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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fixing Barbies, Sand Ceremonies, and 9/11

I spent the day with my two daughters, ages 13 and 10 today. It was a perfect early fall day, and very poignant, not only because it is the 9th anniversary of September 11th, not only because we seldom have an all-girls day, and not only because we bought two new goldfish today, Hagrid and Hedwig. Today was also poignant because we visited the pink aisle (read Barbie aisle) of Wal-Mart.

In order to understand what that means, you have to know something about me. I was of the late 60s, early 70s Barbie generation. We didn’t have a pink aisle, nor did we have Wal-Mart for that matter. Barbies were a doll for “older” girls, came from the Sears catalog for Christmas, and were played with into our early teens. We were each happy to have a Barbie, maybe a Ken, and a sister or friend of Barbie like Tutti, Francie or Skipper. We weren’t poor, we just thought that was enough, and we played with, dressed and redressed the same dolls from 1st grade on.

Now, of course, the Barbie age is much younger, starting approximately at age 2. Barbies are typically completely passe now by age six or so. But today we were shopping for the birthday of a nine-year-old, who was reported to “like Barbies.” So Barbie it was, a pleasure for sure, since it allowed us to skip the struggle of what else to buy, since I’m slightly averse to make-up, a tattoo gift certificate, or lingerie for 9-year-olds. (I’m kidding...I think.)

We waded in to carefully scrutinize the selection in the pink aisle. There we encountered “Barbie Fashionistas Glam” dolls, not to be confused with “Barbie Fashionistas Wild” dolls, or “Barbie Fashionistas Girly” dolls,“Barbie Fab Girl” dolls, or “Barbie Superstar” dolls. The selection of a “Fashionista Glam” Barbie was satisfactory to the selectee, so with Ms. Glam in tow, we headed for the checkout. It was there, somewhere between the pink aisle and the checkout register, that it dawned on me how much I’d changed. I am just not the mom I used to be. When had this happened?

I, a conscientious, thoughtful, well-informed, dyed-in-the-wool feminist mom, with naked-female-form-earrings to prove it, have become something close to enthralled with Barbie again, after all these years.

Barbie is fun. Barbie has a silly plastic figure and a penchant for over-the-top clothes, but Barbie is a girl who is out there, doing her thing, and not too darned concerned if she has the approval of me and my “educated” crowd of overly-concerned parents or not. Barbie has been strutting her stuff in everything from nurse to dance instructor, firefighter to astronaut garb, and has been anything from an Air Force Thunderbird, a paleontologist, a NASCAR driver, to an Olympic athlete without ever devaluing the traditional lives of women as cooks, childcare providers or homemakers. Barbie is a liberated young woman, who can wear 4-inch heels without whining, pack up her scuba gear, get married, star in rock band, buy the groceries, deliver a baby on Safari, and be the U.S. President or an World Ambassador for Peace all in a day’s play. Barbie has also been loyal to Ken since 1961, and seemingly him to her. While we can’t be absolutely sure, it appears they have maintained a long-term relationship while she’s pursued her life and multiple careers.

Who cares if she is built like “Barbie”? I had the old model Malibu Barbie with the impossible proportions, and it wasn’t her that made me believe that I lacked a bosom as a young thing. It was my lack of a bosom! Barbie and her bosom has been a butterfly, a mermaid, a bride more times than she can count, a thousand princess transformations and has spent more time comfortably nude in more places than any mother can count. She has been pals with G.I. Joe, shared space with 60 years of other trendy toys coming and going, and has kept her wits despite losing many hairdos to overzealous safety scissors over the years. Barbie is amazing! In fact, I actually reasoned today, there are a whole lot worse things for a 10-year-old to give for a birthday gift, and a 9-year-old to receive. Barbie somehow feels safe amidst Hannah Montana’s that have turned into pole dancers, Katy Perry’s that wear plastic/latex clothes, Britney’s, Paris’, Kim’s, Kristen’s (Breaking Dawn is coming folks) and all the rest that have snuck into our daughter’s little worlds.

Barbie is just one images that I believe our culture has gotten wrong, and needs to seriously reconsider. Though it is not a serious problem that you may elect to avoid all experience of Barbie in your own daughter's life to keep her untainted from her plastic sexuality, it probably isn't a big deal either, if your daughter or son does happen across Barbie in her "birthday suit" and ask you a question or two about human anatomy. There are, however, more serious consequences that come from misinterpreting some symbols.

As a pastor of a church that has more than it’s fair share of weddings, I have lots of personal experience with couples approaching the altar of marriage. (Clergy made their living doing weddings instead of being paid a salary as late as the 1960s in my congregation.) Lots can be said about the inanities of the wedding day practices of our culture which I get to enjoy up close and personally, but the latest one to have arrived in popular usage and push the boundaries of sensibility, is the sand ceremony.

A sand ceremony is a recent, circa late 1990s adaptation of the unity candle ceremony. While I have found the unity candle ceremony to have a modest amount of appeal as a moment in which all talking stops and the marrying couple are transported to an actual moment of quiet contemplation about the act in which they are engaged; marriage. As they stand, holding hands after the moment of lighting the candle symbolizing their new unity, they look into each other’s eyes for the first time as husband and wife. Providing the music for the moment lends itself to thoughtfulness, a couple in the midst of their wedding, might actually breathe a breath of contemplation of the magnitude of their actions for those few moments, and might, in some way non-verbal, actually commit their lives and love to each other eternally. At least that is my hope.

Not so with the sand ceremony. Sand ceremonies are all verbal, because they lack the ability to be understood without considerable explanation. No limit to the variations on sand ceremonies exist. Moms and dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, past lovers, her children, his children, even God can participate in pouring a personally selected color of sand into the glass vase in an effort to artistically and meaningfully depict the significance of the wedding day. I have played the role of God, with my white sand being poured in, followed by an assemblage of persons, all using different colors and amounts, some pouring simultaneously, some pouring separately, to create a montage of colored sands in a clear glass recepticle. Each person’s role in this act has to be described; each color of sand, symbolizing much more than the poor sap who had to spend his day coloring the sand, could have ever imagined. At the end, there is a vase filled with colored sand, much like our mothers and Girl Scout leaders had us make when we were children back in the 1970s for an afternoon or 10 minutes of "craft time".

The sarcasm I display here is not kind I realize, but I don’t feel kindly about sand ceremonies, because I believe they are a folly of missed purpose and misunderstood symbolism. There is little about colored sand that actually describes a person’s existence. Blue sand says nothing more about me than does yellow, and in fact, if you wanted to actually say something meaningful about me, then you would have to mix at least 50 or 75 different colors of sand together to begin to describe the complexity of personality and interests I possess. Have you ever seen a jar full of 75 different colors of sand mixed together? It’s not a pretty thing. No one would want such a jar decorating their mantle at their home.

Add to that, the final significance attributed to sand ceremonies is the fact that the blending of the sands symbolize a blending of two (or two hundred) lives in this marriage in such a way that they can never be un-entangled. Baloney! Divorce attorneys do the job every day. Add to that the fact that, in the first really good fight of a new marriage, what do you think will be the most likely object that a frustrated and overwhelmed new husband is apt to grab to throw across the floor of the apartment? Anyone every tried to reassemble the pieces of a broken sand ceremony vase before morning while sitting locked out of the bedroom all night? Take my advice. Avoid a sand ceremony at all costs in your upcoming wedding planning.

So there you have it, my contribution to improving the well-being of our culture. I have "fixed" sand ceremonies and Barbies for you and you will never get them wrong again. If only it were so easy to do with something really important, say our national interpretation of the events of September 11, 2001?

I tuned into the tragedy unfolding before our transfixed eyes nine years ago today, shortly after the first plane had struck the first tower. I immediately called my husband home from the church office to see what was unfolding. It was a horror of the most unbelievable proportions. Every ounce of the tragic realities of that day in New York City in Washington D.C., and in Pennsylvania, were relayed to every fiber of our national consciousness as if we were each there in that instant, inside the lives of those terrifyingly living through the events themselves. I have never gone through anything like it and would pray to God never to have to again.

But that is precisely why I now agonize over what the symbols of 9/11 and the following days have become in our nation. We seem to have made a choice as a nation, via the cameras of our media, to celebrate the horrors and atrocities of those days, rather than using the symbols of the rubble piles and lists of names, as a call to rebuild a more tolerant, more compassionate and more sensitive culture in which we might live and hope NEVER to have another 9/11 happen again.

Our 9/11 remembrances have become more than a somber reflection on the day that changed our lives and understanding of our vulnerabilities as a nation. They have become a day to wave the flags of misconceived self-righteousness as a nation and a culture. Our failure as a nation to have created a society that truly provides opportunity to countless of its citizens; to manage our national debt; to provide meaningful employment and healthcare for a high percentage of its citizenry; and which celebrates the traditional immoralities of greed, lust, power and gluttony, not to mention corporate and personal deceit and lawlessness, and the decimation of our planet as national pastimes, should have us cowering in shame, not flaunting our intolerance of religious difference.

We have made the poignant memories of 9/11 the symbol of our wanton self-indulgence, committed to personal privilege instead of national well-being. It’s a terrifying choice to this mother of three children, this lover of other people’s children, and this representative of a faith who watched a madman this past week threaten to burn the Koran as an expression of his delight in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Christ weeps at the folly of his children this week.

We need to teach better understanding of the power of symbols and the terrific errors that can be perpetuated when we misinterpret those symbols. We need to teach our children to use intellect and curiosity to search out the meanings of symbols that our culture values, and to research and determine for themselves whether the cultural definitions of those symbols are worthy of our valuing.

The symbols of our nation can be powerful tools for the passing on of our national heritage, pride, gratitude and honor, or they can communicate our worst motives and practices. We are confronted by a choice today. Will we teach our nation and especially our children to repeat the errors I have seen this week in our media, turning national symbols into propaganda tools for evilly-intentioned madmen? Or will be teach our children not to repeat our errors, to revalue the higher aspirations and values of our society, and learn to interpret the symbols of our nation responsibly, and with the intention of valuing all people, regardless of religion, race, color, ethnicity, gender, social class, national origin, political affiliation or sexual preference?

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