Country Mice and An Elegant Waiter

michael-browning-188999-unsplashA 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 a little 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 off our goblets. 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 I think 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?

 

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

My Unfair Life

Scene 1

I approached a tall metal gate with my sister. She showed her ID to a guard. Dust swirled around us.

“Can my sister come in with me?” she asked him. “Just for 10 minutes?”

“No.”

I tried to make it easier for him to say yes. “Just for 2 minutes?”

“No. No ID, no entry.”

It was the day before Christmas, and I was at the entrance to Camp Moria on the Greek island Lesvos. Refugees milled around us, wrapped in coats, talking on cell phones.

My sister, working in the camp with her husband, had done the required paper work and could go in and out of the camp when she showed her ID on the lanyard she wore. I waited at the gate while she went in to talk with Butterfly, the Iranian friend she wanted to invite to cook a meal for us.

I stood outside the gate, my eyes taking in everything they could. I squinted as wind swirled the dust around us. A tall chain link fence with razor wire towered above us. I couldn’t be angry at the guard for refusing to let me enter because this place held hundreds of vulnerable people who needed protection, and even though the razor wire looked dehumanizing, it gave a semblance of safety for the ones inside.

I waited and watched. Bright sun. Clouds of dust. Cold air. Umpteen nationalities and ages. Then an African man stepped up to me and asked what I was doing and where I was from.

“I’m from America. I’m waiting on my sister. She works here.”

“Oh! You have come a long way! Why are you here?”

“I came for ten days to be with my sister for Christmas.”

In that moment, I felt the immense weight of injustice fall onto my shoulders. This man had probably risked his life to come here, and I got to jet in and out like any other pleasure-seeking, happy-go-lucky tourist. There was no justice between our stories. The man had every right to scowl at me and resent my privilege.

“Oh! You did a good thing. You must love your sister very much!”

“Yes, I do love her very much.”

I blinked in the sunlight as the man kept smiling, nodding his head and repeating his words. “You did a very good thing.”

His grace and joy crushes me. I don’t know why he was so happy for me. I don’t know why I got to travel in ease and go back to a steady job that automatically deposits money into my bank account.

There is no justice in this scene.

Scene 2

Several days later, I stood at the same chain-link gate again with my sister, and she asked the guard if I could come in for ten minutes.

“Only for ten minutes.”

So we walked fast.

She took me to the info tent, the hub of activity that EuroRelief organizes. In the portable cabin behind that, sealed off with chain link, I saw stacks of hats, coats, and gloves. I noticed white boards and diagrams and numbers that kept track of spaces and families. It looked like organized mayhem that does its best to give the barest basics to the neediest. I’m so proud of the men and women who pour their souls into this overwhelming, gritty, endless work.

We walked up the hill. Tinny Turkish music blared from a radio. Pieces of clothing stuck into the chain link to dry in the cold sunshine. A few sullen faces glared at each other and us. Are they angry? Let’s get out of here. Past the latrine. Past the fenced-in family compound where a friend stood to guard the door so no unauthorized person would come in. He must have been freezing and bored, but he grinned and waved at us.

Tents lined the gravel path, four or five deep. They were a mass of billowing, flimsy canvas, roped to any available stable surface.

Then the scene that seared itself onto my brain and replays itself endlessly: two hands reach out of a little tent, fumbling to pull in the thin layer of blankets that poke out onto the gravel. Fumble. Pull. Shake. Yank. Get the blankets in and the zipper closed. A pair of sandals lies outside the zipper because someone doesn’t want dirt in their tent. Someone sleeps on a very thin layer of blankets. The padding can’t possibly be warm enough or protect from the gravel underneath.

Ten minutes is up. We walk out of the dusty gate that has razor wire over it.

Reflection

All good stories have a conclusion but this one doesn’t. Greece broke me in a way that I’ve not recovered from. These scenes are still with me, over 2 years later. They part of the texture of my life of ethnic food, colorful people, and stimulating conversations. Are they also inciting incidents that will usher me to another chapter of service and care?

I don’t know.

I only know that it’s right for me to be thankful. Every night when I lie on my thick mattress and under my feather duvet, I don’t have enough words to say how grateful I am. And when sit in front of a fresh, colorful meal. And when I buzz down the interstate in my car or walk onto a plane.

I know that, after seeing all those flimsy tents and thin blankets, I should never again complain about living in a swampy area that has 6 months of winter. I also know it’s right to use my resources to nurture His kingdom that stretches all over the globe.

But I don’t know what that will look like.

 

photo credit, a refugee artist in Moria Camp: https://www.facebook.com/riadh04

This post was first written for Daughters of Promise, and was first posted on their beautiful blog.

Camp Moria, about the size of a large Walmart and its parking lot, was built as an army barracks to hold 1,500 people. Right now, about 7,000 people are crammed in it, with more arriving.

What I Like About Guys Mills

When I told my wordsy and brainy friend Shari that I felt stuck and unable to blog, she gave me a list of things I could write about. That list will likely be the spring board for future posts like this one.

When I first started thinking about what I like about Guys Mills, the tiny crossroads where I’ve been living the last 3 years, I wanted to be snarky. I wanted to say that the good thing about Guys Mills is that there are roads leading out of it.

But when I started looking for the genuinely nice things about this swampy outback, I found several endearing qualities.

My very favorite thing about this place is that when I’m outside at noon and 6:00 PM, the church bells play a hymn and chime the hour. It heartens me to know that someone is beautifying the world that way.

The bells are in the cupolo on on the far horizon in this picture that I took this evening on my walk home.

Another thing I love about Guys Mills is that the post mistress is the happiest, smiliest lady I’ve ever met in a post office. The place is dingy and very ordinary a far as post offices go, but she is beaming and positive and beyond helpful. “I LOVE my job!”she told me. “On Saturdays I do some things around the place then go across the road and drink coffee with my friend on the front porch of the store while I watch for customers.”

Except she’s not on the front porch during this polar vortex, but she’s still happy in her job and serving us superbly.

If I’d have a new drone to try out around here, there are locals who would shoot it down first and ask questions later. When I walk around the block, I’ve seen enough shady characters that make me always stay vigilant. But at the most decrepit house, the owner always waves politely at me and shushes his barking dogs so they won’t bother me. And the snaggletooth mechanic has given me excellent service for which I’ve been deeply grateful. And another mechanic up the road treats my car as if I’m his daughter.

I’m seeing a pattern here.

The people who program and maintain and care about the church bells.

The delightful post mistress.

The respectful, rough-looking man.

The careful mechanics who make sure my car is safe.

The things I love about this sleepy little place aren’t things but people.

I kinda like that. Because maybe it means that even if it’s winter for 6 months and the deer are constant threats to road/car safety and the sky isn’t big where I live, there are people around, and where there are people, there’s a significant level of dignity and beauty which is really what my soul is hungry for.

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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Closing down one year and turning the page to another always makes me a simmering mess of melancholy and excited, reliving sweet memories, shuddering at hard memories, anticipating and apprehensive and curious about what’s next.

Writing things out helps unscramble the mass of the months and moments, sifts the favorites from the non-favorites, and reminds me of what is true.

Here is a sanitized, public-reader-appropriate list of 2018’s high points. Those closest to me know the crazy and the agony parts, the hysterical and impossible and guffawing and sparkling moments that we shared this year. But that stays with us. This list is neither chronological nor ordered in priority, but savored, round and round, like pearls on a string.

2018

  • Introducing 40 women to doodling at a women’s retreat. Helping them find their inner artist.
  • Traveling to KS with friends and singing in a concert for Nelson & Hannah’s wedding.
  • Tea with mentor friends, late, after an age-long day. Tears. Decision. Unutterable peace.
  • Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterworth
  • 2 visits to NYC.
  • A Makers Weekend where a pile of friends made stuff and talked and ate food and talked and talked.
  • A late-night invitation to neighbors on my birthday. Fire and jackets and stories. Laughter and star light.
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • A week auditing a Christian anthropology class in a seminary.
  • A week in Greece. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine. Swimming. Family. Unbelievable food. Sunshine.
  • This concert of peace. In the heat of summer. In the front row. Healing tears dripping off my chin.
  • Thanksgiving Sunday. Carnegie Hall. Messiah. 500 voices.
  • Connections in my new church, surprising and sweet.
  • An Ola Gjeilo concert where the composer was the accompanist and we heard him improv “Ubi Cartitas” with music heard only that one time.
  • Rings of friends, arriving alone or in dozens, in our living room. Rollicking laughter. Stories. Art parties. Tea.
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Friends who took me in as one of their family. Different states. Different occasions. So much love.

2018 brought me choking anxiety and peace, sobs and shrieking laughter, a staggering, preposterous torrent of blessings, joy, and love so deep and so tall, there is no way to measure or describe it.
This reality tells me to walk into 2019, hands opened wide for more.

My Book Comes In Spanish

These days, I listen to endless conversations and questions and hand-wringing about technology and the changes in communication. It’s a live issue, and I care that we navigate this uncharted landscape with wisdom and prudence.

I understand the insidious pull toward more, more, more connection. I feel the dopamine rush of what shows up in my feed. When I feel alone, I know how easy it is to slip into a virtual world to feel surrounded with happy, caring people.

But I always feel like a dinosaur because I don’t see that this plethora of communication options is an enemy. Technology has given me wide, enriching friendships and opportunities that was never an option for my grandma. I’ve published a book without ever meeting the printer. I paid someone to transpose the book into an e-book, and never met her and never read the ebook, but now and then Amazon drops deposits into my bank account from people who’ve bought it. I regularly email and message friends that I never see in person. I LOVE Whatsapp to help connect with family and friends across the Atlantic and the local hills.

Technology is not my enemy. I say that with deep gratitude, not cockiness.

And just recently, my book got translated into Spanish and is now available as an ebook, and I never met the translator, facilitators, or publisher. It just happened with networking, courtesy of the world wide web. And a lot of trust and patience and vision.

In 2010, a friend (whom I’ve never met) emailed me about getting my book into Spanish.

I really really want to see this happen, for a couple reasons. The top two are that 1. A girl’s value in Central America is defined much more heavily by her getting married than here. They need to hear the truth in your book 2. Our girls do not have encouraging resources available like in English. They devour all they have, all we can lend to them, and ask for more. And they deserve more, I think.

Then someone else emailed to ask if they could translate the book into Spanish, and the technological ball slowly started rolling, and here we are.

I’m thrilled that Spanish-speaking women can have free access to material that can potentially encourage, give perspective, and cheer as they live their Plan B. I hope my book helps them to hear God’s heart for them, and that although marriage is their design and a beautiful gift, it is not life. Jesus is life, and He is utterly good, true, and beautiful.

Feel free to pass around this link to your Spanish-speaking lady friends. The Spanish ebook for Life is for Living is FREE and only a click away.

Three cheers for technology!

Stretched Out Spaces

It was not a good day. I’d woken up in a cloud of sorrow for myself and my loved ones. My heart stayed heavy from hard conversations and many things that should not happen.

Then I sent an embarrassing typo in a letter to 65 people and couldn’t just shake it off. I felt stupid and inept.

Then, mid afternoon, a dead battery at work kept me from doing my job. It was a special size–half the length of an AAA battery–and there were none on campus. I didn’t have time to run to town to get one, but I needed to take time.

On the way to town, I said no to ice cream and no to chocolate. I couldn’t afford a sugar rush when I was already so stressed. Instead, I turned on brass band music. Loud. I love trumpets because they’re so powerful and delicate at the same time. They can blast you away, then caress your soul in the next second. They can be playful and exuberant and serious in the same phrase. (Recommending: “Amazing Grace” and “Hallelujah Chorus” by Canadian Brass.)

On the drive to town, surrounded with trumpets and a soulful tuba, I looked for colorful leaves, sunshine, and perspective for my woes.

I thought of the gentle, buoyant man I met recently. He’s a retired nurse, a photographer, and jazz enthusiast. He told me he was on his way to pick up a new camera that day because his old one broke and his friends tell him he’s not dressed without his camera. What he didn’t tell me was that he was also going to see the doctor. At that visit, the doctor told him his stage 4 stomach cancer is in remission, but the man knows it could go into metastasizing rage anytime.

“You didn’t tell me you had stage 4 cancer when you introduced yourself to me,” I said later.

“I can’t let a disease define me,” he said.

I also remembered an interview I’d heard with a young woman whose dura mater is damaged from a lumbar puncture gone wrong. The connective tissue of the dura can take months and months to heal. When the hole recurs, her cerebral spinal fluid leaks from the hole, forcing her to complete bed rest. She has traveled the world and climbed mountains in the last year, and then bent over wrong, and busted the hole open again. She remembers the agony of being horizontal for seven months, and she fears that will happen again. She’s been flat for a week now, waiting to go to patch the hole, which is a dangerous, unpredictable ordeal in itself.

And I think I’m stressed and troubled?

On the drive from town, I kept looking at the sunshine (a rarity in these parts) and kept groping for perspective.  “I don’t have stage 4 stomach cancer. I don’t have a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Jesus.”

Those people’s positivity in the face of crushing pain and fear shames me for my complaining, and tells me to be quiet and observe.

Sorrow expands the soul. If I let it.

Joy does the same.

And beauty. That’s why I sometimes listen to trumpets. Loud.

To be unmoved by sorrow, joy, or beauty means our souls can’t become larger, fuller, more developed. Pain and sorrow don’t diminish a soul by default. It is selfishness and bitterness that make the soul wrinkly and withered, small and ugly.

Only the soul that knows the mighty grief
Can know the mighty rapture. Sorrows come
To stretch out spaces in the heart for joy.
– Edwin Markham