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

The Last [of] Murcia (Day 3)

I didn’t bother getting up early. Not much was open on Sunday anyway. I spent some quiet time at home before heading out to the Santa Clara Museum.

tree-lined walkway

The museum was quiet except the creaky floorboards whenever anyone wandered overhead. Although it was small, there was a lot of a history in a building that over the centuries managed to be both an Arab palace and a convent.

I wandered and read and imagined and caught the persistent ringing of the bells for mass.

palace courtyard with pond
Museo de Santa Clara
arabic script engraved on stone

I climbed the stairs and traversed those squeaky floorboards to find displays of Catholic saints and relics. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the Catholic tradition, but I find the statues and porcelain figurines the things that nightmares are made of. Especially when walking through rows of them while all alone (and this time there wasn’t even a security guard following me).

The figure at the end of the hallway was life-size. I wondered what I’d do if she moved, an arm twitch or a roll of the eyes. I’d probably have a heart attack, I decided, and add to the horrors of the upstairs when an unlucky tourist would stumble over my body.

Some of the paintings were fascinating, though. The last supper with everyone sporting a halo except Judas Iscariot who hung out on the fringe of the painting, clutching the money bag. Or exiled Apostle John having strange visions right from the book of Revelation and writing them in his modern-day book.

painting of the book of Revelation
The apostle John writing down the Revelation of Jesus Christ

After much deliberation, I decided on a taco bar for lunch. A taco bar with pretty lame service. The server eventually got around to me as if the cafeteria were bustling with people, when in fact, there were only two tables.

I occupied myself by pretending that I was doing a sit-in during the civil rights era. But when my jamaica, homemade tamal, and taco arrived, I somehow wasn’t grumpy anymore. And, for the record, the server ended up being very friendly… just not speedy.

taco and jamaica

I had paid my Airbnb host to stay longer at the apartment, so I spent the afternoon lounging in the AC, soaking in the cool for as long as I possibly could.

When teammates picked me up, we headed out to the closure of a Rubik’s cube competition in a very hot gym that smelled like–well, I suppose like the combination of what we smelled like as individuals. I was amazed by how quickly the competitors–even the little people–could solve the cubes. (For the record, I have no clue how to solve a Rubik’s cube. On the ride to Murcia, I became the official mixer-upper for the others to solve.)

From the competition, we headed back to warm little coastal Mytown. Sure, I may be infatuated with Murcia, but I’m also glad to be back where I belong, air-conditioning or no.

theater between narrow street buildings

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? 🙂

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

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