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

Belonging where I thought I’d never be

Today marks a year in Mytown. One whole year. I baked cookies for my landlord this morning and she gawked at me. “One year already?” I’ve always been here, I think. And yet with every past event, why is there that conflicting perception of time? My years in North Africa and Immigrantville have faded into black and white mental photographs unless I pause long enough to remember them. 

Today, I paused over some ISU memories.

When I heard about the study abroad program in Andalusia, Spain, I wasn’t interested. I was heading to the southern border, not overseas. I tilted my college projects, volunteer hours, and self study toward my goal. 

Within my program, there was a clear divide between those who had studied abroad and those who had not, the “in” and “out” groups (as much as students are “in” and “out” at state universities). Those who had studied abroad re-lived their together memories and savored their “thaythayo” (what to the rest of us just sounded like a bad lisp).

Latin America was my first love and always will be. First loves don’t change. But they lose a bit of their potency when you fall in love again. And I have. This time, ironically, with Andalusia.

How did that even happen?

The other night, I met a Peruvian lady in the park. I delighted in her gentle Spanish and warm, generous culture. A year ago, that interaction would have stirred in me a longing for where I was not. But now?

I could spiritualize this. I could say that God has tuned my heart to contentment, even if my life isn’t what I had pictured. But that isn’t true, at least not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

My acceptance of where I am right now is more about familiarity, belonging.

Years ago, I found my place in Latino culture. I never planned to rupture that sense of familiarity, safety, and home. But then I moved to Andalusia where the blend of cultures in this huge immigrant community reinforced my outsider complex; it showed me my “un”– how un-Andalusian and how un-North African I was. How “un” everyone else around me.

But time marched on, as it usually does. I began to taste the many flavors of my community and realized that I simultaneously do and don’t fit in on account of my being different, just like everyone else. 

The blend of us–Spaniards, North Africans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Pakistanis, Russians, Romanians, South Americans, Chinese (to name the most prominent)–can be overwhelming sometimes, but each culture adds a subtle note that the community would miss were it not there.

On Sunday, three of us neighbors stood in a neighbor’s kitchen, chatting about our far away families. I belonged just as much as they did. And this belonging is my new familiarity.

No, my life is not what I had expected, but I can say that it is essentially what I had hoped for.

So today marks one year in Mytown and more than four years in Andalusia. I cradle this fragile bit of geographical belonging in my hands and am grateful. God has given me this earthly gift not to distract me from Him, but to direct me to His heart where I find belonging that will “belong” me no matter where I am in the world.

What I love about you, small boy

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.


Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

To thine own self be true: introverts overseas (part 2)

If you haven’t read Part 1, please do that before embarking on this ship of rambling thought.


Even after recognizing that I was equipped for my calling, I could not reconcile how I could be authentically me when much of my work required extroversion. We have all heard the mantra “Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do,” implying that those things are the best things after all, a sort of taking up of our ascetic cross. But is this the answer? Is long-term ignoring of self what God expects of me? And why would God call me to be someone He hadn’t created me to be?

Years ago, a friend recommended Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain. Cain claims that introverts need to take Shakespeare’s advice of “To thine own self be true.” In a culture or workplace that demands extroversion, that seems to leave only two options: become someone you aren’t or resign. In other words,  live a lie or remain inflexibly yourself. 

When I am inflexibly “true to self” in the context of ministry, I require those I am trying to serve to climb over the wall that I have been called to climb over, essentially boiling ministry down to my needs. Although I prefer to think of my personality inflexibility as “authenticity,” sometimes it’s plain old selfishness. Or worse, disobedience.

So what is the answer? I kept reading. Although Quiet is not written from a Christian perspective, I plugged away, chapter by chapter, hoping to find a ray of light. Then: lightbulb! Cain reconciled my Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde musings with one concept: the pseudo-self.

Introverts acting like someone they are not–what Cain calls acting within the “pseudo-self”–should not be labeled as inauthenticity when it is done “in the service of love or a professional calling” (Quiet, p. 210). When we see and serve the bigger picture, we can also see that acting within our pseudo-selves is a different form of being true to self.

For example, that introverted social advocate who occasionally needs to get loud and aggressive with her adversary is able to step into her pseudo-self because doing so serves the work she believes in. For me, it could be attending a North African party (I really hate those) to show my support for a friend. Or knocking on doors and passing out literature because–although I am quivering inside–I know my work contributes to the bigger vision.

As important as a pseudo-self may be, we introverts risk burnout unless we intentionally step back into our own skin and offer the world the gift of our introversion. Introverts and extroverts may have many of the same traits, but a few come more naturally for introverts. Most of us love deep relationships. We carve out time for reflection that helps our personal growth and our work performance. We’re okay with that behind-the-scenes work if it’s for a good cause. We are in tune to others’ feelings and adjust our approach accordingly. We attract the other introverts in whatever culture we live in, calling them forth with our quiet rather than plastering them to a wall with our charisma. 

This list is not exhaustive, of course. And of course, we have plenty of our weaknesses too. But I’m learning to notice my gifts instead of drooling over the fence on the green, extroverted grass. Because, really, for the sake of our callings there are times when both sides–introverts and extroverts–need to step over that fence and draw from the strengths of the other side.

Sure, I still sometimes wish I were an extrovert. And there are times I feel inauthentic when I run on adrenaline to act like one. But when I focus on God and what He has called me to, operating temporarily within my pseudo-self is not a display of hypocrisy, but an expression of love.

Note: Recently, A Life Overseas published a blog on the same topic. Apparently, I hadn’t been the only one who took almost a decade to get around to this book. Some of what I say in Part 1 and Part 2 overlaps with Craig Thompson’s post, but go there too, because it’s worth a read. 

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear from you! Maybe you would even like to guest blog a part 3…

Mi casa es tu casa

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.

Why I don’t understand white

While I was working my way through college, I cleaned a doctor’s mansion that needed this floor cleaned with vinegar and that one cleaned with mopping solution and the other one wiped dry, and well, yes. 

I hated cleaning (and still do), but I did it for the money, considering it a comfort issue rather than a class distinction. Then one day, I overheard the doctor telling her friend that she didn’t really need a cleaning lady but, “They need work.” 

They?

I’ve carried that with me for years as a reminder of the lines that people draw between “us” and “them.” The lines that I draw.

“I think I finally saw a little bit of what you see every day,” I told a Latino co-worker later that weekend. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember he acted embarrassed that I, a white middle-class American, even wanted to discuss discrimination.

How can I really understand white privilege when I’m living it? When I stepped out of my white world and moved to North Africa, I began to have an inkling of the disparity between white and other colors. North Africans love foreigners… Well, they loved me and I was white. Now, in a Spanish province chock-full of immigrants, I’m not blind to how immigration officials relax when they see my blue passport. 

“Are you looking for an apartment for you?” one realtor asked during my apartment hunt. “Because if it’s for an Arab, I have nothing.”

“It’s for me,” I assured him, startled by the blatant discrimination. What would it be like to taste rejection on account of my skin color or my nationality? I honestly had no idea.

The occasional Spaniard lumps me in with the North African crowd, and not in a good way. In those times, my blazing internal response runs along the lines of, “How dare they?! They don’t know me well enough to judge me!” 

True. They don’t. But my subconscious assumption is, “If they only knew who I was, they would treat me better than this.” If they only knew I was white because white deserves special treatment. 

How I hate that I subconsciously believe this! Yet, it’s not hard when it’s all I’ve ever known. 

I’ve been watching other immigrants and I wonder. While I am busy taking offense at any implication of discrimination, I see most Arabs and sub-Saharans accepting it as a matter of course. They’re used to being used and unwanted. 

I’m not. Has the special treatment of whites the world around made me more fragile, more threatened by opposition? I say this because I am weak, I am white, and I wonder.

Cuisine and pirates: what’s been happening recently

  • I decided it’s time to learn to cook the North African cuisine. I’ve put it off for years, learning things here and there, but always timid because of how unforgiving the culture can be with their own cuisine–“You used milk in your harcha?!” I don’t think like they do. I don’t grate my onions or peel my tomatoes. I don’t grab for the same spices. I don’t have the same cookware. But I’m trying. And my friends are delighted to train me. Although, truth be told, I still look up recipes, fusing my hands-on experience and American measurements. (Note: The photos below are of food made by friends who gave me cooking lessons.)
  • I finished editing Level 1, Units 1-2 of an English curriculum that I’ve been modifying for several years. I printed and bound the notebook (and now I feel positively published!), which will make for easy lesson prep in the future. Now, on to units 3-8…
  • One day, I asked my downstairs neighbor if I could pop in and play with her little boy. “I miss my nieces and nephews,” I explained. “Of course. Come.” Was her response. So we linked monkeys in a barrel and looked at books. He didn’t know what books were, supposing that they were just to be opened and closed. So I pulled him on my lap and pointed, “Blue hat, green hat…” Soon he was pointing too.
  • A teammate and I went to see a traveling pirate exhibit. It was interesting–horrifying, really. The barbarism was rooted in the understanding that a fight was a fight to the death. While eyeing the grubby wax figures, I couldn’t shake the realization that these people probably smelled worse than they looked. That oughta erase any of those romantic pirate notions for you! We topped off the day with saag and curry that is making my mouth water as I upload the picture.
  • We have been meeting new people as we pass out flyers in the settlements among the greenhouses. Way out there in the boonies, a man told me, “You’re from Immigrantville.” Apparently, we had both lived in the same town at one point. So maybe you can “dance like no one is watching” in the privacy of your own home, but never stroll down the street like no one is watching!

There has been much, much more that has been happening, but “time would fail me to tell” all that I could say, or what I should say on a public platform. So, I will end here and get back to work. 🙂

Lord of the shadows

Something about the book begs tears. I don’t know what it is exactly; there’s no paragraph or even chapter that particularly resonates. Perhaps it’s the undertone of sorrow mingled with hope in everyday sacred moments.

“God, where are you?” And I set aside the book and turn off the reading light to stare into the shadows of the 9:30 world. “Please meet me here.”

He does. And I have my own mingling of sorrow and hope. Of homesickness and gratitude. Of reluctance and awe. 

And, refusing to turn on the light, I stumble in the shadows to make a cup of tea, fumbling for the tea kettle and spilling leaves from the tea ball. Strawberry cream. I found it at the market today. It leaves a thick aftertaste of comfort although it’s new to my palate. I sip it from the robin’s egg mug I found while shopping with a new friend. The mug makes me think of her, this new friend full of intense questions ever since our first encounter.  She is working hard to please Allah. “Please meet her too.”

Down below, are voices. Arabic. I peek over the balcony to see two men and one woman leaving the nightclub next door. But no, only the men are leaving, caressing the woman’s hand in parting. “See you on Saturday,” they say. She tugs up her blouse neckline as she returns to that dark doorway that heaves its sweet and sick breath. “Oh God, please meet her there!”

With the light on, now I can see God was in the cooling rain this morning. In the huge, toothless smile from a friend’s husband who pretended to steal my market bag. In the husky greeting from a melancholy neighbor puffing a cigarette on the front stoop. In a phone call from a chatty acquaintance-turning-friend. In the final save of a document that took countless hours and headaches to create.

As I finish my cup of strawberry cream tea in the lamplight, the shadows have faded. But they lurk. There will always be shadows, I think. But even in the glow of the light, there is comfort knowing that He is Lord of the shadows too.

We must endure

“Pero que hacemos? Hay que aguantar.” But what do we do? We must endure.

The phrase caught me off-guard. I am used to hearing North Africans talk like that, especially if they throw in a “praiseGod” or dozen and shake their heads with wry smiles that say what their words don’t. And then their words do, but they are followed so closely with more resigned “praiseGod”s that it all feels more like a question mark rather than a confirmation of faith. But I am not used to hearing Spaniards talk with the same resignation. What happened?

Meanwhile, in America we clamor for platforms that offer unfiltered voice on topics we may or may not understand when, in fact, the world would be better off if most of us suffered from stage fright. 

Are these our only options? Resignation or dogmatism?

Almost every time I walk across town, some wanna-be graffiti slapped to the side of a décor shop catches my eye. “Queremos sentirnos vivas” We want to feel alive. It sounds like a cry, not to oppressors, not even to God, but just hurled into space from a spirit that wants more than resignation or dogmatism. It reminds me of another of another cry:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.

(Ex. 2:23-25)

Even though the cry was not to God, God heard and God knew. And He liberated His people. After this liberation, the following years in the desert were so hard that the ex-slaves began to daydream of life back in Egypt (Num. 11:5). God had promised a land flowing with milk and honey, but not yet.

Today as headlines continue to make history in ways we never would have chosen, we too are in that “not yet” pocket, basking in salvation (already) and looking forward to God’s promise of heaven (not yet).

What will choose in the meantime? Resignation or dogmatism?

Or life. Abundant life (Jn. 10:10). After all, we have a guarantee of our inheritance as heirs with Christ:

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

(Eph. 1:13)

We don’t just have to endure and parrot “praiseGod.” We don’t all have to share our opinions about every topic all the time (and resent those who disagree). We don’t even have to assign divine meaning to suffering.

Yes, hay que aguantar, but that is not all. Whatever “not yet” desert we are stumbling through today is not the end of our stories. And right here in the middle of the dry, we can sentirnos vivos because the gift of abundant life transcends our desert.

Spotted recently

A man in the front of the bus was deeply unsettled by a roaring conversation between a gypsy family and the bus driver. When the family got off, the man snarled about how loud and obnoxious they had been. (In truth, my nerves were a bit shattered too.) But the bus driver shrugged and instead of engaging in an argument, said, “That’s their way.” He, for one, was willing to roll with it.

Three women in brightly colored djellabas crowded around a fourth woman holding her large handicapped son in her lap. She spoon-fed him yogurt as he grinned at the women crowding around him. The women’s happy exclamations told him, in short, “We delight in you.”

In low tones, a new acquaintance assured me that even with multiple children with mental and physical disabilities, the last thing she wanted was people feeling sorry for her. When life got stressful, she danced. Literally. 

I was coming home, tired and worn. As I rounded the corner on my street, I heard a greeting… from above. I looked up and saw my neighbor’s fuzzy gray head peeking over the window sill. “I thought that was you!” she called cheerfully.

At the bus station, a demonstrative Spanish couple bid each other farewell with an exaggerated display of affection. The North African taxistas started shuffling their feet and darting glances at the walls and ceiling. Not part of either world, I just sat on my concrete bench and enjoyed the cultural clash. 

“I feel so alone,” my stooped neighbor told me, his eyes watery. His wife of many years had passed away suddenly and his loss was nearly unbearable. He couldn’t imagine life without the love of his life.

We all waited and waited and the bus driver fumed as the elderly man loaded his cart under the bus and carefully counted out his pennies for the bus fare. He stumbled into his seat, mask askew and tag peeking out from under his cap. And all I could see was that he was someone’s father. 

When I greeted a stranger on the street, she stopped and broke into a smile that spilled over the top of her lowered mask. Her cheerful conversation stunned me, even though I had been the initiator. Had I met her before? But no. Although most people are afraid to talk to strangers, it just turns out that there are a few friendly people in Mytown!


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash