It's a Resolution, Baby!

52 Weeks. 52 New Year's Resolutions.

Week 51. Resolution 51. Give to Charity at Christmas. January 3, 2011

The Christmas story I’ve always found the most moving is the Hans Christian Andersen tale, ‘The Little Match Girl’ where a young match seller freezes to death while imagining the perfect Christmas for herself—the kind of decadent Christmas so many of us take for granted.


It seems ironic that our bizarre Christmas tradition, intended as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, generally results in gluttony and excess.  However, it can’t be denied that it is the one time of year where we can enthusiastically love and be loved, give and receive and show our appreciation for the people who enrich our lives.  They say charity begins at home and at no time is this truer than Christmas making it the perfect opportunity for some of this charity to spill over into the lives of those for whom Christmas is a struggle.


Over the years charity has become a controversial topic about which a lot of criticism, negative attitudes and judgement have arisen.  There was a time you could donate some blankets, tins of food or second-hand toys but now all the charities ask for is MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, and, in some cases, a signature on a petition.  Subsequently it’s become difficult to make a difference if you’re time or cash poor.  Most people are now sceptical about how much of their monetary contribution actually makes it to those in need with the establishment taking a sizeable scoop off the top.  Charity shops have become priced well out of the range of those in need because demand has outweighed supply and the dollar has become more important than provisions for the underprivileged.  Whatever your opinion it’s clear that charity certainly has a massive PR problem.


Furthermore, people are often judged for the nature of their contribution with a common belief being that the only valid way to help is by volunteering, while others simply use the guise of charity to falsely flaunt their philanthropic natures.  On the other hand, people who actively campaign for charity can become a financial burden on their friends and risk adopting a self righteous attitude.


Personally I’ve not always been an overly charitable person.  I’ve given here and there but never with great gusto and I, too, felt charitable organisations were not to be trusted.  Yet, gradually my attitude has changed over the past two years to the point that I now I find myself passionately adopting causes and donating unthinkingly.  I always empty my wallet of change whenever I see a collection box for the RSPCA, Leukaemia Foundation or the Guide Dogs and feel saddened when my coins makes a dull thud against the plastic instead of clinking upon a mountain of change.  I hope my gradual progression will evolve from “change for change” to eventually inspire me to put aside my insecurities and make a tangible difference through a hands-on contribution.


To work towards this end I began thinking about what I could do this Christmas.  My interest was initially sparked by an ad in a local magazine looking for gift-wrapping volunteers in support of the Leukaemia Foundation.  As someone who has directly experienced the helping hand of the Leukaemia Foundation I jumped at the chance to give something back, despite my extremely shoddy gift wrapping skills.  Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for them) they already had enough volunteers and so I was added to a standby list should they need extra assistance.


This is not the first time I’ve put myself forward for volunteer work and found that the charities in question were already full up with volunteers or had a list of demands that were impossible for the average Joe to meet—most likely because they’re looking to sift out the best from a charitable, but not necessarily qualified, bunch.  Naturally, to retain the best of the best, they then need to consider paying wages which is where the cost of running these organisations begins to skyrocket and why people become wary of how their contributions are being utilised.


I’ve personally chosen a number of charities to support of which I’m no longer suspicious about whether my money is directly reaching those in need because I’ve come to understand that the infrastructure and staff are equally crucial in making a difference.  Besides, if you gave money directly to a cause you’d likely find it would be squandered without proper procedures in place.  And let’s not forget that you need to spend money to make money.  Charity organisations may not be ideal but they’re the best vehicle we have.


With this in mind I put a small amount of money aside from my Christmas spend to divvy up between my favourite charities, being the Leukaemia Foundation, Amnesty International and the RSPCA in my support of health, human rights and animal protection; all charities I’ve seen direct action from and feel I can trust.  I also deposited some money into the commissary account of Damien Echols from the West Memphis Three to contribute to his nutrition while on death row, making a direct impact to his quality of life.


As my Christmas holiday involved a plane journey I ensured I put some money into the Guide Dog containers scattered throughout the airport and donated my change via the UNICEF envelope distributed with Qantas headphones.  I also signed petitions for World Vision and Amnesty for causes I believed in.  I purchased gift tags only from companies that gave a portion of the purchase price to charity and I picked up this little guy from IKEA to put under the Kmart Wishing Tree.  He made me smile and I hope he makes a child in need smile for a time too.  I considered at length whether I could bring myself to donate blood but simply the thought of giving a whole bag made me considerably squeamish and so I decided against it.


I expect some will judge me for my meagre contribution.  It would not be the first time.  But I believe I’ve made a difference that requires no approval and while it may not seem like much now, I know I’ve fuelled a  fire within myself that will lead me to make regular contributions by any means I can.  Perhaps I can urge you to do the same?


Week 50. Resolution 50. See The Nutcracker. December 24, 2010

Considering my level of coordination rivals that of a gangly, new-born deer attempting to walk upon a sheet of ice, you may find it surprising that I was once a ballet dancer.  For eight years I pirouetted, arabesqued, chasséd, demi pliéd and generally spoke much more French than I do now before the trials of life stripped my first passion away from me.  While I wasn’t a talented dancer by any means, I was certainly a committed one, studying six different types of dance that meant I spent more time in ballet shoes than any other form of footwear.  I was once even chosen to dance with the New Zealand Ballet as part of an ensemble but was swiftly kicked out for talking too much and subsequently received a much better character part.  I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.


But, like the ugly duckling in reverse, I grew less graceful and more self conscious (and less talkative) as adolescence peeled me from my youthful abandon and my life as a dancer was over.


However, back then, such was my passion for music and dance that I consumed as much Grease, Annie, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu than was probably healthy for a young girl but somehow never managed to see the world’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker.  Ironically I’ve probably actually danced IN The Nutcracker but was too busy backstage being caked in hairspray, make-up and tulle to have ever experienced the full shebang.  I always believed it was the tale of a bunch of Christmas toys getting up to mischief while their human playmates slept—Like ‘Toy Story: The Ballet’.  But it’s not like that at all as I found out when I finally attended the Queensland Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ at QPAC this Christmas.


The Nutcracker is based on a story adapted by Alexandre Dumas of ‘The Three Musketeers’ fame and is (unbelievably I know) about a nutcracker.  But like most good ballets, and operas too I imagine, the plot is tenuous at best and simply provides a hook to hang the dancing upon.  The ballet was originally performed in 1892 but proving unsuccessful was abandoned on the scrapheap.  This was evidenced in the film Fantasia (as mentioned in an earlier post) when the narrator introduces Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite by explaining that The Nutcracker ballet “wasn’t much of a success and nobody performs it nowadays.”  However merely four years after this infamous statement the San Francisco Ballet introduced The Nutcracker into the hearts of the public, forever cementing the ballet as a crucial component of the Christmas tradition the world over.


The Nutracker begins at a lavish Christmas party in the mansion of the Stahlbaum family.  Much to the delight of the children, their godfather, the dastardly toy-maker Herr Drosselmeyer, arrives to distribute presents, one of which is the infamous nutcracker.  After the party the youngest child, Clara, sneaks down to the parlour to check on the nutcracker but as the clock strikes midnight everything in the room grows and she is beset by a plague of mice.  The now alive nutcracker and his army of gingerbread men do battle with the Mouse King but quickly fall to his micey minions until Clara throws a slipper at them triumphantly winning the battle.  Who knew slippers could be such an effective weapon eh?


Up until this point the ballet makes a strange kind of sense but then the nutcracker inexplicably transforms into a prince and takes Clara to the Land of Snow for a dance.  Afterwards they visit the Land of Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy celebrates their victory with a selection of dances including the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Russian Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Mirliton Dance (?) and the Waltz of the Flowers.  Then they all dance some more until Clara awakens back in the parlour of her mansion, the nutcracker cradled in her arms.  This nonsensical second act could be blamed upon that old chestnut, “it was all just a dream”.


While this is the official story, in the Queensland Ballet version of events, following Clara’s dance with the prince, it was her omnipresent godfather Drosselmeyer who accompanied her to the Land of the Sweets and their rapport was such that I couldn’t help continually questioning their bizarre relationship.


Perhaps we simply mixed up the dancers because our $55 nosebleed seats meant we were so far away and so high up that my fear of heights was distracting enough to make the experience an uncomfortable one.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how dance is the only activity humans participate in where a complex set of movements are repeated over and over, night after night.


(If your mind just wandered to the gutter, come back now please because we’re discussing ballet for chrissakes.)


Tchaikovsky’s stirring and timeless score was performed beautifully by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Ballet’s sets and lighting were lovely and spectacular respectively.  However as ballet was such a large part of my life for a time I still have a critical eye for dance and, while there were undoubtedly some stunning dances including the Snow Dance and the Arabian Dance, for the most part the performances and choreography were far from faultless.


An oddity of ballet which I’ve always found ridiculous is that you are required to clap so much that it’s a wonder your hands don’t perpetually meld together.  Not only are you expected to clap after every dance but at the end you generally clap for a good ten minutes as you applaud the ensemble, then each group of dancers, then individual dancers, then the ensemble again, then the director, the individual dancers again, the ensemble, and then, if you’re lucky, they might finally drop the curtain giving your blistered hands some peace.


Even though my time as a dancer is over there were certainly plenty of small, perfectly groomed girls in the audience for whom the dream continues or for whom, after seeing The Nutcracker the dream begins.


May your Christmases be merry and your godfathers not so creepy!