The Half

You tell me I am half
Or maybe even less
When I don’t dream your dreams
Of how my life should be.
But while you count my flaws
And give advice, of course,
You are the one who’s half
By never knowing me.

I wrote this poem for one of the writing prompts my sister and I are doing this year. The inspiration? The countless North African women (and the few men) who have told me, whether directly or indirectly, that my worth is determined by my marital status and number of children.

But this poem is only part of the story. The sting of being under-appreciated for not ticking the “right” boxes has motivated me to find my worth in my Savior. I’m still learning; meanwhile, God has brought many others into my life who value me for being me.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Notes from Hospitality 101

I had promised I would summarize a few of the things I learned (and am currently learning!) while researching for an essay on hospitality. If you’re interested in reading the entire essay, send me a message. 🙂

  • We think of hospitality as taking place in our homes. But hospitality is broader than that; we can take hospitality with us wherever we go by honoring those around us.
  • Hospitality is not about bowing to the expectations of others. It’s not that we ignore expectations, but neither obligation nor martyrdom is true hospitality. Why? Because our work, our hospitality will never validate us; only God can do that.
  • Christ followers are commanded to show hospitality. (Check out Titus 1:8, 1 Timothy 5:10, Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:2, and 1 Peter 4:9.) However, the truth is that we love our comforts. And the other truth is that hospitality isn’t always comfortable. So while it would be easier never to invite anyone into our homes and lives, as Christians, we no longer worship the god of comfort.
  • If you’re an introvert like me, hospitality may feel like it requires more than you can give. But it doesn’t. Everyone needs boundaries and everyone has limits. If you’re introverted, it doesn’t exempt you from hospitality; it just means that you prepare for hospitality differently than those who have different limits.
  • True hospitality starts with worship. God is the One who empowers hospitality because He shows us both our imago dei and our depravity, reminding us that we are on the same level as everyone who walks through our door.
  • Hospitality can be grand and life-changing, but day-to-day hospitality is usually quiet, small, and insignificant.
  • We cannot wait until we know how to do it “right” or have the “right” circumstances before we show hospitality. If so, we will never start. Perfectionism can stand in the way of God working through us. In fact, hospitality goes hand in hand with humility, creating a space for our own vulnerability.
  • Speaking of creating spaces, hospitality creates a safe space for relationship regardless of life’s circumstances. Not only that, but we need to be fully present, committed to the privilege of walking with someone on their journey, even as they walk with us on ours. In other words, we should be invested for the long haul.
  • Hospitality is both living and speaking love and truth, all the while acknowledging that our story is only a part of a bigger story, God’s story.
  • Yes, hospitality requires much but it also blesses much. We connect with people we may have never known otherwise. We learn to enjoy them instead of use them. We are enriched when we enrich the lives of others, sharing our gifts and partaking of their gifts. We also bless God when we live in obedience to His Word.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

With the best of intentions

I weathered another round of what I assumed to be food poisoning. Tired of hanging out in the bathroom, I put on a brave face to hostess visitors, babysit, teach an English class, and drop by the neighbor’s with a plate of crepes.

But when holes were poked in my food poisoning theory, suddenly my bright shades of resiliency and selflessness took on a contaminated hue.

I had been so sure I could trace it back to those fried sardines…

I took a too-late day of quarantine to keep me from infecting the rest of the world. The next morning I dropped by the post office and the grocery store. On the way home, I noticed I was being dogged by the persistent admirer who, after a clarifying encounter months earlier, had vanished from my life. Until now. And there he was, looking bigger, older, and maybe even a little more unhinged than the last time I had seen him.

My intention to weave myself into this community’s tapestry put me in his way. Or maybe he put himself in my way. Or maybe we’re simply two clashing fibers woven side by side, which is bound to happen now and then in every community. Just wishing him away rather than confronting him probably was never the answer.

Why do best intentions sometimes sour?

My recent decision in the best interest of all turned out to be in the best interest of none… and involved a fair amount of straightening out.

I suppose it’s fanciful to believe that sacrifice can validate decisions. Still, why do some of the decisions we make, even at our own expense, turn out to be the wrong ones?

Maybe it’s because we don’t understand the big picture. Or because our decisions are not the only decisions affecting lives.

When we take a spill on our good intention bicycle, the true measure of resiliency and selflessness may be found in our ability to stand up, gently brush the gravel from the crevices of our knees and continue on our way.

And be grateful when others forgive our mistakes and miscalculations.

And thank God for the neighborly shopkeeper who is standing in his doorway to watch us safely home.


Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

Between Spain and Spain

Last weekend, three of us went to the mountainous Spanish countryside to retreat from the normal grind of life. We drank in the green, the quiet, and space to read, write, and think. 

I knew I was still in Spain, but it looked so different from Mytown that I kept saying things like, “When I get back to Spain…” To me, Spain is noisy streets full of colorful immigrants, not silent citrus trees dotting an overgrown garden. To be in the Spanish countryside awoke longings in me that typically get silenced in the distractions of city life.

citrus trees surrounding overgrown garden

Months ago, a friend recommended the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging by Marilyn R. Gardner. There, straddling those separate Spanish worlds, I figured it was as good of a time as any to start reading. 

Gardner writes, “I’ve come to realize that longing is ok as long as it does not paralyze, as long as I slowly continue to embrace the life that has been given at this time, at this moment” (Airports, par. 19).

Back in Mytown, far away from the calming Spanish countryside and even farther from my Illinois family and friends, I sometimes long for what I don’t grasp between my fingers. But will I let that longing rob me of today? Or can the far away people, places, and experiences of my life shape me into who God has called me to be where He has called me to be, right here?

What about you? Will you let your past life experiences and unfulfilled longings shape your today for the good?

It’s a choice, I think. Perhaps mixed with some trial and error. But a choice to let longing live inside of you, enriching but not robbing you.

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.

Not where I belong

Well, it’s time again, ready or not. That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been pulled apart by the highs and lows of leaving until sometimes, I don’t feel anything at all, as if the slug of conflicting emotions deposits a slimy trail of numbness. That sounds depressing, but with two days left, I suspect I’m more on the melancholy side of things. The excitement will return when my feet are planted on Spanish soil. (I say “when” and not “if” to boost my confidence that the trip will go as planned. 🙂 )

I’m excited to return to Spain, to find a new normal that doesn’t feel like an in-between normal. But I want to weep when I think of leaving behind my beloved in-between.

Belonging to two places tastes more like not fully belonging anywhere. That, my friends, tastes bittersweet. Sweet, only because it’s a sturdy reminder that:

All I know is I'm not home yet
This is not where I belong.
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong.
(Building 429 from "Where I Belong")

Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

An Illinois New Year

I could rave about my wonderful time in the States. I could post oodles of pictures that prove I have the cutest nieces and nephews in the world. (And I do, by the way. Don’t try to argue.)

It was wonderful: a belated Christmas celebration, lots of food, church and friend fellowship, a helicopter ride, little people love, morning talks at the breakfast table, evening talks snuggled in fat couches, warmth, dryers, carpet, etc.

But the truth is, it’s also good to be back in Spain. It has taken a full week of not-so-good days to be able to say that. 

I watched my friend frying donuts by the dying daylight. The banished cat made a puff of white against the patio door with each complaint. We ignored him. The air was heavy with the spitting oil when my friend asked about my trip to America. 

“Wonderful” didn’t suffice. Both the warm fuzzies and tears were part of the wonderfulness.

So I told her and she listened.

In that sacred moment, my two worlds married, reminding me that who I am in America is who I am in Spain too. 

Permanence

Barf bag? Check. Peppermint oil? Check. Ginger? Check. I wasn’t going to jeopardize the rest of the trip by getting sick on the first of my three flights.

Now for the distraction. I plugged in earbuds and cranked up Handel’s Messiah.

The plane taxied. The engines roared. And we were up, up, and away. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” boomed the bass soloist.

Forty-five minutes later, the wheels touched the runway. “Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the hiiiiiigh-eeeest!” the choir shrieked.

Amen. Flight #1 was done. But flight #2 was the doozy: Chicago to Madrid. I glazed over after hours of my seatmate’s flickering screen through my closed eyelids. When flight #3 came around, I couldn’t keep my eyes open during the safety demonstration but drifted to sleep on my seatmate’s arm.

Traveling to my new home took less than 24 hours, but it’s going to take me longer than that to adjust. As I walk the familiar streets, I’m continually surprised when I realize that I’m a Spanish resident, not just a visitor.

For years, I have been longing for a sense of permanence. Now I have it and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Not yet.

But Someone in my life understands permanence better than I do. In fact, He has never changed. And He is the best part of the permanence in my life right now. “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27a)

Casting all your anxieties on him

When she told me goodbye, my roommate gave me a stack of envelopes- one per month until my birthday. There were two photos in the May envelope. One was a peaceful mountain landscape… with an ominous quote:

“You will never be completely at home again. Because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”

The other photo was of an overloaded North African donkey. On the back of the photo, my roommate had written “Casting ALL your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)”

I immediately posted both on my refrigerator. They belonged together.

My life is strange right now- the sensation of not quite belonging anywhere. The struggle of trying to remember exactly where you are and why you are there. Sometimes the struggle even includes trying to remember who you are. Re-entry is somewhat like waking up from a vivid dream. Initially, there is such a lostness.

But He is capable and willing to carry my anxieties. And more than that, He cares for me.