To Be an Ear

Some years ago, I was one in a quartet of English teachers in Poland. We’d taught and traveled and joked and experienced lots of things together for two years. We knew it was an exceptional season of our lives and things wouldn’t always be this fun.

So the day a team member left to go back to the US was a very sad day.

We waved him off at the airport, then joined other friends in downtown Warsaw. I put on sunglasses to hide my red eyes, tramping around being tourists. They were a big, jolly group, and I loved the chance to share our capital city with them.

On the hour ride home, we caught an old train without AC, and it was hot. Often Polish passengers don’t like any moving breeze, even in high summer, but since our group filled the whole train car, we slid open all the windows.

While the others sang and laughed and made up fun games, I stood by a window. It was open at shoulder-height, so I folded my arms on the rim and rested my chin on my hands. I watched the birch trees and poppies flit past, soaked up the blue sky, and let the hot breeze wash over me and dry my cheeks because tears kept dripping onto them.

Soon Manu, the group’s photographer, came to stand at the window next to mine. We stood elbow to elbow, leaning on our window rims, watching the countryside, while he took pictures of this and that. He turned to me to say something about the sky, and I couldn’t turn away quickly enough to keep him from seeing my tears.

A man who stays steady when a woman cries is a strong, good man. Manu turned back to his camera as if he’d not seen anything amiss. After a minute, still watching the trees, he said, “I guess you had a pretty hard day today.”

I don’t know what I said, but yes.

“It’s really hard to say good-bye,” he said.

Suddenly, I realized who I was talking with. This was a young man who’d grown up in an orphanage in Romania and had loved scores of people who eventually walked out of his life. He’d known more goodbyes than I did.

“It used to hurt so much when someone left. Finally, I decided not to care or get attached, so that their goodbye wouldn’t be so terrible.” His voice was calm, matter-of-fact. “But cutting my heart off still hurt me, so that wasn’t a good choice.”

We talked a little more, about how love and friendship enriches more than it depletes, even if it breaks our heart. Then we lapsed into silence, watching poppies and birch trees flash past. Soon I felt calmed enough to turn away from the window and join the rest of the group and laugh at their games. I was fragile for the rest of the day, but that short exchange at the train window helped me turn a corner.

It wasn’t so much what Manu said, though that was good and gentle and thoughtful. It was more what he did: his calmness and understanding that helped steady me and not feel alone.

Several years later, Manu married my good friend, and now they have two active little boys. I always feel calmed and loved when I’m with them. In my days and dreams for life, I care a lot about wholeness and healing for myself and others. These late summer days of clear skies and warm sun remind me of that season back then and how Manu helped me that day. It was an important step in my growth as a person. He showed me that helping someone is mostly about listening and staying present in their distress.

I hope I never forget it.

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 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 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?

The Wine of Paradox

July 1 marked three years since I left my Poland home. Anniversaries like this always give me a space to reflect, compare, and contrast. They help give a measure of perspective that I don’t have in the middle of the thing.

It’s a mercy that I didn’t know how hard re-entry and transition would be. It’s another mercy that it happened and I didn’t detour it.

Arched over the last three years is the word belong. I was comfortable in different places on the globe but when I came back to my birth country, I found I didn’t belong anywhere. I found this disorienting beyond words. The disorientation happened mostly subconsciously but it was the undercurrent in every new relationship and every new situation. I was a loose ion looking for an atom to fit into. I was the spiraling whirlpool in an identity that had evaporated. If I wasn’t the English teacher eating Polish bread and pickles and walking on Polish sidewalks anymore, who was I? I had no idea.

As if bread and pickles gives you an identity. But when your world tips you upside down and nothing is the same anymore, you get sentimental about bizarre things.

Home

When I first came back to the US, I said I was homeless. I hated when anyone asked where I was from, because I didn’t know what to say. I’d get shaky and unreasonably worked up and exhausted from explaining my homelessness. Slowly, I’ve come to coin the word “home-full:” I belong in many places. Many people claim me, and I claim them. They press me to spend weekends and holidays with them, and I know they’re not just being polite, and when I’m with them, my soul is utterly at rest. In three years, I moved from a dorm room to a tiny apartment then across the road to a trailer. It’s like living in a tin box, but I live with a dear co-worker, and we have everything we need, and it’s home. For now. I don’t expect to be here long term because I don’t love marshes and mosquitoes and six months of winter. But for now, I love where I live, and I’m home-full.

Church

The church search has been hard, hard, hard. A husband and family would make the church decision more complex, but this single woman has found it hard, uncomfortable, and bewildering to navigate all the questions, implications, and dynamics regarding a new church. I have good people walking with me and giving advice. But still. It’s no picnic.

I’m grateful to be attending a church that feels increasingly right and comfortable. When I’m not there, I miss it. When I’m there, I think, “Yes, I agree. I like how they said that. And I really like the singing.” It’s not home. It’s not my church. But they’re good to singles, and it feels like maybe someday I could belong.

Work

Last month, I was on a Greek island and went swimming in the Aegean Sea nearly every day. The water was unbelievably clear, and when my ears were right at the surface, it sang its tinkling, golden song, and I thought I was in heaven. Then came this fleeting shadow: “Next week this time, you’ll be in the office.” But the shadow lasted only for a second, and it didn’t fill me with sadness or dread because I looked forward to whatever I needed to do in the office. I wasn’t going to rush there because no sane person would leave Greece before necessary, but I have no words to say how grateful I am for a job that I really, really love. I walk up the hill to work every morning and I think, “I’m living in a dream. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve lived in many dreams in other places. It’s the life I’ve been given combined with a million decisions to see goodness in the present moment.

I still miss Poland terribly. I miss teaching ESL. My friends and students there and my people in Ireland have no idea how often I think about them and ache to hear them talk and laugh. But I’m learning that embracing the details in my present life no longer feels disloyal to my former life. Maybe these three years have expanded my heart to hold the paradox of both loving and grieving, both gaining and losing, both embracing and releasing.

Robert Capon said, “Man cuts the wine of paradox with the water of consistency.”

I choose not to dilute my life. Its wine is piercing and sweet.

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.

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.

A Special Kind of Recycling

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There should be a word for déja vu reversed. Maybe ‘tables turned’ is the idiom I want. Or “what goes around comes around.”

It happened after work when I was hurriedly eating my solitary supper before rushing off for my voice lesson at the local college. I was keeping an eye on the clock when this warm wave of memory washed over me.

I remembered how my English students would rush in after their work day, fling a coat off, and sink into a chair. I made it a point to have a warm, cheerful classroom, and a bright, positive attitude. During our lessons, I cheered and cajoled and guided and believed in them when they couldn’t. My students, individually or as a group, would relax, smile, and even laugh. Actually, we laughed a lot. Often. Head down on the table laughing. Leaning out of the chair laughing.  Then they said things like “Coming here is like therapy” or “I had to stay for this late meeting at work, but I didn’t want to miss this lesson” or “The train was late, and I was so angry, because I didn’t want to cancel with you.”

Eating my supper in a rush, I suddenly understood them. Now it was me whose head was tired of thinking, whose creativity was wrung out by 5:00, and who couldn’t wait to walk into a doorway of light to a welcoming, confident person who knows what she’s doing.

My teacher teaches voice like I taught English, and I am like my students were. I was coming off of 6 weeks of no lessons due to a bad cold, and this was like starting from zero, like all the time she’d put into me was nothing. The first few scales were really, really horrible, even I could hear it, but she never flinched. She knew what I needed, knew the incremental baby steps to take, and got me do things I didn’t think I could do. And we talked about other stuff as fast as we could between warm ups and French pronunciation.

Just like it was with me and my students.

This kind of pay back is beyond-words-delicious.

Now I need an English teacher to help me with my metaphors.