36 Questions

An old friend and I got together for dinner and a movie earlier this week. We met towards East Colfax, a bustling, growing part of Denver. I parked my car (admittedly, it was a bit stressful as I have only recently become competent at parallel parking) and made my way towards the restaurant.

As we ate our food and caught up on the small details of life (work, summer activities, and dating) she mentioned that on several dates she had gone through the now famous 36 questions that are thought to lead to intimacy between two people with recent suitors.

The study, led by Arthur Aron and a group of psychologists, found that “reciprocal and escalated self-disclosure” can be associated with the development of closeness. The research and findings became famous because they were featured in the Modern Love column in the New York Times. I first heard about the study while listening to an episode called “To Fall in Love, Do This” and was fascinated at the idea that interpersonal vulnerability could create such a strong bond.

My friend told me more – she shared that the last activity after asking these series of questions (there are three sets, designed to build in depth) was to stare into the other person’s eyes for four minutes. FOUR MINUTESImmediately, I thought to myself, I definitely need to do this with Chelsea.

We haven’t tried it yet – but I want to. In the mean time, I have read a bit more about the questions and the study.

Some of the questions in the exchange include items like:

For what in your life do you feel most grateful?

Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time?

Why haven’t you done it?

When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?

Tell your partner something that you like about them already.

Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.

If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?

What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?

Better yet, I stumbled across this charming, touching, tender video of three different couples going through the process of asking the questions. I literally wept. There is something about watching love manifest between two people, especially in their interactions. It is both inspiring and soothing.

Check out the video below – you won’t be sorry. And, if you get a chance to start exploring these questions with someone you love (it doesn’t even have to be a partner!) who knows where the conversation might lead.

womanhood.

“I would like to be known as an intelligent woman, a courageous woman, a loving woman, a woman who teaches by being.” – Maya Angelou

                               

“You can’t play with us. You’re a girl.”

Girl. It spits harshly off his tongue as though my gender is a direct, detestable offense to his playground territory. Tears brimmed my delicate eyelids and I walked away, sensitive to the idea that inherently, I was an outcast. Undeterred, I secretly brought my Aurora soccer club jersey to school the following day. I slipped the mesh green “28” jersey with “Heather” on my back with pride during our lunch break. Come hell or high water, I was going to play – with the boys.

When recess commenced, like a first class ticket, the jersey bought me leverage and I was suddenly allowed to join the match. Insecure, it was the first time I ever muttered the word, “shit” – largely to fit in with the other 3rd grade posse kicking the ball around with me. Girl, or not, I just wanted to play.

                               

The complexity of humanness strikes me when I watch a homeless man hold a cardboard box sign that reads “needing food.” I’m in the back-seat of my dad’s car, as he drives us home after a long day of school and sports practice. We’re eating the snacks he’s allowed us to purchase at 7-Eleven. Lance even has a freshly-printed pack of Pokémon cards, so you can be sure he was some kind of happy camper. I glance at this man, outside my window, probably even a few years older than my dad, and I ask myself, “who is he?” He’s not just a man. He’s a person, who happens to be hungry.

Yet, for some reason, I, a young girl, got to be in a warm car, with food, on the way home. I realize then that whatever – or whomever – I was wasn’t the full story. We aren’t the sum of our gender, of our incomes, of our jobs, of our status, of our families, of anything. We move between boundaries, definitions, and experiences, recognizing that our lives give expression to whom we become. I think about these things as a young girl because it seems to be the only way I can make sense of the world. What else am I supposed to think, when I see a hungry person on the side of the road?

                               

I hid boxes of Kleenex under my bed. My best friend since the 4th grade was developing fast, already adorning large bras at the age of 12. To keep pace, I stuffed tissue into the small trainer bras that I was able to wear. I was preoccupied with my body and fixated on the fact that I didn’t have the slim, full-breasted look like my friends. Or in the magazines I saw at the grocery store. I was a flat-chested girl, with glasses, and face sprinkled with acne. I thought I was an ugly girl.

                               

Sometime around the age of 16, I heard a sermon about submission. Not through the lens of Christ, but to men, specifically and most emphatically, men. My obedience, to a man, was equated to my reputability as a woman. It didn’t make sense to me. But, the Bible said something like it – so it had to be right, right? The legalistic nature of this, and many other morality clauses of the sacred texts would haunt me for years.

Eventually, the gospel broke through. Eventually, I saw the beauty, strength, and possibility of womanhood because of the message Jesus came to share. Before this, though, I experienced the real dangers that moral extremes bring to the expression of womanhood. Women are not meant to be controlled – but we are. Women are not meant to be sidelined – but we are.

A mentor of mine recently told me that at 83, and over 60 years of marriage, “there is no way in hell that I could have sacrificed my own inner strength for the sake of my husband.” She went on to say, “Our submission and partnership is built on a mutually exclusive commitment. I follow God – not my husband. I honor him. I listen to him. But, our relationship is give-and-take. God did not make me to be quiet. He gave me things to say. And dammit, I’m going to say them.” Her words brought healing. Her words brought permission to give life to the voice inside.

                               

My life changed when I went to Mississippi and Alabama for the first time as a freshman in college. On our trip, to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, I spoke with two women that deeply informed my understanding of growing up and becoming. The first woman provided her testimony of survival at a rural church in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Her church had been burnt by the KKK in the 1960’s and she had then spent her life building reconciliation and forgiveness throughout the community – for people of all colors. The second woman was named Roslyn. I met her in Birmingham. I don’t remember much about the conversation other than that she appreciated a warm sandwich more than anyone I had met in a long time. She was in between jobs, trying to make ends meet, and she wasn’t going to give up.

One night, I stayed up late at the church that was hosting our stay. The sanctuary lights remained lit and I entered the sacred space. I stared at a portrait of Jesus for 30 minutes. I questioned everything I had ever been told. Womanhood, I realized, was much like the way God has formed our lives. With clay, He works like a potter, molding us, forming us, building us up. My life was also shaped by my own fingerprints. What did I want my life to say? Who would I become?

I didn’t become a Christian that night – I already was one. I became an independent thinker.

                               

New Orleans, Louisiana is crowded, noisy, and bursting at the seams with fruity hurricanes, mojitos, and Jack Daniels, most noticeably during the long, lazy week of Spring Break. With two car-loads of my college girlfriends, we had made the trip down to the Bayou from Arkansas so I could work on my senior thesis. And, you know, do everything else that comes with Spring Break shenanigans. One night, we enjoyed a drink or two (and perhaps more) and were singing “Tik Tok” by KeSha on a random karaoke stage. I was energized and happy. With some of my favorite people, we were soaking up the last few months of our college experience.

Our show-stopping tune of karaoke finished just after 1:00am and so as I exited the stage, I noticed the drunken stupor of the crowd had risen. A particularly inebriated man, probably in his mid-40’s approached me hastily. He squeezed my butt and smiled. I didn’t say anything. He slurred ,”hi” and then wasted no time to proposition me – not before acknowledging that he had a wife and young baby at home.

I flipped out. Crying, distressed, and visibly upset, I walked back to the open air of Bourbon Street. I was mad he grabbed me. I was disrespected, as was his family, and it left an incredibly foul taste in my mouth. I was infuriated that he presumed he could do whatever he wanted.

                               

I was new to the village, only having had moved to Ruramira the day before as my community’s first ever Peace Corps Volunteer. Successfully, I made it through my first night, and decided to introduce myself to the local government authorities. The office was a mile walk from my blue-green home. Putting one foot in front of the other, I absorbed the rolling mountains, the ubiquity of bananas, trees, and the songs of chirping birds. I lived in a beautiful, breath-taking community in the Eastern Province.

Seemingly out of nowhere, a man, Mugabire, joined me abrasively on the side of the road. I would learn later that Mugabire was Ugandan (and thus the reason behind his perfect English) and was often in trouble for causing issues with other individuals, especially women. I was new then, though, and I didn’t know this. Aggressively, he spoke and followed me on the long stretch of rural road.

“Hello, which country are you coming from?”

“Hi – I’m from America. The United States of America.”

“You’re in Rwanda. Why?”

“I’ve come here to learn about Rwanda, to make friends, to support this community, and to teach English at the local secondary school.”

It of course, all sounded quite rehearsed, but like I mentioned, I was a newcomer.

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Please. I want to sleep with you. I will marry you.”

Slightly alarmed, I pause, don’t say anything, and begin to look upon the horizon for people who might be nearby. I curse myself; it’s 11:00am and nearly everyone is working their fields, away from their homes. He presses further.

“Give me sex. I want your pussy – “

I interrupt this time and speak with every drop of boldness I have in my voice, “Please. Go. Leave me alone.”

It’s escalating and he calls me a bitch.

I start to run.

When I reach the local officials’ office, I’m crying hysterically. When I tell them this man was Mugabire, the shake their heads. “Oh Mugabire…Oh Mugabire…”

                               

With 30 bright, young women singing self-made songs of hope and autonomy, my body feels out of balance, like I am flying. I’ve taught this girls’ group (GLOW – Girls Leading Our World) about periods, sex, confidence, relationships, public speaking, domestic violence, and identity. I’ve been teaching them for months, and I realize that in the process, I’ve been just as much of a student of them as they have been students for me. As they have worked to establish their voices at home and at school, they have released me of my own assumptions about men, about women, and about the unity of people together.

This group of women has brought together unique forces in our ecosystem of our community (the headmaster, local authorities, fathers, mothers, and brothers) to celebrate their successes as a recognized organization at our school. Their mission is to show that shared leadership is the only way forward in a society.

I close my eyes as the traditional Rwandan beat catches my ears. My soul dances, and I thank God that I was born who I was.

                               

On a date arranged through online networking, I’m propositioned for sex in less than 10 minutes. I’m also asked when I last “put out” for someone else. This excuse of a person asks me three times to sleep with him as I sit across the table. Casually, he admits that he lied about certain parts of his online profile, and quickly, my instincts tell me that I could be sitting adjacent to a rapist.

I firmly respond with a hard “no.” In a flurry of goodbyes he attempts to punch my face. He calls me a “f****** bitch c***.” I run. Around the parking lot, I hide behind several cars that glisten under the night lamps. When I reach my car, I lock the door, and I shake without any possibility of stopping. The harassment continues via text message and I cannot feel safe. I am exposed, as if my dignity is torn apart. I am a woman. A mighty, gritty woman. Yet still, in a matter of minutes, someone else has been given license to threaten every piece that is holding me together.

                               

Recently released from rehabilitation, I’m tasked with spending time with my brother for three days straight. He is getting clean, and to do so, he needs extra support to make sure he gets there. I’m recently returned from Rwanda (read: jobless) and my parents are all responding to their own working commitments and so, voila! Lance and I spend extra time together –more than we had spent together in the previous five years.

We start by doing what we do best: eating. Slowly though, like strangers getting to know each other for the first time, we go on long walks and dig through old notebooks and journals we wrote when we were younger. We laugh hysterically. We also cry together. We discuss hard things. Emotional things.

In the middle of a green belt, on the edge of Denver, I share parts of myself that at the time, I hadn’t yet revealed to other people in my family. My brother asks questions, gently, ever so kindly and hugs me after we finish our walk.

I won’t soon forget the way he looked at me. With the corners of his own pain so fresh on his heart, I could have understood if my own pain would be too much of a burden. But for him, it wasn’t. He listened, acknowledged it, and assured me that I was going to be okay.

Womanhood, in its optimal place, is a kind of freedom to be liberated; to be honest; to be open. My brother taught me that. A man. A gentle, kind, brilliant, passionate, man. That’s the beauty of this earth you know, that we all get to learn together like that. Everyone is a teacher.

                               

It’s 2016, and I’m learning each and every day about what womanhood is all about.

For me, it’s never been dainty or distant. It’s not a journey of perfection or working far too much. Womanhood is releasing the notion that we have to save the world all by ourselves. Becoming a woman calls for incredible grace, a damn good sense of humor, and an ability to listen, see, and celebrate people. Tolerance – of anyone, male or female – is a sad expectation. Celebrate. Exploring my own feminism builds a trust in the communities we become a part of. It empowers men, recognizing that men are equally wonderful, interesting, and capable. Men do not hate women – and vice versa. And so, we must work together, to remove seeds of misunderstanding, hatred, and contempt. We have to call out discrimination, inequality, maltreatment, and hatred when we see it – male or female. And in a world, where women (and men) are harassed, we must do everything we can to stop it. We must be willing to acknowledge the dignity and value of others, even if that scares the hell out of you.

Being a woman propels me forward in this pursuit. For myself, for my future children – for all of us. It’s a worthy, worthy fight, my friends.

                               

“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” – Maya Angelou

The Truth About Reading Your Writing.

I recently listened to an inspiring NPR session about StoryCorps, an initiative started to compel social change through the power of storytelling. The idea is simple yet powerful: honor, create, and preserve the stories of humans for understanding and change. 

I promptly downloaded the app on my phone – useful for recording interviews – but then decided to move in a different direction. Oration is an important part of the storytelling process, absolutely – but so is the tangible documentation of those stories. In turn, documentation creates ownership of those stories, which allows a personal efficacy that as humans, we should all have access to.

Yet, try telling your story. It can be hard. It’s challenging. Capturing small, intimate, yet formative moments often requires a listening ear, and sometimes even, the right questions. And so, in the spirit of communal story-telling, I had the opportunity to sit down with my grandmother, Mary Lou, to hear her story. That’s right, her life story.

We sat with warm tea, sunshine, and my laptop on a Saturday afternoon on my patio. At first grandma wasn’t sure she would have much to share – three hours later, it was clear there was far more complexity and insight in her nearly 75 years than she may have originally thought.

She said wonderfully insightful things like,

“I’m just trying to make my world the best it can be.”

and also,

“…children are a joy…but grandchildren are like strawberries and cream.”

Currently, she’s looking through the initial notes (nearly 28 pages!) and adding any additional happenings, people, or anecdotes she wants to include. After, I’m going to help her draft a prose-form story of her life. It’s intimidating – how do you fully write someone’s story..? – but I’m absolutely excited and awed by this challenge. Grandma has lived a full life – with roots in Uppsala, Sweden, and a story filled with different kinds of work, relationship upheaval, children, life in a small town, and a commitment to friendship. I’m honored to be a part of that process.

The following week, I celebrated Peace Corps Week (celebrating 55 years since inception) by attending International Storytelling Night in Denver at the Deer Pile.

The concept was simple: bring your stories of Peace Corps adventures, travel, and cross-culture interactions and share them on stage. As I entered the red-painted room with odd hipster wall decorations, I put my name in the hat. I thought to myself, if my name is drawn, great, I’ll do it. If not, oh well. I tried.

“Heather” was the first name drawn. Of course. I grabbed a luke-warm PBR and hopped on the wooden-black stage. I read a story I wrote recently called “bird songs” based on the African proverb: Birds sing not because they have answers but because they have songs

I was nervous. Sweaty. Unsure if this was the right story to share. But it was. It was not only the right story, but the right time to share it as well. The story delves into the tensions of relationship – that much of what we experience in life is actually quite undefinable, which in turn, makes it beautiful. It was a story that extended well beyond the confines of the “Peace Corps Experience” and I believe that resonated with the audience listening.

Reading your writing is an act of vulnerability. Though I have been blogging for years, reading a story aloud (with others!) brings a presence and authenticity with a story that you couldn’t find otherwise. It reminded me what I had already been learning with my grandmother: storytelling is a creative process because it involves both the act of writing and the commitment of sharing what happened in the first place.

Keep sharing, y’all. It’s important.


 

‘turning madness into flowers’

We have moments that become memories that become stories that sometimes play over again in our minds like a blobby-ish piles of silly puddy. You search for the words to develop the right form and structure of a recollection, but sometimes even the best storytellers lose the rhythm that real good stories often have (and need).

I kind of think that’s the magic ingredient of poetry. Poetry pulls the perfect words together, telling enough of a story, but still leaving so much to the imagination.

I was recently telling a legendary tale of one of my summer adventures to a friend. Each holding a copper mug of a cold, icy moscow mule, I explained that one of the things I learned this summer was how to skin a snake.

No, really, it happened. Look here:

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Kevin & I, in Nebraska, just skinning a snake to cook over fire. No big deal.

Rewind my life a couple years prior, when I found a 2-foot long snake in my room in my Rwandan village, and you would have thought you had met an entirely different person. I screamed like a baby when I had a snake near my bed in Rwanda. But, while doing The Experience last summer, I kind of was tired of being afraid of everything. Of snakes, certainly, but of all the muck and crap we carry around. Afraid of failure, afraid of what people think, afraid of being alone, afraid of my feelings, afraid of who I was.

You see, I just kind of got over it. I was also totally over being afraid of snakes. So, I thought, maybe I’ll just help Kevin skin it up and I’ll feel less afraid. I’m still not sure how effective this method was. Except for the fact that I did eat the snake’s heart afterwards. So, there’s that. Fear is only fear. We can let it be in the room, but it has no right to dictate, rule, or ruin our lives.

So, you see, I wanted to tell this friend of mine about this stupid snake, but really it was kind of a bigger story. I really could have used a poem in that moment.

I don’t write a lot of poetry really, but I think I would like to. I like the witty, deep, with a dash of sass-kind-of poetry. The kind that is contemplative but rooted in real-life experiences, with words and ideas that make you think, but in the same swoop will make you smile.

That’s why I like Alice Walker. She’s a bad-ass poet, writer, and activist.

I went to the library a couple of weeks ago, motivated to read some poetry. I told myself two things: 1) Being a fan of African-American literature, it’s necessary to stay on top of classic author’s works. 2) I could get ideas for my own attempts at poetry.

Those are both really cute justifications for my poetry binge, but I also believe I may have been lying to myself. Really, I think I was jones-ing for some poetry because powerful poetry has a way of maneuvering and leveraging human experiences – the bold, the painful, the real, the gritty – into tangible descriptions. You can read sentiment from paper and feel like, yes. This person knows what I am talking about. i’m not alone.

Who better than Alice Walker? She nails it in one of her recent publications, The World Wiill Follow Joy: Turning Madness Into Flowers, published in 2014. With a collection of over 60 poems, Walker brilliantly and intimately sheds particular light on relationships, memories, human oddities, and universal truths. For many of the pieces in this work, she dedicates the writing or includes the person in the work itself. So, the context is a bit more present than you might find in her other works.

I included a handful of my favorites below. They really spoke to me, moved me, and encouraged me to put pen back on paper and capture the strange, beautiful experience of being human.


When You See Water

When you see water in a stream

you say; oh, this is stream

Water;

when you see water in the river

you say: oh, this is water

of the river;

when you see ocean

Water

you say: this is the ocean’s

Water!

But actually water is always

only itself

and does not belong

to any of these containers

though it creates them.

And so it is with you.

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May It Be Said of Me

May it be said of me

that when I saw

your mud hut

I remembered

my shack.

That when I tasted your

pebble filled beans

I recalled

my salt pork.

That when I saw

your twisted Limbs

I embraced

my wounded Sight.

That when you

rose from your knees

and stood like women

and men

of this Earth –

as promised to us

as to anyone;

without regrets of any kind

I joined you – Singing.

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Desire

My desire

is always the same; wherever Life deposits me:

I want to stick to my toe & soon my whole body

into the water.

I want to shake out a fat broom

& sweep dried leaves

bruised blossoms

dead insects & dust.

I want to grow

Something.

It seems impossible that desire

can sometimes transform into devotion;

But this has happened.

and that is how I’ve survived;

how the hole

I carefully tended

in the garden of my heart

grew a heart

to fill it.

flowas

From Paradise to Paradise

From Paradise To paradise I go

Sweeping;

Collecting Rocks & Views;

Owning Nothing

But what I feel.

Who taught Me this?

This thankfulness?

You did.

Maker of all

Paradises.

Without borders

Or cessation.

Bowing

As I kneel.

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“find a way – or make one”

“My name is Nancy, and this is my granddaughter, Niki.”

“Oh! I am with my grandmother too!”

My sticky, crumby fingers (thanks, orange jam) reach for the gold-plated teacup to the right of my china plate. The taste of perfectly warm English tea is refreshing; I sigh in delight as I carefully place the cup back on the table. The gold silverware are placed in perfect position, the table linens are iron-pressed, and a stack of intricately decorated pastries lie before us.

As the etiquette guide suggests, I look into my cup as I sip, not over.

I don’t know the first thing about proper etiquette except for the quick briefing I received years ago from Michelle when I visited her home in England.

Luckily, I attended this church’s Christmas tea last year, so I certainly know what to expect. Don’t chew with your mouth open, pass the tea to the right, and for goodness sakes, don’t break anything. Easy enough, right?

My grandmother and aunt have attended this holiday tradition for six years and so I feel all womanly and grown up to be involved now too. Gathered at table 11, we are ready for prayer, scones, and a short drama about Jesus’ birth.

This story, though, isn’t just about this lovely gathering of family with light conversation. This is a story about God.

*

As the cuppas were poured, soft laughter ensued and conversation shifted from crocheting and cookies to life situations and God’s faithfulness.

Nancy, the woman who first introduced herself, reveals that she is excited to join us for Christmas tea today because she “doesn’t get out much.” I tilt my head in curiosity and she explains further, with far more detail. She’s an older woman, but a strong woman, and so I wanted to know more.

For the last 10 years, she reveals, she has been her husband’s caretaker. Determined and resolute, she explained she could never place him in a facility. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, everything: she does it. In awe, my mouth dropped. She wasn’t even finished.

A deep passion began to resonate inside of her, and with outward boldness she declared that this was marriage to her; 60 years of it taught her as much. “I want young people to know…when you sign up, you sign up forever. It’s not easy! There are good times, and there are hard times, but love is sticking through it. You just keep going…It’s through sickness and health. Through everything.”

I wanted to give a standing ovation in that moment; the best I could do was mutter a meek “wow” and say, “that’s amazing.” Luckily, God would allow much more room to speak.

I ate my cheese and couldn’t stop thinking about what she had said. It reminded me of the kind of love I had seen in Garry & Grandma as she was dying slowly and painfully years ago. That’s a really special kind of love. I wasn’t sitting there in self-pity; actually, I was sitting there in deep gratitude. To see that kind of conviction is a blessing; I can tell that God has placed Nancy in just the right place, at just the right time. And, perhaps, has done so for years and years of her life. That’s a special kind of faithfulness. That’s only God.

Five cheese cubes later, my work with the Women’s Bakery arose in the chatter. I explained further about the women that we work with and why working with them is just so special. I could feel myself glowing – like bragging on an over-achieving child or something – as I shared the commitment I saw in the classroom to learn and to believe in their own capacity in ability. I too was quickly on a soapbox about women’s empowerment and the importance of allowing women a voice in the world. As I spoke, Nancy was quick to write a sizable check and pass it to me with grace and with humility. Shocked, I left my seat to get close to her, to hug her, and to express my amazement at her generosity.

The exchange went something like this,

“Oh honey, I want to keep on contributing. I don’t have a computer, but I will keep it up. I just know this is important…”

Stuttering, I say, “Oh!….Um…I will write you a letter…”

“That would be great darling.”

“And, I want to say, it was also a blessing to hear what you said about marriage today. I’m really inspired by your commitment to your husband. It was an honor to hear about your life. Thank you.”

She smiled ever so softly.

Just wait, dear! Just wait. Wait for the right person and you will see God provide for you in ways that you could not imagine. Let me tell you something. My granddaughter here, Niki, was in a traumatic car accident when she was 11. She had to re-learn everything. To speak, write, think, walk…everything. Her father never stopped supporting her. Her mother too, always encouraged her to remember that despite her disability, she could still do anything God set her mind to. When her mother died, her father never stopped serving and loving her. That’s love, my dear. That’s love….You just have to wait. You have to be patient.”

I turn to Niki, Nancy’s granddaughter, “You are a miracle. I hope you know that.”

Nancy nods and continues, “Yes, she is. God has done amazing things. For all of us. That’s how I was raised, to know God is able, God is mighty, and God will do great works.”

“Where did you grow up?”

“Right here in Denver! But you know what, my mother was actually raised in Atlanta. And she wrote a book about her mother, my grandmother, who grew up in an orphanage. She would always tell us, ‘find a way or make one!…If you are dishwasher you will be the best darn dishwasher that you can be. If you are failing, you must ask WHY? God has given you the greatest gift you could ask for: life. So live it. You must live it’ ….But anyway, the orphanage would later become Spelman College – you know that place? – and my mother wrote a book about it. I would love to share that with you sometime, I can definitely get you a copy…”

I realize in this moment that God did far more for me in this interaction – in this day – than I could have ever imagined. He answered my prayers.

To be honest, as I drove that morning over the long, black highways of Aurora to get to this tea gathering, I doubted a lot of things. I reflected on some of the people I had met on my recent adventures in Kigali and thought, “how am I going to have that kind of fellowship with people here…? People drive everywhere! People are on the move, God, how will I find community here?” While living in Rwanda does bring it’s own set of difficulties, it is often easier for me to adjust there. It feels more natural to me, frankly. And so, coming back to the USA, prepared or not, is always a struggle, particularly in the spiritual realm. My life in the USA always brings a falsehood of control, and when I realize how much I don’t know, I get a bit unsettled and freaked out about where my life is going.

I listened to this woman speak so much truth and it was clear. Community is found in waiting and in trusting patience. I learned that from Nancy – because of her own relationship with the Lord. And while her truth was a sweet blessing for me, my ability to listen was just as important for her. To be heard – that’s a gift, that’s fellowship, and that’s the foundation of a community. I didn’t realize that my community might come in the form of 78-year old women, but God is always doing things that we don’t expect. God allowed me to be blessed in a collision of people where I could be a blessing too. Um. THAT IS SO COOL.

“Nancy, I would love to come over and hear more of your stories. I really would…”

That’s all it took. Quickly, she was writing her phone number, her address, and her name on a scrap piece of paper.

“That would be so great. Please, let’s do that.”

Her eyes looked surprised, content, and thankful. This woman of God inspired me in her faithfulness – in her life, in her relationship with her husband, and in the way that she carried herself.

For me, I was just grateful that God could use someone like this to remind me, once again, that above all of our fears, questions, and doubts, we just need to love Him, and love others. He will build our community; He will deliver His plan; we just must wait. In hope, in expectation, and yes, in love.

*

I read a beautiful, small and timely piece of scripture this morning. It pointed back to Nancy, it pointed back to God’s calling on our lives, and really the wonderful gift of freedom we have in our lives – no matter where we are, no matter what we do, and no matter our circumstances –

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.”

Colossians 3:23.

Yes. Find a way or make one. Trust God, because He – above all things – is faithful.

*

umuganda saturday.

I am plopped on our sticky leather couch in a pink negligee dreading the fact that it is Umuganda Saturday here in Rwanda. A quick glance outside reveals a traditionally-dressed family headed to church (presumably the Protestant congregation not far from our house) and a man carrying what looks to be a stack full of eggs to a shop nearby. I think about frittatas, huevos rancheros, and eggs benedict. Delicious. Especially with some Louisiana hot sauce.

Clearly, I’m hungry.

Too bad I ate oatmeal, peanut butter, banana, and a handful of almonds approximately 20 minutes ago. Oops?

Putting my stomach aside, I sip lukewarm coffee. Though the roads appear empty, I can almost hear the foot traffic slowly approaching the newly-built market across the way. Neighbors in our particular community will gather soon to engage in a morning of community service. This happens every month (on the last Saturday) in Rwanda. It’s mandatory, roads shut down, and everyone better be there. I read recently that around 80% of Rwandans show up and so certainly, you can skip out or perhaps pay someone to attend for you. Alternatively, you can just go and expect that from around 8:00am until late morning you will be working manually, watching others do the same, and followed by local authorities disseminating news, announcements, and discussions that members of the community need to have.

Umuganda is translated as, “coming together for a purpose to achieve a common outcome,” and from what I have been told, has been around as a cultural unifier for a long time. It hasn’t always been mandated; it was simply considered the social responsibility of every Rwandan to attend. It undeniably has done great things for the country; when I lived in Kayonza, our community projects involved the health center, fixing the road, and helping re-construct parts of the school.

Umuganda is an admirable institution and frequently toted to be a brilliant approach to community integration; however, I am also not afraid to deglamorize the reality of what may happen.

Not everyone works; some sit on the side to watch. Some sleep in, work at home, or maintain their own schedule. When talking to a friend about this, he commented, “Umuganda! I have never been once in my life.” Also, the projects seem a bit…unclear? Once, in Kayonza, we moved rocks from one location to another. I never found out why. We just did it for about 3 hours and they sat there for the next 14 months that I lived there. So, while it’s a valuable cultural tie, it’s not perfect. Nothing ever is.

I imagine the kind of scene that will happen when Julie and I roll in with our athletic clothes and sunglasses. Because many people observe intensely from the side of the road during service work, they’ll whisper and wonder and offer up husbands. Creepy men will make some kind of inappropriate comments at some point. A lingering hand-hold, a slurring of words, get excited.

And so, confession. I don’t really want to go. Yet, our room-mate just confirmed, it’s on. Get your shoes. Get your sunscreen. Let’s go. I suppose I should get out of these PJ’s, eh?

*

I’m glad I went. I trudged out of the house with Julie and we went to meet the group gathered just 20 feet away from our gate. Umuganda had begun; 60-ish men and women were together with dust particles and dirt sediment filing the air quickly. The task for this particular Saturday would be moving cement-filled-rocks and dust from the top of a hill into the middle of the road. Yes, the same road that we run on, walk on, and take motorcycles on, occasionally. Perplexed, we have grabbed shovels and got a couple of digs in.

After about 15 minutes, we picked up some trash (Kigali, yes, is crazy clean, but still has bottles, pants (a real find), and other intriguing garbage pressed into the soil at times) and then aimlessly joined the circle of people listening to the community discussion topics for the day. Proposing an opportunity to create a cooperative-driven market, leaders encouraged all to begin contributions towards a general fund. Money is hoped to be used to develop the shops, stalls, and even purchase a car to pick-up food so that they could generate larger returns on their food profits. The sun started to beat heavily, so as skepticism was raised toward the suggested amount, Julie and I found solace in shade nearby.

Glancing around, a particular woman caught my eye. With deeply frayed skin, I thought about the long days she may have had outside; perhaps fields that she has seen, work she has done in the soil. She stood by and in a few short minutes, introduced herself to us. We laughed; when I asked her name she looked on like I was crazy. In slow Kinyarwanda she told us that her name was simply ‘Mama Chirabo,’ as that’s how names for mothers are given around here. Everyone is Mama                depending on the name of your child. For example, my own mother would be called ‘Mama Heather’ with preference deferred to the elder of siblings.

Mama Chirabo pulled us in a side conversation and jumped quickly into her story. This happens in Rwanda – but not all the time, at least with the kinds of things she was telling us. She showed us the scars on her body, and they were numerous from damage during the Ntambara she said, that is, the Genocide. We didn’t get a fuller version of the story until later. Our neighbor that helps us around the house in the case of rain leaks or faucet issues decided to follow Mama Chirabo home so we would know how to go and visit her when we had the time.

He returned a couple hours later.

When he did, he shook his head in incredulity. She has so many problems he told us. Her story weaved in and out of the Congo, involved her losing 6 of her 9 children, and even included the intense, unbelievable situation of her being stabbed – fully – and surviving. This woman has been through hell.

I stood with my mouth wide open in our spacious, white kitchen when our friend filled in more about her story. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that a little, old woman, still walking around with a good amount of strength had been through all that. My heart ached and hurt just thinking of where her life may have taken her.

There’s stories like that all over the place. Rwanda doesn’t have the monopoly on this. Think about it. Each and every person you pass daily has been through something – Genocide or not. Rwanda awakens your conscience on a different kind of level, but it doesn’t change the fact that everyone is battling something, everyone has had their heart broken at some point.

Still, there are people in pain, in trauma, in hopelessness all around us. It’s important to remember that they are there, and they are waiting to be heard. Waiting to be seen. Waiting to be loved.

That’s why I love writing, that’s why I like exploring, making new friends, and paying attention.

I didn’t want to go to Umuganda, and yet if I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have had the chance to hear those stories or have those reminders. Goes to show that you never know what might happen.

He isn’t arbitrary in where you are or who you are with. We don’t have to like it all the time. Sometimes, our life situations can be uncomfortable, less than ideal, or even extremely difficult. Sometimes, we have seasons of loneliness that never feel like they will end, or waves of doubt. Yet, all of those comings and goings are fleeting. He is permanent; He is right there with us.

Psalm 102:27 says, But you remain the same, and your years will never end.

I hope to visit that old woman soon. To be honest, I’m not sure what we would say. But I know we would listen. I know we would make sure she knew she was seen. More than that, I would thank God for the chance to know her and to know her story. It’s a story of suffering. But even in the midst of her explanation the other day at Umuganda, I am certain she knows that God has not left her. I could sense that, and that gave me hope.

*