Translators Needed

You know how sometimes memories emerge that were buried for years, but now and then they pop up on the screen of your mind? This story reemerges now and then, with no particular trigger, but it illustrates what seems to be part of my life work.

I was in my teens, eating Sunday lunch at a church family’s place, and they were also hosting a visiting couple who had never been at a Mennonite church before. So the dinner time was full of discussion and questions. I was listening and observing. The conversation went to how we value community and help each other in difficulties.

“So for example,” our host explained, “When someone’s house needs major repairs like putting on a new roof, we’ll have a frolic.”

Something washed over the guest’s face, and I knew that when he heard “frolic” he did not hear what my host meant.

Two things happened in that moment:

  1. I stayed quiet (another subject for another day)
  2. I knew that someone got a grossly misleading impression, and it never got resolved.

Worse things could happen.

But.

Sometimes what you say is not what I hear, so I don’t know more than I did.

If we don’t care about communication and understanding each other, we may as well all stay home and talk to ourselves and take selfies all day.

But if we were designed to do life beside and among and around people, and if we have something that’s beautiful to say, I care that that message gets transmitted well, and translated when necessary.

When I finished five years in Poland and came to the US, I reveled in talking English to my heart’s content. I mean, I could walk into a store and ask ANYthing! I could even make small talk with other customers. So novel! But every now and then, in those first months, I heard a mumbled announcement or a colorful idiom and I would catch myself whirling around to make sure my neighbor understood it. Translating to my friends in Poland had been such a way of life for me that it took awhile to realize that everyone here knew more idioms and one-liners than I did and I could take off my translator hat now. Other times, everyone around me was laughing at some remark, and I didn’t know what was funny. I think now that it was all part of reverse culture shock or culture fatigue or something else unpleasant like that.

Language and communication and understanding has so many intricacies and nuances and layers that it takes special effort to do well with it. Humor and laughter require another dimension to understanding. When different languages and cultures come together, the dynamics become exponentially complex. Among English speakers like at that Sunday dinner, wires get crossed. Sometimes even people who’ve known each other all their lives still need a translator.

There are many places where we need translators between people and groups. Actually, wherever there are people, we need translators. I think of it especially in some church services. Maybe it’s because it’s generally a formal place, where there is tradition and unspoken expectations, and a new-comer feels especially foreign.

This is not a critique about how to do church. That’s a subject for wiser, stronger people than me. This is a call to think about being translators for visitors, new friends, foreigners new to your culture and your spoken or unspoken languages.

I was glad for a translator when I visited a church where the minister asked for testimonies from the audience, but the lady beside me leaned over to tell me that he is talking to the men, because the women don’t speak.

I wished for a translator when visitors at church weren’t oriented to what was happening now, nor what would be happening next. Especially when the speaker asked us to kneel and everyone swirled around in their benches. Just between you and me and don’t tell anyone, I think kneeling back into the place we were just sitting is very uncivil and undignified and I love the gracefulness of kneeling forward to pray. However, if that’s not your culture’s tradition, you can help the visitor beside you by translating the invitation to kneel.

If I could do that Sunday dinner over now, I wouldn’t hesitate to clarify for our guest what our host was saying. It could be done without making anyone feel foolish. The point is clarity and explanation and education, and at the end, everyone understands each other better. Which would actually help a lot of issues everywhere, come to think of it.

Anyone can be a translator. At least, anyone who values what they have, and wants to share it beyond their borders. And anyone who understands that English doesn’t always sound like English.

Unseen but Seen

You know the riddle about the tree falling in the forest with no one around, but my riddle is:

If you didn’t see it on Facebook, did it happen?

When I’m enthused about something, I want the whole world to know. I think if it makes me happy or answers my question or tastes delicious, everyone else surely wants to hear about it and experience it too. I experienced big highs this week, witnessed magnanimous provision, life-giving words spoken, stunning red maples, busy beavers gnawing bark and poking sticks into their lodge. They were things that made me want to weep with joy and raise my hands in worship, but none of it went on Facebook.

So did it happen?

Silly question.

I live in a pretty tightly-knit community and I sometimes joke that there are no secrets because we pretty much live and work in each other’s pockets, but it’s not true, because the most precious, beautiful things are too sacred to talk about freely, much less put on the interwebs.

I suspect that some of my reticence to quickly tell the world about my latest enthusiasm and joy is a trickle-down effect from reading this book:


 

Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World that Loves to be Noticed

Sara Hagerty’s first book came out three years ago: Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. It tells her story of her evangelistic fervor, marital conflict, financial difficulty, and infertility, and how those bitter things became the impetus to find the sweetness of Jesus’ love. The book met me in an especially needy, opportune time and I count it one of the best I’ve read.

This summer, Sara’s second book came out, and I was a little skeptical because I know that publishers pressure successful authors to keep pushing out books, and sometimes an author has only one good book in her. But I wouldn’t have needed to skeptical. Sara really does have a rich, deep message in her second book that all of us need.

Here are some of the many excerpts I underlined and starred:

God used this desperation to intensify a thirst in my soul. God calls us to resist succumbing to readily available distractions and instead to press into these thirsty moments, or weakest seasons. Thirst is our ally. If we can tolerate the thirst long enough, staying in our weakness and our need, we will find more of God.

The path to greatness lies in hiddenness. And it’s a state of mind and a way of being, not a series of tasks to perform.

Those who turn to God and hide their otherwise-shamed faces in His chest? Those are the ones who hear His heartbeat. We haven’t been hidden by God to suffer or to be punished; we’ve been wooed into hiding to meet with the God who turns vulnerability into communion.

In every chapter, Sara refers to an aspect of the story of Mary who washed Jesus’ feet, the waste of it, and how Jesus responded to her scandalous act. While I read, I kept thinking

And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you openly.

and

I will give you the treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places.

and

Not one sparrow is forgotten.

and

The darkness and the light are both the same to You.

I will probably never stop gushing loudly over things I love and remember and thrill about, but Sara’s book has soaked into me, in that I know it’s ok to be quiet, unheard, unseen, leaning hard on the source of strength, the true pillar of significance. Maybe the whole world doesn’t have to know about the stunning sky I saw between the color-washed leaves. Maybe I can just savor it and sit with the wonder of it.

But oh, you really should have seen those two beavers with their delicate little hands, nibbling bark as if it was corn on a cob. I happened to walk over their bridge, watched them beavering away, and didn’t document it with a photo. But it still happened, and I am still awed at the astonishing encounter.

I like social media. I work in Communications, after all. It is a happening place, and it needs to be. I believe that if you see something beautiful, you should tell it. I care deeply about expressing truth and light in winsome, attractive ways. But I don’t have much worthwhile to say before I have sat long, rested, lingered with Truth in quietness and hiddenness.

Out of that communion, everything else flows.

Blest be the Synergy

We gathered under the trees and around salads and grilled kebabs and before prayer, our host said, “Be thinking about how to answer this question: why did God put you here in this place and time? What were you born to do? We’ll talk about this later in the evening, so this is your heads-up.”

Then we ate wonderful food and cuddled the baby and stirred the fire and talked on high for hours. We were seven people joined by common experiences and passions, and there are always stories to re-tell and howl about, and new parts of our lives to share, and there is never silence between us. When the darkness settled and the children were put to bed, and the coals glowed, I thought it was time to wrap up and leave, but our host brought up his question: “What were you born to do? We’ll go around the circle and hear from everyone, and I’ll start.”

The fire became an altar, and the circle a sacred place, and time stopped while we heard each other’s dreams and goals and affirmed what we heard.

“Yes, you ARE a shepherd. Hey, I want to tell the rest of you about the time he was a shepherd to me.”

“The way you love on troubled children is the way you show them Jesus. You WERE born for that!”

I was the only single among the three couples, and they prayed for a husband for me, and we prayed for each other’s visions and unanswered questions and quests. Sacred is the only word I can use to describe it, and even the next day I still felt hushed in wonder at the beauty and power I’d witnessed.

This was one of several small groups I’ve been part of. Various times and incentives shaped the groups. Similar interests. Common training. A work team. Sitting at the same table for supper in the cafeteria.

The synergy that rises out of asking questions and brainstorming and bringing one’s whole self to a group energizes me for several reasons.

  • It is an adventure, because there is no predicting what will happen.
  • It is empowering to be heard, to be given space and time where your voice matters.
  • It provides shared experience that becomes a reference point for further interaction.
  • Life and death are in the power of the tongue.

Sometimes a group has to wrestle with a dilemma that has no easy way forward. If one person were alone in a room wrestling with the sticky problem, they would get tired and despair and make a bad decision. But in a group, with more ears tuned to what’s being said, and more than one heart engaged with the issues at hand, good and beautiful things happen.

What happens in group is not limited to the time in the circle. Sometimes Often I perceive or say things in the moment that I would see differently if I had time to mull over it. But it gives a starting place for more thought and change. Group work also pushes me to ask God for the most pressing need of my whole life: wisdom.

Here are some life-giving words I’ve heard in group:

“When you said that, I got this picture of…”

“I really like that idea!”

“Can you tell us where those tears come from?”

“You’re being quiet over there. What are you thinking?”

“What would happen if…?”

“I see your point, but what about…?”

“That took some courage to say.”

One group was so sacred that I can’t talk about it here except to say it involved snowballs in the dark, and honesty and courage shimmered around us in a way that would hardly have happened had we stayed around the table in the dining room.

So setting is important. A bonfire helps. Or a chalk board. And snacks–at least chocolate.

There are no guarantees for resolution, and there is always risk.  Risk that my words will be misunderstood. Risk that I’ll fall apart. Risk that I’ll walk away with fewer answers than I want. Risk that my heart will break.

But risk is the price you have to pay to keep walking toward wholeness and a full life.

I am deeply grateful for the groups I’ve been honored to be part of. They shape me into a person I could never become if I would try to wing it alone.

Home Goings

I had already cried quite a lot that day. Easter night, I had walked around my old haunts–the fountain, the Palace, the little pond. Walking down Warszawska, tears kept falling out of my eyes. Tears leaked into the pillow that night, and into my coffee the next morning in the place where I had always had coffee and watched the light coming in the windows. I cried to Lolita in the van, and when our friend met us at her door, she said, “Oh Anita, are you sick?”

I said no, I’m just sad. I’m so happy where I am, but so sad not to live in Poland anymore. Then we drank coffee and ate chocolate blok, and who couldn’t be uncheered with this on Easter Monday?

Then Lolita and I took the train to Warsaw to revisit more old haunts and imbibe the atmosphere that I miss so much. We lingered long over lunch and E. Wedel drinking chocolate and stories and joys and worries, and were nearly ready to leave. When she came out of the restroom, she was crying, asked me to pay while she goes outside to call someone, because she doesn’t want to tell me in here. So I did, when the waiter finally brought the check.

Out on the sidewalk, she could hardly get the words out: Our… sister Beat…is home.

Incredulous. Stunned. Shaking my head. We cried on each other’s shoulders, and I kept shaking my head. Then it occurred to me: she’s healed, she’s healed, she’s dancing. But why was I shaking and crying?

There was no point in looking at sights. The shock had suddenly chilled us, so we found a coffee shop, warmed up a little, read the terse news article. Beat’s car had hit a horse and she was killed instantly. We got the next train, went to friends of Beat’s, and talked and cried and prayed together.

The next day, my friend and I returned to the US as planned. It was hard, hard to leave, and harder to come back to a surreal atmosphere. All week, a fog seemed to cover the place and I kept pushing through jet lag and emotional numbness. Thursday my mom had surgery to remove lymph nodes for analyzing and determining treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. It was a yucky week, all around.

Saturday was the funeral. Finally, I could let myself be sad. Even though it was still surreal. The form I saw in the casket wasn’t Beat. I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t around a corner somewhere, chortling and chatting. Someone so alive can’t be gone for always. Singing “Under His Wings” in a Faith Builders group helped me feel I could DO something with my grief. Telling my favorite story about her at the open mic at dinner helped take some weight off my heart. But it still felt surreal.

It seems to me that this fog of grief is two enormous things: loss and shock. My heart can’t accept what my ears are hearing. Yesterday all the staff and students gathered in the chapel for a memorial time to remember and celebrate her life.  I knew I wanted to be there, but I kept thinking this is just a weird kind of exercise because we all know she’ll show up again and we’ll laugh together at how ridiculous and impossible it was that we thought she died. I cried when we sang “safely in His bosom gather…such a refuge ne’er was given,” because I’m sooooo glad she’s safe and healed and radiant.

I remember Beat’s soft heart and gentle love. How could she possibly remember everyone’s favorite food and make sure I’d gotten my favorite bar that last week? Her irreverent, shrieking howls were part of the reason I loved her. Her honest tears were beautiful to me, not weakness.

In the memorial time, it was fitting that there was more laughter than tears. We ended with some little howls ourselves. I did, anyhow. My favorite story recounted is this: Someone complained to her, the head cook, about the food. “Just put more Ranch on it,” she said.

The layers of complexity and wisdom and understatement in that line is priceless and howl-worthy and so Beat.

She was a queen in God’s Kingdom, and in the kitchen, and she is a hero.

What a Woman Needs

Last year in psychology class, our teacher spoke briefly one day of gender differences. We girls all looked knowingly at each other when we listed the stereotypical things about us: emotional, verbal, soft-hearted, quick to cry.

Then the teacher shared a vignette of a marriage counselling session. He was encouraging a couple to understand their differences and be aware of what the other needs. (Live with your wife in an understanding way, the Bible puts it.) The husband could love her best if she could talk and feel heard. He doesn’t have to explain it away or find solutions for her, just hear her out.

In typical human fashion, I only heard what I wanted to hear from the teacher’s lecture. (I didn’t hear what the wife should do!) I heard an acknowledgment that women function best when they can talk. I did two things with that: 1) winced because I don’t have a husband to talk to and 2) took it as permission to knock on someone’s door to talk when I need it.

Those of us with opinions and fears and ideas and wishes and falterings need a place to get outside our own heads, have someone else look at what is jiggeting around in there, and sift through the stuff. Untangle the spaghetti. Bring to mind what’s been forgotten.

So this morning I was troubled about something I heard yesterday. I was out of my depth and didn’t know how to think about it. I needed perspective and it suited my mentor to meet over lunch. We met, I talked, and she talked. She gave balance and wise perspective and encouragement, and when my scalloped potatoes and salad was finished, I was good to go. I thanked her soundly, and hardly thought about the troubling issue again.

I’m saying this for any woman out there with spaghetti muddling her tired, clever brain: you need to talk with someone.

I don’t mean that you tell someone EVERY time you’re bothered, because that could be every five minutes or every five hours. Life gives bumps and questions and riddles. That’s normal, and we have to roll with the punches. But when there’s a niggling that won’t go away, a worry that festers, an unrest that simmers, find someone who can hear you talk about it, and then you can go on.

No one can do life on her own. Not even the independent ones who know their own minds. (And most of them are independent only because they have to be. But I digress.) We function best in teams, families, communities, small groups. The sum of the whole is worth more than the individual parts, and each gives to and benefits from the others, and we lose more than we realize when we isolate ourselves and try to push through on our own.

Bouncing ideas off someone or sifting through the things that simmer inside is a big part of staying emotionally whole and healthy. It isn’t a right to demand or be selfish about, but something to be honest enough and weak enough to admit need. I think there are a lot of women walking around who are slowly withering inside because they haven’t found a safe confidante or mentor or counselor. And that saddens me because bottling things up is not how we were designed to live, and there are options and better ways of living.

Some options:

  • journal
  • go on a brisk walk around the block
  • email someone if you can’t talk
  • curl into a ball and cry and talk to God for a long time
  • text or call someone to ask if they have time to meet

Burrowing into a book or scrolling through Facebook are not good options for a bothered brain, usually.

I’m unutterably grateful to be writing from a place of wealth, not want. I know loneliness. I know the ache of friends far away and confidantes too busy. I also know the little bit of courage that it takes to ask to talk gives huge payback in equilibrium and peace.

The tissues and tea help too.

Image result for willow tree heart and soul My Willow Tree figurine: “Heart and Soul”