18 December 2013

Trolling the ancient Yule-tide carol

While I do not have memories of distinct events or points in time related to Christmas in my early childhood, there are four traditions I particularly remember.

When I was three to nine, we attended a Presbyterian church in Los Angeles that kicked off the Advent season with its Advent workshop. This was a gathering after church on the first Sunday of Advent (which the church celebrated with the lighting of candles in the service), during which families could enjoy some food, music, and crafts. We made ornaments, wreaths, and other sorts of decorations. The whole fellowship hall smelled good, between the cider and pine branches. We kids looked forward to that workshop every year. I know that one ornament we made there in maybe 1990 survived at least until I graduated ten years later - a reindeer made with felt and a candy cane. Good times.

A few weeks into Advent, on December 13, we celebrated Santa Lucia Day. While this is not technically a Christmas tradition, it happens during Advent, so I always associate the two. There are lots of different ways to celebrate Santa Lucia Day, but I loved our tradition. Mom would bake yummy rolls, and then she'd wake my sister and me before dawn. We each held a lit candle and went to wake my dad and brother whilst singing (humming, really, since none of us knew the words) the Santa Lucia song. When Anna is a little bigger, I'd love to start the tradition with her. Maybe I'll have to learn the English words to the song...

The one family Christmas tradition growing up I remember best is the Advent wreath. Every Sunday night from as far back as I can remember until I graduated from high school, the family would gather at the dining room table to celebrate Advent. We used different homily guides from year to year, but the routine was the same. We lit the candle(s)--taking turns among us kids, usually--and read the homily, which always included a scripture passage. We would then sing two or three related carols and pray. To end it all, Mom would bring out the eggnog (with a sprinkle of nutmeg) and Christmas cookies. No matter how busy any of us were, the Advent wreath was something we always enjoyed, to which we always looked forward. We had several hymnals, and once we were old enough to read music, we would harmonize together - Dad on tenor, Jonathan on baritone, Mom (and I until about age 14) on soprano, and Lisa on alto. Even the "unison" carols we could usually find harmonies to. If there's one thing I love doing with my family, it's singing.

Which leads me to the last memory of tradition: caroling. I have memories of caroling at least from age 7, though I imagine we caroled before that. At the same Presbyterian church where we had Advent workshop, we also went caroling. The Zehnder family was very musical (Elizabeth Zehnder was my first choir director when I was about 5 or 6), and John Zehnder would bring his tuba along caroling. I remember there were tambourines and trumpets, maybe other instruments, but the tuba made the biggest impression on me. Maybe it was a sousaphone, since we did do a bit of walking along our route, and I can't imagine carrying a regular tuba very far. In any case, I remember singing those carols in the relatively-mild-but-felt-cold Southern California December night chill. People would open their doors, and their faces would light up when we sang. Sometimes they offered us cookies or hot chocolate or cider. I loved those evenings out caroling. Once we moved to Nigeria, we didn't really get to do any caroling, although I do remember doing so in our hospital one or two years when we first arrived. In college, I went out with friends from my reading club to carol in the very-white-Protestant neighborhood. Those are the only times I've actually caroled in snow, wearing a hat and scarf and gloves. Beautiful memories.

I miss these traditions, but I know I will make some of my own with my kids. The one thing I really would love to be able to do is go caroling. These days, though, I'm not even sure if it's legal let alone desired. I think we've all gotten so religiophobic that it would be hard to get a group together to actually do some Christmas caroling. And that makes me sad. I'm not certain what the best response is to the current climate. Must we really give up caroling altogether? Or is there some way we can still "safely" engage in the singing fun?

16 December 2013


I have learned to live with certain odors.

I grew up in a country where people are hot and sweaty most of the time, and where "personal space" is a foreign concept - literally. It is also a country where people burn their trash and pee in the bushes, where animals roam freely, and where almost everyone raises some kind of animal--be it goats or chickens. The markets smell mostly of fish: dried fish, fresh fish, crayfish, you name it. And cassava. Oo, when you inhale that cassava drying alongside the road, whooee! There are wonderful smells, too: night-blooming jasmine, ripe oranges, grilling suya (usually--hopefully--beef) skewers, roasted peanuts, rain after a long season of dusty dry.


When I went to southeast Asia in the summer of 2001, when I was 19, I also noticed smells. Many of them were very familiar from my childhood and adolescence: sewage, sweat, citrus. There were several new smells, like coconut and durian.

One smell in particular, though, brought me to my senses:


We didn't smell incense often, but when we did, it was always in or near a Buddhist temple. I came to associate the smell with Buddha, as does my mother, who grew up in Taiwan. My teammates and I toured several Buddhist temples, the most notable of which, of course, was the Monkey Cave Temple with the Reclining Buddha. But there was one temple, a small one in a remote village, into which I just could not go. When I drew near to the incense, I became faint and nauseated. In broad daylight, the darkness was oppressive, almost palpable. I have never felt anything like it before or since, but I could not go in. Instead, I sat and waited for the others, praying against the darkness, like a character out of a Frank Peretti novel..

That fall, when I was back in college, I attended a Sunday evening World Christian Fellowship meeting, where students met together to spread awareness of and pray for global Christians and missionaries. Having been raised as a missionary kid in a foreign country and having associated with some other MKs in college, I had become disillusioned about global missions to some extent. But I went to the meeting anyway, to see what it was like, to see if anyone cared about my Africa.

They were burning incense.

I sat through the first hour or so, but after that, I needed fresh air. Even in America, in a gathering of fellow Christians, I could feel the darkness creeping over me from the incense. Two other times I smelled incense in American churches - at a Greek Orthodox church and an Antiochan Orthodox church I visited with friends on separate occasions. Both times I just felt closed in, suffocated, almost panicky.

Yesterday's sermon focused on the symbolism of the magi's three gifts to Jesus. To make it a more sensory experience, the pastor burned some incense. The minute I set foot in the sanctuary after coffee break, I commented to my mom that I could smell incense and that I was not enthusiastic about it. The sermon was quite good (as usual), and I know why Jeff burned incense for that particular service. But I have to admit that it was hard to overcome that chest-tightening feeling of being transported back to the statue of Buddha. I hate that the magi gave a gift to little Jesus that I now associate with something dark, almost sinister. I have to wonder if there is any way at all for incense to be redeemed for me, or if I will always have that first reaction to its scent.

Will incense ever bring me closer to God instead of tearing me farther away?

13 December 2013

Reflecting on December 12-13, 2010

Three years ago today, I headed to the NICU at Memorial Hospital in Savannah to hold Anna for the third time. It was an hour's drive from our home in Hinesville, and I was anxious the entire way. After I'd first held Anna the day before, just after she was born, the pediatrician had noticed petechiae, small spots that indicate bleeding under the skin. Newborn Anna had been whisked away for more testing. I had been taken to a recovery room and left by myself. David went home to sleep, and I was there in that recovery room by myself all day, while my baby was somewhere else.

The pediatrician came back to tell me that they believed Anna had a condition called NAIT (neonatal alloimmune thrombocytopenia), which meant she needed to be monitored closely in a neonatal intensive care unit by a pediatric hematologist. The nearest one was in Savannah, so they were preparing Anna to be transported later in the day.

I sat there in my room, all alone, exhausted, crying, worried to death about my little girl.

I finally asked a nurse when I could see my baby. She said, oh, the baby was in the nursery, waiting for transport. Why didn't I come see her now? I was irritated. Gee, thanks for telling me sooner, lady. I don't know what time it was when I finally got to see Anna again, but I think it was about 4pm. She had been born just after 8am, and I hadn't seen her since about 9:30 or 10. In the meantime, she had not eaten anything. The nurse encouraged me to try to nurse her (duh), but Anna was lethargic and wouldn't eat. The nurses with the transport unit arrived shortly thereafter and tested Anna's glucose, which was dangerously low from not having eaten. They started an IV for her and got her ready to leave me.

And then she was gone.

I was returned to my room, and the doctor said that although it was hospital policy to keep mothers for at least 24 hours after delivery, I looked good, and he would try to get me discharged right away so I could go to Savannah. But there was one issue after another (mostly paperwork), and there was confusion about whether or not I needed a RhoGAM shot, but I finally was discharged about 10:30pm. By then, it was too late to drive the hour to Savannah, and I had to make sure things were OK at home with my aunt, who had traveled from Augusta to help out, specifically to watch 3-year-old Timothy.

So there I was on Monday, December 13th, riding to Savannah to see Anna and hold her for the third time. It was a precious day, when I got my first real pictures of my baby girl. We were all tired and scared.

But she pulled through. To make a long story short, after nine days in the NICU, which included several days of phototherapy and one transfusion of immunoglobulin, she was discharged and came home, just in time to travel to Augusta for Christmas. And there were no lasting problems. My baby girl is as healthy as can be.

So I celebrate Anna - her three years of beauty and growth. She is surely my little princess, "sweetie" (not "honey"), full of energy and verve. Happy Birthday-plus-one, Little Miss Anna!


**I must add that I am thankful for the amazing health care coverage we got in the Army, which paid 100% of our hospital stay. We never saw a single bill. If there is only one thing positive I can say about the Army, it is that they take care of their own medically. Timothy had outpatient surgery in January 2012, and I never saw a bill for that, either. Thank you, U.S. Army, for paying top-notch doctors to take care of my little ones.

06 December 2013

Revisiting Drew

You know the feeling when you’ve left something in the past, moved on, gotten over it, and then one little word or smell or event brings back a flood of memories?

Yes, exactly. That feeling.

Moving to Augusta and becoming involved in the medical scene somehow threw me back 11 years.

I’ve never really dated anyone, although I had two interesting quasi-dating relationships in high school. College was similar. I had one very complicated and not-particularly-healthy relationship with a guy let’s call Drew (just for kicks) during my junior year. He got to know me pretty well—maybe too well. It was a “friendship” full of Intellect, drama, creativity, and music. A lot of laughter, silliness, and music.

It was wonderful and exciting and ended badly the night before spring semester began. (I wrote about it earlier this year here.) The truth is I have a tendency toward codependency (think ”Break in the Cup”), and Drew did the brave thing to pull the plug when he did. The pain at that point was severe, but it could have been much, much worse. I went through a horrible spot at the beginning of the semester, which got better with intensive professional counseling and peer counseling—and an amazingly supportive roommate. She would hold me while I cried, and we would listen to “Grace” together. We had it on eternal repeat some nights. Eventually, I could speak to Drew again, but it was always awkward and strained. I kept hoping we could be friends, but it never really panned out. We were polite in passing but didn’t socialize. The book that he wrote with his dad was published, and he autographed a few copies for me. When I graduated, he came to the department celebration to say goodbye and give us both some closure. He became friendly with another young lady at our school whom we’ll call Diana. I moved away and later got married. Last year, I saw on Facebook that Drew had married Diana at long last. We weren’t keeping in touch at all, but I was glad to see the news regardless.

Great, I thought. That chapter is finally and irrevocably closed.

Then I ran into Diana’s mother at a local church here in Augusta, where I attended a Bible study earlier this fall. I had never met her before but recognized her name. Strange. Talk about a small world. Whenever I went to Bible study, we’d chat, and I came to like her. But it was still just a little weird because of the association.

The second week after I started my job, I discovered that one of the faculty I would be seeing was Diana’s dad.

Teeny tiny world.

I haven’t spoken to him and probably won’t, except in the course of work, but it is still just a little strange. Gives me goosebumps.

Let me clarify. I do not have any interest in Drew. There is no lingering wistfulness or yearning for what might have been. None. But I do have many memories—both sweet and melancholy—and wish that I had not lost a friend.

But life has moved on, and I wish him and Diana the best…

…yet still cross my fingers and hope that I will not have to run into them if they should come down here to visit her parents. I would really like this past to stay in the past. Really.