Tag Archives: Thanksgiving

In the Middle of the Art

This was unexpected.  I had arrived in Zurich the day before, with plans to spend two days roaming this city.  En route to a company leadership training in Germany, it was the first time in months that I had left my sandy home town.  I was greedy for some new scenery.

IMG_8408
Zurich at night

A dragon guarded the entrance to my first destination.  The castle-style Swiss National Museum was attended by a German-speaking curator, whose eyes surveyed visitors as if he knew that most would snap iPhone selfies and spend hours ogling his treasures, but have no idea of their real value.  After he had accepted the tribute of a ticket and allowed me to proceed, the heavy double doors opened slowly, automatically, to an enormous room, full of brightly lit display cases and dark red walls.

Prominently displayed in the center were four donkeys.  

An unexpressive Jesus sat stiffly on each one.  The figures seemed to be composed of simple wood and paint; their angles were unrealistic, ugly.

They were hauled through the streets in regular processions for celebrations, hundreds of years ago, a plaque informed me.  But why bother to save four that looked so similar?  And why give something that did not seem too valuable such an exhibition?  I did not understand.

An alarm sounded from somewhere in the room.  Another tourist and I eyed each other with the question, “Is this something we should take seriously?”

The Paris attacks had occurred less than twelve hours before.

The sound— perhaps a falsely triggered security or fire alarm— faded, and I thought again of the King on a donkey.  Of His peaceful entrance, subversively surprising a city in turbulence that was seeking a political savior.  Perhaps we did need all four to help us remember.

Later I visited an art museum, whose features included several moods of Van Gogh; a giant, disheveled Campbell’s Soup can from Warhol; a handful of powerful sculptures from Rodin, stylized Renaissance paintings of love and spirituality; and immense panels from Monet.

My sister and I always look for Monet when we explore— from our first art experience together at a little museum in Rhode Island, to the Met in New York, to the places we were privileged to see in Paris.  One in particular, the Musée de l’Orangerie, features waterlily paintings that cover entire walls; the viewer is encircled by them, immersed in their colors.  The story is that Monet donated this exhibit to the people of Paris, to help heal their souls after the terrible experience of World War I.

IMG_8322
Claude Monet, Seerosenteich mit Iris — Kuntshaus, Zurich

I remembered them as I sat alone before the massive irises and lilies in Zurich’s museum.  A few days later, an artist would host some of our meetings in South Germany’s Art Factory, an abandoned roof tile factory turned into a haven for travelers and artists.  “I have heard it said that ‘Art is God’s secret weapon…,’” she told me.  “It makes sense.  No one would suspect; when things are very dark, art brings hope, it heals, it shows beauty.”

Between museums, I visited Fraumunster Cathedral, with stained glass windows stunning in size and color.  They fell short, to me, of capturing the greatest moments in the story of Jesus.  But the riotous color reflected the infinitude and intimacy of the moments when Christ took on flesh, and awakened my heart to long for more than the representation… for the real.  Each piece of art I saw that day expressed longing, love, or lust from the artists; their disillusionment, depression, and desires to gain peace; their defiance or acceptance of their societies; their fears, pains, hopes, joys.  Maybe the reflection of what is real, and the stirring of longing for more, were the point.

IMG_8313
View of Fraumunster Cathedral in Zurich, from the tower of Grossmunster Cathedral

After I had admired the windows, I crossed the street to Grossmunster Cathedral.  I was expecting less there; I had been captured by the story of Katharina von Zimmern, Fraumunster’s last abbess, who knew both how to lead and how to let go of power in an era where few women were allowed to do the former, and few human beings knew how to do the latter.  Tourists milled around the Grossmunster sanctuary; sound technicians were setting up for a sacred music concert the next day.  I walked up the side and found a postcard, printed in five languages.  The words:

Almighty God,

unto whom all hearts be open,

all desires known,

and from whom no secrets are hid:

cleanse the thoughts of our hearts

by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,

that we may perfectly love thee,

and worthily magnify thy holy Name,

through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

—Book of Common Prayer

The front stage was marked, “Please no conversation here.  Listen to the silence.”

I sat and listened.  A Renaissance painting seen earlier had portrayed Jesus’ baptism with everyday life happening around Him, and against the backdrop of European mountains.  I chuckled at the inaccuracy at first, remembering the “real” wilderness of the baptism site.  Perhaps the artist did not know any better.

But it is more likely that he did, and still had in mind something deeper, more vivid and more real.  The holiest moments can take place right in the middle of life as it usually goes.

All the cathedrals, all the great works of art, they are not the keepers of silence, or beauty, or hope.

They are simply places that we can remember.

Thanksgiving week.  The Young Leaders girls learn how to bob for apples.  Their laughter echoes in our community center; their head scarves are soaked.  I take a break from mixing biscuits and mashing potatoes the next afternoon, as the sun is setting in stunning color, to go to visit the Young Leaders boys; the moon, stunning in size, is rising when I go home.

FullSizeRender2
Hand turkeys from Young Leaders– part of learning about Thanksgiving in the United States 🙂

The teachers bring their families later that night, an Arab/American Thanksgiving.  Our table is filled with all the traditional fixings, give or take (a two-day turkey search had ended with chicken; and someone brought FullSizeRenderhummus to go with our glazed carrots and green beans). Strong Arabic coffee and sweet tea
accompany homemade aple crisp, blackberry pie, and kanafeh, a local cheese and honey desert.  Someone starts to sing, first in Arabic, later in English; others share stories over dishes in the kitchen.

And my heart is full thanksgiving, from this cathedral, amidst the art.

 

Advertisements

The Letter

A letter from my grandfather.  The thin sheets have survived six moves in eight years. When I lived in Southeast Asia, he sent them to me, along with a recipe for homemade bread.

I remember squinting at his scratchy cursive.  It took a long time to understand.

I served Grandpa’s bread on a floor mat, to some neighbors who had come over to celebrate Thanksgiving with me, that first year overseas.  The smell transported me from that island in Asia to a hilltop in Maine.  For years as I was growing up, on visits to Grandpa’s, the sweet, warm aroma of bread had greeted my family before he did.

We would stretch our legs after the two-hour drive up north, then enter through the side door of his farmhouse.  Grandpa didn’t always hear us coming in– especially later in his life– but the smell said we were welcome, he had prepared something.  We were loved.

Last week, the teenagers from the Young Leaders’ program didn’t hear me come in.  They were occupied taping photos of the pilot onto black and white balloons, preparing dozens of tiny candles for a vigil, and wrapping words around their grief until it spun into poetry.  They did not know his name while he was alive.

IMG_4393

But the shocking news of his death had made him an international headline, and even after media moved on, it made them feel like they lost a brother.  So they searched for ways to express their loss, their loyalty, and their love.

Just days afterward, we heard of 21 more killed.  Words seem cracked and dry.

I don’t know where things will go.  In the next five months, over half of my coworkers will move.  I will begin directing the Young Leaders program in the spring, right when fresh faces are arriving.  The steady rhythm I just learned will give way to a different song.  New colleagues will join at the community center.

The relative stability of our region in the days ahead…the relational dynamics in our shifting team… the reality of how much (or little) Arabic I understand will understand in a given conversation…

All of these are unknown.  And all of these will change.

Frequently.

Recently someone suggested picturing faithfulness as a kind of water.  For someone who enjoys metaphors, strange as they may sound, I didn’t get this at first.  But then, I pictured:

A barren rock face.  There’s a small pool of liquid in the middle, but no sign of beauty, none of strength.  Below the surface, unseen, water seeps deeply into the ground.  There it meets just the right combination of empty spaces, pressure, and intense heat.   Sometimes at predictable intervals, other times unexpectedly, the water bursts forward.  A geyser.

It’s not a bubbly, flowing stream, how I used to see faithfulness.  It is mostly quiet and hidden from sight, under an unyielding surface.  It is fiery.  The pressure and empty space work together for something positive.  At just the right moment, grace and power erupt.

And the transformation from hard ground to geyser only takes place along the earth’s faults.  In broken places.

My understanding has often proven too limited to trust, my attempts to predict the future usually result in frustration… But if I still my soul I hear this reminder: I’ve made a way for you here.  I’ve prepared something– just wait.  

I love you. 

The letter closed with the verses that, in his words, “had that meant so much to your grandmother and I.”

My grandpa passed away two years ago, but over the past two days I have heard his voice in my memory, just like I heard it when I first read that letter.  He is reciting these words:  Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

947194_10151871799611679_133835230_n

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.

Zombies vs. the Holidays

“Are you zombies!?”

She laughed at her joke, while I found the right words to explain myself.  I had attempted to tell my host mom about Thanksgiving in America, and had concluded with, And we eat our families.

Which would make you zombies, she had delightedly pointed out.  Missed one important word.  With.  I re-stated it in Arabic: “We eat WITH our families.”

No, I am not a zombie.  But after living with a host family, wrestling with Arabic from before I got out of bed in the morning, I sometimes felt like I was.  My host mom would say, “Come with me to…” and I would obediently follow, even if I didn’t understand the destination.  My delayed understanding often manifest itself through blank stares, slow reaction times, and silly misunderstandings.  The parents were usually quiet during the day and emerged at night; often that just looked like all of us sitting in the same room, occupied with our own projects.

Sometimes it meant shopping runs or social visits.  On one of these, they asked me, “Do you like to eat …?”  And since it sounded vaguely like a vegetable I had once, and I’ve liked almost everything here, I enthusiastically responded with yes– only to find out it was the one food I have yet to find palatable in any country.

Liver.

When I actually understood all the words spoken, sometimes I still had to confess that I had missed their meaning.  To understand, in depth or in daily rhythms, requires more than translation.  Words are not sufficient.

Mary experienced something that was communicated in words from angels, signaled by a star, witnessed by shepherds; it was a story strong enough to change the way we mark time.  Those shepherds– secondary characters in most Nativities– hurried off to tell what they had seen.  But she, who was as close as anyone could humanly be to the center of the story, kept her lips sealed.  Even modern music lists questions we’d like Mary to answer: How much did you understand?  Mary, did you know?

She had no speaking lines that night.

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Shortly before I moved to the Middle East, my friends/teachers Chuck and Ingrid prayed blessings over me.  Chuck’s words were authoritative, asking for empowerment and discernment; my soul affirmed them.  Ingrid, however, blessed me to be like Mary, to treasure things and ponder them in my heart.  No, I resisted quietly.  I don’t want to be like Mary.

I want to tell the stories.  I want to be understood.

In English class yesterday, my students were describing what was needed for a famous regional food, mansaf.  First, fermented yogurt.  Nuts.  Spices.  Meat.  Rice.  A thin, platter-sized piece of bread.  Do we need anything else?  

Omar answered: “People.”

An essential ingredient of some stories is their retelling.  I could be tempted to keep quiet for fear of being misunderstood.  But these are the stories that give life, and just as no one would think of eating mansaf alone, I cannot hold these stories to myself; I invite others to share them.

But the “sharing shepherd” is the easier of the roles for me.  During the two weeks with my Arab family, there were cultural miscommunications, deep talks, awkward moments… but the hardest part was the silence.  Sitting together, presence assured and pressure off, not much in the way of words.

And those stretching times were what made the difference between “visiting” and “living with.”

So I remember Ingrid’s prayer, that I can become a person who knows how to sit in silence.  With others.  With myself.  With my God.  Treasuring the moments that don’t need to be commonly understood or retold, at least not yet.

And pondering them in my heart, I say, Amen.