30 November 2014

The great escape meets divine appointment

I had put the kids to bed tonight and was closing the windows when I noticed that the screen had been pushed out a ways on one of the windows. I didn't think much of it and shut the window. I fed the cats and sat down at my computer. Normally, within five minutes of having sat down, I will experience the remarkable joy of having Tinkerbell climbing on my desk, up my back, nuzzling my chin, etc. She didn't come. I was surprised and called her and Joey. They didn't come. Now, OK, cats don't come when called as dogs do, but still... I noticed they weren't eating their food, which is also unusual. And that's when I looked at the pushed-out screen again. I went over to the window, opened it, and wiggled the screen. Yes, the cats could definitely have fit through that gap.

My heart sank. My cats were outside in the dark. They'd never escaped at night before, and I didn't have any idea how long they'd been out. I left the window open on the off chance they could climb back in (which now seems silly, as the window is several feet off the ground and has no outer ledge). I changed into sweat pants and put on a jacket and my flip-flops to go searching. I had no idea how long it would take or how far they might have gone. I let Timothy know I was going outside and would be back soon.

Tinkerbell came as soon as I called her after stepping outside. But I'd left that window open in the house, so I couldn't put her inside. I had to hold her while I kept calling for Joey. That rascal did not come quite so quickly.

A lady was passing by in the parking lot (we live in a large apartment complex) and said hello, then asked if she could use my phone. I said sure, but she realized I was trying to find my cat so helped me round up Joey. He finally appeared, and we cornered him. So I had two very squirmy cats in my arms. I dashed into the house, told Timothy they were fine, ran to shut the window, and then let the cats down. I dashed to get my phone and went back outside, keeping Tinkerbell away from the door. (She attempts escape at least twice a day.) The lady used my phone to call her daughter, who lives in my complex but "was sleeping." She left a message, telling the daughter she'd be at the BP down the street. She then said she "walks," and that her daughter wasn't letting her in. She went off on a long family history, most of it confused and repetitive. I gathered that she had moved down here recently from Indiana to watch her three grandchildren so her daughter didn't have to pay for day care. But her daughter's boyfriend was making up lies about her, so her daughter wasn't letting her in the apartment. She kept repeating that she'd just found out that they had taken the oldest grandchild back to Indiana, "maybe in a cop car," and that he had beat her up. (He is eight.) At some point, I offered her food or a cup of coffee. She came in for the coffee and continued her story--really more of a rant. She was calm and kept saying, "But I'm OK. I'm fine. I'm not crying." She asked me twice--in the midst of her tirade--to pray for her. I offered her a coat--which is funny in itself, and here's why:

I have a coat that my mom gave me--a really nice one--that no longer fits well. It doesn't button when I wear layers under it. I'd put the coat in my give-away box but had hoped to find someone to give it to instead of just taking it to Good Will. This morning at church, Pastor Jeff said many things of great import, among which was that one of the best ways to avoid the love of money is to be generous. During the sermon, I thought about that coat and tried to figure out a way I could give away the coat to someone who really needed it. While I didn't get a miraculous answer, I figured I'd know the right time and the right person when that time came.

And this was it. Tonight when that lady came into my apartment and told me all about her family drama, I knew she needed that coat. She was thin, and I knew she had no real place to go, that she would rest in a nearby hotel lobby until they made her leave. She didn't initially accept the coat but then agreed to take it. She put it on and reached in the pockets, to discover that I'd left gloves in the pockets. We were both surprised, but I told her to yes, take the gloves, too!

Timothy poked his head out of the bedroom to see what was going on, and she finally said she would go and let me take care of my kids. I asked her her name, and she told  me Lisa. I said that before she left, I wanted to pray with her. If you know me at all, you know this is so not me!! But gosh, Pastor Jeff always talks about meeting people all over town (especially at Panera :)) and praying for them. So I figured I'd give it a try. God is pretty darn amazing, and I know He was here with Lisa and me as we prayed.

Pray for Lisa. She's recently divorced from her husband of almost 30 years and is going through a lot of family drama. And right now she is out there "walking" in the cold with no where to go for the night. At least she now has a coat and gloves.

Don't misunderstand; I'm not writing any of this to toot my own horn. I'm not special for entertaining a stranger. (Some would call me downright foolish!) I'm not a super-Christian for praying with some lady facing a lot of anxiety and worry. I'm just excited that God is so big and works in so many ways! If the cats hadn't escaped, I wouldn't have met Lisa and given her my coat. Maybe someone else would have reached out to her. God uses so many people in so many ways! But I'm thankful tonight that I got to be part of what our faith is all about: love.

26 November 2014

A harmattan Thanksgiving

It rains every day through July and August. Then the rain tapers off in September. By October, the air is thick with un-rained water--thick and warm. Not like everywhere off the plateau. Not like Lagos or Port Harcourt. In those cities, when you take a breath, you feel as though you might drown; that's how thick the air is with hot moisture. Jos isn't like that ever, but the closest it gets is in March-April and again in October. That's when you cringe every time you see a baby bundled in four layers, including a knitted cap and mittens. In October, you sigh heavily whenever the electricity goes off because it means the ceiling fan won't be stirring up the wet air. And in October, the students always ask the teachers--every year without fail, "Why aren't there fans in our classrooms?" Every October.

Then you wake up one day in November, and the world has changed overnight. The sun rises as it does every morning--at almost the same time year-round--but shines weakly. You say, "It's trying-oh." The air is still thick, but overnight the moisture has evaporated. In its place is fine reddish brown dust. The windows were left open at night--as they almost always are, and besides, you can't really shut them because they're slatted and not designed to seal--and you can see the thin layer of dust covering the windowsills. If you were to take a napkin and wipe the table, you would see the reddish tinge on the napkin from the dust that has settled overnight. 

The harmattan has come in. 

It happens overnight, while everyone is sleeping. It steals in and permeates everything. Yesterday was hot and humid; today, the temperature has dropped 20 degrees. There is a morning chill. When you step outside, you notice the difference immediately. Dust hangs in the air like fog. When the sun rises and sets, it does so at a horizon clouded with dust--so much so that the sun disappears a full half hour before it actually sets. The closer it gets to the horizon, the more orange it looks, murky.

And people start getting sick. They say it's the change in weather. It messes with their sinuses. Allergies. A few of the Americans with asthma begin to struggle just a bit more to be able to breathe. 

As the days go by, the temperature continues to dip. It never freezes, but it lowers down to the mid-40s at night and mid-60s in the daytime. It's cold in a land without central heating. Most people bundle up and huddle around the fires along the street--vendors selling kosai bean cakes and fried yam. Everywhere people drink "tea" out of insulated mugs or thermoses--maybe black tea with lots of milk and sugar, maybe Bournvita or Milo hot chocolate, also with lots of milk and sugar. 

And everywhere, dust: a reddish brown film on every surface, inside and out--in your hair and on your skin. Everything dries out. The rivers turn to trickles. City water in the tap is off more than it's on. Your skin becomes chapped and cracked. When you use your fingernail to write, "DRY," on your leg, the word stays there for an hour.

This is November: the beginning of harmattan.

And while the word "Thanksgiving" means a great deal here in Nigeria, it doesn't refer to a single day of the year or to turkey dinner with the extended family. Nor does it refer to football or pumpkin pie. "Thanksgiving" refers to any church service centered on gratitude, of which there are a fair few. "Thanksgiving" refers to an offering taken up out of this gratitude. Though there is little electricity and even less running water; though meat is too expensive to eat except on special holidays; though children are struck down with cerebral malaria, meningitis, and typhoid; though peace is a thing of the past in our city; even yet we are all grateful, thankful--for life, for Jesus, for the family we do have.

"American Thanksgiving" is just another Thursday in November. Even at the Christian school where the missionaries send their children, classes are held as usual. There is no turkey dinner. Seniors scramble to prepare for their opening night of the senior play. Around town, different groups of expats have potluck suppers--probably with chicken and maybe with yakwa sauce instead of cranberry sauce. There may be pumpkin pie, but it will be from scratch, and if there's apple pie, it will have cost dearly at over $1 per apple. This is "American Thanksgiving" in our city.

And we Westerners celebrate it. Even the non-Americans join in the festivities, for who wants to be left out of a feast? There is prayer and probably a time of sharing. For we're all thankful. We're thankful for the days we do have water and electricity. We're thankful for safety on the roads and in our homes. We're thankful for anti-malarials and vaccines. We're thankful even for the harmattan to cool off the air. We're thankful that God brought us to this place, this time, and we are thankful that our lives are richer for it.

This is our harmattan Thanksgiving.
Photo courtesy http://pilot-blogbook.com/2007/01/harmattan-daze/

10 November 2014

Stationary

As of last week, I have lived continuously in one state for four years.

You might not think that's anything special, but maybe you'll understand when I give you another piece of information:

The last time I lived in one state continuously for four years was from 1987 to 1991.

Wow.

It's true that I lived in Illinois for a total of 4-1/2 years, but they weren't continuous, as I took six months off of college to return to Nigeria when I was 19. Equally, I lived in Nigeria a total of nine years but not ever continuously for more than 2-1/2 years, since we took year-long furloughs, and I came to the States for college.

This is the first time since I was nine years old that I've called one state "home" for four years in a row.

Not that Georgia will ever actually be "home," but I guess I feel as comfortable here as I ever did in Illinois. I've become familiar with the culture, with the highways (at least in east Georgia), with Georgia-isms. I love sweet tea (is there any other kind?) and fried catfish. Heck, my daughter was born here (although technically I guess she was born on federal land). Timothy has lived here most of his life.

Wow.

When I was little, spending time at my best friend Laura's house in Nigeria, I loved their Southern ways. Laura's dad is from Louisiana and her mom from Georgia, so Laura had Georgia Bulldogs paraphernalia (even though none of them were into sports). She wore Atlanta Braves t-shirts and baseball caps. At her house we ate grits and sometimes even biscuits and gravy. I learned to say "y'all" and "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am" at her house. When we were teenagers volunteering in the hospital, I first learned about MCG (the Medical College of Georgia, which is where I now work) as she talked about maybe going there some day. We would sit on her mom's bed and fold clothes while we watched Star Trek: Voyager, and Laura would remind me that she'd been born in Springfield, Georgia, in that very bed, which had been shipped all the way from the States. Laura's family was my second family, and I loved being Southern by proxy.

And here I am, living in Georgia. Who'd've thunk? Four years. Wow.

18 October 2014

To the reader who wrote a bitter comment

You know who you are. And you left your profile as "Anonymous" probably for a reason.

Since I can't respond to you personally, I'll go ahead and do so here.

First of all, I did not ask you to read my blog. As it is public, I welcomed all readers. (You have--for obvious reasons--made me rethink this and consider making it a password-only blog.) If you are really so bothered by my words (and attitudes as portrayed in my words), why do you keep reading?? It obviously has not benefited you; on the contrary, it seems to have upset you and made you bitter and resentful. I can't for the life of me understand why you'd continue to read something that repels you so immensely. If my blog upsets you, for goodness' sake, don't read it.

Second, if you know me personally and have not told me these things to my face, I'm embarrassed to know you. I think you're spineless. If someone who knows me (and knew my ex-husband--which is probably hardly anyone) feels this way and hasn't said something, he should be absolutely ashamed of himself. If you're my friend, it is your responsibility to get up in my face and give me constructive feedback. It'll hurt a lot, and I will probably be resentful for awhile, but in the long run, it's the right thing for both you and me. So don't be "anonymous." If you can't talk to me to my face or even in a private, personal letter, then you have no right to say anything at all. What's more, the tone of your comment was obviously not meant to build up in love but rather to tear down in hurtful criticism. While I--as I said above--would appreciate (eventually) constructive criticism from a friend, this is in no way at all constructive, so you're clearly not a friend.

Third, if you don't know me personally, and you have the balls to write what you did on the blog of a perfect stranger,  God forgive you for your spite and anger because I can't. If all you know about me is from my blog, you are a sadly uninformed individual. You don't know me. You don't know anything about my past or my present except for what I've chosen to let you see. You are rude and arrogant to think you have the right to publicly chastise me. Shame on you.

Lastly, I don't blog for your audience, and I never will. I blog mostly to share my thoughts and feelings with people who actually care, who actually want to know how I feel. Whether my thoughts and feelings are "good" or "right" or "healthy" is none of your business. While I generally try not to offend, I don't believe in hiding behind tradition, bias, political party lines, or any other classification. I will as much as possible tell things the way I see them. Feel free to disagree. Feel free to leave rude, angry comments. Most likely, they'll be deleted, since the rest of my followers don't need to be poisoned by your bitterness. You called me "selfish" and "attention-seeking," and you know what? You're right. This is my forum. This is my space. And I will be as self-centered as I want right here, in this little bit of cyberspace.

As for my kids, they will grow up strong and compassionate. They will learn that life hurts and that God is bigger than life. They will make mistakes, as I make mistakes, but they will know that they are loved--by their mommy and their daddy. God's grace abounds.

His grace abounds for you, too, in spite of every kind of evil you have tried to throw my way. I am not ready to forgive you, but God is.

--Saralynn

23 September 2014

Grieving afresh

Coach's recent death has brought a lot of thoughts and feelings to the forefront of my mind. I've had online conversations with people I haven't seen or spoken to in several years. We've found ways to grieve. We've talked through old hurts. Thousands of miles apart, we've cried together.

And I have realized a few things tonight. One is that there are a few people in my life that I know I have probably hurt, and I need to make it right if possible. I'm sure there are people I've hurt of whom I'm unaware, but that's not what I'm talking about. (If you are one of those people, please let me know so we can work through it.) I'm talking about specific people I have offended, ignored, and resented... And perhaps some of them aren't hurt. Maybe they are totally oblivious to my resentment. (This actually happened recently.) I can't fix everything. But it's time I start trying.

This thought led me to other thoughts. One friend I may have hurt--and have certainly resented--invited me to her wedding a few years ago. I so badly wanted to go, but Timothy was just a toddler (no Anna yet), and I wasn't sure how I would travel with him. More importantly, though D said it would be OK if I went, I suspected he wouldn't be pleased to be left alone. It was quite a distance by car, and we only had one car, even though at the time he could walk everywhere in our little town. 

Then it hit me, thinking through that situation. I'm getting choked up about it even now. I came to terms last year with the fact that I was in a psychologically abusive marriage. I'd been blind to the fact before then, or perhaps I'd been ignorant that such a thing as psychological abuse existed. When I finally thought about it last year, most of the specific things I could pinpoint had begun after D's return from his three-month deployment in Iraq. I still think this is true for the most part. But now I see so clearly how the pattern was developing as many as five years ago. I wanted so badly to go to that wedding (two, actually, that summer, both far away). And I couldn't go--not because we didn't have the money but because he didn't want me to go. There was no way on Earth he was going to take care of Timothy, even for one or two nights if I flew to the wedding--not because he couldn't or because the idea of babysitting was overwhelming but because he had no interest in it. None. And while he maintained that I could go, really, I now know in retrospect (as evidenced in later circumstances) that he would have been resentful if I'd gone. He would have held it against me for the rest of our marriage. I would have felt guilty forever. So I missed two dear friends' weddings that summer. And I am only now grieving that.

Resentment probably played a large part in my divorce. I know I made my share of mistakes and bad decisions, and I am in no way faultless in the breakdown of my marriage. But I now see how deep his resentment was toward me--for so many things, from being sick and miserable on a trip we made for his friend's wedding in 2007 when I was pregnant with Timothy to having a hard time finding a full-time job to support us at any point in our marriage. Resentment. I am finally beginning to see how deeply that resentment has wounded me and my kids.

And so I grieve afresh these festering injuries that can only now be cleaned and tended to, in order to heal. Now that I see them and feel them, I can finally hope for mending.

And in light of this pain as I have re-examined--or perhaps examined for the first time--these wounds, I know more than ever the importance of setting right the relationships I have hurt, abolishing the resentment in my own heart toward people I have loved so dearly. It must end. Raw and wretched, I must kneel before God and my friends, rout this resentment, confess, and try to set it aright. Only then dare I ask for forgiveness.

17 September 2014

The end of a very long year

Today marks a year of my waking up as a single mom.

Wow, has it been a year already? It was Monday, September 16, 2013, when I got a call saying my husband had moved out, so yes, it's been a year. I was surprised last night when I said it aloud to someone that I wasn't more emotional about it. But then I'm hardly emotional about it at all these days. Ever.

OK, sure, I still have my bad days. We all do. And on my bad days I'm pretty down. But most of my negative thoughts are the same ones I had before I was ever married, so I doubt they're related to my no longer being married--although my divorce may have reinforced those thoughts.

When I think about my life and worry, there are two things I primarily worry about:

First, my kids are likely to grow up without a dad figure in their lives. And that sucks. It terrifies me some days, when I think of the statistics I've heard about fatherless kids. I don't want my kids to become statistics. I want them to flourish and grow, and I will do what I can. But they'll be at a disadvantage. And it's not their fault. It just breaks my heart. I worry about them, especially Timothy. Who will guide him when he's a teenager and needs a mature man to steer him right?

Second, I never expected to spend my life working full-time. I wasn't trained for a career, and I'm not ambitious. And the only job I ever enjoyed and really planned to do is now pretty much out of my reach. Different people have recommended I go in different directions--many of these directions involving grad school. But the truth is I'm not passionate enough about anything to get a graduate degree, to pay all that money, to spend all that time on something. It's hard enough working full-time and taking care of the kids without throwing grad school into the mix. I think not. So I worry about my work future and how we'll make ends meet in the long run.

Bust most days I don't think about these things. I don't think about being divorced (though I often do think about being a single mom). I don't think about how things shouldhave been. And I don't talk about it. There's not really anyone to talk to anyway. Last September, people said, "Call me if you ever want to talk," as though it's easy to just pick up the phone and talk to someone who has absolutely no clue what your life is like. Um, yeah, not so much. Besides, there isn't really much to say.

When my kids awoke a year ago today, they woke to a new definition of family, a new reality. And they have done brilliantly. I couldn't be more proud of them.

So maybe today I'll celebrate a year of survival, of making it through, of sometimes even finding the little joys amongst the hard places. Today I'll celebrate a year with my little family of three--and the addition of two little kitties to our family. :) Instead of dreading the years ahead of survival mode, I'll keep hugging my kids and telling them I love them. If they don't get that from their daddy, by golly, they're going to have to get it from me. Every day.

And I will remember:

We are still a family.

05 September 2014

Love hurts -- the reality of falling in love

(This is the second half of the story from "Falling in love -- This post is not what you think it's about.")

I moved back to Nigeria in 2006 and got to see the Tolars often. Never for much of a conversation, but I took what I could get. Though Coach had a track meet that day, Heidi was at my wedding. The next year Heidi and I were pregnant at the same time, and Julie was born just a few months before Timothy. They played together in the nursery as infants and young toddlers. We joked about arranging their marriage. And because Heidi had had a baby girl, I inherited all of her son's baby clothes that she'd kept just in case Julie had been another boy.

We left Nigeria in January 2009 when Timothy was 14 months old. That summer, I was given the opportunity to go to a Hillcrest reunion, so I took Timothy with me on the 4th of July weekend and flew to Chicago. I didn't realize until we arrived that the Tolars would be there. Timothy and Julie got to play together again, running down the corridors at the conference center in the hotel, taking trips up and down the escalator with other aunties and uncles. And I got to enjoy sweet moments with Coach and Heidi.

That weekend Coach told us all that he had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). While this disease has been made well-known by the infamous Ice Bucket Challenge, I fear most people still don't really understand what it is or what it does to a person. The first thing  you should know is that it is fatal 100% of the time, usually within 3 to 5 years of diagnosis. The second thing you should know is that there is no known cure and only one approved treatment that slows its progression. The third thing you should know is that it kills the nerves that create movement in the muscles, leading to paralysis and eventually death. It's a disease that is uncommon and vastly under-researched due to lack of funding. (So if you did the Ice Bucket Challenge instead of sending in that check, please reconsider!)

I'm not Coach's family member. I'm only a former student. And I was devastated. Coach had been told he could hope to live for another five years but probably not longer. I couldn't believe it. My coach, the amazing Jay, who was young and fit and full of life--how could it be true? And such an illness to strike an athletic coach, someone who was always moving, always on the go! Looking at him then, you wouldn't have known there was anything wrong.

So in the midst of the shock and dismay, seeing him looking healthy as we parted company that July led me to think of him as still healthy and full of energy. I didn't hear news of them for several months. They returned to Nigeria to set their affairs in order, then came back to the U.S. to start clinical studies.

It was three years before I saw them again. My best friend and I found out about a fundraiser in San Antonio, the Fighting ALS with Jay 5k. She offered to help me fly there, so I left the kids with family and headed to San Antonio for a weekend in July 2012. It was amazing to see the Tolars again, and to see the outpouring of love by our Hillcrest community now in the States. It couldn't have been more obvious how much Coach and Heidi were loved. At that point in time, Coach could still speak, though his speech was slurred, but his movement was limited and jerky. I rejoiced and wept to see him. But in the crowd of people, I was too overwhelmed to do more than say a shy hello.

Another run was held the 4th of July weekend in 2013, and this time, I drove to San Antonio with my two kids. It was harder to see Coach this time. He spoke mostly with the help of a computer and rode in a motorized wheelchair. While I spoke briefly to Heidi, I'm not sure I even said hello to Coach. He was always surrounded by adoring people, and I just couldn't get up the courage to approach him. (In retrospect, how foolish!) 

This past June, I attended the Third Annual Fighting ALS with Jay 5k. It had been five years since his diagnosis, and I had been told that he was hanging on. I was eager but apprehensive to go--eager to see Coach and Heidi but apprehensive about how I'd respond. This time I didn't speak to Coach at all the day before or the day of the run. On Sunday, though, I got to visit the Tolars in their home for an hour. I got to hear Coach's jokes--told through his computer--and see him smile. I got to see the mischievous gleam in his eye when he teased me. 

And I got to say goodbye. That experience is private and one I shall treasure always.

In the weeks since that farewell, my heart has swelled with joy and excitement and fear and grief. When I close my eyes, I can see Coach running full-tilt into Jesus' arms, his contagious joy radiating from every part of his being. I can hear his laughter. I know that he is eager to have this race over. But what of those of us staying behind, staying here without him?

Even as I write this, I am laughing and crying. I'm remembering the jokes he told as we drove from Jos to Abuja in the summer of 2002, remembering the stories he told us in high school about the pranks he and his friends pulled when they were at Samford, remembering that subtly Southern voice. I rejoice in all the beautiful memories, in all the joy I have had in Coach. I thank God for every moment we had. And I weep that very soon, memories are all that will remain. I weep for Heidi and Jake and Julie, for all of Coach's family and friends--those left behind. I recently saw an old video of Coach on the basketball courts doing warm-ups with his team, and my heart filled to bursting. To hear that voice again! While we still have Coach for a tiny bit longer, we already miss his voice--the voice he not only used to call his varsity teams to order but also once raised enthusiastically in worship.

I am rejoicing and grieving. And I am dreading the day--all too soon--when I get the phone call, the text message, the email that says Coach has run into Jesus' arms. 

Too soon.


UPDATE: Our beloved Coach Jay Tolar has finished the race. He ran into Jesus' arms on September 7, 2014. My heart breaks, yet I am so thankful God loved me through Coach. Love hurts. But it is worth it.

Falling in love -- This post is not about what you think it's about.

I was a tough nut to crack when I was a teenager. While I exhibited perhaps only slightly less drama than the average American teen, I kept a lot of stuff bottled up inside, including a deep, deep pit of self-loathing. I was insecure, jealous, always wondering if my friends were having fun somewhere without me. (And, to be frank, they often were.)

This was not helped by spending a year's furlough in 10th grade away from all of my friends. When I returned to Nigeria at the end of my 10th grade year to say goodbye to friends who were moving back to New Zealand and be at graduation--always a reunion time at our school--I was excited but broken. I knew only too well how different things would be. Friendships had changed. New people had come, others had gone. I knew it would be a huge effort to fit in again.

And in those last few weeks of school when I was back in Nigeria (without my parents), a sweet thing happened. I filled out an application and was chosen to participate in the praise team.

While I had been gone for a year, a "new" couple had arrived. Jay ("Coach") and Heidi Tolar had both attended Hillcrest as kids, had spent many of their growing-up years in Nigeria, and had returned to teach P.E. and coach sports. And agreed to sponsor the praise team.

I immediately fell in love with the Tolars. I'd met Heidi before; she had come to teach high school P.E. as a single young lady when my older sister was in high school. But since she was not my P.E. teacher, I only knew her from hearing her teach the high school girls on the basketball court. I knew she was strong and had a cheerful if a bit intimidating demeanor. She was very pretty, and she played the piano beautifully. I remember that, even though it was more than 20 years ago.

But I'd never met Jay before. I suppose I had read bits and pieces about him in occasional letters and emails from my friends, but not having met him, I probably didn't pay much attention.After all, I knew I wouldn't be participating in any sports, so a new coach wouldn't really impact me.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The Living Stones (praise team) - 1999
I arrived just weeks before the end of school, and I don't even remember how I got hold of the application for the praise team. But I loved to sing, and my siblings had both participated in leading worship at school, so I submitted the application and waited. The then-current praise team had a prayer meeting and prayed over the applications one night, and I was one of several who were selected to join the group. After having been gone for a year and feeling so out-of-the-loop and forlorn, this simple acceptance was a balm, that healing salve.

And that is how I got to know Coach initially. He would say he didn't have any musical talent but wanted to make a joyful noise. He had a rich voice (with a mild Southern accent) and lots of gusto, and even though he may not have had musical training, his enthusiasm and leadership were more than enough to bring us together as a team. Most of my sweetest memories from those two years are from spending time with Coach and the praise team.

I guess I should mention here, too, that my school was not just a school. It was the hub of a community of missionaries, expatriates, faith,  music, and sports. Teachers there didn't just teach. Their scope of influence wasn't limited to school. They were mentors. They led discipleship groups. They took us on ministry trips to the bush. They listened. They loved. They showed us by example how to live full lives. They were friends. Family.

Jay & Heidi on our senior trip - April 2000
I also discovered once my junior year began that Coach and Heidi were our class sponsors, so they would be responsible for helping us fundraise, put on our Junior/Senior Banquet, and plan our senior trip  I completely fell in love with them both. (Did I already mention that?) Heidi (but we called her "Mrs. Tolar," of course) was an A-type person--organized, straight-forward, always on top of things, cheerful and direct. Coach was more laid-back, full of charisma, lovingly blunt, and full of laughter. Seldom have I seen the spectrum of godly love and life demonstrated so visibly as in Coach and Heidi. They were God-people in a practical, hands-on way. They made us laugh and helped us become better people. They encouraged us to excel, to break out of the box, to do great things.

And Coach believed in me. I was this shy, terrified, jealous teenager, and Coach saw only what was precious and beautiful. More than once, he spoke against my self-deprecating attitude. He didn't just ignore it. He called me out on it, told me that every time I said something negative about myself--or even thought it--it hurt God. Ouch. Did I mention he was lovingly blunt? For all of my silliness, all of my neediness and faults, Coach somehow saw great potential. Even though I wasn't athletic and never tried out for sports, he was never disappointed in me but encouraged me to be healthy, to keep singing, to keep loving people and loving Jesus.

My senior year, I had to take junior/senior P.E., which is normally an elective, but because I'd been gone for 10th grade, I needed to take it to fulfill my graduation requirements. Coach taught the class, and I swear it is the only P.E. class I have ever enjoyed in my life. We did rock-climbing, golf, archery, marksmanship, Frisbee, and other fun stuff. And when I forcefully (but respectfully) refused to hold a gun, let alone shoot one, Coach didn't question me or comment. He just got out a bow and let me shoot arrows instead. That year I also volunteered to do basketball statistics--mostly time-keeping, blowing the air horn, that type of thing. It gave me a chance to see Coach in all his glory, immersed in his element. I loved the hype of being at games, being an honorary part of the team. I loved it.

And I knew that one of the hardest parts of graduating was going to be saying goodbye to the Tolars. No matter how much you love teachers, you have to know that those teachers will have new students next year, that while your heart might ache for missing them, they will have moved on to focus on other kids. That's their job, their ministry. But it made me sad, wistful. So when the Tolars invited our class to have Thanksgiving at their family home during our first year of college, while they were on furlough, I was elated. Honestly, I don't remember much of that four-day weekend, as I was pretty sleep-deprived. I remember Coach picking us up at the airport, coordinating our arrivals from all over the country. And I remember going to see Pay It Forward with Coach and a couple classmates while the rest of the group went shopping. I remember crying. I'd had a very hard time adjusting to life in college, and being at the Tolars' was like being at home. It was a safe place, a refuge, somewhere I could rest. My heart was bursting with thanksgiving. Later that year, Heidi had her first baby, and Coach called me one morning before class to tell me, "You're an auntie!" I cried.

The Tolars went back to Nigeria after that first year of college, and they focused on their students. And I missed them. I returned to Nigeria instead of going back to school the second semester of my sophomore year. We had the Tolars over for my birthday when I turned 20. When I returned to the States in June, the Tolars accompanied me as far as England, even letting me (and another student) stay with them at a London hotel for our layover. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me to be included, to be part of the family.

 I had fallen in love with the Tolars. They felt like home.

17 July 2014

Remembering too much

I recently told a friend that sometimes I think I might remember too much.

This is a complicated statement, so let me briefly try to explain.

Part of it is that I remember more content than the average person. Not always, of course, but often. There is typically more substance to things that I remember than other people remember from the same experience. If I remember it at all, I often remember it very vividly.

On the same note, part of it is that I remember the emotions related to the experience, which are sometimes fantastic and sometimes harrowing.

An entirely different part of it, though, is that I spend a lot of time remembering. Some of that is just because when I have down time and can't read a book or play a game (for example, at work or in the car), I remember. Another reason is that I still have such strong emotions about events and periods in my past. And I guess probably the biggest reason right now is that I have very few specific hopes or plans for my future. I'm not depressed. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not hopeless about my future. I just tend not to really think about it, shrug it off. God's got this. That's good enough for me.

So I remember a lot, a lot of the time. I went through some pretty great and some pretty hurtful times in my youth, and I had some very beautiful and very painful relationships. I think about them. I wouldn't say I'm entrenched in the past or so nostalgic I can't enjoy the present. But I do remember a lot. (Did I already mention that?)

It came up because talking to this particular friend brought up all sorts of memories from my childhood in Nigeria, and I started just spouting off all these images. I don't often get a chance to wax eloquent about my young years. And I am full to bursting with memories. I told her it's hard to blog about anything besides my past. If I thought others would be willing to read it, I would choose to write about events or images from my past (mostly my childhood & adolescence but also my young adult years) 90% of the time.

So I think I remember too much--the bad and the good, and more often than is perhaps "normal." What does one do with all these memories?

14 July 2014

Missing summer

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? The people are incredibly funny and enjoyable to work with--considerate and kind yet playful. I love working with medical students and doctors, too, and I like the work itself for the most part. And of course it's calming many days to be with other grown-ups all day instead of with my kids. I love my darlings, but they sure can drive me bonkers. So yes, I love my job.

Sometimes, though, and especially this summer, I have really missed being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM). It's obviously not possible right now and likely will never be possible again. This is my new reality. I am trying my best to adjust and be joyful, but at times, I grieve for the things I'm missing:

  • my kids' firsts--first roller-skating, first boat ride, first passing a swim test...
  • lots of hugs from Anna
  • reading books with Timothy
  • grocery shopping in the middle of a weekday
  • taking the kids to the park
  • picking Timothy up from school and hearing all about his day when it's fresh in his mind
  • feeling like I have time to plan meals and cook
There are lots of others, but those are some that came to mind. But there are two things I miss most right now.

One is being able to enjoy summer. To me that doesn't necessarily mean swimming and enjoying the sunshine. I'm not an outdoors person really, although I do love swimming. I don't like hot weather, and I hate humidity. But summer is so much more than that. It's vacation. It's taking the kids to the beach. It's enjoying short trips to visit friends and family. It's letting the kids sleep in and enjoy all the things they don't get to do during the year. My kids aren't getting a real summer this year. They're stuck in day care all day during the week, and on the weekend, we have to run errands because my only free time is on the weekend. I'm exhausted all the time, and though I try to plan fun things for the kids, things happen, and we don't always get to enjoy time together. 

We've totally lost summer. My heart breaks inside when I hear all the SAHMs at church talk about play dates and trips to this and that fun activity.

...which leads me to the second thing I miss most right now, and that is girl time with other moms. I'm not talking about going out for dinner or drinks. I'm talking about play dates, sitting around chatting about life, enjoying other mom company while the kids play. That has been so hard to lose. I already felt terribly lonely, but now that it's summer and all the kids are playing together, I ache for that mommy time. Yes, theoretically, I could try to plan something. But all the other moms need their family time with the dads in their lives, which is evenings and weekends. I can't ask my SAHM friends to give that up just to chat with me. Besides, evenings get into suppertimes and bedtimes, even aside from dad-time. I see my mommy friends at church on Sundays and (usually, though not this month) at home group on Thursdays, but it's not mommy time. And I don't usually see them or even talk to them at all otherwise. 

It was hard being a SAHM sometimes, and I felt exhausted and frustrated with discipline, etc. I felt lonely. But I was getting at least the peripheral social time that I needed and so felt much more able to give to my kids the time they needed. When I am empty, both emotionally and spiritually, how can I possibly give to my children?

Oh! to have a summer full of beach time, play dates, and a Beth Moore study!

08 July 2014

Hearing the call... or not

When I was in high school and college, I was sure that God wanted me to return to Africa someday as a missionary or human rights worker. I was positive. The whole time I was in college, I longed to go home. I spent eight weeks in southeast Asia in 2001 and missed a lot of the joy, I think, because I wanted to go to Africa instead. I knew I didn't belong in Asia. I belonged in West Africa.

And yet each day I grew more and more used to the cushy American life, used to being able to hop in my car and drive pretty much anywhere. I got used to not waiting in a queue to pump my gas, to being able to buy everything I needed on a shopping trip in only one store, to hot water and fast Internet, to wearing whatever I wanted to wear even if it meant pants or--God forbid--shorts. I got used to blending in.

Moving back to Nigeria as an adult was hard. Even with my parents there, it was more challenging than I'd expected. I missed things about the U.S. I missed my independence and missed fitting in. I didn't have the energy or desire to learn the languages I'd had no interest in learning as a child, and I felt judged and reproved for not trying harder to fit in.

I didn't belong.

And maybe I'll never belong anywhere, but it begs the question, Did I get it wrong? Did I misunderstand my "calling"? Or did I not have a calling at all? Did I just make it up because I longed for home, longed for a past to which I could not return?

I always thought I was called to international missions, but I don't think so anymore. Do I still have a call?

Or is the idea of a call really just a myth anyway--just a spiritualization of a person's decision to do whatever he wants to do?

The trite answer for me is that right now God has called me to be a mother and to do whatever is best for my children. But what about the bigger picture? Or is there is no bigger picture?

17 March 2014

Tired of being fat

I am fat.

Yup, you know it. There is no way around it. If you want to be politically correct, you can call me "mildly obese," but hey, if the the shoe fits...

But I can't get out of this pit I'm in. I don't have the energy to get out. I can't do this by myself.

I know people will say, "Give it to God" or "You can't, but God can," and to be honest, I'm tired of all that talk.

The fact is that God gives us people to keep us accountable, to help us through our rough spots, to be moral support. Sometimes God reaches down and lifts us up out of the mire. But more often than not, He sends others to do that.

But not this time.

People don't get it. Watching one's weight is usually a personal thing. "You just need motivation, determination." Or whatever. Everything I've heard about going through divorce emphasizes that you need to take care of your body.

No one gets how hard that is, how much of a struggle. All of my peers are skinny chicks who eat right, cook nutritious meals for their families, and exercise. Some find it harder than others, but they all manage it to some extent.

I don't manage it at all. I am failing--more and more so every single day.

I am surviving my divorce--six months of separation as of yesterday. I am paying bills. I am making sure my children are safe and are learning and growing. I am working full-time, which I never in my life wanted to have to do. But I'm doing it and actually enjoying my job.

But food... Food is my area of absolute failure. And I cannot break free.

I. Cannot. Break. Free.

09 March 2014

Hiraeth

In the past several months, I have not only been introduced to this term but have also seen it used over and over again in online conversations and blog posts. For a Third Culture Kid, I think this word captures a lot of feelings and impressions that no other word can quite express. 

According to Harrison and Petro, "The Welsh word hiraeth has no equivalent in English. It often translates as “homesickness,” but the actual concept is far more complex. It incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, a figure, even a national history that may never have actually existed. To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing."

That about sums it up.

This afternoon at Financial Peace University, the lecture was on mortgage and homeownership.

...Which mostly went over my head.

I have never lived in a home owned by my family. 

Sure, I have visited: my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my sister, my brother. But I didn't grow up in a home that my parents owned, and I have never owned a home myself. In my 31 years, I have lived in rented homes the entire time.

The longest I have lived anywhere was our house in Nigeria, which was owned by the church that ran the hospital and that partnered with our mission organization. When my dad stopped working at the hospital long after I graduated and moved back to the U.S., my parents had to move to another house, one I have only known as the Murray house.

I guess that begs explanation. Our mission owns certain homes in groupings called compounds, which are surrounded by a wall and entered through a gate. Some missionaries come and stay for many years. Others only come to the field for a few months at a time. And because there is a lot of turnover (for even families who are long-term must go back to the U.S. every few years to raise support), people move houses quite a lot. My family lived in the same house for almost 20 years because it was reserved for a doctor family, and there are definitely fewer doctors than other families. But our neighbor houses varied quite a bit: the Park/Sauerwein/Kirschner/Anthis/Lemanski house and the Andrew/Bailey/Emmanuel/Tait/Naatz house. (And those are only the families I actually remember. I'm sure there are others.) My parents' most recent house was where the Murrays lived when I was in high school--the last time I was in that house. So that was never my home. And the house where I lived for nine years (and which was "home" until 2009) is now inhabited by another doctor family.

Hiraeth.

Today I feel entirely homeless. I have in my lifetime considered many places in the U.S. "home," but none consistently, and now I have nowhere--nowhere to which I can return after a journey and feel rested and safe. Nowhere familiar. Nowhere I know and love.

And while we were watching the lesson on homeownership, it struck me with powerful force that I don't want to live here long enough to make buying a house worthwhile. I like Augusta as well as most places I have lived. but I don't want to live here indefinitely. It's not me. I have a job and a church, and I am blessed with the community, for which I am truly thankful. But I can't stay here. This is not home. I already feel the bug to move, and I've been here less than a year. It's not as simple as being dissatisfied. I even feel bad saying it at all, for I have experienced overwhelming support here. But that impulse, that instinct says, "Go. Tarry but awhile, then go."

Whither? I have no idea. And for now I will tell this impulse to shut up and leave me alone, for I can't afford to uproot us now. But I know it's only a matter of time.

Perhaps TCKs have a better glimpse than most into the true meaning of "this world is not our home." And perhaps that is why the song "Into the West" brings me to tears every single time I hear it.

Hiraeth.

21 February 2014

God the enigma

In small group last night we discussed the character and person of God.

You can use your imagination to get the gist of how the discussion progressed. All of the characteristics put forth were positive and warm, fuzzy traits.

God loves us even when we fail.
God actually likes us and maybe even is amused by our silly antics.
God is not only gracious but also generous.
God is love.

Et cetera.

I have no quibble with these statements and similar. God is huge and amazing and wonderful and awesome. These are all true.

But what about the God who is jealous? Angry? Vengeful? Punishing?

Or, not to even go that far, but to a middle-ground: 

What about the God who is a mystery?

Obviously, there is some part of God that  must always be a mystery, since He is God, after all, and we are only His created beings. One would posit that if God were entirely understandable, He would cease to be God. 

Our leader pointed out that God wants us to get to know Him, though, to become more and more familiar with His character and person.

Well, yes, this is scriptural. The Bible is full of verses and passages about seeking God (at a cursory glance, begin with Deut. 4:29, Prov. 8:17, Jer. 29:12-14, and Acts 17:24-27). But what about when God keeps Himself apart, refuses to reveal Himself?

The God I know right now is gentle and loving, but He is also silent and enigmatic--one might even say aloof.

His ways are higher than mine and His thoughts higher than my thoughts (1saiah 55:9). And sometimes we are just completely left in the dark as to God's plan or purpose for our lives. We are called to give thanks in all circumstances and to worship God in the midst of all things. And yet for a God who promises to reveal Himself to His people, He seems awfully stand-offish to me. 

Sometimes we're faced with decisions that force us to choose one horrible path or another. Does God reach down and show us a better way, or even guide us one way or the other? Not in my experience. Sometimes our lives are full of despair, and no amount of prayer brings hope or joy. 

Take two Christian films for example: Fireproof and Courageous. These films do not portray the God I know, nor the world in which I live. In the real-life version of Fireproof, the God I am experiencing would have let the wife, Catherine, walk away and file the divorce papers. In spite of Caleb's love dare, the marriage would have ended. A silent God who did not respond positively to a horrible situation. Or in Courageous, after the daughter's death, Adam Mitchell's family would have entirely fallen apart from the grief. The other men's attempts to repair battered relationships would have failed. This is what life is like. 

As Hagar put it in Genesis 16:13, God sees me. According to David, God also hears me (Psalm 18:6). 

But that doesn't mean He always responds.

Nor does He always show us His purpose or His will. Sometimes He chooses to keep Himself hidden, leaving us in the dark, in the cold. 

Not malicious or mean.

Just silent. And aloof.

This is the God I know today.

18 January 2014

Thank you, Debbie...

Debbie and I did not really become friends until maybe eighth grade or so. While she was always part of my greater circle of friends (really, all the missionary kid girls my age, since our class was so small), I didn't get to know her at all until then. She lived thirty minutes out of town in the opposite direction from my home, so doing anything outside of school time was never easy. But eventually, she did come into town more often, especially once her older brother Peter was in high school activities, and I did see more of her and become friends.

My earliest impressions of Debbie--way back from the first time we met in 4th grade--were that of a quiet, compassionate, humble little girl who didn't know she was pretty but who would never have flaunted it even if she had known. She was shy, blushed easily, and hardly ever spoke (to me, anyway). I loved watching her grow as we got older--seeing her develop her talents and become aware of her strengths.


Amy, Jessica, & Debbie - 1999

While I can't say anyone I know, including Debbie, is perfect or ideal, I have to admit that I wanted to be her so many times in high school. She was pretty, smart, kind and thoughtful, had a lovely voice, and seemed to me to be the closest to God. I know that you can't really judge others' closeness to God, but if her lifestyle and words were any indication, she knew God in a way I have never known Him. I may have been smart, but she was beautiful--as much on the inside as on the outside. I so envied her. She learned to play the guitar, led worship at chapel and on Sunday mornings, taught us several beautiful songs, one of which is now one of my all-time favorites, "How Deep the Father's Love For Us."


Debbie and me - 2000

Everyone loves Debbie. I can't imagine not liking Debbie. What's not to like? But she has experienced heartbreak in her life, and I've never felt more indignant toward someone as I have toward the people who I know have hurt Debbie. And yet she is so amazingly strong and has overcome so much to just blossom and grow more beautiful.

Laura, Debbie, Linda & baby Jake (our coach's baby--not any of ours!) - May 2002

My Bible pockets have several bits and pieces of my past, but there are two notes from Debbie in there that characterize her better than I can. Both of them are from 9th grade, which was a particularly difficult year for me. The first note includes excerpts from a book titled Faith Is by Pamela Reeve. Then Debbie writes,
"I hope this will help you. It did me good. Remember God loves you. He wrote his love letter to us. He does not change, even when everything around seems messed up.
"Mrs. L--- told me this one time: It's like being in a valley, a valley with a small, old village that is falling apart. All around you are the hills, beautiful scenery. Now, sometimes it gets misty, and all you can see is the horrible things around you. You don't look to the hills. But are they gone? No. They never change. God never changes. But the things of this world, the people of this world change. So chin up, Sara. Lots of love, Debbie"
The other note begins, "I know you are feeling a little down, so I thought this might cheer you up (a poem I found." She went on to copy a love note from Jesus, which at the time brought me to tears. At the end of her note, she writes, "P.S. Read Zephaniah 3:17." This was my first introduction to this verse, and the words in Zephaniah have never left me.

Laura, Linda, Debbie, and me  - 2005

Maybe you can see why I still keep these notes in my Bible, almost 20 years later.

And also why I treasure Debbie. I haven't seen her in several years, and I don't know when I might see her again, since she lives on a different continent, but I think of her often and am especially mindful of the joy she has brought me (and so many others) on her birthday.

Thank you, Debbie, for helping to carry me through some rough times, for your encouragement and kindness, for your love, and for showing me that God's love encompassed me in every situation. You have brought much light into my life--and much music. I thank God for you, and wish you a wonderful birthday.

Debbie and her beautiful family - 2013

16 January 2014

4 months



I have been a single mom for four months today.

No, that’s not exactly true. I have been a single mom–for all practical purposes—for a couple years.

But it was four months ago today that I got a phone call from the kids’ dad saying that he had moved out.

Four months.

I can hardly believe it’s been that long. Days just seem to go by, and life has just had to continue, regardless. People have told me I need to take time to grieve.

Like, when?

Seriously, I know it’s important in the healing process, but when do I possibly have time to sit down and process this alone? Ha. Very funny. It’s no wonder people have a hard time doing the grieving process. It takes intense time and alone-ness, which most people can’t afford or just don’t have.  I have a full-time job and two kids to care for. I already have guilt complexes about my eating habits, lack of exercise, and the state of my house. So now I need to guilt myself that I’m not finding time to grieve.

Wait, what? Really?

So anyway, four months.

Yes, four months down. If I live to be 80, that’s only 579 months to go.

Lord, have mercy.

07 January 2014

Solitary confinement



I think I have mentioned before that perhaps my greatest fear is of being alone.

Not alone as in not having anyone around at all.

Alone as in not having any deep relationships with people in close proximity.
Alone as in you’re at a party but aren’t talking to anyone.
Alone as in you go to the same church every week but never carry on a conversation with anyone.
Alone as in there’s no one around who can answer a simple ten-question survey about you and get more than a couple right answers.
Alone as in you don’t talk to anyone about anything meaningful. Ever.

That kind of alone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an introvert. I need alone time. But as most introverts, I also need deep relationships. Not many. Just one is usually enough. But deep is non-negotiable. Without that one close friend, you could drop me into a throng of 10,000, and I would still feel lonely; or equally invite me to a small party with five people, and I would still feel lonely.

It’s just the way I am, have always been.

Much of my adult life, I have been alone.  There are pockets in my past of good friendships that I still treasure. Some friendships I thought were deep but ended up disintegrating when friends found better candidates than I am. Though there have been times when those close friends have been male, usually I’ve had at one close female friend. But when I was married, although I craved women friends, at least I did have someone to talk to, someone with whom to discuss real life with, someone with whom to delve into theology or history.

Now my greatest fear is being realized. I have been the only adult in my home for almost four months, and there is no end in sight. My contact with other grown-ups is strictly limited to work and church. No one-on-one real conversations. No deep relationships. People I love and care about, and admittedly people I know genuinely care about my kids and me, yes, but deep? No. I know that takes time and effort, neither of which I have put in. And it’s really tricky with kids… and working full-time. For heaven’s sake, I’m not blaming anyone—myself or others.

But the fact remains that the loneliness closes in on me many days, many nights. And I realize I may be alone the rest of my life. I’ve never lived alone. I’ve never had my own apartment or even dorm room. I have always lived with other people, peers.

Until now.

And while I am pressing on, doing the things that need to be done, raising beautiful and kind children (by no virtue of my own!), attending church functions, going to work, and generally managing my life, I am growing just a little colder inside every day, a little darker.

Alone.