Friday, December 23, 2016

Have Yourself A Poopy Little Christmas: Finding Light In A Time Of Darkness

If love means never having to say "I'm sorry," then loving two little boys means never having to say "I'm sorry, this bathroom is just too clean for words!" Oh, there are plenty of words to describe the typical state of a bathroom in our house, but most of them are not fit to print.

I can't even identify some of the things I've found in the kids' bathroom, because quite frankly I don't want to get close enough to try. Let's be honest: boys are a symphony of gross, and the bathroom is their masterpiece concerto of yuck. And I don't want to completely let my little princess off the hook, since her bedroom could easily be featured on an episode of Elementary School Hoarders. Given that anatomy is on her side, she does generally manage to keep the toilet seat clean, although actually flushing the device is apparently frowned upon in her kingdom.

That goes for all the kids in the house; that's because right now we are three kids deep in one of the poopiest phases of parenting. Everyone is out of diapers, but now they're gripped with a fascination with all things excrement-related. Bathroom humor is the only kind of humor in our house. When they do Mad Libs, I can be relatively certain that the choice of nouns and verbs will fall into just two categories: bodily functions or the parts that produce them. My daughter, if given the opportunity to play with my phone, will bypass all the sweet, smiley faced emojis and head right for the picture of the toilet or the brown lump of poop. And the first time we traveled to Mackinac Island, Michigan's storied getaway where cars are not allowed and horse drawn carriages are a main mode of transportation, the bulk of the 4-hour trip north was devoted to the topic of horse poop. Do they just poop in the ROAD? Who cleans it up? Where do they put it? What happens to it after that?

So it should come as no surprise, given their obsession, that one of my children would find a way to bring poop into the picture of one of the most holy, divine moments in all of religion: the birth of Christ.

It was shortly after Thanksgiving and my youngest was setting up the nativity scene by the fireplace while I worked on the tree in the other room with his siblings.

"Mom, what's a manger?" he called out.

I peeked in to see him tossing the plastic manger in the air (we purchased a kid-friendly set after the unfortunate year where several donkeys were decapitated during a Bethlehem brawl).

"Umm...it's that thing in your hands...you know, the place where Mary laid baby Jesus after he was born?"

"But what IS it when He's not in it? Is it a bed...for a sheep?" he wondered, his chunky kindergarten fingers not finding success at shoving a plastic animal into the manger.

"Well, not exactly," I replied. "I think it's more like a food trough- the place where the animals ate. Remember how there was no room for Mary and Joseph inside? They had to stay out with the animals. Then Jesus was born, and Mary wrapped him up and put him in there.

He considered this thoughtfully for a second and then his face lit up with excitement.

"So all these animals were there?" he gestured to the plastic menagerie.

"Yes..."

"So was there...(sharp inhale of excitement)...POOP? When Jesus was born? WAS THERE POOP EVERYWHERE? BECAUSE ANIMALS POOP!  I'VE SEEN THEM AT THE FARM AND IT SMELLS SOOOOOO BAD REMEMBER WHEN WE WENT ON THAT FIELD TRIP IN PRESCHOOL AND THAT COW POOPED AND THEN ALL THE CHICKENS WERE POOPING IN THEIR HOUSE AND THERE WAS POOP ON THE GROUND AND I STEPPED IN IT AND YOU MADE ME WIPE MY FEET ON THE GRASS BEFORE I GOT IN THE CAR..."

Clearly, the poop train had left the station. He became so engrossed in his recollection of barnyard poop (and reenacting it with the nativity scene animals) that he forgot he had even asked the question, so I took it upon myself to walk away and not have to deal with another poopy conversation. But his question stayed with me, and not just because I had to scrub the toilets that afternoon.

Though it's my most favorite time of year, I'd been having a hard time getting in the Christmas spirit. Despite the holiday lights all around, things just hadn't seemed very bright. Between the never-ending political drama in our country, the unthinkable atrocities unfolding in Syria, the bombing of churches in my family's homeland, the suffering of loved ones, and my own chronic pain from an injury that just won't heal, light had been in short supply.

Maybe that's why I started wondering- WAS there poop when Jesus was born?

I guess there probably was, both literally and figuratively. In our minds, in images, and in the songs we sing this time of year, the birth of Christ is such a gentle, magical time. We think of Christmas as a time of light, which of course it was (and is), but we often forget to mention that Jesus was born in the middle of a time of great darkness. The people of God were under oppressive rule. The nation of Israel was fracturing. Riots were common. Persecution was the way of life. 9 months pregnant, Mary and Joseph made an arduous, 100-mile journey by DONKEY over hills and streams, only to deliver the baby outdoors, without family or hospitality. These were very dark times, or as my kids my say, poopy. And that's not even talking about the animals.

I am no biblical scholar, but I do have to believe that was no accident. There's a reason the Son of God didn't arrive on a calm, clear day, with Mary and Joseph comfortably registered at the Labor and Delivery unit of their local hospital, birth plan in hand, with a crowd of family and friends in the waiting room as lavender essential oils were diffused into the birthing suite.

No, He was born into a world that I can't help but think was very similar to the one we're living in today: a broken, dark, and poopy one.

And that's where I guess this year I find the meaning of Christmas: in the poop. Christmas is about waiting for God to break forth into our world, despite the poop. It's waiting for the reassurance that hope is alive, that peace will prevail, that joy will be found, and that love will always win. It's the belief that nothing we can do as humans is so dark- not even the poopy condition in which we've left the world- that it can separate us from that light, and I've never found that thought more comforting than today.

Our world is a tough place to live in, but the Christmas story reminds us that just as hope, peace, joy and love started with an innocent child born in a humble manger surrounded (I surmise) by poop, it also starts at home in our poopy lives every single day. Christmas starts here. Christmas starts with us. It starts with cleaning up the poop.

Later that day, I found my sweet five-year-old, put him on my lap and asked him, "Buddy, do you remember earlier when you asked if there was poop when Jesus was born?"

After the requisite 10 minutes of laughing because MOM SAID POOP, he settled down. "Yeah..."

"Well, I wasn't there, and there's nothing written about that in the Bible, but I think we can guess there was. Like you said, there were all these animals, and animals poop. But that's not all. There were a lot of people behaving in a pretty poopy way back then. The world was dark and scary. And God wasn't afraid of any of that. Not the poop or the dark. He still isn't. He sent us light. That's a big part of Christmas- we need to look at all the ways we are poopy- not just in the bathroom, but in the way we talk, behave, and most of all, treat other people. We need to look for God, because he's here. We need to look for him in each other, in strangers, in people we can help. We need to look for that light, and we need to BE that light. And we REALLY need to clean up the poop in our lives."

I wanted to tell him so much more. I wanted to tell him how guilty I feel when I look around at all the poop that surrounds us- the politics, the pain, the suffering-  and realize how lucky I am that the majority of the excrement in my life is confined to the bathroom.

I wanted to tell him how every mother, of every creed and every color, in every part of the world, has seen the great light that's been passed down through history with the first glance into in her child's eyes.

How sometimes my heart simultaneously aches with equal parts joy and guilt when I think about how whole our life is in the midst of our very broken world.

I wanted to tell him all of that, but it seemed a bit heavy for a 5-year-old, so instead I just kissed the top of his curly head, held him a bit too long until he squirmed out of my arms, and told him to go clean the bathroom.


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Angel: Seeing The World Through A Child's Eyes


Holiday celebrations are some of the best parts of living in a small town, and my town does not disappoint. As Christmas approaches, our Main Street. is decked out in wreaths and ribbons, with beautiful storefront window displays glittering and gleaming in the soft white lights.

Early in the season, the entire downtown closes to traffic for an evening to make room for Santa's sleigh, where, after several hours of music and merry-making, the crowd gathers for a countdown at the end of which Santa magically turns on the Christmas lights that surround downtown's centerpiece, the Millpond (we won't dwell on that one year we counted down like six times but the lights still wouldn't go on- even Santa has technical difficulties). It's a pretty big deal around here.

Many of the homes leading into downtown take their celebrations just as seriously. There's the house with the nearly 50-foot pine tree that is adorned from top to bottom with ornaments the size of watermelons. Smiling snowmen on every corner. Enough reindeer to pull a dozen sleighs. And my favorite- a giant lighted angel which stands in front of a quaint, brick gingerbread-style home on Main St. I look forward to seeing its warm glow every year, and then I forget about it until the next. Christmas angels aren't there when it's not Christmas, right?

Unless they are and you just don't see them.

Fortunately, someone in my world does.

I think it began around sometime around February or March. We'd be driving through downtown and all of a sudden, my then 6-year-old daughter would nearly leap out of her booster seat with excitement.

"Mama- there's the most beautiful angel standing there, and she's holding a present in her hands! What do you think is in it? Do you think it's for me?" She'd breathlessly blurt out as we navigated the roundabout in the middle of town.

"Mmm hmm...," I'm sure I muttered distractedly, the first few times, glancing up about 2 blocks after the fact, which is typically the time it takes a verbal message to trudge through the muck of my overloaded brain, and to trigger some sort of a response. Of course by then, I saw nothing.

But she wouldn't stop. Whether it was on the way to ballet, coming home from the grocery store, or heading to a friend's house, she saw an angel. I saw nothing but places to go, errands to run, and time ticking away on the clock.

Though she only mentioned the angel when the two of us were alone together in the car, on those rare occasions I was a passenger, I'd try to remind myself to look for it. Unfortunately, by the time we got close to downtown, my attention had been pulled away by a beep or a buzz or a tweet or a tap or a swipe. But never an angel.

Finally one day, I remembered. As we made our way downtown on the way to dance class, I told her to tell me when we were getting close to the angel. I slowed waaayyy down until I heard her gleefully  squeal: "There she is!"

Sure enough, she was right- there stood the frame of the giant lighted angel I so look forward to seeing each Christmas. I'll be honest- in the light of day, she looked a little shabby- just a twisted shell of metal and wires on a soggy, bare lawn.

"Oh, you mean the Christmas angel!" I said. "I didn't see her because the lights aren't on this time of year."

"She's not just a Christmas angel, mama- she's there all the time," she insisted. "It doesn't matter if the lights are on. She's an angel- she's always shining. I see her all the time. You just didn't LOOK for her. "

DUH.

And just like that, my thought process sped through the roundabout and took a hard right turn into the oh-so-familiar parking lot of Mommy Guilt. Between work, activities, obligations, and the pressure of getting everyone from Point A to B (and points C-Z), what else had I been missing?

But then I realized- maybe we're not meant to see it all alone. Sure, my little girl sees things where I don't- she looks at a puddle and sees nothing but joy. I see a stealth mess that's looking to attach itself to a host so it can spread entirely new messes throughout the house. She sees cotton candy dinosaurs on a cloudy day, while I mourn the absence of the sun. And she sees angels shining even when the lights aren't on.

But I know it works both ways- it's my job to see things that she can't yet understand. To shield her as best I can from harmful germs and harmful strangers, bumps on her leg and bumps in the night. To guard her heart and raise her to see the world with both wisdom and joy.

Light and dark.

Angels and demons.

Between the two of us, I think it will work out just fine.

She'll be my angel and I'll be hers.

Monday, October 3, 2016

What Happened To the Magic Words? A Mom's Plea For More "Please" and "Thank You"

I've heard it said that parenting is a thankless job. The hours are awful, the pay is terrible, and the working conditions often include high-level HAZ MAT situations involving various forms of human DNA.

Sure, raising children is certainly difficult, often physically and mentally exhausting, and occasionally downright disgusting. But thankless? Hardly.

My kids are currently 9, 7, and 5 years old, and from the very beginning, we've done our best to instill in them the power of the "magic words" and the importance of a grateful spirit. They are far from perfect, but more often than not, they say "please" when they ask for something, and "thank you" when it's been received. So not only are we verbally receiving thanks multiple times per day, but we're "paid" in frequent hugs, deep belly laughs, and the cautious optimism that we're not raising entitled brats. Even with the 24-7 on-call shifts, I'd call that a hefty payoff. OK, a decent payoff. OK, fine- but I would still not call it "thankless."

Now dealing with adults, on the other hand- there's your thankless job. Actually, it's more like a "thanksless" job,  as in a shocking lack of use of the word "thanks." It can also be a "pleaseless" job, sometimes a "you're welcomeless" job, and almost always a "sorryless" one.

At least once a day I am shocked by the most basic lack of manners among adults, and I'm not even talking about the level of incivility that passes for discourse online. Believe me, I'd sooner put my bare hand in a blender than read the comments section of any news article, especially during election season.

I'm simply referring to what it feels like the almost total extinction of "please" and "thank you" in everyday life. You're probably familiar with the scenario: someone provides a service for another person. This could be anything from holding open a door to simply providing information via email, text, or other messaging means. Whatever the details, the response is often the same: Crickets. Nothing. Nada. AND IT MAKES ME CRAZY. When did saying "thank you" become optional? And when did so many people decide to opt out? The mom in me constantly fights an overwhelming urge to prompt people with a sugary, "What do we say?" or put a friend/acquaintance/total stranger in time out for what I consider abhorrent behavior.

Want some examples? The other day I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, when I noticed the child in the cart in front of me had dropped her toy. I picked it up and gave it to her mother, whose  only response was, "Oh geez, did she drop that again?" You're welcome. Later that same day,  I was out to dinner with my family, and I couldn't help but notice that when the waitress set down plates of food at the table next to us and they immediately said...grace. I'm all for that- really, I am. But shouldn't the process of giving thanks for one's food include thanking the person who brought it to the table? Directly, and not just through the intercession of a higher power?

Before you accuse me of being over-sensitive, consider what those words actually mean. Saying "thank you" isn't just a trivial throwaway. On the most basic level, it communicates acknowledgement of the act that took place, or receipt of the information that was communicated. Those things are rational, but saying "thank you" is mostly an emotional act. It connects one person to another. Saying "thank you" doesn't just acknowledge someone's effort, thoughtfulness, intent, or action. It acknowledges the person himself. And that is our basic responsibility as human beings living in community with each other. It's part of the unwritten contract we sign as co-inhabitants of the planet. And we're violating it right and left.

I often see "open letter" style thank yous, where people offer their profound gratitude very publicly to someone they often failed to thank privately. I'm sure you know the type of post I'm referring to- it usually has a title like: "To the Kind Woman In The Trader Joe's Parking Lot," or "Dear Lady Wearing The Black Swimsuit at the Splash Park." In the tradition of grand intellectuals like Emile Zola and Martin Luther King, Jr., the writer clearly feels his or her communication should not be limited to the mundane reality of either personal one-on-one missives. These letters often go viral, but they change nothing, and serve mainly to put the focus on the writer. That's not really what gratitude is all about. You know what I'd love to see go viral? Good old fashioned thanks.

A few years back I made what ultimately ended up to be a very brief stop in corporate America, taking a job in public relations. It was one of those "too good to pass up" opportunities, so even though I had a feeling it wasn't quite the right job for me, I gave it a go. A few days into the job, I needed to email a senior vice president for some information, which he promptly provided. "Thanks so much!" I replied. The same scenario played out over the next few days, and each time I replied with my thanks. Later that week, Mr. Very Important Senior Management Guy paid an unexpected visit to my desk.

"Hey, I get that you're new here and you're trying to be friendly," he boomed, loud enough for the entire cubicle farm to hear. "But you're clogging up my email with all your replies. You don't need to say 'thank you' for everything around here- we don't have time for that."

My jaw hit my my desk. "Umm...OK..." I stammered to his back as he importantly walked away. "Thanks...I mean, not thanks...I mean I'm sorry...wait, do we have time for 'sorry' here?"

For the record, I did thank him for the opportunity when I submitted my letter of resignation not long after that.

Contrast that to a day 35 years ago this month- one of my earliest memories of the power of the magic words. I came home from school to something my 8-year-old eyes had never seen: both my parents in tears. Anwar Sadat, the president of their native Egypt, had been assassinated as he marched in a parade commemorating the anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel. For days to come, we watched the footage over and over again, with audible sobs heard over the whir of the VCR in rewind mode. My parents and their Egyptian friends poured over news clippings taken from papers around the world, and discussed the implications in hushed voices.

I did not come close to understanding the nuances of the situation at that time- heck, I hardly do today. On the one hand, Sadat was a man who had not made life easy for Egypt's Christian minority, to which my family belongs. He had gone as far as to imprison the church patriarch in a remote desert monastery after accusing him of inciting sectarian unrest. On the other hand, he was the first Arab leader to sign a peace accord with Israel, a feat for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and which ultimately lead to his death at the hands of extremists who considered him a traitor.

As my parents struggled to digest all of that, what rose to the top on October 6, 1981, was that the leader of their beloved homeland had been killed, and from thousands of miles away, they mourned the piece of their history that died along with him.

In the days that followed, one of our closest family friends paid a visit. A devout Jew, she had been my parents' very first next door neighbor, and their relationship seemed a testament to the amazing possibilities this country held. No doubt, she was working to reconcile her own jumble of emotions over the events that had unfolded. But this was not the time for debate.

She walked over to my mom, took her hands, and held them to her heart.

They stood that way for some time, not speaking, both with tears streaming down their cheeks.

"Thank you," my mom eventually said.

And it was more than enough.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Beach Memories: A Vacation To The Place Where Nostalgia, Love, and Loss Live On

Some people find peace in majestic mountains, others in wide open plains. My source of calm and comfort has always been the ocean.

Within the first few breaths of that salty ocean air, I feel my lungs tingle, my muscles relax, and my heart finds a familiar rhythm in the waves.

Because we've been coming to the beach since I was a child, those waves hold memories that churn up against each other, the past and present getting tossed together like tiny seashells. Over the years, the force of the water and time whittles them down and eventually deposits them back on shore. As I walk the beach, I see glimmers of those memories sparkling like shells in the sun. Sometimes, I can grab them before the next wave comes rolling in, but other times they retreat into the sea, teasing me with their barely visible edges.

My kids are beach creatures as well, easily spending hours jumping up and down in the waves, body surfing back to shore, and digging for shells in the wet sand. We walk together down the same beach I visited with my parents at their age, and the memories stretch out in front and behind us as far and wide as the sea itself.

I sit down to watch them splash in the water and in the crash of the waves against the shore, I hear the crack of the dice against the side of the backgammon board, my dad and his best friend locked in a heated game more than three decades ago, the afternoon sun gleaming off the intricate, mother-of-pearl inlaid tiles.

As the waves retreat in a fizzy farewell, I can almost taste the icy cold cans of Fresca we'd drink by the case, the citrusy bubbles soothing our throats in the midday heat. I hear laughter and sometimes I can't quite tell where it's coming from- past or present? My kids or my childhood? In the end, it doesn't really matter.

Every trip to the ocean reminds me of the one my own parents crossed, of what they brought with them, and what they were forced to leave behind. The water gives so much life and joy, but it also separates and divides, carves canyons from rock.

Just a few weeks before our trip this year, our close-knit Egyptian community was rocked by the sudden, unexplainable death of a bright, young star. Just 34 years old, his light was extinguished before it even had the chance to dazzle in the way everyone who knew him knew was his destiny. His loss felt like a giant tidal wave that swept over us, uprooting everything in its path, including destiny. The normal order of generations was undone as a mother buried her son, and children held their parents close. Feelings ran to extremes but words held no meaning. How could love hurt so much?

I longed to let the salty ocean water wash over all of us and carry this grief back down to its depths. I needed reassurance from the pull of the tides that the forces of nature were still in their proper places. I ached for the beach.

One night during our trip we went for an evening walk under the full moon. I held my daughter's hand as the surf tickled our ankles. My legs were heavy as the grief was still there, holding on, refusing to be cast off into the sea. We stood for a long time letting the waves roll in and out and eventually, I did feel its grip loosen slightly. I watched our footsteps appear and disappear in the sand, and said a silent prayer that the beach would hold them forever just below the surface.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Thoughts On Pain And Its Purpose: The Surprising Upside Of Injury

I've been thinking a lot about pain lately, mainly because I've been experiencing a lot of it. Not just the usual heartache that comes with being an oversensitive, exhausted, working parent of three young kids, but actual physical pain.

It all began about eight months ago, when the usual post-run stiffness and soreness in my right hip simply wouldn't go away, no matter how much I rested, iced, or stretched it. The pain got so bad it literally stopped me in my tracks mid-run one day, and I ended up limping 4 miles home.

Several trips to the doctor eventually lead to a round of physical therapy, which lead to an MRI, which lead to an orthopedic surgeon, which finally lead to a diagnosis of a labral tear, bursitis, bone spurs, and a condition called Femoroacetabular Impingement, which basically translates to the ball and socket of the hip joint not fitting together properly.

In layman's terms, that means a structural issue with my hip, combined with a family history of arthritis, combined with two decades of high impact exercise have made for the perfect storm that is currently raging in my right side. Surgery is the only option to fix the myriad issues, and in my case, September (when the kids are back in school) is the only option to have the surgery.

So that means two more months of dealing with the pain, which is increasing by the day. Sometimes by the hour. Two more months of feeling every single step, never knowing which one will land safely and which one will lead to the entire joint buckling under me. Two more months of carefully easing down into chairs and using my upper body to compensate. Two more months in which everyday tasks like putting on socks, going up and down stairs, or reaching for an item on a shelf are oftentimes impossible, and almost always excruciating.

Running- my stress reliever/sanity saver/social outlet/source of inspiration has been taken away, indefinitely. Walking for any significant time is also too painful, and on any given day the same can be said for sitting, standing, and even sleeping. The fickle nature of this particular injury means that even on good days, one wrong move in any particular direction can throw the entire joint out of whack, resulting in a shooting pain so strong it brings me to my knees...figuratively, since I have nowhere near that range of motion right now. Only the pool and its delicious weightlessness offers a temporary respite from the pain and a vague sense of normal movement.

But I don't tell you all this so that you will feel sorry for me. I'm not looking for sympathy or a pat on the back. While I wouldn't wish this particular condition on anyone, I guess I'm not sorry it happened.

The pain has made me walk more slowly, talk more slowly, and to think before I move. This internal injury that can't be seen has profoundly changed the way I see everything around me, and caused me to retreat into myself in a way I have not done before. As a result of feeling so much in one part of my body, I believe I have become more sensitized in every area of my life.

And that's a real blessing, because it sure seems like we're living through times where no one wants to feel a darn thing. When tragedy hits- a shooting, a bombing, a toddler ripped away from his parents by a wild animal- we react. We judge. We criticize. We take sides. We insert our personal politics where they don't belong and throw verbal arrows from the comfort of our computer screens. Anything to keep from feeling the pain.

I get it. I get that when life hurts this much, when there is so much chaos and loss in the world, it's tempting to armor up, to shield ourselves from the intense vulnerability of the how much we, ourselves, have to lose. In other people's tragedies, our own are always present, as the instability of life reveals itself. Rather than face the possibility of something similar happening to us, of how many loved ones could be lost, how many cherished places destroyed, or how many dreams dashed, our instinct is to try to protect it all- to grasp it tightly and keep it safe- to control it, so that there's no chance we can be hurt.

But sometimes, we need to be hurt.

Medical professionals will tell you that pain serves a purpose. Acute pain, for instance, is protective. That's the kind of pain that lets you know that something is wrong and that you need to get checked out. For example, if you have chest pain when you're having a heart attack, that's a good thing if it makes you go to the hospital. If you touch a hot stove and feel pain, even though it's severe, it's a good thing because it makes you move your hand away.

Pain also serves a unifying and correcting purpose.  It tells us that something is wrong. If we didn't feel pain, we wouldn't know we were sick, and we wouldn't seek an answer. It's a healthy body that responds to pain, after all.

Emotional pain, I believe, can serve a similar purpose. We can't take care of what we do not feel, so if we anesthetize ourselves from every possible hurt, how will we ever address the root cause? We've become so fragmented as a nation, perhaps as a world, so hardened, that we feel almost nothing but anger...or worse, indifference. If the health of our society is measured by the way it responds to pain; to the hurting, the helpless, the broken, the bruised, the battered, the bleeding, and the impoverished among us...then we are in big trouble.

You may be telling yourself you feel fine. You're not in any pain. I guess I'm not sure that's enough anymore. Before I hurt my hip, I wasn't walking around rejoicing over its functionality. I didn't really have any feelings toward the joint which now occupies so much of my time and energy. But you'd better believe that once the surgery, rehab, and recovery have come to an end, I will feel differently about the ability to move without pain. The absence of pain is not the same as the presence of joy.

I don't mean to suggest we all need to go out and injure ourselves just to find meaning in our lives- there's plenty of suffering in the world to go around. But the next time you find yourself in or near a painful situation, whether it is physical or emotional, whether it is yours or someone else's, before you do anything else, take a moment to sit with the pain.

Ease into it, and allow it to serve its purpose.

Take a moment to pray not just for, but in solidarity with those who suffer, to mourn with those who mourn.

Remember that pain softens the heart, as fire softens iron.

Feel someone else's pain, and allow them to feel yours.

And maybe together, we will begin to heal.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Orange Flowers On The Hill: Finding Strength In Unusual Places

Like many moms, I put a lot of miles on my car. And like many moms, I put the exact same miles on my car day after day...after day. In fact, it's less of a car and more of a school-sports-activity-grocery store shuttle.

We live in a relatively small community, so varying the routes to those same places isn't even a realistic option. So that means I drive down the exact same stretch of road multiple times each day. Most of the time, I'm on autopilot, as the same old scenery whizzes by. Golf course, restaurant, barn, hill, curve, curve, stoplight. Then later in reverse: stoplight, curve, curve, hill, barn, restaurant, golf course. As is often the case with the things most familiar to us, I see them so many times, I tend not to see them at all.

But I do remember the first time I saw the orange flowers on the hill.

It was one of the first few days of July, five years ago. At that time, I had a 3-week-old baby boy, a two-year-old daughter, and another son inching up on his fourth birthday. To say I was overwhelmed doesn't begin to come close. As if the physical and mental exhaustion of life with a newborn (and two toddlers) wasn't enough, with my husband working long hours, preschool done for the summer, and no family or any real support system nearby, I was breaking. Whether it was food, comfort, diapers, milk, or the blue sippy cup but NOT the red cup, from morning until night, and then right back into morning, someone needed something from me All. The. Time. Though I had little people attached to various parts of me virtually round-the-clock, I had never felt more alone.

My solution was to get the heck out of the house as much as possible, and just GO. Anywhere. Tire them out then pray for sleep. Though it felt more like preparing for the Invasion of Normandy than a trip to the park, I would pack up the diaper bag(s), load our motley crew into the car (unloading to change the baby, feed the baby, and change the baby one more time), and set off. Borrowing a page from Dory, my mantra in those days was "Just Keep Swimming...Until Naptime."

On one of those days, we had loaded up our royal motorcade for a morning at the local library, where Optimistic Me envisioned a few hours of cozy cuddling amongst the stacks as I exposed my little darlings to the joys of literature. Of course, with three kids under age 4, what unfolded was a tad different. My oldest threw a fit when he couldn't find the train book he wanted. I set the two year old down to help him, and another child ran over her finger with a rocking child. Her shrieking woke up the baby in the carrier, who seemed to think it was an invitation to a crying contest that he was NOT about to lose. Optimistic Me was nowhere to be found, but Real Me was left standing in the middle of the library, covered in a mix of sweat, tears, breastmilk, and other DNA samples not necessarily emanating from my body.

"That's IT! We're going home!" I yelled, gathering up whatever seemed to belong to me (children included) through teary eyes, and slinking out without looking back.

We piled back in the car, all of us sobbing. I turned up the volume on the radio hoping the music would soothe someone, anyone in this miserable lot. The rain was now coming down in sheets, and I sat for a few minutes in the library parking lot with water streaming down my windshield and my face.

Finally, I put the car in drive and headed home, down that same stretch of road I'd traveled so many times before. The rain was relentless, coming at us sideways and making huge puddles on the road. I hit one of those puddles just right, and my car began to hydroplane, sliding crazily around as I tightened my grip on the wheel and prayed for it to end.

Thankfully, it did, and though I was only about a mile from home, I pulled down the closest street to catch my breath. It was a private drive- a street I hadn't been down before, and for a moment I didn't recognize where I was. For that matter, I didn't even recognize myself. Or my life.

A few deep breaths later, my hands had nearly stopped shaking and the rain had all but stopped. I shakily turned the car around and got ready to return to the familiar road. I pulled up to the intersection, wiped one last tear from my eye, and pulled out. As I did, I looked straight ahead to see the hillside in front of me covered from to top to bottom in vibrant, beautiful orange wildflowers.

I was mesmerized. How many times had I driven past that same hill, and never noticed those flowers? Where did they come from? When did they bloom? I looked at my three beautiful children, now sound asleep in the rearview mirror, then at the flowers one more time before taking a deep breath and continuing down the road.

In the days that followed, I saw those flowers everywhere- scattered along the roadside, hiding next to mailboxes, growing seemingly out of nowhere, but standing tall and proud in the most unlikely places. Their fiery color and resilience were in such stark contrast to my mood, and I began to intentionally seek them out everywhere I went. Each one I saw felt like a little boost. A hidden message just for me. A reminder that you can't stop to smell the flowers if you don't even see them.

That summer passed and just as quickly as they appeared, the orange flowers were gone. It's now been five years since I first saw them, and every summer, right around this time, I look forward to their return. I drive by the hill and point them out to my children, making sure they clearly see what I was blind to for so long. I take note of how they much they've grown, despite being dormant for so long

I wish I could pick those flowers and hand deliver a bouquet to every new mother out there with a note that says "You CAN do this." I wish I could bottle up their scent and dab a little behind my ears on those days I need a little more strength. I long to press their petals in the pages of my life, to run my fingers across them in those dark chapters where fear tries to triumph over faith.

But it's enough just to see them, to watch them grow, then fade away, to know that they will be back, and to remember that this is but a season.

I don't know the actual name of those flowers- I'm told they are some sort of daylily- but to be honest, I don't really care.

In my mind, they will forever be known as "Hope Blossoms."

Thursday, June 2, 2016

My Youngest Child Is Graduating From Preschool And So Am I

When I was a freshman in high school, a book of short essays by the American pastor Robert Fulghum called "All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten," was published, and quickly rose to great popularity. The title of the book was taken from the first essay, in which the author explains how the world would be improved if adults adhered to the same basic rules as children, i.e. sharing, being kind to one another, cleaning up after themselves, and living a balanced life of work, play, and learning.

It was a lovely little book full of sage advice, and it gave me nightmares. 

You see, I didn't actually GO to kindergarten, at least not for very long. I think I attended for about a week, and then, at the teacher's recommendation, I was moved to 1st grade. The details of how it all unfolded are kind of sketchy- after all, this was 1978, well before helicopter parents staged a mass landing on the education scene. There was no social media, not that my mom and dad would have ever crowdsourced the decision in a parenting forum, or allowed a bunch of strangers to weigh in on whether or not their five-year-old was academically or socially ready for the challenge. I'm guessing the conversation went something like this: 

Teacher: Mr. and Mrs. Boulos, we've talked it over and we think it would be in your daughter's best interest to skip kindergarten. 
Mom and Dad: OK, thank you.

And off I went to first grade.

Second row, second from the right. Don't I look thrilled?

I never once second guessed their decision until that book came out, alleging that the one year I skipped turned out to be the lynchpin of the entire educational experience. What huge holes did I have in my learning as a result? Were the other 20 years I spent pursuing educational goals of various sorts a waste of time? Could I somehow make up the year, perhaps in a kindergarten online correspondence course?

All these years later, I think I've finally come to terms with my kindergarten deficit, mainly because I've spent the past six years in preschool. Technically, my three kids were the ones attending preschool, but after six consecutive years of thrice weekly dropoffs and pickups, six years of goodbye hugs of varying intensities, six years of walking (sometimes pacing, sometimes casually strolling) the hallways where my children grew and thrived, it felt like I was enrolled right along with them. And leaving preschool will not be easy.
September 2010

September 2012

September 2014
That's because in a world where adult expectations and activities are so quickly thrust upon children, a world where toddlers get professional manicures and first graders must decide which travel sports team might best suit their athletic needs, preschool has remained a place for child's play. A place that is colorful and messy. A place that feels safe and secure, where friendships form in a matter of seconds, hugs flow freely, and creativity lines the walls.

In many ways, time has stood still for us over these past six years. As our children, each two years apart, each spent two years in preschool, up until this point there has always one more behind them to immediately carry on the preschool torch. As our older kids have moved into the big, wide, world of homework, spelling tests, and playground drama, having one foot firmly planted in preschool has been a grounding force, and a way to connect not just to my children, but perhaps to childhood as a whole.

Over these past six years of preschool, my kids had the same teachers, took the same field trips, and even made many of the same projects. And at some point, their lessons became my own.

The more things change, the more they stay the same (except for my hair). 

In my six years of preschool, I've learned how difficult it is to let go- from letting go of a loved one's hand to letting go of control. But I've also learned how necessary it is.

From the dedicated teachers, I've learned what a blessing it is to allow someone other than yourself the opportunity to love and nurture your child. Someone who sees them in a different light, who appreciates things about them that even we as parents might completely miss. My heart aches with gratitude for each of them.

From my fellow preschool parents, I've learned that support, advice, and competition-free companionship are not just things we should offer our kids.

From the preschoolers I've learned that you should laugh- at yourself, at your friends, and at anything that seems even remotely funny. And you should cry, because you know what? Stuff hurts. And tears help. So there.

I've learned to dream, because when you're surrounded by a roomful of aspiring astronaut/princess/ballerina/police officer/garbage collectors, how can you you not imagine what you, too would like to be when/if you ever decide/are obligated to grow up?

So today my youngest will join his older siblings in walking across the stage to collect his preschool certificate. I admit- it's more than a little comical, seeing these tiny beings decked out in mortar boards, their goofy grins a stark contrast to the undue solemnity of "Pomp and Circumstance" as they parade down the aisle. In the past, it has made me laugh so hard I cried.





But this time, I might just skip the laughter and go straight for tears, because it is certainly the end of an era, and in many ways it feels like the end of innocence. This time, as my baby boy walks across that stage, I must force myself to accept that we are both walking away from these precious younger years.

Society has little time for childhood, and even less for adults with childlike spirits. While children are masters of the moment, the senses, and the pure heart, in little more than the blink of an eye, doing will overtake being, and thinking will overtake feeling.

So my prayer for my pint-sized graduate is that together we will always carry the lessons of these preschool years close to our heart, and not just because I have an entire jewelry chest's worth of macaroni necklaces.

Preschool has been good to us- I don't know that we've learned ALL we need to know, but I do know my child is ready to graduate to the next step. I only hope that I am, too.




Friday, May 6, 2016

Braiding Hair And Braiding Love: A Mother's Work

"Mama, will you braid my hair?" my little girl asks sweetly.

Truth be told, while my styling ability is minimal, I relish any opportunity I get to run my fingers through my daughter's silky-soft hair. Though she wriggles and complains as I pull at the knots, the mere act of brushing activates some sort of primal response and soothes me to my core. I wish combing the tangles didn’t hurt her. I wish my fingers possessed greater skill. But I still love the feeling of those dark strands dancing across my hands, tickling my wrists and arms like the velvet edges of a monarch butterfly.

And so I begin, parting her hair in three sections and twisting one over the other, pulling tight in between. Her eyes meet her reflection in the mirror and I see them dance with joy and the unabashed self-love of a 6-year-old.  I try to remember a time when my own child self, or my adult self for that matter, felt so happy seeing my face staring back at me. I braid those strands and pray that through the tugging and pulling, she will always feel God's love for her as she twists and turns and weaves her way through life. I pray that she knew as a baby, and knows now as a child, and will come to know ever more surely as a woman, that divine love comes not from how she looks, but from who she is.

As we continue, I am struck by the fact that I am better and more confident than I used to be at this braiding business, and perhaps at motherhood as well. But then I notice that the part is a bit crooked, and little wisps are beginning to escape from the sides. Pushing my own feelings of inadequacy away, I kiss the top of her head.

"There's a teeny tiny spot up here where I can see right though you and straight down into your beautiful heart," I tease.

Her nose crinkles as she smiles, but my hands now work more cautiously, timidly, as I think my own mother, who tugged at my hair as I pressed my palms against my head in protest. I remember the surrogate grandmother who lived with us throughout my childhood, and how her fingers flew through my hair like a skilled surgeon. It would be years, decades even before I truly understood the messages their fingers imparted.

"Mama, how do you even braid hair?" she asks, interrupting my thoughts.

"It's not hard," I tell her. "You just split it into three sections, and then take the left piece over the center, and then take the right piece over the center. Pull it tight in between. Just keep repeating that, and it makes a braid. See?" I show her in the mirror.

"Can you teach me how to do it?" she asks.

"Sure, go get your doll," I tell her.

So there we sit, my daughter in my lap, and her dollie in her lap, my hands on top of hers. We split the dolls hair in three sections and I instruct her, those tiny fingers moving slowly at first:

Left over center, then right over center. Pull tight in between.

At first it won't hold. Her tiny fingers can't keep the sections separate, and the strands tumble and tangle.

"It's too hard, Mama," she insists. "My fingers can't do it!"

"They'll learn," I tell her. "Just give them time."

We start over again. And again. And again. But eventually she gets the hang of it, twisting left over center, right over center, pulling tight in between.

The finished product is more than a little crooked, with strands rebelling at every curve, poking out in different directions.

"It's so lovely," I say, and I mean it.

Because this is what we do. This is a mother's work: combing out the tangles, weaving the past and the present, the good and the bad, one side over the other. Left over center, right over center, pull tight in between.

Taking joy from one place and sadness from another.

Mistakes and triumphs.

Regrets and delights.

Happiness and sorrow.

The impossible of yesterday and the dreams of tomorrow.

Starting over, but never from scratch.

Twisting one generation around the next.

Creating something perfectly imperfect, stronger than all its pieces, woven with love, and held together by the divine.

That's how you make a braid, my darling daughter.

Left over center, then right over center. Pull tight in between.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A Tale Of Many Easters, And The Time I Celebrated In August

The first time I ever celebrated Easter, I mean REALLY celebrated Easter, was in my living room on a hot, sticky Friday afternoon in August.

Let me back up a bit. I am what is sometimes referred to as a "cradle Christian" and consider myself a person of great faith. I've attended Holy Week and Easter services my entire life, usually doing double duty, celebrating the resurrection of Christ as it falls on the Western calendar as well as on the ancient Julian calendar according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition in which I was raised. Occasionally, my worlds collide and both Easter celebrations occur on the same day, but they can be anywhere from one to as much as six weeks apart.

The difference in dates was a great source of frustration for me as a child and even young adult. My scholarly father offered the historical explanation: that the Eastern Orthodox Church, in accordance with the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, adheres to a rule that Easter is to be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon, following the vernal equinox, but always after Jewish Passover; while Western churches do not use the astronomically determined date for the vernal equinox, but a fixed date (March 21). And by full moon it does not mean the astronomical full moon but the "ecclesiastical moon," which is based on tables created by the church and may or may not follow Passover. Got that? Me neither. My direct, to-the-point mom had a more Nike-esque answer: because the church says so, we just do it.

But I was still hung up on why we were feasting on lamb at the end of April, when my American friends had long since hunted for eggs and consumed all their jelly beans. Were we not "many parts, but all one body?" Why would we the whole body not be together in this holiest of holy days, the one that truly made us who we are? How could the love of Christ, which "surpasses all understanding" not surpass and transcend the political schism that put members of His family on opposite sides of the same coin?

But let's fast forward a few decades and return to my living room. There I was on that August afternoon, a brand new mom, home alone with my newborn son. My colicky, fussy, wanting-to-eat-all-the-time newborn son. If he wasn't eating, he was crying. Which meant that if I wasn't feeding him, I was probably crying, too.

I tried everything I could think of to comfort him. We went for long walks in the stroller. We snuggled. We swaddled. We bounced. But the only thing that consistently soothed him was music. More specifically, my singing. Now, I can carry a tune, but I am not someone you want to hear in solo concert all the livelong day. But since it seemed to pacify my little one, I did the only thing I could: I sang.

I sang nursery rhymes, children's song, pop music, show tunes- you name it. I sang church hymns in Arabic, church hymns in English, church hymns to which I couldn't remember the words, all the while praying that God would forgive me for my crimes against music and to be my soundtrack on this new and somewhat terrifying path of motherhood.

One day, during a particularly awful crying spell (for both of us), I picked him up, closed my eyes, held him close, and sang the chorus of a hymn that for some reason popped into my head:

We remember how You loved us, to Your death,
And still we celebrate, for You are with us here.
And we believe that we will see You, when You come,
In Your glory, Lord,
We remember, we celebrate, we believe.

At the end of that verse (the only one I knew), I cautiously opened one eye and peeked down at the tiny face clutched to my chest. He was silent...briefly...but after a few seconds, the crying began again...so I sang it again. And again. And again.

I'm not sure how long this went on, but at some point, he fell asleep. I set him down in the swing, buckled him in, and collapsed to my knees. Tears flowed from my eyes as a realization set in: this child had made me into someone new. Someone fiercely protective. Sacrificially giving. Unconditionally loving.

As I knelt down, I looked closely at him, and for the first time, I knew deep in my bones, that should the need arise, I would die for my child.

I watched him swing back and forth and thought about how much I loved him, and how that love was giving me a glimpse into God's heart. How my feelings for this innocent baby were a mere whisper of the love God has for me, and for all His children.

Hot tears stung my eyes and ran down my face as I thought about how He could sacrifice his perfect Son on a torturous cross for the sins of humanity.

I cried that day as I thought about it all: pain and suffering, sin and salvation. I cried for motherhood, and for the Mother of us all who watched her son die. But mostly, I cried for love beyond all comprehension. The love of a parent for a child. The love of the Father for His son.

I cried for Easter.

And all the while, the words from that hymn ran through my head:

We remember how You loved us, to Your death,
And still we celebrate, for You are with us here.
And we believe that we will see You, when You come,
In Your glory, Lord,
We remember, we celebrate, we believe.

I never spoke of that day, not even to my husband, who returned from work to find both of us still asleep: the baby still swinging, and me at his feet, exhausted but at peace on the floor. An ordinary, but extraordinary Friday.

I still pray that one day all of God's family will celebrate Easter together, on the same day- Lord knows we need each other now more than ever. But the different dates don't bother me nearly as much as they used to, because now I truly understand that what matters more than Easter on the calendar is Easter in your heart.

And every time I hear that hymn, every time I see my kids, every time I feel that tug in my heart,

I remember
I celebrate,
I believe.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Three Funerals And A Wedding: On Love And Loss


The movie Four Weddings and a Funeral came out the year I graduated from college, and I distinctly remember wanting to jump through the screen and be transported directly into that world.  It was a place where somewhat awkward British singles were navigating the complex world of love and loss, all while attending lavish social occasions and overnighting in castles and pubs. This was Hugh Grant at his quirky, bumbling, finest- pre-Divine Brown self, surrounded by a group that blurred the lines between friends and family. It seemed, at the time, to be the perfect portrait of a group of ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary burden that can only come from genuine love and heartache.

Fast forward more than two decades and I am happily married to my very own floppy-haired dreamboat with no scandals that I'm aware of. We have three children we love, a large, loud, extended family that brings us immeasurable joy and just enough crazy to keep things interesting, and a circle of friends, both old and new, we can count on for both laughter and support. If I had to sum it up in movie terms, I'd say our life is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Egyptian version meets Steel Magnolias, Midwestern Edition, with heavy notes of Toy Story drizzled on top.

But last week, my wish to dive into Four Weddings and a Funeral almost became a reality...just backwards. In one of life's stranger plot lines, I found myself having to attend three funerals and a wedding, all within the span of 5 days.

First, I heard of the passing of my friend's mother who had been quite ill for some time. Then, two days later, another friend's mother was laid to rest after a brave battle with Alzheimer's. The next day, I learned that a former colleague had lost his wife. I became fearful of even logging on to Facebook, since my newsfeed seemed to be stuck on heartbreak mode.

To say the week was a bit strange is like saying Gigli was a bit of a bummer. I'd spend a typical summer day with the kids, delivering them to swim practice, Vacation Bible School and the like, all scramble to get my own work done, and then quickly shed my "Mom uniform" of shorts and a tee for a simple black dress the minute my husband came home. As I headed out to watch two daughters, now moms themselves, say a final goodbye to their own mothers, my eyes filled with tears as my own little girl hugged me tightly and said, "Come right back, Mama."

In one of the most bizarre moments of the whole week, we actually stopped at the third funeral on the way to the wedding. Within the span of one hour, we witnessed one man promise to love, honor, and cherish until death do them part, and another one grieve that it had done just that. It was a circle of life that would leave even Mufasa, in all his Lion King glory, feeling dizzy.

As my husband and I sat, hand in hand, at the wedding, it occurred to me that I haven't actually been to a very many funerals in my life. My grandparents and other close relatives died overseas. My parents lost close friends as I was growing up, but the funerals were always adult affairs- not something often even discussed around kids.

I come from a culture that is very good at celebrating love. We LOVE love, as was evidenced by the 500+ people (an average-sized crowd for our peeps) that had gathered to eat, drink, and be very merry alongside the bride and groom. From heaping platters of food to live music and belly dancing, we are VERY good at weddings, not to mention engagements, bridal showers, baby showers, and random Thursday nights. But loss? That one we struggle with.

In recent years, I've been to funerals described as "Celebrations of Life." It's a difficult concept for me to understand, because when the cloud of grief descends over our community, everything grows dark. There is not a lot of laughter, or light, and certainly no celebration. In the funeral homes, there is often silence, punctuated only by weeping and fervent recitation of prayer. Widows and close family members of the deceased will traditionally wear all black for one full year after their loved one's passing, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. Perhaps when you love with every ounce of your being, the loss of that love leaves too deep a wound to ever close. But is there a way for love and loss to coexist?

The poet Rumi believed that sorrow and joy were deeply intertwined. He wrote, “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter. It shakes the yellow leaves from the bough of your heart, so that fresh, green leaves can grow in their place. It pulls up the rotten roots, so that new roots hidden beneath have room to grow. Whatever sorrow shakes from your heart, far better things will take their place.”

I thought about that quote the day after the final credits rolled on Three Funerals and a Wedding. That morning, I attended church with my family, after which my youngest insisted we light a candle. I held his hand and together we dipped the long match into the flame of an already lit candle, and touched it to a new wick.

I watched his face light up as he saw it spring to life, the back-and-forth, in-and-out, flickering all reflected in his warm, brown eyes. It was like that instant your favorite movie comes to life on the big screen, or the moment it fades away.

The place where ever so briefly, light and darkness dance together.



Friday, March 11, 2016

My Dad, The Egyptian Astronaut

When I was five, I was relatively certain my dad could fly and was living a secret life as an astronaut.

Though he was a mild-mannered Egyptian immigrant who worked as a radiologist by day, around that time he began disappearing more frequently in the evenings and weekends. He claimed to be at the hospital, but on multiple occasions I overheard him tell my mom he was needed at "the satellite." Once I even caught him admitting how difficult it was to be "moonlighting." That's right- MY dad was in charge of illuminating the moon. No wonder he looked so tired in the morning! I searched his briefcase and car diligently for his space gear, but all I found were pamphlets about the hospital's expansion plans. 

But that's not all. On Sundays we'd gather with our extended family after church (even space travelers observed a day of rest), and I'd stand behind the living room door to eavesdrop on the adults locked in heated conversation. The words flew by in a blur of English and Arabic, and though I had no idea what a "visa" or "naturalization" was, you'd better believe I understood exactly what it meant when my dad mentioned "aliens." ALIENS! 

He didn't exactly fit the profile of an astronaut: he wasn't tall or muscular, he wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses, and had no flight experience aside from Pan Am's JFK-Cairo route. Still, there was no denying the mounting evidence. And clearly there was life on other planets- life with broken bones and herniated discs- because my dad was out there treating it. 

I was bursting at the seams to tell someone, anyone, about his forays into other galaxies, but I swore myself to secrecy. My only communication on the matter took place late at night when I'd sneak out of bed, gaze skyward, and bid him good night. 

Every morning, he somehow landed back in the kitchen, standing over the stove, brewing an extra strong cup of Turkish coffee with his typical serene gaze. I would simply nod, too afraid to speak, hoping to silently convey my admiration for his otherworldly exploits. 

Eight years ago my dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, a cruel twist of fate for a man who devoted his life to neurological science. In that time, I've watched his muscles slowly betray him, his movements become involuntary, and gravity imprison him in its grasp. But despite the pain and frustration I know he must feel, he's never once complained, never once questioned "Why me?" 

Today, I am 42, and as he looks at me with that same serene gaze from his wheelchair, I'm more certain than ever my dad can fly. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Thoughts On Tradition At Christmas

I think I was about eight years old when I first saw the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Aside from being a classic production, it is my very first memory of a live theater experience. My dad, a big fan of the arts, had taken me on a special outing to Detroit's Fisher Theater, where I was awestruck before the show even began. Mesmerized by the the intricate tiled ceiling, the colorful murals, and the shimmering gold-plated walls, it was clear this was a place that held great things within its walls.

While no doubt the storyline resonated with my immigrant father, I was probably too young at the time to grasp the underlying issues: a father struggling to maintain his religious and cultural heritage as outside influences encroach upon the family's Orthodox life. But the show was still every bit as magical as I had anticipated. I held my breath with wonder as the dancers twirled by with their swirling peasant skirts. laughed as Tevye belted out "If I Were a Rich Man," teared up during "Sunrise, Sunset." I never wanted it to end.

But when it finally did and we walked out of that colorful, melodic world, one word repeated throughout the show, the one that is even the title of the opening song, echoed in my head: "Tradition!" I don't know that I could accurately define it at that age, but I could, and certainly did hum it, sing it, and reenact it on my canopy bed stage for months afterwards.

Tradition. It's a word I alternately embraced and shunned in the years to come, particularly during the holiday season. My parents, who left their home country a few years before I was born, walked the difficult path of assimilating into this new land while holding on to what they could from their past. That meant that like so many first generation children of immigrants, I grew up straddling two very different worlds. Never was this more apparent than at Christmas.

Let me be clear- it's not like my parents were unfamiliar with Christmas. Devout Orthodox Christians, each year they eagerly awaited the celebration of the Savior's birth in much the same solemn way their ancestors have done since about the middle of the first century.

But Christmas in America isn't just about Jesus' birthday; it also comes with a hefty hankering for hot cocoa and Bing Crosby, tales of flying wildlife, a spiral sliced Honeybaked ham, and a jolly albeit obese man who breaks into your home bearing gifts. That part, they struggled with. And so did I.

While my American friends were feasting on chocolates, gleefully singing carols, and making out their Christmas lists, we were observing the 40 day Nativity Fast, sacrificing all animal products in an attempt to temper bodily desires as well as worldly ones. Not only did we celebrate Christmas on the wrong day (January 7th according to the ancient Julian calendar), it felt like we celebrated it in the wrong way.

Don't get me wrong- when it came to gifts, we wanted for nothing at Christmas or any other time of the year. My parents were, and continue to be, beyond generous, with presents piled higher than the tree. But the things I wanted most at the time, they simply weren't able to provide.

I craved holiday songs from yesteryear, not hymns from centuries past.

I longed for heirloom ornaments passed down from generations.

I hungered for Santa-shaped cookie cutters and sugar cookie dough, not flaky phyllo pastry and pistachios.

I thirsted for mugs of eggnog, even though I hated the taste.

In short, I wanted traditions we didn't have, and rejected the ones we did.

Mostly, I just wanted Christmas to be over so I wouldn't feel quite so different.

It's taken me decades, and the experience of raising my own family, one additional generation removed from the Motherland, to reconcile these feelings and weave them into what's become the  patchwork quilt of traditions and culture I now pull close around my heart. Because now I see things differently.

I see a stream of refugees fleeing their homeland, making that painful, arduous march toward a new life, and realize how incredibly brave it is to leave all you have and all you know behind.

I see hatred and fear rising all around us, and I recognize that we are called to be simultaneously stronger and gentler than the voices of intolerance and ignorance, both with ourselves and with others.

I see that what makes us different is what makes us...us.

And I see that our most powerful tradition arrived in a form many rejected: a humble infant, offering love and hope to all.

So now I sit back and watch as my boys decorate their Egyptian parents' Christmas tree, gently lifting out the ornaments that have become heirlooms. I place my hands over my daughters' as we roll out cookies each year, both in late December and again in early January. I watch my husband in the candlelit glow of a golden sanctuary filled with icons, singing hymns of praise in a language he does not speak.

I look at my family and see bits of the past and hope for the future, and I know that tradition isn't about recipes or objects or any one particular time of year.

It's about keeping the light alive.