Monthly Archives: December 2014

One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

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Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

The Minor Key

Christmas in the Middle East.  Thanksgiving dinner outside.  Summer over 120 degrees.  Company annual meetings outside the area.  Visit in a refugee’s home.  Time in the desert.  Community Center ladies’ party.  Experience teaching poetry.  University language class delivered.  Arabic dancing lessons.  Camel ride.

Add, before each of those, the words, “My first…” and you have a short description of this year.

Last night, I set up a borrowed plastic Christmas tree, with last year’s tinsel and another family’s holiday memories still clinging to its artificial needles.  Plugging in the lights managed to give me that jingle-bell-season feeling… but within minutes, the power went out.  This house wasn’t built to contain so much light.  I blew a circuit.

As I searched for the breaker panel, I traveled back in my mind to the year before.  I had just returned to New York from Maine, where a friend and I had gone for my family’s Thanksgiving.  We brought back a real tree, and lobster.  On a cozy Sunday afternoon, a few good friends gathered in my basement apartment to boil those poor lobsters, tell stories, drink hot, spicy cider, and persevere until they found a way to keep my small tree upright, in a far-too-large tree stand.

I can still feel the warmth of that room.  See the yellow light of candles and Christmas bulbs.  Smell the earthy, redolent tree.  Taste the strange sea-and-butter combination that Maine, at least, asserts is enviable cuisine.

I quickly managed to reset all of the lights, except for the ones I had strung for Christmas.  They lay disappointingly, darkly, on the branches of a fragrance-less tree.

American Thanksgiving came three times to my life this year in the Middle East.  Friends hosted the first, but the second and third were at a nice hotel, with dozens of Arab teenagers– first the girls, then the boys– and a few teachers and volunteers.  They wrote words of gratitude on plain sheets of paper, having their pictures taken before they piled their plates with turkey and hummus and apple pie (the hotel, perhaps, was attempting a fusion meal?).  My best friends.  Food.  Grandma.  Talents.  Grace.  This program.  

They are participants in the youth leadership program, growing in cultural experience and culinary horizons.  Their teachers know how to create a lesson that can be touched and smelled and seen and tasted, not just heard.

We listened to them recite facts about 1621 and Plymouth and the First Nations.  This is their first time, I thought.  The other Americans and I laughed that they knew more details than we did.

As I repaired dead lights and rummaged through the cardboard box of made-in-China ornaments, I searched memory for every verse to hymns of Christmas.  So many stay in minor keys or plod at a slow pace… At first I tried to fill the spaces in my house with bright notes, only upbeat songs.  But the minor ones needed to be written to tell the whole story.  And amidst the mess created in my first Christmas in the Middle East– by glittered ornaments and nostalgia and burned-out lights– I am, in a way, experiencing the holidays for the first time.

And what I hear is an unrelenting reminder of an incomplete story.

 

We celebrate Your coming, and still we await You.

We live because of You, and still we long to be fully made alive. 

We receive the Spirit of God, and still we ask more.

Advent.  Resurrection Day.  Pentecost.  They are half-kept promises, and reason to look for what will come ahead.  They offer us a chance to rejoice even with grief, and to sob while holding on to incalculable hope.  They are a full-sensory reminder that we’ve been given so much already.  And the longings of our souls for the kingdom are one day going to be fully satisfied.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.  

And when the song was over, I had found a way to keep the lights from burning out.