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?

Single and overseas- Part 2

This is a continuation from Part 1. If you haven’t read that part yet, please do before starting here.

I’m writing about singleness. However, I don’t particularly like to be singled out (pun intended) for my marital status, either for the good or the bad. Calling attention to singleness in juxtaposition to marriage breaks my internal concept of community. Not that we can’t intentionally fellowship with those of the same marital status, but when we start “us”ing and “them”ing, we lose the value of others’ perspectives.

Yes, I’m single and singleness, like any other status in life, has pros and cons. So could we talk about the pros and cons as if we’re talking about life rather than opposite sides? (Note to self!)

Despite the trials of any marital status, marriage and singleness each come with a healthy dose of blessing. (Other statuses come with blessings too, but another day, another time, another blogger.)

We should never resent each other for enjoying our blessings. 

I have been there: that twinge of resentment while watching a husband and wife share a look with layers that no one else understands. Loneliness crashes over me as I momentarily want–no, crave–that same level of companionship.

If I resent others their blessings, I shouldn’t freely enjoy my own blessings. If I resent the mother who tucks in her footie-pajama-ed children with Goodnight, Moon and then crawls into bed next to her warm husband, then neither should I enjoy my uninterrupted nights of sleep or the freedom to read late into the night without the light bothering anyone. Neither should I enjoy the spur of the moment trip to who-knows-where without packing diapers, changes of miniature clothing, and a pack-and-play. Neither should I enjoy… Well, you get the point. Go make your own list. 

Instead of resentment, I want enjoyment of the blessings of my today calling. And one step further: I want to encourage others to enjoy their blessings, regardless of their marital status.

The truth is that it’s hard to step into someone else’s perspective. We will probably never quite “get” each other unless we’ve been there. And even then…

Yes, all of us want to be known and understood, but I wonder, in those times we don’t understand, if extended grace can be just as beautiful as empathy.

Single and overseas- Part 1

I’m not going to lie. Being single and overseas is fantastic… but not always. And, on the flip-side, being married and overseas is fantastic… but not always (so I’ve heard).

My perspective is limited to singleness. Maybe you can relate or maybe my account can give you a deeper understanding of the singles you know, whether or not they’re overseas. 

Either way, I feel vulnerable as I write this, knowing that my voice is only one voice. But if my one voice can strengthen understanding and relationships, then it is worth speaking.

Below is a rough sketch of what it’s like to be single and overseas:

#1

Most singles I know don’t feel called to a life of singleness. Once, a young lady was asked whether or not she was called to be single. Her response was, “Today I am.” Although I heard the story 2nd or 3rd hand, I’ve carried that phrase with me for years now. No matter how long or short my single life may be, I have both calling and purpose.

#2

This next point may come as a shock: singles aren’t deadened to desire. (I guess that’s why so many of us end up getting married!) Sometimes, we act deadened out of self-defense to hold back the entourage of married people who want to “fix” us. 

Each time the siblings in my family entered an amorous relationship or got married, we would joke, “Well, at least everyone knows you have hormones!” 

Desire comes on varying levels at varying times, but it’s true: married or single, God created us with hormones.

#3

One of the strongest downsides to being single and overseas is the loneliness. Not that you can’t be married and lonely. Yet, there is something particularly lonely about leaving behind the entirety of your former life.

I brought no one with me. There has been no carry-over from my one world to this one, unless you count the few knicknacks and leftover articles of clothing now worn thin.

#4

Ideally, singles on a small team or in a small group will get along. However, being single doesn’t make you compatible with everyone.

Once, a friend helped me count how many people I have lived with in my lifetime (not just overseas). We came up with 30. 30!? That’s a lot of new people to adjust to and to find that this one is a germ freak and this one might come into your room at 9 p.m. and not leave even though you have a deadline and that one leaves hairballs in the sink (or was that me?).

“We’re not married!” one friend told her teammates when they assumed that two single team ladies should make a life decision together. 

Singles don’t always want to be paired together as an entity whenever a team or small group meets. They might want to be together, but they also might enjoy the space to relate to those in different stages of life. (They may be tired of each other!)

Along with this, some singles feel incredible pressure to live together as roommates just because they’re single. Sometimes, they want to and that’s great. But, as unorthodox as it sounds, maybe living together isn’t the best option after all. Singles need a safe space to voice that. 

After all, few people in Western culture would expect two people to marry and be compatible if they hardly knew each other. So, why do we expect those of us who are single to be more relationally adaptable than those of us who are married?

#5

A friend was called overseas. Some of her teammates seemed to take her calling as a coupon for free babysitting. (This has not happened to me, but it is an unfortunate reality for some.)

Unless they have agreed to be a nanny, singles are not babysitters. Oh, they might babysit and love babysitting too. But they shouldn’t carry the load of raising someone else’s children. That’s not why they’re there. Ideally, singles are ready for mutual service, not a lopsided “you-have-more-time-than-I” guilt trip. 

#6

Speaking of time, while a husband is filling out financial reports, fixing the leaky faucet, and sorting out visa paperwork, or a wife is cooking, scrubbing the floors, and doing laundry, the singles are doing all of that themselves. There is no division of labor. Fortunately for singles, the tasks tend to be on a smaller scale, but they still must be done and no one shares the load. 

Well, I could continue to write about the bad–the local men who want to marry you, a entire week of horrid leftovers, etc. But I think this is enough rambling for one day. I won’t strand you here forever in this pathetic lament. There is an upside to nearly everything and that is what I’ll write about next time. Promise.

Only God can redeem a broken life

Her tearless story was like too many stories I’ve heard. Another rocky marriage. And she barely in her twenties. She refused to tell her mother because it would make her worry. 

We munched on market olives, tossing the pits into the ravine over our shoulders. 

She shrugged. “What can I do? All marriages are like this.” 

“But they don’t have to be!” I protested. 

She agreed to let me pray for her. And we talked about making the first step to be the change.

I didn’t pretend to have the solution. “Only God can change hearts.”

“North Africans have black hearts!”

“Why? When you’re supposed to be good Muslims? Why do you say that Christians are the ones who do good and Muslims have black hearts?”

She was shaking her head. “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Some things just needed to be accepted. 

In the end, she went her way and I went mine. It ached to know that our lives had touched and she still walked away broken. But I am helpless to heal, to fix, or to fill. Her broken life is in God’s hands, awaiting joyful redemption. 

Me and my fat, drippy plum

I was sitting on a kitchen stool, devouring a fat, drippy plum. “Wouldn’t this be a nice way to start a blog?” I thought and wished for inspiration to descend upon me. Something that would touch a spiritual or emotional vein. “I was sitting on a kitchen stool, devouring a fat, drippy plum when it suddenly occurred to me that…”

Instead, during a particularly juicy bite, I dropped the plum and it rolled across the neglected kitchen floor, gathering bits of lunch leftovers as it went. I picked it up, washed it off, and kept eating… and waiting for inspiration. But my mind strayed to menu ideas for cold main dishes and luscious salads.

And then I thought of how my last evening in Illinois was damp with just a smidgen of chill. We sat on the front porch and blew bubbles to delight my nephews. And how I didn’t want that night to end. Ever.

How pleased I was that my brother had married, but how melancholy I was at another evidence that life keeps changing. And we have to keep adjusting.

How hard it had been to leave Illinois, but how I had been ready to get back to Spain and what has become normal life for me.

How, more than once, I had accidentally referred to Spain as “home” which got confusing when I referred to Illinois as “home” in the same sentence.

How I had asked God to let the seat beside me be empty on my 8 hour flight over the Atlantic. I wanted to sleep. Instead, He placed a Palestinian man beside me. And we talked.

How after I had unpacked, I discovered an empty shelf in my tiny room. What a delight!

How timid I was to go out and buy groceries because my Spanish felt rusty and I knew that shopkeepers would ask about my trip. And how they did, but how I survived.

How 3 weeks was not enough time to catch up with family and friends and how the days had gone so hard and fast that they now seemed a lifetime ago as I sat on the kitchen stool and devoured my fat, drippy plum.

That’s what I thought about. Nothing profound or inspiring. Just life right now.

Tips for surviving Spain- Part 2

Previously, my roommate and I compiled a list of a few hints to help you survive living in Spain (or just visiting us!). Click here to read part one. Below are a few more helpful hints…

  1. If you want American coffee, order an “americano” or you’ll get an espresso.
  2. Realize that alcohol is a big part of the culture. Social drinking is everyday life, but drunkenness is not (at least for most people).
  3. Never expect drink refills of any kind.
  4. Learn to ask your server for the bill. For some reason, giving a customer their bill isn’t a high priority. You almost may have to beg for it.
  5. Put your breath mints away. Having good breath isn’t as important in Spain. And Spaniards laugh at Americans for constantly freshening their breath.
  6. Beware of scammers. They aren’t limited to persistently calling your phone and tipping you off with a mispronunciation of your name. They may knock on your door with a fistful of official-looking documents.
  7. Don’t be surprised if the line between church and state is a bit blurred in Spain. More than 70% of Spaniards identify as Catholic. Even the schools teach religion, although there is often a variety of classes to choose from.
  8. When you forget a name, just guess. Many women have the name “María” somewhere in their name. Men often have “José” or “Juan.”
  9. Don’t assume that Mr. Smith’s wife is Mrs. Smith. Women don’t usually change their last names when they marry. And most Spaniards have two last names.
  10. Be aware that the word “husband” or “wife” is more inclusive than an official spouse. It might mean “partner.”
  11. When you visit the beach, prepare yourself to see more epidermis than you bargained for. In fact, you might be shocked by the billboards and TV commercials as well.
  12. Plan your laundry days with the weather. Most places don’t have dryers. And washing machines take longer to run a cycle.
  13. In the winter, dress warmly, even inside of the house… unless you’re running the oven while simultaneously doing aerobics.
  14. Keep your road rage in check. Apparently, double parking is permitted (and sometimes necessary). And street parking is still considered street parking as long as two of the wheels are on the street.
  15. Plan ahead. Public restrooms are hard to find.

Stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll find more things to add to our list!

Aisha- part 4

She lost her job. Just when things had been going well. Just when little by little she had been saving up to furnish the tiny salon. She had talked of buying an oven. She had talked of the circumcision party she wanted to hold for her son in April. Now that was gone. There were no more dreams because there was no more money.

Her husband was working a little, she explained, but she never saw the money.

“It goes for cigarettes and coffee with his friends at the coffee shop.”
“Praise God he doesn’t use your money for that!” I reminded her. But I still hurt for her.

Eventually she found work two days a week. Enough to survive, but not enough to live.

It seemed that every time I entered her home, there was a storm brewing between mother and daughter. Today was no exception.

When I had reached Aisha’s house, things were calm. We sat in the salon, talking and watching Bollywood. God’s grace bridged the language deficit. We talked about life, about marriage, about her children, about her job hunt.

Her daughter, Soukaina, disappeared to be with her friends. A long time later, Aisha hollered across the rooftops of that tiny, sunken neighborhood: “Soukaina! Soukaina!” Soukaina emerged from her friend’s house and soon thereafter two young men followed.

To a mother with no education, a girl’s purity and family honor are the only things worth living for. There is no other option. And with her husband generally absent, Aisha is the guardian of her daughter and, essentially, the family honor.

I just wanted to hide. I had already had an encounter on the street with a man who left my blood boiling in his wake. And upon arrival to Aisha’s neighborhood, I had an argument with the taxi driver whether or not it was safe for me to walk the ½ block from the taxi stand to Aisha’s house. I didn’t want to get involved in anything else, for goodness’ sake!

Aisha offered me a way out: to go with her to buy sweets for the afternoon tea.

But God said, “Stay here with Soukaina.”

So I stayed and listened to the 16-year-old, heart-broken side of the story. Then I touched her hot and teary face and wondered what kind of life lay ahead of this girl. What opportunities did she have? What opportunities would she have?

My own heart felt achy for the women of the family, even as we sipped syrupy tea and I made boats, airplanes, and trains out of each bite of cookie for Aisha’s 2-year-old son.

Aisha walked me to the taxis, telling me again and again how “dear” I am to the family.

I responded with the appropriate reciprocal response, but I really meant it. Aisha will always be dear to me. As we turned out of the neighborhood, the evening sky came into view with bright pinks and oranges. It was so breathtaking I started to cry from the bittersweet mingling of Aisha’s pain and God’s faithfulness.

Oh, the people you meet

A short two-day trip to a land not so far away yielded a wealth of interactions and acquaintances that made it hard to leave. Oh, the people you meet!

  • A fellow passenger in a grand taxi, who spoke to me only a few minutes before inviting my roommate and me to her niece’s evening wedding.
  • A lady passing by on the street who helped us pound on the locked riad door and stuck with us until the owner and his maid came back from the market.
  • The riad owner with a surprisingly Western perspective and his maid who loved engaging in deep conversation about cross-cultural marriage and religion. But just when I thought I was making an excellent point, the owner leaned back in his chair, grinned, and said that if he had met me 24 years ago, he would have married me. The maid, an adorable but hopeless romantic, kept returning to the cross-cultural marriage part of the conversation.
  • A young lady who seemed to know everyone in town and was delighted to take us around to her favorite places…and even fish out a party invitation for us (which we turned down). But before we parted, she took us to a crumbling café for evening tea above the sea. There, she told us about her life. At the end of her story she shrugged away any traces of self-pity, smiled, and said, “Well, what are we going to do? Praise God.”
  • An old gentleman who led me to a store to buy water, waited for me, and led me back. He escaped before I could thank him.
  • A taxi driver who took us to an ancient ruins sight and then meekly offered his phone number in case we couldn’t find a taxi back into town.
  • Our guide at the ruins who led us through the layers of sights on the hillside. But he stayed far ahead of us to not disturb our sight-seeing. And he topped off his hospitality by calling the taxi driver to return for us (thus saving me a phone call in Arabic).
  • Our guide at the music conservatory who didn’t seem to mind that class was in session as he banged around on a piano in the courtyard… and then tried to get us to show off as well. He made my heart swell in hollow pride when he mistook me for a local.
  • The owner of a souvenir shop who seemed sincere in his beliefs, but wanting to listen as much as explain.
  • A family on the train who knew how to enjoy each other and the people around them. What fun to be a part of their lives for that ride. And before they got off at their stop, the father found us seats with other women so we wouldn’t have to travel alone in our cabin.

The wedding I didn’t attend

I didn’t attend a wedding. That statement, of course, depends on one’s definition of “wedding”, I suppose. I did attend one or two ceremonies during the six day celebration, but the ceremonies were so low-key that I didn’t even see the bride. That’s why I say I didn’t attend because how can one attend a wedding without seeing who the wedding was for?

What I did experience, however, was enough to send my cultural senses spinning. Colorful clothing, drums and horns, dancing, green and rolling countryside, bread baking in an outside oven, a restless night curled up foot-to-foot with a stranger who kept stealing my blanket, mint tea and sweets to accompany the luscious wedding feast…

But I wasn’t only observing; I was being observed. My status as the only foreigner at this countryside wedding earned me plenty of stares, questions, and giggling girls developing heroine crushes on the uncomfortable-looking foreigner in the green dress.

After only 29 hours away from home, I returned feeling both culturally enriched and overwhelmed.

little girls holding hands next to adults in robes
people dancing
beef and prune tagine in center of table