The Road Goes Ever On

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Last year, on the first Friday of May, I was in Rome.

It was the only day in my life that I ate (at least) three servings of gelato. It was glorious weather, and I soaked up the crazy, happy, loud atmosphere. I was touring there with a friend and her son, with reservations for 4 days. But I had only Friday there because my grandpa died that night. I’ll always be grateful that we had  lived that day so expansively, so thoroughly and freely.

The next day, travelling home alone and dealing with rude airline agents, part of my heart broke and died. The part of myself that always thrilled to step onto a plane or train or bus, ticket in hand, was gone, and stayed gone for the rest of the year. I flew several places after that, and always with dread and whimpering, even tears.

It was many things. Losing my gentle, globe-trotting grandpa. Disappointment of leaving Italy so soon. Later, it was about not having energy to travel. At Christmas, it was wonderful to fly home but having just had surgery and needing a wheelchair gave me a kind of identity crisis. Plane tickets started feeling like a bother. It didn’t help when one flight cancelled just as I was ready to leave for the airport in the middle of the night. Airports became something to endure, airline staff couldn’t wait to call me out on something.

I missed the thrill. I missed not being excited to travel when I had the chance. It didn’t feel like me. For most of a year, I wondered if I would ever really want to travel again.

Slowly, it came seeping back.

In February, I felt new energy, new impetus to fly. It helped that I wasn’t alone, and when Janelle and I stepped onto the jet-way in San Diego, we could smell the humid sea air, and suddenly that dead part of my heart felt warm again. We stood outside waiting for our bus, and watched the gulls and palm trees, and met friendly people, and then it came back to me– why I love to explore the far horizon.

It was confirmed when I flew back to Poland, via Amsterdam.  What other airport has an art gallery and museum, and a cafe where the booths are giant delft cups? I fell in love again with Holland. With travelling. With bags and airline workers and tickets and arrival times.

Not everyone has to travel to have a good life but I will never live long enough to see every place I want to.  Travelling isn’t a right for me to demand, so I’m grateful beyond words for the opportunities I’ve had. It has expanded my soul to talk with other people, observe different lifestyles, eat new food.

Especially gelato.

 

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Our Roads Converged

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Jewel and I were hungry for kebabs so we trotted down the street to the doner kebab shop that’s on the road we live on.  It’s pretty heady, really, to think about being able to follow the road west to Berlin and Paris and east to Moscow if we’d go far enough.

The man at the counter was taking my order (cięnki, z kurczakiem, sos mieszana) and suddenly he said in English, “You’re not Polish. How long you live in Poland? You speak Polish well. I’ve lived here two years, and I understand everything but I still don’t speak Polish well.”

I told him I’ve lived here three and a half years, and I understand how he feels, because I understand more than I’m able to speak. He said he’s from Egypt, and I said I dream of travelling there, and he said that would be nice, but the economic situation there isn’t good right now. “Are you happy here?” I asked. He nodded, avoiding my eyes. “I live here because my wife is from here.”

Later, I stood where he was preparing our food. With no warning, he turned to me and spit out, “I HATE this country. I lived in Holland for six and a half years and you can have a wonderful life with everything there. I HATE this country.”

The venom in his voice and fire in his eyes took me aback.  I asked why he hates Poland. “People here are aggressive.” I didn’t comment on that, but said I think that in general people in Holland and Ireland seem friendlier and happier than here. “They’re racist here,” he said, and the way he spat the words broke my heart. I said I’m so sorry, and I haven’t experienced racism myself, but it’s a terrible thing. “I’m going to wait some time, then I’m going back to Holland.” His posture told me he was ready to defend his decision had I tried to dissuade him.

The kebab and cold Coke was wonderful comfort food, a splurge for a Friday night on a holiday weekend, but I was heart-sick, remembering the shards of his words. We’ll be back down the street for that good food, but the real reason will be to have a chance to talk with the sad man from Egypt.

All the roads of the world should unite us, not divide.

 

 

 

Sand and Stories

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I bought ten tulips, pink and yellow, at the market. The lady who sold them to me wrapped them expertly in rustly cellophane, gathered everything together at the bottom with a rubber band, and I carried them home proudly. I love carrying flowers!

At home, I unwrapped them and trimmed several inches off the stems in order to arrange them in a glass jar. My work space got gritty. Sand. Ah! The tulips came from Holland. Reclaimed sea. Hence the sand. I’ve been there. The tulip boxes at the market were marked “Alsmeer.” I know where that is in Holland, have walked through the tulip fields, got the sand on my shoes. The sand on the kitchen counter was Dutch sand. How exotic is that?

I’m reading Michael O”Brien’s A Father’s Tale. I’m hardly past the first sixth of the tome, but already it is delicious and deep and aching though not nearly as hard a read as his Island of the World. Today I read of Alex’s journey to Oxford in search of his son who was studying there. It takes me back several years when I was visiting a friend and she took me around Oxford for a day, and I fell in love with the place. I had fish and chips in the Rabbit Room at the Eagle and Child. Even while I ate, I couldn’t believe I was there.

There are probably a million things that that play into what shapes a person. I believe that part of this shaping is a combination of all the books we’ve read and the places we’ve been to. Having been at Alsmeer and the Bodleian Library shaped my perception and understanding of the things I encountered this week.

In addition to books and travels, we are also a product of our own choices. I had opportunities to travel, and I chose to take them. I have other opportunities every day. Choosing to say ‘yes’ to something means saying ‘no’ to something else, and each decision affects the shape of my life.

Choices this week:

  • unsubscribed to good newsletters that talk about good things, but don’t address matters that I really need to focus on.
  • walked past used clothing stores even when I have time to shop, because I’m not buying clothes for myself for a year.
  • journaled extensively.
  • lowered my lecturing teacher voice, sat down, and laughed with my students.
  • read in the morning sun.
  • dreamed about travelling to see China’s stone mountains and India’s bougainvillea, saris, and elephants.

Because dreams shape us too, don’t you doubt it for a second.

Travelling, books, choices, dreams–some of the infinite amount of things that make me who I am. Which means that I’ll probably always have itchy feet but also that I’m always changing.

Which is a good thing.

 

Related posts: Oxford of the Dreaming Spires

 

Tribute to Grampa

This is what I wrote on the plane coming over, and read at the funeral yesterday:

My first memory of Grampa was a scary one. I was three and outside the house on Williams Street. My parents and strangers were around me on the sidewalk and this tall black-bearded man crouched down and spread out his arms to me. Everyone around me was laughing and telling me to go to him. “Go–it’s Grampa!” But I was scared and refused. It was the thick black hair that did it.

Now I know the occasion was that the family was home for furlough and we were visiting from VA. In a day or two, I saw that Grampa was actually a nice man but I was stubborn and refused to let him hold me.

After that initial scare, Grampa became a normal part of my life in our visits to IN. He was always jolly and his gruff voice belied his soft heart. I loved watching how he treasured Gramma Mabel, and later, Gramma Barbara. He’d always give Gramma a kiss when he came home, and hold her hand when they walked together. Even though I was a child, it felt significant to me that a man his age was so openly affectionate.

I remember at Susan and Delbert’s wedding, he read Proverbs 31 and I Corinthians 13, and the way he read made it sound like poetry, and I dreamed he’d do the same at my wedding. I remember several times when he read poetry to the family. What impressed me most was how he’d unashamedly choke up at some particularly meaning words.

Now when I write and wrestle with words to make them do what I want them to, I sometimes wonder if one reason words affect me so deeply is because he valued words. Maybe it’s in our genes. After all, family lore is proud of his winning the county spelling bee in grade school in KS.

I last saw Grampa this past February. It had been four years since I’d last seen him. I think I’d taken him for granted and thought he’d always be the strong, stalwart man I knew. But when I first saw him in February, I wanted to weep for the stooped, halting body that trapped his expansive mind. The Parkinson’s made his speech slow and slurred. He told me the words don’t come like they used to. He knows them but they don’t come out. “Is that frustrating?” I asked.

He shrugged. “It would be if I’d let it.”

To this emotional, impulsive girl, those were wise words to digest.

I was in Rome when Grampa died. I had one day there instead of the long weekend I’d planned. In the scrambled plans, buying new tickets, and foreign, unfriendly airport agents, all clouded with this abrupt loss, I tried hard to stay calm and remember what he said: “It’s frustrating if you let it be.”

Leaving Rome, the plane took off over the coastline and I saw the smooth, deep curve of the gulf that forms the sole of Italy’s boot. It was thrilling to see, and I knew that some of my itchy feet comes from Grampa who also loved the far horizon. I know I’m shaped by his love for new places that took him from KS to IN to Central America where he became Papi Juan to dozens of children and adults. I saw how happily and easily he entered that world as often and as long as he could.

Now the tables are turned. All his children and grandchildren have pushed away from their geographical roots for Kingdom work for some part of their lives. The two grandchildren who aren’t here today are Poland and Thailand. Grampa gave to us a love of learning, expanding, exploring. He was always asking questions, reading, and quick to learn. He even learned from Gramma how to sing better. It was easy to see that his life motivation was to serve and be useful because He loved Jesus simply and completely, and cherished the gift of salvation. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was the shape of his life.

Now it’s me who comes back home from living in another country and the small children are shy and don’t know me anymore. It’s bittersweet. Mostly, it’s sweet because of the enormous legacy we have of a bearded man whose heart was big and his arms stretched wide.

 

Scattered

I lost my heart to Italy. I’m completely smitten.

Finally I’ve found a place where it’s ok to have a raised voice in normal conversation. Where I found a market and bought the best pesto I ever had, plus real ciabatta and vine-ripened tomatoes and the lemons and oranges still had their leaves attached. Where the espresso and cappuccino is first-rate and the gelato is beyond words.

Thursday night I went to Rome with a friend and her son, with plans to spend four days there. Yesterday was a fantastic day of getting our bearings and relaxing and being charmed by the way the Italians enjoy life. We did a bus tour then sat at the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain and soaked up the sun and atmosphere. The crowds–I never saw so many people– were happy and not too obnoxious.

All I could think to say was “It’s really real.” The ruins, the faded walls of the houses, with geraniums and greenery on the balconies. They’re real. The cafes where four men at a table all talk at one time. I saw/heard them. It’s not just in stories and pictures. It’s real. The smiling clerks who never hurry. The lack of a personal bubble of any size. It’s how they live. The crazy driving and the crazier pedestrians and the parking that’s so tight you can’t walk between the cars. It’s a mad, happy chaos that could become addictive.

All the pomp of the pope and his attachments are pretty much lost on me. It made me sad to hear that the Vatican is considered the heart of Christianity because I know what Jesus would say about the wealth and power it wields. But I had my heart set on seeing the Sistine Chapel, and paid a deposit yesterday to join a tour this morn.

Then in the evening my sister called while we were meandering toward a park. It’s my grandpa. A brain hemorrhage. He’s got only several hours.  Later the text: he died during the night.

Today I spent all day alone, travelling back from Rome to Warsaw. The map worked and I could walk to the right street for the bus. (You have no idea how huge this is to me.) I had an espresso in a simple cafe and read Psalm 90 in a piazza while waiting for the airport bus. I cried and read by turns during the hours but I cried when Wizz Air said they’d charge 10 euro for the cabin baggage, but the agent said it no, they charge 20. And then no, it’s 30 because the airport gets a commission. It felt like extortion and deceit to me, and my tolerance was in short supply.

But finally I’m home and  doing laundry and packing to leave for Indiana with my sister in the morning. I’m glad and sad to go. The week will have tears and laughter. There will be grandma and parents and aunts and uncles in grief, babies to cuddle, stories to re-tell and reasons to laugh. I want to celebrate my grandpa whose itchy feet I inherited. Whose solidity and faithfulness gave us a legacy that I don’t even realize fully.

I guess it figures that tonight I feel completely scattered.

Back in the Swing

Jet lag is a bear.

Coming east is much harder for me than going west. My mornings this week looked like this:

Get out of bed. Comb my hair. Go back to bed.

Get out of bed. Wash my face. Go back to bed.

Get out of bed and make coffee.

Wrap myself in my furry red blanket to drink coffee and slowly let the morning seep into my limbs.

There’s this deep, unsettled ball in my stomach that hates getting up at my inner clock’s 3:00 am. And when I walk to school, I wish for good old Irish wellies that keep the water from the toes because the snow is melting into small lakes and my boots aren’t water-proof.

But that’s all I can complain about these days, so that’s precious little hardship.

My two-month sojourn in the US  showed me how rich and good and beautiful life is at the same time that it’s yucky and hurtful and imperfect for everyone. I met lots of people.  Good people. Relatives and deep friends. They laughed and cried with me, poured love and grace on me, and sent me away feeling rich and refreshed beyond words.

Now I walk Polish streets and hear Polish conversations and teach English to Polish students. It’s another world in many ways except that people are people, and I find love and beauty and whimsy in them.

And maybe tomorrow morning won’t be quite as grim.

 

Normal: Travelling and Telling Stories

“Do all Mennonites travel as much as you and your friends do?”

Last night wasn’t the first time that my friend asked me this. but it stumped me again. I don’t know what is normal for other Mennonites, only what’s normal for me. And normal for me is to hear stories of other countries, the food, the houses, transportation, the languages encountered. Stories and details galore, to wonder at and admire.

I said it’s normal for my family. Both of my grandfathers are globe-trotters dedicated to service, and the trait is strong in their grandchildren. An hour before my friend’s question, I’d read an email from my aunt planning Christmas activities with the extended family. There will be photos and stories from schools and missions in Liberia, the Far East, El Salvador, Mexico, Ukraine, Poland. Not to mention places of ministry within the US. Stories, stories, stories!

I’m not as well-traveled as I want to be, but packing a bag and making sure the ticket and money are safe is something I’ve often done–though not often enough to satisfy me.  So I was ecstatic to be able to fly on a whim to Ukraine last week end and join a friend for a missionary conference. The quick decision and foreign country and new acquaintences thrilled me like little else could. I wrote my family and close friends a report that was long but didn’t nearly say everything because it’s impossible to put all one’s impressions and comparisons and theories of a new country on paper.

While I’m immensely grateful for the legacy of travelling and missions that my grandparents and parents gave me, I don’t want to minimize the value of being steady in the home place. (Though I have this sneaking suspicion that the majority of  people do that because it’s their default setting rather than their calling. This makes me sad and a little angry sometimes. Is that my problem?) Going out to ‘do missions’ isn’t something to do for adventure. Sometimes the most anyone can do for the Kingdom is to be gracious to the irritating person beside them, to be gentle to the child speaking to them, to do more than the boss asks, to do the next thing even though it feels impossible.

Which we all must do, no matter where we are on this wide, beautiful globe.

Related post: Lengthening the Cords