Thursday, June 9, 2011

When your spouse asks you to go to Africa...

You say yes.

Now for the back story:

I love sharing my profession with my spouse. Being teachers, we have many perks including, but not limited to summer break, winter break, spring break, and fall break. We also get to work with interesting people both young, old, and in between, we get to be creative everyday, and we continue to be learners through professional development opportunities. One such opportunity came up out of the blue this spring. Matthew's school recently received a grant to sponsor a teacher to travel anywhere that would help his or her teaching philosophically or practically. He applied and didn't get the grant. But, his boss thought his proposal was so compelling that he is getting to travel to Africa anyway. You can read his take on it here.

Why Africa?

In my humble opinion, one of the most compelling classes his school offers is a seminar called Social Conscience. I wasn't able to take it when I was there, but my spouse was and now teaches the course himself. The course description is:

Social Conscience is a discussion-based seminar course designed to make the student think, question, and to try to arrive at answers about his/her own ethical and moral outlook on life and about the nature of his/her responsibility to society. At the core of the course is a single question: What makes good people do evil things? While we use the Holocaust and other case studies as paradigms, the course fits it into a broader context. It is structured so that we study first our own identities, and hopefully come closer to understanding who we are and what values and forces shape us. Then we examine the situational and systemic influences that may make those identities more fluid than we might like to believe, and decide—how capable of evil are we?

In his class, Matthew requires his students (16, 17, and 18-year-olds) to consider the Roman playwright Terence's statement, "I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me." Even at 29.5, I'm not sure I'm truly ready to confront, dissect, and evaluate this assumption.

One of the case studies he presents is the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was brutal and horrific. It was humanity at its worst - neighbor killing neighbor. And yet, over time, and with great effort and intention, the nation of Rwanda and its people are healing. Now, the world is getting a glimpse of humanity at its best - neighbor forgiving neighbor and my spouse would like to see it, hear it, and feel it first hand.

At first, this was going to be a solo trip. His school is sponsoring only him to go. Then, one day a couple of weeks after he was sponsored, I get a phone call on my way into boot camp. "Do you want to go to Africa with me?" I was stunned, honored, scared, and excited all at the same time. He said the experience would be diminished without my company, which gave me that teenage sensation of having butterflies in my stomach and little bluebirds singing around my head. He wanted me to go with him to experience the brokenness of a people and witness them gluing themselves back together. He encouraged me to think about it.

Even though my gut reaction to the proposal was, "of course!" I still had to mull over all the valid reasons not to go. There were the shots - I have a severe needle phobia. There was the cost of the plane ticket and it is three LONG flights - 21 hours to get there. Naturally, we would want to spend another chunk of change on tickets to track gorillas. It's a lot of money. Plus, my summer is already booked with camps and trips and lunch dates, there is so much work to be done on our new house, I hate being away from our dogs, and my mother would freak out!

To my mother's credit, when I called to tell her I was going, and despite her propensity to worry, her defiant response was, "Well, I'll drive you to the airport!"

Traveling with anyone tests your relationship. The stresses of catching a plane, jet-lag, gas-inducing airport food, my airplane curse (I inevitably get seated next to large men wearing tweed jackets, behind crying babies, near toilets, and across from town criers, Jehovah's witnesses, evangelical republicans, or hipsters wearing patchouli to hide their b.o.), hailing taxis, carrying luggage, and finding a hotel after sunset wears you thin. Remaining civil and patient is about as easy as keeping our dogs from barking at squirrels. Traveling with the purpose of seeing genocide memorials and listening to people recount stories of death and destruction adds a whole other perilous level of stress.

After boot camp was over and I was as physically spent as I was emotionally, I lingered to talk with my instructor. Perfectly sculpted, coiffed and mascaraed, and carrying herself like she could climb Mt. Everest with you on her back, you know she is a fitness instructor. I'm not sure why she was the person I needed to tell about my dilemma. While I had been taking the class for many weeks, I did not know her well. But, when I told her my spouse asked me to go to Africa with him and what should I say, she said, "you say yes." I then learned her story. Her husband passed away unexpectedly the year before. And while she did not seem to judge my hesitation, she told me to go for it with longing conviction. She said, "this will be a game changer," and I knew she was right.

She professed her faith to me in that conversation. It is the kind of faith I hope I never know because it comes from the desperation of an inexplicable loss. She talked about Jesus, and God as Him, effortlessly quoted Revelations and Genesis with ease, and stood firm on her assumption that everything happens for a reason. I'm embarrassed to say this is the kind of witnessing that usually makes me avert my eyes, snicker under my breath, and obsessively fidget. Being in an inter-faith marriage makes me hypersensitive to Southern Baptists, Church of Christ conservatives, and evangelicals of all persuasions. I run from "members only" mentality and question-less religiosity. But in this case, I was all ears and open heart because this person standing before me knew the consequence of not seizing every possible experience with the love of your life.

Her testimony reminded me of the first page of Madeline L'Engle's A Wind in the Door, one of my favorite tween books, which, ironically, quotes Revelation 3:8-

I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

This is an open door moment.

So I said yes. Yes because this really could be a game changer. Yes, because, when we stand before rows of skulls at Ntarama Church Memorial, terrified in the face of evil, we will hold on to each other for dear life. Yes, because, I want to see the look of awe on his face when he stands yards away from mountain gorillas. Yes, because our experience would be diminished by the absence of the other. It could be one of the most difficult and romantic things we ever do together and I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Ode to Friends (an indulgence)

One of the greatest blessings in our lives has been our friends. Both my spouse and I have been blessed with people who hear our heart songs; people who can understand and speak our language, get our sense of humor, poke and prod us to have adventures, inspire us to create, and keep us honest by being honest with us and sane by balancing out our quirks with theirs.

My spouse and his best friend have been buds since they were three years old. When we started dating in high school, they were a package deal and we became the three musketeers. At first, I was a little jealous of their bond. It was like they spoke in code and always referred to inside jokes. But the more time I spent with them, the happier I was in their presence. If Matthew and Steven were going to the driving range, I went too. If Matthew and I were going to dinner and a movie, Steven went too. Soon, I learned the code and was privy to the inside jokes. I enjoy my spouse the most when he is with his best friend and revel in the hilarity that inevitably ensues.

Unfortunately, Steven lives 2005 miles away.

This weekend, a friend from our college days will come stay with us. He knows about those tender, tumultuous times before our engagement when life was without obligations and we were free from making hard choices, but struggled to define who we were in the world as individuals. When we are around Krishna, we are more carefree and fun-loving. We can't wait to play and reminisce with him after he travels 471 miles to get here.

Likewise, my friends bring out the best in me. Lately, three friends have especially been in my heart. My lifelong best friend, Cara invited me to speak at her beloved church camp this week about the Good Samaritan. I feel honored to have been asked and thrilled that I got to go. This camp has been a spiritually significant place for my friend since she was in high school. It was a joy to finally see the lush forest, the rustic cabins and lodge, and gravel roads that nurtured her spirit for so long.

Cara is soon to live 471 miles away.

Then there is Hannah. Over the past few days, my spouse and I have been nesting. We bought our home last summer, moved in last October and we are just now hanging art on the walls, painting doors, and reinstalling switch plates. She would be all over this. At our old house, while we were at work Hannah would pop in (usually tripping the alarm in the process) and rearrange furniture, decorate, and leave little suggestions on post-it notes in odd nooks and crannies for me to find. We would say prayers over cups of coffee and chocolate chip cookies, trade left-overs, and sing silly, punny songs. As my first adulthood friend, we shared the growing pains of transitioning out of adolescence together. We used to be neighbors, but she's never been to our new house and it breaks my heart.

Hannah now lives 2223 miles away.

Carmen is becoming an ordained Episcopal priest this weekend. She has worked long and hard to be at this special moment in time where she can fully step into her call to do God's work. It has been amazing to learn from her process of hearing a call into ministry, the commitment it takes to get there, and the healing power of helping others. From a distance of 963 miles, I saw grace enter her life to mend old wounds and open new doors. I am so proud of her and can't believe I won't be there to celebrate with her.

One of the cornerstones of our marriage is the effort we make to keep in touch with friends who live far away and those who are right here in our town. Within our marriage, we save space for others in our hearts to enrich our own relationship. Maybe that comes out of being interfaith. We've grown accustomed to letting in the other and our attitude reflects the more-the-merrier mentality we have. Helping each other nurture these friendships makes our marriage more enjoyable and strengthens our own marital friendship.

Having long distance friendships is hard, but when we see special places in our long distance friends' lives, it makes us feel closer to them. When we're on the phone with them and their at their local coffee shop in the morning, we can almost smell the grounds brewing. When a friend is lounging on their couch chatting about potty training, I can feel the squish of the couch cushions and hear the pitter patter of little feet running across blond hardwood floors. In our mind's eye, we are there with our friends. I am grateful for the opportunities we have this summer to see many of our friends and wish there were more chances sooner than later.

To our friends: We miss you and love you!