Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Stories (Part 3)

I was moving this weekend. Please accept the following Christmas story as late.

My first Christmas of university was probably the final moment of my childhood. I could get into what I think childhood is but I think telling the story would be way more interesting.

It all started when I moved to a crazy place called “The House Famous”. If you read back through some of my blogs you’ll probably read more about it. Essentially it was a house I lived in with four other people that included some pretty rigorous commitments. We committed to talking to each other and resolving conflict. We committed to consulting other house members on purchases over ten dollars. We committed to living on what was “enough” instead of wasting money. We committed to serving the homeless and impoverished of the area we lived in.

When I write all of that down it sounds idealistic and romantic and a little bit crazy. The reality was somewhat different. I remember how good it felt to be stretched by these commitments, trying to line up my actions with my beliefs. Trying to be Jesus to people in the community. I also remember how hard it was. I remember shivering while eating dinner because we kept our heat so low (save money on electricity!) I remember going hungry because we shared cooking duties and sometimes I didn’t eat what was being cooked. I remember skipping out on studying to hang out with people in the house and having both my marks and my future social situation in university being affected.

I used to live in a very comfortable and cushy household as a kid. Little was asked of me. I was free to do what I wanted and got what I wanted most of the time. Then I moved into a place where I was pushed, pulled, and stretched in many different directions. I had to make so many different choices about how to spend my time and what to fight for.

The first (and only actually) Christmas that occurred while I was living in the house was marked by a two week absence. I finished my last exam. I moved back in with my parents, sleeping in the guest bedroom, I bought Super Mario Galaxy for our family’s newly acquired Wii, and I spent five days playing it pretty much all the time until I absolutely destroyed it. Collected every item, completed every mission. For an entire work week, I did and thought about nothing else. It was the sort of thing you would do as a kid on summer vacation. No other time pressures are on your mind. No one expects you to help with food. You have no sense of the needs of others. It was the last moment that I can remember being completely irresponsible for a long time and feeling no guilt whatsoever about it.

After the break ended, I went back to the house to discover that most of my housemates were upset that I had left for so long with little explanation. They felt abandoned by me. I thought back to my five days of Mario and felt guilty. I mended the bridges and resolved to do better.

Three weeks later I told them I was moving out at the end of the school year. The pull between being involved in the house and being in school had gotten to be too much to manage for me. I didn’t have the energy or the time management to move in. It was a very responsible decision.

That Christmas is that last time I remember the blissful ignorance of childhood. Now, even when I rest, I am aware of the pressures and responsibilities I am avoiding. Every time I play games, voice in the back of my head reminds me that there are other things I could and probably should be doing.

I think this is an essential part of growing older and growing more mature. If you can happily ignore your own responsibilities and others perceptions of you, people are going to get pretty pissed at you. People generally don’t like others who think only of themselves. God’s not really a big fan of it either. It kind of makes you an asshole. I remember this Christmas with fondness, but in the same breath I am glad it will never happen again. I’ve moved on. I’ve learned it’s time to put the work week of video games away and start asking people about their work. I’ve learned to check the clock with an eye to how many minutes I’ve burned on myself. In some small way I’ve grown up, and around Christmas time I’m glad for that.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Stories (Part 2)

In a group that spends a lot of time together, there always seems to be that one person who is pushing you to do things socially. This past fall I worked with a girl and she was tireless in encouraging us to do things together. She would make lists and provide options and set up details and make sure things were happening. A good deal of the fun times we had only happened because her constant question was "what should we do tonight". Nice going Emily.

In a family scenario, especially around Christmas this person is essential. But just encouraging people to do stuff together is not enough. Encouraging people to do the same boring activities over and over again is just a quick way to build resentment. Encouraging people to do something FUN together is essential. One of my favourite fun things to do in groups is play video games. Though it doesn't happen often, I love playing games together especially when it's all around a single television. Those moments take me back to being a kid. There's a good reason for this.

You see, when I was six years old I bought a Super Nintendo from my cousin. Up until this moment, my parents had been strongly opposed to having video games in the house. Once a year we would rent a console and play the crap out of it for two days and then when the weekend was over it would go back to Jumbo Video and that would be the end of it. Once I had it, I played it all of the time. Originally my dad had this deal where I had to spend an equivalent amount of time reading to the amount of time playing but that went out the window pretty quickly.

"Ben what does this have to do with Christmas?"

I'm getting there.

The first Christmas that we had the Super Nintendo was one of the first Christmases that both of my sisters were married. This meant that for the first time ever, there were two new people in our house over the break. My brothers-in-law Ben and Shawn. My family is not exactly programmed to death when we do Christmas so there are often long stretches of downtime where nothing happens. It was during one of these stretches that Shawn discovered that I had a Super Nintendo in the house. He flipped through my stack of cartridges and found "Super Mario Kart" and noted that he had played it at someone else's house when he was in high school and insisted it was fun.

Joanna and I had played it a bit, but had never really been good at it enough to warrant playing it repeatedly. We couldn't seem to stay on the track very well. It was always a struggle. Then Shawn asked us if we wanted to play with him. Always enjoying video games, I said yes. We booted it up. Shawn was way better than me.

"How do you stay on the track Shawn?"

"You have to let go of the gas while you're turning so you can slow down."

This information was a revolution to me. Suddenly I went from struggling to finish fifth to finishing second or first every time (usually switching back and forth with Shawn or my sister who also took to the new technique). And Super Mario Kart instantly became the thing that we did in between every meal when there was no scheduled family activity. It was the most fun I could remember having playing Super Nintendo (and I played a lot of Super Nintendo).

Christmas came and went and though Joanna and I still played Super Mario Kart, it just wasn't the same when it wasn't Christmas. Later that year I sold my Super Nintendo and its large collection of games because I bought Nintendo 64 at Costco. What game did it come with? Mario Kart 64. The following year when the holidays rolled around, we went back to playing it all the time except this time four of us could play at once. This was kind of a sweet deal. We spent a lot of time at Christmas playing Mario Kart. We had so much fun that even my dad played with us occasionally (the only time I can remember him playing games with us), and my mom tried a round (although she quit because she found it stressful).

We tried a different game at a later holiday (Mickey's Speedway USA if anyone even remembers was good). Then I think it petered out after that. Mario Kart stopped being a holiday tradition because we weren't always home for the holidays and when we were, there wasn't enough downtime for Mario Kart. It was kind of sad but these things happen as you get older.

I still keep up with Mario Kart. In my mind, there's always another Christmas around the corner where we can get together and play Mario Kart with people Even this last couple of months when Emily encouraged us to play Mario Kart together as a staff (and we had a lot of fun doing it), I immediately wondered if we would be able to play it together when Christmas came.

Of all the holiday traditions my family has dropped over the years, Mario Kart is probably the one I miss the most.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christmas Stories (Part 1)

I remember advent dinners when I was a kid. That's the first time I remember liking a weekly tradition. My mom would cook up a reasonably special meal. We would eat in the dining room instead of the kitchen (this was back when we used to rarely eat in the dining room despite its name. Conventions be damned!) and after every advent dinner we would light an advent candle and my dad would read from some kind of devotional book.

If the above sounds confusing to you, let me elaborate. Advent is the name given to the season before Christmas when Christians repeat the experience of waiting for Jesus to come. It's the point in the church calendar when things get reset and you start a new year. Advent is scheduled so that there are four Sundays before Christmas. This year, the first Sunday of advent was November 30th. This always excited me as a child because the first Sunday of advent is typically in November and the start of advent always meant the start of the Christmas countdown and the start of presents appearing slowly under the tree (I was kind of focused as a kid). It is often a tradition to have a special meal each Sunday in Advent and so in my family we did these for each Sunday.

During Advent it is customary to light candles as Christmas approaches. These candles are placed in a circular wreath made of some kind of garland. There are four of them with a fifth candle sometimes added in the middle. Three are white (for the first three Sundays) and then one is another colour (sometimes red for the fourth Sunday). The thicker middle candle is meant to represent Christ and is usually lit on Christmas eve or Christmas day. It is also customary to have some kind of special reading when you light the candle. There are themes for each Sunday in advent that I think are randomly chosen but all have something to do with the Christmas narrative. They are typically things that go along with the theme of waiting and hoping. Things like hope, joy, and peace.

My favourite part of advent is the regularity of it. As a kid it was like clockwork. We did the same thing every year. At the end of each week, the pace of life would slow to a crawl as we ate our special meal and sat around the table for what seemed like hours afterward. Homework didn't happen because it was December and no sane teacher expected homework to be completed in December. It was a pause in the year to slow down, enjoy each other's company, and reflect on the future.

I miss that rhythm. Since I left my parent's house Christmas has become less and less regular each year. It started when we decided to travel south for Christmas as a family. A wonderful experience to be sure, but very different from gathering at my parents house and playing video games, eating good food, and enjoying each other's company. I think there's value in having a moment in the year (it doesn't have to even be four Sundays in December) where you know something certain will happen. As I look to the future, I hope to build something close to that into life.

But for now I remember advent dinners.