Tag Archives: basement

Last Question

Sixty girls sat on the floor in front of me, wrapping up their conversations from snack break, nudging each other.  They were settling in for one final hour– for this semester– in the Young Leaders program.

They will take three months off for summer.  But they know that before every significant break, and after every meaningful activity, comes one thing: a debriefing.

Usually this means that we direct questions to them, draw out their reflections, and delineate how the lessons inside this mentoring program should apply to life outside.  Some friends had inspired me to turn this around… So this time, we invited them to ask us about anything they wanted to know.

Teachers handed out slips of paper and pencils.  Students scribbled words in English or Arabic, whichever they felt more comfortable with, and passed their notes forward.  And we read their anonymous wonderings:

Why do girls fall in love so often at this age?

Why is the Young Leaders Program free?

Why do individuals like to say words that hurt other people?

Why don’t people care about what I feel?

How do I overcome the fear that controls me?

Why is everyone more beautiful than me?

 What existed before God created the universe?

How did Obama become president when there are so many racists?

Every week, a goodbye party takes place.

Departures and transitions often feature heavily in the months of May and June, but this year extraordinarily so.  Some are short-term goodbyes to long-term friends, heading to the States just for the summer.  A few are long-term goodbyes to several-month friends.  These volunteered for a season with our programs, but now must return to participate in grad programs, or weddings, or next steps.  They also must learn to give skinny answers to the fat question, “How was your time out there?” in order to squeeze it into a listener’s attention span.

Frequently featured at these goodbye parties are the questions: “What is something about _____ that you appreciate?” and  “What’s a funny story about ______?”

For one volunteer, Stephanie, several of us came up with the same answer.  Stephanie had gone with the Young Leaders girls to a bird observatory, when a two-hour nature walk among ducks and eagles and gulls had concluded with a surprise visit from a television crew.

They wanted to film the students and some interviews, but I protested– we would need pre-arranged permission from our organization.  They argued; our guide, eager for the promotion of his observatory, was beginning to lose face in front of both his visitors and the TV crew.  We would dishonor him by a refusal.  So we agreed to let them interview only adults, and they requested that both Arabs and Americans participate.

Smiling, southern-born Stephanie had been attentive to the girls all morning, her Arabic advanced enough for good questions and greetings, but not for the guide’s description of the birds we had seen or their habits.  She agreed to the interview, in order to help us out.

Stepping in front of the camera, several teachers and students watching her, and Ramsey at her side to translate, she colored a little.  “I’ve never done an interview,” she said in her Arkansas accent.

The interviewer asked how she had liked the bird observatory, and if she had visited before.  And then the simple question: “What kinds of birds did you see?”

Stephanie turned slightly pinker.  The names had all been given in Arabic.  She knew she had recognized many types of birds, but could recall nothing except the fact that people were staring at her and there was a camera and the whole thing was being translated. The question was asked a second time.

Maybe Ramsey can make this sound specific, she hoped, and smiled sweetly.  “Oh, we saw all kinds of birds.  Big birds and small birds, black birds and white birds…” she drawled. “Yellow birds and red birds, really pretty birds.  Lots of nice birds.”

Ramsey smothered his laughter long enough to translate her words– exactly.  Stephanie’s description of the birds may not have made the local news, but it went down at the center as a legend, retold with the echo of Stephanie’s amiable laughter in our ears, and her distinctive Southern accent describing the birds and protesting afterwards, “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say!”

When recently I took a trip to the US, I was met by friends and family, and supervisors and strangers, with the same question, one that made me pause. Sometimes it is easier to articulate answers to Middle Eastern teenagers about discrimination, personal value, the origin of the universe, and love-sick hearts, than to answer the well-intentioned inquiry: “How are you?”

  • In under three weeks, my housemates will leave permanently, a long-term goodbye from long-term friends.
  • In a little more than three weeks, the center will close for a season due to the approach of Ramadan, the fasting month, and other local and foreign coworkers will travel.
  • In two and a half weeks, I will move into a friend’s apartment for the summer, and later I’ll move again, to the second story of this home, with a different housemate.

Ask a new volunteer to describe the habits of sparrowhawks and storks in Arabic, and you’ll know what my answer to “How are you?” is like.

I am looking forward to breathing fresher air above, but I will miss my basement-turned-garden-level apartment.

I am holding on to hope, but I am letting go of loved people, routines, and places.

It is good, and it is hard.

Simplistic answers which satisfy some.  But they don’t fit the situation any more than the Dead Sea fits into a water bottle.

We asked the girls to give one another answers.

Hands shot up around the room.  “Comparing yourself with others isn’t worthwhile.”  “Do things even when you are afraid.”  “Martin Luther King, Jr. and others helped change peoples’ thinking.”

These aren’t answers so much as starting places; they will move forward and backward, believing and disbelieving, adding questions to questions and finding that the empty spaces of silence can be as significant as speech… or more valuable.

Basements have been comfortable starting places for me– I lived in one for three and a half years in New York, then two and a half more in the Middle East.  Perhaps the only way to summarize my answer to the last question is this:

I am about to begin a new story.

Breathing in the Basement

Flowers on the table.  And two envelopes.  The first was a list of memories, from my dad, and the second was a story, from my mom.  Neither she nor I had been very comfortable on the day in question, but she remembers it— vividly— and I do not.

My birthday.IMG_7773

Friends in the Middle East had contacted my family in Maine, to get suggestions on how to celebrate this day’s anniversary with me.  They had taken responsibility for delivering the flowers and notes from my parents.  Later, they pulled out a cake glowing with candles— trick candles, a couple dozen of them, plus extra until they achieved the correct number.

How did you know?  I asked, when the smoke had cleared and I could see the cake itself.

It was a household favorite, only eaten on birthdays.  But I hadn’t thought of one, much less mentioned it to them, in time within memory.

My friends shrugged in a downplay of their own thoughtfulness. But I learned later, the “favorite cake” tip had been sought out, arranged after advice from my family.

A fresh perspective welcomed my thirty-second year.  Those who helped me to celebrate were mostly unknown to me six months earlier, and the view they gave me was definitely “second story,” and beautiful.  A midnight picnic at the Red Sea with international coworkers.  Sweet gifts from the hearts of the ones I love.  A surprise scuba diving trip– first time!– from one of the teachers at our community center.  More flowers, and a heavily accented rendition “Happy Birthday,” from sixty students in Young Leaders.

But sometimes returning to the basement is the only way to put the panorama in context.

I say basement— my housemate (a former real estate agent, and who’s family is among the few I have known for some time) says “garden level apartment.”  It is underground on three sides.  But no matter what he calls it, when the conversation is over, I descend the stairs down, down to the home’s foundation.  To a place both close and cozy.

Sometimes, as I sit in this basement, I simply feel closed in and limited in perspective.  I want the breathing room of the second story.  I want to peel back layers of soil until I reach it, but the result would only be dirty hands.  Exhaustion.

I cannot change this.  

—–

My mother’s life verse to me, which she told me two decades ago, comes from the exclamation of an impossibly pregnant old woman to an impossibly pregnant young woman.  I love the promise it holds.  “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”  It rings in my mind often as I hold out for promises made that are yet to be fulfilled.

A couple of days after birthday celebrations, I felt drawn to read the beginning of this story, to go down, down to its foundations.  Earlier in the chapter, before she got any affirmation from a human voice, Mary listened to heaven make a promise of something unexpected.

Something scandalous.  Something impossible.  Something desperately needed by the whole world.  Her question in reply: How?

—–

Sometimes I fight to see promises fulfilled: for the area in which I live now, for my beloved family and friends, for my life.  Work harder, perform higher, plan with more discernment.  Love more, listen more, speak less and with more discernment.  Have more friends, since many of those who were here this year may not be next year, and choose who from your local and foreign community to spend time with… with more discernment.  

But trying to fulfill promises through these mean efforts only results in a mess.  In exhaustion.

I cannot control this.

Then I think about how the promise given to Mary was fulfilled, not because of her capability, but because of the power of the One Most High, who overshadows the limitations of the ones like me.  So I return to the foundations.

Like on my birth day, I could not cry until I could breathe.  And I could not breathe until I got released from the cord around my neck.  My mother recalls her own breathlessness in waiting for this, her joy when I finally let out a wail.

Sometimes when we go to the basement (or garden-level apartment) of the soul, to remember the promises we have been given and the foundational identity upon which our lives are built, there are tears as well as laughs.  And that is okay.  We can relax our hands and renew our hopes, because He is the one who is powerful, and the basement perspective is limited but the promises still hold on.  We are, crying or laughing, still taking breaths.

So I cannot keep from hoping.  

Because the promises in the basement– even the ones yet unfulfilled– are sweeter than a chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.
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Tears. Discomfort. Foolishness. Blessing.

The chicken brought tears to my eyes.  A sister in the family, the one who had cooked the feast in front of us, held up her nine-month-old baby boy.  “He has never seen his homeland,” she said.

The floor mats, on which we sat, were printed with the letters “UNHCR”– the UN Refugee Agency.  The family fled to this city to find some respite from the war, but here they are not permitted to work, struggle to get their kids in schools, and strive each month to pay unfair, high rental costs.

And as the sun set, its soft shades visible from the second-story landing we visited, they spread out a sumptuous meal to honor their guests.  Chicken, tabbouleh, soup, rice.  All prepared with exquisite culinary expertise and offered with hospitable hearts, constant guideposts amidst the crises of war, poverty, and grief.

Earlier that week, a friend and mentor had sent me these words from a Franciscan blessing:

May you hear the whisper of God’s Fatherly voice guiding you to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family of faith.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so that you will reach out your hand to them and turn their mourning into joy.

May God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.

And, May you know the love, joy and freedom that is your inheritance as the children of the Living God. Amen.

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Community of the displaced, outside town.

A local pastor fills a truck with small stoves, blankets, mattresses, other relief items…. and a handful of foreign guests.  We leave supplies at a few apartments– some decent, some dark.  We bring other supplies to tents on the outskirts, tasting the same dust that blows into the faces of those who live there.

Then we stop at a pile of concrete walls with a roof.  It may be a house someday, but for now its floor is rubble, its windows and doors empty holes.  A dusty, broken couch, floor mats, a woman, and five children occupy one room.  A mother of seven lives in the other.

The second woman is on our distribution list for the day.  Her oldest, a ten-year-old boy, silently helps carry “welcome kit” items to the room where his family sleeps.  Their neighbor was not on the list for today, but when we start unloading supplies for her too, the boy helps– he is bigger, after all, than the oldest of her five children.

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“Welcome Kit” supplies for distribution to refugees.

 “We have only been outside the camp for two days,” the boy’s mother told me.  “It was a bad situation.  Much illness, very little water, very little food.  I was afraid.”  She is thin and tall.  And she is determined.  “I will be renting an apartment soon,” she says.

The women kiss my cheeks and we say goodbye with the blessing of this culture: “God be with you.”  I climb in the back of the truck and have nothing left to say.

On the bus ride home to my cozy basement, just a few hours distance, I try to understand what He said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… those who mourn… the poor.”

I remember the rest: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify God…”

And if, after meeting these displaced families, I am more uncomfortable, angrier at injustice, and crying more over the pain of this world, I hope I can also be a little more of a “fool”– believing, no matter how dark the night seems to be, that there is hope of bringing that light.