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A Belated Merry Advent Letter

*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.

Merry Advent,

Rachel

On Shoe Boxes, Generosity, Kindness, and Being Helpful

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.

Check out Angel Tree Prison Ministry to get involved personally and practically, locally.

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.

 

Who Makes the Al-Gamil Holiday Meat Surprises?

For the past several weeks, every time I step into the Al-Gamil grocery store, I head directly to the meat counter. I pull out my phone, ready to snap a photo. I expect to be greeted by a delightful and sort of disgusting holiday surprise and I am never disappointed.

First, there was a round-bellied snowman made out of raw meat with a plastic carrot nose and olive buttons. He was bald.

Then, there were three meaty snowmen with hair and green pepper arms and the words “Merry Christmas” spelled out in raw ground beef.

Then, there he was, shall we say, in the flesh? Papa Noel, Santa Claus, complete with bloody-fingerprinted eye glasses, meticulously molded cheekbones and red lips, pursed as though to imply he was mid “ho-ho-ho-ing.”

I love these creations. They are so gross, full of fat and raw meat. But they are also so creative and unique. To me, they tell of someone behind the meat counter who loves his job and has time, energy, and courage to play. It could be that he is simply bored, but boredom doesn’t tend to lead to creativity, more often boredom leads to a Candy Crush addiction.

I wanted to find out who was behind these meaty holiday sculptures.

I asked the young woman at the cheese counter and she said, “The Filipino butcher makes them.”

“Can I talk to him?” I asked.

She laughed. “Sure.” She called him from the back and he came out, half-sheepish and half-proud.

“You’re the artist who makes the snowmen and the Santa Claus?”

He nodded.

He told me his name, I told him I came straight away to the meat counter to see what I’d find there. I suggested he try making a Djiboutian camel and he laughed.

He said he had the idea for making these one day while in the back. I thought maybe it was a cultural thing? Nope. Turns out he had an idea and ran with it.

Each sculpture takes him about five minutes, maybe six. I questioned that, but I guess essentially it is simply rolling meat around and sticking a few plastic veggies into it.

They last about three days and then he makes a new one.

He also is the artist behind the dangling holiday decorations over the meat and cheese counters, shiny, spiraling icicle-like creations, and lights.

I thanked him for his work and said he is both butcher and artist.

I can’t quite pinpoint why these make me so happy, why I smiled and giggled my way through the rest of my shopping, and why they put me into such a good mood for the coming hours.

I could be reading too much into it, but I think they make me happy because I see in them a playful joy and a lack of taking oneself too seriously. They are a physical example of someone making something and putting it into the world, knowing it will be rotten in a few days, and doing it anyway. They are tangible evidence that people, creative and inspired and thoughtful people, are behind the counters and doing the everyday work that makes the world keep turning.

No lives were saved, no diseases cured, no buildings built, or causes for justice fought for. Just some meat. Just a guy, doing his job, and having a little fun while he does it.

That makes me happy.

Merry Meaty Christmas.

Celebrating Christmas Abroad

Quick link: 9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

Merry Meaty Christmas!

Today I’m over at A Life Overseas, with a post about things I’ve learned to help us celebrate Christmas while living abroad. It can be a complicated time of grief and joy, loss and unique discovery. The ‘family’ we celebrate shifts almost every year, so we hold some Jones Family traditions pretty tightly. So tightly that I traveled internationally with a foam WWF wrestling belt in my luggage and it was of utmost importance that this particular piece of luggage arrive on time.

Stuff shmuff. The cheaply made but expensive toys break. The box sent from the US arrives late, like next October late (which, in truth, can be super fun. Christmas in October? Why not!). Stuff is easily forgotten over the years. But the gift of a camping trip to the coast? A safari? SCUBA lessons? They are the ‘stuff’ of memories. (I will say, I am super thankful for the actual stuff I have received over the years, too. As anyone knows who asks about my running watch, I still rave about last year’s Christmas present.)

The privilege of making our own traditions. The first few Christmases abroad are blank slates. Do you love the breakfast tradition your family had in your home country and can you replicate it? Then do it. But do you want to have something else for breakfast? Awesome, your choice. We Joneses wrestle, bake cookies, go camping, and laugh at our ridiculous homemade ornaments. Those are yearly traditions. Others come and go depending on people, supplies, schedules. It can feel intimidating, or maybe even sad, to look at advent and Christmas and to feel pressure to make something meaningful. Think of it as an opportunity to creatively design your personalized traditions. (also, know that anything you do one and a half times will be considered a ‘tradition’ by your children.)

Family far away? Make a family. Local friends who don’t celebrate Christmas and local friends who do. New coworkers. Friends from school or sports. Singles and young families, empty nesters and college students. It can be easy to assume others aren’t lonely, like you. Or others have already been invited to dinner or a game night. But maybe they are also sitting at home feeling lonely and uninvited. Love the people far away, yes. Skype and send gifts or messages, visit. But love the people nearby, too. Love them well…

Click here to read the rest of 9 Ways to Make the Most of Christmas Abroad

Gifts for Third Culture Kids

Third Culture Kids have the world at their fingertips. They hike volcanoes, watch wildebeest migrations, don’t need language apps because they actually know several. Plus, they probably live far away from a lot of the people who love them and want to give them a gift. So what are some good gift ideas for the Third Culture Kids in your life?

Between Worlds

By Marilyn Gardner and also, Passages through Pakistan

Dreams from My Father

By Barack Obama, a fellow Third Culture Kid, not too shabby of a fellow TCK companion.

Books for younger TCKs

Esperanza Rising 8-12 years old

The Turtle of Oman 6-12 years old

B at Home 8-12 years old

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match 4-8 years old

My Name is Yoon 4-8 years old

Homesick 8-12 years old

Persepolis a graphic novel, teens

I Hate English! ages 4+

My mom has created paper books that tell a familiar story, like Snow White, but include my kids’ names. She has also made them CDs with music that inserts their names. These make great gifts, the kids love to hear themselves in the songs and the stories and they feel like Grandma is telling them the story herself.

Record a Story Books, like this one:

Awesome Luggage Tags

After 20+ hours of travel, every suitcase starts to look the same. Help TCKs find their own bag and distinguish themselves with something like this:

Portable Battery Charger

Portable Power Adapter

Noise Canceling Headphones

My TCKs don’t have these, so I’m not offering a product review, I’ve heard these are pretty amazing. Just sayin’ TCKs probably wouldn’t be opposed to using headphones to cancel out some of the cross cultural noise they encounter.

A Local Experience

There is always another restaurant to try or trail to hike, a cultural event to participate in, or a regional sports game to catch. Find out what your TCK loves and see if you can gift them a local experience.

Their Favorite American (or passport country) Candy

If forced to choose based on taste preference, my kids would probably go for the gum and muesli cereals they have grown up on here. But there is still something special about those brightly colored candy boxes of Nerds or Smarties that rings of “treat!” My TCKs love getting surprise packages with American goodies inside.

A Commitment to Take Them Shopping

Next time they return to their home country, take them shopping for clothes or shoes, so they have something new and culturally ‘cool.’ Or, if they have Amazon Prime (I promise I don’t hate you, I’m just a little jealous), send them something the kids their same age in your country love.

TCKs, ATCKs, parents of TCKs, what other gifts would you suggest?