Santa, Horror Movies, Earthquakes, and Other Childhood Religious Experiences

I felt hurt when my childhood friends laughed at me for devoutly believing in Santa Claus, and foolish, when they later scorned me for doubting the existence of my childhood fairytale-God….  

All my omnipotent, omniscient household deities such as Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy–all solemnly attested to by the otherwise scrupulously honest adults in my life–later turned out to be a childish embarrassment, mere games and illusions swallowed only by simpletons. On the other hand, unraveling the mysteries of religion increasingly was deemed a difficult and profound thing, to be accepted now on faith, and puzzled out rationally only by hoarier heads than mine, or perhaps in far off adulthood….   

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” (the circular argument legitimizing the commercialized Santa by equating him with the Christian spirit of love) didn't clear up any of my confusions at all…..

The teachers in my elementary schools poked fun and laughed merrily at all the many varieties of “primitive” religious beliefs (i.e., any religion outside of mainstream American Judeo-Christianity) such as the early Greek and Roman myths, American Indian spirituality (in those days, I thought “native” meant “naked,”) ancestor “worship,” many-armed “goddesses,” etc. My classmates and I learned to confidently pooh-pooh photos displaying what we were told were radically important differences in 'foreign” (i.e., “weird”) religious practices and dress and customs, and of course we concluded that western civilization and enlightened religious rationales and practices, such as credentialed religious leaders saying magic words that turned lifeless-looking wafers and water into the actual body and blood of an historical crucified spiritual leader, and then drinking and eating it, were somehow less weird, somehow intellectually superior. Ick.

I remember asking my Sunday School teacher about the confusing song, “Yes, Jesus loves me: the Bible tells me so.” 

“So how does the Bible know?”

“It just does. God wrote the Bible. Everything in it is true.”

“Oh.” That was the end of my questioning on that subject for about twenty years….

One of my (quite religious) sisters, who was a Mormon convert, admitted at age fifty that she had never even considered questioning that particular teaching (the inerrancy and source/s of the Bible), although she had pored over The Good Book daily for enlightenment and wisdom all her life.

Little kids are so innocent, and their minds so susceptible to cultural influences; they swallow whole all that their cultures teach them, including its radically peculiar particularities.

I'm reading lately where horror movies are coming back now, bigger and scarier than ever, sort of…terror-porn…in all its sadistic gore, reflecting, some enthusiastic critics say, what is really happening in “the real world.” Oh, really? Of all that is happening in the world, this is what we're noticing? This is what we want our children to focus on? This is “the way of the world” that we want to teach our children all about? As if violence and fear and terror were inevitable, and not primarily a matter of what and how we are taught, and later, how we choose to see and traverse this life?

If all the world could be raised by enlightened Quakers or Buddhists or Jesuits, in just two generations, all mankind would live in peace. 

(To be sure, all animals experience conflict. Some even feed upon each other. Yet warfare is a uniquely human, cultural invention. The biological connection to war is our very human language-making ability, which makes possible cultural learning and the invention and coordination of ideas, groups, and technnologies. Biology doesn't condemn humanity to war. Just as wars begin in the minds of men, peace also begins in our minds. We who were capable of inventing war are capable of inventing peace. The responsiblity and capability lie in each of us.)

In my girlhood, I worked hard to puzzle out,with my parents, exactly which movie and storybook monsters and dangers might be real; i.e., which were the ones I'd have to look out for and steer clear of? And which were the “made-up” ones I didn't have to worry about?

Grizzlies? Yes. Very real. Very scary.

Ghosts? Well…. Hmmm. Let me think about that one.

Angels? Hmmmm, again. 

Bad angels? Hmmm.

Dragons? Oh, no! Silly girl! Imagine, dragons! No of course they're not real. Whatever gave you that idea?

Dinosaurs? No! Or, well, yes. Or, well, maybe. Sort of, but not, like, you know, any more. (Thanks a lot for clearing that one up!)

The Snow White witch and the Wizard of Oz witch? No. Except of course, the movie star. She's real. (Hmmm.)

Robbers? Well, uh, maybe. They're real, but we don't have to worry about them. (And why was/is that?)

War? Well, maybe there are wars in some other countries, but we never have to fight them in the U.S. (How soon we forget!) (And why weren't they ever fought in the US? Why were wars always something we fought, but only elsewhere? And why didn't all those other people decide to fight their wars elsewhere?)

Death? Yes, death is real. Uh, well, and … well, no. Death is…uh…only sort of real. Don't forget about heaven. Hmmm.

Earthquakes? Oh yes, very real. Where do they happen? Only in Japan, California, and a few other faraway places. But, not to worry…. We don't live in any of those places. Now run along, dear, enough silly questions….

My military family soon got our orders to spend a year in Fort Ord, CA followed by three years in Tokyo, Japan, to my…horror…. (see paragraph above.)

The only earthquakes I knew about were the ones I'd seen in a movie, in which huge, mile-wide-deep chasms opened up and swallowed down whole screaming villages of people, houses, and cattle, all of which went sliding and scrabbling down into the closing gulf to disappear forever…. 

And that was where we were going to live?

My parents dismissed my alarmed, “but…but…but…” with a condescending wave of their hands. “Foolish child. Be a brave little patriot and stop complaining. After all, there are only six or eight real earthquakes in Japan a year. Military brats have to bravely go where they're sent! Now run along …. We're going to get in nine holes of golf before dark….”

Fortunately, the many many earthquakes I soon experienced served mostly just to rattle the tableware.

Although once I crawled across a parade ground nearly all the way to my elementary school, thinking my legs had stopped working. And another time my mother whisked me out of a wildly splashing bathtub and wrapped me in a towel to join the families (and staring friends!) standing outside.

What's really funny is that by the time I had crawled most of the way to school, my legs had “started working again,” so I had already forgotten my troubles (ah, youth!)–when all the teachers rushed up to me, worried about me, and I said, “What earthquake? I didn't feel any earthquake.” I was actually feeling a little aggrieved that I'd missed all the excitement, until I figured out..that…I hadn't.

And sitting in the bathtub during the other big earthquake, silent and still as a stone while the water roiled and sloshed over the sides, all I could think of was how much trouble I'd be in, for making all that water illegally splash so hard and so much with my boisterous bathtub play that it couldn't stop splashing.

Kids have a hard enough time figuring out what's real from what isn't without their parents making their jobs that much more difficult. That is why we parents must often reassure our kids that, “There are no stupid questions” and give them time to follow up on their confusions. I didn't do this very well with my kids–I thought they did have a lot of stupid questions, and felt embarrassed for myself, that I hadn't already taught my very bright children much better long ago…. I'm sure I was worse even than my parents in this…. Consequently, both my children and I often thought many of our questions were too stupid to ask. Now why was that? 

Wouldn't it be nice if children everywhere could get their examples and habits and attitudes and transcendent truths and values and realities from loving adults who held to their highest ideals and principles and didn't meanwhile pollute little minds with opportunistic fables and vague shadowy threatening omniscient eminences and all the terrifying blockbuster media horrors it does no good to think about (which is not to say we cannot add all our loving energy and creativity to the world, and thus help solve many its many problems….)

If I ever have grandchildren, I pray I will teach them all about the highest and best things in life, about goodness and kindness and love. I'm going to equate all that goodness with God/reverence. I'll try to show them how the human need for God and ideals and a spiritual life and a path to God can be found in all the highest forms of all the great religions. I'm not going to be complicit in teaching them distortions and fairy tales about imaginary cultural deities and hobgoblins. The magic and wonder of science and the humanities, indeed, all the wonders of life on earth, will offer them plenty of food for their imaginations, more than enough challenges for their creativity and intellects. Nor will I diss any alternative philosophical or religious expressions, but instead, hope to seek to understand and embrace their highest human and spiritual commonalities.

I will be sorely challenged, though, in this free-for-all world, to protect children from a steady diet of fear–whether political, cultural, media, storybook, or any other kind. But protect them we must–or lose them to a fear-based, instead of a love-based, sense of reality.

Perhaps what we can do best is to help them grow up positively and powerfully, so they can act on every good impulse and shine their lovely lights onto all the dark places in the world.

Perhaps someday, we can together lift ourselves and our loved ones (and that is, everyone) over life's heartaches and losses and disappointments–life's rough and lonely places–and never let anyone fall into feeling lost and separated for very long.



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Central Station, Not One Less, Children of Heaven, Autumn Spring, and Other Wonderful Movies….

I just watched the award-winning 1998 Brazilian film, Central Station (about the importance of connecting, belonging, and giving.) Two desperate, appealing, and brilliantly acted characters in dire straits—one a recent orphan, the other a sad retiree—are thrown together, and reluctantly save one another. The story centers on a relationship that develops during a journey. This movie drives home in a touching and entertaining way, how important family, friends, and security are in life, and how fragile and easily lost they are in life’s changing circumstances, and through cynicism, defeatism, and self-isolation. This gripping, beautifully-directed movie is also a revealing snapshot of everyday lives in a variety of intriguing rural, suburban, and urban settings in today’s Brazil.


Among many other wonderful, critically-acclaimed foreign films I’ve seen recently through Netflix, the following are truly the best of the best….


For families with young children, and for every adult, these films have my highest recommendation, as entertaining, well-made, and, well…just plain wonderful. Like Central Station (above), each has great potential for discussion, for insight into different cultures and human values, and for just about every pleasure one can find in a really memorable, insightful movie:


Children of Heaven, a not-to-be-missed, touching slice-of-life story showcasing a child learning values while making difficult choices, is set in working-class Iran. Not One Less (the same, with an emphasis on perseverance, is set in rural China. Rabbit-Proof Fence, an Incredible Journey-sort of film, except that it’s set in historical Australia, is based on true events. The three sojourners are Aborigine children trying to return home….


These three movies are all gentle, touching stories of winning children/families living typical lives in far corners of the earth, all highly enjoyable for all ages. They will stay in your mind forever.


For teens and their families, or for any adult, I recommend The Road Home, a sweet love story set in mainland China, and the funny and moving Secrets and Lies, about a successful (black) daughter’s reunion with her troubled (white) birth mother/family, who gave her away before seeing her as an infant (set in London).


The Battle of Algiers is a well-made, sad, dark, and moving historical film about an Islamic uprising against French colonists. I recommend it only (but especially) for adults who, like me, are interested in politics and history. It compellingly sheds light on current Middle Eastern conflicts.


The Barbarian Invasions is an interesting story of a father-son reconciliation, as well as a marvelous depiction of what a “good death” might entail. You'll see some fascinating Canadian culture, strong direction, a funny, thought-provoking and touching script, and solid performances by a delightful cast … recommended for any adult who finds this synopsis appealing.


I not only found Autumn Spring (about a Czech retired couple) delightful; it also taught me something I had forgotten about men—that they need to feel free to be men or they’ll die inside. Right after seeing this movie, I encouraged my husband to buy the bike of his dreams, which he is simply thrilled with…. I’m so happy with his new happiness that I’m reminded, as I write this review, to keep listening for and supporting the rest of his dreams…as he does mine….


Finally, a sometimes slow-moving but memorable and powerful film for anyone interested in immigration, migration, and refugees in any country, including our own, is In This World, about two young Afghan cousins who undertake a secret/illegal, and very arduous journey to improve their lives in London.


I am so grateful to all the creative and brilliant film-industry workers who made these films, and also to Netflix, truly the bargain of the century for culture-lovers…. Thank you!


(Please click on “reviews” to see earlier outstanding movies I've reviewed….)


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Selfish Gardener….

Check out my latest comic strip–about spring, gardens, pets…. Just click on the comic strip at the top, in the left column. The one below it is also new…it's about bullying…. Enjoy, and a happy Spring to all my readers everywhere….. I love reader feedback–please write to me at (NOT I'll reprint your letter and share my responses with my readers. I welcome questions too. Happy Spring!  – Eppy

Let’s Trade in “Realpolitik” for More Realistic (Idealistic and Moral) Politics

I just read a hasty translation of the remarkable letter written to President Bush by Iran’s President Ahmadinajad, the neocons’ newest target for demonization. In his passionate letter, this bold spiritual leader outlines his perspectives about international relations in terms of spirituality, religion, philosophy, history, and politics, courteously pointing out the west’s moral inconsistencies and asking many hard questions, while offering specific suggestions and proposals for world peace and for resolving conflicts.


I wonder whether President Bush will brush off his handlers’ warnings and actually dare read the letter? For just as Americans risk war by listening only to the current angry neocon drumbeat against Iran, so can Mr. Bush choose to risk peace by hearing out Mr. Ahmadinajad. Already the letter has been spun and skewed by war advocates as the usual self-serving drivel. I see it as a profound peace offering by a rising spiritual leader.


The letter is certainly must-reading for all wartime decision-makers such as the President, his Cabinet, and Congress. Consider the CIA’s secret overthrow of Iran’s popularly elected leader, Mossedegh, during the 1950’s, which led directly to the Iran hostage crisis; we may similarly ignore Ahmadinajad’s missive now to our peril. Americans who refuse to acknowledge our exploitative past, or to dialogue with our designated “enemies,” may regret such oversight at leisure, as we did on 9/11, when so few Americans understood—as too few do still—why America is the target of so much fear and hatred.


Even before this letter, our wrathful right wing media had already enthusiastically rolled out their propaganda machines to denounce Ahmadinajad’s previous speeches and writing. For indeed, our government cannot rouse our soldiers to kill and die, and our citizens to sacrifice for distant wars, unless they first convince us that each new “enemy” is the devil incarnate.


Joining with demagogues and fanatics in Israel, fear-mongering spinmeisters have portrayed Ahmadinajad as determined to wipe out all the Jews in Israel. To be sure, he is disgusted with the current regime and its unqualified American support. However, he has said he would support a fair referendum there, and I think he would welcome a regime which treated peaceful Jews, Christians, and Muslims with equal respect and rights.


Ahmadinajad has a sterling international reputation as a genuinely pious, erudite Muslim teacher and statesman. His letter to President Bush echoes many perspectives of our own American political left. Yet he is portrayed by the Bush administration as a hardliner, an extremist conservative religious fanatic.


This too-familiar pre-war fear-and-hate fest has been so done before, first with Saddam Hussein, then with Moqtada al-Sadr, then with bin Laden, and now with Ahmadinajad. I’m sick of watching my country rush blindly into more bullying excesses, while always draping our aggressions in saintliness.


I have no respect for the Bush-Cheney-Rice strategy for solving our energy crises by controlling the price and flow of oil through Mideast political and military coercion. It’s not nice, and has been far too pricey (not, of course, for oil companies) and has never really worked, especially when you count the whole cost of our lengthy dalliance with Saddam Hussein.


I’m not alone in my distaste for global bullies, either. No one likes schoolyard bullies who throw their weight around, thinking only of themselves, not caring who gets hurt so long as they get what they want. Powerful bullies may prevail in the short run, may even gain opportunistic allies eager to share in the spoils of easy wars against weaker opponents. But soon enough, everyone on the playground finally gets sick of being pushed around, and all gang up to confront the bully.


And the bigger the bully, the harder he falls.


Far from offering Americans security and safety, belligerent approaches to international relations create only more enemies, drain our coffers, strain our political freedoms, distract our leaders from solving our real problems, demean our integrity, lower our national pride and morale, ruin our reputation, weaken our alliances, threaten our trade, destroy untold lives, and do nothing at all to make us safer than we were before. We can stand up for our traditional rights and freedoms without insisting that hard, practical considerations and the advancement of our own expansionist national interests are the sole principles of our interactions with others.


It is time to retire America’s realpolitik approach to foreign policy. Even if Americans did choose to embrace such an anachronistic approach to international politics—and few thinking Americans would, for we have a strong foundation in a loving, giving Judeo-Christian ethic—even then, realpolitik makes no sense.


The only nations fighting defensive wars these days are those with desirable resources, or historically-contested lands of economic significance and/or strategic value. The United States is virtually alone in being so raw, young, and untouched by historical predations as to insert herself in many overt and covert distant wars of aggression simultaneously in many places. Visualize a bull in a china shop…..


The time is right for an international, grassroots groundswell, a spiritual/political movement insisting upon arms reduction by all parties, and a strong international policy of peaceful acceptance and coexistence. The nations which will prevail in the world of the future are those which now work cooperatively with others, strive to set a high moral example, and offer leadership in support of peaceful, productive lives for all.


The whole idea of fighting a war on terrorism is negative and backward. Why not throw a party instead, hosting it on age-old patriotic American and Judeo-Christian themes so dear to us—the golden rule, and respect and support for all human beings everywhere—and invite everyone? Why not co-opt all the world’s leaders by asking them to join us in fighting, not one another, but the real problems of the 21st century—disease, injustice, depravity, hopelessness, hunger, greed, environmental degradation, natural disasters, ignorance, addiction, prejudice, nuclear proliferation, crime, poverty, war, terrorism, and yes, violence itself?


The peacemakers in our midst cannot hurt us, whether they be followers of Ahmadinajad or a newly chastened and hopeful George W. Bush. We need more, not fewer, experienced, visionary, peace-minded foreign policy experts, assigned to a new Department of Peace, who can help us realize the best and brightest policies of a new realism which combines hard and soft power in ways that are indeed realistic.


Winner-take-all is simply not a political option anymore. None of us will ever be able to climb higher than our lowliest fellow-climbers, for the world is at last far too interconnected. We cannot harm and neglect our neighbors near or far without that harm coming back, sooner than we can imagine, to haunt our own children and grandchildren, like chickens come home to roost.


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Fair Negotiations with Iran. NOT.

When my little sister and I would argue over a candy bar, my mom would remind us the only way to divide anything up fairly was to let one side divide, and the other side choose.


So the Bush administration has divvied up fairly (they say) all that is at stake in their looming war with Iran. Yet Iran still seems stubbornly “diplophobic,” as David Ignatius expresses it, and refuses to come to the negotiating table. Surely the opening terms of the negotiation are reasonable and unbiased?


For each of the terms of the negotiation listed below, select the ones which a nation truly committed to sovereignty, respect, and fairness within the world community of nations might choose:


Create the largest, most powerful military force in history, by far, and use it to advance far-flung interests;


Create a military force suitable to repel invaders;


Invade, intervene, colonize, economically exploit, set up puppet dictatorships, and politically and militarily interfere with the sovereignty of many nations near and far;


Attempt to repel invaders;


Invade and displace the residents of distant lands in order to establish military bases; 


Drop atomic bombs on civilian populations of other nations;


Develop, use, and share chemical weapons with allies; arm allies and overlook their acquisition of atomic weapons;


Develop and buy the natural resources of other (weaker) countries on one's own terms;


Invade other nations on trumped-up pretexts, blow up whatever/whomever, manipulate others' sovereignty and traditions, defy world opinion, and build huge, permanent military installations on foreign land, settling down wherever they want in order to favorably control the flow and price of scarce resources;


Send secret agents to assassinate or remove popular leaders and to undermine democratic elections, near and far;


Build thousands of conventional, chemical, and nuclear weapons, as well as secretive permanent installations, in order to study biological weapons; develop new kinds of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—and use such weapons against any countries which “might” someday threaten their “interests,” or those of their allies;


Develop and use conventional weapons when actually invaded;


Threaten nuclear annihilation when other nations research nuclear technology; 


Develop nuclear energy technology for one's own energy needs;


Torture and hold suspected enemies indefinitely without due process of law;


Be the nation with the “might” that makes “right,” with the gold that makes the rules, with the freedom to disregard international opinion and world governing and legal bodies, choosing to do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, to whomever it wants.


International fairness is demonstrated when individual nations hold themselves to the same high international standards of behavior they expect from others. America is the biggest and strongest nation among equals, established under the highest principles, ideals and values; we can also choose to become the humblest, the most respected, even the most loved nation, by reflecting in our international policies our deeply-held belief that all men truly are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and by living the golden rule–treating all others as we would like to be treated.


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