Below are a few things I’ve seen or experienced recently. They’re not written in any particular order or of any particular importance (or of any particular grammatical observance, truth be told). Just some snippets of life.
Speakers wound up in trees and fastened to light posts play “Joy to the World” as I walk down the street, in step with the music. Then I notice others in step with the music–a Muslim family, several Spanish businessmen, and others. “Let eevery heeeart prepaare hiim rooom…”
Russian classmate #1 is disgruntled that she cannot absorb a complex Spanish grammar structure. Russian classmate #2 says: “You’ve only been here 7 years and you want to understand everything. Calm down. We’ve been here for 20 and we still confuse this.” Bulgarian classmate begins to giggle. “Yes, calm down! You still have 13 years of confusion ahead of you!”
After a rain, crushed snails in crushed shells dot the walking/biking trail like flattened M&M buttons.
An elderly man I meet on my morning walk that tells me that his mornings are better on the days we cross paths.
Little boys at the Kings’ Day parade, squeeze around me to get to the front, chattering in hopeful Arabic and clutching rumpled plastic grocery bags to fill with candy.
A winter evening curled up with a book and a cup of lemon balm tea…and Christmas lights I hesitate to take down.
A shopkeeper tells me how long I should spend with the friend I am planning to visit in another town. “Are you going to spend the night at her place? No? Then you need to go before lunch and eat with her and spend a lot of time with her before you leave in the evening.” Oh, how I love to hear the North African perspective on relationships!
As I walk by, an elderly man comes out of a café to speak to me. “How tall are you?” he asks and all five feet of him steps back in surprise when I tell him. He says that the other day he was breakfasting with another man in the café. When I walked by, the other man said he would not like to take me out for breakfast. Because I was so tall, surely I would eat a lot! That makes me self-conscious as I walk home, realizing that my oblivion doesn’t exempt me from being a topic of discussion.
On my way to catch a bus, I notice a lady with her head in the dumpster. She doesn’t have that look of someone who usually sifts through others’ garbage. (And I’m not judging because I have rescued a few garbage items in my life.) But I pause, curious as she bats her broom handle around. “Can I help you?” She mutters something about losing an item. She doesn’t know if it could possibly be in the garbage she took out. I peer in and see a lavender bag of trash on the very bottom of a very empty dumpster. She doesn’t relinquish the broom when I reach for it, but I hold open the dumpster lid while she fishes around. Finally, success! She snags the handles and pulls it out little by little (still muttering). I manage to avoid the linty end of the broom that is headed my way and still make it to my bus on time.
I am at the counter of a North African store when a little boy comes in, not even big enough to see over the counter. He sets a hand-written list on the counter. The shopkeeper grins at him, “Peace be upon you, Arkan. How are you? At peace?” He looks down at Arkan’s mother’s list, reading aloud the first item before Arkan interrupts him. “I want a sucker.” Ahh, that’s how it’s done. And I wonder if suckers are free because he is so stinkin’ cute or if his mother ever notices that the grocery bill is always a little more than she anticipated.
To me, the holidays bring a sense of belonging. There is a warmness, an extra niceness.
Yes, the world gets frantic and grumpy when the store shelves aren’t stocked with what we want and the check-out lines are too long and the children need naps and, well, so do we but we still need to make that Aldi stop because Wal-Mart was out of pumpkin pie filling.
But then we come home and the individuality fades and there is a togetherness again, even in the hustle and bustle of a busy kitchen.
Celebrating far from family isn’t quite like this. The sense of belonging is lessened. Not vanished, but subtle, something I need to search for. But those remaining shards are precious too. Even from far away, I belong. And that belonging tints the world with bright, warm tones and I find myself extra happy this Thanksgiving and Christmas season.
I don’t want to spend the holidays wishing I were somewhere I am not. I choose to contribute to the joy of right here, because this is where I belong too.
Ten things I’m thankful for this year:
the great faithfulness of a loving Father
Spain’s acceptance of my 5-year residency application
the tail-end of COVID-19
friends and neighbors that I bump into every time I step outside
strong family dynamics, even though I live thousands of miles away
opportunities to travel and experience other worlds
"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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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. 🙂
Your face fills with bright delight when you spot me, unexpected in the park. “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” says Mommy. I know and so do you. Your arms swing open as you barrel toward me. I stoop to meet you, and you press your face close to murmur the secrets of your day–the joys and sorrows of a life well-lived, however young. I understand nothing, but you don’t mind because I listen and that’s enough.
When I knock on your downstairs door, you wait for Mommy to unlock it but you are the one who pulls it open with that expectant grin as if it were only you I came to see. You take my hand and lead me inside. Or if I say, “Not today,” you keep my hand in your tiny one as you step out the door onto the round, red welcome mat. “No problem. We can play at your house if you prefer,” you want to say. When you toss Mommy a farewell glance, she says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. I give you a hug and you smell like nothing, sweet nothing except maybe a bit of sticky and sometimes crackers.
When I pick you up, you quiet as if you’d like to stay in my arms forever. When you get too heavy, I slide you down my hip and then my leg, one jolt at a time, a game to make you giggle. But then you stretch your arms up again.
When I play distracted, you tug my hand or pat my face to remind me that you are the most important person in my life right now. Mommy says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. But my heart still melts a little more when you wave your arms in the air as we sing “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” Or when you shriek laughter during peek-a-boo and hide & seek. Or when you pick the chocolate chips out of my granola and leave Hansel and Gretel trails across the tile and between the couch cushions.
Small boy–for you are still small though you fancy yourself a man–you have stolen my heart, this sad auntie heart so removed from her biological adored ones. You too, far from most who love you, in me find a resting place for the big love of your mini heart.
A young friend dutifully praying on my guest room rug– “In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful…” –while above her were frames of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Visitors from the U.S., the first in several years. I love cross-cultural work, but relating to those with whom I share both culture and faith is uplifting. And, Lord willing, more visitors arrive in a few days!
A Mediterranean baptism on a beautiful–albeit chilly– November day.
Uncontrollable evening laughter.
A bowlful of ripening avocados because I had mentioned to my student that if I had one food to live on, I would choose avocados. (She said she’d choose dates.)
A neighbor who asked for my tikka masala recipe.
Weather that begs for coffee.
A young mother who thought she knew me… and didn’t, but ended up asking for my phone number anyway.
A day trip to the mountains where I sat on a hill and talked on the phone like the un-hiker that I am. It was one of those hills with loose rocks and thorns that put “brickles in my britches. But I stayed there anyway.” (For that quote, you’ll have to read “What Was I Scared Of?” by Dr. Seuss.) Afterwards, my teammate and I unintentionally had tapas in a casino.
Storekeepers who drop the price without my even asking.
A climate where fruit is in season all year round. Right now it’s the mandarins that pop between teeth and turn to sweet puddles on tongues. And the fat persimmons. And rosy pomegranates. And even the chirimoyas, which I’m not particularly fond of but can appreciate in season.
Sunshiney Mondays that dry sheets and towels in a jiffy.
Unintentional late night discussions.
A landlady who opened the second bedroom of my apartment. (I rented the apartment as a one-bedroom flat, the second bedroom designated for the landlady’s storage.) With the prospect of multiple guests at once, I worked up the nerve and asked her if I might possibly please use the extra bedroom while my guests are around. She gave me an incredulous, “Mujer, it’s your house!” Nevermind the original agreement. I’ll nevermind anyway!
Workers at the print shop, startled to discover that they had indeed made my idea come true. And they ignored the customer behind me to admire their own handiwork.
A ticket quietly waiting for me to test negative for covid. And one suitcase bulging with eager Christmas gifts.
A birthday to celebrate this week. As I valiantly blaze through my 30s, I’m starting to wonder if it’s time to consider having a midlife crisis. Although, I’m not sure that’s really the sort of thing one plans for… Maybe next year…
And the very best thing of what has been happening recently? A new nephew, Zayne Davis born November 8 to two very proud parents. And no wonder they’re proud, because he’s terribly cute.
Zayne, as you start your life in this great big world, may you find the courage to be exactly who God created you to be, nothing more, nothing less.
Photo credit for last photo goes to my brother-in-law
My neighbor’s hands were slick with oily meloui dough when the doorbell rang. “Could you get that?”
I opened the door and gave a cheerful “Salam walekum!” The young mother greeted me but backed away with popping eyes and an apology.
“No, no, no, you came to the right door.” I grinned. “Welcome.” I had dropped by to play with my neighbor’s little boy. Soon I had three little people to play with and a mother who stood beaming over me, incredulous that I was there on the floor stringing monkeys from the doorknob and reading about 1-2-3 with Winnie the Pooh. The new little girls wanted laptime too.
Amid the chaos of the younger generation, I heard snippets of the visitor’s story, a story that didn’t match her sparkling eyes. Then we ate meloui, tiny cooling pieces at a time. I ate mine, trying not to sprinkle crumbs on the smooth little pigtail bobbing just below my chin.
“This is such a great day,” my neighbor sang as she shuffled us around the table in order to reach the fridge. “My friend came and my neighbor!” She smiled and began sorting through last week’s cilantro.
If I hadn’t known, I would not have guessed that her son had been sick, refusing to eat and wailing day and night for several days straight. In desperation, his parents had hauled him to the ER where he got the medication he needed.
Low on sleep on top of a distorted schedule, would I have been cheerful to have my house overflowing with people?
You could argue that hospitality is required in Islam and therefore, whether or not they feel it, North Africans are hospitable. True. But most North Africans are not just hospitable because they’re required to be; it’s less of a conscious choice and more of an integral part of life.
Another night, my neighbor, her friend, and I walked to the park. There, we joined up with several other women. Our bench seated three and squished four. We were seven.
Had we been American, we would have chatted briefly and then half of us would have moved to a nearby bench to sit. However, North Africans value relationships much more than they value comfort… and relationships require time spent together. So three of us stood or chased renegade children while four sat hip to hip. Every now and then, someone wedged themselves out of the line-up and gave another the chance to sit for a while.
I came home from that outing, over-stimulated and linguistically exhausted. The sound of my key turning in the lock was absolutely musical. I am American and I value both personal space and comfort. I will probably always value those two things. Those values and solid relationships aren’t mutually exclusive when others prioritize the same values.
But what about when they don’t?
I’m still pondering what it means to be an introvert in my line of work–What does that look like practically? (Maybe someday I’ll be brave enough to explore this on my blog.) But I will say this: even in my exhaustion, I also rejoice in the beauty of a culture that decidedly values relationships and community, even at the expense of individual preference.
Last Friday across the ocean, a little blondie was born. Really, it was Saturday here in Spain and I kept myself awake with whodunnits and carrot sticks until the announcement came.
Welcome, Dylan Thomas, to the family that loved you long before you were born. You are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God Himself. May this be your starting point as you find out who you are in this great big world.