Aging alone

Back when I was teaching, we took a field trip to The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. There were these cool machines with cameras that would age a photo depending on life choices. Are you a smoker? Do you spend a lot of time in the sun? And so on went the questions.

One of my junior highers got me to pose for the camera. My mistake was not taking over the controls afterwards. Having already gone through the process once, he knew all of the answers to age my photo as much as possible. He ignored my protests as the screen spun out an image of a worn out old lady who eerily resembled me.

Thanks, kid.

I remember that photo sometimes when I find a new gray hair or a neck wrinkle or an age spot I never noticed before. The realization that one is aging is hard for many people; however, as a single, I wonder if aging alone is different. Not harder, but different.

As a single, there is no togetherness in disintegration. It’s just a party of one who watches the body in the mirror stoop and droop a little more each year. A party of one who gets pitied as she grays because there go her chances to snag a husband and, if she doesn’t have children, she can’t even attribute the grays to the honorable occupation of child-rearing.

His eyelids sag and he gets an extra roll of fat at his waistline.

There is no together giggling at age creeping over two bodies become one. It is just her facing irreversible doom as she watches those creeping spider veins.

There is no one to notice that mole on his back slowly changing colors. No one to miss that tooth except him.

Those freckles that once were becoming are overcome by age spots and they’ve scattered farther than she ever imagined. Her body is no longer what it used to be. And sometimes she’s glad she doesn’t have to share it.

I read through 1 Peter recently, about beauty being internal rather than external. Because remember, these bodies were not made to last forever. Whether one is aging together or aging alone, that truth is comforting.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear other perspectives. What has it been like for you to age alone, man or woman, single or widowed? Or what has it been like for you to age beside someone else? Maybe you’ve had both experiences. What are some things you’ve learned over the years?

Top 10 things I do to fill scraps of time

Do you know what I’m talking about when I say “scraps of time”? Those potentially useless minutes tucked between important things like a business meeting and lunch with a friend. We all have those, but some of us are naturally more productive than others of us.  I tend to fall into the latter half of that statement, but this week I’ve been noting how I spend those scraps, be it 5 minutes or an hour. Here is what I came up with:

  1. Organize something, anything really. A cupboard, a refrigerator shelf while sniffing suspicious condiments, or a drawer. Maybe that’s why people comment on how clean my house is. All I have to do is run my finger along a piece of furniture to prove them wrong, but it’s organized and so it looks clean. Then again, last night my neighbor pulled open my overflowing junk drawer. Now maybe she’ll stop commenting on my cleanliness.
  2. Do the background work for DIY projects (e.g. sanding, getting out supplies, creating a pattern, etc.) That way, when there is a block of time, I can move at the rate of my inspiration rather than the rate of my sandpaper. 
  3. Sit with my eyes closed and absorb nothing. These are quiet spots when my brain can relax. Sometimes, I pray. Sometimes, I fall asleep (but not before setting an alarm!).
  4. Look in the mirror. Really. I’m the one who is strolling down the street before she realizes she forgot to look in the mirror. It’s unnerving to wonder what everyone else is seeing that you forgot to. A booger? A hairball on the back of your black sweater? Bedhead eyebrows? So it’s always helpful when I remember to give myself a minute to primp.
  5. Come up with menu ideas and shopping lists. I can do this pretty much by standing in front of my pantry which happens to be a corner cupboard. Cocoa? Check. Rice? Check. What in the world am I going to do with this bag of barley? Maybe some kind of barley soup… Onions? Check. 
  6. Catch up on messages and emails because, who doesn’t do that these days? Those waiting-for-public-transportation scraps of time are ideal for this.
  7. Read, especially that book that I had to tear myself away from last night at midnight… Kindles and Kindle apps have made this exponentially more convenient.
  8. Eat. Years ago I had to learn to stock up on protein to keep myself from feeling faint between meals. I literally learned to “eat for the hunger that cometh.” However, on high-scrappy days, the hunger never cometh because I’m so busy fixing myself exciting little snacks. High-scrappy days are also high calorie days. Hmm. I think I need to work on that one.
  9. Trim my fingernails. Isn’t this one of those tasks that ends up like an abandoned middle child? It’s there, but other things are more demanding…until you have that scrap of time within which your hangnail catches on a hand towel to make you notice that you’ve fallen behind on your personal grooming. Speaking of which…
  10. Find things to get rid of. I think I drove my sister crazy by always having a box or a bag at the end of my bed with stuff to dispose of. Now I have a discreet corner of my wardrobe, but the bag is still there, accumulating junk. I know. I know I’m sheltered when hauling a bag of stuff to the clothes bin or a thrift store drop-off gives me a high. But here’s a tip for you town and city dwellers: the next time you get rid of something, carry it rather than drive it because when you arrive at your destination weary and heavy laden, depositing it is that much more freeing.

What are some of the ways you fill in your scraps of time? I’d love to hear about them and maybe even implement some of your ideas.

When will summer come?

One of these days summer will come. I’m not talking about the heat; I’m talking about the time. Summer is the season I have been holding out for in the crazy March, April, May, saying, “During summer, I will finally get to this or that.” I had a list of goals: learn how to sew better, develop materials for an English curriculum, refresh my Arabic, houseclean, and other noble goals like that.

It’s July, but I’m still waiting, thinking that summer and its abundance of time must begin soon.

In the meantime, life is full. Full of time with friends. Visits. Meeting new babies, both here and via WhatsApp. Appointments. Meetings. And even a chance to be a witness for my friend’s paperwork-only wedding at the mosque.

Maybe I need to redefine “summer.” Instead of labeling it as “extra time,” I should just label it as “life.” “Life” is a more realistic expectation anyway.

Life and smelly summer laundry.

“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.

All we get are windows

“All we get are windows,” he had said.

And this after my week of cancelled plans, disappointed tears, and familiar feelings of uselessness. But his words rang in my head all weekend so that now in the middle of a lively West African church service, my mind was still stuck.

The dissonant keyboard chords, the steady drums and tambourine and my mind was thousands of miles away in last summer.

I could still hear those testimonies of broken men and women who were crying out to God for the meaning of their years of overseas service—men and women who felt they had little to report except failure.

“All we get are windows of time in people’s lives. We walk with them while we can.”

Sometimes those windows feel pointless. Like walking with someone on their journey is a waste of time and couldn’t God please bring someone else into our lives? Sometimes the windows feel so nice that we frantically try to prop them open when they begin to close. But they close anyway and we label them as aborted opportunities.

In the snippets of time we have with people—these “windows”—sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture and think that the windows are all that matter. That’s when we feel useless, like failures.

The keyboard, drums, and tambourine faded as a new song leader took the microphone. Pacing back and forth, she started an African version of “Alleluia.”

“Alleluia. Alleluia. For the Lord God Almighty reigns.

“Holy, holy are you, Lord God Almighty!”

Behind the song leader was a pillar that supported the center of the little church building. There on the pillar, neat rows of pink and white silk rose buds formed a cross.

“Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb! Amen!”

Amen. So where will I place my focus? On my interpretation of efficiency or on the bigger picture: the glory of the Lamb? On the brevity of the windows of time or the fact that the Lamb is worthy of a life spent in faithful service?

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…

Not so glamorous

I asked my roommate for ideas for my blog. She suggested that I write about how life abroad isn’t necessarily glamorous. The common misconception is that life at home is mundane, but those who live abroad are enveloped in a never-ending adventure. Yet, those who have live out of the country soon realize that there is a difference between traveling abroad and living abroad.

I dug around in my old emails to find my initial impressions of my “exotic” life. It turns out that despite the initial culture shock, I soon settled into a routine, much like life at home.

From February 2016: “It was hard to decide what to write about this month. If I only mention the highlights, you assume that my life is one big, adrenaline-laden adventure. It’s not. Each day is unique, but I have developed a pattern and am beginning to plod down the same cowpath day after day. Even the grass is wearing out beneath my hooves. Moo… In spite of these very normal circumstances, occasionally I do experience variation from normal life. It’s like happening on an untasted meadow (to continue the bovine analogy). Sometimes the meadow is sweet grass, other times it’s mostly thistles.”

From April 2016: “Perhaps my life sounds glamorous to you. I suppose it is in theory, but it’s been hard to give up close interaction with family, church, and friends while what used to be my everyday life changes without me. And looking like an ignorant tourist isn’t particularly glamorous or comfortable..”

What’s new quickly becomes normal when you experience it enough. Flagging down taxis, crossing the street amidst moving traffic, watching things shatter when dropped on hard tile, eating piles of bread and drinking liters of syrupy tea is all commonplace.

See, the glamorous part happens in the initial stages. A North African immigrant in America might be startled at the wealth of personal space, how difficult it is to make friends, traffic that is relatively decent and in order, prices that are non-negotiable, and everything running on time. That is something to write home about…initially. Until the glamour of the foreign adventure becomes everyday life.

Also from an email from April 2016: “A recent sermon has given me a few thoughts to ponder. Using John 21, the speaker proclaimed that our duty is to follow Him, not to compare ourselves to others and decide that our personal callings are unjust. No matter where we are, whether glamorous or not glamorous at all, our duty is to follow, day by day and hour by hour.”