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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Letter On Faith: Continued Suspense!

This comes from a collection of letters written by Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon, Archbishop of Cambrai, in France, during the 17th century, to young people in the court of Louis the 14th.  I think it bears reproducing in its entirety.  This goes out to college students and high school students whose class schedules are not working out as they expected, to kids trying out for sports teams, to friends from Sudan who are not sure of their future, to our team in Bundibugyo, to all the pilgrims who can't quite stand on solid ground, and to everyone who struggles to live day by day by faith.

Do not worry about the future.  It makes no sense to worry if God loves you and has taken care of you. However, when God blesses you remember to keep your eyes on Him and not the blessing.  Enjoy your blessings day by day just as the Israelites enjoyed their mana, but do not try to store the blessings for the future. There are two peculiar characteristics of pure faith.  It sees God behind all the blessings and imperfect works which tend to conceal Him, and it holds the soul in a state of continued suspense.  Faith seems to keep us constantly up in the air, never quite certain of what is going to happen in the future; never quite able to touch a foot to solid ground.  But faith is willing to let God act with the most perfect freedom, knowing that we belong to Him and are to be concerned only about being faithful in that which he has given us to do for the moment.  This moment by moment dependence, this dark, unseeing peacefulness of the soul under the utter uncertainty of the future, is a true martyrdom which takes place silently and without any stir.  It is God's way of bringing a slow death to self.  And the end comes so imperceptibly that it is often almost as much hidden from the sufferer himself, as from those who don't even know he suffers.  

Sometimes in this life of faith God will remove His blessings from you.  But remember that He knows how and when to replace them, either through the ministry of others or by Himself.  He can raise up children from the very stones.

Eat then your daily bread without worrying about tomorrow.  There is a time enough tomorrow to think about the things tomorrow will bring.  The same God who feeds you today is the very God who will feed you tomorrow. God will see to it that manna falls again from Heaven in the midst of the desert, before His children lack any good thing.  

Saturday, August 28, 2010


(That's the motto, from the last line of the school song . . reminiscent of Uganda's except for the Yale part)
Yale is an amazing place. We are now about 30 miles away and hurtling southward as the sun begins to sink, with six hours to go until we return to Virginia. But along with thousands of other parents we spent Friday and Saturday in the great take-your-kid-to-college ritual, which has become quite an orchestrated production since our days. And rightly so, because we leave with a much better sense of the quality and flavor of the University than we could have received on line. Unlike almost all other parents we met, this week was our first time to see Yale. And what a great way to be introduced. The perfect weather didn't hurt, either.
Yale is a (relatively) non-pretentious Ivy, valuing diversity and exploration. Every speech we heard pushed the idea of taking risks to study topics outside of the usual, joining groups that will challenge and change you, spending time with people from different cultures and backgrounds. Sort of sounds like missionary values, without the God part. Someone in our family turned down two different Ivy's in the old days, both for undergrad and grad school, partly because of the incredibly entitled and arrogant atmospheres there (and because of money, which is ironically a complete reversal of the current situation where these schools have the best financial aid and essentially complete scholarships for lots of kids like ours). So we were relieved to find Yale quite different. Pleasant and welcoming, celebratory and engaging. And full of fascinating people from everywhere. In Luke's suite alone: a young man from Singapore with a mom from New Jersey who just finished two years post-high school in the military, a young man from NYC with a German mother and American dad, a young man with a dad from Costa Rica and an American mom who moved from Maryland to Costa Rica three years ago and played in the Under-17 World Cup Football tournament in Nigeria, a young man whose Lebanese family raised him in Paris until they moved to Texas 7 years ago, a young man who rows on the crew team (the only one as far as I can tell with 2 American parents and growing up in America his whole life). All of these boys are polite, friendly, intelligent kids with very involved and helpful families. Nice. I'm sure there will be difficult situations elsewhere involving pressure to conform to unwise and unholy choices, it won't all be pleasant hand-shakes and small talk (did we mention the sobering "no glove no love" bag of items taped to the wall in the hallway as a public health measure?). But these are great kids with strong families behind them.
Back to the pomp and glory of Yale's weekend. We filed through the Master's house of the residential college, shaking hands with the Master and Dean and then munching fruit cups and cheese squares with other parents and students. We filed through the Presidents mansion, shaking hands again and gaping like bumpkins at original works by Degas, Pissaro, Rembrandt, Chagall on the walls. It was like an art museum in an historic home. Then lemonade on the spacious lawn. We listened to a panel discussion on the academics at Yale, the structure of the residential colleges (a really great way that the vastness of the University becomes manageable), and a parent-assuring session on the security system that makes the open campus in downtown New Haven safer. We ate lunch in Luke's dining hall with its wood-paneled walls, portraits, high ceilings, and long wooden tables. But the best part was the opening ceremony, sort of a bookend to the eventual graduation, where the students dressed up and sat in the cathedral-like hall, the parents watched from the balcony seats, the prefessors and deans paraded in their academic robes. And in deference to Yale's puritan roots, the majestic organ led us in singing a beautiful hymn (God of All Peoples, which you might recognize as God of our Fathers . . ). The Dean gave an interesting speech connecting depictions of scribes on ancient Mayan pottery to the dangers of standing for truth in any age. And the President spoke about Yale students changing the world. It was all very inspiring and dignified.
But because God is God, and delights in small details in our stories that come as unexpected connections and gifts, my favorite moment of the weekend came early Saturday morning. We had just driven in (from spending the night with Scott's very gracious high school buddy who lives about half an hour away). Scott went to the free parking lot for parents that was about a mile away, and I went to find Luke, because we had agreed to meet a family who contacted us through the blog and also has a son starting at Yale this year. Our rendezvous point was the Batel chapel, where I had not yet been. Luke and I tried several doors and as we finally entered, an organist was practicing. This majestic church of stone and stained glass was completely empty except for me, Luke, and the glorious strains of "How Firm a Foundation". Now, to understand why I burst into tears, you have to know that the FIRST time I heard this hymn almost exactly 18 years ago, I also cried. I was pregnant with Luke after losing three children, we were visiting McLean Pres with my sister as part of our support-raising to go to Uganda, and my heart was broken with grief. When we stood to sing from Isaiah "when through the deep waters I cause you to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow . . . when through fiery trials your pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be your supply, the flames shall not hurt you I only design, your dross to consume and your gold to refine" it was like God directly addressing my heart.
What are the odds that the same song would come back to me in such power, the only really alone moment I had with the person who had grown from a fetus to reach what is culturally his last day of childhood? So I can be forgiven for the teary hug, and thankful there was no one else to make Luke embarrassed, and grateful that these kind of musical themes, small details, come as gifts to one unimportant individual among billions. A gesture of assurance, that this is the right place, that we move ahead in this crazy life for God, for country, and for Yale.

Into the Void

Two boys, launched.

It's been quite a week.

After leaving Luke at International Student Orientation, we drove back to Virginia Tuesday, and took Caleb to the plane on Thursday.  Fifteen year old lanky cheery Caleb hugged us and waved as he passed through the Dulles checkpoint to face the intense security gate lines alone.  It was his first solo international trip, and we were in communication darkness until he landed in Nairobi (1 minute call and his battery died) and then got to RVA today.  Thankful he made it, was placed in Luke's old dorm (his first choice).  Trying out for choir and the soccer team, adjusting his class schedule, working through incompatible class desires (no Swahili 2 if you take AP Chem, and that sort of issue), health check, etc., on his own.  Well, not really, there is a fantastic staff at RVA who organize and shepherd.  But it's a pretty big step to arrive for the new year, move into the dorm, reshuffle classes, and begin life, with no parental support.  I'm amazed at my own kids.  This was not the easiest month, grieving the loss of home (and dog!) and jumping into the "show's on" aspect of meeting our churches and friends, catching up on the perennial sleep deficits of boarding school and time zone change, returning without family or even big brother.  Caleb has a well-honed and quirky sense of humor, so if he can hold onto that, he'll be fine.

And that's why perhaps today, driving away from Yale where we left Luke, I'm more peaceful than moms of freshman are supposed to be.  Because we've done this for the last two years, and no time is as hard as the first time.  

In fact by the time we got up in the dark early early Friday morning and drove back north to New Haven, Luke had already moved into his dorm room , organized his living space, been to all the sign here-do this lines for freshmen.  So we could just visit, walk in the spectacular cloudless sunshine to the famous "Bulldog Burritos" and hear about the week.  Luke is his own person, confident about what he does not need, pursuing simplicity and truth in a place that suspects both.  It was good to see him relatively at ease in the parent-social context, answering questions and making conversation at the various open houses and receptions, messaging suite-mates and introducing us around.  When we passed by the voter registration table the students  tried to rope him in, until he said he wouldn't be 18 'til February.  Oh.  Yale is a far cry from RVA, about 2000 courses from which to choose 5, 1344 freshmen in 12 residential colleges, and I can't even begin to imagine the number of organizations and options.  So many options.  One rather young kid there in an epicenter of the academic world, on his own.  But ready.

So two boys are off, launched, left.  And though it feels very unknown to me, all future is equally so.  And equally not so, because the void is really occupied by the One whose essence is Love.  Both boys are in places I did not imagine a few years ago, but doors opened and money was provided and favor found, and they are blessed to be taking steps into adulthood in two fantastic schools.  Both are young men I'd choose to meet and spend time with even if they weren't my kids, talented and insightful and honest and challenging and world-aware and smart.  And as we drive away thinking about them and the void, I know what both would say.

Chill, mom.

On becoming a soccer mom

I'm trying. Sort of. I'm actually not 100% sure what that means, but I take it to represent the kind of mom who forges a path for her children, often with an SUV, so they can participate in activities and become better and successful people. I'm lacking the SUV, but the idea of advocating for my kids sounds pretty noble.
When we came back from CA I went on line to spend my birthday money on tickets for our family to go to a DC United game. Which was another story. But while I was on the web site, a notice caught my eye, that these MLS professionals were coming out to Sterling, our town, to do a fee soccer clinic for the first 200 kids age 7 to 13 who registered. Why not? I seriously doubted I'd be in the first 200 in anything, but it must have been by grace immediately after the notice was posted, and I slipped Jack and Julia in effortlessly. So Wednesday evening we drove them over to a local playing field for a dose of American culture.
200 kids, heavy on the 7-year-old size. 6 young men from DC United. Tents and merchandise and hooplah. It's all about community relations. Another 200 or more milling parents, taking photos from the sidelines. Clump ball and chaotic drills, but serious kids all inspired by this personal proximity with real players, the guys they watch on TV. Jack and Julia had a good time. Jack of course with his usual all-out intensity, and Julia of course asking the other 13 year old girls their names and smiling.
Note to self: my kids were the ONLY ONES not wearing shin guards. And I thought it was pretty high-tech to practice in SHOES, since cleats are the reserve of the official games in Africa, and never wasted on mere scrimmage and drill. Good to learn that here we suit up, fully, for practice too.
At the end of the hour the kids lined up to get their soccer balls autographed by each player, and were given a free DC United-logo shoe bag. An hour of soccer, interaction with a bunch of kids we've never met, talking to celebrities, and goodies to take home, all for free.
Julia misses the sunsets, and thinks the water tastes funny, and sighs about Acacia, and Star. We got a sweet letter from Ivan, Jack's best friend. We miss home. But America has its perks, and this was one of the fun ones.
And now that I've had a taste of success, I've enrolled them in the community soccer league (even though we'll miss half the season with support-thanking travel), and am exploring some music lessons. It's intimidating and a bit bewildering, and after experiencing the Yale parents I realize I have far to go. Luke is in a suite with 5 other guys. And 5 great moms. People who were running hither and yon to buy one more bulletin board or couch or lamp, who had thought through things like winter coats and snow boots, who all seemed very competent and caring. We felt like kind of deadbeat parents who just brought our kid with a half dozen hangers, two pairs of jeans, and a computer. But I'm taking notes, and I may become a bona fide soccer mom yet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

along the road . .

Highways, galore.  Multiple ways to go from one city to another, concentric rings of bypass options, always options.  A bewildering transition from a country with paved roads in about five basic directions total fanning out from the capital, to this one with more miles of pavement in the average county than we have in the whole country.  Maps and directions are rather passe now, the new way to navigate is by gps.  In every car, on many phones, a constant ability to check in.

Billboards that light up in computer-screen precision graphics, and change as we drive by.  

The ease, of knowing that within five minutes of about anywhere you are you can find a decent bathroom (with plumbing and privacy) and even a decent meal, served in minutes.  No planning ahead for the ONE stopping place on an 8 hour trip, instead you choose from thousands.

Large people.   We read the nutrition literature, and the American obsession with obesity always seemed so far outside our experience in Africa where under-nutrition is the issue, that we shrugged it off.  But the change in a decade is noticeable.  And it is the poorer strata of this society that are the larger, the wealthier people attend to health and social mores and pay for exercise and high-protein food.

Americans.  Yes, this place is FULL of Americans. People who speak English, with familiar accents.  It still shocks me to overhear conversations and realize that it is NORMAL to run into Americans we don't KNOW. Everywhere, in the rest areas, bathrooms, gas stations, restaurants.  

Pies.  Probably shouldn't mention that in view of the item two above.  But I am known to love them, and Wendy had a hot apple pie in the oven on our way north, and JD had a hot berry pie in the oven on our way south.  I felt very loved by these two friends who went to great efforts, in a way that was meaningful to me.

Books on tape-a new variety, the private head-phone set, so that there is complete silence from the backseat, and no arguing over which book to listen to or complaints from older brothers.  From the library.  And they even insisted on giving us extra batteries.  Very nice.

Roads smooth enough to read on.  Or type this email.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A longing for order

I love reading through Judges and the Books of Samuel.  There were the Israelites, moving into  a land they had heard about throughout their childhood, the place where their distant ancestors sojourned, a place whose mystique intrigued them in songs and stories and anticipated glories.  Only it wasn't quite empty and waiting, and as they fought for a place to settle, there were many pockets of other tribes of people left scattered among them. People with similar skin tones and language roots, and even outwardly similar religious ceremonies.  People with lives rather comparable in most ways to theirs.  And these people had kings.  They did not take their directions from an unseen deity attended by priests before a tent.  They had proper thrones, human faces of leadership, rules and regulations, armies and boundaries.  The Israelites wanted that too.  God had given them a lot of freedom, but by the end of Judges what should have been freedom felt more like chaos.  God was fighting their battles, but they wanted to follow a human leader into war.  So they begged God to appoint a king, so they could be like everyone else.

I have so much sympathy for the Israelites.  Because there are many days when I'd like to be a little more like everyone around me.  We've visited some amazing homes in America already, places that kind of remind me that bare cement floors and three kids in a 10 by 10 bedroom and the 4th sharing a storage closet, walls where lizards crawl freely and water drips from industrial bare pipes in the sink, are not quite as luxurious as they seem in another context, the world of mud-and-wattle homes.  Instead, here we find places with pools and pianos and framed art and spotless kitchens.  And what's more, these are families who are loving and generous and well-adjusted, with affectionate teens and bright toddlers, with world-concern and creative priorities.  For the first time in America, I think my kids are noticing it too, and at least considering what it would be like to live like this.  (I discovered that I had a sort of mental deal that I wouldn't be swayed by wealth because I'd see the spiritual emptiness that accompanies it, but what to do when visiting family after family who are materially AND spiritually blessed?).  

Being led only by God felt too risky to the Israelites, they wanted some concrete human structure to assure their future.  And they did not want to be "chosen" as separate and unique anymore, after a long exile, they just wanted to be normal. They chose limits, to get order and to fit in.  I can understand that.  Right now I'd like to NOT be always on the move, borrowing cars and clothes, hoping for things to work out, asking for help, a step behind, on the edge.  I'd like to be a bit more like everyone else.

When the Israelites asked for a king, they got one, and all the loss of freedom and distance from God that entailed.  He had asked them to be content with His presence, and to be set apart, but they did not accept His risky offer.  What was good for the nations was not necessarily right for them, but they wanted what they could see.  So I sigh, and admit that what God gives others around me He may not give me, that for us the order of a Kingdom may not be palpable until eternity.  That I'd rather have the holy wild disorder of a life of pilgrimage than the security of a settled life where my order becomes a layer of obscuring cloud between me and Reality.  Praying that I could pray for what is true to my heart without selling out my soul.  And that the toll it takes on four teens would not torpedo them, but rather strengthen them to grasp onto the Presence of a God who leads in obscure and unexpected and disruptive ways.

Grumbling about Grace

Wrestling with grace right now.  Which only shows how little I grasp the truth.  

Hither by thy grace we've come . . . a hymn phrase which is excruciatingly true for our family.  So many times we could have turned back, we were advised to turn back.  So many times that a tragedy almost blasted us off course.  Yet at the end of 17 years we are here on a furlough in the USA, with four fantastic kids, getting within spitting distance of fifty but pretty healthy and strong, and a whole world of other people in Africa whom we know and love and pull for.  And to top it off, a child who is about to embark upon one of the finest educations this world has to offer, at a negligible cost to us.  Which leaves me feeling that at any moment, we'll be found out.  I think I felt that way when I went off to school too, as if those grades and scholarships were pushed my way by God for a purpose, and soon it would be clear that I was an impostor in the world of brilliant people.

So I imagine, in a crookedly illogical way, if our station in life now had been based on our merits (as I imagine others to be, our friends whom we visit with their jobs and houses and causes), then it would be somehow more assured.  The skills that brought us to this place should, after all, keep us here.  That if Luke had been tested in top-level American schools all along, we'd know he is about to be fine in college. In a time of transition and homelessness, I want to grasp onto that.

Instead we have grace, undeserved good things that are showered upon us.  Which means that at any moment (as anyone who has read Job must know) it could all fall apart.  Which is not very reassuring.

But here is where the wrestling touches the hip, and leaves a scarred triumphant limp.  Would I rather rest the next decade (three more kids to get into university and paid for, and four to launch into life, new roles with WHM, a new country of service, new language, while maintaining ties and commitments in Uganda, dreams and projects and learning and science and relationships, maybe even a wedding by the end of the decade?) on who we are, or who God is?  Grace feels nebulous and shifting and unreliable.  But God is NOT.  

The Main(e) Thing We Appreciate .. .

. . .about Maine, well, it would be hard to choose just one. Lobsters, for sure, have to be near the top of the list. When we arrived Thursday our good friends the Meyers, a family with whom I grew up way back when in Virginia and who subsequently resettled in Maine, took us to an authentic lobster shack where we learned to dismember the bright red steamed creatures and dip the sweet white morsels of meat in butter. Yum. There was a mist coming in from the ocean over the boats and stacks of floats and traps on the docks, and we all used rolls of paper towels as we talked and snapped shells and picked our way through the messy meal.
Lakes would have to be a close second. We're staying in a small camp on Damariscotta Lake, one of thousands. The Meyers keep this summer cottage about half an hour from their real home. Surrounded by oaks and pines, a swaying dock leads to a canoe, 4 kayaks, and an 18-foot sail boat. For three days we have the privilege of our own space as a family, to swim and float, and cook our own meals, make smores over a campfire as the daylight fades, and be on our own schedule. We were in the water most of Friday and Saturday, but the winds and clouds have picked up, and now after church it's about 60 degrees and grey. Good sailing weather, and Jack says the water is fine, but I'm wrapped in a blanket enjoying the shore.
Winding two-lane roads, modest houses, incessant green, blueberries for sale and a box of tomatoes by the roadside, historic towns, an outdoorsy laid-back atmosphere. What's not to like about Maine? But the main thing would have to be the kindness of our friends who made this weekend possible. It has been 17 years since Scott and I visited, Luke was in utero. We've seen the Meyers in Virginia on visits, but this is our first time back. Thankful for muffins and cookies and tours of the fabulous model railroad in their basement, and thankful for love and interest in us over all those years, for the grandparently smooth landing we can make here.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Moving up the East Coast

This post comes from New Haven, CT. Though Luke chose Yale sight-unseen (for any of us), we have now spent an afternoon walking the campus with my cousin Geoffrey who completed a graduate degree in Architecture at Yale and still lives in the area, and we are all excited about his choice. Yale's system of residential colleges means that the vastness of the University is divided into manageable blocks of classic, integrated buildings and courtyards where students and faculty live and interact. It's almost like EVERYONE gets to live on the Lawn (for our felllow Wahoos). Geoffrey knows a ton about the history, and of course the architecture, of New Haven, so he was a great guide. He even met us to start off our afternoon at THE original pizza restaurant in America, Pepe's on Wooster street. Everyone who knows us knows there is nothing like a superb oven-fired thin-crust pizza in a congenial atmosphere to put us all into a positive mood about this city! Lux et Veritas, Light and Truth, is carved into many buildings. We pray Luke seeks both while here. And we trust that Light and Truth will find him.
The last few days we have been gorging on relationship, drinking in the kindness of others. Team mate Sarah and former intern-WHM kid Tim W both showed up at our Sunday School presentation. In spite of a sound system glitch it was a great morning (Scott, handy man that he is, had brought an extra speaker set). Grace Church knows and loves us and Bundibugyo, so it was great to have an hour to talk to them. Afterwards we were treated to a fellowship lunch at the assistant pastor's house, and reminded of the richness of new friendships that can unfold here. Then we left on this trip early Tuesday morning. First stop was Rick and Wendy's in Delaware. Our old neighbors. I'm awed to find people like us coping so well, integrated into American life, and using their Africa hearts to bless the several thousand international graduate students in the nearby University of Delaware. Chase is the smiliest little thing, and the devotion that the family is pouring into all the boys is humbling to witness. We got to see Grant's arm-in-process. Only Aidan was pretty intimidated, too young to remember us but old enough to be shy. That was a real treat. Then we stopped at Princeton where one of Luke's best friends is about to start school. And ended the day in NW New Jersey on the Elwood farm. After two years knowing Nathan, and hearing about this place, it was almost like another home-coming. Horses and organic vegetables, a rambling historic farm house, beds for all (due to the sacrifice of the family), warm hugs, a gracious candle-lit pasta and salad dinner from fresh ingredients, and even the famous apple-cake we tried and failed to replicate in Uganda. We were made to feel like family, and it was wonderful. This morning we added to our treats by visiting Pamela B-P in her apartment in New York City! I love the way that seeing someone's home unfolds new depths of seeing that person, not just who Pamela is in Uganda but how she reflects that in her space in NYC. With Nathan, Sarah, my mom, and all six of us, we pretty well filled the place, but she managed to host us with bagels and tea and a chance to catch up on our lives. Afterwards we drove around the part of town where Columbia's medical school and school of public health are housed, where Nathan and Sarah will spend the next few years. And then on to New Haven, as above.
Thankful to find old friends and great food and reunion and beauty as we move up the coast.


News from Heidi: Uganda has been conditionally approved by GAVI to begin administering the pneumococcal vaccine. For the paradoxuganda faithful, this was an issue we spent a good bit of heart on early in 2010, advocating by gathering data and composing letters and emails and making phone calls and recruiting prayer. It sounds small, but in the big picture of child survival in Bundibugyo, because it is the epicenter of sickle cell gene prevalence, and kids with sickle cell die of pneumococcal sepsis, this vaccine could significantly improve and extend the lives of children. Very thankful. And part of the trend of what God is doing, our team often now acts as on-the-ground advocates but God brings larger, well-funded, international organizations to step in and provide the money and programs we so desperately need.

Friday, August 13, 2010


8 August (past) Community Methodist Church of Half Moon Bay, CA
5 August-Sunday School Grace OPC, Vienna, VA (9:45 am)
17-24 August- Trip to Maine, leaving Luke on the way back at Yale in New Haven for orientation
26 August-Caleb departs for Kenya
Sometime between September 7 to 10, visit in Cincinnati and Indianapolis (not yet arranged!)
12 September-TBA, but hopefully Lawndale Community Church 
17-25 September- Mission Training International Debriefing and Renewal retreat in Colorado
25-30 September visit Scott's family in CA
Drive back from Chicago to Virginia . . . 
10 October (Sunday) Faith Christian Fellowship, Baltimore, MD
17 October (Sunday) Trinity Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville VA
22-24 October Family Weekend at Yale
27 October to 13 November . . . Field Director meetings for Scott at WHM in Philadelphia, followed by Team Leader training
20-27 November family Thanksgiving week, with most of our immediate family, including Caleb returning from Kenya (!!)
30 December Departure

In case anyone can connect with us as we move, here is the general plan.  We have about five supporting churches, which represent our life trajectories (Cincinnati and Virginia, meeting and merging in Charlottesville then Chicago then Baltimore).  We want to thank as many of you face to face as possible.  Please join us in asking God to bless others through a first-hand testimony about what He's doing in Uganda, and to find fresh help for our brave and perseverant teams in East Africa!  

youth and perfection

Our culture is a bit obsessed with these.  I suppose everyone knows that, but coming from a place where we still have people who scoot along the ground with limbs withered by polio, or are missing half their teeth, where used clothes are worn creatively until the holes outpace the fabric, where to call someone "mamba" (grandma) is a huge compliment, where elders are presumed to be wise and young people required to remain silent . . . well, this focus on looking young and perfect through the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th decade and beyond is somewhat surprising.  I'm spending a lot of time in doctors' offices these days.  Today I accompanied my mom to one, and we thumbed through the magazine in the waiting room, which gave us an eyeful of what is considered desirable here.  Yesterday at the gynecologist, of all places, underneath my insurance form was a paper which said "Are you interested in our spa services?  May we call you to discuss what we have to offer?" followed by a list of procedures for injecting gel into facial fold-lines, or ridding legs of visible veins.  The dermatologist office went further, showing actual videos with before-and-after pictures in the EXAM room.  So while you wait in a paper-thin-gapping hospital gown to get the prognosis on a potentially cancerous mole, you are reminded that the REAL problem is not a little cancer here or there but looking like you've lived 48 years.  These are two very legitimate medical practices where real life-and-death problems are seen, and they are both promoting cosmetic procedures.  Money-makers I am sure, and once a tipping-point quorum of people avail themselves of this resource, it becomes the symbol of wealth, and then the and the lack of availability makes the rest of the society feel deprived.  Of course we've also been in the mall once, and to a few other stores, where the volume of STUFF to buy to look good is unreal.  A vicious circle of bombardment with images that emphasize an ideal, leave the viewer feeling inadequate and hungry for more, while business prospers.

Our God is a lover of beauty.  God THOUGHT of beauty, to begin with.  I have no problem with color and style and uniqueness and symmetry and the total art form of the human body.  But somehow we've gone further than that, from a balanced attempt to display the glory of who we are, to a paranoid drive to change ourselves into never-aging always-in-style homogenous perfection.  

And interestingly, we rented a movie tonight that shows the endgame of that trend (have I mentioned the REDBOX as one of my new America-favorites?  What a deal! Right there in the grocery store, one dollar for a movie, it pops out of a vending machine, and you return it the same way the next day).  "Surrogates" is not great cinema.  Mediocre writing and acting.  But the concept is fascinating.  An entire society of sculpted perfect robots, with the real people hiding in dark bedrooms and living virtually.  Every surrogate is a beautiful person, without blemish.  But our hero Bruce Willis longs for the reality of connecting as an aging, grieving, imperfect human, with his similar wife.  He also of course saves the world in the process, but don't let me spoil it.  After watching the movie, one feels glad that not everyone has had plastic surgery, that the world is a bit scarred, and real.

A friend wrote today that by October we won't even notice this anymore, so keep processing while it's fresh.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

you're not in kansas . .

 . . . anymore.  Or in Uganda.

A few clues from a bike ride today.  Yes, my trusty ten-speed bike from well over 20 years ago, is here.  The thin tires, the pink and grey paint job, and the gear levers on the supporting bars mark it as very non-modern.  But it is in great shape.  I rode out with Julia, remembering all my commutes to work in Chicago . . and then looked at my hands, expecting to see the disintegrating rubber smearing my palms.  But no. The deterioration of a year or two in Bundi does not even happen in a decade or two in Virginia.  Amazing.  

And then, later on the ride, zipping down PAVED ROADS (another clue), back on what used to be a one-lane road to the water reservoir through woods and is now a winding hilly unmarked pavement passing monstrous new mansions, we came across a snake in the road.  At first I did not even find this remarkable.  Because I OFTEN find snakes in the road in Bundi.  Dead ones.  The preferred method of snake encounter in Bundi is to kill and then throw on the road surface. So I often see dead snakes as I bike to the hospital or to visit.  Sometimes I slow down to look better.  No responsible citizen would allow a live snake to carry on through their own home area, because snakes are potentially deadly.  This time, the snake was a good size, maybe two-fingers thick and at least 3 feet long, jet black on the back and whitish belly tapering into spots on the flanks.  So I stopped, right by it, to look more closely, thinking that I should learn some American species.  Only then did I see that this snake was NOT DEAD.  No one had killed it and thrown it on the road, it was slowly writhing its way across the pavement, little forked tongue flicking out to sense its way, turning its head towards me as the curves of its body rippled.  I backed up, wishing for a handy hoe or panga, then wondering if that was considered a good deed here or an anti-environmental faux pas.  It was not the snake that jarred me, it was the fact that it had not been killed that shocked me.  

We're not in Kansas anymore.


I suppose a lot of relationships are this way.  Ours with Bundi certainly was.  Heidi's recent post with the blanks implies the same.  And it's no different here in the good old USA.

What I love about America:  
WASHING MACHINES.  You can do laundry any time.  Six people can have clean clothes in an hour.  Or less.  Amazing.  And the machine does not have hang-overs that make it miss work, or go to burials of great aunts, or get into sulky moods, or need morning tea.  (an hour after I wrote that and never sent this post . . the washing machine flooded, inexplicably, the whole extra-large wash and rinse water in a spreading lake through the kitchen and filtered through the floorboards into the basement, what ironic timing).
SHOWERS.  We actually have a pretty good system in Bundi, thanks to Scott, a roof tank with a pump so we have pressure, and an ingenious solar-heating panel that allows the sun to make the water very very hot.  On a sunny day, that is.  By evening.  But here one can have instant hot shower, any time of any day, any length of shower, for multiple people.  And I have not seen a single roach scurry across the tiles, or any mushrooms growing out of the cracks in the walls.  Nice.
CLEAN MEDICAL INSTRUMENTS AND PAIN RELIEF.  Just back from the dentist again.  So organized, sterile, and humane.  Very confidence-inspiring.  In Uganda mostly dentistry consists of pulling teeth which are past the point of repair.  Instead our extremely competent dentist keeps patching mine up, and his numbing techniques are an art form in itself.  
FRESH SALADS.  Fresh fruits, vegetables, lettuce.  Mounds of it.  Every day.  No more buying fresh and then having a two-month pause between the next trip to Kampala.  And BERRIES.  All shapes and colors, so tasty.  One hardly knows where to start.  After five days in CA with gourmet cooking by Ruth and Sonja we are quite spoiled . . but managed to pull together an exceptional meal at my mom's last night too.  

What I have a hard time getting used to:  
ABUNDANCE WITHOUT ACCESS.   Movies on the plane are pay-per-view.  The luggage carts in the airport have to be rented.  There is wireless internet everywhere, locked.  Every book I've searched for in the library has been checked out.  Several people have offered to loan us cars, but the insurance/liability technical issues lead into quagmires.  We will manage to get what we need, by God's provision, but I sense the frustration of seeing it without being able to reach it.  In Uganda there is a lot we can't get, but that's mostly because it's not actually THERE.  Once you see it, it is not so hard to reach it.
EVERYONE IS SUPPOSED TO KNOW THIS.  Everyone plans, far ahead.  We should have known that to take Caleb on a campus tour of Stanford, one must make a reservation.  On line.  Two weeks in advance, minimum.  Maybe they do background checks (see below).  In spite of this, we did a self-tour, and using techniques gleaned from movies I managed to get into a key-car-only dorm so we could even see a room.  Or take activities.  And all this stuff costs money (see above).  My kids are already too old to enter any new sports I think, people start young, and have played their whole life.  Community soccer leagues for the Fall closed registration on July 25 (I'm still investigating).  This is a culture where it is hard to just walk in, be spontaneous.
SECURITY, WHICH IS REALLY MARKETING.  To buy Luke a phone we practically had to donate an organ.  He's not 18, so Scott had to answer a zillion security questions.  I begin to see why right-wing militias hole up in Montana off the grid.  It's incredibly invasive.  All those details, to keep someone safe?  Or to gather marketing data?

I'm sure that's enough for today.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Pacific, "dangerous beauty"

After church Sunday (where we were welcomed to show our 7-minute video, and thank the congregation that funded a project at the hospital a few years ago, and meet for the first time one of our faithful prayer and orphan student supporters) . . we headed to the beach. Half Moon Bay is a coastal town, and the beach has been preserved for public access throughout. So north and south off route 1 there are literally hundreds of beaches, each blending into the next, some with high cliffs or boulder-strewn strands, others with homes and yards descending into sand, others with jetties projecting out. Each small section has a name and a character. Saturday's kite-flying beach was one for winds, running, fishing, even spotted a seal . . but not for swimming because of the dangerous tides and sharp drop-off. So Sunday's outing was to a beach where the waves were good for bogey-boarding, surfing, and swimming. The water temperature and air temperature are both between 55 and 60. This is not the kind of beach where people sunbathe. You wear whole-body wet suits for the water, and sweatshirts and jeans for the shore. Thankfully Ruth collects second-hand wet suits and 5 of 6 of us were well outfitted (no one was quite prepared for a 6 foot 2 inch family member, so Luke had to resort to a bathing suit only. He's tough).
As soon as we unloaded the gear the kids were running out into the surf, like little (or big) seals themselves, jumping in the crashing foam, catching waves and body surfing into shore. These are powerful waves, and frigid water, and loud spray, churning, wild. I was the last in, and the very first wave knocked me right under, disoriented and startled. A good warning. This is not the Atlantic. We had some surf like this in the Indian ocean when we got out past the reef, but most of my ocean experience has been more tame. To avoid being pummeled I swam out through the breaking waves and bobbed in the swell, before they crested. I was with Julia and Caleb, then they rode some waves in, and I drifted a little further out and down. Then I wanted to swim in. But I couldn't. I kept paddling, and getting no where. My feet could not find the bottom anymore, so I was surging up and down with the incoming breakers, but never being carried any closer to shore. The wet suit felt constricting, heavy, awkward for swimming. I was afraid, but telling myself not to panic, I could see everyone on shore, setting up the volleyball net, playing in the surf. I called to Julia to ask Caleb to help me . . but she never heard me. I just kept treading water to keep my head up, but making no progress towards shore. The ocean's power made my efforts irrelevant.
Then I saw Scott coming out with one of the "boogie boards", which he had somehow managed to get a turn on from the kids. As he paddled out to catch a wave I called him, and he finally saw me, and realized I was too far out. He came on his board, and I was so relieved when I could hold onto the board and to him. Now we're fine, I thought, I could catch my breath, and wouldn't have to face being smashed in the waves alone. But the two of us kicked on that board for a minute, for five minutes, and again were unable to get closer to shore. We were in a rip tide, one of the powerful currents, undersea rivers that flow parallel to shore or out to sea. Scott is strong, and he was working full-steam, with me adding all I could. When we saw we weren't moving, we changed out angle, going up-shore a bit to see if we could get a different approach that would put us in the right currents. It took a long time. Later Sonja told us that they had noticed on shore how long we were out there and how little we were moving and Kevin had just been preparing to come out on the larger surf board to rescue us when we finally broke out of our stalemate and started to inch towards the breaking waves. Even when we could finally touch bottom, the current was so strong I would not have been able to stand without holding onto Scott. At last we were pushed into the cauldron of shore-smashing waves and came out.
We were both very tired, and very thankful. Sonja's friends showed up about then and told her this was NOT a safe beach, that the tides here were unpredictable and dangerous, that it was better to swim a little further north. I had thought I was just weak, or scared, or unused to the wet suit . . but in reality it was a dangerous situation. If Scott had not been coming out to surf with the board I don't know how long it would have been before I was able to attract attention for help. Everyone was a bit sobered. We decided to stick with beach volleyball the rest of the afternoon. Which was a lot of fun.
All Myhre vacations have to have that little edge of potential death to make them full. It's not usually me who strays out too close to the edge, though. I'm thankful for my rescue by my husband, and thankful it was not one of the kids who discovered the rip tide. Nature, like God, beautiful but not "safe".

Sunday, August 08, 2010

more cultural observations

Some things about America remain constant, only I have forgotten them somewhat in 17 years.  Friendliness, for instance.  Africans are very friendly too, of course, but in Africa relationships like all of life are spiritually/physically/emotionally integrated.  A potential friend is a potential financial partner.  In America the openness seems to me (whose values were formed here) less complicated.  Yesterday a man fishing in the ocean while we flew kites at the beach came up to show us what he caught, and I found myself suspicious, forgetting that around here he was just being normal.  

Other things about America, however, have changed.  The penchant for safety and paranoia about liability, manifested in warnings on any and every thing, has escalated.  Cereal boxes warn you that the strawberries and milk pictured on the front are not included.  Ice cream bars warn you not to consume the paper wrapping or stick.  Really.  Again at the beach, a warning sign, that in case of an earthquake a tsunami could occur so one should move AWAY from the ocean towards higher ground.  As if no one would have otherwise known which direction to go.  There must be tens of thousands of these signs on the coast.  Last week I read about a woman suing google maps because she took a route that indicated crossing a road, and was hit by a car, and felt that google should have warned her.  I am not making this up.  

All of this strikes us more as we come from a place of few rules and the assumption that risk is part of life.  Of course it means that babies survive here, and life expectancy is double that in Africa.  So not all safety is bad, but there must be a balance somewhere between the two continents that is robust without being ridiculous.

The other trend I've noticed this week is of reality-TV. Perhaps because we're at Scott's parents where the TV can be seen from the kitchen where we gather.  There is an unending stream of professional videographers following people into every nook and cranny of the world, commenting and dramatizing everything about it, so that all of life becomes one great spectator extravaganza.  I have to admit it makes our pictures of life in Uganda feel like just one more titillating ten-minute escape into the plethora of electronically-accessible worlds out there.  Again, a positive, that the world is opened, that people have visual images of underwater sharks and distant arctic mountains and strenuous construction jobs.  But the fact is that everything feels less unique the more of it there is, a constant vying for attention means that experiences have to keep being more and more dramatic.

And lastly, a little cross-cultural story.  On the way to the airport, we got into the "high occupancy vehicle" lane on the airport road, a special lane on the side.  Our kids objected.  There were only 7 of us in the 7 passenger van, one per seat.  This is high occupancy they asked?  We could have squeezed in at least a half-dozen more!  

Friday, August 06, 2010

Half Moon Bay

-Just to keep life interesting, even though we're in the world of convenience and safety . . . when we went on line to check the baggage allowance yesterday for today's flight to CA . . . we found out our tickets had been cancelled.  So our trip to see Scott's family (parents, sister, brother-in-law and kids) was suddenly up in the air, or rather NOT in the air. Three cheers for our trusty travel agent Paul Cardell who spent half a day on the phone with Virgin America trying to sort it all out.  He never did find out the origin of the mystery cancellation, but he did get us onto the flight.  Or rather five of us.  There were only 5 seats, and he knew Caleb had flown alone before and thought Scott and I had to be in CA for a deadline sort of reason, so he booked Caleb on the evening flight.  But advised us to show up as a family of six and pray they would find a seat for Caleb.  Which they did.  I have to say Caleb took it all in stride and was quite prepared to wait twelve hours and travel alone. 

So here we are, another three time-zones west, on the California coast.  We left Virginia in a steamy cauldron of near-100-degree temperatures, and landed on this pacific strip of foggy coolness, nippy temps in the 50's and 60's.  The Myhres are gracious and welcoming, the kids all a bit older, the lifestyle one of outdoors, sports, healthy food, abundant fruits and vegetables in this agricultural area.  We biked a few miles up an ocean-side path with spectacular views, watched out niece in her Junior LIfesaving class (4 weeks, all day, surf boards and games and wet suits and beach and safety and swimming, a real California summer).  The boys are busy with baseball camp and hockey try-outs.  I think what strikes me is the wonder of organized, positive, educational, recreational fun things for kids to do in the summer, a week of tennis and then a week of something else.  And in between times, lots of friends on the street, a real neighborhood and community.  

Sunday we will give a small presentation at the Community United Methodist Church . . Judy in HMB I hope you are out there!

Thursday, August 05, 2010

College Prep

Two days between two trips to see relatives . . time to prepare Luke for college.  Scott has already been working on the essentials like a checking account and debit card.  We're sifting through emails and letters with details about post office boxes (required) and laundry plans (optional, so he'll be putting coins in the machines) that accumulated at our power-of-attorney's address here in Virginia.  The course catalogue also arrived, a 600-+ page document, a bit overwhelming in itself (instead of the 10-page list of offerings at RVA).  Yesterday Luke, Julia, and I bravely set out to buy sheets and a blanket for his dorm room bed, which seemed like a rather concrete and accomplishable goal.  It gets cold in New Haven, so we were thinking of something pretty warm.  And having moved from Africa we did not find it practical to bring any of our 20-year-old sheets and towels.  We parked the car and swooshed through the automatic doors of Bed, Bath, and Beyond where a kind friend had given us a coupon worth 20% off for one item.  (Passing, by the entrance, an ingenious new camping chair that has it's own overhead sun canopy, I might add.)

This is a store that awes and overwhelms.  Bright lights, frigid air conditioning, clever appliances for every need you never even knew you had.  There is an entire wall of towels in every size and color and texture.  Rows and rows of pillow cases and sheet sets, floor to ceiling all-in-one packets that sell sheets and blankets together for a matched look.  I'm sure we looked pretty clueless because a personable attendant came to our rescue with a "get-ready-for-college" checklist.  We were incredulous.  Here we thought we were looking for a set of sheets, a towel, and a blanket . . but in fact there was a list of about a hundred items in all sorts of categories.  And on the sidebar, a list of "essentials" which included such things as a hot-air popcorn popper and a bathrobe and other items which Luke has survived his entire life without.  He was appropriately skeptical.  Then she came back with a computer-generated 5 pages of Yale-specific info.  I am not making this up.  It included mapquest driving directions from campus to the nearest branch of this store chain.  I'm not a very savvy or patient shopper, and Luke has about 1% of my interest and stamina.  So within a few minutes of wandering the aisles with these lists trying to picture life in a dorm we've never seen, we were both about to hyperventilate.  All the colorful things looked very girl-y, and all the masculine things were drearily dull.  The couple of neutral beautiful items we noted were terribly expensive.  Suddenly Luke pointed out a sale item high in a corner, and said, let's take it, an all-in-one package.  The name of the pattern was "Luka".  We hoped it was a divine sign.  Julia put the bulky package on her head to walk to the cash register, and suddenly our helpful attendant was back with a shopping cart.  Note to missionaries:  Americans don't carry shopping items on their heads.  

We checked out and headed home, feeling very pleased that we'd made some progress, and saved about 50% with the various discounts.  But as soon as we got back, Luke realized how peculiar this brown/aqua set would look with his red African masai blanket and his home-made bright kitengi quilt.  He was immediately awash with doubt, disturbed by spending money on these things and feeling that he'd sold out his African decor.  And then we discovered that Yale offered a good deal on simple sheet-and-blanket sets that would be delivered right to the dorm room, plain colors which would be enhanced by his things from home.  So today we ordered that set and returned the Bed-Bath-and Beyond set.  

So was it a total exercise in futility?  I don't think so.  It was an eye-opener experience.  College prep is big business.  This life-transition is being marketed, heavily.  I'm glad Luke has lived two years in a dorm, far from home, and knows just how little a person actually needs day to day.  I'm glad he's questioning the culture of consumerism, has the confidence to reject much of what he sees and hears.  And I'm glad he went back out with me today, and ALL his siblings (how many high school grads tolerate that) to buy two pairs of jeans, two shirts, and a few T-shirts and pairs of underwear.  Because not all purchasing is greed, and you can't go to a Northeastern University wearing only bathing-suit shorts and worn t-shirts year-round.  This was probably the first time in his life he chose new clothes at a store, rather than wearing whatever was sent to him by grandmothers or passed on from used clothes.  We managed to keep it quick and efficient in the limited shopping attention span, and survive the sibling audience to boot.  I'm glad for the helpful store clerks we've encountered, unexpected friendliness, which reminds me that this is what America is also known for, that gregarious openness.  I'm most especially glad for the generous friends who have sent him gifts, so that he can start this new phase of life with fresh sheets and new jeans, a cell phone (soon),  . . . . and maybe we'll even talk him into shoes.