It is Thanksgiving 2017 9am. I am wearing the same clothes you would have seen me in the day prior but my hair is sporting a shower like looking cap and I’m dressed in a sterile hospital gown with orange crocs on my feet. I’m in the hospital outside the theatre (operation room) while my eight year old spits blood into a cup. I’ve been up since 5am running on 3hrs of total sleep and am thinking through what our thanksgiving feast will look like this year and wondering if I’ll even make it home in time to enjoy it.
If your like me any holiday holds with it lots of tradition and things that make it the same and build anticipation. Living overseas for us though each holiday looks complete different depending on who is around, where we are currently residing, or what food is available. Even things like weather can be a big variable. Holidays carry tradition, expectation and the combination can sometimes fill me with joy but can often rob me of present joys if I find myself buried in grief over failed expectations or hopes that lie unmet. Perhaps you know what I mean. Maybe a family member missing from the table, or a relationship divide that causes hurt at the table, that favorite meal or activity that isn’t being made or done…I’m sure we all have times where unmet expectations have made us feel sad, especially around holidays.
So there I sat outside the theatre while my brave boy spit into a cup waiting to be wheeled back into our room and found my mind thinking back on the last five thanksgivings.
Our first overseas thanksgiving, 2013, was spent on the banks of the Nile. Sara and I baked all week long in preparation, crescent rolls, pumpkin pie, and one small chicken divided among over twenty people. Plastic tables lined our veranda and the Nile was our backdrop. We were insanely busy with graduation the following day, and hosting a ladies gathering that afternoon for the woman on campus but it was beautiful. I remember the one tiny starving chicken we had, that we roasted and cooked up. Everyone got one dime sized piece of meat and the children gnawed on the carcass while we indulged in carbohydrates. It was beautiful, the warm breeze blowing through, the mad dash to get cleaned up before the mosquitoes came, the myriad of food on the table, and the many countries that sat around the table (three I believe) to celebrate each other and being thankful for what we had been given in a very busy season. As I rushed to clear the platters before the mosquitoes ate us I imagined how special it would be to enjoy feasting on the Nile each year. I built anticipation in my heart for the rhythm of a new year in this same place I loved.
In 2014 we were in Egypt for Thanksgiving. Our little home by the Nile unable to be accessed due to war. My parents were visiting and we cooked up some Egyptian appetizers and even bumped the celebration up a whole day early because of scheduled election unrest that day. We created Christmas ornaments and ate Meshi and chicken around a table in a pre furnished flat five stories up. The electricity went out once or twice I believe and the city was eerily quiet as people anticipated a bit of unrest. It was hot that day and when the veranda was open dust blew in. I tried to anticipate thanksgiving for the next year but couldn’t even imagine where we would be or who we would enjoy it with.
In 2015 we enjoyed a thanksgiving with my family and Jon’s siblings in our home state. It was filled with childhood memories for us and laughter. It was filled with a tinge of sadness as we tried to fit in everyone and missed Jon’s parents who were in another state. There was a bit of a homeless feel as I prepared food without my kitchen items in an apartment that blessed us immensely but was so temporary. We relished in crunching leaves and cold weather, traditional food and old neighbors. There was a cloud of unknown over where we would live, who we would enjoy thanksgiving with the following year. Oh how my heart longed for Rhythm.
In 2016 we were just beginning to feel at home in Kenya. Some of my closest girlfriends decided to join together to do Thanksgiving with our four families. It was so special, candles, adult laughter, children giggling, lots of food and epic traffic on the way home. The night before my friend Tija and I texted until 1 or 2 in the morning as we prepped. J– made it home from South Sudan just in time for food. Laughing and anticipating time with friends. Oh how my heart was filled with thankfulness for this day. Eagerly as it ended I imagined that we could finally have two years of holidays that were similar and without realizing it I began to anticipate what thanksgiving 2017 would hold. I longed for the same thing, thanksgiving with these ladies, as many as could be there and meal planning together. Our children giggling, decorations from last year re-used and the rhythm of holidays restored.
This year (2017), in the midst of leaving season it became apparent that thanksgiving for us would not be what I had anticipated. Each of the ladies was either out of the country, hosting other guests or making other plans. I found myself so sad. Teary as I realized that once again our thanksgiving would not look like it ever had before. I didn’t have words for why I was so sad until I was in the hospital processing but I was grieving once again the loss of sameness around a holiday. I longed for something familiar and known and the one year it seemed possible it wasn’t to be. I cried several times leading up to the holiday as no plans came together and I felt myself robbed of anticipation and mourning anything that looked the same.
Then in a way that only God can do He orchestrated the most beautiful thanksgiving plans. Some of closest friends and neighbors decided we should celebrate Christmas on thanksgiving…before they leave for their home assignment. So we decided to do “family Christmas” (we consider each other like family). We made plans to be together and through a brief text figured out who was bringing what food. We put on Christmas music and made Christmas food. We decorated the house early with twinkle lights and tress. In the midst of baking the day before was when W-man came in crying and bleeding, well quite alot. And so I found Thanksgiving morning and the night before in the hospital across town. Sitting in that hospital room staring at the giraffe curtains I found peace unexpectedly flooding my heart over our holiday celebration. I was not planning to be in that hospital, instead of food prepping — to spend the night when we had hoped to be in and out. I wasn’t planning on making christmas food or decorating a day early, but there I was once again in an unexpected place for a holiday.
I arrived home with my stitched up little just five hours before thanksgiving/christmas 2017. I baked a little, made a batch of eggnog, and decorated the house. A friend stopped by, rather unexpectedly from out of town and we set the table and laughed. We wandered the yard looking for something green for the table and she unexpectedly helped me decorate. Then as our “family” arrived I was sitting in the corner with a naked baby throwing clothes on her for the first time that day at almost 7pm and still wearing my clothes from the day before having never changed from our unexpected overnight hospital stay. But because I had released in that hospital room my plans and expectations I found as the evening unfolded with slightly less food than planned, and certainly a whole lot less sleep it to be one of the biggest blessings to my heart. A thanksgiving that was so unexpectedly beautiful, it looked like no thanksgiving ever had before but was filled to the brim with joy, peace and grace. Oh how we laughed, and cried and celebrated. I don’t have words for the gifts of this day. Filled with thanksgiving. Filled with “family” a year ago we didn’t know we had and filled with joy and laughter. My heart was so blessed tonight in the unexpected, unplanned beautiful thanksgiving that with its twinkling Christmas lights and festive eggnog looked nothing like thanksgiving had looked before. As we tucked kids into bed around 10pm they exclaimed how much they loved our Thanksgiving celebrations each year. The next day Jon said he wouldn’t have traded that night for anything. I agreed.
So our tradition seems to be a different celebration each year but for our kids each was riddled with the things that were the same, loving the present, and trusting that whatever next year brings it will be beautifully different. Our own nontraditional tradition of thankfulness. So thanksgiving looks for us alot like thanking God for whatever friends and family blessed our table. Our holidays have rhythm and tradition but it is bigger then the same food each year, or the same people, the same location, or even the same weather. It is about knowing that each year thanksgiving rolls around we will sit at a table surrounded by reasons to be thankful. People, places, food and friends that God gives us unexpectedly. For our family thanksgiving has evolved over the years. it has become about anticipating the unknown instead of dreading it, leaning into the unexpected and knowing that when we do we will find rhythm and routine in the gifts God gives us. We are learning to expect His grace to rise up to meet us.
And we are finding this rhythm is more beautiful than turkeys, or the same people surrounding our table each year. It is about knowing when we sit in the ER exhausted when we’d planned to be baking, or when we discover our traditions will have to be let go of that God will give us something beautiful in the present that may be unfairly cheapened if compared to other years but yet holds joy in the present that is unmatched because it is the joy He has given for that day. It is in the present we find joy, it is in the present we find grace and it is choosing to rest there and not allowing expectations or even traditions to rob us of this mercy.
So as I stood in line at the chemist (pharmacy) thanksgiving afternoon (2017) waiting to be discharged from the hospital and thought about the rhythm to our holiday seasons these past five years. I contemplated this gift of the unexpected tradition. The kind where tradition is not so much what we are eating, or who we are eating it with. Where some years it is baking the day of, and others it is standing in line at the hospital and having less food on the table. Sometimes our tradition takes place along the Nile on plastic tables, others in a high rise apartment, or a friends home across town or our living room. Tradition is beautiful if we allow it to fluctuate with life, not comparing one year to another and robbing it of its unique joy but anticipating what God will do with wherever the year takes us. I could have never imaged sitting on the banks of the Nile in 2013 how different each holiday would look over the years. Four different countries, five different homes, different food, different people to celebrate with. But I could have also never anticipated the joy of each of those days. Sheer joy in unexpected friendships, in deep conversations, in love and laughter at who and where God had taken us.
Thankful today for the beauty of tradition — our tradition of joyfully present holidays — without comparison to the past so they cannot rob our present of its joy. Thankful for our families tradition of a time of thanksgiving for all the unknowns of the year behind and all the unknowns of the year ahead. A day of thankfulness resting in the unknown and leaning into the joy each unexpected year will assuredly bring.
I don’t know what thanksgiving 2018 will bring. I know for sure it won’t look like this year. But friends I’m anticipating the unexpected to be filled with present joys we have yet to imagine. I’m thankful for a God who does that for us.