Saturday, October 30, 2010

feeling helpless

This week some dear friends wrote the following in an email to me: "It seems that a feeling of helplessness makes one REALLY pray, and oh boy! do we feel helpless and know to

I love that. Isn't it so true? At the moments when we feel most lost and helpless, those are the moments when we are most inspired to reach out to God and ask him to take over. The beautiful thing is that we turn ourselves over to God, but we can also pray for others. Sometimes I think God, in his bigger more majestic view of the world than that of us people, wants us feeling a bit helpless because then we trust him. And really, he'll always do a better job at everything than a human could, any day of the week.

This has been a challenging weekend for me: lots of fun and happy moments, but a brutal and searing reminder of my helplessness.

If you weighed in on my "right" vs. "stupid" conundrum, I'll say that the lesson I've learned this week is that when something seems both "right" and "stupid" it very well mean that there is no right or even smart human answer - we're helpless, and maybe it really is time for God to take over. So I stand here today, declaring my commitment to ask for an act of God.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Cultural personalities

I saw today that I'm two people: the Arab me and the non-Arab (American? British? not sure what culture to define here) me are almost entirely two different people. I'm probably more than two people, but today I witnessed two versions of myself.

Background: Here in the capital city, we have what is called a "duty driver" who is on-call from the end of one workday until the start of the next. He's at our beck and call. Some days, he's harried and crazy-busy with airport runs, the boss's kids, and keeping up with out-of-town visitors. Other days - and today is one of them - he sits in the office and does nothing for the bulk of 16 hours. So I asked him to take me to the gym - a 5 minute drive, but not an appropriate walk for a respectable girl. He dropped me off and I asked him to pick me up at 8:00. I gymmed until 8:00. Then I went out to meet him and he wasn't there. So I called and he said he was delayed by a colleague's request. The street of the gym is a very, very dark and isolated dirt road. Since I am trying my hardest to be a respectable girl who doesn't stand alone in dark streets, I walked up to the main street and entered a supermarket. Long story short, the driver was urged by the colleague to come pick me up faster than he'd intended (he would have dropped her off and driven around a bit, leaving me waiting a good 1/2 hour), but it took a few phone calls to convince him I'd walked up the street - he waited outside the gym for me for several minutes even though I called to say I left! Finally, driver and colleague drove down to the brightly-lit supermarket and I got in the car.

It was at this point that my two personalities emerged:

1. In Arabic, to the driver, I started babbling and practically yelling, saying: "Of course I was going to walk somewhere else! PLEASE, if you're going to be late, I need to make an alternate plan: I can't wait alone on a deserted dark street! I'm a respectable girl! If I were your SISTER, would you leave me there waiting on the dark street? So I had to think of somewhere to go, and you have to understand that if you need to be late, I'm scared because I think like a girl from here, not like a foreign girl. So you have to inform me and we make another plan!" He replied and we went back-and-forth a bit, and it ended in laughter, and we are probably better friends because of it. But I did shout.

2. In English, to my co-worker, once I was done having it out with the driver, I said in a much quieter voice that I was sorry for the confusion, it's just that we had agreed that he'd pick me up at 8:00. She said she usually calls him and waits inside for him, and I explained that I felt uncomfortable doing that because the gym was already closed. We had a quiet little conversation. She subtly told me out me for shouting, and I subtly told her out for delaying the car in the first place. But very subtly, both of us, and we're still friends, maybe even better friends because of it.

On one hand, I'm proud of this little reminder of how Arab I've learned to be, demonstrating passion over subtlety, stating opinions rather than hinting at them. On the other, I'm frightened by how naturally I take on an identity with little intention or control.

Dear Fellow Imperfect Ones, Thank you so much for your lovely words last week. Your advice as all so uplifting, encouraging, and thought-provoking. This week, I have another existential question:
What do you do when the decision that seems "right" also seems "stupid"?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grapefruit juice

Grapefruit juice may come to symbolise this season of waiting in my life... I sit here with a half-glass of watered-down juice in front of me. These days, as I await in the capital city to return to the field, I'm rarely very far away from a watered-down glass of grapefruit juice.

Grapefruit juice is bitter, oh-so-bitter! My Sue Dan ese colleagues and friends don't seem very interested in my grapefruit juice since they prefer things sweeter. Drinks and desserts here are very very sweet.

Since I've been in Sue Dan, I've been on a hunt for grapefruit juice and for tonic water. I couldn't find either at first, and then boxed grapefruit juice popped up in the bigger supermarkets. I guess a big shipment came in from somewhere. Tonic water is still elusive, and likely to stay so, since it's often mixed with alcohol and that's not allowed here. (I like plain tonic water with ice and lemon, just for the record. The one time I've accessed tonic water in the capital, it was at a party where the alcoholic drinks were the same price as the non-alcoholic. Since the price was paid, I couldn't resist adding a little sumthinsumthin to my tonic water.)

Grapefruits are currently in season and are sold on the side of the road throughout town. While I love drinking bitter things, I'm hesitant to eat bitter things so have watched in awe as my guest-house-roommate downs full grapefruits.

Since grapefruits are in season, fresh grapefruit juice is often on offer at local restaurants. But sometimes juice here is very watered down and intensely sweetened. I don't want to waste my grapefruit energies on bad juice, so I've avoided ordering it in restaurants.

In the guesthouse, we don't have a wide selection of drinks. There are juices in the fridge, but they're very sweet and some of them are strange flavours. Otherwise, it's coffee or maybe tea. Grapefruit juice just puts me at ease, it's a familiar taste.

I love oreos with grapefruit juice. Plain dark chocolate with grapefruit juice isn't bad either.

Yummy zingy grapefruit juice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

stability of the heart

Dear Imperfect Prose friends,
If you leave me a comment today, I'd love it if you'd please give me advice.

Right around Easter, earlier this year, I found out that the job I'd been offered had fallen through. This followed two weeks of ticket purchase, start-date negotiation, preliminary househunting, and arrangements for a remote move of my belongings. The email arrived late in the afternoon on Easter Monday, and said merely that the project had not been funded so they could no longer offer me the job. They'd let me know if anything else came up.

My first reaction was disbelief. I read it again. My boss at that time was sitting across the table from me. He had really supported me in this new job, so I told him. He said, "I guess you're going to Haiti!" (This was 2 months after the Haiti earthquake. Everyone in my line of work who was available was going to Haiti. And it turned out he was right.) Scoff. At that very moment, I felt in my heart that God was saying that this happened because he had something better for me. Probably not Haiti - something better.

But nonetheless, the tears threatened, so I excused myself to take a walk. We were in a lovely residential neighbourhood of Padang, Indonesia, where the sunsets are gorgeous. So I walked, cried and basked in the sunset. I felt confident God had better. (And I now know that he did.)

But for two weeks after that, until my Haiti plans were settled, I was utterly listless. I couldn't focus on work, I didn't catch up on emails with any friends or call my family. I watched a couple of films each day, took long walks and sat staring at the wall in my little hotel room. I knew God had told me he had something better, and I trusted. I really did. Even so, all the motivation in my heart had been drained.

Today I'm again in a place of waiting without knowing what will be resolved or when. This place is not so bad as Easter was: I actually have a good idea of what's around the corner, and am just wondering about the details. But I find myself feeling the same emptiness. Work is less interesting, there's not much socializing that needs to be done. I stare at the wall and wait for news. Wait for life to start moving again.

I'd love to learn enjoy these moments of patient solitude. I know it is all going to work out. This is a precious season when I don't have to worry about things. There's not much to stress out about when you're waiting for someone to stress out on your behalf.

I'm not stressed. My heart is just a little bit less full than usual. So I find myself wondering how to fill up the minutes. How to take advantage of waiting instead of watching the minutes pass, one at a time.

Wishing a joyful Thursday to the brilliant members of Emily's Imperfect Prose community - you are starting to feel like family.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A dozen joys in my life

I'm having a melancholy evening. I'm not sure why, as it's been a lovely weekend and a busy week. Because it's been busy, though, I haven't had the time to catch up with loved ones that I would have liked to have had. No skype calls or chats where I usually might have had at least a few. The fullness of my life so easily separates me from the things and people I value the most.

Nonetheless, I have so much to be grateful for, so I want to end the evening on a positive note. A dozen joys in my life this week have been:
  1. Making fish soup (my first culinary adventure since arriving in this fair land. And a fine fish soup it was too!)
  2. Walking with a lovely lady around the frisbee field for an hour and a half, surrounded by green trees and a colourful sunset sky
  3. Syrian Fresh Restaurant and the fact that my current-guest-house-roommate likes it too so we keep going back
  4. Iced Americanos, caf and decaf available
  5. Grapefruit juice
  6. The rare but treasured taste of tonic water (ohhh I detect a consumables theme)
  7. An evening with Brasilian friends, enjoying true heart-level conversation (ok... and good food)
  8. Tonight's run by the Nile
  9. Walking barefoot around the guesthouse, a tribute to our cleaning lady's commitment to mopping the floors. She's a sweetie
  10. Losing at pub trivia night with my c-g-h-roommate and two British guys
  11. The fact that people were friendly at church
  12. Developing an awesome community-driven strategy for my project (ok, I had to throw one work one in there)
  13. (bakers dozens are always the best) The reminder that people pray for me.


The other night we almost subjected ourselves to a most absurd eating experience. We pulled out, practically running away from the table, though, before it was too late.

The name of the restaurant is "Carnivore". We were somewhat fascinated and somewhat horrified by the name. A morbid fascination, perhaps, was what drew us to the place, even though there was a vegetarian in our midst. For my part, I'm always on the lookout for Brazilian-style churrascarias, those fabulous all-you-can-eat-meat joints. Outside of Brazil, the best I've had has been in Africa. So I dared to hope.

We pulled up to the recently-inagurated facility at the end a line of popular fast-food chains. Ten metre-tall bulls horns - or were they bisons claws? - loomed over us as we walked under the entry arch they created.

On our left was a huge barbeque pit with about 5 skewers of meat and space for about 50 more. Ahead of us was an indoor seating area that looked like a hunting lodge. By the pit were some outdoor tables and chairs. The chairs had fake zebra-skin covers.

Before we could take in any more, a smily African man in a bright coral-coloured shirt greeted us. He was clearly excited for our presence and invited us in. We said we were waiting for some more friends and he insisted we sit down on the zebra chairs while we waited. His assistant selected a seat among the table's 10 chairs and held it for my friend. The bright-shirt man chose another chair and pulled it out for me. Overwhelmed and at a loss for how to refuse politely, we sat.

The man didn't go away. Instead he started to chat with us about everyday things - where we're from and what we do. Then Smiley told us that this is a new restaurant with a set menu. For a single - steep - fee, we would get water, soup, all we can eat meat, desert and coffee. What about a vegetarian, we asked? He offered chicken. No good. So he went away to talk with the kitchen and we leaned back in our chairs. My friend quickly texted the rest of our party, warning them about the price.

I took in the rest of the scenery: stuffed aligator by the entrance to the kitchen, some crazy wooden balls hanging from above which felt they could fall on us. The whole ambiance screamed cheesy-theme-restaurant: MEAT!!! We should have suspected, considering the name of the restaurant.

The coral coloured smiley guy came back and offered mushrooms to my friend, with no discount. Then he offered us water. We refused. He insisted. We refused. He had his assistant pour us water, which we didn't drink.

Because as soon as our third friend showed up, he took a quick look at the place, heard our quote of the menu, and agreed with us. Since Smiley was nowhere in site, we quickly walked out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

a tribute to those who inspire me

In the past two years I've worked in approximately 6 countries. I have loved getting to know my colleagues and learning new ways of doing things. I've had moments of immense joy coupled by others of extreme frustration and disappointment. Though many of these people remain in my life only as a past memory, surely one of the biggest gifts God has given me is the diversity of people I've met.

Nowhere, however, have I been as touched as I have been by the hearts of my current set of colleagues. Here are just a few of the people who have inspired me in the month and a half since I arrived in SD...

- During my first week in the office, only one member of my team was not on vacation. He and I got some good quality time in that week. He told me about his African roots and his tribal language. And he told me how much he loves taking care of paperwork and logistics as he ran off to photocopy some documents then get them signed. He works for me, but he has no shame and teases me endlessly, but his eyes betray passion and his words make us all laugh.

- One of our key support staff in the capital has only had kind words for me since the day I arrived. He's currently on leave in Siria, which is possibly my favourite country on earth. Even though he already has dozens of friends there, he asked me for advice and said he'd call my friends to greet them for me. I think it was all an excuse to get me to tell him what I want him to bring back for me. I asked for green tea and spices.

- A field officer for women's programs here in the capital is as black as a nubian raven. Her eyes sparkle and her lips shine as she goes about her day's business. One day we were waiting for a car to go to the field and she joked and negotiated with the receptionist with such ease and energy, that within minutes we were on the road in an alternate vehicle. She never says no and she never puts me down, but she knows how to express her very-strong opinions in a way that somehow still leaves me happy.

- Another member of my team is the oldest of a couple dozen kids (yup!) in an influential family. One day we were standing on the road outside the office waiting for a vehicle and, in the course of 10 minutes, at least a dozen people walked by and made a point of greeting him. But he doesn't let it get to his head. He greets them back, then gets to work doing whatever it is that needs to be done. He asks for advice and gets things done on time, he's polite and kind. But oh is he passionate. He has big dreams for helping his community and is looking to our project to get him started accomplishing those dreams.

- Our poor logistics guy has been running errands for me on a daily basis during the last week or so. I don't know how he keeps up, but he never slows down, never complains, and never delays. It's amazing to be able to count on someone like that to get the job done.

- I could write a tribute to each and every one of our drivers. They live for our beck and call, and they always joke and chat and try their hardest to please us. But I'll finish today's little tribute mentioning the driver who took it even a step further. On a routine school visit, he so happened to notice that some trees we'd planted were not being watered. Instead of eating his breakfast in the shade, as one might expect of a driver waiting for his passengers, he tracked down a community member and gave him a lecture on watering trees. Then he reported to our team and had them put together an action plan for making sure that the trees we plant are nurtured and growing.

Monday, October 11, 2010

a fascinating contribution to the great US debate of the year

In summary, the controversy about the proposed Islamic Centre in Manhattan is in some ways a repeat of a controversy about a Catholic Church that was build in Manhattan 225 years ago. The same criticisms, the same demonstrations, the same concerns... The church is still there and gets along with its community.

What do you think about this?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I'm on standby. Waiting for something to come through so I can go on with my life.

It's ironic, it's really not very important at the moment, but I have this sense of fear that if it doesn't come through I'll start to blame myself and get impatient not because of the effect it has on my life, but because of the effect I suspect it might possibly be having on other people's lives.

Seriously?! See... this is why we write things down. That is just a ridiculous paragraph up there. I'd best just keep waiting patiently.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Empty hands, warm hearts, full minds

I just wrote a blog for Imperfect Prose, then realised that it wasn't the story I wanted to tell here; the story I wanted to tell I wrote back in August. I know Imperfect Prose is full of prose: lots of good writing by dozens of amazing people, but still I find myself telling a third story here, and then linking you to the other two.

Yesterday, I met a group of ladies who live far, far away from their original homes. Some were even born here, but they know they're not from here. They look different, they sound different, and they have spent the last 20 or 30 years dreaming of going home. Now, they're preparing to move. Circumstances have changed and it's time to go. Home. Back where they are from, to a place that's completely foreign to them. They're excited, yes. But they don't remember it.

When we sat down with them, they pointed with pride to the alphabet on the wall - they have just learned to read! One lady came over and showed me some fabulous doilies that she made. Another put a tray of home-made cologne in front of me. Two women passed out sales-quality sweets. Then they took off their flimsy sandals and sat on the floor, humbly asking our advice even though it was clear their wisdom and practicality grew miles deeper than my own.

They're leaving. They know where they're going but they don't know how to get there. They don't know what to expect. And all they'll take with them is their street smarts and their ability to make things with their hands.

I think of their fears, and of their courage to stand up and walk into the abyss, with nothing in their hands but so much in their hearts and minds, and I am humbled.

This is the story of me, leaving things behind in all my wealth and comfort: Violins. And other things left behind

This is the story of a person whose life of loss continues to teach me: The Iraqi Violinist

And this is the link to the many wonderful stories of Imperfect Prose, hosted by my dear friend Emily: In The Hush of the Moon

Violins. and other things left behind

Last year, my parents gave me a violin for my birthday. I was living in the highly unusual city of Dili, Timor Leste, and felt like I needed more music in my life so I could keep my soul together. One afternoon, I left work, drove to a little music shop and picked out a cheap violin. The next day my parents gave me the money to pay, and I started practising scales, enjoying the sound and the discipline after many years of string silence.

This week, on my birthday, my parents asked me if my violin had survived the journey from Dili to Cart um. No, it had not, I told them. Since I left all of a sudden, a friend packed up my things for me, and we agreed that anything someone in Timor might use would be left there. A young orphan girl reportedly inherited my cheap plastic Indonesian violin.

My mom was sad about the loss, but I think she understood. She asked me to write a blog about things lost - that which is left behind on every move I make, so here is a shortened list of the highlights from the last couple of years. I find an interesting juxtaposition between this and a blog I wrote recently about loss and violins. This violin was not a loss, it was a re-gift.

Here are some other things that have stayed where I have left.

Coffee press. Actually I often leave coffee presses behind. The first one was about two years ago when I left Jordan, but my parents recovered it and brought it back to me. I'd already replaced it, left it behind, and bought yet another one.

I think I left a coffee press in Cyprus. The girls I was living with had a large coffee press but often only wanted coffee for one person. So I left them my single-serve coffee press.

Computer speakers. The day after I arrived in Kosovo, I decided that my cozy little ground-floor flat was quiet and lonely (despite being next-door to a night club). So I went out and bought myself computer speakers. I bequeathed them, and several other houseware items, to our cleaning lady, a kind and needy woman who wasn't ashamed to ask for things.

Havaianas. (flip-flops) My dear Syrian friend came to visit me in Kosovo. Her flip-flops broke while there, but she massaged the rubber and put them back together again. I followed her back to Syria, and a month later, when I left, I handed over my own pair. They were much newer and nicer, but the same brand and absolutely replaceable.

Running shoes and yoga pants, and capoeira painting. Many many items were left behind in Timor, but these three are the ones I seem to miss the most. An avid runner, I've been pounding the pavement, sand and treadmills in some cutesy style trainers for the past nine months, and was hoping those days had ended. Alas, my shoes stayed behind. As did my yoga pants that I'd bought in Cyprus to celebrate my new favourite sports activity.

The capoeira painting was made with used coffee filters. A more Brasilian item of decor may not exist. How could I not leave it to my American-dominican-capoeiraplaying-wannabebrasilian friend in Timor?

Coffee press. I actually left behind two coffee presses in Indonesia. The first one I intended to leave so I already bought its replacement - a nicer version that I wouldn't be leaving behind. But the first one broke and I couldn't bear to leave my fellow coffee-lover without a coffee press.

My suitcase. This one may have been the hardest to part with. This suitcase has been to three dozen countries with me. I can pack it so no space is left empty and it still doesn't tip the balance of the airlines' weight limit. It first traveled in September of 2001 when I started this journey, and has stayed by me faithfully, through brutal searches, broken zippers, flooded baggage holds, long walks on rocky ground, and so much more. But when I arrived in Haiti, the repair job on the zippers was failing and the second-generation wheels were giving up. I hid it in a closet and walked out the door, refusing to look back.

This is a short-list, and none of these items are truly losses. I choose to believe that all are being used by people who appreciate them. And I already have a new coffee press! Actually this one was a gift from family, so I hope to not leave it behind.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

oof - growing into a manager

Today, as the day went by, I had at least three lovely blog ideas. Thoughts that I wanted to remember and that would be fun to write about.

An hour ago I sat down to write and couldn't remember any of my ideas. So I went to take a shower. In the shower, I thought of something else I wanted to remember, it was just a little snippet, but now I can't remember.

Ah ha! But as I wrote my OOF, I remembered.

The other day I dreamed that a member of my team was a baby. I had to take care of him and hold him in my arms. Caring for a baby was fun, that baby being a staff person was awkward.

That's it.

The life of a manager: caring for babies and a hyperactive brain that can't remember them. Uh oh.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It takes a village

Most of my young mother friends would dread flying alone with a toddler and an infant. If they absolutely had to do it, they would pray for a sympathetic stewardess and seat neighbours who were patient enough to deal with a little bit of crying.

If one of my young mother friends were so fortunate as to have a seat neighbour offer to hold the infant while she tended to the toddler, or play with the toddler while she fed the infant, she would be extremely grateful. If another seat neighbour carried the infant for her, she'd either feel eternally indebted, or she'd be scared of malicious intentions. Such an act of kindness would probably warrant, at the very least, a tweet or facebook update.

I'm not a young mother, but I'd imagine that this is how most young mothers of my Western cultural background would react.

Yesterday I flew on a plane with a Sue Dan Ese young mother from Elg. She was traveling back to rejoin her husband in the capital, after giving birth and spending her son's first 40 days with her family. After a moment of tearful farewell with her mother, grandmother to a big-eyed toddling girl and a cuddly infant boy, she was left alone with a purse, a shopping bag, and two children.

The young mother joined me in the women's waiting room and we chatted a bit. The daughter played the staring game with me for a few minutes. The baby slept and ate. Then other women joined us. One of those women took the infant in her arms while the young mother went to check on something at the check-in desk, and the girl went to play with another family in the waiting room.

When it came time to board, the young woman tended to her purse and shopping bag and held her daughter's hand. Another passenger carried the infant onto the plane, several hundred metres ahead of the young mother. When we sat down, the mother got her daughter in place, then received the baby back in her hands. After takeoff, the woman next to her took the sleepign baby in her arms. Since I was sitting near the mother, I got to hold the infant for an hour, as mother and other neighbour ate their lunches and napped a bit.

The mother seemed grateful, but not surprised, that all the other women on the plane took turns helping her with her children. If anything, she was surprised that I, a foreign woman, wasn't scared of holding her baby. But the other women from her village... well, they may be strangers, but somehow, they were family.