It’s All Good

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For two weeks, I’ve been able to be a conversation partner with English students in Krakow, Poland. Since Graceland is doing everything online now, they’ve collected a group of native speakers on this side of the Atlantic to partner with their students.

A couple minutes before class starts, the ten of us chat and ask questions of each other, then the students start appearing. They’re shy or friendly, waving or quiet, and then the teacher starts talking about origins and faith.

The text is from Genesis 1-4. The administrator breaks us out into discussion groups at least every fifteen minutes. We read, talk about questions, work on quizzes. It’s so much fun, and when I leave the Zoom meeting 90 minutes later, I feel like a new person. It’s been one of the brightest spots of this stay at home era.

In the first lesson, my conversation partner observed the order and pattern of created things–light, water, seeds, animals. “He thought of everything!”

In that moment, I felt newly-made. Her off-hand, casual comment reminded me of what I miss so much about teaching English as a second language. I miss profound things said in simple, beautiful ways. I miss the laughter and honesty that comes from stumbling for words.

Today I spoke briefly with a mom who was picking up her family’s school work for the next week. Masks muffling some of our words, we compared notes. We’ve both worked extensively overseas and stumbled through re-entry. We’ve both done a version of this stay-at-home order in our previous life, so this hasn’t been so bad. Back then, my bubble of casual socializing was limited, and I stayed connected with friends/family via email because they lived a million miles away. I had students every day, though, so this isn’t an exact parallel.

“Do you still miss your old life?” she asked me.

“Yes. Terribly. I live with grief. It’s not gone away these nearly-five years. I have a lot of joy too. It’s both-and, not either-or.”

I think about the process of re-entry, losses, hard beginnings. There is groaning and sorrow, discovery and delight, memories and budding joy. When I’m sure of nothing, I trace the path of a gentle Shepherd, wise beyond my knowing, loving beyond any love, surer than my plans, and more magnanimous than my dreams. Everything is ok.

He thought of everything.

 

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.

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.

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

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!

 

Rates and Over-Rates

According to the numbers, I lost more than half of my blog readers when Google Reader finished. Am I supposed to do something about this?  I’m a little sad about it, but not too much because I’m not writing/blogging these days anyhow. This is the season when teachers rest their brains and give themselves permission to be dormant. At least this teacher does.

I think mostly in single words or lines these days.

Over-rated:

first impressions

clothes’ brand-names

color-coordination. So why doesn’t blue and green work?

silk ivy leaves

whitened teeth

chevron stripes

blog stats

bloggers’ opinions

Can’t over-rate:

going barefoot all day every day

babies’ peach-skin cheeks

wild fuchsias in hedgerows

spicy nachos and cold Coke

breakfast in the sun

swimming in a wild sea cove

To mull:

Most people, most of the time, are doing the best they can.

“The cure for everything is saltwater–sweat, tears, or the sea. “–Isak Dinesen

Good relationships come from large helpings of grace and redemption mixed with a little amnesia.

 

Happy, Fractured Dreams

I used to insist that Christians should be happy all the time. They’re the ones living without condemnation from sin, they have joy and peace and fulfillment in Christ, they have everything! Why should they squander a perfectly good day by talking about difficulties and disappointment?

Thankfully, I think I’ve grown up a little bit since then. Or life has knocked me around and showed me some things.

I still don’t have answers for this crazy, surprising life. I just know that when you talk with emotionally-healthy people, you can be having a normal conversation and then only a word will trigger tears you didn’t know were coming. And I’ve learned that tears don’t mean something is terribly amiss. It just reveals the fact that tears are often just under the surface, even for people who deeply love Jesus and know His joy. Maybe this is true especially for those people, because they are the ones who can be better equipped to have emotional integrity and deal with pain and discomfort and grief and don’t need escapes from that.

In others words, I can say that my world shifted when I heard a widow speak with tears running down her cheeks: “You know, life really stinks sometimes. It really, really stinks.” Then over her tears, her eyes lit up and she talked about God’s nearness and love and wisdom in her desperate grief.

So I’m trying to give up insisting that life feels good all the time. Because it’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that life is all bad.

This morning I met a student for coffee. She’d asked if we could meet, and I said my brain isn’t working to have a lesson during vacation, but we could go for coffee, and we did, and it was lovely, and she wants me to come to her house next week to look at her vacation photos and eat food. Last Sat. morning I was in Ireland and met an old friend for coffee too, and I felt so loved and cared for and relaxed and happy. And it was at the end of a week with my whole family, in which we didn’t do much more than take care of little children and make food. And swim and go canoeing.

I’m living a lot of happy dreams. Of course good coffee always makes me happy anywhere, but living in Europe, meeting with women who want to meet just because they like me, having a student-teacher relationship grow to a dear friendship–this is the stuff of my dreams.

Which means that other dreams haven’t come true (because–surprise!–you can’t have everything) and my life stinks in places, and I cried pretty much every day this week.  Life is wonderful and terrible, and that’s about all I know about it, and for now, it’s ok.