Sunday, September 30, 2007

What a week

It has been a full and rather intense week - the kind of week that feels like ideas and events and experiences and emotions are tumbling over you so fast you barely have time to process it all and give meaning to it. Here are a few of the highlights:

- It was really wonderful meeting Brian McLaren in person AND spending a delightful evening and plane ride home reading his new book "Everything Must Change". If you've been struggling with how your faith connects with the really big issues that are going on in this world - climate change, poverty, war, unfair trade, etc. - you really should read this book.

- Marcel and I attended the 25th anniversary celebration for our friends Steve and Nanci. I traveled to Ethiopia with Steve and Nanci (and produced a couple of videos with Steve, which I'll link to soon) and it's been really cool developing a friendship with them. There was great music being played at the social that night, the highlight of which was the reunion of Steve's old band "Elias, Shritt, and Bell". Their harmonies are truly amazing - kinda like Simon and Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

- This week marked the seventh anniversary of the birth and death of our son Matthew. In what is becoming a family tradition, we celebrated the place he holds in our family's story by visiting his grave and making a trip to Dairy Queen for some birthday ice cream sundaes.

- I attended this concert and saw part of the related art exhibit. About all I can say is "Wow!" If you're in Winnipeg and you can take in the exhibit, you really should do so. It's incredibly moving.

- I got to chat with Bob Bennett and tell him how much his songs "We are the Kings" and "We were the Kings" have meant to me. It was a brief conversation and I didn't get a chance to tell him the story of how those songs served as a touchstone for me in Ethiopia when I found out my best childhood friend Julie's father had died and I couldn't be around to mourn with her. Perhaps another time.

- I also had a brief opportunity to talk to Carolyn Arends and let her know how her music had been my constant companion in the hospital during the three weeks leading up to the birth and death of Matthew. When she sang "We've been Waiting for You", I wept, because that was the song that was the most closely connected to our waiting and longing for Matthew. She got a chuckle out of the story of how I listened to her music on the Fisher Price tape recorder a friend had brought to my hospital room.

- After being gone for most of the week, I took Friday off and hung out with my kids. We did a little shopping and went out for lunch. They're at such a great age right now - they're truly fun to hang out with and don't require a lot of "caring for them" energy. We've had some great laughs this weekend, like when Marcel showed his age by referring to MySpace and/or Facebook as "My Face".

- I had some of the greatest conversations with people this week. Some of them happened in Toronto, as I mentioned in my last post, but some of them happened closer to home. It was really fun connecting with a new friend - the mother of one of Nikki's best friends - on her front yard. A conversation that started with the kind of sandals we both love wandered from there to fair trade, life changes, and the impact of losing a son. (Joanne, if you're reading this - WELCOME!)

- I spoke in church this morning - something I truly enjoy doing. You know what they say about public speaking being one of the most common fears among people? Yeah, well I'm an exception to that statistic. It gives me energy.

- With all of these incredibly inspiring things swirling around me, the muse has visited and I've gotten inspired with a few writing and work-related ideas. I can hardly wait to get started. Now if only I can find the time.

I think I need a quiet day in a retreat centre just to process all of this.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

So good

If you want to know where I am (or where I'm about to leave, since I'm currently sitting in the airport), you can find all the clues you need here. Unfortunately, those pictures were taken on the only evening I had a chance to wander. The rest of the time, I was stuck in a boring hotel in the industrial wasteland near the airport. (Sorry Karla – no chance to hook up this time.)

But it’s been good. So good. Surprisingly good.

I’m at a Christian charities conference, and the last time I came to one of these, I felt like a fish out of water. As much as I make a continuous (or perhaps I should say repeated and sometimes sporadic) choice to be a person of faith, I do not speak the language of religion well. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that I “do” religion well. I’m a bit of a faltering Christian without the same sense of a box in which to place my faith as many people seem to have. Especially people who tend to gather in a place like this. The shape of my faith is a little less like a box and more like a loosely woven basket. (I know some of you are smiling right now, because you’ve got baskets too. And some of the holes are even bigger than you’d like, right?)

So when I’m in a context surrounded by hundreds of people for whom the language is as natural as breathing, I get a little antsy and often feel inclined to run from the room. Sometimes I envy them their boxes and their common language, but I just know it doesn’t work for me. (Like, for example, the guy who delivers the “spiritual challenge” – a mini-sermon – each morning, who says “God bless you” every time he steps out of the elevator. I seem to share an elevator with him every time I go to my room. I don’t know how to respond. “Um – yeah thanks?” Good thing he hasn’t noticed that I’ve managed to skip the “spiritual challenge” part of the morning every day since the first day.)

You can see then, why a place like a “Christian charities conference” leaves me feeling a little like an impostor. And an alien. A stranger in a strange land.

But this time, it’s been different. Not because I’ve conformed to the box or learned the language – quite the opposite. I’ve been having the most amazing conversations. I have found lots of other baskets in rooms I assumed were full of boxes. I’ve had pleasant surprises. I’ve had to readjust my perceptions of people. I love that. With one person in particular, whom I’ve known for a couple of years, a person who is a leader in a Christian relief and development agency – someone you’d assume almost certainly fits in the box category – I’ve had a couple of truly remarkable conversations. He’s faced the same doubts, the same anger at organized religion, and the same shaking of a faith he thought was fairly secure. He’s had to climb out of the box too, and is still trying to figure out the shape of his new faith. He is now my friend on a very different level than he was two days ago. What a lovely surprise!

And I’ve gotten to attend two sessions with one of my favourite writers, Brian McLaren. And after each workshop, I got a chance to chat with him one on one. He’s even more cool in person than in his books. Definitely a basket kind of guy. A basket guy who doesn’t pretend he’s got a box. My kind of guy. I’ve even got an advance copy of his new (not even released yet) book that he’s asked me to pass on as a surprise to a mutual friend of ours (but I get to read it first on the airplane on the way home). How cool is that?

There have been other great sessions too. I’ve definitely been refreshed. And I have some great ideas floating around in my grey matter.

I never expected I’d be this glad I came.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Time to put the lawnchairs away

In the summertime, our lawnchairs are always in the trunk of the car. Whether it's a soccer game, a family barbecue, a church picnic, a visit to the beach, or a camping trip, those lawnchairs get a lot of use. If you look closely at the photo, you'll see that the one on the left is falling apart. We've had that particular chair since shortly after we got married. It has been sat on hundreds of times by dozens of butts.

This morning, we watched the last outdoor soccer game of the season. It was a disappointing 1-0 loss for Julie's team in the semi-final round of the city championship (b-side). It's over. The end of another season.

It's time to put the lawnchairs away. Today didn't feel like summer was over - it was a beautiful day. But the leaves are changing, and we've already had the furnace on once or twice in our house.

Fall has arrived.

In other news, I'm sitting in a stinky hotel room. No funky bed and breakfast this time - it was just easier to stay where the conference is being held. I'm stuck in one of those rather boring corporate hotels close to the airport where there isn't even an interesting place to walk, and unfortunately I booked a little late and there was nothing left but a smoking room. Bummer. Plus I just had a very disappointing greek salad from room service, so this isn't shaping up to be a particularly memorable place to stay.

Oh well. At least the bed is comfy. And I have a new book to read, so I'm going to curl up with it right now. I took Lucia's advice and picked up Infidel in the airport. It looks interesting so far.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thirteen things currently spinning through my head

(yes, I’m feeling spinny today)

Alternate title: A day in the life of my brain at work

  1. Should I order more newsletters, or will 18,000 be enough?
  2. Did I catch all the mistakes on the design proof of the brochure, or will someone point out a glaring error the moment 10,000 of them arrive in my office from the printer?
  3. Is there something I committed to doing tonight that I’m forgetting?
  4. What should I take along to read on my trip next week?
  5. When will I find the time to prepare my speaking notes for Monday’s meeting? On the airplane?
  6. I hope the band they hired for the conference I’ll be at next week won’t be the same country gospel one they had at the last conference I attended. (Please don’t hate me if you happen to like country gospel – it’s just not my thing.)
  7. When will I get the first phone call from a disgruntled supporter saying that we shouldn’t have mentioned the connection between fossil fuel consumption and climate change in our newsletter?
  8. Do they REALLY want 29,000 copies of the brochure? Just how many trees did that kill? Can I use recycled paper?
  9. How will I replace one of my key staff members who gave his notice this week? Yikes!
  10. Will we be ready to launch our big new program by early next month? Will I have an aneurysm before then?
  11. After three years of monthly conference calls with my team, WHY haven't I learned to ask the questions so that I'm not met with stone-cold silence almost every time I ask for feedback on something?
  12. Oooo… the new website is going to look SO lovely! Why didn’t I get this done years ago?
  13. Will the designer hate me when he gets my email for 35 picky little changes to the document?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Babysitting Abby

The laundry didn’t get folded last night,
but I sat and rocked a little girl to sleep for the first time in about three years

I didn’t get started on the wall that needs painting,
but I watched my oldest daughter change her first poopy diaper and I marveled how quickly she has gone from the “pooper” to the “changer”

I didn’t sweep the floor or wipe the dirty fingerprints off the fridge,
instead I dutifully obeyed every time my 22 month old niece said “Hah-her come” (after all, when someone learns your name, how can you resist letting her wrap you around her finger?)

I didn’t pay the bills or change the sheets,
but I sat and read “Good Night Little Sheep” to an appreciative audience when it was nearly time for bed

I didn’t “accomplish” anything last night, nor did any of my children,
but for a short while we played the roles of doting auntie and cousins and we let our world revolve around a little girl who’s got a firm hold on our hearts.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

At least there are some names that I DO know

I think hearing Ato G.'s story of dying girls left me feeling a bit of survivor guilt.

There's something about the nature of the type of travel I do in developing countries that makes me feel a little voyeuristic. I wander from village to village, get access to their homes, their schools, and their farms, they let me take pictures of their lives, I take a few notes for some stories and for my journal, but then I return home to my comfortable North American life, and they are left with the pain that I cannot share.

A lot of times - like the case of the young girls in the Afar region - I don't even get a chance to ask many of their names. It all happens so quickly and many of them don't speak English, so I leave feeling like I haven't really learned who they are. I am an observer. A watcher. I take back their stories, and I try to honour them the best way I know how, but I can never really be part of their pain.

While I was sitting with that thought yesterday, a little gift fell in my lap - just the kind of moment I needed to remind myself that I am doing the best I can, and that sometimes real connections do happen.

Daniel has recently arrived from Kenya. He's working in our office as an international intern this year. He'll be traveling across Canada, connecting with youth in schools and churches and sharing his story of growing up with hunger. You only need to look at his grin to know that it is not hard to fall in love with Daniel. He's got a bright light shining in him and I'm lucky to be close enough to be touched by it.
Daniel sat in my office yesterday, and I showed him my pictures of Kenya. In earlier conversation, I'd found out that he'd grown up in one of the regions I'd traveled in a few years ago. As I flipped through the pictures, his eyes lit up when he spotted familiar landmarks and even some faces that he recognized.

Then we got to this picture, and he burst out laughing.
"THAT'S MY SISTER!" he nearly shouted. Sure enough - this is his younger sister Agnes.

I remember Agnes. We were sitting at the table under the acacia tree on the farm where we'd tented the night before. It was the afternoon, between outings, and I'd found a shady spot to rest. I remember how she approached me and, in a bold yet quiet way, sat down close enough to brush her shoulder up against mine. It was clear that she wanted to be my friend.

The older women were busy cooking food for us on the open fire pit, but Agnes and one or two other young women clearly had other ideas in mind. They wanted to befriend these Canadian visitors. She sat down and we talked. For nearly an hour. She told me about her life. She was a school teacher, teaching in a village some distance from her family. She boarded with another family in the village. She talked about her family, and I'm sure she even told me about Daniel, though I had no inkling at the time that I'd meet him some day.

I am so glad that I remember Agnes, and that I can learn of her life two and a half years later. I cannot name the other girls in my last post, but somehow, remembering Agnes makes me feel a little less sad.

And I am even more glad that I get to spend the upcoming year getting to know Daniel.

Friday, September 14, 2007

They may be dead now

We had a visitor in our office yesterday. Ato G. from Ethiopia. A gentle yet bold man who's responsible for the project we visited in the Afar district, where a water diversion project has transformed the community and dramatically increased the food security for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of people. He brought pictures and stories of lives transformed, new crops growing, and a bustling and growing village. When we were there in January, the people boasted that the village school which had had only 1 student 3 years earlier had grown to 64 students. Now, merely 8 months later, Ato G. tells us that it has now grown to 250 children, and 40 % of them are girls. Women have increasingly greater responsibility in the community, especially since it has been recognized that they possess many of the skills required to move the village forward economically.

When we were there, we visited the second project that Ato G's staff are overseeing. At least a hundred workers bustled around a busy work site carrying rocks, mixing concrete, hauling water, and digging trenches. He tells us that that water weir has now been completed and they are enjoying their first crops. There is renewed hope in the community. Access to water means access to life in arid regions like the Afar.

Ato G. came with some sad stories, however. Last year's flood in the region set the communities back and meant that thick silt had to be removed from their new canals. We watched a man on a video tell us how he'd lost his farm when the flooding moved the river about 150 metres from the original riverbed. He stood looking over the rushing water and said "this used to be my farm."

The piece of news that Ato G. brought that haunts me the most, however, is the story of the young girls. "Remember all the girls you watched carrying loads of rocks in their sacks to help build the water weir? They made up a large part of our work force there. But many of them are dead now."
Female genital mutilation. That's what's killing them. The community comes together for the coming of age celebration once a year or so, and with a single contaminated blade, 50 to 100 young women lose a little piece of themselves. In the weeks that follow, many of them lose their lives.

I can't get that out of my mind and my heart. We watched these young woman work. We watched them dance in the setting sun. We watched them walk their livestock home from the fields. We watched them cast subtle flirtatious glances at the young men - the same looks you'd catch in any country of the world when young people gather.

But many of them are dead now. And those that aren't dead have been violated. And they've lost their friends.

Sometimes the work of international development feels like one step forward two steps back. The community has changed, they have access to water and more food. There are even woman serving in key roles in the community. That's all good news. But their young women are dying.

Today I am sad for those hopeful young women who danced in the evening sun. My hope and prayer is that those who survived will rise up and be strong, and that some day, when it is their turn to step into whatever leadership roles they are afforded they will say "this is enough. We will not watch our daughters die."

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Things I've learned (and re-learned) in the past few days

- Rain and wind are ONLY fun if you’re in a warm place watching through a window, NOT if you’re sitting on the side of a soccer field.

Saying good-bye to the same person again and again gets old. Quickly.

Sending three kids back to school is FRICKIN’ expensive. New outfits, new shoes, school supplies, school fees, lunch fees – YIKES!

Signing two kids up for indoor soccer just after you’ve finished paying for their return to school can be downright painful.

Going grocery shopping after the above two expenses can be very nearly impossible.

Household renovations or decorating projects will always take at least twice as long as you originally estimated.

Wearing sandals when it’s 5 degrees (Celsius) and windy is stupid.

Even with a “resistant to change” child, the return to school gets easier as they get older.

Drinking hot chocolate while sitting at the side of the soccer field in the wind and the rain makes you feel only marginally more comfortable.

Chasing half a dozen napkins (that came along with your hot chocolate and muffins) across the soccer field when the wind picks them up can be embarrassing. Especially when you’re wearing a poncho that flips up in your face every time you try to bend down to grab a dancing napkin.

Folding your lawnchair with a cup of hot chocolate still in the cup holder is not a smart idea.

Nutella on toast makes nice comfort food at ten o’clock at night when you’ve been watching soccer in the rain, trying to scratch together a few dollars to buy groceries, saying good-bye for the umpteenth time, and you didn’t have time for supper.

So what we’ve established so far is that I am broke, stupid, clumsy, and cold. Yep, it’s a good day to be alive. Thank god for Nutella.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

And so it goes

To see what was originally in this post, go here. I didn't want anyone to hate me for having to listen to the same song every time they opened my blog.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

And so it begins

School supplies are bought, everyone is equipped with indoor and outdoor shoes (yeesh), the oldest two have carefully written their names on all of their belongings, and each child is outfitted in new clothes for the first day of school. And so it begins.

Tomorrow morning, Maddie meets her new teacher. Madame R. The same kindergarten teacher Julie had. The woman is a marvel. I have seen her transform a group of five-year-olds from screaming and chaotic into quiet subdued sitting-on-the-floor-and-listening with one wave of her magic wand. Well actually it was one well-timed game of follow-the-leader around the classroom, but to my admiring eye it looked like magic. Maddie is ready to be a schoolgirl like her big sisters. And so it begins.

Yesterday Marcel met his new cooperating teacher and spent the day at his new school. He will finally be student teaching in a high school in the subjects he’s been studying for – history and social studies. This is his last year of more than 5 years of university. After a summer of being the only one awake at 7:00 in the morning, I had to smile a little when his alarm went off this morning. And so it begins.

Soccer practice for Nikki this afternoon. Julie starts again soon too. After a week at soccer camp, they’ve learned new skills and are raring to go. They have play-offs from now until the end of September. And so it begins.

Julie and Nikki are both happy with the teachers they get this year. They’re switching teachers. Julie’s moving into the grade 5 class Nikki was in last year and Julie’s teacher from last year is moving up to teach grade 6 where Nikki will be. They both liked these particular teachers last year, so they’re offering each other words of hope. And so it begins.

Beginnings for everyone. Except me. I’m thinking it’s time for a new beginning for me too. Perhaps an art class. Or photography. Or pottery again. Something that sends me out to buy school supplies for ME.