Tag Archives: London

the ‘christmas spirit’ ~ on sheet-mulching and incarnation

I realized the other day–a realization that was a bit troubling, actually–that I don’t, this year, feel much in the ‘Christmas spirit.’

last year while in London in December I came upon this 'santa flash mob' in Trafalgar Square

Don’t get me wrong–I’m no ‘Ba Humbug.’ No, it’s not that. It’s just that, well, something has seemed to be missing for me this year. I didn’t even listen to my Christmas music until significantly after Thanksgiving–a patience that has not really ever been successful before.

As I continued to ponder this somewhat unique occurence in my life I began to realize something else–in my attempt to ‘dwell’ during advent (the season preceding Christmas in the Christian calendar) as a way of trying to create space for a bit of ‘being’ amidst what is typically a season of much ‘doing’, I had wound up doing something else as well.

Central Park, in snow. From my first winter on the east coast.

A bit of backstory: for most of the past decade, really, I have had a Christmas season tradition of being in a big city to enjoy the decorations and ambiance of the season. While I was in seminary that big city was New York, which is an incredible place to be for ‘experiencing the Christmas spirit’–from the ice skating rinks in Central Park and Rockefeller Center, with its tall tree and lower level Starbucks serving holiday eggnog lattes, to the wandering in front of store windows, or even a Christmas concert at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, to hear its choir, or a trip to Radio City Music Hall to see the Rockets. Even after seminary I continued to make the December pilgrimage.

Last year, rather than New York, I was able to be in London during December–another fantastic big city experience of the Christmas spirit.

But this December I have spent in the very small town of La Mision, Baja California, which wikipedia says has a population of 920. This has been by choice, as I mentioned. There are no ice skating rinks, though the temperature in my house (with no central heat) could probably sustain one. There are no decorated storefront windows, except for the ‘sponsor a winter outfit for an orphan’ tree in Maganas, a local taqueria. I did get a tree this year–it’s a meyer lemon, and I planted in the ground on the first Sunday of advent. One of my neighbors stealthily hung a beautiful Christmas wreath on my front door, but that’s the only decorative element in the house that gives a hint to the season. I did have an eggnog latte, back when I was in London in mid-November, and though there is a Starbucks 40 miles away in Ensenada I have not been there to see how ‘eggnog latte’ translates into Spanish.

So, it really isn’t surprising, considering the context, that it occured to me that I don’t feel all that much in the Christmas spirit this year.

Except for that it is.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I love enjoying the ‘festivity’ of the season, from lights to decorations to the smell of pine, and the colors of beautifully wrapped gifts. I think it is a fantastic way to enjoy life, family, and celebrate the season.

But, at the end of the day, if I were to try and communicate ‘what is the underlying meaning of Christmas’ or ‘what does Christmas really mean,’ though those things would be in the mix, they would be in a supporting role, not the lead. For me, as a Presbyterian minister (and an ordained evangelist, no less) and a person who is trying to live my life in the way of Jesus, shouldn’t there be some sort of ‘God stuff’ in the mix? It is, arguably, the biggest day of the year in the Christian calendar.

Because what I believe the underlying message of ‘the Christmas spirit’ is about is that, ultimately, God/Spirit/Divine/Source/Breath (they are all just our attempt to put words on something that is unnamable, aren’t they?) is not far off, out there, distant or remote, but rather right here, with us, in our midst, amongst us. The fancy theological word for this is incarnation, which, put simply means, ’embodied in the flesh, or a concrete or actual form of a concept.’

Back to my original pondering, about the Christmas spirit…

The thing is, this advent I haven’t just been sitting around contemplating and watching the clouds go by. And I also haven’t been boycotting the mall and it’s crazy search for that parking place, though I have to admit, it’s a bit of a relief.

yesterday's sunset, looking inland...

What I have been doing is quite a bit of work in the yard–sheet mulching two large areas to prepare the soil and keep out the weeds for what will become the site of spring planting. I’ve been baking bread and pasta and cooking soup. I’ve been spending time with my neighbors. I’ve been reading and learning. I’ve been trying to maintain a mindfulness of beauty by making photographs. I’ve been participating in activities that are trying to help others who are in need.

Incarnation, embodied in the flesh, the actual or concrete form of something.

Something like love? Cultivated in the garden, or expressed in a shared loaf of bread, over a meal, amongst neighbors, and extended to those in need…

Perhaps I’ve been in the Christmas spirit all along. Maybe, in my assumption that it should look a certain way, I just didn’t know how to recognize it.

The hills are alive with the sound of…cows?

Growing up in Newport Beach I didn’t have much opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with cows. So, on the way back down from a four hour hike (alone) in the Alps (apparently there are three mountain ranges in Austria–rocky, grassy, and granite. I was hiking in the grassy range, hoping to get to the top of a peak that would allow me to see all three. Unfortunately my trainers were not sufficient for the snow-covered final ascent to the top, but I still had a good hike up and took lots of pictures) when I encountered three cows (at least one was a he–does that make him a bull instead of a cow? Once again, I was never in 4h…) on the path in front of me I was not sure what to do.

One of the three cows (the bull–by the way, they all have horns, males and females) was closer to me, the other two were behind him, further down the path. He looked at me. I looked at him. He did not seem friendly. Maybe he thought the same of me. I took a step toward him. He did not move. I yelled. He cocked his head, but still did not give up any ground. My mind raced. What do I know about cows? Nothing. Are they nice, mean, violent, territorial, easily frightened…? Nothing. Cowboys ride horses. But is that for safety or transportation?

I picked up a stick and waved it at the cow/bull. In response he pawed the ground with his right hoof (or is that just the name of the foot of a horse? Perhaps my next trip should be to a farm!) The connection was made. Male cow equals bull. Bull equals bull fight. Bull fight equals a slow miserable death by goring. No thanks. I backed off and waited. The three cows did not move. This would have been fine, except that I had to get to dinner, and was already risking missing it entirely. Fasting wasn’t in my plans for the evening.

To my left, uphill, was a rather steep bank with a mess of trees and brush. I decided I would have to go up and around and return to the path downhill from the cows. So, still in my trainers, I climbed my way up the side of the bank by grabbing on to saplings and wedging my feet into the mud hillside. It was slow going. Mr. Bull started roaring (even I know that cows don’t roar, but this was definitely more fierce than a simple moo) with his head pointed in my direction. Was this directed at me? Was it threatening? Or was he simply saying to the other two, “look at this crazy girl, so scared of us that she is scaling the hillside!” I kept moving. How fast can a cow climb a hillside? My guess is, fairly quickly. As far as I know, though, cows cannot climb trees. Unfortunately, neither can I.

I═creeped along the hillside, at one point using the branches of a fallen tree as support while I crossed a mini waterfall/canyon. Finally, downhill from the three cows I realized that I was still about 15 feet up the═(steep) hillside, with not much for support along the descent. Mr Bull started making noise again and seemed headed in my direction. I needed to act quickly. Unfortunately there was no one there to witness what happened next. All I can tell you is that in one motion I was down the hill, on the path, with mud covering my backside, right leg, and right arm, a few small puncture wounds in the middle finger of my right hand, scratches on my left shin, and an ache in my left knee from hitting something on the descent. No matter. At least I was free from the three menacing cows. I hobbled the rest of the way down the mountain to dinner, only a few minutes late, but covered in mud. Fortunately, we did not eat beef.

The moral of the story? I am not sure there is one.═ Better to slide down a mud hill than be gored by a mad cow?

For those who are wondering what the heck I am doing in Austria (other than outwitting bad-tempered bovines) let me give you a bit more information.

After finishing the photography course I left Paris for Taize, a monastery/retreat center in the Burgundy area of France (pictures from both are posted) and spent a weekend in communal living with 3000 of my closest European friends where German was the most dominant language but English was the only common language. It happened to be a holiday weekend in both Germany and France because of Ascension. Ascension celebrates Jesus’ returning to heaven after appearing to his disciples having been risen from the dead on Easter. I found it interesting that France, which seems to consider itself such a secular country, has a holiday for Ascension, while the US, often claimed to be such a Christian country, does not. The bottom line was that due to the holiday weekend train fares from Paris to Taize were a lot harder (and more expensive) to come by!)

After four days of communal living I was glad to fly to London for a few days of respite with my friend Meg. I know Meg through my seminary roommate, Erica, and have been on the two Ecuador trips with her. She is living and working in London for the time being. While in London I also had the chance to meet up with my friend Henk, who I met in Thailand last year, who runs a cafe (www.cafeforever.org) in a Bangladeshi immigrant area of London.

From London I flew to Salzburg (the low fare airlines in Europe are fantastic!) to meet up with seminary friend Kim, who is in Austria for her brother’s wedding. We spent a week hiking in the Alps (amazing pictures and crazy stories, including hiking up alongside a waterfall in the snow and lunch in a hillside hut with an Austrian man named Walter, both of which I will post when I get back to my own computer) from Zell Am See to Innsbruck. Apparently Austria is having what they call a Sheep’s Winter. Depending on who you ask this happens either every 20 or 30 years. Either way it means that much of our hiking (still in the trainers) was either in the snow or the rain. I have added a pair of gloves, a beanie (sorry Melissa) and a blue plastic rain poncho to my traveling attire. From Innsbruck Kim headed to Vienna for her brother’s wedding and I made my way to Mittersill to stay at Schloss (castle) Mittersill, a Christian retreat center within an old (15-16th century, I believe) castle on the side of a hill. Thanks to Julianne for recommending it to me while I was staying with them in Belfast! From here I will return to Salzburg for a few days and then back to London.

Tchuss (the German version of Malawi’s tionana, otherwise known as see you later),