A Lifescape

I work at Faith Builders, where we provide learning experiences that nurture love for God and neighbors. Part of the program for Christian Ministry and Teacher Apprentice students is their internship, a five-week stint in an established school or ministry. Whenever students ask me for advice as to where to go for internships, I tell them to go, go, go. Outside their zip code. Outside what’s instinctive and comfortable. Outside the country.

I have this theory that we don’t change or grow if we’re always comfortable. But that’s another post for another time.

This week students gave short reports about their internships. One had been in Greece, and another in Ireland. Both made me cry. I felt this deep, wordless connection with their stories that condensed into tears. They weren’t just reporting. They were taking me back. I’ve been to those places, breathed that air, ate that food, loved those people. The girls’ experiences tugged at my heart strings that stretch taut to those places.

Several years ago, I saw this painting at my friend Dervin’s house.

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I thought it was striking even if I don’t like gray, and he said Susanna, a mutual friend, had painted it for him in preparation for an art lesson, and it shows the places he’s lived in.

Cha-ching! I knew my next project.

It would be a way of illustrating the places I’ve lived in and loved. It would help organize my story and help me make sense of it. I pinned the picture to my To Paint board on Pinterest and looked around for similar designs. Susanna shared her art lesson plan here. About a year later, I toyed around with design and color, and came up with this.

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Oddly enough, it sits on the floor behind my office door. It’s the story of my life, and it sits on the floor. There might be a subliminal message there, but I don’t dwell on that. I love the cool, lively colors peaking out from behind the door when I’m working.

Childhood

This is the tree swing of my childhood and the mountains in VA where I was born.

Ireland

This is Ireland, a round tower that became a rich symbol to me of God’s protection, a rambling castle, and the cove where we’d swim.

Poland

This is Poland and my favorite old church in our town.

The water stands for all the water I’ve been in, at least the Irish Sea, the Baltic, Lake Erie, the Aegean, the Mediterranean.

Greece is on the far, misty horizon.

More than a fun art lesson of shades and tints, perspective and silhouettes, I love how this briefly tells the story of my life. In another 20 years, I hope the painting will look different, but this my current story.

I also like that it shows how each element is a part of the whole, and can’t be isolated without loss to the whole. I live in Pennsylvania but part of me is still far away and it’s rare when my worlds overlap. Which I guess is why I cried during the intern reports.

Morning Comes

I was teaching English in Poland in 2013, the year my health spiraled and I needed major surgery. That year was a saga in itself, and not one to tell here except to say that God and His people took care of me in ways that still choke me up.

The day of the surgery, December 4, was easily the worst day of my life. They’d planned for the surgery to be one hour, but it lasted three hours, and my body went into shock in the recovery room where I stopped breathing twice. I was so annoyed at the nurse who shook my shoulder roughly each time and said, “Breathe, breathe!” because I’d finally been comfortable and resting, and I didn’t want to breathe because it took too much effort.

Later, they trundled me into the room closest to the nurses’ station so they could keep a close eye on me, and they clunked a brick of ice onto my stomach, over the incision, and I was out of my mind with pain and freezing cold and anesthesia. Lolita hovered above me and asked what I wanted, and I said, “Music.” She opened my computer and found a few choral hymns that I always loved, but when she turned them on, they were terrible. Tinny and chintzy and awful. I forgot about music in the long, terrible evening as the nurses and doctor tried to get me warm and the pain under control.

My sister came too, with chocolate, and called my family several times to keep them updated. Before she left, she helped me think about what I’d need for the night, and put the stuff in a little tray within arm’s reach. I was confused, and didn’t know what I needed, but she was patient. Swabs. Call button. MP3 player and earbuds.

The next morning, I already felt better. Still lots of pain and achy and awful, but better, and the sun was shining, and it was snowing! I went to this song on my player and listened to it with one earbud on the quietest setting because two earbuds made it too loud. It was exactly right.

In the next days, the cloud of pain and anesthesia cleared and the only music that connected with me was that song, “Morning Comes When You Call,” and an album by Voices of Praise. I forget the title of that album, but I especially loved “I’m in His Care-Oh” and I always skipped “America the Beautiful.”

Two years later, I saw this picture in a little booklet,

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and I knew what to do with the latent memories of that worst day of my life. On a wintry Sunday evening, I took my chalk pastels and card stock to a well-lit table, and made this:

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My favorite feature is the yellow of the sunshine edging into the scene and bouncing off some trees. I asked a friend to do the lettering because I wasn’t confident enough to do that, and she said it was an honor.

The picture shows the crisp, snowy sunlight the day Ria came to see me in the hospital. She didn’t want to hurt me so she hugged me gingerly, after walking in from the bus, and her black wool coat was still cold, with drops of melted snowflakes.

The picture shows the contrast of light and shadow, the night and morning, the clouds and stunning light I experienced in that terrible, wonderful week. The day after the surgery, the surgeon checked in on me, and as she left, she said, “You were a very sick girl. Now work on getting better!”

I didn’t get all better that day. Recovery took a long time, and mild PTSD has stayed with me, but it’s improving. I keep thinking that, on every level, I feel healthier now than I ever was in the last ten years. I don’t have enough words to say how wondrous the on-going gift of healing has been.

To be accurate to my experience, the shadows in the picture should be darker, the night more visible on the horizon. But I like that that’s how it is with healed memory—it mostly sifts out the terrible, and the predominant memory, arching over everything, is light and joy and deep peace.

Fingerpaints of Venice

For something different, I’m starting a little series about the artwork I have in my house and the stories that go with each piece.

Four years ago, I was a student at Faith Builders and figuring out how to live in the US again. I flew here with just enough belongings to settle into a small dorm room and be a student. I didn’t have an envelope when I wanted to send off an application and I didn’t have a jar or rubber band to make kefir in my dorm room. (I’d brought the grains though: priorities.)

Apparently customs officials had riffled through my suitcases and found what seemed to be a large nut, and threw it away, but it was actually a dear little carved nativity scene that had been gifted to me, and I still miss it. I’m not that attached to stuff, but it still felt like a loss. The biggest loss was my rich connections with people who now lived an ocean away.

It was a topsy-turvy season, shattering and bewildering. Many, many good things happened, but mostly it was hard.  Beautiful, loving people surrounded me but I felt like my heart was mostly vacuum, hollowed out, shivering. There were weeks when I cried every day.

About eight months into re-entry, we had a group activity where we divided into teams of four. Using poster paints and our fingers, each team replicated their choice of painting from the Impressionist masters. Our team chose Monet’s Sunset in Venice:

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Claude Monet [Public domain]

We started dabbing colors onto the margin of the big poster paper.

“I’m not an artist.”

“I don’t know how to do this.”

This is what some of my team mates said, but they went to it as if they’d done it all their lives. They studied the original, dipped their finger tips in paint, and dabbed it carefully. I flitted around, sketching briefly, maybe mixing some colors.

I don’t remember which part I did, but my predominate memory is that I cheered and cheered for how their success surprised them, and my fingers and palms were smeared with great colors, and I started breathing deeper and easier than I had for a long, long time.

We ended up with this:

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My favorite feature is the rippling reflection of the spire:

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We left it to dry overnight, and I felt like a new person.

All the teams displayed their paintings in the hall for several months, then threw them away, but I couldn’t part with ours. I found a frame for it, and I don’t have wall space for it, so it’s propped against the wall in my hall. Maybe sometime it’ll find its way to the dumpster, but not yet.

I wonder if I’m more attached to stuff than I thought.

Autumn Epiphanies

I had an epiphany recently. Actually, two.

Every fall, I hear women making endless happy sounds because it’s PSL weather, and time for cozy sweaters and boots, and happy fall ya’ll, and my favorite season is pumpkin spice latte season, and pumpkins/candles/fuzzy socks/coffee, and fall shows us how beautiful it is to let things go, ad nauseum.

It makes me want to curl up in a corner and whimper.

I don’t care about any of the hype. I don’t care about the positive spin. The leaves are brilliant, and I love, love, love all their colors, but I can’t cheer because it’s fall.

Fall means things are dying and we’ll have more night than day, and we have to put on  eight to ten layers to go outside and I see nothing to be glad about any of that. Even the word FALL is negative. The British have something over us because they call it autumn.

The first epiphany was this:

Only the privileged get to chortle about their favorite season.

Most people in the world don’t have the luxury of choosing a favorite season and changing their wardrobe and décor accordingly. Most people are just trying to survive, find enough food for the next meal, and have enough shelter from the elements to stay alive.

If I complain about the season, it shows how privileged I am, how entitled I am to feel comfortable all time, how I deserve to reject or praise whatever season I want to.

It’s ok to have an opinion. I have lots of them.

But it’s not ok to be grumpy or complaining because something about the season doesn’t suit me. This epiphany has the potential to change my life because I’ve done more than my share of complaining about mice moving into the house when it gets cold and snow keeping me from driving where I want to and six-month long winters.

I still don’t like orange, and I still wince at inconvenient cold and I still get super stressed driving in snowy weather. I will probably never stop fantasizing about living in Italy or Greece. But I’m rich beyond belief, and have more than I deserve, and I should never complain.

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Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed. –Mary Oliver.

My friend Hannah did this calligraphy on a chalkboard and I cried when I saw it because it’s so beautiful and true.

Then, the 2nd epiphany:

I don’t like pumpkin spice lattes because spice doesn’t belong in coffee.

Coffee belongs in coffee (and maybe cream) but spices belong in tea. So bring on the spicy chai! I dream of pots and pots of creamy, spicy chai every week for the next six months. Take that, winter.

This was the first one, in a tall mug, with friends at a darling coffee shop in Manheim, PA.

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I discovered I can make a mean batch of chai. It wants to be made in a batch, not just a single serving. In case someone else out there shares my sentiment for un-spiced coffee, you might like this alternative.

This is not a recipe, but a guide:

Count on 3 tea bags per cup you want to serve.
Put them in water that comes to half the amount you want to serve. (The other half will be milk. The idea is that you’re making super strong tea.)
Turn on high to bring to a boil.
While the water and tea bags warm up, add:
Cinnamon (about 1 tsp. per 3 servings)
A very small sprinkle of cloves
A knob of grated fresh ginger (or 1 tsp. dried ginger–you must have ginger, or it’s not worth drinking, as I discovered recently when I served mediocre ginger-less chai to friends)
About 1.5 cardomom pod per serving, or a generous dash of ground cardomom (this is where the magic comes: the wispy, ethereal aftertaste that’s almost there, then gone)
A good sprinkle of black pepper

Simmer all of this for 20-25 min. Taste to check the spices, taking in account that it’s going to be bitter and strong. But does it have the right spice balance? This is the question.

Remove the tea bags, leaving in the cardomom pods for maximum effect. This is your chai base, to use now, or refrigerate for later.

To serve, warm the chai base, add approx. 1/4 cup brown sugar, and enough milk to nearly double the volume. If it’s too milky, it’ll cover the spice, so be conservative with the milk to start with. The point is to have it spicy enough to be almost peppery, but sweet and milky to be warm and comforting. Heat until steaming (if you let it boil over on the stove, you’ll be sorry, as I was many times), use a whip to stir and froth a bit, and serve. You might want to strain the spices out or you can just let them settle.

You can take it to the next level by squirting whipped cream on top and drizzling caramel sauce over it.

Probably no Indian or African would claim this as their chai. It’s pretty blatantly American, but ever so warming and comforting.

Just Ask

Five years ago, my friend Janelle and I flew to San Diego for a Storyline Conference that Donald Miller was hosting. I learned and observed things there that I still think about and refer to, it was that powerful and significant.

The strength of the weekend was how Don shared the stage with many other people who have learned to live well and impact their world. People like Bob Goff, Shauna Niequist, Mike Foster, Tricia Lott Williford, and others.

One of the speakers was Jia Jiang, who told us about his experience with Rejection Therapy. His motto was “Just Ask. “ He got into about 100 adventures, like getting a ride in a police car and playing soccer in a stranger’s yard.  (Listen to his TEDx talk here.) The ask that put him on the map was his request at Krispy Kreme for five donuts in the shape of the Olympic symbol.

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PC: Jia Jiang

Just ask, he says. Asking for what you want can open up possibilities where you expect to be rejected. Also, there are ways to ask that help to disarm the person you’re asking and equalize the space between you.

The last day of the conference in San Diego, our hotel shuttled us to the venue, Point Loma Nazarene University (a gorgeous destination in itself). But we didn’t know when the evening session would be finished and couldn’t book the shuttle for the evening.

In the cracks of that day, I kept thinking about the dilemma of getting back to the hotel that was over two miles away. In the evening, it was dark and raining, so walking wasn’t an option. I wasn’t worried, but very curious about how we were going to get back.

After the last session, in the line waiting for the restroom, I happened to stand beside a girl I’d talked with in the morning. She’d told me then that she had driven there, and was staying with an aunt. In a crowd of 1,600, what are the odds that I’d bump into the same person twice? I remembered the “Just ask” speech and asked if she could take Janelle and me to the hotel.

Of course! she said. She was glad to help us out, refused payment, wished us the best, and we never saw her again.

I’ve learned “just ask” is a useful motto in many scenarios. Asking is usually something I want to avoid, because it puts me in a needy place. It reveals my dependence. It’s risky because being refused means I was too much or too something else. But if it’s not unreasonable or demanding, asking appeals to the human, soft part of a person who is happy to help.

Does it mean I always get what I ask for?

Nope.

But I’m collecting adventures too, when I just ask.

Recently I wanted to book an Airbnb in a little town that I’d fallen in love with. I wanted to spend Labor Day weekend there by myself, exploring, reading, and resting. But I waited too long, so the place I really wanted wasn’t available.

I debated about changing my plans, but then felt strongly that I could at least message the owners to ask if they could refer me to someone in their town.

Just ask.

In a couple hours, they responded, saying they’d blocked those days because they’ll be gone, and they prefer not to have first-time guests then. But they’d like to accommodate me because I seem like a sweet person and a fan of their charming village, and what dates do I need the apartment?

We messaged back and forth in a flurry, and in a few hours, they unblocked the dates and I made the booking. They’re going to be gone, and I’ll have the place to myself the whole blessed weekend. I’m excited beyond words.

Just ask.

 

 

Smells Like Home

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When I was little, my school friends and I used to have scarves or gloves that looked the same, and when we got them confused, we’d sniff the item and know whose it was.

I’m still fascinated with what makes every household smell different, because we all know and recognize our friends’ houses smells. It has something to do with how much garlic the mom cooks with, what laundry soap she uses, what oils she diffuses, how much accumulation she allows in the laundry basket and trash cans.

One house’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Sometimes more than anything else, my sense of smell tells me what country I’m in.

It happens every time I leave Europe and walk from the jet way into the airport. I breathe in deep, feel the coolness of a generous air conditioning system, and smell the commercial, clean American fragrance. It smells light, sanitized, synthetic, luxurious.

The Dublin airport isn’t over cooled, and the air smells less clean than American airports, but pleasant. Past the smokers standing outside the door, I smell the brisk, damp, salty air, and breathe in as much as my lungs can hold.

In Poland, people tend to avoid any moving air. Stepping outside the airport, I smell the dry continental air. Some stores have little or no air conditioning, and the air smells heavy, briny, earthy. On the sidewalks, people frequently brush past me with an aura of rich, glorious fragrance that makes me want to follow them, sniffing like a puppy.

Rumor has it that Americans have the wasteful habit of taking a daily shower while Europeans take fewer showers and stronger cologne. The rumor might be true.

Our English school in Poland used to have a student who worked for a designer perfume company. She would sniff vials all day, testing endless combinations of compounds. To clear her palate, she’d frequently have to go on a walk and breathe other air for awhile so she could do her job.

I have a keen nose, but that job would exhaust me in fifteen minutes. But I kind of identify countries with my nose.

One country’s smell isn’t really better than another’s. It’s just different.

Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

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A couple years ago I lived in Poland and taught English with a team of energetic, fun young people: Jewel, Sarah, Dervin, and Marlin. It was Marlin’s birthday, and he wanted us five to celebrate with a concert at the Philharmonic, and dinner afterward.

We chose Chianti Tratoria, a restaurant that I would never have chosen for a group dinner because it looked so romantic and other-worldly. Like, way out of my league. I’d walked past it for several years, always wistfully looking in the door, reading the menu, admiring the candles in the tall hurricane vases on the step. It’s the setting for the scene I describe in this devotional. But it was always out of reach, never for me. Until that night when we walked down the steps off Foksal Street and into the basement restaurant.

It was all so elegant and classy that we felt like country bumpkins, but the staff was gracious and welcoming. Our waiter was Michael, and he was everything a waiter should be. He answered all our questions about the menu and consulted the chef about the latest updates. When he knew we weren’t ordering wine, he swooped our goblets off the table. But one elbow caught a goblet and it crashed on the tile floor, and Michael swore so cheerfully that it made us laugh.

We were mission volunteers, poor as church mice, and ordered the most frugal entrees, and split some orders, but even so, it was delectable. My seafood risotto was perfection, except I couldn’t manage the baby octopus, so Marlin ate it for me.

Michael kept checking up on us, chatting whenever he could, maybe wanting to practice his English. He was elegant, and friendly, but not invasive. At the end of the meal, we told Michael that we weren’t going to order dessert with our coffee ( we didn’t tell him we couldn’t afford it). Then he cajoled the chef into giving us a plate of dessert samples for us to share.

While Michael was out of ear shot, Sarah said we should write him a thank you note to leave on the table. Someone had a piece of paper, and we all signed it with little notes.

It had been a most delightful time. On the way home, we kept talking about Michael and how much he’d done to make it a splendid time. Jewel wrote a review on Trip Adviser and mentioned his great service.

A couple weeks later, our little group was in Warsaw again. It was dark and rainy, and we were sloshing down the sidewalk, hurrying to make the train. We were passing Chianti, and just as it was behind us, I jerked back: Michael! He was outside the door having a smoke. We had recognized each other at the same time.

“Hey, good to see you! I remember you! Thanks for the note you all left for me–and you left a review on Trip Advisor too!” We were delighted to see him, told him we’ll be back when we can, and kept walking to the train in the rain.

I love remembering the delight of that evening, and of the serendipitous meeting in the rain. We were country mice, and he was an elegant waiter, but we impacted each other in ways that lasted longer than the meal.

These days, I’m not so good at enjoying people who are less than elegant in places of business. But I think I should try to notice the good things in them too, and affirm them. They work hard–at least some of them do–and they deserve recognition, and my world expands significantly when I engage with them.

Join me?