Tuesday, January 29, 2019

What next after Christmas?

Part of our Nativity scene at home on Christmas Eve...

  When the song of the angels is stilled, 
  When the star in the sky is gone, 
  When the kings and princes are home, 
  When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
  The work of Christmas begins:

  To Find the Lost, 
  To Heal the Broken, 
  To feed the Hungry,
  To Release the Prisoner, 
  To Rebuild the Nations, 
  To Bring Peace among others, 
  To Make Music in the heart.

    ---Howard Thurman

I always find myself a little reflective after Christmas. The tree and its ornaments, the stars in the windows, nativity sets, and old cherished stockings bring rivers of memories. I just don't want all the festivities to end. I want to continue to feel my loved ones close, hear the familiar music, and see the stillness of a winter night with all the sprinkled lights under the stars. But then I think, what do I do with all the extra light, music, and love from this season? I agree with Ebeneezer Scrooge who says in The Christmas Carol, "I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach."

I believe every Christmas we can discover who we want to be for the rest of the year. We can bring some laughter and a smile to a child because we remember what it was like to be a child. We can invite someone who looks lonely to come in. We can talk to someone who looks scared or sad. All those Christmas lights, laughter, and love were meant to teach us something: to remember to be a little more like Him for the rest of the year.

All Elias wanted this year was a Santa suit. He wore it on the streets of Stockholm and Doha. Maybe we should bring it out in July to have me remember Scrooge's promise to live with all the past, present and future Christmases together.

     I like this poem that my friend, Erik Jacobsen wrote.

     Christmas Afternoon

        He is there. 

        Amid the cast-off wrappings 
        and trappings of Christmas-spent, 
        in the fatigue of gifting and getting, 
        for both the perennially disappointed
        and those who got all they wanted.
        He is there. 

         In the stories and the stockings, 
         but also in the cold, dark, lonely streets, 
         in the homes of the unbelievers
         and underachievers, 
         He is there. 

         This newborn babe
         with eyes to see and ears to hear
         soon will have words to speak:
         "My peace I give unto you...
         Let not your heart be troubled."

          In the fallen pine needles
          on the floor around the dried-out tree, 
          among the broken ornaments
          and too much chocolate, 
          in this loud or quiet place, 
          He takes my face
          in his tender newborn hands
          and softly shows me, 
          "Here I am."

              --Erik Jacobsen  2018

One thing I do to keep Christmas alive for me is to leave my stars up. Hopefully, it will remind me of the new stars that have arisen in me this season. (Heleman 14:5)  I don't want them to fade away...

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sweden (Part 2): Three Swedish words for a more beautiful life (especially in the winter)...

Happiness, knowledge, not in another place, but this place, not for another hour, but this hour.              --Walt Whitman

It is impossible to win the great prizes of life without running risks, and the greatest of all prizes are those connected with the home.                                        --Teddy Roosevelt

Having fun on a winter walk with the tomte (Swedish elves). We found a few in a burrowed tree on a long winter walk--embracing mysig
There are distinct reasons for the same Scandinavian countries to keep popping up as having the happiest people. Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and Norway consistently make the top ten list, sometimes all five in the top slots. A lifestyle of maximizing life is consciously observed: embracing the winter light outside, but being content with the coziness of the four walls we live in, our home. It also laps over into other seasons: summer is a time to start a hike at 8 pm, and get home at 3am--enjoying the summer midnight sun. (One of my favorite summer memories in Iceland). People try to enjoy interludes of time to the fullest--even a few moments reading by a candle add contentment to the day. Whatever season, a pleasant resolve to connect with others, yourself, and nature reigns.

My cousin and I meeting with some Icelandic friends. As we talked, I learned that these two men are from my great-grandfather's little town of Flatey. That's what happens when people just sit around and talk with strangers. You find out those things when you take the time to sit and talk to people--having mysig time.

It seems a bold statement, but I believe in our lives, especially with a new year upon us, we can be happier by just a few adjustments and tweaks.  Most of us don't really need an entire overhaul or major shift--just a new habit or two can transform our joy levels. In a place where the weather can be harsh and dark, Scandinavians understand some core principles to make life more fulfilling, more joyful, especially in the winter.

Lakes and water abound in and around Stockholm. In every moment, whether light or dark in December, I was spellbound by the assessability to so much beauty. I kept asking myself, "How can the world be so beautiful? So good for the soul to embark on finding beauty--even when it was cold.
Since I was just in Sweden, I was taught these words by my Icelandic cousin who lives there. Every day we strived to embrace these words or lifestyle--no matter the weather or lack of sun. Each day was filled with a deep sense of new wonder of nature, bonding with conversations and strengthening relationships. During the day, there seems to be more permission to detach yourself from the world (and the phone)--to enjoy the people and the beautiful world around you.

A painting by the Swedish artist Carl Larsson showing the Swedish tradition of showing children how to learn and love the  winter time....
  Three Swedish Words to make your life even more beautiful...

1) mysig--a noun meaning a conscious commitment to celebrate and enjoy the wintertime, to slow down, get away from the stressful, make time for friends and family, turn off the social media, relax and/or meet a friend for fika (explained below), eating and making delicious food together, adding an extra layer of clothing and going out to enjoy the white forests or glassy lakes, etc. The Swedes even use an app called App Forest that allows people to get off their phones and get credit to buy a tree with their earned coins from not using their phone all the time.

So many much light in the winter darkness....

Mysig can mean cozying up with a blanket or duvet, lighting a candle, drinking a hot drink in a mug and reading a book by yourself, watching the snow fall outside. But it can also mean gathering loved ones together to enjoy a movie or conversation while the fire crackles beside you. It means making your home full of mysig--like candles, delicious smells, playing games, donning your knitted socks, enjoying the warmth and coziness of home. The Swedes also have a word for Friday night times called Fredagymys that is a combination of Friday and mysig or coziness--like being with your friends and family on a couch watching a good movie and eating together--destressing from the work week.

Taking time to mesig--playing chess with a lit-up board

The Danish have a word called hygge, in Icelandic it means gluggaveour (window weather), and in Norway it is koselig. Yet, from my understanding, the Swedish word mysig goes a little further: to enhance the coziness of your home. As Anne Hart describes, "Mysig means a lack of fussiness, contentment and quiet confidence, functional architecture, pared-back design, modesty, and wholesomeness." 

Maximizing fun in the winter

This playground is right next to a lake and beachfront, with the elementary school across the street. Kids learn early how to have a mysig life.

Every day maximizing the light--no matter how cold...

For the new year, mysig could be to create good memories with others, get in touch with yourself, and enjoy nature. Here are a few ways I thought of: taking up a new seasonal activity, visiting friends and family, cooking seasonal food (like making more soups), making your abode more cozy with fluffy pillows, candles (Swedes never seem to worry about the fire hazard of candles), wearing comfortable and cozy clothes, hosting a game party or musical soiree (a musical concert at home with friends who are willing to play their instruments and/or sing), listening to music, making things from nature and bringing it in the house to enjoy. Here are some great ideas for creative fun projects like ice lanterns. They are enchanting and so easy/fun to make!

Having some mysig time with the siblings.... An ice lantern I made for an even more enchanting evening...
2) Lagam is the approach to life that is balanced and appropriate--meaning not too much and not too little (Just what Goldilocks used to say)--just right. The word lagam originated in Viking times when they would all sit around a table drinking out of a horn or pitcher of mead. The first person would sip some mead, and then the second until the container had been passed around. No one took too much so that the last person would not have any. It is living in moderation, not in excess--being mindful of taking care of the environment, your finances, not living a life with lots of clutter, being temperate in your habits. It is about finding happiness in the middle, not overindulging or not getting enough. Striving for the peaceful, appropriate, moderate place/space is what lagam is all about.

It extends to relationships, in the workplace, and in families. Decisions are made in a group, with a team-like approach, nothing too authoritarian. Being mindful of others' feelings and saying, "What do you think?" or "Just a suggestion or thought, but I was thinking..." That's lagam too.

My cousin told me about her triplet's experience in seventh grade--around age 13. We all remember the occasional bullying or teasing, maybe even a lot at that age. But she said in Swedish classrooms and homes, there is a lot of talk about lagam.  There is very little conflict or bullying at school; that's not the way people behave, even 13-year-olds. They know when the imbalance erupts and they stop it or they go tell someone who can bring the tide back to lagam (or balance) again. No one is supposed to disrupt the lagam.

3) And last, but certainly very important: remember to have your fika--at least a few times a week, if you cannot fit it in every day! Fika time is to carve out a few moments to have a hot drink with a friend or loved one. It is a sacrosanct time--doesn't have to be long--but just to again remove oneself from stress or cares to enjoy a mug of hot drink (I like my herbed tea and occasional hot chocolate), perhaps a little sweet dessert (Swedes love their pastries). In every office, there is a "fika room"--known as a safe way to socialize. There is no alcohol, just a hot drink and almost always a little sweet (but just lagom--not too much and not too little).

Choose your fika to make--savory or sweet

Welcome to a fika!

Walking about 10 km before a "little fika"
Having a fika together with family
Time to get come inside for a fika
Sweden--known for taking time for their fika

The unspoken rule is not to have conflict or talk about politics, but to be respectful, polite, friendly. It is a time to chit-chat, enjoy another's company. Fikas usually happen around 10 am, sometimes at 3 pm, and then occasionally at night. It is a time to recharge when the weather is cold and a non-threating way to ask someone for a little chat. It doesn't have to be deep, just fun and enlivening.

This is a hilarious youtube that went viral about the necessity of having a fika every day.

So now you know how to have mysig, lagom, and fika! Here is to a blessed, happy, and healthy year ahead!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Sweden (Part 1): Gathering the Light on Santa Lucia Day

It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to 
see the light. --Aristotle

Going to a Santa Lucia outdoor concert at Skansen, a large open-air museum in Skansen.

Amidst the winter darkness here in Sweden, everyone wants to maximize light. People plan their daily errands and work, in the hope of seeing rays of the sun. Once the light dims, there are candles and stars in windows to bring luminosity to the shadows. You can even see some small bonfires giving warmth to people as they stop by on some streets. But the day of Santa Lucia on December 13 is when midnight turns to day in Sweden with all the illuminating candles, fires, and lights. It is a day that begins the countdown, not only to Christmas but to the shortest day of the year on December 21.

Santa Lucia Day is named after a young woman named Lucia of Syracuse (283-304) who was a Christian martyr who brought food to persecuted Christians who were hiding in the Roman catacombs. Legend says she brought food in the darkness, wearing a crown of candles so that it would light the way in the underground tunnels so she could carry the food. Lucia means light, and she not only wanted to offer food to the afflicted but to bring light and hope to them.

The feast or festival of Santa Lucia is a day when music, light, and gathering friends and family together has prepared Swedes and Norwegians for the winter darkness for centuries. Being here in Stockholm this holiday has made me want to see, gather, chase, and radiate light a little more. It is a little darker here in Sweden right now, but everyone is prepared for the shadows. The Swedes know how to bring on the light like I have never seen before. And just like Saint Lucia who brought light and food to those who felt hopeless in a dark place, it made me want to do it a little more too.

The songs of the Santa Lucia are layered with beauty. Here are some of the lyrics that are sung during Santa Lucia:

We welcome you on this night of darkness. And welcome the light and the new morning. And a Merry Christmas to you. The new star is coming as we walk here in the darkness with a candle in our hands. Welcome, Jesus. It is eleven more days until Christmas.

Here is the melody of Santa Lucia

Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth
Shadows are brooding,
There is our dark house.
Walking with its candles.
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia

Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed, 'whispering like wings,
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Darkness shall take light soon,
From earth's valleys,
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us"
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky--
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.
               Santa Lucia Festivities in Stockholm, Sweden 2018

Every year young girls are nominated and chosen in choirs, schools, and churches to represent Santa Lucia. This young woman was the Lucia from Gothenburg Cathedral in southern Sweden where it was televised to all of Sweden this year in 2018. One location is chosen every year. I watched the Gotheberg choir early on Santa Lucia Day at home. I was struck by the beautiful melodies, many of which are a part of Swedish Christmas songs. When my cousin translated them for me, I was so touched by their meaning. Both of us cried as she relayed the English translation to me. 
The Gotheberg choir in 2018 on the televised version.

A baker in Skansen, a historic open-air museum in Stockholm. A baker shows his Santa Lucia goods. 

Recipe for Lussekatter Saffron buns that everyone washes down with glogg (sweet, spiced juice) eaten with almonds and raisins.

Saffron buns in an Old Twon bakery

The oldest daughter traditionally serves these buns at home to her family, but Elias did it instead this year.

A local elementary school outside of Stockholm with light, candles, Advent lights ready for Santa Lucia.

Early on Santa Lucia morning--driving down the street. Candles line the streets to bring the light.

My cousin and son playing Santa Lucia at Skanson in Stockhom.

The early morning hours of light coming to a suburban Stockhom lake.

Lanterns on top of the fence to gather the light on a Stocholm fence.

Bonfires on the street to warm your hands by in Stockholm.

Two girls singing Santa Lucia songs at a Christmas market.

At a Santa Maria concert with the Stockholm University

A little Swedish girl enjoying the festivities. A few moments later she was dancing around and even directing the choir. 

Outside in Skansen, Stockholm

At the end of the day, we happened to come across a Santa Lucia ice skating show. To watch the children skating around with their lit-up skates and carrying candles was not only beautiful but even a little emotional. As the day wore on, the words of the songs touched me about bringing light to the world. 
Some of the girls who were in the show wiht theit lit up skates.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

South Africa 2: Going to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela's prison

       "There are personal actions each of us can take within our sphere of influence and expertise to help... No one of us can do it alone, but there is power if we leave old factions behind and build bridges to work together..."
                                              --Sharon Eubank

    "The world is truly round and seems to start and end with those we love."             --Nelson Mandela 

     "It is easier to change society than it is to change yourself."                     --Nelson Mandela

Robben Island, with Table Mountain in the background and penguins just behind us.
As the plane left the ground of Cape Town, South Africa for my return home, I reflected on the many lessons I learned in the almost two weeks of being there. I thought of the stare down with a male ostrich and how when I got back in my car at Table Mountain National Park, I would forever see animals in a different way. I was just taking his picture, but his iron-will eyes communicated to me the determined love he had for his family behind him--that he would protect them--at any cost. 

I remembered holding an elephant's trunk with my son who has autism and how we all joyfully walked through a field together. Again, an animal's eyes looking at me, but this time with a beckoning for friendship. Seeing playful flapping of whales dancing together in the Atlantic Ocean brought a majestic magic that made me feel like I was ten again. With many whales surrounding the boat and then on a cliff above them, I was riveted with their every leap. I will not forget the wonderful and creative people who I met--our conversations which I have played in my head again and again. But the overarching lesson came from a man who South Africa celebrated his 100th birthday this year--Nelson Mandela.

You cannot miss Nelson Mandela's influence all over the country. His face is ubiquitous-- on almost every paper currency, signs, and artwork. Quotes from his life are also everywhere. Yet, it wasn't until I went to Robben Island where he was imprisoned for about 18 years, and then for another nine years in another jail, that I began to understand, perhaps, just a little, the meaning of the word Forgiveness.  Mandela not only preached but pleaded for the new nation, without apartheid, to reconcile, to forgive. There were many who wanted him to preach revenge. Mandela refused. Instead, a man who had been long-suffering for 27 years envisioned something far greater--a country of peace, without divisions.

Mandela endured, along with the other political prisoners years of sleeping on a cold cement floor--devoid of medical supplies, proper food, hot water, newspapers, or a radio. Up until 1973, he was only able to see a visit every year for 30 minutes. He was not allowed to see his children until they were 16. His letters were only to be 500 words or less every six months. Yet, he did not complain or regret his decisions to be there. He earned an advanced law degree after ten years of struggling to get the textbooks.

With all that he outwardly, publicly endured, his inward transformation is what intrigues me the most. In a tiny cell, he even praised his ascetic living, calling it "an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings." The austerity, he added, "gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you."

The jail cell Nelson Mandela would be known as #44364. He was the 443rd prisoner the year of 1964 and was known by that number all the 18 years he was at Robben Island.

South Africa dismantled apartheid over two decades ago now. Fifty years of apartheid took its toll on the country, but what astounded me was that it was in Robben Island where Mandela, the lawyer, called the prison "the university of his life." In the most unlikely of places, often times lonely, and afflicted with heat and disease, he learned even harder lessons of the soul--how to forgive. His fellow prisoners were the professors, all learning from one another.
He would have solitary confinement for months, little food. Before 1973, he was able to see a visitor for 30 minutes once a month, and write and receive a letter every six months. Nevertheless, he taught, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." His first words out of prison were the insistence of forgiveness.

He came to the prison in 1964, and would not walk out a free man until February 11, 1990. After years of trying to peacefully disband apartheid, in the early 1960s, he began to think violence was the only way. But after being in "the university prison"--listening to illiterate men who had not received the education he had, men who came with different opinions and persuasions, they decided peace and reconciliation were absolutely the only way to bring democracy to South Africa. Mandela's first words out of prison were:

  "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here this day. I, therefore, place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

Later when he was released after 27 years, he befriended some of his prison guards at Robben Island. In 1993, both he and F. W de Klerk, the president of South Africa, received the Nobel Prize together, the man who had released him from prison. They were political rivals who needed one another: their unlikely successful negotiations saved a civil war in South Africa. Mandela's resolute will to peacefully carry on dialogue changed his country and the world. 

His example made me desire to resolutely desire to freely forgive. And when I think I am in a tough place, learn from everyone--to create a university where everyone around me are my teachers. 

A boat of political prisoners arriving into Cape Town from Robben Island, about a thirty-minute boat ride Cape Town.
Mandela invited 1,000 former prisoners five years after they were released from prison, in 1995. Every person picked up a rock to make a memorial to commemorate "the human spirit." Every tour guide at Robben Island is a former prisoner, adding to the impact of the tour.

Tom Moses, our guide, telling about his prison experience. He knew Mandela and thought of him as a father figure. He said to us that when they came back to remember their time as being prisoners, Mandela told them, "Let us never be sad here. It is a place where the human spirit has triumphed. 
With our tour guide, Tom Moses, who has vowed to educate and help others to always remember the political prisoner experience at Robben Island.

The prison halls...

Outside the cells where the prisoners would play soccer and sometimes tennis. Mandela was supposedly an expert tennis player.

The place where they had the occasional meeting

Political prisoners, depending on how dangerous they were deemed to be, had different diets.

During the tour, you can go to several dozen prison cells of other prisoners--the community of people who mentored  each other in their "university/prison."

Another prison colleague with Nelson Mandela

In each cell, there were signs about the prisoner. This story shows the compassion and forgiveness  that was engendered in the "prison/university,"
The prison buildings at Robben Island

More pictures of the prison ground

    Some of the very few pictures of Nelson Mandela we saw around              Cape Town

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