“My giving of thanks”

I have been re-reading Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter as I have done every summer for the past seven years. It is my favorite book. One that speaks new truths to me every time I pick it up. It is a story of living in grief, love, and work, and it is a story of gratitude for a life lived. If you’ve not read it, you ought to.

As I re-read it, I began to think of my time that I have spent here in Uganda. I began to think of the grief, the love, and the work of this place. I began to think, too, of the end quickly approaching.

I leave to return to the States in four days. It is hard to believe how quickly the time has gone in this place, and yet it feels as though I have lived here more than two years. This place and these people are a home to me, and now I must leave them. I must learn to feel at home someplace that does not know my life here, and that will be hard. I am not complaining, for this, too, is my story of gratitude, this, too, is my “giving of thanks.”

As I read through Hannah Coulter, I thought of the love that has grown here amongst people who arrived as strangers. It is a love for each other that, for many of us, will last forever. It is a love of understanding, a love of knowing the same truth and seeing the same things and living in the same place. “Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever. Some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after.” – Hannah Coulter

This is my giving of thanks to those here who loved and drew love from me, and it is my giving of thanks to you who supported and loved me and enabled me to live in this place.

I am so grateful for these two years here, and I pray I am better for them. Thank you for the sacrifices that were made that enabled me to live and work here. When I return to the States I will get married, teach part time, and do a number of other part time jobs while I adjust and continue to look for full time work. It will be a new adventure, and another reason to give thanks. If you would like to be part of my transition back to the states, I will continue to receive a salary through RCE until October, and I would be grateful for your continued support in this time.

I look forward to returning home and re-connecting with you all, and I am grateful to have shared this journey with you.

Perspective

When I first arrived in Jinja, one of my friends who had been here for 6 years told me that there were stages of eating food with bugs in it. I laughed, knowing she was probably right, but also not sure I would ever eat pasta that had weevils burrowed into it. I have since learned better. She told me that when you’re first here, when you see bugs burrowed into your noodles or other food you simply throw the food out. Around six months in you just take the time to pick all the bugs out of your food as you eat. And around a year in you decide it’s not worth the hassle and you eat the bugs.

This is pretty accurate. In the past month, my friends and I have eaten things we never thought we would. Upon opening a package of noodles one evening, we found that a roach fell out of them. Instead of throwing the whole lot out, we decided that the boiling water would probably get rid of any disgusting remnants and we proceeded to make the pasta. (Now don’t get me wrong, we did not eat a roach!) Another time we were halfway through making homemade tortillas when we realized there were weevils and maggots in the flour. We looked at each other, uncertain, then kept right on making the tortillas. We did the best we could to pick the bugs out after they were cooked and before we ate them, but we resigned ourselves to the fact that we were probably eating some. Don’t get me wrong, however, most of our food does not have bugs in it! It generally only happens when we don’t take the time to seal everything properly. 

. . . .

It’s funny how over time your perspective of life here changes. I suppose that is true of all areas of the world and in different stages of life, but I have begun to notice my understanding of this place change. I think the more one lives here and enters into community with others, the more one begin to see. This new perspective of life here and life in general, however, is welcome. It is good. It is a gathering of different cultures and customs and a gathering of knowledge and memories that I will have the rest of my life. I hope, and I pray, that every day this place is changing me, that every day I am learning better than the day before how to love my neighbor. I confess I am not often good at it.

The sacred

I walked into church this past Sunday and cried. I cried because I missed my family, my friends, and my boyfriend, and I cried because I missed my church back home. I also cried because I was overwhelmingly thankful for this church here. If that’s my response to being thankful, I really should cry every week. I don’t, however, and I’m not always thankful for my church. I am, too often, more sad about my church here than grateful. However sometimes, like last Sunday, I was grateful. So grateful that tears came.

After the liturgy this past Sunday we sang a memory eternal for a priest here who died many years ago. We brought out a table that was covered in beautiful cloth and put candles and three beautiful round loaves of homemade bread in the center. With the incense and the icons from the iconostasis behind, along with the candles and bread, the church was beautiful. I pulled out my phone to take a picture and somehow capture the loveliness, but I couldn’t take the photo. I couldn’t capture the beauty of the voices singing the words, “his soul shall dwell with the blessed,” nor could I capture the beauty of the church filled with incense. This was a moment of loveliness that filled the senses, and a picture wouldn’t be fitting.

As I put my phone back in my purse I remembered the words of Wendell Berry in his poem, “How To be a Poet”:

Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

I couldn’t take the picture because the phone began to obscure the place. It wasn’t fitting, for this was a sacred place, a sacred moment dedicated to God, and no matter how beautiful my picture turned out to be, I figured God didn’t need it. It wasn’t possible to take a photo without something in that church being obscured. The incense, the chanting, the smells, the sacredness…I didn’t want to break the stillness and the silence of the saint’s voices lifted in prayer.

The simple

The days are short. Time seems to speed by and I, running, try to keep up. I cannot seem to get everything done that I want to get done. Forget trying to get everything done at school, I can’t get everything done at home. I want to make our apartment feel more like a home, a “place.” A place where we want to return to, where rest and redemption is found, where the physical structure is changed through the laughter and prayer and love that holds up the walls.

I want it to be beautiful and comfortable, I want it to be filled with light and warmth and good smells.

I want to bake. I don’t know if it is because Lent is finally over and I want to eat EVERYTHING, but I want to make muffins and scones and then sit down with a cup of tea and a book and ENJOY them. I want our place to be simple, yet one of rest.

For me, early mornings are a quiet, sacred time. It is in these early hours before the sun has risen that I find time for rest and renewal. I make a cup of tea, sit on the couch, and read. I love these moments. They are a time of quiet and peace before the busy day begins. They also ensure that I actually get to read. I find my life is often too busy to sit and enjoy a book.

Every Sunday I walk into our sparse Orthodox Church and look around me at the few Icons of the angels and saints. Though I greatly miss my church back home, I know that as I enter and greet those around me I am stepping into a space that is eternal, a space that gathers all time and distance into one. Because our church is so poor, we do not have candles to take and light in front of the icons. Instead, at the front of the church we have two small mason jars that are placed on the floor in front of the icons of Mary and Jesus on the iconostasis. They were probably honey or jam jars once, but now they are used for a higher purpose. The little children pick leaves and flowers and fill the jars, honoring Christ and His mother. The first time I saw the children do this I had tears in my eyes. It is a simple and beautiful act of love. I want to worship like these children.

This dry land

Sadness and hurt. These are things that accompany life here.

Of course I know they accompany life in all places, but the past few weeks seem to stand out to me as jars that were simply waiting to be filled with ache and hurt.

We are nearly through the season of Lent, and I find myself mercifully looking toward the coming resurrection. These weeks must be redeemed. They must die and rise again. They must have the waters poured over them and be raised into new life.

Lent here in Uganda is not the same thing as lent at home. Somehow, I think, it has been even harder. It is lonely. At home I have my church community surrounding me, and we, together, strive to fast and encourage one another. (My roommates have been this for me, and for that I am grateful.) We have a common purpose during Lent, one of seeking humility in recognizing our sin and looking with hope and joy to the resurrection. I think I have missed my church community back home the most during this time. Sometimes, here, I feel as though I am drying up. (Thank goodness for Katie, a piece of my church from back home!) I do not mean to say that the community here is not also setting their minds on Easter, I mean to say that this Lent and Pascha are different, and that difference is hard.

My favorite time during Lent, and perhaps my favorite service throughout the year, is the liturgy of the pre-sanctified gifts. Every Wednesday during Lent, my sister Rebekah would come to my house early and we would cook together for the communal meal after the liturgy. This service during the middle of the week is life-giving. It means that during Lent, we don’t go an entire week without being in the presence of the angels and saints in Heaven, it means that we don’t go an entire week without eating a meal with our church family, it means that we don’t go an entire week without receiving the grace of the Eucharist.

In this service we sing these words: Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense, and let the lifting of my hands, be an evening sacrifice. 

These words too, are life giving.

We do not have this service here in Jinja, nor do we have vespers. Both are evening services and it is too dangerous to have them. I miss going every Wednesday and singing the beautiful hymns, I miss eating as a community after the service and laughing with friends over the week, I miss hanging out with friends even after the meal simply because we want to spend more time together, I miss my sister coming over before the service to make food together.

Just like Lent, Pascha will be very different this year. There will be no midnight service and celebration until 3am. There will be no young children in their pajamas as they sleep on the floor of the church. There will be no passing and sharing of all the meat and cheese we have fasted from for weeks. There will be no familiar language.

Yet this is my giving of thanks, for there will still be a feast. Katie and I will make our Easter baskets, light candles in front of our Icons, and attend a four hour service of which we don’t know the language. This is a feast. We will participate in the resurrection of Christ with another culture and new friends. These past weeks of sadness will be redeemed, for there will be a feast of redemption and resurrection.

Gramma

Grief. Why do we grieve except because we love?

It is an odd thing to know that you won’t see someone again in this life. Shouldn’t we always be with the ones we love?  My Mom’s mom died not long after Thanksgiving.  At our last Thanksgiving all together, I held my little nieces and nephews and brought them over to her so she could see and touch them. Looking at those sweet faces she seemed to wake up and become more alive. She smiled and laughed, and I laughed to keep from crying.

When I think about her, I remember her as a woman who was hardworking, kind, full of laughter, and devoted to the ones she loved. When we went to visit, I remember playing endless card games with her, helping her make her bed every morning (arranging the pillows and stuffed animals just so), going through her closets full of beautiful clothing, taking walks, and helping her cook. She drank hot tea every morning and passed the habit on to my mother, who in turn passed the habit on to my sister Rebekah and I.

We used to write letters to each other. I would practice my cursive, and she would graciously respond to what I wrote (which couldn’t have been very interesting). While in Uganda before Christmas I wrote her a letter and forgot to send it. A few days ago as I was packing to return to Uganda I opened my common place book and found it still there. In the letter I told her about my life in Uganda and how much I loved it, and that I would be home soon and would come visit her. Now it won’t be sent, and will probably stay in my common place book forever, unless by some accident it is lost.

I do not mean to sound bitter, for there is a time for all things. I am, rather, thankful. I am thankful for the life that she shared with my family and for the example she set. I am thankful for the hope she clung to in the resurrection of Christ. During her last days, she talked a lot in her sleep: “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” and  “Hail Mary, full of grace…” I am thankful also for these words. I am thankful that she is now more alive than myself.

“I began to know my story then.  Like everybody’s, it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead.  What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while.  And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through.  From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it.  But grief is not a force and has no power to hold.  You only bear it.  Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”
 -Wendell Berry, Hanna Coulter

Small things

I have always been thankful for the small things, but I think living here has made me truly come to cherish them. Our day here has a liturgy, a form, and when this liturgy is thrown off for one reason or another, the day feels off. I am thankful for this liturgy, this comfort of order that includes both work and rest. Rest, true rest that makes one more alive. The rest of warm tea after a day of work, the rest of a book in your hand, the rest of being with people you love, the rest of making a place clean again. I pray that this rest does not become laziness.

I am thankful for the small things here that weave in and out of our liturgy of the day. I am thankful that they remind me to be still.

The small things here make me miss home. They make me miss my people. Every day after we get home from work, I sit down with my roommates and have hot tea. At home I did the same with either my Mom, my sister Rebekah, or Karen, a family friend. Three women I look up to the most in my life, except for perhaps my grandmothers. They are all mothers and friends to me, and I miss the comfort and joy of sitting with them and talking of all things under the sun. It was simple, it was tradition, and now I am thousands of miles away.

All through my time that I lived at home until I came to Uganda, my Mom and I used to sit and talk for hours. I used to come home from school, either from class or from teaching, and sit and talk with her for hours even when I had mountains of homework to do. In the mornings we would sit and talk after breakfast, not realizing that the day was quickly moving on and we had things to do.

I miss these times.

I think I have begun to miss home because the things which make a home are now very present in my life here. So I focus on the small things here, the things that make this place feel like home: the quiet of the morning, the laughter with dear friends, the familiarity of tea and books and baking and cleaning, the familiarity of rest.

“The World’s just spinning, a little too fast,
If things don’t slow down soon, we might not last.
So just for a moment,
Let’s be still.”