“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.

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.

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?

It begins again

Today is the first day of Ramadan. Earlier this week, a friend told me that Ramadan is a time of growing close to God.

Whether or not her comment reflects her true goal during the obligatory month of fasting, there are many who are seeking God. And many are finding. Sometimes in ways they don’t expect.

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

(Jer. 29:13)

Pray that those who are seeking will find.

A Good Friday stroll

The Good Friday streets were quieter than normal. I plodded along, bracing myself against the wind.

When I was young—not more than ten—I overheard a conversation between my mom and her friend. The friend claimed that it always rained on Good Friday, even if it was just a little. Mom was politely dubious, but the statement impressed itself upon my impressionable mind. Did it really? Was God reminding us of the death of Jesus through a sky full of tears?

However, since this friend had revealed the fact after Good Friday, I had to wait an entire year to see if the statement were true. By then, I had forgotten about it. And I forgot the next year and the next until more than twenty years later, I still had never noted whether or not the rain dutifully came on Good Friday. Would it come to every part of the world if it indeed came at all? Would it come to Spain?

To be my age and wondering these things made me question my sanity. Why would I believe something that had neither Biblical nor meteorological basis?

I continued to walk, lost in rambling thoughts. My morning plans had been changed at the last minute, making me wish I had stayed in bed longer. But since I was up, I thought I might as well go for a stroll. My relaxed pace allowed a stooped, old man to zip around me. As he passed, I wondered what his story was.

Today the world was worth noticing: young voices pouring out of open cafés, elderly men congregating on park benches, a boy with a soccer ball. What did Easter mean to these people?

I wandered into my favorite café. “Coffee with milk?” The server asked before I had selected my chair.

“Thank you.” I smiled and pulled out my Kindle. I read, inhaling a fair amount of secondhand smoke and sipping my coffee from the sweet rim of my mug—I hadn’t used sugar and tried not to think too hard why the rim tasted sweet.

“One euro, guapa.” The server made change for my ten euro bill.

“Have a good Easter.” I smiled at her.

But would she? In Spain, the climax of Holy Week is the passion of Christ. That part of the holiday is celebrated and reenacted until resurrection Sunday is almost lost. Like their Jesus, did these people also keep their faith eternally nailed to the cross? Did they believe in victorious faith? Victorious life?

A dog trotted along a crosswalk, confident he owned the street. His owner followed a few paces behind.

The North African store was one of the only stores open on Good Friday. It bustled with limp produce, loud Arabic, and bodies that were busy making room for themselves in the small shop.

I dropped a euro on the floor as I paid for a few too-ripe tomatoes. The clerk gently smiled at my clumsiness. And then he switched from Spanish to Arabic to bid me farewell.

I greeted the mother of a lesser-known acquaintance and we walked home together in the powerful wind.

“I have laundry on our roof,” I told her as a gale threatened to carry us off like Mary Poppinses.

She had also hung her morning laundry on the roof, so at her street corner we said hasty goodbyes and rushed to rescue our scattered clothing.

It was afternoon when I opened my laptop to write an email. Outside my bedroom window, the clouds lowered over the mountains while the sky and the sea simultaneously turned gray. Then from somewhere came enough drops of rain to make me wonder, against all logic, if Mom’s friend had been right after all.


Photo by Anant Jain on Unsplash

Tips for surviving Spain- Part 2

Previously, my roommate and I compiled a list of a few hints to help you survive living in Spain (or just visiting us!). Click here to read part one. Below are a few more helpful hints…

  1. If you want American coffee, order an “americano” or you’ll get an espresso.
  2. Realize that alcohol is a big part of the culture. Social drinking is everyday life, but drunkenness is not (at least for most people).
  3. Never expect drink refills of any kind.
  4. Learn to ask your server for the bill. For some reason, giving a customer their bill isn’t a high priority. You almost may have to beg for it.
  5. Put your breath mints away. Having good breath isn’t as important in Spain. And Spaniards laugh at Americans for constantly freshening their breath.
  6. Beware of scammers. They aren’t limited to persistently calling your phone and tipping you off with a mispronunciation of your name. They may knock on your door with a fistful of official-looking documents.
  7. Don’t be surprised if the line between church and state is a bit blurred in Spain. More than 70% of Spaniards identify as Catholic. Even the schools teach religion, although there is often a variety of classes to choose from.
  8. When you forget a name, just guess. Many women have the name “María” somewhere in their name. Men often have “José” or “Juan.”
  9. Don’t assume that Mr. Smith’s wife is Mrs. Smith. Women don’t usually change their last names when they marry. And most Spaniards have two last names.
  10. Be aware that the word “husband” or “wife” is more inclusive than an official spouse. It might mean “partner.”
  11. When you visit the beach, prepare yourself to see more epidermis than you bargained for. In fact, you might be shocked by the billboards and TV commercials as well.
  12. Plan your laundry days with the weather. Most places don’t have dryers. And washing machines take longer to run a cycle.
  13. In the winter, dress warmly, even inside of the house… unless you’re running the oven while simultaneously doing aerobics.
  14. Keep your road rage in check. Apparently, double parking is permitted (and sometimes necessary). And street parking is still considered street parking as long as two of the wheels are on the street.
  15. Plan ahead. Public restrooms are hard to find.

Stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll find more things to add to our list!