Tag Archives: Christmas

Christmas Songs

Hazy and muddled, specific and definite.  My memories patch together like an heirloom quilt in reverse.  They remain clear and crisp in the places that are held the most frequently.  They fade in the places that are not often touched.

Perhaps the vagueness of this one memory comes from its being annually repeated, in some form, every Christmas that we are all together.  My family, in the living room, singing Christmas carols.

But one year was different— when, I don’t remember, but I and all of my siblings still shared an address; the nieces and nephews and novels to which they would give birth were yet unknown; and my fingers remembered how to coax a song from the yellowed, out-of-tune piano in the hallway.

My brother still played guitar often.  My sister could brush up her flute.  The youngest had just started learning the violin.

This nameless Christmas saw four siblings rallied over a song, and its two audience members— Mom and Dad— awed by the harmony, as we performed our version of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

— 

They have no idea what I am saying.  

I’m at an end-of-the-year celebration for the dozen or so ladies who work at our community center, to make jewelry and household items from recycled materials.

Their small business has gone through big changes in the past 12 months.  In the midst of all of it, they have rallied to fill challenging bulk sales orders, started doing fitness and English classes together a couple of times a week, and held “family” gatherings every few weeks to increase their sense of harmony and identity.  Meals cooked with love in the kitchen of the community center.  A road trip to a historical site and the spot with the best bakery for a particular dessert.  A piñata— looking like a pinterest fail, made by me, but still a hit— at a “Mexican Night.”

IMG_8768For the end-of-year event, they have made the national dish, the one that is synonymous in this region with celebration.  They pose with the flowers and bonus envelopes that they receive from their director, like graduates getting a certificate.  Pictures and piles of food seem to be the basic party requirements.

IMG_8767Then someone tells them I know Christmas carols.  I sing O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.  I think, They have no idea what I’m saying, but release the words over them, to the rhythm of my guitar: “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found…”  “Come and behold Him… O come, let us adore Him.”

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

This time we found someone to sing in Arabic.  She has yet to be accepted on Arabs Got Talent, but she would have all our votes; we ask her to sing for the Christmas party of our community center’s wellness program.  A combination of American and Arab teachers lead those classes, and usually have more people wanting to attend than they can enroll.  Three times a week the women gather for aerobics, basic yoga, and bellydancing— or some combination of these— along with a post-workout community and coffee time in the center’s upstairs sitting room.

On the morning of the party, we fill the top floor of a restaurant, 50 local women and a handful of ajanib, foreigners.  “May you be well every year,” they say as they enter, kissing my cheeks.  It’s the general blessing for every holiday, but several add “Merry Christmas” with a smile, as if to communicate that their knowing this phrase honors my language and my faith— though they are not their own.

IMG_8794Our local singer takes her place in the front; I stand next to her, guitar in hand.  I try to follow the unfamiliar cadence of Arabic through renditions of Jingle Bells and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Then she sings Silent Night in her language, and stretches the microphone to me so I can sing it in mine. I look at a room full of women wearing headscarves, at the mosque outside the giant picture windows, at the mountains beyond that.

I sing, “All is calm, all is bright.”

My heart says: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

I am a substitute for the center’s adult English classes.  But several of the students have been very receptive, and several of my friends are teachers, so I decide to attend their graduation.

Certain semesters of English seem to foster a higher degree of camaraderie; this group was particularly close.  After graduation, when most of the selfies had been taken and students were starting to return to their homes, a young woman takes me and another female teacher by our hands.  “We need you upstairs,” she says.  She hurries us past the second floor, with its classrooms, to the third-floor gym.

Music pours from the speakers.  A group of female students stands in a circle, hips and feet and fingers twirling in Arabic-style dance.  We laugh and jump in, to the approval of the students, who twine their fingers with ours.

We hand them sequin-covered hip scarves from a basket.  The lead dancer straps a yellow one around herself, mauve around me, blue around the other foreign teacher.  But none of us can make the imitation gold coins jingle like she does. This woman’s face is unfamiliar to me; later I learn that I know her, but did not recognize her because I usually see her in mixed-gender situations, when she is wearing a niqab— a head covering that only shows her eyes.

We dance until it is time for the building to close.  The women descend to the first floor, we kiss their cheeks, and they disperse into dark streets.  A young Arab woman, who is visiting the center for the first time, tells me, “It is like a family.”  Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Sixty of the Young Leaders boys are gathered in the gym, our last session of this youth mentoring program for the semester.  How are you different than when you started this program in May?  What did you enjoy?  What did you learn? I ask.

Their answers make my heart swell.  I tell them, though, that none of it matters.  Nothing of what you learned this semester matters.  Unless you use it when you are not at the center. Then it matters.  

And I believe that it does.

We descend to the first floor.  Someone puts candles in a big pan of cheesy, sweet kanafeh, to honor one teacher’s birthday.  They begin to sing; first, “Happy Birthday” in English, but then the song somehow changes to a clapping, table drumming, tremendously loud chanting of songs probably written before their grandfathers were boys.  Some of them don’t stop, even when the usual time for them to go home arrives.  They sing with one voice.

I sit behind the counter and watch.  I remember the awkward silence before their first class.  Their nervous interviews when they came to apply for the program.  The fights and insults that teachers had to intervene in, some just weeks before.  The looks on the faces that have changed.  The looks on the faces that haven’t.

And I keep a song close in my heart.  Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

The words stay crisp and clear, remembered often, in the dark and in the light.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel

Has come to thee…

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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.

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.

Explain Those

The important stories can be the hardest to explain.

I spent part of the afternoon comparing my limited Arabic vocabulary to the story of Jesus’ birth.  Not a pretty comparison. My teacher had suggested that we look at versions of this story from the Qur’an and the Gospels, as our language class tonight.  But after re-reading Luke’s version of the events, I was awed at the gap between the power and intensity of this story, and my ability to communicate.

That’s how I feel when I sit down to blog lately, also.

The stories that burn in my heart are the hardest to put into words.  Saturday I woke up with no plans.  My rhythm of relaxation is still developing.  So unplanned days here are often open spaces meant to be refreshing, and also reminiscent of people and places I miss…

In the evening, I would Skype into a wedding of good friends in New York.  I’m grateful that technology allows us to connect, but let’s be honest: hugs don’t transmit electronically.  So my Saturday stretched ahead of me, less like shade, more like shadow.

After coffee– still not feeling awake, just restless– I found myself reading Psalms.  My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent (Psalm 22).  I had said goodbye the night before to visitors from the US, including one from home.  I had gotten to process successes from this season as well as the struggles, the places where I still feel the darkness, where God seems silent.  I thought of those conversations as I kept reading.  I will fear no evil, for You are with me (Psalm 23).

And somehow the familiar phrase brought light to cloudy thoughts.

Basking in its warmth, I curled up to sleep again, and on the way to dreams I let the ancient truth percolate: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  The darkness is real.  But it has not overcome the light.  He walks alongside me.

How do I write about kitchen table revelation?  How do I explain how different my day was, when I awoke the second time?  How do I share with you some of the warmth and light that thought gave me, and still acknowledge the shadows that you and I experience?

How can I describe watching, from a screen on the other side of the ocean, as my friends said their vows– how I celebrated, deeply sensing that You are with me, with no other person in the room?  How can I explain why tears still fell, when the screen was off?

Slowly.  Starting with facts, but trying to help us see together the Face behind them.  And praying that He will tell us the soul-strengthening truths that go beyond words.

Kind of the same way I tried to tell the Christmas story tonight.

Rickety Stair Stories

It’s snowy.

Things have been wrapping up over the past few weeks.  Just in the past two days, I graded the last papers for the class that I taught, and attended my final board meeting for my local congregation.   This afternoon had me sniffling as I went through dusty drawers of seldom-used items.  Keep.  Throw out.  Give.  Recycle.  Look up on the internet and try to figure out what it is. (That’s for my under-utilized electronics…)

And what I really want is to have people sit in my house as the snow falls, or to hit a coffee shop with friends and my “to be done on computer” task list.  But the snow made me less adventurous, so some things had to be done today in the quiet of this basement: just me, Pandora playing in the background, and an occasional sniffle because of dust.  Mostly because of dust.

One of the drawers I cleaned out held an old flash drive.  On it were research notes from my “ethnographic study” in Southeast Asia.  A twenty-two year old version of myself, with several months of language study and very little clue how to do it, went to a big town on the outskirts to look at life there.  My host family’s house was on stilts, as per local traditions/comfortability ideas, and a rickety staircase led to their door.

My twenty-two-year-old self, nervous and off-balance with a big red suitcase, attempted to make her way up to the door.  This led to a rather ungraceful “stumble” between the slatted steps.  My host family, concerned, asked me several times if I was okay.  When I replied that I wasn’t hurt, just embarrassed, they reassured me, “At least no one saw your fall!”

For the next hour, everyone in the neighborhood– or that’s how it felt– came to meet me.  It wasn’t every day a foreigner came to this area of town, much less took up residence there for a month with the sole objective of hearing people talk and learning about their stories.  And during that hour, my host family told each person who entered the hilarious story of my fall up the stairs…

And that became my first research note, “re-discovered” today on my flash drive :-).  Now I sit in the quiet, and I can hear the sound of my host sister’s voice, the good-natured laughter of our neighbors, and the quickly-forgotten consolation, “At least no one saw!”
I tell my present self that it’s okay.  Stumbling toward new things, sniffling on the way– some moments are made to be savored in quiet, and others in community.  But I think I’ll go out in the snow tonight.

Taken over… and over…

There were twenty minutes of class time left, and one of my students stood up.  “Professor,” she said.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we all have something to say.”

I’ve been teaching this college class for four years– a freshman-level course that aims to develop students’ academic, study, and personal skills.  We get quite personal in this class, talking about vision for the future, struggles, disappointments, and inspiration.  Each student even chooses a song that pushes them to keep going when things get tough, and presents these “inspirational lyrics” to their classmates (This year’s selection included everything from Bob Marley to worship songs to “Hakuna Matata“.)  That day each of them told how being in our class impacted them, and by doing so, wrote words on my heart that will long resonate.

Several days after my students “took over” class, I was at a Christmas party with the music team for my local Sunday fellowship.  We had all gathered in one room.  I thought it was time for the “white elephant” gift exchange, but again, someone stood up.  “Since you’re leaving soon, we have something to say.”

They didn’t just say kind things.  My fellow team members gave insights and observations to help me see what had worked well, what I should keep doing, and what strengths God has given me, that I can take into a new context.    Their words were blessings to continue what God was doing here, in my Middle Eastern community.

Take over normal conversations with words of encouragement.  Take over normal events with conversations that build up each others’ souls.  Those conversations will lead to laughter, risky feedback, deeper understanding, and occasionally tears.  And those conversations help us give each other perspective, “second-story” views on life.  Thanks to the students, friends, and family who do this in my world.