Tag Archives: teaching

Press In

“Do you think we’ve visited long enough?” she asked me, quietly.  Flashed across my friend’s forehead was a wrinkle of concern.  I blinked back my surprise.

Full two hours earlier:  

Nine-year-old Hamza sprinted down the bannister-free stairs and into her arms.  “Miss Joanne!  Miss Joanne!”  His exuberance was equivalent to a winning goal-scorer in a World Cup finals match.

He seized her hand, leading his teacher– and me– proudly up to the second-story apartment (amidst her, “Be careful, Hamza– you don’t want to break your arm again on these stairs”), pausing at its broken-concrete threshold so we could slip off our shoes.  We entered in to kisses from mother, warm welcome from father, shy hello from sister.

Before we could sip the first cup of sweet tea, Hamza– from his position of love and honor at Joanne’s side– asked what they would be doing in school tomorrow.  “You have two more WEEKS of vacation,” Joanne laughed.

Hamza grinned.  “So what are we doing in two weeks?”

Last year, in a community center just a few hours away from my basement apartment, an informal “school” began with Joanne and three other teachers.  They provide free education to 30 displaced children, whose families dwell in apartments across this border town; the concrete of these homes is cold in the winter.  But it is better than the tents of the refugee camps, where most of them started out.  The war not only removed people from their native lands but also ravaged routines, like going to school.  So Joanne’s second-grade class includes students as old as 12.

Others have no place to go.  One mother arrived at the center on “registration day,” seeking help for her household, which included her 15- and 16-year-old daughters.  I asked if they were able to attend a school.  “They have not been in school for a year and a half– since we left home.”  She suddenly began to weep.  “Their future is gone.”

Just like I witnessed last summer, local leaders still fill trucks with mattresses, blankets, gas bottles, stoves, and now heaters.  Then they empty them, little by little, into the homes of the displaced.

IMG_4162One of the leaders, Baha, asked me to come with him for “distribution.”  Culturally, men should try to avoid going by themselves to a female-headed home (culturally, Baha also felt that as a woman i should not lift anything heavier than a blanket into the truck… but that’s a second story).  Many of those who registered for help, like the woman with the teenage daughters, have homes that fit this description; the husbands either remain in war-torn areas, or are dead.  So with another volunteer– to guard the truck while we were inside peoples’ houses– we headed out.

Since the temperatures had lowered in December, the sense of urgency had heightened.  During distribution, whenever we finished emptying a little bit of relief into one family’s home, several new families would gather around Baha to voice their requests.

Their cries would become more urgent, and their bodies press closer, as he climbed into the truck.  “Baha!” “Baha!”  I understood more of their stories than I had last summer: descriptions of the coldness of houses; urgent requests for Pampers or pills or preference over others already registered; reports of the number of children they had at home, in need…

Once in the cab, Baha did the opposite of my expectation: he rolled down the window.

He listened to each of them.  He recorded their needs and phone numbers in a notebook.  And he sang to himself as we drove away, mentally preparing to do it all over again at the next house… as he has been doing for four years.

Back at Hamza’s house, I tried to reassure Joanne that we had visited long enough.  She is hoping to see each of her students during school vacation.  But she knows that most families are not allowed to work; that they are separated from their relational networks; and that presence, that listening, matters.

So she takes her time.

How do you stay full inside when emptying yourself, over and over, into an ocean of want?  How do you listen when the stories pound like waves, individual surges of the same substance, over and over, threatening to wear down or drag under?

Hamza’s mother re-entered with a bag of spongey, pancake-shaped bread.  Half an hour more.  She filled a dish with thick cream and sugar.  Then she showed Joanne and me how to put a spoonful of filling in the middle of each pancake, crimping the edges by pressing them together.  “You have to seal it completely,” she cautioned us.

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My word for this year is “full.”  A week up by the border, and I am reminded that the only way to stay full is to press in deeply.

Because as I learned making this dessert… if you don’t fully press in, all you make is a mess.

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Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

i thank You God for most this amazing

E. E. Cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Riding in the passenger’s seat, in a borrowed convertible, studying the way sunlight slipped through the leaves on late-summer trees– leaves that were just beginning to hint yellow.

The lines from this poem tumbled forward in my mind, trying to express in small measure the glimpse of infinity given by that moment.  The moment passed.  And a few hours later, the memory still with me, I was boarding a plane to the Middle East, returning home after two weeks with friends and family on the U.S. East Coast.

Landed in Rome, with a ten hour layover and an objective: to see the Sistine Chapel.  On the way, though, I feasted my eyes on hall after hall of sculptures, tapestries, and paintings in the Vatican Museum, recognizing a few but most unfamiliar to me.  The arrangement displayed the art of ages, showing certain pieces’ connections to the broader stories of Rome, the church, and art– some of them grievous and some great.

For example, the 2,000 year old Belvedere Torso.  Perhaps the five-hundredth sculpture I had laid eyes on that day, but its story held me.

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Michelangelo, they say, took this sculpture into his studio.  He sketched it from every angle for more than a year, and called it the greatest masterwork of sculpture known to humanity.  Armless, legless and headless– for him, it was the source of inspiration from which he would create many of his own works, including dozens of the figures in the Sistine Chapel.

When the reigning pope ordered him to complete the missing pieces of the sculpture, Michelangelo refused.  “It is perfect,” he said.

Friends gave counsel like Michelangelo’s stance on the Belvedere, as I prepared to return to the Middle East: Focus on what is present.  Draw inspiration from it.  Make something new, don’t replace what has already been let go.

I feel sometimes like I’m missing appendages– like parts of me have been severed, leaving me awkward and off-balance.  I am marred by what I don’t possess and trying desperately to replace, to be made whole, making the false assumption that the core cannot be completely beautiful if significant pieces are still missing.

I was resolved to see with different eyes when I came back.  I would focus on the beauty of the present, practice gratitude, smile, enjoy the good stuff and the hard stuff…. It lasted approximately one and a half days.  I still miss my missing pieces.  I still hope for being whole.  I still long to see the restoration of peace here.

On day two, I went to the university.  “We would like you to teach American & British Poetry this semester,” they said.  “Your class begins tomorrow.”  So I began searching for the greatest works, the most beautiful poems of the English language.

And I quickly found that these works connect with both the core and the missing pieces.

Poetry gives expression to the things that are incommunicable through everyday language and structure.  In our first class, we discussed Langston Hughes’ “Dreams.”  A beautiful poem of perseverance, hope, and ambition, is it not?  I rob my students of the depth of his work if I don’t tell them about the context– of the author as an African-American in the early-mid 1900’s, of the racism that exists today.  My students receive the challenge to “hold fast to dreams,” not only when the sun shines, but also in the face of injustice.

And as I return to life here, I can’t ignore the pieces that are broken, or backwardly attempt to recreate what has been.  Instead, will I allow both the beauty and the brokenness inspire me, to be part of making something new?

Sunlight is streaming through the date and fig trees, outside my basement here.  A different view.  But I still say, with E. E. Cummings,

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

 

 

 

 

Connections

I’m starting to see the connections.  For example, the Arabic word meaning to remain with is connected to the word for to sit down.  I get that.  A word that starts as discussion can easily become the word for argument.  Makes sense.

And one of the words for working out also means… math?

That one, I asked my teacher to clarify.  She grinned at my puzzled expression. “Of course: exercise for your body… or exercise for your mind!”

My mind is getting a lot more exercise than my body this summer, as community center activities take a hiatus and I sit with language teachers, studying word connections and sipping sweet coffee.   So I decided to borrow a work-out DVD from one of my housemates.  I’ve seen fit college athletes nurse aching limbs after one of these workouts: 30 Day Shred.

Jillian Michaels, the coach, reminds me daily: “You want change.  To get that, you’ve got to endure stress…. That’s how change happens.” (Did I mention that in Arabic, the word to beat/to hit someone is connected to the word to coach?)

Rob Reimer is a professor and pastor, and a person experienced in endurance of tough things.  His teaching “hits me”/coaches me even from across an ocean.  The truth is that amidst the summer stillness, I am restless for resolution– resolution of conflict in this region, of sadness of loved friends, and of longings in my own soul.  Reimer reminds me, “…this time between the promise and the delivery of the promise is the most critical time in the life of the people of God.  It is the “in between time.'” (Pathways to the King).

I wasn’t sure I had a story this week.  I am in between spring and fall semesters at the university, between Ramadan and the re-opening of the center,  between being green and being seasoned, between hearing the promises and being able to grasp them with my hands.  And tension resides.  My instinct with this tension is the same as my instinct with Jillian Michaels’ Shred video: I want a different way, I want to get out of it.  But stress builds change often, or at least creates the opportunity for it.  And I’m beginning to see the connection.

Here in the in-between, I spend my days studying Arabic and “shredding,” throwing away last semester’s worksheets to make way for new students, organizing my apartment to prepare for leaving it this fall to live a month with a local family… While I can see the end coming quickly to this in-between schedule, I don’t know when the resolutions promised will come.

Reimer says that, in the in-betweens, people face three major challenges:

  • trying to make things happen via our own resources
  • listening to competing voices (counter to what He says)
  • quitting

So instead I am waiting with arms stretched wide, with one side reaching toward the promises I’ve been given in the past, and the other stretching into hope for the days that remain to be seen; and with whole self here, present.  Sometimes there is pain in the stress.  But Rob and Jillian agree…

This stretch brings about change.  And it’s there that I get ready for new opportunities, which I saw take place even yesterday… although that is a second story.  For now, I’ll just say, holding arms wide open leaves me ready, giving or receiving, for an embrace.

 

 

 

 

Reference Point. Or…The Dinosaur in the Hallway.

There is a dinosaur in the university.10342460_10203321969786695_2019027340608404385_n

Silver-spiked, short-armed, long-clawed. A protruding forked tongue. Eyes that are surprisingly mellow, belying his sharp fangs and reaching fingers.

I went to the university yesterday with my sister. I had asked her to come with me to meet some of the other teachers and my students, while I quickly handed in my grades for the semester. But trying to function in a language/university system that are still somewhat strange to me, my “quickly” translated into an hour and a half.

When we finally left the teachers’ office, I pointed at it. “See that?” I said to my sister. Her response: “Why?”

“I don’t know why there’s a dinosaur in the hallway. But let’s take a selfie.”

We took a picture and hurried in the other direction, before anyone could ask us what we were doing. As we left the university, I told her that the dinosaur had one other purpose. “Every hall here looks the same,” I said. “Nothing is hanging on the walls; the dinosaur tells me I’m going in the right direction.”

A point of reference keeps me steady in uncertain days. My dear friend, Zaina, approached me at the community center this past Sunday, after our fitness class. “I’m leaving in one week,” she said, the tears in her eyes belying the calm tone of her voice. “My husband has decided we need to go sooner than I thought.” Zaina and her family came because of conflict in their home country, and though she is afraid of going back, her loyalty to her husband is stronger than her fear.

Zaina’s friendship has been a point of reference for me, letting me know I am heading in the right direction. We ask each other questions and talk about dreams for the future; she lets me practice the stories I learn in Arabic. Her English fluency allows deeper conversations than I can have with many others yet, and she has become one of my closest friends.

When I said goodbye to Zaina, I gave her a book that has been a point of reference for me. “These are poems, mostly written by King David– he experienced war and loss. But he found steadiness in his faith.” I showed her the first one, and she read it aloud, in Arabic. “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water…”

Zaina’s plans changed; she will be here for a few more weeks. In the meantime, she is collecting notes from the people who marked her life here, words she can reference when this season ends. She gave me a note, as well. “I noticed the foreigner, but I didn’t know when I first laid eyes on you,” she wrote, “that you would be a friend who stays with me wherever I go.”

Some points of reference develop through time. Some through investment and effort. And some are given to us, as surprisingly and swiftly as a dinosaur in the hallway.

Fragile Phrases

I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.

My students would write “inspirational quotations.”  After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas.  They would read and explain them in front of the class.

Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations.  Those were powerful times, charged with energy.  We would taste that here… I thought.

My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational.  Same, familiar words.  The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty.  But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.

…I thought.

Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:

  • a smattering of dialects
  • a few different textbooks
  • a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
  • and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.

One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories.  My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly.  I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.

When I succeed… I start the story.  I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men.  In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna.  To me, this word tastes like mercy.  It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.

Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language.  I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English.  I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.

Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively.  I let every word sink deep.  And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are.  They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.

I’m learning to be like them.  The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends.  The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing.  I savor it well when I share it.  My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.

Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first.  We are both still searching for words.  But that search itself helps to give us something to say.

 

 

Not to be Captured

2014-01-11 14.44.25Writing usually evokes the thoughts and events that have been percolating in the back of my mind.  But there are so many right now, it’s hard to decide what to put out here.

Should I write about my first attempt to speak Arabic, when my listener gently replied– in English– that she was from the Philippines and doesn’t speak Arabic?

Or of the women who make jewelery at the center, part of a “small business” enterprise.  Upon our second meeting, these motherly and grandmotherly women began calling me “habibti,” a local term of love and affection.  They teach me Arabic, show me how to roll paper beads from recycled magazines, and feed me quantities of green olives and hummus.

Or maybe I should write about the fun couple from the US who has had me in their home–twice– in the past week, expressing their commitment to helping me settle in.  The map that he made, and the cheesecake she made, were very welcome.  The intentional questions they asked, even more welcome!!

On the other hand, I could tell of writing an e-mail to a friend in Pennsylvania, and of crying as I answered her question about how my last week in the US had been.  Everyone loved, encouraged, expressed appreciation, and blessed me greatly.  My family & dear friends have sent me well.  And I miss them.

I could write about seeing a refugee child selling peanuts on the street, long after dark.

I could write about the eyes of a young woman from the same area, distant and guarded until a smile came her way.  Unbelievably quickly, the look of caution fled, and her face lit up with her own brilliant smile.

I could write about teaching my first-ever English class yesterday, and explaining to a crowded room of students what the words “hope” and “confidence” mean.  “Optimism”– we talked about that, too.

I could write about my first venture into the desert– a beauty unique from any others.  But I don’t think words could capture any of it.