Making It Home

So much happened in the world while I was away from my family last week.  I tried not to see or read about all the death piling up on various continents because I felt naked and small without the comfort of my children’s faces in my Paraguayan hotel room.

But I knew.

I’m home now and I’m sad and grateful.  Sad that so many will never hold their children again in this life and grateful that today I am holding mine.

Life is short and I’m choosing to be thankful for what is in front of me for as long as I have today.

It’s possible (normal?) to be both sad and thankful, I’m finding out.  Maybe the sadness makes the thanksgiving realer, somehow.  All I know is, I still have Hope.  And that He is good even when life is devastating.

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Ordinary Deaths

My kids got an up close taste of death yesterday.

It’s not like they didn’t know it existed before this.  We’d seen the lifeless body of a woman floating face down in the river in Nepal once.  We’d watched bodies on biers move past us on their way to funeral pyres in India.  We’d passed dog carcasses wearing blankets of flies, the smell of them slapping us in the face as we walked to a friend’s flat.

And in the US we’ve been to funerals, stared into open caskets at faces that don’t look asleep.

We’ve had to peel our beloved dog off the road and bury her before her time.

But yesterday was different.  It was a shock and, though it’s something that happens every day in the world, it reminds us that we aren’t home yet.

An Addendum

People think that if you’ve been up close to suffering, human or otherwise, that it puts things into perspective for you.  That you pick your battles carefully, that you don’t get bogged down with petty sorrows because you know how bad things can really get.  They assume that you’ve had to grow a little tough, or else go crazy.

Maybe all that’s true, to some extent.  But I’ve found that experiencing the suffering of others (in India, and in other places) along with some of my own, has given my heart stretch marks, instead.  It’s made it baggy and soft and able to hold more–more sadness, probably, but I hope more love, too.  My heart’s weaker than it used to be, and less efficient.  I cry too much about things that used to escape my notice.

But that’s ok.  It’s a price I’ve been willing to pay in order to get down low, and I don’t regret it.  And, anyway, it just means that things like this,

DSC_1452are more apt to make me smile.

So here’s to those of us with worn, flabby hearts that can’t keep things in proper proportion.  I’m trusting there’s a reason for softness.

Surviving America: A Dog Tale

Somebody stage an intervention.  She’s writing about dogs again.  And reverse culture shock.  And finding a new normal.

…My husband and I didn’t want a puppy after returning to the US, but our kids had begged us for months. Living in India for three years had provided us enough adventures to last a lifetime, we reasoned, and we didn’t need to add a dog to the mix. After all, we’d visited the Taj Mahal, and piled on top of elephants, the five of us riding together. We’d celebrated Diwali with our neighbors and attended a friend’s lavish Sikh wedding. We had lived with monkeys, rats, and mongooses…

Read the rest here.

The Beautiful Ache

We are back in the swing of things.  Once again we sit at the table and complete math pages.  We make our beds, conjugate verbs, fill up the dog bowls.  The arrhythmia of Fall break has corrected itself and our daily heartbeats are steady now.

My favorite time of the day is something I call Morning Time.  I bummed it off of Cindy Rawlins, who’s done things I haven’t, better things, with more kids.  Morning Time in our house consists of a short Bible reading, followed by discussion, memory work, and prayer.  From there we move on to poetry readings.  I love a good, solid line from a poem about something.  I love it so much that I think I’ve made my kids love it, too.  Or they’re  faking to hurry things along.  It could be that.

After poetry I read to them a chapter from a work of fiction.  Sometimes it’s a collection of short stories (I recently read some of Canterbury Tales to them but left out a few, er, things).  But mostly it’s a novel.  We finished Old Yeller the other day, barely.  I say this because I started choke-crying during the first half of the second-to-last-chapter.  Travis hadn’t even shot his dog yet.  I sat on my bed, blotchy-skinned, hair in pillow clumps, and gagged out story words from behind a balled up fist for fourteen pages.

Even as it happened (because I float above my body and observe myself now and again) I knew it was probably unnerving for my kids to see me crying as if my heart would break, crying like I did when I was twelve and grief was its own sort of pleasure.  Still, I could not stop.

In due time each one of my children began crying, too, including the thirteen-year-old boy.  They wiped their eyes and buried their heads in my bedspread as Travis ended the life of the dog who had saved his.  When it was over we sat in silence.  We were Travis, and we couldn’t believe we’d erased our old friend like he was nothing.

“Are you going to be OK, Mom?” my middle son asked after a while.

“No,” I replied.  “I mean, in the long run, yes.  Short term, no.”

“I feel bad,” he said, “even though I knew how it was going to end.”

“Isn’t that just the way death is?”  I rubbed my right eye with my ring finger so as to not further discourage the skin around it.

“I guess.”

“But, you know what?” I said, straightening, “it was worth it.  That was a beautiful story, well-told.  It truly hurt, and I’m impressed by that.  It’s worth the ache in our chests, isn’t it?” I rested my hand on his bony shoulder.

“Yeah.  I guess you’re right,” he muttered and stood up from his place on my bed.

I watched him leave the room.  I thought about how I meant what I said.  It was worth it.  Is worth it.  I’ve already accumulated a list of regrets in my life, things not done, words spoken in haste.  But sharing these stories with my children, these exquisite labyrinths, is not one of them.  I’ll never regret the fleeting moments when we sobbed and laughed at the written word in the quiet of my bedroom.

I trust they won’t, either.

Our Gangly, Spread-Out Tribe (and why we need it)

Malcolm Gladwell gave a name to the desire we have to locate our ‘people,’ those who are like us in some way, those with whom we feel an affinity.  He calls this the urge to find our tribe.  He explains that our tribe can be the people we live with or those with whom we share a deep connection.  Once we’ve discovered and connected with these people we feel better about the world–happier, safer, more understood.

Our tribe can be, and probably is, made up of people who share our interests.  For those of us who are people of faith we find something of a ready-made tribe in our houses of worship.  We share similar outlooks with the people we find there–on life, on the nature of reality, on God.  Even in church, though, there are no guarantees.  There are plenty of lonely people in the pews on Sunday mornings.

Our tribe can be our family members.  In some sense, it always is.  I’m blessed with a close-knit family.  They’re supportive in good times and bad.  My two sisters are the people I call most often.  I used to give little thought to the idea of finding a tribe because I assumed it was my biological family.  In many ways it is.  And yet…

After my husband and I moved overseas we felt like we found it.  We found our tribe.  They were young and old, they had large families, and were couples with no kids.  They were from Mississippi and New Mexico.  They were doing well with the local language.  They were completely inept.

They were missionaries.

They understood the joys of care packages full of beef jerky and Starburst candies.  They knew why those of us in certain countries couldn’t be on Facebook in the Fall to witness the advent of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Lattes–again.  They commiserated with us about airports where the electricity goes out and people spit on the floor.  They laughed with us as we swapped stories about second (or third, or fourth) language gaffes.  They understood that you can meet a person in a strange country who remembers a certain park in a city near the one you grew up in and that, as a result, that person can become your friend for life.

We came back to the States, a tangled mess of grief and relief.  I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I felt deep loss, the loss of our tribe who were going on without us.  That feeling hasn’t gone away completely.  But God is good and, ever so slowly, he’s helping us to gather our tribe again on this side of the ocean.  We’re adding them one by one.  We can tell them a mile off.  It’s something about how they order food and talk to the waiters.  Or how they look a person in the eye and want to know their story.  It’s how their eyes fill up with tears for people they remember, how their hearts are shaped like continents.

Our tribe is spread out now.  It’s right here and way over there.  But we have one.  And slowly I’m feeling happier, safer and more understood.

Who’s in your tribe?