Ten Ways I Know I’m a Beginner

In keeping with my list-making posts recently, I’ve been recording ways I know I’m a beginner. Before I moved, I listened to a podcast that reminded me to be a beginner. For someone who has lived overseas before and could, without humility, do the “I’ve already been here, done that” thing, this was great advice. Especially because I haven’t been here and I haven’t done that. I’ve been there and done those things. But now I’m a beginner and instead of striving against it, I’m trying to learn from it and laugh with it.

Here are ten ways I know I’m a beginner.

1. I can’t find hummus. I live in one of the biggest (maybe the biggest) city in the region and I can’t find hummus. I can find tahini salad, I can find chick peas, I can find baba ghanoush, I can find cucumber yogurt salad, I can find olive oil. I can’t find hummus. I am a beginner.

2. I greet people enthusiastically by saying things like, “How am I?” and “Good morning!” (at 6 pm). In other words, I make so many mistakes over and over again.

3. I get lost within walking distance of the apartment where we are staying. I’ve recently figured out that only riding in the back of taxis and Ubers is a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding my way around a city. I keep asking my husband, “Is that the intersection where we pass the Emirates’ office?” and he doesn’t know. He can look up and I can’t. I only know ground floor landmarks and don’t even know that we’ve passed through a roundabout until it’s almost over. His experience as a man in the front seat is vastly different from mine as a woman in the backseat.

4. My stomach is a beginner in this place. I had to stand up an Uber the other day when my food poisoning persisted. Even my body is a newbie in this place.

5. I don’t have friends. It’s normal but hard. I’m a beginner.

6. I buy my groceries from the supermarket. There will come a day when I have a vegetable seller that I regularly use and can even call for delivery if I can’t make it to his stand. I will also probably go to a butcher with cow carcasses handing in his window (my kids think this is fascinating, awesome and gross, depending on the kid). But right now I buy things clearly marked and wrapped in plastic wrap because as a beginner, I can only handle so much at once.

7. I stand at the cheese counter forever. When I still haven’t figured out how to order, I walk away. I’m definitely not doing the cheese counter correctly.

8. I’m tired. I had a friend once explain that when you are experiencing everything as new, your sense of time stretches. It feels like you live five days in the span of one. He was right. When everything is novel, my brain and body work hard to process it all but I have to live smaller, in slower chunks, and take time for silence and solitude to work through my daily experiences.

9. The familiar brings comfort. Last night we went to a club with a playground and green space. It’s for expats. Like exclusively. To be honest, it’s not the kind of place my husband and I like. But when you are beginning, sometimes you end up places you don’t love to take breaks that you need.

10. I repeat to myself, “In a year, I’ll be able to….” I tell my kids, “In a year, you’ll be able to…alone…or in Arabic…or without fear.” I tell my husband, “In a year, we’ll be…”. I hold out hope for what it will mean to not be such a beginner.

Right now we are beginners. It is good and necessary for now. Still I long for the skills I’ll have in a year, when I can order ground beef from a cow hanging on a hook in the window using words the butcher understands after I greet him appropriately for the time of day. I will have walked there without getting lost or I will have directed a taxi without needing to get out in tears (I’ll tell that story soon, I hope). Here’s to being a beginner.


The River

A five minute Tuesday, as I’ve missed several weeks of writing!

For the lunch hour, I hung suspended between my life then and my life now. And for a brief moment, I felt like I was home again.

What does one make when her bishop from Rwanda comes for lunch? I’ve never been to Rwanda but there was that moment when I was nineteen, when I looked out past the tarmac to Lake Victoria, breathed Africa in and felt alive like I had never before. There was a moment that becoming the hands and feet of Jesus to others radically different had nothing to do with desperation or poverty or guilt or anything except the overwhelming reality of life. Of joy. Of entering into the stream of God that brings only delight. All that can happen in an instant on portable stairs after two days in various airplanes and airports.

And it can happen again when the lilt of eastern and central Africa returns in the presence of one’s bishop. When the table is piled high with chicken stew and rice and beans and sweet potato and biscuits and bananas and chai. When the stories chronicled in that lilt make you think for days and wonder aloud with your husband about how Africa has changed you and if you’ve changed even the tiniest square inch of her with your presence.

Because it isn’t about where for me. Or even who. This ache that makes me weep to return to Africa is selfish is many ways. It is about joy. About a waterfall of grace that pours down like you can’t imagine in a desert. When our bishop knelt on our floor, we knelt with him. And he prayed for us. The best part? That he prayed again for God to give us our needs and protect us from our wants. “Don’t lead us to our wants, our Lord.” Please, Lord.

I want comfort and ease and peace and nothing. scary. ever. again. I want to forget how my five year old ended up in the corner last week crying, “They’re going to kill me tonight,” when the neighbor’s satellite TV repairman peaked in our front window in the dark. I want to forget what it was like to live with a panic room. I want to forget the rocks thrown. I want to forget the inconvenience. The running out of water. I want to always have hot running water. I want to think hot running water is an inalienable right. I want to live in a house that doesn’t accumulate dust in a week, much less by the end of a day—enough to write in on the floor. I want to avoid people radically different. I want everyone to think like me, talk like me, dress like me and accept that I want to run outside for no other purpose than running. (Except then I don’t want those things.) My wants go on and on.

Underneath them all is my deepest need. There is a river whose streams bring joy. I need to live by that river, wherever I live. That river flows across time zones and for me, it has always brought me with it to other places. My only need is drink my fill of the abundance of that river, to be drenched in the fountain of life wherever I live.

Lonely: Five Minute Friday

Five Minute Friday If you are new here, welcome! On Fridays I write with a community of those who love the written word and need to “just write, without worrying about getting it just right.” So we write for five minutes, without editing or over-thinking, and link up at Lisa-Jo Baker’s. Today’s prompt is lonely.

I awoke, startled, heart pounding with Hibo’s face only inches from mine. My husband was at school, teaching Level 3 grammar to students like Abdi-Waiss (who, no kidding, actually wrote “Your Name” on the top line of his exam when my husband told the students, “Write your name on the top line.” We miss Abdi-Waiss all the time.). I had dragged my mattress up to our flat roof where we slept when it was too hot and that first spring, it was always too hot.

I must have left the front door open and that might have piqued her interest. Or she knew my husband’s work schedule and she couldn’t help visiting when I might be alone. Whatever the reason, I awoke with her wide eyes and milk chocolate skin inches from my face. She told me, “I wanted to make sure you weren’t lonely.” So with adrenaline pumping and sweaty sleep marking my cheek, I sat up to reassure her that I wasn’t lonely.

I learned a whole new way of lonely in Cite Barwaqo. I had friends who confided in me that they hadn’t been alone in a room ever. In their whole lives. (They didn’t count being alone in the bathroom for a few moments.) So whenever I was home alone, they honored me with their visits. As an introvert, I often grumbled my way through the whole, “Who is it?” “It’s me!” conversation while I racked my brain for the voice that belonged to the “me” on the other side of the door. All I was really lonely for in those moments was a few moments alone.

Now I grow lonely in other ways. I’m lonely for neighbors who watch my door with such friendly intention that they knock precisely three minutes after I’ve been left alone. Lonely for sleeping under the stars and waking up one roof over from a strict Muslim man, both in our pajamas, both tacitly agreeing to pretend that we don’t see each other in the odd intimacy of the first moment awake while I grab a headscarf from next to my sleeping mat. Lonely for that dance of the market, surrounded by hundreds of people but not bumping or bumped. Lonely for afternoon snack time, the gorgeous laziness of a coastal desert culture waking up from an afternoon nap and needing something, anything to take away the taste of sleep. Lonely for life, really.

I live life here but I lived life there and so wherever I am, I have to hold open my hand to this loneliness that spills over. It never happens on Christmas morning in the Horn of Africa when my husband is supposed to work. Just like it doesn’t happen here on Eid. The small moments pierce me through. A whiff through the bus window that reminds me of August afternoons on the Long Island Sound in my dad’s 24 foot boat. The Sammy Youssouf track that pops up on iTunes and pulls me back to the life I’m not living at the moment, the life that is not on pause waiting for me either.

Belong: Five Minute Friday

I’m writing with Five Minute Friday at Lisa-Jo’s today–the only thing that gets me writing these days!

My husband remarked to me this last morning of a week with temperatures soaring past 90, “I figured out one way Africa changed me. Everyone at work makes fun of me because I don’t wear shorts. It’s not conscious. I just don’t even think of it.”

Lest I mislead anyone, plenty of people in plenty of places in Africa probably wear shorts. But my husband, whose best friends weren’t other ex-pats when he lived on the coast in Kenya, absorbed a way of thinking that he isn’t even aware of most days. I have too. Shorts on grown-men make me turn away, as if I spied something forbidden, or at least very uncomfortable.

I haven’t owned a pair of shorts since high school. I occasionally try to run in my husband’s shorts on really hot days. It’s a circus. They aren’t much shorter than my running capris anyway, I have to constantly readjust the drawstring waist and I always give up before I planned to. I relax with other mothers on the playground or at Toddler Time or at evening VBS and I put myself on edge as I compare: not only am I the only adult wearing jeans in 90 degree weather, I’m the only one in a three-quarter length sleeve shirt.

I am used to a semi-permanent state of un-belonging (I borrowed that from another FMF post!). Only when I choose to unbelong in the Horn of Africa, it’s obvious. One local friend was remarked about all my ex-pat friends: “Oh, her nose makes her look Arab,” “She looks Lebanese,” “She must be from such-and-such a place.” She claimed a closer belonging for each person than they really had; most were from America, Canada or Brazil. After going around the room, she stopped at me and said, “You look Arab from the back.” From the back, of course, I looked like one long swath of pink fabric, covered from head to toe. But there we could talk about my unbelonging, my different attempts to belong, my conscious choices to not belong. I made those decisions all day long; they were both wearying and exciting.

I often taste that bittersweet unbelonging here, only it isn’t obvious. So we don’t talk about it.

A friend prayed for me the best thing I’ve heard since I’ve been home here. She said something and then said, “While she’s away.” I have no idea what she was asking God to do while I was away but I felt profoundly understood. Most people say, “Welcome home!” and pray for great things “while I’m home.” On some days, I know I have no home. On other days, I have many homes. But right now, I am away.

Last Monday night fresh basil sprigs sat tall in a glass on my counter next to the sweetest watermelon we’ve had yet. In a flash of inspiration, I knew I needed to eat a basil leaf on top of my watermelon slice. If summer has a taste, that’s it. I’m sure that foodie blogs or Le Cordon Bleu knew that the combination could take my breath away but I had never tried it. (I asked the same praying friend to try it and she told me, “That just ruined my watermelon. I ate a leaf.” We are radically different people which is why I love her.) There is no obvious marriage between watermelon and basil. So it is with me. I am at home and away. I belong and I don’t. Others might notice and they might not. You wear shorts, and I avert my eyes. It is obvious and hidden. I am American and I took shape in Africa. I speak English and I speak Somali. I am watermelon and basil. The unlikely combination is perfectly me.

Five Minute Friday

Song: Five Minute Friday

It’s Friday again! Time to set the timer and see what happens. This one didn’t fly out of my fingers like normal so if it feels a little sloggy, it isn’t just you. It’s me.

The melody floated in the windows, soaring ahead of the dusty wind. In months of living in that neighborhood, with those friends, I had never heard it. The music was other. Different. Holy even. My husband nudged me and told me to go outside and see. The voices were female; his presence would silence them. I slid on a floor-length polyester slip and a large shawl to cover my hair, curly from the unlikely desert rain.

Mariam and two others were sitting on a poured concrete house foundation, with rebar sticking up and a variety of holes that made the platform slightly better than an obstacle course. They sang. They stopped a little with the sound of my metal door scraping across my tile entryway, then continued. I made my way down the dirty road a bit, hiked up my skirt and in truly American (read: extremely unladylike) fashion, took a seat with them.

What were they singing?

My question embarrassed them. A rain song. But one that was haram, forbidden. Although I don’t know much of orthodox Islam, my friends explained that their religion practiced correctly forbids music. They may chant, they can read their book, they can pray and call to prayer but no music. Not the music they were singing. Of course, they belong to a nation of poets and playwrights, of singers and songwriters. In this way, their faith does not enliven them but reduces them. This rain song—the most beautiful song I have ever heard—came from their inner most being, their very God-created hearts. I am certain of that.

I grieve for people who have lost their song.

I think of my own people: Western, modern or post-modern, Christianized. How we have lost our songs. How we allow Facebook and Spotify and iPods and someone else’s playlist drown out the music that is in our innermost being. How our discomfort with grief means that we have put away our dirges. How our inability to accept death means that we wash our hands and scurry away from the elderly who might teach us some new songs. I grieve for us, for myself, for the brokenness of this world that touches entire cultures, not just individuals. I grieve for people who have lost our song.

Five Minute Friday