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: Skydiving (part 3)

You will remember the buildup and the aftermath, but will you remember the freefall?

Skydive: Walking to the plane

I’m worried that I’m already forgetting what it was like to skydive. Skydiving is not like riding a rollercoaster. It is not like anything but itself. I watch the video of me, plucked from a handcam, plucked from the sky. I see big-eyed surprise and wonder, then joy, then contentment on my face, but in some ways it feels like I’m watching another person. Fear, too, makes it hard to remember what came after the fear.

But I remember enough.

“I’m going skydiving,” I would say, sounding nonchalant and confident. And I was nonchalant and confident, mostly. The continuum of fear, when so many continents and weeks lie in between, is barely a blip, makes it easy to sleep at night, at the beginning.

I do not sleep well, though, the night before. I writhe in the covers and chatter into the darkness, and even the peace of an alpine cliff top does not permeate.

Then the uncertain morning weather reminds me that nothing is inevitable, and after seven hours of working myself into a lather of anxiety, I am not sure if I want the delay to be temporary or permanent.

 

Finally, I arrive at the hangar in Interlaken with sixteen other people from at least four continents, not including the one we find ourselves on. We put on blue jumpsuits, gloves, and then the straps around legs, waist, and shoulders that will connect us with our other halves. We lay on our stomachs on the floor and practice tilting, bending, gripping. We watch the experts look at the sky, and we exchange rumors, and we wait. I meet people from Australia, China, Saudi Arabia, North America. I become less nervous, even as I meet very nervous people.

One plane holds about a dozen passengers, or six tandem pairs, or four tandem pairs and a few “fun jumpers,” or some other combination of novice and experienced. At last, there is more blue in the sky than white, and the rain is over, and we are moving in Swiss Time again. I will be taking the second trip up. I wait more than half an hour, watching people leave one way and return another, looking at first for the black dots in the sky, and then the blues and oranges and reds and whites of the parachutes, and the numbers always match.

My other half, Dave, is a man of few words, a 25-year veteran of the skies, someone to ease all manner of worries.

I am first on the plane, which means I will be the last off.

Skydiving: On the plane

My nerves crackle to life again as we assume our positions on board, as I pass through the door that will open again at 13,000 feet. It is me and a handful of American college students, now suddenly quiet. I smile for the camera, I peer out the window and try to admire Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, the peaks Jungfrau and Monch and Eiger, but then we are practicing positions for the jump, then the straps that had been attached at takeoff are tightened, then I am given a pair of goggles to wear that instantly fog up.

And now we are above the clouds that have been teasing us all day. The light goes on, the light that turns from red to green to tell us that The Time Has Come. The door opens, and each pair scoots to the edge for their Moment. There isn’t much time before my turn, only seconds. Not long enough, or maybe too long.

We move to the edge of the plane, the gaping hole, and I am being moved by someone else as much as I am moving myself. I know I won’t drop prematurely, we won’t leave the plane until he and I are ready.

It is not “jumping” like walking to an edge and moving my body into empty space.

I am compliant, somewhere between active and passive. For this to happen, I must walk and then crawl to a point, and then relinquish my semblance of control. I do not see where I will go, but I know where I will go.

Knees bent, hands gripping the straps at my shoulders, head tilted back, and I am ready for the freefall. I won’t see when he lets go, but I will feel it. There are a few seconds of hanging, of waiting, and then we fall.

We are upside down, but then what is upside down when you’re tumbling toward the earth? It isn’t as scary as I thought it would be.

I was afraid my heart would be in my throat the whole time, a mighty lurch, a reenactment of the falling nightmares everyone has, that I would have an iron grip on my straps, the compulsion to scream away my fears, because that’s what it would be like if the drop tower amusement park rides reached 13,000 feet into the sky, hellish Towers of Babel that really climbed into the heavens. Would I be breathing heavily and laughing nervously at the end, round-eyed and shaking and only glad it was over?

It’s not like that at all, not for me.

Skydiving is not 0 to 100 mph in seconds. You are on a plane, as you have been on many planes before, and then you make a directional shift, your horizontal journey becoming a vertical one. It is gentler on your insides that you would expect.

 

My heart jumps a small jump, then settles. I might be screaming a little, but if so the sound is lost in the wind, the wind that ripples my cheeks and whips my hair back and makes me grateful for the gloves. The world stretches out beneath me, more breathtaking than any concrete-sky jumble at amusement parks, and I have the thrill without the fear, or at least with only a low-grade sort of fear that tapers off. After a few seconds of holding my shoulder straps, I can let go, and then I am smiling big, arms outstretched. We are parallel to the ground. We might as well still be flying. I posed for the camera in my pre-interview, on the plane, and later after the parachute opened, but I was not posing during the freefall.

Skydiving: Right After the Jump

Skydiving: Upside Down

Skydiving: Freefall (mountain view)

We are even with the clouds now, level with white and blue and the yellow glow to the west where the sun will set in an hour or two. Close at hand are mountains with ribbons of snow, and others, farther away, that are full white and glorious. And below, getting bigger and bigger, is a carpet of green, grass green and tree green and blue-green, and it is hard to look anywhere other than down.

And then it’s time to slow down, after 45 seconds or forever. I’m jerked into a sitting position, and now I’m cruising along the sky, mountains now in my line of sight, conversation now possible. The dipping and spinning Dave now commences reminds me that it’s been entirely too long since I’ve had anything to eat or drink, and my stomach isn’t as strong as it once was, but it all works out.

 

I’m not an extreme sports kind of person. I don’t like downhill skiing or snowboarding. I’m not a fan of climbing rocks or jumping off rocks, and my particular history makes me pull back even from water skiing. I’m not usually someone who takes upon herself feats that others fear to do.

But if there’s anything that can give me the courage to leave a plane mid-flight, in a foreign country and surrounded by strangers, it is a chance to be among the wildest of beauty. Switzerland is the most beautiful place I have yet seen. Mountains are the most beautiful things I can think of, be they near or far, be they towering above me or under my feet or on the other side of the sky. This is the place to be my bravest self. If not now, then When?

 

After gliding in to a smooth landing, Dave asks me if I would ever do this again. Half an hour ago, I thought this would be a one-and-done type of thing. I surprise myself with the immediacy of my Yes.

“I’d rather be scared than sick,” I always say when describing my lesser-of-two-evils at amusement parks. But for that glorious minute, while falling to the earth, I was neither scared nor sick.

 

Skydiving: Freefall

 

All photos by Skydive Switzerland.

Video by Skydive Switzerland here.

 

This is part three of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 4: Finding Magic

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Running into Story

My drive to work is nothing special. It starts with a nondescript road, grey and industrial and mostly quiet except for the semi trucks that sometimes congregate at the stoplight. Only, if I remember to look down when crossing the river, down and to the right, I smile.

It’s my recurring phenomenon across the suburbs, across urban and residential areas, across the very heart of the city.

Certain intersections are dear to my heart, certain crosswalks and parks and even train stations. I once made meticulous plans to be at those intersections, to be at those crosswalks and parks and train stations, and when I find myself there again by accident, it feels like a secret and a surprise.

I should venture out of the city a little more. I should seek out longer stretches of dirt and fresher air and closer proximity to the mountains. Denver is big, but it’s not that big. It’s beautiful, but it’s not that beautiful.

But I love it. I love this way of discovering my town. I love making my own loops and dipping into tiny parks and looking in vain for a sign with my last name on it. I love involving public transit when I can, fiddling with my armful of gear in the mornings and keeping downwind from other people in the afternoons.

running selfie
My favorite selfies are the ones that bookend my runs.

More than anything, though, I love the stories that write themselves when I run — memories upon memories, tied to place: This is where I saw the deer, on that side of the snow-covered bridge in Cherry Creek State Park. This is where I almost cried listening to The Liturgists Podcast, these two laps around City Park on that hot March day. And the most common story: This is where I went the wrong way and got lost.

But I was always finding things too.

Some I found simply by going to certain places at certain times and paying attention. It’s the feel of the wind at night, warm and wild against my face, hours before the storm hits and the snow blankets everything. It’s the sight of the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen on the morning of my first marathon, a beauty undiminished even though everything else went wrong that day. It’s a series of quacks and rustlings and big skies and horizons. It’s life at its zenith, in me and out there.

sunrise
A sunrise so beautiful that even an iPhone photo does it justice.

I found within myself the usual things people find when they spend months training their bodies in strength and stamina, all the exhilarating and painful and confident and exhausting and stubborn things. I found a clarity that surprised me, an ease in decision-making while on the trail. I learned what I was capable of, and I learned when it was worth it … and when it wasn’t.

Not everything about running has been glorious or even good, but for many of the months I’ve lived in Colorado, it’s been one of the truest parts of my life. Even in the staggering and the struggling, the long middles and the early mornings, it was the X that marked the spot. So I look down and to the right, and I smile.

Running into Grace

shoes
Photo by Fe Ilya in Flickr’s creative commons.

I am standing at a street corner in the predawn blue. A gas station to my right outshines the few remaining stars, and behind me the green-yellow-red rhythm regains its usefulness. We are all waking up.

Ahead, the sidewalk curves into a trail along a river, where I will see deer and rabbits and ducks, and I will keep looking to the right, past the highway to the eastern horizon, and I will be grinning.

Most runs aren’t like this.

Mostly it looks like waking up at 5:30 and sticking band-aids on my blistered toes and putting in the time so I can cross off another box on my marathon training plan. It feels like sweat dripping into my eyes and wanting to stop.

I can feel the way my body has changed, I can close my eyes and taste glory, I can pat myself on the back for my dogged determination. But I can’t make it all feel worth it in the moment.

“I’m so over running,” I was telling people and telling myself. “I can’t wait to have my life back again.”

But then, once in a while, something happens as I go through the familiar motions of strapping on the waistband and the armband and curling my fingers around the water bottle. And then this something, this brightness and hope, carries me into the thick of it and whispers, “Remember.”

Remember that your body knows how to do this. Remember how strong you are. Remember that you have been preparing for this and you are ready for this.

On that 20-mile run, I remembered.

Two hundred and seventeen minutes after the gas station and the traffic lights, I saw the bridge that doubled as my finish line that day. As I passed into the shadow underneath and slowed to a walk, it was with the deepest sense of awe and completion. I felt not only the usual relief of being done, but the power of every step that had brought me to that bridge, of the birdsong and iPod-song that had kept me company, of the amazing thing this body of mine had done.

Maybe October 18 will mark my last race. Maybe distance running is my today, but not my tomorrow. Maybe these shoes, figuratively speaking, don’t fit me as well as others I have worn and will wear. But there will always be shoes that are even harder to squeeze into, seasons and circumstances that will burst upon me, that will blindside me, that will stretch me thin and turn me inside out.

And yet, even in the middle of the pain and the barely-hanging-on, the blisters and the ragged breathing, may I catch glimpses of grace and remember.

Reflections on 9/11

9/11 tribute
Photo by Kim Carpenter

Thirteen years ago, I was sitting in front of our thick computer playing a spelling game. I still remember the bright yellow on the screen.

I was 12 years old, in my last full year as a homeschooler, and it’s my only homeschooling memory I can pin down to a specific day.

My mom interrupted my game to tell me about two planes crashing into two towers in New York City.

That’s where I was when I found out about the 9/11 terrorist attacks: The first event to imbed itself in the minds of an entire generation. My generation.

At that age, I was in the habit of acquiring journals, writing a few pages in them, and then abandoning them. That night, I opened my current diary  one of those pretty ones with a lock and key  and wrote these words:

Something very awful happened today. Terrorists hijacked four passenger planes  gigantic ones. Two of them flew right into and destroyed the two buildings of the World Trade Center. … I’m scared that this might be the beginning of World War III!

All of us who were old enough to remember, old enough to understand, were affected by that day, weren’t we?

Thirteen years later, I have friends I laugh with and watch movies with who were no more than four years old when those planes did their damage. I marvel at how much can fit into the ten years between us, how events that I can never forget are events that they can never remember.

9/11 pulled me of my own little world and gave me a glimpse of a bigger one, of hurts beyond my own that became my own. This shouldn’t be a few-and-far-between occurrence. When pictures of brokenness creep into the corners of my vision, I want to open the curtains and look into the hurting faces until I can’t ignore them, until I have to do something about the pain because I’m hurting too.

May we weep with those who weep.