Wednesday, July 30, 2014

going native

{Digging up a laugh from the archives four years ago, after our first year living in this village...}

Take a good long look. Make sure you catch the whole ensemble, including the blue long-underwear and fleece-lined crocs… this is the new me. 

I have finally arrived. 

I am officially enculturated. (Is that a word?)

The backstory: On Monday, my new house helper asked me why I wear “real clothes” (meaning a long skirt or pants and blouse) around the house every day.  Local women here wear housedresses pretty much all the time, made of light cotton in the summer and velour in the winter. They only put on “real clothes” if they’re going “out”, and walking up the street to the local shop doesn’t count.  My helper wears the same black and green striped housedress every time she comes to our house to clean (I wonder how often it gets washed…)

Anyway, I made the lame excuse that I haven’t had time to get any clothes here, so I’ve just been wearing the clothes I brought from home. 

(Which is sort of true—we’ve only been to the big city once since getting back, and we steered clear of the humongous bazaar where they sell local items like housedresses. The rest of the truth is that to be honest, I've had zero inclination to buy a housedress—I didn't think I’d be brave enough to wear it outside the house, and I didn’t want to have to change my clothes every time I popped out to the shop… plus housedresses in general are not very attractive, in my opinion.)

SO, since my wardrobe was obviously sadly lacking, and my helper’s latest project is collecting items from the big city bazaar to resell out of her house, she helpfully offered to pick up a housedress for me and sell it to me at cost. 

How could I refuse? 

Plus, I thought, I do want to fit in here, and if it looks weird to them for me to be wearing my nice clothes all the time, then I don’t mind “going native.”

“What color do you want?” she asked.

“Oh, I dunno—blue, I guess? But it doesn’t really matter…” 

Shouldn’t have added that last bit.

She was planning to go into the city to get more stock the next day, and I invite her to stop by our house for dinner since I knew she wouldn’t have time to cook. At 7pm she knocks at the door at 7pm, and sits down at my table to try spaghetti (which she liked, by the way).  

After a few bites, she says, “Wait til you see what I got for you—they didn’t have any blue, but I think you’ll like this.” She grabs her shopping bag and pulls out—well, an animal skin

I just burst out laughing.  

“Try it on, try it on!” she says, enthusiastically. “I told them you were my size but a lot taller… see if it fits!” 


What the heck, I thought, why not?  Laughing the whole time, I strip to my long underwear right there in the kitchen and zip the thing up to my neck. 

“It really suits you!” she’s exclaiming. “It came to the ground on me—it’s just the right length for you! But you need to unzip it a little—“ and she pulls the zip halfway down my chest—“there, it looks great!” 

I look like Eve walking out of the garden, but I hear myself say, “Yeah, wow, and it’s so comfortable!” And before I can stop myself, I add, “I could wear this every day! Look, it even has a couple pockets…” and she chimes in, “Yeah, and the zipper is great for breastfeeding—you just—“ and she pantomimes—“zip it down, and there you go!” 

I can’t stop laughing. 

I prance into the next room to show James, and his face registers “Shock-horror!” before making a few polite noises… I laugh even harder.  I go back and pull out money to pay her, thanking her the whole the time.  

As she’s going out the door she finishes with, “I like it so much—I’m getting one for myself the next time I go! Then we can match!” 

Oh my goodness.

Still giggling, I go back to James, strike a pose, and ask him what he really thinks. He just gives me this look that says it all. I die. 

Then I go find Will (then about 2 1/2): “Will, how do you like Mommy’s new dress?” A slow smile breaks over his face. “Mommy—angel!” he says with awe. And then “ ‘Pots! (spots)” he says, poking curiously at them. 

Laughing so hard, I have to go to the bathroom before I pee my pants, and while I’m sitting there catching my breath, I think, Could it get any better than this?

I wore my new duds all day yesterday and today too, and actually, if you can get past the dead animal look, it’s a very functional garment. It’s 80% cotton, washes well, has pockets for cell phone and chapstick, and is actually very convenient for breastfeeding… 

And even though I look ridiculous, every time I put it on I will think of my sweet helper and how much she needs to know Jesus.

Don't miss the huge black leather gumboots... I think they make the outfit.

P.S. Today I actually got up the guts to wear it out to the corner shop. The ladies who run the shop are all my friends, and I wanted to see their reaction. They loved it. “Oh, it looks so good on you! You shouldn’t wear those long skirts all the time—you’re so tall, you should show off your legs! You look like a model!” (which is the same word in every language) 

Well. How can I possibly argue with that?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

listen to your life {July lessons in listening}

Let life shape itself.

This refrain peppers the pages of Marlena di Blasi’s latest book, Antonia and Her Daughters.  I read di Blasi as much for her pithy quotes and insight into human nature as for her mouth-watering descriptions of Italian food and life.  

Curled up under a light blanket in my dark room, savoring my tiny oasis of calm in the middle of the afternoon, I’m pondering di Blasi’s words, thinking now about life, about observation, about allowing the shape of a day to be determined by forces outside oneself, not by one’s own will.  

This is hard for me.

I’d rather set out a schedule with lines and boxes, fill in each half-hour slot carefully, stick to the plan.  I like knowing what’s coming, the security of preparing in advance so I can rise to the occasion, feel the thrill of success.  I like having all my ducks in a row, how it feels to keep all the balls spinning briskly in mid-air without dropping a single one.  I hate that.  Dropping one.

This sort of square life might be safe, but I’m discovering it lacks a certain… zest.  The element of surprise, maybe?  I’m slowly realizing that surprise is always part of a day;   it’s my choice to welcome it or stubbornly push it away which determines whether the surprise adds to my pleasure in the day, or not.  

Coming upon my daughter sitting on the wooden plank bridge across our backyard water channel, blissfully engaged in reaching her little arm into the cool milky water, scrounging a fistful of mud from the bottom of the trench, pulling it up dripping to smear its cool silkiness over her bare skin… 

How do I react?  Do I scream and scold and whisk her off to the bathroom for a shower, chastise her for getting dirty, for caking her dimpled legs with mud, smearing it over her face?  

Or do I stop, notice the light on the back of her neck, see the shimmer of her fountain of hair, take in her quiet absorption, the way she calmly soothes herself with the elemental coolness of water and dirt against her skin?  

Do I receive the sight of her as a gift, let life shape itself, take what’s given?  Or do I push it away, rigidly insisting on my own ideas of what’s good in a day?

I’m learning.  Slowly.

These lessons in listening, this year of slowing down, of giving myself permission to rest, to be still, to think, to write, to not pursue people unless the fit takes me… these months are changing me, stretching me.  I’ve been like dough that needed time to rise before it can be deflated and stretched over waiting pans.  I’ve needed rising time.  And I’m being kneaded, gently but firmly, and stretched, sometimes to tearing point, over a waiting receptacle which, when I first look at it, I think I will never be able to fit.  

Three children.  A dog.  Chickens.  Guests.  A garden.  A borrowed house.  A village life in Central Asia.  Three foreign languages.  Intermittent running water, sporadic power cuts.  If you had shown me my now-life ten years ago, I would have said, I’ll never be able to fit that.  I’ll never stretch that far.  

Let life shape itself.

Our latest additions!  In for a penny, in for a pound...

I would change di Blasi’s mantra slightly.  I would say, Listen.  Listen to your life.  Let God shape the day, the moment, the hour.  

I’m beginning to hear God’s voice in the surprises.  Things I would have pushed away before, now I’m beginning to smile instead, when I see them.  

The knock of a stranger on my gate. 

Before this listening, before this expanding and growing, before this stretching, it would have been ::sigh::  Not now!  I feel invaded!  I have things to do!  Please, go away… These feelings promptly followed by a flood of guilt, because, after all, am I not here for exactly this, these people, these women?  Am I not called to spill out my life for that knock on the gate?  

Now, sometimes, more often than before, I can meet the knock with calm, sometimes even with pleasure.  It’s ok.  There’s fresh bread.  A pitcher of cold tea.  Sweet peas.  We’ll be fine.  Come in, come in, come inside, sit down a few minutes. 

Lord, order my day.  Shape my life.

This simple prayer has changed my outlook.  I am learning how to stop myself on the point of freaking out and say to my rising panic, Listen.  

I’m learning to notice the afternoon sunlight on the back of my tiny daughter’s neck.  To relish the softness of our (initially unwanted) dog’s coat, the satiny bits behind her ears.  (Yes, surprise - our dog is a “her”!)  I’m learning to expect the inevitable knock at the gate and sometimes feel a thrill, instead of a surge of dread.  To go out on the street after dinner for no other reason than to open my heart to the dusty golden sunset and the silhouettes of my neighbors and their children playing.  

Why haven’t I lived like this for years? I find myself wondering.  This, exactly this, letting life shape itself, is the way to find joy.  

And to be honest, every day is not this way, this listening, receiving, peace-filled, stretched-and-open way.  It comes in fits and starts.  When I’m tired or hungry or at the end of an especially trying day, with intermittent water and even less patience, I am not gracious. I long to grow roots deep enough to always reach that Living Water.  I long for my heart’s cup to always brim with the "Sweet Water" of Calvary love, like Amy Carmichael says, so that no matter how sudden the jolt to my cup, no bitter drops spill out.   

I’m making haste slowly.  I’m learning to listen to my life, to bend my rigidity in order not to miss the beauty of the shifting light.  

The light won’t wait, you know.

Welcoming the moments lets joy flood in.

How do you handle unexpected interruptions?  If you tried praying “Lord, order my day” each morning, how do you think it would change your outlook?

{To listen to the song I wrote about Amy Carmichael's quote, called "Sweet Water", click here...}

Monday, July 14, 2014

testing, testing, 1, 2, 3...

Hi all... 

This is just a quick post to test if my email feed burner is working correctly... there have been reports you all aren't getting the posts you signed up to receive!  Gah!  Sorry... 

I'm NOT tech-savvy, but I have been fiddling around on the FeedBurner website and made some adjustments... so let's see what happens.  

If you receive this post as an email in your inbox, can you email me at and let me know it's arrived?  THANK YOU!  


Thursday, July 10, 2014

for the days when you feel like a failure {thoughts from a recovering perfectionist}

Just now, I turned around and walked out of my kitchen, leaving behind a mountain of dirty dishes and my second enormous batch of apricot jam in two days.  I just can’t face the stickiness yet, which is why I’m sitting writing this post.

I’ll just be honest.  I don’t like talking about my bad days.  (Notice there aren't any pictures of my sticky kitchen in this post... I don't like showing you my messes, either!)  I guess I want you all to think I’m the one with the answers, the one you can come to when you need encouragement and wisdom… Being honest about my failures - here - feels like a big risk for me, because I’m one of those people who compulsively likes to look like I have my act together. 

But the truth is?  I don’t.  Have my act together.  At all.  

And today?  I’m feeling like a total [gulp] failure.  

photo credit: I. Winsley
I really don’t like that word, that f-word.  I hate thinking about it, I hate feeling it, I recoil and cringe whenever anyone else has to use it.  

But since I’m being honest, there’s a moment or two every day (ok, a lot of moments) when I’m flailing wildly, grasping at straws, yelling desperately at Jesus for an emergency injection of patience or wisdom or love for someone proving particularly un-lovable at that moment.

I’m slowly learning the art of giving grace to myself, of appropriating every day the incredible endless grace I’ve already received in Christ.  I want to let that river of grace flow freely in my life, drink from it all the time.  

photo credit: I. Winsley
But… I still define my own “failures”.  I set my bar high, jump with all my strength - and don’t always hit my own mark. 

The low point of today’s “failures”?  My sweet baby girl followed her brothers out our front gate, promptly tripped and fell and cut her cheek on a sharp stone.  Even though I know in my brain that accidents can and do happen to every kid at some point, I still feel in my heart like a woefully negligent mother.  Somehow the sight of blood seems so much worse when it’s a little girl after two rough-and-tumble boys. :(

A bandaid and some ice cubes and she was back to normal, running around unfazed, but I sat there trying to push away horrible visions of her wedding day in a lovely white veil, trying unsuccessfully to cover up a scar on her cheek with make-up… (Yes, my mind leaps frantically ahead like this!  Doesn’t yours?)

The bottom line is (in my own opinion) I “failed” to protect my child.  I know it’s impossible for a parent to protect their child all the time from everything, but I still require it of myself.  Hmm.  Does that strike you as odd?

photo credit: I. Winsley
There are other felt “failures” too, staring me in the face.  I feel like I’m failing to meet my second son’s emotional needs, and my first son’s creative ones.  Today we ate the same boring food for lunch and dinner because the jam took over the kitchen.  Even with a house helper (who cut up all the apricots for the jam this morning), I still can’t make everything happen on time, and excellently. 

Every day, I desperately try to cover up, push away, deny, rise above, overcome the dreadfully uncomfortable fact that I. am. not. perfect. 

But today, I couldn’t escape it.  

I know we all get made perfect in heaven, but today that perfection felt eighty years away, and meanwhile my floors are gritty and my toilet bowl desperately needs to be scrubbed.

I feel like Jesus is giving me a test, right now, as I sit here gasping in front of my computer screen, ignoring my sticky kitchen and my kids who need their teeth brushed:  

Will you finally depend on My strength, now that yours has run out?

“I’m trying!” I want to shout.  “I really am, but do please tell me how I am supposed to get all of this done!  My daughter just peed all over the floor and is currently running around the house with nothing on her bottom half!  The kitchen is covered in sticky!  I’m exhausted and cranky and sick of potty-training a stubborn 20-month-old!  I’m tired of gardening and canning and all the other work that goes along with this rural, primitive life!  I’m just tired!  Period!”

I can dimly see Jesus, vague in the distance beyond my screen.  He’s nodding slowly.  Smiling a little.  Patiently waiting for my diatribe to finish.  

I’m not done yet.  “I’ve had to cancel three Skype meetings in two days,” jabbing the words at Him with my finger, “which I was really looking forward to, but because of our incredibly unreliable Internet - fast, slow, up, down - those calls are on hold indefinitely, and I am so frustrated.  I could really have used the encouragement this week, too.”

He’s still nodding, looking at me.  Not turning away.  Holding me with His eyes.

“The parenting never ends, the housework never ends, the laundry never ends, the stress never ends, my own pressure to meet every need excellently all the time, to cook food my kids want to eat for every meal - it never ends!  When can I get off this ridiculous hamster wheel?” I splutter, stabbing my open palms in his direction.  (I don’t add the rest of the truth He already knows: that the hamster wheel is of my own making.)

Eventually, I run out of steam.  I stop for breath.  I let the pause lengthen, wait to see what He has to say.  

photo credit: I. Winsley
For a minute, He doesn’t say anything.  

I start thinking of my sink full of dirty dishes and the mountain of unfolded laundry sprawling all over the veranda table.

Finally, He says just one simple phrase, quietly.

“Come to me.”  Silence.  I don’t know what to say.

After a minute He repeats it again, hands held out.

“Come.  To me.”

I gaze at Him, almost with disbelief.  I know what He’s inviting me to do, but my gut just can’t believe it’s that easy.  What about all my housework?  What about my failures?  Am I supposed to just leave it all behind?  Ok then, tell me who will do all this stuff?  Because it has to get done sometime!

Come to Me, and rest,” He’s beckoning.  Almost beseeching.  As if He’s longing to save me from myself.

I hesitate.

I close my eyes.  

I picture myself getting off the wheel, walking forward slowly, then more and more quickly towards His open arms.  I picture Jesus enfolding me; I breathe in His scent of cedar wood shavings and sweat and sunshine.  I take a deep breath in, and let it out.  In.  Out.  Deep, slow breaths.  

“I know I just need to come to you straightaway when I feel overwhelmed,” I admit, my head still burrowed into His chest, “but some days it’s just too overwhelming and I’m just too flipped out.”

“I know.”  Jesus is rubbing my back with a warm, comforting hand.  “Believe me, I’ve felt everything you’re feeling: overwhelmed, exhausted, pressed in upon.  Imagine crowds and crowds of needy people, and you have the power to heal and help them all, and the daylight hours only last so long, and you also have a responsibility to teach and train twelve hand-picked men in the ways and truths of God… Remember, I had all the same physical limits you have.  But - I had the same Holy Spirit, too.”  

I nod, still nestled against Him.  I could stay there forever.

“I know the work never ends,” He whispers in my ear.  “But - what about the joys?”

As I type the word “joys”, Ruby is sitting next to me on the couch, reaching her little fingers into the armhole of my sleeveless shirt to tickle me.  She grins, then chuckles, showing her dimple.  Her soft, round belly peeps out from under her nightshirt.  She smells of toothpaste.  She is utterly adorable.

photo credit: I. Winsley
Two minutes ago, my six-year-old came to find me, toothbrush in mouth - obviously my wonderful husband is picking up the bedtime slack tonight, while I write this - to sing me a random song he just made up: “Luggage in the morning / Luggage in the afternoon / Luggage in the evening, too…”  

When I asked quizzically, “Why luggage?” he replied, with typical logic, “Well, someone’s always got luggage somewhere… in the airport, in taxis…”  

photo credit: I. Winsley
Just now, as I was tucking my four-year-old into bed, he said to me, “Mom, I know why you call us ‘honey’…” he broke into a grin, around his thumb in his mouth, “because we’re soooo sweet!”  I laughed and tickled him and he chuckled and burrowed into his pillow with his blanket.  

I left their room with a lighter heart. 

Joys, indeed.  With joys like these coming my way daily, can’t I can weather a bit of “failure”?  Let’s re-define “failure” anyway.  Let’s quit setting these high bars for ourselves, since Jesus has already done all that is necessary.  My measuring stick is small, self-imposed and most of the time wrong.

Besides, it’s not about us anyway, or what we can do.  

It’s all about Him - and what He’s already done.

Take My yoke upon you.  Be Martha, if you must, but be Martha with a Mary heart.  Never stop sitting at my feet.  Never stop depending on Me.  

Keep drawing out of my well, deeper, deeper, all the strength and patience and stamina you need.  I never run out of joy, or courage, or peace, or long-suffering.  

A good friend of mine (a fellow recovering perfectionist) gave me a mantra to remember, whenever I’m pushing myself too hard, not giving myself enough grace: 

I can’t do it.

He can.  

I think I’ll let Him.

When have you felt like a failure recently?  How did you deal with it?  What does it take to make you run to Jesus and give up striving on your own strength?