All in the Family

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When my Grandpa Mast was 45, he sold his business, they packed up their stuff, said good bye to friends and family, and he and his wife and 4 children moved to El Salvador. (Their oldest was my mom, who’d married 3 years before.) Grandpa was deacon at their church, so the church ordained someone else to take his place. There was no reason they couldn’t go, he said. Business, church responsibilities, teenage children weren’t reasons to stay.

Some of my earliest memories are connected to visiting El Salvador. I remember holding a bowl or basket on my head and screeching “Quiere papusas!” through the house when we got home because I was selling them like the ladies outside the bus had done. Grandpa learned to preach in Spanish and became Papi Juan to lots of children and locals. He would happily have stayed the rest of his life, but Grandma couldn’t settle there, and the family came back after five years.

They were back, but El Salvador marked them for life. Their world and their hearts extended way beyond their zip code. In Indiana, my aunts worked for the ministry of Georgi Vins, immigrant from communist Russia. One of them travelled to Europe and brought back egg cups and showed us how to eat soft boiled eggs in them.  Now when our extended family gets together, we have food featuring the Middle East, El Salvador, Europe, Belize, Paraguay.

My parents and aunts and uncles trot off to serve in other places whenever they can. Last year, reports came in from Haiti, Iraq Greece, Romania.  In our last family gathering, the aunts talked about their time being house parents in Iraq. They compared books about girls who’d been with ISIS and women who helped them. And one aunt served us tea like this.

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I’m so proud of my aunts and uncles. They have big worlds, but they value the person beside them, and prioritize things that matter, and release their children to serve. One cousin wrote from Iraq this week and told us of friendly shopkeepers and drinking chai with families in Internationally Displaced People camps.

When my dad was 45, he sold the business, they packed up their stuff, we said goodbye to everyone, and dad, mom, and us six children moved to Ireland. I was the oldest and 21; the youngest turned six the morning we landed in Dublin. Dad was deacon in our church, and the church had ordained someone else to take his place. There was no good reason that we couldn’t go. Business. Church responsibilities. Teens who would miss their youth group. None of these were reasons to stay.

That was 23 years ago. The move to Ireland has marked us.  Now my parents and siblings live in the Middle East, Greece, and Ireland. I’m the only one in the US. We are Third Culture Kids, not at home here or there, but mostly at home there. People who speak other languages and eat other comfort food are like our family. We claim each other because our relatives are far away, even though they’ve loved us the longest.

Now it’s me who’ll be 45 this year, but I have no plans to pack up and relocate just now, though this kind of action is in my genes from the last two generations. It’s an odd mix. This belonging and not belonging. This lifestyle of new horizons and home.

Though I make my own decisions and ask God daily to guide my feet, it’s clear to me that the person I am is largely shaped by the generations before me. If it weren’t for my parents and grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins, however distant in miles and personalities, I’d be a vastly different person.

I didn’t choose them. They didn’t choose me. But somehow, we benefit, learn from, and shape each other. I’m rich and grateful beyond words.

Related post: A Tribute to Grampa

Ethnocentricity and the iGeneration

 

I’ve been thinking about how a person comes to have a provincial, ethnocentric way of seeing the world. Where were the moms and teachers of today’s adults who are prejudiced and biased about things outside their zip code?

How can adults help to shape children who become adults of warmth and invitation, valuing other skin colors and languages?

I”m not a parent or a school teacher, but I remembered some of the shaping experiences in my story, and wrestled out the following blog post for The Dock, an Anabaptist resource for teaching and learning.

An Antidote for the iGeneration

We know the iGeneration refers to those who grew up with the knowledge of technology. Does it also suggest people whose lives center around me, me, me, what I want, and when I want it? Sometimes I wonder.

What will a me-centric person do for their family and neighbors? How will an i-person learn to be aware of and serve someone other than himself? How will teachers and parents counter the entitlement of i-children and train them to be contributing citizens?

Education is not a final answer but it helps. History and geography can awaken children’s awareness of people beyond their zip code and before their birth year. Literature introduces them to words and stories that stretch farther than what they hear from their peers.

Travel is a way to widen horizons, gain awareness, appreciate diversity. Traveling with a passport does this, but so does walking across the road to the neighbors, singing at a nursing home, or befriending the boy who bags your groceries.

When I finished high school, I could identify the continents, most oceans, and Italy’s boot. I had learned the capitols of most of the European countries, but couldn’t find them on a map. Clearly, I was not a stellar geography student. But I knew…

(Go here to finish reading).

Who Am I?

Last Sunday we were given a chance to talk to each other about our memories of our grandparents. Two of our girls had just lost their grandfather who was a pillar and a patriarch, and they told us some of the things they’ll miss about  him.

These times can never be comprehensive and say everything there is to say, but the opportunity brings to the surface some of the cream, the richest and most enduring aspects of the people we love.

I heard myself talking about my grandpa. Totally ad lib, some words and memories came tripping out.

I didn’t know my grandpa as soon as most children do, because he lived with his family in El Salvador when I was very little. They came up on furlough when I was three, and my first memory of him is when this tall black-bearded man crouched down with his arms open, expecting me to run to him. I was afraid of this stranger and refused to go to him.

They lived in Central America for more than five years and he would happily have spent the rest of his life in El Salvador. He learned to preach in Spanish. Locals there called him Papi Juan.

Recently a friend used her wise counselor voice on me: “I wonder if your itchy feet and love for the open horizon is part of your pathology.”

Hmmm. It was a new idea. It’s possible that it’s part of my brokenness. I don’t want to be trapped. I like plenty of space and freedom. It might not always be a good thing. I remember how Bilbo said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

But I also wonder: this man who tromped easily around foreign countries and opened his heart and arms to people, I carry some of his genes. It is ironic to me that I was tramping around Rome the day I got the call he was dying. Maybe his endearing himself to his big world is part of the reason my heart feels stretched tightly across continents. Living that way is part of my normal. It’s how my family and extended family have lived. (There’s a cost to that, maybe some pathology, but this post is not about that.)

This is the tribute I wrote on the flight from Europe to Chicago, and had the honor of reading at his funeral. Today I’m asking God what it is that would give Him the most glory–where should I live, what should I throw my energy into, who does He want me to embrace and care for? Following my Grandpa’s footsteps means “home” is not necessarily a static address. It could be that, but it’s not a given.

It took someone else’s grandpa’s death to remind me of how I’m shaped, how I make my own choices but they’re not made in a vacuum. And I have more than one grandpa, and not two, not three, but four grandmas. Family lore, genes, traditions, even broken places, help to shape the pieces of me.

None of us are self-made people. This is cause for deep humility and gratitude.

Anita’s Life Hacks

If you read other life hacks, you know that some are genius, and some fall flat. Well, these are my latest ones, and they work for me.

Kefir with orange concentrate

A couple years ago, I was attracting every bug in town, even with eating garlic sandwiches and Polish pickles at a tremendous rate. Jewel and I had an English student who is a metabolic dietitian (isn’t that a cool title?!) and she said I need probiotics.  So I got attached to kefir, and now I don’t like to do without it for more than a couple days. The healthiest option is to use fresh or frozen fruit to make smoothies with it. Last year when I lived in a dorm, that wasn’t easy to carry off, so I improvised by just adding lemonade mix, and it was lovely.

Now, with summer being over and frozen fruit being at a premium again, I found another solution: orange juice concentrate. I drop a dollop of it into my pint jar, add a bit of sugar, and  oh, it’s so good that I moan every time at the first sip. I associate cold, juicy oranges with this time of year anyhow, and this just fits. Add a smidgen of vanilla and call it an orange julius for breakfast. Yum.

Happy bubbles 

You know how some little people need time to warm up to you, and sometimes you don’t have that kind of time? Or they’re grumpy and won’t be charmed? I found a trick. It’s called bubbles.

It started when I just happened to slip a little tube into my purse after a wedding, and happened to remember it was there when I was trying to befriend a fairy child. The minute I started blowing the bubbles, she started giggling and chasing them and suddenly she liked me after all. Well, she liked the bubbles, but that was ok. Her rollicking laughter was the best thing that happened to me that day, and her gorgeous, chocolate truffle eyes are still with me. I gave her the tube to keep and she couldn’t get done talking about her “happy bubbles.”

So now I have a supply of mini bubble tubes in a closet (JoAnn Fabric’s bridal supply) and keep one in my purse to give to the next child. It’s a sure way to make sweet little friends in an instant. (The photo is at my sister’s wedding reception when my nephew forgot about being grumpy and hungry.)12698453_805008379644694_4219333476885333484_o

An Epic Search

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Note to the stranger sitting across from me at a social function: After you ask my name, pleeeeeeeease don’t ask me where I’m from. You can ask where I live, how old I am, what I like to do for fun–that’s all fair game, but I am still fractured enough in the present transition that I can’t believe how easily I fall apart when I’m asked where I’m from.

Honestly, I get all shaky and whimpery at the simple question.

Today it’s twenty years that my family landed in Ireland–my parents and me and my five siblings. All but two of us still live there.

Twenty years is a good long time to find a place and call it home. But am I from Ireland? I wasn’t born there, and now it’s six years since I’ve lived there.

I don’t even like to write this all out; it wants to overwhelm me.

Meanwhile, I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey and completely fell in love with the lyrical words. Now when I open the blinds to see the morning, I have words to describe it. It’s “rosy-fingered” or “golden-haired.” In addition to the poetic prose (it was epic poetry in its original Greek form, after all) was its theme: nostos, the deep longing to return home. Odysseus has been gone from home for ten years, fighting battles, and his wife, Penelope is waiting for him while audacious suitors take advantage of the palace and try to win her favor.  (Another beautiful theme woven throughout was xenia, the honoring of guests, giving them piles of food and honeyed wine and making them comfortable before ever even asking their names and where they’re from.)

So since literature is an on-going conversation about what it means to be human, in reading The Odyssey, I entered a teeny tiny bit into the story of another human’s nostos, because I know what it’s like to not have a home. Well, I do and I don’t. I go back to my parents who now live in a house I never did, and my family gives me huge deference and mom cooks all my favorite food (always chicken curry and always chocolate mousse) and I go to all my old haunts, but in many ways and for many reasons, I feel I don’t have a place there now. And every time I’m with relatives and/or friends in the US, I’m overwhelmed with their love and inclusion, and I don’t feel homeless but actually home-full: I have many homes. I am very rich. It feels like my story will be many interesting, fascinating things, even its own kind of epic, but not nostos.

Extended singlehood is one layer in the story of having no home. Extended foreign service is another. I have no place to go back to and slot in, like the place Odysseus wanted. I’m still in media res–in the middle of the story. This plot line hasn’t resolved yet. Hence, the rabbit-in-the-headlights feelings when someone asks where I’m from. I hope that some day I can come to some kind of peace about it and have a sensible answer, but somehow the current answer feels like an idiot is talking: “I don’t  know where I’m from.”

Trust the resourceful Germans to have a suitable word for my current state: Sehnsucht. It’s the intense longing for a place I’ve never been to; raw homesickness for a place I’ve never seen. It’s the search for Eden, the place we were created for, and life is constantly bumping us against the reality that we can never go back. There’s an angel barring the entrance. Deep inside every human is that cavernous hole that wants to be filled, satisfied, rested in the comfort of home.  For those for whom nostos will never be reality, as well as for those who enjoy the deep, satisfying sense of home now already, Sehnsucht beckons all of us farther in and farther on.

Let’s go!

 

Dust to Dust

All this for one person. All these logistics, ceremony, care, dignity. All these people together from all over to remember and bury one man. I remember thinking this as we stood around my grampa’s grave on a sunny day in May. I was in awe.

Just like you ooooh and awwww over news about a friend being pregnant, and wait excitedly as the due date comes closer, and then smile and cheer when you hear the name, and when you get a chance, smell the peach-fuzz hair and kiss the round cheeks. It’s one little person, just one little body, but it elicits endless love and care and excitement.

At birth and then at death, we especially acknowledge and celebrate the physicality of a person. The body is treasured, caressed, washed, dressed with huge attention to details. It happens in sickness too. Doctors and nurses work with skill and finesse to coax health back into a broken frame.

The body matters. Bodies matter.

I saw it when I watched Mandela’s state funeral and the ceremony and dignity it carried. I think of it now while my relatives are gathering to bury my grandma and they will not only talk about her character but also her small form and her blue eyes. They will carry the coffin carefully and gently cover it with earth. Tangible things that help us process the intangible.

In some cultures, for whatever shattering reasons, life and physicality isn’t valued, but I know it is not how we were designed to live. I know this because Jesus, very God, lived in a body and thus gave physicality dignity and significance. With the incarnation, He demonstrated the deep spiritual truths of redemption, showing how much God esteems the physical. He knows our frame, He remembers we are dust. That we are dust doesn’t diminish our value; maybe it endears us to Him more.

It seems natural, even instinctive, to touch and celebrate the body in birth, sickness, and death. What if we I would pay more attention to the walking, breathing, talking frames of dust around me? If I would treasure them as they deserve, respect their dignity, and celebrate their skin and hair and voices?

I Am From

I am from woven rag rugs by the sink and stacks of table boards. I am from orderly and punctual, the taste of raisins and garlic and whole wheat bread. I am from plants in macrame hangers in the living room and the swing in the tree whose long-gone limbs I remember as if they were my own.

I’m from morning devotions and shelves of books and baskets of magazines, from reading in silence as a form of socializing and from holding hands for prayer before meals.

I’m from singing for the tape to start playing, God walking with me in the dark, and “It’s always right to do right.”

I’m from camping on Skyline Drive and walking with a hissing lantern and 12-hour road trips to Grampas and countless airport trips.

I’m from Virginia and Germany and Ireland and molasses cookies and canned peaches.

From younger siblings playing church and showing slides, from a typewriter and fabric scraps in the sewing room, from toy poodles, and a world map on the wall.

 

This is based on the poem “I Am From” by George Ella Lyon. The template for this kind of fun writing is here. Try it!