Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Christmas!

I don't know about you, but this last month seems to have flown by.  How did we get all the way to Christmas already?  Above, you will see some pictures from our Academy Christmas play, which was performed last Thursday.  Every year, the students finish their first semester a week early and then devote the last week before Christmas break to putting on a Christmas play.  With our (the teachers') help, they not only learn all their lines, songs and dances, but they also build sets and props, sew costumes, and create playbills and programs.  Then, at the end of the week (!) they perform.  This year's show was about an hour and a half long.  And it was amazing.  I got to coach the actors, which was maddening and stressful and deeply rewarding.  I also got to help edit/write parts of the script.  

Isn't it great when you're part of a community that needs you?  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that people need to be needed.  Independence is great, but sometimes I think we equate it with isolation.  Somehow we think that a healthy person is someone who never needs anyone else's help, but that's just not true.  People who never need help will never grow.  We all start as babies, right?  I can't think of a creature that's needier than a baby, precious little puddles of potential that they are.  All they can do at the beginning is eat, cry and poop.  And yet we make such a fuss over them.  Our hearts get all wibbly and we experience that fierce love that inspires an otherwise gentle mother bear to dismember any threat to her cub.  How different our lives would be if every person came fully prepared for independent living straight from the womb.   Whom would we feed, protect, teach, delight in?  For whom would we sacrifice?  How would we show our love?  What would love even look like?  We are meant to have needs just as surely as we are meant to fill each other's needs.

Jesus came as a baby.  There was a time in history when God incarnate could not feed himself, when God experienced hunger, loneliness, weakness, vulnerability.  He chose to embrace these things.  So why do I find myself believing that I should not?  It was good enough for God...should it not also be good enough for me?  Needs and weaknesses are not evil.  They are not a disease to be cured.  They are instead opportunities.  Every time I come up short, I have the chance to be helped, which means that someone else has the chance to make a difference in my life, to be my hero, to show me genuine love.  Every time someone I know doesn't have what it takes, I have the opportunity to do the same for them.  It's not a chore, it's an honor.  It makes our lives mean more than pleasure and comfort and all the stuff we think we should be striving for.  

This Christmas, I hope we all have needs that others can fill, and I hope we see ways to fill the needs of the people around us.  That's love, which is what this day is all about.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cabin Fever

 This is what you get when a whole lot of bored grown ups get too close to a camera.  Okay, that's not entirely accurate.  There was a legitimate photo booth at our annual Fall Festival, and these are our legitimate photos.  That mustache and I became pretty good friends, as I recall.

How am I doing, you ask?  Well, to be perfectly honest, I'm getting a little bit stir-crazy.  We all are, I think.  We're well into our field service here.  Patients have come and gone, and new patients have come to take their places.  The students and I have been doing this whole "school" thing for what seems like forever.  We had our first good rain a couple nights ago, but other than that the weather maintains a warm and cloying mildness--not unlike the way a small bathroom feels right after someone has showered.  Not that I'm complaining.  It's just kind of surreal to know that somewhere Fall is falling, with Winter close on its heels, while we live in the land of perpetual Summer.  I think Cabin Fever may be setting in.

We all deal with it in our own ways.  From beard-growing contests (No-shave November, here we come!) to movie marathons ("You mean you've never seen Bridget Jones' Diary?!?") to homemade slingshots and blow-darts (I'm not naming any names, but some people I know spent their evening shooting a rolled up earplug across midships with a sling-shot made with catheters.  Not used ones, thank goodness.)  One of the more sanitary outlets available to us is ukulele club.  Last year I learned the benefits of ukuleleing on a regular basis (good for the blood pressure, for one thing--it's impossible to stay angry when you're playing a uke).  And this year, we have a motley little group that meets on Sunday evenings and strums through some of the classics.  It's such a simple instrument.  You don't need any experience, really.  No practice charts to turn in.  Just walk on by and pick up a uke and start strumming.  Here is a short video that my friend Dan took during a typical session.

There now.  Don't you feel happier?

Here's what I think.  I think that it doesn't really matter how awesome your life is, if you live it long enough, sooner or later you're going to look around and say, "Is this it?  I feel so...normal."  You may be tempted to drop everything and join the Circus, but the truth is that's no way to live.  I've got nothing against circuses, mind you.  I'm just trying to make a point.  A good life, in my opinion, is one that reaches beyond its own edges, one that takes root in the Eternal and bears fruit in the present.  And you can't live a life like that if you spend all your time and energy running away from "normal."

So do your worst, Cabin Fever!  I can't hear you over the sound of my ukulele songs.  I'm too busy taking pictures of myself with paper mustaches to listen to your whining.  And besides, I have a group of valuable teenagers to teach, and precious friends to comfort and entertain, and poems to write, and stories to tell, and children to play with.  I don't have time to wish I was living someone else's life.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

the Hope Center

Last Tuesday, I locked up my classroom, changed into my jeans, and headed off to the Hope Center.  Every field service, Mercy Ships finds a suitable building in the city and fits it out to accommodate patients as they prepare for/recover from their various surgeries.  Not only does this free up bed space within the hospital, but it gives our patients a more homey environment in which to recuperate.  Nobody likes being trapped in a windowless ward any longer than is absolutely necessary! See me pointing at that yellow flower?  The boy to my right was asking for a yellow flower sticker for his picture, and I was confirming his request--IN FRENCH!  You read that right, friends!  I am now able to sustain simple but useful conversations in the velvety smooth tones of francais!  Vuex-tu une fleur jaune?  Oui mon jeun ami!  See? Myriam, our French, teacher is very proud of me (which is good because I pester her all the time).

Now let me tell you about my little friend in the yellow and blue.  This little girl wrapped herself around my legs pretty much as soon as I arrived.  Clearly, she had chosen me to be her new best friend.  She led me to a plastic chair and climbed right up onto my lap.  She spent the next hour playing patti-cake (which here basically means she clapped my hands together and laughed--she has a beautiful laugh), tickling and being tickled by me (did I mention how beautifully she laughs?), playing with my hair (first she'd pull it down in front of my face, then she'd put it on her own head--more laughing), examining the freckles on my arm (I must look so strange to her), and kissing my hands (my heart exploded into shards of rainbows, butterflies, and cute baby bunnies).  I have not felt so completely and profoundly loved in a long time.  The Single and Independent Childless Female doesn't get a whole lot of physical affection.  I don't think my new friend knew just how much she blessed me.  Isn't it just like God to bring me halfway across the world to be blessed by the people I came to bless?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Selection Day

Almost a month ago now we had Selection Day.  Whenever we come into port, we kick off our surgical activities with one massive call for patients.  We spend some weeks getting the word out with posters, billboards, radio announcements, etc. telling everyone that if they or someone they know has one of the conditions that we are able to treat (benign tumors, cleft lips, burn contractures, orthopedic stuff, etc.) then they need to come to Selection Day and we will see if we can indeed help them.  This year more than 7,000 people came and stood in line for hours.  Some of them had to be carried the whole way.  Of course all the medical crew were busy all day saying 'yes' to some and 'no' to others (heartbreaking work), but the rest of us got to fill such supporting roles as escorting patients from station to station, helping fill out paperwork, taking pictures of patients so that their surgeons can prepare properly, passing out peanut butter sandwiches and water bottles to all and sundry, providing security, and entertaining children.  I got to help with that last bit.  Above you will find a picture of me giving a little boy a sticker.  He took it very solemnly.  I spoke just enough French to be able to tell him he could pick his favorite color.  I think he chose blue.  It seems like such a little thing in the face of all the work that was done that day and still needs to be done.  So many people came.  At times it felt like trying to catch a waterfall in a teacup.

Did you know that Pointe Noire was at one time a major collection point for African slaves before they were shipped off to America and the West Indies?  Just last night, a Congolese friend was telling me about a museum near here that commemorates that nasty chapter of international history.  When you put a price on someone, you assign them a value relative to your own, contingent upon their potential ability to serve your needs.  You say to them 'You are only as important as you are useful to me,' and so you take away their person-hood and burden them with the lie that they must earn the right to matter.  It seems kind of poetic that a few centuries later a ship full of (mostly) Westerners should come and put themselves at the service of the Congolese people.  With every conversation that took place on Selection Day, we had a chance to show the people of Congo-Brazzaville that they are intrinsically valuable, that they are worth listening to, worth serving and celebrating and learning from.  I don't know how to make the world just.  With all the ways we hurt each other and have hurt each other, I don't know how to make everything right.  I don't even know how we're going to manage feeding everybody.  But I can show kindness to the handful of people I see from day to day.  I can try to see them the way God sees them and love them as Jesus is still teaching me to love.  I can speak truth in face of all the lies that have stacked up around us.  And that, I think, is the most powerful thing any of us can do for each other.  It's what I need people to do for me.  It is what we all ought to be doing for each other,
don't you think?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Academy Open House

A few weeks ago, we had our Academy Open House.  Now, since you can't come to the ship and see how we do things here, I thought I'd share a couple pictures and tidbits of information.  It'll be just like you were here, too!
First off, these crazy folks are my colleagues.  Yep, these ladies and this lone gentleman (God bless him!) are responsible for educating about 50 students, from pre-school up through 12th grade.  Average class sizes run from 2 students to a whopping 8 students per class.  That may not seem like much, but squish them all into a room the size of a nice walk-in closet and there is plenty of energy to go round.  Since many of our upper-level classes combine grades, we high school teachers cover material on a two-year rotation.  Last year, I taught World Geography (in addition to Bible and a couple English classes).  This year, we are plunging into History, from Ancient History all the way up through the Enlightenment.  I must say, I am enjoying it thoroughly.  I've had to read quite a bit to stay ahead of the students, but the material is fascinating indeed (and not entirely new--I do remember some things from college).
  For Open House, teachers were asked to provide fun activities for our visitors to do that showed the kinds of things we spend our precious time learning during the school day.  These happy adults are thinking of things to add to a "Mercy Ships Timeline" we were creating, showing all the significant events that crew members who visited my classroom wanted to add.  The timeline ran from 1940 to the present and included such varied events as birthdays, marriages, first baseball games, coming to the ship, the birth/adoption of children and so on.  One cheeky man documented the year in which his wife was born.  He was smart enough not to write her name, though.  Below you will find a picture of the final product.  Not bad eh?
Every so often I have to stop and marvel at the remarkable community I live in.  Granted, we have our disagreements.  You don't get 300+ people all living together without at least a few ruffled feathers.  But the generosity I see around me as people get down to the business of pouring themselves out for each other is just breath-taking.  It's like a preview of heaven.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Today is a very special day.  It is my dad's birthday!  I always puff up just a little when I'm telling people about my dad.  He is an impressive guy (although sometimes he doesn't see it).  Not all of you know him.  When you have lived and worked in so many different places, you make a lot of friends who only know who you are now.  The places and people you came from hang around you like dreams in your friends' minds--legends they piece together from things you've told them.  I wish you could get to know my dad like I know him.  But maybe you know him better than either of us realize...

If you've ever heard me laugh one short loud laugh from my gut, you've heard my dad laugh (except my voice is considerably higher).

If you've seen me making friendly conversation with strangers in line, you've seen my dad socializing.

If you've ever watched me working on a project, and seen me go oh so carefully, and get really frustrated with tiny mistakes that you can't see but that I can't seem to see past, you've been watching my dad work.

When I'm talking about something important and my eyes well up, and my voice gets all intense and wobbly, that's my dad talking, too.

You know how sometimes I can tell a story (even about something boring, like doing the laundry) and people listen like I'm the only one in the room?  I get that from my dad.

When I spend an afternoon reading wikipedia articles, it's only because I grew up watching my dad read the encyclopedia (or Caesar and Christ, or 2201 Fascinating Facts).

And if you've watched me jump into a technical conversation about something you didn't know I knew anything about and hold forth as if I'd studied it in college, you've seen my dad sharing his encyclopedic knowledge.

If I know how to learn everything I can from a situation, embracing the hurt as well as the healing, I'm only doing what my dad does.

And if I've ever faced a crisis with a clear head and a generous heart, it's because I've seen my dad pull together and do what needed to be done time after time after time.

I love my dad like I love myself.  Because, in many ways, he is very like myself--or, I am like him.  That's the best gift he ever gave me, I think.

So happy birthday, Dad.  And thanks ever so much for my present.  I could not ask for better!


Saturday, August 10, 2013

How about some pictures!

Some days, this is what I think the world sees when it sees me:

And then there are days when this is what the world gets:

Unfortunately, I think the latter occurs more frequently than the former...

We're still friends, right?
'Cause there are times when you've looked just as ridiculous, and I still like you.
(Actually, I think I like you a tiny bit better when you look silly.)

There's no real theme to this blog entry.  I just felt like we needed more pictures.  Here are some pictures of my time in Texas:

We went to the zoo.  (There are elephants in Congo, by the way!  I haven't seen any yet, but I'm in a port city, so that makes sense.)

This picture makes me laugh. Do you think the parrots know that there's a squirrel stealing their food?

We spent some time in Tenerife, Spain (the Canary Islands) while the ship was getting all ready to sail down to Congo.  It was beautiful.

This was taken on my birthday, when we all went out for pizza, sangria, and gelato (in that order).  Can you spot my twin?  (There's nothing wrong with my hand.  That's just the camera wobbling.)

I miss you all so much it hurts, but my life here is very rich.  I hope that your lives are also full of funny faces, exotic creatures, opportunistic squirrels, beautiful architecture, marvelous friends, and ice cream... 
or something equally as good.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Rain on the Ocean

We've been sailing for almost a week now.
(What!? you say, eyebrows so far up your forehead they become part of your silhouette, I thought you were in Texas!  What happened to the rest of your training?  Have you nothing to say about returning to the ship?  Weren't you just in Spain?  And what about your birthday?  Aren't you going to say anything about that?!)  I have no good response.  All I can say is that sometimes all the things you think about saying clamor so loudly in your brain that they cancel each other out.

But I was just standing up on deck 8 as the ship nosed its graceful way into a rain storm.*  I watched the rolling watery hills change from glossy to matte.  Countless pinpoints of water hitting water soothed my ear, like the faraway applause of about a million gnomes.  It felt so good to be outside after a killer first three days of school. (Oh yeah, school started.  I didn't tell you about that either.)  We're headed for the equator, so the air is warm and wet and welcoming.  And even though all 360 degrees of horizon is unimaginably flat, I can still sense Africa when I stare out to port.  We saw dolphins a couple days ago, and there were orcas on Tuesday.  I thought I spotted some birds this afternoon, which would be impressive, considering how far away from land we are, but it turns out that flying fish actually flap their wings (who knew, right?).  It occurred to me recently that yet another of my ridiculous childhood fantasies has come true.  I am a sailor.  I live on the sea (at least, for a while I do).  Is that not amazing?  It's not something I ever set out to do, just a longing I had whenever I read books about seafaring adventurers, and now here we are.

I take it as a sign of God's character that the life He's given me is far deeper and richer than I could possibly construct on my own.  And that He delights in giving me ridiculously extravagant gifts.

*Okay, really it's just a bunch of rain.  I have a feeling that if it was a real storm, I wouldn't be sitting quite so comfortably at my desk right now.)

Friday, July 5, 2013

Letters from Texas Part II

Several times over the last week I've encountered all sorts of Thinky Thoughts.  It's bound to happen when you spend the whole day listening to various instructors talk about big things like Worldview, and Transformational Development.  Unfortunately, by the time I'm able to sit down and blog about it, my brain has turned to mush and profundity is way beyond the scope of my ability.  I can manage I wonder what's for dinner, and Better check the bed for spiders, but that's about it.  Nevertheless, I have decided to sit down and type in hopes that some scraps of thought might settle to the bottom of my still-spinning mind, and dribble out of my fingertips and into the computer.

Ah, here's one.

The week before last, we spent some time studying the Name of God (as described in Exodus 34:6-7).  It's the name God gives Moses when he causes his glory to pass in front of him, and it consists of seven different descriptors: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, overflowing with love and faithfulness, showing steadfast love to thousands, forgiving, and just.  No surprises there, right? God wants Moses and the Israelites (and us) to know what kind of being he is--his character--and these are the qualities he chooses to sum up all of his goodness.  Alright.  Now, keeping God's 'name' in mind, look at the command Jesus gives in Matthew 28:19 where, after having risen from the dead, he tells his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit*."  Now the word "baptizing" here means "immersing," which means that Jesus is telling his followers to immerse the nations in the name of God.  What if he's not talking about dunking people in God's name as in "on his behalf," or "under his authority," but as in immersing them in his character?  Isn't that wild?  It totally turns your garden-variety missionary work on its head.  We're not supposed to be recruiting people to be on God's team.  It's not like we've got these massive clipboards with which we run around trying to get people to sign under God's name.  In fact, there's nothing in that command that says we have to make the nations do anything.  We're the ones being commanded, after all.  And what are we commanded to do?  Make disciples by simply baptizing/immersing/soaking the world with God's character (which is: compassion, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and justice).  So there it is, all the beautiful simplicity of truth, and pretty much impossible to do.  At least, I could spend the rest of my life trying to do it.  I probably will.

Care to join me?

*I realize that I may have become a little Italics-happy here.  It's just my inner Miss Climpson** showing through.
**A shout out to my fellow admirers of Lord Peter Wimsey.  You know who you are.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Just a little post-it note from the big ole TX

You may have gathered that my life is pretty nomadic at present.  I have to stop and think before I can answer common salutory questions.  It didn't used to be this complicated.

New Acquaintance: So, where are you from?
Me: Um... Can you be a little more specific?
NA: What?
Me: I mean, do you want to know where I was born?  California.  My permanent address is in Washington, but I spent the last school year in Guinea.  And even though I'm in Texas now, I'll be staying in the Canary Islands next month before I sail down to the Republic of Congo (not the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but the littler Congo just above it).
NA: Oh.  Where's Guinea?
Me: West Africa.
NA: That's cool... *awkward silence resulting from the fact that my new acquaintance can't think of another question to ask that won't lead to another long and complicated answer*

I'm borrowing a friend's laptop to write this entry.  (My dad gave me his Nook which can also connect to the internet, but it's a touchscreen--and the font is like the size of the fine print on a sketchy pill commercial--so I can check things, but writing stuff is a bit of a challenge.)  It's strange, but living in a dorm with twelve other women has not been nearly as challenging as I thought it would.  It's actually been rather fun.  I wonder sometimes if I wouldn't have made a great nun.  Hmm... I guess the Good Lord has his reasons.

This weekend I get to go to the mall (!) and then I'm going to see a movie in the theater (!), two things I pined for when I lived on the ship.  I don't know why malls suddenly make me happy.  They used to depress me.  Maybe I just like the prospect of hearing the delightful hum of English and Spanish being spoken all around me.  I really missed hearing Spanish.

And speaking of languages, I'd better get back to studying French, which is what I'm supposed to be doing on this computer.  :)

I'll write more as soon as I can.  Plus I have a surprise coming that will thrill and delight you all!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Letters from Texas, part 1

Imagine with me that you are a droplet of water tumbling through the rapids of some impressive river.  Careening off rocks and fallen trees, you bounce and bubble along.  Whatever is happening at the moment is so exciting and complex that you can't afford to think about what just happened a moment before.  Before you know it, you've gone over a massive waterfall, and all the water that was behind you is suddenly on top of you, pounding you under.  You'd be peeing your pants if you'd had any time to think about what's going on.  And then... the slow drift of the lake at the bottom.

That's what my summer vacation has been like so far.  Two days after graduation, I flew from Conakry to Seattle (via Dakar, Brussells, and Newark).  Two nights in Sammammish, one in Mount Vernon, and one in Seattle, and then off we went to Kaua'i for a week.  Thence to Ridgecrest.  Three church services, three trips to the pool, one to the movie theater, and a whole lot of spinach later, off I go again to the airport.  Now I am in Lindale, Texas, at Mercy Ships International Operations Center, and I can finally take a moment to process the great adventure that was my summer vacation.  It was a lot shorter than what I usually have (two and a half weeks instead of two and a half months), but I seem to have crammed a good summer's worth of visiting into it.  And it was lovely.  I'm sad that it's over, but I have a fresh appreciation for the wonderful relationships I have with my friends and family at home.  With all  the busy-ness of my Great African Adventure, I think I may have begun to take for granted all the things my friends and family have poured into me.  Also, I have to admit that a tiny part of my heart was afraid that all the wonderful people who helped make me who I am might have turned into strangers after a year of separation.  Happily, that was not the case.  I am so grateful for all of you!

Now that we've transitioned into the slow quiet of 'the lake at the bottom', I also have a bit of time to think about the future.  That part is a little bit scary.  Of course I have at least one more year of teaching on the Africa Mercy.  That's all settled.  But what to do after that?  I have no idea.  Several impossible ideas float through my mind.  I could teach at an international school, either in the US or abroad.  Having experienced the delicious chaos of West Africa, I am eager to see what the rest of the world is like.  Europe would be interesting indeed, and I do not want to leave this world without first having spent some real time in New Zealand.  I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but I'd like to try doing it in a university setting somewhere.  Only, I'd probably have to go back to school for that.  Going back to school is problematic, not just because of the funding issue (I'm still paying off those pesky school loans), but because I don't know whether I should throw myself into studying English, Linguistics, Counseling, International Relations, Law (that's out of left field, I know, but the thought has crossed my mind once or twice), or just go to Seminary.  The old dream of finding someone and making a family has not gone away either.  *sigh*  I have no answers.  I guess I'll just have to keep praying and see what opportunities come.  I just hope I'm bright enough to recognize the good ones.  Sometimes I get the feeling that my 'impossible ideas' aren't quite impossible enough.  Hmm...  Well, the Bible is full of dim characters whom God uses despite obvious flaws.  Maybe I can be one of those.

Well, the Gateway (a.k.a. On Boarding) program has officially begun.  That's why I'm in Texas at the moment.  Already, I've met some marvelous people from such exotic locales as Norway, Holland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Portland.  East Texas is greener than I expected (I always thought Texas=Cowboys=wide open spaces and lots of dirt), and dreadfully bug-ridden.  Also, there are wild pigs (!).  The classes have been good so far, and not as redundant as I  thought they'd be, considering I've already lived on the ship.  Plus, the salads come with good ranch dressing (not that gross stuff-in-a-bottle, but the mix that my mom used to make).  All in all, I believe I'm just exactly where I need to be right now.  It will indeed be interesting to see what comes next.

I hope that your summers are shaping up to be just as interesting (in a good way)!

Friday, May 31, 2013

summer vacation?

Well, the end of the school year finally came.  So many things happened, that I'm a little dizzy even now, one week and fifty-billion miles later.  Yes, you read that correctly, although when I say 'fifty-billion' I really just mean 'a lot.'  Flying out of West Africa is not for the faint of heart.  After thirty-plus hours in airports and airplanes, three brushes with customs, and two 'fumigations,' I finally made it back to the good old US of A.  And now I'm travelling through the greater Seattle area like a regular little nomad.  Yesterday, I walked into the office of dear old Conway (my old school) with a towering green canvas duffle, my trusty green book bag, and a ukulele.  The office manager thought I was moving in.  It was wonderful to see my students and colleagues again and get to say a proper goodbye.  Though I'm pretty sure I left my heart on the playground.  The dear little ones just orbited around me all recess.  And then there was church, followed by a proper movie night with Shelby...and I'm not even going to talk about my time at Casa Walter (because I happen to be typing this in a public place, and I don't want to cry--suffice it to say I was sorely tempted to just move in for good).  There was also a whirlwind visit with Grandpa and Peggy that was well worth the drive.  Right now, I'm sitting the Seattle Pacific University library, letting the muted sounds of knowledge just wash over me.  Lovely.

There are two things I'd like to say to you today (before I leave you for an evening of nerdy revelry).  First, I wanted to share this link with you.  It was written by my friend Dianna Cash, and beautifully sums up the work that has been done in Guinea this field service.  Thank you all for being a part of this effort.  You may not feel like you did much, but you've been a great support to me in what has been a most challenging (and rewarding) year.  I know I could not have done my job without your help love.  So these numbers belong to you as much as they belong to me. 
Second, you should know that I may not have regular access to the internet over the course of my summer wanderings.  I fly out of Seattle tomorrow to spend time with the family in Hawaii and California.  Then I'm off to Texas for some training in the 'Gateway' program.  I'll be able to explain it better after it's started, but I've heard it involves learning how to fight fires at sea (sweet!).  I won't have nearly enough time with anyone, but I'm very, very grateful for the time I get with each person I see while I'm here in the States.  If I missed you, I'm sorry.  But I still carry you in my heart nevertheless.

Happy Summer!!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's the last day of April, but it feels a bit like Fall to me.  In four weeks, the school year will be over and I'll be somewhere else.  The ship will be getting ready to sail to the Canary Islands.  Three of our families will have moved on to the next page of their adventure, somewhere else.  Some really good friends are going away.  Also, the dry season is on its way out, and one can feel a touch of coolness in the air.  So many endings.  I can't help but feel a tad melancholy about the whole thing.

But we're not saying Goodbye today, so let's give our heads a shake and get on with the blog.  I'm sitting at my desk right now, listening to the first graders on the other side of the wall learn about Magnetic Force.  My friend Kayleigh is the first grade teacher here, and she loves teaching science lessons.  Seems like every time I come into her room for a chat/venting session/stare out the window time/cookiefest, there's some fun-looking science activity afoot.  I think it was last month they were soaking gummi bears to see if the dye would come out of the gummi.  And then there was the month or so when tiny plants were sprouting out of six little well-loved cups of soil--so exciting!  When the walls are thin, you either become real good friends with your neighbor or else you try to avoid eye contact.  I'm so glad Kayleigh is the first kind.  I wonder what my class sounds like from over there. 

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a mosque and spend the day with a Guinean family.  It was a truly amazing experience.  Here are a few pictures.

This is the view from the women's balcony, looking down on the rest of the mosque.  You may not be able to see it, but the walls are covered with beautiful designs incorporating Arabic writing.  Our guide translated some of the words.  Something about living righteously to please God, I think.  The red carpets are for all the people to kneel on, and there are small wooden shelves every few yards along the row for people to put their shoes in.  It was very cool and quiet inside, and pretty to look at.
The man on the left was our guide, while the one on the right was a student of the Immam (I think) who explained to us about muslim prayer beads.  There are ninety-nine beads on the string, three rows of thirty-three, each representing a name of God.  While there are some significant differences between what I believe about who God is and what these fellows believe about him, I found myself really appreciating the reverence that they show in their approach to worship.  Also, I was grateful that the men at the mosque were willing to show us how they pray, and answer all our questions.  It's so nice to have one's curiosity satisfied without having to be afraid.

And now for my favorite part of the day:  spending time with the Selah family!  All the aunts, uncles, and cousins live together in one largish compound, and everyone takes care of everyone else's children so that you can't really tell who belongs to whom.
This is my room mate Michelle and me helping the ladies fix dinner.  We were tasked with chopping onions.  What we really did was mangle them until the patient lady in the red shirt took them off our hands and did it proper.  Oh well...  we can't all be cooks, can we?

This is the newest edition to the family, a beautiful little albino baby.  Her name, I believe, is Stephanie, and I got to hold her!!
This is me playing (or trying to play) the Balafon.  See how the poor musician has to hold the tops of the mallets?  He was showing me, for the fifty-first time, how the pattern went.

This was my very favorite part of the day.  It took me a while to learn the game, and I can't really remember how it goes now, but that little girl and I just clapped and clapped forever.

This is what we did for a good fifteen minutes, between the time our leader said we had to go home and the time we actually climbed into our Landrover and went.  Can you find me in this picture?

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Let me tell you what just happened to me.  I was walking down the hallway with a trembling lip and sad puppy eyes, when I ran into my friend Remy.  Here's how the conversation went:

Remy:  Hello Sarah!
Me:  *sniff* hi.
Remy:  What's up?
Me: (all trembly)  I missed dinner.  I was showering and I took too long, and now the dining room's closed and I can't even get milk for this little bag of granola I found in my beach bag. 
Remy:  (Full of concern) Oh, well I have some yogurt in my cabin.  How many would you like?  Two?
Me: One should be enough (pathetic coughing).
Remy:  You'll need two.  Wait here a minute and I'll get them.
(My sad eyes have gone all wide and hopeful.  If they'd given Oliver Twist a roasted duck when he asked for more porridge, he'd have looked very much like me right now.)
Remy: (returning from her cabin) Here they are.  I have some eggs on the shelf in my classroom, if you want to make yourself an egg.
Me:  (happy, but still a little pathetic)  Thank you so much!
Remy:  You would have done the same for me.
Me:  Yes, I would.

So here I sit at my computer, happily munching away at my granola, now fortified with two cups of yogurt and some dried cranberries I found in my cupboard (Score!), and I reflect on how much difference a good friend makes.  I really was close to tears tonight when I rushed upstairs to find the food already gone.  I hadn't eaten a legitimate meal all day.  We'd been at the beach, snacking here and there, while we went on hikes and played in the waves, until it was time to come home.  I was so dirty I couldn't bear the thought of touching plates of food before I cleaned up.  First, I had to hunt around for my soap, and then my towel wasn't in its usual place.  What with one thing and another, I just took too long.  It seemed all hope was lost, and then in stepped a friend with yogurt.  The day was good and saved.

Sometimes I spend so much time thinking about the Big to keep the balance between telling the truth about what you believe and not sounding like a heartless know-it-all...what it really means to live well...whether it's better to let your students learn from their failures or to keep them from failing in the first place...etc.  I forget that life isn't lived in absolutes but in particulars.  It doesn't matter what I think about the nature of love if I can't bring myself to show any tangible sign that I love people.  I don't just know about friendship, I am a friend, and I have friends, and we show our friendship through our actions.  Some of them are big, like when you grieve with someone, and some are modest little things, like sharing your yogurt.  But they add up to something very beautiful. 

Jesus chose to die on the cross, and that was something he had to do by himself.  But there were friends who were with him along the way, like his mother Mary, and John the Apostle.  They didn't understand what was going on, or why, but they stayed with him until it was over.  That's special.  We don't often get to do things for God.  Usually it's the other way around.  But there are times when we have the unique opportunity to show our friendship to Him, times when we can bless the One who invented blessings (which blows my mind, when I think about it).  Maybe the chances come by more often than we realize.  Jesus did say that when you do something for "the least of these [his] brothers," you do it for him.  So the next time we have a chance to do something kind for someone who couldn't possibly pay us back (or maybe just isn't very likely to), we could think "Here you go, Friend.  Enjoy."  And we'd be part of a pattern of kindness that touches the very center and source of Life.  (That sounds dramatic, but I don't know how else to say it.)

How did I get to preaching?  I really only meant to share my satisfaction in having a real dinner when I thought I'd be stuck scrounging crushed granola bits and soy milk.  Ah well.

Happy Easter, friends!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

In defense of doing things the hard way...sort of...

With just about anything worth doing, there is an easy way and a hard way, and the hard way is probably the better option.  You'll find this in cooking, in exercise, in education, in relationships...  Our parents were right.  It's better to do a good job the first time.  Sometimes the first time is the only time you get. 

One of the local craftsmen who sell wood carvings and leather doodads to our ship shop had a wife who was pregnant.  When it was time for her to give birth, it became apparent that she would need a caesarean.  So they sent the man off to buy blood for his wife, in case she needed a transfusion.  (The way it works here is if you need blood, you have to buy it.)  But while he was away trying to get the money he needed, they went ahead with the surgery and lost both the mother and the baby.  It was devastating for the man, but not an uncommon occurrence here.  A friend of mine who runs an organization called Babies Without Milk to raise money to feed infants whose mothers have died, told me about one local family in which the young mother came down with malaria and died.  No one took her to the doctor or even bothered to buy medicine because they all figured she'd pull through.  Life is fragile.  No less in the US than here, although we like to think we've found a million ways to preserve it.  There are still no guarantees.

So tell people you love them, goshdarnit!  Well, I mean, make sure you know them and actually do love them and all.  Don't just go confessing your love to random strangers or anything.  But please do take the time to tell the people you love that you love them.  Relationships are not meant to be disposable, but if you treat them that way you will cut yourself off from everything that makes life matter.  ...And while we're on the subject, children are not pets.  Nor are they hobbies you can pick up and then slough off at will.  They are people, and they are worth every bit of time and energy it takes to raise them!  I'm not saying you need to drop everything you like to do and sign them up for soccer, ballet, judo, acting lessons, and tutoring.  I am saying that when your little darling does something foolish or cruel, you discipline them lovingly.  You work hard to be kind and generous and always keep your word because you know that your kids are watching, and they will judge themselves and others by the standard you set.  I'm saying you put down your books and gadgets and play with them.  And when they ask you hard questions, you take the time to answer honestly and from your heart.  I'm saying you delight in them.  You call out good things in them.  You sacrifice your happiness for their good.  And you pray for them all the time.

Ahem.  I don't know where that came from.  I watch these silly movies and tv shows, and get all worked up when the main character pretty much throws his/her family away in pursuit of something that will turn out to be empty.  Don't do it!  I yell at the screen, Stop right there, get back in your car and drive home to your wife and kids!  They never listen.  It's like they aren't even watching the show. 

In other news, I am officially coming back to teach at the Mercy Ships Academy next year!  If all goes according to plan, we'll be working in Congo, docked at Point Noir.  With this in mind, my summer plans run thusly:  1) Fly from Conakry to Seattle and split about three-ish weeks between family and friends in Washington and family and friends in California, 2) Fly out to the IOC in Texas (I don't know what the acronym stands for, it's like the US headquarters for Mercy Ships) for several weeks of training, and 3) Fly back out to the Africa Mercy which will probably be docked somewhere in the Canary Islands.  On the one hand, I'm so excited to see you all I can't hardly contain myself.  On the other hand, I don't know how I'm going to squish a year's worth of hugging and visiting with all-y'all into those piddly three weeks.  And on the third hand, I'm excited to see Congo and all the cool things that'll happen when we're there.  I may just be an emotional basket case for a while.  Fair warning.

I just want to thank you, again, for helping me come here and teach these wonderful kids in this beautiful corner of the world.  We come and go and do amazing things every day, so that it eventually becomes routine.  But I'm not taking any of it for granted, and I know that the people we help in Guinea aren't either.  My friends and I were in the market this morning looking for fabric and a man shouted out "Mercy Ships!  I love you!" when he saw us.  It felt kind of silly at the time, because how do you respond to that?  But the truth is that the man knew that we were from the ship, and that the ship was doing something good, if not for him or his family, then for his country.  And since you are all a part of my being here, I pass his sentiments on to you.  Thank you.  And (because I take my own advice) I love you!
Here we are getting ready to go on an adventure! 
These are just some of the beautiful fabrics we looked at today.  (My friend Stephanie took this picture.)

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ca va? Ca va bien, merci!

Did you know that Romania has 53 airports, or that Luxembourg has cheap gas?  These are just two facts among several that my 7th and 8th graders have picked up in their European travels.  Sometimes I hear them talking amongst themselves about this town in Switzerland or that airport in France, and I think to myself "Why am I the one teaching them Geography?"  And then one of them tries to pass off a picture of an Alaskan glacier as part of Holland because it came up on their google images search and they didn't stop to wonder how a glacier might form in a country where almost a third of the land is below sea level.  (Fun fact:  the name "Netherlands" literally means "low country".)  Then I think, "Right, that's why I'm the teacher."

The only thing more surreal than living on a ship that sits more than it sails, where helping the blind see and the lame walk, etc. is more or less a daily thing, is teaching on one.  For someone who has given up home, job, family, Target, sushi, etc. to come to Africa and serve "the world's forgotten poor," I really don't see much of them.  To put it another way, if you thought of the Africa Mercy as a giant body, my fellow teachers and I would be the equivalent of some sort of gland that secretes the goo that helps the muscles move the bones to walk and so forth.  We all know glands are important, but when Michael Phelps won pretty much every gold medal in Beijing, nobody was saying, "That boy's got some impressive glands!"  I'm not complaining, really.  I guess I'm just trying to explain why with all the fuss I made about coming to Africa and asking you all to support me with your prayers/thoughts, letters, money, etc., I don't seem to have had much regular contact with the Africans I came here to help.  On my low-confidence days, this bothers me a lot.  But the truth is that my immediate ministry is with about twenty eleven to eighteen-year-olds, the health and well-being of whom directly affects the hearts and hands that heal the blind, lame, disfigured, and outcast.  Moral of the story:  if you can read this, thank a "gland."

Ooh, and speaking of eleven to eighteen-year-olds, did you by any chance, have a chance to watch this segment of last week's 60 minutes?  It features one of my students!  That makes me famous by proxy, and since you all know me, you are now famous by proxy once removed, as it were.  You're welcome.  Since watching American TV is a little complicated around here, we all watched the 60 Minutes report together on Tuesday evening, and it was a really cool (and slightly nerve-wracking) experience.  One never knows how one will come across on television, and for the most part, I think CBS got it right.  The only correction I would make is to point out that we are not a "mostly American" crew.  There are in fact more than 30 nationalities represented onboard at present.  But I'm not going to complain too loudly.  It's pretty darn cool to be on TV. 

Okay, time for a picture or two...
This is a picture of a typical "Ward Service."  On Sunday mornings, our West African crew like to invite patients and crew to participate in a church service right here on the ship.  I like to come to this service as often as I can because, in addition to the great West African worship (songs in French and Creole as well as English) I have a chance to make connections with some amazing people.  The Guinean people who come to the ship are very courageous, not only because they have made the journey to get here (one woman spent months walking to Conakry in hopes that we could help her) but also because they have trusted their health and in a sense, their future, to a group of weird looking strangers.  If all I can do is say "Bonjour, ca va?" and shake hands and smile, it still means a great deal to me.  (We all look very serious in this photo.  I think we're trying to figure out the words of the song.  With a congregation as linguistically diverse as this, sometimes all we can do is clap together.)

I know what you're thinking, and yes, that is my mother standing next to me!  This week, my mom was able to fly all the way over from California to have a taste of life on the Africa Mercy.  She ate with me, went to Sunday services, helped out in the classroom, and even accompanied me on a venture into Conakry to purchase some delicious mangoes.  It was wonderful to be able to share this life with her, even for a little while.  I didn't even think it would be possible for her to come, but as you can see, she did.  I am very blessed!  By the way, you may have noticed that we are wearing matching wrap-around skirts.  I made these.  I purchased the fabric at the market and sewed them (!) with a sewing machine (!!).  It was my first experience with a sewing machine, but fortunately wrap-arounds are not rocket science.  Still, I never thought I would sew anything that one could actually wear!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I'm ashamed to admit it, but today I am bored.  How can you be bored in Africa?!  Well, the human soul is a sort of black hole sometimes, and there's nothing you can do but chug away at whatever's in front of you until something comes by to take your focus off of the general dullness of life.  It's a shame, really, because now after waiting ever so long for word from your well-loved wanderer, you'll have to slog through my complaining of boredom.  And then the contagion of my dissatisfaction will have spread over into your day and spoilt what should have been a lovely "chat".  Sorry about that. 

Hey!  I have an idea!  There's this wonderful little boy I've made friends with at the Hope Center (a facility off-ship, where patients go to prepare for/recover from their surgeries).  His name is Yaya, and recently our media team wrote up a nice story about him.  So, in lieu of several paragraphs of my complaining, why don't I copy and paste a bit of Yaya's story here?  Maybe I can even find a picture of him to show you.  Yes, this is much better.  You can see a different view of what we're all doing here in Conakry.

Rather than joyous celebration, the reaction to Yaya’s birth was broken family ties. Yaya’s mother, Salematou, and his father, Abdulaye, were not married when their son was born. The tradition that Salematou’s father lived by did not make room for a child born out of wedlock. Despite Salematou’s pleading with her father to allow her to keep her child, his decision was final. As soon as Yaya could leave his mother’s breast, he was sent to live with Kadiatou, his grandmother on his father’s side.

 Living with his grandmother turned out to be a wonderful blessing for Yaya. Kadiatou personifies the bottomless heart and limitless space that African grandmothers offer their children and their children’s children. She assumes whatever responsibility comes her way, no matter the burden. Kadiatou explains, “There are many mouths that I feed in my family. In addition to Yaya, five of my children and their nine children need my support too. Everyone shares in the work of the household, but earning income in Conakry is very difficult. My husband now, Mamadouba, is very old. He gives what money he can, but he has family to support too.”

Yaya stole his grandmother’s heart from day one. His ready smile and eagerness to be close to her formed a thick bond. When tragedy struck Yaya, Kadiatou was distraught. “Yaya started walking when he was one year old, but after taking a few steps he would fall. We tried many traditional medicines, but his condition grew worse. At eighteen months, his legs started to twist and curl up. They failed him entirely.”

Yaya’s uncle, also named Yaya, remembers this as a time of many trials for his mother. “Kadiatou was so afraid for Yaya. He often had a high fever, and his legs would cramp up terribly. He would cry for hours from the pain. Kadiatou tried everything to soothe him. She held him for hours. Then my father and sister died very close together. My mother’s heart was broken into so many pieces.”

Kadiatou, who had taken in her daughter’s five children, decided that moving the family to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, was best for Yaya. “I hoped that the medical care Yaya needed was in a big city. As well, I knew that Conakry had schools for handicapped children that Yaya could attend.” Another important reason for the move was that Kadiatou was protecting Yaya from the villagers who thought that children with disabilities were cursed. She would not stand for her grandson being tormented, ridiculed, or forced into hiding.

When Yaya reached five years of age, he started attending the school for handicapped children. “I was so happy for Yaya. He started to learn his letters and bring home things he made,” Kadiatou says. Although there were no school fees and transportation was provided, Kadiatou still had expenses to cover, like school supplies. She made ends meet by going to the Grand Mosque daily and helping with cleaning and cooking. After a full year of being a volunteer, she was finally included in the group that received a weekly stipend, plus donations of money and food from appreciative people attending the Mosque.

Yaya often joined Kadiatou at the Mosque after school, and he soon became a favorite with everyone. In the Muslim faith, people are eager to help the needy as a way of observing sadaqah, the duty to overcome miserliness. Many Muslims wanted Yaya to join the group of handicapped people who begged, so that people could give to him. Kadiatou was against Yaya’s doing this, regardless of the enormous struggle she had to support the family. “I faced so much pressure to allow Yaya, in such obvious need, to help people fulfill their duty to sadaqah. I finally relented,” she explains.

Kadiatou continued to be distressed with Yaya’s participating in sadaqah. She prayed that Yaya would get his education and find an occupation where he could use his sharp mind and very able hands. Kadiatou had many doubts about her prayer being answered, but she remained faithful, clutching that thin bit of hope to her heart.

Yaya himself dared not hope. But then an incredible set of circumstances unfolded around him. Nick Veltjens, who worked with orthopedic patients, saw Yaya at the patient screening location the day before consultations began. “I waited all screening day for Yaya to come because I thought we could help him. We didn’t see him that day, so I sent an email around asking if anyone knew where he was.”

According to Yaya, “I did go to the screening with my friend, but I lost my courage.” Yaya left without being examined.

The next day, Dan Bergman, a long-term hospital volunteer, came to Nick with a video of a possible orthopedic patient that he had just seen outside the Mercy Ships Dental Clinic. According to Nick, “What a coincidence that Dan found the same little guy that I was looking for!”

For Dan, this series of events said loud and clear that, “God wanted Yaya to find Mercy Ships. He kept putting him in front of us!” Dan tracked Yaya down at the Mosque and delivered the news that he had an appointment at the hospital ship.

But Yaya missed his appointment. As he says, “I did not believe I could be healed, and so I did not want to tell my grandmother to bring me. She would be too disappointed.” But another divine coincidence occurred that finally put Yaya and Mercy Ships together. A government official, Cellou, who had befriended Yaya at the Mosque, was at the Mercy Ships Dental Clinic that same week. He casually asked what a young boy with deformed legs needed to do to get an appointment. It was quickly realized that the boy in question was Yaya and that he just needed someone to bring him to his appointment.

Cellou immediately went to Yaya’s grandmother with the news about Yaya’s appointment. They agreed that Cellou would go to the hospital ship with the boy. When Kadiatou received the telephone call from Cellou telling her that Yaya was accepted for surgery, she experienced a mixture of emotions. “I was so grateful that Yaya could be helped. It was all that I had prayed for. But I was also very uncertain and afraid. I wondered how it would be possible to fix Yaya’s legs and what he would go through.”

Dr. Frank Haydon, volunteer orthopedic surgeon, was able to fix Yaya’s legs. According to Dr. Frank, “The condition that Yaya was born with caused his bones to be very brittle. As he started to walk, the pressure on the bones caused multiple fractures. The surgery he had aligned his leg bones properly, and the two rods I installed will give his legs the needed strength and structure so he can walk.”

Each day Yaya does grow stronger. He is starting to take his own steps with the help of a walker, and he has progressed to simple below-the-knee leg casts. But at the same time, each day wears on Kadiatou. She shows the strain of being away from family and being indebted to more and more neighbors. She has borrowed money from them for food and malaria medication. However, regardless of the hardship, Kadiatou’s commitment to see Yaya through his healing journey is unwavering. “I would endure anything so Yaya can do what he longs to do more than anything else – play football. By suffering for Yaya and my family now, I know that there will be great happiness in the future,” she says.

According to his uncle, Yaya’s journey to hope and healing is summed up in a few words: “Yaya is so loved by everyone on Mercy Ships.” And, still, even with so many kind hearts embracing Yaya, there is one who continues to occupy the most special place in his heart. As clear as a bell, Yaya declares, “I love my Grandmother so much! She has done everything for me.”

There now, wasn't that better than my whining?  I feel better myself, in fact.  And Yaya really is a marvelous person--smart, engaging, and just full of energy!  We are all convinced that he will be running the world someday.
(The story was written by my Toastmaster buddy, Joanne Thibault, and the photo was taken by Michelle Murray.)