Last time to sing and play with a worship team I love.
Last time to drive through the cobblestoned streets of Antigua.
And in those lasts, it has been a time of remembering the firsts.
I remember the first weeks I spent here and how I thought I'd never, ever conquer these streets with their confusing one ways, their lack of street signs (navigating by landmarks is a must), and their oh-so-strategically placed speed bumps and cement blocks and ridiculously tight parallel parking "opportunities." I thought I'd never learn to get somewhere without being lost. And don't get me started on the offers to "watch my car" for me, the guards with shotguns. But...I did it. I conquered...or at least survived...Antigua's streets and even ventured into the No Man's Land of driving in Guatemala City.
I remember the first time I whizzed through the Bodegona in less than 10 minutes. Of course, that doesn't count the waiting in16 people deep line time. I learned to actually NOT be surprised that the rice and brown sugar were sold next to the milk, or that said milk was already past its sell-by date. I learned to celebrate when the oregano I needed was actually in stock!
I remember the first time I sang in Spanish with April (our worship leader). It was hard enough to play and sing in English...but Spanish? Gulp. How would that ever work? And now, when I hear worship songs during my visits to the States, I sing along to them in Spanish rather than English.
I remember the first time I went to the market with my friends Dayle and Tonja. I followed them through the labyrinth of booths and thought I would never, ever be able to navigate the market, much less bargain and carry my 30 plus pound bag of produce out. And now, I go every Saturday and buy amazing produce for my family and...well, ok...I don't carry it. I bring Steve to do that part, and every Saturday the ladies in the market laugh when I call him my "muchacho." But I do it.
So I'll go back to the States feeling stronger, more confident, more sure that I can do hard things. And isn't that what life is? There are so many hard things....so many good and wonderful things...but pain and hurt and just plain life all mixed in with that. And often we think we can't possibly EVER do THAT thing...but we do. We are carried from strength to strength by our faith, by our friends, by our family, by love, by grace...and we find that we can do things we never thought we could.
Thank you, Guatemala, for teaching me that I can be more than I thought I could ever be. Thank you for helping me grow up, helping me see outside of myself, helping me learn that I don't need to be afraid of the next challenge ahead.
And that I can now parallel park with the best of them.
I was washing dishes. Something it seems I am always doing. And side note here: why is there a magnetic attraction between a newly emptied, clean sink and newly dirtied dishes? I'm fairly sure that the Evil Dirty Dish Force is out there, whispering throughout the house, "Mom just finished all the dishes! Quick! Dirty another one! The sink must not get lonely!"
But I digress.
So, in the midst of my dish-doing, I was absentmindedly washing something I use every day. The Big Green Bowl. Now, this baby is a monster. I have no idea where I actually got it. I think it was part of some elaborate slap-on special at the Bodegona (Definition: A slap-on special is when two items which are remarkably disimilar are slapped together with tape and sold as a hey-buy-this-thing-you-need-and-get-something-you-don't-need-at-all gimmick. The best example I can give is dish soap slapped together with refried black beans). So. I have owned this bowl for the four years I've lived here, and it started out as a sink substitute. Our house had a small, single sink, so I'd wash the dishes in one and then stick them in the bowl to rinse. Then, it got promoted. It became my disinfecting bowl.
Waaaiiit...maybe I should explain, in the rare chance that not everyone has a disinfecting bowl. You see, the good news is that we can buy amazing, beautiful, inexpensive, deliciously ripe produce every week from our mercado (market). The bad news? Well, let's just say that I've seen all manner of rodent, insect and reptile crawling all over said produce in the market. One time I saw an iguana in the fruit. Yep. Not even kidding. So, because of that, and because of the fertilization used (a.k.a manure) and the less than sanitary methods of transporting the produce, there is a huge risk of parasites being transmitted. Everything we buy has to be more than just rinsed off, a la Publix. First, I use water to rinse the especially dirty things, like herbs, and then I use filtered water and some sort of liquid cleaner to soak the veggies or fruit. I've done this for 4 years, and while it might not sound like a big deal, it can make cooking dinner a challenge.
I'll spare you the details of the treks to refill the water filter, the frustration when the water goes out, the way I'll just skip a recipe if it calls for too many herbs/ingredients to disinfect, but it is fair to say that this Big Green Bowl (BGB) has heard many a word of anger and angst coming from my lips over the years. It has been filled and refilled and dropped and cleaned and had more than one unwelcome insect fished out of it.
So, in my dishwashing moment the other day, I thought..."I can FINALLY get rid of this bowl! I'll be able to go to the store and just buy something to eat and wipe it off, or rinse it off and plop it in my dinner!" I was euphoric! Visions of driving my car over BGB, burning it (does plastic burn well? nevermind), dancing around it and burying it in the depths of the trash raced through my mind! Yes. I admit I might have extraordinarily strong feelings on the matter. But. But....
I paused. Maybe...maybe....
Maybe I should keep it.
Maybe I should. Because the thing is, I don't want to forget. I want to remember how it feels to work hard for my family's dinner, to think about where the food came from and how there are people who grow it who have so much less than I.
I want to remember, as I traverse the beautifully laid out produce aisles of Trader Joe's, that there was a day when I pushed through crowds of people and walked over not clean, tiled floors, but rotting produce and trash in order to buy my food.
When a sweet friend asked me today, "What can I pray about for you, heading back to the States?" I didn't even have to stop and think about it. I knew. It was that I will remember. That my kids will remember. That we won't just slip back into the "American dream," but we will be forever humbled and grateful and changed by what we have seen.
So I think I'll keep that stupid bowl. Because with that sitting in my kitchen there is a constant, tangible reminder of the things I hope never to forget. It will look right at home next to those dirty dishes.
Being a military wife for several years, I learned an art I wish I'd never had to learn:
How to say goodbye.
When we (and yes, it is "we," because it involves the whole family!) were in the military, we knew that we would only be stationed somewhere for 2-3 years. When we met someone, one of the first questions we asked was, "How long have you been here?" If they were already a year and a half into their time at a base, we knew that there wasn't a lot of time left to get to know them. But, we learned to take the risk. To open our hearts and jump right in and make the most of whatever time we had with someone.
I lost track of how many goodbye parties were had, of how many hugs and promises to keep in touch were given. And it never, ever got easier.
Now, we face that dreaded word again. Living in Guatemala has reminded me of the feeling of being part of a military community. There is a fraternity of sorts among our missionary friends here. Our missionary friends can laugh with us at the cultural differences and yes, frustrations, we face. They can cry with us through misunderstandings and miscommunications. They understand what it is to not know how much money will be in your bank account next month. They (and don't read this if you're squeamish) will sit in a public place and discuss the lab reports of your parasite tests with you. They get what it is to miss family, to miss the holidays, to make new traditions and do your best to make it just as wonderful when, really, a piece of your heart is always with your loved ones far away on those days. They GET how wonderful Starbucks is...and how being there just feels like a taste of home. No judgment at all.
It's an amazing group of people that I will hold close in my heart forever. I read a quote recently that encapsulated it perfectly: "The relationship is always worth the goodbye." (Lauraleighparker.com) These friends have made the hard days lighter and the good days richer.
And then there are our Guatemalan friends...the ones who have shown us how to get around Guatemala City...well, we still get lost. The ones who have been patient with our Spanish and only laughed politely with us when we completely messed up our words. The ones who have invited us into their homes on those holidays that were difficult for us. The ones who have spoken truth into our hearts and allowed us into theirs.
I think...no, I know...that our four years here have taught us priceless lessons and made us grow up.
My kids don't take the little things in life for granted.
I have become an expert driver. Ok, scratch that. A reckless driver.
We have experienced what real, fresh-from-the-farm bananas taste like.
We've learned to live without our favorite TV shows and, somehow, survive! And learned to play games and take walks together.
We've learned what a luxury it is in most of the world to own a car, to have running water, to have pretty consistent electricity and internet, to own books!
We can and need to celebrate the multitude of ways in which we have changed. We want to leave with gratitude, with knowing that, despite the small ways in which we have tried to make a difference in lives here, we have been the ones changed. Rocked. Flipped Upside Down. In such a way that I hope we never recover.
Thank you, Guatemala. We will carry you with us forever. What you have given us is worth the goodbye.
Coffee. Gym. School. Errands. Except, I added in a visit to Paso a Paso...a little school in the village of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, a school where many of our missions teams have gone to help.
I rode a bumpy and completely-off-the-map ride with a group of IDC women through the town and entered the small complex. I'm always amazed at how simple these schools are. No metal detectors. No choir rooms. No gymnasium. And no soccer field...I thought. Until a little lady, clothed in indigenous garb, began to spray down the dirt-covered common area that was smaller in size than my living room. She wet it with a hose until it wasn't as dusty, and then...then...the real business of the day began.
I had thought we were there to be thanked for all of the work our teams had done, but, in reality, we were there to be schooled. In futbol.
I joined my team of ladies who were nearly all dressed in skirts and I thought I, as a runner, would hold my own. Boy was I wrong. These ladies work hard. All day. Every day for their families. And they know how to play hard too.
I lost count of how many times my elbow hit the cement block wall or how many times my shin was kicked or how many times the ladies yelled "mano!" (hand) or argued vehemently with the referee (aka the poor man who got roped into the job) over a goal.
These ladies were all in. We laughed (I couldn't tell if they were laughing AT or WITH me), and we ultimately won, despite a few toddlers wandering onto the "field" and a few kicks into dusty corners or fragile trees.
There was no spiritual lesson, nothing I could give them. But as we played hard and then stood around afterwards and simply talked, I realized that that is all that is required. To talk. To share. To be in the moment with them. Not to think about all I COULD have been doing back at my house, but to laugh with them at the shortness of my name (most Guate women have 5 or more names...keeping their father's name and adding on), talking about how many kids we had, making jokes about our cultural differences. That was all they wanted. And all I wanted.
They didn't want a program or an extravagant, spreadsheet-laden plan. They wanted to spend the afternoon with some ladies who, despite their differences in skin color, were actually remarkably similar. Kids. Food. Exercise. Politics.
God, help me let go of my agendas and simply be present where You are working. In a village. On a dirty soccer field. Not for myself, but for the love of people and of You. Amen.
In every family, there are stories that, over the years, have grown and mushroomed into tales of near-legend which no longer bear much resemblance to actual fact. My family is no exception.
Perhaps my dad's favorite with which to regale guests at the family's B&B, church, let's face it...complete strangers is the story of his grandson's birth. I had been in labor for a mere 36 hours in a military hospital. For you civilians, this means that your doctors are garbed in camouflage and you address your doctor as Colonel. Very comforting. After much discussion and debate, a surgical delivery was decided upon. But then the committee of officers decided to discuss some more. Don't mind me. I'm just sitting here in my hospital bed in excruciating pain. After many more back-and-forths and votes and talks, my mom politely asked to speak to Dr. Colonel in the hallway and informed him (did I mention politely?) that it was time. We'd made a decision. It needed to happen. Now. Politely. And it did.
Of course, when Dad tells this story now, Mom has put a Five Star General into a chokehold and has taken siege of the hospital by the mere sound of her voice.
My older brother has inherited the embellishment gene and likes to embarrass....er....amuse my parents by informing everyone that HE learned to swim this way: my parents dropped him off at the local YMCA whereupon his captors...er...instructors simply looked him in the eye and said, "Time to swim." And then they dropped him in. Sink or swim buddy.
My mom always corrects the story with a kindler, gentler, possibly more truthful version. But my brother's story always gets the laugh.
His experience, fictional or not, has come to my mind a lot recently. Life is a strange and circuitous route of brief periods of calm, where I am simply floating, and then other stretches of Class 4 white water rapids where there is no time to catch my breath and no time to even think about how to paddle. Instinct and a lifetime of habits, good or bad, kick in. When the stretch of calm comes again, I can look back, inhale for a moment and think about how I handled that intense water. But I can't think for long, because there is always another rapid around the bend.
The last few years, with their health difficulties, cultural challenges, financial stresses and relational navigations have felt like one rapid after another. I was talking with a friend about it recently and she mentioned that she often felt guilty for being stressed over her problems when so many have it so much worse. It's true. I feel that same twinge. But the thing is, my deep waters ARE deep waters to me. And hers are deep to her. No one is given the same boat, the same river or the same passengers.
The trick comes in how to make it through those deep waters. Many days, all I want to do is survive. Swimming? Eh. Overrated. Paddling well? I'll figure that out later. It's sink or swim time.
I don't have the "Sunday School" answer for that. Many people will quote things like Romans 8:28 or say, "This too shall pass." And that might bring comfort to them. For me, I have found strength in two vastly different phrases. First, simply repeating, "This too shall be made right," a lyric repeated to me not long ago (Derek Webb song by the same name). I might not always believe it, but I say it until I mean it, and I can see the calm waters ahead. Justice. Wrongs made right. Mercy. They will all come someday. And then there's the less-spiritual-but-just-as-helpful Spanish phrase I hear a lot..."poco a poco." Little by little. Not just surviving but sticking my oar back into the water even when my arms are exhausted. Moving forward. Forward being the key word.
So I'll keep paddling and maybe, in those rare moments of calm, I'll turn to the others in my boat and say, "Let me tell you a story about these rapids I went through once." And proceed to exaggerate my way through the tale. Because what's a good story without a little embellishment.
I have one New Year's resolution, and it may sound a wee bit odd.
I want to keep my expectations low.
Yep. That's it.
Now, in the past, I would have seen that as a negative, as another chance to look at life through a cynical lens, but now...now....I see it as a gift. I learned this, as I learn most things, from my children.
On New Year's Eve, we decided to do something as a family, since we'd had a lot of time apart travelling the past few weeks. We packed everybody up in the car, swimsuits on and goggles in hand. Now, you have to understand that we are former Floridians and we loooove a good swim in the pool or the ocean. There, we used to live in a neighborhood with a community pool which, upon our arrival, quickly became a just-our-family-pool as the retiree neighbors ran away. I'll never understand why the arrival of 3 kids with noodles, squirt guns, homemade parachutes, boats and rafts would bother them. But I digress.
We also had one of the country's most beautiful beaches 10 minutes from our house, conveniently located across the street from the world's best donut shop. Needless to say, we frequented the beach....ah...frequently.
In Guatemala, we have missed the water. The beach is an hour and a half away, and while it is undeniably beautiful, the waves are rough and the sand is black, volcanic stuff that I find myself digging out of my kids' ears for days after. We enjoy it, but it takes a village to get there.
So. Back to New Year's Eve and the Great Pool Expedition. We were willing to cough up some extra quetzales and do what it took to enjoy a little sun and water. We oh-so-non-stealthily dragged ourselves, our beach bag, and our three slightly excited children into the local well-appointed, posh hotel and presented our desire to pay for the use of the pool.
Ummmm....No. Not that day. Turns out there were so many guests in town that the pool was closed to outsiders such as ourselves.
Ok...I was quite disappointed, but, having been a mom for just a few years, didn't let it show and turned to console my children...only to find that they were completely nonplussed by the whole thing. Their dad informed them that we would try another hotel, so we loaded all the children plus aforementioned gear and towels back into the car and drove to our next destination.
Ummmm.....No. Not that day. Turns out you had to purchase a lunch buffet...pay $20...blah, blah, blah.
Having been a mom for a few years, I turned to console....what?? My children were still nonplussed. Getting a little sad, but still....maintaining a ridiculously positive attitude. It's tricky when they act more mature than I do.
Finally...we ended up at a glorified cement pond near our house....and my children splashed and played like it was the most upscale, four-star pool they'd ever seen. Nobody complained, nobody whined about the fact that the water was a frigid 70 degrees (did I mention we're Floridians?? We're used to 90 degree heated pools!). We ate our PB&J's and made fantastic memories together.
Watching my kids splash around in what, for most middle-class kids, would be a boring place (no slides, no kiddie pool, no diving board), I felt prouder of them than I can describe, and more convicted to be childlike. Keeping my expectations low. I thought I'd learned that here, but I often use cynicism disguised as low expectations, and that's just plain being negative. If I am truly approaching my life as a gift, I will keep my hands open and my eyes up and look for the gifts along the way...not expecting them, but celebrating them when they happen, even when they don't look exactly the way I'd planned they would.