Here is Joy.
Look, right here!
See her in the slippery soap suds puddling around the soap dish?
And in the far corner of the deepest cupboard you're cleaning,
Back, back, back until you can just dab the dirt triangle with the corner of your rag?
Do you hear her bursting through the speakers of your car stereo?
Or in the grunt of an awakening work computer?
She's here on the supermarket shelf, coming along free in the celery stalks just because.
Do you see her?
In the scuffed magnet that pins a child's artwork to your refrigerator?
And in the orange flame waltzing on the tip of a match as you light a candle and open the front door?
She's whisked into the batter and adds just the right nutty note…or is it woody…or just plain sweet?
She's here. Always here.
Even when your neighbor tells you never ever to add cinnamon and now you've ruined it completely.
Yes, sometimes Joy tastes a little like hot noodle soup during a head cold.
Or enlivens an aroma with a world of redeemed memories.
She's more than a good tiding at Christmas.
She's now. Today.
Riding along on the eternal breeze of faithfulness.
Look for her.
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
- my team, my “right-here” family
- sweater and boots weather
- enough, even with climbing energy and food prices
What are you thankful for?
True love drives away laziness, that’s what a young friend learned in philosophy class. It drives away apathy too.
Then why do I grow apathetic to the woundedness that surrounds me?
Overwhelmed, that’s what I am. Overwhelmed by the dissonance of compassion and my own limits. I am one person with moderate abilities and stamina. I cannot be a superhero no matter how hard I try. My tiny contribution of self-sacrifice will not change the world.
And so I begin to seal off my heart, and what began as love is reduced to apathy.
Or was it even love to begin with?
When I fill my schedule to the brim with world-changing activities, what is my motive? Can it be love? It might be, but, if I’m honest, my motive to change the world often starts and ends with pride. And it’s a pride that turns apathetic when I refuse to be humbled by remembering my limits.
There always will be busy seasons in our lives, some longer than others, but a sustained frantic pace, even under the pretense of love is not truly loving.
Love isn’t defined by the absence of laziness or apathy. The real meaning isn’t found in the absence of something. It’s not even found in the presence of something like hard work or compassion. It is ultimately found in the Presence of Someone.
When I realize that I am not the one who must save the world, I am freed. The burden to be the savior rolls away. Finally, I can stop panicking over my limits in light of all the work that needs to be done. I am finally free to love well.
I can sit with someone who needs to cry. I can make cupcakes for a team event. I can read a captivating book. I can agree to tutor another student. I can have a friendly chat with my neighbor from the patio. I can probe deeper into the heart of a young woman who isn’t sure who she wants to be just yet. And I can do all of this, recognizing that I am just a small piece in what is happening, and, praise the Lord, I get the joy of being a piece.
I am a created being, created with limits. And that is very good. Why? Because the work does not begin and end with me but with the One who is limitless.
For an excellent resource on human limits, I recommend You’re Only Human by Kelly M. Kapic.
Below is a conglomeration of life I either noticed or experienced in recent weeks. The thoughts are scattered and unpolished (like everything else on my blog, except maybe just a bit more). But I hope you enjoy a peek into life here.
“Hola, American.” A sub-Saharan man said the words almost under his breath as we passed on the street.
I didn’t think much about it until I was a few steps beyond him. How did he know I was American? Someone must have told him.
Due to the abundance of Russian immigrants and the lack of North American ones, my community assumes I’m Russian. In fact, when I started Spanish class, my Russian classmate told me that she’s seen me around and always thought I was a Russian.
Last night in class, she worked on forming a sentence with the imperfect subjunctive: “Trish has a face as if she were Russian.” After various corrections and alterations, we all were very familiar with the idea that Trish looks Russian.
“I thought to myself: I hope she makes brownies. And you did!” My student pulled the brownie plate closer to her and grinned at me with shining eyes. And she didn’t protest when I sent the leftovers home with her after class.
Little arms thrown wide with delight in overhead bubbles.
Four neighbors were on the front stoop when I stepped out the front door of the apartment building.
“Are you having a meeting?” I asked with a laugh.
No, two were just out for a smoke and had collected the others coming in or out the door. Like me.
“Sit down here. Join us.” Demanded the middle-aged man from the second floor. We hadn’t seen each other for a while so maybe he thought he needed the latest scoop on my life.
Not really wanting to wedge myself between two people with lit cigarettes, I stood back just enough to enjoy the breeze that waltzed down the street.
“You don’t smoke, do you?” The second floor neighbor asked.
“Do you drink?”
“Not that either.”
“What about the other thing?”
Was this a morality test? I hesitated, not knowing for sure what he meant. “Marijuana?” I asked hopefully. “No, not that either.”
“No. Making love.” He tinged a bit with this. I suppose you could say I had forced him to say it.
The lady on the other side of the stoop eyed me. “It’s not worth it. Men are too complicated.”
“You say men are too complicated!” He was indignant. “It’s the women who are too complicated.”
It was a good time to leave. So I made a light, overgeneralized comment. They laughed. I told them goodbye and continued on my way.
I had almost reached the language school when I noticed a woman was getting out of her car. She was a bleached blonde with dark eye makeup. The combination made her seem sad somehow. Behind her was a mural of a woman with streaking mascara.
Two sad ladies on the corner, almost like a piece of visual poetry, I thought, and continued walking.
I was in the middle of the crosswalk when muffins, donuts, and bread came skidding across the road toward me. I hesitated mid-stride. Was I hallucinating, my subconscious pulling up cravings for foods I rarely ate?
But no. A delivery van’s door had slid open as the van bumbled through the roundabout. The goodies inside had tumbled onto the street with enough momentum to shoot them in my direction.
I helped gather the packages littered across the roundabout and toss them into crates. The poetic sad lady from the corner helped too.
“Gracias!” the man told Sad Lady. “Chokran!” he told me.
I paused and looked down. Sometimes when I wear a dress, people ignore my fair coloring and assume I’m North African. Not that it matters, I suppose. Russian. North African.
I trailed Sad Lady into the language school–who knew she was going there too?!–and when I couldn’t get my questions answered at the front desk as I had hoped, I began to chat with her.
She was planning to test for English; I for Spanish. “Let’s meet for coffee to practice!” she said and we exchanged phone numbers.
The next evening, my neighbor and I were only a couple of blocks from home when we saw the drunkest person I have ever seen in Spain. He stumbled out of a salón de juegos and clambered on his bike. Both he and the bike splattered onto the sidewalk. He gave an unintelligible monologue at high decibels but appeared relatively undamaged.
Just a block later, a man bumped into my neighbor. “I’m sorry! I was looking over there while I was walking and didn’t see you!” he said while his arm gave an exaggerated swing in the direction of the park.
“No problem,” my neighbor said graciously. “It happens.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not a racist. And I’m not a thief. You have to be careful on the street. Hold your bag like this!” He tugged the strap of his man purse. Then he clasped his hands together, and gave a wobbly bow in mid-stride and began the same speech again.
And so we continued several blocks with his cycle of effervescent apologies and wobbly bowing.
My neighbor and I finally stopped at a store to let him get ahead of us.
“Well,” I sighed. “We’re only a few blocks from home. What else is going to happen? Should we go back?”
Hopscotch boxes drawn all of the way to 85, progressively lopsided from weary little hands.
I fell out of bed the other morning. I was freshly awake and rolled over, only to realize that during the night, I had perched myself on the edge of the bed. Fortunately, I caught myself with flailing limbs before I made a resounding boom on the downstairs neighbors’ ceiling.
Who needs caffeine? There’s nothing quite like tumbling out of bed for a delightful adrenaline rush.
A friend cried when I brought her a gift. We sat on the floor together just inside her front door while she fingered every item in the gift bag with grateful tears. Someone cared.
The safety of Grandma’s hand holding fast.
A house with crumbs and sticky that remind me that someone has honored me with their presence in my home.
A few months ago, I mentioned that I hoped to share with you some of what I learned while writing an essay on hospitality. In May, a day trip to a mountain town with my neighbor’s family jogged my memory. My memory continued to jog, but only in place as the busyness of June took over.
Now here I am at last with my hospitality essay at my side. But my mind keeps returning to that mountain town…
As I sprawled out on the little sister’s bed during siesta time, my eyes roamed the room, spotting things stashed here and there. A rickety binder that looked as if it had been tossed on top of the wardrobe and promptly forgotten. Broken drawers in a dresser decorated with childish markers. An abandoned attempt at decor.
The untidiness spoke of things not cared for.
Yet there I was, a stranger to the family, welcomed into their home and offered a bed. Rather than buy expensive things and focus on protecting them from harm, this family created a space that said people mattered more.
The women set up a chair in the narrow kitchen doorway for me to sit and hold the baby and then spent the evening tripping over me as they bustled about. And they didn’t mind.
As we finished dinner around midnight, a deep weariness came over me as I looked around at the pile of people in the living room. As soon as they left, the cleanup would need to begin.
And then they left, and rather than being overwhelmingly dirty, the house looked almost clean. As I helped to stack the green plastic chairs and fluff the postage stamp pillows, I wondered why.
It was as if the people who had been in the room were the only decor. The room was serviceable not beautiful, because the emphasis was on the relationships of those who gathered rather than the things they gathered around.
I don’t believe that hospitality and taking care of things are mutually exclusive. However, coming from a culture that often values possessions more than relationships, I appreciate the reminder to engage the relational side of hospitality.
Oops. I’ve been rather long-winded and I haven’t even started my essay summary. Maybe next week? 🙂
I weathered another round of what I assumed to be food poisoning. Tired of hanging out in the bathroom, I put on a brave face to hostess visitors, babysit, teach an English class, and drop by the neighbor’s with a plate of crepes.
But when holes were poked in my food poisoning theory, suddenly my bright shades of resiliency and selflessness took on a contaminated hue.
I had been so sure I could trace it back to those fried sardines…
I took a too-late day of quarantine to keep me from infecting the rest of the world. The next morning I dropped by the post office and the grocery store. On the way home, I noticed I was being dogged by the persistent admirer who, after a clarifying encounter months earlier, had vanished from my life. Until now. And there he was, looking bigger, older, and maybe even a little more unhinged than the last time I had seen him.
My intention to weave myself into this community’s tapestry put me in his way. Or maybe he put himself in my way. Or maybe we’re simply two clashing fibers woven side by side, which is bound to happen now and then in every community. Just wishing him away rather than confronting him probably was never the answer.
Why do best intentions sometimes sour?
My recent decision in the best interest of all turned out to be in the best interest of none… and involved a fair amount of straightening out.
I suppose it’s fanciful to believe that sacrifice can validate decisions. Still, why do some of the decisions we make, even at our own expense, turn out to be the wrong ones?
Maybe it’s because we don’t understand the big picture. Or because our decisions are not the only decisions affecting lives.
When we take a spill on our good intention bicycle, the true measure of resiliency and selflessness may be found in our ability to stand up, gently brush the gravel from the crevices of our knees and continue on our way.
And be grateful when others forgive our mistakes and miscalculations.
And thank God for the neighborly shopkeeper who is standing in his doorway to watch us safely home.
Recently, I read through the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke focus on what Jesus did and said, John focuses on who He was. As I read John, I began underlining references to Jesus’ deity. A lot of people proclaimed that He was the Son of God. Although we have no record that Jesus said, “I am the Son of God,” His references to His own deity (e.g. being one with the Father) were enough to make His accusers say at His trial, “…he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (Jn. 19:7).
Ramadan was a socially slow month for me. Even though I wasn’t fasting, most of my friends were. So I decided to prayer walk the streets of Mytown. All of them. “How hard can this be?” I wondered.
One neighborhood’s streets wound around and around, making it impossible not to circle back again and again past those same elderly men on the park bench or that delivery man slowly unloading at the café door. I told a friend I should fill up my market cart with junk and haul it with me because then onlookers would have a mental box to put me in! Alas, I did not finish this project during Ramadan, but I’m at 198 kilometers and counting!
I took advantage of the quieter days to get ahead in planning English lessons. I’m finally one whole unit ahead. Plus, I’ve added “work on curriculum” to my weekly schedule. Not that it wasn’t there before, but this time the rule is that I can’t gleefully erase it each week.
My sister and I have been doing a writing challenge. Writing is another one of those things that is easy to erase from my weekly schedule. But it feels more important with accountability. This year, I’m also attempting to help write a VBS curriculum which mostly leaves me feeling very, very green.
One Saturday, I scoured my shower with an abrasive powder and simultaneously inhaled the powerful aroma of the toilet bowl cleaner. Dizzily, I wondered if there was a better way to clean my house. I began researching and testing. Do these DIY cleaners actually work? Time and grime will tell. Although research shows that the DIY ingredients are less harsh than typical cleaners, I still have nightmares of peeled laminate flooring and warped countertops.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Perhaps I wasn’t contemptuous yet, but I felt the constant pressure to dedicate unreasonable chunks of time to a friend, even when I had many other things to do. She wasn’t respecting my boundaries and I was worn out and indignant. Then I realized that I was the one who had stopped enforcing my own boundaries. I had pretended to be more flexible than I was. Essentially, I told her that I was always at her disposal and she believed it.
So, I’m back to square one with this boundary thing, and the times we’re together are farther apart but more enjoyable because we manage miss each other on the off days. 🙂
These are the less social bits of what has been happening recently. I could drone on, but I’m tired of writing, and you’re probably tired of reading. So what’s been happening in your life recently?
Hindsight is not 20/20. At least mine isn’t, especially my hindsight of past conversations. My hindsight compiles a list of things I should have said and didn’t or shouldn’t have said and did.
“I should have invited her up for tea when she asked if this was my street.”
“I should have complimented her on how nice she looked; I noticed she made an effort.”
“I shouldn’t have made that comment about Islam.”
That’s what I focus on. How I should have made better use of the conversation. As I turn with a finger poised to shake at the past me, my hindsight narrows to tunnel vision.
Because, more often than not, I’m forgetting the other factors involved.
It could be that I already had plans with a neighbor and only when the other plans were canceled did I remember the interaction on the street.
It could be that our interaction at the noisy gathering was so brief that I only had time to ask her about the exams she had been studying for when I last saw her.
It could be that after my friends spent twenty minutes complaining about Muslim men, they ganged up on me to marry me off. And I made that split second decision to speak directly rather than lose the moment in the rush of conversation by taking the time to formulate an indirect response.
I want to learn from my mistakes. However, when I get analytical about what was said or not said, I need to pause long enough to remember the other factors involved: the distractions, the mind noise, the body language of the other person, etc.
Then slowly, a shameful, paralyzing memory is seasoned with grace. Only then can I step forward because remembering truthfully is the best way to learn from mistakes.
Nobody told me “Welcome to Mytown.” I had to interpret their welcome in other ways.
Most don’t seem to know in which box to put me. So they gawk. Is this some weird North African-Spanish hybrid? Romanian? Russian? In small-town Immigrantville, people knew where I belonged, but in Mytown, a larger city, they don’t.
Sometimes, I enjoy shocking people. Once, I walked into a halal butcher shop and greeted the owner in Arabic. He began a lively exchange, incredulously. Arabs are varied enough that though light complexions are not common, neither are they impossible. Sometimes Arabs just assume I’m a rare breed of themselves. “Syrian? Palestinian?”
But other times, people can be downright rude. While I was waiting at the bus station with an Asian friend, a man sauntered over. He deliberately stopped in front of us but said nothing, just eavesdropped. After my friend left, he and two of his buddies approached me.
“Where are you going?”
“Where are you from?”
“Where is your friend from?”
And then, “What you don’t find in Mytown!” as if I, apparently a freak of geography, weren’t standing right in front of them.
Once, I stopped by the café next door to drop off something for the owner. My unanticipated entrance startled the old men circling tables of dominoes. As I walked out only seconds later, the rowdy conversation had ceased. The only sound was the clink, clink of dominoes.
Although I still don’t know them well, my neighbors have been fabulous (except one), offering to help me with things, greeting me on the streets, holding doors open for me, and so on. One gave me a watermelon when I happened upon him rolling watermelons to the front door.
“You want watermelon? You have a family? Children? Take some!”
I imagined myself rolling little watermelons through the front door to the elevator like he was doing. “Thank you. Just one.”
“Just put it over there,” he suggested, probably because he didn’t want me squeezing into the elevator with him and the watermelons that wobbled around his feet. “No one will take it,” he assured me.
I balanced my watermelon on top of the apartment mailboxes, confident that he was right. We were both wrong and I never saw my watermelon again. But that same night, a neighbor asked me to drop by and pick up some sweets she had made me. Those fried balls of dough dripping with honey were sweeter than the watermelon in more ways than one.
My acclimation to Mytown is taking longer than I had anticipated. When I mentioned this to a woman at the bus station, she peered at me over her glasses and explained that I shouldn’t just be friendly to everyone I meet because there is no reason to trust them. You have to grow your friend base slowly and carefully, she said.
If this is how people think, no wonder they greet my persistent friendliness with suspicious stares!
Then, still watching me over her glasses, the woman said, “I’ve been living in Murcia for 16 years and I still haven’t grown used to it.” Well then, I guess 3 months isn’t so bad.
Today you get bullets because that’s how my thoughts are arriving. After most of a day buried in a textbook, my brain is sore. There are big things happening in life right now, probably for both of us. But today, I’m bulleting the little things, the things that fall between the cracks of the bigger things because they don’t announce themselves but wait to be noticed.
- There is a plant store nearby with inexpensive little green things. My pots and plants were a little like chips and salsa– too many pots, oops! too many plants, oops! and so on– until the day I walked past the plant store and the shopkeeper greeted me like an old friend. That was my wake up call.
- The first tray of cookies I put in my convection oven, I grilled. I couldn’t find the user’s manual in my landlord’s things until the first singed round emerged.
- I passed out cookies to my neighbors, my heart pounding all of the way to my toes. It was thrilling in the sense that I had no idea who would open the door– man, woman, child and what nationality– what their response would be, or if they would have a frothing rottweiler at their side.
- A shopkeeper glowed when I asked him a question in Arabic and rattled off something that started with, “You understand Arabic!. I thought…” He rattled on for another paragraph before noting my blank expression.
- Two long-time friends visited me in my new apartment, and reclined on those couches that were meant for dear friends to recline upon.
- I found cookie butter at my local Día!!! (I just found it. I haven’t bought it… yet).
- Meanwhile, I discovered that the post office no longer carries stamps to the U.S. of A. How does this happen, Spain?
- My old roommate and I accidentally spent some time wandering the beautiful old streets of Almería while trying to find a shortcut.
- I have found local places to charge my bus card, charge my phone, send letters, withdraw money, buy quality light bulbs, and make photocopies and print. It’s small, but so much new takes time.
- I have spent a lot of time trying to track down why my bathroom smells like drain all of the time. Either it’s going away, or I have a head cold coming on, or I’ve stopped noticing because I’ve started smelling like it too.
- This week, I bought too much fabric at the market. I knew it was too much when the vendor threw in another piece just because. “Un regalo,” he said. Now, to find time to pull out my sewing machine…
- On my way home one afternoon, a young man stepped into my path. He wore a towering chef’s hat like he had stepped right out of Ratatouille. “Excuse me!” he said and I paused to look into his wide-eyed, breathless face. “Do you know where I can find a Chinese store that sells white wine vinegar?” After I apologized that I didn’t, he went on his way, even more panicked than before. And I can’t help but wonder if I misunderstood him…
I’m unfashionably lounging in gray socks and flip-flops (as if I didn’t have fuzzy slippers in the next room). The next door neighbors are thick in their nightly shouting match and I’m using Yiruma to drown them out (not working). And my bullety brain is ready to shut down for the evening. Buenas noches a todos. 🙂