Aging alone

Back when I was teaching, we took a field trip to The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. There were these cool machines with cameras that would age a photo depending on life choices. Are you a smoker? Do you spend a lot of time in the sun? And so on went the questions.

One of my junior highers got me to pose for the camera. My mistake was not taking over the controls afterwards. Having already gone through the process once, he knew all of the answers to age my photo as much as possible. He ignored my protests as the screen spun out an image of a worn out old lady who eerily resembled me.

Thanks, kid.

I remember that photo sometimes when I find a new gray hair or a neck wrinkle or an age spot I never noticed before. The realization that one is aging is hard for many people; however, as a single, I wonder if aging alone is different. Not harder, but different.

As a single, there is no togetherness in disintegration. It’s just a party of one who watches the body in the mirror stoop and droop a little more each year. A party of one who gets pitied as she grays because there go her chances to snag a husband and, if she doesn’t have children, she can’t even attribute the grays to the honorable occupation of child-rearing.

His eyelids sag and he gets an extra roll of fat at his waistline.

There is no together giggling at age creeping over two bodies become one. It is just her facing irreversible doom as she watches those creeping spider veins.

There is no one to notice that mole on his back slowly changing colors. No one to miss that tooth except him.

Those freckles that once were becoming are overcome by age spots and they’ve scattered farther than she ever imagined. Her body is no longer what it used to be. And sometimes she’s glad she doesn’t have to share it.

I read through 1 Peter recently, about beauty being internal rather than external. Because remember, these bodies were not made to last forever. Whether one is aging together or aging alone, that truth is comforting.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear other perspectives. What has it been like for you to age alone, man or woman, single or widowed? Or what has it been like for you to age beside someone else? Maybe you’ve had both experiences. What are some things you’ve learned over the years?

Prepositionless laughter

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

“Fifty cents?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

Happy fall

Crisp fall air. Charcoal smoldering in a grill. A porch swing caught in a breeze, beckoning. Drying corn along quiet country roads. Baby giggles. Sun-scented laundry. Family wedding plans. Fresh clothes on happy babies. The steam of a busy iron. Ice cream rivers on shirt fronts. Late night talks. New honey. A church building smelling of Pinesol. Uncontrolled laughter. Spontaneous neighbor visits. Children’s books over and over.

I’m sorry I’ve been so absent. Sometimes it feels like I’m trying to be present in too many places to really be present anywhere at all. Ever feel that way? My blog updates probably will be scatter-brained over the next couple of months, but I’ll try to check in anyway. 🙂 Have a wonderful autumn in the meantime. 

Along the coast

I felt more at home with the worn travelers and scruffy men bumming cigarettes than I had browsing a mall full of things I didn’t need and lounging in Pad Thai Wok after my pad thai was gone and all I had left was C.S. Lewis.

I moved on to Willa Cather at the bus station. A French speaker asked for a cigarette. A worn man asked for 80 cents. Neither bothered me. I belonged enough not to care that I had a bad hair day and the hem of my skirt was brown from being too long on dirty streets two days in a row.

A group of loud Americans clambered off the bus. I knew they were American before I heard them speak. –Why are we such a loud culture?– Their laughter pulsated under the metal roof.

A retired Baptist preacher introduced himself. We’re involved in the same sort of work, he said. But he’s short term and I’m long term. That’s about as far as we got before my bus pulled up and nearly bumped us with its stout nose.

It was the end of my stay in Málaga for a two-day literacy training. I could post pictures of my trip, but the truth is, the hours I wasn’t in training, I was parked on my airbnb couch, basking in the aloneness.

Besides my trip to Málaga shortly before the coronavirus lockdown, my roommate and I also spent a day in Adra. Yes, there is a pattern: both Málaga and Adra are along the coast. Sound lovely?

Well, I’m not going to lie; the trip to Adra wasn’t great. The wind quickly banished my dream of lounging on the beach for countless hours. To say nothing of the few rude people that cast a shadow over the rest of the trip. But, I’ll flood you with pictures that make you believe our trip was a blast. Really, it was okay, but it might be a while before I go back. (And next time, I’ll bring my own personal bathroom and a can of pepper spray.)

Night at the beach

It is evening as I descend from the bus stop to the beach. Red-faced, dripping families are ascending after their rigorous seaside adventure. Is it too much to hope for a quiet evening, alone with God and the waves?

I get closer until I can smell the salty water. Brightly colored towels hang from the balconies of a beachfront hotel.

Despite those who have left, there are people everywhere. I am not the only one who thought of enjoying the post-sunshine beach. Laughter punctuates the dull roar of voices.

I slip off my shoes and enter the chaos. The thick sand is rough against my bare feet. Each step half-buries my foot. I find the quietest spot available, spread out my towel, and shake my head at an African vendor who is trying to make a sale.

The waves froth over the rocks. A jet-ski roars past, spinning to dance in its own wake. A boat skims along, a child in an inner tube bouncing and shrieking behind. Another boat passes, this one with less drama.

The sun disappears and the air is almost cool. But the sand still sticks to my sweaty arm as I reach down to adjust my towel.

I soak in the moment. Just as it is.

The night thickens and so does the salty scent of the waves. And finally, I pick up my things and start the uphill plod. I can’t hear the waves anymore. A bustling restaurant is playing Caribbean music while customers sit in wicker chairs shaped like hard-boiled eggs.

That fades too. And it’s just me and a few other panting stragglers going uphill toward home.

Victim of the Tower of Babel

As a life-long language learner, I often always struggle to find the right word in the right language. And I always often end up using the wrong word anyway.

One time, a friend in the thick of language school told me that she had burst into laughter when a non-native English speaker used the word “elephant” to describe an “eggplant” dish. Although she was embarrassed by her own uncontrollable giggles, she knew that it was coming from a sense of relief that other people make mistakes too.

I can understand.

Heavily accented English. Mispronounced vocabulary. Misused idioms. Misspellings. I can smile… because when I do, I am smiling at my own mistakes too.

Like my language school director once told me on a particularly bad language day: “You’re a victim of the Tower of Babel!”

I’m glad I’m not the only one.

peanut butter label
electric lint remover instructions

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.

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

Who do I laugh at?

The sun came and went as ominous clouds marched across the sky. I shivered and wondered why I hadn’t checked the weather before I had walked to the park to study. Winter was coming; that was certain.

On the other side of the bubbling fountain of the garden plaza, a man was stretched out on a bench in front of the bamboo forest. I had seen him there before. He wore several layers of clothing all with that grimy, unwashed tinge. He was a perfect picture of a North African homeless. But he didn’t bother anyone. Even when he awoke, stood up, and stumbled to another part of the garden.Beside me, just on the other side of the fig tree, were two boys pretending to be men. They smoked cigarettes, played music, and took selfies.

But when the homeless man got up and walked away, the boys gawked at him. Then they whispered something to each other and snickered.

I was angry. If the man had bothered them, I could have understood the sentiment to mock him. But as it was, the man had done nothing to deserve anything less than their respect. And yet they laughed at him. How dare they!

While I was still high on my judgment throne, God asked me, “Who do you laugh at?”

Me? Laugh at someone?

How many times have I amused myself at the expense of another? In short, who do I look at and tell myself I am better than they? Maybe it’s not the homeless man. But it could be the boys smoking cigarettes. And really, does that make my pride any less hideous than theirs?

The lighter side of language learning

I have no history with the other foreigners I have met here in North Africa: no previous inside jokes, no awkward memories of growing up together, etc.

Yet, because we are here together, we have begun to share something that I cannot share with people from home: the joy of mixing our common languages. And the beautiful thing is that we understand each other.

My class is known as the class that laughs a lot. My classmates and I are often drawing parallels from Arabic to English. There are verbs that in their conjugated forms sound like “guilty” and “dirty”, and nouns that sounds like “slave” and “smelly.” So we utilize them as their false English cognate, so much that our teachers have begun to do the same.

We also like directly translating from Arabic. In Arabic, many verbs are a slight variation of their nouns. “Do you want to coffee with me and have coffee at the coffee?”or “The chicken eggs eggs.”

And then there are times when we make up our own words completely such as tacking an English ending onto an Arabic verb or even using both Arabic and English constructions on the same root word.

For example, in Arabic the passive voice is typically the normal verb preceded by a “t” sound. And, as you know, the regular past tense verb in English ends in “ed”.

One day, as a friend and I were walking down the street, a guy from a passing vehicle hollered, “Bonjour!”

We giggled. “We’ve just been tbonjoured.”