Finding Home

C-6

I was young. Really young. Married at 20, midway through my senior year at UCLA, planning a Big Trip soon after graduation. I looked forward to that trip with eager anticipation, eagerly awaiting a chance to Get Out, Get Away, Be On Our Own.

Actually, it was a bit more than a trip. It was a two-year commitment to live and work in a country far from our home in southern California, a two-year trek to a very different life, a very different place. I’ve written about it here (see the African Journey page up top to see those six posts) and I’ve mentioned it here and at other places around the web.

But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about what it was like to come home again, to find my way back to the familiar, to re-enter our larger family circles, this time as a new mom and a more thoughtful and experienced world traveler.

It was good. And it was hard.

It was good because I desperately wanted our brand new, 5-month-old daughter to know her grandparents and other extended family. It was good because we were eager to see where God would lead us next. It was good because we both come from loving, involved family systems and we had missed that. A lot.

It was hard for many of the same reasons. Going away for two years was one of the best gifts we ever gave our marriage. Both number-one children, each of us deeply infected with perfectionism and performance pressure, it was good for us to move very far away, where there were no family resources to rely on, where we would be forced to rely on one another and to make our way into a complex, new-to-us cultural venue — or two. Zambian and missionary cultures presented two very different sets of challenges. 

The first two months back found us in my parents’ small guest house — really my dad’s study in their backyard — with no bathroom and no kitchen. For two l o n g months, while we waited out the job search and began to resettle into 20th century American life. Overall, it was a good time, a rich reminder of the blessings that were ours because of the families in which we grew up.

But it’s always tough to move back in with your parents after you’ve left home, isn’t it? And my relationship with my mom has always been fraught with multiple levels of complexity. We love each other very much, but I gotta tell you, there is no one on this earth who can get under my skin like she can!

I began a lifelong battle with my weight while we lived there for those two months. All of my growing up life, my mother worried about how I looked. She had me taking diet pills in high school, sent me with cottage cheese for lunch, worried that I’d be both too tall and too heavy to get a man. 

And once we came home from Africa, beautiful new baby in tow, almost her first words to me were, “Gettin’ a little broad across the beam, aren’t you?”

And I had gained a few pounds with that baby. A few. But I look at those pictures now and I wonder — what in heck was she talking about?

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I’ve often wondered if my complicated relationship with food isn’t directly related to that kind of offhand, semi-snide comment from my mother. Mom’s fears about me took root and I responded in a strange and opposite way. I think maybe it was the only form of rebellion I could muster, because I was a very, VERY good girl while I lived in their home.

But once that baby was here — and another one less than two years later, and another one just 2.5 years after that? Well, let’s just say, something in me — both physiological and psychological — shifted, and I began piling on the pounds.

Eventually, my mom seemed to find peace with the ‘real me,’ and now, in her dementing years, she cannot stop telling me how wonderful I look, what a fine person I am, how proud she is of me.

And how jealous she is of me, too.

That last one has been a stunner for me, a slice of real-life cognitive dissonance that I haven’t yet fully internalized. We’ve been home for 45 years now — and I’m still finding my way.

Because coming home is hard to do. And finding home can take a lifetime. Emily Wierenga has written a brand-new memoir, releasing today, called, “Atlas Girl: Finding Home in the Last Place I Thought to Look.” It’s a rich memoir, laced with poignant story-telling and honest reflection. She, too, traveled far to find out that home was right where she left it.

I encourage you to read this intriguing story, to reflect with Emily as she discovers that her parents, whom she never felt loved her very well, truly do love her, with all their hearts.

Described as a ‘travel memoir, this book is actually a beautiful story of two marriages, her own and her parents’. And the revelation that sang to me was this one: when her mom became so very ill that her father became a primary caregiver, Emily’s parents found one another in ways both new and beautiful.

Emily has said elsewhere that her parents’ changing marriage became the beautiful one that it now is because her sometimes acid-tongued mom began to submit herself to her husband’s caring leadership. But as I read it, it seemed so much more than that. I saw a couple blossoming into newness of love because they each submitted to the other, in the process discovering each other all over again.

Emily and Trenton go through a long and often difficult process of rediscovery as well. And there, too, what Emily describes is a lovely journey for each of them, as they both learn to love and submit, love and submit.

It’s a beautiful book, one I recommend to you for it’s lyrical prose and it’s heartfelt commitment to truth telling. I received an advanced reader’s copy of “Atlas Girl,” and am grateful to have read it and more than happy to review it. Reading it prompts a lot of personal reflection on the meaning of home and what it means to find home after a long season of wandering. I encourage you to read it yourself. 

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Atlas Girl is more than a book; it’s a journey in which Emily Wierenga takes you by the hand and invites you into the broken places in her life. She shares the unexpected beauty God has created in those places as he’s made her heart whole again, and how he can do the same for you. If you’ve ever been hurt or gone through a hard time, this book will give you hope and a new understanding of God’s love for you.” ~ Holley Gerth, bestselling author of You’re Already Amazing

“The best memoirs combine the storytelling elements of a novel–smart pacing, tactile details, people you care about–with the deep insights and spiritual takeaway of great nonfiction. Emily Wierenga deftly serves up that rich blend in Atlas Girl, a nonlinear, wholly moving account of her life’s journey so far. Her honesty is raw, real. Her faith is hard-won. And when it finally pours out, her love–oh, her love soars off the page and makes a nest in our hearts. Brilliant and beautiful.”~ Liz Curtis Higgs, bestselling author of Bad Girls of the Bible: And What We Can Learn from Them

“This isn’t just a book, this is a journey. Of grief and wonder, loss and gain. Emily tells a world-spanning story that this world needs in Atlas Girl!” ~ Jon AcuffNew York Times bestselling author ofStart and Stuff Christians Like

An African Journey: Post Six – The Gift of Sight

A continuing series of reflections built around newly-scanned photos from long ago. From 1966-1968, we lived in Choma, Zambia, teaching school, running a ‘book-room’ (a small book store with a surprising reach, providing educational resources to the entire southern province), living in close quarters with missionaries and other volunteer workers and enjoying wonderful opportunities to travel and explore the great continent of Africa.

We were so young and our eyes were not as finely tuned as they are now. Too often, we didn’t know what we were seeing, we didn’t value what came to us as gift and treasure because of the remarkable place in which we were living and the truly gifted and committed friends who shared that living space with us. 

But when we took the time to move out from the schedules and the commitments, to travel and see the sights — that’s when our eyes finally began to open and we enjoyed brief moments of insight, clarity and wonder.
Driving through a wide variety of ‘game parks’ was a visual delight, a smorgasbord of color, imaginative creative detail and environmental adaptability.
From long-necked giraffes to graceful gazelles,
to the realities of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw,’
a beautiful impala, recently killed by a mama cheetah who had three hungry cubs to feed
we developed a deeper appreciation for God’s created order
and for the realities of wildlife conservation and its importance.
Almost our first weekend there, we traveled out into the bush for a baptism ceremony, staying overnight in this grass hut.
One night.
My husband was sick the entire night
and I was pretty much terrified.
Yet people around the world live in spaces like this all the time. How blessed we are to live with the creature comforts we do — and how valuable it is to experience even a little bit of what everyday life is like 
for so many people in this world. 
Watching a crew of strong African men create the building blocks for homes and hospitals brought the sober realization that our friends could not take a trip to the nearby home improvement center and purchase everything they needed for a DIY project. These adobe bricks required hard work, several days in the sun to harden up, and then the actual building could commence.
We were newlyweds while we lived in Zambia and it was important for us to remember that from time to time.
When our friends lived nearby, we took a couple of short trips together, just for fun and exploration.
This one was to the capital of Lusaka, enjoying the closest thing to a department store within a couple of hundred miles, admiring ‘curios’ being sold by the side of the road and making a stop at a beautiful roadside garden.
This is the president’s mansion just outside of Lusaka. Kenneth Kaunda was the first president of this new land and he remained in office for nearly 30 years.
After Lisa was born, we took that corrugated dirt road a lot further into the bush for a weekend with a sports-master friend who lived and worked 100 miles into the back country, near the Kafue River.
Dick was the sports-master at Choma Secondary School.
He also taught civics and a beginning business class called ‘commerce.’
This kind gentleman (whose name we have forgotten) came from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to work and support his family.
His family, however, did not make the move.
We enjoyed a great soccer match and a wonderful curry dinner, which he made for us in his small kitchen.
This bridge crosses the Kafue River, either just south of Lusaka or out further into the bush. Since the road is paved, I’m guessing we’re nearer to city life in this picture.
But this is a river shot from further in the back country
and this cheerful young man played us a tune somewhere off the paved road.
Early in our time there, we went with our friends to see Kafue Dam, one of the more modern wonders of this new country.
We were too naive to realize that swimming in a reservoir is not a great idea AND that the waters in this place contain really harmful parasites. Fortunately, we did not become infected.

While he worked in the bookroom, before he began teaching, my husband took a trip to the mining towns of Ndola, Broken Hill and Kitwe.
Copper mining was hugely important and the rise and fall of copper prices has wreaked havoc with Zambian economy for decades.
When he did begin to work at the secondary school, it turned out that my husband was an excellent teacher, investing heavily in his students. He found a series of exams published in Britain, designed for commerce and business students, and he helped his small class of about a dozen students prepare for and pass them. This provided them with some important certification of excellence as they prepared to move out into living in the 20th century, finding a job and supporting a family.
He also took his students on some excellent field trips.
A larger group went in the back of a big truck to see Victoria Falls, almost all of them for the first time in their lives.

And he took his civics class to the capital city to tour the governmental buildings and see first-hand how their new democracy was working.
It was his job as the sports-master, however, that brought him the greatest joy and enabled him to travel to a variety of different secondary school settings in our district. We had two champion distance runners, pictured below — and their names were Hercules and Samson. No kidding. 
And they were great runners.
We have tried several times to discover what became of these young men and others of those we loved while we lived among them. We kept track pretty well for about five years. And then the AIDS epidemic began in southern Africa and many of the students we knew were lost to that dreadful disease, most of them in the earliest years of its scourge-like impact on the continent, before we even knew what it was.

To this day, we are grateful for the experiences of 45 years ago, and we have been marked in deep and significant ways by our time living 
and working in a cross-cultural setting. 
At some point, I hope to write more reflectively about the missionary sub-culture and its impact on our thinking 
about how we did church in the mid-20th century.
There is much to criticize and regret.

But there is also much to celebrate and treasure,
chiefly the faithfulness of previous generations who came and built schools and hospitals as well as churches and chapels. Workers who believed that to be true to the gospel meant living it out in a holistic way, taking the good news to people who needed to experience it as well as hear it, 
who deserved education and health care 
as well as gospel tracts and evangelistic sermons,
servants who took Jesus’ own stated commission from the pages of Isaiah, who brought sight to the blind, health to the sick, hope to the downhearted.
The good work that continues in that place is built on that sturdy foundation and we thank God for it, and for them.

An African Journey: Post Five – The Very Best Part

There we were, minding our own business,
getting to know this new country,
these new friends,
this new work . . .
and then the world shifted.
Well, maybe not the entire world,
just our tiny corner of it.
And it took a while to sink in, too.
On the 4th of June, 1967, 
I wrote to my mom and dad and said this:
“I have been feeling lousy the last 2-3 weeks.
Attacks of nausea at odd times, extreme sleepiness
and a late period. I am going to see the doctor next week
to find out what the trouble is. Will let you know the results.” 

What can I say?
I was young and . . . naive? 
Let’s just say it . . . 
I was plain old stupid about the process of reproduction.
Yes, thank you very much, I did know how it happened.
I just didn’t have a clue what happened when it happened.
So . . . stupid?
Yeah, that about covers it.
My mother just laughed hysterically when she read that letter,  
and her diagnosis arrived about the same time the doctor’s did:
you are two months pregnant.
About four months along, sipping a Coke on the Garden Route in South Africa.
My husband’s parents and younger sister came to visit us and took us on a wonderful three week trip to game parks and other beautiful places south of our home. I will write another journal entry about our travels to other parts of Africa while we lived in Zambia.
About 6 months along in these two faded black & white photos.
So. We were pregnant.
DEEP breath.
And so, the thinking and the wondering and the planning
and the gathering began.
My doctor was an American,
a member of the denomination with which we served,
and his work and his hospital were 40 miles away,
over a very, VERY bumpy dirt road, out in the bush.
I saw him three times during my pregnancy.
My everything- you-wanted-to-know-about pregnancy reading was limited, 
to say the least.
A friend who was a nurse had an old ob-gyn textbook,
filled with pictures and descriptions of 
all that can go wrong in pregnancy and delivery.
Lovely.
Fortunately, there were women living in our 
neighborhood who had borne babies before.
In fact, over the next four months,
four other women announced that they, too, were pregnant.
It was an epidemic!
Those of us who were newbies learned from the old hands,
and somehow, we muddled through.
Our baby was due on January 9, 1968,
and I worked as a teacher through the end of the term in
mid-December, grateful for papers to grade,
students to love and exams to prepare.
We found treasures to be repaired and painted,
I created curtains out of fabric bought in our town,
friends sent me maternity clothes and baby clothes
from home, carefully folded into 9×12 envelopes.
Over the next few months,
the reality began to sink in:
we were going to be parents.
Yikes.
January 9th came and went.
January 19th came and went.
My 23rd birthday on January 23rd came and went.
I lay on the bed, weeping, convinced that I would have this oversized basketball in my body for the rest of my life.
At about 6:30 in the morning on Sunday, January 28th,
I woke up with a strong back ache.
I went into our bathroom/laundry room and
sat on the edge of the tub, folding clean towels.
I remember being overwhelmed with
the realization that my life was going to change
forever
by the end of that day.

I was, however, still stupid.
I stood in the middle of the lawn at about 9:30 a.m.,
watching my stomach ripple under my dress,
begging my cross-the-street neighbor 
(who was pregnant with #4) 
to tell me if this could possibly be labor.
She just looked at me and said,
“Diana, get yourself into the car and drive to Macha.”
So that is exactly what we did.
If you ever find yourself wondering how you might speed things along in early labor, I have a suggestion for you.
Find yourself a very bumpy dirt road and drive on it for about an hour.
I guarantee that things will pick up nicely.
We arrived at the hospital about 10:30 in the morning, went to a very nice room with a bath and my husband proceeded to talk to me about our travel plans for the summer, 
when our term of service would be ending.
I think I may have thrown the notebook in his face, 
but I can’t be certain. 
It’s all a bit of a blur.
At about 11:45, they wheeled me into the delivery room. 
Only, it wasn’t really a delivery delivery room,
it was a surgical suite.
The doctor was a thoracic surgeon and he did a whole lot of chest surgery out there in the bush.
They didn’t have a delivery table as such, 
just a surgical table,
and that sucker was hard.
His favorite nurse, who happened to be his wife,
gave me a small mask to put over my face with each
pain, a gas called Trilene.
I had no other medication.
At 12:12, just after noon on a glorious sunny summer day,
Lisa Ruth Trautwein entered the world,
a thick head of dark hair and a great set of lungs
announcing her presence.
And I distinctly remember sitting up on the table and
shouting, “This is fabulous! I want ten of these!”
As I said, stupid.
Sigh.
Winnie Worman, the doctor’s wife and an excellent nurse, holding our 1 day old daughter.
I stayed at the Mission until Thursday, eating in their home. Dick spent the first night with us both and then returned to school on Monday morning to greet his students.
The doctor himself (Robert Worman) with our beautiful girl.
With Winnie and Lisa, outside my room. The government asked them to add 5 private rooms and I got to be in one of them. The entire birthing experience cost us about eight dollars.
We had a rocky first night.
Because my husband was with me, the nursing staff left the three of us alone that night. I very quickly learned how much I did not know about mothering, 
and, once again, how much I did not know about being a woman who carries babies and gives birth.
My baby cried non-stop. Nothing would soothe her.
 And I was more than a little bit weak and wobbly from very normal blood loss that scared and surprised me.
Because, as I’ve said . . . I was terribly uninformed . . . 
Yup . . . stupid.
By 6:00 the next morning, 
I greeted the nurse on duty like a super-hero of some sort. She took one look at our girl and said, 
“Oh, this one loves to suck. I can see it. Try this pacifier.”
Glory be! It worked. From there on, it got easier.
In the picture above, Lisa is about 22 hours old.
I’d been up, showered, shampooed, curlered and combed out, (there were no portable hair dryers in the entire country of Zambia!) and in this picture, I am figuring out how to bathe an 8 1/2 pound human person.
Fortunately, she loved it. . . and so did I.
We brought her home and introduced her to our room and to the space that would eventually be her room.
Dick and I were both ecstatic, overwhelmed with gratitude,
sometimes anxious, but basically simply delighted
to be living with this entrancing creature.
She was, of course, the most precocious child in the history of humankind, smiling at 10 days, laughing big at two months, growing blond hair with dark tips.
Our African students adored her. I think she was the only newborn baby they had ever seen who had longish, straight hair, 
and they loved to touch her, to hold her, to stroke her head.
A Zambian friend loaned me her baby carrier and I used it as a pattern to make this one for Lisa and me.
There were no Ergo carriers in the 60’s.
In fact, American and European parents 
knew nothing about carrying babies on their bodies.
I learned about it from my African friends 
and I used this sling all the time.
From the time of Lisa’s birth until the time we left five and a half months later, I was called Bina Lisa by my African colleagues, most of whose first names I never really knew, as they were always called Bina —- (insert the name of their first-born child). I have been unable to find even one picture of Lisa with our African principal and his wife or with the students who earned pocket money by helping me with my ironing twice a week. (Remember ironing??) They are among a small set of pictures that we haven’t been able to locate as we’ve been scanning old memories into our computer.  But I have strong and happy memories of their warm acceptance of our baby and of the gigantic leap of respect our becoming parents engendered in the attitude of our students toward us.
This was Lisa’s favorite position, hanging upside down, sucking vigorously on that pacifier.
All five new babies near the end of our time in Zambia. 
Lisa was the only girl.
Our next door neighbors, Rosemary and Harry King, holding Lisa at a staff gathering. Harry took the black and white photos you see in this and other of these African Journey posts.

The Kings were from Virginia. Millie and Dave Dyck, our neighbors on the other side – and the parents of Michael, born 2 weeks after Lisa and pictured above and below, were from Canada. He went on to become the head of the Mission Board of the Mennonite Brethren Church in that country.
Michael must have been teasing Lisa to make her pout like that. 
Mom and babe on Easter Sunday, 1968. Is she not the cutest thing ever?? 
(Until her sister and brother were born, of course. To say nothing of all the grandkids…)
We did take a trip on the way home.
But by the time we actually left in June, that trip
had been shortened considerably.
We spent one week in Kenya, visiting some friends who were teaching there, then about 10 days in Switzerland (pictured above) and Germany, visiting my cousin and some friends from UCLA.
We were so smitten with our girl that we wanted to get her back to the arms of our loving families just as quickly as we could. And she was a great traveler, too . . . until our very last flight. From Copenhagen to Seattle, she cried almost the entire way, then settled down as we made the last leg into LAX. 
That little one was just plain done with airplanes.

We were greeted at the airport by grandparents, a great grandmother and a small horde of aunts, uncles and a smattering of cousins. 
It was a deliriously happy time and
I think we brought home the very best souvenir imaginable, don’t you? 

 Becoming a mother changed me in ways that are profound, 
in ways that I cannot articulate.
Carrying, birthing, nursing and tending three small persons is soul work, 
down deep living-life work, sometimes terrifying, always gratifying heart-work.
Meeting Lisa was my introduction to that work
and that meeting took place a long way 
from the only home I had known to that point.
There is a very real sense, however, that birthing her in that wonderful place cemented in my spirit, 
my heart, 
even in my body, 
this truth:
home is not a geographical place 
so much as it is an emotional space,
a spiritual point of connection and commitment.
All of her life, Lisa has been able to say,
“I was born in Africa.”
And we have been able to say,
“Africa was our home.”
And those two things go together.

I will happily join this long story with Jennifer and Duane:
 
And one week later, this will be my first entry in the Parent’Hood synchro blog, joining through Joy Bennett’s blog:



An African Journey: Post Four – An African Wedding

At our wedding reception in December of 1965, 
one of my husband’s oldest friends and his wife stood in line,  shook our hands, wished us well, and jokingly said,

Ray and Dick were born just a few days apart and ‘met’ at the church their parents attended when they were infants.
They went to high school together and were part of a group of guys who kept connected through college and beyond.
Finding out that they were thinking about 
traveling around the world the same time we were?
Astoundingly good news!

And that’s exactly what happened, eight months later.
Only their location was a little more in flux than ours,
we traveled on different ships,
and we weren’t at all sure where they would end up
once we all got there.
As it turned out, for the first few months,
they were housed at a mission station in the bush, about 40 miles away from us. To get there required driving on this dirt road,
the same corrugated dirt road that we traveled 
nearly two years later when I went into labor.
There were villages located all through this area,
and all of the people who lived in them walked or rode their bikes to the mission for two primary reasons:
to receive quality medical care or
to get married in the chapel.

Every few weeks, we would drive out that road
to see how our friends were doing.
Or they would come charging into Choma,
often on the motorcycle they bought their first week there.
Their presence was a huge gift to us. Huge.
This was the small rondaval they called home for those months. It was one room, with a corrugated tin roof and an outhouse.
And you may remember how we lived . . .
in a stucco and brick house, with three bedrooms and indoor plumbing. 
Plus, we had electricity about 80% of the time.
And yes, we did feel more than a little guilty about
encouraging them to come on this adventure.
They both wanted to teach school, 
so while they waited for an assignment, 
they lived at Macha Mission. 
Ray managed this workroom, and used his considerable mechanical gifts to repair all kinds of things.
Anita made herself useful wherever she could and was 
so delighted when they rigged up cooking equipment in their small home.
Prior to that, they had to eat in the main house,
with a tribe of other workers.
Once in a while, that kind of community is a grand thing – if everyone is moderately compatible and easy-going.
But three meals a day, seven days a week?
It can be tough sledding.

In about our third month there, we had a true adventure together. 
There was a wedding at Macha – and we were invited!
The wedding was scheduled for about 10:00 a.m.,
but didn’t begin until a little after noon.
Why?
Because in Zambia, it was customary for the groom 
to purchase the attire for the bride.
This groom didn’t have a clue about sizing and the dress
he selected for his small wife-to-be was about four sizes too big. 
The entire mission staff was busily trying to make adjustments 
so that this girl could come down the aisle. 
Many safety pins and an improvised cummerbund later 
(made from a cloth diaper) – and, voila!
It worked and somehow the wedding happened.
Some western traditions were incorporated – like the clothes and the attendants. But one custom was entirely Tongan:
the bride never looked up, never smiled. Ever.
This was the most important and serious day of her life
and she was not supposed to make light of it in any way.
And she did not.
Following the ceremony, we were invited to the feast held in celebration of the new family – at the groom’s village.
The women had been cooking for hours,
gifts had been gathered,
and the couple’s new hut had been officially decorated . . .
by the groom, with new clothing, fabric and other gifts for his lovely bride.
We drove over a bike path, then a cow path, then through a small stream, where we had to get out and push the Kombi-bus. The bride and groom hitched a ride with us, however, so we knew the party couldn’t begin until we got there.
The houses in the village were made of mud bricks, the roofs thatch. The smaller structures were grain storage bins because the staple food for this entire region is ensima, a porridge made from ground field corn. Every village kept a ready supply of the tough kernels in these small, raised huts, out of the reach of hungry warthogs and wandering cattle.
 In the morning, ensima is served thin, gruel-style. 
For meals later in the day, it is quite stiff and usually served with a relish – most often vegetables, but on special occasions, chicken or beef.
This was a special occasion and there was chicken cooking in the pots!
Meals were cooked communally and sometimes eaten together, 
sometimes in smaller family units.
On this day, we were ushered into the groom’s hut and food was brought to us.
We felt overwhelmed and embarrassed by so much special attention, 
but had been told ahead of time what to expect 
and to just receive this hospitality for the lovely gift it was.
The groom’s hut was not quite as large as this one and did not have windows,
but it was cozy and welcoming.
As I recall, I was not feeling at all well that day, but I was determined not to miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
You can just barely see that the groom has a good supply of both sugar and hand soap – high on the list of desirable products to own.
They brought us so.much.food – stiff corn meal mush and some stewed chicken to go with it. And we loved the enamel ware bowls it came in!
This was the view looking out the door of the groom’s hut,
just a snapshot of village life.
After everyone had eaten their fill, the party began.
There was dancing,
and there was singing,
and there was gift-giving.
Each gift would be danced up to the couple –
a five-pound bag of sugar,
a box of tea,
a bar of soap or a box of soap flakes.
Everyone was delighted to be there and showered this
couple with love and generosity.
 About six weeks after this remarkable adventure,
Ray and Anita were moved 500 miles south of us
to one of the oldest mission stations of the denomination.
It was located in the beautiful, rocky landscape of the Matopos hills in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Getting together got a lot more complicated.
We thanked God for the steam train and made the effort, however. 
And we got to see some gorgeous country in the process.
This is the school where Ray and Anita taught for nearly two years. They had indoor plumbing and generated electricity during daylight hours. They loved their students and made some long-time friends in this place.
Whenever we visited, they took us sight-seeing.
And there were such beautiful sights to see.
They came back to Zambia to visit us, too.
We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries together when we could, laughing and enjoying the long threads of our shared history.
Anita was one of the greatest friends of my life.
She taught me how to cook, how to laugh,
how to enjoy life.
She died one month before I began my life in Santa Barbara
and I have missed her ever since.

Ray was skilled at so many things and so generous with those skills! 
He and Dick shared many years of close friendship.
After we returned to the States, 
our families gathered every New Year’s Eve and Day,
and vacationed together several times.
Those ties were begun here,
in our bright red kitchen and their hilltop adobe home.
Ties that connected us heart to heart,
soul to soul.
Sharing such life-changing experiences binds people 
in ways that are hard to describe or define.
But I am eternally grateful for all of it – 
the experiences,
the ties,
the friendship.
I am so very glad we had this cross-cultural 
adventure when we were young, 
but I find that what I miss now that I am not-so-young is 
not the adventure itself, but that sense of long history with heart-friends. 
It has never been replicated in our lives.
And as I look at these old pictures,
as I read the letters I sent home,
it is this connection that I miss the most.
There simply is no substitute for it.
Thank you, Ray and Anita, for loving us well
and sharing our lives for so many years.
I miss you.

I will join this at Jennifer’s and at Emily’s and at Duane’s places. Also with Laura Boggess and with Michelle and Jen and the SDG:







An African Journal – Post Three: A Living Landscape

Where we are teaches us a lot about who we are.
I am a Californian, born and bred.
Oceans, mountains, deserts – 
these are in my blood,
part of my psyche.
Cycles of wet and dry,
hot and cold,
sail-filling winds and
soul-slowing stillness –
these are part of me now,
not to be separated out,
placed on a shelf somewhere
like a seldom-read geography tome.
The real geography of this place is part of my soul.
Perhaps that’s why the geography of a different place,
a faraway place,
never felt alien to me.
I ran to it, embraced it, let it fill me up –
as much as a 21-year-old is capable of such rapture.
It was dusty and dry much of the year.
And as a Californian, this look I knew.
But anything short of jungle could grow there,
and grow it did, all over the savannah.
 And all around the edges of our small neighborhood,
with its dirt roads and driveways,
its brick houses, wide-open sky views, flat-topped trees
and all that red clay, just beneath the dust.
Grasses of all kinds flourish in this climate,
turning brown in the dry season,
but bright green when watered by seasonal rains.
The cloud formations were breathtaking,
the ground fog during ‘winter’ was not.
Much like California, we enjoyed three seasons
in Zambia rather than four:
Hot and dry,
warm and wet,
cold and foggy.
 When we first drove onto the campus, we were flabbergasted
to see tall poinsettias – and they bloomed every year,
bringing spots of bright color to the green and brown.
The shady side of our new home encouraged calla lilies and 
coleus in every color combination.
The front yard featured a row of bright coral-colored
flowers I had never seen before –
gerbera daisies,
always twisting toward the sunlight.
 Our campus was completely flat,
making it an ideal space for soccer matches –
a sport new to us in 1966.
My husband learned it well enough to coach it;
neither of us learned to love it.
 We lived about two miles off of the Cape-to-Cairo road,
a main thoroughfare going north and south on the continent
of Africa. Our town of about 2000 was a delightful place,
where something interesting was always bound to happen.
 There was a hospital, a small elementary school,
two general stores,
a butchery,
a bakery
and a small book store,
run by the church we served with.
 Acacia trees graced the southern entry to Choma,
sheltering the post office at that end of town.
And the train stopped in Choma, too.
A steam train – just like the picture on the sign below.
And we rode that train about twice each year,
sleeping overnight,
waking with cinders in our hair and on our clothes.
It was in our local train station, the first week we arrived,
that I had one of the most profound experiences 
of my young life. 
My husband and I got separated for a moment just as a train pulled up. Surrounding us was a veritable sea of Africans,
waiting to meet friends and family 
or to board the train for a new destination.
Every single face around me looked 
different from mine.
Every one.
And like a shot to the gut,
I had just the tiniest inkling of what it feels like
to be the minority – for the first time in my life.
This is an insight that simply cannot be bought,
or even taught,
and I am grateful for it.
The bus stop was right outside the bookstore, 
across the street from the bakery.
Bags and babies hung from every window,
from every baggage strut,
and the energy of a newly born country
poured out into the street.
This is the local police,
and this is the fire department.
There was one house fire in the two years we lived there,
and this team successfully extinguished it.
One of the two banks in town, about to have its
name changed as the nation of Zambia was four years old
at this point. Any reference to its former name 
(Northern Rhodesia) was being eliminated.
Note the drug store next door – called the Chemist.
As a former colony, many Britishisms remained.
A young mom, baby on back, getting ready to cross the street.
I don’t think she had to wait long.
Every once in a while, a touring car would
whiz by, making a stop for supplies or refreshments.
This was a highlight for the local community.
We met Australians, South Africans, Germans 
as they were heading either north or south on the transcontinental highway.
At the other end of the transportion spectrum,
we sometimes saw this coming down the main street.
Cattle were visible signs of wealth in Bantu society.
The Tonga tribe was the main group living in the
southern province, and despite the fact that it was 
officially against the law of the land, 
brides were bought and sold . . .
with cattle – lobola must be paid.
These gentlemen are the tribal elders
and it was their primary job to palaver,
to meet and talk.
Every day. All day. About anything and everything.
I never did get used to that as a know-it-all
20-something.
Looking back as a knows-very-little-indeed 60-something,
I believe this constant communication 
contributed to the well-being of both the 
tribe and the family.
Things got thoroughly talked through
before hostility developed.
This nice looking man was proud to be the owner
of a rifle and he asked me to take this picture.
I was happy to oblige.

We lived at an elevation of just over 4000 feet and it was suggested that at least once a year, 
we travel to sea level to take a break, 
get a little richer oxygen and basically rest up. 
We did that exactly once.
My husband’s parents and younger sister 
visited us the second summer we
were there, and the five of us took a wonderful trip 
which I will write about sometime soon.
But one place we could get to in an afternoon
was about 120 miles south of us.
 From this angle, a peaceful river.
 From this one, a glimpse of why the local people called
this place, “the water that thunders.”
Victoria Falls, one of the wonders of the modern age.
Astounding, spectacular, magnificent – words fail.
Completely fail.
My husband took a truck load of students there on 
a field trip one year.
Not one of them had ever seen it.
Not one.
One hundred and twenty miles.

It is the landscape of a place that gets in under the skin.
The contour of the land,
the shape of the sky,
the colors of the plants and flowers,
the presence – or absence – of water.
And this is a landscape that fed my soul,
that invited me to grow,
that gave me hope,
that taught me about time and seasons 
and hard work and good rest.
This is the landscape in which I became
an adult,
a wife,
a mother,
a more careful critic of the church,
a searcher after God’s deep truth,
and a whole lot less of a know-it-all.
I am grateful.

Joining with Jennifer and Duane, if he’s open this week, 
Emily, if she’s open and Ann’s Wednesday group.
Better late than never, right??

An African Journey – Post Two: A Letter to My Younger Self…

 Standing next to an ant hill somewhere in central Africa, approximately 1966.

Dearest girl,


That’s what you are, you know. You don’t realize that, but I do. Looking back across these years, I see you. I see how very young you are. Twenty-one, newly married, recent college graduate, thrilled to be living your life, to be planning a cross-continental move, to be moving on, moving out, moving away. 

You’re a little bit full of yourself and your university education, especially those three courses in African studies you took that last semester, in preparation for moving across the sea. Three college level courses does not an expert make – believe me, it just does not. But then, you learned that within the first six weeks of moving there, didn’t you? Yes, you learned it the hard way. I guess that’s how all good learning comes, sweetheart. It has to hurt a little to be real.

I look at these old pictures and I know you’re a bit nervous about all that’s happened to you in the last few months. I see a smidgen of uncertainty, a frisson of anxiety. But mostly what I see when I look at your face is this wonderful truth: you are just plain gob-smacked with the freedom you’ve found in being married. 

You and he are on your own – and that feels grand, doesn’t it? You can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. Of course, there are limits to that, aren’t there? Limits of morality and common decency, which you both hold in high regard. But more than that, there are limits of believing and belonging, limits that you share, that you value, that you try to live. 

Following in the footsteps of the Rabbi from Nazareth has always been part of who you are, for as long as you can remember. Suffering growing pains as a 4-year-old, you told  your Mama one night, “That ol’ Jesus is down in my leg tonight and he’s hurtin’ me!” And you believed that with your whole, small heart. Jesus was there, living your life with  you. 

And walking down that center aisle of the old brownstone church in downtown Los Angeles, late on a Sunday evening the year you turned 11 – saying ‘yes’ to Jesus in front of your community of faith – that was important, significant. And you felt it deep down inside you as you drove home in the backseat of your parents’ car, staring at the street lights. You were filled with wonder that night – and so many nights since. 

Your heart was true that 21st year, this much I know. But I also know that your heart and your mind had a lot of traveling to do in order to communicate well. And then there was the matter of getting what you knew and what you felt to travel down your limbs to your hands and feet. Living what you knew, what you believed, what you began to allow yourself to feel with the truer pieces of yourself – that took years and years, and still isn’t done. No, not done yet.

Our once-a-week dinner with the students at Choma Secondary School.

But here’s what I want to tell you, oh, brave younger self. Here’s how I want to encourage you. You will break out of the mold as you get older and wiser. And you will make a lot of mistakes in that process. But you will also learn and stretch and grow and change and enlarge your heart and your mind and your spirit . . . and it will be wonderful. Difficult, painful, anxiety-filled, marked by loss, watered by tears and tears and tears . . . but wonderful.

You will push three living beings out into the world and love them fiercely. Those three will form you in ways you cannot even begin to imagine now, but count on it – their mark on you will be indelible. 

And while you’re at home, raising them and learning more about that Rabbi you love, you will begin the hard work of questioning much of what you were taught about who you are as a daughter of God, a sister to Jesus. And you will find answers from good people, from faithful people, people who’ve walked the road ahead of you. Some of them will be contemporaries; many will be much older saints, long gone to be with Jesus. 

If you could see me across these years, you might be surprised, maybe even shocked. Life has this way of getting both more complicated and more simple as time passes. Layer upon layer of love and responsibility get added as your family and friendships grow. But at the same time, much that is extraneous and unnecessary gets stripped away, leaving the bare bones beauty of truth, faith, hope, peace, love. 

You cannot see what’s ahead – neither the joy nor the heartbreak. And you can’t really see what’s behind you at this point, either. That takes time and work and self-care and you’re nowhere near that at age 21. You’re too busy living your life to look at it carefully. Give it a little time, however. You’ll start looking. And what you’ll find will surprise you, bring you to tears, fill you with thanksgiving and make you wonder about a lot of things. 

It will take time and scrutiny to understand the impact of an alcoholic grandfather on your mother and her parenting of you. It will take time and patience to look at the steely-eyed pressure your grandmother put on your father and how his reaction to that made a difference in you and your own family circle growing up. These things take time, they take maturity. But you’ll get there. You’ll always be getting there, honey. Count on it. 

Because that’s what this life is about. Truly, it is. We’re here to become human, to become the person we were designed and created to be – in a word, to look more and more like Jesus. And back then, you only had glimpses of all that, which was exactly how it should have been. Now, at this end of these years, I can say with gratitude that goes deep as the Marianas Trench – it’s all grace. Because it is, dear one. It is.

Love you – more and more,

Your older, wiser, creakier Self

Waiting for the bride at my nephew’s wedding, April 2012

Delighted to be re-joining Bonnie over at Faith Barista, whose prompt this week was a letter to our younger self. I’ll also check in with Emily at Canvas Child.

An African Journal – Post One: Beneath the Surface

With this post, I am beginning what I hope will be a series of reflections and rememberings about a formative part of my life and journey as a Jesus follower – the two years we spent living in Zambia in the 1960’s. As I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog, one of my primary purposes in writing here is to have a record for my grandchildren, most especially my two young granddaughters, a record that tells a little about who I am and how I got here. I so wish I had something like this from my own grandparents! I am deeply grateful to my grandson Joel Fischinger for scanning our 500 slides from that time so that I can access them for these pages.

The VW Kombi bus labored a bit as it climbed the hill just before the border crossing. Before us spread the great savannah of central Africa, dotted with trees and brush that were strange to our eyes, yet oddly reminiscent of our southern California home.
This label made us giggle. Yes, it was a BIG tree – a baobab tree.
 I look at these pictures and think, “We were such babies!” I was 21, he was 24.

“Look! What’s that?” I cried from the passenger seat.
“Honey, don’t tell me to look over there,” my new husband begged, with the beginnings of a quaver in his voice. “I can barely manage to keep this thing in the lane!”  After all, he was driving on the right side of the car and the wrong side of the road.
“Just slow down a little bit and look over there to the left,” I continued. “Do you see what I see?”
“Give me a sec,” he agreed, slowing the bus just a little. “Wow! What the heck is that?”
“Look, look, look! It’s a whole tribe of baboons! Slow down, oh, please! Slow down!”
 
We were too startled to pull out our tiny, square-format Kodak 126 camera when those baboons traipsed across the road in front of us. But here are two unrelated pictures of two different kinds of monkeys we saw at later dates.

And he did, mouth agape, startled to see an entire troupe of 50-60 monkeys serenely crossing the road right in front of us. Mamas carrying babies, larger males, young adults – the whole extended family was there – scampering, to be sure – but unafraid of us or our vehicle.
“Holey moley, honey! We are not in Kansas anymore!”
“You’re not kidding. I can’t believe it! Did that really just happen?”
We had traveled far to be in that van on a sunny Monday morning: California to Brooklyn by car, Brooklyn to Capetown by freighter, Capetown north through Rhodesia in a van to be shared with other missionaries, yet to be met.  We were on our way to Zambia, a land completely unknown to us, a land that would be our home for the next two years.
Married just 8 months before, we were young, idealistic and ready for adventure. It was the mid 1960’s and the escalating war in Vietnam brought deep soul-searching for many men of draft-able age. My husband had a unique up-bringing which led to an unusual choice, a choice which took him far away from the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“The draft” had been part of American life since the early years of WWII and the nation was heaving with discontent as the war in Southeast Asia continued to escalate. A saving grace in the draft process was the option to register as a 1-W – a person “opposed to bearing arms by reason of personal religious conviction.”
And that’s exactly what my husband had done. Raised as a pacifist, with family members on both sides vehemently opposed to killing for any reason, he had registered as a conscientious objector (CO) when he turned 18. He knew that meant two years of service offered in lieu of joining the military.
My husband wanted to do those two years somewhere far from home, somewhere that would require an element of sacrifice on his part, somewhere that the cause of peace could be served in a practical, hands-on way. Every 1-W during those years was drafted. Most of them chose to work within the continental US for their two years, but he wanted something different.
 
The school that would be our home and workplace from 1966-68.

And that’s what brought us to the center of Africa. Working with the Mennonite Central Committee, we would teach at a boarding school in the small town of Choma. The school itself was run by two denominations – my husband’s and one other, even more conservative in both dress code and theology. Given his own life experience, my husband had more than an inkling of what our life might be like.
I, on the other hand, had never heard of a CO before I fell in love with my husband. Intrigued by the idea – and thrilled at the possibility of a cross-culture adventure – I was eager to unpack, settle in and get to work. Both of us were committed followers of Jesus, we just came to that place down very different roads.
The small town of Choma, about 2 miles from our campus by bicycle or Kombi-bus. I’ll write more about Choma in later posts.

And now we were driving 1400 miles north on the Cape to Cairo road, blithely unaware of what was ahead of us.  Two fifty-gallon oil drums crammed to the top with wedding gifts – waiting to be opened and sorted; a campus and a town waiting to be navigated; new neighbors waiting to be met.
And most of those looked a whole lot different than I did.
Our home for those two years – cinder-block to distract the termites, 3 bedrooms and electricity most of the time. FAR nicer than the tiny 1-bedroom apartment we lived in while I finished at UCLA.

“Did you see how many of these women are wearing prayer bonnets?” I asked plaintively as we took a walk around our new, small neighborhood.
“And look at the length of those skirts! Wow, do I feel out of place! Who in their right minds wears long sleeves in weather like this?”
“Well, it is a little more ‘cloistered’ than I thought it might be. On the west coast, we don’t see as many with this sort of Amish look. But relax, sweetheart. I don’t want you to look like these women – I want you to be you.”
 We moved into a house that had been inhabited by missionaries on furlough. They planted this HUGE garden, which to my very young and inexperienced eyes looked overwhelming. We managed to keep much of it alive and put up 40 jars of tomato juice our first month on site.

Momentarily mollified, I fingered the pearls at my neck. They had been a gift from Dick on the day of our wedding and I loved them. Somehow, touching them from time to time brought back happy memories of that day and of the courtship that led to it.
I had always considered myself to be on the conservative side – modest in dress, wearing only a little make-up, hard-working and committed to my faith.
But here?
Here, I was a wild-eyed liberal, a hussy who colored and cut my hair, who wore sleeveless shirts and skirts at the knee. And jewelry. I wore jewelry.
What in the world had I gotten myself into?
 A staff Thanksgiving celebration, near the end of our time there.

“What’s this?” I asked my husband several weeks later, fingering a letter from the local denominational bishop.
“Um…well…,” he stuttered, dreading the reaction he knew was coming. “It’s a list. A list of things you are not to do.”
“A what? A list of laws? Are you kidding me?” And I burst into tears. For the first time in our nearly two months away, I was desperately homesick.
Dick folded me into his arms, sighing into my hair – my short, artificially colored hair – and held me while I sobbed.
Between hiccoughs and tears, I sputtered, “Are they really serious? I can’t wear my wedding pearls, even just to the staff gatherings? I can’t wear ANY make-up? I have to cover up my arms and lengthen my skirts?”
Slowly, I calmed down and began to let the shock dissipate a bit. Dick kept apologizing and patting my back, trying to assure me that I was fine, just FINE exactly as I was.
And slowly, I began to believe him.
“You know what? This is not going to work for me. At all. The jewelry thing – I get not wanting to look ‘rich’ in front of the students. I get that. But at Bible study, off campus, with just staff? I will wear my pearls once in a while, whether he likes it or not.”
“That’s my girl!” Dick smiled.
“And I’ll try to talk to the bishop about what I believe, about how I know and experience Jesus and see if we can maybe meet in the middle. What do you think?”
“I think maybe our friend the bishop has met his match in you. And I’ll go with you to that meeting.”
It was not the most comfortable 45 minutes of my life, but that meeting helped cement in my spirit the importance of being open to a wide variety of faith expressions within the Christian community. We both gave a little space to the other – I would not wear jewelry or sleeveless dresses in the classroom. He would not complain if I wore my pearls to Bible study or dressed more casually at home or in town.
Over the next two years, we lived in community well. A new bishop arrived, one with a few less concerns about dress code. And a few women actually cut their hair short and began wearing lighter-weight clothing, with shorter sleeves and hemlines. 

I grew up a little and began to see beneath the prayer coverings and the pinafore-style dresses and sensible shoes. To see the tender hearts and deep commitment of these neighbors who were fast becoming friends.
They introduced me to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking; I introduced them to homemade flour tortillas and ground beef tacos. We laughed, we loved our students, we commiserated over the obstacles in their way and celebrated their accomplishments. We realized that not one of us had it all figured out – and that God loved us all anyhow.

And I was never homesick again.

We arrived the end of August, had that meeting with the bishop in mid-October and celebrated our first wedding anniversary in December. One of our new friends baked us this cake and we had a lovely evening celebrating together.



Because this is an exercise in ‘playing’ with my past story, I’ll be connecting these posts with Laura Boggess’s invitation to a Playdate with God and with Laura Barkat’s In, On and Around Mondays. Also joining with the sisterhood at Jen’s place and a new one to me, Hazel Moon’s “Tell Me a Story”:

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