Nothing World Changing

I sit at our kitchen counter, wearing earmuffs and typing as fast as I can. I’m using industrial hearing protection to block out the constant chatter and humming all around me. Belén is painting a watercolour for her friend Keauna, Susanna is reading on the couch, Stan is sculpting clay and Vivi is looking for attention wherever she can get it.

Turning away from the monitor and sliding my muffs down to my neck I announce, “I’m just about there now! I’ve almost caught it!” Then I explain how writing is like galloping after a wild horse; with every sentence I strain forward in the saddle until I swing the lasso and capture the bucking idea.

Susanna ignores me, Stan keeps massaging the mud, Vivi doesn’t seem to care about my philosophy, and Belén just says, “I fall off the horse, before I get close enough, every time.”

The next day I send the blog draft to my sister with the subject: Can I post this? I also ask Stan to read what I wrote. I want to know if it’s too preachy, too offensive or condescending. Stan affirms that it is all of the above. Tara hesitates on the phone when she calls to give me feedback. She suggests publishing it where nobody I know will read it. Then she asks if I would be willing to say it in a face-to-face conversation with my readers. Now it’s my turn to hesitate.

Shucks.

The problem with the offensive blog piece is that I said exactly what I wanted to say and don’t feel like changing it. Not yet, anyway.

My Auntie Fritz recently asked me if I have a temper. “You write about it in your blog but I’ve never seen you frustrated,” she said. When I assured her that I do, indeed, get hopping mad and am not scared of a little conflict, she nodded her head. “That’s good,” she said, “then you can change the world.”

I liked that.

But how do you know when it’s a good time to change the world or write a blog post or get angry? That’s some tricky business I haven’t yet mastered. I have a feeling that heeding caution from my closest confidantes is a step in the right direction. So I’ll sit tight and let that wild horse of an idea run free a little longer. Changing the world will have to wait.

Instead, I’ll go after something more predictable and safe. Something like a photo-collage, the kind you might get in your mailbox from us if we did that sort of thing. A genteel Happy New Year from our house to yours.

Love Tricia, for the rest

Skating on the pond at Tim and Kristalyn’s with Grandpa

Christmas with my mom’s sisters and our adopted families from Ethiopia and Iran

Belén got henna for Christmas… tatoos all around…

Susie LOVES serving people with her new chocolate fountain

cousins…missing a few very important ones 🙂

Stan and his dad making a pottery wheel from scratch

B and Simon. We didn’t take boots to Indiana because we thought it would be warm and dry. We were wrong.

Auntie Annie and Susanna… so much to do together, so little time

first pottery lesson with Marea, the master

 

 

 

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The Jesus-thing

On Saturday I read a blog post* about the nativity story. The description of Mary and the animals and the blood and the baby is fleshy. Funny. Real. And sharp. I’m drawn in by the wit and candor of the author and keep reading until the end, where I am surprised at the wrap-up. There are no claims of deity. No religious hooks. No message of Emmanuel, God-with-us. It’s just a story of a teenage mother and father, bumbling around in a dirty stable trying to figure out this thing called parenthood and what it means to love and be a family. (Which, let’s admit, is about as spiritual as it gets, figuring out how to love the people we live with.)

I scroll down and see someone’s appreciative comment. I read it three times over: We don’t do the Jesus-thing but we want to embrace the meaning of Christmas. I sense her gratitude for the re-telling devoid of religious agenda, making it palatable and accessible.

I also feel a bit sick to the stomach. Which seems overly-dramatic. Even writing it here now, makes me self-conscious. The comment is understandable. Many of my dearest friends could easily write the same. We don’t do the Jesus thing.

I don’t blame the people I love and respect for feeling uncomfortable with the Jesus story. It can lead to all kinds of trouble, like trying to explain who God is to your children when you’re not even sure yourself. Like the problem of Christianity and it’s sordid history. Like questions about the priorities of churches today, and heaven forbid, politics that make your hair stand up on the back of your neck. Like exclusion and gate-keeping and pointing at who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s in and who’s out.

I also don’t blame my friends who are indifferent about the whole thing altogether. Who don’t mind hearing the Christmas story once or twice and then moving on with their lives. The story hasn’t made much of a difference in the Christians they know or work with, so what does it matter? It’s easier to let people believe what they want without getting too worked up about theology and fundamentals. To try and get along without making a big deal about a controversial man who had a penchant for stirring the pot.

And yet, somehow, it breaks me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been reading Luci Shaw poems of the incarnation** every night before bed, or because the comment followed such a visceral description of the birth, or why, exactly. It’s not like I’m surprised that someone out there isn’t all Jesus-y. Most people aren’t. But still, it sticks with me.

On Sunday morning we are scrambling to get to church. Stan and I are in the Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, and the girls are part of the children’s choir. We should be in the vehicle already and are yelling at each other to get out the door. Stan can’t find the tuner. Vivi doesn’t want to wear her cute black boots and is coughing and snotty. Susanna is still out of breath and fatigued from her bout with pneumonia. Belén’s throat is sore and swollen and my voice is raspy too. The guitar bangs out the door and into the cold air. When we finally get to church and Stan is pulling the striped Joseph-costume over his head, he’s still asking why we have to do this. None of it feels very spiritual. Or meaningful. Or transcendent. Obligatory would be a more accurate description.

Then Stephanie hands me her newborn daughter, the one cast as baby Jesus. Ah yes, the baby. She’s fast asleep and I tense my shoulders to make a nest for her that’s as cozy as her mother’s. We need something to wrap her in. “Hey,” I yell at Jennifer, while the kids are bouncing around us like popcorn in hot oil. “I forgot we need swaddling clothes!” She shushes the children and hands me an old scarf. Now we are ready to start.

The kids tromp onto the stage; the sheep with their floppy ears, the wise-men with their dollar-store crowns, the shepherds in their terry cloth and an assortment of barn animals. Verna starts playing the piano, which is our cue to come in. I sit in my chair beside the manger and hold baby Jesus, whose tiny rib cage presses in and out against mine. I look down at her scalp and study her hair-line, her pursed lips, the nose that is just as perfect as every other baby nose, and all I want to do is cry.

I feel like I need to warn Stan. “I’m feeling really emotional” I whisper sideways. He looks at me and doesn’t say anything. The children continue singing their song about the stranger in the straw.

Soon it’s our turn. Stan grabs his guitar, Susie her violin, and Belén takes the mike. We mess up right away and have to start over again. When I come in on the chorus I feel like I’m barely making a sound. My voice is hoarse and my harmony line is wobbly. All the while I’m holding the baby, the stranger the barn animals want to know more about.

“His name is Jesus. I can’t believe God chose me to be his mother,” I whisper into the mike after we are done singing. It doesn’t feel so much like acting now. Or cliché script material. I really can’t believe it. God chose a human mother for himself. God chose human skin. With cradle cap. God chose tiny ribs. God chose colic and gas and indigestion. God chose the frustrations of toddler-hood. God chose to be a refugee. God chose “to be acquainted with our grief.”**

“His name is Jesus,” I repeat, trying to keep my voice steady. “He will be called Counsellor.” I look down at the infant chest, heaving up and down in my arms with vulnerability. I am mute with emotion. This is ridiculous, I pep-talk myself, it’s just a puny little line. But nothing makes it past the gigantic lump in my throat.

Stan says my next words for me. “Almighty God…”

Almighty God!

And I join in on the final, “Everlasting Father.”

The play continues and I keep holding Jesus. I don’t want to stop being Mary. I don’t want to stop being so near to Christmas.

Later that afternoon, when everything is over and we’re at home, I go back to the blog post I can’t stop thinking about. I read the comment again–the one about not being into the Jesus-thing. All of a sudden something is different. I feel bubbly and light. The comment doesn’t seem disturbing, in fact, it’s more comedic than anything. I want to shout and laugh. “It’s okay if you don’t do the Jesus-thing! God’s got it! He’s way ahead of you!” He’s made a gigantic swoop-turn out of history, like a hockey player who changes directions in the blink of an eye and dekes out the defense. The move makes me want to clap big mitts together, stomp on the bleachers and clang cowbells.

Yes, yes, yes! God came down. IT doesn’t matter if you’re into the Jesus thing or not. Even if you don’t do Jesus, Jesus does you. That’s the craziness of the whole story.  That’s why we get into bath robes and show our bare feet and pale hairy legs in front of the church, two-thousand years later.

A baby was born and turned the cosmos around. Even if you’re not into Jesus, even if you have religious baggage or find it all politically uncomfortable or you don’t know how to tell your kids the bible story, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, it’s precisely because of this indifference or confusion, that Jesus came. This is the bizarre news. This is the hilarity of Christmas. That God put on flesh to be with us whether we recognize him or not.

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With love and cowbells,

Tricia

If none of this resonates with you, or if you think I’m dead wrong, thanks for making it this far. I’m honoured you’re here and am interested in your comments.

*see Liz James Writes

**I know at least three of you who will love BC poet, Luci Shaw (if you’re not already reading her)! I used the phrase “acquainted with our grief” because I’d just read her poem, A Blessing for the New Baby.

 

 

Waiting and Watching; Advent 2017

It feels like we’ve been celebrating advent for awhile around here. The waiting part, that is. Susanna has been battling a lung infection for the last two weeks and we’ve all spent many hours rubbing her back, wiping her brow, giving her medicine, serving her orange juice, and waiting, waiting, waiting for her to get better.

A friend stopped by yesterday and when she saw Susie laying on the couch she exclaimed, “I knew something was wrong! I barely recognized her voice on the phone because it sounded so normal!” Instead of the usual fake accent and you’ve-reached-the-pizza-parlour, or some other crazy response, it was only a weak “Hello” that threw our friend off.

Waiting for Susanna to return to her exuberant self is a little like the waiting we do before Christmas. During advent we are waiting for Jesus, waiting for the Light to pierce the darkness, waiting for brokenness to be made whole, waiting for the restoration promised us by a baby born centuries ago. But advent (meaning a coming or approach)  is also about celebrating the arrival; that Divinity, indeed, has already come and is here with us.

I draw up a new chalkboard sign to remind me of all this, but I’m not sure it helps. I’m still trying to figure out presents and am worried I don’t have enough. I stress about coordinating holiday plans and dates and traveling. But I see a glimmer of hope. I don’t worry about the baking (we all know I’ve given up on that one) and I notice things. Like this…

*

I’m washing dishes when I overhear Vivian playing “refugees” for a second time this week. I dry my hands on a towel and walk over to watch her where she can’t see me.

“We have to go. Pack up every-fing” she says herding plastic figurines into a toy van. Ernie, Bert, Polly-Pocket and a pony, or two, are fleeing together. “It’s a new country,” she murmurs to herself and her toys. “You’ll be safe here,” she reassures them.

*

I’ve had a bad day and feel like crying. I call Stan to see when he’ll be home and if I have time to go for a walk. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” he says.  I decide to stay home so we can eat as soon as he arrives. A moment later he calls me back. “Don’t wait,” he says. “Go for a walk now. The sun is setting and you’ll like it.”

*

I take Belén home after a midnight pool party with the youth group. Instead of going straight to bed, we plug in the kettle and brew some tea. She looks at my literary magazine on the table, the one with the weird poetry that neither of us understand, and makes fun of it. Then she tells me about an image from her day that she wishes she could capture.

“Why don’t you write about it in your journal?” I suggest.

“Ugh! No way! That’s too much work. Besides, it’s frustrating. It’s like I’ve got all these words, but when I put them together they don’t hold anything. Like an empty box.”

“Mmm,” I say while sipping my tea, glad she’s not journaling after all. Glad she’s talking to me.

*

The Cree drummer and pow-wow singer invites everyone from the bleachers onto the gymnasium floor. He tells us to hold hands and dance in a circle. Slowly people get out of their seats and reach for other hands. The singer beats his drum and wails his foreign melody while we step in time. I see the Nigerian obstetrician, whose clinic is just down the street, and the Jamaican lady who works at McDonald’s. The politicians, who came to deliver their obligatory speeches, are now holding hands with mothers who have babies on their hips. The Indian dancers, dressed in white turbans and tunics, slide along beside old men with stiff legs and cowboy boots.

*

I’m not sure how, or why, but in these moments I feel Advent. I feel His coming. These random, mostly-normal moments in my mostly-normal week are reminders for me. God is here… in my three-year-old’s empathy, in my husband’s prompt to watch the sunset, in late-night conversations with my teenager, in a round dance, and in the waiting for Susanna to get better.

Let’s keep waiting and watching together.

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Resources: We watched this 2-minute video in church this last week and it got me thinking about advent again. Also, this post by Rachel Held Evans gave me some ideas that we will use this season.

 

Wanting-and-Well Wednesdays

My mother-in-law called the other day. She had gifts ready for my kids months ago but wanted to know if there was anything else they needed, or wanted, for Christmas. I racked my brain trying to think of something they might be lacking. I couldn’t think of one thing; not a single item they had been pining for or even something practical they could use. It seemed they had it all. Then we went to the store and everything changed.

I hadn’t been shopping in months. Stan is still on grocery duty so my only mercantile outings have been to the farmer’s market and the library. On this particular day I took Belén to the store so she could pick up the materials to make Susanna’s gift. (Inspired by this site, Belén is making My Dream Restaurant in a Box for her sister.) We thought all we needed was some card stock and tissue paper but when we started lacing through the aisles we found we needed more. Much more. Belén stopped to finger some furry booties that were just the kind of slippers she had “always wanted”. I started looking at picture frames and baskets and shelving and shoes and yarn and books and dishes. Then Belén appeared holding a cute agenda including a calendar and address book.

“Could I buy it mom? It’s only ten dollars!”

“For you?” I asked. “Remember we’re here to buy Christmas presents.” I put the baskets I had been eying for myself in the cart.

A moment later she showed me a lipstick holder with a mirror. I shook my head but started a mental list of items I would get later. It didn’t matter that Belén doesn’t wear lipstick, that she already has an address book, and her slippers from last year still fit; I wanted to get it all. After the lipstick holder, Belén dragged me over to an Elsa doll, the kind that flashes and sings “Let it Go” incessantly. Again, the urge to fulfill the desires of my sweet child’s heart washed over me. You know how it feels–that parental instinct, to provide and protect, on steroids. Sometimes it tricks us parents into thinking the best we can do for our kids is get them anything and everything they want. I stood there like this for quite some time. Well, okay, for about three seconds. Then I remembered they don’t really play with barbies …and I imagined the look on my husband’s face when I’d show him the piece of warbling plastic. I also remembered watching Must-have Monday on TV at the doctor’s office earlier in the week.

It crossed my mind then, while waiting for the doctor’s appointment, that we should have a day to remind us it’s okay not to get everything on our must-have lists. That we can appreciate beauty and innovation (for some this will come in the form of a plastic Elsa doll) without owning it. That getting all our must-haves doesn’t make this season, or any other, more magical. In fact, it might not increase our happiness at all. Maybe we could call this day Wanting-and-Well Wednesday to remind us our well-being doesn’t correspond to getting everything we want. And that it’s okay to sit with a want for awhile and still be happy. Perhaps next Wednesday, being Christmas Eve and all, isn’t the best day to introduce the idea. Or maybe it’s the perfect time.* What do you think?

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As for more homey news, we’ve been skiing and laughing. Or rather, we’ve been skiing and Vivian’s learned to laugh. Stan and I have taken turns with the older girls the last few nights to go skiing in the dark. We read this book last winter so now the girls pretend they’re Norse children as we sail under the winter sky. Vivi’s pulk isn’t quite ready yet so she’s had to stay at home to work on her laugh. Her first belly-rumble happened last week when she was watching the girls dance in the kitchen. Since then our house has turned into the set of a musical with the plot line of Get Vivi to laugh. She’s been very responsive to everyone’s theatrical attempts and rewarded us all just enough so we keep on trying. This morning I woke her up early just so she could see the girls before they left for school, and perhaps get some giggles in. Susanna breathed in her milky breath, kissed her sleepy cheeks then turned to me and said,

“Vivian is like the old people in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and we’re Charlie. You know how the grandparents’ only reason for living was Charlie? Well we’re like that for Vivian.”

And then Vivi did this sort of kicky dance in my arms as if to say she agreed. I think Susanna might be right.

Tricia

*In case you’re worried, be assured the girls’ stockings will be filled to the brim on Christmas morning.

A Startling Empathy

When I was a little girl I learned to be careful when my mom had migraine headaches. If I thought too much about her pounding head I would soon have a headache of my own, so I trained myself to pretend to listen whenever I was informed she had a migraine and would ask her how she felt while purposefully ignoring her answer. I had an empathy problem and it wasn’t that I needed to cultivate more. Rather, I had too much and couldn’t manage it.

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Belén and Susanna preparing a winter solstice breakfast.

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The “sunny” menu: egg yolks, pinapple, mandarin oranges, and yellow yoghurt

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Even now, when I think about Ruth or Lucy my psyche starts to reel under a weight I cannot bear. Ruth, a beautiful new bride, is expecting her first child. She also has an untreatable brain tumor and is undergoing radiation to buy her enough time so she can deliver her baby… and see the face of the child that will most likely never know her mother. Sometimes, when I picture my sister-in-law, Anne, holding Lucy’s fevered body and and wiping her kissable cheeks after she throws up, I want to curl up into a ball–as if rolling into the fetal position will dismiss the reality of chemotherapy and pain.

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A special solstice treat: candles in the snow fort. Can you see their frosty hair? It was a chilly evening at -26 but they stayed outside for about an hour and a half

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A few years ago I visited a friend who was admitted to the psychiatric ward of our hospital, known as the Pine Unit to locals. Hospitals freak me out at the best of times (one reason I opted for a home-birth) but this visit really threw me for a loop. I held tightly to Susanna as we wound our way through halls reverberating with moans and incoherent shouts. By the time we got to Carol’s* room I felt nauseated and busied myself by taping Susanna’s artwork to her wall. When I sat down beside Carol’s bed and grabbed her hand it was as much for my comfort as it was hers. Carol tried to carry on a conversation but her words came out in gibberish and we soon lapsed into silence while I stroked her arm and tried to make some up-beat comments for Susanna’s sake.

Now I wish I’d never gone to the Pine Unit at all. Since then I’ve had a few run-ins with my own mental fragility and despite realizing anxiety is as a prevalent as the common cold, in my more pessimistic moments I’m sure I’m destined for long-term psychiatric care. As you might guess, picturing myself mute and vegetal in the Pine Unit doesn’t do much for my sense of well-being. Like I said, the psychiatric ward is definitely off-limits; I’m not willing to sacrifice my health to offer my company to it’s occupants no matter how sympathetic I feel.

And this is where God and I part ways. Because while I set boundaries to protect myself from unwieldy compassion; God is pouring herself into someone else’s darkest hour. Though I sputter and nearly drown in my own empathy; God burrowed himself into the womb of a teenage girl 2000 years ago so he could drink our pain with us. And whether you think the whole Christmas story is legend or historical fact, the narrative is startling. That the fearsome life-force of creation chose to marinate in amniotic fluid, feel disappointment, get dirty feet, and bleed, is crazy…and it also befits his name, “Emmanuel” or God with us.

The phrase God with us sounds a lot like God is for us and reminds me of a battle cry to rally the troops. But given the circumstances of Jesus’ birth…. the hay, the manure, his unprepared parents; and life… rooting for the underdog, his unexpected agenda of dying instead of taking political power; any jubilant military associations are misplaced. I don’t think the phrase is meant to imply victory but to speak to those who suffer in some way. And though I stumble awkwardly with my own empathy, the Christmas story climaxes with God not only feeling for us, but actually becoming one of us. Unlike me, He commits to and embodies his empathy, as deliberate as a uterine contraction, and as real as a mother’s urge to push.

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How can that be anything but startling? Especially for someone like me, who, if I can help it, won’t be going back to the Pine Unit…

Thankful for Christmas,

Tricia

*name changed