Limiting choices and such

When I sit down to write, I like to have a plan. Today I have none. I have a mental list of undeveloped ideas that I haven’t had time to think through. Not yet. So welcome to my stream of consciousness, which has no theme nor plot nor point.

Summer is coming. The forecast says that May is supposed to cool off partway through, but so far we’re careening towards a hot and dry summer. It makes me glad to miss it. I’m booked now: my bus ticket, my Airbnb, my flights, my airport pick-up. Everything is arranged for physically arriving Stateside come July.

The trip is planned. It’s everything else that worries me.

I don’t enjoy closing down a house for three months, especially when I have an inkling that a host of other townies would be delighted to change the locks and move into my house while I’m gone. (Yes, yes. This does happen. And regularly.) The landlady says she’ll drop in every now and then to check on things, and it’s her house, so I guess I’ll let that inkling evaporate. But cleaning out the fridge and freezer and purging the cupboard of anything inclined to hatch moths or rot… Sigh. My down-the-hall neighbor volunteered to babysit my plants. “Don’t worry if they die,” I told her. They lead a fairly risky life with me anyway.

I’d like to buy some new clothes and maybe sew too so I don’t return to my passport country looking like a tramp. The other day, my neighbor boy was delighted to find the shoe rack I recently tucked behind an inner door. “Shoes!” he cried, exposing the rack to his mother and me. Shoes indeed. All two pairs of them. Well, three if you count my walking shoes which can only be differentiated from my “good” shoes by how worn the soles are. Oh, and my good shoes have a smudge of yellow paint from when I slipped on a freshly painted curb. It wasn’t until my neighbor boy exposed my shoes neatly lined on the rack that I realized how slim my pickings have become. So I promptly ordered a pair of sandals.

But the truth is that I like limiting my choices. When my days are filled to the brim with choices, it’s nice to have an area I don’t have to consider at length. Sneakers or flats?

Then again, I also run the risk of looking like a tramp.

I make myself a weekly menu too. Beans on Mondays and Tuesdays. Fish on Wednesdays, etc. Of course, I am forever changing my recipes and portions–the fun part for me. And there are those days when I could happily devour everything in my refrigerator because I can’t stop being hungry. But always sticking to a plan isn’t much fun anyway.

Do you limit your choices in certain areas of your life? If so, which areas? Do you find it repressive or helpful?

I think I should sign off now. I’m realizing that the only reason I wrote this much is because I’m dragging my feet about the next items on my to-do list. So until the next time, when I can hopefully provide writing with a bit more substance (but don’t hold your breath).


Note: I have a new pair of sneakers waiting for me in the States. They *cough* may be exactly the same shoe that I already have two pairs of, but at least they’re a different color this time!

Also note: The purple striped wallpaper was not even close to being my idea. If you want to discuss limited choices further, we can talk about moving into a furnished apartment with a very involved landlady. 🙂

Back to the land of the greenhouses

If you have the time and energy, check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 before reading this final part of my family’s visit.

Somewhere along the line, the family travel journal petered out. It may have been due to the fact that Spain felt like coming home to me, not another adventure. Or perhaps it is was due to my sister’s stomach bug which made her less ambitious. Or–ahem–simply due to a lack of discipline. Regardless, some of the details of our time in Spain are fuzzy. So I’ll stick to the things that I remember…

After a teammate picked us up from the airport, we ran out to get chwarmas for supper. Sure, we could have cooked something, but none of us felt like generating any more excitement that day.

The next morning, after first breakfast at home, we strolled down the street to a café for second breakfast. My family enjoyed their tostadas, even if they didn’t enjoy the booming café music. “THIS IS SPANISH CULTURE!” I bellowed over the din.

A few of us zipped around town with a grocery cart, buying most of what we needed for the next week. Mom exclaimed over each new load of groceries we brought home but dutifully put everything away while we went out for another load. (Let the record show that we ate almost everything we bought and had to buy more!) Our shopping trip ended just in time to race–somewhat disheveled at this point–to my teammates’ place for a yummy lunch.

I tried to whip up soup for dinner but mostly just whipped up a giant disaster, which Mom cleaned up while we raced across town to pick up the rental car. The soup, partially cooked, was put on hold until the next night.

busy market scene
Photo credit: R.K.

Wednesday was market day. Everyone had been looking forward to the market, but with PEOPLE EVERYWHERE it was much more stressful than they had anticipated. Before long, I deposited them in plastic chairs by the churro stand and finished the shopping on my own. It’s strange, I thought, how much I’ve adjusted to living in a crowded space, to waiting in line or catching the vendor’s attention to get some service, to holding my ground when people get pushy and reaching around people when they’re in the way. New experiences quickly become normal life.

tomato plants in a greenhouse
vegetable samples on plates

That afternoon, we went on a greenhouse tour. Our enthusiastic tour guide showed us the variety of methods they used for planting, ventilation, and pest control. After pigging out on the samples and buying a bag of produce to take with us, we spontaneously slipped over to the beach to watch the sun set and dip our toes in the chilly Mediterranean.

sunset over mediterranean

We finished the evening with the North African soup I’d tried to make the night before.

Thursday consisted of mostly cancelled plans, due to my sister’s stomach bug. No couscous with my friend and no drive up the mountain. Mom and I slipped out to some North African stores. My usual shopkeepers were delighted to meet my mother. I should have brought Dad along too because they probably were wondering how the American giant belonged to a woman half her height. 🙂

My sister was busy being sick so the rest of us took it easy, putting a puzzle together, reading, and the like. My brother-in-law cheerfully fixed my leaky washer, changed out the dorky bedroom light fixture, and reassembled a malfunctioning drawer. Meanwhile, my adorable and unsupervised nephew amused himself by dropping things from the balcony, as we discovered later.

Our big outing of the day– “Come on guys. We have a rental car. We HAVE to use it.”– was going to two grocery stores: Aldi and Mercadona. Since there is a tiny piece of Roman ruins right next to Aldi, I led my family there to see it.

skinny wall
Photo credit: N.H.

Dad stared down at the puny wall. “Oh wow.” Mom didn’t say much of anything. I’m not sure she even saw the wall because she spent the whole time trying to avoid the dog piles. My brother-in-law dutifully snapped a photo. At Mercadona, Dad disappeared for a bit and then came sidling over with a guilty grin and a container of pecan praline ice cream behind his back.

We tried to fuel the car, but due to the confusing labels, had a hard time deciding which was diesel. The guys stood at the pump, sniffing the dripping nozzles. Finally, I went inside the station to verify that they guys’ noses were accurate after all.

By the time we got home from our mini-adventure, my sister was feeling a little better. But she was not feeling good enough for pecan praline ice cream. So the guys took care of it for her…and for the rest of us, come to think of it.

The next day, we took the rental car up to the mountain lookout. We bounced all of the way up, the guys discussing the quality of the tires and such. We got out and admired the view of the sea of white plastic greenhouses before heading back down. By then, the clouds were moving in and visibility was limited.

My downstairs neighbor brought up a big plate of couscous, which hit the spot. Besides wandering over to the Spanish pastry shop and the nearby park, we didn’t accomplish much else that day.

arab fortress

I guess we were storing up energy for the next day. Saturday we went hither and yon–to Immigrantville to visit friends, to Almería to climb up the Alcazaba. Then back to Immigrantville for tapas in a loud and crowded tapa bar. Then to visit another friend who insisted we come in for tea and sweets. Then finally, home.

I whipped up a pot of puchero and then a few of us returned the rental car. Handing over the keys was melancholy, like our time was winding down too quickly. And it was. Sunday was our last day together. We were in charge of team lunch, so late morning we worked on food prep and then spent the rest of the day with the team for lunch and a church service. I was pleased to see my worlds unite: some of the people I know best in the world getting to know each other.

By Sunday evening, part of me was ready to get back to real life, but the larger part of me was trying to hold on to every single minute.

They left early Monday morning. I came home from the airport to wash a load of sheets. But I chose to leave the tiny fingerprints on my windows at least for a few more days.

A snow day and yodelers

For context, read part 1 and part 2 before reading this.

Snowy hills

Saturday morning, we awoke to a white world. The green hills of yesterday were white today. We had a few minutes of fretting about being stuck in our hairpin curve neighborhood until spring, but we soon settled in for the joy of a wet snow day. We did laundry, put puzzles together (although the puzzles were decidedly not for adults), and made spaghetti and garlic bread.

It was this day that we hunted high and low for trash bags, and, after perusing the Airbnb folder, discovered that we would have to pay for a second trash bag and corresponding disposal! Nonsense! I stood on the trash. I think my brother-in-law did too. And later, Dad pressed it down even more. Hopefully, the bag of now-bricks did not put out our hostess’ back when she stooped to pick it up.

Now that I’m done discussing trash and our remarkably uneventful Saturday, I might as well mention that one fantastic thing that we did: a yodeler concert!

Yodeler group on stage

My former roommate had found a concert about 15 minutes from our place. And by the time evening rolled around, the roads were clear. We wandered into the concert hall, feeling very much like we were wandering into a Central Illinois gathering. Again, it was both delightful and disconcerting how much we physically fit in. We relied on Mom’s high school German and my German pronunciation of my own name to claim our reserved tickets (which, as it turns out, I still mispronounced my name so I might as well have just used the English version). Several people wanted to talk to us, but our blank smiles deterred them.

We sipped Rivella and ate the little chocolates at our places. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. People chatted until the lights suddenly dimmed. I checked my phone. It was 8:00 p.m. on the dot.

By the first song, we had already settled back to enjoy the evening. The music was exactly what Dad had spent years of hours watching on YouTube. His dreamy expression made the rest of us warm and happy too. The mixture of traditional music groups was delightful. My nephew was the only baby present (this might tell you the age bracket of the audience), and he did pretty good, considering the concert started at his bedtime.

During intermission, a man came around and tried to talk to us. When we apologized, he backed away and said something about “American!” Word had got around.

Trachselwald Castle

On Sunday, we went out for one last scenic drive. The snow was mostly gone, and the landscape was green again. We wound through the countryside and eventually found our way to Trachselwald Castle, where Anabaptists were once held as prisoners. We didn’t think we could get into the exhibit, but decided to enjoy the outside anyway. Then, my nervy brother-in-law pushed open the unlocked door and we wandered inside the damp, cold tower. It was an unexpected peek into our history, and the unexpected part made it that much more meaningful.

That evening, my former roommate brought over her fiancé to get my vote of approval (that was my idea). We had a delightful evening of talking and praying together. And in the end, he got my approval. 🙂

After they left, we realized we were pretty low on food. In our effort to “work it out just right,” we had underestimated our appetites. My brother-in-law and nephew polished off the tube of mayonnaise… plain. With a side of butter… plain.

The next morning, after a few hiccups–such as not filling up the rental van with fuel and my nephew promptly wetting through all of his layers just after Mommy checked in the carry-on–we were on our way to Spain!

Not having been able to reserve an exit row, Dad passive-aggressively manipulated circumstances by stretching his legs into the aisle until the stewardess took note and moved all 6’6″ of him to a roomier seat. It was a rough flight. My nephew cried for a good part of it while my sister and brother-in-law felt like “those” parents. There was enough turbulence that my sister and I wore matching pale green faces.

At our layover in Madrid, we had the perfect amount of time, which we squandered by making various and sundry trips to the food bar only to end up with stuffy sandwiches and a tasteless salad… and an almost missed flight. We made a wild dash when my brother-in-law saw on the screen that our flight was boarding.

“We are about to close the gate,” the attendant told us. And we frantically collected our people and things. But after that trauma, our flight was uneventful. And then we were home–at least I was home.

But I will have to write about that another day.

Ireland- part 5

I am determined to finish writing about my trip to Ireland today. I doubt it can be as much fun to read as it is to write because it is I who get to relive all of the memories. And with time, the bad memories fade–the exhaustion from a missed night of sleep, the grimy cottage, and so on. (Although, for the record, there aren’t many “so on”s.) It is the good memories that grow and blossom and put a little burn in my heart: that marriage of pure happiness and incredulity.

So, where did I leave off?

Saturday. I will skip over the morning escapade with the washer and the dryer and our hostess because I already wrote enough about our experience. We arrived downtown during a morning drizzle. My friend stopped to ask directions from a group of jolly men sipping their foaming Guinness outside of a bar. She did it for the experience, I think. For the kicks and giggles. It turns out the men weren’t Dubliners and couldn’t help us despite their trying. But they fit well into the friendly Irish stereotype we had already formed in our minds.

We managed to find a market after studying a map and then trailing someone with a market cart. We paused at one of the stalls for some mouth-watering paprika almonds and a free sample of creamy mozzarella balls. The drippy weather and the live music made the tiny market charming, although we probably couldn’t find the place again if we tried.

wooden buckets with savory market goodies

We meandered to the Chester Beatty Library, but when we stepped inside, we both decided we’d rather not do the tour. We may never know what we missed, but it was nice to decide to miss it together. We caught a bus to Phoenix Park, where we picked up free tickets to tour the President’s house and then crossed the sunny lawn–yes, the sun was beaming by then!– to a picnic bench under a tree. It was there in that slice of heavenly greenness and almost-warmth that I was able to say a prayer for our Airbnb hostess and my own attitude toward her. The residual irritation of the morning faded and stopped marring the day. We ate our picnic lunch. Without trying, we had planned the perfect amount of time to eat a relaxed lunch and then meander down to the tour bus.

sun shining on green park

We were about 15. A very small tour. Our guide was amazing, explaining the obvious points of interest in the house as well as the lesser noticed nuggets that mortalize history somehow. Some of the other people on the tour added a layer of excitement, like the elderly gentleman who decided he was thirsty and went over to help himself to the bottled water on the president’s desk. And his wife, as composed and sweet as a queen, continued to look composed and sweet in her darling hat even as her husband raided the president’s personal stash. We admired the ceilings–I especially enjoyed the Aesop’s fables one–, the artwork, and the vast back lawn.

After the tour, we refilled our water bottles and headed back downtown. For the first time, I managed to nab a seat in the front of the upper level double decker bus.

James Joyce bridge
dublin street
street with colorful doors

Our next stop was a Luke Kelly impersonation concert on the lawn of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. We had thought we’d like to tour the cathedral as well, but nope. That was another tour that we both decided wasn’t something we wanted to add to our afternoon. (Is it any wonder I came home with a stash of travel money still in my wallet?) So we sat on a concrete lip of the edge of the sidewalk and watched the concert and grew chillier.

concert in lawn of St. Patrick's Cathedral

Then, at my friend’s insistence, we decided to use the free hot drink vouchers we had been given upon entering the concert. We stomped into an elegant hotel restaurant in our winter gear and backpack… maybe looking a little homeless at this point. And we almost lost our nerve, but my friend wanted a cuppa badly enough that she summoned her courage and soon we both had steaming to-go cups of milky Irish tea. We meandered down the street and then stopped to sit on the pedestal of a statue just across the street from the Christ Church Cathedral. We talked about life. People may have looked at us oddly, sitting there on a statue at a busy intersection with our cups of tea, but I’m pretty sure we didn’t notice.

Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin

After our tea, we were hungry. We walked to Lundy Foot’s, a restaurant that offered a traditional beef stew. In retrospect, it may have been more of a tourist attraction than a real Irish pub. And the musician was playing Jonny Cash. But the men at the bar (my sneaky and blurry photo below) seemed Irish enough and animated the atmosphere, especially after a couple of “jars” and a goal or two in the soccer game.

soccer game in irish pub

The beef stew was amazing. So was dessert. We left, flushed from the warmth of the place, and wandered home, happy.

I have very few pictures of Sunday. We had decided to take one day of the week where we would not plan anything. Originally, it had been our “curl up in front of a fireplace” day, but since that was no longer an option, we walked down to the bay. We spread our rain gear on the grass and held a mini church service, ending our time by praying for each other. It was a special time, minus the dog poo on the bottom of my friend’s shoe. We ate our picnic lunch and then strolled up to Insomnia, a coffee shop, and picked out some comfortable chairs. I ordered tea with tea brack, which didn’t end up being my favorite, most likely because it was packed with raisins which I don’t especially like.

We read and journaled in perfect together-solitude. I even crocheted. Then we returned to our Hairy Haven to pack up. We said our goodbyes before bed and I left the house by 5 the next morning.

The bus app directed me to a stop. When the airport coach came, I held out my public transit card hopefully. The driver asked if I had a ticket. Instead, I asked for directions to a Dublin airport bus that would accept my card, but he didn’t know. I finally nodded and decided to pay the extra money to save myself the hassle of finding the right stop. I pulled out my wallet.

Then he asked, “Is this your last day in Ireland?”

I nodded. “I’m going back to Spain today.”

He pushed my money away, patted my shoulder, and quietly said, “Get on board and make yourself comfortable.”

And with that, beautiful, wonderful Ireland sent me back to Spain.

It’s easy to forget

"Hey! Hey!"
I turn to wave,
his kiss still wet on my cheek.
I can, in these moments,
forget that dogged darkness from the womb,
the dark that swallows him now.
Life feels so much like life
when his eyes still glitter hope.
So it's easy to forget.
Or not to remember.

And then I do,
and I want to run back
and snatch him
from what his family and his god
demand of him.
Because who will he be
when he reaches the end of his hope?
The end of his life?

"Hey! Hey!"
I turned around again
to see him looking over his shoulder
as his mother's hand leads him away.

Photo credit: Scott Szarapka on Unsplash

I wish I knew you

Maybe you think I don’t notice that bruise on half your face. You light the room with a smile and a dignified calm.

But I wish I could grab him by the throat and not let go until I know that he will never touch you again.

Except with love.

But how can I know unless you tell me? And how can you tell me unless you trust me? And how can you trust me when you just met me and he calls your phone and you need to go before we even know each other?

We say goodbye with an embrace, two kisses, and a few besides.

Then I stand and watch you walk away, wishing I knew the you behind that sparkling smile. 

And that black eye.


Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

Leaving behind our fish

My writing prompt this week is about letting something go. What have I let go? 

A couple of years ago on another blog, I wrote a lament about living far away from family. I understand the sacrifice of “letting go” theoretically and even theologically but not always emotionally. Now and then, especially when I’m homesick, I renew my lament. Yes, I love the life God has given me and the deep and beautiful blessings that come along with it, but it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. 

Sometimes even the wonderful, valuable gifts in this life are things we must let go, things God asks us to miss out on. So we watch from afar with palms pressed against the window pane that divides something we long for from our reality.

We all have laments, don’t we? Things we miss out on because we have counted the cost and decided to follow Jesus.

I won’t elaborate on this particular lament. I’ve done it in pieces on my blog: here, here, here, here, here, and here (oops, I didn’t realize there would be so many “here”s). The writing prompt reminded me of a passage I recently read, a passage I still need time to think through. Below, I have retold the story from Luke 5:1-11. I hope the story touches a dark corner of your heart like it touched mine. What do I need to let go? Really let go? Can I believe that Jesus is worth it?

May the victory of Jesus’ death and resurrection fill your life to overflowing.

The Lord is risen!


They were tired when Jesus came. It had been a long night with no fish. No fish meant no market. No market meant no income. No income meant, well, not much of anything.

He was a bit strange, this Jesus, climbing on board Peter’s boat to talk to the crowd. A few people began to splash into the lake to be close to him, and it was then that Jesus quietly asked Peter to push out just a little from the land. Peter gladly gave up his task of washing the fishing nets to hear for himself why so many people were following this Teacher around.

Jesus taught in language that was both simple and profound. The crowd pressed against the shoreline, engaged, spell-bound even. When Jesus was done teaching, he turned to Peter and said, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

They had already tried that. All night, actually. So Peter said, “Master, we worked all night and caught nothing! But if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 

The nets slipped in the water with the familiar creaking of ropes. A creaking of familiar hopelessness.

And then their nets were breaking, splitting with the load of fish! It took a moment to understand what was happening, so astonished were they. “Help!” they cried to a nearby boat. Soon both boats were overflowing. They began to take on water.

Excitement and wonder were thick in the air. Peter and his companions, James and John, stared at this Teacher, this Master, who seemed to have power over creation. Overcome, Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

“Do not be afraid,” said Jesus. “From now on you will be catching men.”

They rowed to the shore as their boats sank lower and lower in the sea. Those from the crowd who had not yet dispersed stood on the shore, gawking as the water lapped at their ankles. 

Fish meant market. Market meant income. Income meant, well, anything.

But they left their boats, their nets, their fish and followed Jesus because He was everything.


Photo by Cassiano Psomas on Unsplash

Goodbye for keeps

The living room was a disaster of misplaced everything. As if an unsupervised 1-year-old had been unleashed. Indeed, he had. After he  yanked the tablecloth off the coffee table, he came over for a hug and tickles. But he squirmed away when he glimpsed his juice box. Now was as good of a time as any to squirt the remaining contents onto the table and floor. 

But my mind was elsewhere and so was his mother’s. It was our last evening together before they moved away. Our last talk face-to-face. 

We were both pleased by the prospect of a promising future for the little family, but also stunned that this moment was a last. Our last conversation parked on our stained living room couches. The last time I could grin at her as I heaped her plate higher than she wanted. “Eat! Eat!” But she ate every bite of couscous tonight despite the protest that she wasn’t hungry. And she made a dent in the chocolate cupcakes I had made just for her. The ones with cream cheese in the center. 

Her son bit the couch cover with a mouthful of chocolate and left a reminder that I would have to scrub out later.

We both hated goodbyes. We talked about the past, the future, black magic, God’s power over Satan, and how God’s power is available to us. She let me pray for her–a long prayer in the name of Jesus. 

A spoon dropped over and over onto the accommodating tile until I realized the neighbors below might care and snatched up both little boy and spoon. He giggled as I tipped him upside down.

“I allow very few people to enter my heart, and you are one of them,” she said.

We didn’t cry as we hugged goodbye. Neither did I cry as I scrubbed at the stubborn chocolate stains and wiped up sticky juice puddles. Goodbye was too final to sink in. 

It still is.


Photo by Phillip Goldsberry on Unsplash

Lose your life for my sake: Remembering Grandpa

What does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake?

I was sitting on a park bench, feeling the warm sun just under the gentle breeze of a perfect day.

Florence, Italy. My sister, my friend, and I had been planning this trip for months. Flights, buses, trains, shuttles, airbnbs, tourist sites.

But there in the park, I was thinking about losing life. Because while we were still in Madrid, Grandpa had passed from this world to the next.

“Dad, should we cancel our trip?” I would not have been able to travel back for the funeral anyway, but being on a belated 30th birthday trip while my family mourned…

“Absolutely do not cancel your trip!”

So here I sat in Florence, pondering Matthew 10 on the day of Grandpa’s visitation. Have I found life by losing it? This familiar passage wasn’t making sense anymore.

The late cappuccino (we had defied the culture by sipping our cappuccino after 11 a.m.) was still taking effect. Just over the mesh-lined fence, tennis players swung rackets at a yellow ball. I could barely see them, but I heard them. Grunt. Thwack. Grunt. Thwack. “Out!”

Am I worthy of Christ? Do I love Him more than family? Have I taken up my cross?

In Italy—in a world so different from the one I grew up in—it was hard to understand that Grandpa was gone. But I let my mind drift through memories.

Hours and hours of reading “Burn-stin Bear” books and “Dead-Eye Dick.” Patiently teaching us grandchildren (his “coochtie boochties”) to play 42. “Honda” rides. Issuing drivers’ licenses for the golf cart. Constantly wanting to tape record his little grandchildren singing songs. Sketching maps that directed us past where this or that “used to be” as if we had been born in his generation. Chanting “Cumbine coorn and cumbine be-eans,” as we pulled ourselves up to sit with him in the combine. Giving us “bubble gums” from the door pocket of his F-150, the one that had the automatic window buttons in little blue and red bubbles that I would run my fingers over while I waited for my gum.

Letting Grandpa serve you something from the shop was always exciting because it was fascinating to watch him prepare something from his stash of snacks. (Did you know you can make hot chocolate from microwaving chocolate milk? Or a “roastin’ ear” by microwaving an ear of sweet corn wrapped in a wet paper towel?) Sunday night at Grandpa and Grandma’s typically included helping Grandpa get the ice cream out of the “shed” and hiding a pickle or an olive under the heaping scoops in Dad’s ice cream bowl.

And then Grandpa began to get older and frail. Some of his stories came out confused. His tall body began to shrink. His blue eyes got watery. But those watery eyes always brightened when he talked about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When I told him goodbye last summer, I wondered if he would remember that I was going back to Spain.

Grandpa had dozed off while Grandma and I were chatting. “Touch his shoulder,” Grandma said.

I touched his shoulder and his blue eyes opened. Instead of watery, his eyes were clear as they stared up at me wordlessly.

“I’m going to go Grandpa. And I wanted to tell you goodbye.”

The clear, blue eyes continued to stare for several long moments. Had he heard me?

And then, “Kiss on the cheek!” So he remembered that my goodbye was longer than a “see you later.” I leaned over to hug him, kiss his cheek, and let him kiss mine.

My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you here again, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

He smiled. I cried. He was silent as I hugged him again.

That goodbye felt like a closed chapter in my life. It was one that I mourned, not only that day but also when Grandma passed away in November. And now again while sitting on that park bench, trying to register the reality of Grandpa’s death.

Death is real. It’s ugly. It hurts.

But what does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake? My mingling thoughts that late Florence morning brought me here: It isn’t until you die that the greatest potential for life is set before you.

How do I love her?: North Africa part 2

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.

I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.

“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”

It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.

“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”

Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.

At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.

But all was not well.

The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.

Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.

As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.

More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.

Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.

The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.

In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?

A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.

“How do I love her?” she asked.

How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?

As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.