Category Archives: Journalism career

More journalism, columns on war

Although my career in journalism only lasted five years, counting only years I made my living at it, I value much of the work I did as having a more than immediate value. I saved some of it–well, hell, I was only getting paid $7.50 an hour, I had to get some kind of emotional reward just to keep going. Below are some examples of my journalism work that I find just as relevant today as they were when I wrote them. Others may be found elsewhere on this blog under the tag “journalism.”

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“Stones from the River” a precious find

Stones from the River, Ursula Hegi, paperback edition, published by Scribner, 1994. Available at Orange Cat Goes to Market in Garberville

 Book review 

by Jentri Anders

In these days of publishing trends, of formula novels written by best-selling authors with an eye to the movie and television royalties, a truly good novel is a precious find.  For those who still value literature and are interested in an example of the real thing, let me tell you about this great book I just read.

“Stones from the River” will probably not be made into a movie, thank the goddess, though with the right director, it could be more powerful than “Schindler’s List.” Technically, it is a historical novel, but not so very long ago and not so very far away. Be ready for cold shivers of déjà vu.

We are in a small city in Germany, between the two world wars. The author does not give us the population of Bergdorf, near Dusseldorf and Dresden, but maybe it is about the size of Fortuna – or even Garberville.

Everyone knows everyone else and, though they follow social rules that seem rigid to us modern folks, the author skillfully makes the point that conformity, hypocrisy and a shallow form of tolerance can live side by side, as long as they all remain within the boundaries of the known and predictable.

The town has its code, it’s own rendition of deutscheordnung – German order.  Those who depart from it, genetically or socially, will know lonliness, but they will be “our own eccentrics.” Bergdorf thus has in its populace people who are insane, crippled, sadistic, mentally defective and pregnant without husbands, even if it does not always include those people socially. The town also has its Jews, the respected and the eccentric, and before Hitler, they are only slightly distinguishable from the good German Catholics.

Trudi Montag is born deeply German, of the Aryan type that will be increasingly lauded as she becomes a young woman. She is blond and blue eyed, born of German parents, with a war hero for a father. Though her coloring and parentage will stand her in good stead, there is nothing she can do about the fact that she is a genetic dwarf – ein Zwerg. The social structure of the town has a place for her, but her intellect, insight and courage are far too large to fit into it.

The book could have worked well if it were only Trudi’s story, and, at first, the reader comes to expect that it is the story of Trudi’s life. Trudi’s mother dies. Trudi’s few friends, including her Jewish friend, Eva, ultimately betray her when friendship with a dwarf becomes unwieldy. Trudi meets another Zwerg, a beautiful one who becomes her role model.

Then comes Hitler… so many novels have told that story, from the standpoint of the Jews, the Americans, the French, the Nazis, but none from such a unique vantage point within non-Nazi German culture, none with such delicacy and none with such inclusiveness.

But, most of all, the book benefits from the author’s utter refusal to hurry the pace and the uncompromising subtlety with which she links Trudi’s experience of the small town to the rise of fascism. The pace itself conveys how insidious, how inexorable, how seductive it must have been.

Bit by bit, through Trudi’s shrewd and somewhat prophetic eyes, we begin to see how it happened, what caused it, what was wrong with the premise. Hitler himself is only drawn with reflections, but we come to know the brownshirts well. We see the social threads begin to unravel. Not only Jews, but intelligent and artistic women, communists and homosexuals are increasingly at risk, as well as anyone who questions.

The town reacts, and often in surprising ways. Characters who were mean become heroes, heroes become cowards and former cowards find the underground. Some of the most patriotic and intolerant citizens fight the Nazis just because the Nazis are rude to their mothers.

Hegi, a literature professor who spent the first 18 years of her life in Germany, bursts our American war-based stereotypes of Germans in a slow explosion that reminds us just how close our own culture is to German culture, good and bad.

One closes the book looking at one’s own hometown through Trudi’s eyes, hearing the German in English words, remembering that America entered World War II over the objections of its own Nazis, and praying that, in our own culture, there will be more Trudis than Adolphs at the first book burning.   


Basic training:  Five hours with Brian Willson

by Jentri Anders 

On September 1, 1987, peace activist S. Brian Willson was hit by a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station at Port Chicago, California. He and others were demonstrating their opposition to American aid to the Contras in Nicaragua. It was not the first time that Willson, a Vietnam veteran, had risked his life to prevent another Vietnam in central America. He was one of four veterans who fasted on the steps of the White House to build support in the U.S. against the right wing rebels. Had there not been a sudden upsurge of activism in the peace movement, he would no doubt have fasted to death, following the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Brian lost both legs below the knee.

Since then, Garberville Post 6354 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Post 1494 of the American Legion raised over $800 to purchase a chainsaw to run an Alaskan mill in the village of El Cedro, Nicaragua, where Contras have destroyed the homes of villagers. As it turned out, the chainsaw and mill were donated and the money raised went for related tools, spare parts and accessories.

.On Martin Luther King’s birthday, January 15, Willson came to Garberville to accept these items and a letter from the community in order to take them to the Veterans Peace Action team for delivery to El Cedro. As vice-president of the Women’s Auxiliary to VFW Post 6354, I accompanied John Adkins, VFW member, to the Bay Area to pick up Brian and bring him to Garberville.

S. Brian Willson. The article I wrote did not include a picture of Brian. This one is from the Oregon newspaper, Street Roots News, photo by Becky Luening. I could find no online pictures of Brian at the age when I interviewed him, but the mood of this one is very close to how I remember him.

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We waited in a small living room lined with bookshelves. The shelf near me was full of medical and midwifery books surely belonging to Holly Rauen, who is a midwife. If I looked to the right, I saw a wall full of political posters, one of which, the beautiful portrait advertising the movie, The Hopi Prophecy, Is on one of my own walls. If I looked to the left, I saw shelves full of videocassettes with hand-lettered labels. Brian told me later that he had been sent videos of the  train attack from all over the country.

There was a chorus of voices from down the hall.

“Are you sure you don’t want your pain pills?”

“No, I don’t need them.”

“Do you have everything?”

A large man wearing a wildly flowered tie and red baseball cap with his ordinary suit jacket, towered over the band of concerned women as he emerged from the hall and looked into the living room where John and I sat.

It was only a second of real-time, but long enough. Brian doesn’t glance at you, note your presence, file it away under “what is she good for,” and then continue with his business. He really looks at you and that kind of a look is hard to come by. It might be that what caught his eye about me, and maybe John too, was that I had a grin on my face the size of California, so pleased was I to meet him. I hadn’t realized this until I saw that grin reflected on Brian’s face.

The transfer of care for Brian from his family to us was almost ceremonial. As she handed me his sweater and made me promise to see that he didn’t lose it, Holly’s voice said, “Because he can’t carry anything, he needs his hands for his canes, you know.” But, her eyes said, “I’m counting on you to take care of him.” I learned later that I was looking at a woman of unbelievable courage. I knew at the moment that I was looking at several people who loved Brian dearly. I carried the sweater as carefully as I have carried my babies.

You can’t be in Brian’s presence without feeling his incredible vitality. He tells you he was an all-American-type boy in high school, athletic, patriotic, etc., and you have no trouble believing that. In spite of the half-inch deep, 2 or 3-inch long scar on his forehead, an artifact of the train attack, he is a handsome man—hazel eyes, graying hair and beard which I suspect must have been red or reddish before the gray, and an open-faced look that I somehow associate with freckles, although I’m not sure now if he actually has freckles or not. He would look, at any rate, all-American, in the stereotypical sense, with or without freckles, with or without the baseball cap.

He walks on his two prosthetic lower legs with what looks like complete confidence, only setting down his canes about every four five steps. At 1:30 the next morning, after a day which exhausted me just following him around, he handed his canes to the nearest person and walked jauntily across the large room at the Vet’s Hall, demonstrating his recovery, then turned around and walked back without hesitation or the hint of a wobble. This is a man who came through a situation four months ago which would have laid low most people for years, or a lifetime. How did you do it, we all wanted to know. “I just visualize my feet,” said Brian, with a shrug.

When I had learned that I was going to spend a 5-hour drive with him, I resolved not to even mention what had happened to him on September 1. Most particularly, I decided, I would not ask him why he didn’t get off the tracks. I needn’t have been so tactful. Brian brings it up and talks about it easily. He didn’t get off the tracks because he could not believe the train would not stop.

I said to him, “Brian, if you had asked me, I would have told you but the train would run right over you the moment it was expedient.”

He gave me one of those open freckle-faced smiles and said, “Well, you’ve been at it longer than I have.” It was the gentlest of challenges and my only reply could be to meet the challenge with an expression both chagrined and exasperated. We both knew that the first thing he did when he was able, was go right back to Concord and sit on the tracks again. I was so aware of the hard shell of cynicism I grew in the 60s to keep me sane for the duration. I could feel his love and energy dissolving that shell every time he looked at me.

He tells you he you didn’t move, then he tells you about Holly. Holly had been a teenybopper flower child. They met in Nicaragua. Brian doesn’t remember September very well but he has seen all the video tapes, which put together cover 45 minutes almost without interruption. He says that Holly ran beside the train and, as soon as he popped out from under it, before the train even stopped rolling, she was stanching the blood with her skirt and yelling instructions to everyone around. A former military medic on the scene and Holly saved Brian’s life, not the Navy paramedics standing nearby. They did not make a move and refused to help even when Holly, soaked with Brian’s blood, begged them. A local firefighter unit administered oxygen, but the Navy paramedics only watched. A county ambulance arrived 40 minutes after the fact. Brian says this all came out at the congressional hearing, much to the astonishment of the congresspersons.

Brian tells you all this matter-of-factly. There wasn’t much difference between that story, in tone, and the conversation we had about being almost the same age, both being former Baptists who attended Baptist colleges and just how conservative those facts might have made us. I told him I had come to terms with my Christian background. He said his had made him so conservative that he once gave a speech advocating the position that we should nuke Hanoi. Yet, a more Christ-like person would be hard to find. I’ve met only a handful in my life, and only two in the last 10 years. The other one meditates most of the time.

Meditating is not what Brian does. His mission is people and it is clear that he draws his energy from those around him, focuses it, magnfies it and broadcasts it back out. It is as if he has accepted that he belongs to people and has as little reservation about that as is humanly possible. He and John and I talked nonstop for five hours, Then he may have gotten in an hour or two of rest. Following that, he was live on KMUD-FM, our local public radio station, with Rick Thornegate. He talked with Thorngate for an hour, and spoke for at least another hour to the rapt crowd packing the Vet’s Hall. Then, when any other speaker would have retired to his private motel room, he sat down and talked to all comers until way past midnight, looking more energetic at the end than at the beginning of what was, to me at least, an exhausting day.

As I sat down, at one point, in the circle of people listening to him tell a story, he glanced over at me and, without missing a beat, said, “You’ve already heard this story,” and then continued with it. To me, that showed that he doesn’t just spout words, he Is actually there with you, watching your reaction and communicating with a you that is real to him.

Throughout my time with Brian, I kept looking for the catch. (Old skeptics never die, they just fossillize.) Where is the bitterness, the anger, the frustration? He’s got a great story for that question. Brian knows the psychology of grief; he counseled Vietnam veterans at one time. He says that he once traveled through Nicaragua with Holly, visiting all the Nicaraguans maimed by the Contras with guns and landmines we sent for that purpose. He grieved for every one; he cried for every one. He said, “At some point, my legs and their legs became the same,” so that when he lost his legs under the train, he had already grieved for them.

No untouchable holier-than-thou, Brian leaves it open whether he will sometime have the depression all the psychologists tell him he must experience in order to heal. Brian leaves a lot open. All he claims is that he’s waging peace now and he’ll wage peace whatever happens to him. And he’s not asking you to do anything he did, only to wage peace however you can.

My favorite memory of Brian’s visit is the circle of children who surrounded him at one point, all quiet smiles, listening and talking to him and finally, one by one, hugging him before they went away. I thought, this is a man you want to touch. I had poked him playfully once or twice on the arm during the ride, but because I’m an adult, I was very concerned not to bug him or to presume on someone trying to cope, as he told me, with sudden fame. The kids, being kids, had no such hangups and did it for me, for all of us. I can only hope Brian takes those hugs with him down to Nicaragua and passes them out to the Nicaraguan children, along with the chainsaw and our letter.

From Star Route Journal, 1988

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Who’s driving the train?  Opinion

By Jentri Anders

If we are to expect recurring déjà vu as a result of the harmonic convergence, I definitely got mine watching the news footage of recent events in Concord. Here we go with the trains, again. It was maybe a little special for me personally because trains figure prominently in my own neurosis. From conception to sometime in my toddlerhood, I am told, my family lived right beside the railroad tracks in Cleveland, Ohio. On the wrong side, I’m sure. My father was a steelworker, transplanted from the South to what the history books tell me was a sort of a cracker ghetto during World War II. Later on, at a certain point in my 20s, I experienced hallucinations, probably malnutrition induced, in which the sound of trains would swell and block out all other input. My heart would race and I would feel a horrible sense of overpowering, immediate danger.

When the Vietnam War reached the point of escalation wherein long unused train tracks in Berkeley were reinstated to transport troops to Vietnam and the protesters of the war decided to block those tracks, it took all the courage I could muster to simply go and stand with them.

The first day we stood beside the tracks with signs. The train went on by. The second day we decided to stand or sit on the tracks. I walked a few miles that day beside a Buddhist woman who told me she felt as one with the indigenous Buddhists of Vietnam. The immolation of priests protesting the war had greatly impressed her. She said she would sit on the tracks.

I asked her, “What if the train doesn’t stop?” She said, “I don’t want to live in a world where the train doesn’t stop.”

Which brings us to Brian Willson, who did not get off the tracks in Concord while protesting arms to Nicaragua, was hit by the train and lost both legs below the knee. Why was he on the tracks? Why didn’t he jump? Why didn’t the train stop? None of them are new questions. Just the same old questions a generation later. The woman I walked with sat on the tracks to stop the Vietnam war. Brian, who fought in that war, sat on the tracks to stop another just like it.

The train came bearing down on us that day, blowing its horn, and yes, picking up speed as it approached, shooting out a cloud of steam some 30 or 40 feet in front of it. When the steam hit me, I jumped. I was well prepared to jump. My companion was sitting crosslegged on the tracks and I saw her disappear into the cloud of steam.

During the eternity it took for the train to pass, I believed she was under it. My world came apart then and I understood that my little brushes with racism, intolerance, but mostly just plain greed, had only been glimpses of the whole picture. Now, I really felt just how big, powerful, mindless, blindly mechanical and inhuman, how inflexible and one-track, how overwhelming, are the forces that lead to war. And, I could not imagine what could possibly stop them.

As it turned out, my friend was snatched off the tracks at the last minute by plain clothes policemen. Brian Willson was not. Some people think he is a lunatic. Some, including myself, think he is that incredible modern rarity, a person willing to die for what is right. In the last analysis, it doesn’t matter if he’s a lunatic or a model of courage for modern times. What matters is what drives the train. You cannot be so irrational as to believe what happened to Brian was an accident. A rational person listening to the facts must assume that at some point, somewhere in the chain of command leading to the engineer, there was a decision made to run the train no matter what or who was on the tracks.

Who made that decision? Was it the engineer? Was it the Navy? Was it the president? Was it those who elected the president and whose philosophy he represents? Was it those who created the atmosphere in which the engineer knew he would not be brought to justice? Was it those who failed to convince the electorate to reject the current government? Was it those who, like some victims of the Third Reich, drew the line only when tyranny advanced into their own lives, their own jobs, their own community?

Whether Brian Willson is a man of courage or a fool who deserved what he got, what happened to him has reminded us what the priorities are for those who make war. I think Brian was on those tracks and didn’t move because he wanted us to know that nothing will stop the train but enough people with the courage to live peace.

September 21 1987 Star Route Journal

UPDATE:  I learned only within the last few years that the woman on the tracks was the renowned Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron. I am bemused by the fact that what she said to me about not wanting to live in a world where the train would not stop is so similar to what Brian said to me about not believing that the train would not stop. I almost think Brian also said he did not want to live in a world where the train would not stop, but it was a long time ago and memories are fallible. If he said that, I did not write it down. I have no explanation for those similarities except the adage about great minds work in similar ways.

Jentri’s Journalism–Opinion Columns

At several papers where I was a reporter, I had a regular opinion column in addition to reporting news. Not quite kosher, but these were small papers, reporters multi-tasked. Here is a column I wrote in 1998 while working in Jackson, Amador County CA.

TARGET PRACTICE: Little things mean a lot

By Jentri Anders
Ledger-Dispatch Staff

As film buffs line up to see Saving Private Ryan, purportedly the most accurate World War II movie yet, those who actually remember that war are telling their stories again. What they remind us is that, unlike the war that defined my generation, that one was based on a principle many were willing to die for–the value of the individual, the foundation of democracy.

Fascism, the absolute power of the state, was the name of the game in Germany, in Japan, in Italy and, we are now learning, in Great Britain, France and the United States as well. Each of the latter countries had its fascists, just as Germany had an underground. In each case, they were
overruled. Most people know about the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. Historians also know that many groups besides the Jews were targeted and that persecution came in shades. People were fired, evicted, busted, deprived of their possessions, beaten and incarcerated, as well as murdered en masse.

Those groups included Gypsies, Romanians, Communists, people who would now be called developmentally disabled or mentally ill, Seventh Day Adventists, homosexuals and people of African descent. “Pure” Germans were not all exempt, either. Germans with impeccable racial credentials were persecuted for having genetic defects such as dwarfism or albinism and the “purest” of German women were enslaved as breeders for the duration. Who any of these people were as individuals was irrelevant to the state’s purpose.

How could such a thing have happened? Volumes have been written dealing with that question. One startling thing that has emerged is the role played by the intimidation of detail. Raise the wrong question and your boss might get an insinuating memo about you. Rock the boat, you lose your job, your boyfriend, your club membership.

One thing that has saved America, historically, from its own fascists is the value we place on thinking for ourselves. Our democracy is not yet perfect, but we have come a long way. Over time, we expanded the definition of “citizen” to include first the landless, then slaves and, finally, women.

The price is, we fight a lot, but we revere rational discourse as the foundation of democracy. Our laws give citizens the right to question the powerful, if only they have the courage. Why does the individual require courage to exercise those rights? Ask anyone who writes anonymous letters to newspapers. We fear loss of our jobs, reputations, credibility and friends. The devil is in those details and many was the German citizen who learned that too late.

This writer once dipped her own hands into history¹s details working as a part-time assistant archivist in the Washington State University Library. The assignment was six large cartons containing the papers of a man named Hans Rosbaud. Arranged by date, they traced how a thoroughly German, highly respected orchestra conductor and composer was humiliated, demoted and finally exiled into the German hinterlands until after the war.

Rosbaud¹s crime? He liked modern classical music and American jazz, both of which Hitler saw as “Jewish” music. (There¹s a good movie about this, called Swing Kids, but be prepared for violence if you watch it.) Until the insinuations finally got him, Rosbaud was a patron of individual creativity. What kept Rosbaud alive and in Germany was the extent of his reputation. He was so well-known and loved by the German music establishment that the minions of the Third Reich had to work against great resistance in persecuting him. In the beginning, his colleagues fought the denigration campaign. In the end, they were too cowed to utter a peep.

The similarity of Rosbaud¹s experience to that of Charlie Chaplin would be inescapable to anyone who remembers the McCarthy era. Chaplin, too, was forced into exile and unemployment by insinuations contained in letters, phone calls and whispered conversations. Some patriots get tears in their eyes remembering how the United States fought facism abroad with the sacrifice of lives, and that was, indeed, a beautiful thing. But let us not forget our own fascists and that what stops them first are citizens who know their rights and are not afraid to exercise them.

 

My Short-lived Journalism Career

Jentri reporter

Throughout my sojourn in the Land of Shum I wrote letters to the editors of local newspapers, helped start and edit the Briceland Community High School newspaper and wrote articles for local newspapers pro bono. Sometime in the 1990s, I began stringing (freelancing) for both the Redwood Record and the Garberville Life and Times. The former job grew into a fulltime stringing job, meaning I got paid by the inch with no benefits, but was promised enough stringing assignments to pay me as much as a permanent reporter position would, but only if I bailed them out of a pinch by agreeing to be the front desk for six months first. I did that until the Fortuna Group, which owned 3 Humboldt County newspapers, closed down the Record and the Arcata Union, both of which had been important to the county historically. The Record had been in existence for over 60 years and the Union for 102. Both were “absorbed” into the Fortuna Beacon.

I have no evidence but my own observations to back me up, but I am convinced that the problem, with the Record at least, was that the staff had over the years become increasingly interested in writing environmental stories and covering other news that had been ignored in the past.  When our editor returned every two weeks from her meetings with the publisher and editors of the other two papers in Fortuna, she was always recovering from the stress of pressure on her to downplay the green stories. Fortuna Group was very, very conservative and the newspapers, not very profitable I assume, were more or less hobbies of the owner to begin with. The Group mainly held interests in logging and other industries. At one point, we were instructed not to write one more story about County Supervisor Dan Hauser, whose environmental leanings endeared him to Shummers. The closure came shortly after the issue that had an entirely green front page, purely by accident–it so happened that the news that week was all green and the editor must have not realized it until it was too late.  I carefully preserved and cherish that front page, for its greenness and also because I wrote most of the stories on it.

When the paper was closed, so abruptly that I returned from an out-of-town story to find myself locked out of the office, I was among 25 news workers in Humboldt County who were suddenly and without any warning whatsoever thrown into a very tight job market. I was able to save myself, for a while, because I was already a part-time lecturer at both Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods. When both of those gigs fell through sometime later, however, and I could find no news or clerical work and figured death would be better than waitressing again, my time at the Record had supplied me with enough clips and chutzpah to seek employment out of the county as a reporter, despite my advanced age and lack of a journalism degree. One of the really nice things about the news business, at least the reporting side of it, is that so much of your interview consists of plopping your portfolio down in front of your prospective editor, instead of impressing the personnel office with how obsequious and conforming you can be.

I worked for three different papers outside Humboldt County, all of whose editors were thrilled to get a PhD who was a published author for entry level wage plus benefits. They were the Lake County Record-Bee, the Amador County Ledger-Dispatch and Sonoma West Times & News in Sebastopol. To assuage my hippie conscience, I told myself that I would skate just as close to the line as possible for as long as possible in terms of investigative reporting and writing green stories. At each paper, I lasted about a year before the publishers made me miserable enough to leave. (I was never fired outright, but any employer worth his or her salt knows what will drive an unwanted employee to quit.) By that time, at the first two papers, both owned by corporations with distant headquarters, I had the sheriff, most of the county supervisors, all of the school superintendants and the newspaper sales department out gunning for me. I never had an editor that didn’t beg me to stay.

The exception is Sonoma West, which was not a corporate newspaper, but owned and run by former reporters. The problem there was that,  just because it was not a corporation, it was not influenced by laws against sexism and the sexism proved unbearable to me. I was patronized, ridiculed, handed all the Grange breakfast stories, not allowed to cover women’s issues  and had to, each and every day, look at the picture of Marilyn Monroe taped to the back of the male reporter’s computer my computer faced. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Marilyn’s position in the women’s movement, but I really did not want to have to look at one of her sexiest pin-up pictures any time I was in the newsroom. I allowed myself to be wooed away by a software corporation about which I had written stories, at double my salary, only to find I preferred the low-paying sexism to the high-paying cultism. That job did not last long. I had one more newspaper job, doing part-time reporting and layout for the Garberville Independent, which had filled the niche left when the Redwood Record folded.

Below is a sampling of my work done outside the county. I am posting it even though the stories do not relate specifically to Shum, because I think it is of interest that a longtime country hippie such as myself could be employed at a straight newspaper at all and what kinds of things would she write as a result of her life in Shum that would shorten her tenure at each paper. Also, I am very proud of my environmental writing and feel that it is the answer to anyone who might wish to accuse me of “copping out” by having to leave the county to find acceptable work.  At each of the papers except Sonoma West, I wrote a regular opinion column and many features, in addition to reporting straight news, which is why I have the temerity to call myself a journalist instead of a reporter. One of my editors questioned this reasoning and insisted that he was a reporter, not a journalist, then looked at me expectantly, as if waiting for me to cave. But, I didn’t. I love you, Thomas, you taught me oh, so very much about the news business, but, no, I’m a journalist.

From the Amador Ledger-Dispatch, 1998

Mesa d'oro ed

jet ski comanche ed

Christmas Story, Moral Not Included

Snow Bear Butte  ed150

From Star Root, date unknown

 

The Christmas of ‘72 came straight out of Heidi –clear blue skies, green mountain meadows, majestic fir trees, the sound of water splashing over rocks. We walked along the top of Elk Ridge, just the two of us, making an outdoor day of it. We would join friends later for a traditional turkey feast. Before long, we ran into the women who were care-taking our neighbor’s house. They, too, could not stay inside on such a day. As we sat down beside the road to share our sacraments, we fell into one of those spontaneous two-hour deep conversations that used to happen a lot in early Shum. We ended, not surprisingly, on the subject of Christmas. I allowed as how I had always loved it, but one of the women made a very significant remark I never forgot. It was, “Yes we still do it, but it’s not REALLY our kind of holiday, is it?”

I was stunned. Does voluntary simplicity mean I have to give up Christmas? Well, how about Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving? I had begun to wonder, even before this remark, just how many of the holidays were actually invented by Hallmark cards in conjunction with candy companies. Being a lover of costumes, I had clung to Halloween, but I did wonder why one celebrated true love on Valentine’s Day by getting the loved one a box full of fattening chemicals while pressuring her/him for sex. Christmas and Easter always had more meaning for me than many people in my world because of my Christian background. A large part of those holidays for me happened in church and I really did get into the symbolism and the music. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to notice that, far from being spiritually uplifted, most people end up being suckered into guilt-spending and trying to make up with cards, candy and conformist gifts, for the alienated and dysfunctional interaction they have with family and friends the rest of the time.

I’ve been working on this problem for quite a while now. First I tried to subvert consumerism by making my gifts. That was when I still had the requisite time and some aspiration to craftswomanship. Some of the back-East relatives must have thought it strange or cheap, but then everyone has an eccentric aunt who crochets fancy potholders. A kooky aunt in California who does macrame with seashells is not that big departure from tradition. In my house, there was usually a store-bought toy or two from the grandparents to add to the pile of handmade puppets, rag dolls and clothes I had made for the kids, maybe also a low-end toy or two we actually bought new in a non-thrift store. That was okay, until they hit public-school and the annual what-did-you-get list. Then the pressure was on.

By that time, the purity of the homesteading dream had already been compromised by the advent of cash crops and there was more money circulating in general. I’ll never forget the Christmas we first went to Toys”R” Us in the Concord Shopping Mall. It was a week before the Holy Day and we were two hayseed Humboldt hippies with four wish lists and what city savvy we had ever had, had been long forgotten. We were lucky we didn’t get trampled. For real meaningless misery, it’s hard to choose between that Christmas experience and our family trip to Disneyland the day after Christmas, the one where the family got separated immediately in the crowd and I wandered around for six hours with the toddler, hoping the other children were with their father and trying to give him a good time even though he had been separated from his brother and sisters.

The memory of the Christmas of ‘73 is as hard to evaluate. That year, I was seven months pregnant and living in a toolshed. The father, ashamed to take me to his family reunion in Los Angeles because we weren’t married, at least to each other, had left me to face the winter festivities alone. He said he had left the order for my Christmas present with the jewelry maker and instructed me to pick it up and give it to myself. When I tried to do that, the jewelry maker had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I found it an unspeakably humiliating. So, feeling especially “knocked up” on Christmas Eve, I set out to see what Christmas spirit might be found in Garberville. I knew the minister of one of the churches, through some friends, and had heard that they had a nice midnight service at his church. Perhaps, I thought, my Christian past would surface to console me in my time of woe.

I sneaked in late to the brightly lighted church, and, as intrusively as one can with a seven-month tummy while trying to hide a ringless left hand. The back pew I chose was occupied solely by an old man who took it all in as soon as I arrived. I thought I heard him thinking, “welfare mother, hippie slut,” but then scolded myself for making bigoted assumptions. The pastor announced the next carol. There was no hymnal at my end of the pew. I was not dismayed, for I knew all the lyrics of all the standard carols and didn’t really need a book. But the old man had no way of knowing that. He opened his hymnal and glanced sideways at me. Once. Then twice. I waited. Would he share his book? “C’mon, man,” I thought. “You can do it. Share your hymnal with ‘even ‘the least of these.’ “

At last he edged over to me and stuck the book out. I reached out, gingerly, to let him know I wasn’t asking, and our voices rose to heaven, singing about peace on Earth and good will to men. (I sang “folks” in my head as part of my ongoing project to desex the language of The Broadman Hymnal.) In the end, he even smiled. It was a rather surprised smile, but by the time we joined the candlelight procession outside to sing “Silent Night” to the clear winter sky, we were almost friends, somehow. I could still find Christmas in church back, at least when desperate enough. It probably helps to have a good imagination. Few people know better than an ex-Southern Baptist just how many hypocrites can fit into one little church, especially at Christmas.

One of the special things about Christmas for me has always been Mary. Protestants pretty much finished Mary off as meaningful myth. Catholics knew better. I was taught to think of Catholics as idol worshipers because they prayed to Mary and made “graven” images. I was never sure what “graven” meant, though it shows up in the commandment against idolatry. Is it statues vs. printed pictures?, I wondered. There were printed pictures of her in my Sunday School book. Very confusing.  Nevertheless, graven images or no, it was acceptable at Christmanstime to remember her role in producing Christ. I loved the Christmas story. I loved the stable, the manger, the angels, shepherds, the wise men, the star and the camels. Most of all, I loved Mary and the baby. One of my earliest disappointments in life was that I didn’t get chosen to play Mary in the school Christmas pageant (you could still do that then). I figured it was because I was blonde, since the girl chosen and long brown hair, but the teacher, whom I dearly loved, patiently explained to me that she was saving me for the biggest role because I was the best reader. I was going to be the Angel Gabriel and read/narrate the story, only speaking part in the pageant. I was suspicious, everyone knows angels are blonde, was I being bamboozled? But, as it turned out, I had a great time as the Angel Gabriel, except for my mother worrying how idolatrous that might be, and decided maybe I did get the role because I was the best reader.

Baptists don’t go in much for nativity scenes (more idol worship), but the first one I saw, at a friend’s house, was a fascination. One of my all-time best Christmas memories is finding an unpainted ceramic Nativity scene at a rummage sale– chubby baby-faced child figures, as if they were themselves a Christmas pageant, complete with the donkey, sheep and camels. I added some angels later. My six-year-old son and I spent a great afternoon in Pullman WA with snow falling outside, painting all the figures while I told the story. Whatever else it might be or not be, it is a great story to tell. The Nativity scene stayed with me and is one of my best treasures.

It may have been a childhood nativity scene that made me finally realize fully that Christ was Jewish. We lived in Miami in a working-class neighborhood that included Cuban emigrants, former French-Canadians, a lion-tamer formerly of the Ringling Bros Circus and various kinds of transplanted Yankees, as well as real cracker families like my own. There were Jewish children at my school and my mother’s boss, for whom she had nothing but praise, was Jewish. There were no African-Americans in my neighborhood, though. They lived little a further down the road, past where we got off the bus, in Liberty City, where I was forbidden to go and discouraged from asking why.

One year I put it altogether. If Mary was Jewish and God is Jewish and Joseph was Jewish, then Christ, no matter what you believed about the virgin birth, had to be Jewish. Jews were special to me ever after, because Jesus was my childhood friend, sometimes my only one. I kept wondering why the Christ in my Sunday School book always looked so much more Nordic than Middle Eastern. After a while, that question along with others, led me into a great theological quagmire. Finding out in my adulthood that one of the Magi was black, served to confirm me in my skepticism. Not only did Jesus always have blue eyes, but I had never seen a picture of a black wise man in my Sunday School book, either. Years later, my son and I carefully painted one of the wise men black. Let’s tell that “old, old story just like it was,” I thought, meaning, of course, as  nearly as we know it, how it was.

After 10 years of crusading atheism as a young adult, I found my feet set back on the path to the Great Spirit by the responsible use of various legal and illegal substances.  This led me to look beyond Christianity and consider Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the religions of various tribal peoples. For a while, I considered choosing Comparative Religion as a doctoral “field of interest” in anthropology. I read Costaneda and Allen Ginsberg. I danced with good witches and invoked Wakan-tonka, Ayimiya and Oshun. I had visions of the Great Mother and received the blessings of venerable tree spirits. What, after all that, can one say about Christmas? How about the tree? Of course, we all know the tree has nothing to do with Christ. It’s a legacy left by the Druids, who sacrificed a tree, among other living things, in midwinter, amid some serious ritualizing. Roman Catholicism just absorbed that custom, as it did so many others when it couldn’t stamp them out. Can an environmentalist, even one who is at times a Reform Druid (no blood sacrifices), have a Christmas tree in good conscience?

My last three Christmas trees were the tops of fir trees from my own land, and were trees slated to be trimmed, anyway. Even then, they were cut with reverence, after speaking to the tree and asking its permission. Later on, we cut small trees on our land, by way of thinning. Many of my decorations were made by my children, or they were re-glued bits of broken jewelry and small knick-knacks gleaned at rummage sales. About half were bought new in stores over a period of a decade. I thought of my Christmas trees as more or less Hindu. They had lots of animal figures, birds, tigers, elephants and camels, as well as traditional ball ornaments. No lights, no electricity and I was not about to get any candles near the tree while I lived in a house built of kindling. No cartoon figures or superheroes, though I found it impossible to refuse my little son when he solomnly proffered a Star Wars figure. I did, however, insist it be only one and that one Obi Wan Kenobi. I hung it low enough for him to see but pretty much nobody else.

I’m not sure what to do with the Christmas tree when it dries out and becomes a fire hazard. One year I left it to decompose naturally in the woods, but I felt strange every time I passed it. It looked wrong, even though I had done it reverently. More ceremony seemed needed. Now, I cut it up and burn it ritually, piece by piece, in the woodstove, chanting Hari Rama, it was all I could come up with. The site of a dead Christmas tree in the dumpster or a junk pile brings tears to my eyes. If there is no worship involved, it is simply consumerism.

That’s all very well for me. I live in Christmas tree land and am responsible for care taking that portion of The Land which is in my trust. What about the millions of trees slaughtered without ceremony to preside in a suburban house over piles of consumer goods? Perhaps the answer is that if you’re not already growing trees, you must plant one or see that one is planted for every cut one you buy. I don’t know. When Druids invented a winter festival worshiping trees, there were a lot more trees and a hell of a lot less people. Surely the balance between those two species needs to be restored in some way and with my rule, Christmas provides an opportunity to teach that to the children. If someone has a better idea, I’m open. Whatever one’s relationship to trees at Christmas, if knowledge of the current imbalance between people and trees is not a part of the consciousness around the activity, the activity is simply one more corruption of Christmas.

And Santa, what about Santa? I refused to tell that lie to children older than two, though I did continue to label some presents from Santa, sort of jokingly, throughout their childhoods. I told them, when they were talking pretty well, that people dressing as Santa and making pictures of him was a way we remind each other to be generous and kind, that Christmas was a time of honoring compassion and love. (I knew that later on I would tell them the whole history of how his image merged, again thanks to the Catholics, with the image of a Nordic god who routinely rode through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Odin or Thor, can’t remember which.) They were not traumatized, as far as I can tell, and our celebration was in no way compromised. (I probably let the lie about the Tooth Fairy go on longer than the one about Santa Claus, but I was pretty up front on that one, too.)

Every year I waffled on the Christmas issue. Shall I ignore it, believing that I am the only one really praying for world peace on Christmas Eve, or is that some kind of arrogance? Is there karma attached to that? Shall I allow myself to be dragged into the massive display of wealth and status, knowing every year that I will be revealed once again as a financial failure, only able to send salt shakers back to my back-East relatives? Shall I sing The Messiah one more year or not? A midwinter feast celebrating the birth of one of the bringers of peace to a symbolic reincarnation of the Ancient Mother, a celebration that mixes in a little tree worship, too–no, I can’t quite give that up.

Maybe I’ll send homemade cookies to the back-east relatives, even though their kids are all big now and I’m a lousy cook. The nieces ought to have a kooky aunt in California that still makes Christmas cookies. And maybe I’ll scratch around in the basement and dust off  that Nativity scene my son and I painted when he was six. Maybe it’s not, as the women said, “really our kind of holiday.” But maybe, like pretty much everything else in our alternative quest, it doesn’t need to be completely thrown out, only meditated upon. The Christmas walk was a good thing and so was the candlelight procession at midnight. The Hindu Christmas tree and homemade Christmas cookies both feel okay, even if guilt-driven, status-conscious wasteful and unnecessary spending doesn’t. All in all, it’s a badly damaged custom, but then I’m an ace recycler. . . .