Around 1,700 years ago, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, there lived a community of Greek Christians in Myra of Lycia.
Among them lived a poor widower with three daughters. This man was deeply troubled because his daughters were coming of age, but he lacked the money to pay their dowry. Without it they could not get married, and if they remained unmarried it was likely that when he died his daughters would have no alternative to prostitution.
One day, his eldest daughter proposed a solution to his dilemma. She would sell herself into slavery to pay the dowry for her younger sisters. The father was grieved and tried to dissuade her, but she resolved that this would be her final night in his household. The next day she would become a slave.
Neither the father nor daughter realized that their conversation was overheard by Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra who had come to visit them. When he heard the girl's declaration, Nicholas was deeply moved by her sacrifice. He went away, but returned that night after the family had gone to sleep. The girls' shoes were lined up outside the front door, and Bishop Nicholas placed three bags of coins into the girls' shoes, enough to provide them with a generous dowry.
It is because of this legend that we hang stockings on our mantles at Christmas time, and that little children in many European countries find chocolate in their shoes on December 6th (traditionally St. Nicholas' birthday). His story is meant to remind us to be generous and compassionate, and that one kind act can drastically change somebody's life for good.
My novel involves quite a bit of travel. It begins in Armenia, moves to Asia Minor, then Rome, Moesia, Ephesus, Capadoccia, Persia, Edessa, Armenia again. Part of my job with researching this book was figuing out how my characters would get from place to place, the routes they would take, and how long they would travel for. Unfortunately for me, most of that "figuring out" involved hours of researching the speed of wagons, carriages, boats, armies, etc. Then, poring over a dozen maps, I'd try to plot out the most reasonable route and calculate the distance to estimate the time (FYI - writers aren't exactly known for their math skills).
I managed it, but I'd guess I spent well over a hundred hours just on these little details, details that take up no more than a few lines in my novel but have the potential to discredit me if I get them wrong. Even though I put so much into it, I still felt nervous, wondering if I really got it right.
Then last week I was reading the blog of historical novelist Gary Corby and came across a post about something called ORBIS. Essentially, Stanford University has created a (FREE!) resource that would have made my hundred hours of research into 15 minutes. You type in any two cities in the Roman Empire. Then you type in the month of travel and your preferences (i.e., ox cart or fast army march), and it plots out the route, shows you how many days it would take, which cities you would pass through, even how much it would cost (in 220 C.E.).
I am SO happy to have learned about this! I wish it existed years ago, but it was really nice to type in all my character's journeys and discover that my tedious calculations were overall pretty accurate. Thank you, Stanford!
In Tbilisi, Georgia, I frequented a neighborhood bakery where they sold a variety of cakes by the slice. One day I brought an Armenian student, Hasmik, to the bakery for a heart to heart. It was my job to make sure she was doing well personally and to encourage her however I could.
When we came into the bakery, the owner's face lit up. She spoke a bit of English and apparently had been bragging to anyone who would listen about the foreigners who had been coming to her shop.
There was a rowdy group of a dozen or so soldiers taking shots on the other side of the room. They left us alone at first, but after the owner delivered our cake, she could no longer contain herself. She announced to the soldiers that we were two of her foreign customers, that I was from America and Hasmik from Armenia. And then it started.
First they all hooted and hollered...in a friendly-ish way. Then one of them (I'll call him Dato since nearly all Georgian men are either named Dato, Gio, or Koba) stumbled toward our table, depositing two shot glasses. I tried to wave him off, but he poured some home-distilled liquor from a thermos. It was so strong my eyes burned just from sitting close to it, and he filled our shot glasses so full that a puddle formed on the table from the excess.
Hasmik and I met eyes. I was the leader, so I needed to try and get us out of it. I started to decline, but the soldier's commander (let's call him Gio, which means George. George the Georgian) stood up and raised his shot glass.
"To friendship between Georgia and America!"
Hasmik and I again met eyes. We both knew we HAD to drink, otherwise these men with guns would be seriously offended. So, I took up the shot glass, raised it half-heartedly, and took the smallest sip that could be considered acceptable. About then a fire spread down my esophogas, but whatever, it was in the name of friendship.
Dato lumbered forward to fill our glasses with the thermos. Since they were still so full he just made a bigger puddle of alcohol on the table.
Gio raised his glass again. "To friendship between Georgia and Armenia!"
This went on for a while. I started asking Gio questions to distract him from making more toasts.
I asked what branch of the army they were in, Gio answered they were the elite presidential guard. Fantastic.
Me: "So, you all just finished your shift?"
Gio (jovially): No, no! We're about to go to work! (looks at his watch) Oh, we're late!
He shouted to the men in Russian, and they collected their things to go. I tried to return the half-filled shot glasses to Dato, but he insisted we keep them and filled them again for good measure. Now the puddle spilled off the table, liquor dripping onto the ground. The soldiers left, hanging their arms over each others' necks for support and singing a joyful (and rather out-of-tune) song.
Hasmik and I finished our cake in silence, and then walked home, trying not to stumble into the road. We probably drank less than a shot, but my goodness that stuff was strong.
Five months later I was back in the US when I heard about the coup. The international media was shocked that the people managed to oust the president without any bloodshed. They called it the "Rose Revolution" because the citizens came to the president's residence with flowers, demanding his resignation. It didn't surprise me at all. I could just picture these drunken guards when the mob approached. I imagine Dato might have brought out the thermos, and Gio may have made a toast, "To the revolution!"
Marchissy is a five minute drive from here, up a winding road that, on a clear day like today, provides a panoramic view of the Alps. Especially beautiful are the sharp peaks of Mont Blanc on the other side of Lake Geneva. We park by the post office. My daughter is excited about her first day, so she holds my hand and has a skip in her step as the whole family walks to the next intersection, up to a big old building (Okay, 1870 isn't THAT old, but I'm American so anything older than 100 years could be in a museum).
Dozens of families are waiting out front for the teachers to open the school. Many parents are snapping pictures of their children, others are trying to keep younger siblings out of the rose bushes. My girl is still excited.
The teachers come outside. One of them is in her early twenties, one in her mid thirties. I'm hoping Rena gets the younger teacher, since she's more likely to speak some English. They tell us to go around the side and enter there. I don't actually understand anything they're saying, but thankfully Flemish children are subjected to 9 years of French in school, so my husband translates for me. We enter through a room with benches on both sides. Above them are cubby holes and wooden hooks. My daughter's is close the door. I notice the other children taking off their shoes and putting on slippers or house shoes. My husband and I look at each other and cringe. Either the letters we received from the school didn't mention that we should bring slippers, or somehow he missed it in the French.
I go to ask the teacher if she can just wear socks for today. Her teacher is the thirty-something, and she speaks about as much English as I do French (none, in other words). The other teacher translates, and my daughter's teacher agrees she can be barefoot for today. My daughter is in tears.
We calm her down, go into the classroom. She is overwhelmed by all the people, and frustrated that she can't understand. The teacher says everyone should find their colored pencils and sit down at a table. My daughter doesn't feel like coloring. As the teacher gives an orientation that I understand nothing of, my child looks up at me, teary eyed.
"Please don't leave me here," she says. "I don't want to stay here by myself."
My stomach tightens into a knot, and I have to keep telling myself DON'T CRY! My husband listens to the orientation; I hold my child's hand. Then it is time to go. We pray for her. Her sisters give her hugs and kisses. Then I embrace her one last time before walking out of the classroom with my stomach still in a knot and my heart properly broken.
I never want to see my child cry. I don't want her to have to struggle.
I'm sitting here now, supposed to be working but unable to think about anything besides her. My mother's heart wants to go and rescue her, and I have to keep reminding myself WHY we decided to put her in school to begin with.
Before we knew we were moving to Switzerland, we had planned to homeschool. But if I homeschooled my daughter here, she wouldn't learn French. If she doesn't learn French, she'll be isolated, extremely limited in her friends. She won't be able to take dance or music classes. She'll never belong here.
I know this is the right thing to do, but it hurts. I've seen this child learn Dutch, and she's such a bright kid. I know she'll pick up French within a few months, but...I also know how it feels to be a foreigner, and I hate that she's feeling that without me being there with her.
I've got to hold on to the 'Why'.
After returning from Nigeria in April, we've had something of a furlough this summer to help my mom sort through things after her husband died. Now we're headed back overseas, and it looks as though we'll be staying in the same place for *gasp* 3 years! We're joining the faculty of our university in Europe and will reside in a small Swiss village between Geneva and Lausanne.
My oldest daughter will begin kindergarten (in French!) in about three weeks, so this is really a different stage for us. All our globe trotting will be confined to school holidays and summer. I'm excited, and really, really busy getting all our things ready to move. This site may be a little quiet this month!
I meet a lot of interesting people. Seriously.
Like this friend of mine who was raised by hippies. When he hit his teenage years, he rebelled against his parents by getting a crew cut, making a 4.0 GPA, and joining the Republican Party. I tell you, his parents were deeply concerned for him.
Or a friend from South Africa. He used to be an accountant, but one day he tossed his suits, flew to Europe, and joined the hippie colony in Christiania, Denmark. I took a couple YWAM courses with him, and he always hitchhiked to Switzerland--not because he didn't have train fare, but because it was more interesting to talk story with strangers along the way. He has a knack for coming up with puns and a tendency to formulate conspiracy theories, so much so that in one of our schools the leader limited him to 5 questions or comments per day. When I heard he was doing accounting again, I couldn't quite believe it. I wrote him to see if it was true. His response: "It's true. I even bought a pin-stripe suit so people will take me seriously...but it has holes in both knees, so no one will think I've conformed."
I had a roommate once who was the sweetest, gentlest person you'll ever meet, but there was something really strange about her. Have you ever woken up from a nightmare panicked and sweating? She had nightmares almost every night, but lacked the ability to wake up from them. She would be fast asleep, screaming at the top of her lungs. I would climb down from my bunk, shake her until she woke up, and spend ten to fifteen minutes soothing her and praying with her because her nightmares were so terrifyingly real.
I know a First Nation Brazilian who was buried alive as an infant but survived, and a couple who repeatedly smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union at great personal risk, and an Indian musician who grew up impoverished but his music has taken him to every nation on earth. I've met a Cossack whip dancer, a Ghanaian princess, and "the Michael Jackson of the Russian-speaking world."
Once I traveled around Greece and Italy with a friend from New Zealand. While in Italy we met up with this guy who was the Olympic training coach for the New Zealand sailing team. He thought being a Kiwi exempted him from "No shirt, no shoes, no service." I'm not sure he even owned shoes. We spent a day exploring Florence barefoot, and he wore this ridiculous chef hat with an Italian flag on the front (thankfully we talked him out of the apron depicting the relevant section of the statue of David!). He kept stepping into tourists' photos and posing with them. Sometimes he would walk right up and put his arms around a Japanese couple or a pair of American teenagers, other times he posed in the background for them to discover him in the frame later on. He was hilarious, but also deep. He would talk about being out at sea, miles and miles away from any other person. He had a relationship with the ocean, something deeper than I can even understand. He can read the stars and the wind, can predict the weather forecast far more accurately than the radio stations with all their equipment. Also, he can fix anything with chewing gum, duct tape, and a small bit of wire.
My great aunt Maureen never had children, so she tried to convince the family to list her dogs as her offspring. Our family tree is a published book. The Starbucks were the first settlers of Nantucket Island and we're the closest-linked relatives to Abraham Lincoln. There's no way in hell Blossom the dog is going in that book! To protest the exclusion she refused to attend family reunions thereafter. For thirty years she lived in an apartment in Watergate. When Blossom got too fat to walk, Maureen ordered an old-fashioned baby buggy from Europe so she could push the dog around the streets of D.C. I'm not exaggerating when I say the dogs legs were so short and its belly so big it would scoot itself around on its stomach using its legs like oars. Because she was still offended about the family tree thing, she up and moved to Wyoming without telling anybody. She got a kick out of the idea that we'd all wonder about her and never know where she'd gone. Well, my mom tracked her down in two days, which irritated the heck out of her! I'll forever remember her in a large-brimmed black hat, scolding me for not twirling my pasta onto my fork the correct Italian way.
Whenever I think of the countries I've been to, I think of people. Every pin on the map has faces and stories attached to it, and they are what make places memorable. Human beings are just so endlessly interesting. People save for years to travel to the Grand Canyon or the beaches of Hawaii or the glaciers of Alaska, but the real wonders of creation are around us every day. They are us! We're wonderful, you and I.
This weekend I finished reading THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. I know, I know, I was late to the party on that one. I love mysteries, but don't often read them (I figure them out too easily, which is annoying). I was curious about this book, though. How does a translated series written by a dead Swedish author manage to sell 15 million copies in the US alone?
For one thing, the mystery was intriguing and difficult to solve. There were pieces I caught before the main character did, but I didn't put it all together. Also there was a surprise at the end I totally didn't see coming. But the real reason this book became popular (IMO) is the character Lisbeth Salazar. She's not even the main character (he's the hundredth reincarnation of the older-divorced-career-guy who is so self-involved he forgets his children exist for months at a time. I'm bored of him honestly). But Lisbeth Salazar--intensely private, yet she's an investigator who discovers the deepest secrets of others. She is vulnerable, vengeful, incredibly smart but ashamed of her abilities. She cares deeply about people, but is so jaded she's incapable of showing it in a way they can understand. She is INTERESTING.
There are a few scenes in this book that portray graphic sexual violence, and they are rather unsettling.
After I finished the book, I googled Stieg Larsson and learned that his inspiration for this story was having witnessed the gang rape of a girl named Lisbeth when he was fifteen. This experience left him with a life-long abhorrence of violence against women. I also read this: "[Larsson] was the second best-selling author in the world for 2008, behind Khaled Hosseini."
Khaled Hosseini. Have you read THE KITE RUNNER or A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS? Both stories are filled with rape, sodomy, domestic violence, violence in general. Yet THE KITE RUNNER spent 104 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List--that's two years! Hosseini's novels are two of the most important books I've ever read...because of the sex and violence.
Sexual violence in literature is a deterrent to sexual violence in city alleys after dark, and in a closed-door meeting between an advocate and the disabled girl who's at his mercy, and in the suburban house down the road where the husband has thrown back a few too many. I'm not talking about gratuitous violence that is tossed into a shoddy novel for the sensation factor--that just adds to the desensitization we experience from media's information overload.
Statistics don't transform me. Tragic stories on the 5 o'clock news might make me sigh and say, "What is the world coming to?", but that's the end of it. Reading a novel is a deeper experience, one with the potential to alter the way I view the world and what I value.
By the time Laila was forced to marry Rasheed in A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, I cared about her, deeply. I understood where she came from, everything she'd lost. I could relate to her. I could even see the world through her eyes as I read the story. So, when Rasheed beat her or raped her I couldn't separate myself from the crime. I felt in part what she felt in those moments. And it changed me.
It was the same with Hassan in THE KITE RUNNER, and Lisbeth Salandar in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO. These authors didn't tell me rape is wrong, they showedme how wrong it is, and they did it with such heart and conviction that their message has spread to millions all around the world.
It's been a little over a month since my stepfather died. I've been thinking about posting something about how weird it feels to drive his car and use his cellphone. It is strange to flip through cooking magazines and see the recipes he tagged, and realize he will never get to make them.
I've been avoiding the topic though, because I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel. Even now part of me is cringing, warning me that this is too honest, making me too vulnerable. But when I think of the kind of writer I want to be, the kind of person I want to be, I decide I'd better swallow the fear of man and write what's real.
While Steve was ill I was brought to tears a couple of times when I heard how he was suffering, but I haven't been able to cry for him since he died. I don't exactly understand why. Or maybe I do.
In my head, I'm sad for his passing, but my heart is convoluted and confused. I'm angry that he made my mother's last year with him a living hell, that he complained and took all the anger he felt because of his condition out on her. Why couldn't he have left her with some nice memories? Why was he too proud to receive help, so he made my mother do EVERYTHING for him throughout his illness? Why didn't he thank her for all she did?
But you're not supposed to be angry at people who are dead! So, I feel guilty for being angry. But then I don't feel so guilty because I think he never loved me anyway. He didn't even like me. When I read the program for his funeral I wondered how I could have known this man for more than half my life and yet known so little about him.
I knew he thought I was irresponsible. He thought I was a heretic for calling myself a Christian when I don't belong to the Catholic Church. He thought I was part of a cult (I'm not, in case you're wondering). I don't want to think badly of him. There are so many good things too, but he never thought enough of me to let me see them.
He smoked for thirty years, but he quit seven years ago. I was proud of him for that.
He was an officer in the navy, but he never told me anything about it. He had an important job, but he never told me about that either.
I feel like I have my mother, my real mother back again, and I also feel guilty for how good that feels.
I'm sad that he lived his life for money and died not two years after retirement. There's a lesson in it, but I don't want to be that person who finds lessons in other people's tragedies.
I've been thinking a lot about my health, and thinking a lot about my legacy. I've been more diligent with my writing, because how much time do I have really? Fifty years? Twenty? One? I want to leave behind something lasting, something that matters. I want my family to know me, for them to be certain of my love for each of them.
I don't want to be angry. Life is too short for bitterness. And what's the point of holding a grudge, especially against the dead. I need to let go, focus on the good, realize that the things that make me angry say a lot more about me than they do about him. I wonder sometimes why I have so little compassion, but then I realize grief is different for everyone. I'm grieved by the shallowness of my relationship with Steve, and that his passing means it will never be rectified. That's my fault as much as his.
I think I am crazy for writing this down, especially crazy for hitting publish. But I am going to push publish....right...now.
I had a few blog posts planned this week: one about our wedding, since we were celebrating our 6thanniversary, one about how our girls are doing and some cute things about each of them, and one about the time I was forced to drink homemade vodka with presidential guards in the Republic of Georgia (Random, I know, but I told a friend that story recently and couldn't stop laughing about it).
Unfortunately, it's been a terrible week on many levels, and I just can't seem to write about any of the things I planned.
My stepfather passed away Wednesday.
It wasn't unexpected. In fact, three times on Wednesday I held my breath as my email came in, because I felt certain there would be something from my mom, and it wouldn't be good news. When that email arrived in my inbox Thursday morning, I felt just…hollow.
I think I would have been able to feel more and understand better if it weren't for everything else going on.
I had already been up since 5am, when Valerie threw up all over her sheets and shortly after vomited all over me too. Rena was ill on Tuesday and Valerie had the same symptoms the whole day yesterday. Naturally, I have it now too. Perfect.
We've had unstable electricity. We had a two-day blackout over the weekend, so our battery back-up system was completely drained (and our refrigerator smelled like gym socks). Monday and Tuesday we only got a couple of hours of electricity, so I didn't get the work done I really needed to, and it's just hanging over my head adding weight to everything else.
Then the water. Sigh. It's the end of dry season. It rained for about an hour a day after we arrived in Nigeria (in October), and not a drop since. We've had to be frugal with our water anyway, since city water only flows here about every two weeks, but the last couple times it came, it was barely a trickle. After several days of water conservation to the extreme, we decided with our upstairs neighbors to order a water truck delivery.
Water truck delivery. It's really expensive. Our contribution to the fee was roughly the same amount we paid for city water the entire duration of our stay in Nigeria. The company was supposed to fill up at the water facility, drive the truck here, and transfer the water into our tanks. But that's not what they did. No. They went to the dam and filled their truck with disgusting, reeking, diseased water, and put that in our tanks instead.
Yesterday while I stayed home with sick baby, I tackled the mountain of laundry that has accumulated while we've been looking for a solution to our water shortage. We actually had good electricity yesterday, so I managed two loads. Now all our clothes smell like algae and fish and sewage.
Our neighbor's housekeeper cleans our place on Thursdays. So, our house is clean, but…it smells like algae and fish and sewage. Every room is a new reason to cringe.
I need to shower, but, at the moment, body odor is preferable to my skin and hair stinking like algae and fish and sewage.
This morning Martijn brought over bucketfuls of water from our neighbors well so that our kids can wash their hands and I can wash dishes. If I weren't ill, I would mop over all our floors to try and clean off the stench, but I'm simply not up to it today.
We've tried treating the water, but it isn't helping much. Probably it needs to be dumped, along with the money we paid for it.
I'm so tired, and so desperate for a moment of peace. I need to reflect on Steve's death and to work through my emotions. Last night I lied awake for a few hours trying to think, but all I could think about is how much our bedroom reeks and how angry I am about it. Not very helpful.
So, then, our topic in home school this week is having an attitude of thankfulness. Man, am I being tested in that! I'm trying to teach my kids what it means to be grateful, and that contentment is not dependent on circumstance. I know they are watching me, and I also know they will learn far more by how I respond to everything going on than by anything I say to them this week.
If you are someone who prays, I covet your prayers, especially for my mother. Yesterday I was holding Martijn…it's unthinkable that he could someday be gone and I would have to live on without him. I cannot even begin to comprehend her loss.
If you pray for me, perhaps something along these lines: "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything who him who gives me strength." Phil 4:11-13
Today is our last day of lectures in the SSC Nigeria! This has been a really different experience from other schools I've worked with because Martijn and I have done most of the teaching. We didn't have the budget to fly in speakers, and those who were willing to pay their own way were discouraged from coming by the security situation. We had some speakers over skype, and this week we have had two local guest speakers, one who teaches research at the University of Jos and the other who works in advocacy and media with The Stefanos Foundation.
As I look back on the past nine weeks, I really see God's faithfulness to us and our students. Teaching so much material while leading a school and homeschooling has been...a lot. Yet I've had strength and energy to do everything I needed to. On top of all that, I finished my book yesterday! A literary agent was hosting a contest on her blog, and the prize is something I have dreamed of and drooled over, but cannot afford. I knew I would regret it if I didn't enter, and somehow I pulled it off!
So, my book is done (for now anyway, I would like to have a few people read it and do a final edit before I submit to agents), my teaching is done, and now all that is left is to oversee the students' final projects over the next two weeks and to plan the final exam and graduation.
I'm also really proud of my students. When I gave them their books and syllabus, many of them said they couldn't possibly keep up with all the work. We pushed them. I'm of the philosophy that anything worthwhile is worth working hard for. They have had to learn time management, but all the students have kept up with their assignments, and every week their work improves. God has also been faithful to them with their finances. Earlier this week the students needed to have 75% of their fees in to continue in the school. It looked like half the class would be sent home! Money started to come in, but still I had to send two students off of the campus. The next day, however, their fees were paid in full and every student is back in class! Some are still unsure where the last 25% of their fees will come from, but we believe God will help them bring it to completion.
We have just three weeks left in Africa! I have mixed feelings about leaving. There are some things I definitely won't miss, like the bombs and the blackouts and the water pressure (or lack thereof). I'm so looking forward to seeing family in Belgium, and especially to be back in Colorado. My stepfather is losing his battle with cancer, and my heart aches to be with my mom right now. At the same time, I still love this place and the people. There is nothing as fulfilling as being in the center of God's will. We've seen his hand on this school and these students, and especially on us throughout this time!
We are letters from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.