Monday, December 30, 2013

Fimbulvetre: A Norse Mythology Approach to Self-Improvement

Norse mythology doesn’t mess around when it comes to Winter. 

When Norse mythology does Winter, it’s called Fimbulvetre, an apocalyptic weather event ending almost all life on earth. Translated, Fimbulvetre means a “great, big, awful winter” that essentially clutter clears the world so thoroughly that nothing is the same after. 

I like the way the Norse do things. Sometimes, a full-scale Fimbulvetre is long overdue.

What Winter really looks like where I live.
I don’t mean that literally.  I live in the Central Valley of California, where we panic when the temperature dips below forty degrees Fahrenheit.  I would probably last three minutes in an actual awful Winter, but as a metaphor I find Fimbulvetre useful while looking back on the past few months. 

I am a full time teacher, writer, a wife, and a mother of two daughters.  This past fall I wedged a Masters in Education program into my schedule.  I suddenly found that I didn’t have the energy for the stuff, people and habits that didn’t nourish my family and me.  Like a deciduous tree in Winter, I shed dead leaves and pooled my resources to the inner core.

Fimbulvetre is about clearing away the non-essential. It’s not about trying to solve problems through compromise. Fimbulvetre is about getting honest about what isn’t working and letting it go without equivocation.

In my own personal Fimbulvetre this past year, I forced myself to be honest with a few people who were hurting my family and me with their actions and words. It was a relief to get back the energy that I had been wasting on disappointment and anger. 

On a physical level, I stopped eating refined sugar. I stopped bothering with moderation.  I faced the fact that sugar is a problem for me in my diet and I dropped it altogether. My joints stopped aching and I lost enough weight that I liked how I looked in jeans again.

I got rid of some pieces of furniture in my house that I hated and cleared the spare room altogether. Rather than fill it with new things, I put down a throw rug and turned it into a yoga room.

My third grade daughter had been coming home from school depressed by a culture of relentless testing and mean girl social dynamics. When it became clear that nothing was going to change, my husband and I went Fimbulvetre on the whole issue. We left the school and parish that had been our community for eight years and found Waldorf education, which suited our little girl much, much better.

Fimbulvetre as a problem-solving approach has been a life-changer.  Facing a new year, my family and I have never felt stronger and happier.  We have never felt like more of a beautifully working team.

Not every year can be a Fimbulvetre year, but clearing out what wasn’t working with a Norse-like, no mercy approach has helped me to cultivate presence and awareness in all aspects of my life. It has allowed me the energy to focus on the essential and the true for myself and for my family. 

In true Fimbulvetre form, nothing will be the same in the aftermath. I will emerge from the great and awful Winter strengthened at the roots, prepared to grow wildly in the warmth of the coming Spring.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

She's On To Us (for my Sophomore English students)

“She’s on to us.”
            The classroom of tenth graders shifted uneasily in their seats.  Not enough so you would notice, or anyone would notice just casually walking by the open classroom door.  In fact, anyone walking by would think Miss Salt was a teacher who knew her stuff better than most.  She wasn’t exciting exactly, but she didn’t put you to sleep instantly.  The students were amused by her daily attempts to make learning fun.  It wasn’t always fun but the attempts were amusing.  This was a teacher who read stories aloud in funny accents and who wasn’t afraid to tell a joke or two in the middle of a grammar exercise. The jokes weren't funny but at least they were something to break the monotony.
            Jaret’s wings shook under his wrestling jacket, fluttering against the fabric with a light rustle. 
            Miss Salt was the kind of teacher who told parents on Back to School Night that she was so grateful to the parents for having such wonderful children.  This was the kind of teacher who let you turn your work in a day or two late if you were up past midnight texting your boyfriend or playing video games.  This was the kind of teacher who didn’t write up dress code violations for your black striped hoodie.  This was the kind of teacher who didn’t give you detention for listening to your headphones in class.
            A spark flew out of Maddie’s finger.  She put her hand in her pocket to snub it out.  Today something was up. 
            “I tell you, she knows,” Elijah said.  Morgan shook her head. 
            “Impossible,” she said.
            “She knows something,” Brayden whispered.  He mixed his breakfast potion into his faery water and stirred it with his mind like he always did but then he stopped. Looked up.  There she was, watching him.  He took up the bottle and shook it, smiling like an innocent human boy.
            Kat arranged her hair over her pointy ears.  Jack lifted his hoodie over his. 
            The room went silent.
            “You know, I was going to talk about grammar today,” Miss Salt said.  “But I have changed my mind.  Today we are going to talk about something real. Something that you should all be aware of.  I mean, I know you think I don’t know, but I do know.  I know what you all are.”
            “No human can know about us,” Roman said under his breath to Robert.  “We’re going to have to take her out right here.”
            “No, not Miss Salt!” Robert said, though he knew Roman spoke the truth. 
            “No mercy,” said Terise.  “We have to think of our own safety.”
            The plan to mainstream into human society usually worked, but once in a while there would be one human who messed up the plan.  One who knew too much.  Maybe there was a little bit of Faery Tale Creature in Miss Salt too, who knew?  Maybe there was a great grandmother who was a witch or a great uncle werewolf.  Perhaps she had a bit of the faerie dust herself through her veins.  Whatever, it wasn’t enough to save her.  She was human enough to put them at risk.
            The students were not old enough to remember the great faery massacres of the late sixties when groups of faery tale creatures made the mistake of thinking the hippies and flower children would be trustworthy friends.  They were certainly not old enough to have personal experience with the horrible faery smushing that occurred all over England and America in the early twentieth century when little girls all over took up the hobby of pressing faeries into the pages of books like dried flowers.  But their parents and grandparents and great grandparents knew.  The students had been brought up with the warnings since their infancy.  Do not let the humans know what you are.  And if one does see you and realize, kill her immediately.
            “I know what you are,” Miss Salt says.  “I see you.  You think I don’t see you?  You think I don’t see the dust you leave on the floor, glittering like moonlight?  The ways your jackets bulk up behind you to hide your wings?  You think I don’t see that you are made of magic? You're a bunch of Faery Tale Creatures, every last one of you.”
            The class sighed collectively in regret and a tinge of sadness.  They were sorry about what they had to do.  They were so very sorry.
            Hunter stood up.  Megan and Megan blocked the door.  Darien cracked his knuckles.  They would make it quick.  She would not have to suffer.
            Miss Salt took a step back towards the cupboard.  “What’s going on?” she asked.
            “Just be still,” said Von.
            “It won’t hurt a bit,” said Eric.
            "No," Miss Salt said.  "But this will."
            Miss Salt reached into the cupboard and whipped out a giant, shimmering sack.  She snapped it out and it billowed, smelling of bad children and the terror of a thousand captured faery tale creatures.  It fell over the heads of the students and their wings and pointed ears and fire fingers and magical powers all crashed into one another.  Everything went dark as Miss Salt cinched the sack closed on the wails of protest from her tenth grade class.
            Krampus came to the door then, his saucy hooves tick tacking against the floor.  She passed the bag along to him.
            “Thanks Babe,” he said.  “You know they taste better when they’re FTCs.”
            “Spare me the details” Miss Salt said.  “Just pick me up at 8 and take me somewhere nice for dinner.”
            Miss Salt watched him go and then sat at her desk.  She had some papers to correct and she hated to get behind in her work.  

Monday, December 9, 2013


This is what I said at the prayer service at Christian Brothers High School:

When my youngest daughter was small, I taught her not to interrupt.  If she had something to say to me while I was talking to an adult, she had to put a patient hand on my arm and wait in silence until I could give her the full light of my attention.  This is a really hard thing for a kid to do, and she wasn’t always patient, but she did it with full faith that her needs would be met.  She only had to wait.

Waiting isn’t easy for little kids.  Frankly it isn’t easy for any of us. Nobody likes being told to wait, especially in this time in human history when we don’t have to wait for much.  When I was your age, now brace yourselves, I had to go to an actual library to look something up if I wanted to do research.  What a wonderful time this is to be a student!  Now when you want to know something, you have millions of texts available at your fingertips. The whole world is available to you and who needs a patient hand when you can access it immediately whenever you want?  This is a powerful tool for knowledge and connection and the world is already a better place for it.

Yet waiting still has an important place in the human condition. One of the things I love most about our faith is the tradition of seasons, holidays, and special time out to reflect and pray.  Advent is awesome and I’m telling you this because in very few other places in life are you going to hear that it’s okay to be still a minute and wait.

Learning to wait is very important.

For example, if you look out at a field in winter with an untrained eye, you might think it’s just a bunch of dead and muddy dirt.  There is nothing growing above the surface. It’s all chaos and immaturity.  But the gardener who loves the land looks at that field and knows that fallow times are necessary for the growth of healthy crops.  The gardener who loves the land looks at that field and knows that just below the surface, seeds are germinating, bulbs are resting, the soil itself is waiting and rejuvenating for the time when the days grow longer and it will sprout green again.  Without the resting and waiting time, the rows become exhausted and will refuse to grow anything but weeds.

If you look back in our own American history, we’ve experienced times of waiting that on the surface looked bleak.  We are often taught in school that the Civil Rights Movement in this country began with Rosa Parks not giving up her seat on a bus, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a boycott that resulted in a chain of events leading to freedom and equity for all.  These events did occur and these famous names are great heroes in our American narrative, but did you know that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a very young man younger than you, he was riding a bus with his teacher on the way home from a speech and elocution contest where he won first prize?  And did you know that on that long bus ride, even after he had achieved so much through study and hard work and integrity, he and his teacher were forced to stand in order to give able bodied white passengers their seats?  It would be many years to wait before young Martin would take an even greater seat as Reverend of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and lead that boycott and make that famous speech at Washington Monument.

And did you know that all during those years when Martin was a child, the pastor who preceded him at that church, a man by the name of Dr. Vernon Johns, the grandson of slaves, was pushing for social change, giving galvanizing sermons from the pulpit, selling fresh produce outside the church after services to nourish his community? Vernon Johns was waiting, preparing his people to fight for the bright at the end of the long unlit tunnel of oppression.  When Dr. Vernon Johns stepped down to make way for the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the seeds were already planted.  The wait for civil rights for all Americans was too long by an eternity, but during that wait, whole communities full of people like Dr. Vernon Johns and many others were preparing, waiting, acting, praying and having faith that their work would burst into full bloom and chase away the night.

Joseph and Mary faced an oppressive government in their own time.  Just think of that young couple, poor, roaming the land on a donkey, looking for a place to stay.  Moms out there, you know how uncomfortable that must have been, nine months pregnant on the back of a donkey. They did not give up, but set about the quiet work of preparation, in the fullness of their expectation of the light that was about to come. They knew the whole time that they were deeply loved as the whole world waited in quiet preparation for the birth of the Baby that would be our Lord and Brother, and Who would teach us all how to live and love in the light for eternity.

If we want to know more about it, we don’t need to charge up anything but Scripture. According to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter Three, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

So we wait.

Maybe you are thinking, that’s nice Wanket.  What does that have to do with me?

We your teachers look at you, our beautiful, wonderful students. And what to some might look like chaos and immaturity looks to us like process and preparation.  So much of what we are engaged in here at CB is one big long advent, a waiting period, a process of learning and preparation and deep and quiet study while you become who you are, and while you decide what kind of man or woman you are going to be in the light of our God. 

What can you do to honor this season of Advent? 

You can do your reading and your homework.  Actual reading and homework. Education, in the words of my colleague Mr. Delgado, is not the point.  It is the process. Allow yourself the dignity of quiet, contemplative and deep study of the material of your education.

You can work for social justice.  Actual work. Allow yourself to be a part of the sacred preparation for the light of a family who needs food, a child who needs a book, a community that needs healing. 

You can pray.  Actually pray.  Allow yourself the joy of a deep friendship with a God who loves you and wants to be allowed into your heart more than anything.

You can listen.  Actually listen.  Allow yourself to read the Scriptures, to sit in meditation, to listen for the voice of God in your life.

You can wait with a patient hand, waiting through the long night for the light that is surely coming, waiting in the knowledge that you are deeply, and truly loved.