“Are you zombies!?”
She laughed at her joke, while I found the right words to explain myself. I had attempted to tell my host mom about Thanksgiving in America, and had concluded with, And we eat our families.
Which would make you zombies, she had delightedly pointed out. Missed one important word. With. I re-stated it in Arabic: “We eat WITH our families.”
No, I am not a zombie. But after living with a host family, wrestling with Arabic from before I got out of bed in the morning, I sometimes felt like I was. My host mom would say, “Come with me to…” and I would obediently follow, even if I didn’t understand the destination. My delayed understanding often manifest itself through blank stares, slow reaction times, and silly misunderstandings. The parents were usually quiet during the day and emerged at night; often that just looked like all of us sitting in the same room, occupied with our own projects.
Sometimes it meant shopping runs or social visits. On one of these, they asked me, “Do you like to eat …?” And since it sounded vaguely like a vegetable I had once, and I’ve liked almost everything here, I enthusiastically responded with yes– only to find out it was the one food I have yet to find palatable in any country.
When I actually understood all the words spoken, sometimes I still had to confess that I had missed their meaning. To understand, in depth or in daily rhythms, requires more than translation. Words are not sufficient.
Mary experienced something that was communicated in words from angels, signaled by a star, witnessed by shepherds; it was a story strong enough to change the way we mark time. Those shepherds– secondary characters in most Nativities– hurried off to tell what they had seen. But she, who was as close as anyone could humanly be to the center of the story, kept her lips sealed. Even modern music lists questions we’d like Mary to answer: How much did you understand? Mary, did you know?
She had no speaking lines that night.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Shortly before I moved to the Middle East, my friends/teachers Chuck and Ingrid prayed blessings over me. Chuck’s words were authoritative, asking for empowerment and discernment; my soul affirmed them. Ingrid, however, blessed me to be like Mary, to treasure things and ponder them in my heart. No, I resisted quietly. I don’t want to be like Mary.
I want to tell the stories. I want to be understood.
In English class yesterday, my students were describing what was needed for a famous regional food, mansaf. First, fermented yogurt. Nuts. Spices. Meat. Rice. A thin, platter-sized piece of bread. Do we need anything else?
Omar answered: “People.”
An essential ingredient of some stories is their retelling. I could be tempted to keep quiet for fear of being misunderstood. But these are the stories that give life, and just as no one would think of eating mansaf alone, I cannot hold these stories to myself; I invite others to share them.
But the “sharing shepherd” is the easier of the roles for me. During the two weeks with my Arab family, there were cultural miscommunications, deep talks, awkward moments… but the hardest part was the silence. Sitting together, presence assured and pressure off, not much in the way of words.
And those stretching times were what made the difference between “visiting” and “living with.”
So I remember Ingrid’s prayer, that I can become a person who knows how to sit in silence. With others. With myself. With my God. Treasuring the moments that don’t need to be commonly understood or retold, at least not yet.
And pondering them in my heart, I say, Amen.