Friday, December 23, 2016

Christmas: Learning to give the first gift of true love

It is the season of Christmas for Christians, and hearts at this time are outstretched to those around us and even far away. Hopefully, this enfolding of our hearts happens all year long--no matter our religion, creed, or opinions. I have seen literal and transformative changes in people as they give, and because I am Christian, I see it no more clearly than at Christmas. Some of my fondest memories, if I could chronicle them, are at Christmas when my own heart has shed all layers of any misconceptions or generalizations. It is a time when our hearts learn how to grow.

My husband, when my daughters were small, dressed up on one of their first Christmases. Christmas has always brought us closer together because both of us were taught how to give true gifts as children by our own parents.

For Muslims (and because I live in a Muslim country), I am touched at their giving at Ramadan to those who are unfortunate. Our friend in Turkey always gives many sheep to others who are unfortunate so they may eat lamb meat. When I lived in Asia (Taiwan, China, Philippines, and Thailand), I needed to be very careful if I complimented someone on an object I liked. Unfailingly, I would then be given the item that I just admired. The scarf or necklace would often be taken off of them to give to me.

My Jewish friends, it seems, are very intent all year long to make the world a better place, contributing with money and service. One friend, a very talented attorney, was on our school board in St. Louis. He saw the distinct need that some high school kids needed to learn math and science better, but they had no one to tutor and help them. Every morning he was at the school to mentor them about math and physics--the subjects he loved so well. A few years later he retired early so he could teach at an inner city school. He is passionate about all children having the same educational opportunities.

Last night we asked each other (our children are older now), "When was the first time you remember how wonderful it was to give than to receive?" Sometimes the answer was simple, and the gesture was spontaneous. In other words, a simple exchange of hearts did not require much planning or fanfare. Perhaps it is when we are ready or prepared to receive that flow of compassion and love that is always there to gush in--if we have not diked the wall. But sometimes it was when we had planned an outing or activity. One son remembered in 2006 when the Cardinals won the World Series, we went to a men's shelter that Christmas Eve Day. One older man pleaded to sing, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I can still here him singing in a beautiful tenor voice his requested song:

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay. Remember Christ, Our Savior, was born on Christmas Day. To save us all from Satan's power when we have gone astray. O Tidings of Comfort and Joy...."

There were not many dry eyes in the crowd when he finished the cherished Christmas carol. Afterwards, I went up to talk to him, and he told me he had not long been out of jail. Those few moments at a men's shelter that Christmas changed my life. A man who had known "dismay" and the feelings of going "astray", but now had comfort and joy. And then with jubilant glee, he asked us all to sing "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" to remember our beloved Cardinal World Series win a few months earlier. My blind father-in-law, provided the accompaniment of the song on his harmonica.

 I have to say St. Louis came together that Christmas Eve Day. Our hearts and our children's hearts were different as we walked out of that shelter. Any rifts, chasms, or even fears that were in our hearts when we entered the shelter had evaporated as we unitedly sang together. A complete joy replaced skepticism and tentativeness.

When I look back on the years we raised our children, it is the moments of when their hearts were opened that give me the greatest satisfaction. To see them become new people, and I along with them,  are some of my favorite memories.

It is Christmas, the time to cast off misgivings, grudges, and yes, even despair--to learn how to live that way all year long. It is time to remember the lonely, the poor, the hungry, the disconsolate. As Howard W. Hunter said, "This year mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak love and then speak it again."

As my father-in-law would say, "We all need it."

Sunday, December 18, 2016

I was a stranger.... but not anymore.....

Syrian refugees fleeing from Aleppo

On December 18, National Day in Qatar, a large screen of pictures from Aleppo's destruction was shown to huge crowds. The much anticipated holiday was cancelled to remember the Syrian crisis here in Qatar.
This past week as the world has grieved with Aleppo and watched the exodus of Syrian refugees leave their beloved homes and communities, it is hard to know what to do to relieve the pain and sorrow of the pictures I see. Right before our eyes on a screen real people are fleeing. Genocide and slaughter grow in a place not far from where I live now. A war is raging. Some of my friends here are Syrian. The atrocities I see only seem to make my own shelter and food seem extravagant--even though it may be simple to some. 

This week, in solidarity with Aleppo, Qatar cancelled much of its National Day celebrations. That is like cancelling New Year's and the 4th of July. The entire country has been asked, no matter your race or religion, to meet with clothes and food, in tow, for Syria. The gathering place is at a flag pole on December 18 in Doha. I know it is nothing much to bring clothes and food to give, but it is the only thing I know what to do to assuage my conscience. I put out a notice in my compound, and soon there was a carload full of bags to give.

It makes me wonder what would happen if the entire world were trying to alleviate pain and suffering..... So proud of Qatar today for their leadership in raising money for Aleppo
Today as I reached in some closets to choose some clothes to give away, I spotted a coat that I had bought more than a year ago. I had worn it only a few times. And besides, I live in the Middle East so down coats are definitely not required attire here. As my family pulled the clothes in our closets and the piles layered higher, I couldn't help but remember a ten year old girl who began my decades old practice of collecting clothes and food for others--especially in this season of Christmas. As I pulled the new coat off the hanger, I remembered another coat I gave away long ago to her. I think it was that coat that started this passion of mine to collect clothes and food for others. Somehow the colossal divide I see in the world is a little more equal when we share. 

I can still see her forlorn face as she entered our San Diego, California 4th grade class. The teacher placed the new girl, Athena, in front of me so her bedraggled appearance was always in my nine year old view--as I looked at the blackboard in front of me. Her hair was rarely combed, and her beautiful blonde hair was matted and rumpled. If I remember right, she wore the same frayed cotton dress every day, with sandals that barely fit over her ankles. I think the worst part to the people surrounding her was that she must have rarely bathed. There was always a conspicuous oder when she was near. Of course, no one wanted to play with her at recess or even talk to her. Worse, she was the brunt of cruel jokes; most everybody fled when she entered their periphery.

As the days got colder (and even in San Diego there are some brisk days), I noticed she did not have a coat. I don't think I was a particularly observant child, but I could not help but see that after we came in from recess, Athena had goose pimples all over her arms and bare legs. Some days she stayed in from recess because she was chilled--and maybe she knew no one would play with her.  I began to talk to her, and played with her out on the black top. In my nine year old mind, I thought it was inconceivable that I had two coats hanging in my closet at home, and she had none to wear at recess. I remember asking my mom if she could come over to play with me, and if I could give her the olive green corduroy coat I did not wear anymore. 

I can still remember her smile and joy when I asked her to come to my house to play. I gave her the coat, and said I thought she needed it. I told her I didn't want her to be cold anymore. We drove her home that day to a place called the "River Bottom"--a few shanty houses that were situated under a bridge. As she left the car with her new coat on, she turned back to smile at me. Her family must have been on the move because it seemed she left a few months later. Maybe they worked the tomato fields in the River Bottoms, I don't know. Athena came like an easterly wind, not staying long, but with enough time to leave an imprint on my heart and conscience forever. 

Although I was only nine years old, her short friendship was not lost on me. Now several decades later, my family and I have gathered and collected truckloads of food and clothes. Today when I told my son with autism that we were collecting clothes from his closet for the Syrian refugees, he said, "We are changing the world, Mom." I don't know about that, but all I know is that I am changed every time I give in my small way.  

I wish I could personally give the down coat to a refugee in Syria. I would like to see them turn around and exchange a smile--a nod that we are friends--and tell them I don't want them to be cold. Instead, I think I will put a note in the pocket and say, "I know this is a very meager and small gift to give a coat to you. But the world is thinking of you as the cold, easterly winds come to Aleppo. You are our friend. You are remembered and loved."

The letter that I tucked into the coat. I hope Syria knows there are people in this world who are horrified at what is happening in their country, and that we are praying for them. Also, that we will do what we can do help them.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Lighting the World #LighttheWorld

I found this picture in a museum in Hosfos, Iceland. These little girls know what it means to savor light when there is only three or so hours of sun in the darkest December days in Iceland. To cherish the light and see the possibilities for luminosity in the world is the first step toward giving light to others.

On the last day of 2015, our family gathered together to celebrate the upcoming new year. We decided to read two books together, and choose a word that would be our personal theme for 2016. The plan: that particular word would illuminate our choices and actions. It would be our individual creed or mantra in moments when we felt adrift. One simple word to jolt us back into remembering our rooted resolves. My word for this year? What's the word that has repeatedly sprung to inspire and remind me to be a little more hopeful in wavering times? The word is light.

The city of Doha, Qatar in the background with three of my sons enjoying the dusk. The Middle East captures a whole new definition of light with it's explosive sunrises--with no obstruction of vertical slopes to dim the rays. There are few shadows in a desert--just expansive, voluminous light.

Another year of being an expat in the Middle East has given me a front row seat to a kaleidoscope of cultures, religions, and new friends. It is a journey that makes us nomads, but also seeing the immense goodness of people on a grassroots level in the world--even when chaos and upheaval swirl around us. James Fallows, a journalist, wrote about his travels over the "flyover"America in The Atlantic Monthly places he previously thought had not much culture or economic potential. He states that when people are discouraged about the state of America or their locale political problems, the answer is: get closer to the action at home, immediate issues at hand. Make a difference. Support a public art project in the community. Read to a child. Engage in your own community to make it better. Forgive a loved one. As he states, "Hopeless places are reinventing themselves" because individuals are willing to turn the tide. They are lighting their candle.

For me a lightness of being and looking for the light are anchors I look to daily. And when we seek for the light, we undoubtedly find it--in the glory of nature, in thoughts and ideas, within people. We feel the surge of luminous light when we love and serve; burdens and struggles vanish when we try to see the soul of another. I have traveled to many countries now, and am endlessly fascinated with how other cultures and peoples crave and cling to light. We as humanity have the ability to be conductors of light, to shed goodness and joy. When we are our best selves, forgiving, loving, giving, we shine. And that is when we know and can see who we really are.

All the shadows and layers disappear when we choose to light our candle--in our home, neighborhood, and the places we thought as previously "flyover." Every candle counts, and if the wind momentarily snuffs our candle out, we can rekindle the light in each other.

Lighting the candle to be dropped into the Thu Bon River in the beautiful town of Hoi An,Vietnam. It is considered good luck for the year to light a candle, and then lower it into the river with a basket. You can then float down the river in a boat with the candles in a little box drifting next to you. I have to say it is magical.

I was at a traditional Indian wedding this year, and these are the aunts (they let us participate) giving light to the bride.
To see the radiance of beauty in our world can always give lightness to our souls--pushing away cares--making them drift down the river, far from our gaze.
I love this picture of my dear neighbor's children, and my husband getting some stitches out. It is time in this world to #LighttheWorld with more than tolerance, but kindness. more than inclusion, but friendship. Starting with our neighbors and communities, it will ripple over all the borders in this world.