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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

Longing and Joy and C.S. Lewis

Thought people might enjoy some non-election related reading.

This essay was originally published in She Loves Magazine in 2013.

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” – C.S. Lewis

Longing and Joy

I think we are far too easily pleased when we mistake happiness for joy. When we are satisfied with candy corn and Downton Abbey and publishing success (true stories, all). Happiness is not bad but when we stop there, we are like the child making mud pies when French Silk pie is being offered.

Happiness rests in the here and now. It is achievable and leaves nothing to be wanted. Happiness comes with the obtaining of a goal, an object, a person, the passing of a pleasant hour.

Joy is, as yet, unfulfilled and contains within its raptures, a longing for more. Joy speaks of eternal things and infinite perfection and pleasures that never end, that have no commercial breaks, no negative anonymous comments, no comparing of Facebook likes.

Scanning Pinterest or Facebook, desires often stir inside me and I think: If my kitchen looked like that, I would be happy. Or, if I were published in that magazine, I would be happy. I never think those things would bring me joy, but I focus on them more than I focus on the things that do bring joy. I am far too easily pleased.

C.S Lewis also associated joy with longing. He describes joy as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”

Joy is that tender, painful something, unnamable, that stirs at the crunch of fallen leaves under foot. Wild geese honking overhead on a gray autumn day. Corn stalks bowing before a gentle warm wind. The crack of thunder and the smell of green grass after the storm. A child’s belly laughter, a baby’s warm breath on your skin.

Joy is the whispered welling up of This. This. I was made for this, I need more of this, eternally this. I call joy the longing for victory over time. It is the desire to cling madly to this space in time and the stinging impossibility of it.

Joy says this is perfect and beautiful and achingly piercing because it isn’t perfect, the beauty fades and the moment slips like water between our fingers, like tears over cheeks.

And so we long for more and the longing fills us up until we dance or cry or fall on our faces in worship and the joy breaks us and then heals us, fills us to overflowing and leaves us so empty we are gasping for more.

“…we were there on the hills…and because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more.” – C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Because joy hurts, even while it pleases, I am tempted to turn from it and dig my fingers into the mud pie. But there can be no true going back after tasting deep joy, there is only a pressing onward for more of it until the glorious day when there will be no end, no fading. There will only be an ever-increasing capacity to inhale the exquisite.

Let us refuse to be ignorant children making mud pies in a slum. Let us relentlessly pursue joy. Let us shout this declaration along with the crunching leaves and honking geese and laughing children:

We will not be too easily pleased. We will have joy.

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Are We Happy as Parents? Or Better People? Maybe Both.

Can Kids Make Parents Happy?

Quick link: Can Kids Make Us Happy?

Published today at Brain Child, an essay about parenting with some thoughts from these two books:

Some parents I talk to seem rather disillusioned. They thought having kids would make them happy. They thought having kids would satisfy a longing or fill a hole or bring a sense of hope and purpose to their lives. Turns out though, for a lot of us, having kids reveals our selfish natures, impatience, inner rage, and makes us really, really tired.

What if our expectations are upside down? What if the reason people had kids was not to make themselves happy but to make themselves better people? Not to fulfill our own needs but to learn about service, not to satisfy our own longings but to help another person achieve their longings. There is fairly clear evidence anyway that children don’t make parents more happy, though it can be reasonably argued that ‘happiness’ itself is a difficult emotion to quantify.

Personal evidence: I don’t know about other parents, but I didn’t consider myself an angry person or a worried person or a controlling person. And then I had kids. Hello, impatience, rage, anxiety, and obsession.

Researched evidence: “Daniel Hamermesh and his colleagues published a study…finding that mothers reported a sharp rise in stress after the birth of a child…Another study published this year (2015)…found that the average hit to happiness exacted by the arrival of an infant is greater than a divorce, unemployment or the death of a spouse.”

I’m happy I have kids, don’t get me wrong. But it is a different kind of happiness than is implied by the simplistic, ‘kids will make me happy’ idea…

Click here to read the rest of Can Kids Make Us Happy?

*image via Flickr

Losing and Finding Joy

Quick link: Where Did the Joy Go?

Today I’m at Brain Child writing about learning from my daughter how to find exuberant joy in the little, everyday things.

Where Did the Joy Go

My nine-year old came into the dining room this morning singing a nonsense song. She poured herself a bowl of generic corn flakes and then said, “Who doesn’t just love life? It is so wonderful. I love my life.”

“What’s so great about it?” I asked.

“I love the food, the way things are made (she patted the IKEA chair she was sitting on and then stared at her hand for a moment), the people I know. I love how hot it is.” It was 98 degrees already and my steaming cup of morning coffee made me sweat through my t-shirt. I kissed her on the cheek and squeezed her hard and wished I could bottle up that joie-de-vivre.

She went outside and discovered that the watermelon seed she planted beneath the air conditioner (where the water sprinkles out the back) had sprouted. She leaped into the air with her arms high over her head and her feet tucked up behind her (a move that in my adult world of aerobics is known as a tuck jump but to her is just childhood exuberance) and shouted, “It’s growing!” Then she knelt down beside the little green sprout and spoke in a hushed voice, her nose almost touching the plant, “It is just so beautiful.”

When did everything get so complicated and hard?

Click here to read the rest Where Did the Joy Go?

God and Harmonicas

In this Christmas season (and, quite honestly, in this American-month when I am so over-stimulated that there is little room in my brain for creativity and fresh words) I am giving myself a gift and re-posting one of my favorite essays. Its kind of hard sometimes to see words go up online and then fade into the never-never-land of already been published and destined to sit unread. But mostly I want to reshare because it is a personal favorite for three reasons (plus, the post is about Christmas).

1. The memory that sparked it is beyond precious. It still brings me to gut-busting laughter and tears and floods me with love.

2. I sent it in to SheLoves Magazine, a cold-turkey submission to a website I knew almost nothing about. They graciously accepted it and even more graciously invited me to be a monthly contributor. I can honestly say that my writing and my online friendships have never been the same. Deeper, funnier, more honest, challenged.

3. What the essay is really about – learning to accept good gifts from God with joy and not guilt has been a difficult lesson to learn but one that has changed my relationship with God. I love that about words and writing, I learn even more as I turn life into paragraphs.

harmonica

So, today I’d love it if you would read or reread God, Giver of Harmonicas.

I’ve learned, through sermons and study, through living ten years in Somalia and Djibouti, a little bit about suffering. But my six-year old Lucy, with her harmonica, is teaching me about joy.

Lucy started asking for a harmonica for Christmas in October. I asked if she wanted to buy one with her own money and she said, no, she was sure she would get one for Christmas. In November, Lucy sent an email to Grandma Pieh and Grandma Jones, asking for a harmonica. I hit “send” and she immediately asked if she could use the telephone.

“I want to make sure they get the email,” she said.

By Thanksgiving, Lucy was asking for a harmonica every day and asking to email or call both grandmothers every other day.

“I don’t want them to forget,” she said.

In early December a package the size of a small suitcase showed up under the Christmas tree at Grandma Pieh’s house, wrapped in blue snowman paper.

“I think that’s my harmonica,” Lucy said and gave it a gentle shake.

Lucy reminded everyone about her desire for a harmonica but at the same time, she appeared resolutely confident that she was going to receive one. Someone, somewhere, knew what she wanted and loved her and would make sure she got it. Yet she asked. Every. Single. Day.

“What if you don’t get one?” I asked.

“I asked for a harmonica.” She shrugged. “I know someone got me one, I just didn’t open it yet. It isn’t a hard thing…”

Read the rest here God, Giver of Harmonicas.

*image credit