Translators Needed

You know how sometimes memories emerge that were buried for years, but now and then they pop up on the screen of your mind? This story reemerges now and then, with no particular trigger, but it illustrates what seems to be part of my life work.

I was in my teens, eating Sunday lunch at a church family’s place, and they were also hosting a visiting couple who had never been at a Mennonite church before. So the dinner time was full of discussion and questions. I was listening and observing. The conversation went to how we value community and help each other in difficulties.

“So for example,” our host explained, “When someone’s house needs major repairs like putting on a new roof, we’ll have a frolic.”

Something washed over the guest’s face, and I knew that when he heard “frolic” he did not hear what my host meant.

Two things happened in that moment:

  1. I stayed quiet (another subject for another day)
  2. I knew that someone got a grossly misleading impression, and it never got resolved.

Worse things could happen.

But.

Sometimes what you say is not what I hear, so I don’t know more than I did.

If we don’t care about communication and understanding each other, we may as well all stay home and talk to ourselves and take selfies all day.

But if we were designed to do life beside and among and around people, and if we have something that’s beautiful to say, I care that that message gets transmitted well, and translated when necessary.

When I finished five years in Poland and came to the US, I reveled in talking English to my heart’s content. I mean, I could walk into a store and ask ANYthing! I could even make small talk with other customers. So novel! But every now and then, in those first months, I heard a mumbled announcement or a colorful idiom and I would catch myself whirling around to make sure my neighbor understood it. Translating to my friends in Poland had been such a way of life for me that it took awhile to realize that everyone here knew more idioms and one-liners than I did and I could take off my translator hat now. Other times, everyone around me was laughing at some remark, and I didn’t know what was funny. I think now that it was all part of reverse culture shock or culture fatigue or something else unpleasant like that.

Language and communication and understanding has so many intricacies and nuances and layers that it takes special effort to do well with it. Humor and laughter require another dimension to understanding. When different languages and cultures come together, the dynamics become exponentially complex. Among English speakers like at that Sunday dinner, wires get crossed. Sometimes even people who’ve known each other all their lives still need a translator.

There are many places where we need translators between people and groups. Actually, wherever there are people, we need translators. I think of it especially in some church services. Maybe it’s because it’s generally a formal place, where there is tradition and unspoken expectations, and a new-comer feels especially foreign.

This is not a critique about how to do church. That’s a subject for wiser, stronger people than me. This is a call to think about being translators for visitors, new friends, foreigners new to your culture and your spoken or unspoken languages.

I was glad for a translator when I visited a church where the minister asked for testimonies from the audience, but the lady beside me leaned over to tell me that he is talking to the men, because the women don’t speak.

I wished for a translator when visitors at church weren’t oriented to what was happening now, nor what would be happening next. Especially when the speaker asked us to kneel and everyone swirled around in their benches. Just between you and me and don’t tell anyone, I think kneeling back into the place we were just sitting is very uncivil and undignified and I love the gracefulness of kneeling forward to pray. However, if that’s not your culture’s tradition, you can help the visitor beside you by translating the invitation to kneel.

If I could do that Sunday dinner over now, I wouldn’t hesitate to clarify for our guest what our host was saying. It could be done without making anyone feel foolish. The point is clarity and explanation and education, and at the end, everyone understands each other better. Which would actually help a lot of issues everywhere, come to think of it.

Anyone can be a translator. At least, anyone who values what they have, and wants to share it beyond their borders. And anyone who understands that English doesn’t always sound like English.

Things I’m Noisy About

“Anita, are you hungry?” My friend asked me in the lunch line. “You’re exclaiming at everything you’re seeing, and I’m just enjoying hearing your delight!”

Well, I was hungry, but the real truth was that I’m always noisy about the things I love, so when there’s wonderful colors and flavors around me, I start crowing and cheering and talking in superlatives. Plus, I haven’t lost the wonder of working in an institution where lunch–colorful, fresh, creative food– is waiting when I walk to the food bar every day. And today’s fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw really and truly was the best lunch all year.

Since bloggers are allowed to rant and rave about whatever they want, and this blogger tries hard not to complain or rant, (but sometimes she fails, judging by the looks of another post that’s simmering) I’m going to be noisy about two things I’m excited about at the moment.

  1. People frequently ask me for book recommendations, and I’m thrilled to give them ideas and push books into their hands, but it always mystifies me because I don’t know why they come to me with their questions about books. There are other people who read far more than I, but I wonder if I get asked about books because I’m just noisier than others about the books I read.

I’m part of a book club, where we read a book a month and the person who chose the book leads the discussion afterwards. (We take a break in the summer, in which our sole group activity is a grilled steak dinner. The men grill, and the women bring salads and desserts. “This is such a perfect evening” we kept saying to each other as we cuddled babies around the fire and drank coffee and looked at the stars. I’m the newest member, and don’t know all the traditions or rhythms yet, but it has been most enjoyable.) Our current read is River Town, two years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, who relates his experience as an English lit teacher in China with the Peace Corps.

 It takes me to my own experiences of teaching English as a second language, the child-like identity you have to take on as a foreigner, the way life narrows down to finding the right word to buy supper, the simpler lifestyle that comes with living in a small apartment in town far away from family, the freedom of stepping on a train to explore an even newer place, the love/hate relationship locals have with foreigners, the stereotypes that every nationality presupposes on other nationalities. Peter tells his story with great heart without being sentimental, and I frequently giggle at the stories. The folk lore, the quirks such as the “Happiest Man in All of Fuling as well as the Luckiest,” the teaching bloopers, and can you imagine–pet birds in cages that you bring with you and hang in the rafters when you hang out in the teahouse with your cronies. Can you imagine!

Everyone should experience being foreign at least once. It is terrifying and embarrassing, but wonderfully clarifying and exhilarating and deeply enriching.

19 Travel Quotes to Inspire Your Wanderlust

2. For many years, I dreamed of taking voice lessons. Then for a couple months in Poland, I was at the right place at the right time and exchanged voice lessons for English lessons, which was a singular experience.  I think the Slavic way of singing is different from what I was wanting, plus, my teacher wanted to make me a soprano and insulted me when he said “Most altos are lazy sopranos.” I have no hard feelings. It makes a good joke, and now I think I understand the point he was trying to make. I will always treasure the English lessons where we watched musicians’ speeches and songs. His English was advanced enough to understand the poetry, and I always think of him when I sing “Heal their hearts, heal their souls, their lives can be golden if your love enfolds.”

Last summer, I started going to a voice teacher at the local college. My friends had told me I’ll like her, and they were right. Claire is an incredibly gifted soprano, deeply sensitive to her students. I often wished for 30 minutes to catch up and then 30 to sing, because it was like meeting a friend every week. She hears what isn’t said or sung, and knows what I need to hear or do to improve. In the lessons, I learned that when you hand your soul to a stranger you don’t die, which helped me feel less fear in other settings like public speaking. I learned that driving onto a campus and finding my way into the right building isn’t impossible. I learned that I can sing higher  and sustain lower than I thought I could. I learned that I can bomb a recital, forget everything I knew to do, and still not die. Unfortunately, I’ll never be a credit to Claire, and this week I had my last lesson with her. New responsibilities and other things to learn have crowded out this privilege, but I will always value those lessons. I experienced the law of the echo and the enriching power of a focused discipline.

Of course, the best voices train for years, but I think everyone should take voice lessons for at least one year.

Blest be the Synergy

We gathered under the trees and around salads and grilled kebabs and before prayer, our host said, “Be thinking about how to answer this question: why did God put you here in this place and time? What were you born to do? We’ll talk about this later in the evening, so this is your heads-up.”

Then we ate wonderful food and cuddled the baby and stirred the fire and talked on high for hours. We were seven people joined by common experiences and passions, and there are always stories to re-tell and howl about, and new parts of our lives to share, and there is never silence between us. When the darkness settled and the children were put to bed, and the coals glowed, I thought it was time to wrap up and leave, but our host brought up his question: “What were you born to do? We’ll go around the circle and hear from everyone, and I’ll start.”

The fire became an altar, and the circle a sacred place, and time stopped while we heard each other’s dreams and goals and affirmed what we heard.

“Yes, you ARE a shepherd. Hey, I want to tell the rest of you about the time he was a shepherd to me.”

“The way you love on troubled children is the way you show them Jesus. You WERE born for that!”

I was the only single among the three couples, and they prayed for a husband for me, and we prayed for each other’s visions and unanswered questions and quests. Sacred is the only word I can use to describe it, and even the next day I still felt hushed in wonder at the beauty and power I’d witnessed.

This was one of several small groups I’ve been part of. Various times and incentives shaped the groups. Similar interests. Common training. A work team. Sitting at the same table for supper in the cafeteria.

The synergy that rises out of asking questions and brainstorming and bringing one’s whole self to a group energizes me for several reasons.

  • It is an adventure, because there is no predicting what will happen.
  • It is empowering to be heard, to be given space and time where your voice matters.
  • It provides shared experience that becomes a reference point for further interaction.
  • Life and death are in the power of the tongue.

Sometimes a group has to wrestle with a dilemma that has no easy way forward. If one person were alone in a room wrestling with the sticky problem, they would get tired and despair and make a bad decision. But in a group, with more ears tuned to what’s being said, and more than one heart engaged with the issues at hand, good and beautiful things happen.

What happens in group is not limited to the time in the circle. Sometimes Often I perceive or say things in the moment that I would see differently if I had time to mull over it. But it gives a starting place for more thought and change. Group work also pushes me to ask God for the most pressing need of my whole life: wisdom.

Here are some life-giving words I’ve heard in group:

“When you said that, I got this picture of…”

“I really like that idea!”

“Can you tell us where those tears come from?”

“You’re being quiet over there. What are you thinking?”

“What would happen if…?”

“I see your point, but what about…?”

“That took some courage to say.”

One group was so sacred that I can’t talk about it here except to say it involved snowballs in the dark, and honesty and courage shimmered around us in a way that would hardly have happened had we stayed around the table in the dining room.

So setting is important. A bonfire helps. Or a chalk board. And snacks–at least chocolate.

There are no guarantees for resolution, and there is always risk.  Risk that my words will be misunderstood. Risk that I’ll fall apart. Risk that I’ll walk away with fewer answers than I want. Risk that my heart will break.

But risk is the price you have to pay to keep walking toward wholeness and a full life.

I am deeply grateful for the groups I’ve been honored to be part of. They shape me into a person I could never become if I would try to wing it alone.

We Are Too Easily Satisfied

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This prayer by Wilbur Rees keeps coming back to me.

I wept when first heard it read about a month ago.

I don’t think it needs commentary.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,

but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk

or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man

or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation.

I want warmth of the womb, not new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

 

It’s Not Fair

One student makes straight A’s without trying, and another does everything she can to pull a C.

One sister has stair-step babies, and the other can’t conceive in twenty years.

One friend’s parents thoughtfully encourage their children’s strengths. Another set of parents disregards or disapproves.

One lady has a husband and a respected degree by age thirty. Another has neither at sixty.

One girl is wooed by the man of her dreams. Another girl is invisible except to a mental patient.

One friend has money to vacation in Italy while another can’t afford a $20 concert ticket.

One couple celebrates one year of marriage and pronounces the year fun. Another couple fights three kinds of deadly cancer in their first year.

It’s not fair.

You shake your head at the balance scales. You whisper the words to a friend because for some reason you’re not supposed to say them. Or you sob into your pillow until you snort, and the universe keeps on humming, and friends never mention the disparity, and  the scenario keeps on not being fair.

To the one with a grim diagnosis. To the single bridesmaid at the eleventeenth wedding. To the bereaved and wrecked and poor: it’s not fair.

This is reality when the sun shines or when the rain blows. The Almighty and Omnipotent Father sits on His beautiful hands and does nothing to level the balance scales. There is no justice. You can do everything right and be a good girl and do what you were always told to do but there are no guarantees and it’s a fallacy to believe that everything will turn out like it should.

Part of my journey to wholeness includes being honest about the injustices I observe and experience. It seems much more wholesome to be able to call a spade a spade than to act as if it’s something else.

So: it’s not fair.

There are things I weep and howl over, dreams I ache for, friends I hurt with, prayers I beg God with the most persuasive words I can find.  To do otherwise would be to deny reality and be a flippant, chirpy, hollow, obnoxious voice in a cavern of unanswerable questions.

While maturity acknowledges that things aren’t fair, wisdom doesn’t stay there. It’s a child who mopes and sits outside the game and whines that it’s not fair. An adult who does that for days and weeks and months is pretty ugly, in my opinion.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no easy way to do this, but when that forty-leventh bride has been whisked into the sunset, you sometimes have to take yourself by the scruff of the neck and turn yourself 180 degrees toward the east and make a list of other things that aren’t fair.

This is part of my list:

  • I sleep on a dry, thick, super-comfy Tuft and Needle mattress while refugees sleep on blankets that hang out of their tiny, squished-together tents.
  • I have a job that enabled me to buy a car, while a friend can only afford to drive a borrowed car.
  • I’m lonely and long for companionship but it’s not fair that another woman’s loneliness is infinitely, agonizingly greater after her husband abandoned her and their three little children, the baby with Down Syndrome.
  • I had major surgery in a foreign country and had the best of care and no complications and have been given a new life but my friend battles incurable illness and huge medical costs.

It’s not fair.

I’m stupendously, staggeringly, unreasonably rich and spoiled and comfortable, and it’s not a bit fair. It’s not fair that my friends and the rest of humanity walk through crazy amounts of pain and tears that I never do. I’m not being glib or flippant about this. I cry often about sad things and injustice and longings on my behalf and others’. I experience hard, hard, things about each of my list entries.

But the great and grand and shining reality is that the present injustice is not all there is. It takes the long view to see more than is apparent to the naked eye. The long view is the truest view.

It’s ok to say it’s not fair, but it’s not ok to stay there. Because at some point–after about an hour or a day or a week–wisdom and grace and the presence of Jesus are waiting to turn us to the east and see light and hope and a far green country under a swift sunrise.*

*That last phrase is what Gandalph said.

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Home Goings

I had already cried quite a lot that day. Easter night, I had walked around my old haunts–the fountain, the Palace, the little pond. Walking down Warszawska, tears kept falling out of my eyes. Tears leaked into the pillow that night, and into my coffee the next morning in the place where I had always had coffee and watched the light coming in the windows. I cried to Lolita in the van, and when our friend met us at her door, she said, “Oh Anita, are you sick?”

I said no, I’m just sad. I’m so happy where I am, but so sad not to live in Poland anymore. Then we drank coffee and ate chocolate blok, and who couldn’t be uncheered with this on Easter Monday?

Then Lolita and I took the train to Warsaw to revisit more old haunts and imbibe the atmosphere that I miss so much. We lingered long over lunch and E. Wedel drinking chocolate and stories and joys and worries, and were nearly ready to leave. When she came out of the restroom, she was crying, asked me to pay while she goes outside to call someone, because she doesn’t want to tell me in here. So I did, when the waiter finally brought the check.

Out on the sidewalk, she could hardly get the words out: Our… sister Beat…is home.

Incredulous. Stunned. Shaking my head. We cried on each other’s shoulders, and I kept shaking my head. Then it occurred to me: she’s healed, she’s healed, she’s dancing. But why was I shaking and crying?

There was no point in looking at sights. The shock had suddenly chilled us, so we found a coffee shop, warmed up a little, read the terse news article. Beat’s car had hit a horse and she was killed instantly. We got the next train, went to friends of Beat’s, and talked and cried and prayed together.

The next day, my friend and I returned to the US as planned. It was hard, hard to leave, and harder to come back to a surreal atmosphere. All week, a fog seemed to cover the place and I kept pushing through jet lag and emotional numbness. Thursday my mom had surgery to remove lymph nodes for analyzing and determining treatment for stage 2 breast cancer. It was a yucky week, all around.

Saturday was the funeral. Finally, I could let myself be sad. Even though it was still surreal. The form I saw in the casket wasn’t Beat. I couldn’t believe that she wasn’t around a corner somewhere, chortling and chatting. Someone so alive can’t be gone for always. Singing “Under His Wings” in a Faith Builders group helped me feel I could DO something with my grief. Telling my favorite story about her at the open mic at dinner helped take some weight off my heart. But it still felt surreal.

It seems to me that this fog of grief is two enormous things: loss and shock. My heart can’t accept what my ears are hearing. Yesterday all the staff and students gathered in the chapel for a memorial time to remember and celebrate her life.  I knew I wanted to be there, but I kept thinking this is just a weird kind of exercise because we all know she’ll show up again and we’ll laugh together at how ridiculous and impossible it was that we thought she died. I cried when we sang “safely in His bosom gather…such a refuge ne’er was given,” because I’m sooooo glad she’s safe and healed and radiant.

I remember Beat’s soft heart and gentle love. How could she possibly remember everyone’s favorite food and make sure I’d gotten my favorite bar that last week? Her irreverent, shrieking howls were part of the reason I loved her. Her honest tears were beautiful to me, not weakness.

In the memorial time, it was fitting that there was more laughter than tears. We ended with some little howls ourselves. I did, anyhow. My favorite story recounted is this: Someone complained to her, the head cook, about the food. “Just put more Ranch on it,” she said.

The layers of complexity and wisdom and understatement in that line is priceless and howl-worthy and so Beat.

She was a queen in God’s Kingdom, and in the kitchen, and she is a hero.

An Epiphany at Easter

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This is a rerun from the archives of 2 yrs ago. These days, I’m reliving those memories: grainy, zingy zatar–the stinky camel ride and my breathless laughter–glorious Dead Sea swim–Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee and eating a lunch of humus beside it–the ache of the Wailing Wall on Good Friday–the shine of one man’s eyes telling another “He is risen!”–the walk to Emmaus with sunshine, friends, songs, and a turtle. I will never be the same.

Last week I flew from Warsaw to Tel Aviv in order to spend Easter with my friends in Jerusalem. Sound exotic? Yes, it was. I’m still floating.But this is not a travel blog, though I dream of that. This is about an epiphany I’m still living with.

The plane was filled with Polish Jews and there was a beautiful, exquisite atmosphere with the families mingling and smiling and comparing notes. “We’re going for Passover in Jerusalem then rent a car and travel further. What? You too?” Polish Jews have suffered so much in this country, and I could feel the pulsating home-coming atmosphere and was so happy for them.

Wedged between two pleasant gentlemen, one wearing a kippah and editing his movie of a rabbinical school, I opened my Bible to Luke’s account of the resurrection. I wanted to enter into the story as much as possible in the next several days. I wanted to hear and see and smell what Jesus and His loved ones did. (As it turned out, it seemed that I could only see the same sky they did, because not much else is the same, but that’s ok. The journeys of the heart are what really change us, I think, not a physical pilgrimage.)

Luke says the women found the tomb empty and heard the angels say that Jesus was no longer dead, and then went back to tell “all the others” about it.

You know how women are when they get to be the first to tell someone their exciting news.

This was the best news that could ever happen, and to the disciples, Luke says it was idle tales.

Empty words.

Jibberish.

Jesus had repeatedly confided in these men. He’d told them He would die and rise again. He’d done what He could to prepare them for the devastation they would feel, but it did not compute for them. Now this morning they were so crushed that they couldn’t let themselves believe what the women were saying.

Do you know how blankety-blank hard it is to sustain hope? It’s easier to write it off as nonsense and foolishness and tell yourself not to care anymore.

Mark says the disciples didn’t believe the women nor Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus who had walked and talked with Jesus that day. It’s pretty much impossible to believe news about a miracle when you watch all your hopes dangle on a bloody cross in an earthquake.

When everything you counted on is gone.

When you don’t even have the remains of what you loved.

But Peter ran, Luke noticed. John’s version includes himself in the running. Peter had loved Jesus the most boisterously, the most rashly, and he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard but he had to check, just in case, and the men couldn’t wait or walk calmly.

They ran, and I weep over their eagerness and their stunning bravery. They ran head-long into the situation that held the potential to break their hearts even more–if it’s possible to break a heart that’s already pulverized. There was no precedence for what Jesus did, and they had no proof of the women’s words being true.

Except they had Jesus’ words earlier, which is life and power in itself.

Wedged in a tight airplane seat, I tried to surreptitiously wipe my tears on my scarf because I didn’t want the men to get worried about me crying.(“No, no, I’m ok–I’m not scared of flying–everything’s ok!” I would have said.) But I can’t stop crying about it even now. There is maybe no other scene that speaks so powerfully to passion and longing and life than this one–of the men running toward what they couldn’t believe.

There are half a million things I hope for myself and those I love. Sometimes I get a tiny glimpse of how things could be. How a miracle would change things for them or me. How we could enter more fully into what we were created for.

But it feels so impossible, so far away, that I write it off as pish-posh. Or I believe the lie that I don’t deserve these miracles. Or I’m not one of the lucky ones and God is handing out miracles to others but forgot about me and my people for awhile .

And lies and fanciful tales don’t sustain and don’t give life. In fact, they starve me. Poison my system. Shut me down. Keep me from running.

With the power that woke Jesus from the dead, I want to run toward the things He wants to show me. Not wait around and see what happens. Not discount it as excitable women’s words.

The best thing that could happen had just happened, and Peter couldn’t believe it, but he still ran, and by the Lion’s mane,  I will too.