How holidays can stay merry and bright instead of scary with fright.

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As people fly and drive and take various other methods of transportation to be near friends and families this week and next for Hanukkah, Christmas and other important celebrations, I find myself thinking about how many are dreading the obligatory reunion and how many are genuinely looking forward to the chance to reconnect over long prepared meals and perhaps in some cases, introduce new members to old family traditions. The picture above is the table my mom and I decorate for a Christmas brunch we host each year at our church, a favorite time for both of us to begin the season by serving others. Each year, we choose a different theme, we never know who our guests will be and it is with great joy we plan what it will look like and organize who’s plates are to be used, etc…

I think back to another picture I saw of two young girls, probably both around 11 years old. They are standing in a sunny field wearing light, cotton dresses, hair loose and long, expressions somber but not unhappy. One girl stands straight, facing the camera full on, while the other girl who could be her twin, so similar in appearance, leans over slightly into her sister, their arms and hands intertwined together and bent at the elbow which gives the effect of their hands being very close to their faces. The only caption is: “Protector”.

Which one is the protector is the thought running through my mind? Is it the girl leaning in as a protective measure against what may come? Or is it the girl standing straight up, bearing the weight of the one leaning in thereby providing a solid foundation of support, its own form of protection? Perhaps it is the give and take of what they offer each other which provides protection for both young souls.

I always find pictures thought provoking and they often become inspiration for my stories. Most interesting is when one impression of a picture has formed in my head, only to read the caption and see it in a completely new perspective. It is both fascinating and explanatory of our human condition. How many arguments start because of “a look”, or a word said wrong?  Was it a wrong look given and a word said in error or was it a look grossly misinterpreted, a word perceived as having malicious intent? How many times have I edited how I’ve written this piece, simply because my audience cannot hear how I am saying what I write? The answer is more than I can count and so words are changed to soften the intent I’m not even sure is being misconstrued in the first place.

Holidays become our snapshots of family so many times. Emotions run high and with it the brains ability to produce the chemicals that make the most passionate of our experiences, be it warm and cozy or cold and painful, permanently etched in our long term memory. Hence the look of both relaxed joy and tense dread on so many travelers and hosts.

Sorrow can be fear and shyness too often is mistaken for arrogance. So many times we transfer our own emotion of what we feel to how we perceive others are feeling without asking questions or offering comfort without judgment.  The makers of Hello Kitty, that innocuous famous white creature my daughter adores, were aware of this upon her inception and purposefully did not give her a mouth because their desire was for the owner to project whatever emotion they wanted on to the doll. How many people go through life with a permanent smile glued to their face so as not to give anyone the wrong impression?

I took our daughter to our favorite children’s hair stylist recently, where two little boys were extremely anxious to be out of there the second they walked in and since they couldn’t leave, they were content to raise the noise level exponentially compared to their size and found whatever apparatus they could to assist their experiment.  Each time the noise lasted more than 30 seconds, mom calmly walked over with baby number 3 on her hip and knelt down, trying her best to assure the boys this was not appropriate behavior.  Due to the incessant repetition of this action every 30 seconds, it was clear this method wasn’t working for her. The entire time, she smiled really big while attempting to discipline them and I wonder how that will translate as the boys grow up. This is not judgment, purely observation. How will what I perceive as mixed signals of a happy expression and admonishing words serve them when they deal with other people who choose to frown when they disapprove and speak louder when they are agitated? Maybe I have it all wrong, there is always more to the story.

We flavor our conversations with the spice of our experiences and unless we have the relationship and connection to understand the vast amount of historical or current references being used, the capacity for mistrust and animosity seems so much bigger than for understanding and compassion. When you grow up in the same area, the slang is similar and many nuances are inherent and understood without even realizing our brains are instantly interpreting what we hear according to our shared environment. However, even coming from opposite sides of the same state, such as California can make some feel like a foreigner. I’ve spent holidays in Northern, Southern and along the mid coast of it, each is very different in every way from speech to rhythm of life.

Having also lived overseas as a young child, I still have a nostalgic sense of familiarity when I hear someone pronounce words a different way than most Californians would. Friends that say “GARage” instead of “gaRAWWGE” have me instantly speaking the same way as if my brain is switching tracks to an earlier linguistic environment. I start talking about the bonnet and boot of my car instead of the Hood and Trunk. I have to remember why my computer is telling me “colour” is wrong and “color” is correct and not grimace because I wrote it the other way and read it the other way for so many of my beginning, formative years. It’s been quite entertaining for my California born and bred husband and children, although they might describe it as more confusing.

I once dated a man who began to feel extremely ostracized when playing a game of Taboo with my family at my parent’s house. If you are unfamiliar with the game, your goal is to get the other person to say a word while you describe it without saying 4 or 5 key descriptors listed on the card in front of you, for instance describing a ball without using “round” or “bounce”. Because we have so many unique experiences among us, my parents, brothers and myself were able to say specific inside joke phrases which sounded nothing like any association to the word but triggered a certain chain of events in our collective memory and led to the desired word in spite of few adjectives left. Sound like any holiday conversations you remember feeling left out of or unintentionally left others out of perhaps?

Looking back, I’m sure the game sounded like gibberish to the outsider, which is unfortunately exactly how my date felt, despite how long we had been together. (A year sounded realllllly long at the time!) The rounds were lightning fast and at the end, he was visibly agitated when I asked what was wrong. He was embarrassed he couldn’t keep up and when I apologized he said a Porsche would always have the ability to slow down for  a VW bug but the bug would never have the capability to catch up to the Porsche.

I’ve never forgotten that phrase and I do a better job these days, some 18 years later, in making sure people are included in conversation, not sanitizing my speech and staying away from “inspeak” or ignoring old stories altogether but rather taking the time to include them in the history behind them because I want them to feel the same joy from the memory and to feel connected to the moment and people surrounding them.

Remembering this during the holiday time when so many tight circles of family have an opportunity to widen and accept in new members or old ones who have spent a long time away can often make the difference in the warmth of everyone’s holiday memory. Have a very merry Christmas and a warm whichever holiday you hold dear.

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How does music connect you?

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This picture is both blurry and off center. I could fix it but, it’s how I was feeling being outside of the moment. It is of a glorious Christmas concert at my church and the music, though muted through the thick sanctuary door separating us, was inviting me in and instead I returned to my office just across the way to finish some work. I did leave my office door open so I could at least hear a sample of the beauty being created. Not many people have the pleasure of being serenaded at work by a 20 piece live orchestra and a full choir!

At the beginning of this year, I wrote about connecting with people, intentionally or subconsciously. We connect all throughout our lives, for better or for worse, as the outcome may be. I’ve written many additional posts but a lot of them are still in the draft stage as the story is not always just my story to be told and so my finger hovers above “publish”, never landing and the blog is stagnant. Tonight however, is different. This is my story, or at least a small piece of it.

My connection through music goes way back and is woven like a tapestry through my life. My mom played her guitar and we sang Christmas songs when I was 3 or 4 years old, living in Orange County. As a small child of 6 or 7 in Africa, I would alter the words of songs I loved and sing the new versions to my older brother, who listened and enjoyed them, or at least pretended to… Queen was one of my favorite bands to do this with and I wish I could remember what I did with Bohemian Rhapsody but perhaps it’s better left in the beauty of my memory. Yet another reason I’m glad I grew up before the full bloom of the smartphone age!

I was in cherub choir in church during elementary school, youth choir in junior and high school, played clarinet for 5 years, played guitar for my youth group, went to a fair number of live shows, classical, and…not. Now I perform in musicals at my church and it’s all been such an important soundtrack to who I am. It’s given me strength when I needed it, comfort when I was at a loss, words to express any emotion I may have been feeling. A sense of community when I was too introverted to participate in any other way.

There is no substitute for live music. It’s not enough to just pop in a cd or shuffle the playlist. Music should be felt and observed in person as it is flowing out of the ones creating it as often as possible! Best case scenario of course is to create it yourself, so sing along to the cd! My faith has grown because of the repetition of songs created using the scriptures! I had no idea how many verses I had memorized through song until I attended a bible college and heard so many familiar lines!

Let’s be clear about one thing, I don’t hold a candle to the professional musicians I had the pleasure of hearing! I know just enough about what they go through to be in awe of their dedication and have a deep appreciation of the commitment to perfect their craft. Today, I was able to attend the concert! Enveloped in the music, in person, up front, close enough to see the Snoopy tie on the pianist! When I heard the clear dissonance in a group of singers rejoicing a cappella, when I saw the passion on the faces of the violinist as he closed his eyes and played, when I observed the body language of the pianist as he so passionately expressed each measure on the keys, I felt a connection.

There was a unity between audience and performer, my children felt it as well. Why do stores pump out old classic songs at Christmas time? The connection of nostalgia, past memories mixing with the present is a powerful emotion. I don’t have a favorite song, it depends on my mood. Am I feeling hyper or melancholy or contemplative? Am I looking for fast beats to work out to or sappy ballads to reminisce with? There’s a song for that! What’s your song? I don’t mean some quiz on Facebook telling you what they think based on your favorite color and how many times you eat your favorite foods. What moves you? How do you use music in your life? If you don’t, (perish the thought) I hope this inspires you to find a soundtrack for your life. Have a warm and happy Christmas, celebrating the birth of our Lord in song.

Expat stays put.

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That’s me on the left, in South Africa.  That’s my not tame but tolerating humans while she’s being rehabilitated friend, the cheetah.  This is right before she hit me in the face with the back of her paw for treating her like a common house cat. I stumbled backwards and almost stepped on her son’s tail. Note to self, cheetahs do NOT like to have their heads scratched like their other less lethal relatives.

Africa is the last country I lived in before heading back to the good ol’ U.S. of A. and I miss it dearly.  I spent 9 years of my young life out of country, across the pond, overseas, and whatever other term you might have heard or used to explain those people who don’t stay in one place, let alone one house for more than a year or two.  And, nope, not military either.  Even after moving back here, I moved to several different places and states.  I don’t know whether I was born with wanderlust or whether it is just conditioned in me from the many moves, it is a part that exists in the very heart of my nature, no matter the origin. 

Our family missed out on all the usual gatherings that connect families, however loosely, with each other.  Weddings, funerals, casual get-togethers over a BBQ, were all missed and when we came back, upon attending those events, I always felt somewhat of a curiosity rather than a family member.  Living in England was socially acceptable, Belgium was understandable, but Africa?  Good grief!  We were in our own exotic little exhibition bubble.  Some of the conversation starters I received were, (I only wish I was exaggerating), “Why don’t you have an accent?”, “Why aren’t you more tan?”, “Did you have to live in a tree?”

That last one came from one of my cousins.  I inherited a talent for story telling from my Grandpa and I wove a ridiculous scene quite reminiscent of Greystoke’s Tarzan legend, with our treehouse we lived in because we couldn’t live on the jungle floor on account of the bugs and creatures lurking about at all hours. I enlisted the help of my next oldest brother, (the one in the middle of the photo), in playing a joke on her because I thought she was being especially annoying with her questions.  It seemed she put me somewhere in the realm of Gilligan’s Island and the aforementioned, king of the jungle. 

She bought the whole story!  We lived in a hut we made ourselves suspended high above the land animals, and she fell headlong for the tale about my pet baboon I had to keep on a leash.  My brother, ever good for a joke, nodded in casual agreement as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  It took her a while to catch on and when she did, she wasn’t very happy about being taken in by her younger 12 year old cousin.  I wish I’d had this picture at that meeting to give more validity to my story.

Needless to say, we didn’t really connect well upon our reentry into American life and we had a lot of catching up to do.  However, from my travels came an ability to see the big picture and a desire to see people’s motivations for why they do what they do, feel what they feel and treat others the way they do.  While that may sound wise, I’ve also developed a shallow root system. I’m ready to move, anywhere, at any moment, just give me 24 hours notice and we’re out of here!

Case in point, my husband and I were in our current house for about three years before there were any pictures on the wall.  It was another 3 years probably before two more collages went up and they were because he put them together and hung them.  He did a fantastic job on the selection of pictures as well.  RIght now, there are empty picture frames he bought a very long time ago, awaiting my act of captivity by placing photos and hanging them on the wall.  They’re still sitting there.  I need to fill them.  Some day, unless of course, we move.   

I don’t feel permanence like he does.  Why put something up if you’re only going to take it down eventually to move?  It’s going to happen, we’re going to move.  I can feel it!  Next month, we’ll have been in this house for 11 years!  WHOA!  How is that possible? I’ve never lived anywhere for this long!  And it feels strange.  Not as in a comforting, stable life sort of way but, a scary, stagnant, trapped sort of way.  Will I ever see another country ever again?

When we go on a road trip with our children, I point out some beautiful spot and say out loud: “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place to live?”  Our son replies every time, without fail: “It is beautiful but, if we moved, we’d have to leave our school and our church and our friends.”  My daughter goes back and forth between leaping at the chance to move (her usual choice), and wanting a vacation home at whatever spot I’ve picked out, just so she can touch base at times.  She has a bit of the wanderlust in her as well, so I guess it’s not a conditioning thing after all. 

I love how stable our children are, firmly rooted in their school community, which is full of fabulous families and teachers.  Soundly established in their faith with their Sunday school and youth group leaders at church, and linked in with extracurricular activities year after year with the same families.  It’s so good for them, many say.  Yet, I lament their lack of a world view.  I regale them with stories of my past, but I know it’s not the same to talk about life experience to someone else, they have to feel it and grow because of it or in spite of it.  I hope to encourage their desire to travel and not fear far away places or their beautiful people and cultures.

Will they grow up with compassion for all people everywhere because they clearly see we are all connected by common threads or will they judge from the narrow window of a one town existence?  I hope our many trips to do service for others motivates them to find out more and not cringe away from differences.  I hope they embrace the new, without shunning what they see as odd, simply because they didn’t grow up with an example of what is in front of them.

For now, this expat is staying put but, the drive is inside me, waiting to go!

How are you connected?

I’m in a coffee shop, watching the swirl of humanity wash in and out like the tides.  I see acquaintances, intimate relationships, big business meetings and consultations.  All are making connections.

I lived overseas for 9 years of my younger life.  Family connections with those this side of the ocean were few without the fascinating far reaching power of the various social media apps we have now.  So, we missed many events, weddings, funerals, reunions even, all of which would have kept us connected.  Now, through a mention of a Christmas card sent to my mom from a cousin I have only seen a few times in my life, I searched and found her online.  Because of her, I am now connected to another cousin who has been doing genealogy on my family for 60 years!  I am so thankful for the connection and can’t wait to hear all about that line of my family.  Making connections, it’s what I do, perhaps because of feeling the absence of them when I was young.

Is it who you know?  Is it what you know?  We spend hours upon hours connecting our lives and making those connections perhaps without really thinking of how they work.  We’re hard wired with a natural design for community.  Even as a person who really enjoys my time alone, I have a desire for communication.  Are you intentional about how your connections are made?  I just spent the last two hours, without realizing how much time had passed, with a good friend discussing a ministry we are both so passionate about, organizing and melding our visions into the most powerful connection we can fashion to reach the youth we cherish and invest in constantly.  Now, she’s gone and I’m making other connections, through text, email and even here, with you.

There’s a lunch date made and the connections continue throughout my day.  Some intentional, some results of intentional interactions invested upon for years before.  Isolation can often lead to depression and self imposed deceptions for some people.  Why not stay connected and involved?  With this suggestion comes a warning.  Beware with what and whom you are connected.  Ask yourself, are you strong enough to be who you are and still enjoy a connection or do you get sucked in, and lose your identity?