and white witches prevail and only by the grace of an innocent, courageous and merciful lion will we ever see light and warmth again.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The House Swap

Furniture gets rearranged. Furniture that was broken gets fixed. Animals you thought you’d come home to die. Words fail – and in languages you thought you’d mastered long ago.

Welcome to the world of house swaps.

If you’ve always wanted to know about house exchanges, read on.

It was 1990. My husband and I had both just lost our jobs. We had no kids, and the thought of going abroad for a year was enticing. It’d be easy: we could rent the house, pack things into storage, and take off. Our real estate agent thought it was crazy and said so. She suggested a house exchange instead. So we could try out living abroad. In fact, a friend of hers -- a confirmed house-swapper -- knew of someone in Paris, whose exchange with a Toronto family had fallen through at the last minute. Were we interested?

Hmm, let’s see. Exchange a 3-BR apartment in the Latin Quarter, within walking distance of virtually everything worth seeing in the civilized world, for our sweltering little house on Gerrard St?

A few short weeks later, we arrived at our lovely Parisian lodgings, and I suddenly realized why Parisian women are so slim in spite of the massive quantities of butter, cream and chocolate croissants they consume -- four flights of stairs and no lifts in any of the apartments.

But Paris is Paris, the vacation was wonderful, and we were utterly sold on house swaps. What’s not to like about it? With free accommodation, and car in some cases, you get a European holiday for the cost of airfare. Food is essentially free since you have to eat wherever you are, and the built-in house sitter concept is one that every insurance agent encourages.

We even arrived home to find that our exchange partners had replaced the canvas seats on the ancient directors chairs I had on the porch.

So, when October rolled around and we had to sign up for the next season’s catalogue, we were in like flint. We had house photos, information, exchange letter, and signed check ready.

Then came the hard part. The catalogue arrived in December (now it comes on-line) and we dropped everything including sleep for 24 hours as we feverishly tried to cut a deal. Hot spots like Greece and Ireland go fast but curb your zeal. Entries need to be read carefully -- one year I had eagerly ticked off several Irish prospects until my husband pointed out “family size” – our sweltering little house on Gerrard St would never accommodate those two- parent-six-children families. The process can consume several days while proposals are made and recipients mull over the possibilities.

One year we clinched a deal early on with an Oxford couple, settling dates, car exchange and so on by mail and phone within a couple of days. Then we got a letter which went something like this: we forgot to mention that our daughter and her husband will be staying with us this summer, so you would be sharing the house with them. It’s a big house and we think it might be a lot of jolly fun.….. Visions of English bath facilities danced through my head, so we called it off and began the hunt again.

Since the scent was more than two months old by this time, we found a home in the Midlands for exchange. The area’s main claim to fame in those days was its tenuous connection to the Bronte sisters (think grey vicarage and you get the idea), a few racecourses, and a famous mystery writer.

These days, it’s possible the new-found Midlands claim to notoriety is a certain cat of nine or more lives, which my husband and I managed to kill.

Part of our exchange deal was taking care of this geriatric cat, which didn’t seem a problem considering my vast experience with cats.

Mistaking the cat for one of those garden gnomes the English are so fond of should have been the first tip-off about the cat’s general well-being. The second clue was how it teetered off in the direction of the open field.

The neighbours had lots to tell us about the Cat. The salty Yorkshirewoman on one side provided his medical history: 19 years old, two major strokes -- that she knew of -- complete with middle-of-the-night pet ambulances and sirens blaring. The neighbour on the other side, who was on standby cat care should we decide to take a day trip, was more cryptic: glad it’s you and not me, she said.

Sure enough, one perfect English summer morn, near the end of our stay, it was me (and not her) who found the cat lying prone in a pool of his own saliva. It didn’t take either a rocket scientist or a vet to tell he’d had another stroke and wasn’t so lucky this time.

The bloodcurdling shriek came from my own lips. My husband came running.

“What’s up,” he said.
“I think the cat’s dead,” I said, pointing out the window to the mudroom.
My husband looked out and agreed.
I turned to him, fear creasing my brow. “What if by some chance, a bone was in that chicken I fed him last night?”
“What of it?” he shrugged.
“She’s so fanatical about The Cat, she’ll dig him up and take him for an autopsy. What if we got charged for murder, or manslaughter?”
“For a cat?””We don’t know British laws,” I countered.
“You can’t get arrested for murdering a cat. Besides, it’s not your fault.”
“Would you mind checking?” I asked.
“Checking what?” he said.”His throat.” I gulped, then whispered: “You know. For bones.”
My husband dutifully performed the examination (he doesn’t like cats, anyway) reaching his index finger down the oesophagus.
“I don’t feel anything,” he reported. By then, though, rigor mortis had set in.

The neighbours were sanguine. The salty Yorkshirewoman was sanguine: He’s had good innings. The other neighbour said predictably: glad it was you and not me.

Needless to say the news was not taken well by the pet-owners, languishing in the aforementioned sweltering house on Gerrard St. Particularly the wife. She had several elaborate burial requests. The husband was very understanding and even greeted us at the end of the vacation with two very nice bottles of vintage wine for our efforts.

Dead cats aside, plans falling through can be serendipitous. One year, we approached a schoolteacher in the tiny Pyrenees village of Arties, but he’d already made arrangements with a Calgary family. A month later, when we were on the verge of committing to another location when he called and asked if we were still interested – the Calgary folks had bailed. It was one of the best vacations ever. So much so, we considered giving our son (born about 9 months later) the middle name of Arties…..

Be prepared for personal eccentricities, though – we’re all human after all. The Midlands couple, long before the dead cat incident, rearranged all our furniture, family photos, table runners, knick-knack arrangements, curtain swags, and so on. Which explains why our neighbours reported they weren’t to be seen for the whole first week. It pays to keep an open mind, however -- some of the changes I rather liked.

To date, we have done seven European exchanges -- Paris, Pyrenees, Normandy, Fontainebleau, Midlands, Bath, Scotland. Not bad, considering we aren’t wealthy. Apart from the peculiar things, we’ve had only good experiences. To my view, home exchanges are the only way to travel, especially when you have small children. Picture the alternative: moving from hotel room to hotel room, negotiating Kraft Dinner and hot dog requests in French, German, Italian, and then paying a king’s ransom for the pleasure.

Another advantage is staying in place long enough to get the flavour of the region. In the little Pyreneen village, we had to order our bread every afternoon for the next day’s delivery, and had the opportunity to join the village in its annual summer festivals.

And getting to know the people. On our last exchange, I collared the mother of two boys my son’s age at the little local church. Presto – instant friends, and occupiers of my otherwise fidgety, bored 10-year-old son. An added benefit was the parents showed us little known spots, such as their own secret walking path overlooking the local earl’s country mansion, and where to buy delicious homemade local farm cheeses.

And so, you take the rearranged furniture, the high mileage on your car, and the occasional broken butter knife, because you know at heart what a great deal you’re getting.