A month ago, I came across a shoebox taped poorly along the edges and stuck high on top of our laundry room shelves where all of the “until Christmas” things live. Opening it, I saw our wooden Nativity Set made up of camel-colored figurines whittled out of East African branches. I’d brought it back from Kenya in 2007 and had given it to my grandmother who proudly displayed it in her house year-round.
When we moved my grandfather, her husband, into the nursing home and her into my parents’ house, she re-gifted it back to me. I noted its double significance now speaking to that odd and full circle of things—mine, hers, mine again, but now always hers. I love how its star rests on top of a slender trunk making the whole thing look like one of the palm trees that lines the coast of Malindi, towering over the sleeping Jesus and his awestruck onlookers.
I pulled the pieces out one by one and placed them on our mantel, declaring (with no hesitation) that we needed a little more Christmas around here, and now. The bad news has been unceasing; the threats to goodness, harrowing; the division from this last year, thick. Marking the seasons, in an act of resistance on behalf of joy, is something that I have been thinking about lately as a response to it all.
Season-marking (by baking the first pie of Winter, or setting out the one decoration that carries your relationships along with it, or dusting off the recording of “I Heard the Bells”) can serve as a declaration that we are, we will, we have to be entering a new day. Times have been hard, but times are always changing—this is what season-marking says.
Season-marking can help the years not blur on by before we even realize what we’ve missed. Like a deep breath in and out, marking the seasons can help to slow our pulse and our pace in an ever-hustling world.
Season-marking, like an altar of remembrance, can cause us to review our stories and give thanks for the beauty that was evident or that we are still alive despite the pain. We can light our first candle of Advent as a nod to all of the places and people and years that are now associated with its purple wax and glowing wick.
The dough lattice weaved, the lights strung, the banner hung that reads “The Soul Felt Its Worth:” they do not have only to be aspects of holiday hoopla lost in the chaos of a consumeristic culture. They can be pins in the timeline, flags that wave to announce that we are still going. Hope is still here.
This week I am celebrating that palm tree star, the baby it shades, and a world the He entered to make new. How will you mark your seasons to declare newness, to slow down, to remember this year?
Cold, Cold Nights
Every year, as we break out the ornaments from all of our family’s various travels, I’m taken back to my summer as an eighteen-year-old in Washington DC: invincible, states away from home, there to save the world. I’m taken back to Vickie.
When I rounded the corner to the church’s soccer field, Vickie was sitting unavoidably between me and the door to the barred-windowed Sunday School annex that held my blow-up mattress for three months. I’d moved to the Northwest quadrant of the nation’s capital to lead high schoolers in the tender work of serving the poor. I’d moved to the Northwest quadrant as someone who had never formed a relationship with anyone who could be considered to be living in poverty.
I don’t have it in me for another one of these today, I gulped as I approached her, embarrassed by my desire to avoid need. But either her maternal aura or her quick disclaimer disarmed me long enough to cause me to look twice.
“Don’t mind me, child,” she crooned.
“I just come back here sometimes to look at the hoops. My son and I would play ball in this park when he was a boy. He’s got his own place now, and I couldn’t be more proud,” her brown-bagged-bottle rested in the gravel. We talked about the summer ahead. She asked if she could visit on days when the weather would allow and when she was maybe more sober. We laughed a bit over commonalities that I never assumed we’d find, and the wind whipped her bottle against the pavement, shattering the glass. She laughed some more.
I took note that I was hearing her, seeing her, feeling connected to her as someone who was as human as anyone else and not just a request to be filled. She was someone who deserved to live a life not so bound to bottles and benches as beds, someone who had things for me to learn.
We said goodbye that day for the first and last time. She was a ghost who blew in only long enough to ignite a pilot light within me that would influence my next ten years’ worth of work and love and life among those in poverty. On cold nights, every single year, when we break out our thicker blankets and the first fire-pit logs of Louisiana winter–when I know that DC must be that much colder–I wonder if Vickie’s made it inside if she’s made it this long. And I grieve a world where I cannot reconcile the great suffering of some of my most significant teachers with the great privilege that is my daily life filled with travels and ornaments, blankets and logs.
Who has taught you most about what it means to be poor? Where are they today?