Thursday, December 31, 2009

Drunken Revelry

New Year's Eve, it seems, is a universally accepted reason to get smashing drunk in all cultures across the world. At least, the villagers celebrated it this way - or, I should say, the men did. And some kids, who snuck into their fathers' or uncles' private stashes of home-brew. Women abstained from alcohol, preferring to sit around and gossip about their men and neighbors as they smoked their hand rolled cigarettes.

Hanging out with the women.

On this particular New Year's Eve, the hut behind us was hosting a giant party. Jugs of coconut toddy, carefully collected and fermented for months, were hauled out of their hiding places for general consumption. The men of the clan assembled on mats in a large circle, and passed a ceramic mug around it, in a riotous game of hot-potato. Each man would swig the entire contents of the mug, refill it, and hand it to his neighbor. Who would repeat the process, and around and around they went. All the while, Bellamy Brothers' ''Redneck Girl" was blaring at full volume from the boom box, wavery and distorted from the tape's many repeated playings, and from the corrosive effects of the salty, tropical air.

"Gimme, gimme, gimme a redneck girl!" sang the speakers. I sat with my friend, Valena, at a safe distance from the drinkers, watching to see if anything exciting would break out. We were soon rewarded for our patience.

A young man named Nani stood up waveringly. He stumbled a few feet from the circle of revelers, then looked around confusedly. A few brave kids darted up to him, jeered, then ran quickly into the bushes.

"Hey!" he shouted, angering. "Where is that Kopeala? Where is he? I'm going to get him!"

Nani started to lurch down the path between the houses, searching drunkenly for Kopeala, who had apparently done something, some time in the past to piss him off. Nani obviously thought it was a big deal, now. We were delighted. Watching the drunks, for us village kids, was as mesmerizing as the newest video game is for kids who were blessed to grow up in more civilized countries. This would provide entertainment now, and fodder for conversation and gossip for weeks.

Staying a safe distance away, Valena and I followed along in the increasingly large crowd of kids as Nani stumbled through the village. "Nani! Go home!" a woman called at him from her doorway. "You're being stupid!" He roared in anger at her, and kept on his way. Spying an axe leaning against a nearby hut, Nani grabbed it and quickened his pace. We now formed a large circle around him, a thick wall of brown bodies moving with him but well away from the sharp blade he now carried.

Nani came to a stop in front of a hut, apparently Kopeala's. "Come out here, Kopeala! I'm going to kill you!" He swayed and we watched breathlessly. "Kopeala!!!" he roared. And swung the axe through the air for good measure. The momentum caused him to loose his balance, and he stumbled drunkenly to one side. The crowd gasped. Some boys started to laugh at him, which angered Nani even more and caused him to turn on his spectators. "Go away, you kids!" he yelled. "I'm gonna get you, too!" He started to run towards the closest perimeter (thankfully opposite from where Valena and I stood), and swung his axe at the scattering kids.

It was like watching a flock of pigeons take off as a dog runs towards them. Kids dispersed in every direction but up, disappearing between houses, around trees, out to the open beach nearby. Valena grabbed my hand and we took off, our bare feet pounding the the dirt as adrenaline shot its intoxicating serum into our veins.

We finally stopped when we reached Valena's house, laughing and talking the adventure over between gasping breaths. "Did you see him?!" I laughed.

"Yeah, what an idiot. Kopeala isn't even on the island right now," Valena giggled, leaning against the hut's exterior post.

Some braver kids (who had stayed around to watch the rest of the action) came by a little later, and gave us the report.

"Nani eventually dropped the axe, and then some men rushed in and restrained him," Lio said. "They took him into the men's hut, and he's asleep there now."

This is how I decided, at an early age, to not ever drink to the point of getting wasted. I didn't want to look like a complete fool.

Friday, December 25, 2009


At high tide, when the ocean is full and sated , it rubs its belly gently up the shore and down again as it takes deep, satisfied breaths. The swells are slow and gentle, the water stretched smooth over the undulating peaks and valleys. Standing in the middle of this expanse, the sea encompasses you in its warm womb. It will slowly rise up your chest, caress your neck, and eventually lift you off your feet. If you don't struggle, and just rest in the liquid placidity, you will find yourself suspended for a few moments in the kind embrace. Then, it will gently set you back on your feet again, and recede back down your body with a slight pulling. You can ride the rise and fall, push and pull rhythm of it if you relax into it.

Mourning, I've discovered this week, is like that. At first, the swells come swiftly one after the other, and you find yourself constantly in a state of uncontrolled limbo, where your heart is crumpled, tears seep from your eyes, and you can't think of anything else but the one you lost. But as time passes, the swells come slower and more gently. You spend periods of time when the water's low, and you can see out around you. You laugh. You go through your day, fulfilling your duties with some contentment. But then, you feel the swell creeping up again. Slowly, it rises over your heart until it's encompassed your head. You realize again the magnitude of what you've lost. You float there a little, completely overcome by the grief, and then it slowly begins to recede again. Ebb and flow. Push and pull. Rise and fall. Relax in it, allow it to run its course. Don't fight the rhythm.

Why don't we talk about grief? Why have I never heard about this process? What is it in our culture that causes us to put on sad, smilingly stoic faces and say, "I'm fine. They're in a better place." They might be in a better place, but does that mean we can't mourn the 'might have been'? What's so wrong about expressing the grief that overwhelms our hearts? Do we even know how to express it?

On the island, when somebody dies, the whole village knows it. Siblings, in laws, kin from every branch of the family tree gather together in the little grass hut to mourn over the body. For three days, their wailing permeates the village. Nobody else in the entire settlement is allowed to talk above a low murmur, out of respect for the mourners. You can literally hear the waves of sorrow washing over the hut. Cries of "Alohai-e, kaukama-e" will rise to crescendo and then fall again for three days and nights, until the spirit of the dead departs from its body.

My first experience with this was during our first year in Luaniua. I heard the wild cries, and asked a friend what they were about. My friend took me by the hand, and brought me to the house of the mourners to see for myself.

The hut, small and squat like all the huts that huddle together to form the village, was distinguished by the large crowd of people spilling out of it. Everyone was turned inwards, towards the heart of the hut. Most of the people on the outside were quiet and somber, but I could hear from the inside the rise and fall of shrieks of sadness.

My friend led me to where two mats in the wall had come apart a little, forming an opening to see into the inside. I peeked in through this portal, into the dark sadness that permeated it. It was wall-to-wall people in the one, simple room. A dark form was laid on a mat in the center, and women were bent all around the body, prostrating themselves over and over again above it.

"Oh, flesh of my flesh! Alohai! My deepest heart mourns you! Oooo we will not hear your name spoken again! Never again will we hear someone calling as you pass by! Oooooo heart of my heart! Alohai! Alohai-e! My very deepest heart mourns!"

The combined cries of all the people packed into the crowded structure created a tidal wave of emotion that erupted from the little shelter and radiated out over me, my friend, and the entire village beyond. It hit me like a blunt pole in the center of my chest, and I staggered away from my peep hole.

For three days we were reminded that the family mourned. Their cries echoed over the coconut trees, floated on the smoke laden breeze, and crescendoed as the sun went down. As the days passed, however, the intervals of despairing tears were separated by longer and longer periods of quiet. By the time the third day had passed and the body was buried in a grave beyond the boundaries of the village, a quiet tiredness had replaced the high waves of hysteria. From then on, mourning took place in silence of the lonely cemetery.

Village girls, on their way down the path towards the graves.

I experienced this many other times during the course of my time on Luaniua. Once, it was my father's best friend. Once, it was my best friend's father. Death was a part of life in this community where the difference between this life and the next could be the matter of one 'simple' infection. Perhaps it was the thinness of the veil that prompted the people of that culture to mourn so fiercely. Or perhaps I am romanticizing it. There was a definite hopelessness and despair after death. They did not have the 'hope of glory' like we do. And yet I cannot help but wish we are a little more like them, in their freedom to express their grief.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Roses are Red

There was something about the whiteness of the sand. Its purity under the cold, grey New Mexican sky was clean, sterile, an open blankness that I could lose myself in. Forget myself in for a moment. The happy chatter of my children and good-natured banter between my husband and siblings were absorbed into the white vastness, buffered by the enormity of the white sands stretching for miles around us. I stood alone, at the edge of a dune. I looked out at the black spots of people silhouetted against the rises beyond mine. I wondered if I looked like a little black spot to them, or if they could distinguish the red hoodie that I wore...

Red stands out against white.

It shouts like an accusing stain of fear when you see it on the toilet paper, when you're pregnant. Newly pregnant. For four weeks Scott and I had celebrated with friends the impending third addition to our little family. The morning before I went to buy the pregnancy test, Scott rolled over in bed and said, "Good morning, Preggo! How's little Rose?"
"Whatever," I mumbled. That comment completely came out of left field. Surely I would start any day now - the tidal wave of emotions I'd been feeling lately were just hormones, a signal that it was almost 'that time of the month'. It's normal to cry at Elmo, right?

Hours later, I came incredulous and filled with joy out of the Walgreen's women's bathroom, with a little pink stick in my hand. I found Scott lingering in the toy aisle with Sophie and Alexander.

"Well?" he turned to me.

"It's positive!" I couldn't wipe the silly grin off my face. The rushing thrill of 'here we go again!', the feeling of cresting the precipice of a new roller coaster ride came sweeping over us. We were ecstatic. A love immediately flooded our hearts for this little child. The love was more immediate and real than what we had experienced with either of our previous children. This little one would be special. We already had her name - Rose, the name God had placed on my husband's heart like a promise that morning. Our little flower.
Four weeks later, I discovered the red stain on the toilet paper. After a long phone conversation with the OB nurse, I was consoled that first trimester bleeding was common, as long as it wasn't accompanied by cramps, or heavy flow, the baby was OK. Etc. Etc. And so on. Scott and I prayed together. My siblings and I prayed together. I called my parents overseas and they prayed for me and Rose. I was overwhelmed by a peace flooding my soul. It was the undercurrent of my entire day, carrying me along, soothing my anxious heart, lapping reassurance and rest around me.

I went to bed that night so surrounded in God's presence that I fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow. I had expected to dream nightmares, but I slept peacefully, soundly and securely curled up in my Father's palm. I knew that wherever we went together, He would take care of me.

At 4:30 that morning I woke up to wetness between my legs. I lay for a quiet second in my bed, asking myself if I wanted to discover what I thought I might discover if I turned the light on, or if I wanted to sleep a few more hours in unknowing oblivion. I decided I wanted to know. For sure. "Whatever Your will is, Lord, let it be resolved tonight. Don't make me wait, please, not knowing," had been my prayer before I went to sleep hours earlier.

In the bathroom, I felt something pass from me. I picked it up, and held it delicately in my hand. What had been Rose lay there in my palm, red and alien. I sat numbly on the bathroom floor for several minutes, staring at the redness in my hand, saying goodbye to my daughter, letting the reality sink in. This was knowing. For sure. There was no doubt. You don't just pass something like this and go on being pregnant. Please, Lord Jesus, take care of her. She was Yours before, and she is really Yours now, running unhindered with You in fields of glory. I watched little rivulets of blood drop between my fingers. Red staining the white. It was messy. Ugly. An ugly, messy splotch against the pristine sterility of the porcelain bathroom and my pale skin.

When I finally crawled back into bed next to Scott, I still hadn't cried. I didn't think I would.
"Wow, I sure am taking this well," I thought detachedly.

My husband woke up and asked, "Are you OK, sweetheart?" The love in his voice opened the floodgates in my heart, and I began to sob.
"I ... we ... we lost the baby," I managed to choke out.

"Oh, honey, come here," and he enveloped me in his arms. The sorrow came then. The tears were ready and abundant. I cried as the inner me crumpled into a little, rumbled, tender heap onto the dark floor of my heart. My body was just a shaking shell, and I held the hand that had held my baby close to my heart as my husband held me close to his. We cried together there in the darkness before dawn. We mourned our little Rose, for whom God had already given us such a love. My heart had already pictured how she would be (gentle, loving, sweet, delicate), and how she would fit into our family. How she would enrich and widen the circle of love. The waves of sorrow washed over us in the warm darkness, and our Father held us in His arms as we clutched each other, His tears mingling with ours.

The next morning, I wanted to be with my family. I wanted my babies close, and I did not want to be in the house. We packed up kids and adults, and drove out to the White Sands National Monument, about 20 minutes outside of town. The stark, barren whiteness provided a blank space for me to rest a little from the garment of sorrow that had draped itself over my soul. I watched, detached, outside of the action as my family played and explored around me.
Still, even in the blankness, I felt the river of my Father's presence flowing around me. "It's OK, dear daughter," His words whispered to my heart. "I Am here."
Driving home, my sister put on some acapella African CD. The warm tropical voices washed over my soul, crisp and deep and rhythmic. I settled into the music, and another gentle wave of grief began to come over me. It rose like an ocean swell, higher and higher, until it had lifted me off my feet and covered my head. Silent tears began to run out of my eyes as I cried from the crumpled place in my heart. The inner me wore a red dress. Because life is messy. But even so ...
When peace like a river attendeth my way
And sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
"Even so, it is well with my soul."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Milles Bornes and Pee

We were sitting at my kitchen table tonight, playing a rousing game of Milles Bornes (a French card game and childhood favorite). My sister Anna, youngest brother Matthew and Matthew's wife, Liz, are all here visiting for Christmas. The dinner dishes had been cleared away (plastic plates, for convenience), Alexander was nestled up in the pack-and-play in his old-man pajamas, sucking away at his thumb and dreaming victorious baby dreams, and Sophie was alternating between my lap (trying to steal a cookie), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, her current favorite.

The conversation ebbed around the flow of the game.

"Scott, it's your turn," I said to my husband. He considered his hand thoughtfully, calculating, no doubt, the risks involved in each possible move he could make.

"This is the point where Nathan would say, 'Fast game's a good game', if he were here," quipped Anna.

"Yeah, fast game's a good game, Scott," I said. He shot me a look and discarded.

"Remember when you used to hide Monopoly money, Matthew?" Anna said.

"What?!!!" I was indignant.

"Yeah," Matt confessed unabashedly, "I used to take the money and hide it under my bed, and then the next time we played, I would pull it out to use."

"That's horrible!"

"Cheater's never win. It's your turn, Liz."

"Except when they do win," Scott put in (always the lawyer).

"And then it's twice the victory. You win because you win, and you win because you didn't get caught," Matthew grinned. He and Scott shared a laugh while us girls squealed in protest. "But that's nothing. Nathan used to want to be the banker when we played Monopoly so that he could slip himself 500's on the sly."

"Yeah," said Anna, "and I hated playing Risk with you and a third player because you would always make an 'alliance' (here she made quotation marks with her fingers) with the other person and I would essentially be playing against someone who had twice the number of armies and countries as I did."

"I hated Risk, too. Did the islanders ever cheat?" I asked Matt. He thought for a moment.

"I don't know ... I don't remember ... "

We played a few more hands, our talk and good-natured ribbing and rememberances creating a warm circle of love around us.

"One time, though, a kid peed on me," Matthew said out of nowhere. The reactions were immediate.


"No way!"


He proceeded to explain with a twinkle in his eye. "We were playing freeze tag on the beach. I crawled underneath one boy's legs, and he peed on me."

Matthew and a friend (NOT the one who peed on him).

"Awww! That's nasty. Where did he get you? I mean, did he get your head?"

"Naw, he had to work a little before it came out, so I was half-way through when he did it. He got my back."

"Good," Anna said, "Because that would have been nasty to feel that on your head and go, 'Hey, what's that?' And turned your face ..."

"EEwwww!!!" The table erupted again.

Matthew said, "You know in freeze tag, how you crawl underneath somebody's legs to unfreeze them ... "

"What an ungrateful kid!" I interjected.

"Yeah, anyways, I think he just thought, 'Hey, I've got him!' and just let loose. That was the last time I played that game."

Our laughter and recollections continued as the cards passed from one to another. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled kindly and its ornaments swayed gently in the breeze created by the ceiling fan. It wasn't important who won the game, or even really who's turn it was to play next. We were completely relaxed. For some magical reason, family tensions had been erased for the moment, and every word and glance was salted with love and acceptance. We sat there and celebrated who we had been together, and began to discover who we were now.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My First Jungle Experience

Our first stop overseas was the volcanic island nation of Papua New Guinea. The plane bounced down on the cracked runway like a reluctant child called home for supper. I stared at the line of dense vegetation curiously. The pilot's voice came on the overhead speakers, "Please remain seated while we fumigate the cabin." My mom twitched in her seat, and I was turning to ask the question forming on my tongue when I was arrested by the sight of a stewardess at the head of the aisle. She was holding an aerosol can in each hand and walked quickly down the row, spraying a stream of noxious, choking mist over our heads. "Cover your mouth!" my dad called, panicky, leaning across my siblings and yanking Matthew's t-shirt up over his face.

When the cabin door finally opened, we spilled gratefully out onto the tarmac, stumbling over our rolling suitcases and carry-on bags. The fumes cleared from my watering eyes and burning throat as I sucked in my first taste of tropical air.

I felt that if I bared my teeth and bit down, I could take a bite out of that air. I felt that if I had a piece of bread and knife, I could spread it like butter. I was sure that if I filled a balloon with that jungle air, the balloon would sink to the ground instead of floating. That was how thick the jungle air was. It was heavy with tastes and smells I couldn't identify - green, growing, rotting, pungent things, whose scent clung to the hairs on the insides of my nostrils and dripped from my fingers. The tropical air embraced me in a warm, moist cocoon of promise. I followed my family as we pushed our way through the thickness to the waiting terminal ahead.


Days later, we had passed through customs, met up with the rest of our fledgling missionary group, and boarded a truck that would take us up to Jungle Camp. There, we would receive a crash course on 'how to survive bush life', including making mats, fishing, sewing up flesh wounds, and fraternizing with the natives.

Nathan and I, at Jungle Camp.

The truck that took us to our new destiny must have been left over from WWII, abandoned by the GI's when the Allies won the war. We sat on wooden benches along the back, under a canopy tarp that was pulled up to let in the breeze and scenery. I sat between my father and older brother Nathan, watching in wonder as the new world flashed past me. Clap board and cinder block houses quickly faded as the coconut and banyan trees rose on either side of us and met over our heads. Little brown children ran from huts the size of my garage back home, waving their hands and smiling and shouting at us. I waved and smiled back.

I turned to look at my dad. He was sitting upwind from me, with his hand grasping the metal support post and his back turned towards me. I could see his profile as he was gazing out at the passing bush, and saw an inner something being set free. The part of himself that had been repressed by parents, teachers, and then society his whole life suddenly flashed out into freedom, and birthed a new expression in this primitive, unfettered land. I felt the elation radiating from his triumphant back, and together we let our free spirits soar on the laden wind.

Bright oranges, yellows and pinks flashed by - fruits and flowers that grew in a glorious riot along the roadside. The road steadily grew steeper, as we climbed the mountain to our hill-top camp. The truck bounced along, heedless of the crater-sized ruts in the dirt road. I braced my feet against the bed and rode each jolt like you would a bucking horse, or skiing moguls. Then, the sky suddenly became dark.

The sun is the only thing that hurries in the tropics. It slips quickly below the horizon at dusk, with a brief and painfully brilliant show, splashing color on the clouds and ocean in its haste to descend. It rises again each morning with equal haste, impatient to start its long, intense trek across the sky.

We foreigners were taken by surprise at the quickness with which it set. We suddenly found ourselves hurtling through a dense, alien blackness. The open sides of the truck offered no shelter and little separation from the bush. The jolts grew more precarious and the truck began to sway as it took tight curves up the side of the mountain. Thankfully, we couldn't see the steep drop down in the dark. I didn't think to be scared, because my father's strong back was in front of me. I leaned my cheek against it and watched the glistening darkness rush past.

It began to rain. Fat drops came like an army of invading paratroopers, rolling off the tarp overhead and blowing in through the open sides. In that moment, I heard a high-pitched, unearthly cry. It rose out of the darkness as if birthed from some dark, hidden thing lurking there. The sound sent an arrow of fear into my heart, which quickly spread into a sick panic. My mother reached over to pat my kneed. "It's OK, Danica," she said, low and soothing. "She's just scared. But you're alright." I suddenly realized that the sound had come from an adult woman, one of the mothers, pushed beyond rational thought and reacting with animal-like desperation.

I know that my parents were praying for me then, because the fear left. They sat on either side of us, my dad in front and my mom in back, with the four of us kids sandwiched between them. We were safe in their love and faith.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Saying Goodbye

The day my father came home and announced we were moving to live on an island, I didn't really understand. I was 6, and my world consisted of the warm little nucleus my mother had created at home for us, church, and first grade. And so, months later when we had undergone training in Dallas, raised the support needed, and actually packed our home, I started to realize what moving might really mean.

My mother, brother Nathan, and I in the woods behind our house.
We had lived up till that point in the Texas hill country, outside of Austin. The house we lived in was built plank by plank by my father. He would come home from a long day of nursing his start-up software business, strap on his worn tool belt, and climb to the rafters to nail drywall. Dad's tool belt, to me, is similar to his wedding ring. It symbolizes comfort, security, and my father's deep strength and ingenuity.

Me, playing in the foundation of our house while it was being built.

My mom would paint and lay tile during the day, while she also watched the four of us. My brother was born in the upper bedroom of that house, his first indignant cries echoing over the virgin hills. The house took 5 years to build.

The last night we had in it, we slept on pallets of blankets on the floor. In the morning, we would climb into our loaded U-Haul and make the trek to Houston, board the plane after kissing tearful grandparents, and head off into the unknown. I was quivery with excitement. Change electrified the air and made it hard to sleep, but I finally did. The morning dawned cool and fragrant with the hill country's special blend of cedar and live oak trees. Morning doves wooed each other from the woods behind our house.

We ate our Cheerios and milk for the last time at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, while my parents loaded the last of our things into the truck. I talked excitedly with my siblings. Our child's minds could not see past a trip to Houston and the grandparents. Breakfast done, we were herded outside. My mom stopped me.
Nathan, me, and my mom holding Anna, in our VW van.

"Danica, do you want to go say goodbye to the house?" I looked at her strangely, wondering why I would want to say goodbye to a house, and was caught by a deep something hidden in her eyes. I think in that moment her heart needed me. So I followed along beside her, taking in the strangeness of the empty rooms. We made our way through the downstairs, then up to my parent's room and bedroom. My room was the last we visited.

I stepped into the barren emptiness. The ceilings stretched high above me, un-anchored by friendly furniture, pictures and toys. The room seemed huge. I stood in the middle of it, lost suddenly in the space, and reality smacked me for the first time in my young life. I grew in that moment, a part of innocence lost, when I realized that this room of dreams, romps, and imaginary playmates, the room that was somehow my friend, had turned its back on me. It offered no comfort, no sanctuary. The blank walls stood aloof and the windows stared in haughty starkness.

I felt my mother's hand on my shoulder, and I looked up to see that she was crying. We sank together in the middle of the nothingness and I cried from the torn place in my heart onto my mother's chest.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rain, pt 1

The rain came drumming down on our tin roof, beating out an ancient cadence on the corrugated aluminum. With no insulation to separate us from the metal, monsoon season meant that my family communicated in yells to be heard over the furious cacophony. The monsoons lasted several months, during which everything stayed slightly wet - bedding, clothes, hair, walls. A mouldy smell pervaded the air, giving an earthy undertone to the scents of rain-crushed flowers and leaves.

I looked out our louvered window, and saw a pack of kids running by. Their naked brown bodies glistened in the warm wetness and their wide feet sent joyful splashes into the rock yards. The monsoons turned the village into a new brand of playground. Pools of standing water stayed for days on the saturated sand. The village rain tanks filled to overflowing, and villagers stood beneath the outpouring to shampoo their hair, right there in front of our house.

A pail of fresh fish stood by our front door, an offering from the day's fishermen. It was my job to clean them. I scooped up the pail, threw a sharp knife in the mix, and made my way out into the wet chaos.

As I stepped out from under the protective awning of our house, the heavy sheets immediately claimed me. In under a minute, I was soaked through. My hair ran in snakes down my cheeks. My skirt and shirt clung to my body. The falling drops embraced me and became me, saturating even my eyelashes. I kicked my toes through the puddles; 'swish, swish, swish', and watched the water skip ahead of me.

At the lagoon, I waded into the warm, calm ocean. The sea received me as a mother, offering shelter and protection. I sank my body to my neck beneath the calm water, letting the pail of fish float beside me. From this vantage point, I could look out over the lagoon and see the tiny drops attacking the expanse like billions of tiny spears. I sank my head below the surface. There was instant quiet. Looking up through the salt water, I saw the drops being absorbed into the placid vastness. My hair floated up and out, my clothing released its wet cling, and I floated there for a moment in the alien world.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


The sun had already set below the ocean's edge one night as my sister and I embarked for a nightly 'bathroom break' before bedtime. It was one of those mystical nights when clouds race in great patches across the sky, pushed on a restless breeze. The gusts came in from the lagoon, wrecking malicious havoc among the coconut fronds and dried leaf roofs. The night air was filled with the rustling and clattering of resurrected things given new life by the wind.

Anna and I linked arms as we quickly wended our way through the houses in the almost complete darkness. Our free hands clutched spare lava-lavas around us, as much to ward off the night's evil spirits, as the wind.

Fear is a funny thing. At times it comes, creeping steadily up on you so gradually that you don't recognize it until your heart is racing and the hairs on the back of your neck are at end. Other times, it lies in wait for you. You can feel it, on the periphery of your conscious mind, sense its gleeful grin as it waits for you to surrender and let it catch you. This was the malevolent game fear played with us that night. We walked faster and faster, quickening our pace as the darkness pressed in closer and closer around us. The wind took our hair and slapped it around our cheeks. It tugged on our clothing, wrapping our skirts around our legs. It took our breaths as they came out, short and quick, and threw our words into the black sky.

"Danica, let's sing," my sister said.

The words came out, quivering but sweet:

"Joy is flowing like a river
Since the Comforter has come.
He abides with us forever
Makes the loving heart His home.

Blessed quietness, holy quietness
What a comfort to my soul
On the stormy sea He speaks peace to me,
How the billows cease to roll."

Somewhere around us, demons began to quake and tremble as the presence of the Holy God flooded the atmosphere. Angels joined hands around us, and, strengthened by our songs, enveloped us in the peace which passes all understanding. Even the winds seemed to blow softer past us then. We made it down to the beach, did our business there on the low tide's sand, and returned back to the sanctuary of our house, our praises trailing in our wakes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Church was every morning and evening. Our house sat right behind it, so if I chose not to go, I usually stayed hidden from the inquisitive brown eyes during the duration of the service. This particular evening, I was laying in the hammock strung across our veranda, reading. The hour of evening service was announced by the ringing of the church bell. Martin, the catechist, would take the old, rusty hammer reserved for this purpose, and strike the empty gas cylinder that hung from the eves of the open building. The clanging would ring throughout the village, signalling to the faithful that it was time to come again to get their souls wiped clean. A quietness settled over the village in that hour. The echoing axes stopped chopping, women laid off yelling at their young, and even the infants sensed that now as a time to be still.

I lay there in the hammock, listening with half an ear to the sounds of the service. The evening zephyrs carried scents of fragrant flowers that bloomed only at dusk, and also the prayers of the faithful. Streams of 'Lord have mercy' and 'Christ have mercy' were caught up on the breeze, wafting past me and up to heaven, hopeful offerings of fragrant incense to a God they really didn't know.

I let my book fall to my side, and rested my head back on the taut web of strings. The fading tropical sun's quick glory radiated through the trees, blessing the village with its golding light. I watched the clouds above the leaf roofs change from dusky rose, to orange, a quick, bright flash of molten amber, and then the sky became a palate of deep purples and blues as the sun sank below the ocean's rim.

From the church, lines from the closing hymn rose in the Islanders' perfect harmony:
'Abide with me, fast falls the evening tide.
When darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
All other helpers fail and comforts flee.
Help of the helpless, Lord, abide with me.'

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Outer Strength, Inner Brokenness

The village had two wells, one for each half. The one closest to us was dug by a group of well-meaning Peace Corps years ago, a four-foot diameter concrete shaft penetrating into the island's coral core. The remains of a sad windmill stood beside it, its dilapidated arms hanging down in defeat, pointing in despair at the rusted water pump. The villagers used long poles with little buckets attached to the ends to access the water now. It was an art to carefully lower the bucket so that it filled with water (which was about 1 foot deep on average), but didn't stir up the silty bottom of the well, thus polluting the entire water source.

I had a morbid fear of the well. The villagers treated it with respect, never going too close to the edge. They scolded me when I looked too long into its depths. I think that a spirit lived down there, although they never told me its name. It seemed that wells all over the islands were homes for benevolent water spirits.

The water was brackish, too salty to drink but good to wash ourselves and clothes in. My mom paid me three dollars a bucket to haul water from the well to our house - good money. I had a thriving business with my family, charging them for buckets of fresh water when they needed 'showers'.

Once a 10 gallon bucket was filled with water, I would have a friend help hoist it onto my shoulder. I would then totter my way through the houses. If you have never tried it, it is difficult to carry an open bucket of water on your shoulder or head. Disregarding the weight, you have to walk very smoothly. The more you wobble around, the more the water begins to slosh, and very quickly it will throw you off balance. My pride made me endure intense amounts of physical suffering, with my neck aching from the weight of the bucket pressing against it, my arms trembling from holding it up, my legs quivering with the effort to keep the rhythm of my walk. I endured all this, so that the village kids would see me as strong, and one of them.

A year ago, I sat in the chiropractor's office and watched as he studied an x-ray of my back. "Were you a gymnast, as a kid?" he asked me.
"No," I said.
"You have arthritis in your lower back. I never see it in people this young, except for people who worked on farms as children, or who played intense sports such as gymnastics."
"Would carrying buckets of water on my shoulders for seven years count?" I asked.

I've picked up a lot of hidden aches in my efforts to 'appear strong' to those around me, or to be accepted. Every time we would move from the island to the US, or back again, I would suddenly find myself dropped into a community where everyone had been tootling along in their lives, and expected me to pick right back up again, wherever the CD skipped to. I didn't have time to go through an adjustment period. The islanders didn't understand me missing things like shopping malls, church picnics, and Thanksgiving. American kids didn't 'get' my longing for the simpler life and small, tight-knit village community.

So, I compartmentalized my island and American selves. Each part of me lay there, dormant and aching for recognition, with the effect that wherever I was, no place was completely home. I developed arthritis of the heart, a constant, festering aching that effected my ability (or willingness) to let anyone too close. I became very strong on the outside, good at 'faking the funk' no matter what situation I found myself in.

In high school, it became worse. I left the Solomons for good and returned to the US, with a heart full of mourning for people and places I loved and would never see again. It was like the whole village died in one fell swoop. I dusted off my American self and, with the help of Old Navy and the Clinique counter, assimilated into high school. I found myself being angry at the kids around me, angry at how easy it was for them to belong, to fit in, to 'get' the jokes. I was angry at how simple their lives were, how narrow their world view was, how close-minded their conversations. Most of all, though, I was angry that they weren't my island family.

I eventually made some friends; mostly people who helped keep our relationship on a safe, surface level. And a few, precious, true friends who were just as different on the inside as I was - you know who you are.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From Suburbanite to Missionary - My Dad's Faith Journey

What is it like to go from a suburban small-business owner, to a foreign missionary? As it all seemed like a huge adventure to me as a kid, I will let my father's words describe the process for me. The following are excerpts from our family newsletters as we embarked on the journey that would change all our lives forever.

March 1989 - (the first newsletter ever sent out)
"We are rapidly approaching a crossroads in the life of our family and would appreciate your prayers for us. This will entail some major decisions concerning our involvement with Wycliffe Bible Translators.
As you know, we have been on a fairly normal course up to this point; raising a family, being active with our neighbors, and serving in our local church.
This June we plan to attend Wycliffe's four week missionary candidate program, "Quest". They require this for all potential translators, to judge their suitability for field work. We are praying that God will use the staff at Wycliffe to give us definitive guidance concerning our involvement in Bible translation."

August 1987 - Quotable Quotes from Quest
"Success is not permanent, neither is failure."
~Jerry Allen, our language instructor giving us encouragement the first week of class

"When entering another culture remember, you are the foreigner, not them."
~Scott Smith, missionary kid

Q: "Did you ever feel like quitting?"
A: "About every day."
~ Dan Davis has served with WBT for 23 years, completing one New Testament and serving as a consultant on many others.

"Sometimes God puts us on a holding pattern to make us grow."
~ Ken Wiggers, former Jaars pilot on returning to the US for medical reasons

"The work of Bible translation involves a partnership between those being sent and those who are sending. God chose each member of this partnership before the foundation of the world."
~ Clarence Church has been involved in Bible translation at various levels since he first went to Mexico with Cameron Townsend in 1947.

December 1987
"Last week Nathan's bike was parked behind the family van and got crushed. Later Matthew toddled out the back door and became stranded in the back yard with his little bare feet in the sticker burr patch.
It seems that our kids are always getting into situations that they can't resolve alone. Similarly, our desire to do Bible translation is getting our whole family into a situation where we cannot proceed alone. So, we are in the process of looking for people to make u support teams at churches, who will be our partners in this venture. These teams will be involved in financial support, daily prayer, and keeping the church and friends up to date on our activities.
'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me let him follow Me.'"

September 1988
"I crossed the front yard and took a look back at the home we had just completed. The big rental truck was packed. The boys and I climbed in and lumbered up the hill, past the homes of friends. Our hearts were full of memories as we left the life that would be forever changed when we return.
We lumbered through Westlake and headed north on I-35. Matthew's excitement had worn him out. he was sound asleep in his car seat, cheeks flushed in the heat. Nathan was quiet, staring out the window.
As the mile markers slipped by, my mind was in the past ... Cub Scout meetings, teaching kids in Sunday School, men's Bible Study, work, soccer practice. July and August had been an incredible storm of activity as we finished the house and moved with a great surge of help from our friends.
Our last hours in Austin were full of tears. It was very difficult to leave. We realized how much of our hearts were in our home, our friends, church, and community ... we miss you all.
However, we know that the Lord is our Shepherd and we trust that He has still waters in store for us. Please pray that we will be able to be still and trust Him for what lies ahead of us as we train to translate God's written Word."

November 1988
"We have been assigned to the island of Ontong Java to do Bible translation. This is near Guadalcanal and New Britain islands in the Pacific Ocean north of Australia.
During World War II, these Pacific Islands were inundated with U.S. Soldiers who were fighting the Japanese. The U.S. Army brought in mountains of supplies to keep the war effort going: clothes, canned food, vehicles, radios, weapons, etc. The local people had very little contact with white men up to this point, and were very interested in how they came by all of this 'Cargo'.
The local people knew that all power to produce goods, to make gardens grow, to make pigs bear young, to be victorious over enemies, all of this power came from the spirits of ones ancestors. To have powerful ancestors meant to have much wealth. So they thought that these white men must have powerful ancestors indeed.
The local people learned from missionaries that their God was named Jesus. This Jesus had been a man. He had died and gone to the place of the ancestors, and had then returned to men for a period of time.
Of course this made things very clear to the local people. Jesus must have learned the secret of 'Cargo' from the white ancestors and had given this secret to the white men. The obvious problem was that the white men were not about to give away the secret to such wonderful power.
Since the local people knew that ancestor power is appropriated from ritual, they decided to watch the white men, and listen to them very carefully in case they slipped and let out the secret.
The missionaries told them that they should believe in Jesus and be baptized. This the people gladly did. They told the people to build a church and bury their dead in a graveyard near the church. This the people also gladly did. In fact they had observed the white men talking to their ancestors on radios with wire antennas which received the voices of the ancestors. So the people strung vines from their church building to the graves so that their prayer requests for 'Cargo' would be transmitted to Jesus and the white ancestors.
The people prayed, they made air strips, they decorated the graves of their ancestors with flowers; they copied the white men in every way they could. But still no cargo came. Finally they became angry. The white men were holding out on them. There was obviously enough Cargo to go around. These white men were really selfish and miserly. To refuse to share with your village, when you have plenty, is the worst sin they could imagine. Finally, they decided that these white missionaries were bad people. The people turned away and rejected them and their God.
The missionaries were dismayed. The responses to the gospel had been so good at the beginning. What had gone wrong? How could this confused response to the gospel have been remedied?"

March 1989
Our first news letter went out last spring. In it, we talked about the transition from suburban life (work, soccer, scouts, and Sunday outings), to being Bible translators overseas.
In retrospect, it has been a lot like training to sky dive. Last spring we were at the back of the plane chewing our fingernails, and now we are at the door and ready to jump.
We just got our passports back. Next we get shots; hepatitis A & B, tetanus, and oral malaria. Nathan, Danica and Anna are dreading that, and Matthew isn't too thrilled by their reaction to the word, "shot".
A year ago, one of the kids in our Sunday school class heard that we were planning to be missionaries. She approached us and volunteered to send us $5 a month, which was our first promised financial support (and a hefty sum for a first grader).
Looking back on that incident, it reminds me of the time that Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. This victory turned the hearts of Israel back to God. So he prayed for God to end the three year drought that was a punishment for Israel's idolatry.
As Elijah lay prostrate on the ground, he sent his servant to the hilltop to look for rain clouds. On the seventh trip the servant saw (not a thunder cloud, but) a cloud the size of a man's hand. Elijah's reaction was RUN, before "the storm of rain washes you away."
Over this past year that "little cloud" of $5 has grown to about $1700 / month of the $2400 / month that we need to leave for our overseas assignment. I am continually amazed at how God continues to provide for us, and aware of how much this effort of Bible translation depends on His faithfulness.

June 1989
Nathan received this letter from Samuel Daams, son of Pam and Nico Daams, WBT translators in the Solomon Islands:
Dear Nathan,
I keep wondering when you will come here. I hope to show you how we shoot birds and eat them. I also hope to go and spear shrimps and fish in the creek nearby.
I have many friends whom I have told about your coming. They are looking forward to it and we will show you how to make many things such as trucks out of wood, bows and arrows, and slings.
There are lots of fruit here nice to eat such as guava, mango, sugarcane, coconuts, cabbarei, and pineapple and banana. There are lots of bats and birds here.
I hope to show you a parrot of mine that I shot myself and is still alive and very tame. It likes to crawl along peoples hands and chew their hair.
Yours faithfully,

What do we think about The Move? A quick poll revealed the following thoughts:

David: I am looking forward to getting to know people and feeling at home there. I want the kids to find friends soon too.

Pam: I think that we are going to have lots of surprises. Leaving the familiar is difficult but I feel expectant about what lies ahead.

Nathan (age 10): I think it's going to be fun. I am going to be able to shoot birds and spear fish. I am looking forward to going.

Danica (age 8): I wonder how many friends I am going to make. I am looking forward to making a shell collection. I'll bring some special shells when I get back. I will miss my friends in Texas.

Anna (age 6): I think that home school is going to be exciting. I think that it will be fun and I am looking forward to getting on the plane. I like the food that they have on the plane. I hope I find a friend and I hope that they are nice.

Matthew (age 4): Can I have a Popsicle?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sweep the Dead

There was a path that ran from Luaniua village, down the entire length of the island. It was called 'the Road', simply because it was the only established thoroughfare on Luaniua. It was down the Road that my friends and I decided to embark one Saturday.

We set off through the village in a happy bunch, myself, my best friend Sehilono, Kala, and Kala's cousin and sister. All our excursions included some body's random relatives. It seemed like the villagers couldn't ever do anything alone, nor did any really want to.

The edge of the village faded into bush, and we grew quiet as the trees closed in over us. I stopped playing my ukulele. Mosquitoes buzzed in a cloud behind us. Ahead we could see the cemetery that lay separated from the village by its buffer of jungle. It was strictly taboo to make any loud noises, laugh, or sing in the graveyard, lest you waken the dead. Yet we always stopped here on our trips into the center of the island, to look at the graves in the heavy quiet of the place.

An expanse of hard sand, white, the color of death, was broken by grave markers. A widow stooped among the tall stones in a far corner, sweeping the area clear of leaves and debris. We made a wide circle around her, leaving her to her grief and communion with her dead. We wandered among the grave stones, and Kala explained the significant ones to me.

"This one is Father Simeon's grave," she said, in a hushed voice. I gazed at the massive cross, wreathed in fresh leis. It towered above the others, standing alone in a slightly larger space than the rest of the markers. I wondered who this man had been, of whom I had heard the villagers speak in awe, reverence, and a slight fear.

We continued to wend our way delicately among the graves, cognizant that below our feet lay centuries of bones, ancestors whose names were still called upon in times of want or danger. I wandered over to one of the frangipani trees that grew on the edge of the plot, noticing that a broom was hanging from one of the branches. I reached up, drawn to it inexplicably. I wanted to break that broom. I wanted to snap it in my hands and watch the broken pieces fall to the ground. It looked grey and brittle and waiting as my reaching fingers approached it ... at that moment Sehilono grabbed my hand.

"NO!" she whispered in my ear. I turned my head, to see all four islanders staring at me with eyes huge in their faces. "Don't," Sehilono warned, "those brooms are taboo. They are used just to sweep the dead." I looked past her shoulder and met the eyes of the widow. She stood now it the shadows of the far bush, her eyes blazing at me.

"You don't belong here, outsider," her voice spoke to my mind.


Past the graveyard, we were still walking in the pall of what had happened. I did not understand, except that I had somehow crossed the invisible line of the taboo.

"Come on," said Kala, "Let's walk on the beach." We crossed the few yards between path and beach, and emerged from the green shadows into the brilliance of sand and sea and sun. Sehilono took up my ukulele and started on a song about boyfriends of the past. The lagoon laughed up at us, throwing flashes of brilliant light that it had distilled from the sky, mixed through the azure depths, then spit back out again into the air like intangible gems. Crabs scuttled away from our feet clicking furiously. If one got too close to the encroaching surf, it was tumbled about until the waters receded, and then lay for a few seconds on the sand, regathering its dignity and spitting salt water.

We found a spot where the jungle hung out like a benediction, casting deep, cool shadows over the sand, and plopped down to rest. I wriggled my butt into the soft whiteness until I had made myself comfortable, then turned to Kala. She was absently sticking bits of twig into the sand.

"So ..." I said tentatively. She glanced up. "Who was Father Simeon? He had such a big cross on his grave ... " I didn't know quite what the rules were for speaking of the dead, and didn't want to cross the line twice in one day.

Kala's eyes settled on the dance of the waves on the sand. "Father Simeon was a priest years ago," she said in the cadence of the storyteller. The others grew quiet as we all succumbed comfortably to her spell. "Before the priest we have now, and before the one before him, Father Simeon was our priest. Before him, people didn't follow the Anglican God. They didn't believe in His power, so they didn't bother to come to church in the mornings and evenings, and take communion on Sunday. They did not give to the church. Very few people were faithful." She paused, to let us take in the wickedness and folly of these people who did not obey the teachings of the priests and catechists.

"Then Father Simeon came. When he came, the head witchdoctor challenged him. The witchdoctor did not know Father Simeon's God's power, and thought to have sole control of the people. He said, 'It's either you or me, but we both cannot exist in this village.' Father Simeon was not afraid, for he knew his God had mighty power. Father Simeon picked up an axe beside him and said, 'Let us have a contest to see whose god is more powerful. I will throw this axe into the lagoon. If it sinks, your god is greatest and I will leave this village. But if the axe floats, all the people will know that my God reigns, and you will have no place here.' The witchdoctor smiled, for he knew then that he would soon route the priest.

"The entire village assembled on the beach, and the two contenders got into a canoe, the axe between them. They paddled out into the lagoon. When they were in deep water, Father Simeon stood up in the canoe. He raised the axe above his head, and threw it in a great arc across the water. The people then let out a great gasp, because as the axe flew through the air, its handle became unattached to the iron. The witchdoctor smiled a triumphant smile, because he knew that the axe could not possibly float without even the wood to aide it. By this time, many people had paddled out in their own canoes to see. The axe head struck the water and sank to the bottom of the lagoon. The people could see it there clearly, lying on the white sand at the bottom of the sea. And then! Behold, the axe head began to rise to the surface. As all the village watched, the axe head broke the surface of the water and floated there, bobbing on the waves.

"Everyone knew it was a great miracle, and great was the power of the priest's God! The witchdoctor left the island, and from then on the church was full with people coming to worship God."

"God paid the people back, too, for their faithfulness," Sehilono chimed in. "There came a time when the village was preparing for a feast. Father Simeon told the people not to go fishing, that God would provide food for the feast. He went to the water's edge and prayed, and there came a great whale into the lagoon. It got stuck in the reef, and everybody got into their canoes and just took what meat they wanted. There was enough to feed the entire village for days!"

"Yeah, but that was before YOU were born. If you had been there, there still wouldn't be enough food, with the way you eat, " Kala replied. She lept up with a shout as Sehilono kicked sand in her direction, and we all ran screaming into the surf, stories forgotten and ready to answer the call of the beckoning surf.

Friday, October 16, 2009


One morning a brown face appeared at our door. It peered in, eye-level with our floor on its stilts, taking in the strange, magical world of the foreign family. I was lying on my stomach on the opposite side of the veranda with my math papers spread around me and absently poking bits of leaf through the floor board. I watched a piece flutter to the gravel below, like a tiny WWII bomber, shot down in flames of glory by a Japanese gunship ... and looked up to meet the curious eyes.

"Whadda-you want?" I asked in Pijin, bored, but willing to take any diversion over my schoolwork. Village kids often came to our door, sometimes just out of boredom to stare at us. Other times they would bring requests for assistance, or gifts from their families; a plate of succulent fish heads with the blank, opaque eyes that stared up at you, some taro pudding that looked like blocks of poo on the plate, or even the occasional chicken egg to sell. Some of which actually had yolks instead of fetuses when you cracked them open.

"Come and see, my cat had kittens and this one is for you," the urchin responded, and over the floorboards poked a little pointed face, with a white patch surrounding its pink nose, sleepy blue kitten eyes, and little bumps of ears.

"Oh!" I cried, and scurried over to cuddle the little fur ball to my chest. "Thank you!" The child grinned at me and settled down on our steps to watch the rest of the kelaipa (white) family's reaction to his gift.

We decided the kitten's name over dinner. Our veranda was too narrow to afford enough moving room during the day with a table down the middle of it, so my dad had rigged up a large sheet of laminated plywood, which he attached with hinges to the wall. During the day it folded flush against the wall, held by a swing hook, and at meal times we suspended it with a rope on the free side, like a drawbridge. We squeezed in around it on flour and rice buckets to pounce on whatever food my mother had managed to cook up. "Vultures!" she would scold, as we all jockeyed with our plates for the first spoon full as soon as the last 'amen' was said.

"I think we should call it Jimbo," Matthew said. I looked indulgently at my littlest brother, but immediately gave the suggestion a mental veto. 'Jim' was the name of one of our cousins back home, and Matthew had already named one cat after him.

"I think we should name it after something in Austin," Anna said thoughtfully.

"How about Austin?" was the next inevitable remark. Lame. I looked to my dad for help.

"Well, what are our favorite things to do in Austin?" Mom prodded. Ideas were thrown out:

"The park!"

"Grandaddy's house."

"No, stupid, Grandaddy lives in Houston."

"Don't call your sister stupid, Nathan."

"What's Austin?" (this was from Matthew, the youngest, who had already forgotten everything except for his current world of palm trees and smiling, butt-naked friends).

"How about Barton Springs?" Dad suggested, seeing the conversation was in danger of getting completely derailed. "There's also Barton Creek, and Barton Springs Road..."

And so we decided to dub the cat 'Barton', in honor of our home town. Barton grew into sleek adulthood and gained his place in family lore as the stupidest cat we ever kept. He would lay in the very middle of the main breezeway through the house, and get his tail stepped on at least once a day, whereupon he would yowl and swipe at the owner of the offending foot, and get kicked out the front door for his pains. He feasted on canned tuna every night, which we secretly fed to him in the dark, after the danger of watching village eyes was over - it was considered supreme wastefulness that bordered on sacrilege to feed an animal anything but the very last scrapings of table scraps. And even table scraps were better given to the pigs or the chickens, who at least served a purpose and could be eventually eaten in return.

Barton was particularly hated by my Dad, who generally hates all cats on principle, but was tolerated because he kept the mouse population under control. He was our cat until we went on furlough a few years later. Upon returning to the village after our re-Americanization, he had disappeared, gone to the place that village animals go to after their short, stark lives. But for a brief time of glory, Barton was the better fed and kept than any cat (and probably most kids) in Luaniua village.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Lice in Church

The village church sat right outside our front door, a giant pavilion consisting of cinder block pillars supporting a vast tin roof. It was filled with simple benches that ran down each side, with a central aisle leading up to the alter in front. The church was divided strictly by sex, with the men sitting on the right and the women sitting on the left. In Luaniua language, the right hand was called, "kelima laoi", or, "the hand of love", and the left hand was called, "kelima Sakane", or, "the hand of Satan". You can draw whatever conclusions you want in regards to the women's placement in the church, and their role therein.

Us children would sit in the very front, balancing our bony behinds on the wooden 2 x 6's , which were polished smooth by the generations of restless supplicants who had come before us. Time tended to pass like molasses through a sieve in those Anglican services. I learned to entertain myself in a variety of ways.

I would focus on the 'Lord have mercy's' and 'Lord hear our prayer's', trying to say each one a split second before the rest of the congregation. You could also say them more quickly, slowly, in a high or low voice, pious or obnoxious, or tap out the rhythm with your fingers underneath the bench. I would study the line of curved brown backs in front of me, and pick out every one's spines. I would stare covertly at the boys across the aisle. These were all interesting ways to fill the time, but paled in comparison to our favorite church-pew sport:

Lice circus.

Most kids' mamas and aunties kept their offspring's pretty well groomed, with their head population down to a respectable minimum. This was done over hours spent with our heads in each-others' laps, as we took our turns getting picked over. A select group of children, however, came from families who either didn't have the time, didn't care, or had too many offspring to keep up with the growing louse population on every head. If we were careful, my friends and I could position ourselves behind one such unlucky individual when we sat down for the evening's service.

With eyes peeled, we would stare at the black, stringy hair, and soon enough were rewarded at the sight of a small brown oval wriggling its way among the strands. A quick hand can snag a louse out of another's head and then we had all we needed for the next half-hour's entertainment. Let the lice circus commence!

Event 1: Tight rope
Place the louse on a stray hair held taut in each hand, and watch it scale its way from fingertip to fingertip.

Event 2: O-Course
Set the louse on your prayer book, and challenge it with obstacle to overcome as it attempts its bid for freedom; a strand of hair, your finger, a pebble from the floor, the inclined book cover.

Event 3: Wrestling
Sometimes (if you get two feisty ones), you can pit two lice against each other. It's a fight to the death! (or until one gets turned over on its back)

Event 4: Acrobatics
Place a lice belly-side-up (do they have bellies? Abdomens?), and see how long it takes to get its feet underneath it. Another fun variation on this event is to dangle a strand of hair over it as it is on its ... back? ... and see if it can grasp hold while in that upside-down state.

Event 5: Seek-and-Hide
Place the louse back into the hair of the person in front of you, and see if you can find it again once it disappears. Warning; This tends to anger the person in whose hair the louse is doing the hiding!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Our House

After spending months in the traditional grass hut, the islanders began construction on a proper house for their resident white family. They figured they would build it on stilts, as befitted our 'elevated' status. It would have a corrugated tin roof to catch rain water, and be made completely out of timber...

My father interjected here. He did not want the pedestal the islanders insisted on putting him upon. He was very strict about what belongings we could bring out to the village - we weren't allowed to introduce anything that wasn't already there (except for the circa 1989 Toshiba laptop computer, essential to the process of bible translation). He wanted us to become part of the culture, not add to it, or stand outside of it looking in.

In keeping with this philosophy, he insisted that the villagers build the walls of our house out of traditional coconut mats. 'What?!!' such a thing had never been heard of. They tried to convince my father, but he stood firm.

So it came about that our little home was constructed four feet up off the ground, swaying unsteadily in the sandy soil on its metal posts. If we happened to walk too fast across it, or jumped out of bed with too much force, the entire house would shiver and sway. The monsoon winds brought many nights when I would lay in bed, feeling the house move underneath me and wondering what it would feel like for all the timber to come crashing down around me. Would it hurt, I wondered, or would I miraculously be sheltered by a particularly large beam? Miracles seemed very close to me then.

The floor had little gaps between each floor board, causing me to live in mortified suspense that someone would sit underneath our house and look up my lavalava. Island kids found great delight in poking little coconut brooms up at our bare feet through the gaps in the floor boards.

The mat walls were the running joke of the village. They called it, 'David's half-caste house', because it was made from the white man's materials of timber and metal, with island walls. Each year during monsoon season, those walls did not keep out the sheets of horizontal rain that drove like a thousand spears through the front of the house. Our veranda / eating area was constantly wet for the first two rainy seasons, until Dad finally gave in and put wood up on that side.

It had a screen door, which my father (the island MacGyver) rigged with a rope. The rope was attached to the door on one side, ran through a pulley, and was weighted on the other side with a large conch shell. When the door was opened, the shell would pull it to with a 'SLAM! slap, slap, slap' that could be heard all over the village. My cat, Barton (dubbed after Austin's famous Barton Springs), who was stupid even for a cat, was always getting in the way. When our tolerance level reached zero, one of us would grab him around the middle and throw him right out the door. He would land on the low, leaf roof of the house next door and frantically scramble to right himself before he slid to the ground. In these instances you would hear, 'YEOWWL!!! scrabble, scrabble, SLAM!, slap, slap, slap.'

Needless to say, there was always a small group of village kids underneath our house.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hangy Bangy

The island women did not wear shirts except to church, or for special occasions (like when the white family came to eat). After each subsequent pregnancy and nursing, their brown breasts would pull longer and longer down their bellies. It was Nathan, my older brother, who coined our family term for them; hangy bangies. For obvious reasons.

On their slow way to the gardens, the women would walk in single file down the jungle path. They carried their baskets on their heads and babies on their backs. Their breasts would slowly sway back and forth in cadence to the foot falls. To keep them from getting in the way when they bent over to work, the women would transfer their lava lavas up to wrap around their chests, holding everything safely in place.

I really don't know how it was for my father, a pious missionary, but when I first got to the island, it was impossible not to stare. I would stare and wonder; "Does it hurt to be like that?" I would watch in fascination as a toddler ambled up to its mother, grabbed her breast, and put it in its mouth. And then feed away, its jaws working as it eyed me suspiciously. I once even saw a woman squirt a stream of milk off to the side to prepare the flow for her child. Like a cow. But then again, I'm sure anyone who's ever watched a cow has had some of the same musings; "Do they get in the way?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Kosmo was the village drunk. The first interaction my family had with him, he came sauntering up to my father, pleasantly toasted in the mid-morning, and speaking in outrageously over-exaggerated English. In fact, it was so off base that it took a minute to realize that it was our native tongue that he was speaking. "How do you do?" he asked, rolling his eyes slightly at my father as if they shared a delicious inside joke. "Um, pleased to meet you," my dad replied.

The man looked like the living representation of the character, 'Puddleglum' from C.S. Lewis' book, The Silver Chair. He had a shock of wiry hair sticking up at random angles from his head, and his clothes hung off of his tall, lanky frame. His feet were as broad as they were long. Each toe had at least an inch of breathing room on each side.

His wife was also tall, and willowy, much to the sympathy of the other village women. A thin woman is obviously poorly taken care of; after all, if your husband, brothers, sons, uncles and father all failed to bring in enough food to fatten you up, you were bad off, indeed. I never got to know Kosmo's wife; I never even learned her name. But every time I saw her, she looked sad. She wore sorrow like a blanket, pulling it around herself and her never ending children. Later I learned that Kosmo's wife's sister was the village medicine woman. People would go to her when the clinic and church failed to heal their maladies. I always wondered why she, with access to such magic, had such a poor life.

I remember one cloudy night, we were sitting in Father Nehemiah's hut, sharing an after dinner cup of tea. The kerosene lamp cast its honey hued blessing on brown and white skin. The men softly talked, as us children poked coconut broom sticks at each other and the cat.

"Mama!" came the raucous cry from outside. 'Mama' is the traditional name for the Anglican priests, used all through-out the islands. "Mama, I need to talk to you!" Kosmo looked like a coconut tree silhouetted against the night sky, with his tall frame and bushy hair. The priest went out to meet him. His children and my siblings all crowded at the window openings of the hut, ready for our evening entertainment. 'Up next after these words from our sponsors...'

Kosmo was in his religious stage of drunkenness. This one came after the gregarious stage, and before the ugly, angry one. He began arguing a finer point of the Anglican catechism with the mama, and tripped slightly on the rock border of the yard. We giggled. Heads began to appear in our neighboring huts, and the ones across the way as his voice gained volume. "No, you have to KNEEL!" Kosmo roared, as the mama murmured quietly to him.

"Ok, ok, just go home, Kosmo," Father Nehemiah said defeatedly. It began to drizzle lightly. "See, it's raining. Go home before it rains harder." Mama turned and went back into our hut, leaving the drunk swaying slightly on the gravel yard.

Kosmo looked around himself puzzlingly, then turned his face to the sky. Layers of clouds were discernible over the moon. The drops of water were gentle and kind, a benediction to the growing things all around. Night time flowers released their seductive scents into the moist air, and mingled intoxicatingly with the brown smell of wet earth. Kosmo's hands slowly stretched out, palms up, until he stood looking up into the dark heavens with arms wide open, a welcome to whatever was sent down.

The rain formed droplets on his long nose and sunken cheeks, and misted the tangles of his hair. "Healing rain," he said wistfully, his head thrown back. "Rain! Come on me! Heal me!" The rain didn't answer, except to pick up. We left him that night standing out in the downpour, and fell asleep to the sound of it pounding on our roof.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Many Uses of a Coconut Tree

On an island that is as long as three football fields, and the width of one, the soil is sandy and saturated with the ocean. Not much will grow there, except mangroves, grass, and coconut trees. The islanders, therefore, put nothing to waste. Almost everything is used, and during our stay there, I found that the most used plant on the island was the coconut tree. Here is a list of its uses, starting with the roots:

1. The roots, which grow outward and upward, mound and dry out as they die and are replaced by new growth. They are dense and woody, and produce a thick, blinding smoke when burned. The islanders harvest them in chunks the size of cinder blocks to burn during the rainy season to keep the mosquitoes away. When the monsoons come to the island, clouds of mosquitoes come with them, mounding behind you as you walk or sit like a corporeal manifestation of the island's ghosts. Smoke keeps them at bay, and when the rains come, it hangs over the village, trapped to the houses and people by the humidity and moisture and dripping trees.

2. The trunks of coconut trees provide the support for the village houses. They also make great platforms to jump out into the ocean from.

3. Where the trunk meets the leaves of the tree, there is white, juicy flesh that is sweet and packed full of nutrients. The villagers eat this substance when a tree is cut down, as a special treat. They also tap it in live trees, much like we tap maples for the syrup, and turn the liquid into a potent, fiery coconut toddy. They call this liquor, 'kaleve', and on any given night you can find, somewhere in the village, a circle of men sitting on mats, passing around a mug of the toxic stuff and slamming it as the reggae music gets louder and louder.

4. The leaves of the coconut tree are harvested and dried to weave into mats. These mats are sat upon, slept on, eaten from, and form walls on the huts. The leaves can also be woven into baskets, fans, hats, little balls, pinwheels, and I'm sure other things that I have forgotten by now. The slender ribs of the leaves are stripped and gathered together to make brooms, which the women use to sweep the floors of their huts, and the dirt expanses outside. They also make excellent toothpicks.

5. The coconut itself is used in all its forms. When a coconut falls to the ground and sprouts, the milk inside of it curdles into a spongy substance. This is packed with nutrients, as well, and the villagers gather these 'grow coconuts' to munch on as treats. I've also seen them given to babies to suck on, like we use pacifiers. The sprouts of the 'grow coconuts' can also be eaten.
A dead, dry, brown coconut is harvested for its many parts. The husks are collected and stored to use as fuel for the village fires. They also make excellent, smoldering smoke to keep the bugs away. The shells form hot coals when burnt, and entire huts are filled with the little brown cups against the time when a fire is needed (which is every day, several times a day). Children also thread strings through them and walk on the upended coconut shells like stilts.
The meat of a dry coconut is harvested and set out in the sun to harden. This forms copra, which the islanders sell to the Japanese for pennies on the dollar as their primary source of income. The copra finds its way into many of the expensive lotions and foods that Western consumers are so fond of.
Dry coconut meat can also be grated, then wrung in a mesh of shredded vines to release the creamy milk, which sweetens the island's cooking pots.
Green coconuts (fresh from the tree), are harvested to drink. The soft meat inside can be eaten. Some trees produce green coconuts with sweet husks, and the kids chew on them like candy.

Dreaming of Food

After months of nothing but rice, coconuts, and things you can get out of a can, we all began to crave 'real' food. One morning over the breakfast mat my father related a dream he had, where he was fishing a carton of ice cream out of a refrigerator, and it kept melting before he could get it to his mouth. Meal times became dream fests. We would all take turns to relate what we would be eating, if we could.

"I want a bowl of Cheerios, and some cold milk," Matthew said. We all licked our lips and mmmmm'd in agreement. I gazed forlornly down at my own bowl of burnt granola we had made in a stone oven a week earlier, drenched in watered down powdered milk. I stirred it with my spoon and a little dead weevil came floating to the top, circling in the eddies my spoon left.

"I want some pancakes, with real syrup, lots of it, and scrambled eggs," Anna said. My mom made pancakes occasionally, but we ate them with peanut butter (for more protein, she said), and jelly from a can. Eggs were a rare treat, brought to us by the occasional village kid. We never knew if they were from chickens or ducks, or if we would find the nice little treat of a half-formed chicken embryo inside. I still can't crack open an egg today without a little shiver of horrified anticipation.

Nathan just sat there glumly, chopping at his granola with his spoon and waiting for his first opportunity to bolt.

"Danica, what would your ideal breakfast be?" My dad asked, turning to me. I thought a bit.

"I want Pop Tarts," I said. "The kind with frosting and sprinkles on them." Pop Tarts had only just come out when we left the States, and even then my family was too poor to buy them (and my mom was probably philosophically opposed to them anyway, because they had the dreaded 'too much sugar'). But I had tasted them at my Aunt Peebsie's house, crunchy and sweet, chewy on the inside, with sprinkles that stayed last in your mouth after everything else had gone. I took another bite of my granola and closed my eyes, imagining it was a strawberry Pop Tart. Yummm.....

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pandanas Trees and Annoying Kids

On hot days, I would go down to the ikua (woman's beach), and lay underneath a specific pandanas tree that grew right on the edge of the beach. There, the sand was always cool and dry, its soft powdery remnants left by countless waves that pushed against the shore. I could always count on a steady breeze sweeping in from the ocean, carrying stories of breached whales, buoys lost and freely drifting, and further lands whose peoples lived their lives separate from mine, yet connected by the same wind.

I would lie back, mounding sand underneath my head, and stare up at the pandanas' prickly leaves. They were always in constant motion, ceaselessly slapping back and forth against each other and the tree limbs. Occasionally I could see the blue sky through a gap, then it would be veiled by repeating layers of leaves, and a sky patch would appear in another place. The constant shift of light and green shadow had a mesmerizing effect on me, weighing my eyelids down and soothing my mind.

Pandanas trees grow clusters of long leaves like fingers from the end of each branch. They are a deep green, and serrated on both sides with vicious spikes. The islanders harvest the leaves, and dry them until they become sandy brown. They can then be used as thatch for the huts' roofs, or torn into little strips and woven into sleeping mats. This I knew, but the leaves still held wonder and mystery when they were animated by the wind.

Sometimes as I lay there in my quiet place, village kids would come and squat a few feet from me, sitting back on their haunches and noisily sucking on sweet coconut husk. They were tireless in their observation of me, sitting there for thirty minutes at a time, just on the off chance that I would do or say something. The suck-suck-suck-stare routine became so old to me, that I would inevitably glower at them and say, "haele" in my fiercest voice. I had been told that this word meant, "go". Delighted, they would laugh and punch each other, jabbering away. This ridicule was too much for me to take, and I would end up driven back home to the heavy stillness of our hut in the middle of the village. This constant annoyance was a part of my life until I gained the social capital of friends, who would yell at the little kids and throw rocks after them as they scampered away.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Jungle Fever

One morning, a few months into our stay on Luaniua, I woke up with a severe headache. The ache wasn't just in my head, come to think of it, but all over my body. I rolled over on my pallet and curled my knees to my stomach, willing it to stop hurting, as well.

My sister and brothers began stirring with the rest of the village outside. I could hear their feet crunch-crunching on the coral stones that covered our floor, and my mom digging for the right pot for the morning's breakfast. I heard the clicking sound as she pumped the little Bunsen burner, the cadence increasing in speed until there was a little pop as the released gas was ignited by a match. On the other side of the mat wall, I could hear chickens scratching fretfully for their breakfast, as well. Underneath it all was the constant, low, rolling thunder, felt as much as heard, as the ocean continued its quest to re-claim this little atoll unto itself.

My mom came in some time later, to see why I wasn't joining the rest of the family as they ravenously devoured the breakfast she had made them.

"I don't feel good, Mom," I said. She made the low, comforting murmur that comes inherent to all mothers worldwide, and returned to me a few minutes later with a thermometer. It felt cool and alien, poking against the tender flesh underneath my hot tongue. When it was time, she pulled it out, held it up to see against the light, and frowned.

"Here, honey, take some medicine for your fever," she said, and left me to rest. The day grew hot and sticky, and my achy body found no rest on the thin mat. Every way I turned, I could feel the coral sticking up at me, hard little nubs in my back, or my legs, or my arms, or my stomach. My stomach. Suddenly I sat bolt upright, lifted the mosquito net and vomited into the bowl my mom had set there for me. After that, I felt much better, and settled down into sleep.

By the time the sun had crossed the highest point, and begun to make the shadows long again in its descent into the sea, I was feeling much better. I even got up and ate dinner with my family (canned tuna on rice), and took a trip to the women's beach to relieve myself. I lay down to sleep that night hopeful for a full recovery tomorrow.

But the next day, I felt even worse than I had the previous morning. Now I had chills, and shook uncontrollably sometimes. I would get icy cold, and my nose ran and ran. I blew it on a lava-lava kept by the side of my bed so many times that the cloth soon became crusty and stiff, but I had no other choice but to continue blowing as my sinuses continued to fill up. My bed, encased in the mosquito net, felt like a cage. The thin, green mesh hung on strings from the ceiling, pressing down over and around me, closing me in, cutting off my air. The back room of our hut in which my bed lay was close and dark, filled with dusty shadows. The ambient air steadily warmed as the sun pushed relentlessly on the leaf roof above. There was no cross breeze to relieve the stuffiness, and even if a stray puff found its way in, it was blocked by the net around me.

My mom gave me more medicine for my fever and I finally fell asleep. This time my sleep was full of strange things. A boy with an animal's face would point at me and laugh and laugh. Fish jumped in and out of the ocean at enormous heights, making barely a ripple on the smooth water. Someone held a burning branch to my forehead, and it turned into a gecko which burrowed into my skull and reproduced there.

I awoke from my nap several hours later exhausted, but feeling better. My fever was gone. My body was sore all over, but my stomach was relatively quiet. I was not too cold or too hot, just very weak. Mom fed me some soup from a can when I came from my bed and sat draped against the wall in the common room of our hut. Maybe it was a forty-eight hour sickness, and I would feel better tomorrow once I had regained my strength.

Only I didn't. When the sun rose on the third day, I felt even worse, if possible, than the two mornings prior. When it came time for our daily radio sched, Dad sent out a help cry, talking to other, more experienced missionaries in our group who were scattered throughout the provinces of the Solomon Islands. Their response was immediate; I had malaria, caught from innocent mosquitoes that carried the bug among the islands. It is a cyclical illness that shows flu-like symptoms half the day, then regresses the other half, and gains strength as time goes on. My parents had the anti-malarial medicine, Chloroquine, in their medical supplies kit, and gave me a dose immediately.

I gagged on the bitter pill, which was chalky and stuck to the back of my throat stubbornly. It tasted as if it was coated in acidic vomit which had been dried and ground into a powder. I almost threw it up. My parents urged me to gulp water, which I did, and under extreme power of will managed not to hurl it, along with the rest of the contents of my stomach, all over the graveled floor.

I recovered quickly after that, but to this day have great difficulty swallowing any type of pill. My mouth still remembers the bitterness of that Chloroquine tablet. And anyone who had taken it will know what I mean.

Island Games

There was an open area right in front of our house that the village used as a central meeting place. It had an enormous tree, the biggest on the island, probably. Three of us kids with hands linked could barely reach around it. Its wise old branches stretched over the dirt commons (called the Marai) where the village feasts and meetings were held. It was under this tree's leaves that my father, before the rest of us came to the island, stood in front of the assembled village, awaiting their verdict as they debated whether or not they needed this foreign family to come and translate the bible for them.

The Marai, as it turned out, was also where the village kids would come to play their games when their household duties were done. Each day I would hide in the shadows of our front door, watching them as they played, squabbled, and ran around on bare feet made hard and wide by the life long absence of any restricting shoes. One day I ventured out to watch them from our gravel front yard, and was soon drawn closer to watch the game they were playing.

Each child had a collection of rubber bands on their wrist, worn like bracelets. They would each contribute a rubber band to the collective pot, which were then balanced on a little gallows a few feet from the group. Each child would take their turn at shooting at the hanging rubber bands; the child who knocked them to the ground, won the pot, and the whole game started over again.

My brother, Nathan, soon became proficient at this gambling game. He proudly wore his large collection of rubber bands that reached from his wrist, half-way up to his elbow. I wasn't allowed to play with him and his friends; village customs tabooed sisters and brothers to have much public interaction. But I would sit a little ways away, enviously watching him and his cool, older friends as they bantered and postured in their little-boys-turning-into-young-men way.

Sometimes I would play an island version of hop-scotch in the dirt of the Marai with the other little girls. There was no gambling involved, as in the boys' games, but you did move up in the childish pecking order among your peers if you got good at it. I was good at it. But not the best.

Monday, May 4, 2009


Of course, the rainbows rebuilt themselves. That is the good thing about being a dreamer; although the lows are very low, the highs are amazingly high, and the cycles continue to repeat themselves. We settled into the rhythm of our new life, accustoming ourselves to building the day around the high and low tides, whether or not the sun was shining, and the twice daily ringing of the church bell. After home schooling in the morning, my sister Anna and I would venture out into the village and see what fodder we could find for our imaginations.

One place we loved to play was the women's beach (called the ikua in language), at low tide. It was on the outside edge of the island, the one facing the open ocean. When the tide went out, it revealed the reef which circled the islands in the atoll like a shelf. It was a smooth expanse of rock, with indentations in the coral which held trapped whatever sea creatures and treasures left behind by the retreating waters.

One day, Anna and I sought out the ikua, with its steady, cool breeze coming off the great ocean, to take refuge from the heat of the day, and to find entertainment in exploring the tide pools. We picked our way out across the naked reef, collecting treasures as we found them; an odd shell, the purple spike a sea urchin left behind, bits of blue and green sea glass.

Together we spied a particularly large shell. We both grabbed for it at the same time; I got there first. "Danica, I saw it first! It's miiiiiine!" my little sister complained.

Knowing I had the upper hand (possession is nine tenths of the law, after all), I raised my eyebrows archly and didn't say anything.

"Dan-eeeeeeeek-ah!" I could see her grow frustrated and smiled smugly to myself. It was fun to bait Anna and see how far I could push her frustration until she finally exploded in anger. We continued to argue as our feet led us further out towards the edge. Anna made a snatch for the shell I was holding, and I bounded away from her, stretching my legs to leap from one exposed spot to the next.

Except, I didn't land on dry, protruding reef. I landed in water. I landed in something's home. A long, slippery, writhing something, that shot out from under my bare foot clear into the air and splashed into the next tide pool over. It was an eel, two feet long and as round as a coke can, twisting itself angrily into frenzied figure eights as it sought refuge from my rude intrusion. It was as if Jello had solidified and come alive under the arch of my foot. A great shiver of horror spread in a wave up my leg, body and to the tips of my ears. My sister and I shrieked as only little girls can, dropped the sea trash we had gathered, and sprinted to the beach, skimming the exposed reef on our tippy-toes until we reached the safe sand.

There is an island word for what happened to me that day: koa. It means 'it serves you right', or 'you got what was coming to you'. If only Anna had already learned that word, she would have said it to me.

"Koa, Danica."