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.

Farther Along

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It’ll be hard, they said.

Give yourself at least a year to adjust, they said.

So I gave myself a year, and July 1 marked the day, and most days since then, I’m not sure that a year did any good in helping to adjust. I’m still fragile enough that tears are usually simmering just under the surface, and I would happily board a plane tonight to go back to Poland. 

oh.

That strike-through option shows me that a year does something more than I’ve realized. I couldn’t freely board a plane to leave because it would mean tearing up the little burrow I call home and leaving work I’m coming to love and people who have come to mean a great deal to me.

But if I’d have known how harrowing the year was going to be, I’m pretty sure I’d never have had the courage to start.

“There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” That’s what Sarah, plain and tall, said. Her words have helped keep me from feeling completely insane in this crazy mix of being happy and sad in the same second.

I miss simple, flavorful European food without sauces that disguise whatever it is. I miss living in town and walking wherever I want to go. I resent needing to drive everywhere. I miss taking the train or bus to the next town or across the country. I miss elegance and stately city designs. But I love how easy it is to drive away for the weekend, and how stores are air-conditioned and how customer service agents laugh with me on the phone.

I always hesitate when writing the date–is it month or day first?–and I feel like a deviant either way I write it. I push down the anger when people talk so LOUDLY in public places because it feels terribly invasive and indecent to me. I shudder at the shocking amounts of artificial coloring in food. I’m agog at how effortlessly church fellowship dinners appear and I did nothing to contribute. I still hate answering the glib question about where I’m from. I still feel like a foreigner, an oddity.

But I know my address by heart now, and that feels like a huge accomplishment. I have a PA driver’s license and a local library card. I know my way around town without a GPS. I walk around campus with this incredibly rested, relaxed spirit, singing, instead of feeling the tight, nervous, nameless fear of a year ago. And most delightfully, there are people with whom I share inside jokes and confidences, and I didn’t even know them a year ago.

hmmmm.   Maybe a year makes a bigger difference than I thought.

Maybe I’ll always feel like an oddity. Maybe it’s deeper than feeling European and a “returned missionary.” Maybe it’s part of the human condition, which is why I talk about it here. I’m not that eager to dump my feelings on the internet, but maybe someone else feels like a forever transplant. Maybe another human out there feels odd and mixed up. I’ve met more of those this year than I ever knew existed. We’re a weird bunch, puzzled and dazed and mystified at how it’s possible to function in this world while feeling very attached to another place.

There may not be compensation for the losses sustained in our fragmented hearts, but I’m slowly, slowly coming to see that what’s behind us gives us more to go forward with. It’s possible there’s a largeness of soul gained from our experiences that gives us something more to offer our world than we could have otherwise.

These ideas are just tentative. Maybe in another year I’ll know more about it.

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The Water is Wide

I call her my Polish mom, though she said she’s more like my big sister. She’s a grandma and has lived lots of life, so that’s why she’s like a mom figure to me. The drama and the dreams she comes up with are like no other, and forces to be reckoned with. By her own admission, she has ADHD, and it’s a standing joke and explanation for how crazy and boisterous it gets when she’s around.

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But she’s not just loud and wild. She cries and hurts and agonizes. What’s more, she hurts with other people’s pain. She has this enormous heart that she spreads over me and those in her world. I don’t have to say anything (and often I can’t because we don’t speak the same national language) and she knows what’s going on inside me. Is that because my eyes reveal so much or because she’s so incredibly perceptive? Probably some of both. Very often, she would ask how I am, and I couldn’t wiggle out of the direct question, so I’d be honest, and she’d say she knew it already. Then she’d cry with me and tell me it’s going to be ok.

It was an experience that’s hard to describe–how two verbose women who didn’t share the same language could talk or be silent and still understand each other. Tears and laughter are their own language. And God’s Spirit in both women is a perfect translator.

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We talked food and people and traveling and teaching. Having taught school for decades, she’s a master at handling children and teenagers, and winning their hearts. Her big heart wraps around them and they cannot stay untouched.  She asked me to be her English teacher, and it was delightful.  I especially loved how she praised me to the skies for my teaching ability even though she constantly lapsed into Polish and I couldn’t tell if I helped her English. I think the biggest benefit was just that our lessons were meetings of the heart, and probably that’s more beneficial than retaining language.

She knows heart break and the ravages of a devastating divorce. She knows ache and poverty and dreams that never come true. That’s why it’s so beautiful to see the power of Jesus’ transformation shining out of her. One of my favorite stories about her is here.

I left Poland last July 1, and she told me when she’d be at the school to tell me goodbye, but she never came. I was sorry, because I need closure. I don’t love pain, but not saying goodbye is worse than saying it. But clearly it was going to be too hard, and this was the easier route for her.

There is no right way to walk away from a vibrant, life-giving relationship. It’s impossible to cross an ocean, live among English-speaking people, and go on as if nothing happened.  My heart strings are still raw and dripping. Tears are always shimmering under the surface. Always. It’s different with my family even though they’re far away. They’ll always be family and we’ll always be in touch. Ela is FAR away, in another language, separate from anything here, involved in her own world, even though I know she’ll always love me.

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Yesterday I Skyped her for the first time since the time we didn’t say goodbye. She’s the same Ela, full of smiles and exclamations and wild dreams, pouring out so much love. She read me, as always, and observed that I’m doing better than when I left. But she didn’t see the quaking, shattering in my heart that went on the rest of the day and made it hard to concentrate because her voice and grin kept coming back to me and yet were so far away.

Sometimes I hate the globe and limitations of space.

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!

 

A Garden Tea

summer-783344_1280She’s been my student for several years, a woman older than I with a husband and grown children. She lives in the same apartment building I do, and for our last meeting, instead of having an English lesson, she invited me to her house. But first, she said, if the weather is nice, we’ll go to her in-laws to see their garden.

Sure, I said, that would be lovely.

So we met outside our building, and the sun was warm, and she took me first to a bakery down the street. The best bakery in town, she said, and she had me choose two kinds of cake. Then we walked around the block to her in-laws and before I walked through the gate, I had to stop and smell the wall of roses in front of the house.

The garden was pristine, orderly, a well-hidden opulent secret behind a fence on an ordinary street. They told me the place had been in the family for 3 generations, and their passion for the place shone in every corner. We took off our sandals to walk in the grass–it’s a carpet! the mother-in-law said with sparkling eyes.

The three of us sat in the garden to have tea and cakes, and had a glorious, easy mix of languages. The older lady brought out the elaborate cards that her daughter had made so that I could admire the hand-work, and we talked about hobbies and her family and mine and how we used to have a garden too.

Then the noises we heard above us stopped, and a wizened and spry elderly man came out of a tree with a saw in his hand. The father-in-law. He lifted his cap at me, sat a little to the side of us, and told me a couple jokes, then climbed back up into the tree. I felt that I’d just entered a story.

One of the jokes: A Polish man walked into a English dentist’s office and said he has a tooth that needs to be pulled. The dentist asked “Where?” The man said “Tu.” And the dentist pulled two of the poor man’s teeth!

A drop of cream from a piece of cake fell on the grass. Oops, I made the carpet dirty, the older woman grinned. It was incredibly easy to talk with them. Of course there was a lot behind our conversation. I’ve spent hours listening to my student tell me how she eats special diets and prays and goes on pilgrimages and learned about forgiveness and how worried she is about her family members who have cancer.

They talked between themselves for a minute, then my student said her mother-in-law is wondering how old I am. I thought we’d talked about our ages in some lesson, but she didn’t remember, so I explained that last Friday I had a birthday and now I’m 41. Both women jerked back and gasped. I don’t believe it–I said you’re not more than 25 or 26, the mother-in-law said. Which of course made me laugh and laugh and endeared them to me even more.

She hugged and hugged me good-bye and wished me all the best, and as we walked past the flowers to the gate, I held the lady’s arm and said when I’m her age, I want to be as hospitable as she is. You will be, I feel it, she said, her eyes twinkling.

I don’t know what inspires a woman to take in her daughter-in-law’s foreign language teacher and push tea and cake into her hands and show her all around the garden and love her as generously as an old friend would.   I don’t know why the elderly monkey-man came down just to say a couple genuinely funny jokes and disappear again. I don’t know how time stops but the watch keeps moving and forces me to leave so that I can make the next meeting.

I only know that I was graced with exceptional kindness yesterday, and I have a new role model.