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Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Pink Month, or the beauty of Dirt


March was the yellow month:  daffodils and forsythia which we glimpsed between trips.  April then seeped in with pink, azaleas and dogwood and tulips, again glimpsed between trips.  As our own burst of pink drew butterflies, we had a couple of stretches in Sago.  Hikes through the woods, more trail work, nailing the snow-destroyed gutters back up, work under the house putting up a vapor barrier. . . . the tinkering to settle in a home that is more than a century old never ceases.  Late snows notwithstanding, we noticed the garden work starting to go on around us.  Nearly every home, be it a trailer or a cabin or an old farmhouse, has a vegetable garden.  It's the mountain way.

So last week, when we have five whole days at home, while Scott was productive with more skilled projects and Serge supervision work, I set out to reclaim the two flower beds my kids did for me as gifts last Fall from a springtime surge of weeds.  Once the weeds were gone, they looked pretty empty, so a trip to Lowe's later and I had new flowers to set out.  Feeling ambitious, I added a small herb patch around the corner.


But I still really wanted a vegetable garden.  Scott pointed out that we now had tickets to fly back to Kenya in 68 days, and the minimum time-to-harvest on my seed packets was 60-80 days.  So why plant?  I'm not sure what compelled me.  A dream of making a home.  A lifetime missionary habit of "when in Rome".  A way of saying that we are investing in this ground not just for ourselves, but for our children when they have time to visit.  An affirmation of our daughter's environmental major and love of growing things.  More than two decades of living in Africa where I always had so many other people to help me garden and I was stuck in a hospital.  Good old stubbornness?  

It was a rainy week, the ground was soft, Scott had a full day of meetings, and I decided about 11 am that it was now or never.  Our house is up on a rock, and so it made sense to locate the garden down off the ledge in the green grass over the septic field.  I began.
I was lacking in technology and expertise, but I figured I had a shovel and time.  So I measured out two hoe-lengths as a radius of about 9 feet, and started removing sod in a circle.  Piece by piece.  Filling a wheel barrow, shaking off the dirt, carrying the grass plugs to a weedy leafy area on the other side of the driveway, a transplanted carpet.  It was slow going.
About an hour and a half later, I had a ring, and started moving in.  Wow, this was taking a LONG time.  Hmm.  250 square feet, and probably 4 struggling shovel attacks per square foot, could I last for a thousand repetitions?  When what should I behold but Scott in between meetings, using mechanized brilliance:


It was trickier than it might look to scrape up a thin layer of sod with a tractor bucket and not remove too much dirt . . . and to deal with the heavy folding patches of grass he lifted up.  In 20 minutes he made more progress than I did in two hours.  But then he had to go back to meetings and I kept plugging on by hand.

The day was slipping towards evening faster than I thought.  About 4 I removed the last of the grass and scott reappeared to help me loosen up the ground that was left with a shovel, incorporating a barrow full of compost from the pile we'd been collecting all winter.  
And just then, the first in a series of very helpful events occurred.  Our neighbor pulled by in his truck, and I ran out into the road and waved him down.  Do you have a rota-tiller, I asked?  Sure, let me run home and get it, he said. Frankly just what you need after 5 hours of back-straining work is a 20-something young man with a machine he knows how to use.  He returned and I kid you not in ten minutes or less, my rough clods were soft plowed garden-like earth.



Sometimes angels look very much like this.

And just in time, because as he loaded his tiller back up (he said it was older than I am), the clouds let loose.  Another perfect timing, all that tilled soil turned pliable, sopping wet.

The rain stopped, and I quickly hoed my circle into my dream of a sun-burst pattern.  



Sunflowers in the center.  A ring of corn around that.  Then spokes of tomatoes, beans, lettuces, and herbs.  All surrounded by a rim of wild flowers.  Well, none of that may actually happen, but in my mind that's what I'm hoping comes up!

A messy muddy day, but we were done.  

Except for one problem:  every garden in WV has to fight the encroaching hunger of the deer.  We routinely see a handful, or even a flock of 8 or 9 moseying through our yard from one section of forest to another.  The two main pass-times of Sago are hunting deer, and devising ways to keep deer out of your garden.  The third is talking about the first two.  

So in closing, here is the 7-foot fence we wrapped around that circle the next day:




I'm not sure why this project made me so happy, but it did.  If anyone I love gets to eat a tomato, I'll be even happier. 

I think it is the ultimate picture of redemption that draws us back.  Dirt becomes food.  Barren ground brings out nourishment.  Seeds break open to birth beauty.  Something dies, so we can live.  The ground was cursed, but we sweat to fight back and transform this patch into a New Creation.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Out of step but entering mansions

Last week we spent in Omaha, Nebraska, which just goes to show that you never know where life will take you to work on neonatal survival in Kenya.


Over our years at Kijabe we occasionally came in contact with the government hospital about an hour west of us, Naivasha sub-county hospital (NSCH).  Located in a congested town between the highway and the lake, this hospital serves a catchment area of nearly half a million people.  Almost a decade ago a retired Labor and Delivery nurse from Omaha was in the area with her husband, whose company sells irrigation systems to the flower farms around the lake.  She toured the hospital and found the conditions for women who work on the farms appalling.  And being a can-do person of compassion, she set about to develop a plan to help.  In the process there are now two “Friends of Naivasha Hospital” organizations, one in Kenya and one in Nebraska, a new maternity wing was built, and containers of beds and incubators made their way across the ocean.  More importantly, she then brought in a connection with international Rotary grants and a very gifted academic pediatrician from the University of Utah to inspire the Kenyan leadership to address their outcomes.  In the last year they adopted a program to teach Helping Babies Breathe, a neonatal resuscitation course, as part of an ongoing quality improvement process.  The result is a busy government hospital (600 deliveries/month, about three times the Kijabe rate with much less staff) now has a sense of empowerment.  They are proud of their facility and taking ownership of the new programs.  Their desire to make an impact, combined with the disparate resources and needs, attracted us to consider working there as we were seeking discernment on our next assignment.   Long story short, we believe this is a good place for us to continue our work with Serge.  And our leaders have agreed.  Close enough to our Kenyan teams for fellowship and connected enough to continue supervising our area in Africa, but a slightly new venture that someone with kids to educate might find difficult to do.    

So when this nurse decided to fly the four Kenyan doctors and one nurse from the leadership team of the hospital and sub-county, plus a Kenyan Rotary representative, to Omaha for a week, she invited the University of Utah pediatrician and us as well.  Not to mention the department of pediatrics from University of Nebraska Medical Center, and various other donors and doctors.  We appreciated the opportunity to start building relationships with our new Kenyan colleagues, and to get a glimpse of just what the collaboration can accomplish.  Lots of tours, meetings, reports, ideas, discussions, dinners.   We listened, and learned a LOT.


All in all, a great time.  The people of Omaha that hosted us were the types who believe in using their wealth to bless others.  At our last dinner, the Kenyan medical superintendent, who can be an intimidating and nearly silent presence, made a point of stopping conversation at the table to address us.  Dr. Scott and Jennifer, he said, you are very welcome to come join us.  Though we’d had the paperwork previously inviting us officially, the warm personal affirmation was encouraging. 


But like any new venture, the transition requires a deep breath and an acknowledgement of the many ways in which we will be slightly out of step, and working to come alongside.  We’ll be the only foreigners on site working with the Kenyans.  We’ll be living in a congested town rather than on a mission station.  We’ll be facing all the inherent dysfunctions of a government system.  We’ll be the only missionaries in a secular work.  And when meetings like this occur, we’re also crossing economic and academic chasms between our bumpkin selves and people who wield some power and influence.  It’s a new road to forge and we will make some mistakes, and most likely shed some tears.  I think it’s a good place to be, finding the intersection of health care, research, missions to the margin, justice.  A point that draws on our experiences in medicine and public health and education, and our connections with institutions from both the government and church.  It will be worth it when we can teach Kenyan interns and deliver Kenyan babies and encourage Kenyan nurses.  But all that potential is tempered by the nagging reality that to be the intersecting point of so many tangents, we don’t really have a home in any of them.  We’re outsiders, and we’re facing change.

So when we boarded the flight to return and I opened the day’s reading in my Bible, the words jumped off the page.  John 14:  Let not your heart bet troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions.  I go to prepare a place for you . . .

On that airplane, climbing into the clouds, those words felt alive in a way that most reading have not for a long time.  Moving into risk can be that way.  Dread, yes.  But then the reality that Jesus is there.  We saw some literal mansions in Omaha, and we will find metaphorical ones in Naivasha.  That’s the promise.



Sunday, April 24, 2016

Dysphoria, bathrooms, smoke, and mirrors

In America this month, it’s difficult to miss the strident panic over bathroom rules.   I’m not sure most of us realized there were laws, or who enforces them, until the powerful lobby of political correctness decided to make this a litmus test of civilization, and then North Carolina threw down the gauntlet.   At first I really couldn’t understand the issue, since a) transgender people are a small minority and b) that minority may be even LESS likely to assault a stranger in a bathroom than the rest of the world, but at least not more so. 

Reading both sides charitably, what I conclude is that those who proposed that individuals choose the bathroom where they feel most comfortable wanted to make the world slightly less hostile for people whose spirits and minds are at odds with their bodies.  On the other hand, those who want laws based on anatomy at birth are not so much worried about the handful of gender-dysphoric types the whole brouhaha is meant to protect, but they believe that sexual predator men will jump on the opportunity to pose as transgender XY-but-feel-females and stalk women’s bathrooms to peep at girls, or much worse. 

In essence, both sides have honest and potentially positive points.  This world contains a lot of lines that categorize and exclude, which a shocking verse in Galatians promises that the Gospel erases.  At the very beginning, in a surprising story, Phillip was sent to the Ethiopian eunuch, to invite (him) into the Kingdom.  We are told to be sensitive to those who are on the margins; to lay down our own rights when someone is offended.  Good principles.  We are also empowered to protect vulnerable girls and boys from predators.  We should not fear the scorn of being out of step with our culture when our culture normalizes pedophilia, for instance.

But honestly, this entire issue is a smoke-and-mirrors distraction from real problems, and it’s time for someone to say that the emperor is naked.

First, I’ve been going to women’s restrooms for half a century, and I can’t recall a single time that I’ve seen more of a woman’s genitals or breasts in a bathroom than on the beach or for that matter on the street.  Women’s bathrooms have stalls or doors with locks.  We generally like a bit of privacy.  Yes, an evil person could choose to plan an assault in a bathroom, but that was possible before and it will be possible no matter what is on paper.  Second, the fact is, that this is a super first-world-problem.  Much more harm comes from the fact that a majority of women in the world don’t have any sanitation, than from the labels on American bathroom doors.  Billions of people go through life with little privacy or cleanliness.  Let’s worry more about that.  Third, no amount of friendly labeling will change the brokenness of sexual identity.  Because sex has been a central aspect of our humanity, sex has been a central battleground of the Evil one attacking us.  Fourth, our communal humanity demands a constant negotiation between rights and protections.  As a 50-something female, frankly, I can feel threatened/sad/inadequate when I face my own body dysphorias.  To what degree we protect every person from feeling excluded needs sane discussion not strident paranoia.  Yes society needs to protect the vulnerable, but our culture has extended the obsession with safety to the kind of illogical rejection of reality that makes us unable to function.  But all of these points are minor.

HERE IS THE REAL POINT.  Bathrooms aren’t the battleground.  Pornography is.  Instead of fighting each other, let’s turn our attention to the real problem.  There is an industry stealing the souls of our children and making billions of dollars doing so.  Research is emerging that our boys and girls are exposed to a barrage of images and misinformation that turns sex into a violent conquest, denigrates women’s bodies, and divorces true giving, loving relationships from physical pleasure.  Pornography and drugs are public health problems as much as they are moral issues, they are tangles of bad choices, physiologic dependence, a massive economic pressures.  Let’s get up in arms about human trafficking, and about the relentless effort online to suck children into dangerous habits.  Let’s question the money that enriches people whose success comes at the expense of this generation.


Because they may be the very people who are fanning the flames of the bathroom debacle, to distract us from the real issue.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ramps and Remembrance

Ten years ago today, my dad breathed his last.  His spirit finally left a body that had relentlessly wound down from the paralysis of ALS.  After a few months of a scratchy voice and an occasional stumble, from diagnosis to death took 18 months.  He was 71.

It was Easter weekend, this weekend back in 2006. We were all together in Virginia, and just as most of us came out of the Good Friday service my mom called to say hurry back.  He was ready to say goodbye.  And he did, sleeping then all the way through until Sunday night.  There was a thunderstorm around midnight, and he left us.  What a gift, to enact the rhythm of Easter, in a spiritual resurrection awaiting the final "we shall all be changed" restoration of perishable to imperishable.

That final gift to all of us who mourned merely completed an entire lifetime of giving.  My dad was the essence of generosity.  I think growing up on the edge of poverty as the youngest of 15 kids accentuated his pleasure in giving to others as his small construction company began to prosper.  He was practical, hard-working, NEVER in a hurry (much to our frustration at times), mischievous, proud of his daughters, relaxed, absolutely loyal.  He steadily lived by common sense sprinkled with extravagant surprises.








And though his business thrived in the bustle of Loudoun county transforming from small farms into a DC suburb, he and my mom always embraced their Appalachian roots.  We have this sabbatical home because he bought two farms near his family's original cabin-in-the-woods homestead. All his life he spent weekends, summers, vacations, all the time he could, back in this hollow.  And one of the things I heard about from him, and his brothers, was the legendary ramp, and the Pickens Ramp Festival.

Now, my dad and his brothers were big teasers, they had robust senses of humor.  So I kind of wonder if the ramp is something people talked about but didn't really eat (like lutefisk with the Scandinavians, which I naively learned the hard way when I married in).  Ramps are a wild spring green onion, foraged from the woods, a pungent celebration of seasonal survival and the promise of summer.  Eating large quantities, particularly raw, is said to lead to a notorious body odor.   My aunt did tell me that teachers would send kids home from school in April if they stank, so my dad's brothers tried to collect and consume as many as possible!  Small towns in West Virginia have dedicated celebrations of this vegetable.  And I always heard about the one in Pickens, which I understood to be further into the hills, the place the railroad came and went to.


The Pickens festival was yesterday, on this anniversary weekend.  And at a thrift shop in CA I had found a "ride to defeat ALS" bike jersey.  I've never had a bike jersey, because I've never been such an athlete, but I bought it.  So the idea formed, let's ride bikes to Pickens, eat the authentic local dinner prepared at the American Legion Hall, and ride back. A tribute to my dad, time to breathe in the countryside he loved, to celebrate his courageous exhausting months of struggle against ALS.  To taste our first ramps.

Only I didn't actually check the mileage until yesterday morning.  I vaguely thought it was more than ten . . . but 27 was kind of a shocker.  It was such a good plan though.  Scott and I used to bike 20 miles of prairie trails a quarter of a century ago when we were residents, young, and living in Chicago, if we ever got a Saturday intersection of days off.  Scott was appropriately skeptical, but I was predictably overly confident.  It will be fun!  And I figured we could pay someone with a pickup truck for a ride back, or Scott could ride back and pick me up in the car.




And so we set off just after noon.  The route climbed 3000 feet into the mountains, following ridges and dipping by streams, winding by hilltop churches and cemeteries.  Classic WV countryside, small farms and trailer homes, chickens and dogs, and long stretches of forest.  Problem was, most of the roads were gravel, and our progress was slow.  Seven deer startled, leaping in front of us.  A red-headed woodpecker bobbed between trees over my head; a fat bumblebee crossed an inch off the dirt.  We saw a red-tailed hawk settle into a tree over a grassy hollow, and paused to marvel at a beaver dam.  The final five miles nearly killed me, a long long endless gravel ascent.  But we made it to Pickens.  Which, it turns out, is not much more than an old RR station, a minuscule post office, two stores, and the American Legion Hall.


The dinner consisted of massive servings of ham, cornbread, fried potatoes, apple sauce, brown beans, cole slaw . . and ramps. We sat at long tables and talked to our grey-haired neighbors.  (Two of whom, it seemed, were just there for the social meal and did not wish to consume any ramps lest they offend their friends at church the next morning).  A cute little girl kept filling our styrofoam cups with pink lemonade.  We ate as much as our weary bodies could stand, and chatted with some people about alternative routes.  I felt
like I needed pavement to make it back even part-way before dark.

 Did I mention there was ZERO cell phone reception the entire route?  But my map worked, and at the encouragement of a guy who wandered helpfully to us as we stared at our phones, I elected a longer but more-traveled loop back through Helvitia.  Scott, who can do a 50-60 mile day much faster on his own than with me, decided to plow back the same way we came, thinking he'd have the best chance of making it home by dark and then he'd come find me with the car.

Long story short, we survived, and my longer-but-more-pavement route gave me enough speed to be within 4 miles of home by the time Scott looped back with the car.  The sun was just resting on the horizon in an 8 pm sphere of pink slanting through the road dust.  He said, you've got less than a mile until the long hill down from Big Bend, you can practically coast home, you can do it.  So I did.


So it was a day to remember my dad, to feel weakness and weariness and pray.  To inhale the beauty of a place he loved.  To eat a meal which for him would be the menu of Heaven. To hit physical limits, as he did, and press on.

Today is also my nephew's 18th birthday.  An while the take-me-home-country-roads tribute to my dad was happening here, he was going to his Senior prom in my dad's antique Thunderbird, which was an equally fitting tribute that would have delighted my dad.  So many times over the last decade, we think, dad would have loved to see this grandchild play rugby, that one graduate from Yale, this one in state-level special olympics, that one's art show, this one in uniform, that one winning a soccer game, this one's love for cars.  At the risk of overstepping my aunt privileges, I will end with Noah's photo by the car, because that would have made my dad so happy:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Joy and Thorns

My favorite Christmas hymn, or even just anytime hymn, has always been Joy to the World.  The united song of Heaven and Nature grasps the all things seen, and not seen, reign of the King which will extend to the frayed edges of the curse.  Verse three says:

No more let sin, and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse if found . .

As the days stretch light until 8 pm (!!), and the frosty nights melt into temperate sunshine by noon, we are attacking a few curses around here.  Faulty plumbing, mildew, falling gutters.  And by we, I mean Scott, with me holding a ladder or handing an occasional tool.  Yesterday we ventured into our acres of woodland to finish reclaiming an old logging road, making a 4th path for hiking (my opinion) or ATV riding (everyone else's opinion).  We had noticed this contour in the hillside branching off from another path that Luke and his housemate Mike cleared a couple of months ago.  This one is steep, bumpy, narrow . . . and literally clogged with thorns.  Scott carried the chain saw and I carried the weed whacker.  While he attacked vegetation, I scouted a way to link this route to a larger path that my dad cleared long ago.  Which involves my favorite activity, trekking under soaring oaks, scratching through clusters of holly, startling a wood thrush, shuffling in leaves, tripping over wild grape vines, scouting a ridge.  By the time I settled on a good connection, Scott had hacked through a lot of brush on the old logging road.  And so the day went, cutting and clearing, hauling armloads of vines and branches off to make a path.



The sheer density of bramble is enough to make you believe in Genesis.  Any patch of sunlight engenders a dense thorny tangle.  When you pull them out of trees they snap your face, or poke through work gloves, drawing blood.  Such is the nature of the fight.

When the thorns were rooted in the path, I tried to pull them up.  If we just weed-whack them down, I know they'll be right back.  But the roots turned out to be larger than the vines themselves!  They are deep and dense, creepily sunless, tenacious.  Tiring to pull.


At some point in the afternoon I snapped a photo (see the long white root to the right), because I was humming Joy to the World in my head and I knew there was a good spiritual analogy here.  In my own life, I prefer the weed-whacker approach of sin management.  Clear out the poky prickly visible stuff that snags me, or hurts others.  Clean up the comments, the judgements, the reluctance to engage, the distance, the jealousy.  Make myself cheerier, more presentable, more what I think a 50-something mission leader should look like.

But those thorns just keep growing back, and it's a relentless cycle.  Unless the roots are pulled up, painfully, disruptively.  Roots of loving myself more than others, roots of disbelief that God is good and enough and good enough, roots of finding value in comparison or seeking comfort in success.





The sins, sorrows, and thorns; the broken places that we choose as well as those that we suffer as parts of this broken world, have a limit.  The way of the cross pulls up those roots for good, and slowly the Kingdom breaks in with flowers.  Or lichen.  The one above reminded me of a butterfly, the beauty-from-ashes symbol of transformation, something flying out of the rot.  That's us.  Good news.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Elisha's room

We have some amazing Shunammites in our lives.  If you recall, there was a "notable woman" who invited the prophet Elisha to eat in her home, and he liked it so much that as often as he passed by, he would turn in there to eat.  He showed up so often that she decided to build a guest room.  No basements in those days.  The room was enclosed on the wall of the roof, with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lampstand.  Elisha knew he had a place to stay in his itinerate lifestyle of preaching and healing.

We are not exactly Elishas, but the life of motion, of carrying a message, of being a little out of step with the culture, of neediness, of burden, we can relate to.  So this is a tribute to the people who take us in.  You know who you are.  Particularly those in the cities where we have had kids in college and medical school, where we keep showing up.  Sometimes I'm embarrassed to call AGAIN, and sometimes you preempt that (like the Shunammite woman) and insist.

On behalf of missionaries everywhere, let me thank the people with the basement bedrooms.  You who keep washing sheets and towels, making coffee and setting out cereal.  Who share your internet passwords and hand over keys, who sit and ask us questions and don't get tired of us coming back again and again. Who let us call at the last minute.  Who don't ask when we are leaving.  And in a case fast approaching, who are vacating the entire house for our family at graduation.

We have seen God's graciousness through the spare bedrooms of North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut, Colorado . .  (repeatedly) . . and beyond (Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Georgia, California, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas. . .).

We can only pray that God blesses you as miraculously and generously as He did the Shunammite family, though that had is tension of drama, pain, loss, and faith too.  Intentionally entering into the fray with missionaries can be risky.



  

 And we can learn from your example.  The Fox and the Flamingo (i.e. our Sago farm) has had some visitors this year.  Inexplicably this past weekend we had seven people from four generations and three directions/connections of our life all decide to experience spring in Appalachia, though it was actually WINTER.  We were delighted to make beds, cook meals, direct hikes, play music, pray and talk.


 

 

Should you have a taste for mountains, rivers, trees and sky, or for quiet, and a day to spare, give us a call.  We are here intermittently through the next couple months, and we would love to share.




 

(These photos are from the weekend . . but this morning it is sunny and green about 50 degrees warmer!!)