My Unfair Life

Scene 1

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

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

“No.”

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

“No. No ID, no entry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I do love her very much.”

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

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

There is no justice in this scene.

Scene 2

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

“Only for ten minutes.”

So we walked fast.

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection

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

I don’t know.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Melancholy and Dazzling Light

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

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

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

2018

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

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

Ethnocentricity and the iGeneration

 

I’ve been thinking about how a person comes to have a provincial, ethnocentric way of seeing the world. Where were the moms and teachers of today’s adults who are prejudiced and biased about things outside their zip code?

How can adults help to shape children who become adults of warmth and invitation, valuing other skin colors and languages?

I”m not a parent or a school teacher, but I remembered some of the shaping experiences in my story, and wrestled out the following blog post for The Dock, an Anabaptist resource for teaching and learning.

An Antidote for the iGeneration

We know the iGeneration refers to those who grew up with the knowledge of technology. Does it also suggest people whose lives center around me, me, me, what I want, and when I want it? Sometimes I wonder.

What will a me-centric person do for their family and neighbors? How will an i-person learn to be aware of and serve someone other than himself? How will teachers and parents counter the entitlement of i-children and train them to be contributing citizens?

Education is not a final answer but it helps. History and geography can awaken children’s awareness of people beyond their zip code and before their birth year. Literature introduces them to words and stories that stretch farther than what they hear from their peers.

Travel is a way to widen horizons, gain awareness, appreciate diversity. Traveling with a passport does this, but so does walking across the road to the neighbors, singing at a nursing home, or befriending the boy who bags your groceries.

When I finished high school, I could identify the continents, most oceans, and Italy’s boot. I had learned the capitols of most of the European countries, but couldn’t find them on a map. Clearly, I was not a stellar geography student. But I knew…

(Go here to finish reading).

Kings Bring Their Glory

I was sitting in a crowd, cross-legged on the floor in a big room called The Oasis. The day before, I’d flown into and trundled around Athens before flying further to Lesvos. Sunday morning, I joined my sister and brother-in-law and the rest of the crowd on the floor for church. The message on faith was great, but I couldn’t stop watching the adorable coffee and cream colored children tumbling around me.

I loved the pockets of languages scattered around the room. Translation into French was happening in that corner. Farsi in the other. Arabic up front beside the preacher, translating for everyone.

As the service came to a close, we were told that our Congolese brothers would sing for us. A quartet of French-speaking African men walked forward and the one with the guitar put on his shiny gold rock star sunglasses. The other three stood by the mic and started singing.

I didn’t know what the words were (I was told later it was a psalm) but they sang with utter gentleness, adoration, and surety.  The harmonies were simple and beautiful, and their faces shone.

Scattered voices in the crowd joined at the refrain. In the men’s peaceful smiles and voices, it seemed I saw the teeniest piece of heaven, where the kings of the earth will bring their glory and worship the Lamb like these men and their audience were doing. It was glorious beyond words, and the way things should be. I was overwhelmed with the wonder and beauty and the tears kept dripping off my cheeks.

I feel most alive when I’m surrounded with colors and textures and cultures. I feel twitchy when everyone looks and talks the same. The variety of cultures and the singular focus of worship that morning in Greece is akin to what I expect to be part of in eternity, and I was enormously gifted with a sneak preview.

 

Directions, Please

Last weekend, I went to a gathering in a place that was new to me. I was told that GPS wouldn’t work after a certain point, and was given a sheet of directions to follow after I got off the main road. The directions seemed simple enough, but I found them confusing.  Driving in the mountains, my phone hadn’t had service for the last hour or so. I was on my own, with a confusing sheet of paper.

After I turned around a few times, I got onto a winding, steep, narrow, gravel mountain road. It was so narrow, I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone coming the opposite way. One place was so steep, I was afraid I would spin out. I was glad it wasn’t dark. Then the road opened up to a crossroad that led to a correctional facility, and I knew that wasn’t in the script.

I was whimpering and panicking. Where do I go now? I can’t do this. I’m alone and lost. Why do I think I can travel alone anywhere? Whimper, whimper. Blood pressure sky high.

The sheet of directions had a phone number, and the phone had service at that moment. Thank you, Jesus. I called the number and said in a rush that I’m lost and need directions and can you help me, please? The man asked who I was and asked me to repeat my question. He was calm, spoke clearly, and asked clarifying questions. I don’t know who he was, but I’m pretty sure his voice was like Jesus.

Yes, I know exactly where you are now.

I know the point where you turned off wrong.

When you get to that next road, be careful because it’s gravel and curvy and they just graded it.

I asked him several times about the directions on the sheet that were confusing me, and apologized for making him repeat himself, but he told me to start driving while I was on the phone, took all the time I needed, and explained the landmarks carefully.

Twenty minutes later, I was at my destination, and fell into my friends’ hugs, and had a most wonderful weekend. Two days later, I felt newly-made and refreshed beyond words.

As I drove home, I Voxed a friend about the good weekend, the traumatic time in getting there, and my ensuing questions. Why did I panic? God took care of me. I was never actually alone. Had it been a lesson to teach me the futility of panicking?

No, she said. I shouldn’t kick myself for that, or think I must never panic again. That emotion is an arrow to direct me to God. If I don’t know the depth of my need, I don’t know how able He is to meet my need, and I stay self-sufficient.

I know she’s right. When I feel panicked and alone, I can use that desperation to run to Him. He never scolds me for needing Him.

I hope I’ll remember in the darkness what I learned in the light that day: I’m never really and truly alone even if it feels like it.

Also, if I’m ever giving directions to a frantic girl on the phone, I might never know that I’m speaking Jesus’ words to her.

Set on Pilgrimage

Every Easter makes me pensive. When I read the story, I wonder about so many things. I’m awed that the biggest and best news in the world was first announced to women, and they were told to tell others. And this in the day when a woman’s voice didn’t count.

I wonder what Jesus was up to there. Was He making a statement about the worth of a woman’s word? Or was it just because He knew how much they love to be the first to hear things and tell them?

Either way, it’s beautiful.

Then I think about the men who ran to the grave. They didn’t believe the women’s words, so why did they run? That kind of stunning courage, running toward what could devastate them, knocks me over.

But my absolute favorite story is the walk to Emmaus. My heart always breaks a little when I read how the men admit “We had hoped he would be the Messiah” and I think of all the times I’ve heard (and said) “We had hoped…”

Three years ago, my sweet friend Lisa did extensive homework so that she could take me and my friends on the walk to Emmaus. On Easter morning, we met in the courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The bells were ringing so loud we had to shout to hear each other. We walked miles outside Jerusalem under blue sky and between pine trees. I kept looking up the sky and thinking it’s the sky Jesus saw when He was there, because nothing else around me was the same as in His time. Lisa read the story to us, and we ate chocolate at a picnic table and sang as we walked. It was the loveliest, richest Easter of my life.

I’m thinking that a walk, or any kind of journey, between Point A and Point B brings some kind of change. The men in Emmaus were in a different place in themselves when they arrived home compared to when they left, because of what happened en route. Christian was different when he came to the Celestial City than when he had left the City of Destruction, because the journey changed him. Sam and Frodo were different when they came to the White Ships, compared to who they were before they left the Shire.

‘Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” The Jews sang this on their annual journey to Jerusalem. I think good things happen any time we wrest ourselves away from what is familiar and cozy and predictable, and put one foot in front of the other, and walk toward Point B. Or Point T, as the case may be. And of course it’s the journeys of the heart that effect the most change, when we don’t board a train or a plane, but we push through the next hard thing to get to the other side, stepping into the narrow stream of light that shows the next step and no more.

There are alternatives. We can hunker down and stay in the same place (in our heart or house) and stay stuck in the mud because it feels too risky to do the next thing. People choose that option all the time, but I don’t think it helps to become better, bigger, more whole people. This is not  faithfulness and steadiness. This is choosing the easier thing out of fear of what might happen. There might be a lion out there, you know.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

The best part of the Emmaus story is how Jesus met them, asked them questions that He already knew the answers to, and walked with them. There’s nothing in the world I want more than that. Until I can walk beside Him in person, I know by faith that He has come to me here and now, walks with me, invites my questions, and eats with me. This kind of journeying brings about the most enduring change of any trip I’ve taken.

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.