Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Post of the Year

It's New Year's Eve, and I'm at home with my family (I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I really loathe New Year's Eve parties). We've been playing games, reading, being silly and generally having fun, but something else special happened tonight as well: I got to share pictures of my son's birth mom with him.

I have been saving these photos for years, waiting for the day when I thought Ben would be old enough to appreciate them. When we moved to South Africa, the photos were misplaced, and I've been praying to find them ever since. I finally found them today (in a pile of banking stuff, no less). The timing is perfect as Ben has been verbalising that he wished he knew what his birth mom looked like.

We had a really sweet time in my son's room, just talking and explaining and going over his adoption story once again. I wish you could have seen the look in Ben's eyes when he saw the photos for the first time; it was so precious. I was able to say, "Look, Ben - you have your birth mom's eyes and her beautiful brown skin." His eyes lit up (while mine teared up) and it was like a puzzle piece fell into place - one of life's mysteries was solved.

Ben belongs in our family, yes, but for eight years he's had to deal with the fact that he doesn't look like us; he's different in some ways. Tonight he was able to feel - albeit in an unconventional way - like he belongs. Some history and a sense of identity was cemented for him.

And that is a great way to usher in the new year - far better than any party, don't you think?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let the Games Begin!

I need to renew my passport. I live in a foreign country. That doesn't sound too hard, right?

I tried to fill out a passport application (form DS-11) online. I was stopped, however, by the following warning:
"You may only submit this form if you have never been issued a U.S. passport... If the above statement does not apply to you, you may be eligible to apply for a U.S. passport by mail. See 'How to Renew Your Passport.' "
I clicked on the 'How to Renew Your Passport' link, which took me to the handy DS-82 form, which is a "renew by mail" application. I was stopped, however, by the following warning:
"U.S. citizens residing abroad should renew their passports at the nearest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate."
This pops up a list of U.S. Embassies listed by country. The nearest U.S. Embassy in South Africa is in Pretoria, which happens to be where I live. The problem is, they will not only not help you, they will not even let you in the front door. For all U.S. citizen services, you must go to the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg (this is not a big deal, but you will only learn this by experience, not from the U.S. Department of State's handy website).

I went to the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg's website to make an appointment (which you have to do, as they only help Americans between 1 and 4 p.m.). When you book your appointment online you have to select the reason for your appointment. I could select "Renew passport for minor" or "Renew passport for some over 18 whose last passport was issued while a minor", or even "Replace lost or damaged passport," but there was NO button to select for "I am just an adult who lives abroad and wants to renew my passport."

If there is a magic bureaucracy fairy, I could use some help right about now.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thoughts on Joy to the World

I have verse 3 of Joy to the World stuck in my head. The funny thing is, that's probably the least sung verse and yet the lyrics stand out so vividly to me.

I don't know why I've always sung Christmas songs with Bethlehem images in my mind, but this year my mind has been flooded with images of South Africa - my South Africa, for whom this song was also written:

No more let sin and sorrow grow

Nor thorns infest the ground

He comes to make His blessings flow

Far as the curse is found

Far as the curse is found

Far as, far as the curse is found

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thoughts on the Little Drummer Boy

Most of you probably know the Christmas carol, "The Little Drummer Boy." I used to think that was the dumbest Christmas song because I never understood it. In fact, it wasn't until I was in my early 30's that I finally understood the meaning behind the song, and once the "lightbulb" lit up over my head I began to weep.

Fast forward five years, and you will still see me trying hard not to cry when I hear this song. Inside I feel embarrassed for crying at what I had once deemed "the dumbest song ever." But the words are so real, so honest, so unlike modern society, that I can't help but be moved by them.
Come they told me... a newborn king to see... our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King and so to honour Him.

Little baby, I am a poor boy, too... I have no gift to bring that's fit to give the King... Shall I play for you on my drum?
I can just see this little kid saying, "I'm not a wise man, I'm not a shepherd, I have nothing, but... I can play the drum pretty well. Maybe I can play the drum for You and that can be my gift?"

How often do we compare our gifts, our talents, our skills (and I won't even get started on our houses, our fashion, our weight...) to what others have to offer? Yet I firmly believe that everyone is great at something, and whatever it is that you are great at, do that for Jesus. There could be no more acceptable gift for a King - for the King. Be who you are, be who Jesus made you to be, and give that back to Him as a gift.

Be honest this year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wednesdays With Auntie Hope

It's been a few weeks since I spent time with Auntie Hope and I was really looking forward to my time with her today.

Today Auntie Hope offered me some tea. She does this every week, but when she went to fetch the teacups and saucers, they weren't in the sideboard where she keeps her china. I helped her look, and we found all of her teacups and saucers in another cupboard in her kitchen. She must have put them there and then forgotten, but while Auntie Hope forgets where the tea is every week, she never forgets where the teacups are. This made me feel sad.

After a nice cup of tea I sat down to listen to Auntie Hope tell stories of going to boarding school at Pretoria Girls High and of her mother owning a laundry business. I used to dread her telling these same two stories every week, but now I rather look forward to them as "our little tradition."

Auntie Hope then told me of how she went to draw money this morning but was told she must phone her daughter. I think her daughter handles her finances for her, but from Auntie Hope's perspective, she can't figure out why she gets such "strange instructions" to draw money. She feels confused and helpless.

I have to say I can actually relate. Just trying to renew a passport at the U.S. Consulate can leave me feeling confused and helpless. And maybe it's just me, but I find that much of life leaves me feeling confused and helpless. If I would only remember to lean on Jesus and look to Him for guidance, things would be much easier than trying to "manage" on my own.

I don't know why it takes a visit with Auntie Hope to remind me of these things, but it does. And I'm so thankful.

"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." - Matthew 11:28-30, The Message

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Colourful Creepy Crawlies

I am not a fan of bugs, but I can appreciate God's creativity in designing them. Here are a few insects from the Soutpansberg Mountains, one hour south of the Zimbabwean border:

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At Long Last!

I have often wondered why all the popular Christmas songs are written from a northern hemisphere perspective. They're all about winter, snow, warm drinks, cosy fires, etc. Yet half the world experiences Christmas in the summer season, so why don't people in the southern hemisphere write Christmas songs?

This has bugged me for three years now, but I am happy to say that I discovered an Afrikaans Christmas song this year that was written here in South Africa (there's actually quite a story behind the song, but that will have to wait for another day). I can't figure out if it's called Somerkersfees or Welkom O Stille Nag van Vrede, but here's the first verse and my feeble attempt at a translation (and I do hope my Afrikaans friends will forgive me if I've done it any injustice):

Welkom o stille nag van vrede
onder die suiderkruis
wyl stemme uit die ou verlede
oor sterre velde ruis
Kersfees kom, Kersfees kom
gee aan God die eer
Skenk ons 'n helder Somerkersfees
in hierdie land, o Heer.

Welcome, O silent night of peace,
under the Southern Cross,
While voices from the ancient past
rise o'er the starry veld -
Christmas is coming, Christmas is coming,
Give all the honour to God
Grant us a bright summer Christmas
in this our land, O Lord.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Random Opinion of the Day

South Africa has its challenges, to be sure, but on the plus side it has some of the most beautiful public toilets the world has to offer.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Shocking Statistic

I just read a news article stating that 4 million South Africans submitted tax returns this year, which is a 1% increase over last year. This may not seem like big news to you, but it stopped me in my tracks.

There are 45 million people in South Africa. If only 4 million submitted tax returns (and this is an increase, remember) that means that 9% of the population is funding 100% of the government. Chew on that for awhile.

It is true that unemployment is high here - latest statistics show it at 25.3% for the 3rd quarter of 2010 - but that means that 74.7% of residents are employed. So why are only 9% paying taxes?

I'd actually like to research this one. There is probably much I don't understand, but still - the fact that 9% of the populations pays for the other 91% is mind-boggling.

(statistics courtesy of and

Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

...just in case you wondered what it looks like.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wednesday Quote

A friend reminded me of this quote, and it is so applicable to what I'm going through this week that I wanted to share it with all of you.

"I am determined that if all my senses contradict God, I would rather deny every one of them than believe that God could lie." - Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Prize Giving

I never get tired of seeing kids in their school uniforms. It's still in many ways "foreign" to me, as I never had to wear a school uniform.
(and if you will allow me to indulge for a minute... that's my son on the right. He received an award for reading the most books in his grade. I remember well the day back at Children's Hospital in Central California when the neurologist said most children with his MRI results can't walk or talk. Thank you, Jesus, for small miracles!)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thoughts on Face Painting, Statistics and the Future

Yesterday we volunteered at a primary school out in Olievenhoutbosch, a rural area south of Centurion. Our church had gathered presents for 1,400 children, and we put on a Christmas party for them complete with boerewors rolls, jumping castles and face painting.

I always end up getting stuck with the face painting, and I'm terrible at it. Everything I paint looks like it needs phsyical therapy. But I had my orders.

It was hot as I sat in the dirt and kids crowded around me. They didn't speak English and I don't speak Sepedi, so we had fun trying to communicate. Most of them wanted "South Africa" on their face, which meant that they wanted the South African flag. And as I painted their faces, statistics started running through my head...

1 out of every 3 of you will lose a parent to AIDS in a few years. Everything will try to pull you down and keep you from completing your education - crime, rape, prostitution, poverty, hopelessness. And you are the future of this country and I see the potential reflected in your eyes and I wish I could do more than just paint your face with "South Africa."

It was all I could do to keep from crying at their Christmas party (and wouldn't that be the worst - to take away the little bit of fun and joy they have?). So I prayed. I prayed for each one as I painted their faces beaded with sweat and dotted with tomato sauce and bread crumbs. God, protect them. Protect them so they can reach their full potential, so they can grow up to be who You created them to be.

I came home with a nasty sunburn, but it is my heart that is raw and sore as I type this. I ache for them. I ache for them so much.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Tuesdays With Auntie Hope

(I'm a little late on the post, but the lesson is still with me...)

This has been a rough week - busy, challenging, and full of personal weaknesses, insecurities and room for growth. I was looking forward to my visit with Auntie Hope so I could just sit, visit for a few hours and not have to think about "the real world." I actually wanted to hear Auntie Hope tell the same stories - about boarding school at Pretoria Girls High and about growing up around her parents' laundry business - that she tells every week.

On any other visit I would try to steer the conversation elsewhere, try to avoid anything that leads to hearing the same two stories over and over again. It never works, though. Auntie Hope always tells those stories and there is nothing I can do about it. It is what it is, and those two events obviously made an impact on her.

But when things are difficult, when life is challenging, we look for the familiar and the stable, don't we? We want to hang onto things that are known. We like to be able to count on something solid because much of life is fluid, shifting and unknown. And it's funny to me that the things that would normally drive me crazy are the things I seek to comfort me when I'm feeling down.

That's when I remembered that my favourite adjective to describe God is "immutable" - incapable of change. The God I read about in the Bible is still that God today.

"Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." - Matthew 11:28-30

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Have We Become?

I just read that for World AIDS Day, Lady Gaga is going to abstain from Twitter and Facebook, along with several other celebrities, until US$1 million is raised for singer Alicia Keys' charity, Keep a Child Alive. Keys said, "It’s so important to shock you to the point of waking up... This is such a direct and instantly emotional way and a little sarcastic, you know, of a way to get people to pay attention."

I can't deny that I am thankful for celebrities who use their fame to raise money for important causes and charities, but let me first share a few statistics with you:
  • AIDS is the leading cause of death in South Africa
  • 5.6 million people are living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa, more than any other country in the world (2009 statistics)
  • 1 in 3 South African children will lose a parent to AIDS by the year 2015
  • 30% of pregnant women in South Africa are HIV positive
  • South Africa is one of 12 countries in the world that has not seen its child mortality rate decline at all since the 1990s
  • 33% of of women aged 25-29 and 25% of men aged 30-34 are HIV positive in South Africa
  • 41% of all deaths in the year 2006 were attributed to 25-49 year olds
Now may I respectfully ask, why do these statistics not shock people into awareness? Why does it take a lady who wears raw meat for a dress to abstain from her computer for a day to convince people to pay attention to the problem of AIDS?

I am absolutely ashamed to be an American, and furious to the point of tears.

(Research statistics are courtesy of The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Research, University of Cape Town, and AVERT)

The Newest Member of our Family

A red bishop has taken over our backyard. Doesn't he look like a bird version of Little Red Riding Hood? He has made his home in one of our trees, together with his harem of "boring brown" females. I love looking outside my window and seeing flashes of red in the trees.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Pet Peeve

The thing about driving in Pretoria is that when you stop at a robot (traffic light) you will be hounded by street hawkers trying to sell you anything from a medical poster of the digestive system to inflatable life jackets. For someone like me who sees driving time as an opportunity to rehearse my music, this is at best amusing and at worst irritating.

There is a new breed of street beggars, though, that really get to me. They will stand in the street with a trash bag and offer to take any rubbish from your car - for a small donation, of course. If you politely decline, they'll stick their face in your window and look really pathetic. If you keep ignoring them, they'll drop to their knees and start crying.

You may think I am being cruel and heartless, but these are the same people who pretend to be crippled the next day and come up with all sorts of crazy gaits and torn clothing to convince you of their infirmity and poverty so you'll give them money.

I suppose I need to readjust my expectations and count on my driving time to be interrupted with these diversions, but when I regularly make a 25 minute drive across town and am approached at every single robot... it becomes a bit taxing.

And then - every once in a while - you'll come across a really creative beggar:

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Never throughout history has a man who lived a life of ease left a name worth remembering." - Theodore Roosevelt

When in Rome... You Can Still Have a Bad Day

I don't expect two countries to be the same. I try not to compare them - I really do. And while many people say that customer service in South Africa is non-existent, these are the people who are used to American-style customer service, which is... different.

Today, however, it appears to be "Antagonize the Customer Day" here in South Africa. I went to the Post Office to pay our annual vehicle registration fee (which you can actually pay at a post office in this country - yippee!), and the lady behind the counter just disappeared when I handed her my paperwork. No explanation or anything. When she finally came back, she said, "The system was down. I couldn't do anything until it came back up." Do you think she could have told me that before she walked off, so I at least knew what was going on?

At the next shop, the woman at the till gave me R30 rand in change... all in R1 and R2 coins. She said, "Is this okay?" I asked if she had any notes. She said no. I asked if she had any R5 coins. She said no. I asked if she could ask someone at one of the other tills. She said no. Which leads me to wonder, why did she ask me if I had no choice? I ended up with 19 coins.

The next place I went had clothing high up on the wall out of anyone's reach. I asked a woman to get down a jersey (sweater) for me, and she said they didn't have it in my daughter's size. I said, "But there's a whole stack of jerseys. Can you please just check?" She said, "See. There's a size 10 behind a size 7. There's no size 9." Long story short, there were tons of size 9's. She just didn't want to look past the first two jerseys.

All this causes me to wonder - am I really a horrible American who can't help but compare everything to how it is "back home," or is there a base level of customer service one can expect worldwide? And does it even matter?

I think I'll just chalk it up to a bad day and let it go at that.

Tuesdays With Auntie Hope

I switched my days with Auntie Hope from Mondays to Tuesdays because she's spending more time with her family on the weekends. I wondered if that would confuse her more, so I reminded her that I used to come on Mondays, and asked her how her family was doing. She replied, "Yes, I'm spending Mondays with them as well now. I have a mental condition, and it isn't something that one can hide away from. It's something one has to face and manage as best one can."

I think my mouth dropped open when she said that. If I had Alzheimer's, I think I would hide away... having been the acadmic-type, I imagine how destructive and demoralising it would be to slowly forget things. Auntie Hope, however, seems to face life with nerves of steel. And this from a woman who says she isn't qualified to do anything!

There are times, however, when Auntie Hope feels lonely and miserable, and that's when she finds comfort in her cat, who usually sidles up to her and purrs contentedly. In moments like those I feel like crying. Even if people visited daily, it wouldn't change the feelings of loneliness that comes from going to bed alone, the silence that comes from living alone, or the sense of abandonment from having no short-term memory of the people who do love and visit her.

When it was time to lock up her flat and walk down to lunch, Auntie Hope couldn't find her keys. I helped her look and finally found them outdoors. It made me realise how precious - and how precarious -our time together is.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Look Ma - No Consonants!

I've always said that the challenge with Afrikaans is the vowels. Every language has its difficulty - with German it's the verbs, with English it's the pronunciations, and with Afrikaans it's the vowels. There are just so many vowel combinations and different sounds that are hard for a native-English speaker. I struggle to make the eu, ui and uu sounds.

Today, I learned a new Afrikaans word: eeue-oue. That means "centuries-old." Notice how there are seven vowels and not a single consonant. I rest my case.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mondays With Auntie Hope

The past few Mondays Auntie Hope hasn't been home. I started to get worried about her, so I went down to the management office of the retirement centre. They said Auntie Hope's been really deurmekaar the past several weeks and her family is really concerned . They've been keeping her longer over the weekends ("deurmekaar" is a great Afrikaans word that means "confused", but it goes deeper than that, which is probably why it's used in English just as frequently. If you think of a pile of spaghetti noodles all interwoven and stuck together, you'll have a good idea of what the word means).

I miss Auntie Hope, and I'm going to have to change my schedule so I can come visit her on a different morning each week. I also thought I'd have more time with Auntie Hope, that she wouldn't decline so quickly. I feel sad.

Time really is a strange thing. Sometimes you think you have too much of it, and other times there isn't enough. I guess the important thing is to make the most of every opportunity.

"Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation always be full of grace..." - Colossians 4:5-6

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Kwaito

Last night we went to the Grade 7 arts and culture production at my kids' school. This is a big deal for Grade 7's as it's their last year of primary school as well as the end of the school year.

The four Grade 7 classes each performed excerpts from famous musicals, but they added a South African spin to them. In addition to performing the traditional time-period dances that went with each musical, they added a South African modern dance to each one, incorporating it into the musical's plot. There were dances from the 1950's and 1960's, as well as modern House, Hip Hop and traditional South African dances. It was SO cool!

I suddenly thought of Hollywood movies and their influence around the world. I don't understand why kids try to emulate Hollywood celebrities. There was so much talent bursting out of the Grade 7 kids last night; they don't NEED to copy Hollywood stars. They are amazing all on their own. And these kids are the future of this country. I pray that they will reach their God-given potential and not succumb to the pressures of conforming to some silly standard set by some other country.

(P.S. You rock, Lesego!!! Can I have your autograph?)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

...And What I Don't Love

Christmas beetles, as they're known in South Africa (I think they're actually June bugs?), are so named because they come out this time of year in droves. Once the sun sets, you really don't want to take a walk, as these things are *everywhere.* And it's mating season.

Last night I was reading in bed (Dan was already asleep), when Dan suddenly jerked awake, threw his pillow across the room, threw off the covers, jumped out of bed, and - while I was trying to figure out what on earth was going on - said, "It's still on the bed somewhere!"

Turns out a Christmas beetle had flown in his ear.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What I Love About South African Summers

Dan took this photo last night during a thunderstorm. I *love* falling asleep to the sound of rain and thunder.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Note to Mr. Malema

I usually avoid the subject of politics for two reasons:
  1. I don't fully know the ins and outs of South African politics.
  2. Everyone has their own opinions, which are usually impassioned, and I don't want to start a heated debate.
HOWEVER, I cannot leave the remarks of Julius Malema, president of the ANCYL (African National Congress Youth League) uncommented upon. Malema called Helen Zille, Premier of the Western Cape province a "cockroach that must be removed." Everyone in Africa knows that the term "cockroach" was used by the Hutus to incite the slaughter of Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

You might be wondering, "What did Helen Zille do to make Julius Malema so upset?" Her crime is to belong to the opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Western Province is also the only province not controlled by the ANC.

So I have this to say to Julius Malema:

Mr. Malema, you don't have to agree with Ms. Zille's politics, but you should treat everyone with the respect and dignity you demand for yourself. You are in a position of leadership, and you should use that influence to foster a spirit of unity and reconciliation among this nation. Follow the footsteps of your political forebears and promote a spirit of cooperation and forgiveness. Otherwise you will stand in the way of this country's progress, healing, and greatness.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Laws of Rounding

The smallest coin in South Africa is a 5-cent coin, but if you go to a shop, things are marked to the cent, so something might cost R19.99. In that case, you always round DOWN to the nearest 5 or 0 (In this case, you'd pay R19.95).

SO.... I went to the grocery store to buy a few things for dinner, the lady at the till scanned my items, and the total was R26.98. I always have too much change (this comes from living in a country where there are seven coin possibilities), so I pulled out R26.95 and handed it to her. She said, "Don't you have a R1 coin?" I said, "Yes, but I'm trying to use up my change." She said, "But it's R26.98, and you only gave me 95 cents." (Pause...)

"But... you round down. It's isn't possible to give you three more cents." She then told me to give her R27. I tried to tell her that if I gave her R27, she'd just have to give me five cents back, but she wouldn't believe me. Finally she called the manager over who said, "Just enter R26.95. The till automatically rounds down." The woman looked at her like this was one of life's great mysteries, and who knows - maybe it is.

I just wanted to use up my coins.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Thoughts on Leaving a Legacy

I've been thinking lately about leaving a legacy. Not so much money or things, but more along the lines of
  • What did I do with my life?
  • Have I made a difference?
  • Will it have mattered when I die?
To that end, I've been thinking about the "end result." What is it I want to accomplish before I die? (and no, I'm not talking about traveling, or bungee jumping, or any other tangible thing) I'm not saying that I want to have every little thing outlined and mapped, but if I can at least establish what the most important things are - i.e., what is my calling, what are my priorities, how can I die "well" with no regrets - then it will generally keep me from filling my days with things that don't really matter and help me maintain a proper perspective.

Billy Graham was once interviewed by Larry King. At one point he was asked, "How do you want to be remembered? You've had great influence on millions of people all over the world. You've hobnobbed with kings and presidents and other very important persons. After your passing, how do you want us to remember you?"

Billy Graham answered, "That I was faithful to do what God asked me to do."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thoughts on Being Peopled-Out, Persevering and Pajamas

Yesterday was my son's 9th birthday party. I survived four hours of noise, sword fights and cupcake explosions. But just as the last guest left some neighbourhood kids came over and stayed until 9:00 p.m. I even found the neighbour's blind dog in our house (I'm guessing he got lost?).

Today I had an all-day choir rehearsal, and no sooner had I come home, exhausted, when the sheep bell rang (like a cow bell, only for sheep. It functions as our doorbell since we don't have one). More neighbourhood kids came over to play.

I'm laughing as I type this because I'm wearing a shirt that says "Love Your Neighbour" when what I really want to do is "Love My Pajamas". Reaching out to people isn't always convenient. There are days when I'm really tired and peopled-out. And while I do feel the freedom to say no, I also know when I need to pray for more energy and grace to set my personal wants aside and be hospitable.

Today is one of those days, but sooner or later I'll see my pajamas. And I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fascinating Facts

Did you know that China, India, Japan, the United States and most of Europe can fit into the continent of Africa? I don't think most of us realise just how big Africa is.

In Case You Wanted to Know...

...what Pretoria looks like this time of year:

...or what Pretoria looks like in general:

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like... Christmas in July

I suppose it was inevitable, but the Christmas decorations are now up in the shopping malls. And while I am getting used to the fact that Christmas occurs in summer down here, I cannot figure out why all the Christmas decorations are Northern Hemisphere-themed. Pine trees, snow and sleds next to swim costume displays and sunblock just doesn't compute for me. And even the Christmas songs all seem to relate to cold weather.

Why can't Santa fly in a sleigh pulled by springboks? Why can't we decorate acacia thorn trees? And why can't we dream of sunny hot Christmases that involve chestnuts roasting on an open braai and sunburns nipping at my nose? I think it's time for someone to invent Southern Hemisphere-themed Christmas decorations and songs (which, incidentally, have nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Shows you how much our culture and location affect our view of the event).

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mondays With Auntie Hope

Today Auntie Hope told the story about her mom sending her off to boarding school. I hear this story nearly every week that I visit her, and while she never outright complains about being sent away to boarding school, it obviously affected her and stands out as a pivotal event in her life.

We all have those events - dramatic, traumatic, whatever you want to call them - that affected us deeply. Many of us have had things thrust upon us that we had no choice or control over or suffered horrible experiences. The thing is, what do we DO about them? Some people push through and manage to come out fine, while others are "stuck." They can't seem to move on, and always come back to that one event that changed their lives forever.

I've been thinking about this today, and while I can't answer for you (I won't even make a suggestion), here's my plan of action: I can't change my past, but I can choose to let it go and trust that God will turn the bad things into something good. Easier said than done, I know. It may even sound trite to you, but I just don't see a better option. If I ever reach a point in my life where I tell the same story over and over... I want it be a story of God's grace.

Sheep Head 101

Sheep head, aka skapkop or "smiley", can be eaten with the fingers. You can eat the tongue, brain and eye, but the best part, according to most, is the cheek. The head is cut in two, so you can buy a whole head, or two halves.

Most of my friends think it's disgusting; I happen to think it tastes great, and if you're ever in a rural part of South Africa, you'd better learn to like it.

(The eye happens to be missing from this one, because - I confess - I ate it.)

I've Been Waiting All Year for This!

It's that time of year again... the jacarandas are in bloom, and I love driving around the city and admiring the colour. I still think it's a shame that gardeners sweep up the fallen blossoms as soon as they hit the ground; I wish they'd leave the purple "carpet" for a day or two. It's so pretty.

While I still lament the fact that my birthday is now in spring rather than autumn, this sort of makes up for it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mondays With Auntie Hope

This morning Auntie Hope and I sat outside and soaked in the gorgeous morning before it got too hot. We were having a fairly serious conversation when Auntie Hope suddenly said, "I wonder why the centre of that plant died, while the two ends are still green?" I replied that I didn't know, and we continued our conversation.

Ten minutes later, Auntie Hope said, "I wonder why the centre of that plant died, while the two ends are still green?" I again replied that I didn't know. This went on every ten minutes or so up until I left, when Auntie Hope said, "Would you look at that!" I said, "What?" Auntie Hope said, "The centre of that plant is dead, and the two ends are still green! How do you suppose that happened?"

I know Auntie Hope has lost her short term memory, but sometimes it's really hard to reply to the same question over and over again. And that's when - (here we go again) - God gently reminded me, "But you do the same thing, Annie."

How often I pray, "Lord, I'm worried about this" or "Why did You allow this, Lord?" or "What must I do in this situation?" and God always answers something like, "Trust Me" or "Just wait" or "I'll take care of it; just give the problem to Me."

Ten minutes later I'm praying again - "But Lord, I'm worried about this!" or "Yes, but what must I DO?" or "But WHY?" God never seems to get irritated with me, either. He just answers the same question over and over. "Trust Me." "Just wait." "I'll take care of it; give the problem to Me."

Again. And again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My Latest Adventure

On Wednesday I drove a few people from the retirement village to a Spring Tea hosted by our church. It was such an adventure I don't even know where to begin.

One of the ladies told me she was just visiting her friend at the retirement centre. I believed her the whole time until I saw her later back up in the Frail Care Centre, eating lunch as a resident. Now I wonder about the other stories she told me (I did think it was strange that she didn't know where Johannesburg was, but now I think I understand).

Another man, who was wheelchair bound, didn't respond to much of anything. He kept falling over in his chair. On the way to the tea he suddenly perked up, said, "I can speak Xhosa," and began to rattle off something in Xhosa (for those of you who don't know, Xhosa is one of the languages with clicks in it). I asked him when he learned to speak Xhosa and he replied, "Huh? I don't speak Xhosa." Then he promptly fell over and went back into his own world.

One woman had a perpetual smile on her face and didn't respond to anything. "Do you want some tea, Auntie?" "Can I pour you a glass of water?" Nothing. No response. At least she looked happy.

Another woman didn't speak a word of English and I was trying desperately to keep up with her, given my limited Afrikaans.

Only one of these wonderful people was able to walk, so I got a crash course in loading wheelchair-bound folks into my van, collapsing wheelchairs (I should have studied mechanical engineering...) and fitting said wheelchairs into my van when it's already full of people.

When it was time to take them back to the retirement centre (all of these particular people stayed in the Frail Care Centre), I actually felt a bit sad. And while they made me smile with their quirkiness, I meant no disrespect. On the contrary, these people have my utmost respect. I can only imagine what they've lived through - world wars, economic sanctions, radical changes in government - and now the world is passing them by at breakneck speed.

If you ever get a chance, spend a few hours at a retirement centre. You will be blessed in ways that surprise you.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

I Think They Need a Fast Lane

If you go to any of the shops, you will notice that some people walk as though they're task-oriented and know exactly where they're going (I would fall into that category), and others shuffle along as though they have all the time in the world (that would not be me). This difference in walking pace seems to fall along the line between Western and non-Western cultures.

I am learning to be flexible. In the three years that I've been in South Africa I've made great strides at putting people ahead of tasks. If someone comes to my door, I will invite them in and make tea or coffee for them, even if I was on my way out the door. But when I'm at the shops....

I just want to get in, get what I need, and get out. My husband tells me I shop like a man, which is fine with me except when I'm at the shops on a Saturday and I am stuck behind dozens of "meandering" shoppers. That still drives me insane, and I cannot adjust to the shuffling pace no matter how hard I try. I always come home feeling like this:

Maybe I should do my shopping on a Monday morning.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Food for Thought

"Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs in your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry." - Colossians 3:5

In Afrikaans, the word for "impurity" is translated as "alles wat julle onwaardig maak om God te ontmoet," which means "everything that makes you unworthy of meeting with God."

That phrase really makes me think. I've been pondering it for over a week now, and it still hasn't left my mind.

A Serious Case of Marketing Blitz

(I realise some of you may be offended by the following post, but that is not my intent. I am only recording my experiences and trying to make sense of my "world" in South Africa through my American cultural lens.)

Today, on the way to the office, I passed 79 advertisements for penis enlargements. On the way home from work, I took a different route, and passed 112 advertisements for penis enlargements. I am not making those numbers up.

My first thought was, that must have cost a ton in marketing fees. My second thought was, why the obsession? It seems as though overnight these adverts appeared on every metal post, the back of every stop sign, and on every public rubbish bin in the city.

As a parent, I never imagined myself talking about these sorts of things to my children on the way to school. I suppose it's funny in a way, but I am rather mystified... If you do the math you end up with 191 different advertisements- and that's just in my little corner of Pretoria.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mondays with Auntie Hope

Today while I was practicing my Afrikaans with Auntie Hope, her cat jumped up on my lap, knocking my lesson book out of the way (this is in and of itself no small thing as her cat is rather large, to put it mildly). So I just started talking to the cat in Afrikaans. The funny thing is, Auntie Hope made the cat "answer" me... in Afrikaans, of course. She was the voice of the cat, and I was talking to it as though it were a person. Finally Auntie Hope made the cat say, "Julle is almal gek," which is a strong way of saying "You're all mad!" I replied, "Ja, maar dis pret om gek te wees." Yes, but it's fun to be crazy. Then we looked at each other and laughed.

I was so excited to see Auntie Hope this morning; I was anticipating another great life lesson, but there was none. I was a little disappointed until I realised that sometimes silliness and laughter is also good. Sometimes it's exactly what we need to get through the rest of the day.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Worse Than a Shock of Cold Water

Agnes is a woman who works at my house one morning each week. This morning, after I threw some old magazines away, Agnes asked if she could have them. I said "Sure," but I must have had a puzzled look on my face (who would want some old, cut-up magazines?) because she explained, "We use it for toilet paper."

I don't even know what to say. I feel horrible.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mondays With Auntie Hope

Yesterday I was late for my visit with Auntie Hope because our car wouldn't start. By the time I arrived at the retirement centre, I had only 45 minutes to spend with Auntie before her lunchtime.

She was sitting outside on the stoep when I arrived. I joined her, and we just sat and watched the birds. There was silence for most of our visit; conversation didn't flow as easily at it usually does (have you noticed that elderly people don't seem to be as bothered by silence as the younger generations?).

When Auntie Hope finally spoke, she said something interesting: "You know, these two trees in my garden - they're small and have nothing to offer, yet you will rarely find them without a bird perched in them. I don't know why the birds bother to spend time in these trees. There must be bigger trees around here somewhere."

I answered her by suggesting that perhaps - by the simple act of standing there and being available - the trees did indeed have something to offer the birds.

People aren't much different from those trees, are they? We compare ourselves to others, think we have nothing to offer, and yet - maybe by the simple act of standing where we are and being available - we can make a difference in someone's life. Maybe the simple act of sitting with Auntie Hope in silence for 45 minutes was enough for that day, though it felt like so little. Maybe...

straggly trees have just as much to offer as giant trees.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Heritage Day

Yesterday was Heritage Day here in South Africa, also known as National Braai Day. And yes, it's a public holiday where everyone is encouraged to braai (barbecue). That may sound like a silly holiday to you, but consider the following:

When you look at Africa, country borders were historically drawn according to the colonial powers and often separated tribes, or worse - put two warring tribes together. In South Africa alone there are 11 official languages and 8 additional recognised languages. Our differences often separate us and foster suspicion and mistrust.

Heritage Day is a day to celebrate our individual heritage but also to appreciate the heritage of our neighbour. To that effect citizens are encouraged to braai with a neighbour of a different heritage and get to know them. There's nothing like good food to break down barriers and encourage communication and understanding.

We had a braai the day before with some visiting professors from Florida, then had lunch with an Afrikaans friend, coffee with two immigrants from Kenya, and another braai today. I got to practice four languages - Afrikaans, Swahili, Setswana and English (and no, I'm not fluent in any of them!)

South Africa has its challenges, to be sure, but it is so very rich in its culture and people. Someone once said, "A country's greatest resource is its people," and nowhere is that more apparent than in South Africa. Each culture is like a sparkling jewel in the nation's crown.

Time to shine.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Some Important Instructions

Our fridge broke in July. We finally got a new one the other day (needless to say, I'm a little more than excited). I figured I should read the instruction manual, just to be responsible, but it turned out to be a masterpiece of badly translated English. Here are a few excerpts:
  • Safety Precautions:
    1. Read instructions.
    2. Keep instructions.
    3. Heed warning.
    4. Follow the instructions of this manual in practice.
    5. All procedures and instructions should be adhered to during operation.
  • The fruit and vegetable compartment is appropriate to the storage of vegetables and fruit. You are allowed to adjust it.
  • Don't let children play with or hang on the unit, as this will damage unit or children.
  • If bickering is heard, it's the sound arising from refrigeration agent when it flows. It is not malfunction.
  • Caution: After using the freezer, don't forget to shut the drawer.
  • Deodorization: Clean up the odor inside and refrain from germ growing.
  • Never put the refrigerator upside down.
  • Water Tray: Screw off the screw and fix it as before after washing.
  • In the event of a natural disaster (such as rainstorm, accidents), the submerged unit shall not be put into use until nominated service center repairs it and proves that it is in good condition.
  • Caution: Tropical fruits, such as pineapple and banana, are not recommended.
  • Any change relating to this manual will result in no additional notice.
After reading the manual, I feel like a technological genius!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

I Take it All Back

Yesterday, while I was driving and stopped at a robot, I actually gave money to a beggar. But let me back up a bit.

There is a category of street hawker that I haven't told you about yet. It's young men who dress up in the most outrageous costumes and try to collect money for one of two reasons: a sports tournament (usually rugby), or their upcoming marriage (in which case their friends dress them up and make them beg as part of their bachelor party).

Yesterday a young rugby player came up to my car wearing nothing but a woman's tank top (three sizes too small), his underwear and fish net stockings. I figure that anyone who is brave enough to wear that in public deserves R5! And I sincerely hope he raised the money he needed in one day because if he goes around wearing that too much longer he's going to cause an accident - the image of his grey jockeys squished underneath fish net stockings is...

(I'm actually at a loss for words, so I think I'll sign off and laugh now)...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Where's an Invisibility Cloak When You Need One?

Car time for me is like gold. If I have to drive somewhere - and I'm alone - I relish the quiet. I love to be alone with my thoughts. Today, though, I was practicing my choir songs, working on a difficult passage from Handel's Messiah, and at every single robot I was accosted by street hawkers trying to sell me stuff. The whole scene went something like this:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
(No thank you, I don't want any cell phone chargers)
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!
I already have a pumice stone, thank you.)
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
(No sunglasses today, thanks.)
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!
(Don't you dare wash my windscreen!)
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!
(Aaahhh. NO! I told you, I don't NEED a cell phone charger!)
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
(OR an inflatable Spongebob Squarepants!)
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth!
(They're lovely, but I don't need a beaded giraffe)
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
(and even if I had money, I still wouldn't buy a cell phone charger!)
The kingdom of this world is become...
(Asseblief, man! Can you just go on to the next car?)
The kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ...
(How can you sell that DVD when it just came out in the theatre this week?)
and He shall reign forever and ever
(You can stand there all you want, and I will acknowledge you and treat you with dignity, but when you stick your face in my window and won't leave me alone after I politely decline your offer for a poster diagram of the digestive system, do NOT try to tell me that something is wrong with my tyre so I will roll down my window because I know you're lying.)

I just want to practice my choir songs in peace. Please? Pretty please?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mondays with Auntie Hope

I had the privilege of spending time with Auntie Hope again a few days ago. As you know, Auntie Hope has Alzheimers and doesn't remember who I am each week, so sometimes I feel like I'm living out the movie Fifty First Dates. I've also told you that she's a sweetie and demonstrates amazing hospitality, despite the fact that I'm a stranger to her each week.

When I visit Auntie Hope there really isn't an agenda. Sometimes she tells me the same story ten times in a row. Other times we just sit and watch the birds. This week we worked on my Afrikaans (I read and translated 15 pages, and she helped me with the words I didn't know and contextualisation).

If I went to these visits expecting something from Auntie Hope, I would be sorely disappointed (or worse - bored). If I expected her to be a certain way, or to somehow meet my needs or do something for me, then I would have a horrible time. But if I go and have no expectations - if the point is just to be with her and love her, no matter what state of mind she's in - then I have a wonderful time.

I realised how much of my love for others is based on what they do for me. I also realised that God's love is very like loving a person with Alzheimers - loving them where they are - and for who they are (not who they used to be or will become one day) - without expectations. God doesn't love us because of what we do for Him. He just loves us. No strings attached. He also loves to just be with us, whether we're watching birds, practising Afrikaans, or telling the same story ten times in a row.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Planting of a Seed

We had the privilege of seeing David Helfgott in concert at the University of South Africa last night. He was amazing! He is certainly not the typical concert pianist, talking to himself and making noises the whole time he's playing. When he finishes a song he runs off stage and then runs back on again. People put up with his eccentricities because he's such a fabulous musician. Which got me thinking...

Everyone is great at something, right? So what's the difference between a David Helfgott and everyone else? Is it that he was able to "specialise" in his strength instead of having to be "average" at everything? Maybe someone noticed his strength in music and said, "Let's focus on this and help you reach your potential."

So many of us focus on being well-rounded adults, having a good general knowledge base, but I wonder if sometimes that leads to mediocrity? What if we're all the equivalent of a buffet restaurant - a place where you can eat anything you want but nothing is particularly brilliant - when we were meant to be specialised, five-star restaurants instead?

I just finished reading a book called The African Way, by Mike Boon, about the power of interactive leadership. He ended the book by saying this: "My belief is that every person is capable of unbelievable achievements, and that the underdevelopment of individuals - of human resources - is a direct reflection of inadequate leadership."

Food for thought, isn't it? I never wanted to be a leader until I read that.

Happy Anniversary!

Today is the third anniversary of our moving to South Africa. I can't believe it's been three years already!

The past year has been filled with transitions - joining a new mission organisation, learning new jobs, meeting new people, and watching our kids mature.

We've had an amazing adventure the past twelve months that involved traveling home last Christmas to see our family and friends, volunteering at the hospital during the strike, and learning new (and often uncomfortable) levels of faith and trust in God.

But the truth is, Pretoria is also home now. And despite the rocky road and challenges we've encountered, we know this is exactly where God has called us to be and we wouldn't change it for anything.

People often ask us, "Why on earth would you leave California and move to Pretoria?" The answer is simple - because there's no safer place to be than inside the will of God. And besides, we love it here!

" 'For I know the plans I have for you,' declare the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.' " - Jeremiah 29:11

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Flower the Size of a Whole Bouquet

This is a king protea, national flower of South Africa. Isn't it beautiful?