Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

Advent of Restlessness

mountains
Photo by james j8246 on Flickr’s creative commons.

I have a bit of a crush on Advent.

I buy things for Advent and I daydream about Advent and I want to spend as much time with Advent as possible.

And every year, I am disappointed. This isn’t because Advent stands me up, however, but because I make Advent stand in the snow, and put a Santa hat on her head, and fill her arms with enough books and music and art and calendars to make anyone topple.*

When will I learn that Advent is more about letting go and listening than strapping as many things to my body as I can?

Maybe this will be the year I fall all the way in love with Advent.

After all, I can relate more to Advent longing than Christmas joy. Give me poetry that makes me ache, give me songs that make me cry. Give me silence and take away the color and let us sweat and climb together. Maybe the sun will come out from behind the clouds for a moment, maybe we will glimpse the shore across the channel, maybe we will catch an earful of birdsong before we have to pull our hoods up and turn our bodies away from the wind.

I am restless. I am always restless. Even on my happiest days, I am restless.

I look for people who will take away my restlessness. I try to make something of myself. I cannot stop moving, but I know I must stop moving.

I think of St. Augustine’s words and I know, deep down, that I’m looking for God, somehow:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

I’m looking, but I have not found. At times, I think I glimpse something out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn, nothing is there.

The sky is overcast and I am so cold.

But I can breathe.

Maybe the real God is not who I expect. Maybe the real God doesn’t want to take me off my lonely mountain and stick me in a room where the windows are shut tight and all the furnishings are from a certain decade, a certain century, a certain school of thought. Maybe the real God is breathing the same air I am and likes the mountain as much as I do.

I pull hope into my lungs, hope fills my ears and streams from my eyes, hope dances with me in the darkness, hope sits with me in the pain. And this is what I love about Advent.

 

*Not that Advent books and music and art and calendars are unhelpful. Quite the contrary. I just tend to imbibe too many at once. This year, I will be sitting with my friend Cara Strickland‘s devotional calendars, a bit of music, and perhaps a book of poetry (any suggestions?).

Embers

embers
Photo by Javier Rodríguez on Flickr’s creative commons.

Work might be saving my life right now.

On one side of the weekend, the happier side, I sigh and let go and sink backwards into a soft chair. But then I don’t get up, not really. The loneliness and the depression are always waiting to welcome me back.

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here

I wake up on Tuesday, the feet on my back and chest still there, the sugar comas and screens still fresh in my mind in a hazy sort of way, and it is with the usual Monday dread that I think of my office, waiting for me. I pull my sluggish self up, I try unsuccessfully to pray in the car, and then I unlock the door and turn on the lights. Amid the piles of papers and the blinking red light on the phone, what’s waiting for me — again — catches me by surprise — again: relief.

Maybe I’m just losing myself in busyness, but I’d like to think there’s something sacramental in the movement of my hands, the microcosmic rhythms of meaningful work, the ebb and flow of order and chaos. Either way, this is my balm.

Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

As usual, the sun shades are pulled low over the windows, and I can only see dark shapes from my swivel chair. September did not feel like fall, but it was cold enough in my car this morning to turn the heat on intermittently, and it was cloudy enough to set aside the sunglasses. I hear the rain, sometimes, and I write October 6, 2015 on forms, and I think that “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Hours later, the coffee shop next door closes for the day, sequestering itself behind its metal wall. The chairs are empty and the staircase is empty and there is no movement behind most of the doors. Real darkness descends beyond my shrouded windows, but I am not there to see it. Instead, I am in my windowless cubby of a file room, separated even from the idea of people by two sets of doors, and I am softly singing Christmas songs.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

I marvel at what a difference twelve hours can make in reanimating ashes, turning back the clock to make live coals pregnant with promise once again. But maybe the clock isn’t going backwards but forwards; maybe this is a resurrection.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

I am singing louder now, in my car, and it’s yet another reminder of what music is capable of doing, how it fills and quickens and whispers. And yet it isn’t music that is saving my life, and it isn’t work. But maybe, just maybe, there is something in the pulse of both that holds the key to resurrection.

Living the Joy

_DSC0150Today is a day of joy.

But it’s not Christmas yet.

No, it isn’t. Neither is it any sort of long-awaited day circled on my calendar. There are days I’m looking forward to in the weeks and months and years to come, some of which are attached to definite dates, while others are still fluttering in dreamland.

But I’m not there yet, and I don’t want to live my life in a constant state of assuming that the greatest joys in life are in some future, far-off place. As I get to know people more, as I get to know God more, our relationships won’t be the same. They will get better. In that sense, the best is yet to come. But I don’t want to just bide my time until the conditions are perfect, because the conditions will never be perfect. Not in this life.

I don’t want to lose sight of this journey, this beauty, in a rush to get to a destination. Because the only destination that bears the resounding finality of crossing the finish line in a race is death, and even that is debatable. All the other “destinations,” all the events, the milestones, the turning points, expand the original journey, they don’t complete it.

And yet there is beauty in expectation. There is beauty in waiting. There is beauty in Advent.

In this waiting time, this “now and not yet,” I can find real joy in that just-as-real “now” even as I wait for what is “not yet.”

I don’t think I will ever stop reminding myself how important it is to seek God not as a means to an end, but as an end in Himself. Not as a means to having a more fulfilling Christmas, or being a better person, or finding out my purpose. The noblest of ulterior motives is still an ulterior motive, and it doesn’t compare with the pure joy of knowing and loving just to know and love.

It’s not just about five days from now, or 55 days from now, or five years from now. It’s today.

Take Me to the Manger

I get excited easily. Especially this time of year.

But something has happened since I stopped eating from the children’s menu and started wearing make-up. Something bad.

Each Christmas, I feel it. I see it. Hopes are raised, lists are written, traditions are sought after. I dance the dance, but find myself disappointed and cynical at the end of it all, as torn wrapping paper covers the living room floor on the 25th of December.

We must do all the traditional things. We must saturate ourselves in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Christmas. And if it snows, so much the better!

I’ve been chasing after an experience, hoping to catch the joy, to feel the excitement, to revive the Christmas spirit I remember from my childhood … to dance around the manger with all of my holiday paraphernalia.

But even if I watch all the right movies and bake all the right desserts and put my tree up at the right time, even if I devote all my time to finding the best, most generous and unexpected gifts to give and play only the most reverent of Christmas music, I won’t find what I’m hoping to find.

I’d rather have Jesus.

That’s why, this year, I’m celebrating Advent. Not as a piece in the puzzle, a means to a fully gift-wrapped, gingerbread-covered end. But because in Him is the only true joy. Because He is the one I want, the one I am waiting for, the one I will welcome.