God is good

I’m stuck in Madrid.

Same nightmare, just backwards this time… with even less time in between. I could have wept when I arrived at my gate, panting from the weight of my carry-ons (and my out-of-shapedness) only to find the gate completely deserted.

But God works in mysterious ways, you know. Just because that phrase is cliché doesn’t make it untrue.

While I was stressing that my London-Madrid flight was running late and I would have even less than the allotted 50 minutes to get through border patrol and change terminals, I pretty sure God was making my flight late on purpose. “I got this,” I think I heard Him say while I was in at least 4 lines deep at passport control.

“Okay, God. You got this.”

But even if I had heard His voice, I wasn’t really sure what He “got.” So I still ran and I almost let myself plop down and sob at that empty gate at the tippy-tip of that long terminal.

God’s sovereignty is like that. We don’t know what He’s up to, but we can trust that He knows and that what He does is good.

Not that I was thinking lofty thoughts when I walked up to Iberia’s information desk, alone and sad between that rock and hard place.

God was good to me. Because my London flight had arrived late, I was offered 3 meals and a hotel, something that may end up being more needed than rushing home and diving into life. If my flight hadn’t been late (because I almost assuredly would have missed the connecting flight anyway), it would have been another ticket purchase and nighty-night on the grimy airport floor.

But God would have been good there too. Just as good as He is after a real shower and a real pillow.

Why is that so hard to remember?

Do you ever wonder if Jesus was tempted to forget His Father’s goodness in light of His personal pain? He was born fragile into a hostile society. He had to learn about a world He had created, grow up among people He had formed, and probably even misspell words He gave us breath to pronounce. And He dedicated His ministry to many who eventually turned their backs on Him.

Just before His crucifixion, didn’t He cry, “Let this cup pass from me”?

Last summer, as we watched a friend suffer from cancer, we prayed with her that the cup would pass. It didn’t.

Her cry for relief wasn’t a cry of doubt. Like Jesus, she was able to say, “Nevertheless, Your will be done.” Like Jesus, she submitted to the Father’s sovereignty.

“Sovereignty” and “submission” don’t sound like such big words after a hot shower and a clean bed, but what about right there in the middle of chemo? In the agony of dying for a world that hates you? Or just feeling weepy at a deserted airport gate?

Is my concept of God’s goodness too fragile, too willing to be broken? Is it just a churchy façade for a secular ideology?

This is getting too heavy for my tired brain. So I’ll wrap this up by saying that I was challenged by my own circumstances today: Do I really believe God is good all of the time?

Okay, that’s all. Next time, I’ll try to write about Christmas or my time in the States instead of just the dreadful little airport bookends of my trip!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Illinois or bust

Illinois or bust. That should have been my motto when I shut off the water and left the house at 5:15 a.m.

Although I knew my layovers were tight, I had opted not to lose sleep over it since there was quite literally nothing I could do about it. But only an hour and ten minutes at Madrid Barajas?

Then the flight from Sevilla ran late, not late late but just enough late to tarnish my hope of catching my connecting flight. Not only would I have to go through security again, but I also had to get to the satellite terminal.

I happened upon others from my Sevilla flight who were trying to get on the same Chicago flight. That gave me hope that if there were enough of us, they might hold that flight. An angelic flight attendant cleared a path for us and we scurried off of the plane.

I ran. Well, I should say “we ran” because two of us hung together. We blazed through security and my partner took off at a trot… stocking-footed because there was no time to put on shoes.

At our breakneck speed, the signs were confusing. Once, when we stopped long enough to ensure we were on the right path, the agent who tried to help confused us more not because she was unhelpful but because we were in too much of a hurry to hang around to make sure we understood.

We raced to a train, down hallways, up escalators, “con permiso”ing our way. Then we rounded the corner and found ourselves at passport control…six fat lines snaking their way along at a decent clip, but not nearly fast enough. A man ahead of us was trying to get an agent to help him, but the agent simply said, “If we helped everyone who is in a hurry, it would be everyone. Get in line.”

So then we were three, trying not to hyperventilate while waiting in line. Trying to read the signs beyond the passport control for the moment when we would finally get through. At the counter, I killed a few extra seconds pulling out my residency card and my two new friends were nowhere in sight when I emerged.

By that time, our flight should have been taking off. Assuredly, the gate was closed. But I ran anyway. I ran with a backpack and a rattling suitcase and was glad Mom had reminded me to wear sneakers. The timing listed below the gates on the signs are relative and well, maybe accurate at a full-out run with no slow-pokes blocking one’s path. But those 7 minutes felt like an eternity. My lungs burned, gasping for air behind my mask.

There was the final covid control. Panting and gasping, I showed my negative test QR and asked if by chance the flight was still on the ground.

“Yes” they said.

And I ran again, up to the gate where my friends were just pulling out their boarding passes. But just as the young man passed through the check, the flight agent stopped the line. (Another breathless young gentleman had joined us at this point and we were three again.)

“No. You can’t go. No more people can get on.” The agent was unyielding. She turned back to her computer as if she dealt with puffing, stricken travelers every day, because well, she probably did.

My friend burst into tears. The agent remained immobile. But then another agent joined her. “It’s only three more. They’ll let on three more.” And he got on the phone.

And suddenly the unsympathetic agent was graciously scanning our boarding passes and handing them all to who was first in line in her effort to make us hurry. We didn’t need to be reminded.

I was hot, sweaty, wild-eyed, and extremely thirsty when I plopped into my seat. We were on that plane for more than 10 hours, growing more and more restless and unkempt. Well, at least I was. I made no effort to freshen up because hanging out in the airplane’s WC is not my idea of freshening up. “Oh well,” I decided. “No one I see right now will ever see me again!” Thus, I disembarked the plane rather indifferent to my nerdy glasses, flyaway hair, fuzzy teeth, and death breath.

But while I was waiting in one of those long ORD international arrival lines, the man in front of me said, “You were on the flight from Almería, weren’t you?”

As we chatted, we realized we had been on the same flights all day. He and his wife–she a fellow Illinoisan– live in Almería. “She would enjoy meeting you,” he said. I gave him my number and it wasn’t until he was gone that I realized that my indifference to my appearance perhaps hadn’t been the wisest choice… There indeed may be someone I will see again.

Since I’ve been back in Illinois, I’ve been glutting myself on quality time with friends and family, on holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas in the same weekend? Why not?), and on calorie-laden food. I’ll probably write more on all that later. But I’ll just say that Thanksgiving came at a good time…in the wake of a busy trip that plopped this grateful soul on Illinois soil.


Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Would I do this trip again?: North Africa part 5

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.

The last two nights of my North African sleep were interrupted by an unsettled rooster in a concrete courtyard just over the wall. At 4 a.m., I began to envision a warm bowl of rooster noodle soup. Just a room away, Erika was preparing to brandish her shiny knife set.

Despite the lack of sleep, Erika and I made chocolate cupcakes and took them to Arabic language school. We laughed with former teachers about old times and chatted about the present. Then I wandered home in the sunshine and stopped for a potato patty sandwich with extra hot sauce.

That evening, we ex-pats fellowshipped, telling stories, talking about our dreams, and praying.

Time was winding down quickly.

In the morning, I hauled my heavy-laden backpack to the airport taxi. As the traveling hours stretched ahead of me, I tried to wrap my mind around all that had happened: starting with the multiple trips to the Almería immigration office and ending with the bumpy bus ride home.

Unless I took time to process all of the joys and sorrows that had been packed into this tiny space of time, I would not experience the fullness of my trip.

And bouncing along in that bumpy bus, I kept returning to one question: If everything remained unchanged, would I do this trip again?

Definitely.

“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well.”

(Nicholas Sparks)

Welcome back: North Africa part 1

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.

Nine hours to kill in the airport. I hunched over a Burger King coffee and read.

Traveling dehumanizes people. We turn into frantic, herded animals. Carrying our belongings with us everywhere: hanging over-stuffed carry-ons on wimpy bathroom stall hooks (and watching in helpless horror as a scarf or jacket slides to the floor), propping our feet on suitcases to pretend we’re relaxing when we’re really just looking out for our stuff, and even getting desperate enough to sprawl across the grimy airport carpet and rest our head on the knobby bulk of our backpack. I have done all of this, so I know. I also know about frozen water bottles and trying to eat my lunch before I check into an international flight… just in case they try to confiscate my hard-boiled eggs.

Seven hours on an overnight bus just to wait 9 hours in the airport. But I was feeling surprisingly human. A cup of coffee and a good book can do that, I guess.

A couple of hours later, I touched down in North Africa, only a little queasy. Not enough to use the handy baggie I was gripping. But just enough for the man across the aisle to eye me nervously.

I had the equivalent of $3.35 in my pocket when I emerged from the airport—not enough for a taxi. And the 40 cent bus was pulling away. I waited for an hour with a diverse crew of other penny-pinchers.

As the bus seats filled, I chatted with a young family that piled into one seat beside me. The 3 children were almost as charmed by me as I was by them.

“Auntie, how long are you here?” Ilyas, the oldest boy asked.
“Until Thursday.”
He was crushed. “So we won’t see you again? You won’t have time to visit us?”
“Ilyas.” His mother took him by the shoulder. “We have her here—” she tapped his heart. “And here—” she tapped his head.

When they got off the bus, someone rapped on the window behind me. Ilyas was there, grinning and waving his final goodbye.

Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the heart of the city. The landmarks had changed since I had lived there and it was hard to stay oriented in the dark. I missed my stop.

I jumped off at the next stop and walked, hoping to find a place to exchange my euros. But exchange stores had closed early this Saturday night. So had phone stores.

At random, I popped into a tiny store and asked the owner if he had any SIM cards. He pulled a box out of a dusty drawer and dug through it until he found one. He was scrawling my passport number on a scrap of notebook paper when I remembered I didn’t have enough of the local currency.

“No problem,” he assured me as I emptied my coin purse on the counter and offered to pay in euro.
“No problem. How much do you have?”
Together, we totaled $2.95—five cents short.
“No problem!”

Since he didn’t seem to care, I decided not to care either.

With my new number, I called my former roommate and made a beeline for her house. She wasn’t home yet, but had left the key with the upstairs neighbors. A short chat and a key later, I entered the apartment to find that I had been much anticipated.

Handwritten notes were stuck all over the house, guiding me to my bedroom, the shower, tea, and waiting food. After almost 24 hours in transit with very little sleep, such a welcome brought me near to tears.

In less than a week…

In less than a week, I plan to leave for the States. Three weeks of family and friends and a very important family wedding.

I have a lot more family and friends than will fit into three weeks, but I’m going to try anyway.

And, by the way, no more blogging until I get back to Spain. Priorities, you know? Yes, you probably do know.

I’ll give you an update when I get back. But hasta luego…

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)

Tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet

There is shrieking laughter as my nephew shakes bugs off of Grandma’s laundry and watches them vanish in the warm autumn sunlight above his head. Oh, that boy.

And to think that soon I’m going to be packing up my things and leaving. I cringe to think of those moments of transition when you’re sitting on a cold airport seat with little sleep and lots of memories of the world you’re leaving behind. Those are the worst moments.

The moments when you have completely left something but haven’t embraced the new something yet. And there you are, in the middle, caught in a swamp of your internal sorrow.

I know, because I’ve been there.

That’s why hearing my nephew’s laughter today makes me glad to be where there is grace enough, in today and not in the tomorrows that haven’t arrived.

Embarrassment in an airport

Some embarrassing moments haunt you all of your life and make you groan whenever you remember them. Other moments are so embarrassing at the time that they are not easily forgotten; yet, their memory makes you giggle instead of groan. Why? Maybe because we can relive the humor without reliving the embarrassment.

For example, recently I had a embarrassing moment that was completely mortifying for about 20 minutes before I started giggling. Why so short? Well, it happened in another city in an airport with people I am 99% sure I will never see again.

My friend and I took a trip to the desert for the holidays. We had a lot of luggage due to the fact that we had to haul bedding and towels with us (“a lot” perhaps being relative to someone who usually travels with a backpack). Therefore, when our train arrived at the small airport, we decided to take turns using the restroom. I went first and my friend waited at the bottom of the stairs with our suitcases.

Although I had never used the upstairs restrooms at this airport before, I followed the signs. But there appeared to only be one option. At least, there was a “WC” sign with a little man beside it. But where was the women’s? I looked farther down the hallway, but there was nothing close by. I was ready to continue on my way when a woman appeared in the restroom doorway.

Startled, I asked, “Is this for women?”

She gave an affirmative response. And spotting another woman behind her in the restroom, I shrugged off my hesitation and entered. But at some point, behind that closed stall door, I realized that I was no longer hearing women’s voices, but men’s.

I admit that I wasn’t initially embarrassed and just tried to decide whether to hang out indefinitely in the stall or make my entrance into the male-dominated room. But I couldn’t hang out in the restroom forever. I would miss my flight!

So I emerged. I kept my head down as I walked to the sink to wash my hands. Therefore, I don’t know how the men reacted to my presence. I assume it wasn’t favorably. After all, we were still in a culture where gender distinctions are clearly defined. But they didn’t say a word to me. Maybe they didn’t know how to confront the foreigner who was pretending to be oblivious.

Actually, it was the cleaning lady passing by the open door that hollered inside, “Madame! Madame!” When she had my attention, she continued in French, pointing to the little man symbol next to the WC sign.

Feeling the need to justify  myself (human nature, I suppose), I protested that someone had told me it was for ladies. But the delay only prolonged my presence in the room of unsettled men. Finally, I gathered my wits enough to apologize and scurry down the stairs to where my friend awaited me.

“Don’t go to the first restroom!” I admonished her wisely. And she vanished up the stairs while I waited with the heap of luggage. But as I waited, I realized I was standing by the doorway of the only restroom exit.

And there I stood, incapable of desertion for the sake of our luggage as one by one the men emerged from the restroom and came down the stairs to find me blushing on the bottom platform.

Holidays in the desert

Spending Christmas and New Years in disputed territory sounds exotic. And it was. Not in a dangerous sort of way, but in a different sort of way.

aerial view of snow-capped mountains and desert

Flying in from the north gave us a view of breathtaking scenery. First there was green, then snow-capped mountains, and last of all desert: vast stretches of orange that melted into the sky without a horizon. Later, we discovered the reason for that: wind.

aerial view of expanse of desert and blue sky
dry desert floor with sand dune in the background
man's hands pouring tea
desert flower blooming between cracks in desert floor

Who could turn down a cup of tea in the middle of the desert? But even in the driest parts of the desert, there was life… signs that deserts will bloom. We also visited an oasis. It was a beautiful and forsaken piece of green property on the way to nowhere.

date palms

We stayed in a small town where few foreigners roam, everything is everyone’s business, and camel meat is cheaper than beef. We stopped at lots of checkpoints,  visited a nearby fishing village, ate ourselves sick of fresh fish, stuck our toes in the chilly ocean, watched fishermen bring in the day’s catch, rolled down a sand dune (getting sand in our eyes, ears, noses and carrying it home in our pockets),  met a few camels and tasted them too.

fried fish and french fries with coke on restaurant table
two women in saharan wraps walking along coastline while little boy plays in sand
silhouettes of fishermen on peninsula with sunset in the background
small octopus on hook
camel sign along highway
young camels looking at camera
camel tagine
shoes next to carpet in light coming from doorway

But best of all, we got to meet people with years and years of rich nomadic history.

My November guests

In November, three guests traversed the Atlantic to visit me: my mom, my brother, and my friend. Some of our adventures included:

  • Finding each other at the airport… and managing to convince security that I was not a risk
  • Traipsing around the city as each phone place we had been directed to directed us to someone else
  • Arguing with taxi drivers who were even more stubborn than I
  • Tasting the old medina, literally and figuratively
  • Posing for awkward pictures
  • Sampling camel burgers and a salad that tasted “like donkeys”
  • Wiggling cooked snails out of their shells with wooden toothpicks…and sampling them too
  • Long talks
  • Laughing until we cried
  • Visiting my friends for tea, dinner, or just to say “hi”
  • Tasting uncured olives that pickled our mouths
  • Eating most of our meals standing around in the kitchen
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain
  • Souvenir shopping in the rain again
  • A long train ride in the rain
  • Walking along the bay in the rain
  • Two nights of cold showers
  • Spending a night snuggled in the musty hotel blankets
  • Staying in a concrete hotel room which reverberated with the early morning call to prayer and reading of the Qur’an
  • Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by ferry only to find that the rain in Spain does not stay mainly on the plain!
  • A long bus ride around many many roundabouts…in the rain
  • A bus break-down which seemed to temporarily mend itself
  • A few days in Spain with friends, church, a birthday party,  an open air market, olives, churros, pastries, cocido, and tapas
  • Goodbyes