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!

 

 

Tribute to Grampa

This is what I wrote on the plane coming over, and read at the funeral yesterday:

My first memory of Grampa was a scary one. I was three and outside the house on Williams Street. My parents and strangers were around me on the sidewalk and this tall black-bearded man crouched down and spread out his arms to me. Everyone around me was laughing and telling me to go to him. “Go–it’s Grampa!” But I was scared and refused. It was the thick black hair that did it.

Now I know the occasion was that the family was home for furlough and we were visiting from VA. In a day or two, I saw that Grampa was actually a nice man but I was stubborn and refused to let him hold me.

After that initial scare, Grampa became a normal part of my life in our visits to IN. He was always jolly and his gruff voice belied his soft heart. I loved watching how he treasured Gramma Mabel, and later, Gramma Barbara. He’d always give Gramma a kiss when he came home, and hold her hand when they walked together. Even though I was a child, it felt significant to me that a man his age was so openly affectionate.

I remember at Susan and Delbert’s wedding, he read Proverbs 31 and I Corinthians 13, and the way he read made it sound like poetry, and I dreamed he’d do the same at my wedding. I remember several times when he read poetry to the family. What impressed me most was how he’d unashamedly choke up at some particularly meaning words.

Now when I write and wrestle with words to make them do what I want them to, I sometimes wonder if one reason words affect me so deeply is because he valued words. Maybe it’s in our genes. After all, family lore is proud of his winning the county spelling bee in grade school in KS.

I last saw Grampa this past February. It had been four years since I’d last seen him. I think I’d taken him for granted and thought he’d always be the strong, stalwart man I knew. But when I first saw him in February, I wanted to weep for the stooped, halting body that trapped his expansive mind. The Parkinson’s made his speech slow and slurred. He told me the words don’t come like they used to. He knows them but they don’t come out. “Is that frustrating?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It would be if I’d let it.”

To this emotional, impulsive girl, those were wise words to digest.

I was in Rome when Grampa died. I had one day there instead of the long weekend I’d planned. In the scrambled plans, buying new tickets, and foreign, unfriendly airport agents, all clouded with this abrupt loss, I tried hard to stay calm and remember what he said: “It’s frustrating if you let it be.”

Leaving Rome, the plane took off over the coastline and I saw the smooth, deep curve of the gulf that forms the sole of Italy’s boot. It was thrilling to see, and I knew that some of my itchy feet comes from Grampa who also loved the far horizon. I know I’m shaped by his love for new places that took him from KS to IN to Central America where he became Papi Juan to dozens of children and adults. I saw how happily and easily he entered that world as often and as long as he could.

Now the tables are turned. All his children and grandchildren have pushed away from their geographical roots for Kingdom work for some part of their lives. The two grandchildren who aren’t here today are Poland and Thailand. Grampa gave to us a love of learning, expanding, exploring. He was always asking questions, reading, and quick to learn. He even learned from Gramma how to sing better. It was easy to see that his life motivation was to serve and be useful because He loved Jesus simply and completely, and cherished the gift of salvation. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was the shape of his life.

Now it’s me who comes back home from living in another country and the small children are shy and don’t know me anymore. It’s bittersweet. Mostly, it’s sweet because of the enormous legacy we have of a bearded man whose heart was big and his arms stretched wide.

 

Scattered

I lost my heart to Italy. I’m completely smitten.

Finally I’ve found a place where it’s ok to have a raised voice in normal conversation. Where I found a market and bought the best pesto I ever had, plus real ciabatta and vine-ripened tomatoes and the lemons and oranges still had their leaves attached. Where the espresso and cappuccino is first-rate and the gelato is beyond words.

Thursday night I went to Rome with a friend and her son, with plans to spend four days there. Yesterday was a fantastic day of getting our bearings and relaxing and being charmed by the way the Italians enjoy life. We did a bus tour then sat at the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain and soaked up the sun and atmosphere. The crowds–I never saw so many people– were happy and not too obnoxious.

All I could think to say was “It’s really real.” The ruins, the faded walls of the houses, with geraniums and greenery on the balconies. They’re real. The cafes where four men at a table all talk at one time. I saw/heard them. It’s not just in stories and pictures. It’s real. The smiling clerks who never hurry. The lack of a personal bubble of any size. It’s how they live. The crazy driving and the crazier pedestrians and the parking that’s so tight you can’t walk between the cars. It’s a mad, happy chaos that could become addictive.

All the pomp of the pope and his attachments are pretty much lost on me. It made me sad to hear that the Vatican is considered the heart of Christianity because I know what Jesus would say about the wealth and power it wields. But I had my heart set on seeing the Sistine Chapel, and paid a deposit yesterday to join a tour this morn.

Then in the evening my sister called while we were meandering toward a park. It’s my grandpa. A brain hemorrhage. He’s got only several hours.  Later the text: he died during the night.

Today I spent all day alone, travelling back from Rome to Warsaw. The map worked and I could walk to the right street for the bus. (You have no idea how huge this is to me.) I had an espresso in a simple cafe and read Psalm 90 in a piazza while waiting for the airport bus. I cried and read by turns during the hours but I cried when Wizz Air said they’d charge 10 euro for the cabin baggage, but the agent said it no, they charge 20. And then no, it’s 30 because the airport gets a commission. It felt like extortion and deceit to me, and my tolerance was in short supply.

But finally I’m home and  doing laundry and packing to leave for Indiana with my sister in the morning. I’m glad and sad to go. The week will have tears and laughter. There will be grandma and parents and aunts and uncles in grief, babies to cuddle, stories to re-tell and reasons to laugh. I want to celebrate my grandpa whose itchy feet I inherited. Whose solidity and faithfulness gave us a legacy that I don’t even realize fully.

I guess it figures that tonight I feel completely scattered.