With the best of intentions

I weathered another round of what I assumed to be food poisoning. Tired of hanging out in the bathroom, I put on a brave face to hostess visitors, babysit, teach an English class, and drop by the neighbor’s with a plate of crepes.

But when holes were poked in my food poisoning theory, suddenly my bright shades of resiliency and selflessness took on a contaminated hue.

I had been so sure I could trace it back to those fried sardines…

I took a too-late day of quarantine to keep me from infecting the rest of the world. The next morning I dropped by the post office and the grocery store. On the way home, I noticed I was being dogged by the persistent admirer who, after a clarifying encounter months earlier, had vanished from my life. Until now. And there he was, looking bigger, older, and maybe even a little more unhinged than the last time I had seen him.

My intention to weave myself into this community’s tapestry put me in his way. Or maybe he put himself in my way. Or maybe we’re simply two clashing fibers woven side by side, which is bound to happen now and then in every community. Just wishing him away rather than confronting him probably was never the answer.

Why do best intentions sometimes sour?

My recent decision in the best interest of all turned out to be in the best interest of none… and involved a fair amount of straightening out.

I suppose it’s fanciful to believe that sacrifice can validate decisions. Still, why do some of the decisions we make, even at our own expense, turn out to be the wrong ones?

Maybe it’s because we don’t understand the big picture. Or because our decisions are not the only decisions affecting lives.

When we take a spill on our good intention bicycle, the true measure of resiliency and selflessness may be found in our ability to stand up, gently brush the gravel from the crevices of our knees and continue on our way.

And be grateful when others forgive our mistakes and miscalculations.

And thank God for the neighborly shopkeeper who is standing in his doorway to watch us safely home.


Photo by Dmitrii Vaccinium on Unsplash

The romance of sickness

Why is it that when we’re well, we have romantic thoughts of being sick?

I can’t be the only one who pictures herself curled up with a blanket and a cup of tea, graciously texting regrets to everything on her schedule.

But today, I sprawl on my grimy sheets, trumpeting through my nose and tossing tissues over the side of the bed that land splut, splut, splut on the laminate flooring.

Of course, in my imagination, I busy myself with natural remedies that help my body heal, leaving it just enough sick to stay home from everything I don’t want to face. In reality, I dubiously rub on some essential oils and then fish around in my medicine bag for ibuprofen and oh look! Vicks Vaporub! I tell my sister how I made myself bay leaf tea but don’t mention that I had coffee this morning because I’m getting tired of tea.

My ears ache. My teeth hurt. I think someone filled up my skull with over-steeped tea that burns the backs of my watering eyes. My nose, well, you could even say it glows.

As for reading a book… I tried and then read the news, got depressed, and took a toss-and-turn, HONK-splut nap.

So where is the romance of sickness?

It’s a real thing. It’s called quarantine, that beautiful time when you’ve been exposed to something dangerous and get to wear pajamas all day for a whole week until you effectively don’t get the illness after all.

So today–splut, splut–that’s what I’m holding out for. The “sickness” that dreams are made of. At least my dreams. When I have them. Between bouts of coughing and nose-blowing.

Reluctance and gratitude

9:30. All I wanted to do was get ready for bed and curl up with a book for an hour or two.

My phone buzzed. It was my friend: “My son is sick. I have to take him to the ER but I can’t go alone.”

“He’s sick? What does he have?” My mind was spinning with ways to get out of her indirect request. I’d had enough experiences with friends using the ER for an easy prescription for medication. Queasy stomachs, aching wrists, stuffy noses.

“He’s had diarrhea since yesterday. That is not good at all. It takes all of the liquids out of his body.”

I imagined myself tromping 40 minutes across town to sit in the stuffy ER full of others with similarly unimpressive diseases. I didn’t want to.

“Is he drinking water? Does he have a fever?”

“Yes, a lot of water like usual. No fever.”

It was sounding less serious, admittedly. But what kind of a friend was I? This friend was a first time mother, hours away from her own mother’s wealth of experience and advice. And her husband was less than helpful on most matters. She just needed someone to walk with her. So it was decided: for the sake of this relationship, I should slay my desire for relaxation!

I groaned. I know I did. And probably more than once. After a long day, this felt more like drama than reality.

Soon another message arrived. She was going to pharmacy instead. (Had she sensed my reluctance?) If it got worse, she would let me know.

“Let me know when you know more. Meanwhile, I’ll pray for him,” I told her, still wondering if I should be putting on sneakers instead of pajamas.

She came back from the pharmacy with a syrup. We discussed the case a bit more and decided to wait and see how he was doing in the morning. The case seemed to be more of an excuse to overreact than a real danger.

Her parting comment was, “Thank you for always listening to me.”

Suddenly, I felt guilty. Even after my less-than-compassionate response, she had come back to thank me. Her gratitude shone a light in a dark corner of my heart. 

Of buses

Long, long ago, I posted about the preferred public transportation of North Africa here and here. I guess it’s time that I gave you a better picture of the public transportation available here in southern Spain.

Within the last month, I have had strangers approach me at the bus stop to ask about bus schedules or destinations. I began to wonder if, somewhere along the line, I have become an expert of the local bus system. Or perhaps I simply radiate confidence as I perch myself on a grimy bus stop seat and become so engrossed in a book that a driver has to honk to make me notice the looming bus. (Really, that has happened only once.)

I used to be the one asking the “When does the bus come?” questions as I waited, peering down the street for the bus that must have already gone.

Well, I have learned a lot in the last year and a half, considering I knew nothing when I arrived: 

  • Buses prefer to be on time but usually come late, on rare occasions come early, and once in a while, don’t come at all.
  • There are certain bus drivers who let you disembark using the front door despite the sign above their heads that say “Disembark at the back door only.”
  • Going through tourist towns always warrant long stops for confused adults double checking that they’re on the right bus and counting out exact change.
  • Women bus drivers are scarier than men drivers. I’m not a fan of women driver stereotypes, but don’t remind me of that when I’m furiously crunching peppermints as we careen through roundabouts without slowing down and whiz down narrow roads lined with terrified pedestrians.

There are days I arrive late for appointments because of a late bus. Once, I missed my bus by one minute, arriving just in time to watch it pull out of the station. Passengers with glazed eyes stared out the windows, already settling into the dry boredom of public transportation. (I had to wait an hour for the next bus.) 

But bus rides cannot always be described as boring. I witnessed a yelling match between a passenger and a driver that ended with the driver threatening to call the police and the passenger calling him a– well, never mind what he called him.

Sometimes the smells–be it perfume or B.O.–are overwhelming and I pretend to rest my face in my scarf but really am just trying to coax myself to breathe.

One time, a man boarded the bus, his head wrapped tightly in a scarf. We didn’t have to wait long to discover why. Scratch! Scratch! Scratch! The furious scratching made me thankful for all of the passengers without lice.

I often meet up with someone I know who is taking the same bus.  I’ve bounced babies, played peekaboo, and given a mini English lesson.

I have also met some interesting people, struck up conversations with women, and fielded those invasive “are you married?” questions from men I would rather not meet. Once, I even got a bag of dripping fish plopped on my lap. Read about that here.  

But overall, when nothing is required of me, I offer nothing and just admire the scenery bouncing by the window.  I have spend hours and hours staring at the sea of white plastic of greenhouses and then the sea of blue blue blue Mediterranean. One time, I even saw dolphins.

And really, who can complain about public transportation with a view like that?

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.

Giving thanks

Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family just before moving to Spain. That seems so long ago. Much more than a year.

And I’ve accumulated more than a year’s worth of things for which to be thankful.

The year has been very good and very hard. But sometimes, the hard is what makes us thankful.

This year, I spent our Thanksgiving celebration bundled up in my bed with a head cold. It made me thankful for the health I take for granted most of the year. Crazy busy days make me thankful for alone ones. Residence visa struggles make me thankful to have a week left on last year’s visa.

I have not arrived at “counting it all joy” when trials come (James 1:2), but facing trials helps me see my own unthankfulness before a God who has given me His life.

So today my headcold and I have started counting a few blessings:

three young children in wagon
illinois cornfields
bride and groom with sunflower bouquet
silhouette of two women

Birth certificates and cookie crumbs

It took 45 minutes to walk to town hall. Naima had told me she would meet me there. She was so slow in coming that I almost gave up. But it was a pleasant morning. There was shade and a nice breeze.

Suddenly she appeared, three children in tow. Only Curly Top, the littlest, was her own; the older two belonged to a neighbor. The younger neighbor girl gave me a grin so big that it took up the bottom half of her face.

Naima had tried to call me to change the meeting place, but I hadn’t answered, she said. We left it at that and walked together to a little building on the end of town.

“What do you need here?” I was the designated interpreter. But that could only happen if I understood what I was supposed to interpret. Naima tried to type the unknown Arabic word into my translator, but didn’t know how to spell it.

We entered the building, just large enough for a few offices that didn’t look strikingly official.  A sign said to ask for a number, so I snagged a wandering employee. “A number please?” By the time he found a number and brought it to me, it was my turn.

But I still didn’t know what Naima needed.

I sat across from a gruff man at a desk. “What do you need?” His voice matched his expression.

“I don’t know.” I handed him my friend’s family book and he paged through it.

“What do you need?” he asked again.

“My friend needs two of something for her daughter, but I don’t know the word in Arabic, so I don’t know what to say in Spanish. She is trying to call her husband now.”

The gruff features twisted. “A birth certificate?”

“Is that what you have here?”

“Yes, and that’s all we have for her daughter.”

So while he printed the documents, he asked if I was evangelical and then launched into a one-sided discussion about Mormons. Mormons?

BANG! went the rubber stamp. BANG! BANG! BANG! He signed the documents with such scribbled flourish that it may have looked more natural had he been using a crayon on a coloring page.

“Where are you from?”

“The United States.”

“Trump. A lot of people angry that he doesn’t like immigrants.”

I sighed. Yes, but didn’t every country have its problems and weren’t there any problems in Spain?

Another one-sided discussion ensued that gave me a vague sensation of having made my point. He walked me to the door, still talking, and watched our little gang leave the odd little office.

Naima invited me up to her flat where I tried to translate a medical questionnaire that dizzied my brain. Naima sat on the arm of the couch and swatted away the little girls when they reached for the papers in my lap.

“Is it normal for your child to have high fevers?”

“No. She only has fevers when she’s teething. Have lunch with us.” Naima got up to start lunch preparations.

I couldn’t, but thank you. Another time, Lord willing.

“In my culture, when a guest comes to my house it’s shameful not to give them any food.” Naima packed up a container of olives she had brought back from her country.

I joined her in the kitchen area and watched her carefully wrap the container of olives in a plastic bag.

Curly Top was walking around the floor on her knees, sprinkling bread and cookie crumbs wherever she went, like a miniature Hansel and Gretel. Big Smile was claiming ownership of everything that wasn’t hers—my bag, Curly Top’s toys, a plate of cookies. I watched as she carefully stuck her foot into a pair of Curly Top’s pants, only about 3 years too small.

Naima took me to the elevator, leaving the flat door wide open and crumby children sprinkled along the hallway. I hit “0” and the elevator door closed.

When a day starts, I never know what to expect. But I kinda like that.

Permanence

Barf bag? Check. Peppermint oil? Check. Ginger? Check. I wasn’t going to jeopardize the rest of the trip by getting sick on the first of my three flights.

Now for the distraction. I plugged in earbuds and cranked up Handel’s Messiah.

The plane taxied. The engines roared. And we were up, up, and away. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” boomed the bass soloist.

Forty-five minutes later, the wheels touched the runway. “Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the hiiiiiigh-eeeest!” the choir shrieked.

Amen. Flight #1 was done. But flight #2 was the doozy: Chicago to Madrid. I glazed over after hours of my seatmate’s flickering screen through my closed eyelids. When flight #3 came around, I couldn’t keep my eyes open during the safety demonstration but drifted to sleep on my seatmate’s arm.

Traveling to my new home took less than 24 hours, but it’s going to take me longer than that to adjust. As I walk the familiar streets, I’m continually surprised when I realize that I’m a Spanish resident, not just a visitor.

For years, I have been longing for a sense of permanence. Now I have it and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. Not yet.

But Someone in my life understands permanence better than I do. In fact, He has never changed. And He is the best part of the permanence in my life right now. “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27a)

What child is this?

“What child is this?” We sing the words of that Christmas carol every year as if we don’t know what Child “this” is.

Do we?

Is Jesus the sweet baby in the manger “no crying he makes”?

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”

(Matt. 25:35-36)

God’s greatest Gift to man didn’t stay in a manger. So let’s not pretend He’s still there.

“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

(Matt. 25:40)

Hot

I have spent most of my summers in humid Illinois, a few in Mexico, and last summer in Phoenix, Arizona. Yet, every time spring yields to an overpowering summer, the heat catches me off guard.

Sure there are ways to survive even without air conditioning. Here in North Africa, spray bottles, fans, popsicles,  and cold water bottles come to mind.

The sun hovers directly above the city and beats its rays into the vast stretches of concrete and tile. Don’t picture me lounging on lush green grass under a generous shade tree. If I reclined on the ground, I would probably fry like an egg. And most of the shade comes when the sun dips behind the concrete buildings.

I have little energy. Staying hydrated is a chore. Headaches are routine. Sometimes I’m even sick to my stomach.

Yet, this miserable heat brings out the camaraderie that wouldn’t be here if the weather were perfect. After the sun goes down, people unite on the streets, visiting, shopping, or just watching the world go by. The carefree atmosphere comes from the underlying sensation of “Whew! We survived another day together!”