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.

My Stone

Nie mój cyrk, nie moja malpa. Not my circus, not my monkey. I’ve heard that this is a Polish maxim, but when I was living in Poland, I never heard it that way. I usually just heard nie moja sprawa.

The monkey line was whimsical and made me chuckle, but I could never remember it at the right time.

A couple weeks ago, I was at a women’s retreat and it was a wonderful time of fellowship and refreshment, everything a retreat should be. As a parallel to the décor of ferns, water fountains, moss, and stones, there was a basket of small stones at the registration table. Every one was supposed to choose a stone and was instructed to carry it with them all the time.

Then someone read the story of the man whom God asked to carry some stones to the top of the hill. On the way, other people asked him to take their stone, and in his good nature, the man accepted. The load got so heavy, he started blaming God for asking so much of him. But God reminded him that He never asked him to take on all the extra stones.

In the retreat, some of us were told to plant stones surreptitiously  in people’s bags and laps, to see what the women would do when they discovered more than their own pebble. Unfortunately, I was socializing too much and didn’t drop any stones anywhere. But one busy bee was planting them everywhere. She was sitting beside me in one workshop and afterwards we had this serious conversation, but when I turned my back, there was a hot pebble under my Bible, and the lady was gone. The pebble was warmed all through, holding its heat from being clenched in her hand, waiting for the right moment. The turkey!

She may or may not have had several handfuls of pebbles mysteriously scattered between her pillow case, sheets, and blanket that night. As always, the laughs are the best part of being together.

A couple days after the retreat, I heard bad news from several places, and it all wanted to paralyze me. Then I thought, No, that’s not my stone to carry.

I care deeply, will listen, pray, stay alert, but put it down. It’s not my stone. There was an extra stone in my bag when I came home, and I pitched it. I took the original one I chose from the basket, wrote my assignment on it with white-out pen, and put it on my desk.

This is my stone, the biggest current assignment that God is ever so gently but persistently asking me to carry. I don’t have room right now to carry any others.

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Live a Good Story

(This blog post is the more polished, non-nervous version of the short speech I gave at the singles’ seminar yesterday at Penn Valley, about my story of living with passion.)

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“Beauty will save the world.” This is what Dostoevsky said, and I think I agree.

But I like to tweak the line to say Stories will change the world. And I’m out to live a good story.

I was born and raised in Virginia, and when I was 21, my whole family moved to Ireland and that’s where they still are. I lived there 14 years, and 5 years in Poland. The shape and the energy of my life have to do with words and people. Which is stories. In Poland, I taught English as a second language, and it was wonderful because words were my currency of exchange and all I had to do was sit in front of someone make them talk. In Ireland, I thought about doing what good missionaries do, which is to write  book about being a missionary in a foreign country. That book didn’t get written because I don’t know how to be a good missionary, but something else happened that I never expected.

When I was 29, I was reading a letter from a friend who  mentioned something she was learning in her walk with Jesus as a single. A voice from the ceiling told me, “You need to write a book for girls like this.” I doubted the voice; I thought it was my colorful imagination, so I told God that if it was Him, could He please confirm it? For the next week, nearly every day, He nudged and reminded and confirmed that it had been Him.

My motivation was to encourage and inspire. It’s not a how-to book, with lists of formulas on how to recognize a good man or how to become perfectly content. I saw women who were looking at being 30 without romance, and they became desperate and bitter, and I knew that God intended more than that for His creation. The book is largely about acknowledging that very few of us are living the life we were planning to live, but finding beauty and richness in it regardless of changed plans.

Maybe it’s a woman thing, or maybe it’s just me, but my deepest fear has been that I am or will be completely and utterly alone. That I have no one to walk with, lean on, depend on. I don’t mind solitude, but the fear of being existentially, profoundly on my own with no other resources has terrified me. I don’t say this cockily, because I still have fleeting moments of that fear but the experience of writing my book has taken most of that fear away. Because it was such an incredibly companionable walk with Jesus, a partnership with Him, where every step was in the dark, and I depended on Him to tell me what to do next and how to do it, and I now I know, as I never did before that I am never, ever alone.

I didn’t know how to write a book. There are things you should do and shouldn’t do, and I didn’t know what they were. But at every step, God put the right people in my path to help or give advice–some people with whom I haven’t had contact since, but they were there when I needed their expertise.

One day at work between customers, I made a list of the words about topics I wanted to cover. That list became my working outline. I’d write a chapter about each topic, and two years later when I got to the end of the list, I stopped, and that was the book. The outline morphed into sections of living with purpose (what is settled in the past, behind us), passion (what we do with today) and promise (what to look forward to.) I’m not much for cutesy alliteration, but that just happened. I should maybe mention that several readers have said my India story makes them wonder if I’m married. I’m not married. The story is completely fiction, even while it is scarily what I could do.

I have a new job now, working on a dynamic team that’s developing a history curriculum for elementary students. I’ve never taught history, and never taught these grades, so my current learning curve is huge. But I feel that everything behind me has prepared me for this moment. Among other good things, it combines words and people (stories) so it’s something I can put my whole heart into.

Stories will change the world. Not everyone needs to write a book, but everyone can live a good story. Donald Miller says a story is when a main character wants something and goes through conflict to find it. You have desires and dreams. Keep them! The minute you cut off your dreams and decide they’re too messy or ridiculous, your story stops. When you have conflict, don’t try to avoid it. Conflict is what makes your story. Think Joseph. Without the conflict with his brothers, he wouldn’t have had a story; he’d have just been Joseph in the field. Living a good story is not about muscling through and making things work, but it’s about keeping in step with Jesus and entering into His life and love.

Because life is such an incredible, beautiful gift and we should make the most of it.

Kunfuzed

Yesterday we were sitting at beautiful wedding reception, eating hors’doeuvres.

My friend asked me a simple question: So do you miss Europe?

My eyes filled suddenly: Yes. Terribly.

“What do you miss about it?”

It’s odd, because I like how relaxed and friendly Americans are and I love how easy it is to talk with them, but I miss the elegance and dignity of Europeans. I miss dropped voices in public. I miss the refined manners and propriety and sense of fashion, all of which used to frustrate me to no end.

And it doesn’t make sense, because what I like is what I don’t like.

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Roots

america-219896_640   I landed in the US with empty hands except for three elephant suitcases. My aunt and her family took me in, giving me room and a job. Another uncle and aunt gave me a car to use for the time being. Another uncle gave me a phone to use especially for when I’m on the road alone.

Ten days later, I found myself in a borrowed car filled with gas, a borrowed GPS, and borrowed CD’s. I headed from southern OH to the Blue Ridge Mountains of VA, a 6+ hour drive. I worshipped when I saw the light emerge in the mountains and the clouds playing below the peaks. The masses of trees and wild flowers were unbelievable.

I’d promised myself a treat at a Starbucks at a travel plaza, and waited in an interminable line. When I finally got to give my order, the man behind me gestured me on and said he’d pay for my mocha frappe. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I still think that all the pleasantries and wishing each other a good day, all these positive vibes wafting around in this country, all the “How are you’s” have to nudge people to pay it forward and think warmer thoughts towards strangers here more than in the post-communist country I’ve lived in the last five years.

I was on my way to the area where I lived 19 years ago. The occasion was the dispersal of my Yoder grandparent’s belongings. It was the last Yoder gathering of its kind, and I was the sole representative of my immediate family, since they weren’t able to leave Ireland and Kansas for this weekend. I don’t know why it was me who was able to be there, being the least sentimental of any of us, and not in a position to accumulate anything sizable for myself. Living from three suitcases rearranges one’s idea of Stuff in a hurry. But I had the fun of bidding on behalf of my parents and siblings, and indeed, they bid now and then via Skype!

The family auction was filled with understated, simple humor as only the Yoders can carry off. We made jokes and resurrected stories about the ancient hard-as-a-board green couch, but no one would be persuaded to bid on it. Food appeared at lunch and supper times as if by magic, the women having planned and scurried around and it looked effortless to me, but I knew better and soaked up the care and love and grace.

Several times I scanned our small army of aunts, uncles, cousins, and baby cousins, and kept thinking that our stories belong in a novel, and here we are living as if everything is normal, and the blazing sunset and blinking fireflies and the bumps and bruises and gifts of our lives are just nodded at for a second and seemingly forgotten.

But I think they should be celebrated and wondered at, and discussed and thanked God for. The stories that include interracial marriages, several foreign languages, multiple heart breaks, redemption, probation rules, health nuts, scandal, simple faith, and cancer–oh yes, and auctions–always auctions.

Sunday morning I went to the church that used to be ours 19 years ago, and saw white hair on my former teachers, and heard the same phrases that I always did in the prayers, and listened while the four-part harmony wrapped itself around me as if with warm skeins of undulating color.

While the message was going in full force, I heard a discreet little voice behind me. The little girl was born in Europe where cultured people drop their voices in public. “Mama, why is he shouting?”

Then her mom’s wise perspective: “It’s ok—it’s just the way he preaches.”

I identified with the girl because I wanted to push away the shouting too. I’m not used to the decibels in people’s normal conversations in this country, let alone a raised voice from behind the pulpit, and it might always make me cringe a little.

But I saw God revealed in people’s love for me, their generosity and looking out for others, my two dinner invitations and connecting with old pals. It was the little things that impacted me:

“Is there anything I can do for you Yoders?”  “Go over to our garage and fill up your tank with gas.”  “Would you like a cup of coffee for the road?”

Some things never change, but nothing is the same.

Interview

Now it’s public:

I’m a blog junkie.

I have my reasons and justifications.

Do I sound defensive? Do you want to pay for therapy for me?

You can see some of  my reasons in the interview my friend Shari did over on her blog.

For the record, today Feedly says I have 107 sources. And I unsubscribed from a few during the week. As with other parts of my life, I do try to keep an open hand about writing and reading blogs.

Enjoy the interviews!

History and Today

1. If you could change one thing in history, what would it be, and why? In English class, this would be a question to practice conditionals. But this week it was the impromptu question put to me in front of a group of strangers as a way of introducing myself. After a couple seconds, I said that since I live in a country where we feel the repercussions of WWII, I would change Adolf Hitler’s choices. Later, I thought I could have mentioned Eve’s choice to eat that fruit, but I know my potential to do the same thing she did, so the Fall would have come at some point anyhow.

Back to Hitler: this idea  is not original with me, but what would have happened if someone would have loved young Adolph when he was three or four or five? Or mentored him when he was eleven and twelve, wanting to be an artist? Somewhere he made terrifyingly wrong choices, but before that, it seems somewhere he fell through the cracks. Who let him go? Who is sliding into cracks around me now?

2.  I think heaven is going to be something like living on a Bible school campus. These days, I study and teach, read and eat good food, take walks and sing in choir. And best of all, every day friends knock on my door just to visit or see if I want to go on a walk with them, or at supper they refill my bowl with Oreo ice cream. It’s not heaven, because there were plenty of un-pinnable moments where the tissues were close to hand, and the enemy’s accusations rang louder than they should. This is a special time of intense focus on God and what’s most important, and I love it.