Thursday, January 31, 2013

Making the Most of the Journey

"One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things." - Henry Miller

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." - Mark Twain

I will make many mistakes in my life. There will be things that I will wish I had done differently. But I want to live in such a way that when I am on my deathbed - be it tonight or fifty years from now - I can honestly say, "I do not regret my journey."


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Some Wise Words in Afrikaans

I learned a saying in Afrikaans today that I think is brilliant:

"Ek kan nie help as 'n voël oor my kop vlieg, maar ek kan keer dat hy nes maak op my kop."

Loosely translated, it means, "I can't help that a bird flies over my head, but I can keep it from making a nest in my hair." We may not be able to control everything in life (very little, perhaps!), but we can control our attitudes and responses.

I am preaching to myself here, as I find myself complaining about the morning traffic far too often. On my way home, I was stuck in traffic again. When I finally arrived home, I poured a glass of water, only to find brown water coming out of the tap. Guess what my first response was? Complaining! But here's the thing - far more good things happened today than the three bad things I mentioned. I have a job that I love. I have wonderful colleagues, friends, and teachers. I have good health and a family. I have a working car and a roof over my head. Last but certainly not least, I have a faith that sustains me when the things of this world don't. I should be filled with gratitude rather than complaints!

No more bird nests in my hair!


Monday, January 28, 2013

How to Endure the Yucky Things in Life

This morning's commute took 1 hr. 15 min. For all but 8 of those minutes, I was inching along in first or second gear. There were literally only 8 minutes in that whole trip where I got to progress to third or fourth gear (I never did make it fifth, despite the fact that I take the highway to work every day). And I confess, it makes me grumpy. Really grumpy!

I keep telling myself, there are worse things in life. Keep a good perspective; in the grand scheme of things this is really a small matter, right? But the fact is, I LOATHE that morning commute. I love my job, I'm *trying* to sell my house so I won't have to commute, but other than that, it's out of my control. So what does one do when there is an aspect of life that one really, really detests? Because the fact is, while I may not like this drive, I need to accept that it is part of my day and make peace with it.

Enter the random sign. About half way through my commute, I come across this sign every day:

There is no number to phone, there is no vacuum in sight, so... why is it there? Did someone put a vacuum out, free for the taking (and if so, that's a pretty elaborate sign)? It is so random, it makes me smile every day, even though I've seen it multiple times. I've decided to focus on this because - ta da da da! - it is something in the commute that I actually enjoy!

I'm sure all of you have detestable tasks in your lives, so I say to you: find your "Free Vacuum" sign and choose to smile.


Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Beauty Around Us

Have you ever stopped to notice a water drop? Such a small thing, yet if we took the time to observe one, we might marvel at all the things happening. In one water drop there are forces of cohesion and adhesion at play - water molecules attracted to water molecules, and water molecules attracted to other molecules. This creates surface tension, which allows a water drop to maintain a spherical form and "roll" across a surface.

Water drops also create beautiful reflections of the larger world around it, but we rarely notice them. Why? Are they too small for our attention? Are we too busy with "important" matters of life - work, activities, errands, and a never-ending to-do list?

I don't want to miss the little things in life. I don't want to be so overwhelmed with the tasks of each day that I miss the beauty that is all around me.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Wall)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

We're All in This Together

The other day I was at the grocery store. The woman at the till greeted me in Sesotho (Le kae?) then looked up at me, only to discover that I'm white. She immediately switched to Afrikaans and greeted me again (Goeie môre). I smiled and answered her in Sesotho (Ke teng, wena? Le kae?). She smiled, and then we both laughed.

When I left, I thanked her in Sesotho (Ke a leboga), and she responded in kind. We both smiled even bigger, and I left the store feeling somehow more... human. But why?

Here in South Africa - especially here in South Africa - one is constantly in contact with different cultures, different levels of class, education, society, political affiliation, worldview... you name it. It is easy to be distrustful of others, as nearly everyone has been hurt or offended in some way. The walls go up without us even noticing, and we live in isolation despite being surrounded by such diversity. But that day at the store - there were no walls. We were as different as could be in nearly every regard, but we had one thing in common which overrode everything else: we were both human, and that was something we could celebrate together.


Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tip Toe Through the Traffic

This is going to make you laugh and think I'm really odd, but I don't mind:
This morning I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my big toes.
I should backtrack a bit and set the scene for you. Imagine having to leave the house at 6:20 every morning to take your daughter to school. Imagine being stuck in bumper to bumper traffic the whole way, while driving a manual transmission (gearbox). Imagine that trip taking over an hour each morning, and imagine that you are not a morning person!

I keep trying to find ways to be positive so I can teach my daughter to look for the good in challenging situations (although I think she teaches me more than I teach her). We play games in the car, sync our iPod playlists, sing together, talk, laugh, and then pray before she gets out of the car.

This morning, as I was calculating that half of my commute is spent in first gear, inching along, I suddenly realised how impossible that would be without my big toe! Suddenly, the ability to hop in a car and drive my daughter to school - despite the traffic - felt like such an overlooked privilege and blessing (imagine having to depend on someone else to get your children to school each day). I started to giggle. My daughter asked me what was so funny, and all I could say was, "I'm just really happy to have big toes!"

The little things in life can make all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Little Things in Life

The other day my oldest daughter mentioned that she takes delight in the things that no one else seems to notice. She's been taking photos of clouds, sunrises, and sunsets lately. I stopped to admire and affirm her, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder: how many things do I miss because I am too busy worrying, planning, feeling anxious, frustrated or just plain overwhelmed?

What if we all just stopped for a minute, breathed deeply, and fostered an awareness of the present? Would we notice anything? Would we be surprised?

Maybe the little things in life aren't so little after all.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Journey With Injustice: The Finale

It's been two weeks since school started, and the shock of the Grade 8 initiation is fading to memory. We are a little older, a little wiser, and a little more experienced in South African culture. The wound has faded to a bright pink scar, and in time, even that will fade.

The other day my family and I were having a conversation around the dinner table. My oldest daughter asked, "When or where do you see God most?" Two people said they see God in nature. I said that I see God in the creativity with which different cultures use spices to season food and the creativity among nations in cooking. One person said she sees God in the little things that everyone else takes for granted. And then everyone looked at my daughter - my Grade 8 daughter - wondering what she might say, knowing that she's had a rough two weeks.

She paused in silence and then said, "This is going to sound strange, but where I see God the most is in suffering. I try to imagine where God is in that moment, and think about the good things that occur that might not have happened otherwise. Like when you got your purse stolen, Mommy. We went shopping to replace the things that were lost, and we had a really good conversation that day. And last week at school, you hugged me a lot and encouraged me. If those bad things hadn't happened, the good things wouldn't have happened, either."

We all sat there, speechless. So much wisdom from such a young person, and I take no credit for that. There is a sensitivity and depth to her spirit that transcends her age, that transcends my understanding. And I can only weep and marvel and thank God for this gift of my daughter, and try to follow in her footsteps.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Living vs. Existing

Oscar Wilde is known for being a hedonist - not something I personally respect - but he said some pretty amazing things at times. Here's one of my favourites:

"To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all."

What would it look like for you to truly live?


Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Journey With Injustice, Part V

"If you do not transform your pain, you will surely transmit it to those around you." 
- Richard Rohr

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Journey With Injustice, Part IV

I still feel like a terrible mother, sending my little lamb off to be slaughtered every morning when I take her to school (all the while trying to encourage her that "If it must be done, then do it with style, hold your head high and rock it!"). I keep waffling between wanting to teach her to "bear it with fortitude" and wanting to protect her from the unpleasantries of life.

The fact is, however, that life IS unpleasant at times - unjust, even - and I would be doing my daughter a greater disservice by protecting her from every distasteful situation rather than teaching her to work through those difficulties. To be even more vulnerable, I sometimes wonder if we Americans are overprotective of our children. After all, you can't learn conflict resolution skills without a conflict. You can't learn perseverance without some sort of difficulty. And you can't learn forgiveness and grace unless you have been wronged or treated unjustly.

Have you ever thought about what makes the inspirational people of the world so inspirational? Why do we love Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, or Viktor Frankl (just to name a few)? Is it not for characteristics like humility, generosity, overcoming, forgiveness, and compassion? Those characteristics, perhaps, cannot be learned except through hardship.

If what I have said is true, then this Grade 8 initiation becomes a launching pad for some incredible lessons and values to emerge. It's not fun - and it's quite painful - but isn't that how growing goes?


Monday, January 14, 2013

A Journey With Injustice, Part III

Injustice is a funny thing. We care about it deeply when it affects us directly, but when it doesn't, we quietly accept it and go about our daily lives. We may feel a fleeting sense of pity or offer our expert advice on how to arrive at a solution to the issue, but we don't really care. Yet we must! I complained about my daughter's first week of school, but do you want to know what injustice really is?
  • Injustice is having to dig old newspapers out of a trash can to use as toilet paper.
  • Injustice is being raped as a toddler by someone who was told that is the way to "cure" HIV/AIDS.
  • Injustice is not being able to send your children to school because you can't afford the uniforms or school supplies.
  • Injustice is not being able to get a job because of your skin colour, not having any political representation, and carrying around the stigma of your forefathers' mistakes, forever being the "bad guy" just because of your ethnicity.
  • Injustice is being born into a country where you have no future because of your social class.
  • Injustice is being sold as a child and sent to work as a sex slave.
  • Injustice is being ten years old and being the head of your household, burdened with the responsibility of providing food, shelter and clothing for your younger siblings.
What my daughter endured is nothing to what millions of people around the world endure every day with no end in sight. I feel ashamed for being so self-centred and for complaining about so "small" a thing. Two ideas begin to emerge in my mind: the need to fight for others who suffer injustice as much as I would fight for my family, and the idea that how I teach my children to respond to injustice will profoundly affect their future.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Journey With Injustice, Part II

When we moved to South Africa, it was a combination of several things - our desire to make the most of our lives, a sense of God's leading/calling, and our love for the different peoples and cultures of the world. We knew this was a big decision and would affect our children, but we largely imagined that it would affect them positively. We anticipated the challenges of moving half a world away... for us, but not for our children.

I have muddled my way through culture shock, navigated bureaucracy, been robbed and had things stolen more times than I want to recall, and felt generally overwhelmed and confused. I have eaten sheep eyeballs, brains, mopani worms, fermented milk and intestines. I have been lost, run off the road by taxi drivers, and bribed by policeman multiple times (and no, I never gave in). But if you mess with my kids, that's a whole different game!

The "mother hen" in me wanted to protect my daughter from the injustice she was suffering at school. I wanted to fight on her behalf, take this matter up with the headmaster, and change the world for the better (but let's be honest - I wanted to change the world for her benefit). And then I looked around me... and saw injustice everywhere.

My bubble was burst. I was humbled. I was ashamed. I realised how much the American values of safety, security and entitlement were ingrained into my mindset, and how they clashed with the South African values of hierarchy, family and relationships over individual preferences, and survival.

So what now? How do I bridge the culture gap, help my child, and deal with my own feelings? It's not always so easy...

A Journey With Injustice, Part I

After five years in South Africa, I thought I pretty much knew what to expect... and then my daughter entered high school. Unlike in the U.S., high school in South Africa is from Grades 8-12. Many schools require the Grade 8's to go through an initiation during the first week. If you are looking for an American equivalent, it's akin to what university students who want to join a fraternity or sorority must go through - hazing.
haze, v. To subject (freshmen, newcomers, etc.) to abusive or humiliating tricks and ridicule.
My daughter had to wear her uniform inside out and backwards, paint her face to look like a clown, wear three ponytails in her hair and a large nametag the size of a paper plate with ridiculous information written on it, and she was not allowed to wear shoes. She was made to walk barefoot on hot cement, had to hold hands with other random Grade 8's and march around the school, was subjected to long hours at school, and had to ask permission to greet anyone, addressing them as "Commander" or "Admiral". The worst part was when she had to spend the weekend at school, was deprived of sleep, made to write a test on the history of the school at four in the morning and then shouted at for not performing well. Needless to say, the result of this week left my daughter in tears every day, terrified of making a mistake, fearful of every teacher and Grade 12 student, and not wanting to attend school ever again. What happened to the "Learning is Fun" mantra that is part of the American mindset? Are different countries' systems of education that different?

I was shocked. I was horrified. I wanted to howl and throw a temper tantrum and cry "Unfair!" I paced in my kitchen. I ranted and raved to no one in particular. I was angry. I wanted to give the school - and the whole country - a piece of my mind. This was unjust!

But what to do?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The First Bloom

One can always tell what month it is in South Africa by which tree is blooming, or which insect is flying around. In October, the jacaranda trees bloom. In November, the Christmas beetles come out. In December, butterflies are everywhere. And I know it's January because my young bauhinia tree is blooming.