Thursday, May 21, 2020

Climate and COVID

The writing life continues, as I prepare to send off a manuscript on the climate crisis to my publisher.

One of the things I'm struggling with is how to integrate the pandemic into my writing.  There are clear conceptual connections between how America is dealing with the pandemic and how we've dealt with climate change, ones that seem obvious.  Like, say: 

How we ignore science, and reject expertise as elitist or controlling.  How we create false narratives to support our ideological biases.  How we value the immediate over any long term vision.  How deeply we're willing to steal from our future to satisfy our desires in the now.

But making that connection isn't easy now, because most of the impacts of this pandemic are yet to come.  Looking at the most likely probabilities, our next four to six months are going to be rough.  

We are moving to reopen, which seems viable after months of semi-quarantine.  The success of that reopening feels deeply unlikely.  Yes, it could work.  It could definitely work.  I buy that.

To make it work, we'd need to be doing the a nation, all together...that would make success more likely.  Testing, tracing, and quarantining are the three keys to this.  You test broadly across a population to detect any new outbreaks.  You trace contacts so you can map the possible impact of any resurgence.  And you locally quarantine based on your testing  and tracing, so that the system more broadly can continue functioning.

If you do those things, the odds of a successful national reopening are vastly improved.

We are doing none of those things.  Testing is sporadic, inconsistent, and limited.  Contact tracing?  Sweet Lord Jesus no.  There's nothing in place nationally.  Nothing.  And quarantine efforts are a splattered, sloppy mess of conflicting local and regional recommendations.

There is a slender chance that providence will smile on our foolishness.  What is considerably more likely is a significant COVID resurgence, a second wave of this outbreak that matches or exceeds the first.  We are that villager who decides to take a long walk when the eye of the hurricane passes over, sure that the worst of the storm is past.  

By the time my book goes to print in 2021, the impacts of our decisions right now will be clear.  It is most likely that they'll offer up a painful parallel to our inadequate response to climate change.  

But as I don't know that for sure, it's kinda hard to write that into a manuscript.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Daily Liveblog of the COVID Year

being observations or memorials
of the most remarkable occurrences,
as well public as private, which happened in
Washington DC during the great visitation in 2020.
Written by a Citizen who continued
all the while in Washington.

April 1

I mowed yesterday for the first time this year. It was beautiful out, just perfect, but our lawn was not what most folks would call perfect. It never is, as what we have in our front yard is the farthest thing from a uniform carpet of green. It's a chaotic blend of greens and light browns, random tufts and tiny flowers. There is grass, but it shares the space with a tossed salad of other greenery.
Which, as I've been reading lately, is a very good way to describe our yard. Because in a pinch, or so survival guides tell me, much of the surface cover of our yard is edible. Dandelion greens and flowering tops. Clover, too, in a pinch, although it's best to stick with the flowers.
And chickweed...ubiquitous, relentless chickweed...perfectly nutritious as a green with minor preparation, either in salad or sauteed with a little butter and onion.
As I carried the cuttings back to my compost pile, I wondered at how much energy we Americans put into making our lawns a perfectly uniform green desert, chemically blasted free of "weeds," "weeds" that could grace our plates at any time of our choosing. Or in a time of great need.

March 30

I love singing hymns in my little church. It's just so delightfully comforting, so nice to mingle my voice with those of my congregation. For the last few years, I've had this idea. My sons both have lovely voices, tenor and bass, that they've taken the care to train and develop. Wouldn't it be nice, I've thought, to sing with them? It felt like a fantasy, a pipe dream. They're grown, and away. Also, they're Jewish, which means Jesus music ain't generally their thang.
Well, we're all home now. And as much as I'm adapting to remote worship, I'm missing that singing. So, in the confines of my study this last week, they agreed to sing one with me. Softly and Tenderly, a sweet old gospel standard, with nice tight harmonies. As excited as I was to lift up my voice with them, my offspring are on another level vocally. "Dad, Dad, you're not supporting." "No, no, need to set your mouth...yeah. Kind of like that. Close enough."
We worked through it, the three of us together. My voice bobbled and cracked. I missed the opening. I went completely off key. I got the giggles listening to myself fumble. But they were patient, and kept on until it came together well enough. Just doing it with them was a blessing.
You can find blessings in almost any time, if you look.

March 28

Time has felt odd lately. The flow of days is all wrong, as the minutes and hours stumble over one another, uncertain of their places, unsure of their steps. It's like watching a middle school squaredance, uncertain and awkward, the days uncomfortable in their newly changed selves.
We're just not quite sure what we're supposed to do. We knew the dance before, kind of, and had it down enough to get by. But now we're not even sure we know what day it is half of the time. There are no markers, no measures, no points that let us orient our days.
Which is why those rituals of life are more important than ever. My existence still has Sunday worship as its fulcrum, that moment when I am doing what I'm called to do, even if the specifics are kinda different these days. Juggling AV and USB cables and fretting that my uncut hair is starting to resemble that of a public access televangelist aren't my old norm, but so it goes.
And then there's Shabbas observance, because unlike most Christian pastors, I find myself in a household with four Jews for the forseeable future. When the boys were growing up, Friday nights meant prayers intoned in Hebrew over, marking the day, blessing the fruit of the earth and the vine.
Last night, over takeout Chinese and the flickering light of tea candles, we did just that. Here, we said together. This is the day it is.
We remember where we are, and what we're doing.

March 27

Yesterday morning was damp again, the wetness welcome in the soil of my gardens. Into the earth, more of my seed-saved kale for a late spring harvest, before the nibblers and the crawlers are out in force. The kale, joined by spinach and carrots, with space set aside for the tomatoes to go in several weeks from now.
In barrels filled with compost, potatoes are springing up in their vigorous way, joined by the rising fresh leafing of strawberries. At the front of the house, the blueberry bushes are starting to leaf too, tantalizing us with a harvest that mostly feeds the birds. The fate of my blueberries always makes me think of that sweet old Disney song. "That's a lovely sentiment, Ms. Poppins, but I planted those for a reason," I sigh, as the sparrows flutter away sated.
As I puttered about my suburban quarter acre, checking and tending here and there, something caught my eye. Two years ago, I'd randomly buried excess seed potatoes in an untended patch of earth in the back yard. I promptly forgot about them.
But there they were, the familiar leaves wet with the spring rain, springing eagerly from the unforgiving, unenriched Virginia clay.
"Well, look at you go," I said, because talking to potatoes seems perfectly reasonable these days. "Good for you."
One of the great pleasures of a garden are those little surprises.

March 26

I went to church, and the day was cold and damp and grey. The buildings, cool and dark and quiet. No meetings. No worship. The news of the day, from the governor, that schools would be closed through late April. I and my lay leaders are committed to listening to competent, wise counsel on such matters. We're following the state and county on closure, and that meant, well. That meant, definitively: no Easter worship in our sweet little brick sanctuary. It was no surprise, but still set a little heavy. My soul felt weary and as grey as the day. It's hard to set aside the rituals of meaning that define a life.
I checked the mail, and the phones, and the general integrity of the building. I took a couple of calls, did some prep for Sunday's bible study, and then headed home.
Getting off the Beltway, nearly back, I stopped at a light. By the side of the road, an abandoned, handwritten sign on a piece of cardboard. The young woman who panhandles there, now gone. But her words remained, the ink clear and unblurred by rain.
"Anything helps," said the sign.
Well. That is good to know.

March 24

Yesterday was Monday, and Monday is a slower day. Wet and cool, on the border of cold. I felt that cold as I weeded, clearing out the soil in the raised bed to the left of the driveway. In between the weeds, kale poking up, starting to flourish, sweet from the cold of winter.
Clearing around the kale was hard and manual. I squatted, feeling the long squat in my knees and quads, my fingers probing into the rich dark soil, the wetness chilling to the bone. But the weeds needed to be gone from the bed, and other greens planted. So I dug and pulled and pulled and dug, my hands crusted with dirt and numbed with cold.
When I came back into the kitchen, I washed my hands, scrubbing the earth from under my nubby, bitten nails, the warm water a blessing.

March 23

Yesterday after virtual church, I went to the store. I walked, because if I can walk an errand, I do. It's good for me physically, and better for creation, and better for my soul. Walking clears my mind, and disconnects me from the strange compound hysteria of our virtual world. So I strapped on one of our big frame packs, and walked with my son and his girlfriend to the local Harris Teeter. Round trip: about three and a half miles. It's just around half an hour walk each way, if you dawdle.
The flowers, in bloom, the air sweet the scent of spring. We passed shuttered schools and quiet churches. A funky little house we'd never noticed before, yard neatly ordered, surrounded by polka dotted poles upon which sat the Buddha's head. We passed the sweet little gardens out front of my son's old elementary school, and critiqued the book selection in a Tiny Library. One doesn't see such things while driving.
At the Starbucks in the strip mall, a long line of cars snaking halfway across the parking lot. Each idling, windows up, sitting and waiting, occupants staring at their phones, locked away on a lovely spring afternoon. Humans are so peculiar.

March 21

Essential businesses must remain open, we are told.
Yesterday, I walked past one of the title lending "businesses" that have sprung up all throughout Virginia over the last two decades. In exchange for the right to take your car as collateral, they offer loans at absurdly high, usurious interest rates. 200%. 300%. It's fundamentally predatory, but such businesses present themselves as "providing a a lifeline." They give generously to the re-election campaigns of Virginia politicians, who serve them well.
With the economy seizing up, they were doing a brisk business. A woman, leaving in a late model Kia. Older, morbidly obese, and wearing a surgical mask. She did not look well. At the door, a woman and a man waited for admittance. I wondered which of the cars belonged to which. Was his the Toyota work-truck? Was hers the Honda Accord? They stood six feet apart from one another in the strangely warm March sun. They did not talk.
Inside, "easy money," now desperately needed, borrowed from an uncertain future at a heavy cost.

March 20

The two shopping carts sat on either side of the bench, piled with possessions. They usually can be found outside a Burger King, but BK is closed now for anything but take out.
I approached the mass of possessions, wondering in my selfish way if there would be an ask as I passed. Two of them, each familiar, were beneath an umbrella, opened to shelter them from an unusually hot March sun. He, grizzled and greybearded. She, sturdy, of indeterminate age, latina or indigenous.
I glanced at them, a furtive bourgeois curiosity. He was asleep, curled up, his head on her lap. She, her hand softly on his head, looking down at his face, her expression inscrutable. The umbrella, a shadowed halo cast around the two of them.
I looked away. It was too intimate, this moment of connection between the two.
She did not look up as I passed.

March 19

Two days ago, out in the back yard, I was gathering kindling for a coming cold snap. The dog seemed unusually happy. She eagerly trotted over to a spot behind the shed, where I'd seen her rolling about gleefully the day before. I followed, with the intent of stirring our compost pile. That's when I noticed the smell.
Behind the shed, the remains of a raccoon, a ruined shapeless mass of fur and dark melting flesh. It crawled with innumerable white and squirming things. The dog wanted so bad to roll in it, to perfume herself with it. Dog odorants, I think, would be named Old Stank and Rotstench no. 5. I sent her inside, which she did reluctantly and with her more usual ennui.
I buried what remained of it yesterday morning. Took the shovel, and dug out a small trench in the wet clay near the shed. I scooped the dripping pile of bone and blackness into the hole, and though it was utterly foul beyond foulness, I found myself laughing as I filled in the hapless creature's grave.
Were I in a writer's workshop with the Creator of the Universe, I'd call Them out on the foreshadowing. "This feels a little obvious," I'd say, right before the thunder drowned out my voice.

March 18

Every morning at sevenish, I'm out with the dog. It's bright, clear, and brisk this morning, the air sharp with cold. The dog snuffles about in her usual aimless way, tending to the scents that must be investigated. She leaves her little comments-section stream on whatever chat the passing neighbor dogs are having this week.
I, on the other hand, am listening. It is sevenish, but sevenish is different. The aural environment has changed. There's an ambient noise we suburban creatures simply forget, the soft thunder of millions of tons of steel constantly on the move. It is always present, always there, a distant cataract of steel and tire and tarmac.
Today, that roar is quieter. Not gone, but notably hushed. Its voice, lowered. As one might when one hears an unexpected sound upstairs. It feels wary. At attention.

March 17

Today is lovely, Spring evidently oblivious to the ambient anxieties and mortal fears of human beings. Our little suburban street is suddenly filled with foot traffic. Not just the usual trickle of dog walkers, but teens. Runners. Couples. Families with strollers.
A family passes. Their little girl, not more than two, leaves her mother's hand and capers across our front yard. She finds a stick. She squats and looks at it. Then she picks it up, considers her options for a moment, and throws it. Throwing it pleases her, and she scampers back to her mother's outstretched arm, utterly devoid of any care in the world other than perhaps finding another suitable throwing stick.

March 16

Last night, Lije and I dropped by the local Burger King, where we snagged a couple of Impossible Whoppers for takeout. The place was typically Annandale-diverse, as it tends to be.
Esconced in the corner was the grey bearded homeless man who usually spends a chunk of his days there, chatting with a couple of guys in baseball caps. He's there on cold days, and on rainy days, because he can be. The staff at the BK are fine with him being there, in a way I'm not sure other businesses would be.
When the restaurants all close, and the libraries close, one wonders where he'll go in this strange, unwelcoming time.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

We Try So Hard

Went to the theater last night, and watched a play that was so tantalizingly almost good.
Like, right at the cusp of goodness. Intermittently moving, and then very much not, teasing the watcher with the possibility of what it might have been had the playwright cut about twenty minutes of unnecessary, jarring, peculiar choices. It'd be a genuine exploration of loss, relationship, and the power of our connection to place, and then suddenly, SINGING! Let's all march around and CHANT LINES TOGETHER! Here's a SEMICOHERENT MONOLOGUE! Is this suddenly MAGICAL REALISM or have I just had a stroke BECAUSE I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON! 
All of which the cast poured themselves into with as much gusto as one can.
As the stagelights faded, we gave it hearty applause. "They just tried so hard," said Rache.
One hopes, at the end of things, standing before the Maker, that there's a similar generosity. "You just tried so hard."

Monday, February 24, 2020

Climate Change Conservatism

Over the course of the last year, I've been working on a manuscript that discusses the Christian moral response to the climate crisis. 

My assumption, grounded in the hard reality we don't want to hear: catastrophic climate change cannot be avoided.  That horse has left the shed.  That Elvis has left the building.

Climate change will place new, intense and particular moral demands on Jesus folk, ones that will press us to live deeply into some of the core virtues of the Way.  We'll need to turn away from our endless cycle of consumerism and manufactured greed.  Thrift, after all, is a virtue.  I mean, it is, right?

The manuscript lays out that  in terms of Christian moral virtue.  We all need to feel a sense of personal responsibility, and act on our duty to protect the well being of future generations.  We'll need to slow down and take more sabbath in our lives.  We'll need to reconnect with the earth, the soil, and the goodness of God's creation.  We'll need to be less tribal, and more compassionate to the stranger in need.  We'll need to have hope, even in the face of unprecedented trial.

As I've thought about it, the most gracious responses all have deep roots in our deep that one could even call them "conservative."

And yet I find myself struggling mightily to see how to share this with conservative American Christians, with whom I would love to share this hopeful, can-do message.

That manuscript was recently turned down by an excellent and reputable conservative publisher, because, well, I'm straightforward about my liberality in it.  But the rejection came with details, which were both thoughtful and presented in a Christlike way.  I was...well...amazed at how gracious they were.  So I asked, hey, can we talk about this?  And in something close to a miracle, the editor who'd turned it down said, sure.  Yes. 

I then had a wonderful phone conversation with that graciously-souled editor.  He suggested that I look for places of commonality, places where my admittedly liberal commitment to Jesus can harmonize with his readers.  There is so much possible scriptural and theological common ground, and so much that we share on this precious world of ours.  Surely, surely, there must some way we can talk to one another.

It was good advice, and so I went out and looked for possible conversation partners.

For that, I looked to the writings of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, an evangelical organization that discusses climate change.  Here, I thought, may be evangelicals who might share some common understanding.  I spent several days reading through their materials, seeking places of connection.

First, I looked for where the organization stood on climate change.  When speaking to someone, it helps to know where they stand, so you can endeavor to honor their integrity and speak so that you are heard. 

The position: climate change is not real. 
Or if it is real, it's not caused by humans. 
Or if it's caused by humans, it's trivial and will cause no noticeable change. 
Or if it isn't trivial, those radical changes to the global climate will actually prove beneficial. 
Although it may also not be happening. 

Every single one of these positions was expressed. 

There were articles by evangelical scientists which challenged the idea of consensus around climate change. There were other arguments that the existence of consensus around climate change was meaningless secular herd behavior.  I honestly had trouble finding purchase, because what I found was a dissonant, atonal chorus of every possible objection.  I could find no coherence beyond a spirit of opposition.

What about the relationship with those who disagree?  Were there already places of fruitful connection and hopeful pursuit of common ground?  I pored through their materials again.  There were attacks on the integrity of climate activists, who are all hypocrites because they use fossil fuels...or, in one instance, because they had been observed at a restaurant with people who were eating hamburgers.  Where those activists were both Christian and assiduously avoided air travel, the attacks were on the integrity of their faith and the legitimacy of their belief.  Where they were scientists and Christian, their standing in their field and their faith were attacked.  Ad hominem assumptions about those who present variant perspectives do not generally provide a good foundation for conversation.  They are, in point of fact, intended to shut conversation down.

There's the apolitical nature of climate change, because when a storm rises, ideology doesn't matter.  This is not a political issue, I could say.  The rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, after all.  I speak as a concerned soul.  Let's talk about this as something greater than our politics.  Yet there, again, I was stymied, as the Alliance shared praise and hagiography for America's current president, whose choices it describes as brave and bold and noble.  It makes it clear where allegiance lies, and casts the struggle in clear and political terms that clearly align faith with unswerving, absolute loyalty to a leader.

I looked for shared language, like the words "creation stewardship."  I believe in that.  Where creation stewardship is defined by the folks at Cornwall, it appears to mean: the continued and expanded use of "affordable, abundant, reliable fossil fuels."  That phrase is repeated in most of their position pieces.  Renewable energy sources are dismissed as poor stewardship, being too expensive, too "elite," inherently corrupt, and harmful to the development of less-privileged economies.

Well, what about the things that are affirmed, the positive declarations of how one should live?  Following Jesus is an affirmative path.  There are things Jesus asks us to do, and laying out a Way that honors the Gospel is a core part of the purpose of the faith.  What does  it look like, if we are to hew more closely to God's intent for our use of creation?  I could find nothing affirmative, no "here is what this looks like."  There is no telling of a real and gracious story, no sharing of what the reality of their vision of "creation stewardship" looks like when you define your life by it.

In negation, everything was granular and particular, down to micro-level detail.  In affirmation...vague, misty, platitudinous.  There were no practical suggestions, no examples, no stories of what good stewardship looks like.  Now, they may have been there somewhere. 

I just couldn't find them after a couple of days of looking.

But what about scripture and theology?  Surely there were places of connection there, I thought, perhaps unreasonably.  What about the pro-life idea, the need to care for future generations?  Choose life, that you and your descendants may live, cries Torah.  A pro-life ethos can easily be understood to encompass all moral choices, right?  One could say, well, out of concern for the well being of my children and yours, I'd like us to begin the transition away from fossil fuels in a reasonable, measured way before we reach the point of scarcity and crisis.  That's pro-life, right?  Yet there, in answer, was an essay declaring that the only thing pro-life can ever mean is anti-abortion.  Pro life, or so declares the Cornwall Alliance, means nothing but anti abortion.  Nothing more, nothing less, and efforts to expand that meaning (as the Catholic Church has) are Trojan Horses.  That's not exactly the sort of rhetoric that leaves room for conversation.

Every door I tried, locked and barred.  Every effort, frustrated.

And with that frustration, a challenge for my soul.  For from frustration can rise anger, and from anger invective.  I could allow the spirit of the Adversary to rise in me, and to see only evil, assuming the worst of motives and the darkest of intents.  What's their funding stream, and why is it intentionally hidden?  What's the real audience and intent?  I could make assumptions about their inner hearts, and carefully construct a dark narrative of opposition.

Or I could, in the face of a message of complacency, distraction and denial, tap down deep into the tradition of Scripture, and let the Lord speak my anger for me.  I'm not sure that helps, either.

Ultimately, the wise counsel of that evangelical editor still sang in my ear.   Don't argue.  Don't come up with reason to condemn and lines of attack.  Don't berate.  Don't allow yourself to fall into Satan's method of relentless accusation.

None of these things are fruitful, and harsh words only harden hearts, even if they are not my own.  You have to tell your story. 

It's better and more gracious to name the reality you see, affirm what can be done about it, and tell the good story of how that can be made real.  In all of that, ground it in Christ, and present that to as many souls as have ears to hear it.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Of Dice and Diversity

As we move towards the 2020 Democratic primaries, there's a cry of lament from certain folk on the left about what they consider the problematic lack of diversity among the leading candidates.  Although the initial field included a broad mix of folks from every demographic category, the field has whittled down to two old white guys, one old white woman, and one young white guy.

This may be because we're all racist, or so some folks say.  I do wonder at that, though.  Racism requires intentionality, and there's little evidence that's the case here.  Then there's "structural racism," which can be defined in a range of different ways, but tends to involve cultural assumptions that create bias against certain groups and for other groups.

Where I have some trouble is here: if we use the modern-era racial categories as a way to define human beings, the proportional allocation of individuals into those categories isn't itself racist.  Meaning, simply, this:  a non-racist culture in which certain groups comprise a larger portion of the population the absence of more likely than not to have leaders who come from more well populated categories.

In other words, if your culture is majority "white," you will, in the absence of systemic racism, still likely have more white folk in leadership.  Probabilistically speaking, it's not a sign that bigotry is a factor.

As a way of playing about with this idea, I took a twenty-sided die, one I'd used the last time I played role playing games with my sons.  Then I took a look at the current demographic breakdown of the United States of America.  If you roughly line up American racial/gender demography with the numbers one through twenty, you get the following:

1-6  White Male
7-12  White Female
13-14 Latino
15-16 Latina
17 Black Female
18 Black Male
19  Asian
20 Other

This is a clumsy simplification, of course, and one that doesn't represent the longer term dynamics of America's demographics, but it's as close as one can get to results that split the difference between the last census and where we're trending.  Having laid out those parameters, I busted out my d20 and started rolling.  There are four Democratic candidates with a shot at the nomination now, and so here are my first four rolls:

1 White Male
2 White Male
3 White Female
4 White Male

As it so happened, my random rolling yielded the exact current race/gender makeup of the four leading Democratic candidates.  Does this represent systemic racism, or a "diversity problem?"  I'm not sure how one could meaningfully argue that, given that the race/gender representation of  my "white" folks category is slightly under where demographic data shows America falls.  One could, of course, suggest that a completely race-blind and randomized selection process is racist, but...well...that'd be a little insane.

I kept rolling.

5 White Female
6 Black Female
7 White Female
8 Latino
9 White Female
10 White Male
11 White Female
12 White Female
13 White Male
14 Black Male
15 White Female
16 White Female
17 White Female
18 White Female
19 Latina
20 White Male

And with those twenty rolls, the spread bent towards Whitey.  More female than male, as it so happened, but that was just a factor of randomness and a small sample size.  "Asian" and "Other" never quite surfaced, but had I spent the entire afternoon tossing my icosahedron, I'm sure things would have evened out.

Because dice are absolutely fair and devoid of bias.

Looking at the breakdown of my rolls, an unbiased, representative, and "unproblematic" distribution of candidates might look like this:

There's a mixed distribution of gender and race, one that isn't too wildly far off from the actual demographics of American citizenry.   If there were racial and gender bias in a culture or sub-culture, it would manifest as if being white gave you a significant advantage, that classic "plus 5" modifier.  Do that kind of rolling and it would look more like this:

Here, there's a gender mix that would be near impossible to replicate with a d20, and a racial breakdown that would be only slightly less difficult.  Clearly, something is skewing the results, making this second image radically unrepresentative at the national level.  You want "problematic?"  Well, here you go.

But when considering candidates for the presidency, "diversity" is an odd frameset.  Because, ultimately, there's just one person you'll be voting for, and a single person definitively cannot be "diverse."

If we insist on valuing human beings by race and gender, and not by how their policy positions impact all citizens of every hue and gender, then we can't help but be disappointed when we equate presidential virtue with demographic categorization.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Tradition, Change, and Faith

It was a blur and whirl of a journey, as my extended family took the winter break to bumble about in the Spanish province of Andalucia.  I'd never been to Spain, and like all travels to places that are radically unfamiliar, it meant encountering a part of our world so different that it could almost be a different world altogether.

There's the language, of course, which meant I had to try to dredge up the memories of my two years of modestly successful college Spanish.  I did a lot of pointing at things on menus, and pleading the strange helplessness in other languages that's a defining characteristic of Americans.  But the differences went deeper.

The flora and fauna weren't familiar at all, the landscape was dotted with tall narrow pines that were so defined they seemed to have been sculpted.  Olive groves blanketed the countryside, neat geometric lines of little trees covering the hills, stretching sometimes to the horizon.  Mealtimes were different, as the Spanish eat later than we, with dinner running deep into the late evening.

The roads were filled with vehicles that even my car-geek self didn't immediately recognize.  I found myself driving most of the family down intimidatingly tiny narrow cobblestone roads in a French nine passenger diesel van with a manual transmission, which is about as far from American driving as one can get.

Even more peculiar was the way it was Christmas in Spain, but it also wasn't.  We'd flown in on the day after Christmas, and there were still strings of lights sparkling everywhere.  Christmas music was still playing in the stores...American pop-country Christmas music, as it happened.

This wasn't because they'd forgotten to stop, because Christmas in Spain wasn't finished on Christmas Day.  It had only just begun, as Spaniards geared up for the height of their gift giving season: January the 6th.  The festival of Epiphany is the big day for presents in Spain, which by tradition aren't given out by Santa.  They're given out by the tres reyes, the Three Kings.

This, truth be told, makes a whole bunch more sense than the weird way we do it. I mean, the Tres Reyes are the ones who had gifts, right? It's right there in Matthew, a whole lot closer to the story we hear in church on Christmas, which makes very little mention of the North Pole, jolly old elves, and Rudolph with his nose so bright.

Outside of the royal palace in Seville, I watched kids eagerly approach a nativity scene to talk with three ornately costumed kings, as a guitarist played softly in the background. It wasn't familiar, and yet it was, and I wondered at the differences, at the way faith plays out across different cultures.  Here was a variant telling of Christmas, just as filled with the spirit of that season.  It cast a new light on the way we celebrate, and on the role of faith in our culture.

All journeys into the new and unfamiliar open us to deepening and expanding our sense of who we are, and offer us the richness of becoming more than we now are.