Watch for light

First Sunday of Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thess 3:9-13
Luke 21: 25-36

This is a difficult set of readings for me. Not only do they initially seem irrelevant for Advent, but my eyes tend to glaze over when I read of signs and looming disaster in the Bible. Honestly, I'm looking for something about cozy smells and Christmas baking. I want to read about how Mary said Yes! to God -- that's the kind of advent story even "positive thinking" gurus can get on board with. I want to walk away uplifted and smiling.

And then I remember that this is Advent. Not Christmas. And even if the mall decorations went up weeks ago, advent isn't really about ticking the days and tasks off until Christmas ... it's about learning to live with hope even in the midst of chaos. It's about having confidence in what God is doing even when the economy is horrible and waters are rising. It's about not giving into the temptation to either ignore the problems of the day or to be drowned by them.

Advent has historically been a solemn fast, a time of self-reflection in preparation for Christ's coming, and a time that looked forward to God's full redemption of the world more than it just retold the story of waiting for Jesus' birth. And despite the way that today's readings initially caused my eyes to glaze over, Jesus actually calls us to hope and action rather than fear when the "distress among nations" begins.

For the last few years I've tried to create a distinction in our home and family between Advent and Christmas, letting these dark times be dark and trying not to stuff the emptiness with rich foods or flood the darkness with lush decorations. It's hard to put into practice though--I love Christmas planning and parties as much as anyone. I've already led one Christmas baking class this month and I've got more scheduled. My Christmas gifts and cards have to be mailed early, so I've been working on them for months now, and decorating the home early certainly helps me feel less homesick. So how to cultivate an Advent awareness of darkness and longing even while carols plays relentlessly?

It's actually not hard to be reminded of the darkness--just open the paper and there it is. What is hard is continuing to face it, while at the same time always watching for light--watching for the ways that God's love and presence breaks through, often in as unexpected a way as a poor baby's birth.

What I'm going to do is this. We're certainly not going to avoid decorations, parties or carols during these weeks leading up to Christmas--who among us is so rich in joy as to be able to afford that? We already do an Advent wreath and light candles each week, watching the light grow along with our anticipation. To expand on this, we're going to be intentional about watching for light, speaking each night about the places we've seen God at work. I'm making a banner reminding us to "watch for light" and we'll add stories, news items, images and incidents as we find them.

I invite you to think about ways to consecrate this Advent season, whether it's intentionally "watching for light" as we're doing, or something else. Christmas Change is one site with ways to make the Christmas season more meaningful, and I'm sure there are lots of other resources out there as well.

Blessed Advent, everyone!

*thanks to Liese Shewmaker, who graciously let me use the photo above. Taken December 13, 2005, at 10:35:05 am just as fog was lifting from Mink Brook.* 



Nothing says holidays like pie for breakfast (and a homemade roll with cranberry sauce.) Apparently Finn thinks so too.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!


HK Alphabet :: C

C :: Chungking Mansions

Taking the Star Ferry or the MTR across the harbor makes it feel like an expedition from the start, but walking into the crowded entryway of the Chung King Mansions is where the real fun starts. Crammed with money changers, backpackers and the insistent refrain of "copy watch," "copy handbag", Chung King Mansions is notorious in Hong Kong as the place for cheap Indian food, knock off mobile phones, and just about any illicit activity you can imagine. Its labyrinthine hallways teem with life, and it's fun to see the vibrancy, but there's a lot of desperation in those hallways too. Refugees, newly arrived immigrant families, drug addicts ... these people all call Chung King Mansions home. Honestly, it's part of what I like about going ... a very visceral reminder of the poverty that exists everywhere, even though it's mostly hidden in Hong Kong.

(I'm a little uncomfortable with this, by the way, ... certainly don't want to romanticize it or participate in "poverty porn" --which is what it felt like when I took pictures in anticipation of this post. Right now I'm going with the idea that as long as the reminder of poverty moves me into action or helps me keep a larger perspective it's OK. When it comes to poverty, it's always better to face it and acknowledge it than to keep it hidden.)

It must be assumed that any Caucasian venturing into the Mansions is in search of Indian food, because as soon as you walk in, the restaurant touts all start their pitches. Men stand around the entrance, waiting to guide customers through the maze, but first they have to get customers, and they take that job very seriously. Luckily, you only have to visit a restaurant once to get a VIP card, and then you just flash that card and the right man finds you.

He escorts you to the right elevator block, which is essential since there are 5 blocks to choose from and each has several elevators. Or he'll take the back way, and lead you through alleys, hallways and stairwells. Windows are broken, wiring is a mess and trash bins overflow ... it's not a place for squeamish stomachs. Eventually you get to your destination, which resembles nothing so much as a bleak apartment with the furniture pushed aside and tables set up.

We've been in two restaurants now in Chung King Mansions, and one actually looked like a restaurant rather than someone's dining room, but both had the same year-round Christmas decor. Both also had delicious, classic Indian food, and in neither would I want to see the kitchen. But, wow, fragrant garlic naan piled with spicy lamb vindaloo (the server called it 'the spicy one') and washed down with a Kingfisher? I'll happily eat that out of any kitchen.



We had a scary situation this weekend. It wasn't that bad--no blood, no emergency--but for a moment we had a glimpse of what life could be if that scary "A" word--autism--entered the picture. This particular condition, with all the publicity it gets, has captured our imaginations as the worst thing that could happen. I'm sure each generation has its thing--what it looks for, analyzes, agonizes over--and for this generation of parents, it's autism. For good reason, I might add--with 1 in 150 kids in America diagnosed today, and the way it challenges our expectations of relationships--no wonder it scares us.

So Finn woke up from his nap Saturday seemingly awake but refusing all interaction. He sat on the floor away from us, resisting eye contact or touch of any kind. It was breathtakingly scary--he was so withdrawn and inward-looking that both Matt and I wondered "Is this how it starts? Is this the beginning of a journey we don't want to take? Will this day be forever frozen in our minds?" We couldn't even acknowledge our fears until much later that evening, after he had mostly come back to us. He seemed distant to me the rest of the day, actually, but was completely himself the next morning and ever since.

We suspect that Finn is fine, that he had a bad dream or was in the middle of a sleep cycle and needed to awaken more fully. Or maybe he felt sad and was just trying to understand it. Finn walks around stomping his feet and proclaiming himself "Happy," but there's no song, after all, about what you do if you feel sad or how you know it.

So yes, we watch Finn run up to kids on the playground, eager to share his ball and to say hi and we suspect autism is not an issue for him. But of course, you never know, and even this momentary fear has started me thinking about the nature of parental anxiety, and what it means for our children when we take our legitimate responsibility of observation and awareness too far, to the point of constantly looking for something to diagnose, something that is wrong.

I have to admit I'm uncomfortable with how quickly we can descend into this place of anxiety,
where anything is a potential symptom. Not that parents shouldn't be alert to potential problems--of course not. We have friends whose observation and persistence in the face of doctors who wanted to wait and see has gained their child untold advantages. By obtaining an early diagnosis of a prenatal stroke, his physical and occupational therapy began that much sooner, while the brain is still developing and forming. Clearly this sort of attention and recognition of a problem is exactly the job of parents.

But there is an alternate world of "parenting" out there that offers only an addict's relief for our trembling fear. Shelves of books promise to provide a full night's sleep, a beautifully-behaved child and a high IQ to boot. They compete with websites, blogs, forums and parenting magazines, which offer the consumers' solution: buy the right products, the best toys, the safest equipment, and everything will be fine. These solutions, of course, only foster more anxiety--any temporary comfort quickly subsumed by a new study or a tragic story. It is not a far stretch to say that the anxiety produced by those shelves of parenting books and endless hyperlinks--read or unread--robs us of the confidence and ability to look inside, listen to our instincts, think rationally or even pay attention to our particular child with his or her particular needs, temperament and personality.

In this alternate world of parenting, one moment can indeed spiral into a diagnosis--and it's only a short walk from there to the realm of "what did I do wrong and how can I fix it?" It's so tempting to think that even in the face of an uncontrollable world, we can control our child's world. But we parents are only stewards, not saviors.

The truth is that our children are born into an imperfect world to imperfect parents. They are full inheritors of the human condition--sadness, bad dreams and failures included. I remind myself of this--that, in the words of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, both I and Finn are dust, and to dust we will return. It is a strange grace to remember, but grace nonetheless. Finn belongs to God before he belongs to me.

Yes. This is my theological answer, but my everyday, lived answer I'm still working out.

On that day when we felt stricken with fear--and in the days since--we wondered if Finn was indeed on some sort of cusp, and if so, was there anything we could do to bring him back? Could we, by sheer force of love and physical presence, hold him to us, not let him slip away? Maybe so, and we have certainly been quicker to pick him up, quicker to bring him into our bed at night, quicker to cuddle.

I think that holding him when we feel scared is not a bad start. Ironically, it's the quotidian acts of parenting that most relieve me from the anxiety and the idea of parenting. Because the other side of this anxiety is that I do experience God in the work of parenting, in the creativity and the guidance required, in the mundane duties and the selfless love. The dailiness and constancy calm me, give rhythms and patterns to my prayer.

Ideas like "being present" and "being mindful" may be much talked about and written upon, but never have they been made so manifest in our lives as when Finn entered in, casting a hazy spell which blurred everything except counting 10 perfect fingers and toes over and over again in a strange rosary of parently bliss.

And these days, walking at a toddler's pace and cleaning something for the millionth time--these are the disciplines that shape my days. Accepting my lack of control over how often the milk is spilled, when the diaper leaks or where he throws a tantrum helps me to accept my lack of control over the world. And when I choose to read a novel instead of a parenting book, I'm accepting my limits and somehow accepting Finn's limits too. I know that we both have--and will continue to have--bad days. And I know that whatever issues do come up for us--whether it's developmental delays now or reading problems later--those issues, diagnose-able or not, don't have to define us.

I know that none of this is any kind of hedge against the terrifying possibilities of life. But that's the point--reading endless articles isn't a hedge either. I have certainly found valuable resources in a few parenting books, and I wouldn't advocate throwing them out. But sometimes--more often than not, I suspect--the healthy thing to do is to shut the books, stop googling lists of symptoms (as I spent Sunday morning doing) and simply be with my child. Or knit a few rows, letting my control over yarn soothe me. Or make pancakes, which has never yet failed to nourish myself, my husband or my son. These little acts of creativity, of life, help me to hold onto the "already" in the midst of the "not yet," giving me a glimpse of the Kingdom right here in my kitchen. 


HK Alphabet :: B

B. Oh, B. I have put you off. But there are just so dang many B words that fill our son's mouth, our home, and thus our experience of this city. Bus. Balloon. Bird. Bubbles. Ball. I'm not sure if Hong Kong actually has more balls in it than any other place we've lived, or if it's just that we see every single one. But whatever: this city is filled with balls. Soccer balls. Basketballs. Tennis balls. In parks, hanging in sport shops, dribbled down the street. Same thing goes for birds, though I can safely say that song birds, at least, are indeed part of this city's cultural fabric.

 And where would be without Beach? It's the one place in this uber-urban life where we can revel in the natural world. Finn could play in the sand for hours, and since he doesn't get to dig in the dirt in a backyard, we let him. It soothes our parental anxieties for him to get sand in his hair and under his nails, to know that he doesn't mind the grit.

The newest B word: Boots. Once cold weather hit, boots came out of closets all over this city, and just like the balls, we see every pair. Finn lusted until he finally got his own.

We haven't even touched on the Big Buddha, or Boats. Boats, my goodness ... and not just the ferries, cruise ships, cargo ships and sail boats we see (and ride) all the time, but the remote control boats on a little pond at our park. We visit often, hoping some old man is there, cruising his speed boat round and round the pond. Boats and birds, it seems, are two things Finn has in common with old men in Hong Kong. Nor have we adequately expressed our son's love for buses, especially the "tall" buses. We ride them every day, and he's now big enough that he can sit in his own seat, and he loves to flag them down, whether we want one or not.


Year of Asian Cinema: 4, 5

There is perhaps a case to be made that if it takes over a month to get around to writing about a movie, that maybe the movie isn't really worth writing about. And if it takes over a month to even watch said movie, there is definitely a case to be made.

But in both cases, actually, it's not true. It's just that audiobooks and nights with friends and decisions all intervened and prevented both the watching and the writing. And so, here we are.

Herodirected by: Zhang Yimou 2002
begun in mid-September, finished in mid-October
in Mandarin, with English subtitles

To be fair, the night we initially watched this movie was interrupted numerous times by an unusually fussy baby and a par-for-the-course fussy television. Sometimes we couldn't hear, sometimes we couldn't see, and mostly we couldn't concentrate. We finally gave up, and only finished it weeks later, watching on our computer.

Which is a shame, because what Hero has going for it are the visuals: dramatic Western China scenery, artistic martial arts scenes that are part dance and part fight, large advancing armies. It uses color, calligraphy, and music to great effect and Hero doesn't even try to be subtle.

Besides the visuals, what made Hero worth watching is that it's a classic example of a "Wuxia" film. Wuxia is very much part of pop culture in Chinese communities, and it is (according to Wikipedia) a "broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists, generally set in ancient China."

Wuxia heroes are generally independent operators, from lower social classes, who maintain a code of honor and use their power to right injustices. Think Robin Hood, or Western gunslingers, or Omar from The Wire.

Unlike The Wire, however, the plot and characters were a little thin, leaving the movie easily interruptible. But sometimes you need a movie like that: enjoyable without being too engaging. Christmas card season is coming up, folks.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, directed by Ki-duk Kim, 2003
viewed October 21, 2009
Korean, with English subtitles

We watched this movie during our Phuket vacation, on our computer. And contrary to Hero, which really benefited from the large screen, Spring ... was large enough in itself that it didn't hurt it to be viewed on a laptop. Not that it wasn't visually lovely, it was extraordinarily so. Set on an isolated lake, much of the film is silent and observant of the passing seasons. But it was primarily a study of the passage of a life, of several lives. The quiet moments and gestures that make a life show up very well on the small screen.

A Buddhist monk lives in a floating temple on this lake, where he raises an apprentice monk from a very young age. The monk teaches him wisdom and compassion as he grows, but inevitably the boy becomes a teenager and falls in love with the first girl he meets (a girl brought to the monk for healing.) He leaves the lake to follow the girl but has a difficult time in the world and eventually returns, seeking healing himself.

As is clear from the title, Spring ... is a story of timelessness and of the cyclical nature of life. The film itself feels timeless and almost mythic, and when the girl and her mother show up wearing current fashion it's almost a shock, so out of time did the story feel. There are doors that stand alone without supporting walls, animals, Buddhist rituals and exercises, and nameless characters that all contribute to the mythic feel, and yet I ended up feeling emotionally connected to this apprentice, watching him journey from boy to man, from man to monk.

The pace is deliberate and the movie is certainly subtle, like many Asian films. But it's not at all distant and in fact packs quite an emotional punch, maybe the more so for its simplicity. If Hero is a Western, then Spring ... is a poem, the kind of poem Garrison Keillor would read on Writer's Almanac.


The view from my window

morning light

Each morning after breakfast, I stack dishes on the kitchen counter and Finn enthusiastically pushes and pulls his step stool to the sink, calling out "dee-shes" over and over. He grabs his little cup and bowl from his cabinet and clambers up, excited to pour water back and forth, to rinse, to splash on his clothes.  It's a sweet time, and not just because I'm successfully accomplishing a chore and entertaining my child. It's that the light is so uniformly lovely at that time of day, and because I have such a view of all the life going on around and below me.

There's the woman across the way who hangs up shirts to dry, and the woman a few floors below who waters her balcony full of plants each morning. There's the uniformed school boys lining up in St. John's courtyard, listening to a man exhorting them into proper behavior. I have no idea what he says, but the "lecture tone" comes through loud and clear. There are retirees filling the sportsground with tai chi and qi gong.

This morning there was the men's half of a wedding party spilling out of a highly decorated car, and then doing it over and over again as the videographer shot different angles. There are people walking briskly to work, and babies with grandmas who just amble along.

There's a temple next door to us, and though we can't see it, we frequently hear chants, rising up to our window and inviting us to pause for a second and pray along. I have no idea what these Buddhist monks say when they chant, or what they are thinking about or aiming for, but it never fails to remind me of that verse about our prayers rising as incense. There's plenty of incense lit at this temple too, and on feast days the smell reaches our window, twenty floors up.  And though our prayers aren't so public or loud as the monks', I like the idea of them getting caught along the way, stopping in someone's kitchen window and nudging towards silence or towards thankfulness.

Hope you all have some morning light today, and something that nudges you towards prayer.


Hong Kong Alphabet :: A.

A :: Airdry

laundry 1

It's an iconic scene in Hong Kong: the apartment block with poles and wires coming out of the windows, looking like not-very-sturdy scaffolding. That is, until you see one loaded with laundry, shirts and towels fluttering like flags above the street. It's a dying tradition here---only the old buildings have these outdoor drying racks, and many are left unused. To my joy, our new apartment has two things--one, a dryer that is actually effective at drying clothes, and two, a clothes line right outside our window.


These things are brilliant, I tell you. We've had backyard clotheslines before, and I've dutifully lugged that wet laundry basket up from the basement and hung it all up, but oh my. How easy is it to just walk across a room, lean out the window, and clip up the towels or shirts? Yes, "leaning out" 20 stories up is a little vertigo inducing, and you do run the risk of dropping that favorite shirt, but what's a little thrill for the price of convenience? In truth, we've only lost one washcloth and that's just because I wasn't paying attention. Ground-floor rooftops all across Hong Kong are littered with such droppings, the colorful remains of a housewife's momentary daydream or an ill-timed gust of wind.

Hong Kong Alphabet :: introduction

Many of you know that Matt and I are currently in a decision-making phase. He has to choose to renew (or not) his contract in HK by mid-December. The tricky part is that American schools don't start hiring until the spring, so if we choose to go, we're saying no to this job before having lined up a new one. While we don't doubt that Matt could get a job somewhere, it might leave us in a position of not being very picky about that next job.

So. Everyday, it seems, we go back and forth, weighing the advantages of being near family versus being able to travel, of continuing his career in a known great school versus getting rooted in a new school and community. We're trying hard not to let it dominate our conversations and emotions, but it's hard.

All this is a very long preamble to a little project I'm starting, a Hong Kong alphabet---a way of methodically thinking about and recording the things we love about this city. If we stay, it will help us remember what is good here. And if we leave, well, it will help us remember what was good here. So even though it's not helping us make our decision, it's keeping us grateful while we do so. And more than that, it's keeping us here now.

Coming right up :: A.


The chestnuts are back, the chestnuts are back!


Actually, they've been back for a few weeks now. Living in a new neighborhood, we don't have a chestnut man like last year, but chestnut ladies. And even though I buy the chestnuts for some reason having to do with books I read as a child, what we really love are the roasted sweet potatoes. Here where fall means temperatures that are still in the 70's and even 80's, where the leaves stay green and no one has a front porch to decorate with a pumpkin or corn stalks, it's nice to have at least one thing that smells autumnal and traditional to me, even if the tradition is only a year old.

I have to admit that at this time of year, when all my friends' family photos have pictures of kids visiting pumpkin patches and picking apples, kicking up leaves and pulling out sweaters and hats, I catch my breath with nolstalgia and longing, wishing to give those experiences to Finn. I've been surprised many times since becoming a mother how strong is the desire to recreate my own childhood experiences--is this just a desire to relive my own life? Or is it wanting to enact the motherhood I witnessed and thus imagined for myself?

It's not like experiencing autumn is important in a moral or character-building sense, like passing on our faith or other traditions. Moreover, we know that Finn is young, and has many, many pumpkins and apples in his future. But we have learned over and over in the last year how deeply we have been formed by our midwestern American upbringing, and in that upbringing, October = fall = leaves, pumpkins and apples. It just feels right.

Living in Hong Kong has taught us other things, though, too. It's taught us how similar you can be to someone from an entirely different background. It's taught us how much we can enjoy and take on new traditions, and helped me understand how a person might take great joy and comfort in celebrating a (religious to me) holiday like Christmas or Easter with no religious beliefs involved whatsoever. I have even felt grateful (and a tiny bit smug) a time or two when we've heard about snow in Minnesota or Vermont and our plans for the day included the beach. New things can become normal surprisingly quickly.

So our "new normal" today included a Halloween spent at the beach, enjoying sand and water (and a nap!); a romp in the green-leaved and profusely-blooming park; toasted nori and roasted sweet potato with Finn's dinner; and date night at a tempura bar (in a mall's food court, no less!) .... Not a bad normal at all.

beach nap