What I Learned From My Big Fat Italian Thanksgiving

thanksgiving

Hot, soapy water splashed over the soft red and cream pattern of my grandma’s floral china set. We had just finished another delicious, over-indulgent holiday dinner, a regular occurrence in my Italian family. Despite hours, even days, of preparation and cooking, our actual consumption lasted under an hour, and now the breakdown and cleaning had commenced.

As I gently scrubbed the plates and bowls inherited by my father after my grandma’s passing years ago, I distinctly remember the comments about how unique and elegant the pattern was, just like my grandma herself.

“I’ve never seen any like it,”

I remember my aunt, my grandma’s oldest child and only daughter, saying one Easter dinner. In all my aunt’s years, all the take-out-the-good-china celebrations she attended, she had never seen a china set like her mother’s.

In moments like these, my mind would wander into the half-memories, half-tales absorbed through family story-sharing, of how my grandma could painlessly stick her hand in a pot of boiling water. Through years of scooping pasta and eggs and other ingredients out of the scalding pot, this little Italian lady had developed the formidable and strange ability to forgo oven mitts and dish gloves while working her magic in the kitchen.

Clearly this ability isn’t genetic because my father can’t even get toast out of the toaster without playing hot potato and letting out a tsss…hot, hot, hot!

For what my dad lacks in being able to handle heat, he makes up in exuding warmth.

The running joke in our family is how during one Thanksgiving dinner growing up, my dad randomly announced “we should take in some strays next year.”

Understandably taken aback, my older brother asked, “Isn’t…isn’t that kind of dangerous? Just taking people off the street and inviting them into our house?” My dad began laughing at the hilarity of the miscommunication, while the rest of us sat in our upholstered dining room chairs with furrowed brows.

“No, no, I mean take in people who don’t naturally have a place to come during the holidays. Like soldiers who got stuck at O’Hare [a Chicago airport] or people like that,” my dad explained. We sighed with relief as he affirmed for clarity’s sake, “No, I don’t mean just take people off the street.”

Last Easter, my dad finally got his way: he invited some “strays” over for Easter.

They were a couple from the church choir who didn’t have family or close friends in town for the holiday. One of them may not have even been Christian. But they were welcomed into my parents’ home as family.

Long into the evening, we chatted and refilled our wine glasses and said yes, please to that second slice of lamb cake — a traditional Catholic and Orthodox treat for the Pascal feast that no, is not lamb-flavored, just lamb-shaped (because Jesus was the sacrificial Lamb, you know).

It will be many years until my husband and I host our own Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter dinner.

In our cozy one-bedroom condo, not even a tenth of my large Italian family would be able to fit. But the time will come when my siblings and I have grown, possibly started our own families, and turned the tables by serving our parents and family as hospitable hosts. We’ll prepare for our guests of honor by tidying up the house, setting the table, and preparing for a decadent meal.

But hospitality is much more than a clean home, a tablescape out of Sandra Lee’s semi-homemade cooking show, and special meals. It is about a clean and humble heart, an open table for both the important and the overlooked, and feeding the hungry and thirsty soul.

As a follower of Christ, I believe God cares about our hospitality because I believe our hospitality is the direct result of our generosity and humility (or lack thereof). I believe in some mysterious, holy way that when we serve others, especially “the least of these,” that we are serving Christ.

And I believe that in showing hospitality to strangers such as those outside of our “tribe,” we entertain angels.

So while it may be a few years until I host a holiday dinner, I want to cultivate a generous and humble spirit in the quiet, intentional ways of true hospitality. And I’d like to practice with you, for you.

I’d light a pumpkin spice candle in the kitchen, letting the wick burn as the sweet aroma nudged us to relax and to breathe deeply, fully.

I’d unpack the special imperial Russian porcelain set we received from an oh-so-generous family friend for our wedding nearly two years ago, telling you that we had been waiting for a special occasion to christen the traditional cobalt blue and gold-rimmed china.

I’d fill your cup with wine or the drink of your choosing, insisting that you relax while I finished up the last touches on the meal.

I’d break bread with you, praying the Our Father (that’s Catholic for “the Lord’s Prayer,” as my husband says) over our meal and our fellowship.

But most of all, I’d talk with you about what makes you you.

Maybe that’s about your family or career or friends or that book you’re writing. Or maybe we’d begin to talk about the deeper issues, the faith and the struggles and the doubt and the dreams we only unleash after a couple glasses of Cabernet.

In this sacred space, we wouldn’t just be partaking in food and drink; we’d be practicing the very essence of hospitality: a generous and humble sharing of ourselves with one another.

The thing is, though, I don’t want to wait until I host a fancy dinner to practice hospitality.

I’d rather get to know you now. Over a cup of coffee. Or a lunch date. Or better yet, a regular Friday night dinner to discuss faith and feminism (my favorites) and whatever are your favorites, too. Over wine and something cheese-filled, we could show true hospitality to one another by being, as my grandma was, our unique and elegant selves.

Photo Credit: Elisa Maser , Creative Commons

Love Is Calloused, Holding My Hand

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The pastor is praying and the woman in the pew in front of me has an oxygen tank. She’s breathing in and out and it’s soothing, but also jarring, because you don’t realize how much you need oxygen until you stop being able to breathe.

And I reckon the same can be said about love.

Love is holding my hands, all calloused with a wedding ring on its right finger, and a scar where he cut himself with a Cutco knife years ago doing a knife presentation for Cutco.

We’re taking communion together, and there are kids up in the balcony and we’re surrounded by gray hair and the sound of the oxygen tank, in and out, and I start to cry.

For all of the broken hearted; for those for whom love is not just a man away.

I think of Friday night, of the young couple who came to our house, and we’ve known him for a decade now—my husband mentored him in high school—and she’s pregnant for the second time in four months and they’d just broken up. And the young man tells us, after a game of Settlers and a beer, after our kids have been bathed and put to bed and the house is quiet enough to hear the woman’s heart bleeding.

He tells us that he doesn’t think he’s ever loved her.

A single tear falls down her cheek, like all of those films, only this is flesh and blood sitting right beside me, with long thin arms and black hair and they’ve been living together for a year and a half. He met her after taking a course on how to pick up women. He used all of the lines on her, the lines he learned in the course, and later he’d use them on other women too, while still with her.

And it didn’t hit him until we were sitting there that night, that maybe he’d hurt her. That maybe all of those texts in which he’d said he loved her, while partying with other girls, weren’t enough for her. That maybe living together wasn’t enough for her. That maybe she’d had enough of falling in love, and all she wanted was to walk in it–to hold its hand, without the crash of the fall, without the break of the fall, without the lies of the Fall.

Their whole relationship had been a lie.

And the truth about love is this:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.” — 1 Corinthians 13:5-8

Love does nothing for itself, and everything for the other.

So now I’m curled over my knees, sobbing in the pew, for this girl who’s carrying a baby born out of deception. I’m sobbing for all of the children born to single parents who believed they were loved, but love is more than a partner, love is more than a queen sized bed, love is more than a parked car or a dinner and movie, love is more.

And yes, there are days—maybe even months—where I don’t feel it, and so I can relate, but I’m learning to live it, with every breath, because love is an oxygen tank, is the hand that will hold you when you’re arthritic, is the hug that will sustain you when you lose your job, is the eyes that will look into yours and say I Am Here For You—because everyone needs someone who knows their middle name, their favorite color, whether or not they cry at sad movies and how they like their steak.

We’re eating the cubes of brown bread now —

drinking the communion wine and the sound of glasses clinking in the cup holders. The woman’s still breathing, the pastor’s still praying, and all around me are hearts that have been broken, including mine I suppose.

And after church I pick up my son and I hug him, because the only way to fix the world is to fix myself, to start at home, with the ones in my care. All I can do is choose to be love incarnate for them, and hope there will be a ripple effect.

That our sons and daughters would not just fall in love but remain in love, forever and ever, through sickness and health, until death do us part. Amen.

Photo Credit: Amanpreet Kaur, Creative Commons

Do I Deserve Your Love?

love

I have a friend who flips houses for a living.

He invited me along once to see a few of his projects. We walked through a quaint one-story home, with rich hardwood floors, fresh cabinets, butcher block counter tops and a bold blue glass tiling job in the bathroom. If I was buying my first house, this would be the one.

He had converted a cramped basement space into three tidy little rooms, where I could imagine kids watching television, or maybe an elderly woman setting up her craft supplies.

It was perfect — simple and empty.

Whatever had existed in its space before was long lost. There was no trace of stained carpets or yellowed walls. Linoleum was an unholy word in this new space. Whatever it was had been made new. This house had been given a gift; a makeover I guess, like that television show that makes grown men tear up a bit.

And then we went on to my friends second project, a house in the beginning stages of transformation.

More than that, it was a house with boarded up windows and overgrown ivy. As we walked up the drive, my friend turned to me and said, “brace yourself, for the smell.”

Oh man, there was nothing I could have done to prepare for the wretched rot of that neglected home.

We walked onto soiled carpet, where pounds of junk had recently resided. The clean-out of this hoarder house was on its fourth dumpster truck, and still had plenty to go. Six or so workers walked past us wearing paper masks, carrying unidentifiable piles of, well, stuff (‘Stuff’ is a gentle word).

Through the “living room” we walked into what once must have been a kitchen. The molded floor was crusted in mice droppings and the remains of cereal boxes. Atop the stove and counter sat unwashed, neglected kitchenware along with cans of expired goods no living thing should have ever been allowed to touch.

And then there was the fridge. It needed to be incinerated, Harry Potter style, on the spot. It trembled slightly, daring us to open it’s door and expose the innards of it’s rotting belly. It was hard to imagine any makeover could improve this house.

I wanted to tell my friend to forget it.

Grab a wrecking ball, whack it down and salvage the land. No amount of editing could alter the state of this structure, I thought.

The smell permeated the soul: Couldn’t he see this fact?

“Give up!” I wanted to tell my friend. This house has nothing to offer. But he saw something in the home, just as he had in the intricately remodeled first one. He had hope for it, and was prepared to offer a gift it didn’t deserve.

I used to watch the show Hoarders as motivation to clean my room.

I would toss stacks of useless paper and old worn out shoes ceremoniously into trash bags. I would chant to myself in a weird sing-songy voice, “I don’t need thissss, I don’t need this!” It was quite therapeutic. Who could stand to live like that? I would ask myself about the people on the television.

There was no hope for those individuals or the landfills in which they lived, I thought. I saw no potential. And in a weird way, seeing someone who was “worse off” than me made me feel good about myself.

And, in some way, I think I liked going into that terrible house with my friend, if only because it left me thinking, “At least I’m not this bad.”

It’s so easy for us to use the darkness of others to feel good about ourselves.

Recently I sat on the edge of my bed, wrapped in sweaters, sorting through boxes — not literal boxes, but boxes of insecurity in my mind — trying to get the motivation to move, to buck up and remove the mental stock piles of stuff (“stuff” being a gentle term) I’ve saved up.

It had been one of those days, a dark, self-pity sort of day where I convinced myself I was unloveable, ugly even. Clingy, needy. I tried to solve the problems on my own, to clean up the mess before anyone saw, before everyone else could see I was one of the hoarders, too.

I was terrified of what it would mean if they did see — that I had no hope, no potential.

But sure enough, my roommate found me in my stale state and sat next to me and lets me cry a little. She listened to my insecurities, to my fear.

With tenacity, she looked me in the eye and said: “You can’t take love Krisi, it’s a gift.”

Light bulb moment. You see, i’ve grown up in church, I know about the gift/love thing. But for some reason it made sense today, more than it ever had before.

I’m no better than someone hoarding physical things. I just convince myself I am. I’m hiding it better maybe, but I am a hoarder too, in my own rite.

I try to hoard love as if I have been a neglected child, stuffing cans of it into my sock drawers. But this does no good and only leaves me buried in high piles of stale expectations. It takes up space and rots under cupboards and in plastic tubs stacked high.

It’s time to clear out space, to accept the notion that I have potential, that I can be re-done, but I must be un-done first.

Wondering If Dad Will Show Up

Wondering If My Dad Will Show Up

I knew this would be the trip. It would have to be.

I was twenty-eight years old and my childish insecurities about what my Dad might say (or not say) had been clouding my desire to make things right for too long.

I am an adult, I thought. This should be easy now.

But it wasn’t, because all I could think about was standing on the sidelines wearing my helmet and shoulder pads and wondering if my Dad might show up. I remembered the way the field lights only lit the areas where my team practiced. They never lit the parking lot or the bus stop out on the street where my Dad might be coming from.

During the first part of the hike I didn’t bring anything up.

My brother, my dad, my dog and I climbed through groves of California Oak, and we rounded switchback after switchback and scaled forty-degree inclines. Too strenuous and too burdensome to bring it up now, I thought.

Our legs moved slow and methodically, our feet deeply imprinting the dirt with the logos of our old running shoes.

The wind swam through the valley below and curled up over the ridge where we decided to camp. The three of us, along with the dog, were wedged elbow to elbow in my two-man tent, passing around cold cans of chili into which we dipped beef jerky.

And again I wondered, now?

The timing would be ideal; we were a foot away from each other. We stared at the roof of the tent in silence. We watched the dome-like structure waver and flail like palm leaves in the wind.

Fear lay quietly inside my chest like a rock. He wouldn’t understand, I thought. He won’t get what being there alone felt like, and what watching the other boy’s Dads standing around and talking to each other looked like to me. He won’t know how having nobody to brag to after practice felt.

We climbed the next morning, our trail opening up to a spine-like ridge with steep gravel slopes on either side.

We stepped across the barren pass, and a gust of wind suddenly forced us to teeter along the spine. The old, green fedora my brother wore was snatched up and fell forty feet below, landing upon the branch of a fallen tree.

I was further up the trail and would have insisted to be the one to get it, but before I could make my way back, my Dad was on all fours, stepping backward down the incline until he was within reach of the hat. One slip would have created a small avalanche of rocks and pebbles, but with care, he reached out, removed the hat from the tree, and eased his way back up the incline.

He handed it to my brother and dusted himself off. Bravery seeped from his shoulders like thin waves of heat, which, like the wind, also took me by surprise.

Instead of the busy man I thought I always knew, I observed a man who stood and sacrificed for the sake of his family.

Years of working long days and late nights, now symbolized in the mere retrieval of a hat.

Then, I remembered the first day of my bike trip across America. I remembered my jitters and all of my questioning. I remembered wondering if I was being an idiot, and at which point along the ride I would decide to turn around and face humiliation back home. As I saddled up that day my Dad pulled his bike up alongside mine. He looked at me as if to say he understood, and on that first day he rode as far east with me as he could.

At the summit, my Dad and I sat for a few minutes peering out at the Inland Empire.

Few things are ascertainable from the peak of a mountain. Shapes and structures like buildings and roads lie vaguely at the bottom, but specifics like words, signs, and people’s faces are essentially nonexistent.

It would take a long time to see and to know it all, I thought.

Then I looked at my Dad and knew I’d have to try to come down from my proverbial mountain if I ever wanted clarity and closure. As we began the descent, moving closer to the Inland Empire, I knew it was time to try.

“Dad,” I said, dragging my feet through the dirt below.

“When I was a kid it was weird not having you around much, like when I played sports. It was weird being the kid without a Dad around.”

I peered over to him, caught my breath, and went on. “But don’t get me wrong. I know today that you were doing what you had to do for our family. I knew you had to work, and I’ve accepted that.”

He was quiet.

“Dad, remember the day I left on that bike trip from the Pacific Coast?”

He nodded.

“Well, when it came time for you to turn around and head home to continue to do what you knew you had to do, that was the day that I understood how much I meant to you,” I said.

“Thanks, son,” he said, silently nodding and looking at me.

As we drove out of the valley and into the Inland Empire that night, the roads, houses, businesses, and hillsides had far more color than I ever remembered. They were bright, vivid, and full of detail, and I could see real cracks in the roads and the way tree roots bulged from underneath sidewalks.

I could see scars and smiles alike on people’s faces as they waited for street signals to change.

The Inland Empire was closer now, and it was clearer, and as I looked over at my Dad as I drove us home, I knew our relationship was too.

[phtot: Aron Stansvik , Creative Commons]

God Speaks Through Pain?

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It’s midnight in the ER. I lie hooked up to heart monitors with one nurse drawing blood while another tries to place an IV. After months of regular IVs I should be used to the procedure, but I’m dehydrated. Five unsuccessful sticks later they go for the inside of my wrist on that pulsing blue vein. I nearly hit the ceiling.

I hadn’t realized one square inch of your body could experience such intense pain. I normally wouldn’t bat an eye to be stuck with numerous needles, but the inside of my wrist is now off-limits unless I’m near death.

Weeks later, while wading through the Gospel crucifixion accounts, it struck me. Tears of empathy pooled before I’d even fully realized the thought: how much more pain did Christ endure to have a nail pierce his wrist? One of the most sensitive areas of the body, capable of enormous agony at the touch of a needle—and he endured nails.

Unthinkable.

That ten minutes of pain in the ER brought me into a deeper awe—and horror—of Christ’s crucifixion than a decade of sermons and blog posts could. Even walking the Via Dolorosa seven years ago did not shake me out of complacency so much. I imagine there are a number of reasons why, but one is simple:

God speaks through my pain.

I’m dancing with my grandfather at one of my brother’s weddings. I’m rarely happier or feel more alive than when dancing with a good partner, but tonight our subject matter is grim. He promises to help me figure out the confusing web of lawyers and divorce paperwork I’d just been hurled into. A sharp stab in my chest pushes out a few tears. I bite my lip until it bleeds. I will not cry about my divorce at my brother’s wedding.

But later I cried because I felt the love of the Father through the men in my family. No one needed to show me what a toxic man looked like. But in my grief I was better equipped to see and accept real love.

God speaks through my pain.

I learn through pain. Sometimes I learn best through pain.

I’m no masochist, but I know myself. If I’m on the fence about something, being stubborn, or ignoring reality, send in some pain and you’ll get my attention. C.S. Lewis said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.” I continue to hope I’ll learn before it gets to the point of pain but sometimes there may be no other route.

It sucks and I hate it, but when it’s over, or the intensity lessens enough to at least breathe through it, there are no regrets.

Pain is a peculiar creature. When I’m in the middle of it, I just want out.

But when I’m out, I don’t regret I experienced it. Sometimes I’m proud of what I survived. I hold my head up and face life with more confidence. I’m not afraid of many forms of pain anymore. To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And, more importantly, here I’ve found God.

Often that finding has been collapsing to my knees and crying, “Who are you?” This isn’t Sunday school. He isn’t staying inside the doctrinal statements I learned in college. So I cry and I pray, “Who are you, God?”

I feel the searing pain of a needle into my wrist and I see that God is unfathomable love in Christ’s suffering. I feel the protection of my grandfather and I know God is the Father who doesn’t always prevent the torture, but always dances with me through it.

Pain comes. God speaks. I learn. This is my script for now.

[photo: damiec, Creative Commons]