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: Finding Magic (part 4)

Skydiving
Photo by Skydive Switzerland

When I first watched my skydiving video, I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Even now, I find myself wishing for the removal of some frames and the addition of others.

The angles aren’t great, I stick my tongue out at one point, and I’m gaping and gesturing like a child. I’m embarrassed that I’m embarrassed, because isn’t it enough that I went skydiving and it was magical?

I want to control the way I look when I’m feeling a lot of emotion, or at least control how I look in the images meant to capture that emotion and carry it out into the world. I want to look open but not too open, happy yet composed, and please no awkward facial expressions or ugly crying or anything else untamed, unkempt, unhinged.

But the most moving photography of humans captures the real, raw moments. I have rarely seen such unbridled joy on my face as I did during the freefall, but I find it hard to see the beauty, to be moved by my own childlike, unmitigated wonder. I worry what others will think, that they will laugh or be uncomfortable, that I will laugh or be uncomfortable and miss out on every re-experience of Magic.

I wasn’t worrying about it at the time, but I was worrying in Alliance, Nebraska, a few weeks earlier. This was the day of the total solar eclipse. I wasn’t worrying about how I looked, but I may as well have been.

It’s hard to capture a moment and still remain fully present to that moment. That’s why I didn’t even try to photograph the eclipse. But I did want everything to be just so. I was aghast that the people around me proceeded to talk through all of totality, that cameras were clicking and distractions abounded. I wished I were on a hilltop, alone. I wished everyone was reverent and solemn in the ways I thought they should be reverent and solemn. I wished to fall into a sun-trance, but I seemed thwarted by externals.

Sometimes everything comes together splendidly, and yet it’s not enough. We feel too much or too little, or we look like we feel too much or too little, or our attention is diverted just enough that we feel, somehow, that our experience didn’t count.

I can never, it seems, experience something just once and be satisfied. The high demands I place on Magic are hard to fulfill.

And yet, Magic, Magic is everywhere. I have always loved the true stories of breaking through what we thought were barriers of the natural world, of going beyond where we thought we could. Apollo 13 was the first movie I saw in theaters, at age 6, and in college I jumped at the chance to take a niche course on the Space Race of the 1960s.

I am thrilled to the bones, moved to tears, by stories of these explorers and risk-takers. In these stories, there is a First around every corner, one moment and then another of breathless anticipation and water in the eyes. I watch my own skydiving video and I attach it to the more dramatic music in the company’s promo video, I attach it to Launch music and Leaving Port music and every other song I can think of that bespeaks adventure, so that the moment when the song reaches its crescendo is my Moment of leaving the plane.

 

No video or picture I’ve ever seen has done justice to the magic of skydiving, the magic of a total solar eclipse. They say a picture is a worth a thousand words. Dare I believe that collections of a thousand words could be worth pictures?

 

This is part four of a four-part series.

Part 1: Beginnings

Part 2: Eclipse

Part 3: Skydiving

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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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Listen to the Longing

Travel is lovely; travel is lonely.

I know loneliness very well … both the loneliness of a crowded room and the loneliness of my own room. I know the loneliness of being the only one and the every one.

I know longing too.

Many words are associated with these four weeks before Christmas, these four weeks they call Advent: Expectation. Anticipation. Hope. Waiting. Arrival. Come. Longing.

Longing.

One quarter of December I will spend simply getting from one place to another. Another two quarters, roughly, I will spend being in those other places. And this doesn’t count all the time spent preparing and recovering, the prologue and the epilogue.

This month, I will be spending a lot of time with the new and the old and the in-between. I don’t know if this will make the longing heavier or lighter than if I were to pass the time in my new home, in my new normal.

The longing that unites us Christians is the longing for Christ, the longing for all to be made right in a shitty world. I think of these words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

But there are other longings: For that to end which has plagued us for far too long. For that to begin which has evaded us for far too long. For grace in the long, long middle. For purpose. For peace. For love. For knowing deeply and being known.

The season of Advent is the first season of the church calendar. It is a beginning, of sorts, but it also meets us in the messy middle. Whatever longings we’re carrying when we light that first candle and sink into the cold and the light, the invitation is the same: To name it and sit with it. To not hurry past it or push it down or change its name, but to say, “This is what I’m desperate for. This is what I’m feeling around for in the dark. This is my ache.”

At least, that’s the invitation I hear, when I slow down enough to listen.

And after all the preparing and the packing, once travel is underway and there is little to do but wait and sit and be carried to distant lands, if you let yourself, time will slow down. You may find in yourself someone other than a list-maker, a doer, a blur among other blurs. You may find longing again.

And that longing, it is lonely, and it is lovely.

Gratitude & Asia & Colorado

Asia group
Some of my Asia people (Photo by Gonzalo Santillan, 2012).

I once lived in Asia. I remember the night we arrived, how we all trooped into the first apartment at midnight, how we took in every bright and dusty and unusual detail. How we had a few names and phone numbers, but we didn’t know anyone, not really, and we didn’t know this city.

Three months later, we didn’t just have our favorite restaurants and transportation success stories and the ability to navigate any dish with a pair of chopsticks; we also had friends. We wrote down the names of these people, the ones we spent time with in living rooms and cafeterias and zoos, the people we ate chicken feet and watermelon and birds-on-a-stick with, the people we invited over and out, the people who understood a little of what we said and those who understood a lot. We filled three sheets of paper with their names. We had them, and we had each other.

So much can happen between spring and summer.

So much can happen between one winter and the next.

I now live in Colorado. I remember the day I arrived, driving all the way up that narrow street and then tiptoeing around the patches of ice, how I lay on the floor and stared at the wood paneling of my ceiling. How I had a few names and phone numbers, but I didn’t know anyone, not really, and I didn’t know this city.

I think I will remember this first year in Colorado as I remember those three months in Asia, as a time bursting with color.

Not that there weren’t blue-tinged weeks. Not that there weren’t red-faced days and wet-faced days. But there were also more names than I expected. I wrote down the names of these people, the ones I have spent time with in living rooms and coffee shops and on city streets, the people I prayed with and played games with and had hours-long conversations with. The people I saw, and who saw me.

Even though I am so very much a work in progress, even though there are a thousand ways I can and have attached narratives of separation and disconnection to my interactions with other humans, I am grateful when my stubborn eyes are clear enough to see the good as well as the bad.

For those of you who made room for others this year, who decided that your lives weren’t too full to admit another, who were generous with your smiles and invitations and hearts: Thank you!

And for those of you who have been searching for your people, for a place at the table, for someone who will listen: Don’t give up. Please don’t give up. There are more of us out there than you know. Maybe we will find each other.

Some of my Colorado people
Some of my Colorado people (2015).

Day 15: Lectio Divina and a Lost Conference

flowersYou are planted here.

Those were the words I felt in my spirit during Sunday night youth group as I lay on the church sanctuary floor.

A few of us read Psalm 1 out loud, silently asking God to highlight a word or phrase or picture. Then we each retreated to separate corners to meditate and ask and rest in the living word with the living God. In other words, we practiced lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”), the ancient monastic practice.

Part of the third verse jumped off the page into my waiting self: “He is like a tree planted by streams of water.”

You are planted here.

Those words came back to me yesterday morning as I was fighting back tears of disappointment and frustration. A work meeting at 9 o’clock, 15 minutes of forgetfulness, and twelve hundred other women who were more on top of things than I was, and suddenly the IF Gathering in Austin, Texas, was no longer a possibility for me.

This was to be another adventure with a far-away friend, but more than that it was to be a coming together of women to be real together, to wrestle together, to ask questions and seek God and discover purpose and build each other up. And as the IF Gathering became less of a typical-conference thing and more of a stepping-out-in-faith thing, my excitement grew.

And then it was gone.

But folding hundreds of Share-a-thon letters in a quiet room is very therapeutic. I prayed and processed through this unwelcome turn of events, and my sadness and guilt and frustration melted into peace.

You are planted here.

The IF Gathering isn’t just a Texas-only event; it’s being opened to others around the world via webcast.

Maybe this is an opportunity for her to get to know people in Texas; maybe this is an opportunity for me to get to know people here.

“You’re always going somewhere,” I’m often told. I try to deny it, but looking back over the last year, back at England and Chicago and Alaska and Mexico and the Pacific Northwest and Pennsylvania (not to mention China the year before), I can’t.

Maybe I need this reminder that it’s okay to stay put. I don’t need a plane trip and a change of scenery to grow or make a difference or see God in a new way.

I wouldn’t have chosen it like this, but I am planted here, and I am at peace.

This is day 15 of 31 Days in the Word.

For God and Adventure

I’m not used to being the townie.

I’m used to raised eyebrows, exclamations of surprise, and “You’re from California? What brought you here?”

Today, I found myself in the most international classroom I’ve ever been in before, and it was in my hometown. Switzerland, the UK, Poland, Russia, Australia, Canada, China, India, Brazil, and Italy were all represented, with more than a few far-reaching states filling out the numbers.

I felt like I was home, that I had more in common with these people than I do with those who have always lived here and probably always will. I’m not as traveled as some, but I’m traveled enough. Enough for my heart to leap when the girl in front of me says she’s from Finland … when one of my teachers talks about her experiences living in China … when I hear an English accent.

People to dream with. People to reminisce with. People to stretch my wings with, as we gaze into the four corners of the future, hands clasped as we prepare for the day when we will fly.

Because fly we must.

For God and adventure.

Into the Mist

You can’t see the house from the road. A passageway, stark and sinewy in the winter, lush and inviting after the arrival of spring … it’s the 824 feet between a nondescript road in rural Sussex and my home for more than three months.

If you happened upon my blog any time this year, you saw that home, a stately English manor whose picture graced this page. Now, you see that passageway, facing not toward the house, but back out toward the road that lies hidden in mist.

One adventure has reached its well-defined end. Now, I’m stepping into the mist of an unknown future.

In a sense, I do know what happens next. I see the trees lining the drive, and though I can’t see where they end, I know that, for a time, I will be moving in a straight, unbroken line, perhaps at a slower pace than I would like. But it’s the right pace, and it’s the right direction. Maybe the road will curve shortly after I enter the mist … or maybe it won’t.

This blog has lain dormant for almost six months, forced into isolation while I was in China, but not forgotten. I have many things I want to say, many things I will say in the weeks ahead. But for now, all you need to know is that I am back.