Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

The romance of sickness

Why is it that when we’re well, we have romantic thoughts of being sick?

I can’t be the only one who pictures herself curled up with a blanket and a cup of tea, graciously texting regrets to everything on her schedule.

But today, I sprawl on my grimy sheets, trumpeting through my nose and tossing tissues over the side of the bed that land splut, splut, splut on the laminate flooring.

Of course, in my imagination, I busy myself with natural remedies that help my body heal, leaving it just enough sick to stay home from everything I don’t want to face. In reality, I dubiously rub on some essential oils and then fish around in my medicine bag for ibuprofen and oh look! Vicks Vaporub! I tell my sister how I made myself bay leaf tea but don’t mention that I had coffee this morning because I’m getting tired of tea.

My ears ache. My teeth hurt. I think someone filled up my skull with over-steeped tea that burns the backs of my watering eyes. My nose, well, you could even say it glows.

As for reading a book… I tried and then read the news, got depressed, and took a toss-and-turn, HONK-splut nap.

So where is the romance of sickness?

It’s a real thing. It’s called quarantine, that beautiful time when you’ve been exposed to something dangerous and get to wear pajamas all day for a whole week until you effectively don’t get the illness after all.

So today–splut, splut–that’s what I’m holding out for. The “sickness” that dreams are made of. At least my dreams. When I have them. Between bouts of coughing and nose-blowing.

What I love about you, small boy

Your face fills with bright delight when you spot me, unexpected in the park. “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” says Mommy. I know and so do you. Your arms swing open as you barrel toward me. I stoop to meet you, and you press your face close to murmur the secrets of your day–the joys and sorrows of a life well-lived, however young. I understand nothing, but you don’t mind because I listen and that’s enough.

When I knock on your downstairs door, you wait for Mommy to unlock it but you are the one who pulls it open with that expectant grin as if it were only you I came to see. You take my hand and lead me inside. Or if I say, “Not today,” you keep my hand in your tiny one as you step out the door onto the round, red welcome mat. “No problem. We can play at your house if you prefer,” you want to say. When you toss Mommy a farewell glance, she says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. I give you a hug and you smell like nothing, sweet nothing except maybe a bit of sticky and sometimes crackers.

When I pick you up, you quiet as if you’d like to stay in my arms forever. When you get too heavy, I slide you down my hip and then my leg, one jolt at a time, a game to make you giggle. But then you stretch your arms up again.

When I play distracted, you tug my hand or pat my face to remind me that you are the most important person in my life right now. Mommy says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. But my heart still melts a little more when you wave your arms in the air as we sing “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” Or when you shriek laughter during peek-a-boo and hide & seek. Or when you pick the chocolate chips out of my granola and leave Hansel and Gretel trails across the tile and between the couch cushions.

Small boy–for you are still small though you fancy yourself a man–you have stolen my heart, this sad auntie heart so removed from her biological adored ones. You too, far from most who love you, in me find a resting place for the big love of your mini heart.


Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Top 10 things I do to fill scraps of time

Do you know what I’m talking about when I say “scraps of time”? Those potentially useless minutes tucked between important things like a business meeting and lunch with a friend. We all have those, but some of us are naturally more productive than others of us.  I tend to fall into the latter half of that statement, but this week I’ve been noting how I spend those scraps, be it 5 minutes or an hour. Here is what I came up with:

  1. Organize something, anything really. A cupboard, a refrigerator shelf while sniffing suspicious condiments, or a drawer. Maybe that’s why people comment on how clean my house is. All I have to do is run my finger along a piece of furniture to prove them wrong, but it’s organized and so it looks clean. Then again, last night my neighbor pulled open my overflowing junk drawer. Now maybe she’ll stop commenting on my cleanliness.
  2. Do the background work for DIY projects (e.g. sanding, getting out supplies, creating a pattern, etc.) That way, when there is a block of time, I can move at the rate of my inspiration rather than the rate of my sandpaper. 
  3. Sit with my eyes closed and absorb nothing. These are quiet spots when my brain can relax. Sometimes, I pray. Sometimes, I fall asleep (but not before setting an alarm!).
  4. Look in the mirror. Really. I’m the one who is strolling down the street before she realizes she forgot to look in the mirror. It’s unnerving to wonder what everyone else is seeing that you forgot to. A booger? A hairball on the back of your black sweater? Bedhead eyebrows? So it’s always helpful when I remember to give myself a minute to primp.
  5. Come up with menu ideas and shopping lists. I can do this pretty much by standing in front of my pantry which happens to be a corner cupboard. Cocoa? Check. Rice? Check. What in the world am I going to do with this bag of barley? Maybe some kind of barley soup… Onions? Check. 
  6. Catch up on messages and emails because, who doesn’t do that these days? Those waiting-for-public-transportation scraps of time are ideal for this.
  7. Read, especially that book that I had to tear myself away from last night at midnight… Kindles and Kindle apps have made this exponentially more convenient.
  8. Eat. Years ago I had to learn to stock up on protein to keep myself from feeling faint between meals. I literally learned to “eat for the hunger that cometh.” However, on high-scrappy days, the hunger never cometh because I’m so busy fixing myself exciting little snacks. High-scrappy days are also high calorie days. Hmm. I think I need to work on that one.
  9. Trim my fingernails. Isn’t this one of those tasks that ends up like an abandoned middle child? It’s there, but other things are more demanding…until you have that scrap of time within which your hangnail catches on a hand towel to make you notice that you’ve fallen behind on your personal grooming. Speaking of which…
  10. Find things to get rid of. I think I drove my sister crazy by always having a box or a bag at the end of my bed with stuff to dispose of. Now I have a discreet corner of my wardrobe, but the bag is still there, accumulating junk. I know. I know I’m sheltered when hauling a bag of stuff to the clothes bin or a thrift store drop-off gives me a high. But here’s a tip for you town and city dwellers: the next time you get rid of something, carry it rather than drive it because when you arrive at your destination weary and heavy laden, depositing it is that much more freeing.

What are some of the ways you fill in your scraps of time? I’d love to hear about them and maybe even implement some of your ideas.

To thine own self be true: introverts overseas (part 2)

If you haven’t read Part 1, please do that before embarking on this ship of rambling thought.


Even after recognizing that I was equipped for my calling, I could not reconcile how I could be authentically me when much of my work required extroversion. We have all heard the mantra “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,” implying that those things are the best things after all, a sort of taking up of our ascetic cross. But is this the answer? Is long-term ignoring of self what God expects of me? And why would God call me to be someone He hadn’t created me to be?

Years ago, a friend recommended Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain. Cain claims that introverts need to take Shakespeare’s advice of “To thine own self be true.” In a culture or workplace that demands extroversion, that seems to leave only two options: become someone you aren’t or resign. In other words,  live a lie or remain inflexibly yourself. 

When I am inflexibly “true to self” in the context of ministry, I require those I am trying to serve to climb over the wall that I have been called to climb over, essentially boiling ministry down to my needs. Although I prefer to think of my personality inflexibility as “authenticity,” sometimes it’s plain old selfishness. Or worse, disobedience.

So what is the answer? I kept reading. Although Quiet is not written from a Christian perspective, I plugged away, chapter by chapter, hoping to find a ray of light. Then: lightbulb! Cain reconciled my Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde musings with one concept: the pseudo-self.

Introverts acting like someone they are not–what Cain calls acting within the “pseudo-self”–should not be labeled as inauthenticity when it is done “in the service of love or a professional calling” (Quiet, p. 210). When we see and serve the bigger picture, we can also see that acting within our pseudo-selves is a different form of being true to self.

For example, that introverted social advocate who occasionally needs to get loud and aggressive with her adversary is able to step into her pseudo-self because doing so serves the work she believes in. For me, it could be attending a North African party (I really hate those) to show my support for a friend. Or knocking on doors and passing out literature because–although I am quivering inside–I know my work contributes to the bigger vision.

As important as a pseudo-self may be, we introverts risk burnout unless we intentionally step back into our own skin and offer the world the gift of our introversion. Introverts and extroverts may have many of the same traits, but a few come more naturally for introverts. Most of us love deep relationships. We carve out time for reflection that helps our personal growth and our work performance. We’re okay with that behind-the-scenes work if it’s for a good cause. We are in tune to others’ feelings and adjust our approach accordingly. We attract the other introverts in whatever culture we live in, calling them forth with our quiet rather than plastering them to a wall with our charisma. 

This list is not exhaustive, of course. And of course, we have plenty of our weaknesses too. But I’m learning to notice my gifts instead of drooling over the fence on the green, extroverted grass. Because, really, for the sake of our callings there are times when both sides–introverts and extroverts–need to step over that fence and draw from the strengths of the other side.

Sure, I still sometimes wish I were an extrovert. And there are times I feel inauthentic when I run on adrenaline to act like one. But when I focus on God and what He has called me to, operating temporarily within my pseudo-self is not a display of hypocrisy, but an expression of love.

Note: Recently, A Life Overseas published a blog on the same topic. Apparently, I hadn’t been the only one who took almost a decade to get around to this book. Some of what I say in Part 1 and Part 2 overlaps with Craig Thompson’s post, but go there too, because it’s worth a read. 

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you would even like to guest blog a part 3…

Called and equipped: introverts overseas (part 1)

I have been wrestling with my personality for months. Hello. My name is Trish and I’m an introvert working overseas. 

More often than not, overseas work requires extroversion. And if I’m honest, sometimes my prayers run along the lines of, “Hey look, God, if I’m not allowed to be myself, why didn’t You just call someone else?” That question comes from years of struggle in the workforce, academia, and now overseas. Deep down I am accusing God of calling me to something for which I am not enough.

Of course I’m enough! God equips those He calls, right? That sounds nice enough on paper, but flesh and blood adds a deeper dimension. And I wonder: Does He? Does He equip me for what He calls me to? 

Well, what has He called me to? And what have I called myself to? See, it’s easy for me to take my calling and add ruffles and lace, longer sleeves, a zipper or buttons. I alter my calling to the expectations of others until it’s hard to find the original pattern. 

For example, God has called me to serve others here in Spain. As I serve, I notice a trend: women who impose upon my flexibility and require me to conform to their schedules. “You don’t have children,” they say. They are right; I am typically more flexible than they are. However, when five women expect me to work around their schedules, some days I can spend a good part of the day just trying to plan the day. Then I throw up my hands and say, “God, I can’t do this anymore!” as if His calling were too big for me. But God didn’t call me to conform to the schedules of everyone I meet. With a ruffle here and a button there, I lose sight of His pattern under all of that gaudy paraphernalia. 

What about the “equipping”? What does “equipping” even mean? I like to believe that I am equipped when I have enough plus a little to spare just in case something happens. But I’m not so sure that having enough to spare coincides with the “jars of clay” illustration in 2 Corinthians 4:7. If I were a stunning, breathtaking vessel, how does that show the “surpassing power” of God? Where does He fit in the picture at all? When I feel strong and equipped, my glory gets in the way of His.

I’m not downplaying the importance of inner growth, but maybe being equipped looks less like being ready for anything and more like letting God’s surpassing power shine through me, warts and all. Moving forward in the midst of my weakness gives me a better sense of who I am and who God is.

Next week (or the next or the next…), I hope to share something that finally made two seemingly conflicting ideas sit down and talk it out. Until then…

2022 haze

Hazy. “Is it even worth going up to watch the fireworks?” my neighbor asked. “Will they even set them off? It’s so foggy.”

It’s worth a try, we decided. So shortly before midnight, four of us traipsed up to the roof to look over the strange haze that illuminated the city. Why does it feel brighter on foggy nights, like someone turned on a yellow lamp in the next room?

Midnight came. 2022. We didn’t cheer, just stood expectantly. The fireworks popped, a couple here and then there, muted by the fog. 

Last year had been wild–fireworks blasting everywhere as people waved goodbye to 2020. Had 2021 disappointed? With this new wave of restrictions, had people lost hope?

“Maybe everyone is tired this year, tired of being in crisis,” suggested my neighbor.

In his daddy’s arms, their little boy cried, “Tah! Tah! Tah!” after each burst, delighted. He didn’t seem to notice the lack of enthusiasm for the new year. He would be enthusiastic if no one else would.

We peered over the edge of the apartment building. The haze seemed to represent more than I wanted to process at midnight. 1 Corinthians 13:12 floated into my mind and stuck: “For now we see in a mirror dimly.” I didn’t even try to remember the rest of the verse, it felt appropriate stolen from its context and tacked onto this eery new year.

But after a good night of sleep tucked in my bed (with visions of sugar-plums dancing in my head, of course), I remembered that the verse is a comparison and the emphasis isn’t on the hazy mirror, but rather on that moment when we see “face to face” and “know fully, even as [we] have been fully known.” 

Once again, I had been distracted by the haze of the present.

My prayer for this year is not we become “so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good,” but that we live fully in today’s haze because we remember to reach out in hope.

This haze is not all there is.


Photo by Mehmet Bozgedik on Unsplash

Excite your heart

I should be in bed. But I want to hold on to today, let it linger, breathe in the sweet butter cookie smell, sip my strawberry tea, stare at my Christmas lights, and listen to my Christmas playlist.

This month was so full. Today was so full. But this is where I want to be. In right now where I can sit and let my thoughts and memories sort themselves out.

I need to buy thread.

I’m thankful for every moment I have with my family. Tonight, I’m savoring memories I have with my dad. Sometimes it takes a threat of losing someone to remind you how dear they are to you, doesn’t it?

When I passed out Christmas cookies tonight, I had a very different response from the time I passed out cookies after moving in. Ten months of rattling around in the same apartment building has shifted relationships toward friendliness, even catching me off-guard. I wasn’t expecting the invitations, especially from my Spanish neighbors.

I decorated the plates with a note: “…and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” (Matt. 1:23). Because Christmas cookies are a good way to catch up with neighbors but they are a means, not an end to reminding us of our desperate need of God incarnate.

I’m not even halfway done with cookie-passing-outing but sufficient for the day is the sugar thereof. I packed away the remainder to frost another day.

My family celebrated Christmas over Thanksgiving weekend when we were all together. And what a racket we make with 11 adults and 10 children (all 5 and under). Sometimes, our nerves were a bit frazzled–at least mine were–but a case of frazzled nerves is a reasonable price to pay for the wealth of being all together.

I could read another round of Tacky the Penguin if it would merit another delighted smile. Or I wouldn’t mind seeing a cloud of blond fluff cheerfully bursting into the kitchen: “Good morning!” Or cuddling a tiny baby who eventually bestowed upon me one of his first smiles. Or crashing through a dark house in search of a hiding place with littles who burst out of the spot before the seeker even gets close. I could even manage a wet shoulder that smells of drool. Or holding an exploding child during ladies’ Sunday school.

Sparkly eyes. “Yaaaaah,” from an agreeable little girl. Shy grins. Counting the number of years he’ll be next time I’ll see him.

Time to laugh, yes… And a time to cry while remembering with dear friends other dear friends who have passed away.

Coffee. Tea. Chats. Uncontrollable laughter with my mom.

Life feels full.

My finger is cramping. I should have pulled out my laptop.

The men here are definitely creepier than the U.S. Thank you to you men who respect women as beings made in God’s image. May we women not take that for granted… and may we return the favor!

I think my house is an introvert. Some houses fall apart when they’re left alone. Mine liked it. I can tell because the freezer and the washer are working better and the drain smell isn’t as invasive. And it wasn’t even that dusty. I wonder if the poor house is disappointed I came back.

If you followed my trail of thought all of the way down here, I will leave you with a nugget from Paul David Tripp’s Advent devotional Come, Let Us Adore Him (from Dec. 20): “Only when sin breaks our hearts will the coming of the Messiah excite our hearts.”

What does Christmas mean to you this year? Does it excite your heart?

Merry Christmas!

God is good

I’m stuck in Madrid.

Same nightmare, just backwards this time… with even less time in between. I could have wept when I arrived at my gate, panting from the weight of my carry-ons (and my out-of-shapedness) only to find the gate completely deserted.

But God works in mysterious ways, you know. Just because that phrase is cliché doesn’t make it untrue.

While I was stressing that my London-Madrid flight was running late and I would have even less than the allotted 50 minutes to get through border patrol and change terminals, I pretty sure God was making my flight late on purpose. “I got this,” I think I heard Him say while I was in at least 4 lines deep at passport control.

“Okay, God. You got this.”

But even if I had heard His voice, I wasn’t really sure what He “got.” So I still ran and I almost let myself plop down and sob at that empty gate at the tippy-tip of that long terminal.

God’s sovereignty is like that. We don’t know what He’s up to, but we can trust that He knows and that what He does is good.

Not that I was thinking lofty thoughts when I walked up to Iberia’s information desk, alone and sad between that rock and hard place.

God was good to me. Because my London flight had arrived late, I was offered 3 meals and a hotel, something that may end up being more needed than rushing home and diving into life. If my flight hadn’t been late (because I almost assuredly would have missed the connecting flight anyway), it would have been another ticket purchase and nighty-night on the grimy airport floor.

But God would have been good there too. Just as good as He is after a real shower and a real pillow.

Why is that so hard to remember?

Do you ever wonder if Jesus was tempted to forget His Father’s goodness in light of His personal pain? He was born fragile into a hostile society. He had to learn about a world He had created, grow up among people He had formed, and probably even misspell words He gave us breath to pronounce. And He dedicated His ministry to many who eventually turned their backs on Him.

Just before His crucifixion, didn’t He cry, “Let this cup pass from me”?

Last summer, as we watched a friend suffer from cancer, we prayed with her that the cup would pass. It didn’t.

Her cry for relief wasn’t a cry of doubt. Like Jesus, she was able to say, “Nevertheless, Your will be done.” Like Jesus, she submitted to the Father’s sovereignty.

“Sovereignty” and “submission” don’t sound like such big words after a hot shower and a clean bed, but what about right there in the middle of chemo? In the agony of dying for a world that hates you? Or just feeling weepy at a deserted airport gate?

Is my concept of God’s goodness too fragile, too willing to be broken? Is it just a churchy façade for a secular ideology?

This is getting too heavy for my tired brain. So I’ll wrap this up by saying that I was challenged by my own circumstances today: Do I really believe God is good all of the time?

Okay, that’s all. Next time, I’ll try to write about Christmas or my time in the States instead of just the dreadful little airport bookends of my trip!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Mi casa es tu casa

My neighbor’s hands were slick with oily meloui dough when the doorbell rang. “Could you get that?”

I opened the door and gave a cheerful “Salam walekum!” The young mother greeted me but backed away with popping eyes and an apology. 

“No, no, no, you came to the right door.” I grinned. “Welcome.” I had dropped by to play with my neighbor’s little boy. Soon I had three little people to play with and a mother who stood beaming over me, incredulous that I was there on the floor stringing monkeys from the doorknob and reading about 1-2-3 with Winnie the Pooh. The new little girls wanted laptime too.

Amid the chaos of the younger generation, I heard snippets of the visitor’s story, a story that didn’t match her sparkling eyes. Then we ate meloui, tiny cooling pieces at a time. I ate mine, trying not to sprinkle crumbs on the smooth little pigtail bobbing just below my chin.

“This is such a great day,” my neighbor sang as she shuffled us around the table in order to reach the fridge. “My friend came and my neighbor!” She smiled and began sorting through last week’s cilantro. 

If I hadn’t known, I would not have guessed that her son had been sick, refusing to eat and wailing day and night for several days straight. In desperation, his parents had hauled him to the ER where he got the medication he needed. 

Low on sleep on top of a distorted schedule, would I have been cheerful to have my house overflowing with people?

You could argue that hospitality is required in Islam and therefore, whether or not they feel it, North Africans are hospitable. True. But most North Africans are not just hospitable because they’re required to be; it’s less of a conscious choice and more of an integral part of life.

Another night, my neighbor, her friend, and I walked to the park. There, we joined up with several other women. Our bench seated three and squished four. We were seven.

Had we been American, we would have chatted briefly and then half of us would have moved to a nearby bench to sit. However, North Africans value relationships much more than they value comfort… and relationships require time spent together. So three of us stood or chased renegade children while four sat hip to hip. Every now and then, someone wedged themselves out of the line-up and gave another the chance to sit for a while.

I came home from that outing, over-stimulated and linguistically exhausted. The sound of my key turning in the lock was absolutely musical. I am American and I value both personal space and comfort. I will probably always value those two things. Those values and solid relationships aren’t mutually exclusive when others prioritize the same values.

But what about when they don’t?

I’m still pondering what it means to be an introvert in my line of work–What does that look like practically? (Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to explore this on my blog.) But I will say this: even in my exhaustion, I also rejoice in the beauty of a culture that decidedly values relationships and community, even at the expense of individual preference.