Friday, December 24, 2010

On the Eve

Christmas hangs just over the other side of the horizon, brought in by incessant music that resounds in my head the rest of the day and shining lights that frame trees and rooftops.

As Christmas approaches, I cannot help but think about materialism and suddenly I hate going to malls. I had to go in to purchase something, and when I walked through the doors I felt bombarded by red and green and massive piles of stuff. Is this Christmas? The clanging of bells, the flashy posters... ugh.

Not that I oppose Christmas presents- I enjoyed picking out items for my friends and family and sending them off.
But the constant pressure to purchase so much and spend so much is frustrating. Does giving just mean wrapping up boxes?

I think about a story that I wrote a long time ago, which is buried with other papers somewhere at my parent's home in Indiana. I cannot re-write that story, but I remember that much of it involved that angels gasping. Adam and Eve had just sinned and heaven was mourning because perfection had cracked.
And then, a promise was made. More terrifying and bewildering than human disobedience. God himself would become human.
He would be subject to physical pain, hunger, and death. God- all powerful, immortal, the creator would be born as a tiny, dependent infant.
It startles me when I consider what God put aside to be human for thirty some years.

As many friends have recently had children, another aspect I considered this year was that of Mary and pregnancy. For us, the Christmas season begins in December, but for her, it began back in March. She had nine long months, probably a list of questions and many fears.
I wonder at her age, her relationship with Joseph. Were they in love? Did she dream of her wedding with Joseph? Did Joseph have frustrations about not being the father? Had he been building a home for the two of them?
We read this story a week or so before Jesus is born, but they had life to deal with long before the night in the inn. Joseph had doubts and rumors swarming around him, did people think he was an idiot? Did he loose business?
Mary ran off to spend time with her cousin, Elizabeth, but did she talk to Joseph first? Did they miss eachother? Did they talk and figure things out? Elizabeth understood, and Joseph learned the truth through a dream, but what of Mary's family? Did they believe her? Or, was she kicked out of the house and had to go to Elizabeths? was she alone and scared?
Nine months is a long time, and we don't read any more about messages from God. Mary was told she would get pregnant, and she did. But after that, did any other angels show up to answer her questions? When she felt judged and discriminated against, did she feel comforted?

November is sort of like that in Edmonton- cold, dirty snow, and just dreary. And then December comes, with the same weather- but lighted streets and cheery music. And there is hope. For a few days, everything changes, people party and share. And then a new year rolls in, with fresh starts and untouched hope.

I wish that we had more information to fill in the blanks, from the first message to Mary, up to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. What about when he was a little boy in Egypt? Was it hard for them to move back to Nazareth? Did they stay with family, or start all over?

What we do know is that Jesus was born in a stable. A modern-day option of being born in the back of a car in a parking garage. There wasn't even room in the hotel lobby for this couple, although the mother was 9 months pregnant. Mary didn't have a doctor or midwife.

In my story, the angels at upset at this- their God- the king, should not enter the world in such a 'ghetto' way. And the people who came to visit weren't the upper-class, famous people. They were average joes, working the night shift. They didn't bring gifts or offer help, they just showed up to see the baby.
It isn't magical, there aren't lights and bells and wrapping paper. It's poor, cold and lonely.

But that was God's plan. He planned this all back when the perfect world cracked. He knew what he was doing. It's not just the new life of one baby, born in a cold parking garage (or stable) that we celebrate. It's the new life we are promised through his life. We have a different life because God lived as a human. It's not immediately visible in the hay or over-full hotel, nor in the red lettering or crowded malls. The real story isn't as flashy as the decorations we use today, but it lasts the whole year instead of a few weeks. The baby grew up into a man; God continued to live in bones and skin to offer us a new life.

So Happy Christmas, and thank you, God for being a human for me. I hope that I keep your sacrifice of so many divine things in mind through the rest of the year; you didn't just give it up for one day.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Seven days long

Seven days on a Caribbean island, enjoying the sun, beach, fresh seafood and smiling locals.
Immigration was a breeze, I simply explained that I was currently living in Canada. For some reason my job was very important and I was to write out my title on a random piece of blank paper, which I did.
I then showed a invalid laminated card of a former travel insurance- which is approximately 5 months expired, this seemed proof enough that I had heath insurance while on vacation. The last question was the last time I had been to my home country, to which I truthfully answered as "three weeks ago". The immigration officer nodded and waved me through.

Each morning whomever cleaned our room left the towels in a creative fashion on the bed- the first day was a heart, then a boat propped up on waves, two hearts, and at last, a swan- using my hat as part of the tail feathers.

We didn't have an all-inclusive package, but ended up eating one or both (we never woke up in time for breakfast) of our meals at the hotel's buffet anyway, as it was good, full of fresh fruit and a changed daily. The first day we realized that the traditional breakfast was either hamburgers or a ham and cheese sandwich- with terrible ham and hamburger meat that Biruk was so optimistic about- trying again and again, even when we sampled some that was so full of fillers it was a lump of gray between two buns.
We took long walks to discover the other restaurants in the area- one called Casa del Miel (House of Honey), which had nothing to do with honey but served some amazing shrimp and lobster. It also had some stray cats that would rub against our legs while we ate and Biruk humoured by tossing bits of shrimp and lobster. A local man approached us, interested in the black and white cat and supposed that he had the sister in his own house- an old wooden structure that appeared to have survived some hurricanes beside the restaurant.

There was also a terrible Chinese restaurant- set in a large house which must have previously been a mansion. It had a huge red door and surprisingly accurate Chinese decorations. We had a romantic table beside windows that opened out to the Caribbean sea and drank cocktails while listening to the waves. Biruk made me laugh when he said the food wasn't good and the soy sauce tasted like a lame imitation. "You didn't really expect top-quality Chinese food here, did you?" Apparently, he did.
Biruk would also rather have vodka than rum- which was hard to find in a country famous for it's rum. Every so often Biruk found a place that served vodka, and then he would request cranberry juice- which no on ehad even heard of and he had to opt for orange juice and have a screw driver.
I liked the light, local beer- Cristal, but Biruk would routinely ask for Heineken and every so often would be obliged.
The national drink was a toss up between a rum and coke, or the mojito. Biruk found that he liked mojitos better sans sucre and I liked mine the normal way- the authentic way, no skimping with using lemon-lime soda.
We visited the open-air cafe across the street from our hotel on an average of twice a day. They served up good coffee and Biruk could relax in the shade and watch the traffic of the main street roll by- as ancient cars, double-decker buses, and horse-pulled carriages.

The beach was beautiful, scattered with people who napped on the lounge chairs. Our hotel was near the town and there were often locals enjoying the beach as well, we were told that further down the peninsula was the higher concentration of hotels, there the beaches would have more people, more children and less locals.
Biruk was able to stand in the ocean for the first time. He didn't think it as profound as I do- he shrugged and says "this one time, when we were swimming in Lake Winnipeg..." To him, lakes that can hold a boat are just as good as any ocean.

Biruk wasn't much for actually swimming in the ocean, but he enjoyed walking with the sand coating his feet and the tide hitting his ankles.
I enjoyed relaxing on the beach- Biruk would grab a lounge chair under the shade of an umbrella crafted from the leaves of a palm tree and I would push mine under the bright sun.
We took one day to go to the capital city. We had a walking tour of the old city- which reminded me of Venice in many ways. We also went to the Internacional Hotel, which is famous of sorts and the Revolutionary Square, which really just looked like a large parking lot with office buildings that had murals on them- there wasn't much to see at all. The highlight of the day was going to the Tropicana for a show. The costumes were a hilarious mix of neon green and pink, with head dresses that grew unbelievably larger each time. The outfits varied from barely bikinis, to seventies style disco attire. Besides the dancing, I enjoyed a drumming section and a quartet where the men did some beat-boxing and singing.

They gave us a free bottle of rum and cigar with the show. We gave the rum to our guide as his tip and back at our hotel, Biruk lit the cigar. I tried to smoke it- figuring, when else will I be here, able to partake in the symbol for the country? 
So I attempted a few puffs- and left coughing. It smelled terrible- as Biruk described, like horse shit, and I said like a fire of dry leaves. In either case- not a pleasant smell and it tasted awful. Biruk couldn't smoke all of it, and put it out and returned it to its small case, where we will keep it as a souvenir- but only to look at.

We slept in late, drank cocktails and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
And then, one night we went to bed at 2 am, and woke up two hours later to finish packing and check-out. We waited for our bus, the security guard telling us the shuttle to pick us up with inevitably be half an hour later (he was right) and arrived at the airport just after 6 am. We had a morning snack of pringles and cheese sandwiches (such a wide variety available) and I walked straight through the exit point and Biruk mocked the security measures- saying no matter if you beeped through the metal detectors or not, you were waved straight on.

It was wonderful. Time alone with Biruk was beyond great, the warmth and sunshine put a smile back on my face and the memories from out belated honeymoon have created inside jokes and wonderful photos.

Four days notice

It happened like this:

I don't like Edmonton and the early nights and creeping chill has started to permeate everything in my life- even my smile. There were several options we posed; spending time away- a few months to volunteer, teach overseas, to stay in Edmonton and busy myself in any and every area I legally could. One plan was to go to Vancouver or Victoria, British Columbia for Christmas, and as I increasingly couldn't handle Edmonton anymore, I would go to visit various friends around Canada.

And then Biruk suggested that we just get away, me and him alone together. That seemed like a much better option that me just retreating from Edmonton alone. But then it seemed so unrealistic- he just opened his own business, he can't just leave- right?
And so we played, back and forth- Biruk would insist that we go, that it was important, and I would play the responsible card. And then, I would suggest that when else would this opportunity present itself? And Biruk would say it wasn't a good idea, maybe next year.
And then, one brief half an hour, we decided on the same thing- to just go.
And I booked the tickets, which I managed to get even $25.00 cheaper. We had four days.
A few hours later- Biruk called, doubting out decision. I told him, too bad- we already purchased the tickets. Eventually, I did tell him we bought the insurance which would refund our money if we canceled- but by then, he was set on going.

And then, on Thanksgiving I received some exciting news. I celebrated  a pot-luck Thaksgiving with another American living in Edmonton and her extended family who jumped at the chance to have a big dinner for any occasion. The young woman is also going through the immigration process of sponsorship. I mentioned that we were going on our belated honeymoon in a few days and that the papers were all ready, and even had postage, we were just waiting to submit them until we returned from our trip and I would settle down into a type of hibernation, as I wouldn't be permitted to leave the country until the paperwork came through.
And the woman informed me that that rule was only for people who needed a temporary residence permit to even enter Canada, and that she herself had visited her family in the US several times since submitting the papers.

I couldn't hold back my enthusiasm that I wouldn't have to stay in Canada, unable to travel where I wanted to for about a year. I called Biruk immediately and then, on Friday afternoon, submitted the papers. They would sit at the bottom of a red mail box for the rest of the weekend- but on Monday morning, some postal worker would carry my application off, three hours away to the case processing center, while I would be relaxing on a beach in the Caribbean.