Thoughts on a changing Christmas

I am a mother on the cusp of change. My youngest son will leave for college next year. And this holiday season the familiar signs of Christmas—the sparkling lights, the ornaments on the tree and the special sweets—reminded me that as much as life stays the same, it doesn’t stand still. Continue reading

Reflections after the Paris attacks

 

My first thought when I heard about the Paris attacks on Friday was of my children. What kind of world was this that they would have to live in? Would these kinds of attacks become more and more frequent? Would they become as commonplace in Europe,as they already are in the Middle East? How could my children live and thrive in such a violent world? If I had to do it all over again, that is, have children, would I still do so in today’s world? I had to pause and think about it. So much has changed in the last 18 years since my first son was born.

My children were 4 and 1 when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. I still remember sitting at the kitchen table with them having breakfast when my husband returned unexpectedly from a meeting. He had heard the news and instinctively came back home to be with us and tell us about it. We turned on the TV and saw the image of the crash replayed over and over. I don’t remember what we told the kids about the events or even if we let them watch TV. The truth is, 911 shook up my husband’s and my world, which had never seen this kind of attack before, but for our children, the effect was different. They had no point of comparison. They didn’t know 911 was so impactful. For them now, there is no pre-911 world.

Since 911 there have been countless terrorist attacks in many places, from a hotel in Mumbai to a shopping center in Nairobi to the city streets of Beirut to a train station in Madrid. Unfortunately, these attacks, combined with the many acts of gun violence we witness each year in the United States, has made our world a scarier place. The effects on my children’s world are subtle. After the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012 for instance, their school hired a security guard for the parking lot and installed a camera and buzzer for the front door. Thankfully we haven’t been affected personally by any of these events, but it’s impossible to escape the ever-present images of violent carnage and the caustic debates about gun ownership. Ironically, this violence even seeps into play time. One of my sons loves video games and many of his games feature shoot ‘em up type activity. One such popular game, called Counter-Strike, pits terrorists against counter-terrorists. It’s a little too realistic in my opinion, but when we’ve talked about it he assures me it’s just a game. Two seconds later, he switches to a game in which he’s a virtual teradactyl swooping through a jungle and seems just as immersed in this world.

Where do we look for hope amidst the darkness? I found it very hopeful that the day after the Paris attacks, people were out in the streets talking about the need to carry on life as usual and present a united front. In the same way, we need to celebrate all the acts of courage we see in the world. They are all around us. My retired neighbor, for instance, volunteers as an ESL teacher in inner-city Richmond. I’m sure my kids don’t know this. Wouldn’t it be great to invite her to dinner and have her share her experiences? My nephew JP is currently in Nepal, volunteering his time to help rebuild communities destroyed by the earthquake. It would be great to invite him over as well and hear his stories. I can probably think of dozens more people doing good in the world. For every terrorist there are many more good-hearted, courageous people.

As I write this, it is almost the time of advent, the month leading up to Christmas. As a Christian I am called to pause and reflect on the miracle of Jesus’ birth. God sent his son into a world that was marked by violence and war, much like our own. The Romans were brilliant but also ruthless. Indeed, just days after Jesus was born his family had to flee to Egypt because Herod had issued a decree ordering all baby boys in Bethlehem killed. Jesus spent his first five years as a refugee in Egypt. (That’s a point we should remember in debates about welcoming refugees.) In any case, God sent his son with a very specific mission. One of his chief motives was to give us an example of how to live a loving life. Even if you are not a Christian, Jesus’ life is inspiring, filled with acts of wisdom and kindness. He went as far as loving his enemies, even asking for God to forgive his persecutors as he died on the cross.

My prayer this year is that my sons (and myself) can live such a loving life. Despite the violence and hate around us, I pray for courage to face each day with hope and love and also opportunities to recognize those that are already doing good around us. In fact, one goal of my blog this coming year is to highlight the stories of outstanding people. We need more stories of hope to counter despair. And my boys need to hear the abundant good in the world today.

 

The quality of light, healing and experiments with watermelons

Coming in from the bright October sun, the room seemed a bit dark but cozy. Just one window let light into the triangular space. I was surprised when I sat down and the priest sat across from me without turning on a light. Tell me your story, he said. For the next hour I recounted my life story, my faith journey and especially the story of my last year, my life in Spain and my mysterious illness. He listened with the kind eyes of someone who has heard many stories and absorbed much joy and pain. The dimness of the room somehow made the space more intimate, more sacred. I realized the dimness was intentional.

At the end of my account, Father Al suggested I read a book about healing. He told me the story of a faith healer he had once heard speak and who had written a book. It’s all about the light, he said.

We left the dark room and I followed him down to the foyer of the church and waited a minute. He returned with the book and with a rosary for me to borrow. It was made of thin strands of colorful rope, braided together by hand. It looked Latin American, maybe from Guatemala, a country I’ve been to twice.

I appreciated Father Al’s time and his gift for listening. At the same time I felt tired. It had been six months since I first started experiencing strange symptoms and I have had to tell my story to countless doctors. Some are empathetic and some are not. But six months with no clear answers and hard work of following a strict diet and undergoing tests has been frustrating and difficult. At least with Father Al I could experience the understanding of someone who believes in the same God.

I left the church and drove to Kaiser to pick up some medicine. Unfortunately, when I arrived I discovered there had been a mixup of some sort and the medicine wouldn’t be ready until Monday. These mixups or delays have happened many times with all sorts of things. I had to make four trips to the DMV to replace my driver’s license that was stolen in Madrid last year. Each time something went slightly wrong.

In any case, I knew the trip to Kaiser was still important for another reason. I had planned to stop and buy watermelons from a truck that is always parked near the hospital. I had stopped once before and met a friendly man who spoke Spanish. This time, though, I was buying 12 watermelons for my son’s birthday party and he was especially friendly. (I decided not to tell him that we were only planning to launch the watermelons off our deck for fun, not eat them.) As he lugged the 12 melons to my car, I found out he was from Guatemala and that he occasionally went to church. I told him I went to church. He looked at me, maybe at the strange rosary, and said, Cristiana? I said yes. In Guatemala there is a wide gulf between Protestants (Cristianas) and Catholics. Cristiana meant he was not Catholic. I told him my church would be a good place to learn English. He smiled. I added that there were young people there his age, maybe a girl. He smiled even more. I had made a friend.

I haven’t been back to see my friend with the watermelons, but I’d love to tell him they were a hit. Five 10- and 11-year-old boys launching watermelons off a deck is not a sight many people get to see. By the end of it my son and one other boy were slip-slidding on the plastic mat we had placed on the lawn to catch the rinds of the broken melons and melon juice. Finally they sat amidst all the chunks and began eating pieces. The effect looked like a living Jackson Pollack painting, gleaming in the afternoon sun. We had to wash their clothes. Everything smelled like watermelons.

I have seen Father Al once a week since our first meeting. He remains a gentle, guiding presence in the RCIA group I am part of. At some point I became aware that Father Al must be approaching 90. Somehow, with his sharp mind and keen interest in life I had thought he was younger. But when he mentioned fighting in World War II it occurred to me that he was older. Recently he told me he was afraid of earthquakes. Most people I know aren’t especially afraid of earthquakes. He says he’s not afraid of the quake but of the aftermath. He remembers the chaos of war and is afraid of the chaos that would follow an earthquake. Even he has fears, I thought. To be alive is to have a fear of some kind.

Father Al asks about my health and I can now tell him that mostly the mystery has been solved; at least I have ruled out the scarier possibilities and it seems to be simply a condition I’ve had to some extent all my life but got exacerbated by living abroad for a year. I continue my diet, my supplements, try to drink lots of water, avoid stress. Some days there are flare-ups of inflammation or fatigue and there is still an unknown edge. There is fear but I also remember Father Al’s words about the light: It’s all about the light. Now, more than ever, I want to remember those words.

In these darker, colder days of winter looking for light is imperative, an intentional act. And fortunately, light is not too hard to find. Christmas is just around the corner and holiday lights are starting to appear. I was in Chicago last week and was amazed to see some workers out late at night, in the biting cold, stringing lights up over Rush Street with long poles. It wasn’t even Thanksgiving! I’d rather see the sunlight, but these artificial lights can point us to hope. I’m glad that someone long ago decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December, even though he was probably born in the spring. We all need more light, hope and love at this time of year.