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.

The Sun and the Sky: Eclipse (part 2)

I dreamed about the eclipse several times before August 21st. Sometimes they were happy dreams: The sky did strange things, things that would never happen in the waking world, but I was there to see them. Most of the time, though, they were anxious dreams: I wasn’t able to find a place to stay along the path of totality. Traffic held me at a distance until it was too late. The weather was bad.

And it wasn’t just my dreams that held a sense of dread. I, who had known about this event for ten years, I, who should have known better, didn’t think to find a motel until most of them were gone. The eclipse was still months away, and I was already doing it wrong.

It was no longer a little secret between the sun and me; now, everyone knew, and they were just a little bit faster.

I was still an eclipse apologist, converting people and counting the days, but all the worst-case scenarios hung about me, the reminders that foreknowledge was no guarantee.

So there I was, spending the night on a field in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, hoping like everyone else in this 60-mile stretch from coast to coast that I had won the weather lottery.

Sun peeking out of clouds
8 a.m., three hours and 49 minutes before totality.

 

I wake up engulfed in cloud. Dribbling fog hides the sky, but there is hope, stronger than before, that the sun, the wonderful sun, will burn it all off long before midday.

Living in Denver, Colorado, the sunshine is our most familiar meteorological feature. Rain and even snow are welcomed as visitors, but the sun melts and dries and acts as if nothing else ever was or would be.

The beginning of an eclipse isn’t First Contact, when the moon takes its first, tiny bite out of the sun. No, it’s that morning when the sun comes up over the horizon, it’s when the clouds part and the sun, the whole sun, fills your world, and it’s a better pick-me-up than coffee, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” must have been written for this time.

For the sun to disappear, it must first appear.

Less than ten thousand people live in Alliance, Nebraska. The main street is long and wide, and to the south is the train yard. As another train, probably a coal train, thunders by, I wonder aloud how many young people growing up here had, at one time or another, wished to take a train Somewhere Else.

The evening before, everyone seemed to be Somewhere Else. Traffic was light. A roadside booth and a K-Mart clothes rack showcased eclipse souvenirs, but otherwise the town was going about its rhythms with little interference, unless you knew where to look for the tents and the RVs.

And now, Monday morning, everyone is Here. Our makeshift campground begins to fill and the downtown coffee shop is already full and out of food.

You can’t see the sun from the big windows there, but you can see above the storefronts, and the ratio of blue to white is tilting in our favor. I sip hot chocolate or tea, one of the two, and I duck out once or twice to call my parents and look up.

My parents are with extended family in Albany, Oregon, doing the same thing I’m doing. They are an hour behind me, but today they are roughly half an hour ahead. I don’t reach them, but then it is time to put away the board game and get off main street, time to drive fast to the outskirts, me in the passenger seat opening the sunroof and tilting my head back, watching, watching for The Moment, but it is still minutes too soon, and we don’t miss anything at all.

me viewing partial eclipse
11:02 a.m., 47 minutes before totality.

Here comes the moon, do do do do.

A man on a loudspeaker announces First Contact, and for a few seconds I can’t tell which direction the moon is coming from. And then there it is, and the orb is no longer quite an orb. It is like seeing the moon go through its stages, only faster and more dangerous.

I have never seen a partial solar eclipse before. The closest I got was in Shanghai, several years ago. An annular eclipse would begin in southern China after sunrise, then cross the Pacific Ocean and pass over my hometown in northern California before sunset. I was thrilled at the chance to see the same celestial event my family would see from the other side of the world, even if only in partial form, but it was not meant to be. City lights and city smog shielded the sky, but perhaps it was just as well as I had no way to look at the sun safely.

Today, I have my eclipse glasses and they have theirs. We have both traveled to see this sight, and it is now that I reach them, for a few minutes when I am seeing a small sun and they are seeing one smaller still. We watch the waning together, and then I leave them for their totality and wait for mine.

I sit and stare for a few minutes, and then jump up and put on sunscreen, or throw a bag in the car, or look around at my fellow sun-gazers and this bit of green we are choosing to remember for the rest of our lives. It is about an hour and fifteen minutes, this pre-show, but it goes by so quickly.

 

Little by little, the lighting begins to change. There are no trees to cast strange shadows, but it is as if it is overcast, the sun behind a thin cloud, and then a thicker cloud, but all the actual clouds pushed to the edges, the sun high and alone at midday but for the moon. I need my sweater and I can’t contain my joy.

All that light becomes an ever-more-focused sliver, and it looks a manageable orange through my glasses, not the fiercest yellow that ever there was. And there is so much strength even in this tiny ray.

I know in my mind everything I’m meant to be watching for, everything I want my surroundings to be so everything will fall away, everything except the sun and me, and we will have our little secret again. At some point, I forget about my lawn chair and it’s impossible not to be standing.

In the last seconds, the light goes slant and otherworldly, the sky darker but the ground brighter, like sun and smoke, or sun and storm, and then we can look up unprotected, or nearly, as the last of the fierce yellow glint disappears.

 

And there it is, the black moon, backlit by the sun’s corona, a soft whiteness that in some ways resembles the nighttime moon, but is its own wild and beautiful animal, not a reflection but a reveal.

We are caught somewhere between dusk and nightfall. It is pink at each horizon, and we are the epicenter, suspended just before birth or death or both. For right now we are in the front row seats, and there are no rows behind us. The world had changed slowly, almost imperceptibly, for over an hour, and then everything happened at once, and now time is stopped for almost two and a half minutes.

If I could only look at you for two and a half minutes, how much would I remember of the features of your face?

Is that enough time to memorize the features of the sky?

Everyone around me is talking or taking pictures or both, but I am silent and my hands are still.

This new world is only ours for seconds, and then everything will happen at once, again, and it will be gone.

 

When the sun comes back, the sun I knew before, there are fractions of a second when it doesn’t seem so bright, when I can take in the light on the edge, before I have to tear my eyes away for their own sake.

We are ready to leave and so we do. I open the sunroof again and watch the sun grow back. I call my parents and we are mesmerized together by our memories. I keep looking up, and the saddest part for me is when the partial eclipse ends, and wherever you look, it is as if nothing has happened.

 

This is part two of a four-part series.

Part 1: The Sun and the Sky: Beginnings

Part 3: Skydiving

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark {a review & giveaway}

Me and the book

How do you know God is real?

Because you’ve felt him.

Until you don’t anymore.

Addie Zierman’s second book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, officially came into the world one week ago Tuesday. It arrived on my doorstep that night, and as I absorbed myself into it, I found myself within its pages. Like her first book, When We Were On Fire, it took me to familiar places, hard places, true places.

Like Addie’s debut, Night Driving is a memoir. This one chronicles a spontaneous road trip she took two winters ago with her two young boys, to escape the darkness of her even-colder-than-usual Minnesota home for Florida light … to escape the darkness and emptiness inside her to maybe, just maybe, find a Light she could take back with her.

The book flits between past and present, and I was carried along on interstates and into strangers’ homes. I was carried to beaches of yesteryear where fire lit the sky, lit the heart, and to beaches where the rain thundered down, where nothing was as simple as it used to be. Night Driving is achingly beautiful; Night Driving is achingly real.

It seems fitting to be writing about this book in the cold of a Colorado blizzard, in the darkness of Holy Week, in the sparseness of my own soul.

The morning after I finished the book, I found myself flipping back, a few chapters at first and then all the way to the beginning, filling three pages deep with quote after quote. I was going to share a few of my favorites, interspersed with reflections on why these particular words are meaningful to me … but then I realized that you don’t need my words right now, that what you need are Addie’s words, full stop. And so, here they are:

“In the dark kitchen, I feel as if my eyes are finally beginning to adjust. And I’d forgotten that this is how sight works. We move from someplace very bright to someplace very dark, and for several minutes it’s very hard to see. But then the pupil expands and the rod cells engage, and the whole eye is flooded with rhodopsin, and we can finally absorb photos, perceive light. I’d forgotten that we are made like this. We are equipped to see not only in the light … but also in the darkness. It just takes time to switch between the two.

And maybe this has all been nothing more than part of the natural process of things. I spent the formative years of my life, my faith, looking straight into the Light. It only makes sense that it would take my eyes a while to heal from that burning and to adjust to a world that so often is dark. But now I’m sitting at the kitchen table, blinking in the darkness, and God’s presence doesn’t feel at all like fog lights or romance or smoke or fire. It is as steady and commonplace as the wooden farm table between us, at the floor my feet brush against, the slant of the oven light barely illuminating the table. It’s almost pitch-black. I’ve never seen so clearly.”

Night Driving, pages 195-196

“I feel like I’ve spent the last several years twisting and turning the puzzle pieces of my faith, trying to get them to plug up that ‘God-shaped hole’ that is still throbbing like an abscess in my heart. But it never seems to go away – no matter how long I sit there, Bible in my lap, staring out the patio door of my kitchen, waiting. … ‘All sins are attempts to fill voids,’ Simone Weil said, and at some crucial point that I can’t actually remember, I figured out that burning down your own life felt strikingly similar to being on fire. That if I couldn’t shoot the gap via that bridge which is the empty cross, at least I could pour wine down into it. Such an easy shortcut. Such a simply fix to get tipsy on cheap cabernet and smile at some guy on some street and feel myself float to the top of that gaping, empty space in me – at least for a little while.”

Night Driving, pages 126-127

“It’s like this: Once upon a time, I learned that God came like light. I spent a long time, head against the window, peering into the darkness, praying for God to come like a spotlight, like a fire, like some wild laser show in the pitch-black sky. I learned to fear the darkness, and when it came, I struck myself against everything around me trying to make sparks.”

Night Driving, page 208

“I hadn’t understood, then, that love doesn’t always look like romance and faith doesn’t look like fire and light doesn’t always look like the sun – and that this matters.”

Night Driving, page 209

You can find out more Addie and her book at addiezierman.com, and you can find Night Driving on Amazon (or wherever you buy books).

Also, a GIVEAWAY! I have a copy of Night Driving that I’d like to give to one of you. If this book sounds like it’s for you, simply post a comment on this blog post, and you will be entered in the giveaway. On Easter Monday, I will randomly select one winner (so make sure you include your email address in your comment, so I can contact you if you win).

UPDATE: The giveaway has ended. Thank you to everyone who participated!

When You Miss the Darkness

dark church
Photo by n3wjack on Flickr’s creative commons

Is it strange that I miss the darkness that sucker-punched my soul?

This was four years ago. I was living overseas, six months split between two continents, saturated in Christian community that was young and fiery and expectant. I was young and fearful and depressed, but this was my chance. This could be my cure.

One day, we left our drafty English manor with its roast dinners and familiar faces and small groups for the Midlands, for Coventry, for Evangelism Week.

During the day, we threw ourselves into creative evangelism and indirect evangelism and woo-woo evangelism. At night, friends and strangers slept beside me on the carpeted church sanctuary floor, but I couldn’t sleep.

Do I really believe what I’m trying to get everyone else to believe?

The door was opened, and oh what blew in! I lay on my half of the air mattress and tried to keep my breathing steady and my body silent. For the first time ever, I was seriously considering walking away from Christianity. And my soul gaped and gasped and trembled as it realized what all that would mean. This wasn’t a drill.

At the time, I would’ve given anything to close that door.

Now, I want to open it again.

The darkness was wild and terrifying and bleak, but it also blew away illusions and assumptions and meaningless hypotheticals, at least for a time. I learned how to be honest with myself and others, how to be awake to my own soul. What I learned in the dark, I carried with me into the light. The darkness was fierce, but so was the light, and I wonder if they needed each other.

Today, I’m so tired. The darkness is not a sucker punch to my gut anymore, but rather weights on my chest that keep getting heavier and making it harder to breath.

Every so often, something breaks through the fog. Every so often, a Lenten hymn or a line in the Creed will catch in my throat, catch on something inside me, and I won’t feel quite so tired that evening. But all too soon, I’m drifting off again, and it’s getting harder and harder for anything to rouse me.

The loop starts again, that cynical loop, whenever anyone bumps the “Play” button. But by now I’m bored by the sound of my own voice. I’m dragging, dragging, dragging, and experience tells me that nothing will happen unless I can somehow make it happen. Someone asks me if it’s faith or fear that keeps me here, and I don’t know, it’s all tangled together. I’m too tired to try anymore.

This is not the darkness that blows open doors and knocks me flat, for good or ill. Rather, this is the darkness of closed doors and stale air. Maybe one day I will find good in this too, but I can’t help but think that the door needs to open again, whatever may lie behind it now, even if it scares me. Even if I die a sort of death in the process.

Who knows what the morning will bring, or the evening.

 

This post is a part of Addie Zierman’s synchroblog to celebrate the release of her new book, Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark. Read other entries here.

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.

In which I tell you about my depression

Here I am in the darkness, and I can’t muster the strength to wave.

Of course, that’s not really true. If it really were coal black inside me at this very moment, I wouldn’t be able to type these words, never mind lift my hand in some half-hearted greeting.

But it comes, this darkness, and I am afraid of my feelings.

So very thin, so very fragile, is the distance between “okay” and “broken.”

In college, “depression” flitted at the edges of my mind and in my Internet searches, but I rejected the notion. It was something else. It was insecurity, it was stress, it was my spiritual state.

This time, there is no doubt, no explaining away, no alternate narratives.

It came without warning as I sat at the table with my lasagna and the people I had been so excited to see again. It came, and excitement left me and I couldn’t follow the conversations around me and they were a million miles away and I shut down and curled inward and wanted to cry. Later, I did cry.

It came gradually as I walked hand-in-hand on dark, wet nights and wrote pages and pages in my journal while everyone slept. It came, and so did fear. All my certainty left me and I thought of things being shaken and falling away, and soon even that clarity was gone too.

It came like a brick, like an anvil, like a dementor, as we got in the car and prepared for a long drive on that rainy night. That terrible rainy night.

There were respites between the storms, and even a day or two when I felt like my old self again. But it never truly went away, and eventually my body began to wear down too.

I’m home again, and it looks different here. Duller edges, familiar motions, the quiet breaking and forgetting and existing.

I want healing, and I’ve been pursuing it a little. But mostly I’m still holding back, clinging to my defense-mechanism isolation, becoming almost a mechanism myself.

I know healing is so much more than those little white pills they gave me. That word, healing, seems so gentle and soothing and right, but when you stop the sideways glances and look it straight in the eyes, you realize how hard and messy and uncomfortable it will be.

Here I am in the darkness, and I want out, but I don’t know and I’m afraid.