A few more thoughts on hospitality

A few months ago, I mentioned that I hoped to share with you some of what I learned while writing an essay on hospitality. In May, a day trip to a mountain town with my neighbor’s family jogged my memory. My memory continued to jog, but only in place as the busyness of June took over.

Now here I am at last with my hospitality essay at my side. But my mind keeps returning to that mountain town…

As I sprawled out on the little sister’s bed during siesta time, my eyes roamed the room, spotting things stashed here and there. A rickety binder that looked as if it had been tossed on top of the wardrobe and promptly forgotten. Broken drawers in a dresser decorated with childish markers. An abandoned attempt at decor.

The untidiness spoke of things not cared for.

Yet there I was, a stranger to the family, welcomed into their home and offered a bed. Rather than buy expensive things and focus on protecting them from harm, this family created a space that said people mattered more.

The women set up a chair in the narrow kitchen doorway for me to sit and hold the baby and then spent the evening tripping over me as they bustled about. And they didn’t mind.

As we finished dinner around midnight, a deep weariness came over me as I looked around at the pile of people in the living room. As soon as they left, the cleanup would need to begin.

And then they left, and rather than being overwhelmingly dirty, the house looked almost clean. As I helped to stack the green plastic chairs and fluff the postage stamp pillows, I wondered why.

It was as if the people who had been in the room were the only decor. The room was serviceable not beautiful, because the emphasis was on the relationships of those who gathered rather than the things they gathered around.

I don’t believe that hospitality and taking care of things are mutually exclusive. However, coming from a culture that often values possessions more than relationships, I appreciate the reminder to engage the relational side of hospitality.

Oops. I’ve been rather long-winded and I haven’t even started my essay summary. Maybe next week? 🙂

Hindsight is not 20/20

Hindsight is not 20/20. At least mine isn’t, especially my hindsight of past conversations. My hindsight compiles a list of things I should have said and didn’t or shouldn’t have said and did.

“I should have invited her up for tea when she asked if this was my street.”

“I should have complimented her on how nice she looked; I noticed she made an effort.”

“I shouldn’t have made that comment about Islam.”

That’s what I focus on. How I should have made better use of the conversation. As I turn with a finger poised to shake at the past me, my hindsight narrows to tunnel vision. 

Because, more often than not, I’m forgetting the other factors involved. 

It could be that I already had plans with a neighbor and only when the other plans were canceled did I remember the interaction on the street.

It could be that our interaction at the noisy gathering was so brief that I only had time to ask her about the exams she had been studying for when I last saw her.

It could be that after my friends spent twenty minutes complaining about Muslim men, they ganged up on me to marry me off. And I made that split second decision to speak directly rather than lose the moment in the rush of conversation by taking the time to formulate an indirect response.

I want to learn from my mistakes. However, when I get analytical about what was said or not said, I need to pause long enough to remember the other factors involved: the distractions, the mind noise, the body language of the other person, etc. 

Then slowly, a shameful, paralyzing memory is seasoned with grace. Only then can I step forward because remembering truthfully is the best way to learn from mistakes.


Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Lord of the shadows

Something about the book begs tears. I don’t know what it is exactly; there’s no paragraph or even chapter that particularly resonates. Perhaps it’s the undertone of sorrow mingled with hope in everyday sacred moments.

“God, where are you?” And I set aside the book and turn off the reading light to stare into the shadows of the 9:30 world. “Please meet me here.”

He does. And I have my own mingling of sorrow and hope. Of homesickness and gratitude. Of reluctance and awe. 

And, refusing to turn on the light, I stumble in the shadows to make a cup of tea, fumbling for the tea kettle and spilling leaves from the tea ball. Strawberry cream. I found it at the market today. It leaves a thick aftertaste of comfort although it’s new to my palate. I sip it from the robin’s egg mug I found while shopping with a new friend. The mug makes me think of her, this new friend full of intense questions ever since our first encounter.  She is working hard to please Allah. “Please meet her too.”

Down below, are voices. Arabic. I peek over the balcony to see two men and one woman leaving the nightclub next door. But no, only the men are leaving, caressing the woman’s hand in parting. “See you on Saturday,” they say. She tugs up her blouse neckline as she returns to that dark doorway that heaves its sweet and sick breath. “Oh God, please meet her there!”

With the light on, now I can see God was in the cooling rain this morning. In the huge, toothless smile from a friend’s husband who pretended to steal my market bag. In the husky greeting from a melancholy neighbor puffing a cigarette on the front stoop. In a phone call from a chatty acquaintance-turning-friend. In the final save of a document that took countless hours and headaches to create.

As I finish my cup of strawberry cream tea in the lamplight, the shadows have faded. But they lurk. There will always be shadows, I think. But even in the glow of the light, there is comfort knowing that He is Lord of the shadows too.

The “little” of what’s happening

Today you get bullets because that’s how my thoughts are arriving. After most of a day buried in a textbook, my brain is sore. There are big things happening in life right now, probably for both of us. But today, I’m bulleting the little things, the things that fall between the cracks of the bigger things because they don’t announce themselves but wait to be noticed.

  • There is a plant store nearby with inexpensive little green things. My pots and plants were a little like chips and salsa– too many pots, oops! too many plants, oops! and so on– until the day I walked past the plant store and the shopkeeper greeted me like an old friend. That was my wake up call.
  • The first tray of cookies I put in my convection oven, I grilled. I couldn’t find the user’s manual in my landlord’s things until the first singed round emerged.
  • I passed out cookies to my neighbors, my heart pounding all of the way to my toes. It was thrilling in the sense that I had no idea who would open the door– man, woman, child and what nationality– what their response would be, or if they would have a frothing rottweiler at their side.
  • A shopkeeper glowed when I asked him a question in Arabic and rattled off something that started with, “You understand Arabic!. I thought…” He rattled on for another paragraph before noting my blank expression.
  • Two long-time friends visited me in my new apartment, and reclined on those couches that were meant for dear friends to recline upon. 
  • I found cookie butter at my local Día!!! (I just found it. I haven’t bought it… yet).
  • Meanwhile, I discovered that the post office no longer carries stamps to the U.S. of A. How does this happen, Spain?
  • My old roommate and I accidentally spent some time wandering the beautiful old streets of Almería while trying to find a shortcut.
  • I have found local places to charge my bus card, charge my phone, send letters, withdraw money, buy quality light bulbs, and make photocopies and print. It’s small, but so much new takes time.
  • I have spent a lot of time trying to track down why my bathroom smells like drain all of the time. Either it’s going away, or I have a head cold coming on, or I’ve stopped noticing because I’ve started smelling like it too.
  • This week, I bought too much fabric at the market. I knew it was too much when the vendor threw in another piece just because. “Un regalo,” he said. Now, to find time to pull out my sewing machine…
  • On my way home one afternoon, a young man stepped into my path. He wore a towering chef’s hat like he had stepped right out of Ratatouille.  “Excuse me!” he said and I paused to look into his wide-eyed, breathless face. “Do you know where I can find a Chinese store that sells white wine vinegar?” After I apologized that I didn’t, he went on his way, even more panicked than before. And I can’t help but wonder if I misunderstood him…

I’m unfashionably lounging in gray socks and flip-flops (as if I didn’t have fuzzy slippers in the next room). The next door neighbors are thick in their nightly shouting match and I’m using Yiruma to drown them out (not working). And my bullety brain is ready to shut down for the evening. Buenas noches a todos. 🙂

Some ups and downs of language learning

We approached what we hoped was the bus stop, our suitcases rattling along behind and a disgruntled (and tipsy) beggar peering after us. Since disembarking the ferry, we were well aware that we were in foreign territory once again. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Spain anymore!”

“Peace be upon you. Do taxis stop here?” I threw the question out to a group of brightly dressed ladies waiting in a spot of shade.

“The taxis are over there, in the port,” one lady spoke up.

“No, I mean the taxis that you pay by place. Those other taxis are too expensive.”

Back and forth we went until suddenly she started giggling. “I’m speaking with you in Arabic! You’re a foreigner and I’m speaking with you in Arabic!”

Back in Spain, I apparently used just enough of a greeting but not enough filler conversation for a new customer to ask me if I was North African.

I thanked her and laughed because it always amuses me that someone with my complexion could ever be mistaken for a North African.

With wide eyes, she backed away from me, exclaiming, “Tbarakallah!” (God be praised!)
And it’s always refreshing to hear someone say, “You talk like us!” even when I obviously don’t. It makes the weekly log of Arabic study look less intimidating somehow.

Don’t get me wrong. There are also the less-proud moments.

Like when, after an English class, I was zoning out over a bowl of harira, letting the conversation swirl around me. Suddenly, my friend turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”

I swallowed that spoonful of soup and looked back at her blankly. Right? What was I expected to agree to? I groped for context–a word or a phrase, but I found only a blank slate. Oh, boy.

Yet, in the same conversation, a woman who had designated herself as my Arabic teacher told me I was dangerous. Why? Apparently, I understood more than I let on. (At least when I wasn’t zoning out over my soup.)

There are also times that a friend will sigh and look weary while trying to understand what I am saying. Times when I talk in the wrong language, or simply switch back and forth between Arabic and Spanish without realizing it. Times when a joke or a witty quip falls flat because it was funny in my mind but not my mouth.

Occasionally, just to be annoying, I speak only in Arabic to a new shop owner. I don’t look North African, but neither do I look very Spanish. I’ve had owners eye me but keep speaking Arabic simply because they weren’t sure if they could switch to Spanish.

But my local shop owner got me back by playing my game with me. In fact, he didn’t let on that he spoke a decent amount of English for two whole years! In the meantime, he was able to eavesdrop on conversations I had with visiting friends. Today, we still talk mostly Arabic and he occasionally gives me language lessons while he bags up my groceries.

Overall, like I wrote last time, language learning is a journey, an act of worship. With its ups and downs, it’s bound to be a bumpy, but meaningful ride. 🙂

The woman in the mirror

Who is that woman in the mirror staring back at me?

Glazed eyes from sorting through language notes all day. Almost in tears from how much there is still to learn and how does she start? Really start?

But enough of this not starting! Enough of unfinished projects in a burial heap in the cabinet! Because from now on, there won’t be projects to finish but a process to journey.

That’s what the woman in the mirror decided just now. Because it’s not all about what she doesn’t know, but also about what she does know. 

And she knows that studying two languages each week is hard and doesn’t always fit into her schedule. But she also knows that language learning is an act of worship because it is what God has called her to do.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col. 3:17)

When will summer come?

One of these days summer will come. I’m not talking about the heat; I’m talking about the time. Summer is the season I have been holding out for in the crazy March, April, May, saying, “During summer, I will finally get to this or that.” I had a list of goals: learn how to sew better, develop materials for an English curriculum, refresh my Arabic, houseclean, and other noble goals like that.

It’s July, but I’m still waiting, thinking that summer and its abundance of time must begin soon.

In the meantime, life is full. Full of time with friends. Visits. Meeting new babies, both here and via WhatsApp. Appointments. Meetings. And even a chance to be a witness for my friend’s paperwork-only wedding at the mosque.

Maybe I need to redefine “summer.” Instead of labeling it as “extra time,” I should just label it as “life.” “Life” is a more realistic expectation anyway.

Life and smelly summer laundry.

Words were more than just words: North Africa part 3

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Chaimae’s hug was long and tight, trying to make up for the year and a half of missed embraces. Her mother gave me the same hug. They led me into the salon, not the fancy one for guests, but the family salon that doubled as a bedroom. I wasn’t a guest; I was still family.

“Did you eat lunch?”

Chaimae fried fish and reheated chicken and potatoes already in a pot. We ate, talked about our families, and showed pictures from our time apart. Both mother and daughter were amazed that I remembered Arabic, or at least a semblance of it.

After the bread was patted into round loaves, Chaimae and I went for a stroll around the neighborhood. By the time we returned, the older brothers had arrived for afternoon tea.

It was after sipping cups of syrupy tea and eating mounds of oily bread that one of the brothers wiped his hands on the community napkin, leaned back against the couch, and pinned me with probing eyes. “Who is Jesus to you?”

I was ready.

The entire family listened as I shared. I listened as they shared. The conversation grew thick and loud. My face turned hot in animation. But their faces were hot too.

We discussed our differences and how our separate paths could not both be the path of God. Yet, beneath our disagreement was a profound respect for one another. We had known each other long enough now that words were more than just words; our words were what we had seen each other living and breathing.

And our words were as different as our lives.

Tea time blurred into dinner and more food appeared on the table, but no one seemed interested in another round of feasting.

My Arabic was worn out. So was the rest of me. When family members started to trickle out the door, I slipped into the kitchen to wash dishes. Chaimae made beds on the floor. She gave me a couch pillow so high that my neck immediately began to ache. I waited until the light was out to quietly set it aside.

Partway through the night, the light switched on.

“Chaimae! Chaimae! Wake up! Trish isn’t on her pillow!” They tucked the pillow under my kinked neck, and Chaimae’s mother tucked more blankets around me.

“It’s good that I slept in the room with you,” she told me after my interrupted night of sleep. “To take care of you.”

I smiled, hoping my expression reflected more of the endearment and less of the suffocation I was feeling.

After breakfast, they sent me to the taxi with enough tears to let me know I would be missed.

Crocheting in Spanish

In October, I started something I never dreamed I would start: crochet class. Last semester, I always left the nun’s home directly after Spanish class. But this year, I carved a little more time out of my schedule for the second hour of craft class.

My first class, I forgot to bring yarn with me. I sat with the other ladies and we chatted in Spanish and Arabic as I unraveled a sweater to recycle the yarn.

“I’m better at undoing than doing,” I warned María, the nun in charge of the class.

That day, I went to the store and bought a ball of yarn and my very first crochet hook. I still was less than enamored with the idea of crochet, but I knew I would enjoy the fellowship with the ladies.

It turns out that the fellowship came at a pretty steep price for me: my pride.

I was usually ahead of the ladies in Spanish class, but this time, they were far beyond me. Even when we started on the same level of nothingness, they were crocheting in squares  by the second class. One show-off was even making a doily. I plugged away at my simple chain, class after class.

As a left-hander, I struggled to imitate instructions, especially since they came at me in rapid Andalusian. Not only that, but sitting in the courtyard made me vulnerable to anyone and everyone passing by on their way to class.

One moment, I would be wiggling my crochet hook through the invisible yarn triangle, and the next moment, my project would be whisked out of my hands and somebody else would take a shot at it. Or another would critique how I held my needle and try to teach me something new.

Once, an elderly nun came to teach me a stitch. A few minutes later, she came to check on me… only to be disappointed. “No, no, no! That’s not how you do it!”

I sighed and half-laughed to cover my frustration. “I think I need to practice in private.”

She backed away quickly. “Okay. Okay. You practice in private.”

I went home and watched youtube tutorials to no avail. I was a terrible crocheter.

One day, I went to the store and impulsively bought thicker yarn. (Maybe now I would be able to see what I was doing.)

I made a scarf. Success!

María proudly examined my work and told me that no one would even notice how I went from 13 squares to 12.

Birth certificates and cookie crumbs

It took 45 minutes to walk to town hall. Naima had told me she would meet me there. She was so slow in coming that I almost gave up. But it was a pleasant morning. There was shade and a nice breeze.

Suddenly she appeared, three children in tow. Only Curly Top, the littlest, was her own; the older two belonged to a neighbor. The younger neighbor girl gave me a grin so big that it took up the bottom half of her face.

Naima had tried to call me to change the meeting place, but I hadn’t answered, she said. We left it at that and walked together to a little building on the end of town.

“What do you need here?” I was the designated interpreter. But that could only happen if I understood what I was supposed to interpret. Naima tried to type the unknown Arabic word into my translator, but didn’t know how to spell it.

We entered the building, just large enough for a few offices that didn’t look strikingly official.  A sign said to ask for a number, so I snagged a wandering employee. “A number please?” By the time he found a number and brought it to me, it was my turn.

But I still didn’t know what Naima needed.

I sat across from a gruff man at a desk. “What do you need?” His voice matched his expression.

“I don’t know.” I handed him my friend’s family book and he paged through it.

“What do you need?” he asked again.

“My friend needs two of something for her daughter, but I don’t know the word in Arabic, so I don’t know what to say in Spanish. She is trying to call her husband now.”

The gruff features twisted. “A birth certificate?”

“Is that what you have here?”

“Yes, and that’s all we have for her daughter.”

So while he printed the documents, he asked if I was evangelical and then launched into a one-sided discussion about Mormons. Mormons?

BANG! went the rubber stamp. BANG! BANG! BANG! He signed the documents with such scribbled flourish that it may have looked more natural had he been using a crayon on a coloring page.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.”

“Trump. A lot of people angry that he doesn’t like immigrants.”

I sighed. Yes, but didn’t every country have its problems and weren’t there any problems in Spain?

Another one-sided discussion ensued that gave me a vague sensation of having made my point. He walked me to the door, still talking, and watched our little gang leave the odd little office.

Naima invited me up to her flat where I tried to translate a medical questionnaire that dizzied my brain. Naima sat on the arm of the couch and swatted away the little girls when they reached for the papers in my lap.

“Is it normal for your child to have high fevers?”

“No. She only has fevers when she’s teething. Have lunch with us.” Naima got up to start lunch preparations.

I couldn’t, but thank you. Another time, Lord willing.

“In my culture, when a guest comes to my house it’s shameful not to give them any food.” Naima packed up a container of olives she had brought back from her country.

I joined her in the kitchen area and watched her carefully wrap the container of olives in a plastic bag.

Curly Top was walking around the floor on her knees, sprinkling bread and cookie crumbs wherever she went, like a miniature Hansel and Gretel. Big Smile was claiming ownership of everything that wasn’t hers—my bag, Curly Top’s toys, a plate of cookies. I watched as she carefully stuck her foot into a pair of Curly Top’s pants, only about 3 years too small.

Naima took me to the elevator, leaving the flat door wide open and crumby children sprinkled along the hallway. I hit “0” and the elevator door closed.

When a day starts, I never know what to expect. But I kinda like that.