Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Taste of Christmas

Hard to believe, but I have been in the States for three solid weeks now. Being back in the U.S. is always a bit of a phenomenon after spending so much time abroad, and I've loved rediscovering all the little nuances that remind me how accustomed to Guam we have become. One thing I forgot is how difficult it is to do my normal Guam things once back in the States. And that, my friend, includes blogging. So now I'm playing catch-up from two and a half weeks ago, but there are some stories that are too special to skip.

After the fantastic Orlando wedding, I took a train (yes, they have passenger trains in America! who knew?) to West Palm Beach, where my fabulous cousin Erika picked me up for that blessed first dinner at Panera and shopping trip to Target, a Guammie dream date if I've ever heard of one.

Erika then dropped me off in Boynton Beach where my great Aunt Ethel and Uncle Mac live. This is a visit I have had tucked in the back of my mind for years and somehow the timing and location came together to make this one feasible. A few months back when I figured all of this out, I called Aunt Ethel and asked if she would teach me how to make her famous Christmas cookies that she sends to each family member every year. They are a family recipe, commonly referred to as Hungarian Nut Rolls, though the name does not do justice to the made-from-scratch, hundred-year-old-recipe deliciousness. They are most certainly NOT Paleo but have been grandfathered in to the holiday menu.

Fair warning before I go any further. While this is, in fact, the first part of the recipe for this delish cookie, I am in no way providing all necessary instructions or ingredients to make these. Part of the reason you have to learn to make them in person is because these cookies require quite an involved process. And in fact, Aunt Ethel did a huge amount of prep work before I jumped in (maybe while I was sleeping until 11a.m. like a teenager that first jet-lagged week), so I don't even know the full extent of every step's details. But I'm going to write down what I learned in the hopes that I can keep the tradition of making these family cookies down the road.

Step one: Add half a pound of lard to four cups of flour. 
(Believe it or not, lard is Paleo approved as a worthwhile fat).
Mix all the ingredients together with your hands until a smooth dough forms.
Leave dough in refrigerator overnight so the yeast rises.
The next day... it's sugar time! 
Roll out the dough and cut it into squares. 
Roll each square in a pile of sugar. 
Place a lump of ground almond mixture or 
apricot mixture in dough corner and roll into a crescent.
(Side note: Aunt Ethel gets her apricot preserves 
from Pennsylvania because Florida's just aren't as good!)
Brush crescents with egg whites. 
Bake on bottom rack for 7 minutes and top rack for 7 minutes. 
Remove from pan immediately to cool.

At this point I had figured out why these cookies are such a big deal... they are quite tedious to make, require multiple days of preparation and baking, plus the recipe makes a batch of about 120! There's no quick dozen here; it's all or nothing. But we stuck with the plan and finished the whole stock of them, about 5 trays' worth in the oven. Good thing since I know several family members who were still waiting on their cookie shipment!

Crispy and sweet... yum! Tastes like Christmas!

The other part of this visit I was really looking forward to was getting to hear stories from my Uncle Mac, who was stationed on Guam with the Army for about a year in 1945-46, just after the island was liberated from the Japanese. For the last year and a half, I have gotten wonderful letters and emails from Aunt Ethel saying how much Mac enjoyed reading about and seeing pictures of the island. Talking to him in person, I came to understand what his role was in helping to redevelop the island. His team, the 3164th Signal Service, was in charge of setting up radio communication between Guam and the rest of the world, a key development in getting Guam back on track after the war. I gave him a history book of photographs taken from that era, and while there weren't any of his specific unit, it was still pretty amazing to hear him talk about Hagatna and Piti and Nimitz Hill by name, the same places I spend quite a bit of time in now some 65 years later. I had to smile as Aunt Ethel commented that she had never heard many of the Guam stories he told. Sooo grateful for a visit like this to connect across generations over our tiny little dot on the other side of the world, and even the other side of history.

One last awesome memory from my Florida visit was a result of this tree in their backyard... that's right, fresh squeezed Florida orange juice every morning for breakfast. There is nothing quite like it in all the world.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Empty Chair

Every Christmas during our college years, Nick and I had the good fortune of reuniting in Houston to celebrate with our families and friends and be together as one year turned into the next. And every Christmas for each of those four years, I attended the Service Academy Christmas Ball with Nick's parents and good friends of ours (who have the minor misfortune of being West Point alum and Army fans). The opportunity to get dressed up and go downtown to celebrate the passing of another semester was always a highlight of the winter break, and the party itself was always smashing, even slightly over the top. Most years, every servicemember walked away with a $100 bill and some incredible prizes. They had an impressive banquet of food, poignant speakers, as well as a busy dance floor. It was one of the few perks of dating someone who didn't go to just any old university.

While the festivities of the evening shared a lot of similarities to, say, a wedding reception, this particular dinner/dancing celebration had its own very distinct feel. Part of it was that Midshipmen and Cadets representing the four U.S. service academies were decked out in their crisp, almost inspection-ready uniforms. Part of it was the speakers chosen, who were often notable retired servicemembers or military supporters from the area. The keynote speaker who gave the December 2001 address was particularly inspiring, as the uneasiness in the air at the time was palpable. But what stood out the most to me from any other event I'd been to was the empty chair and starkly set table in a quiet corner of the room.

The military and military veterans organizations have a quiet but appropriate way of recognizing those who cannot join the celebration that night. Specifically, through this small ceremony, they recognize the tens of thousands of U.S. prisoners of war and those missing in action whose whereabouts remain yet unknown. In their recognition, an empty chair is placed at a table seated and set for one. A white tablecloth drapes over the table and on it rests an empty plate and a glass. Wording read during a short ceremony discloses that the glass is inverted because these comrades will not be toasting with us tonight. Similar wording reveals that salt has been sprinkled on the plate, "to remind us of the countless tears of those who have never come home and of the tears of their families and friends, whose grief knows no end."I found it compelling that in a room full of cheer and celebration, there is an intentional effort to remember and honor those who cannot be present.

This Christmas I am extra aware that the opposite may be taking place. Instead of intentionally seating an empty chair as a reminder, I know of more than a few dinner tables that have an empty chair out of default. No reminder is needed because, well, everything is a reminder. I think of the many friends whose husbands are deployed right now, some missing out on their child's first Christmas. I think of a dear friend whose heart is still raw from losing her soulmate. I think back to a crash in August that dashed apart the dreams of so many families all at once. I think of a brother who wrote a song about triumph, whose notes now echo pain and loss. I think of a friend overtaken by the brutality of a war he had long since returned from. It seems epecially in the military community, you don't have to look far to find an empty chair this year.

This year Nick and I have the undeniable blessing of being able to spend Christmas with many of our closest family members... my parents and sister, his parents and brother (and his fiancee!), his grandfather, several aunts, uncles and cousins. Living so far away, we are especially mindful of how amazing it will be to share the holidays with so many loved ones. And yet, I recognize there are those among us on both sides who, due to our own family losses this year, will experience their first Christmas without a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a child, or a spouse. One less place setting. One less glass raised. Many of them absent much too soon.

There is sadness, often overwhelming sadness, in acknowledging the empty chair at the Christmas table. But just as our eyes look down in remembrance and appreciation of the person we so wish could join us, may we somehow find the strength to look up and meet the smiling eyes of those seated around us. From sadness to joy in a glance. From emptiness to blessing in a moment. From despair to hope thanks to a miracle called love.

The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas, wherever you are. May you be surrounded by family and friends and in every way be reminded of the hope that was born this day.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Wedding of Friends

There are few things worth making the long trek from Guam to the States for. A last visit... a funeral... a wedding.... but not just any wedding. A union of two dear friends. After 25 hours of flying (thankfully with an awesome Guam/Gator travel buddy!), I arrived exhausted in some warped reality we'll call Orlando, Florida. With only an hour until the start of the Friday night welcome dinner, I took the best shower of 2011, got ready, and rallied to head out for the first of two celebratory nights. I met up with our friend Tom and his girlfriend and headed to the BBQ dinner at a local community center, which reminded me so wonderfully much of our own rehearsal dinner! It was a great night to reunite with the bride and groom and meet many of their fabulous friends I had heard so much about over the years. Not to mention catch up with sorority sisters I hadn't seen since graduation and Nick's company mates who are harder and harder to get in the same room at once. Due to holiday leave blocks, Nick unfortunately wasn't able to accompany me on this leg of the journey (but thankfully I'll see him soon).

The next day I slept... and slept some more... then met up with my cousin Chris for lunch. Chris was one of my best buddies growing up in Pensacola. The two of us spent hours upon hours fishing off the dock in the back of my grandparents' house. When we weren't fishing with shrimp, we were peeling and eating it with ketchup, our favorite cocktail sauce. Chris now lives in Daytona, just 45 minutes away, so I couldn't pass up the chance to get together while I was in town. Our recent visits haven't included fishing, unfortunately, but rather family memorial services in our hometown. It was nice to be getting together as the result of a wedding rather than a funeral for once!

After a delish USA (fresh produce!) lunch, I got ready for the wedding, watched a little of the Army/Navy game (Go Navy!), and headed out. Down in the hotel lobby, I immediately ran into Kate and Chris's friends I'd met the night before. It was awesome already knowing who everyone was and how they knew the bride and groom. I must have explained a zillion times how I knew them. "Kate was in my sorority at UF and Chris was Nick's roommate at the Naval Academy," I'd repeat. Funny how many people responded with, "Wow, what a small world!" not realizing that we were the ones that inadvertently introduced them. Nick and I take no credit as matchmakers, as we had no intention of setting them up (though in hindsight, what a great idea!). But somehow despite time and distance, these two just made it work.

As soon as I arrived at the wedding, I ran into a dear, dear friend I haven't seen in more than two years. Megan's husband and Nick went through initial training together in San Diego, but shortly after Megan disappeared to Virginia Beach. The last time I saw her in 2009, she was 8 months pregnant! I didn't get to meet her adorable daughter this trip (she was back at Disney with grandma and grandpa!), but it was sooo great to catch up with this friend who feels so much like family. There are some parts of your life that you go through that no one else can understand except those who trudged along beside you. Together we navigated our new lives as newlyweds, pseudo-Team wives, San Diego transplants, and young professionals. And Megan is from Texas, so needless to say, we hit it off right from the start. It's faces like this (and the bride and groom!) that remind me that Virginia Beach has a place for me that will feel like home... and gives me more and more to look forward to even as I turn my back on the San Diego dream.

Now I certainly know that Kate and Chris hired a capable set of photographers for this very important occasion. But something in me still feels the need to document everything myself, as if my trusty point-and-shoot will somehow capture something missed by one of the professionals. So just in case the photographers forgot to load the film or something, here are the pictures I took of the wedding events.

Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Lewis!
Sword arch (let's hope those photographers got the film right)
A moving and heartfelt speech by the best man, Chris's best friend from childhood
(Toasts are always my favorite part of the night... especially this night)
The first dance to the Eagles... Take it Easy.
Side note: Kate and Chris have actually been to Winslow, Arizona
(such a fine sight to see...)
Cutting the cake (which was not paleo and therefore totally delicious)
Why I love Kate... she called out her single friends individually
and made them come out for the bouquet toss. Oh yes she did...
Garter toss... played to Queen's "Another one bites the dust."
 Fun fact: Chris caught the garter at our wedding (six years ago... so he was kind of next).
He also got an unexpected, unfortunate shower...

The rest of the night was all about dancing and friends!
Old friends

New friends! (Three of these girls live in our future hometown!)

Red friends, blue friends... just kidding... although now that I think about it...

No one had any fun... especially not the bride
And no one wanted to dance...  or sing... weird...

We sent the bride and the groom out with a stunning display of sparklers on the 6th story balcony of the venue. SUCH a fun weekend, SO great to see everyone and come away with some new friends too. We couldn't be happier for our two friends as they begin this new chapter of their lives together. They threw an exceptional bash to get it all started. Everything from the save-the-dates to the sparklers were so personal, creative, and memorable.

As I look back on this picture taken of Chris and Kate at our own rehearsal dinner six years ago, I can't help but marvel at how the universe conspired to get these two together. Having known them separately for so long, I now can't imagine either of them alongside anyone else. I'm grateful for our respective and overlapping friendships that have spanned the ten years since college began. In fact, their story and their wedding remind me of how integral friendship is in a relationship that goes the distance. I am so honored to be part of their story and grateful to have been present for the celebration. And, to borrow something from our own wedding (one of my favorite toasts) for the two of you (thanks to Tom and REK!): May the road go on forever and the party never end! 

Congratulations Kate and Chris!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Very Beep Bop Christmas

Last Friday night we had our last big hoorah for our youth group for the year. We had 22 middle and high schoolers show up for our Christmas party, making it our largest youth group ever! We had a lot to pack in in our three hours together, so I'll get started.

No Christmas party is complete without a dirty Santa gift exchange. There were some awesome presents, including a rash guard, hot chocolate, popcorn, Rubix Cube, and a box of Raisin Bran. I went home with a pair of snowflake earrings and Nick won a golfer paperweight.
 Everyone holding up their fabulous and ridiculous prizes

Moving on, our next event was a gingerbread house making contest. We split everyone into three teams and gave each team complete gingerbread supplies, including graham crackers, frosting, gum drops, candy canes, sprinkles, red vines, etc. Their task was to build the most creative gingerbread house. Pastor Jeff was our judge, and each team had one minute to explain why their gingerbread house was the best. Here, Tristan is schmoozing Pastor Jeff Chamorro style, trying to convince Pastor Jeff that they should win because he likes their group's members the best.

Team 2 posing with their gingerbread house

Team 3's house was a gingerbread church, trying to appeal to the judge. The winner was group #1, which pulled ahead because of the tennis courts and dog house they built on the property!

My counterpart Doug is moving off island at the end of the month to pursue his teaching career, so this was his last youth group event. He gave his final youth group message, reminding everyone of the reason for the season and sharing Christ with these special young people for his last time.
Next I surprised everyone, especially Doug, with a video about Doug's time as a youth director with the church. He's been there about twice as long as me, so there were lots of pictures! So awesome to see all he has done over the years. It also made me start getting sad about my own departure within the next year... glad I still have lots of time left because it's going to be really hard to leave these kids!

For our grand finale, we played our favorite youth group game, Beep Bop. Pastor Jeff and Doug, who are both leaving by the year's end, were the first two boppers. Nick and one of our 7th graders, Amanda, who is also leaving, were the second round of boppers, whopping kids with a rolled up newspaper while we all ran around and hid in the dark. The game is always a blast and we never want to stop, but like everything else, all good things must come to an end. Sad that when I return to Guam, three of the people in this picture will have moved on, as people do from Guam. I know it won't be the same without them, but I also know our group will continue on, and without a doubt, new faces will show up and our group will still feel whole in its own way. So grateful for this job and all the wonderful people of all ages it has connected me to on the island. With any luck, our paths will cross again.

Tarzan and Jane

My mom (Jane) and dad at Tarzan Falls 

For our last day of adventures together in Guam, I took my parents on a classic boonie stomp to Tarzan Falls. It was a beautiful sunny day, and this is a great hike, downhill the way there, uphill the way back, and mostly in the shade of the jungle's tall trees. The gorgeous waterfall makes the muddy, buggy and at-times steep trek well worth it.
Top of the first of four cascading falls

 Trail was so muddy we had to hike in the river!

Almost there, guys! I promise!
We made it! My mom's signature Rocky pose :)

Nice waterfall you got there

Hey Mom, when was the last time we hiked to a waterfall together?

 Back at the top of the falls

 Lush jungle

We rounded off the afternoon with cold drinks and yummy snacks at Jeff's Pirate Cove.  Great last day in Guam together! So thankful for the chance to show my parents this awesome place. Also so impressed with how adventurous they were, jumping right in to diving, snorkeling, hiking, and everything else that is our life here. Usually the worst part of a trip like this is the ride to drop visitors off at the airport. But luckily I will see them again in Texas in just a few days, so our memory making continues. And, signing off from Orlando, FL with Starbucks in hand, my USA trip has already begun! Looking forward to seeing many of you throughout the holidays!