The Half

You tell me I am half
Or maybe even less
When I don’t dream your dreams
Of how my life should be.
But while you count my flaws
And give advice, of course,
You are the one who’s half
By never knowing me.

I wrote this poem for one of the writing prompts my sister and I are doing this year. The inspiration? The countless North African women (and the few men) who have told me, whether directly or indirectly, that my worth is determined by my marital status and number of children.

But this poem is only part of the story. The sting of being under-appreciated for not ticking the “right” boxes has motivated me to find my worth in my Savior. I’m still learning; meanwhile, God has brought many others into my life who value me for being me.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The Last [of] Murcia (Day 3)

I didn’t bother getting up early. Not much was open on Sunday anyway. I spent some quiet time at home before heading out to the Santa Clara Museum.

tree-lined walkway

The museum was quiet except the creaky floorboards whenever anyone wandered overhead. Although it was small, there was a lot of a history in a building that over the centuries managed to be both an Arab palace and a convent.

I wandered and read and imagined and caught the persistent ringing of the bells for mass.

palace courtyard with pond
Museo de Santa Clara
arabic script engraved on stone

I climbed the stairs and traversed those squeaky floorboards to find displays of Catholic saints and relics. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up in the Catholic tradition, but I find the statues and porcelain figurines the things that nightmares are made of. Especially when walking through rows of them while all alone (and this time there wasn’t even a security guard following me).

The figure at the end of the hallway was life-size. I wondered what I’d do if she moved, an arm twitch or a roll of the eyes. I’d probably have a heart attack, I decided, and add to the horrors of the upstairs when an unlucky tourist would stumble over my body.

Some of the paintings were fascinating, though. The last supper with everyone sporting a halo except Judas Iscariot who hung out on the fringe of the painting, clutching the money bag. Or exiled Apostle John having strange visions right from the book of Revelation and writing them in his modern-day book.

painting of the book of Revelation
The apostle John writing down the Revelation of Jesus Christ

After much deliberation, I decided on a taco bar for lunch. A taco bar with pretty lame service. The server eventually got around to me as if the cafeteria were bustling with people, when in fact, there were only two tables.

I occupied myself by pretending that I was doing a sit-in during the civil rights era. But when my jamaica, homemade tamal, and taco arrived, I somehow wasn’t grumpy anymore. And, for the record, the server ended up being very friendly… just not speedy.

taco and jamaica

I had paid my Airbnb host to stay longer at the apartment, so I spent the afternoon lounging in the AC, soaking in the cool for as long as I possibly could.

When teammates picked me up, we headed out to the closure of a Rubik’s cube competition in a very hot gym that smelled like–well, I suppose like the combination of what we smelled like as individuals. I was amazed by how quickly the competitors–even the little people–could solve the cubes. (For the record, I have no clue how to solve a Rubik’s cube. On the ride to Murcia, I became the official mixer-upper for the others to solve.)

From the competition, we headed back to warm little coastal Mytown. Sure, I may be infatuated with Murcia, but I’m also glad to be back where I belong, air-conditioning or no.

theater between narrow street buildings

100% Murcia (Day 1)

Although August in Spain is not the best time to be a tourist, Murcia is a city I could easily fall in love with, even in August. You could argue that three days is hardly enough time to fall in love. And spending those three days almost exclusively downtown–only glimpsing the outlying barrios from the bus window–you could argue that I don’t even know her. So we’ll call it an infatuation.

I arrived in downtown Murcia close to three p.m., perfect time to check into my airbnb, eat lunch, and rest on the couch in front of the air conditioning. (Aaaah, what luxury to control the temperature!)

My apartment was within a few minutes of the cathedral and well, pretty much all of downtown. Downtown was full of churches. As the hour changed, bells sounded from every corner, clapping through the narrow streets. I stood, enchanted.

coffee shop interior

I parked in CaféLab, an utterly charming coffee shop. The aromatic ambiance made it hard to choose what I wanted–one of each? I finally opted for the mango smoothie.

cathedral façade

As a non-Catholic, I am fascinated by cathedrals, but I also find them a little creepy. Like, I didn’t come to church to see a mural of Saint Bartholomew being skinned alive. I toured the cathedral, reading the signs, staring at the statues and paintings of saints, and wondering what the cathedral builders would think if they saw all of us walking around in sneakers, snapping pictures.

fountain and flowers
Glorieta de España
statue of sardine half-submerged in water
Monumento al entierro de la sardina
boat under arched bridge, bus over arched bridge
Puente de los peligros

I walked along the river, enjoying the view and the parks I stumbled upon. Eventually, I rested on a bench to listen to the gentle clacking of loose bricks as feet passed over them.

birds on bridge
Pasarela Manterola
people walking across suspension bridge

Pasarela Manterola, a pedestrian suspension bridge, moved as we walked across it, just enough to make me wonder if my mango smoothie had made me tipsy–Am I imagining this mild motion sickness? A young man serenaded us with “Stand By Me” while ducks below fought over the bread crusts someone had tossed to them. When I peered over the railing, they eyed me expectantly.

“So darling! Darling! Staaaaand by me. Oh, stand by me…”

I strolled through the Paseo de Malecón and tried to snap a photo of red red roses that decided not to be photogenic in the blazing sunlight. And there was a catalpa tree with long beans dripping from it. I would have studied it more had a man not been lounging in its shade.

From there, I circle back to find the Arab walls. The smells began to overwhelm me in the way that they often do when I allow myself time to smell them. I smelled chwarmas before I passed the chwarma shop and then a spice that transported me the North African old medina. Shadows grew. Men with fat, unlit cigars dangling from their lips crossed my path.

Somehow, with a malfunctioning sense of direction, delayed maps app, and winding downtown streets, I ended up in Plaza Mayor instead of in front of the monumental Arab walls. There in the plaza, the silence was astonishing. Someone with squeaky shoes left squeaky echoes after she had disappeared around the corner. I just stood there and listened for long moments.

I made another attempt at the Arab walls. And another. At my third pass-by, I realized street work hid the walls from view and made them inaccessible. Apparently, the “open 24 hours” listing on my maps app doesn’t apply to August… or maybe I still didn’t find the right spot.

On my way back to the apartment, I crossed through Plaza de las Flores where everyone was in slow motion, eating an early dinner or meandering through the warm plaza. And me? Enough exploring for day one. I had an evening date with the air conditioning.

downtown street lined with brick buildings

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? 🙂

Getting ready for summer heat

Maybe you live in a climate-controlled house. But just in case you don’t, here are a few tips to beat the summer heat. These are ideas I picked up from summers in Mexico, Phoenix, North Africa, and Spain. Thank you to anyone who has contributed to this list over the years.

  • Keep the sun out of the house; shut the blinds.
  • Chill your water before drinking it (a no-brainer for North Americans).
  • Stay hydrated. Infuse that cold water with exciting things to keep you drinking. I learned about cucumbers in Phoenix.
  • Eat cold salads, smoothies, hummus, and fresh veggies.
  • Make popsicles or freeze yogurt for afternoon snacks.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible during the hottest parts of the day. Plan your adventures before the sun comes up or after it goes down.
  • Slip a flexible ice pack into a pillow case or towel and curl it around your neck or set your wrists on it. (I currently have three of these waiting in my freezer.)
  • Put your feet in a bucket of cold water. This was often my last resort when I lived in North Africa, those sizzling summer days when even thinking was impossible.
  • If you have a good water supply, shower multiple times a day–cold! If you’re too chicken to willingly shower cold, unplug your water heater. 🙂
  • Wash your hair often, or at least rinse it. In Phoenix, I came home dripping with sweat every day after class. Cold water over my head cooled me down to a liveable internal temperature.
  • Keep a spray bottle handy to spray yourself while you sit in front of a fan.
  • Wet your pajamas in the shower and wring them out before crawling into bed in front of a fan. (This worked for a decent night of sleep on those stuffy Mexican nights.)
  • Drape a wet towel over yourself at night.
  • Use a fan in the window overnight to bring in as much cool, night air in as you can. Cool air + fan white noise = decent night of summer sleep.

Have you tried some of these ideas? Do you have more ideas to add to the list? If so, leave them in the comments below!

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.