One of the first lessons I learned about living in South America was that holidays would be hard. Everything about life in another country involves having your routines and rhythms disrupted. Every day brings the low-grade stress of having to consciously do the things you would normally do unconsciously. Eventually, you adjust to this stress, and much-more-long-term eventually you even begin to find the new rhythms normal and unconscious again. But whenever a day with particular emotional significance comes along, you can count on it taking a toll.
First, you are far away from most of your family and friends, who made those days special before. Second, the traditional activities and schedules are all different, so you have to adapt to new ones. Third, more elusive and yet in the end even more impactful, all the environmental cues are wrong. Stores don’t play the songs you subconsciously expect. Your neighbors don’t speak, act, or decorate their houses in the way you never even realized you enjoyed. You don’t have access to the same tastes and the same smells, and smell suddenly seems vital to the experience. And in the southern hemisphere, even the weather is all wrong, hot when it should be cold, fall when it should be spring. Even if you love summer, blazing heat on Christmas day just feels…wrong.
I could tell a dozen stories of the ways I tried to adapt to new normals, tried to buck the system and make my own in-between homemade holidays from scratch, or tried desperately to create an illusion of the old normal. In the nine years we lived in Argentina, I tried it all the ways. Even in retrospect, I couldn’t tell you which was the best. I think it was mostly just a matter of what we needed emotionally and what was possible physically on each given day. Like so many things, there aren’t really rules. You take it as it comes and you do the best you can.
This week I’ve been thinking about one particular holiday, though: Thanksgiving, the last one we spent in Argentina, which would make it November of 2010. Thanksgiving the year before had been a massive disaster, a story I’ll maybe recount some other day when I have more emotional fortitude than today. We lived and worked in the city of La Plata with two other families, both dear friend as well as co-workers. One of the families was gone that holiday season, back in the US visiting supporters and preparing for another three-year term. Knowing it would just be our two young families, trying to make the best of a holiday that was important to us but didn’t exist where we lived, trying to celebrate with traditions designed for late fall though it would be 90 degrees in our un-air-conditioned houses, my friend and I plotted to put together a festive plan.
We would cook the turkey at my house, we decided, where the oven could overheat everything, but while it was cooking, my family would go to her house. We’d use some of our carefully hoarded supplies to make refreshing cranberry cocktails and we’d cook all the sides together while the children played. When it was time for turkey, I’d go back and get it while she set up a long, pretty table outside on the patio. We’d all gather around the same table in the shade and eat our traditional foods and play some music, and it would feel like Thanksgiving, like home, like it was supposed to feel, just for a little bit.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, we prepared decorations and hunted up elusive ingredients for the full holiday spread. They day before, I let the kids help me make pie, rolling out the crusts in a mess of flour and cinnamon. Then, early Thanksgiving morning, I woke up to Nate tossing and turning. He was warm, on the verge of fever and feeling terrrible. Knowing how important this day was to me, he told me he’d be fine. A few hours later, up now with the girls, I went in to where Scott was still sleeping, only to find his cheeks red, his head hot to the touch. Clearly, they both had a virus.
I called my friend, both of us on the edge of tears as we discussed what to do. I could tell that she didn’t want to cancel Thanksgiving together but she also didn’t want to invite sickness into her own family. I didn’t blame her a bit. In the end, we decided to skip all the hours of prepping together and just cook in our separate houses and convene for a meal outside, keeping Scott away from her girls as much as possible.
I can’t really remember the meal from that day, though I’m sure the food was good. I remember that Ellie was disappointed that we wouldn’t be going to their house until dinner time. I remember that Scott slept on the couch while the rest of us ate. I remember that as soon as we’d cleaned up the dishes, we had to take him home again. I remember that it did not feel like Thanksgiving, did not feel like home, did not feel like it was supposed to feel, even a little bit.
It was a small thing, really. A minor loss. Especially compared to all the suffering and loss the world holds. But some days, small losses loom large.
As an adult, you live knowing that you won’t always get to have things they way you want them. You make the best of hard situations when you have to. And then, sometimes even your options for making the best of a hard situation get taken away from you. Sometimes you lose your coping mechanisms, and it’s the most confusing loss of all. Sometimes there’s just no path toward things feeling the way you want them to feel.
That Thanksgiving, I had to face that loss and deal with it. I have had to face it many times. Today, I am finding myself facing it again, and I don’t know that it’s much easier for having faced it before.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
This is what I know, and this is what I consciously bring to mind over and over again: every hard thing I have ever lived through, I lived through. Whenever I thought something would destroy me, I was not destroyed. Each time I dreaded facing another day, I faced it. His mercy has been new every morning of my life.
Hard as I try, not every day is a day I can laugh. Some days, the hours I’m facing are too hard, the race I have to run is too long, the portion I’ve inherited is not fair. So those days, I don’t laugh. Those days, I wait.
I wait for my real inheritance. (It’s not a fortress or a job or even an identity. It’s a person.)
He always comes when I need him.
The Lord is my portion. I will wait for him.
Lamentations 3: 24
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.