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Friday, January 20, 2012


Ha luh a ghay!” I call into the microphone.
“Good Afternoon,” Eh Kaw echoes into his mic next to me.
He launches into a rapid Karen explanation of the petition we are asking everyone to sign for Derek Mitchell, the ambassador the United States recently appointed to Burma subsequent to Hillary Clinton’s visit. People are spread across the gymnasium like a fan, decorated with multicolored garments, many red, blue, and white, the colors of the Karen flag. Around the edge of the fan, the remaining space is packed with standing spectators. It is the Karen New Year celebration in Clarkston, and this year, the year 2750, the turnout is larger than ever before, with five hundred or six hundred people in attendance.
…Tablu,” Eh Kaw finishes his speech and walks off the stage, leaving me standing by myself, hoping that I tied my longyi tight enough that it will not fall off as I stumble through this unanticipated bout of public speaking.
“The United States has not had diplomatic relations with Burma for some time now, but following Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to the country, we appointed an ambassador by the name of Derek Mitchell. A Karen woman in Washington, D.C., created a petition charging him to meet with ethnic minority leaders and not only the central Burmese government and in spite of reforms, to respond to the unceasing violence in the ethnic areas. We have the original version of the petition designed for resettled refugees from Burma to sign, with copies in Karen and Burmese, as well as a modified version for American citizens to sign over there at the table on the side. Thank you.”
The words flowed from my mouth with only one or two interruptions of “umm.” With no preparation or warning that I would have to mount the stage to speak about this, I am amazed that I did not stammer through the whole thing with a mess of nonsensical phrases. I descend the temporary stairs to the hardwood gym floor feeling the weight drop from my chest as I flee the spotlight. My shoulders relax and I know a deep peace. “The words came as I needed them,” I realize.
One of the most important things I have gleaned from Karen culture is intentionality submersed in the unpredictability of experience. There are few certainties in the lives of many Karen, and so decisions are typically made quickly. Structures are built within a day. Marriages take place after less than a year of courtship. Deliberation takes on a different shape when you are not in control of your own time.
I come from a culture where planning is essential for survival. Your planner quickly fills up with appointments. People have lengthy meetings to discuss future possibilities. With the luxury of stability and infrastructure, we tend to think of these plans as concrete realities rather than visions for the future. But it is precisely in vision: anticipation rather than expectation, that intentionality finds its proper expression. Vision is the coalescence of collective values and circumstances. It unravels our sense of entitlement, whether to pleasure or suffering, and transforms our present reality.
Vocation finds its place only within the realm of vision. The word “vocation” when it first came into usage in the 15th century referred to “a spiritual calling.” It came from the Latin verb, vocare, which means “to call” and shares its etymology with the word “voice.” To find one’s vocation is to find one’s voice in the choir of creation. However, this concern becomes largely irrelevant if vision, or corporate vocation is neglected. Cacophony quickly takes over if everyone is using their voices in service of themselves and fails to engage in the larger vision. Culture collapses because there is no longer a cult in which it can be cultivated. Isolation and despair wave their batons to conduct the dirge of fear. We are left with the challenge to listen for overtones of hope in the discord.
I stand behind the long folding table as people pour over to sign the petition. Eh Kaw and I spread sheets across the table so that four people can sign at once. The petition for American citizens to sign receives some attention as well with the surprisingly large number of gaw lah wahs in attendance. Several people ask me what organization I am with or what kind of work I do.
Eh Kaw leans over and tells me, “You work for the Karen!”
“I am with the Karen?” I reply hesitantly, and then go on to talk about my work as a tutor, my “freelance social work,” and my background at Jubilee Partners. I wish that I could have an easy answer to this question, but it seems as though my answer is becoming more and more complex.
What do you do? This question is thrown around so much and I am as complicit as anyone in this, but how often does it become a bastion of performance-based esteem? We must recognize this as the demon of despair, which is forcing us to define ourselves in convenient categories as though to show our resume to each acquaintance. Vocation takes on a different connotation when many of your close friends labor tirelessly in poultry plants in support of our abandoned sense of vision. Vocation is indeed what we do, but it is what we do with our whole lives, not out of concern for financial security.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt. 13:44 NRSV). We recover the fullness of vocation when we give the entirety of our livelihood in pursuit of an ordinary field, its grasses waving wildly. Such a field would be perfect for grazing, but without any leftover money with which to purchase livestock, we must simply lie down beneath that ancient Oak standing strong and lonely in the pasture, and rest in the quiet joy of knowing we have found treasure.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sweet December

I tape one end of a thin strip of red, white, and green striped wrapping paper to the hula-hoop for Wonderful Htoo, pleased to discover that it coils nicely around the gift. I look down to see that I have only covered a small fraction of the hoop and realize how long this process will take. Why not just give it to him? He’ll throw away the paper instantly! The thought fires in my mind that this is incredibly inefficient, a waste of time. This thought is quickly defeated however by the meticulous and absurd pleasure of winding strip after strip of paper around the blue plastic hoop, the rhythmic task somehow saving me from the inner grinch.
There is a Karen holiday known as “Sweet December” which is something like American New Year, but for the month of December. Traditionally, Karen people stay up all night on November 30 to greet the sacred month of Jesus’ birth. People go from home to home, singing songs, exchanging gifts, and eating together. Baw Baw told me very excitedly about Sweet December several times: how enjoyable it was in the camp in Thailand and in Karen state, with sometimes even more festivities than Christmas itself. A friend recently told me that when she came here from Thailand, it was no longer Sweet December, but “December a kah,Bitter December. Here, everyone stays inside and keeps to themselves, even her Karen friends. She still stayed up until midnight with her daughter to greet December 1st in prayer though.
According to an article in the New York Times, 6.8 million mobile devices were activated on December 25, 2011, up from 2.8 million last Christmas. After families finished unwrapping their new gadgets, they went on to break records for app purchases, with 242 million downloads on Christmas Day. In the recesses of our memory is the incarnation of Christ, the human hope offered in the birth of a child. To set aside this day yet mark it with such practice is rolling our soul out like sugar cookie dough ready to be lacerated by that ugly Santa Claus cookie cutter that keeps appearing year after year. It is not difficult to imagine everyone sitting around on the couch Christmas day playing with new iPhones, while the turkey burns in the oven. No wonder “the most wonderful time of the year,” has come to breed such feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, when time spent with family becomes like time spent with zombies possessed by their new technology.
The more I learn about countering my tendency towards depression, the more I learn about the importance of rhythmic activities inviting me into mindfulness, recharging me in order to recognize the “bad thoughts” or “demons” that seek to pull me into despair if I follow them. We must acknowledge the desire to do away with or escape our holiday traditions as a “bad thought,” the same thought fueling the rampant consumerism and the distraction of mobile devices on a day set aside to remember our spiritual membership in the birth of the Christ child. The exchange of gifts is a sacred act, which though perhaps crushed to death under the weight of consumerism, can be revived through creative energy instead of credit cards. The holidays are meant to be a time of holy inefficiency when we eat together, give gifts to one another, sing together, and other activities which cannot be expedited by an iPhone.
Let us resurrect the miscarried infant Jesus by caroling in the streets, those same old songs that we sing year after year, declaring this as a time of joy, not concerned about offending the neighbors. This is the despair of relativism. I have a friend who often refers to “the tragedy of diversity,” which I think points to the truth that in diverse areas such as Clarkston, there is a brokenness that has brought all these people to this place from their homelands and an impending danger of losing their unique ethnic identities, boiling their culture alive in the melting pot. Diversity jargon and iconography often neglects this reality in favor of imagining peaceful coexistence. If the uninviting urban landscape of the apartment complex is keeping us from caroling or the iPhone is keeping us from real conversation, we must seek ways to recreate Sweet December.
Christmas is a time to remember who we are, for better or worse, to remember our origins, the places that have shaped and created us and to move forward with these memories fresh, as we engage a new year of life. Christmas may not always be a time filled with comfort and certainty, with the warm fuzzies of loved ones and familiar things all around. The first Christmas was spent much like many of my friends from Burma have spent many of their Christmases, fleeing persecution in makeshift shelters, separated from family, and uncertain of what is to come. But as I hear the stories of Christmas celebrations in the confines of the camps in Thailand, I cannot help but want to see the fullness of that joy at the birth of hope into the world here in my country, where we have succumbed to sloth with regard to so many of our traditions from caroling, to giving meaningful gifts and making holiday foods from scratch. These are the things that help us to remember who we are and why we are.
I rediscovered delight this Christmas in giving toys to my nieces and nephews, distributing a trunk full of live chickens, guineas, and rabbits as gifts, playing volleyball over a septic field at a Karen Christmas celebration in Vesta, and even caroling at one stranger’s house in Comer. We cannot rationalize this time of year, but must let it overtake us on our terms. Human beings are incredibly inefficient, and we commit corporate suicide when we deny the sanctity of this exuberant celebration with technologically facilitated isolation. Come together. December is sweet.