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Thursday, February 16, 2017

I Am Free to Dance

Sometimes we come to the realization of things much later than we imagined and when we do, we wonder why we chose not to see reality. Stubborn, that is what I am. I easily fall into situations that I then have to try to extricate myself from. I insist that I'm aware and yet I really am lying to myself. I am good at that. It's born of years spent in a culture that insisted forgiveness equated minimizing lies, winking at poor behavior, and ignoring broken standards.

Perhaps what really counts in the end then is honesty to the core. This is best blended with respect, humility, and kindness and while I'm not saying one can be perfect, because I know we all fail, I am beginning to believe that just being nice isn't enough. It isn't too much to ask for total commitment that extends beyond the fairytale story of glass slippers and princesses.

We all fall. We all stumble. We all mess up on the way, sometimes because we're tired of living up to outside expectations and sometimes because we really don't know. Yet the real heroes are the ones who quietly get back up and keep going, even if it means crawling for a while until they have the energy to stand. They recognize their deep need of a Saviour and have learned to relinquish their attempts to be their own law.

There's a phrase from a song that keeps playing in my head. I can't find the song, but it is a sobering thought. What do we know of Holy?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Goes By

The seasons change pretty clearly here. Summer's humid air so thick you can set a spoon upright in it gives way to the relief of autumn's cool breezes that blow away the layer of smog always hovering over the city. Winter's damp cold shivers into spring with the scent of fresh cut grass and itch of mutant ninja mosquitoes. Each season has its signature, its moments where I breathe in deep and smile, and its idiosyncrasies that make me long for the next one to arrive.

In the same way, I have clearly seen the seasons of my life change in the short year I've been here. When I first came, my heart was open to every friendly person and I enjoyed getting to know people from different cultures and learning how they saw life. Then I found a best friend and we did everything together, from eating in the cafeteria to going to church to singing in choir. As summertime came, tiny twin boys stole my heart and I began to spend most of my time with them and their parents. Soon I was part of a group that went out to eat and watch movies but even that group dissolved and I was spending most of my free time with the twins again.

Today I find myself somewhat stingy with my availability. Perhaps it comes with settling into routine and realizing that it simply isn't possible to befriend everyone. I'm realizing that it's okay to have just a handful of close friends with whom I invest my time and then to be friendly to everyone else. This is part of life and as the dynamics shift and seasons change, the faces change also. For me, though, I have a difficult time letting go.

I know realistically that, just as I choose whom to spend my time with, others will choose whether or not to invest in my life. It fills my heart with joy when I know that someone has chosen me; but it's elementary school all over again when someone I know I'd never forget allows me to slip easily out of their life. As a TCK, I live with the insecurity that I will never fully fit in therefore I will never be fully chosen by someone else because I don't belong. I'm not exotic enough to stand out but my ability to blend in is limited to how I look and not what I say or think.

I've been playing a song on repeat for several weeks now. It's a song by Lonestar that perfectly describes those I've seen standing on the tracks, their face turned away as the train I'm on begins to pick up speed while it heads away. Seasons change and I'm helpless to change the inevitable--one of us will leave. The only thing is. . .this time, I'm staying.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Do You Swear?

Things are changing very quickly in the world I thought I once knew. I guess that is how it is, the world is constantly changing, but it had never been a threat to me before. Now it is. Even as refugees struggle to make sense of their new reality that won't allow them entry into the US for at least 3-4 months, I face the possibility of also having what I thought was stable be in jeopardy.

I hold European passports but I live currently in the Middle East. Though my country is not one of the banned ones, it is close enough that should the travel ban expand to include others, rumour speculates that it will be on that list. I just read an article that talked about the former Norwegian PM who was questioned at a US airport because he had been on a trip to Iran two years ago. While I thought my perceived elite citizenships would allow me to continue to travel in and out of the US without challenges, now I'm becoming very concerned about the future.

What amazes me is that people are able to defend the executive order with a straight face. Perhaps they never stood in line in the cold outside a tall metal barred gate, waiting to be let in only to face the sternest of faces behind a glass window, barking out questions without empathy as they were interviewed for a visa that would change their destiny. Perhaps they never stepped outside their small town in the Midwest or the South, never ate a meal with someone who spoke a different language than them, or cried when the latest shooting happened in a city they'd never been but was in a country close to their heart. Perhaps they did not understand that the black and white strokes on a paper, seemingly to protect the innocent was actually destroying the hopes and dreams of countless children. Perhaps their rational logic kept them warm at night and able to callously negate the stories of humanity, citing it as an emotional reaction.

I wonder if I'm the only person who feels somewhat helpless against this tidal wave of prejudice coming from a country that prides itself on being built by immigrants. The Statue of Liberty should hide her face in shame for no longer can she welcome the tired huddled masses. Yet in the midst of this tyranny, there is still a flicker of hope. The thousands of US citizens who are outraged whether those who were ready to welcome refugee families or those who could not place the banned languages on a map. Each one who stands up for justice and demands that, while the borders are protected, equal representation is given to bring in those families who have struggled for years to immigrate to freedom is a beacon of light in the abyss of night.

As for me, I watch the news and I wait. I do not know if the next time I step up to the bullet-proof window and hand my passport over for inspection, if it will be the last time I step on US soil. I do not know if he will smile and say Welcome to the United States or Right this way, ma'am, we have some questions to ask you. I have to trust that my God is bigger than a world leader and can overrule and direct even in the midst of chaos. But the uncertainty isn't easy.

Friday, January 27, 2017

To Relinquish

Sitting in my room that refuses to heat above 62 even though I've set the thermostat to 80, after a somewhat consoling breakfast of dried out khabaz (thin pita-like Arabic bread) and hummus, I was scrolling through my FB friends' feed when I came across a link for God Bless the USA. My all-time favourite song, I hit the link so I could hear Lee Greenwood sing the familiar tune. Until the phrases started to sink in. cuz the flag still stands for freedom and they can't take that away. . .where at least I know I'm free. . .

The debate that's swirling around Trump's latest executive order to halt processing of immigrants from specific countries is one that is tempered by emotion, the new president of the USA not-withstanding. Opinion pieces, statistics, and the voices of those who will be affected by it are everywhere I look. I am an immigrant and I understand the anxiety of those who were expecting to experience freedom, from war, from fear, from uncertainty and more. I battle against the unfairness that a few radicals can influence the fate of thousands of innocent ones. The ignorant often seem to control the future and it's hard to hold on to hope or believe God really is orchestrating events behind what we can see.

I am an immigrant, yes, but I am one who has the dual privilege of standing between countries. I already hold citizenship in two European countries where, though I have not lived since a child, I can return to easily should I desire to pick up my life and leave. Presently, I live in the Middle East where my heart has found its home but simultaneously I struggle to reconcile a possible need to acquire citizenship of the country that symbolizes freedom to some but not all. If I want to stay here, ironically in a country that is close enough to the ones on the current blacklist, I have to either give up my rights to a long-term future in the US or become a citizen that promises to uphold values that stand diametrically opposed to mine in regards to family, social justice, moral ethics, and more.

The person who wrote God Bless the USA had likely never stepped outside its borders and I do not blame them for their perception of freedom. We each understand the concept based on our personal experience and I lack another layer of perception because my passports have allowed me to enter many countries with little hassle. But to choose that song, iconic though it is, to celebrate the new presidential reign is one that raises every hackle and rallies every cell of determination to ensure that people know this is not so. Yes, America was built by immigrants but whether they will be denied entry, as doubtless many will be in the coming years, or whether they will choose to relinquish their rights because they cannot uphold its insistent ignorance, the immigrants may soon be realizing that it is no longer the land of the free or the home of the brave.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Living in Joy

I paused to rest my head against the wall and smiled. The joy has returned, I thought.

It had been a few weeks of emotional questioning for me. When I first arrived, nearly 11 months ago, I didn't expect to encounter the traditional culture shock. I was convinced that since I'd already lived here, it would be easy to slip back into the routine of life, never mind that 18 years had passed and I was now an adult. Then I hit several walls, at the 2.5 and 3 and 6-month mark. After processing the unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable emotions, the joy came.

I remembered this joy. It was a joy that I'd had before coming to America, when life was simple and I woke up each morning eager for the adventure the day would bring. Then I'd lost myself in dark places for far too long and wondered if I'd imagined the joy or if it was even possible to find it again. Coming back home I found it. I fell in love with my adopted country. The changes in weather, the flavours I'd missed for too long, the crisp line between sea and sky, getting lost in its many moods and experiences deepened my joy at being able to live here. I never thought it was possible to feel this happy. I assumed the sadness was gone.

Then my sister came to visit and while she was here she asked me Are you happy here? She genuinely wanted to know--she had left America 5 years before me, even though she was younger than me, to seek her own joy. She had found it, in a tiny island in Asia, where she now taught squirming 11-year olds during the day and delighted in the tastes and sights of her new country at night and on weekends. She embraced life and wanted to be sure I was doing so too.

I'd thought I was happy. But suddenly I found myself questioning the joy. Was it genuine or was it tied to people or particular experiences? What if my friends moved on, would I still be happy in my job? What if my job changed, would I still look forward to each day's adventures? For several weeks the joy was shrouded in silence. I was shaken by the feelings of uncertainty. I was scared that my short upcoming trip to the US would lure me back with promises of monetary security even if the joy-level was minimal to non-existent there.

I'd been sure that I was ready to settle down here. I spoke about slipping into the fabric of everyday life and longed deeply to be the one who came and stayed, instead of being lumped with all those who came and then left. I felt what I thought was a calling--one that seemed almost too easy to answer because it was one my heart had yearned towards for years.

Then I thought, it doesn't matter. I can leave. Life will go on. Maybe I'm really not as happy here as I thought I was. It made me sad, to think that I had lost that joy so easily. I'd thought it was forever but now, like a celebrity marriage, it seemed to have dissolved with no reason why.

Til today. It started like any other day, simply enough, and yet by the evening when I stopped to take a moment and reflect within, I realized the joy had returned. This joy seems more mature, somehow, like aged cheese, and more knowing, like an elderly couple who's shared a lifetime together. It is as deep as ever but it sparkles brighter than before.

My favourite little people, 9-month old twin baby boys, know the meaning of pure joy. They giggle and laugh from a place of innocence when they experience joy. This is how I want to walk through life--living in expectation of joy. Then I will have peace within.

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him. . . ~Romans 15:13

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tears Falling

My sister is gone. She stepped out of the car, I handed her the suitcase and backpack, we exchanged a quick hug, and then she was off to catch her plane. I cried the first 20 minutes back, driving in rush-hour Beirut traffic, not caring if anyone saw the tears running down my cheeks. I raged at God. Why? Why did He allow us to live such separate lives? Then I begged and pleaded with Him to keep us all safe for heaven. I know there is no guarantee of safety in this life for the Christian but if only God keeps our hearts true to Him, then we can wait for heaven where the tears will stop flowing.

Saying goodbye to those I love is the hardest thing in the world for me to do. This is why I am cautious in who I allow to get close to me--I can't afford to go through this many times. Each time I say goodbye, there is that panicky feeling, that I won't ever see them again. Logically, I know it likely isn't true, but emotionally I cannot connect the logic to my heart. You see, there were times I said goodbye and it was a true goodbye. My house in Burkina Faso. My Opa before he died. My special place to sit where I could see the night lights on the Mediterranean Sea. My father more than 8 years ago.

To grieve is to open up a part of your heart that you sometimes forget exists. I've become adept at saving emotion for Hallmark movies, a sappy YouTube advertisement, or a particularly touching sermon illustration. At times, I will cry out of nervousness or worry at work. But I don't cry often out of loneliness. That isn't allowed. We had to learn early on that you buttoned up your heart and put a smile on your face, wave goodbye, and leave.

I've started crying at airports now. When I left my mother and brother in chilly February, at the Sacramento airport, I sobbed while I stood in line to show my boarding pass. They were bravely smiling and I was crying. All of a sudden, all they meant to me and that panicky feeling that I might never see them again overwhelmed me and I cried. I didn't know how else to handle the depth of emotion that I was feeling.

I cry in planes, I cry in the car, I cry at airports. I've stopped closing up my heart to feeling and started allowing the grief to wash over me so it can cleanse my soul of the many goodbyes I never was able to grieve. I think the older I become, the more I see how fragile life really is and I worry because I cannot control it in any way. I cannot hold my loved ones physically close beside me always, just as I could not keep my family from splintering 18 years ago or keep my dearest friends in my life. I have had to learn the hardest lesson of all--that love holds with open hands even as the pain of loss grows stronger.

Sometimes, when I'm quiet, I hear my heart asking Why? Why did I allow myself to be vulnerable and love so much when I knew eventually I would have to say goodbye? It is a question I cannot easily answer. I love easily but I feel deeply. This is the other lesson I am still learning. I must keep loving even though it may hurt.

My sister has landed safely at the first of 3 airports she will hop to in the next 24 hours. I can sleep knowing she is busying herself getting connected to friends, working on lesson plans, and getting something to eat as she waits for her ocean crossing. But tomorrow, she will be in Asia and I will be in the Middle East--worlds apart. She will be sitting on a bus headed home while I will be sitting in an office typing a work email. We will exchange virtual messages and carry on with life.

It will still hurt though. I may still cry for a bit. Especially when I see the empty place where her bed was and drink water from the 10-liter jug she lugged up the stairs for me. As I gently put away the beautiful souvenirs and eat the delicious pineapple pastries she brought for me. Now she's become a part of my memories here and it will take time for the beauty to replace the pain of loss and the reminder of loneliness. I will be forever grateful that she came but for tonight I must cry just a little.

I miss my sister.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

In the Dark Times

She was a sweet little thing. White with some patches of colour, she stayed in the background, only running out boldly when he drove up in his black Kia, bringing her consistent meal for the day. I still remember the first day I saw her. He was wandering campus looking for Coconut to no avail. He went back home and a few minutes later I spotted a little white cat. She was quietly waiting in the bushes by the administration stairs, but then the noise of passersby startled her and she crossed the lawn to retreat into the shadows behind the cafeteria. I crept along silently behind her, keeping a good enough distance that she wouldn't worry, while still noting where she was. At the same time I was messaging him so he knew where she was when he came back up to campus. He fed her and she was content.

After that, it became somewhat of a ritual to keep my eye out for Coconut while on my evening walks. She was still getting used to the campus, having been relocated from his home since she was a rather loud cat who kept his parents up at night with her vocal discussions, so she stayed away from people. If I spotted her, I would text him and he'd pass by to give her the usual cat food, or, for a treat, some tinned food which she especially enjoyed. One evening he and I traipsed all over campus looking for her, to no avail. We ended up sitting on a rickety bench overlooking Beirut's night lights as we talked about life and God.

When he went on holiday for 10 days, he entrusted me with feeding Coconut and several other feline friends. The first day I walked the campus 6 times, anxiously searching for her, worried about her missing a meal. He'd told me not to worry, that cats were scavengers and could survive, but I still worried. That's my personality. I timidly called her name and nervously banged the empty tin can he'd given me on the stone wall, the signal that food was there. Finally, that evening, I saw her by the recycling bins and left her some food to enjoy. She didn't want me to get too close though so I gave her a respectable distance and snapped a photo.

One evening I found Coconut by the administration steps and left her a generous serving of food by the edge of the sidewalk. Several minutes later, I passed by again and she had disappeared but another, more assertive cat, had swooped in to eat her food. The next time I found Coconut, I stood guard nearby until she had eaten everything. I wasn't about to let another cat get her food again.

When he returned, I reluctantly handed over the cat food and responsibility. I jokingly said we needed to talk about shared catsudy but there was an element of truth to it. I would miss the morning ritual of banging the tin can and watching the cats run joyfully across the lawn to get their breakfast, as they had done for several mornings now. I would miss searching for Coconut to make sure she got food too.

Then he texted me. He'd had a bad dream, come up to campus to look for Coconut, and found her dead. Someone had run over her. I knew that it was not uncommon for students to accelerate and drive very fast out of the parking lot as it was one of the few spaces in Beirut that wasn't congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic. It would have been easy for a car to end Coconut's life if it had been one of those reckless drivers. My heart ached. Not Coconut. Why?

I went down to the parking lot and stared down the pebbled road that branched off to the cemetery. I didn't know where he went to bury her but I desperately wanted to find him and tell him I was sorry. But I had a meeting to go to and I was already late so I had to resign myself to feeble text messages. I knew it had really hurt him.

Several weeks ago, when he was searching for Coconut, I began to wonder if perhaps God had the same sense of care and concern about me. My mind tends to always search for the parallels in life, particularly as I try to understand Who God is and how He relates to me. I saw my dear friend searching earnestly for a somewhat helpless animal. He did not give up until he had found her and made she had enough to eat. He took care of her without thought of recompense or reward.

In the same way, my heart yearned to know with certainty that God was pursuing me. I wanted to know that He was looking for me and wouldn't give up until He found me. I needed to realize that His deep concern was that I knew He would take care of me and provide for me.

But what if something tragic happens? Like with Coconut, what if life runs me over and the life is crushed out of me? The church easily says Pick yourself up, pray more, go to the Cross, be saved. I think, though, that God is different. He picks me up, holds my bruised soul in His gentle hands, and cries. Then, because He is God, He breathes life back into me and tends to my wounds.

Unfortunately, on this earth we can't expect that innocent animals like Coconut will have life again. Sin's evil talons have affected those who never deserved to hurt, as Adam and Eve's mistake has fallen heavily on us through the years. Yet in the midst of the darkness and the pain, there still has to be hope. Hope that we can hold on to God and know with certainty that He sees and He will punish the evildoers (Psalm 10). Reassurance that He understands our rage at the senselessness of it all while He comforts us in our pain.

Trust in Him at all times. . .pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge. . .Psalm 62:8