Give thanks

To me, the holidays bring a sense of belonging. There is a warmness, an extra niceness. 

Yes, the world gets frantic and grumpy when the store shelves aren’t stocked with what we want and the check-out lines are too long and the children need naps and, well, so do we but we still need to make that Aldi stop because Wal-Mart was out of pumpkin pie filling.

But then we come home and the individuality fades and there is a togetherness again, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen.

Celebrating far from family isn’t quite like this. The sense of belonging is lessened. Not vanished, but subtle, something I need to search for. But those remaining shards are precious too. Even from far away, I belong. And that belonging tints the world with bright, warm tones and I find myself extra happy this Thanksgiving and Christmas season. 

I don’t want to spend the holidays wishing I were somewhere I am not. I choose to contribute to the joy of right here, because this is where I belong too.

Ten things I’m thankful for this year:

  1. the great faithfulness of a loving Father
  2. Spain’s acceptance of my 5-year residency application
  3. the tail-end of COVID-19
  4. friends and neighbors that I bump into every time I step outside
  5. strong family dynamics, even though I live thousands of miles away
  6. music
  7. opportunities to travel and experience other worlds
  8. my team, my “right-here” family
  9. sweater and boots weather
  10. enough, even with climbing energy and food prices

What are you thankful for?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Mural: Living with science

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I collected photos of murals as I prayer walked Mytown this spring.

Some of the murals were funny. Some were really odd. But then there were those that made me stop and wonder: What was the artist trying to say?

Over the next couple of months, I’ll share some of the murals with you. You can wonder with me or leave an interpretation in the comments below.

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

Saving the best for last: what’s been happening recently

A young friend dutifully praying on my guest room rug– “In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful…” –while above her were frames of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Visitors from the U.S., the first in several years. I love cross-cultural work, but relating to those with whom I share both culture and faith is uplifting. And, Lord willing, more visitors arrive in a few days!

A Mediterranean baptism on a beautiful–albeit chilly– November day.

Uncontrollable evening laughter. 

A bowlful of ripening avocados because I had mentioned to my student that if I had one food to live on, I would choose avocados. (She said she’d choose dates.) 

A neighbor who asked for my tikka masala recipe. 

Weather that begs for coffee. 

A young mother who thought she knew me… and didn’t, but ended up asking for my phone number anyway.

squid tapa plate

A day trip to the mountains where I sat on a hill and talked on the phone like the un-hiker that I am. It was one of those hills with loose rocks and thorns that put “brickles in my britches. But I stayed there anyway.” (For that quote, you’ll have to read “What Was I Scared Of?” by Dr. Seuss.) Afterwards, my teammate and I unintentionally had tapas in a casino.

Storekeepers who drop the price without my even asking.

A climate where fruit is in season all year round. Right now it’s the mandarins that pop between teeth and turn to sweet puddles on tongues. And the fat persimmons. And rosy pomegranates. And even the chirimoyas, which I’m not particularly fond of but can appreciate in season.

Sunshiney Mondays that dry sheets and towels in a jiffy. 

Unintentional late night discussions.

A landlady who opened the second bedroom of my apartment. (I rented the apartment as a one-bedroom flat, the second bedroom designated for the landlady’s storage.) With the prospect of multiple guests at once, I worked up the nerve and asked her if I might possibly please use the extra bedroom while my guests are around. She gave me an incredulous, “Mujer, it’s your house!” Nevermind the original agreement. I’ll nevermind anyway!

Workers at the print shop, startled to discover that they had indeed made my idea come true. And they ignored the customer behind me to admire their own handiwork.

A ticket quietly waiting for me to test negative for covid. And one suitcase bulging with eager Christmas gifts. 

A birthday to celebrate this week. As I valiantly blaze through my 30s, I’m starting to wonder if it’s time to consider having a midlife crisis. Although, I’m not sure that’s really the sort of thing one plans for… Maybe next year…

And the very best thing of what has been happening recently? A new nephew, Zayne Davis born November 8 to two very proud parents. And no wonder they’re proud, because he’s terribly cute.

baby boy

Zayne, as you start your life in this great big world, may you find the courage to be exactly who God created you to be, nothing more, nothing less.

Photo credit for last photo goes to my brother-in-law

We must endure

“Pero que hacemos? Hay que aguantar.” But what do we do? We must endure.

The phrase caught me off-guard. I am used to hearing North Africans talk like that, especially if they throw in a “praiseGod” or dozen and shake their heads with wry smiles that say what their words don’t. And then their words do, but they are followed so closely with more resigned “praiseGod”s that it all feels more like a question mark rather than a confirmation of faith. But I am not used to hearing Spaniards talk with the same resignation. What happened?

Meanwhile, in America we clamor for platforms that offer unfiltered voice on topics we may or may not understand when, in fact, the world would be better off if most of us suffered from stage fright. 

Are these our only options? Resignation or dogmatism?

Almost every time I walk across town, some wanna-be graffiti slapped to the side of a décor shop catches my eye. “Queremos sentirnos vivas” We want to feel alive. It sounds like a cry, not to oppressors, not even to God, but just hurled into space from a spirit that wants more than resignation or dogmatism. It reminds me of another of another cry:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

(Ex. 2:23-25)

Even though the cry was not to God, God heard and God knew. And He liberated His people. After this liberation, the following years in the desert were so hard that the ex-slaves began to daydream of life back in Egypt (Num. 11:5). God had promised a land flowing with milk and honey, but not yet.

Today as headlines continue to make history in ways we never would have chosen, we too are in that “not yet” pocket, basking in salvation (already) and looking forward to God’s promise of heaven (not yet).

What will choose in the meantime? Resignation or dogmatism?

Or life. Abundant life (Jn. 10:10). After all, we have a guarantee of our inheritance as heirs with Christ:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

(Eph. 1:13)

We don’t just have to endure and parrot “praiseGod.” We don’t all have to share our opinions about every topic all the time (and resent those who disagree). We don’t even have to assign divine meaning to suffering.

Yes, hay que aguantar, but that is not all. Whatever “not yet” desert we are stumbling through today is not the end of our stories. And right here in the middle of the dry, we can sentirnos vivos because the gift of abundant life transcends our desert.

Maskmaker, maskmaker, make me no masks

The outdoor mask mandate has finally lifted and we don’t know how to behave. In fact, many have opted not to change their behavior at all, continuing to wear masks out of precaution or habit, I’m not sure. We still have to slip on masks when we step indoors anyway, so we all wear them somewhere–if not on our faces then dangling from chins, wrists, or elbows.

I feel positively undressed leaving the house without a stifled nose and mouth. Sometimes in public I get that sudden cold sensation like those nightmares of being at church without sufficient attire.

And I realize how much I relied on my mask to skip flossing after breakfast. Or how I developed the habit of puffing a breath to push my mask away from my face. Now I let out a big puff and nothing happens (except the passerby who eyeballs me).

I’m now aware of the faces I’ve been making behind my mask. “No more beaver faces!” I remind myself now and then. Making beaver faces always gave me a private satisfaction when I was particularly tired of masks. I’m trying to kick the habit.

Yesterday, I saw the police and subconsciously grabbed for my mask before I remembered. How strange to march past them in a freedom that last week would have solicited a fine!

With this measure of freedom, I choose to be respectful of those who continue to wear masks, whatever their reason may be, giving them extra social distance or momentarily slipping on my mask in their presence. If I want them to respect my choice, I need to respect theirs. But don’t mind me over here doing a happy dance…

Photo by Vera Davidova on Unsplash

Telemarketers and tempers

I lost my temper. Telemarketers had been calling at least twice a day for weeks, making me jump, startling me from whatever I was doing to dig my phone out of my bag in the middle of the store or turn off my bluetooth speaker. They called from various numbers but they always played the same music when I answered. Because of my pending residency, I didn’t have the luxury of not answering calls from unknown numbers. Initially, I told them I wasn’t interested in their internet offer, and then mostly just ignored them. But one day I lost my temper.

“Look, who are you with? Stop calling me! I’m tired of you calling me! Do you understand me?” My rush of emotion garbled my Spanish.

“No, I don’t understand.”

“Who are you with?” I demanded again.

She hesitated split second, thrown off-script. “I’m calling for María…” Liar.

“I’m not María and I have had this number for three years!”

“I’m sorry for bothering you.”

After I cooled down, I began to wonder if this poor lady had received the brunt of my anger at a Spanish demographic. Not at Spanish culture as a whole–more often than not, I view the culture as a welcome Western break from North African culture–but at a certain bossy attitude I bump into. In America, the current lingo has something to do with the name “Karen” (which I believe is an injustice to the name since no Karens I know act like the memes). It’s the women who believe it is their duty to uphold every law they can get their hands on. And they enforce invisible laws too. 

“You can’t sit there! We’re supposed to keep a distance of 2 meters!” The bossy voice at my ear caused me to jump.

And the familiar dread rose. “No?” The last I had heard was that we were allowed to sit side by side on the bus. Had regulations changed again?

The man behind the sharp voice piped up: “Yes, we’re allowed to sit with a partner.” His tone was just as blessedly bossy.

“No, we’re supposed to keep a distance of 2 meters!” she bugled. 

I closed my eyes. As if anyone on the bus could sit 2 meters apart. Then again, I sure wouldn’t mind having more than 2 meters separating me from that voice. They fought it out, those two equally matched enemies while I sat, staring forward, trying to talk myself out of venomous irritation.

Sometimes I deserve a reprimand as I cut a corner here or there. Most of us probably do. After a sharp comment at the post office after I violated a hyper-enforced regulation (Note: no getting a number to wait outside while “Karen” is on duty), I obediently returned outside and pondered what in the world made me so angry about that attitude. Spanish culture is abrasive, yes, especially for thin-skinned Americans, but this went deeper than hurt feelings.

Then I found it: shame. It was shame. Every time someone barked at me, whether or not it was to enforce a covid regulation (or an imagined one!), they reinforced my sense of incompetence in their culture. And deeper still, they contributed to a deep-seated fear that I did not nor would I ever belong. 

That fear is what bubbled to the angry surface with the unsuspecting telemarketer. The solution? Probably a cocktail of growing a few more layers of skin as long as I am a “stranger and pilgrim” while simultaneously rooting myself deeper in the One I belong to.

I’m still working on that, but in the meantime, I’m learning that shouting at telemarketers probably doesn’t solve anything. Although, they haven’t called me since that day…

Prepositionless laughter

A friend was telling us about someone she knew who got a fine for not wearing a mask. “The police gave him a fine for 300 euro and 50 cents.”

“Fifty cents?” I asked.

She nodded vigorously. “Yes. Three-hundred euro and 50 cents.”

We giggled and speculated where the 50 cents came from. Disobeying the law isn’t something to laugh at, but the ludicrousness of the amount caught me off guard. In Spain, indecent exposure has nothing to do with nudity on the beaches and everything to do with not putting a piece of cloth on your face. 

I told my family, “I get tired of wearing a mask all of the time, but I found a way to amuse myself. Yesterday, I made a beaver face almost the entire time I was in a store. It gave me this strange and private satisfaction.” 

So we laugh because sometimes we are helpless to do much else. Except maybe go crazy. A friend told me that when she worked in the Alzheimer’s ward. The pain, the sadness doesn’t disappear with a laugh, not even close. But the day we lose our sense of humor, we are treading close to insanity. 

Maya Angelou said, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh.” 

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in line, waiting to get onto our late bus back to Immigrantville. A man who had just disembarked, stood in front of the bus and snapped a photo. He didn’t look angry or particularly devious. A little high, maybe, but I didn’t bother accounting for his mental state. He looked non-confrontational enough. 

That is, until he approached the bus driver’s window. Shouting echoed through the hollow bus station. I still didn’t pay attention; Spanish culture is usually loud and abrupt.

But I gasped when coins suddenly showered the bus floor. The man had reached through the driver’s window and flipped the coin drawer. I didn’t hear everything that went on, and I’m probably glad I didn’t because as the man slinked away, the driver bounded off of the bus, bellowing a word I won’t record for posterity. 

There in the bus station waiting room, one pummeled the other with a “caution wet floor” sign. Then one threw the other against the glass wall with a thud. It was impossible to tell who was winning, but they were planning to kill each other, I was sure.

With the other stunned observers, I started toward the action with absolutely no clue how to help. Someone had the presence of mind to flag down a passing police van and a crew of armed officers piled out to join the action. 

Shouting, police removed curious onlookers. I was praying aloud from behind my mask. The anger was real, hot, coming from somewhere deep that had risen to the surface after being suppressed for too long.

As we waited for the information to be gathered and fines to be issued, passengers gathered the coins that had scattered, whether to help or to help themselves was a little unclear. Others returned to the bus, laughing. 

Wait. Laughing? What was wrong with these people? Had they no respect? Maybe not. But maybe, the incident was just enough to push them to their own edge and they had two options: lose it or laugh. 

In Arabic, there is an important distinction between laughing at and laughing with. In those near-crazy moments, the distinction isn’t so clear. Sometimes it’s just prepositionless laughing, laughing to keep your nose above the murky waters of life until your flailing arms snag the rescuing hand of Hope.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Spanish healthcare chronicles: the doctor

Well, I finally did it. When I had some pretty serious heart palpitations, I got more serious about getting my fatigue checked out. In fact, I basically promised my nurse friends I would. That was during lockdown. So I waited. But then it occurred to me that if it was anything complicated, I wanted it sorted out before returning to the States for the summer. So I finally scheduled a video appointment. 

I had jotted down notes in Spanish, but I was still nervous. The doctor appeared, a doting grandfather, who was a wee bit patronizing as if his days were filled with patients who had thought of nothing but their health problems during lockdown.

Regardless, he jotted down a request for an EKG and a prescription for something I couldn’t read to research. When I took it to the pharmacist, she calmly informed me that it was a relaxant to soothe anxiety. I smiled, said, “No thank you,” and continued on my way.

I have no idea how health systems work either in the States or in Spain. I’ve only been to the doctor once in my adult life and that was only to get a paper verifying I was free from specific diseases in order to obtain my Spanish visa. (Unless I count the time my parents hauled me into prompt care after 2 months of my wheezing and slouching around the house.)

Anyway, I braved the clinic in the neighboring town for my EKG. That’s when I found out that the doctor’s illegible scrawls had also requested another analysis and thus, another appointment was set up for the next morning. The next morning, COVID schedule buses insoportable, I walked to my appointment.

The nurses take for granted that everyone understands the healthcare system. It’s unfathomable not to go regularly to the doctor. I asked about my EKG and the blood analysis and what was I supposed to with the results? 

“When you get the results, give them to your doctor.’

Ah! There’s the rub! I let that settle as she stuck my vein and scarlet flowed into the little vials. (It was painless. I drank almost a gallon of water before my 9 a.m. appointment. It worked.)

“I had a video consultant,” I finally ventured. “I don’t have a doctor.”

The nurse’s busy hands stilled as my words sunk in. “Don’t have a doctor?! What? Are you crazy?!” Well actually, she said quite calmly, but with a level of understanding that almost earned her a hug: “Then when you get the results, set up an appointment. We have a doctor here at the clinic every day.”

Since then, I’ve made several returns to the doctor to check on an ineffective vitamin D3 prescription and blush over my cholesterol numbers (due to a volatile marriage of genetics and cheese). A waste of time? Maybe, but it feels more like a journey to grow confidence in the Spanish healthcare system and to eradicate hypochondria.

But my stomach seems a little distended of late. Is it Christmas leftovers… or a tumor?

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

It’s quiet here

It’s quiet here.
Above, the sun comes and goes
More going than coming
Behind stubborn clouds.
Below is small but grinding
With a today of
Abuse and addiction
Suffering and slavery
In our own town, in our own people.

But it’s quiet here,
Here in my heart:
A mountain reaching up from a dark sea
To that sun swallowed by haze.

In a world gone mad
We long
We laugh
But we live following.
Because behind a cloud
The sun is quiet like the moon,
Searchable, findable.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash