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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Life Isn't Fair

You know the saying, I complained about having no shoes until I saw someone with no feet? Well that was me today. I've spent the last couple of days complaining about the challenges in my life and then today I spoke to two young people who don't even have the chance to do what I've done. Names are changed.

A young lady shared her story with me. Shereen is just 20 years old but 5 years ago while riding in a van with her best friend, several other friends, and her brother, the van driver fell asleep, there was an accident, and her brother died. She got emotional as she shared her story after we'd spent a day playing in the snow and hanging out. I listened as Shereen talked about her dream to finish her graphic design degree but that she was afraid she'd have to return to her home country and get married before that happened. She missed her family but when she went to visit, her parents brought a train of potential suitors to her, insisting she get married, have babies, and settle down. In her village, 18 was the oldest that young ladies got married and often, because there was a shortage of females, the girls would forge their age on the marriage papers and say they were 18 even if they were 16 or 17. Shereen was already past the respectable age of marriage.

Then on the bus ride home, Joseph talked about his dream to travel, learn about other cultures, become a movie director and write scripts. He came from a family of 7 but only he and his sister were still single. His two brothers still lived at home with their families and his father worked in another country to support them. It is common for one person to leave the village and go to Kuwait or Dubai or another country with good economy and work there, sending money home to support the rest of the family. I asked Joseph if his brothers worked at all; he shook his head and said no, they didn't. Even though they were in their 20s and had families of their own to support, his father sent money home regularly to pay for their expenses. When they were young, his father was rich and the brothers could ask for anything and they would get it. When Joseph was born, however, his father lost his fortune and life became difficult. Joseph started to work at the age of 9, often leaving home and traveling to other cities to work in a spice shop, a delivery truck, and a coffee shop. He was working on finishing his degree, impatient that at age 22 he still had 3 more years to go. Once he finished, he would be expected to find a good job and help support those who still lived at home. In his culture, he said, by the time you turned 24 or 25 they expected you to have a diploma and a good job.

Each young person has dreams of their own that I'm convinced God placed in their hearts. They are responsible, caring, kind young people yet their culture dictates they lay aside their dreams in order to honour their parents and support their families. And me? I complain because I have to work a 10-hour day. They work 27 hours a week and take 18 credits a semester.

Life isn't fair. Why do I get to travel the world, after completing a graduate degree, and they don't? I don't have the answers. It is humbling, though, to realize the privileges I've been given. That carries an equally heavy load of responsibility. I would like to use the opportunities to encourage and help others as much as I can. That is my dream. Now I need to learn how to put it into practice.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Shake a Hand

I'm a problem solver. I've been here less than a week and I already have some ideas of how to improve things. I like to ask people what their opinion is and get ideas because often those who are in the middle of challenges have the best ideas of how to solve those challenges. For example, the cafeteria serves only one meal on Sunday and while it's billed as brunch, it doesn't function as such. It's cereal and bread and spread but no fresh vegetables or fruit and the hot dishes were foul beans (that aren't cooked long enough) and scrambled eggs. That is not enough to sustain a person all day. When I spoke to a friend about it, they mentioned being proactive and cooking an actual meal on Sundays so they could enjoy something nutritious.

However, though I may be able to troubleshoot meal options, there is one area I cannot easily problem solve. I can't make friends easily. I know this may sound strange as in my family I used to be the most outgoing one. When I left Lebanon 17 years ago, a friend told me "Don't laugh too much" because that was what I did. I enjoyed life and I loved being with my friends. I had a group that I felt comfortable with.

I was sharing my challenges with a friend who is having similar introvert challenges at his school. His answer was to say that he was learning to depend on God to be his all. I replied that yes, it was important to learn that lesson, but equally as important to realize that God created us to be in community to encourage each other. I have spent 17 years thinking that I didn't carry enough value to be someone's friend. I thought that I was supposed to be content with having God as my only friend because if I could learn that lesson then I would be ready for translation. This is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek and yet there is frustrated truth to it also.

What upsets me is when people use God as a cliche without affirming our pain. I'm struggling with being alone. This is something I struggled with where I lived before also, because I didn't have many close friends on campus. I don't know if it's a personality issue or because I'm a TCK. When I share my struggle, all I need to hear is someone saying, "I'm sorry you're having a hard time. I wish I could be there so I could be your friend. I'll pray that God helps you to see opportunities to be friendly to others and that you'll find some good friends soon." That's all. I don't need a sermon on how God should be enough. He is. I love God and I'm so grateful that I have the reassurance that He is with me, even as I sit silently in the cafeteria and eat my cold crunchy beans and standard olive/cucumber/tomato mixture as quickly as possible so I can retreat to my room.

I'm thankful for the wonderful people I'm getting to know here and for the renewed childhood friendships. I'm confident that within time, I will develop deeper friendships with kindred spirits and won't always sit quietly at the table. But for now, for today, I'm lonely and scared because I worry that the next 51 weeks will be empty of companionship. I hope not.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Inside Out

Today was a bit more of a challenging day. Some days I come home to my room and I'm beaming because I've had a good interaction with people and I'm so happy. Other days I'm happy to retreat to my room and lock the door in silence because I'm tired of smiling when inside I don't feel like it and I've run out of energy to be positive. One of the teachers, an old friend, invited me to her office to chat for a while this morning and she remarked on how positive I always was on social media, always seeming to have the joi de vivre. I was honest and said I do have difficult days too. I just don't post those online because nobody likes to see people's depressing thoughts. 

I'm struggling to find the balance between feeling comfortable and recognizing that things take time. I am impatient. I want to know right away who my best friends are going to be and I don't want to waste time with people who aren't going to be a significant part of my life. I want to have a desk and computer and knock out a whole slew of projects so I can impress my bosses and I don't want to feel overwhelmed and lost because I'm not sure exactly what I'm doing. I want to lose 30 pounds yesterday and I don't want to have to wait for it to slowly disappear as I walk the stairs and adjust my diet. 

Tonight I was grateful for the kind women who noticed a lonely foreigner and surrounded me with their love and friendship. I long to be the one who is on the giving end but perhaps it is okay to be receiving for a time until I am ready to give to others. The coming year for me personally is one that I anticipate to be filled with emotional, spiritual, and physical healing. My mental and physical body has been in anxious knots for the past 17 years. It is finally time for me to let go and allow God to heal me from the inside so I can praise Him in sincerity.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Connecting in Real Time

I'm happy. I didn't think it would be this easy to be happy or that I'd feel content so soon. I will admit, there were a couple of moments when I wondered if I had made the right decision, when I prayed for someone to talk to, or when I ate my breakfast as quickly as possible so I could leave the awkward silence surrounding me. I was tired of smiling even though inside I was lonely, tired of being positive when there was mold on the ceilings and the internet had gone out for the 5th time that hour, and tired of being cheerful when the main space on my breakfast/lunch/supper plate was occupied by the same combination of cucumbers and tomatoes and olives.

But when I had the opportunity to speak to people, then all those annoyances disappeared. You see, I love being around people. I love to listen to them tell stories, to laugh together, and to engage in a deep discussion on things in life. I can be content sitting in silence as long as I am sitting beside someone. The past few years had sadly been lacking in daily interaction unless I worked hard on making it happen. Now, just 3 days into my stay, I feel comfortable around others and I'm happy.

I have retreated to my room to gather my courage up to tackle the three flights of stairs one more time, to figure out where to make photocopies or buy toiletpaper, to go and eat in the cafeteria where I am still learning the hierarchy of the tables and who sits where. But I haven't watched a single movie or missed it. I haven't stalked Facebook friends, wishing their life was mine. I haven't done endless searches on singles dating websites, hoping to find someone who's halfway normal and also interested in connecting. In other words, I've stepped out of my virtual world and into the real world.

People still spend endless hours in the virtual world here. At breakfast, I saw 6 people clustered around a table, all good friends, and not one was interacting with the group. They were focused intently on their phones with an occasional aside to someone to look at a picture or read a meme. I'm grateful for the ones who take time to talk. To tell me stories and make me laugh. To open their hearts and trust me with their challenges. To be curious about my world and invite me into theirs.

When I left my home a little over a week ago, I had no idea where I would fit in. I'm so thankful to realize that I do fit in. My weight, my spirituality, and my diet do not factor into whether people here love me or not. I see their eyes light up as we exchange greetings and pause for a moment to share life. For this I am grateful.

For many years I have insisted that God gives us gifts that we can use to honour Him in service. Yet I never thought that our characters are also shaped so we can serve Him in joyfulness. I spent several years counting the hours til the weekend. I wasn't happy. I longed to be surrounded by people who could challenge me and accepted me with little regard for the regulations that accompanied conservative living.

Coming here and realizing how happy I am makes me sad at the same time. I realize that I could have stepped out of my comfort zone a little sooner and I wouldn't have been so unhappy. I could have left. But perhaps this is one of those life lessons and maybe the next time I find myself counting the minutes til my time is my own, I will take a deep breath and step into the Jordan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

In the small and the big

Tonight, I whispered a small prayer to God as I sat at the cafeteria table by myself and tried to look like I didn't mind. Please God, send me a friend. My plate was filled with delicious foods of my childhood, the room was filled with the mixed hubbub of Arabic, French and English among friends, but I sat silently and wondered if every meal would be like that. One day down, 364 to go. 800 meals to be precise. Not that anyone was counting. . .

After returning to my room, I tidied up to a classical playlist on YouTube, then paced the floor like a restless lion, reading from my Arabic primer while trying to ignore the colics from a stomach upset at having been served beans twice in a row. Then a Facebook message popped up. How was your first day at work? It was someone I'd met briefly that day, we'd connected virtually prior to my arrival, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness to ask. After a brief exchange, she asked if I wanted mint tea. Sure! I replied.

Two hours later, after sharing pieces of our lives, finding the common and exclaiming at the unusual, as I said goodnight and returned to my room, I smiled inside. The prayer I had sent up so timidly had been answered so quickly. What a wonderful gift from my Father!

Today has been a good day. I taught my first class period and both the students and teacher survived. I let them out 4 minutes early and did worship in the middle of class instead of at the beginning because I forgot, but that's okay. I had a work meeting with one of my bosses while the other one took me around to meet old friends. The ladies hugged me and held my hands while exclaiming over how long it had been. I took my cue from the men and most of them shook hands though one or two also hugged me. I felt myself going into my gentle mode where I smiled a lot and nodded and said little.

I got reimbursed for something, used the cash to buy water (they use dual currency here, Lebanese and USD), and lugged a 10-liter bottle up 3 flights of stairs. I am choosing to be grateful that I live on the 3rd floor so I can get in mandatory exercise several times a day. I set up appointments to buy basic items and get my phone and bank accounts activated. I walked around the campus and revisited favourite haunts. I tidied up my belongings and made a list of things to buy.

And then, when I wasn't busy getting settled, I thought. I'm happy to be here but I am realizing that only a small part of it can be based on my historical merit. It is now up to me going forward to create my own legacy. My future is a blank slate. I can get my ears pierced and listen to hard rock or I can wear hippy skirts and go gluten-free. I can be a social butterfly or a recluse. I can love the local food or refuse to eat anything fresh. I can share Jesus in class or push Him out of my life. It is up to me. A scary thing, this free will.

I saw our old house, the trees I used to climb, the basketball court where I learned to play. Some things have changed while others remain constant. Strangely enough, there is no emotion. Coming in to land, yesterday, I got a little teary-eyed as I saw the harbour I'd watched so many years before. But now, it's as if I've finally realized that my past is in my past. I can let it go and I won't break into little tiny pieces. I will admit, my mind is already thinking about 364 days from now. While I cannot foresee how my life will change, as I know it will, I am ready now to go where those who love me are. This is me. I live for companionship and what I had here before no longer exists.

I realized today that it is not the place that calls unrelenting to the TCK's heart. It is the invisible cord that connects dear ones to us. This is not easily broken; it simply stretches thin with time and space. What do we do when they relinquish the cord? We hurt for a bit but then we realize that the empty place where their cord once connected their heart to ours is now filled with other cords equally as precious. I have many of those invisible cords attached to my heart and for that I am grateful.

Monday, February 15, 2016

I Want to go Home

You know they say, you can't go home again. The song, The House That Built Me by Miranda Lambert has been running through my head all day as we took to the skies twice on my way back home. One of my homes. I'm still trying to figure out if it's my real home or a perceived feeling of being home.

My best friend bought a house several years ago. I envied her for settling into her roots even as I wondered if I could ever rationalize such a decision. It seemed to go against my values to invest in property when there were people who needed to hear about salvation. I wasn't sure if it was okay to have a house and kids and savings in the bank or if that epitomized American corporate culture. Perhaps it was several cars and lavish vacations and the latest iPhone that was not right.

As the taxi driver wended his way up the hill, I was surprised to find that I didn't remember any of it. Just a flash of the church but everything else had either grown together much closer so that it was hard for the clusters of apartments to breathe or I had forgotten. Thinking back now, I realize that we spent most of our time on campus with our friends. I'm a lifetime older now and I cannot be content with playing Kahraba or Rummikub for hours. I shall have to explore and see where the roads take me.

I'm thankful to be here. I'm apprehensive about what the future will bring. I'm determined to embrace the adventure, if this is my last hurrah before settling down into a regular career, buying that house, and saving up for two-week vacations in Europe. Above all, I'm looking to God for guidance so I can walk in His will and please Him in all I do.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Cross Over to the Other Side

Here's another job opening, the email was titled. I opened it to find something I would enjoy, though it likely would have been limiting in career growth. This was the fourth in a line of suggestions that came as I sat in a room that was slowly reducing to four walls, carpet, and furniture as I carefully packed my life away. Was I making the right decision? It had seemed so at the time but then again, I tended to embrace possibility wholeheartedly until I thought of everything that could go wrong and then I stepped back, hesitant, afraid, and changed my mind. This time, though, I couldn't say No. I'd come too far to step back.

It was three months ago that I found the missed call on the answering machine. I never called her back but I played the message twice. There were openings in corporate, I looked like a good fit as executive assistant to the president, would I please call the following number. It was one of my dream jobs--working in a non-profit Christian ministry to rescue and rehabilitate minors trapped in human trafficking. I'd attended their training, volunteered at a couple of events, and was passionate about the mission. I'd already started down a different road, though, and I could not pursue this calling.

Within the week, we were enjoying a potluck lunch at a friend's house before heading out to sing to shut-ins when the hostess turned to me and asked, Are you still looking for a job? Her husband needed a secretary, there was room for advancement, if I was interested. I had been, once. I'd interviewed for the same position 8 years ago, sat around the proverbial table with dark suits and explained why I was the best person for the job. I went home and sent a thank-you-and-hope-to-hear-from-you-soon card. Never heard anything. No email, no letter, no phone call. So I went on with life and though it once again sounded tempting to work in corporate in a ministry-focused organization, I knew this time I would not be interviewing. I had chosen a different path.

Then, as I idly passed time waiting for the visa to come, I found myself browsing the employment pages at my alma mater. I'd interviewed there a year ago, they flew me out, I'd answered the questions the 8-person strong group threw at me from carefully selected questions on a double-sided single page. I'd sat on the wonderful queen bed, agonizing for hours over how to solve a formula, then I'd given up and gone to the deli where I used my complimentary meal card to buy supper. I was one of three but I didn't make the cut. As I scrolled through the positions, I stopped at one that fit my bucket list description. A program registrar at a mainstream university. I didn't apply but within days an email came from the main interviewer from a year ago. They were recommending me to the search committee, here was the link to apply. I sent a thoughtful thank you email in reply. I'd already committed for the coming year to mission service.

And now, the fourth, would allow me to stay where I was slowly starting to feel the ties that held me even as I gently snipped each one loose. The routine of going in to my mother's office each day, ostensibly work-related, as we'd laugh and talk about life with her colleague, each of us having a similar sense of humour. The freedom of driving down the freeway with Mandisa playing loudly on the radio as I prayed out loud and absorbed the realization of God's goodness. The joy of spending time with friends as we indulged in long talks around ethnic meals or made spontaneous trips to Winco and Trader Joe's. The beauty of living in nature and breathing in fresh air untainted by cigarette smoke and smog. The security of knowing I had a home to go to every night and family who loved me. Each time I felt a pang of sadness, I allowed it to linger so I could fully embrace the experience. I was leaving but I was loved.

I'm still waiting for my visa. This holding time of six weeks and counting has brought a wealth of lessons and memories. I've also realized there is never a perfect time to leave. There will always be one more friend to see, one more restaurant to eat at, one more book to read, one more folder to sort. I think God has used my inclination to jump first, think later, to urge me into an adventure I may not have chosen after deliberate thought. I used to be the impulsive one but life had shaped me into the careful predictive one. Until this. Am I making the right decision? To be in God's will is to follow unhesitatingly, trust implicitly, and do cheerfully whatever He asks me to do. So I step into Jordan's river, my toes reaching for the water, and I wait for it to part. I know it will. He has promised.