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.


  1. I am totally obsessed with your blog and reading it usually brings me to tears! You're an amazing writer and your life intrigues me! Africa!!!!! How exciting!

  2. This is such a fabulous from which you will learn much and tell your children will also enrich your marriage beyond measure or anything you can even imagine despite the inevitable stresses of travel. I'M SO PROUD OF YOU.....I say a prayer every morning asking to be free of fear, among other things.... like you I fear needles and all the problems that go with flying and I also worry ad nauseum about're taking a big step....Matthew has a great boss! :-) I'd love to "audit" that course myself...maybe I'll look into it next fall if I'm still in Nashville.

    CARPE DIEM forever and safe travels!!!!! XXOO

  3. Christine RogersJune 27, 2011 at 8:19 PM

    hi ellen! i really like your blog. i dunno if you know this artists work but we had so many wonderful conversations about his work this semester in my advanced photography course and i thought you might enjoy it:


    to give you an idea.

    hope you have an amazing time!

  4. Can't wait to hear every last detail. Just hearing about your trip makes me miss it so. I will live vicariously through you! Let me know when you get back.