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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Beauty, Ballast, Bundibugyo and Juneteenth Independence Day 2021

The Ballast of Beauty. This phrase skipped across my rabbit trail in a search for, I don't remember what, (but on a site for an organisation in Virginia called Coracle). Since I saw it, I can't forget it. Ballast. The weight of the word, a stone, a stability. The intentional collection of that which is real and concrete and dependable, and not just holding it but holding it in the heart, in the depth of being, so that it becomes a type of gravity in the storm. A counterbalance to all the world throws at us; a centring that keeps the course through a million trials. Picture a boat, a lake, a storm, and a man in the hold asleep who turns out to be the ultimate ballast, the cornerstone of creation. The person in whom the word of truth takes form, in whom beauty has been personified.

Laura James

Yes, beauty. Because the attention, the intentional attention, to beauty is a kind of ballast. We live in a place that has known war, poverty, fatal epidemics, injustice, hunger. And yet. We live in a place where beauty surrounds us every day. This morning I watched a thrush preening feathery orange flanks on a branch heavy with avocados, melodically welcoming light. Bright gold weavers swoop from the palms; snow dusts the craggy Rwenzori peaks. Faces beautiful with experience and hope, fabrics beautiful with colour, hairstyles beautiful with intricacy. Music, light, food, community, trees, children rolling down the grassy embankment, paintings and photos. All that beauty makes a direct soul connection to something larger. Something expansive. Something real that challenges the discouraging bombardment of problems.

Everything's goin' to be alright, the beauty says. 

And that is a ballast that does not remove us from the dark seas, but gives us a course through them.

Yesterday, after being called upon (surprise) to give a CME teaching and a Bible teaching for 40 hospital staff in our morning meeting, after working my way through a dozen-plus babies in NICU punching in numbers to calculate percentage weight gains and target feeds, after reviewing a death and finding the lab results on a baby whose brain damage I had thought was all from a tragic arm presentation and emergency took-too-long C section actually had a gram negative meningitis, just after I did a lumbar puncture on a similar very sick newborn . . . I walked into the Paediatric ward hoping to find that our new interns from the highest mortality country in Africa had been preparing for rounds. Instead I found chaos. Over the next few hours, it seemed like every minute another person was asking for attention, putting a chart in front of my face, interrupting one problem with another, and most of them deeply intractable and potentially fatal. Trying to extract a history of a mother who was in denial focusing on her seizing unconscious hypoxic child's issue as malaria because that's what another clinic told her, but when I turned his head to the side I saw a huge healing gash, and it turned out that two weeks ago someone had ?accidentally hit him with a hoe with great force TWO WEEKS ago and he'd been in trouble ever since. Then there were the twins whose grandmother's main concern was that especially one didn't produce enough stool so she was giving them enemas, but they were not pooping because they were starving. And on and on. Not trivial inconveniences, real brokenness.

Into all that, we need Beauty. 

The world is broken, the world is beautiful. Both are true. No averaging, no cancelling, no explaining, but two grasps onto two parts of paradox.

Which brings us to Juneteenth. Until everyone's free, it's not really freedom. The USA just decided to recognise June 19th as a national Independence holiday, the day that a group of enslaved people in Galvaston, TX, finally got the good news that the emancipation proclamation applied to them. The final reach of the new legal reality, even though we are still on the path to liberty and justice for all. Those Americans, or their ancestors, reached the continent on ships from Africa. Not on the deck, but in the hold. Human ballast. I just read Barracoon, the publication of Zora Neale Hurston's anthropologic account interviewing Cudjo Lewis/Oluale Kossola, the last survivor of the last ship of African human cargo shipped from Benin to Alabama. Much can be said about this book, much is a punch in the gut and a wound in the heart, but what I was left with was the humanity. Hurston manages to paint a real person, in a complexly appealing and recognisable way. And his memories of his childhood in West Africa included some cultural rites of passage details that he told as great delights, and which were so similar to Bundibugyo that I nearly gasped out loud. The transcontinental weaving of story by the ocean passages, the suffering but also the survival. And not just survival, but admirable spirit, creativity, transcendence. Remarkable.

On our first national Juneteenth, let us remember with grief the unpardonable cramming of humans into ships as ballast for the purpose of profit. But let us also recognise the ballast was of inestimable non-monetary value as beauty that has kept America and the world afloat. Beauty seen in faith, in Gospel and jazz, in painting and dancing and poetry, in theology and science and speed and skill, in determination and laughter and courage in the face of death. 

Maybe one day we'll have vaccinteenth. Because we're not done with COVID until everyone's done with COVID. Here in the land of <1% vaccine access, 18 months into the pandemic, the worst is yet to come. Uganda is seeing one of the highest rates of new infection in the world. Our president announced a school-closure limited-to-your-district lockdown less than 24 hours after we landed from Home Assignment; now 12 days later he tightened that down to the intense stay-at-home lockdown we had last year. No driving except cargo and essential medical. No gatherings. People are afraid. (Note, unlike last year, the airport is still open and vaccinated tourists are still welcome to move exclusively to tourist destinations in registered tourist vehicles and spend their tourist dollars). Freedom from enslavement and freedom from pandemics falls unevenly over the world, and once again Africans and their descendants get stuck waiting.

So as we navigate the latest storms, pray for the ballast of beauty to keep us on course, afloat, hopeful, alert.

Interns Lexi, Shione, Svitlanna, and Noah with our Serge Apprenticeship Leader Ann--beauty! They made it just hours before the new lockdown rules. Whew. And all are vaccinated. Praying for their summer. More beauty from this week below. Praying as well in the words of Amanda Gorman: For there is light, if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it.

Friday, June 04, 2021

Say, can you see? Observations on goodbye to America

 Goodbye, America

Here was our fitting closure to two months in the land of our birth: Weddington High School’s graduation ceremony. 400 kids in caps and gowns, in carefully spaced chairs on the football field as families filled the stair step metal stands on both sides. A cloudy morning, a balloon arch, moms clutching flower bouquets and congratulatory posters, grandmothers getting golf card rides from the parking lot, dads with cameras, the sound system set to cheery march tunes, the colour guard in their uniforms holding flags. This public high school has a ridiculously intense academic focus, with honours and college being the rule not the exception. It also did a superb job of including my nephew with Down syndrome, who at 21 was ageing out of his small special-needs class that met incorporated into the life of the school. Two young men were going to the Naval Academy and one to the Air Force Academy, and Micah’s colleagues were going to “Project Search”, a hospital-based program for job training. There was a valedictorian, and a class president. Micah won a focus award and was Prom King. Both paths were celebrated. A quintessential American scene. 

But the moment that brought this together: the national anthem. A graduating senior with pink hair and silver shoes and a name with cutting edge vowels stood up and climbed the stairs to the podium. Alone, with no accompaniment, she belted out the Star Spangled Banner with a gorgeous voice. And that for me captured the spirit of America. If you listen to our national song, it is not a song about power and glory. It is a song that starts with a question, as morning dawns we aren’t even sure what happened. The context is a night of battle, that did not look survivable. It’s about tenacity in the face of danger and loss; about a tattered flag fluttering in the imminence of death; about ideals we cling to even when the outcome seems uncertain. Though the song references the “hireling and slave” it took another 40 years for those to be legally free. And I think that’s the appeal of our anthem: it’s a nation in process, ideas ahead of reality, a place of struggle. But we stay in it because of hope. The questions and the atmosphere are just as valid for 2021 as they were in 1814. I know nothing about the singer at this school, but I loved the fact that she sparkled her own style and sang her own confidence with none of the extra gold cords and banners of the majority of the graduates. She embodied the future. She and the other graduates are not assured victory without passing through some dark valleys. That is life.

Yes, America can be exasperating. We are far from reaching our ideals. Our hearts grieve to see the atmosphere in politics and the church that our children bear the burden of. Misinformation, fear, self-protection, isolation. People who do not seemed as concerned that 3.5 million people died in the last year-plus of a brutal pandemic as much as they want to resist the public health initiatives that limit their freedoms, be that masks or travel restrictions or gatherings canceled or immunisations required. Legislators that want to control who votes and ignore any accountability for systemic injustice, or inject doubt to weaken our democratic process. Our anthem sings about rockets and bombs, aimed at US. We need to recover that stamina. 

But all in all, it’s still a remarkable country. Over half the population now has at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, and it shows. Deaths are plummeting, even nursing homes are now calm. I got to see my Aunt Nina through the slightly open window of her room yesterday, looking rosy cheeked and smiling. High schools are having graduations and families are gathering for meals. In the two months we were here, the leaves filled in the trees from skeletal to abundant on pace with the growth of human connection once again. We hugged without hesitation on our goodbyes, a very different feeling than our helloes.  

These two months were just as we hoped: solid time with both moms, with all kids. More outdoor adventure than we could have dreamed of. Good food and sparkling tables. Quiet mornings reading on the porch. Though my Uncle Harold sadly died at his home at age 94 last week, we were grateful to have been able to stop and visit him just a week or so before that. He was my dad’s last surviving brother, and I feel the loss of that connection deeply. Still these months were a pause that we hope gives us a second wind for a third wave. Africa has 18% of the world’s population an 1% of the COVID vaccines. Back to the rockets' red glare of uncertain days and nights, hospitals with no oxygen. We land Saturday and the President is expected to announce new restrictions on Sunday. Like everyone else, we are weary of pivoting plans, of not knowing what the next week holds, of writing and monitoring protocols to mitigate harm, of stumbling through new territory. But the vaccines give us a breathing space, and the memories of rock climbing and pizza making and polar plunges in the Buckhannon river will carry us far.

See you on the other side.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

34 years of sharpening love and courage: marriage and mothering as tools for holiness

 34 years ago today, Scott and I stood in front of our families and friends and recited 1 Cor 13. 

It was Mother's Day weekend, and flowers were hard to arrange, but in other ways a celebration of a wedding and Mother's Day appropriately intersect. Both look glorious in photos, cards, feasts and speeches, and truly those captures of beauty are true. But both also involve the paradox of choosing to loose life to gain it. Marriage and mothering, living with edges that are filed smoother by another, living with choices that are constricted and space that is unprotected, living with the constant reality of community . . . means a sort of death to unrestrained self promotion, that Jesus calls the path to life. 

Jesus says, if you want to find life, then loose your life. 

And those are paths for all humans to choose, whether biologically producing a child (which for most women in the world is quite risky) or accepting a role to make the vulnerable flourish, whether formally committing to a spouse or accepting the inconveniences of friendship and partnership.  All that God made has been declared good, and we look forward to the unbridled joy of being fulfilled in our unique image of the light and truth one day. But to get there, the path is the cross. I think mothers learn that, as do spouses. Birth itself treads so close to death; a decision to sacrifice for another bonds us in mysterious ways.

Today the two days intersect, and it has been a delight to be with 3 of 5 kids, to get messages from some of our Ugandan fostered-kid relationships, to have just spent solid times with both of our own mothers. A COVID drought has cascaded us into a month in WV/NC, much of it with my mom and a couple of weekend intersections AS a mom with Julia and Caleb. Then a week in CA with Scott's mom, at her home and a memorable drive up Route 1 to explore some quaint coastal towns and admire the majestic redwoods. And now in Utah, where Luke, Abby and Jack reside beneath a backdrop of snow-covered peaks and we can hike in the alpine scrub. They even let me do a classic mom adventure hike that was longer and steeper and more-bramble-covered than anyone anticipated.

My verse for the year was just a bit further in 1 Cor . . . 16:13-14 and I thought of it today. Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love. Those are words for a marriage and for mothering. Paying attention to the man I am walking through life with, who is kind and sure. Standing fast in faith when those I love seem to be at risk of faltering, in sickness or persecution or disappointment and loss. Being brave in a long year of separation, being strong when it's time to fight for those we love. And being willing to do all that not by forcing my way, but by accepting God's way of love.

Enjoy some photos, most of the last few days or weeks, a few from further back, of the rich fabric of being mothered, being married, and mothering others.  I am so thankful for the solid foundation our mothers Judy and Ruth have given us, for the faithfulness of my 34-year husband (and 41-year friend) Scott, and the delight of watching these amazing human beings in our life grow in their own directions with courage and heart.

Lastly, the anniversary photo from today's hike:

Friday, April 30, 2021

Ordinary miracles: Home assignment, love, and vaccines,

 We are about half way through our two-month "home assignment". This April half has been based in West Virginia and North Carolina. We tramp through the woods, split logs and stack firewood, prune and clean, drag debris and pick up trash, cook meals with the wonder of Kroger, and jump in the frigid river for an icy plunge. (By "we", I mean royal we, mostly Scott . . . ).  And the weekends have been times to celebrate our family. This past weekend my sister and brother-in-law brought our nephew Micah up to Sago to celebrate her birthday. In spite of a rainy forecast we hiked to some favourite spots from our childhood, played dominoes and crazy 8's, made s'mores around a campfire, read aloud from The Princess Bride, and had a delicious pizza night. In between the weekend visits, we've enjoyed more relaxed time with my mom, including, ironically, a trip to a funeral on Tuesday. Our main supporting church's organist, who had been a member for probably 55 of her 88 years, passed away, and as old-timers ourselves we wanted to join the service. Masks and distance and an outdoor reception in the parking lot allowed us to reconnect with some of the people whose prayers have kept us all alive. We visited my 90-year-old Aunt Ann who is heading into some cancer surgery, and stopped at some familiar points along the 4-hour drive there and back. 

All of these are ordinary miracles. Frozen custard from a stand that has sold it for longer than my lifetime. Conversation with people who have loved us since childhood. Views of rocks and rivers that have been the backdrop of all we know. Stories with siblings. Yard work with parents.

These are the fabric of every day life that we miss. These are the moments that now the whole world does not take for granted.

Because a funeral, an ice cream cone, a day in the car, a visit in a home, are all things that not just we in Uganda but most people in America have missed for a year. And yet here we are. By grace and grit, vaccines have enabled us to interact again as humans.

Except for probably some church members at the funeral and my cousin who is still in line (with whom we stayed masked and distanced), almost everyone we have seen in our month in the USA has been vaccinated for COVID. Tomorrow we will get our second Pfizer dose. A year ago we had barely begun to imagine what COVID-19 would do to our world, and here we are immunised. It's amazing if you stop and think about it. Sadly over 150 million people have become sick and 3 million have died (2%, holding at 10x more lethal than serious flu and 100x more than average flu).  Our whole world has been disrupted. Poor places tried to stay isolated; rich places tried to guarantee expensive treatments. But in the background research skyrocketed and now there are 8 fully approved vaccines, 6 more in limited use, and about 90 in various stages of development. Because of this, we can hug our moms, we can eat with our medically vulnerable nephew, we can visit our pre-op elderly aunt, we can fly to see our kids without worrying that we are putting them in danger. It is miraculous.

Recently, a couple of people have asked me about whether there is any ethical problem with vaccines because some vaccine research for some types of shots used human cells that were derived decades ago from two babies whose tissue became available after an abortion. Many wise people have researched and spoken, including church leaders, saying, GET THE VACCINE. My answer is this: the ethics of getting a vaccine (which does NOT CONTAIN any fetal tissue mind you) I think parallel getting a liver transplant from a teen killed by a drunk driver. It is grievous that a child died, and that it was a death related to someone's choices that were wrong. But the family would take some comfort in knowing that the teen's liver saved others (we know that in our family as our cousin inadvertently met the family of his liver donor, which was deeply meaningful). The family of the aborted baby from decades ago has stated this themselves. The abortion was not done to provide tissue for research. But the tissue was redeemed as it was put to life saving use.  It is also horrible that police or soldiers or firefighters die in the line of duty (though they have adult choice in the matter) but we thank them for their service particularly when their sacrifice saves others. For vaccines the ratio must be 2 to millions. Lastly, there are many many types of vaccines now and most do NOT involve the human cell line in their production. So if the ethics of donor tissue or of sacrifice for others does not compel you, get a viral vector or attenuated vaccine instead.

Secondly, people have feared vaccines because all reports of adverse effects have been taken out of context. If a disease would kill 100 people, and a vaccine would kill 1, would you get the vaccine or the disease? That's the kind of context needed to understand the rare clotting disorders seen in a handful of cases after some types of vaccine. Only the ratio of more like 10,000 times more dangerous to get the disease than the vaccine. No medicine, no minute of life, is completely safe. It is more dangerous to get in your car and drive to work for an hour ten times than it is to fly ten hours from London to Africa, but most people don't think that way. We tend to fear the sensational, the new, the newsworthy. We need facts and context.

But the real question comes down to this: are you willing to inconvenience yourself, perhaps have a headache or chills for a few hours, for the good of others? And that's where our character is seen. Will you wear a mask, stay six feet apart, stand outside, forgo a concert or movie, delay a trip . . . if it means your 85 year old mother gets to live ten more years and see her grandchildren grow up? We are proud of the way our family let go of their privileges, changed their habits, so that WE would get to see them again, so that we wouldn't have to hear about their hospitalisations while we were locked out of travel. Will you take a 1 in a million chance of a serious vaccine side effect so that as a world we can slow down the mutations and spread of a disease that has killed 3 million others?

We are so thankful that our family chose to vaccinate, and had the opportunity. And that we have been given the opportunity as well. India reminds us that this disease of COVID-19 is not over even now in 2021. As long as there are places in the world with poverty, crowding, low access to vaccines and treatment, misinformation, fear, political manoeuvring, poor health, and rampant spread . . the virus will continue to claim lives. And to change. And to become more infectious, or more lethal. We are all in this together.

For us, a month in rural West Virginia with forays to North Carolina and Virginia has been a miracle of ordinary days. Tomorrow we head West to see the other half of the family, Scott's mom Ruth for a week then Luke and Abby (and Jack again!) in Utah. We try to stay in touch with our teams, and there is still a lot of work going on. But we are so thankful for this time.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Treasuring and Pondering, Life Breaking Through

 Today we sent out a prayer letter, so if you're on that list thanks for reading and praying. (If you're not, you can message your email address in a comment which I'll add to the mailchimp and delete here as soon as I see it.) Short story is: we are in West Virginia after a week with my family in North Carolina, snow blusters in waves but the forces of Spring are definitely winning the day, and the major prayers we had for our son who was in training were realised (oh JOY).  Plus the court in Uganda recognised our appeal yesterday as a valid reason to delay requiring payment of the extortionary fees, and our team in Nyankunde escaped with pretty much everyone else in the hospital and aviation compounds after days of escalating violence between a local mono-ethnic militia and the national army. We have had meals and hikes and games and talks with 3 out of 5 kids, 1 out of 2 moms, and the sister who lives in the USA. We entered the WV vaccine system. We tested negative for COVID. All that has been pretty great news in the almost 3 weeks since we began this journey. What is harder to explain is my own reluctance and hesitation to post about any of it. True, for the big family news, we are now entering a new life stage of security so that will no longer be part of what we speak about on the blog or social media. But even given the mind-spinning nature of tracking with people on two continents and multiple time zones, the desire to be mentally and emotionally fully present with people we love whom we've not seen in 18 months, the gaps in tech as I replaced a broken computer . . . perhaps it is just too much. But I have noticed that there are two deeper realities I'm aware of in this time.

First, in Luke 2, Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. April has been a season of treasure and ponder. And second, related perhaps, I think that the last 13 months have taken a toll on us all. Last April, we wondered if we would survive the pandemic. We had been making hard calls for a month about who should go when the occasional evacuation flights opened after all our Area's countries closed borders. More and more Americans were going back to the USA and it was really hard not to second guess ourselves constantly. We knew that ICU care would not be an option, and in many places not even oxygen. An entire year of uncertainty, of pockets of doom, of feeling cut off, of help melting away and little returning, of knowing that if one of our moms got COVID we would not be able to reach them, of concern for our front line essential worker kids, reacting to restrictions, closed schools, protocols, questions. Plus the added layers of ongoing baseline problems like TB and malaria and malnutrition and corruption and broken utilities and no mail and always more work than we could accomplish. And the heart-wrenching near-misses for the above mentioned child. All that time we wondered if we would be here in Sago where my family settled, if we would see our nearest relatives again. And yet, here we are. 

Treasuring the sheer incredulousness of being alive, being OK. Pondering what that means for the next year, and the next, for us and those we love. Grateful to be in April 2021, while knowing that the scars of April 2020 will also always be part of the story. Trying to take this space we've been given to process and breathe. 

Winter lingers. The spiritual battle never ends in this life.

But evil never wins.

Life breaks through. Spring is here.

If you've never been to a special olympics baseball game after a year of COVID delay . . you haven't lived.