Reading, writing, and Ramadan: What’s been happening recently

#1

Recently, I read through the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus on what Jesus did and said, John focuses on who He was. As I read John, I began underlining references to Jesus’ deity. A lot of people proclaimed that He was the Son of God. Although we have no record that Jesus said, “I am the Son of God,” His references to His own deity (e.g. being one with the Father) were enough to make His accusers say at His trial, “…he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (Jn. 19:7). 

#2

Ramadan was a socially slow month for me. Even though I wasn’t fasting, most of my friends were. So I decided to prayer walk the streets of Mytown. All of them. “How hard can this be?” I wondered. 

One neighborhood’s streets wound around and around, making it impossible not to circle back again and again past those same elderly men on the park bench or that delivery man slowly unloading at the café door. I told a friend I should fill up my market cart with junk and haul it with me because then onlookers would have a mental box to put me in! Alas, I did not finish this project during Ramadan, but I’m at 198 kilometers and counting!

#3

I took advantage of the quieter days to get ahead in planning English lessons. I’m finally one whole unit ahead. Plus, I’ve added “work on curriculum” to my weekly schedule. Not that it wasn’t there before, but this time the rule is that I can’t gleefully erase it each week. 

#4

My sister and I have been doing a writing challenge. Writing is another one of those things that is easy to erase from my weekly schedule. But it feels more important with accountability. This year, I’m also attempting to help write a VBS curriculum which mostly leaves me feeling very, very green.

#5

One Saturday, I scoured my shower with an abrasive powder and simultaneously inhaled the powerful aroma of the toilet bowl cleaner. Dizzily, I wondered if there was a better way to clean my house. I began researching and testing. Do these DIY cleaners actually work? Time and grime will tell. Although research shows that the DIY ingredients are less harsh than typical cleaners, I still have nightmares of peeled laminate flooring and warped countertops.

#6

Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps I wasn’t contemptuous yet, but I felt the constant pressure to dedicate unreasonable chunks of time to a friend, even when I had many other things to do. She wasn’t respecting my boundaries and I was worn out and indignant. Then I realized that I was the one who had stopped enforcing my own boundaries. I had pretended to be more flexible than I was. Essentially, I told her that I was always at her disposal and she believed it.

So, I’m back to square one with this boundary thing, and the times we’re together are farther apart but more enjoyable because we manage miss each other on the off days. 🙂 


These are the less social bits of what has been happening recently. I could drone on, but I’m tired of writing, and you’re probably tired of reading. So what’s been happening in your life recently?

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

5 things I learned about hospitality last week

Hospitality creates a resting place for those you love… and even those you’re still trying to love. It’s not boundary-less, but true hospitality grows our understanding of boundaries, sometimes stretching and sometimes reinforcing. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on this topic, drawing from the experience of others, experience I hope to acquire as time goes on. Maybe another day I’ll share some of those thoughts.

But today, I’m writing about what I learned last week in Córdoba with my Pakistani friend and her family.

Although the week had its ups and downs, I savored their hospitality. Hospitality is not cultureless and sometimes those hiccups caught me off-guard, like when someone ordered for me at a restaurant instead of letting me choose for myself. Still, hospitality transcends culture. It is resilient because love is resilient. 

Here are five things I noticed about hospitality during my stay in my friend’s home:

  1. Hospitality is selfless. The family adjusted their sleeping arrangements in the tiny bedrooms so that I would be most comfortable. The fact that the door didn’t close because the foot of my roommate’s bed was in the way was irrelevant. It really was the best arrangement and they were less comfortable for it.
  2. Hospitality is sharing the fullness of self. I heard a lot of stories. These women weren’t pretending to have it all together; they were vulnerable. On the lighter side, they also shared the specialness of their culture and background.
  3. Hospitality gives space for love to grow. It doesn’t demand love or care, but it shelters a space for them to grow. Time was protected. My friend’s mother took the day off of work just because I was there. We went out for churros instead.
  4. Hospitality wants you there. I’ve both hostessed and been hostessed out of obligation, but that’s not hospitality, at least not in its fullness. On this visit, I was welcomed and I was wanted. They delighted in my presence as I did in theirs. My friend’s little boy came calling my name whenever I was out of sight: “Come play with me!”
  5. Hospitality accepts as well as gives. The family refused to let me pay for our tostadas or bus fare or anything else. But they happily accepted the gifts I had brought them. Hospitality doesn’t expect reciprocity, but it graciously receives.

How have you seen hospitality in others? Have you noticed any cultural differences? How has hospitality transcended culture, even sub-culture? What are some bits of wisdom that you have gleaned along the way? I’d love to hear and learn. 🙂

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.

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…

We’re going on a house hunt

We’re going on a house hunt.

We’re going to catch a big one.

What a beautiful day!

We’re not scared.

Or was I? 

House hunting during a Spanish lockdown was agonizing. 

Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! Swishy swashy! went the first few weeks. Not too bad. I mostly strolled around the town (this was between the two lockdowns), trying to find my way around and which area would be my preferred place to live.

I looked at online ads and then I started making phone calls. The online ads were rarely current; real offers were snatched up within hours. I realized I might need to adjust some of my ideals. But I had time. It was only January. Splash splosh! Splash splosh! Splash splosh! 

I found one that I wanted and seized the opportunity. But when the realtor contacted the owner again, she had already rented it out to someone else. Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! And that was only the beginning.

The more realtors I contacted, the fewer the options seemed to be. Thus began a series of realtors who pretended to be helpful and passive-aggressively stopped responding to my messages or phone calls. 

Prices soared. The demand was so much greater than the supply. Meanwhile, everyone knew that there were empty apartments all around the city, but no one wanted to open their doors to renters, especially of the immigrant variety. I learned to ask in a roundabout way if the place was legal. I learned to carry papers with me that showed I was indeed earning money and indeed a legal resident. I even learned a few self-defense tips along the way. Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble trip!

At this point, I decided that I didn’t care what the place looked like. I am creative and could deal with that later. Just please. Something.

In the middle of all of the realtors who took great pleasure in ignoring me, there were a few who promised to call me with options and then did. I teared up the first time that happened. The place was on the opposite side of the city from teammates, but I didn’t rule it out right away. Instead, I begged the realtor to let me work with her in the future (I didn’t tell her she was the practically the only one who was willing to work with me). Hoooo woooo! Hoooo woooo! Hoooo woooo!

Time wore on. I lost hope. Or very close to it. My emotional pendulum clattered unpredictably between “God, You’ve got this under control” and “The sky is falling!”

Even as towns shut down again due to covid, I continued contacting the faithful few until I became a dripping faucet. 

“Are there any new apartments for rent?”

“Have you found anything new?”

“Could you please tell me if you find a new apartment?”

Drip. Drip.

Then it happened. 

A realtor contacted me and said his friend wanted to rent out her place to a single female. NO MEN ALLOWED. Within a week, I was in contact with the home-owner. And we met, despite the travel restrictions. (Don’t ask too many questions; as far as I know, it wasn’t transgressing the law, but I’m not asking questions either.) I saw the place and realized it was better than the grainy pictures she had sent me. 

She was hesitant because of the nature of my work, afraid that suddenly she would find the floors lined with makeshift beds full of the city’s homeless, namely MEN. And since men weren’t allowed to move in, she told me she would have to think about it.

I was stuck in the middle, wondering whether or not I should keep looking. I didn’t. Not because I had great faith that I would get the place, but because I was too tired to keep on. I offered the home-owner a few references and she took me up on them. “I like you as a renter, but I don’t want your friends.”

Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe!

And then one morning, she told me she was in Immigrantville and could she stop by? Was this a sneaky way of seeing inside of our current apartment? I swept our not-very-dirty floor just in case. She clarified a few things and smiled all over. “I will tell you tomorrow morning, but I think it will be you. The other girl is from town and she will have a boyfriend move in with her, I know.”

So, my friends, it seems that abstinence has won the day.

And I have won an apartment in downtown Mytown. As I settle in this week, I keep finding quirks that may one day drive me crazy, but still, it’s a beautiful day!


Note: Italicized words are from the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

Of masks

Stuffed in our masks, we boarded the bus one by one.

Some bus drivers only wear masks because they have to. You can tell by the way they wear them… and let their passengers wear them.

I’m the passenger who covers her nose to board, but pulls her mask down enough to breath during the ride. I figure that if they ask me to cover my nose, I’m obligated. But if I have it covered when I board, they won’t ask me and I won’t feel obligated.

And anyway, this bus driver was the type you didn’t approach with a half-hearted, nose-sticking-out mask job. He asked the lady in front of me to tighten the metal part across her nose.

Masks are odd. We get used to smelling our own breath and inhaling our own carbon dioxide. We see masks looped on forearms, hanging from one ear, or even hanging from rear view mirrors like pairs of fuzzy dice. Where they aren’t required,  we pull them down into beards where they gather the sweat that rolls down our faces under the Spanish sun.

Some masks make me smile behind my own mask, especially the masks that stick out like long beaks. And I want to laugh when I see the occasional gruff man wearing a flowered fabric mask. Some women use their hijabs as masks. And the elderly men lined up on park benches, masks slightly askew, always make me want to snap a picture (and I never do).

Mask-wearing in Spain is still mandatory in public, indoor settings or in crowds of people, such as at the market. Regardless, I am one who forgets on occasion and walks into a store maskless. The last time I did,  neither the other customers nor the clerk were wearing masks. 

When I asked why, the clerk shrugged and said, “It’s hot.”

I wasn’t going to argue with that. It’s one thing for me to wear a mask popping in and out of stores; it’s entirely different to wear a mask day in and day out in a tiny, stuffy grocery store. 

Today on the bus, the driver wasn’t the only one intent on upholding the mask law. 

“Put your mask on well,” an interfering Spaniard barked across the aisle at a North African. 

The conversation took two seconds to escalate. Neither side gave in. Other passengers  whipped their heads around. The bus driver slowed. 

“Wearing this makes me want to vomit! Do you want me to vomit?!”

“You were told to wear your mask when you got on board, you have to wear it well. It’s obligatory.”

I tried to tune out the voices until, “YOU’RE A RACIST!” 

How did a health issue suddenly turn political? I guess the U.S. isn’t the only country with resentment and conspiracy theories simmering under every surface, frustrated behind every mandatory mask. 

As for me, I didn’t dare tug my mask below my nose on this ride. Maybe that’s why I got so sleepy and almost missed my stop!

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)

Bargaining and boxing class: North Africa part 4

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.

“Can I have your phone number?” The taxi driver didn’t waste much time.

When I explained why that wasn’t possible, he asked if I was a Muslim.

“No. I follow Jesus the Messiah.”

He pondered this through several streets of traffic. As he pulled up to the curb to drop me off, he spoke again, “You should read the Qur’an.”

I sighed. “I do read the Qur’an. You should read the Bible.”

He frowned and shook his head at me in the rearview mirror as I handed him the fare.

In light of his suggestion, my own suggestion had been logical. But apparently only to me. “Why not? Are you scared?” I punctuated my challenge with a cheerful goodbye and a hasty exit.

This morning was my morning to go shopping in the old city. The sights and smells of the old city had remained unchanged for centuries and had certainly not changed in the year and a half of my absence. There is a forever skirmish between fragrant and repulsive: baking bread, roasting chicken, urine, a blend of fresh spices, rotting fruit, soaps and perfumes, trash.

Rather than the narrow cobblestone streets accommodating their pedestrians, tourists and residents alike pressed in close to accommodate the streets.

“Where have you been?” several vendors called to me as I bustled along. Did they– could they?!— really remember me?

To my disappointment, I had forgotten how to bargain. No longer was it a matter of easy banter and good deals; it felt exhausting and cheap. Fortunately, shopping didn’t take long since I could only buy what would fit in my backpack between my clothes.

I caught a taxi to my friend’s neighborhood only to find that Khadija and her neighbor, Fusia, were out studying. They would be back soon, said Khadija’s niece. I sat in the salon, watching TV and wondering how my two eighty-year-old friends were doing in their studies.

Suddenly, the door opened and everyone piled into the apartment. There were hugs and greetings that came so fast that I could only repeat “Praise God” and laugh. Someone made tea. Another ran out to buy cookies. We talked and watched a Turkish soap opera until dark.

“I’ll walk with you,” Fusia said. She held my hand and led me along the street. “We’re going to go see my grandson. He will be sad if he doesn’t see you.”

What I didn’t realize was that her grandson’s boxing class did not allow interruptions. Two women screened everyone who entered, and one looked like she could flatten anyone who crossed her. I was making plans for a polite retreat when Fusia asked if her friend all of the way from Spain could just greet dear little Ali.

“Of course! Come with me!”

And so I interrupted the boxing class, a whole room full of gawking children and their annoyed instructor. Ali ran over to kiss me. His cheeks were pink. Mine may have been too.

Only after that, I was allowed to get a taxi and return home.

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.