Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Blessing of Jet Lag

Jet lag is the bane of travel. Being able to see the world and engage with different cultures is amazing, but trying to stay awake (both coming and going) can be a challenge the first week.

Everyone has their way of coping with jet lag. I call mine the "mind over matter" method - I just make myself be in whatever time zone I'm in. If it's time to eat, I eat, regardless of whether or not I'm hungry. If it's time to be awake, I make myself stay awake. This has always worked well for me... until now.

Coming back from the States, I have had such a hard time sleeping through the night. My body wakes up at 4:00 each morning, and no matter how hard I try to convince myself that it's time to sleep, my body refuses to sleep. Sigh... I could complain, but I discovered something that made it all worth it:

I've been listening to the crickets each night. Their rhythmic chirping has kept me company on these sleepless nights. I also discovered something I've never heard before: there is a moment when the first bird begins to sing - before the sun rises - which signals that morning is soon upon us. As more birds join the chorus, the crickets slowly stop their chirping until one hears only birds. It is a smooth transition, and it is a magical moment. The night shift gives way to the day shift. How do they know when to start singing? What prompts that first bird? I have no idea, but I know I would never have been able to marvel in it if it weren't for jet lag.

I wonder how many other distasteful things in life hold hidden blessings?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thoughts on Returning To South Africa

"Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just 'home'. It is all these things but one thing - it is never dull." 
- Beryl Markham

Monday, December 3, 2012

First Impressions Upon Returning to the States

  1. I keep looking for the light switch to the bathroom outside of the bathroom... I forgot that you are allowed to have electricity inside the bathrooms here.
  2. The toilet paper is so soft and fluffy! I actually feel a twinge of guilt that my bum is experiencing such high levels of luxury... is it really necessary?
  3. Drive on the right. Drive on the right. Drive on the right.
  4. The things people complain about are funny to me. I caught myself wanting to say, "Really?" a few times.
  5. I miss the birds and the thunderstorms of South Africa already.
  6. Starbucks! There will always be an element of "hopelessly American" in me, I suppose.
  7. It's such a treat to drive on a freeway that a) is free and b) doesn't have any roadworks! Wow!
  8. The pet hospital is bigger than most health clinics in South Africa. I feel embarrassed of this and frustrated on behalf of South Africans.
  9. Grandma's cooking still rocks, even though she's 96!
  10. I appreciate roots and history I have here, but it's clear that I'm a visitor now and not a resident. This is both pleasing and strange.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

It Just Takes a Bit of Time...

A friend dug up a hydrangea from his property in the Drakensburg and gave it to me. I planted it here in Pretoria, not knowing how it would do in the iron-rich soil. One year later, it bloomed for the first time.


Monday, November 19, 2012

...And Here He Is!

Here's the beautiful weaver bird that shares the tree in our back garden, and the nest he just built (notice how the entrance to the nest is on the bottom):


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thoughts on Weaver Birds and Perseverance

This spring, a weaver bird moved into my back garden and built a nest in my tree. A few days later he tore it down and built a completely new nest. A few days later, he tore that one down and built a completely new nest. This has gone on for over a month now, and I think he's on his seventh or eighth nest. Here's his latest piece of art:
Why does the weaver bird do this? Apparently, the male builds a nest and tries to attract a female bird. The female comes along, and if she approves of the nest, she'll move in and start a family with him. If she doesn't approve, the male will tear it down and build a new nest. Sometimes a weaver bird will make a dozen nests before he finds an approving female!

What I love most about the weaver bird in my back garden is his perseverance. He hasn't given up yet, though I haven't seen a female move into any of his nests. He also has one other obstacle stacked against him - he is building his nests in a tree that isn't normally inhabited by weaver birds. Pioneering and tenacious... you have to admire that!

When a human is pioneering and tenacious, he is sometimes labelled as stubborn, a fool, or even stupid. If he succeeds, he is lauded as a courageous hero. Maybe I'm wrong, but I kind of think he was even more of a hero when the world was against him yet he refused to give up.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

At Last, An Accurate Street Sign!

On the way to Swaziland, we saw this sign:

Sure enough, just a few kilometres up the road we encountered:

They may have changed half of the street and city names in South Africa, but the animal signs, thankfully, are still accurate.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on Being a Leader

"A leader is a dealer in hope". - Napoleon Bonaparte

I find this quote interesting, given that so many leaders govern from a position of power and/or fear. Yet if you stop and think, the truly inspiring people - the ones that motivate you to "go out there and make a difference" - are the ones doling out hope as though there's an endless supply, the ones cheering you on and boosting your confidence, the ones who see your potential before you do and nurture it into being, and the ones who see the positive side of change and fan the flames of your imagination into seeing it as well.

I never really wanted to be a leader, but sharing hope and encouraging people to reach their potential... that I can do!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Hard Part of Parenting

As a parent, I want to teach my children, raise them well, and protect them from failing or making bad choices. But I can't. If I could, I would be controlling them completely and they would be mere puppets in my hand.

At some point, my children will make bad choices. Fail. Do really dumb things (and let's be honest, haven't we all?). What we in modern days have sometimes forgotten is that many of life's teachable moments come from our failures. In shielding kids from all that's bad and distasteful in life, we do them a great disservice - we are preventing them from learning how to handle suffering, consequences, how to rise from the ashes and recover from mistakes.

This past week, two of my kids made some huge mistakes. I was angry. I was disappointed. I wanted to lecture, admonish, and mete out punishment like a Supreme Court Judge. But then it dawned on me... maybe the best thing I can do is to love them at their "worst" and teach them how to learn from failure and move on. If they have to be perfect - if they live in fear of failure - then I will have missed my opportunity as a parent to teach my kids that some of the best life lessons come from our darkest hours.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How Do You Bring People Together?

My two back neighbours are polar opposites in nearly every way - race, religion, worldview, culture, histories - and do not interact with each other at all. It is like this in many suburbs across the new South Africa as cultures are thrown together and forced to live side by side. Sometimes the easiest way to do this is to maintain your fences, keep you head down, and stick to your own little world. This avoids flared tempers, heated arguments, and even wars. It also avoids dialogue, mutuality and true community.

I can't blame my neighbours. When I look at them, my first thought is that there is no way those two will ever see eye to eye. They both mourn losses, but completely different ones. They both feel marginalised, but in opposite ways. They could easily point fingers at one another, blaming the other for their problems. They could not discuss politics, values, music, food, or work in an effort to find common ground; they are that different.

But they are both human. They both have families, hopes, dreams, heartaches, gifts, skills and life experiences in which they could learn from one another. And for better or for worse, they're neighbours. I keep wondering what it would take for them to begin a respectful dialogue, to suspend judgement for one brief moment and really listen to each other...

Sometimes tragedy has a unifying effect. When people truly love and serve others in humility like Jesus did, that also has a unifying effect. Put the two together and you have an inspirational story. I keep trying to think of other ways besides extreme challenges and Jesus that can unify seemingly polar opposites, but I can't. If you have any ideas, let me know.

A Moment of Acknowledgement

"It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others". - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

If I have achieved, it is because others have nurtured the potential in me. If I have succeeded, it is because others created space for me to succeed. If I have reached goals, it is not a tribute to merely my own tenacity, but a tribute to the guidance and teaching of others. I am not a product of my own creation, but a product of thousands of conversations, encounters, and holy moments with others which have touched my life and changed me forever.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Poverty of the West

I recently read a portion of Mother Teresa's Nobel prize speech (given on 11 December 1979 upon receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize). She said something that has haunted me for weeks now:

"Around the world, not only in the poor countries, I found the poverty of the West so much more difficult to remove. When I pick up a person from the street, hungry, I give him a plate of rice, a piece of bread, I have satisfied. I have removed that hunger. But a person that is shut out, that feels unwanted, unloved, terrified, the person that has been thrown out from society—that poverty is so hurtable [sic] and so much, and I find that very difficult."

It is relatively easy to donate food to feed orphans. What is much harder to do, however, is to love those people who have been marginalised by society and especially by the Church - the so-called "sinners" who don't meet with society's normalising gaze of approval: those who struggle with addictions, the LGBT community, that colleague who's just... angry and mean (ever ask yourself what's behind that?), or the "scary-looking" neighbour with whom you can't relate no matter how hard you try.

I am tired of shutting them out, judging them, and maintaining a stance of superiority over them. Whatever I think about their lifestyles or choices matters very little because there is something undeniable about them: they are beautiful people made in the Image of God and therefore precious and loved, deserving of our compassion and respect. Jesus treated people with dignity (in fact, the only people he got really angry with were the religious leaders!), met them where they were in life, and engaged in authentic dialogue with them. He didn't debate, spew out hate speech or disdain them. He loved them. He treated every person equally.

It sickens me to think that the Church is the last place some people would feel welcomed because they are judged so harshly. That is not the message Jesus preached. At the risk of sounding offensive (which is not my intent), I don't want to be like the church; I want to be like Jesus. It's time to address the "poverty of the West".

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Lesson of the Three Mints

As you know, I recently turned 40. I had a lovely birthday and received many well wishes and gifts. One of the things I love most about celebrating birthdays in South Africa is the emphasis on relationships over gifts. People phone, sms and stop by all day to wish you a happy day and celebrate with you, whereas in the U.S., people give gifts. I confess (while my cheeks turn red from embarrassment) that when I first moved here, I was disappointed when I didn't receive any gifts. Over the past five years, however, I have come to cherish the love of friends and "family" here, who go out of their way to let me know I am special to them. Their kind words and time spent with me are more of a gift than any material object!

I did receive one tangible gift, however, that touched me profoundly. My friend Agnes gave me three, individually wrapped mints. This might not seem like much to you, but when you understand that Agnes can't even afford toilet paper, the gift takes on a whole new meaning. Agnes gave what little she had for me. I would have willingly given them back and let her keep what little she had, but it was a joy for Agnes to give what she could. I am usually the one who gives things to Agnes, but it was important for her to know that I need her just as much as she needs me, and that she has just as much to give to me as I have to give to her. She needed me to treat her with dignity by accepting her small gift, which as it turns out, was the biggest gift I think I ever received.

Agnes taught me a lesson, touched me profoundly, and made turning 40 the most beautiful, humbling birthday ever.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

I May Not Be Karen Blixen, But...

The book Out of Africa by Karen Blixen begins with the line, "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." If I wrote a book, it would begin with the line, "I turned 40 in Africa, at the foot of the Magaliesberg Range."

Tomorrow is my 40th birthday. I never imagined turning 40; it sounded so old! I also never imagined that I would live in Africa. But here I am - on both accounts - and I can honestly say that while the thought of turning 40 doesn't please me too terribly much, if I have to turn 40 there's no place I'd rather be than here in South Africa.

The emphasis on relationships over tasks or possessions, the sound of the birds in the morning before the sun rises, the inconvenience of strikes that halt public services for weeks at a time, the bougainvillea vines, the potholes, the summer thunderstorms, the too-many funerals, the beautiful singing... It is a package deal. I must take the good with the bad, emphasize the good and learn to make peace with the not-so-good.

It's the same with turning 40: looking older than I feel, knowing who I am and where I'm going, no longer being able to compete with 18-year-olds, having a bit more wisdom and experience, the joys of watching children grow up, still acting like a kid with my husband, feeling confident and free... It's a package deal. I must take the good with the bad.

I turned 40 in Africa, at the foot of the Magaliesberg Range, and I am blessed beyond imagination.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Grace for Growing Up

Red Bishops are among my favourite birds. They are stunningly beautiful, and when they appear in the neighbourhood I know that summer is around the corner. They look like this:

But in their juvenile state, when they are shedding their baby feathers and gaining their adult feathers, they look like this:

A bit pathetic, aren't they? I saw a juvenile Red Bishop today on my street, and as I was wondering whether birds could feel embarrassment or not, it suddenly dawned on me: I am just like that bird. There are aspects of my life in which I still have my baby feathers, parts where I have gloriously emerged as an adult, and parts where I'm still in process. Those in between parts are messy, awkward, and sometimes ugly.

I took it a step further. If there are parts of my life that are in the process of "growing up", then there are likely aspects of other people's lives that are in process. If that is so, how much grace do I give them to be in their "ugly" phase? Can I see them not as they are, but as they will be? Can I endure the present messiness in anticipation of the revealed beauty? If I expect that kind of grace for myself then I have to extend it to others.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Story of the Two Fires

Yesterday I was feeling discouraged. My son told me this story in response -
"Once there were two fires. They had lots of flame childen, but there were three that they couldn't keep and had to pass on - Hope, Encouragement and Love. They chose two people to pass on their flames to - you, and some random person whom I do not know. They gave Hope and Encouragement to you, and love to the random person.
"The flame of Encouragement you used to not feel discouraged, and the Hope you shared with the world. You shared the encouragement, too, when you didn't need it any more. The End."
Every now and then, my son surprises me in completely unexpected ways. I like his story, and wanted to pass on the flames of Encouragement and Hope to you (perhaps you already have the flame of Love!).

Monday, October 15, 2012

It's Not as Easy as A, B, C

I think the hardest thing about moving to South Africa has been getting used to the education system. Education is so important to me, and the system here is so different from the one in the States (not better or worse... just different). I made it a priority to help my kids navigate the school system. I also committed to learn and be as supportive as I can. There are things I loved about the schools here, and things that frustrate me. At times I am thrilled to be educating my children outside of the United States, and at other times I wonder if I've ruined them for life. But this year... this year it became personal.

I went back to school this year to pursue a new field of study. All those feelings I felt for my kids - all those things I thought I had successfully navigated - came surging back in a tidal wave of confusion, frustration and perplexity. How does the grading system work? What does it take to get positive feedback on your assignments, or does that go against the philosophy here? If so, how does one deal with that?

I don't regret our move to South Africa, and I want to reiterate that I don't have a complaint with the system here; I just don't understood it (yet). Right now I feel like I'm back to square one. The good news is, if I figured it out with my kids in four years, in three years I should feel pretty good about my own schooling!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

One of Those Days

If you are American, the first thing you will learn in moving to South Africa is that South Africa is not America (or any other nation, for that matter). This is a good thing. It can also, at times, be a very frustrating thing.

Yesterday I went to the Post Office to mail a parcel. I am used to long queues; that's just part of life here. I was not prepared for the signs all over the Post Office saying "Due to our new system, services will be slower." Aren't new systems generally supposed to be faster (unless, of course, we're talking about airport security)? When I finally got to the counter I was told, "No incoming or outgoing parcels until the strike is over." I sort of wish they had had a sign indicating as much, to save me the long wait. Or is this the "new system"? Hey, it really IS slower!

I next went to the grocery store. When I got to the till (and only after the employee had scanned all of my items and I had given her cash) the employee said, "I don't have change; I can't help you."

My final errand was to the chemist. I stood in another long queue. Every time the queue inched forward the woman behind me would step on my shoes. She wasn't trying to annoy me; she just comes from a culture where the definition of "personal space" is quite different from mine.

I confess, I wanted to complain. I almost phoned Dan to tell him I was having an "I'm not coping with life in South Africa" day, but then it dawned on me: I like it here. I don't enjoy long queues or inefficiency, but I am learning to smile about it, make the best of it, and move on with my day because the truth is, there is more to love and embrace than to find fault with.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Lightness of Hope

“I know the weight of this world can take you down like gravity . . . but hold on, and he’ll break open the skies to save those who cry out his name.” – Tenth Avenue North

"This year, our church did something extra special for the annual spring celebration. Thousands of biodegradable balloons were pumped with helium, and every member of the congregation wrote a small message of hope and tied it to the string of their balloon. When our pastor gave the word, we released the balloons into the sky, and we prayed once the balloons lost their height someone might be encouraged by the message. I wondered about my lime-green balloon, and the little message tied to the string. Maybe it would only end up in the dry brush and stay there for years. Maybe someone would throw it away without noticing the message, but perhaps they would look first. Would it touch them? Is it the right message for them? I hoped God would direct the balloon to the right person, and that they might be encouraged, or even come to know God if they didn’t already. Then it occurred to me to pray for this person. I don’t know their name, gender, or age, but I prayed that they would be inspired and touched by God. I even prayed for their situation, whatever it may be, and hoped they would feel as light as the balloon they found." - Emma


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Teenager's Perspective on Saying Good-Bye

"When you’re a missionary kid, those last days you spend with friends are always treasured in the most special way. It’s as if the internal camera starts from the moment you reunite and until the goodbyes are said, every moment is captured in your mind forever. Those times of reunion are the happiest memories I have to this day. All the pain of the separation seems to disappear and you just click, like nothing ever happened. New happy, silly memories are created, from having a ball gown barbecue to just sitting on the back end of the car eating ice cream. Although the memories are happy, for me they’re always bittersweet, tainted by the goodbyes and silent longing. It almost annoys me, in a way. Why do I have to look back and feel pain? Could I live in those moments forever, please, God? Are there any good memories we possess without some measure of pain in it? But I realized I was looking at things with the wrong attitude. I should cherish the memory instead of push it away. Look back on it with fondness instead of bitterness. And above all I should be thankful that I had the memories at all." - Emma

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Different Kinds of Beauty

The sun comes out and shines so bright, then disappears again at night. It’s just another ordinary miracle today. –Sarah Mclachlan

"When I picture beauty, I usually think of the ocean, or the streets full of the red and orange leaves of autumn. Beauty is a definite term, and is definitely not applied to this country’s dry fields of grass. Going on a hike with some friends will not be beautiful, but work, and nothing more. In South Africa, being surrounded by mountains, it’s pretty much impossible to get a hike that doesn’t involve walking up steep, winding paths littered with loose rocks. At first, it was exactly that, and I internally berated myself for agreeing to this hike. Then the path leveled out, and suddenly it didn’t seem so exhausting or dizzying. It was late afternoon, and the sun had just started to sink lower in the sky, casting red light over the scenes before us. Although I’d never really appreciated the savannah I saw every day, I could start to see the beauty of it now. I saw so many contrasting scenes - the little purple flowers growing amidst the yellow grass, and the freeway against the mountains. We took pictures of the sable antelope meters away from us, and then turned our cameras to the air show happening above us, the planes flying in perfect formation. I’d never looked at the bushveld in this way, beautiful and teeming with life. It made me realize there are different kinds of beauty in this world, some obvious and some less obvious. All you have to do is open your eyes and look for it in the most dead of places. When I look for the ordinary yet extraordinary miracles of life, I see God’s fingerprints in ever blade of grass I find." - Emma


Monday, October 1, 2012

A 14-Year-Old's Perspective

I asked my oldest daughter if she would be a guest writer for this week. She was gracious enough to agree. Emma was nine when we moved to South Africa, and in some ways I think the move was hardest on her. She left her best friend behind and had no choice but to follow her parents to a country she wasn't particularly keen on visiting.

People say that having a teenager is hard work, and I suppose that's true, but I also think it's just as hard for the teenager as it is for the parent! Truth be told, I think I learn as much from my daughter as she might learn from me. Her writing is thoughtful and evocative, so without further ado, here's Emma:

"When I was a little kid, everything was so simple. So simple, in fact, that I have to wonder if I haven’t dreamed up my own childhood. Living without any complications in life can’t be real; it’s too good of a deal to be true. It almost seems like the innocence of childhood is for others to enjoy, since you were either too young to remember or wishing you could grow up faster. Why were we in such a hurry to grow up, anyway? It never turned out the way we wanted as a child. Those dreams of being free and calling your own shots, eating ice cream every meal and having friends live with you seem so far away and impossible now. But, even so, sometimes I feel like a five-year-old again. Those days of messing around and just being plain silly are so much fun, and I wonder if we haven’t lost that child we used to be. There are days when that little kid peeks through the concept we’ve built of growing up, and certain things don’t seem so childish anymore. I love the innocent faith of a child in their parents and the world, and I wish the older generations could learn more from them."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Was It Worth It?, Part I

In the middle of a conversation I recently told a friend, "We used to have a lot... until we moved here". This comment was in reference to all the things we've lost since moving to South Africa - both the tangible and intangible. Among our losses is two cars, three handbags (which includes bank cards, I.D. docs and all contents), two iPods, our first jobs here, our reputation, the support of our church back home, our savings, over half of our salary, and a measure of security and certainty.

My friend then asked, "Was it worth it?" (pause...)

I gave a quiet, half-hearted "yes" in reply, but that question has haunted me for a few days now. Was it really worth it? Would I do it all over again?

This morning I woke up to a thunderstorm. After the thunderstorm, the birds came out in full force. There are more bird species in South Africa alone than all of North America.

Nature has a way of putting things into perspective, and few things in nature are as hopeful as the African sunrise. As I lay in bed, listening to the healing melody of the birds, I asked myself again, "Was it worth it?"

The answer was as loud as the chattering birds: Yes.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Stuck on You

As a child I loved stickers ("love" might be an understatement). I put them on everything from letters to lunch bags to clothing to my friends' hands. I saved them when I received them. I gave them away lavishly when I bought them. I collected them and filled several sticker books. Any school paper that received a sticker was meticulously archived. When we went to the store, I went straight to the sticker section to see if there were any new designs.

Scratch-and-sniff stickers were the best. Then came sparkly, metallic stickers. Then came puffy, 3-D stickers. I was in sticker heaven! Time marched on, however, and I eventually forgot all about stickers, until last night.

I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about stickers, and I couldn't turn my brain off. What was it I loved about stickers? And why is it such a pressing matter (no pun intended!) now? At first I thought it was an issue of approval, i.e. stickers as a reward for performing well. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was a matter of acknowledgement.

In receiving a sticker, someone was acknowledging that I had worked hard, or that I merely existed. In giving a sticker, I was acknowledging someone's presence, worth, and sharing from my treasured collection with them in an effort to show them how special they were.

And so I would like to do something very unconventional: I would like to give each of you a virtual sticker to acknowledge you - your presence, your worth, your preciousness. Thank you for being you; I honour that.