A few more thoughts on hospitality

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? 🙂

With the best of intentions

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.


Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

Reading, writing, and Ramadan: What’s been happening recently

#1

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). 

#2

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!

#3

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. 

#4

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.

#5

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.

#6

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

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.


Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

Welcome to Mytown

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.

The “little” of what’s happening

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. 🙂

War and journey

Someone was telling me about his 100-year-old grandmother who has lived through myriad wars, including the Spanish Civil War when neighbors became traitors. This grandmother was identified as republican and the family was sent away. When they returned, neighbors were using the family possessions. She could hear their heirloom steel mortar and pestle next door and see their sheets waving on the neighbor’s lines. 

“If you’re not for me, you’re against me.” It’s no wonder they hid in their houses and trusted no one. And these were the lucky ones: the ones that survived.

Can this nation ever heal? An acquaintance thinks it will take only a few more generations, when those who lived through the Civil War and the Franco era are no longer around.

But sometimes, I look at the elderly and wonder: What were their lives like? What have they seen and experienced? And in what ways have these dear people passed the searing baton of their pain to the next generation? 

How can we expect a country to recover in only one or two generations? Healing takes time. When we try to rush it, it doesn’t happen at all. That’s true for my country where we still see the effects of slavery, if no longer in laws, then in hearts. Pain like that doesn’t heal just because we tell it to or because we ignore it. 

That’s true for me, someone who would like to be a perfect Christian, but finds herself wallowing in pain and besetting sins year after year. 

Although our Savior is the one who “knew no sin,” don’t forget that He became sin for our sake (2 Cor. 5:21). Yes, and He is delighted to travel the healing road with us, shaping us into His likeness and loving us even in the moments we least resemble Him.

Our lives will never be painless nor will we ever be perfect no matter how many years we live… that is, until years no longer count. So keep journeying, but have patience with yourself today, because He does.


Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

Summer nights

It was a special night, not because of what happened but because it was. After a day of suffering inside a hot house like the rest of the town’s population, Friend #1 invited me for an afternoon coffee. When the 8:00 bus didn’t come, I started walking.

Meanwhile, Friend #2 spotted me along the boulevard and made her husband stop the car so she could dash across the crosswalk for an overdue chat.

Friend #1 opted to meet me in the park, laden with bghrir and harcha just because they’re my favorites. While we waited for other friends to join us, she complained that she had too many friends. Indeed, it took a good part of the evening just to meet up with everyone.

They talked. I mostly let the conversation swirl around me as I enjoyed the night coolness.

Then Friend #1 quietly told Friend #3 something about me. I tuned in at the sound of my name. “What did I do?”

She laughed. “I should give you another name, so you won’t know when we’re talking about you!”

“Shame on you. Don’t say that!” said Friend #3.

“I can say that to her because we’re friends.”

Although it was after 11, I stopped by the North African grocer on my way home. The clerk barely looked up from the phone teetered against the licorice containers on the high counter.

“It’s Barcelona,” he explained when I finally caught his eye. “Are you بارصاوية?” (Barsawia, or a way to ask “Are you a Barcelona soccer fan?”)

“No. Not at all. I am me.” But I smiled as I set my avocado and hot pepper on his produce scale. At the next break, he grabbed the cilantro from the fridge and gave me my total bill. But he forgot to give me the change.

As I finished the walk home in the dark, I heard someone’s shade rattle. Up or down I couldn’t tell. Mine always goes up at night to usher the fresh air inside. The neighbor’s cats crouched to flee before me, but didn’t. Their alert tails pressed the tile sidewalk.

These are the nights I’ll miss. Last summer was full of them. But this summer–tomorrow–I’m leaving for the States. My summer will be a different kind of full, but I know there will be special days–the kind that are not special because of what happened but special because they happened.


Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

A different world: another quick update

Besides deliveries, the doorbell has rung only once or twice since March 15. Last night, it rang.

I answered the door. The neighbor girl beamed up at me, her fuzzy pigtails sticking straight out from her head: a North African Pippi Longstocking. Adorable. 

“This is for you. My mom made it.” She thrust out a plate with two orange wedges of dessert, probably on the menu for the night’s breaking of the fast. 

She continued to beam while we chatted. Last week, when I took chocolate cupcakes to her door, she gasped and did a little dance. Now she was delighting my day as I had delighted hers. That’s why she was beaming.

Indeed, it was delightful to chat with her before she marched across the hall with a cheerful “¡Adiós!”

This morning, the world feels different than it has in months. There was abundant life.  And cars everywhere. I was hesitant to make them stop for me at the crosswalks… or, if I’m honest, maybe partially afraid that they were out of practice stopping for pedestrians.

Many businesses are back, not to full capacity, but back. I grinned as I passed a café. Andalusians are loud when they’re in a pile. Now imagine them sitting several meters apart in the cafés. 

But the throbbing of their voices is the heartbeat of a town that’s beginning to live again.

Together and separate: a quick update

It was almost 11 p.m. on Saturday evening. 

Below me rang voices of a family celebrating the close of a day long fast. Day 2 of Ramadan. 

Beside them was the bouncing of a hollow ball against concrete walls and ceiling and the laughter from a family typically strained, but not tonight.

Beside me, just across the thin wall I heard the steady swish of a paint roller in time with thumping background music. 

This is Spain during lockdown where we all do life so close together and yet so separately. 

Spain is slightly smaller than the state of Texas, although much more populated. There have been 223,759 reported cases as I write this and 22,902 deaths. Are the news reports exaggerated? Possibly. It’s not my place to make uneducated calls. What I do know is that the level of news validity doesn’t ease the pain or fear of the sick and their families. For this, the nation mourns. 

Simultaneously, we are tired of our houses. Part of me loves the quiet aloneness, but the other part of me is starving for any kind of human interaction. I am tired of staring at screens; regardless, they are my main connection to the outside world. Sometimes, I think I’m going crazy, not from boredom but from being with myself and no one else for too long. 

Maybe that’s not such a strange place to be after 6 whole weeks at home and 2 more to go. 

As I write this on Sunday morning, I hear a few children pass by on the street below. Today is the first day that children are allowed to go outside for 1 whole hour. We’re grateful that the most deprived (and most energetic) demographic has a chance to get some outside air in their lungs. Their voices bring delicious life to our neighborhood. (A friend laughingly offered to loan me one of her daughters so I would have an excuse to get out too!)

And this evening, maybe I’ll see a few neighbors when the neighborhood steps out on their balconies and roofs to applaud healthcare workers and listen to our local violinist.