How to read “the Christmas stories”

Flickr photo by Sara

I love good stories.  I love to read them and think about them. So, I was distressed when, in grad’ school, a teaching assistant suggested I read a book titled How to Read a Book.  ¿Did he think I was illiterate?  (I complied, of course.)  And maybe I learned something about reading between the lines, and asking hard questions of the text.

So forgive me if I don’t deliver on my headline.  I’m not inclined to tell anyone how to read a story.  But I’m not afraid to ask hard questions, such as:  If you had just delivered you first child (in winter) how many miles would you be willing to walk to have the child surgically blessed, eight days after giving birth?  (Speedbump ahead: I will be questioning the text, too, as good questions are the beginning of wisdom.)

My friend Steve over at SurvivingYucatan blog has put up some interesting thoughts on the nativity accounts — so you can blame him if you don’t like my questions!  I’m not trying to be provocative, but rather, introspective.  Hey, words are slippery.  If we take them too literally we are likely to fool ourselves.  Group-think can put us into a ditch, fast!  (A famous thinker said so.)  Now, storytellers often embroider the truth to help make it memorable.  And well-told stories can be truer and more useful  than mere facts, if they are retained and applied.

So, back to my question: how far?  A good storyteller wants us to see the story in all its glory, even if it may not have happened exactly as told. Remember now, you have (or your wife has) just given birth.  Are you really gonna walk 90 miles from Bethlehem of Galilee, which is very close to Nazareth at 19 road miles (NB: details can be vexing); or, all the way to Bethlehem of Judea, near Jerusalem  ~68 miles as the crow flies / 163± kilometers – with a newborn, in winter, to have your 8-day old child circumcised in the Temple at Jersualem?  (Bethlehem Ephrata simply means “fruitful”.)  Yes, this is what “Hollywood” wants you to see, but it is much more likely that you are practical and rational, and that you will have this important event performed at home or in a local synagogue in Bethlehem of Galilee.  But wait, you say — my kid is super human!  Well, maybe we should ponder the verse that says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature got smarter as he got older and taller, as we all should, and most of us do.

 “But what about the tax and the census?” you say.  Yes, a convenient ruse to force them to travel to the area of the Temple for “the big scene”, but unlikely – according to the records of the time. Again, the storyteller, Luke, is trying to help us remember — but we also recall being lied to about Santa (which probably didn’t do much harm) — instead perhaps teaching us something about understanding stories, and adults. (If you lost your faith in the nature of experience because of Santa, maybe you never had any?) But even if there had been such a census, Mary would not have been required to appear.  ¿So what’s Luke’s point regarding this census? I think he wanted to establish for us that Joseph was a descendant of King David – a good point.  

Am I eroding the credibility of the Bible?  No.  I read it daily.  For me, it’s a blessing.  It helps me think about big issues.  And I like to read about the Bible, too.  There are some really good writers who have spent their lives studying this book of books.  I’m reading one now which has me excited all over again:  Rabbi Jesus AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY.  

The author, Bruce Chilton, is a professor of ancient languages and a leading expert on the language of Jesus:  Aramaic.  He is also an Anglican priest. And he’s a superb storyteller.  But beware.  He may rock your boat, or rearrange your furniture.  So, if you prefer your nativity accounts tailored for nap-time, please don’t go there.  But if you want a plausible account of the factors which caused Jesus to take up his role on the world stage, I can promise you an exciting biography.  It’s a very Jewish story about a devoutly Jewish guy — a country boy who knew something deep about purity and integrity and honesty and peace and compassion and justice and . . .

And a blessed Christmas season is upon us all, once again. Hey, thanks for this unspeakable gift!


UPDATE : excerpt from The Mystic’s Christmas by John Greenleaf Whittier:

“But now, beyond the things of sense,
Beyond occasions and events,
I know, through God’s exceeding grace,
Release from form and time and space.

“I listen, from no mortal tongue,
To hear the song the angels sung;
And wait within myself to know
The Christmas lilies bud and blow.

“The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

“Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest zeal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!”



Flickr Photo by Draw the Line

¿ Would you risk a long prison term to save the planet ?

Well, even if you wouldn’t, there’s a story which inspires hope — intentionally confronting the law and power by turning the tables on Big Carbon, at trial, for endangering life on Earth.  The drama of real life, beyond mere entertainment!


“Too Fat to Fly”     Flickr foto by Michael Zamora

As a serious, retired, organic gardener, I’m cautious about most genetic engineering, opposing it.  But here comes a work-around which should save lives and reduce suffering, in a way which I feel should be fairly considered.  This approach is back in the news, now that it has received FDA approval.  It got favorable exposure last year at Atlantic Monthly. Back then I posed a powerful question to fellow organic gardeners and ecologists:  ¿ Are you an organic fundamentalist ?   Nature has been genetically engineering itself forever.  If we emulate her by following her lead, we can tame the wild without destroying it.  ¿ Perhaps our mosquito neighbors would appreciate being healed of carrying killer strains, and being hated ?

!! REFUGEES !! (We’re all immigrants)

Imagine being homeless. AP photo/Giannis Papanikos. USnews&world report

¿ What’s left of your life, carried on your back!

“A government that is strong because it is free, and confident because it is just, has noting to fear in granting refuge to exiles.”  

~ALEXANDER von HUMBOLDT:  Personal Narrative… [p.158 Penguin Classics paperback, 1995]

19:33   When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  34 The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.


Forest fire photo by Stuart Palley/EPA, via The Guardian

I was taught to be a good scout, leaving the campsite better than we found it. It perplexes me that many friends and neighbors, especially those terming themselves Christian, are in such deep denial about “climate change”.  Yes, change is a constant — but when we blithely persist in contributing to dangerous change – risky behavior – while denying its reality, or accepting any personal responsibility whatsoever, we become a thorny part of the problem rather than seeking a solution.  The First Rule of Holes is to stop digging, said the late journalist from Texas, Molly Ivins. 

FULL DISCLOSURE :  I was born into a wealthy society, into a  nation which is one of the largest polluters on the planet, and I have some habits common to this social group, such as driving a car, and buying stuff.  I’m an addict who has tried to minimize my habit, mostly failing.  But I recognize that humans are a social species; and when we work together we can do great things.  Yet the deniers among us don’t want to fix this polluting habit.  They don’t want to work together.  They seem to prefer division, and selfishness.  Like so many addicts who refuse to confess, they say hands off !  Don’t take my “dope”! Don’t tax me to heal my choking, life-threatening problem.  We got no problem.  It’s all FAKE!

Well, curb your dogma before it bites you, or someone you love!  Two states, Texas and Florida, are famous for electing officials who refuse most efforts to address pollution problems that such deniers say don’t exist. Yet citizens of these states  expect 100’s of billions of dollars in handouts to bail them out of disasters resulting from their own negative mindsets.  Now, a problem can’t be solved until it is recognized and defined.  Such groups need tough love, not handouts.  (Indeed, such groups often use this same argument against making social welfare handouts.)  

¿ Ah, but disaster is different ?   No, we reap what we sow. Pollute the atmosphere — reap the whirlwind.  Suffering Job learned this lesson the hard way, insisting that he had been a good boy.  Well, goodboy theology won’t cut it. This evil problem can’t be solved by continuing to pollute God’s creation. We become the problem when we argue for more permissiveness, libertine lifestyles in which we are allowed to pollute to our hearts’ content, more “freedom” from paying the costs of selfishness.  Self-justification stinks. Wake up and smell the stench of this arrogance, America!  We all need to look into the sacred mirror to learn what Job learned, which is only the beginning. (I encourage you to keep reading by clicking the next chapter, chapter 41; and 42 – they’re short.)

If you, dear reader, are truly interested in learning, I invite you to examine the climate in a humble fashion, scientifically – “learnedness” is not required, but humility is a huge help. First let’s notice this:  when air (our atmosphere) gets warmer, it holds more water –  lot’s more, so that a “500-year flood” might happen every five years, or sooner!  Not fake!  There are examples! – see below.

Hungry to learn?  Let me link you to a book review jointly written by a paleo-climatologist (somebody who studies evidence left by ancient weather events) and by another climate scientist.

Together we can leave Planet Earth a better place to camp.  All together now :  I am a carbon addict.  I need my neighbor’s help (and I need to help my neighbor, who is also a carbon addict) to break this evil addiction, so together we can save our community.  

No, I’m not blaming the victim ; we all need to wake up. Thanks for sharing my blog, and/or the link to the book review.  





¡¡ Nice kitty !! photo work of Cherie Pittillo

Copyrighted photo by Cherie Pittillo

Having spent much of my career in the photographic industry, I’m truly in awe of the work of this woman.  If readers of this blog are not familiar with Cherie’s work I invite you to visit her column at Yucatan Times. 

For your further enjoyment, here are two well-told nonfiction books which might enhance your appreciation of wild nature, both in the collection at Merida English Library:

Secrets of the Talking Jaguar   Memoirs from the Living Heart of a Mayan Village, by Martin Prectel

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice   An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Rain Forest, by Mark J. Plotkin





SOLAR ENERGY : The Sun Shines in Merida

Engineers Larry and David of Boltzman Solar on our roof.

We’ve recently become a solar home, and I’ll now share this very positive experience with you.  With abundant sunshine, and the ability to export power to the utility grid, thus bypassing the storage problem of batteries which presently do not recover the cost of investment, it now makes moral and economic sense to reduce participation in the carbon economy.  The return-on-investment is probably about four to five years, as long as a hurricane doesn’t smash the panels.

We are generating about 20 kwh per day, which is more than we use.  As we’ve never run the air conditioners in the past, we can now do so without breaking into the high-rate bracket — while enjoying some cooler air in the bedroom at night, if we wish.  (We’ve only done this once so far, but had to sleep with a quilt to fend off the chill.)

Production chart kept by the inverter’s communication package. The blank day is       when we were shut down, awaiting our new bi-directional meter from CFE.  The lowest days where very cloudy — one being tropical storm Franklin.

The inverter we selected is a German device made by Siemens (SMA).  Many folks are going with micro-inverters which are built into each panel, and reside on the roof.  I decided against this approach, as inverting (modifying the current from DC to AC, prior to delivery to the utility) is a substantial portion of the investment.  I’m not comfortable with having the entire investment outdoors.  And an additional benefit of our chosen  inverter is that it is the first of its class to allow homeowners to draw some power for the home, if the grid is down — like after a storm.  (Micro-inverters can’t do this, to my knowledge.) Of course, this is only possible during daylight hours. (It can’t run a fridge overnight, of course.) And the amount of power available would depend upon the amount of sunshine — enough to run some fans, charge phones and laptops; but probably not enough to start pumps.

Here’s what a bright shiny day looks like. Our system is roughly 4000w. And here are some additional details saved by the monitor:


I can access the communications package from anywhere by phone to monitor the system.  Our chosen brand and size of solar panels, Trina 320w, were on hand here in Merida at Excel Solar, which is a supplier to the trade, not to residential customers. (I’m grateful to Alejandro Cauich of Excel for his explanations, and kind assistance.)   These are tier one panels, meaning they are rated for commercial installation by a utility.  (There are plenty of less efficient panels on the market.)  Ratings for various panels can be compared and studied online.

I interviewed three solar firms before selecting Juan Pablo Lopez’ team at Boltzmann Solar.  I really enjoyed working with them.  I already speak the dialect known as alternative energy, having installed a wind generator at our farm up north, as well as speaking some Spanish.  And their team speaks English.  It was a good fit.  And I’m very confident that the panels are well-anchored and will not blow off the roof.  (The big concern is flying trash during high wind — not sure what to do yet on this topic.)

Juan Pablo Lopez and David at work.


Querétaro City, and points north

Recently a good friend Marc, who blogs at An Alaskan in Yucatan, helped facilitate my presentation for  doing some volunteer work in Mexico’s altiplano (highlands).  It was a refreshing change from the heat and humidity of Merida. The visit opened my eyes to other charms of this dynamic country.  I hope to return with my wife during the hottest part of Yucatan’s season, next year.  This blogpost will share some of the sights I encountered.

The city is a walker’s paradise, which is deeply appreciated, when compared to Merida.    Driver’s here have a deep respect for pedestrians, and patience;  sidewalks are level and wide;  overhanging meters, air conditioners, and awnings are at an elevation that does not endanger tall people’s heads.  Shade trees abound.  The historic center is wisely and fairly restricted to traffic so that pedestrians also have accommodation. (Merida, I do still love your many fine qualities!)   ¶   I flew to Mexico City and took a three-hour bus ride to get here.

Being a country boy, it was fun to get a close-up look at Mexico’s dairyland.  Corn and cows were  everywhere. And the landscape was dramatic, with deep ravines, volcanoes and waterfalls amply distributed.  Below, basalt oozed from upwelling hot lava to cool, forming a natural dam and waterfall.

We took a hike into a deep ravine behind the house, and visited an ancient-but-still-functioning pottery facility carved into the cliff face.  The studio specializes in producing comals which are large griddles for toasting tortillas.  Nobody was working the day we dropped by.  I wish I could have watched these thin, flat ceramic pans being formed.  We saw them for sale in the village, but I doubted that a 24-inch pan would have survived the journey back to Merida.

Below we see the staging area for drying the clay pan, before baking it in the kiln, foot for scale:

“Me, all thumbs:” of Marc, peering into the kiln, which is fired with scrub oak harvested from the ravine.

Interior of a kiln, showing shards of broken comal pottery.

The ravine reveals much about the underlying stratigraphy of the rocks, which are an important construction-materials resource in the region.

Here we see rock blocks (instead of concrete blocks) being sawed from a quarry.

Rock blocks for sale, roadside.

And more quarry stone from which they were cut.







Foto by Andrew Butko, Wikimedia

It’s up to me.  It’s up to you.  It’s not up to Donald Trump!  We can save the planet without help from government.  Who knew resistance could be so easy?  We don’t even need to get arrested! And you don’t have to become a vegetarian!

Simply stop eating beef. Yes, this is a radical approach, but not so harsh that it is a major lifestyle change.  This story from The Atlantic is compelling.  You and I can do it!  (Actually, I’ve got a headstart on you, as I’ve been avoiding beef for about forty years, as I don’t like the industry’s feedlot practices; but I still eat other meats.)  So let’s do this.  When the followers lead, the leaders will follow!


NurPhoto/via Getty Images from story in The Guardian (“fair use”)