Christmas in Cali, the city where I was born, was something else. “La Feria de Cali” began on the 25th of December and lasted for 8 days. It marked the opening of the bullfighting season—too barbaric for our Swedish family, but woven into the very fabric of life in our city and our experience of Christmas. There were street parties all over town each night, wonderful food sold by vendors on the street, the Ferris Wheel came to town, there were lights everywhere, and music, non stop music. Every sense got its own party and celebration.
I was so much a child of privilege. One of the rites of passage for young people in my family’s circle of friends was the first invitation to a “Novena Bailable”. The nine days before Christmas were celebrated in a way similar to the Mexican observance of the Posadas. Different members of a single family or close circle of friends would take turns hosting an evening of prayer, song, drinking and eating. When you were thirteen or fourteen, you started getting invited to a slightly different version of these gatherings. The novenas bailables began with prayer but very quickly became dances that went on pretty late into the night. After the 25th, the parties no longer involved prayer and most were called “remates de corrida” (literally, the “finishing touches” of a bullfight). Except for the prayer, the pattern was the same: dancing, a meal at midnight, a fair amount of drinking and lots and lots of laughter. It wasn’t hard to go to a party every single night from the 16th of December to the 6th of January.
By the time I was 15, I was going to parties where young people my age were served weak alcoholic beverages and I have an image in my mind of waiters coming through in their smokings, weaving their way among the crowds of teenagers in our formal clothes, serving hors d’oevres and “Ron Con Coca Cola”. One of the very typical delicacies at those parties were grapes that had been hand peeled and seeded (I had never tasted a seedless grape until I came to college in the US), then glazed in sugar. Biting through the crunchy exterior to the sweet-tartness of the grape inside when you were hot and thirsty from all the dancing was pure decadence and sin.
One Christmas, probably when I was 16, my brother, Hans, and I were invited to a remate de corrida at Gilanda and Raymond Miezelis’ house. Gilanda was one year behind Hans and one year ahead of me; her brother Raymond was in my class. They were some of the ultra cool kids of our school—beautiful, sophisticated, really, really popular. I was surprised that my parents allowed us to go.
I had been tutoring a little kid that year and with my money had figured out a way to buy a blouse that my mom wouldn’t have dreamed of getting for me. It was short sleeved, with a strap that threaded through the middle of the neckline and was tied in knot. Depending on how tightly you tied it, the neckline was more or less revealing. Each year, my grandmother would send a piece of fabric for my Christmas outfit and that year she sent a particularly beautiful piece of red silk with a lovely, understated floral pattern. I had chosen to have a long, very simple skirt made with it. I wore my new blouse and that wonderfully sensuous and luxurious silk skirt to the party.
The night of the Miezelis’ party, I was careful with the neckline and how I tied that little strap in the middle, careful enough to pass muster with my mom. However, as soon as I got in darkness of the back seat of our car, I tied it a whole lot tighter. My mom either didn’t notice or looked the other way and I walked into the party feeling beautiful. We had a great time. Hans and I had a wonderful circle of friends and I can remember dancing and dancing and dancing. The Miezelis’ house had a lovely terrace and it was one of those typical tropical nights that just kiss your skin. We danced to a lot of different kinds of music—Salsa, Spanish “Paso Dobles”, Rock.
My mom had agreed to let us stay at the party until 2:00 AM and just a few minutes before she was coming to pick us up, the DJ played “I’d Love You to Want Me” by Lobo. There were a lot of people I didn’t know at the party. I was aware of one guy who I thought was particularly handsome but I had no clue who he was and wasn’t about to be gauche enough to ask. I was stunned because when the piece started playing, he came up to me, took my hand and led me out to dance. It was perfect. We fit against each other perfectly, he led me perfectly. The music was just the perfect volume, the lights were the perfect dimness. Oh dear Lord, it was all so perfect. When the song ended, my big brother, who was shooting darts on fire at me with his eyes, came up and commanded me to go out with him to wait for my mom in the driveway. This person I had just danced with and I never said a word. I never saw him again and I never even tried to find out his name–I didn’t need to.
My mom had not put the car into gear before my brother began excoriating me for “dancing that way” with someone I did not know, and even worse, someone who Hans didn’t know either. He turned to my mom and bawled her out for allowing me to go out dressed so suggestively. I sat in the back of the car and didn’t say a word. Everything my overly-possessive brother said only confirmed that something had really happened. I was powerful and alive in a way that I had only half-imagined, half-hoped I would ever be. I was myself without the doubts.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and read Fear of Flying by Erica Jong that I finally got more words to put around what that experience taught me. There’s layers and layers of life that make up who I am now and I’ve discovered strength in other ways. I know as well that vulnerability and weakness are every bit as much a part of my existence as the power I discovered that night. But incarnation (with a lower case “i”) as it was lived out in those palaces of privilege I grew up in, did help to shape my notion of Incarnation. In this season when we celebrate that the Word was made flesh, those memories are part of what allows me to say unequivocally, that it is good, it is very good, to be of flesh as well as the spirit.