*please note! I wrote this last year and then never published it. It felt kind of scary and raw. I have another letter drafted for this year’s Christmas/advent letter. But then I read it again and while parts are not relevant because I’m in the US and the twins graduated, parts were exactly what I needed to be reminded of personally, again. So maybe it will resonate with someone else who needs to choose joy this season. So, I’ll publish it now.
Merry Christmas from Abroad,
Our four-foot tree is up and shedding quite sadly. The Santa costume is being borrowed by a very Saint Nicholas type of fellow. The stockings, for once, are hung on steps and not over the air conditioner with care. The temperature is a chilly 87 degrees. The kitchen smells like ginger snaps and apple cinnamon candles. The grocery store has a horribly skinny Santa, barefoot, with no shirt under his costume, a rather sexy Santa with bright blue eyes. More stripper than Santa.
Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
This is our Christmas letter, the one in which we tell you about our exotic summer vacations (Minnesota is, truly, exotic to desert-dwellers) and about our children’s stellar performances at school (define ‘stellar’), about all the things we are really good at (like forgetting new vocab words in one of the three languages we’ve learned), and then show pictures of things we secretly hope you envy, ala the humble brag (like our incredible, rundown house with rats in the ceiling and roaches in the bathrooms).
What if, instead, I’m totally honest? What if, instead, I told you that this year I’m tired?
A few nights ago as we drove to church, a local boy made the shape of a gun with his fingers and shot at my face through the car window. A few days before that while I was running, a man drove by on a motorcycle and punched my ass. I miss my kids almost the whole year ‘round because all of them are at a boarding school two countries away. My husband and I started up a big new project, thirteen years in the dreaming and our hearts bleeding all over our sleeves, and no one told us that start-ups in Africa take a toll on a marriage.
I would like to go to a movie theater and disappear into the cool darkness and forget about it all. There aren’t any movie theaters in the country. I would like to enjoy a nice evening out with my husband but if we go for a walk we are harassed or are simply just bored of the same, limited, not beautiful route. We’ve tried almost every restaurant in town, there aren’t many cultural events like concerts or plays or dances. Plus, sometimes it takes too much energy to go out the front door.
It can be lonely here. This year, I have a full life, rich with new staff and new friends. People who speak my language, people I enjoy deeply and am coming to love. But I feel lonely creatively, if that’s a thing. Lonely for my people, people who pursue a life of creativity and words and I don’t even know if I have people anymore because I don’t seem to fit anywhere. Lonely spiritually, for a community that speaks my language – both the language of my tongue and of my heart.
What a depressing Christmas letter. At least, that’s what I thought when I reread this. But you know what? This isn’t a Christmas letter after all. Its an advent letter. A letter of longing, of waiting, of seeing the holes in things and the struggle of being alive while being fully convinced that hope is never in vain.
Someone asked me what I want to experience of Jesus this advent season. I want to experience joy. Not happiness, not glibness. Deep, abiding joy that acknowledges there are so many broken things in the world but that chooses to delight in the healing, beautiful things in the world. Joy that says, all is not right in the world. But, “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian of Norwich
So, I conjure up joy because that is what I want. Joy is what I need. Joy is what my family needs. It feels like the snow falling in a snow globe. The flakes rest on the bottom and then the world is shaken with strenuous effort and a veneer of cheer falls over the scene below. The scene is the same old one, the flakes change nothing, but for a few minutes while they fall, it is Christmas. It is beautiful. And maybe that’s enough for this year.
Last year I wrote a post called 13 Things I Want American Christians to Know about Stuff You Give Poor Kids. I got a lot of feedback for that essay. I don’t regret posting it or reposting it.
I do regret that I didn’t provide a specific enough list of other ways to serve. Because I am not anti-service, or against giving! I’m not against gifts or generosity! I’m sorry that some have felt paralyzed or personally hurt.
I still have a lot of big feelings about things like the White Savior Complex and the American Christian emphasis on stuff, on consumerism, when we talk about generosity. No family is perfect. But I don’t want to shoot at the Church, who proves over and over to be kind, generous, and loving. I don’t want to take down people I love and care about and I want to be pushed back, to be challenged.
I have been.
I’ve specifically been asked if I could be more useful, which is ultimately the point – not to point fingers or complain, but to help us all grow and do these things better.
Some of these ideas take more time, relational energy, creativity and courage, others are strictly financial.
So…onward to some ideas for helping without hurting.
Send money to the place you want to bless with gifts. Funnel it through someone you know and trust. Don’t know or trust someone in a location you care about? Email me or leave a comment and I’ll try to connect you. Let the local church hire moms and dads to fill boxes with things they purchase locally. They can keep the income from that work to buy Christmas dinner for their families.
Is there a single mom (or dad) near you? In your church, family, neighborhood? She works so hard to care for her family. Call her up or stop by, even if you barely know her. Ask if you could do her laundry. Tell her what day you go to the grocery store and ask if she could give you her shopping list and cash. Pick up her groceries and just drop them off. Tell her that if her kids have a snow day or get sick, that you will babysit so she doesn’t have to miss a day of work.
Visit someone in the hospital, in a home for the elderly or disabled, in your local prison. Read Christmas stories, bring Christmas cookies, a stocking stuffed with goodies like warm socks, a new card game, gum. Bring your kids along. Ask the chaplain at the hospital or prison if there is someone who was recently released and who might need a care package or a home visit. Transitioning out of the hospital and especially out of prison can be really hard and lonely.
Do you live near kids with two working parents? Offer to take their kids sledding when you go with your own kids. Offer to make Christmas cookies with or for them, maybe their favorite recipe.
Is there someone at your child’s school who needs a Christmas tree or who can’t afford to bring treats to the school holiday party? Ask the teacher and ask if you can provide an anonymous gift so that child can participate with pride.
Write letters to people who live far away. You can do this as a family or with a Sunday School class or small group Bible study. Draw pictures, write silly poems. Remind people who were once part of your community that they are still remembered
Pregnant moms nearby? There might be a center near you that serves young, pregnant, or new moms. Sometimes there are homes for them if they need shelter (link to a great new one below), sometimes there are service centers they access for diapers and clothes, counsel, and medical care. Find one of these and see what they need.
Do you live near an area impacted by fire, flood, hurricane, or other natural disaster? Can you do something in this close-by community that is practical and useful? Maybe a family needs someone to play games with their kids in a shelter for the afternoon so the parents can return to their destroyed home and pick through the debris without traumatizing the kids. Maybe they need warm winter socks or new pots and pans.
Find out who in your town works with refugees, newly arrived immigrants, families with children who have special needs, someone recently diagnosed with a debilitating illness, a nursing home for the elderly…it takes some pre-planning, some initiative, and a lot of courage, but you never know where a willing heart might take you.
Specific local and international opportunities:
Support nurses in Kurdistan. This is run by a dear friend, Marilyn Gardner. Give the gift of life. Marilyn needs $10,000 more to reach her goal. It costs $9.00/per shoe box just for the box and shipping. Average $5-6 more/box for the items inside. That means she needs the equivalent of 667 boxes. Some groups do that in a night. For toys. I realize my frustration is evident, but here is a chance to invest in lives. “Nurses are foundational to health care systems. You can have the best doctors in the world, but without nurses both public health programs and hospital care suffer. Building a strong and accountable group of nurses a world away will have lasting impact.”
Elevate Hope House is run by a childhood friend and is a brand new project. Melinda has big dreams and a huge heart. “Elevate is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization established to empower young, single moms and their children in crisis, by providing a safe home and an empowering support system, while each mom learns self-sufficiency and renews, restores, and regains her self-worth through the love of Christ.”
Rowing Dangerously is fellow runner of the Somaliland Marathon, Jordan Wylie. He ‘ran dangerously’ through Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan to raise money to help children in need. This year he is rowing across the waters near Djibouti, to raise money for education in the refugee camps of Djibouti, clearly issues near and dear to my own heart.
International School of Djibouti, that’s us!
Resource Exchange International, that’s us, too!
Hidden Treasures Thrift Store. In St. Anthony, Minnesota: “We are a non-profit Christian workplace that partners with a large community of donors, shoppers, and volunteers to provide a place for meaningful employment, Christ-centered life development, and a loving community for those of us who have backgrounds that include addiction or a criminal record.”
The Angel Foundation is a Minnesota-based organization that provides practical, financial, and emotional support for people with cancer and their families. One of their activities is offering a camp for kids whose parents have or had cancer.
And here are two ideas I took from magazine articles I read recently but don’t personally know anything about:
Reader to reader, helping teachers supply their classrooms with books (note that our school in Djibouti is also always building our library, the largest accessible to all English-language library in the country and it fits on five shelves!)
Power My Learning, accepts used computers, laptops, and other technology for low-income families and students.
I read this book on Saturday evening (if you want to read a lot, have surgery and have friends who bring you books, that really helps). Loved it.
I don’t know that Osheta would use the words human dignity, but that’s what shalom is about – peacemaking, peace building, relationships of healing and hope. And the only way to do that is to offer one another dignity. Her book is an honest and brave siren call to live in our neighborhoods and schools and workplaces with courage. I heard Osheta speak recently and loved her combination of passion for the hard work of pursuing justice with the freedom to enjoy simplicity, like an afternoon at the dog park. She offers 12 ways for women to actively and intentionally be peacemakers in our communities.
I love this quote, especially because I have experienced the truth of it. Peace is not passive and it is not an end goal, it is a way of life. “Peace is fierce—it has to be, because violence and discord won’t go down without a fight. Those who wield peace in the face of the world’s violence do it fiercely.”
Perfectly Human, nine months with Cerian, by Sarah C. Williams, PhD in philosophy and a professor at Regent College.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Plough Publishing.
I read this book in one weepy afternoon post-surgery. (Books make great post-surgery gifts, in case you have someone heading in for a procedure). My publisher gave me this one while I was at their offices last week. It is heartbreaking and beautiful, a mother’s love story and ringing testimony to the value of every single human life.
After a devastating diagnosis declared her unborn baby would not survive, Sarah and her husband choose to carry the pregnancy to term anyway. This has a terrifying and painful impact on her body and their family, but it also profoundly changes them for good as they declare with her body and with their baby, the worth of a life. What makes up a human life? How is worth determined?
Not everyone will agree with their choice, but that doesn’t matter. Few of us agree with each other about almost anything (American political situation, anyway?). What matters, is this is one family’s story and testament to beauty and life, and it is stunning.
And Sarah also wrote in the Huffington Post about her experience.
You know how when it rains, it pours?
My twins graduated and moved to two universities in the United States of America.
My husband remained in Djibouti to run our start-up, the International School of Djibouti.
My singleton, the youngest, returned to Kenya for school.
I stayed in MN to be close by while the older two transition to this country and new phase of life.
We recently made some organizational readjustments that were positive and complicated and also, to be honest, difficult, as most changes are.
Parenting adult kids is really hard, harder than I thought.
I turned in my book manuscript this week.
And then, I recently bought this:
Why is a pile of sugary goodness on this list of challenges and changes?
Because I labeled it:
Because I bought it a few hours after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Me, for whom health is a high value. Who takes doctor appointments and nutrition seriously, who loves to run because it makes me feel strong. Who was strict about natural family planning as birth control because I didn’t want to take hormones or pills. That person has cancer and will go on hormone therapy for the rest of her life.
I talked to my mother-in-law a few hours after the doctor’s phone call. She and my father-in-law are nurses, he was a cancer nurse. I asked what I needed to think about. She said,
“Today, you need to think: Shit. I have cancer. Tomorrow, you can ask questions.”
I took her advice literally and headed straight out to the grocery store for candy and ice cream.
A second biopsy on a suspicious lymph node. (*biopsy came back clean)
Then, surgery, removal of my whole thyroid and the monstrously large lump attached to it. We are trying to come up with a nickname for the beast but I’m revolted by all the family’s suggestions so far.
I don’t know yet.
I’ll try to keep writing. I’ll try not to write all the time about cancer, Lord knows there’s enough of that out there for you to read elsewhere. But I might because, Lord knows that’s what’s on my mind (and in my neck) these days.
I plan on being just fine.
But, my hope is not in odds or doctors or my own body.
I don’t rely on human plans, not even my own.
This is what some people call a “good” cancer, which means it is fairly treatable. I gotta say, I’m not ready to claim that yet. While I am thankful for many things (that there is treatment, that I’m here in the US for this time period, that I don’t feel sick at this point), it is still cancer. And cancer sucks. Cancer combined with an international life super sucks. The treatment will be hard, the disruption to our life will be hard, the future slightly foggy.
May I suggest a more appropriate response, if someone (like me) tells you they have thyroid cancer? Don’t say, “Well, lucky you, you got the good one!” Just say, “Shit. You have cancer. I’m so sorry.” Feel free to modify to “shoot” or “gosh darn” or whatever floats your boat.
I’ll let you know how all this pans out in the coming months.