Rebuilding Home (Again)

The little chair sits in the corner the the nursery. It is upholstered in bright orange. And I love it fiercely. I love sitting in it. I love snuggling my baby girl enveloped in its faded yet cheery texture. I love this tiny room in this smallish house filled with my people, all six of them.

Two years ago, before the orange chair entered my life, the contents of my life fit in an old white Ford Explorer.  Five years before that, the contents of my life fit in our trusty black Hyundai minivan.  We sold nearly everything we owned to move our family of (then) five overseas.  It felt like freedom. We were setting off on the adventure of a lifetime, not for a second doubting that we’d find everything we needed when our feet hit the ground in our new home in a new country.  I wasn’t sure what our living space would look like, but I was up for the challenge of creating a new version of home for our family of small children.

Then, we unexpectedly found ourselves back in America, homeless and jobless, with three slightly older kids who didn’t even remember what our life here used to look like. This time, I wasn’t sure I was up for the challenge of creating a new version of home.  I definitely was not up for recreating what our physical space had once looked like.  It all seemed so exhausting. 

I got married young. At twenty-three, one semester into grad school, I had no idea who I was, what I wanted in a home, or what my style looked like. I spent about zero time wrestling through our needs vs. wants or how our home could express our values. I never once considered how our physical space and the stuff of it would shape my one-day kids. I did what I thought I was supposed to do and picked up that heavy-duty gift registry scanner at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, empowered to ride a cultural wave of thoughtless materialism and desire for a home full of pretty new things.  Over the years, I started paying more attention to what we brought into our home. I noticed the tension all the things created in me and as I sought to be a good steward of the resources in my care. I paid attention to how much time it took to care for more house than we actually needed.  When our lives shifted continents, I was relieved to let it all go. To be free of the house and the stuff and the constant pressure to have more and better.   

Back on American soil once more, I faced another do-over in creating our family’s physical space. There isn’t a cultural precedent for creating gift registries for major life transitions; white-knuckling that registry scanner and letting it lead me trancelike down the colorful aisles of Target wasn’t an option this time.  Feeling not a little overwhelmed at basically starting from scratch and more than a little embarrassed that I didn’t even know what shiplap was, I sought refuge at an unassuming thrift store. That’s where I stumbled upon the old orange chair.  It was love at first sight. I had never been an orange person, but something about that warm hue combined with the texture of the upholstery captivated my imagination. I wondered what kinds of stories this chair could tell, what kind of people once belonged to it. Then I pictured myself sitting in the orange chair, snuggled under a blanket, book in hand, one of the kids sprawling on a rug at my feet. That $8 chair rattled something free inside me. It got me dreaming again, even a little excited. With my mind and heart engaged, I began to visualize what our family needed to make this new space a place of belonging and becoming, a place that would reflect our family values. 

Inspired by the orange chair, I found myself drawn to the smallish, the cozy, items that had a story before they found their way into my family’s story, hand-me-downs, and family treasures. Choosing to fill our home with the orange chair and other castoffs affirmed our faith in redemption, declaring to my kids that there is beauty in the discarded and value in the forgotten.  As I began collecting the things of life in a way sparked by the orange chair, I recognized that we were set up perfectly to try on minimalism and say no to the accumulation mind-set that had characterized our physical space abroad.  In that season, we battled fear of getting rid of things that we’d never be able to replace locally.  This time, we stumbled into simplicity accidentally and are staying by intention.

As the orange chair passed the threshold, urgency to unpack quickly consumed me, as if filling dresser drawers with our few items of clothing was a declaration of rootedness to this new space. We claimed it as our own, our family’s space of belonging and becoming. We filled it with orange chairs, faded quilts, used books, blanket forts, a hammock in the bedroom and Legos in the attic.  We filled it with laughter, meals at the table, and many beautiful messes.

A Beautiful Thing

“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table.” (Matthew 26:6-7, ESV)

In the North African community where we once lived, perfumes were an important part of culture.  Every time I read this story in the gospels, I recall the distinct scent of the heavy perfumes worn by my neighbors and friends.  I remember visiting a woman who had just given birth.  As I sat taking in the scene, a tray filled with small jars and bowls was passed around to the women surrounding the new mother.  I watched as women dipped the tips of their fingers into each of the offered bowls and applied the contents to their hair and skin.  When the tray was passed to me, I followed suit, breathing in the assortment of perfumes and ointments as I dipped my fingers in and ran them through my hair.  Little did I know how difficult these scents are to remove.  After washing twice, the perfume clung tightly to my hair.  The scent imbedded itself in my clothing, lingering at long last.  This stuff was made to last. 

With the memory of North African perfume dancing in my nostrils, I began to understand this familiar passage in a new way.  As Matthew tells the story, Jesus is anointed by this nameless woman just a couple of days before his crucifixion. That means the perfume did quite literally go with him to the grave. This physical outpouring of love and affection would have lingered on his body throughout the most excruciatingly painful day imaginable.

As he was beaten, he breathed in its scent.

As he stumbled carrying his cross, it wafted around him.

As he was hanging between thieves, abandoned even by his Father, on his dying inhale—that sweet aromatic reminder of extravagant love.

Jesus said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Jesus the God-man knew what was coming. He had just told his disciple that his crucifixion was imminent. He was bearing an impossibly heavy load, weighted down by responsibility that he faithfully kept moving toward. When I’ve read this story in the past, I’ve always considered the extravagant sacrifice of the woman – her willingness to scandalously worship Jesus through this costly act. Today, I see the gift this scandalous outpouring was to Jesus. He knew the significance – He knew what was ahead.  God used this woman to remind Jesus of His plan – to extravagantly love and gently nudge him toward the cross. This is a beautiful thing. God ministered to Jesus through this woman fully surrendered to Him.  In a single moment, tenderness and scandalous love were poured out on Jesus as he faced his brutal death.  The outpouring confirmed his next steps, prepared him for them, and gave him the gift of aroma that he would carry to the cross and grave.

An aroma stronger than the stink of death, reminding him of his power over death.

The aroma of love poured out on him as he poured out his life in love.

Blueberries and Belly Buttons

Thanksgiving is upon us, turning my thoughts toward those things I am most grateful for. Today, I’m grateful to share a story from my motherhood journey with the Kindred Mom community. Here’s a sneak peek.

It was a glorious, baby-in-a-diaper, summer Sunday lunch eaten well past the noon hour. The luxury of this slow and sleepy afternoon stood in sharp contrast to the chaotic Sunday morning my husband and I had spent corralling our little people to church and back.  A lazy Sunday afternoon always feels deserved after gathering for corporate worship with our gaggle of children in tow.  Worn out from her morning of crawling around the back of the gathering, the baby slept right through our family lunch.  When the big kids eventually scattered outside to enjoy the sunshine with their Daddy, I sat down at the wooden slab table, crafted by my husband’s own hands, to feed the baby her late lunch…

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This week, I’ve been participating in the Well with Gratitude Challenge on Instagram led by Rebekah Fedrowitz. She has provided daily prompts for the 14 days leading up to Thanksgiving, inviting others to join her in a daily practice of gratitude. Here’s my response to the prompt CONNECTION.

I missed my connection.  While I am the kind of person who has spent hours in the hundreds in the air space between here and there, I can’t remember the last time I flew anywhere alone.  I can’t remember the last time I missed a connection.  But here I was, alone facing three unexpected solitary hours in an airport whose most distinguishing feature was the ubiquitous city mugs at the Starbucks in Concourse A. 

Alone with my thoughts, I began wondering if there could be a purpose in this delay. I decided to notice, to pay attention. Maybe there was a gift to be received or given. 

I ambled down the concourse, senses engaged, open to whatever these hours might bring. I am noticing. I am paying attention.

In time, I found the cluster of seats nearest my departure gate.  A flight to Nashville departed before mine, and I scanned the gathering crowd, nearly every eye glued to a phone, tablet, or laptop, nearly every ear filled with a headphone. No one looked up to catch my gaze.  Still, I am noticing. I am paying attention.

As American airport etiquette dictates, I slumped into an empty seat surrounded by other empty seats so as not to be uncomfortably close to another human. I pulled out my own tiny screen to make a quick check of my messages before digging out my laptop to sneak in a little writing time.  If that was the gift to be found in this delay, that was enough for me. 

As my thumb brushed across the screen, I noticed a swish of movement directly to my left.  A side-glance told me that a person sat in the seat directly beside me, violating all my deeply ingrained American expectations. The slightly pungent and distinctly other scent wafting toward me told me that this was not likely an American. As I turned slightly toward her, iPhone in my hand, she began asking me questions in heavily accented English. “Phone. Can I use your phone? One call only.” Caught off guard, I balked, not sure what to say. Then I remembered my mantra. I am noticing. I am paying attention. With that in mind, I leaned into a conversation with this total stranger.

As it turns out, she was from India, on her way to visit her sister in Tennessee.  This was her first visit to the US, and she lost her phone somewhere en route. She used my phone to call her sister.  Then she used Whatsapp to call her father in India.  We chatted for a few minutes until her flight began boarding, a sweet casual conversation about long flights and family and expensive phones.  As she was picking up her bags to board, I asked her her name, a name I have since forgotten. As she walked away, gratitude swept through me for a conversation with a stranger, one I would have missed if the day had gone as I planned. 

If I hadn’t been noticing, if I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have missed another connection that day.  

Re-Entry To-Do List

16 Tips for an Awkwardly Authentic Transition “Home”

  1. Get a Dramatic Symbolic Haircut. Do this as fast as you can. Mysteriously, this haircut will help you grieve the season of life you left behind and embrace this new unexpected season. Just trust me.
  2. Stop washing your feet so the henna stays on longer.
  3. Mark every first experience as SOOOO Symbolic.  Pumping gas your own gas for the first time in 5 years?  SOOOO Symbolic. Signing a lease? SOOOO Symbolic. Registering kids for public school? SOOOO Symbolic.
  4. Cry at the grocery story.  It is cliché but do it anyway.  It is a rite of passage.  You may not even know why you are crying, but it feels so Dramatic and Symbolic and Wrong and Overwhelming to be at Publix, and you can’t even imagine that this is really where life has brought you again. 
  5. After that good cry, awkwardly give way too many details about your recent transition to your cashier when you have trouble using the debit card machine to pay for your groceries.  Who would have thought that even the card machines had changed? 
  6. Purge all your long skirts and scarves except that one tie-dyed green mumu with the sequins that you just can’t part with. Occasionally wear that one when you pick up the kids from school.
  7. Consider getting a Dramatic Symbolic Tattoo but get stuck considering the paradox of living out this impermanent life with ink permanently marking your body.
  8. Have a mild panic attack every time someone asks where you are from.   
  9. Religiously avoid filling out paperwork until you have your new address and phone number memorized.  This will take longer than you think.
  10. Keep a minimum of three types of currency in your wallet at all times for at least the next 6 months.    
  11. Faithfully avoid using your left hand in public, even though it makes going through a drive-thru particularly awkward.
  12. Have required “talks” with your kids before going anywhere. Remember, we don’t pee in the trees at the park. Remember to bring your shoes and yes, you must wear them. Yes, you can drink the water here.
  13. Be frustrated that no one can recognize how much you don’t belong.  On the outside, after all, you look just like everyone else (after your henna has faded and when you aren’t wearing that green mumu, that is).  But you feel entirely other on the inside, your scars and anxiety neatly hidden from view.
  14. Find a place to worship. The local church will bring up all kinds of feelings, some positive, some negative. Just close your eyes and sniffle (or ugly cry) through the songs.  God will meet you right there through familiar (and not so familiar) lyrics that have new meaning.
  15. Ask for help. All the things you must do to establish a life in this country once again will feel like too much. In fact, it is too much. It takes humility to recognize that you don’t know all the answers and maybe don’t even know which questions to ask. It is okay to admit weakness. It is okay to ask for help. It is okay to accept help. You will find that humans mostly like to help each other.
  16. Share your story with a real live person. You don’t have to explain yourself to everyone you encounter. But you do need a human or two who will listen without judgment and who will encourage you as you figure out who you are in this old/new context.

Strawberries and the In Between

I live in a world where it is possible for strawberries to occupy space in my refrigerator year round. That statement may not seem remarkable, maybe even a little mundane. Because here in America, even Aldi continuously keeps strawberries by the carton-full stocked on their shelves. But I have not always lived in this pocket of the world. I have not always had an Aldi down the street. Or refrigeration even.  The funny thing is that even though that was only a couple of years in my past, I am prone to forget.  But not today.

As I stand in my sunny American kitchen, mundane Costco-sized cartons of strawberries in each of my hands (because, well, refrigeration), an unexpected memory slams into me.  My mind transports me to another kitchen, clutching another carton in my hands.  I’m standing in a desert land in North Africa, in the dusty little detached kitchen behind my house.  I am holding a small gray cooler bag.  The cooler bag contains a carton.  In this carton are tiny strawberries.  In my eyes are tears.  It has been months, probably more than a dozen, since I’ve tasted a strawberry. A year of months since this juicy red goodness has dribbled down the chins of my three little ones.  My kids are avid consumers of mangoes, but I’m not certain they even remember what a strawberry is. They don’t grow in our country-of-residence.  As I reach down to gently lift the carton and its precious cargo out of the cooler bag, gratitude runs through me like a current.  I’m charged with the electricity of anticipation, longing for a taste of something I didn’t even know I wanted so badly until it was within reach.  The sight, the smell of these tiny Ethiopian-grown strawberries, hand delivered by visiting friends, awakens something forgotten in me.  The parts of me I suppressed in my quest to wholeheartedly embrace my new culture and way of life bubble to the surface. In this moment, I am fully awake to who I am, I am fully seen.

As I savor the taste and smell of the berries, their real gift to me is an affirmation of all that I am, all my contradictions. An American living in North Africa. Passionate about both mangoes and strawberries. Lover of Jesus and friend to Muslims.  I know as much about surviving snowy northwest Ohio winters as about surviving hot season in the Sahel.  I’ve chosen a life surrounded by sand, but moments by water still restore me in a way unmatched by other places.  I know that Coca-cola in a reusable glass bottle tastes infinitely better than any other bottling method.  Both English and Arabic float through my nightly dreams. 

These parts of me often feel at war with each other. They create tension within me. One moment, I want to dive deep into my host culture, immersing myself in the new and different.  The next moment, all I want to do is retreat into my house, binge watch Parks and Recreation and eat Oreos, clinging tightly to what is familiar. And yet, in the mess and honesty of conflicting emotions, there are moments when the parts sing in harmony.     

Driving remote desert paths, my husband and I belting out songs with the Beastie Boys, our kids asleep in the backseat.    

Sharing a deep conversation and a cup of tea with a national friend in my second language.

Gazing in wonder at the stars with my kids, the Milky Way brilliantly marching across the desert sky, compelling us to observe this ritual every night.

Savoring these tiny strawberries that unexpectedly remind me of who I am, bringing all my parts into harmony.

Here back in my passport country, the tension still exists. Here my other-ness continues to confront me in unexpected ways. Here a carton of strawberries still has the power to makes me weep, both in gratitude for their accessibility and in grief for their mundane-ness. I am a walking paradox. I belong neither here nor there, but somewhere in between.