The woman in the mirror

Who is that woman in the mirror staring back at me?

Glazed eyes from sorting through language notes all day. Almost in tears from how much there is still to learn and how does she start? Really start?

But enough of this not starting! Enough of unfinished projects in a burial heap in the cabinet! Because from now on, there won’t be projects to finish but a process to journey.

That’s what the woman in the mirror decided just now. Because it’s not all about what she doesn’t know, but also about what she does know. 

And she knows that studying two languages each week is hard and doesn’t always fit into her schedule. But she also knows that language learning is an act of worship because it is what God has called her to do.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Col. 3:17)

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m two people

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m two people. How can I feel so alive in a field of green with no one else around when I feel just as alive walking down the street of a busy little town?

The green grabs me and pulls me in to whisper, “And God said that it was good.” I see His hand in the great green and blue of creation.

But as I walk down the street in the middle of humanity, I hear the same words, “And God said that it was good.”

city street with blurred lights, burger king and fountain

Here in town, surrounded by manmade structures and, well, manmade everything, I long for the moments I can slip away and just be by myself with nature. Or even without nature. Sometimes, what I’m really longing for is anonymity where I can step out of my house without someone reporting it to someone else somewhere along the line. 

I’m a country girl at heart, but I know that should I ever move again to the country, even under that vast starry sky, I would miss the connection and relationship of the daily ins and outs with humans.

I would miss the Spanish pop blaring from someone’s front window that puts a spring in my step. I would miss the evening chamomile with a friend who has invited me into her inner circle. I would miss the cars that stop as I approach the crosswalk. And the store owners who ask how I’m doing because we’ve been around each other long enough to care. I would even miss that dog yapping at me just because I walked past. Or the neighbors drilling into their wall when I want to be sleeping. And that little boy greeting me as if he knew me and then turning to his friend and saying, “She’s the one who visits Khadija.”

It’s the living and breathing together that makes me aware of God’s Presence. But it’s also the furious ocean waves and the placid Midwestern cornfields that make me aware of Him. 

I can’t explain it. Except maybe to say that God’s Presence transcends our preferences and breathes life wherever we are.

(But I still sometimes wonder if I’m two people.)

Crocheting in Spanish

In October, I started something I never dreamed I would start: crochet class. Last semester, I always left the nun’s home directly after Spanish class. But this year, I carved a little more time out of my schedule for the second hour of craft class.

My first class, I forgot to bring yarn with me. I sat with the other ladies and we chatted in Spanish and Arabic as I unraveled a sweater to recycle the yarn.

“I’m better at undoing than doing,” I warned María, the nun in charge of the class.

That day, I went to the store and bought a ball of yarn and my very first crochet hook. I still was less than enamored with the idea of crochet, but I knew I would enjoy the fellowship with the ladies.

It turns out that the fellowship came at a pretty steep price for me: my pride.

I was usually ahead of the ladies in Spanish class, but this time, they were far beyond me. Even when we started on the same level of nothingness, they were crocheting in squares  by the second class. One show-off was even making a doily. I plugged away at my simple chain, class after class.

As a left-hander, I struggled to imitate instructions, especially since they came at me in rapid Andalusian. Not only that, but sitting in the courtyard made me vulnerable to anyone and everyone passing by on their way to class.

One moment, I would be wiggling my crochet hook through the invisible yarn triangle, and the next moment, my project would be whisked out of my hands and somebody else would take a shot at it. Or another would critique how I held my needle and try to teach me something new.

Once, an elderly nun came to teach me a stitch. A few minutes later, she came to check on me… only to be disappointed. “No, no, no! That’s not how you do it!”

I sighed and half-laughed to cover my frustration. “I think I need to practice in private.”

She backed away quickly. “Okay. Okay. You practice in private.”

I went home and watched youtube tutorials to no avail. I was a terrible crocheter.

One day, I went to the store and impulsively bought thicker yarn. (Maybe now I would be able to see what I was doing.)

I made a scarf. Success!

María proudly examined my work and told me that no one would even notice how I went from 13 squares to 12.

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.

Me and my fat, drippy plum

I was sitting on a kitchen stool, devouring a fat, drippy plum. “Wouldn’t this be a nice way to start a blog?” I thought and wished for inspiration to descend upon me. Something that would touch a spiritual or emotional vein. “I was sitting on a kitchen stool, devouring a fat, drippy plum when it suddenly occurred to me that…”

Instead, during a particularly juicy bite, I dropped the plum and it rolled across the neglected kitchen floor, gathering bits of lunch leftovers as it went. I picked it up, washed it off, and kept eating… and waiting for inspiration. But my mind strayed to menu ideas for cold main dishes and luscious salads.

And then I thought of how my last evening in Illinois was damp with just a smidgen of chill. We sat on the front porch and blew bubbles to delight my nephews. And how I didn’t want that night to end. Ever.

How pleased I was that my brother had married, but how melancholy I was at another evidence that life keeps changing. And we have to keep adjusting.

How hard it had been to leave Illinois, but how I had been ready to get back to Spain and what has become normal life for me.

How, more than once, I had accidentally referred to Spain as “home” which got confusing when I referred to Illinois as “home” in the same sentence.

How I had asked God to let the seat beside me be empty on my 8 hour flight over the Atlantic. I wanted to sleep. Instead, He placed a Palestinian man beside me. And we talked.

How after I had unpacked, I discovered an empty shelf in my tiny room. What a delight!

How timid I was to go out and buy groceries because my Spanish felt rusty and I knew that shopkeepers would ask about my trip. And how they did, but how I survived.

How 3 weeks was not enough time to catch up with family and friends and how the days had gone so hard and fast that they now seemed a lifetime ago as I sat on the kitchen stool and devoured my fat, drippy plum.

That’s what I thought about. Nothing profound or inspiring. Just life right now.

Spanish with the nuns

Buried in my neighborhood is a tiny green door that leads to a tiled courtyard full of vibrant plants. Charming little rooms surround the tiled courtyard, completing the charming little haven.

In one room, there is a set of five sewing machines. Four treadle. One electric.

In another room, there is a plastic table with accompanying plastic chairs and a rough blackboard.

This is a sewing and Spanish school for immigrants. It is managed by nuns. A friend brought me along to class one day to see if I could enroll.

The first time I met the nuns, I had to bend over at the waist to greet them with kisses on their dainty little faces. Only one seemed more than five feet tall. And not one of them was under seventy. Maybe eighty.

I was captivated. “Is it possible to sign up for Spanish class?” I gripped my friend’s elbow as I awaited the nuns’ answer.

It was possible. After Semana Santa, I officially enrolled for the final trimester of the school year. (And by officially enrolling, I mean that I jotted my information on a scrap of notebook paper.)

On the first day of class—a lesson of body parts vocabulary—the teacher chalked a stick figure on the board with a rectangular trunk. For good measure, she placed a few wild curls on the faceless head to classify the figure as “female.”

During class, the figure was blessed with a chalky esophagus. No other organ required equal visual explanation, so the figure proudly sported her solitary organ until the end of class. And as the teacher erased both the figure and her esophagus, we students trickled out of the shadowy room and into the blast of sunlight that spread across the courtyard.

Since then, class has brought me in close contact with other immigrants as we reveal tidbits of our lives in choppy Spanish and laugh about our language woes. We share struggle and community. We even share goods: sometimes we carry home peppers, cucumbers, handcrafted sewing class projects, or even potted plants.

As the final trimester enters the final month, attendance has dwindled as most of the women fast for Ramadan.

The first and second hour classes combined and I suddenly found myself in a class of women who struggle with pronouns and simple verbs. But the energy and fun we have together is rewarding enough for me.

Yesterday, while practicing the structure “I like,” a classmate smiled and said, “I like Trish’s face.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the teacher. “Trish has a nice face.”

The other students murmured their agreement and admired my reddening cheeks. Until, for lack of a Spanish equivalent, I burst out the Arabic expression, “God be blessed!”

Writer’s block and little people

“The words don’t come anymore. It’s like they’re stuck,” I told my roommate. I used to love sitting down to answer emails. Now, despite the fact that I still love to get emails, it’s harder to sit down and respond to them. What used to be a joy now feels more like a discipline.

“It’s like the one thing I used to be good at no longer works!”

My journal entries have grown thin and factual. My blog entries are dry.

Sometimes I get tired of words, trying to recall or learn words in three languages. Tired of trying to make myself understood in any of those languages and their respective cultures.

Sometimes I want to turn off the words in my brain and just be—I want the “nothing” box that men claim is real.

So instead of writing something profound, I offer you some snapshots of my favorite little people: Carissa Joy, Clark David, and Albert Harris. My family kindly keeps me updated with pictures of my growing niece and nephews.


Featured photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Niece and nephews photo credits to my family

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

BOOM!

I was home alone the day that a man came to inspect the hose on our gas tank. Apparently ours had expired in 2008. Not good, I guess.

“It might explode,” he said.

“What?” I was still trying to figure out exactly who this guy was, how he had burst past me in the doorway, and how in the world I was going to get him out.

“It might explode,” he said again, more slowly this time as if he realized that I was a foreigner.

I was silent, my mind racing in all directions.

He lifted his eyebrows. “BOOM!”

I explained that my roommate wasn’t there and she was the one in charge of the household, so he couldn’t do anything. Surely there was some sort of a law that said a serviceman couldn’t barge into an apartment and do a job against the wishes of the occupants. Right? This was ridiculous.

He gave a long and rapid speech about how it was obligatory and since he was from thirty minutes away, he had to do it now. He probably said more too, but that was what I caught.

“Now all I need is your card or your passport.” His head was in our cupboard and he was fiddling with our tank.

“Wait. Don’t do anything. Wait!” The situation was spiraling out of control. I dashed into my room to grab my phone and call my roommate. Twice. She was in the middle of an English class and didn’t answer.

When I returned to the kitchen, I saw that the man had parked himself on a kitchen stool. The oddity of the situation struck me as I looked at him there. “Do you want a glass of water?”

The question caught him by surprise. “No thank you,” he said.

“Look, I can’t do anything until I talk with my roommate.”

“What time will she be home?”

“Eight.”

“That’s too late. I leave work at six. You have to change the hose. It’s obligatory. Look, if you don’t change it, you might have an explosion. BOOM!”

There he was, booming again, as if a hose expired ten years couldn’t wait a few more days. I heaved a sigh. “If there’s an explosion, I will go to heaven. It doesn’t matter to me.”

Again, he was taken off-guard. Perhaps not every client has said that.

He insisted. I insisted. Finally, he was on the verge of a concession, “You don’t want to pay that price?”

He was going to drop it. I was pretty sure. But it didn’t matter. Obligatory or not, he would not change our hose today. “I don’t want you to do anything.”

We finally agreed that he would leave his information so I could call him after I had talked with my roommate because, I pointed out, if expired hoses have to be changed now, what does he do if someone doesn’t answer their door?

He asked for my number and scribbled it on a piece of paper. I took his business card and took a picture of the contract.

I smiled. I had won. At least for now.

But he was smiling too. “I will message you on whatsapp, okay? Not for the business. For me, like friends.”

Or had he won? I wondered as he walked out of the apartment with my number in his pocket.

Side note: As far as we can figure out, this was a scam. Gas hoses do expire, but the government does not send out servicemen to inspect and change them for 42€ cash. A friend kindly changed ours for 8.50€ to keep us from going “BOOM.” And, no, I am not in contact with the scammer via whatsapp.

Tips for surviving Spain- Part 1

Thinking of moving to southern Spain? Or even just visiting? Here are some helpful tips that my roommate helped me compile:

  1. Learn Spanish (I might as well start with the obvious).
  2. Carry your own shopping bags with you, recycle, conserve water, etc. Europe tends to be greener than America.
  3. Weigh your produce when you go shopping… or you’ll get to the counter without prices and the cashier might roll her eyes.
  4. Bring cash. Not every store accepts credit and/or debit cards. And many stores want small change, not large bills.
  5. Don’t read dates backwards. Dates are written by day/month/year rather than month/day/year. Don’t show up for an appointment on January 2 that was set for February 1.
  6. Read schedules by the 24-hour clock. Otherwise, you might expect a train at 6 p.m. that actually went at 6 a.m.
  7. Allow more time to complete tasks. The Spanish are fairly efficient… most of the time. But don’t treat the shopping world like a Wal-Mart. Shops tend to be more specialized and it takes longer to get everything you need (but it’s more fun!). And don’t expect buses to arrive on time… or arrive at all if it’s a holiday.
  8. Relax a bit. The average schedule runs about two hours later than the American schedule: shops open at 9 or 10. Lunch is at 2 or 3 p.m.
  9. Don’t try to shop between 2 and 5 p.m. In fact, don’t even bother going outside unless you’re looking for some quality solitude. And in the summer, you might burn to a crisp if you’re out in the hot sun between 1-6 p.m.
  10. Watch your step. At least in southern Spain, many people have little yippy dogs that leave behind deposits on the sidewalk.
  11. Realize that when it’s dark outside, it is NOT time to go to bed; the party is just beginning.
  12. Eat meat. Most Spaniards are unapologetically carnivorous. They especially love pork. (Be prepared to see the jamón serrano everywhere.) Some restaurant billboards would send animal rights activists into a tizzy.
  13. Don’t expect to find chicken in restaurants unless the restaurant name specifies chicken. Most menus are laden with pork and seafood options.
  14. Get used to eating bread, bread, bread. Fortunately, the Spaniards are excellent bread makers.
  15. And learn to love olives while you’re at it. Don’t worry; Spanish olives are amazing.

To be continued as we continue learning…