Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Joy bringers

Christmas leaves me so quickly. In fact, I swear on Christmas day, thoughts of the holiday being done, over, finito, creep in. And the morning of the 26th—that’s it. No more. I can’t do Christmas music, and it almost pains me to look at my tree or hear Christmas commercials on TV. Everything has lost its luster. And I must tell you, this isn’t how I want it to be. It’s not that I’ve been waiting for the holiday to be done. It’s quite the opposite. I absolutely love the season and do not want it to end. I become super dramatic thinking, it’s all over for another year…no Christmas spirit for another year. And don’t you hate how the place in your living room that your Christmas tree has adorned for the past month is now just this huge gaping hole? And then I get more dramatic…well, now it’s back to work with no long holidays in the near future. And the next three months—January, February, March—are the longest, coldest, grayest of the year, at least in Minnesota. How will I ever make it I wonder? And why did I leave California again, someone please remind me?!

As a Christian, I’m not sure that this melancholy I seem to fall into every year after Christmas is quite what Christmas is supposed to do. Jesus came...so we can be sad?

My refrigerator is covered in Christmas photos/cards from friends and family across the miles. Many of my friends have brand new babies or are pregnant. Some of my dearest friends had a baby girl last January 17. She is going to be one in a matter of weeks, and she has brought them so much joy. I can vouch for this. They may as well be singing and dancing as they talk about her, their words sparkling with love. Their lives have changed and they will never be the same.

Other friends of mine will be having a baby in a few months. This pregnancy follows unimaginable heartbreak. This baby's sweetness so strong and miraculous that its creation could only have been drawn and then shaded by God. Their new joy is just beginning.

Another family welcomes a baby girl as it says goodbye to a baby boy. This world did not deserve this baby boy whose name was Emanuel—“God with us.” In a twist we would not have chosen, God took Emanuel, and in his place, left Himself. In the pain and tears and the family bonding inevitable in tragedy, God is there…and amazingly so is a baby girl, Emanuel’s cousin. She should be born today? Tomorrow? Any time.

The list of babies bringing joy continues…
Blaine, Augustella, Aryana, Ezra, Preston, and so many more to come in 2009.

The thing I was thinking about is that all these babies bring a joy and a smile that last so much longer than the time period between Thanksgiving and Christmas…so much longer than the 12 days of Christmas. The transformation within the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends of these babies lasts. And the joy that babies bring is brand new; it’s just beginning.

I do believe Jesus came to us as a baby so many years ago. And I am humbly reminded that really Christmas is just the beginning.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with the justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” Isaiah 8:20

Monday, December 22, 2008

The perma-flick

I experienced something new this morning.
The perma-flick.

My car thermostat read -14 degrees at about 7:30am. This in conjunction with the 4 to 5 inches of snow we received over the weekend means the roads are slick. Icy slick. The on- and off-ramps are treacherously icy, and back roads are far from clear. In fact, I saw four cars in the ditch on my way to work. And, while only going about 15 mph, I slid down a slight decline into a four-way stop as I left my neighborhood. So, needless to say, I was driving slowly. The majority of us were going about 35 to 40mph on a 60 mph-freeway.

Well, one guy was even going slower than the rest of us. He had to have been at about 20mph or so and, as he should have been, was in the far right lane. And that’s fine...I wasn’t mad...didn’t hold anything against him, I mean...maybe he’d actually been in the ditch yesterday and was spooked. Ain’t no thing. Nevertheless, I was comfortable going a little faster so I put my blinker on, veered to the next lane over and slowly passed him (as many others were doing too), and as I did...there it was...my new experience...the perma-flick.

Driving with his right hand on the wheel, looking straight ahead nonchalantly, this guy had his left elbow resting at the bottom of his window and just chillin’ there, not going anywhere, was his middle finger, flicking off all those who dared to pass it.

The normal, common flick usually lasts 3-5 seconds and is accompanied with a mean, mean face or scouring look. But this one was permanent (How long had he been flicking people off? And how many people?!), and the guy seemed to be happily listening to the radio. The gesture almost seemed friendly. Like a happy wave to all those going a little faster. I almost smiled and flicked him off right back. And a merry Christmas to you too, sir.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I wonder as I wander

Christmasy things I wonder about:

When did ugly sweaters (of the ugly sweater party variety) become ugly? Like, what year did they turn from cool to ugly? A friend thinks 1994-1995ish.

When did Christmas carols stop being written? It seems to me there are just the good ole classic carols and at some point new ones weren’t produced anymore. When was that? (No, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is not a carol)

I spend time looking all over at multiple stores trying to find the best deal on something. Then I finally find the place that sells this thing for $2 less. I get up to the register and the cashier asks if I’d like to donate $2 to such-and-such organization. Uh...yes. So, I broke even money-wise, but lost time. What's worth more?

Where is mistletoe? You know...when you’re out hiking people always say, "oh there’s poison ivy" or "that’s a pretty fern." No one has ever pointed out mistletoe to me.

Who thought a song about a hippo would be perfect for the season?
"I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
Don't want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy..."

What kind of containers did the three wisemen carry their frankincense, gold and myrrh in?

Who thinks it’s a great idea to play "Feliz Navidad" over and over and over?

And a friend used to always chastise people for using the adjective Oriental in reference to people. "Oriental’s for rugs," he’d say. And I agree with this, but there’s the song, "We three kings of Orient Are..."

How did sugar cookies with frosting become a uniquely Christmas treat? Why not turkey-shaped cookies with frosting at Thanksgiving? And same with fruitcake, or red hots, and gingerbread. When and who decided that these should be reserved for Christmas?

I don't think Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins should have a Christmas song.

Is the game "Chinese Gift Exchange" somehow derogatory? I don’t know, but I feel bad and uncomfortable saying it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Hurry up and wait

For those who don’t go to church, or didn’t grow up in a church, or maybe don’t pay attention in church, advent marks the season (four weeks) before Christmas. The word derives from Latin's adventus, meaning “coming.” So, for Christians, it’s a time of expectant waiting for the birth of Jesus. He’s coming!

Growing up, advent meant church on the four Wednesday nights before Christmas. And usually we went early to eat dinner at church—whatever the youth group (which for many years I was apart of) was serving as a fundraiser.

And the sanctuary was always marked with a big Advent wreath containing three white candles (for weeks 1 through 3), one pink candle (for the 4th week), and one white candle for Christmas. I remember getting increasingly anxious as we lit more and more candles. Although normal children want the days to pass more quickly, I wanted the days to rewind. I didn’t want the season to end! Go back, go back, blow that candle out. One day closer to Christmas meant one day closer to it being done. I know lots of kids like those little calendars where you rip off the days one by one leading up to Christmas. I hate those things!

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was just stranded in Chicago for 36 hours due to a snow storm. Two coworkers and me waited. And waited. And waited some more. We waited for the taxi to get to the airport. Then we waited for the shuttle to pick us up from the airport to take us to the hotel because our flight had been cancelled. Then we waited for the shuttle driver to get UN-lost to take us to our hotel. Then we waited for dinner. Then we waited for hours to board our flight. Then we waited on the tarmac to take off. Then we waited for luggage. Then I waited in more traffic to get home. Hurry up and wait is what we did. And at one point as we sat on dirty, ripped, black leather airport chairs listening to the loudspeaker announce over and over and over that the airport is a non-smoking facility (honestly, don’t we all know this by now? I mean it’s been years since you could smoke in the airport!), I told my fellow slouching coworkers, that our waiting was actually fitting...after all, it’s Advent! Lame, I know, but we all got a chuckle out of it, and my one coworker said, "You’re right! We’re waiting for Jesus Christ!" LADIES AND GENTLEMAN, CHICAGO’S MIDWAY IS A NON-SMOKING FACILITY...

But I have to tell you in all our waiting—so expectantly wanting to get home—we bonded. We told stories and jokes and most embarrassing moments. We laughed. We rolled our eyes at each other and made fun of each other. And shared about our families and past Christmases. We waited and waited some more. And we now share something.

This whole Planes, Trains and Automobiles experience reminded me how precious the waiting can be. Like so many little children who want Christmas to hurry up and come, we often want to be done with the waiting, and yet there’s so much there. So much we’d miss.

Waiting inherently means needing to pause, to stand or sit still. To hold up. And that really has not happened much for me this December. Advent is a time to prepare and celebrate the fact that Jesus came and he’s coming again, but I feel like I’ve spent more time preparing for my vacation.

So, being stuck in the windy city’s airport in December pretty much seemed like the worst thing ever at first, and yet, it finally put me in the Advent spirit. The spirit of waiting.

"It is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD."
Lamentations 3:26

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

In good time

I’ve been on a work trip the past four days, at a conference in Chicago. One of my coworkers I’m traveling with uses the phrase “in good time.” We’ll get to dinner “in good time.” We'll head downstairs "in good time." Which challenges me because it’s not definite. What does that mean “in good time?” I need to know minutes, seconds, and “in good time” is so vague. But it also carries with it a calmness that I like and wish I had more of. It’s not we’ll “get there,” but we’ll “get there in GOOD time.” Whenever we arrive will be good.

Well, I’m writing this from Chicago’s Midway, and I need to tell you that I will get home in good time. We were supposed to board a flight at 4pm yesterday and be home before 6pm . However, after a two and a half hour cab ride (that should have been 25 minutes) stuck in a snowy blizzard, we discovered our flight had been cancelled and airport was closing. And to top it off, the next available flight was not until tomorrow at 3pm (today). So let me just tell you that the rest of the evening brought wrong hotels, missed reservations, lost reservations, hour-long shuttle rides (we had to stand and hold our bag and practically hug our fellow riders and our driver got lost trying to find a better way) broken, beeping fire alarms in the hotel room, and well…there’s more. So much more.

So, friends, I don’t know when I’ll get home. I’m hoping this evening. But all I can tell you is that I will be home in good time.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sorry, special friend

I work for two departments. One had its Christmas party today. We each received red monogrammed aprons and got to celebrate the season by visiting special stations: the gingerbread-house-making table, the cookie-decorating table and the pretzel-dipping table. Our boss reserved a special room and turned it into our own little holiday workshop over the lunch hour. My other department will have its party next Friday night at my other boss’s house.

A few days ago, this boss called me into his office and told me that I was more than welcome to bring a "special friend" to the party. I thanked him but said I’d not be bringing a "special friend." He laughed and said he completely understood... that a work Christmas party is probably not the greatest date. I assured him that no, had I a "special friend," I’d bring him! I just didn’t have one. He said OK, but as long as I knew the invite was there. I walked back to my office and kind of laughed at the conversation, but then also frowned a little. It had reminded me that I do not have a "special friend."

And days before this happened, I had almost the exact same conversation with someone else. I was invited to this gracious person’s house for dinner, and she wanted to make sure I knew that I could "bring a guest." (Grandma? Mom? Brother? Anyone? Anyone? My stuffed monkey?) I told her thank you, but it’d be just me.

These two people were being incredibly nice and thoughtful, and I very much appreciate it. It's just never fun having to say out loud: I AM ALONE. SOLO. JUST ME. UNO. But I do have to smile realizing that when that "special friend" comes along...bless his soul...he’s going to be going everywhere with me! I’ll go around saying...You see him?
Feel him! He’s real.
And isn’t he tall and handsome?!
I know. Those eyes. Can you believe them?
Isn’t he just the most special friend you ever did meet?
And he is thrilled—positively thrilled—to be at this here work function with me right now.

I should apologize to him right now.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

O Little Town of Bethlehem

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to Israel for work. I visited the Holy Land days after Christmas and during some free time on a Sunday morning, I took a cab to the border with another woman on the trip. We crossed over into Palestine, which is where Bethlehem is.

Prior to this day, my vision of Bethlehem had been that of Christmas cards. A deep midnight blue sky with one bright shining star illuminating a quiet stable with nice-smelling animals. Jesus in a very comfortable manger. A calm, peaceful, tranquil setting. O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie!

Once through the bullet-riddled checkpoint, my Bethlehem quickly vanished. Today the town is crowded, smelly, filled with horns honking, people yelling. And I could not find the stable anywhere. I felt anything but calm as I tugged the large scarf I had bought to cover my head tighter around my face. I knew that the Bethlehem in my mind was not the Bethlehem, and yet I could not help but be blindsided by the contrast between my version and the real version (this trip has ruined my version of Christmas...like someone telling a four year old that there is no Santa! I thought.) We took another cab to a church smack dab in the center of Bethlehem. I had plans to interview the pastor, but we were also going to take in a church service.

Thanks to the throngs of people who used the roads for walking and biking, not driving, our cab arrived late. We snuck into the sanctuary a few minutes after the service had begun. It was all in Arabic. It took a few moments for me to get settled in...to take off my scarf, get comfortable, and find my place in the bulletin. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer of thanks for getting to the church safely. Unwinding, I began listening to the familiar Christmas carols being sung in a language I did not know. I looked up at bright, sparkling stained glass windows. I looked at the people around me. The air was calm and peaceful. We were singing about Jesus where Jesus was born! And we were offering thanks for His birth in multiple languages. And there, in that service, in that pew—even though it was craziness outside—I felt it. Simplicity. There you are, I thought to myself...the Bethlehem I envision and long for.

A coworker this morning took a deep sigh and said she was tired. So tired. I thought she meant from work stuff, so I asked what project she was working on. She shook her head and said no, that it was everything else. The hosting, the cooking, the running around and shopping, the traffic. I concurred. Having taken cookies out of the oven at 11pm last night for a holiday work function today, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

It felt like the Bethlehem in my head versus the real Bethlehem. What Christmas should be, and the Christmas we actually participate in.

I know that my version of Bethlehem is naïve. Even two thousand years ago when Jesus was born, Bethlehem was not idyllic. But its simplicity is the stuff of Christmas. Likewise, I know December will always be busy. There will always be more hosting and baking and shopping and errand-running than normal. But Jesus was inside that Bethlehem church. And He is the peace that my coworker and me want.

A Savior has just been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master. This is what you're to look for: a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger."
At once the angel was joined by a huge angelic choir singing God's praises:
Glory to God in the heavenly heights,
Peace to all men and women on earth
Luke 2: 11-14

Friday, December 05, 2008

The traffic report

I’ve recently taken to traffic reports. I need to know what’s going on. Am I going to have a longer commute? And if so, why exactly and where exactly? This is a recent phenomenon. I turn the radio on in the morning, and as I’m getting ready, catch myself making faces in the mirror...backed up for four miles? Scrunchy face and nose. Or ice on overpasses. Rolling of the eyes...tell me something I didn’t know.

And I have to admit, I find great satisfaction when the hold ups do not include my freeway or affect me, but rather those poor suckers down in Burnsville or Eden Prairie (or Apple Valley, a shout out to Hey! Your Blinker’s On at heyyourblinkerson.blogspot.com ). Ha! Glad it’s not me, I think to myself as I smilingly continue on my merry 70-mph way.

Within weeks, I’ve become addicted. I feel completely unawares if I do not have my morning commute information fix. Yesterday I was warned before I left the house that a semi truck carrying live pigs—as in oink oink—had overturned on my route. And in fact, pigs were running loose. As you can imagine, traffic was stopped, wondering: why did the hog cross the road? So I smartly took a round-about way, feeling very proud of myself for tuning in to the traffic report.

But other times, most of the time, there’s simply no way around the hold up, no short cuts. Ya just gotta go through it...slowly. There are only a couple places along my daily commute where there’s detour potential. Otherwise, it’s a straight shot down the freeway, so if there’s any commotion, I’m screwed.

There were three accidents on my way to work this morning. And a huge one on the same freeway going the other way—in fact, they had to airlift someone from that site. And ridiculously, as I sat in the parking lot they call 694 this morning, I couldn’t help but smile and nearly wave to my next-door driver because I had listened to the traffic report. Good thing! I mean, I knew exactly what was going on and where, and it had gotten me really far! Right next to the driver who hadn't listened to the report.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Not a recent arrival

Why didn’t anyone tell me that the key to my life is in the basement at Book Smart on Hennepin Avenue? More specifically in a book about Capricorns on the “Recent Arrivals” rack.

Last week a friend and I moseyed through the used bookshops of Uptown, one of my alltime favorite things to do. Almost simultaneously we found the books. One on Capricorns (I’m one) and one on Tauruses (he’s one). For the next 10 minutes, we found exactly what we’ve been looking for over the past 27 years: who we are, what we should do for love and success, and what’s going to happen next. Greedy astrologers with wide eyes, we excitedly told each other what the pages in our respective books revealed—practically EVERYTHING.
Like the fact that Capricorns are organized and disciplined. (true, too true)
I should wear classic dresses like Katherine Hepburn if I'm trying to attract men. (ok)
My spirit is moved by Latin music. (haha, what?!)
I’m a saver, or some level of a tight-ass. (true)
Orlando Bloom shares my birthday, and Dolly Parton is a Capricorn too!
My friend learned that he has a weakness in his throat, among other things.
We took all of these things to heart for exactly zero seconds, and tried to keep our laughter to a minimum in the quiet basement of books.

But I couldn't help but imagine what it would be like to actually have a book with truth about the future because over the past few weeks, a fear about the future has been lingering closer to my heart than normal. Yesterday, I sat at a work meeting with a new coworker. She asked how I got to be where I am. I then proceeded to relay to her how over the course of a year or so, I got from California to Minnesota, from editor to nanny to freelancer, back to editor plus grad student, and in a chair in my very own office, not to mention in a townhome that I own. Her response? “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”

Ha! Yes. Yes it is. And I thought to myself how silly I am to forget, to worry about my future. Hasn’t the past taught me anything? And I do have a book (not a recent arrival) with hope, assurance and direction.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

And no, God’s plans are not very clear sometimes, but c’mon. Neither is trying to attract members of the opposite sex by wearing Katherine Hepburn dresses.

Monday, December 01, 2008

No sun, no Bob

This morning on the way to work, I was flipping through stations and "Brown-Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison was on 104.1. I couldn’t listen to it. It seemed wrong. I flipped to Cities 97. I listened to them talk for a while, and then Bob Marley came on. That too felt wrong...and I love Marley! On to 101.3 (which means I'm digging deep) and Jesse McCartney’s "no stress no stress no stress" was on. Wrong.

All of those songs feel like summer to me. I should be wearing a tank top and rocking out to them with the windows rolled down, not bundled with a scarf and mittens, and snow falling outside. Landon Pigg’s "Falling in Love at the Coffee Shop" feels OK. Or anything by Damien Rice or Dido or Bon Iver. Those are appropriate. Those feel winterish to me.

And Hem and Nickel Creek are fall. Definitely fall.

This mirrors the sermon in church yesterday. Pastor talked about how some people don’t like listening to Christmas carols during advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas in the church calendar). Maybe it’s not that they dislike it, but they feel it’s wrong. You should not sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" until Christmas Eve. The angels do not herald until Jesus is born. (But how awful! I mean, I snuck in my Sarah McLachlan Christmas album a week before Thanksgiving! I didn't even wait until December.)

I think we also reserve Christmas spirit/giving for the month of December. It’s generally when people are most giving. Thoughtfulness abounds! When I worked at the coffee shop (unfortunately not the one where Landon Pigg fell in love), tips were always better in December. During the weeks before Christmas, people pack shoeboxes of goodies for needy children through Operation Christmas Child. They adopt boys and girls and families to give gifts or food to. They volunteer extra time at food pantries. They drop quarters in the Salvation Army buckets. What if a Salvation Army worker were waving their bell in the middle of August in front of Wal-Mart? Weird!
Can you imagine gift-giving in June? Multiple family gatherings in April? Time-consuming, but oh-so-yummy sweets complete with red hots in May? Not so much. Not so often. If people walked around in the month of February with the same childish grin on that they wear during the holiday season, we’d think something was wrong with them--sadly.

The point to yesterday’s sermon was that actually we do have reason to celebrate. We can hark now. We don’t need to wait four more weeks. And maybe during all the days of 2009—not just those in December—we should try to act a little more holiday-ish. I mean, maybe not put up the Christmas tree and lights, but put others first. Give random gifts. Volunteer for an extra shift. Make some cookies and bring them next door. We shouldn't pack away our kindness and pleasant attitude with our ornaments.

But I’m still not gonna sing "everything little thing’s gonna be alright..." while it’s snowing out. Sorry, Bob.