on this day

November 30, 2019

When my PaCharley died this year, I wrote (“Dad 2”) about a phrase that had inadvertently popped into my head. “I have no more dads.” Even at the time I knew that it was not really true. And more so than ever, I know it now. I have more dads than I could ever deserve. More people in my life who have, and do, selflessly give of themselves for the sake of me. Once a friend of mine told me she would ask her husband, in moments of insecurity, “Why do you love me?” I was in an adventurous, and somewhat youthfully self-confident season of life at the time. The question puzzled me, as I imagined marriage to be a state of being that would eliminate such statements of insecurity. I also thought that age would have a similar effect, automatically creating self-assurance. I no longer think so.
Rather, I find myself biting my tongue to keep from asking the same question of my husband. That and Fiddler on the Roof’s famous lyrical line: an even more bold, “Do you love me?”
I should clarify that I have no reason whatsoever to doubt his love; it is a patient and steadfast devotion that I am constantly in awe of. To a fault. I know he wishes I did not question my worth as much as I do …I wish so too.
But for whatever reason, God saw fit to piece me together in this confusing jumble of boldness & hesitancy, of self-assurance & self-doubt … of countless pairings of seemingly contradictory traits. I get tired of living with myself; I can only imagine how others in my life feel!
But I guess what I want to say right now is that I am humbled by the shoulders that have propped me up over the years, and that continue to do so. My Uncle G, who filled in for my father in countless ways after our move to the US. My stepdad Lou, who literally “stepped” in during a rough season for us all; he instantly took on a devoted and caring role for my mother and us kids. It allowed me to let go of a weight of responsibility I felt as the oldest, and set me free to begin living my life as a young adult. My “Dad 3”-Ken-who has welcomed me into the family with unquestioning and wide-open arms, from that very first introductory Skype call. My own brothers now, mature and hardworking dads in their own families, have reversed the roles over the years and extended this care to me, the “big” sis.
In short, I may be holding up my arms from external appearances, living an independent, “grownup” life; but like Moses, I know that my hands are actually being held up by countless Aarons in my family, friends, and community. There is no way I could ever repay the debt I own to those who have sustained me over the years. I can only pray that somehow my life can give testimony to the goodnesses granted. Somehow, someday I may get to see the full circle of it; or maybe not.
Today all I can do is bear witness, say “thank you,” and, once again, commemorate what happened 31 years ago:

*photo comes from a quiet morning watching the sunrise, thanks to a beachfront stay generously offered by Phillip and Priscilla.

“on this day”

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.

real life

November 24, 2019

I’ve developed a serious mole complex lately. I guess the year of hiding from the sun had caught up with me …I want sunshine again! Now that the winter chill has hit, in a rather abrupt manner, I find myself being drawn towards old habits. When I lived in Afghanistan, I thought of myself as a warmth-and-sunshine-needy soul, so the long months of bitter cold I knew to expect brought fear to my weather-wimpy soul. But, as so often happens, the reality of life turned out remarkably gentle compared to my amped up imaginings. The sun would be brilliant and strong on even the coldest and snowiest of days, so that I would sneak up to the semi-private rooftop of our house, bundle up a half of my body in winter gear so that I could bear leaving the other half exposed, and lay in the sun during my lunch breaks, alternating exposed limbs.
These days my life is far less outwardly exciting. I live in a southeastern countryside, own goats, and clean toilets and lunch tables as my day job.
For the past few weekends, the sun has peeked out beautifully for at least a portion of the precious little bit of daytime that Peter and I have together.
Yesterday we hoped for another nice day but instead we’re greeting with a cold and gray rain when we awoke. So we hid from the rain during the morning hours, resigning ourselves to a lack of a now once-a-week run (so maybe I’m the only one who actually wimped out …Peter boldly braved the treadmill). I intended to run but instead was drawn into a class that I had heard about but been too scared to try. It’s supposed to be a mix of yoga, pilates, and ballet. All three of these are things I want to be good at, and graceful in. But I am not. Turns out, the class was a wonderful experience. The conversation I had with a classmate lifted my spirits more than what I thought I needed could have. I thought I needed a day to be outside. I thought I needed to prove to myself that I could still run, though I fear I’ve just lost it. I thought I needed to be outside, soaking up the vitamin D that my body feels like it’s been craving.
As it turned out, a rainy morning exercise class with a dozen other women was, in fact, exactly what I really did need.
I spend my life clasping onto various ideals of who I am and who I think I should be. Why do I feel the need to do so? Good question. Because more often than not, reality is far better for me than illusions of the same.
I have always wrestled with the embarrassing awareness of my own self-centeredness. When I was a high schooler, I remember commenting to a friend that I didn’t know how to make myself act out of others-interest rather than self-interest. I knew that at the root of most of my actions was little to be proud of. That inner battle remains, a quarter of a century since then.
Many of my words have been a jumbled mess in my brain; this past week has been a frazzled one for me, in which the fear of the future prevents me from enjoying the present. I’ve wished for the ability to release it all from my head, and to put words to paper (or screen, as the case may be), but I’ve been held back by worries of randomness and nonsensical ramblings.
So be it. In the same way that reality is often better than my ideals of what life should be and how I should be, I guess the reality of my own randomness at the moment is better than waiting for some ideal of verbal perfection.
This is it.
This morning I attempted a 2-km sunrise jog. I interrupted myself, however, to take a series of photographs when I noticed the brilliance of the contrast as the sun half-hit the fall-colored treetops. I would stop to take a photo, jog a few steps, and then stop again because I thought I’d gotten to a better vantage point. I did this 10 times. The irony of it all was that the best view appeared when I got back to my own driveway.
This is it.

Not so cheery?

November 20, 2019

The unfortunate truth is that, so much as I have loved this venture into the wild world of janitorial work, there are moments in which chronicling custodian life must include the less-than-cheery moments. When I embarked upon this venture, a part of my reasoning was that I wanted to be a better person because of it. And I also wanted to make a sort of, frankly, prideful statement as I did it out of my own choice. But of course, the simple fact that I HAVE such a choice makes me a poor candidate for truly bearing witness to real life custodian work. Today something happened that gave me pause: I’m still not sure how the event really impacted me so, for now, I will simply relay the event as it occurred…
During my main flurry of the day, in the final lunch cleanup marathon, I was called out of the lunchroom to attend to an attention-needy bathroom. It was, suffice it to say, an unpleasant neediness.
With my back to the door, the cleaning cart propping it open, I was tackling the mess when 7th grade lined up outside their classroom door, just across the hallway from me. In the midst of the chattering, I hear a comment spoke softly enough that it was clearly not expected to be heard by me. But I hear it—a tittering, sing-songy, “Miss Jan-i-terrr.”
I turn around and see some of the students watching me while 2 boys face the wall, apparently giggling. “Yes?” I ask. One girl, sounding admirably bold, nudges one of the boys. “Hey-she answered you!”
At this point the teacher has come and, suspecting the scenario, goes into instant action. She takes the arm of the boy being spoken to by his classmate, brings him over to me, and asks, “Was he being disrespectful? What did he say?”
Though there was little to actually relay, I tell her. She then responds in a way that I later go and compliment her for: she has him introduce himself to me and ask me my name. When I have the later private conversation, she admits to me that she questioned her own reaction. Though it seemed to me to be a thoughtful and trained reaction, she says that she hadn’t known what to do … but that she was angry.
At the end of the day, it turned out reasonably well. He was asked to come and help me with the most labor-intensive part of the day’s cleanup, and I enjoyed his working company. As for what he took from the interaction, I have no way of knowing: his assistance was subdued and somewhat stoic. Processing continues on my part. Perhaps I will have more to say about it later. But for now, I will simply “illustrate” this post with a photo Peter took of me and the goats this past weekend. I was feeling the love, you might say …love aided by the fact that I held tasty banana peels in my hand 😉