In most countries the new year is celebrated on the first day of January, but in Cambodia, my home for three years, we got to celebrate New Year three times every 365 days.
First comes the international New Year on January 1, best known for late-night parties and morning-after hangovers.
Then there is the Chinese New Year in January or February. The Chinese New Year is a time to light firecrackers, visit relatives, and burn faux paper money to one’s ancestors.
When the thought first crossed my mind that I should make a New Year’s resolution to keep a daily journal, I immediately dismissed it. Too many past resolutions had fallen by the wayside, and I could foresee ending the year with a journal full of empty pages. I also didn’t have time for another project, I told myself.
However, I had recently completed a counseling course in which keeping a journal was a requirement. The instructor had emphasized making a habit of recording thoughts, ideas, plans, experiences, worries, fears, and victories. It was an important step toward self-awareness, he explained, and that is crucial to being able to help someone else sort out their problems.
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5 ESV).
This is one of my favorite Bible passages, but for the longest time I had difficulty understanding how “character produces hope.” I followed up to the “endurance produces character” part, but how do the difficult experiences that forge character make us more hopeful?
The cynic in me felt that it was more likely to be the other way around. I realized that life was going to throw me some curveballs. I didn’t expect things to be all sunshine and roses. I didn’t think of that as a bad thing, but it wasn’t exactly “hope.”
When I turned 60 last year, I did some soul searching. I clearly hadn’t achieved all I could or should have in my life so far. Was I therefore a failure? Give me a minute before I answer that.
I’d gone through some changes recently and was now at a place both geographically and career-wise that was not what I had had in mind. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with my circumstances either. I felt like I was becalmed at sea, no wind in my sails, monotonous stretches of ocean in all directions. The horizon was in sight, but that didn’t help. I couldn’t decide which point on the horizon to aim for, and even if I could, I had no means to propel myself towards it. What and where was my purpose in life?
One day Joe broke his arm. They said it was par for the parkour he practiced. Joe was a traceur. He lived in a world that consisted of one giant obstacle course, climbing and leaping, escaping and reaching, vaulting and rolling across his busy cityscape. Joe pushed himself on his runs, sometimes over cars or walls, sometimes across rooftops. Sometimes too far. Destiny watched him from afar, eyeing his toothpick arm and waiting for her chance.
On the morning when he broke his arm, Joe had gone with a couple of friends on a practice run for a home video they were making. A few warm-up moves gave Destiny her chance.
Changes are awfully unsettling for me. I like my little nest, where everything is just so and nothing jostles me too much. I like routines and schedules, the comfort of knowing what’s going on—both immediately and in the future. Change can be exciting sometimes, but mostly it’s really tough. It’s tough leaving behind stuff I know and love, and it’s tough not knowing what’s ahead.
Not long ago, my husband and I found ourselves moving away from family and friends. We had good reasons for the move, and we knew where we were going, but of course much of the future was still a big blank. And that was scary.
Two years ago, some friends and I took boxes of food to families who had been displaced by the February 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Constitución, Chile, and were still living in makeshift camps ten months later. Margarita, one of the volunteers, had taken a collection of Christmas decorations in her office building, so we included a few of those in each box, along with a copy of the Christmas issue of Conéctate (the Spanish edition of Activated) and a CD of Christmas music. One person in Margarita’s office had also donated a Christmas tree, which we also took with us, even though we didn’t know exactly what we would do with it.
“Mommy, I think you like those toys more than we do,” I remember saying to my mom as we shopped at a discount store. The way she would inspect each toy, carefully read through each book, count puzzle pieces, and put together toy sets (discount items tend to miss pieces), I was sure she loved those toys every bit as much as we kids did. She was always on the lookout for sales so she and my hardworking father could put presents under the Christmas tree for us kids.
But my parents’ giving wasn’t limited to things. Sometimes their gifts were “hands on,” like when they took us to a park to play a favorite game together, or trekked by our sides through the woods, or took us to visit some historical site.
“I knew you would come!” said a frail grandmother as she gripped my hand tightly.
It was Christmastime, and my children and I had been visiting retirement homes and orphanages, as we had done each of the last few years. At orphanages we would do our best to entertain the orphans by organizing games and performing, and we would also distribute presents that our sponsors had provided. We also passed out small gifts and performed at the retirement homes, but usually my children’s presence was enough to delight the elderly residents. “What adorable children!” was a chorus that I heard often.
Eiko was 31 kilos (68 pounds) that Christmas. Her skin stretched tightly across her cheekbones, and even her bulky winter clothes could not hide her extremely thin body. Only thirteen years old, she was suffering from a severe eating disorder that had begun at the age of nine. My parents and we, her siblings, hadn’t been fully aware of her struggles in the earlier stages, but now their impact was glaringly apparent.
Our sister, who had once been the joy of our family, could barely smile. Instead she wore a tightly controlled look of isolation. The more we encouraged her to eat, the more she rebuffed us. My parents watched, helpless, as the pounds dropped from her already rail-thin frame. Hours were spent in prayer and long talks into the night, trying to help Eiko see the reality of the situation: if she didn’t start eating, she would fade away.