on this day

November 30, 2015

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Yet again, it is time. This year my post comes late in the day, on a day of teaching, writing exams, meal prep and, now, weariness with the business of the day. But I remember this day, still. And even on a day of ordinary details, it marks my life, and my emotions, so that underlying each action is a twinge of strange, sad urgency.
Last night I dreamt of my mother. Today I think of her, as I remember my father. I have always loved the mental image of my mother, when she was younger, riding her horse. I imagine a beautiful sight, with her hair blowing behind her as she rides into the distance. Free. And mobile. So the photo this year is one of the inspiring glimpses I had this past weekend, during the overnight trip to the coast that we took the dorm children on. It was, on the whole, a time consumed with the business of “parenting.” But there were moments of pause . . . like this one, when I watched the master horseback riding instructor gallop along the beach once his own workday was done. I dream of the day when this will be reality, for us all.
That said, here it is: the annual post:

I remember, this day–November 30–in 1988. On this day, I awoke excited–no, more than that–I was ecstatic. I was running through lines of the Christmas program in my head, eagerly rehearsing for the program that night. You see, tonight we were performing for our families, for my family. They were on their way by this time, I knew, beginning the drive early that morning that would bring them along many lonely dirt roads, winding through villages and across open plains, to arrive here.

It had been 3 months now since I last saw them, when I boarded the little Cessna on the grass strip of our village, clutching my stuffed bear in one arm and holding my sister’s hand with the other. We stood there waving goodbye one last time on the boarding stairs, and then waved again out the window as we sped along the airstrip and lifted off into the air. I loved that moment of lifting off in the airplane–and have ever since–the exciting rush of becoming airborne and soaring faster and faster through the air.

That day, however, my excitement of the beginning was tinged with the sadness of knowing I would be away from my family for many nights now. The days were always full of learning, fun adventures in the bush with friends and with various creatures to be discovered and trees to be climbed. The nights were the hard part, though, when I fought the tears that often came in spite of my fierce will, silently dampening my pillow while I stifled the shortened breaths that may give away my tears to the classmates sleeping near me in rows of bunk beds.

The 3 months since that last flight had passed quickly–3 months of good books read, math problems solved, geography discovered, play weddings acted out in free time, and all manner of grade 4 activities. I had also turned 9 the previous month, and knew my family would now celebrate my birthday and my brother’s 4th birthday 3 days earlier, as soon as we made it back home. While on a shopping trip in South Africa, my Dad had acquired our first car, so the decided to make the road trip instead of Helen and I flying home as we had always done before. So, I knew they were loaded up in the Isuzu, along with 2 village friends–a teenage student of my Dad’s and the Zambian pastor he worked with in our Church.

So that afternoon, after various activities designed to keep all us boarding students preoccupied so we wouldn’t be bouncing off the walls with the excitement of our families’ arrivals, we all filed out the drive-up area to await the first arrivals. I had in my mind the perfect picture of what to expect, so as each vehicle arrived, I craned my neck to see my mom’s long arm waving out the window and Alex’s goofy grin peering out from her lap. But the cars came, parents claimed their clamoring kids, and my picture-perfect arrival still had not appeared. Finally, a lady I recognized as the mom of some friends who lived fairly near us went over to our Dorm Mother and said something to her, gesturing in our direction. She then came and told us to go ahead and get ready for the program–not to keep waiting for our parents there.

I was disappointed, but assumed they would arrive at any moment, so just kept waiting as we practiced our songs. My mental image just altered itself to adjust to a late clamor of hugs and kisses rushed in before the program started . . . but the program came, began, and ended, and they had not arrived. The next morning we were taken to the Cessna, and told we were going to go back to the village by flight after all. This time I imagined the whole family standing there on the airstrip, coming into focus as the plane landed, with eager smiles and waves–still, no. The parents of a classmate took us in their car instead–so of course I changed my expectation once more, this time thinking they were taking us to our house where the family would be, picture-perfect, waiting in front of our little home.

Instead we arrived at their house. Auntie Elaine (according to British habit, all family friends were “Auntie” and “Uncle” to us kids) finished up dinner preparations while we helped set the table. And then, instead of sitting down to dinner, she asked Helen and I to come and sit with her on the couch–”Anna, Helen–I have some really sad news . . . your Daddy went to heaven . . . ” Before the sentence was finished, I had burst into loud sobs, Helen looked at me and started crying, and Auntie Elaine and her daughter were both crying and hugging us.

I don’t remember any mention of the rest of the family at that point–nor did I wonder, as far as I can remember. The rest of the day, of the week, of the month, passed in a sort of a fog, in which my memories are clear but displaced, as if each memory was plucked from its proper place in the continuum of time and placed instead in some never never land of homeless moments.

I remember falling asleep with fitful dreams, waking up convinced I had dreamed reality, and that Daddy would walk in and comfort me any moment. I remember being reunited with my brothers, staring at Alex’s discolored and misshapen head, and carting Ian around carefully in his body cast, propping him up against walls . . . supporting him and holding his modesty blanket over his midsection as he pinned the tail on the donkey at his belated birthday party. I remember visiting Mom there in the Zambian hospital, horrified at the sight of my strong, active, beautiful mother lying there on the stretcher bed unable to move herself. At one point during a visit, the nurse had to turn her over so that she wouldn’t get a bed sore. As she did so, she let go of the sheet and mom was briefly exposed to us all in the room. I didn’t know whether to blush, sob, or scream–I wanted to just run away, to disappear forever into the endless, dreadfully beautiful African wilderness. I hated seeing mom like that, and dreaded the visits . . . and I hated myself for feeling that way, thinking there must be something wrong with me if I didn’t want to see my mother . . .

Somehow, time passed. My Daddy’s funeral passed in a blur of friends, strangers, languages I didn’t know, and wails I knew only too well. As soon as mom was strong enough to be transported, we were shipped to the U.S., where hospitalization and then physical rehab came for her. I hid in my books–in beautiful worlds of fantasy–to the extent that my grandmother still teases me for always having my “nose stuck in a book” as a child.

And eventually Mom was well enough to take over the care of the 4 of us again. I still don’t know for the life of me how she did it–a paraplegic supporting and caring for a home of her own and 4 not-always-angelic children. She did it well . . . she loved us well.

On this day, during my childhood, Mom beautifully commemorated the anniversary. She would buy what looked to me like hundreds of helium-filled balloons, bringing them home so that the house was bursting with balloons. Then she tied note cards to the string of each one, and told us to write notes on them–as many as we wanted, and whatever we wanted to say to a stranger. I remember writing things like “Jesus loves me this I know . . .” and “My Daddy died on this day, and he is now in heaven with God, because he loved God. I do too.” I wrote silly notes, but meaningful ones, longing, in all my childhood intensity, to somehow tell the world that I had a great Daddy, and that some day I would see him again.

I still catch myself, when I am still enough to listen to the deeper desires of my heart, craving moments of remembrance of my Daddy, and eagerly clasping to memory any tidbits about him that people from his past may be able to share with me. And thankfully my own mind clamped down firmly on all the memories I had of my times with him, out of a personal need for them and, I suspect, out of a nagging suspicion that someday, somehow, there would be a greater use for, outlet for, it all.

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a slow trot

November 28, 2015

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This is a portion of a text I wrote this morning, in reply to one sent by a fellow dorm parent. The original text was a worried wondering if we had made the wrong choice about the children’s activities today:

No-they’re recovering now. We knew they would start out unhappy, or suspected at least. But either way they would have …its just us trying to make the best call we can figure out. There’s not always a clear one, & we will I think be able to share & enjoy, each other’s when back together later today :-) I’m glad we can work with you guys …& don’t forget, you [two], that we have been given a mountainous job. Hang in there-you’re doing an amazing job!

The ironic part of this text is that most days I wish someone was saying this to me. Of course that’s the way it goes with life issues, oftentimes; we do our best cheerleading for others when the situation is one in which we have been needy for the same cheering . And these days, those situations come on a daily basis. Being responsible for children means a constant barrage of decisions to be made, and of demands being made. At times it feels wearisomely hamster-wheel-ish.

At times it feels agonizingly personal. At times hopelessly exhausting.

But every once in a while, there are moments that are nothing short of exquisite. One of these moments came very soon after I had written that text. The call we had made that day involved the possibility of a horseback ride … Which is the sort of activity we have recognized as potentially helpful for the sort of adolescent issues we deal with in our household . But it seemed too much to hope for: with fearful personality barriers when it comes to any thing new, and with our newbie barrier so far as figuring out how to make things happen, I was pessimistic. But today I watched a couple of west African children on round 3 of their rides, at their request. They rode along the beach as the sun rose behind them. From where I stood I could not see their faces. But I am quite certain that the smile on my face mirrored that on theirs.

the axis

November 8, 2015

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How did my world become so insular? How did I become a planet orbiting around the axis of an adolescent’s emotional ups and downs? I have weathered severe family tragedy; I have been through seasons of poverty, both material and internal; I have lived in a war torn land, and waited out lock-downs while those in my community lost their lives to the nearby bombs that rattled the windows above my head.
How, then, is it possible for me to crumble, weeping, over minor issues like an ignored dishwashing duty, or a plate dished out with one too many offending vegetables? It is the banalities, these days, that make or break my sense of well-doing from one hour to the next.
The fact is that we an, er, “difficult” role, as dorm parents of a difficult child who also happens to be in a universally recognized difficult time of life, being an overly developed, and strong-willed, adolescent girl. Since our one-week “honeymoon” of happy willingness to join us for house duties and fun out outings, life has become a struggle. We have not figured out how to converse rationally about anything concerning household policies, and I do not have the gift of argumentation needed with this particular child.
What I have come to realize is that I must re-think ideals held about dorm life brimming with happy family hangout times and cheery heart-to-heart chats. In the here-and-now, my job is going to have to look radically different. And if I allow myself to be emotionally needy for anything more than sullen acknowledgements of my existence, I will be setting myself up for breakdowns . . . I’m afraid I must admit to saying this from experience!
For now, I may just have to accept that my job at this stage means simply making sure her meals and snacks are available, her clothes are washed, and that I am available for any other requests she has. There may be no thank yous, no warm fuzzies . . . but from what I have heard, mother’s worldwide experience this in a much greater scale that I can imagine, in my simple first-year dorm parent role.
All I can say is that I, who have always wondered how mothers do it, now wonder the same thing on a whole different realm of my reality. Hats off to you all, Moms!
*At church this morning I was sitting with the mother of a family who has been coming for about 3 weeks now. Since the first time I met them, I have been enamored with the brilliant smile of their youngest child. I find myself sneaking glances at her at the most inopportune of times, tempted to disturb prayers by my efforts to get a smile out of her. It is, actually, no big task: she is always eager to flash a big one. Today I asked her mom if I could take a picture of her, admitting that I just wanted to have that smile available whenever I needed a cheer-up moment. So the photo today is, quite simply, that cheer-up grin :-)

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There is much to be said for intentionality and planning when it comes to the walk of faith . . . when it comes to life in general, for that matter. But sometimes, I suspect, there is just as much to be said for pure, un-thought-out, spontaneity.
Today we had a combined service. Our church shuttled everyone to a neighboring town where we joined with a local community plant. One of the senior members of our Korean community has spent his life here in this country and in nearby ones, planting churches. This is one of the now-established ones.
Over dinner tonight my husband and I talked about what a blessing it is to be a part of our church family. In a way, we didn’t really have to do the work normally involved in getting settled into a community, as new residents of the area, and country. We found this church within a couple weeks and, interestingly enough, this Korean community brings local culture to us, by way of weekly service opportunities, an international community in the church body itself, and events like that of today.
The truth is that I was nervous about this weekend. The logistics of a time-consuming commute both days (worship practice and worship itself) and of figuring out how to combine our worship teams—backed up against a demanding work week—were daunting gremlins in my brain for the days leading up to it.
But when it came down to it, as things so often do, the details came together smoothly enough, with less to fear than I had anticipated. It went well.
After the team had finished, and I was enjoying the [relative] calm of being a simple pew-dweller, I realized that I might have to resign my post. As the offering wound down, it began to also pick up the pace. The custom here is to parade down the center aisle, row by row, in order to deposit one’s gift into the box. When only a few were still in line, instead of slowing down the music, the leader instead picked it up and started a new, more upbeat song. I couldn’t see what was going on from my vantage point, but I suspect that some in line began dancing up in the front as they gave their gift. With the beat picking up, several other dancing-inclined folks hopped up and joined in. Curiosity made me get up to go see what was happening. Shortly thereafter, dancing-inclined-tendencies made me jump right in to join them.
If I had given any thought to this, I probably would have talked myself out of it. I would have thought through the fact that I had never been in this church before . . .that the only people dancing were Ghanaians I did not know . . . that there were at least 3 times as many people here today than I was used to being in a service with . . . that I did not know the cultural norms well enough to risk offense. But I didn’t think: I just danced.
After a couple more choruses of dancing, the leader slowed things down and, taking our cue, we filed back to our seats. I couldn’t stop smiling from that point on.
Later, during post-service greetings, I met a Korean who was related to someone else in our church. He smiled as he shook my hand and thanked me. “In my culture we are too reserved,” he said. “Thank you for dancing today.”
I don’t know what anyone else thought, but I was satisfied with this as decent enough confirmation of the feeling I had, and have, about the privilege of this morning’s worship.