Saturday, December 25, 2010

Early Christmas Morn

It is still dark and there are no little sounds of feet just yet. I am up before all of them, up before most of the city it seems too.

I went outside in the cold and the air was so crisp and clear in the dark with the moonlight washing over it. The days have been quite gray and dirty lately; the sky sitting low like one big cloud of dust. So the moon-washed canvas of darkness came as a welcome relief. I stared up at that moon.

Why is it that staring at a night sky sky is one of the most humbling and formidable, yet elating things to look upon? It makes me feel so small. It makes me wonder at all I believe. It makes the clarity of what is happening in life right now seem to blaze hot and white in the glow of those distant night lights. At least it does this for me.

Maybe it's the looking out into the universe and knowing more clearly than when I surf the web, that the life at my fingertips matters, and cannot be escaped or brushed away with mind numbing activities. Maybe it's the clear and blatant picture of a world that is so much bigger and beyond my small powers that it smacks me up against what humans throughout all of history have struggled against: their finiteness, their puny presence in a world molded by infinite hands. It's just a bit unnerving no matter how you look at it... as a nihilist or universalist or creationist, or what have you.

...Long lay the world, in sin and error pining
Til He appeared, and the soul felt its worth...

The soul felt its worth. That line stood out to me this year for some reason and keeps creeping back into my head. I can't get over it, looking at that moon hanging weightless in the sky, how little we really are, in all the scope of things. What gives us any lasting worth, if we are just creatures fighting our way through this survival of the fittest, trying to make every moment count? But He appeared and the soul, it felt its worth. It's a worth that can be felt through shame or guilt or love or mercy or a longing or loathing for any of these. But only a soul that has worth can feel a longing, an absence, an excess of it.

And all that longing, all that absence, all that excess, there's only One who can make it all come to rights. This is likely what the song is really saying, and not the line my mind took it down. He appeared, and the souls who see it, feel the weight of its worth.

Early morning moon gazing, on Christmas or any other day...I recommend it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The {s}low down

Computer problems remain. One of the downsides of the language barrier... we often need translation help with tricky things (like electronics) so it takes a bit longer to get it all taken care of.

Obviously, the fact that you are reading this means I have some sort of computer. That's true, but it is a dinosaur of a computer, as only a girl living in the year 2010 could say, and that means I can't download pictures or get on facebook. These would be small matters except that several people have written messages to me there, saying important things, things I should and want to reply to, and I can't! So, to those of you who have not heard from me and who read in this place... I am waiting and longing to write back to you!

Instead, with the release from that hovering presence of picture processing and blog writing, I have been doing other things. Today we frosted sugar cookies in what is becoming a new tradition because of a wonderful recipe I gobbled up while visiting my inlaws two years ago. Then I made Mexican Wedding Cakes, by far one of my favorite Christmas cookies. Then I made curry. Not so Christmasy.

We read several books today. Twas the Night before Christmas (still love that one), some creepy story about Madeline getting kidnapped by the Gypsies, Blaze and Forest Fires, the beginnings of the Long Winter, and a corny Berenstain Bears book that has somehow become the Little Scout's all-time favorite.

We left the boys with some friends and went out into the markets to look for a few things for Christmas. It was a madhouse as usual and I hemmed and hawed my way through the bargaining as usual. Paid more than I should have as usual. It was freezing and that made me want to buy gloves, but all the gloves are either in pastels and bright colors or look like something a woman my mother's age would wear from Eddie Bauer. Which would be fine for her, but I'm only (only? I think you say that when you're twenty, or even younger) thirty and I don't shop there anymore, which is another long and possibly embarrassing story for another time.

It doesn't really feel like Christmas at all. Except for the cookies and presents and music playing from the Dinosaur Computer. I keep thinking that maybe doing without the few things that can steal my time so easily will make me more focused, and I'm sure it helps in some way. But I suppose I'm a lot like my children, who can't see anything at all except what they are doing right now and whether or not it is fun at all.

I have noticed a few thing lately however, in spite of my perpetual blindness:

  • The way they all join in when we sing carols around the advent wreath, belting each line for all they are worth.
  • They way Curls is starting to watch out more for his sister, and do things to help make her happy when she is having a hard time.
  • The way Skills seems very sensitive right now, needing more time with his mom, more reassurance about everything, more time just being at home and feeling looked out for.
  • The sun setting over the rooftops. You can see it if you look way down to the end from the porch at around 4:30 pm. 
  • How we all need people around us.
  • Many people are suffering, and a handout once a year is not enough.
  • I live in a place far beyond what most people here can afford. I need to look back, not further ahead.
  • My family is further and further away.
  • I live with great Hope and am gaining daily bits of Joy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Days of December {cut off}

Being cut off. It can happen in so many ways.

They can shut down the water pipes early in the morning and leave you-- a glutton of at-your-fingertips-indoor-plumbing-- cut off from washing your clothes, or dishes, or the grime of lunch preparations from your sticky fingers.

Your computer can halt, suddenly and without warning or explanation, leaving you pumping your fingers like thudding tree trunks on what feels like an Old Dinosaur keyboard compared to the slick, black Race-car computer that allowed you to download and process and upload pictures, to share with abandon on facebook, and to ultimately feel like you were connected with all that is important in the world.

You can fall, like a friend did two days ago, and break your leg; be mangled and put back together again on a surgical table, unable to understand a word or phrase or even facial expression from the foreign faces that hover over you, and finally placed in a bed, the third one down in a small room next to a window that overlooks the bare concrete slab of another building's rooftop. You can sit there with the possibility of weeks confinement ahead of you, your son at a friend's home wondering if you will be okay, and not just now, but for the many years that still lie of ahead of his life, the one you and he share bound together by the circumstances that life so often brings.

Yes, sometimes it is in small ways and sometimes in life cracking, overwhelming ways that you feel your abilities, or health, or paths to that place you long to be just plain cut off.

I once listened to a woman speak, her body a still and immovable wasteland from the neck down, and she told the story of how it had all happened and how at that time, all the Answers she knew from the Book fell hard and stale on her young and tender ears, the pain being just too loud in those moments. It was the friend who stole into her dark hospital room after visiting hours, who crawled up onto her bed and lay there in stillness, holding her hand and crying softly with her in the hurt, singing "Man of Sorrows what a name..." that did what the answers seemed not to just then.

That's what I think must happen when you're cut off. Things go still and quiet, which grates against your nerves. But you lie there because you can't move much, if at all. And then, when you're forced to just be, you start to notice things, things that need to be seen.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Days of December 17 {Errands}

{in transit, and looking crazy for photographing it}

I almost can't believe I'm posting pictures of these, my bags of groceries. It was a day full of many good things... picture taking not being one of them. 

But maybe this is my opportunity to share with you what doing errands around here looks like for me, an expat, in a country without a car. I don't want a car by the way. Except some days, like today, I definitely do.

To make this as short as possible, I'll just list for you in order, what going out for a few errands looked like on this particular day.
  1. Think through the five places that I need to go, eliminate three of them.
  2. Think through which place to go first that will have the lightest load to carry, so I can transfer it in a taxi to the next store.
  3. Stop to buy vegetables for dinner on way out of apartment gate.
  4. Get a phone call from Chinese friend who is starting an imported food business and find out that he wants to meet you in town instead of delivering the food you ordered to your home. Ask taxi driver to stop at location halfway to where you are going. Wait for friend. Another phone call. Drive to different location. Wait some more. See friend and pay him for food, get back in taxi.
  5. Find two stools for a reasonable price that are part of a Christmas present for the boys. Think through how I will cart these around my next destination, the grocery store.
  6. Haul vegetables, imported food goods, light bulbs and now new stools into grocery store.
  7. Fit items awkwardly into cart about 1/4 the size of one you might find at a WalMart in the States and saunter sheepishly through packed out bread aisle.
  8. Call husband on the way home and ask him to meet me outside our building to help with the hauling. Boy, he sure looks good after that shave today.
  9. Ask for another few hours to do the same thing all over again tomorrow morning, with those three remaining places that were crossed off earlier.

{stools riding in style}

{imported cocoa and olive oil}

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Days of December 16 {Light}


The streets here are not lined with trees that twinkle and shimmer in the night air.
There are no neighborhood houses to ooh and ahh at.
Walking home at night, head thrust back, peering at a darkness only as deep as a million city lights allow, there is no blanket of stars to keep me warm.
But there is still Light here.
It streams in the windows and across the brow of a child.
It draws me into it's orb of warmth in the early morning,
sending shadows and illumination through all hours of the day.

A Short Story {The Eighth Year}

The clock hanging high in the large tiled hallway moved slowly, burdened perhaps by the dozens of eyes that sat watching it. Most of them belonged to the mothers, sitting with their backs stiff against benches that lined the echoey hall. Some held a bundle that slept for all the blankets and layers of padding they were wrapped in. Some sat with arms holding up a child who stared listlessly at the nurses who shuffled hurriedly by, staring with eyes empty from boredom.

A woman with no child stood next in line near the only open door in the hall. Her hair was not the color of black silk, like every other head in the room. Instead, it curled softly in brown waves and hung just past her shoulders. She had pulled it back, as she did every day, and was huddling into her dark wool coat and scarf, the deep chill of the December air barely eased by the unheated room. Her simple clothes, unadorned by sparkles or fake gemstone hair bands like the ones that were strewn out on the side streets and sold for what amounted to a dollar or two, did little to keep the attention away. Eyes that were not glancing at the clock shifted to her and gazed over every inch of her attire, her hair, her white skin, her strange freckles, her foreignness.

Leigh wanted to stare back. She knew it was part of their ways, this open faced looking, that did not come with malice or rudeness, and was aided in part by so many decades of seclusion. But it still unsettled her, and she hated how she felt compelled to keep her own eyes averted, while absorbing the intangible probing of their unending stares.

She had come for a simple check up. Six months to go and this new little one would be joining their growing family; four children already, in a land where the One Child Policy was still enforced for these women with strict laws and measures. And soon five of them; this too, would bring stares. But now the rest of her children were at home, and she waited at this local hospital for a simple appointment. Listen for the heartbeat, check the sugar levels, measure the belly, and send me on my way. But she was not the only one, and looking at them, it shamed her a little, to think of how disgruntled she could be at the way they stared.

To come here for her was merely an inconvenience. The day had been too full of Parent Teacher meetings and piles of laundry to be hung out to dry, and going to the market to buy produce for dinner, so that she had missed the somewhat stiff hours at the more sophisticated clinic which catered to most of the foreigners. She didn’t mind coming here for the most part. It made her feel like she wasn’t a pretentious and wealthy westerner, privileged enough simply by being born in a country where things like healthcare came as an inalienable right. She didn’t mind coming here, but in a way she did, and she felt small for feeling so.

A baby from across the hall let out a small cry. It sounded weak, almost alarmingly so. The mother looked pensive, and a bit worn, though stoic and strong in the way that so many of them did, keeping emotions tucked a bit deeper than plain view for all to see. Her skin was darker too, perhaps from the countryside, where long hours in fields on the family farm made a face of coveted milky white skin impossible. Now she rocked and swayed gently, moving side to side in a rhythmic motion, leathery hands stroking a tiny face that remained hidden beneath layers of worn quilts.

Leigh watched her, wondering what it was that brought the weathered mother to this hospital in the city. Dirty floors, long lines, and nurses who still wore the quaint white caps from the 1940’s betrayed the simplicity of this place, yet it was still a pricey burden for a family from the countryside.  Disease? Undernourishment? Perhaps she doesn’t know? It hurt a little to think about. If it made her feel less removed by coming here, it also made the stark realities, the ones often merely read about, as palpable as the smell of all the stale breath that now filled the dimly lit hall.

A  nurse wearing one of those funny white hats, her tailored dress matching the dingy whiteness of her leggings, hurried up to the weathered mother. She bent over with a clipboard, talking rapidly and pointing to several lines on a pink slip of paper. Leigh watched her, trying to catch a phrase of what she was saying. The nurse seemed agitated, flustered even; she kept asking a question, but the mother answered something so quiet that it could not be heard from across the hall. The rapid talking nurse ensued, then asked the question again, but getting the same response, flatly stated, Dui bu qi, women bu neng bang ni, and walked away.

The weathered mother sat still, looking down but not at her baby. Her strong face remained placid, but tears now streamed in straight wet lines down her face. She did not wipe them away. Shifting her feet against the cold tiles, Leigh could not pull her eyes away from the weeping face and rocking figure. Denied help and for what reason? Not enough money? Did she go to the wrong place?  She had to move closer to the door now that the line was growing shorter. It would be her turn next and the clock now said four thirty. By the time she arrived home it would be dark. Dark, and where would this woman be? Catching a bus to catch a bus to catch another bus that would take her home, all the while carrying this child who would let out weak cries, growing weaker with each passing mile?

She had seen mothers like this before, on other days when she stood in the same line, being ushered in quicker than most who warmed these benches-- who would wait for hours to see an undertrained professional. She had wondered why they placed the obstetrics ward directly adjacent to the children’s cancer wing. For the women here like her, swelling with new life, it seemed an awfully depressing way to start out your one chance at a family.

She knew she was being too harsh. And yet the same thoughts would often run through her head at the grocery store or when the men came to repair the bath tub. At once sour and critical of what seemed such backward ways, and then strangely moved and humbled as she watched them care for things or think industriously in ways she and her bourgeois wastefulness knew nothing about.

The quaint nurse had returned, this time joined by a matching companion. They helped the weathered mother to her feet, handing her papers and somewhat matter-of-factly directing her to a different desk where she could request additional aid. The Woman followed them with her eyes. The nurses too looked tired, their days long spent with lines of anxious parents that shoved and jostled and thrust papers in their face and demanded things, since that was the only way to get anything done around here. The mother slumped against the desk window, baby crying again now. A hand fluttered, waving her away with that pink slip again.

Stop being so dramatic, Leigh tried to look away. She didn’t know the whole story, of course, and even she did and if it were true there were a million more stories just like it. What could she do? The six of them, they gave so much away as it was, and even if they gave away everything they had it would not be enough to solve the world’s problems.

But the weathered woman, she was not the world. She was just one. And Leigh, with the foreign colored hair, she was not the world, she was just one. One helping one: this she could do. She fingered the envelope in her pocket, fat and full with the crisp bills the bank had just given her. The last of the hard earned and long saved funds to add to the stash in the back of the sock drawer, the stash that they had scrimped and saved and endured eating rice and beans for, all to fly home for a Family Christmas they had not tasted in eight long years. 

It’s not mine, she argued, a small bead of worry starting to creep into her mind. Who was she to give away these weeks of sacrifice and long laid plans? They would be hurt, would not understand, it would be like slapping all their small but sweet efforts in the face. The Boy’s allowance, The Girl’s Lemonade Stands this summer, it wasn’t hers to throw away. What would she tell them? She had only meant to go out this day and get the last of the cash to buy the tickets tomorrow. How could she walk in the door and tell them she had given the rest away? She couldn’t. She must try and forget about it. After all, she didn’t really know the whole story anyway.

Just listen for the heartbeat, check the sugar levels, measure the belly, and send me on my way. She closed her eyes and tried to think about snow falling on Christmas Eve, the feel of climbing the stairs again to her old room, the children cuddling and giggly in the old bunk beds next door. They finished and she buttoned her coat hurriedly, wrapping the scarf to cover her hair and half her face. They stared, but she marched quickly through the wide glass doors, air smacking her cheeks and making her eyes leak tears that blew icy in the night wind.

The weathered mother stood there. Huddling her bundle, looking intently at the map lighted blue and fluorescent outside the hospital doors, she did not glance up.

Leigh felt her heart beat fast, faster than it ought to be, were she meant to keep that fat and heavy bundle of crisp pink bills. The scenes of bustling airports and joyous hugs, children’s crumpled faces and another Christmas gone flashed through her mind like one of those bullet trains that was there and gone in the time that you blinked. The weathered mother had turned, started walking into the darkness. Leigh felt her feet quickening to catch up, her arm reaching out to gently lay hold of the puffy brown coat, her hands pressing the thick white envelope in between the brown leathery fingers and layers of quilts. She quickly but firmly stated what this was in simple Chinese. Ni xuyao bangzhu. You need help. Take this. Please. God bless you.

Walking home now in the darkening twilight, Leigh’s shoulders felt light, and perhaps her head a bit too. Now it was her cheeks that coursed wet, the tears streaming down beneath her scarf and making paths down her neck. Who had ever said that to give would not mean sacrifice? But the rest of the way now seemed unclear, and though her blood buzzed with the intensity of a moment that had now passed, she knew that six sets of eyes awaited her at home. She dreaded those eyes.

Hours later, the telling and the flood of more tears behind her, she lay still and silent beneath the soft comfort of flannel sheets. Strong hands clasped hers as they stared into darkness. Perhaps something greater than snow flurries and the comfort of loved ones had been gained. It was not for them to know, not now. For them it was enough to know that they had been given a gift, and it was meant for giving. 

Her breathing grew soft, eyes heavy with the evening full of tears. He turned to kiss her cheek before she drifted off, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth, “Eight years in a row now love… and you’re almost getting good at it.”

-Christine Keegan © 2010
This is a fictional story, written as an exercise for Mortal Muses theme for the day {Giving}

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Days of December 15 {Books}

It's been quite a long time since a book{worm} wednesday. Just recently a friend let me borrow Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, and at the same time, I started Tolstoy's War and Peace. This seems a strange and ill-planned reading list for the last couple weeks of Advent and I'm not sure what I was thinking. So, both of those may go on hold until the New Year and in the meantime I have been gathering a few of our favorite Christmas reads for the kids. There are a few new finds as well, thanks to a well stocked and thoughtful supply at our school's Elementary Library.

But beyond a short book list, I also want to share a place I've begun to visit regularly. Some of you may remember my timid raving about a new author I was introduced to and her book, Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. Well, my interest has hardly waned and since that time I've been sent a few more of her novels, both of which my husband and I have mused slowly over, and fully enjoyed.

She is not flashy, she is not overly original. She is not poetic like an Alan Paton or profound like a Chaim Potok. But she is exquisitely real, and an observer of the grave realities of life and the presence of God's grace. She writes about small towns, and small lives, people who are very much like ourselves and with all the wonders and flaws we too possess. I love her stories.

So anyway, Mrs. Wright also has a website where she somewhat regularly posts writings: poems, prompts, or some of her own short fiction stories. Right now she is doing a four part Advent Fiction about an old farmer. You can read along here.

Now, onto our list. Merry Christmas reading everyone!

Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John.
I have wonderful memories of my mother reading this book to our family growing up. There is so much to love about it, it's set in the Alps for goodness sake, at Christmas-time. But dear Annette has much to learn about friendship, loyalty, and ultimately forgiveness.

The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston (picture book)
This is a new read for us this year. It has beautiful, magical illustrations and a lovely story about a young girl in the Appalachians during one of the World Wars.

Hilarious story told from the eyes of a young girl about the misfit family in town that takes over the Church Christmas Pageant. Endearing and fun at the same time.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett (picture book)
I really enjoy this author and the beautiful, unique illustrations. This particular story is a new one this year... haven't even read it yet.

The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald
George MacDonald. That's all I need to say. These stories are a bit old for my children, so they mainly look at the pictures. But I enjoy reading them, and I'm hopeful they will too in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Days of December 14 {Dream House}

{in the making}

Today the Little Scout and I visited the boys at school. It was pretty exciting all around... there were gingerbread houses being made (lots of candy stealing from some sweet little hands accompanied by sideways smiles), there were peppermints (something you cannot get here in China), there were big brothers who were excited to show off their little sister and little sisters who were delighted to be so included, there was a library trip and new Christmas stories and a stop in to see Daddy and our favorite teachers/neighbors to hug, and oh what a morning!

{a find}

{dream house}

{you can sit with me}

Monday, December 13, 2010

Days of December 13 {Brrr}

{Together is Better}

The temperatures began to dive today. 

On my first of three trips to the bus stop at the top of the hill, I was feeling a tad under-dressed in long sleeves and a wool sweater-coat. By noon I was in a heavier coat, but my hands and ears were freezing. 

At three thirty, I decided to make an uncharacteristic (and final) trip to meet Skills even though he's old enough to make the short walk back with his friends by himself, because I was guessing he's not old enough to know that in this weather, hats and coats and scarves are just necessary, even if they don't look cool. I was right... he likely would have walked in the house half frozen with frostbite had I not been there to zip up everything and tie my scarf around his bare neck. Mother of The Year, here I come.

{Stories As Only They Can Tell Them}


Well, my friend Tash might sneak in and grab it from me... she actually hugged her kids on the way home instead of sticking a camera in their face. Maybe I'll have to wait until next year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Days of December 12 {Going}




I took a walk this morning, wanting to go a bit slower and maybe photograph some of the things I always pass when I run. It was quite cold, heavy with cloud cover, and whipping with wind. It was Sunday too, and I couldn't help but think of a few old hymns when I looked at these pictures later on.

This is December in Qingdao: colorless, huddled, but brave (women on bikes, men in the ocean, me with a camera).

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Days of December 11 {Bushy}


There is a fundraiser going on at our school to raise money for a nearby orphanage. Part of this fundraiser is called "save or shave" wherein whichever bucket has the most money in it decides what my husband must do with his facial hair. 

As you can see, the "save" bucket continues to have command.

If burrowing my face into this wild bush of scratchy hair to kiss my man every day as he leaves for work means children who are already in extreme want can have some of their needs met, than I am humbly willing to accept this state of things. 

And who's to say it's not a bit of a treat to have someone daily reminding you of what Mary may have felt like, or even Mrs. Klaus for that matter. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Days of December 10 {Ring Around}

{Ring Around}

Imagine all the glitter bottles in all the world poured out onto every piece of plastic evergreen, pine cone, or enlarged Santa face cut-out, then throw them all into a small 2x2 meter stall, and there you have the extent of what shopping for Christmas decor here in China is like. 

It is a frightful, perhaps even obscene event. At least for someone like me, who is drawn to natural textures and simple, tasteful arrangements. My sister in law offered to go buy up brown paper bags and rafia for my wrapping next year if that tells you anything.

So making our home feel and look festive brings an added challenge, which can be frustrating if I think too hard about it or pine too much for what I can't have (like a real tree, or a fresh evergreen wreath). But it can be fun and inspiring too... it makes me look for things to use that aren't being "sold" as Christmas ware. Like fruits, or bushes heavy with berries. It makes me think of things like stringing some beads I found at a local shop, or placing a clump of cinnamon sticks in a bowl. And of course, the kids can always make paper snowflakes.

It's just one more of those things about living away from what I know and love; I can miss it furiously, but at the same time be somehow decidedly okay with it. And looking at my ring of Hawthorn's around some recycled candles, I can even be almost delighted in it.

This week's theme at The View From Here is {Tinseltown}
If you'd like to share photos of some of the tinsel in your home, click on over to join.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Days of December 9 {Reasons}

[coming home]

I hear comments, drops of words that are meant to smack as reminders, to remember the real reason for the season. Sometimes it sounds as though somehow in the midst of all our merrymaking, we should really be looking quietly at that Baby in a manger, thinking real hard and holy about that Night. So we bake and string garland, shop for presents and go to concerts, all the while throwing these reminders around, telling ourselves we should really be looking up at the sky for angels, instead of going about this busy holiday business.

But part of me thinks, or wonders… did He not come to earth?? Mary pondered these things in her heart, but she still fed a baby and walked to get water and cooked meals and swept dirty floors. She still had to go to a baptism and buy pigeons beforehand and talk to Joseph and get vegetables for the next day.

So I’m wondering, if your heart is quiet, can you not ponder all these things as you go about your earthy life too?

We have to wonder then, don’t we, why DO we celebrate Christmas? Why do we carry on these festivities  at all when things like joy and thankfulness, worship and generosity should be part of our everyday lives, not brought out like berry wreaths to adorn our exteriors once a year.

So, I’m not saying I’m certain of this, but I do wonder if the act of celebration is more a gift given to us, than it is anything else.

“This is what faith gives us, celebrations of what has already come true and celebrations of what will someday be true. We’re between the promises and the coming true. And to keep us going, the Good Lord gives us celebrations. We celebrate because we believe, not because we’re particularly happy, because often we’re not.” ~Myrtle

The Story of Christmas is my story, a part of my history. When you tell and re-tell parts of your history, you are learning about where you came from, and how to continue where you are going. I have to re-tell this story to myself every day. But the celebrating of it… the looking forward, the anticipation, the delight of candles in a dark room and special foods laid out once a year, the special songs and particular smells… this is a gift of joy in a hard world.

Yesterday, his upper lip sticky with chocolate and whipped foam, my little son asked questions about this Story, one he must one day choose to take or deny as his own. My answers, the bare facts of it all, sounded crazy coming out of my mouth.
Jesus was adopted by his earthly father too, just like some of your friends are.
Because Joseph wasn’t the father who made him.
Who made him?
God put him in Mary’s tummy.
Well then who is Jesus?
He is God, who became a man. You see, there is one God, but he is three different persons. How?
I don’t know exactly how, but he is. He’s not like us.
Who is Jesus’ father then?
God the Father.
Well then who is Jesus?
Oh dear.

Yes, it’s not the most acceptable story on the block. It’s not the easiest to understand. But then, as dear old Mr. Lewis says, “it’s just the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect”, which is not necessarily grounds to build an entire theology on, but it does ring as a sort of truth. If God really were far grander, far beyond my imaginations, my ability to comprehend, as a made thing should feel towards its Creator, then I would have to expect that His ways would not be something I could conjure up to man-made stories.

It’s a wonderful, real, downright dirty and broken up Story, with Glory leaking all through. This is the story of our lives too, is it not? So I can sit with my mind full of holiday creatings and desire for cozy merriment, and still muse on the good Words every morning before dawn cracks through the glass panes, and find joy in the telling of my Story, our Story; as true today as it will be in June, but giving thanks for a reason, a season to shout about it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Days of December 8 {Stars}

[Seaside Stars]

Would I ever have thought that a washed up starfish would make me think of Christmas? But here I am, living in a coastal city in the northeast of China, it's December, and I'm seeing stars. 

When we walk home in the mornings, we peer over the wooden railings at the water softly washing away the contents of the silty shore, or creeping slowly up it's edge-- depending on whether the tide is coming or going. At that time of the morning, the sun is usually low over the water, starting it's climb upward, and the colors and bend of the light are usually the loveliest they will be all day. The gritty air we complain of makes it bleed red and orange, or a luminous gold in a muted sea of faded purple and grey.

Often there are a few women strewn here or there atop the jutting rocks, belting their lungs out in rhythmic exercises that release all the hot air and bad energy. A bag of seaweed will sit safely from the water's edge, it's owner bent over, combing the rocks and sand for choice bits, dangling them up in the sunlight, picking unwanted strands or particles from their shiny skins.

And today, as we gazed down below, we saw one large flat rock, sparkling with dozens of starfish, like jewels spilled haphazardly in the sun. Someone had clearly gathered them and laid them out to dry. Later in the morning I found several more piles in various locations along the road. Was there a sudden deposit of these amber toned beauties in the night? Is this the season for starfish gathering? Do they know it's Christmas? 

My son has been asking for a star to top our tree. Maybe this is the perfect blend for our seaside holiday. 
Squid for Christmas dinner? Anyone?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Days of December 7 {Cheer}

[Warm and Cheery]

I left the house this morning, the sun still rising over the water and three children bundled head to toe trailing behind me. The sky showed signs of blue, of clarity. And with it came the cold.

So we decided to scrap our plans to walk downtown for groceries, making do instead with our last bit of milk and roasting up a big batch of golden granola. 

We did brave that cold once more to meet brothers returning home from school, and to pick up our daily ration of juzi, the mandarin oranges that are oh so good and in season right now.

There wasn't much of significance to the day, but sometimes all it takes is a mug of warm tea, some almonds roasting with coconut and sunflower seeds, a couple sleeping children and piles of freshly folded sheets, and a warm inside that can brave any blast from the outside, and you may just find yourself feeling a bit of cheer.

[Bright and Cheery]

[Naughty Cheerub]

Monday, December 6, 2010

Days of December 6 {Red}


If there was one color I was told I could never wear as a redhead, it was... red. Well, purple and orange and yellow and fluorescents (it was the 80's) and I guess most colors outside of the earth tones. This may have something to do with why I have trouble branching away from anything outside of... brown. 

Leave it to my little girl to help me spread my color wings. That and all her hand-me-downs. These clothes came mostly from a family with three beautiful blondies and another little girl who has lovely olive skin, brown eyes and hair like dark chocolate. Needless to say, the colors have been slightly sunnier and have included a lot more purple than my redhead counselors would have deemed appropriate. 

But she looks fine.

And red, you can wear it girl. You can wear it from head to toe for all I care.
Starting with the toes.

This week's theme at The View From Here is {Red}

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Days of December 5 {Down}


We walked this morning, faces to the ground, looking at the newly laid concrete tiles that formed our path. The light was bright and harsh, though muted a bit by the gritty skies that still linger. No blue in sight. 

We took a family picture down by the water's edge, only one more to go in our twelve installments of The Twelve Project. It too showed all of us, heads down, some looking at lapping water, some at children's heads, some for avoiding glare in the eyes. But viewing it later, it seemed so somber, everyone bent on the earth like that.

It seems a bit like these Advent days can be. Bent over, looking at the stuff of the earth, when you feel like the heavenly things are bright, but maybe a bit too glaring. You've heard the Story told oh so many times, and the angel voices singing, and the joyful sounds, and yet the world at your feet just seems too real, and a bit too bleak. I was thinking of a family leaving our city soon, these holidays must be filled with little that seems wonderful for them just now. My in-laws had to cancel their plans to come for Christmas, due to an emergency surgery and the necessary recovery time. It's good that it did not happen while they were here. But it still stings of broken down bodies and plans that we can't make happen. 

There was a quote this morning. Something about "Christians are joyful, not because they turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice, but because they look to a Reality that rests sure underneath it all." There is a lot to unpack there (not an exact quote either). It's true we don't gaze stupidly at heavenly realities while all this broken stuff goes on down here. But can you drum up excitement over God with Us and mangers and shepherds when it seems so distant from the dirt at your feet?

This, I think is the true beauty and joy of Advent. You need not drum up anything at all. It is not trying to re-create a picture perfect Christmas setting. It is not trying to feel the same kind of joy and excitement over Jesus in a manger year after year. 

It is telling yourself the Truth about Immanuel, in the midst of your utterly earthy circumstances. Perhaps some years the telling will bring joy, some years surrender, some years hope, some years wonder, some years sadness, some years longing, and maybe some years it will just go silently by, not making any visible ripples, but building up strength in the soul bones. He seems to be a fan of silent years. Must be a special kind of work that can be done.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Days of December 4 {Blurred}


It's not clear. Should we have gone to that crazy Christmas Fair or not? I know we barely missed having a ten story crane fall on us, something we soberly observed as we peered out the taxi window at a smashed car and the snake like neck of man's genius come crashing down. 

It's not clear. Should I have spoken up last night? Or kept quiet and still; letting others speak, ruminate their thoughts into the air, and kept my own blunderings to myself. I know I thought about it far too much in the hours since... do I care more that I spoke ill timed words, or that others might perceive me with ill? 

It's not clear. What we're having for dinner. Too late to make pizza dough, and I'm still sick from that taxi ride. Enough vegetables for curry. Maybe those muffins can wait another day. 

It's not clear. The sky. It's still gritty and grey, but tinged with a coat of dirt brown. Is this blowing in from the West? I thought that happened in the spring. Or is it spewing from the factories, or the parched ground and all that dry dust that can't stay put for lack of rain?

It's not clear. Why the greatest Story the earth has ever known takes place in such humble circumstances. Why so much that is True is hard to understand. Why we can be so glad and grateful, and so sad and disappointed at the same time.

It's not clear. But it's still lovely, worth looking at. 
Oh, did you think I was talking about life?
 It's just a Tree I'm looking at. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Days of December 3 {Sending}

{Sending to Anna}

I just walked to a friend's house to see her off. She is leaving for the month of December to visit family in the U.S. I left a little package with her, to carry all those hours through customs and check-ins, and hopefully send from a post office somewhere in New York, so it can hop back on a plane and finally make it's way to Portland, where my newborn little namesake now lives. 

And why not send you something as well? I am not a linky person, because I just don't browse the internet enough, nor do I know the best places to visit. My links all end up being the same sites over and over again!
But I was inspired by a few things I saw just recently, so I'll happily share them with you. 

And while we often say in this day and age "what would we do without Google?" I do sometimes wonder how it would feel to be rid of all this wonderful access of ideas. Because often, instead of inspiring  it can easily be intimidating or overwhelming, or just make you feel like you have
 a. no time, 
b. not enough money, or 
c. no creativity. 
There are probably other things it makes you feel too. 

I'm just saying, take them with a grain of salt. Or only take ten minutes and then stop looking. Or only pick one idea to try (today for me, the muffins!), or be happy for all those people with wonderful gifts and talents that they share so freely with the rest of us, but then pick up the bits you have in your house and just use them differently than you did before (for me, green leftover string around scraps of linen from an old bag). 

Without further ado, here they are:

  • Such a simple idea (how could I not love?), and cheap! It actually makes me think of gift-wrapping... since you can't get paper here and all I have is half a roll of brown postage paper.
  • Can't wait to make these (perfect for leftover feta a friend gave me and some fresh pumpkin), and these are a yummy idea for scones, but I think these would make a perfect little holiday gift (as in, someone please make them for me!)
  • This is one of the prettiest little advent calendars I've seen. Love those red numbers and sweet little packages.
  • Using her free Advent devotional with the kids this year, and personally following the daily readings found here.
  • Everything under the tree is going to made from wood (though from a local woodworker) or wool, I think. 

December Photo Project

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Days of December 2 {Revisited}

[winter produce]

This morning as I ducked my head into the market at the gate, the colors of poppy red Hawthorn's and these sun-kissed melons caught my eye. The composition of this photo looks vaguely familiar... and I have to tell you I physically restrain myself from repeating this shot almost weekly. I just love it for some reason. And the change in available produce due to the current season means that the pears and grapes sitting in abundance in August get replaced by crates of mandarin oranges and now these jewel toned Hawthorns. I just want to string them up and wrap them around a tree or something. 

Instead, today we are all home together... making homemade cinnamon ornaments and sweet rolls for a bake sale, coloring and playing indoor soccer (hmmm), trying to enjoy a rare day with all of us here while not getting in each others hair (another hmmm), taking an afternoon break to Sound of Music, and watching the sky fill with a gritty layer of pollution (final hmmm).

Surprisingly, I am in good spirits despite the hair pulling, gritty skies, and the fact that putting the holes in our ornaments cracked every. single. one. of them. I feel strangely grateful for my sweet kids in spite of all their issues (didn't someone once look at me the same way?), and the smell of cinnamon baking in the air doesn't hurt either.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I Won't Be Home For Christmas

When I woke up this morning, feet slapping quietly on the cold tiles, heading for the kitchen and waiting for the drip drip to reach the 4 cup line so I could sneak the pot out for a quick pour, I noticed it was dense with fog outside. So dense you could barely see the next building over. And it was strangely warm, nearly 60 degrees, on December 1st. It was just another moment, in what can sometimes feel like an endless string of moments, where China feels like the furthest place from Christmas you could be.

Sometimes the removal of all the familiar ambiance and traditions and weather can make me feel removed too.  On some days, this feeling removed and barren is just hard. But on some days, and there are more and more of them, this removal comes as a good thing. Stripped of all the outward adornments that I love, it's easier to love the source of all these festivities, which for us, is primarily about the Person we are celebrating, and not the Hallmark card around it. But don't get me wrong, I like the look and feel of the Hallmark card too. 

So even though it is hard to watch friends board a plane for the States every December, and even though I wish I could fill my house with the scent of fresh evergreens, or buy brown paper and raffia to wrap gifts in, in many ways I am grateful to be here. Things are simpler, and it's not as hard to say no to the rat race (because there isn't one) that surrounds the Holiday season. 

Without all that pressure, it can sometimes seem like you have to create Christmas out of nothing around here.  But even this, I don't mind really. It's like a blank slate that you can fill with whatever seems most special, or appropriate, or purposeful to you. So this year, just a few things to help us celebrate the wonder and joy of Advent (which means "coming"), and the main event of it all-- Immanuel (who even comes to China).

Our tree.
Nativities to look at, nativities to play.
Nightly Advent lighting
Baking, of course.
Preparing gifts, making gifts.

And last but not least, just a little fun for me... joining in on the December Photo Project, which is posting one (at least) picture a day for each day in the month of December. You can join too!