Tag Archives: tree

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.

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Vulnerable

I sat awkwardly on the couch in the living room.  My friend Sammi’s mother and sister had kissed my cheeks in greeting, and then withdrawn to the kitchen, oddly quiet.  They drew the curtain closed behind them.

I was not invited to follow.

Alone, I looked at the green balloons strewn across the floor.  The family had intended to surprise me with a birthday party, but things had fallen apart, to a certain extent due to me not getting it and having earlier plans.  I knew they were frustrated.  I wondered if that was the reason for Sammi’s absence, or for the silence.

Breathing out slowly, I reminded myself that misunderstandings are part of life– especially living in a different culture.  And that I really love this family.  I hoped they knew that.

Earlier this week I moved out of my basement, to a second-story bedroom… which I am borrowing from my housemates’ children.  Someone else is borrowing my space for several weeks, and the kids are sharing rooms.   As I packed up to move, I read a post from my friends Andrew & Becca’s “Radical Hospitality” series on this blog, about the vulnerability that exists within relationships.

As I read their words on open hands and homes and hearts, and prepared to move to the second floor, I once again felt the vulnerability of receiving.  Am I thankful enough?  Present enough?  Helpful, honest, flexible, strong, funny enough?

My friends would tell me to relax.  But the fact is, at some point, we’ll note each others’ uneven edges and wish the other was… smoother.  Or maybe more edgy.  I know that when I see others’ frailties, I want to love well.  The question is, when my own vulnerability is exposed– when I make cultural mistakes, when I am angry, when I am not flexible or present or strong or courageous enough– will I still receive the love that is offered me?

In the Poetry class this week, each student had to give a metaphor for themselves.  “I am a seed,” one said.  “I have a world inside that no one can see.  I go deep, and I will change.”  Another said she was a smile, something so simple but with “deep feeling,” meaning the most to people in their hardest times.  A third was iron.  “I carry many responsibilities at home and with family and with schoolwork.  I must be strong.”

Students, via their metaphors, demonstrated higher degrees of honesty than people tend to use with everyday statements.  In a few words, they expressed being incompletely understood, trying to support others in difficulty, and experiencing the weight of responsibilities… as well as what they hoped for themselves: change, joyfulness, strength.

Something in our class shifted as students exposed pieces of their souls.  And then, together, we read “If.”

This poem tells the reader to be uncomplaining, uncompromising, and unstoppable by setbacks… or by successes.  My students embraced the challenge not to let circumstances transform them.  But, vulnerably, they questioned the advice to guard against any emotion.  If “neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,” and if you respond the same way to triumph or disaster, Rudyard Kipling says “you’ll be a Man, my son!”

But I wonder, in the absence of celebration or of grief, would we still be human?

Thirty was a rich year.  Rich with friendships, love, experiences, loss, travel, grieving, celebrating… I think that if 31 is going to be what I dream, I will need an even greater degree of openness/vulnerability in it.  But strength in vulnerability comes from knowing, at the core of who I am, that I am approved by the One who matters most.

And as I told my students, I am a tree.  My roots are deep.  If days are dry or storms shake my branches, I am still deeply connected to the Source of all I need.

Back at Sammi’s house, the silence was interrupted by her mom coming into the room and turning off the lights.  Then her sister held back the curtain.  Sammi walked in with a smile, carrying a brightly-lit, beautifully decorated birthday cake.

The quietness was preparation. And I was surprised.

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i thank You God for most this amazing

E. E. Cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Riding in the passenger’s seat, in a borrowed convertible, studying the way sunlight slipped through the leaves on late-summer trees– leaves that were just beginning to hint yellow.

The lines from this poem tumbled forward in my mind, trying to express in small measure the glimpse of infinity given by that moment.  The moment passed.  And a few hours later, the memory still with me, I was boarding a plane to the Middle East, returning home after two weeks with friends and family on the U.S. East Coast.

Landed in Rome, with a ten hour layover and an objective: to see the Sistine Chapel.  On the way, though, I feasted my eyes on hall after hall of sculptures, tapestries, and paintings in the Vatican Museum, recognizing a few but most unfamiliar to me.  The arrangement displayed the art of ages, showing certain pieces’ connections to the broader stories of Rome, the church, and art– some of them grievous and some great.

For example, the 2,000 year old Belvedere Torso.  Perhaps the five-hundredth sculpture I had laid eyes on that day, but its story held me.

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Michelangelo, they say, took this sculpture into his studio.  He sketched it from every angle for more than a year, and called it the greatest masterwork of sculpture known to humanity.  Armless, legless and headless– for him, it was the source of inspiration from which he would create many of his own works, including dozens of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.

When the reigning pope ordered him to complete the missing pieces of the sculpture, Michelangelo refused.  “It is perfect,” he said.

Friends gave counsel like Michelangelo’s stance on the Belvedere, as I prepared to return to the Middle East: Focus on what is present.  Draw inspiration from it.  Make something new, don’t replace what has already been let go.

I feel sometimes like I’m missing appendages– like parts of me have been severed, leaving me awkward and off-balance.  I am marred by what I don’t possess and trying desperately to replace, to be made whole, making the false assumption that the core cannot be completely beautiful if significant pieces are still missing.

I was resolved to see with different eyes when I came back.  I would focus on the beauty of the present, practice gratitude, smile, enjoy the good stuff and the hard stuff…. It lasted approximately one and a half days.  I still miss my missing pieces.  I still hope for being whole.  I still long to see the restoration of peace here.

On day two, I went to the university.  “We would like you to teach American & British Poetry this semester,” they said.  “Your class begins tomorrow.”  So I began searching for the greatest works, the most beautiful poems of the English language.

And I quickly found that these works connect with both the core and the missing pieces.

Poetry gives expression to the things that are incommunicable through everyday language and structure.  In our first class, we discussed Langston Hughes’ “Dreams.”  A beautiful poem of perseverance, hope, and ambition, is it not?  I rob my students of the depth of his work if I don’t tell them about the context– of the author as an African-American in the early-mid 1900’s, of the racism that exists today.  My students receive the challenge to “hold fast to dreams,” not only when the sun shines, but also in the face of injustice.

And as I return to life here, I can’t ignore the pieces that are broken, or backwardly attempt to recreate what has been.  Instead, will I allow both the beauty and the brokenness inspire me, to be part of making something new?

Sunlight is streaming through the date and fig trees, outside my basement here.  A different view.  But I still say, with E. E. Cummings,

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

 

 

 

 

Reference Point. Or…The Dinosaur in the Hallway.

There is a dinosaur in the university.10342460_10203321969786695_2019027340608404385_n

Silver-spiked, short-armed, long-clawed. A protruding forked tongue. Eyes that are surprisingly mellow, belying his sharp fangs and reaching fingers.

I went to the university yesterday with my sister. I had asked her to come with me to meet some of the other teachers and my students, while I quickly handed in my grades for the semester. But trying to function in a language/university system that are still somewhat strange to me, my “quickly” translated into an hour and a half.

When we finally left the teachers’ office, I pointed at it. “See that?” I said to my sister. Her response: “Why?”

“I don’t know why there’s a dinosaur in the hallway. But let’s take a selfie.”

We took a picture and hurried in the other direction, before anyone could ask us what we were doing. As we left the university, I told her that the dinosaur had one other purpose. “Every hall here looks the same,” I said. “Nothing is hanging on the walls; the dinosaur tells me I’m going in the right direction.”

A point of reference keeps me steady in uncertain days. My dear friend, Zaina, approached me at the community center this past Sunday, after our fitness class. “I’m leaving in one week,” she said, the tears in her eyes belying the calm tone of her voice. “My husband has decided we need to go sooner than I thought.” Zaina and her family came because of conflict in their home country, and though she is afraid of going back, her loyalty to her husband is stronger than her fear.

Zaina’s friendship has been a point of reference for me, letting me know I am heading in the right direction. We ask each other questions and talk about dreams for the future; she lets me practice the stories I learn in Arabic. Her English fluency allows deeper conversations than I can have with many others yet, and she has become one of my closest friends.

When I said goodbye to Zaina, I gave her a book that has been a point of reference for me. “These are poems, mostly written by King David– he experienced war and loss. But he found steadiness in his faith.” I showed her the first one, and she read it aloud, in Arabic. “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water…”

Zaina’s plans changed; she will be here for a few more weeks. In the meantime, she is collecting notes from the people who marked her life here, words she can reference when this season ends. She gave me a note, as well. “I noticed the foreigner, but I didn’t know when I first laid eyes on you,” she wrote, “that you would be a friend who stays with me wherever I go.”

Some points of reference develop through time. Some through investment and effort. And some are given to us, as surprisingly and swiftly as a dinosaur in the hallway.