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.