“He’s dying,” she says

"He's dying," she says,
As life seeps away
In voiceless submission
Of what it was taught,
Where death is unknown
And forever beckons
The judgment throne
Of a whimsical god.

The family huddles
To weep and recite
Then sit back and sigh,
"Alhamdulillah."

In the still kitchen
My face in my hands,
I plead for mercy
And hope big enough.

In the stillness is
Just the ticking clock:
Tock. Tock. Tock.

Signs of summer

It is starting to smell like summer outside. At street level, it’s sun-baked tile and rotting garbage. The air feels closer somehow and every scent is intensified. Even the nothing smells stronger.

Cars roar by with music pulsating through open windows. I even get a “howareyou?” from a car that stops as I cross the street.

Fireworks pop off and on all day long. I have long since stopped trying to see them. A sea breeze billows the curtain in the window. It feels almost fresh and cool when it’s not carrying the sun. In the distance, is the sleepy, tranquil sea.

Along with the first signs of summer comes Ramadan. It’s now week two. Ready or not, it’s here to stay. And I’m answering a lot of “Do you fast?” questions and trying not to eat or drink while I’m with friends. But I sampled an olive at the market the other day and didn’t remember until I was tossing away the pit that I was right beside the North African produce stand. (However, those were some of the best olives I have found yet and I don’t regret that I walked away with a container of them swimming in their brine.)

I am trying to convince myself that it’s too early to pull out the window fan. My summer wardrobe is already hanging in my closet. If I get out the fans, there will be no cooling technique to pull out of my pocket when the real heat comes. It’s only May, after all.

Just a normal day

There was still no glimmer of light between the slats of the blinds.

From the street below came the familiar creak of the neighbor’s metal garage door and the roar of the box truck. Greenhouse work doesn’t rest. A passing car dropped off noisy teenagers who were still on a high from their night-long partying.

It was like the morning exhaled and both happened.

I wrapped the covers over my head and tried to fall back asleep. Too late. Thoughts outside of dreamland had already kindled my consciousness:

  •    News from family.
  •    The Amazon order I just placed.
  •    The sense of standing on the brink of the unknown. And the accompanying senses of exhilaration and panic.
  •    The earthquake the other night that jostled me awake in a swaying bed.
  •    The moment when crying out to God for a definite answer, I only heard Him say, “You are my child.”
  •    I should get that birthday card written soon.

I finally crawled out of bed to welcome the morning with a steaming cup of coffee (special delivery from Nebraska). My quiet time was punctuated with an invitation to a spontaneous breakfast on the beach. Of course!

I caught a few moments of afternoon alone with David Copperfield and a nap long enough to let my body soak in the day off.

The evening brought what was supposed to be a literacy class. But when I arrived, alphabet flashcards in hand, my student and her neighbor were busy making shbekia.

I learned to roll out the speckled dough and run it through the press. I soaked the fried pieces in honey and picked pebbles out of sesame seeds. Literacy gave way to the urgency of Ramadan preparations.

One of the ladies went to pray. The other soon followed her. I was busy with the rolling pin when there was a burst of laughter. The first had recited her prayers facing the wrong way. She sighed, turned the rug toward Mecca, and started again.

We talked about prayer and food and family. And then a pair of women and a pair of children arrived.

One of the women was the female version of a man who had wanted to marry me. She had the same nose and the same intense eyes that sparkled but didn’t quite smile.

When they found out that I was an American to who spoke Arabic, one of them said, “Aaaah. She’s one that helps people.”

Thank you.

I played with the little girl while the women discussed which acne cream worked best for their teenagers, how many children was enough but not too many, how to make specialty Ramadan foods, and how the American prayed.

“She sits in a chair at the table and covers her head like this.” One of them made motion of draping a shawl over her head.

I smiled. “I can pray wherever I want. I can sit here and pray for you. Or I can bow down and pray. Or I can even pray while I am walking on the street.”

Blank faces stared back at me.

“God hears us no matter where we are.”

Yes, yes. That was true. And they all agreed and moved on to a discussion about their prophet.

The maghreb sounded. After a bit, I said my goodbyes and reluctantly took the proffered baggie of too-sweet shbekia.

I walked home in the dying light, smelling like old oil.

What’s been happening recently

A lot of time has passed since my trip to North Africa. Really, it feels like more than it was. Instead of trying to fill you in on all of the juicy details, here is a bullet list that might bring you sufficiently up to date:

  • Meeting a friend at the market to browse the various market stalls together and then walk back to her house for a relaxed visit. Recently, she told me I am a friend, not a guest.
  • Spending birthday/Christmas Kindle credit on books I had been drooling over for months.
  • Being stalked… and then protected by friends.
  • Post-Christmas candy-making and caroling.
  • New Year’s celebration complete with candles and fireworks.
  • Starting a hard copy recipe book that doesn’t include dusting my computer with flour every time I bake something.
  • A friend moving in about two blocks from our apartment which meant lots of pop-in visits at both my place and hers.
  • The same friend suddenly leaving town without any plans to return.
  • My Spanish teacher relocating to Madrid… resulting in my class being transferred to a teacher who uses “ustedes” instead of “vosotros.”
  • Crochet class morphing into knitting class against my will. (More on this later.)
  • Friends’ birthdays: small scale parties, a princess cake, and a photo shoot.
  • My friends’ children lighting up when they see me coming—it melts my auntie heart!
  • Blue Hat, Green Hat over and over again as dark, serious eyes soak it all in, even the title page.
  • A friend giving me two flowers she had planted at work. “No!” I cried, since I am a terrible plant keeper. “I’ll kill them!” “Look, you keep two and I’ll keep two and we’ll see whose dies on them first,” she said. The race is on. But, contrary to all reason, mine are BLOOMING!
  • Lots of book reading with children.
  • Helping a friend withdraw money from the ATM… an endeavor that had us laughing ourselves to tears.
  • Walking 45 minutes with a friend to the ER.
  • Anticipating visitors in March!!!
  • Lunch with a friend who started food preparations at 6:30 a.m. What an honor to be her guest!
  • Spending time with American teammates who belong to my culture and speak my language.
  • Trying out a few North African recipes, with moderate success.
  • Making copies at the African store down the street and being asked to run the copier myself since they were understaffed. I enjoyed watching customers’ eyes bulge when a pale face greeted them from behind the counter. The owner even gave me a discount because I had done the work myself.
  • Branching out a little with crochet patterns.
  • Attempting to grasp that God’s promises are for me and that my identity is, above all, a child of God.
  • Finishing up my visa paperwork! Lord willing, all that’s left is to pick up my residency card in March.

Would I do this trip again?: North Africa part 5

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

The last two nights of my North African sleep were interrupted by an unsettled rooster in a concrete courtyard just over the wall. At 4 a.m., I began to envision a warm bowl of rooster noodle soup. Just a room away, Erika was preparing to brandish her shiny knife set.

Despite the lack of sleep, Erika and I made chocolate cupcakes and took them to Arabic language school. We laughed with former teachers about old times and chatted about the present. Then I wandered home in the sunshine and stopped for a potato patty sandwich with extra hot sauce.

That evening, we ex-pats fellowshipped, telling stories, talking about our dreams, and praying.

Time was winding down quickly.

In the morning, I hauled my heavy-laden backpack to the airport taxi. As the traveling hours stretched ahead of me, I tried to wrap my mind around all that had happened: starting with the multiple trips to the Almería immigration office and ending with the bumpy bus ride home.

Unless I took time to process all of the joys and sorrows that had been packed into this tiny space of time, I would not experience the fullness of my trip.

And bouncing along in that bumpy bus, I kept returning to one question: If everything remained unchanged, would I do this trip again?

Definitely.

“There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well.”

(Nicholas Sparks)

Bargaining and boxing class: North Africa part 4

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

“Can I have your phone number?” The taxi driver didn’t waste much time.

When I explained why that wasn’t possible, he asked if I was a Muslim.

“No. I follow Jesus the Messiah.”

He pondered this through several streets of traffic. As he pulled up to the curb to drop me off, he spoke again, “You should read the Qur’an.”

I sighed. “I do read the Qur’an. You should read the Bible.”

He frowned and shook his head at me in the rearview mirror as I handed him the fare.

In light of his suggestion, my own suggestion had been logical. But apparently only to me. “Why not? Are you scared?” I punctuated my challenge with a cheerful goodbye and a hasty exit.

This morning was my morning to go shopping in the old city. The sights and smells of the old city had remained unchanged for centuries and had certainly not changed in the year and a half of my absence. There is a forever skirmish between fragrant and repulsive: baking bread, roasting chicken, urine, a blend of fresh spices, rotting fruit, soaps and perfumes, trash.

Rather than the narrow cobblestone streets accommodating their pedestrians, tourists and residents alike pressed in close to accommodate the streets.

“Where have you been?” several vendors called to me as I bustled along. Did they– could they?!— really remember me?

To my disappointment, I had forgotten how to bargain. No longer was it a matter of easy banter and good deals; it felt exhausting and cheap. Fortunately, shopping didn’t take long since I could only buy what would fit in my backpack between my clothes.

I caught a taxi to my friend’s neighborhood only to find that Khadija and her neighbor, Fusia, were out studying. They would be back soon, said Khadija’s niece. I sat in the salon, watching TV and wondering how my two eighty-year-old friends were doing in their studies.

Suddenly, the door opened and everyone piled into the apartment. There were hugs and greetings that came so fast that I could only repeat “Praise God” and laugh. Someone made tea. Another ran out to buy cookies. We talked and watched a Turkish soap opera until dark.

“I’ll walk with you,” Fusia said. She held my hand and led me along the street. “We’re going to go see my grandson. He will be sad if he doesn’t see you.”

What I didn’t realize was that her grandson’s boxing class did not allow interruptions. Two women screened everyone who entered, and one looked like she could flatten anyone who crossed her. I was making plans for a polite retreat when Fusia asked if her friend all of the way from Spain could just greet dear little Ali.

“Of course! Come with me!”

And so I interrupted the boxing class, a whole room full of gawking children and their annoyed instructor. Ali ran over to kiss me. His cheeks were pink. Mine may have been too.

Only after that, I was allowed to get a taxi and return home.

Words were more than just words: North Africa part 3

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Chaimae’s hug was long and tight, trying to make up for the year and a half of missed embraces. Her mother gave me the same hug. They led me into the salon, not the fancy one for guests, but the family salon that doubled as a bedroom. I wasn’t a guest; I was still family.

“Did you eat lunch?”

Chaimae fried fish and reheated chicken and potatoes already in a pot. We ate, talked about our families, and showed pictures from our time apart. Both mother and daughter were amazed that I remembered Arabic, or at least a semblance of it.

After the bread was patted into round loaves, Chaimae and I went for a stroll around the neighborhood. By the time we returned, the older brothers had arrived for afternoon tea.

It was after sipping cups of syrupy tea and eating mounds of oily bread that one of the brothers wiped his hands on the community napkin, leaned back against the couch, and pinned me with probing eyes. “Who is Jesus to you?”

I was ready.

The entire family listened as I shared. I listened as they shared. The conversation grew thick and loud. My face turned hot in animation. But their faces were hot too.

We discussed our differences and how our separate paths could not both be the path of God. Yet, beneath our disagreement was a profound respect for one another. We had known each other long enough now that words were more than just words; our words were what we had seen each other living and breathing.

And our words were as different as our lives.

Tea time blurred into dinner and more food appeared on the table, but no one seemed interested in another round of feasting.

My Arabic was worn out. So was the rest of me. When family members started to trickle out the door, I slipped into the kitchen to wash dishes. Chaimae made beds on the floor. She gave me a couch pillow so high that my neck immediately began to ache. I waited until the light was out to quietly set it aside.

Partway through the night, the light switched on.

“Chaimae! Chaimae! Wake up! Trish isn’t on her pillow!” They tucked the pillow under my kinked neck, and Chaimae’s mother tucked more blankets around me.

“It’s good that I slept in the room with you,” she told me after my interrupted night of sleep. “To take care of you.”

I smiled, hoping my expression reflected more of the endearment and less of the suffocation I was feeling.

After breakfast, they sent me to the taxi with enough tears to let me know I would be missed.

How do I love her?: North Africa part 2

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.

“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”

It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.

“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”

Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.

At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.

But all was not well.

The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.

Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.

As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.

More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.

Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.

The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.

In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?

A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.

“How do I love her?” she asked.

How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?

As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.

Welcome back: North Africa part 1

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

Nine hours to kill in the airport. I hunched over a Burger King coffee and read.

Traveling dehumanizes people. We turn into frantic, herded animals. Carrying our belongings with us everywhere: hanging over-stuffed carry-ons on wimpy bathroom stall hooks (and watching in helpless horror as a scarf or jacket slides to the floor), propping our feet on suitcases to pretend we’re relaxing when we’re really just looking out for our stuff, and even getting desperate enough to sprawl across the grimy airport carpet and rest our head on the knobby bulk of our backpack. I have done all of this, so I know. I also know about frozen water bottles and trying to eat my lunch before I check into an international flight… just in case they try to confiscate my hard-boiled eggs.

Seven hours on an overnight bus just to wait 9 hours in the airport. But I was feeling surprisingly human. A cup of coffee and a good book can do that, I guess.

A couple of hours later, I touched down in North Africa, only a little queasy. Not enough to use the handy baggie I was gripping. But just enough for the man across the aisle to eye me nervously.

I had the equivalent of $3.35 in my pocket when I emerged from the airport—not enough for a taxi. And the 40 cent bus was pulling away. I waited for an hour with a diverse crew of other penny-pinchers.

As the bus seats filled, I chatted with a young family that piled into one seat beside me. The 3 children were almost as charmed by me as I was by them.

“Auntie, how long are you here?” Ilyas, the oldest boy asked.
“Until Thursday.”
He was crushed. “So we won’t see you again? You won’t have time to visit us?”
“Ilyas.” His mother took him by the shoulder. “We have her here—” she tapped his heart. “And here—” she tapped his head.

When they got off the bus, someone rapped on the window behind me. Ilyas was there, grinning and waving his final goodbye.

Darkness had fallen by the time we reached the heart of the city. The landmarks had changed since I had lived there and it was hard to stay oriented in the dark. I missed my stop.

I jumped off at the next stop and walked, hoping to find a place to exchange my euros. But exchange stores had closed early this Saturday night. So had phone stores.

At random, I popped into a tiny store and asked the owner if he had any SIM cards. He pulled a box out of a dusty drawer and dug through it until he found one. He was scrawling my passport number on a scrap of notebook paper when I remembered I didn’t have enough of the local currency.

“No problem,” he assured me as I emptied my coin purse on the counter and offered to pay in euro.
“No problem. How much do you have?”
Together, we totaled $2.95—five cents short.
“No problem!”

Since he didn’t seem to care, I decided not to care either.

With my new number, I called my former roommate and made a beeline for her house. She wasn’t home yet, but had left the key with the upstairs neighbors. A short chat and a key later, I entered the apartment to find that I had been much anticipated.

Handwritten notes were stuck all over the house, guiding me to my bedroom, the shower, tea, and waiting food. After almost 24 hours in transit with very little sleep, such a welcome brought me near to tears.

Religious hurricane

The sweeping wind
of religious authority
scatters humanity
to drown in waters
of blind idolatry
of human effort.
Flailing arms
reach out to me.
Instead of “Save us!”
they cry, “Join us!
We have the truth!”
But why would I
search for truth
when I have found it?
Why would I
search for peace
when I am in
the eye of the storm?
And how can I rescue
those who want to drown?