Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold Days

There is a winter front finally moving in to our little New Mexico town.  The blustering wind and grey skies naturally take me back to the 'cold' days on my island.

Cold, in Luaniua, would come during the monsoon season, when clouds obscured the sky for weeks on end, and everything was dripping.  It would storm so hard, that rain would drive through the mat walls of our house, soaking the veranda.  Wind would whistle up through the louvered windows and the open slats of our floor.

Wetness was everywhere.  It clung to my bed sheets and pillow, it ran in little rivulets from the overflowing gutters of our house and the church just beyond.  All my clothing grew little black spots of mould, and the sour sweet smell of it was everywhere.

On these days, Mom would heat cans of soup on her Bunsen burner and we'd scarf it down, poured over steaming bowls of rice.  Occasionally, if it was a special day, she'd pull out a few packets of carefully hoarded hot chocolate, and pop up a handful of popcorn kernels. 

Sitting in my corner, lost in a favorite book, I would dip each salty white puff in the fragrant hot chocolate.  Eaten this way, a mug of the dark sweetness could last over an hour.  I would read and slowly eat, while the rain beat staccato overhead and little bursts of mist thrust occasionally at me through the louvres.  It was delightful to feel cold.  To hear the tempest outside but be safe inside, as if I was cheating Nature and she was raging back at me because of it.  Days like these would transport my soul back to America and the warm safety of our family home in the winter time.

But now, as the Northern wind shakes the pine tree behind my house, my heart flies back to the time of safety, simplicity, and popcorn dipped in hot chocolate.

The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows,
blowing this way, then that—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place,
and then start all over and do it again.
~from The Message

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ma Ling Madness

We were getting ready to get on the ship, headed from Luaniua into Honiara, the capital city and wonderland of running water (right in your house!), electricity, and shopping.  Mom and Dad had divvied up the remaining cans of food we had, because we wouldn't be back in the village for another few months, and they would go bad by then.  The night before the ship came, we had dinner at a local translator's house.  His wife served us rice, with cans of Ma Ling dumped on top, and hot, sweet tea. 

For the uninitiated, Ma Ling is the Asian equivalent of Spam ... but the meat's not as high quality.  As kids, the stuff was our filet mignon.  We'd eat it chopped up in Ramen noodles, fried, on top of rice, or stir-fried with pumpkin greens and onions.  Yum.  This particular night, we ate it island style, straight up with a side of rice.  After the meal, us kids played in the fragrant darkness, while the adults sat and talked in the glow of the kero lamps. 

Slowly, I began to feel something creeping up my stomach.  An invisible fist attached itself to my midsection, and over the course of the next half hour, began to squeeze ever more tightly.  I left my companions to lay on a mat just beyond the perimeter of light.  A few feet from me, my mom had checked out on another mat.  The vise continued to squeeze, and my stomach gave a horrible lurch. 

Something was said about a can of meat, which 'popped' when opened, and smelled a little different.  Guess who it had been served to?

I don't remember how they got us home.  All I remember about the rest of that night is darkness, and the feeling of my stomach being physically ripped out of my body.  Dad set my mom and I up in the veranda of our little hut, on coconut mats and a pillow covered in towels.  He placed a metal bowl by my head, which I was repeatedly sick into.  Anna would take it down to the ocean, empty it, and by the time she got back I had already filled another bowl.  It felt like somebody was playing string games with my intestines.  If felt like my midsection had been flattened by a steam roller.  It felt like I was ejecting the entire contents of my abdomen, organs included. 

Some time during the night, Father Nehemiah (our Anglican priest), came to our home with a chalice of holy water.  He prayed over us, anointed us with oil, then gave us the water to drink.  I didn't want to drink it.  My lips curled, my throat closed.  My stomach rose to meet my voice box.  I knew I was going to die that night.  Somehow, the priest and my father convinced me to put the cup to  my lips and receive just a sip of the blessed water.  It was the first time I had raised my body up all night.  I fell back on my pillow, stomach heaving, tears streaming.

I must have fallen asleep after that, because the next time I opened my eyes, the hopeful sun was greeting the greying sky.  Looking slowly around, I could see the scattered bowls, splatters of sick on the floor, soiled clothing and sheets crumpled against the mat walls.  My middle felt calm.  My whole body was wobbly and a little shaky.

I could hear children's voices shouting 'keva'a!' (ship) from the ocean side of the island, and closed my eyes again.  In another day, we would be boarding for the long, three day boat ride to Guadalcanal.  For now, I rested.

Monday, December 27, 2010

New! Netflix Movie Mondays

So I don't know if it's the growing up without a TV, or the 10 years of American pop culture that I missed while overseas, but I like to watch it.  A lot.  I admit it. 

We got rid of our satellite service a year ago when I discovered, and subscribed to Netflix.  We went from paying $80 a month, to $10.  Bonus!  Ever since then, I've been mining the infinite collection of movies, TV shows, and documentaries that Netflix has to offer, and have come across some really great ones.  So great, in fact, that I've decided to dedicate my Monday blog posts to movie reviews.  The reviews will be 1) from Netflix movies, and 2) from streaming Netflix movies (because most days I'm too impatient for the mail).

Without further ado, here is the movie I'm choosing for this, the first installment ...

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

I avoided this documentary for a long time, even though Netflix considerately kept reminding me that I might like it, based on other movies I had showed interest in.  The synopsis read, "Hailing from Boone County, W. Va., mountain dancer Jesco White may be the most famous member of the White clan -- thanks to the 1991 documentary The Dancing Outlaw -- but he's hardly the most colorful. This film focuses on the rest of the brood."  Hmmm.  A film about a bunch of dancing Appalachian hillbillies?  Thanks, I'll pass. 

I decided to give it a try a few days ago, and boy, was I wrong.  I was hooked from the very first scene, an interview from Mamie White, second generation in a string of five shown in the documentary.  The Whites were revealed to be an extremely intelligent, extremely volatile clan who live by their own rules and an 'f you' attitude to the rest of society and the law.  The film followed the family for a year, recording the inevitable chaos and drama that flowed as a result of their dysfunctional, drug plagued lives.

Story lines include a granddaughter, Kirk White (third generation), who you meet in her initial interview, which she conducts in a pill induced haze. She relates in vivid detail how she stabbed her ex, while her 8 year old son does back flips on his bed, then cheerfully tells the camera that he will cut the man's balls off.  It is later revealed that Kirk is pregnant with the same man's baby, shows her snorting crushed up pills in the hospital after the baby's birth, and then follows her struggle to regain her daughter (who CPS took away).

Mousie White, Mamie's daughter, is released from prison and goes on a mission to find her cheating, deadbeat husband. With her teen daughter in tow, she finds him with his pregnant girlfriend, then takes him home with her, stopping twice on the way to pick up a case of beers, and to visit the pharmacy where they got married.

Jesco White (second generation) is a washed up local celebrity, deemed 'Appalacian Royalty' by some, famous for his unique style of tap dancing which he inherited from his father.  He "lost half my brain cells, but I don't know which one", sniffing gasoline for 10 years straight.  People say he can tell high octane from regular unleaded fuel just based on the smell.  With a tattoo of Elvis and Charles Manson on his back, Jesco lives to party, but has intense struggles with his inner demons. 

This film had me laughing at some parts over the sheer absurdity of the way these people live, and shaking my head at others over their blatant depravity, and the depths of darkness that dominates their every day lives.  It swings from humorous to saddening, an extremely raw look at how dysfunction, violence, and drug addiction can be passed on from one generation to the next.  Watch at your own risk, as it is very graphic and at times just plain raunchy.

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Tradition. It's about repeating the same things over and over again, year after year. Pretty soon, these repetitious actions start to feel like an old, favorite sweater, or a childhood comfort blanket. Safe, secure, grounding.

For a month now, I've been focusing with the kids and Scott on celebrating the season. We've made a gingerbread house (from scratch, thank you very much), read a part of the Christmas story every night and acted it out with our Fisher Price nativity set, toured neighborhoods at night to see the lights, listened to favorite Christmas CD's over and over again. All this, to build up to 'The Day', a short 12 hour period that had better be joyous and perfect, because we anticipate it all year, darn it.

Now, the trash is overflowing with wrapping paper, the sink with dishes, there are pine needles stuck in the carpet, and I'm left pondering the frenetic month I've just spent. Part of me wonders, why did I work so hard to create all those memories and reinforce the traditions? The nice answers, of course, include, 'so that the kids will have fond memories of childhood', 'to make Christmas about more than just the gifts', 'to spend time together as a family.'

But if I'm really honest with myself? If I really examine it all closely? If I pull back the pretty nice things, what is beneath? Beneath, deep, deep beneath, it is fear. Fear of not connecting. Fear of losing time. Fear of knowing that nothing in life really ever stays the same, that there is no real stability.



It's my comfort blanket, this frantic memory making. It is a constant need to connect, to belong, to take a quick snapshot before it's all uprooted again. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I get so frantic to create the tradition, that all enjoyment and peace is taken out of it.

Case in point:

We had arranged to video chat with my parents during our present opening time, so that (again), we could be connected while apart. When it came time, I could not get my computer to work. My kids and husband were sitting there, waiting to enjoy the moment we'd all been anticipating, and all I could think about was suppressing the rising anxiety because I couldn't get my blasted computer to work.

How ridiculous! I was robbing my family of a beautiful moment, because I just couldn't let go. And live. In the moment.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Beauty of a Woman

I saw it in a friend today. That deep, flowing river of strength unique to our sex. Her face was etched in lines of hurt and worry, I could almost physically see the mass of her burden pressing down on her. Her eyes pulled down, hiding behind protective lids. Everything about her drooped and blurred, as if she was a watercolor painting left out in the rain.

And yet, underneath it all, miraculously, I saw so clearly a deep current of strength flowing through her. It was beautiful. Abiding. Swift. Sure. Constant. I saw, and I understood the true beauty of woman.

What makes us beautiful is not really a Grecian profile. It is not bone structure, eye color, the curve of the neck or soft pearling ear. Woman's true beauty lies in the duplicity of emotion and strength.

We are feeling creatures. We filter our experiences, interactions and relationships through a tangled, interconnected web. Everything connects to our heart on some level. In a way, this makes us weak. Dependent. Easily swayed.

At the same time, women have a strength that is as deep and unchanging as the sea. The very thing that weakens us, our emotions, also gives us an under girding steadfastness. It is the strength of a mother who is up every hour during the night with a sick child. It is the strength of a wife holding it together for the sake of her man. It is the woman who miscarries her baby, but in the midst of it has love and attention for her living children. It is loving so fiercely that it is impossible to let go.

It is beautiful, this undercurrent of strength that flows from the breaking heart of a steadfast woman.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Epic Boat Trip: Prayer and Reunion

We were kindly fed from one big bowl of rice with ramen noodles sprinkled on top, with a mug of syrupy tea apiece. Then, the kind woman showed us into a side room that had foam mattresses, pillows, and blankets spread across the floor. "Go sleep," she said.

"Where are my mom and dad?" I asked, but she just smiled at me and repeated that I should lay down with my little brother and sister. Apparently, we had reached the limit of our ability to communicate with each other.

I spent the next several hours in our little nest, watching the soft lamplight filter gently through the open door. Soft wisps of air puff up through the slatted floor. The adults in the other room talked softly in a language I didn't understand. I could not relax and sleep like my siblings, although I knew it would be easier if I could escape into dreamland for a while. Although the woman and her family seemed nice, a little part of me was afraid of the new place, and didn't quite trust our hosts. I was afraid of a stranger coming into our room and doing bad things, unmentionable things, to us while we slept. I was deeply afraid that I would never see my parents again. I thought about the dark waves, menacing sky, and scrambling passengers of the Baruku, but here my brain balked and wouldn't let me imagine the horrors that could await my family still aboard. I wondered how I could get my siblings and I back to Honiara, or if we would be stuck on this island, alone. I was too young to know about the network my parents had with other missionaries and Islanders around the country. Eventually, I just prayed over and over again a simple prayer: "Please, Lord, help my mom and dad and brother be ok. Please, Lord, help them to be ok."

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, a close friend sat watching the news as he drank his morning cup of coffee. Flipping through the channels, he stopped for a minute on the weather. "There is a hurricane system picking up steam in the South Pacific," the announcer intoned, as a map flashed up on screen. The man slowly put down his coffee, and started to pray.

I must have eventually dozed off, because the next thing I was aware of was dimly hearing a familiar voice in a familiar language from the other room. A silhouette darkened the doorway and I shrunk back, the nightmarish fears returning to my foggy mind in full force. The next instant, though, my mother had come fully into the room and was kneeling beside me, stroking my face and hair. "Oh, Mom, I thought you were ..."

"Shhhh," she said gently. "It's ok. You didn't need to be worried. We're here. Everyone's ok." I wanted to get up and hear the whole story then, but she kissed me back to sleep. Next morning, I awoke to brilliant sunshine and my parents and brother all no worse for the wear except for being tired and still a bit damp.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Epic Boat Trip - The Village

What choice did I have? Although trusting a stranger who I couldn't even communicate with scared me, staying alone on the barren beach scared me even more. I swallowed the lump in my throat, took my sibling's hands in each of my own, and followed the woman's beckoning.

She led us up to a firmly beaten path through the low scrub that fringed the beach. Past the initial mangroves and coconut trees, a little village sat protected. The huts were a haphazard mix with timber frames, coconut mat walls, and some corrugated aluminum roofs shone industrially against the tropical lushness. Here and there, a coconut broom, just a bundle of stripped coconut leaves tied tightly at one end, leaned beside a doorway. Clotheslines were strung among the huts and trees, the clothes dripping and grey now from the recent storm. Tendrils of smoke eased themselves out through the leaf roofs or up from under the eaves of the aluminum ones. Everything was dripping with heavy, overpowering tropical life.

Our guide came to a stop outside a house that was slightly larger than the rest, and unique in that it stood about three feet off the ground on round, thick stilts. I caught a glimpse of some chickens huddled underneath. Another woman was standing in the doorway. Her eyes, which I noticed first, were a warm, kind brown, slanted slightly and almond in shape. Her gently curling hair framed her face softly, and seemed to blur into the dimness behind her. "Hello," she said, smiling, in thickly accented English. "Come."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Epic Boat Trip - Landfall

Once inside the lagoon, the waves were calmer and we sped along the top of them towards the beach. The ocean, as fiercely independent as a headstrong toddler, tames once it has been encircled by a firm embrace of reef. A lagoon is a well of life, an undersea Eden where plant and animal sea life abound in prismatic color. It is a world waiting to be explored once you break the surface.

The island we were speeding towards sat low on the horizon. Little more than a glorified sand bar, Sikaiana sprouted coconut trees and houses, looking oddly like a head submerged in the water, with only the forehead and hair sticking above surface.

The beach in front of us was filled with brown figures. Sikaiana was a sister island to our Luaniua, and many of the people on the ship were kin in some way with these islanders. They had come out of their huts to anxiously watch the drama unfolding beyond the reef.

We touched shore, and several boys ran forwards to drag the canoe further onto the sand. The occupants of the little life boat all piled out, and somebody lifted my sister, brother and I onto the beach. Although the rain had finally stopped, dusk had now fallen over the storm darkened sky. The beach quickly emptied of people. Anna, Matthew and I stood there, holding each other's hands. We had nothing with us except for the clothes we were wearing. I don't think we even had shoes on. I thought about my mom, dad, brother, and the Aussie teacher who had been on the ship with us. Out beyond the reef, the Baruku sat low and dejected, an almost indiscernible black spot against the lighter blackness of the sea. I looked around myself. We were standing in the middle of an empty beach in the semi-darkness. I had started contemplating sitting down and waiting to see if my parents would show up, when a kind faced woman approached me.

"Hamai inei, okou haikama emoe kehale anau la," she said. I looked blankly at her. She repeated, this time using summoning motions and came a few steps closer to us. We drew together even more tightly. I was afraid of her foreign tongue and the unknown village she was beckoning us towards. My younger siblings looked at me as I stood in indecision on the alien beach.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip - Shipwreck pt 2

I sat there, huddled in the rocking dinghy. A yard from us was the hungry reef, with ocean frothed above it in perpetual breakers. The receding waves showed a 5 foot channel between the jagged coral heads, repeatedly filled and emptied with each swell. The reef grinned at us from beneath the traitorous surf, dripping in malicious expectation. Salt water slapped up against the low sides of our craft. Low hanging clouds spit rain down in our faces.

There was a man piloting our little life boat. He sat at the very back, his hand gripping the outboard motor's throttle, his eyes inscrutable slits against the elements. A Polynesian Charon. He studied the rise and fall of the grinding surf in the little channel, all our lives depending on his skill of reading the water. One seconds delay would catch us in the backwash of surf, a flow too powerful for our little motor, and we'd be swept back out to sea at the best, or dashed against the rocks at the worst. The coral here was ribbed in rows of living stone as fine and as sharp as razor blades. Soft flesh and the weakness of human muscles would prove no match for all the vast, ageless pull of the ocean surf. Once in the water, the waves will tumble you up, around, and speed you down in a quick, vicious somersault onto the jagged reef. Pray that you will already be dead when the waiting sharks get to you.

We waited as our Charon judged each wave. I was perversely reminded of playing jump rope, watching the great curve slowly rise up, then fall again with precision through the moment of truth, back to the ground and up again. He suddenly gunned the motor, and we sped on the front of a rising wave, breathless and gripping each other. A wall of spray smacked my face as the bow of our little craft assaulted the tumult over the reef. Salt was up my nose and on my tongue. The boat rocked precariously to one side as the ocean angrily made its strength felt. Our driver urged his little engine even higher. There was a moment of gasping, breathless struggle. Then man triumphed over nature. Inertia was overcome, we surged forward and the next instant were safely within the womb of the lagoon.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


We lived for a few months in a little Anglican priest training school on Guadalcanal, called Kohimarama. Kohi for short. This was right after we got back from our US furlough my sixth grade year. I hadn't lived in the bush since village living days in Papua New Guinea, so it was an experience living more than one hundred yards from the beach.

Kohi consisted of a mix of adult students with their families, local teachers, and foreign teachers. My dad was filling in the bible translation teaching position, and I really wasn't thrilled to be there. I had been plucked out of sixth grade right after Christmas, just as I had been feeling like I was starting to fit in and make friends. I had learned important things like: '90210' is not somebody's phone number. It is very important where you sit at the lunch table. There is no such thing as a $2 bill in US currency (after a prolonged discussion with my math teacher).

Instead of going immediately back to Luaniua, where I already had connections and a reasonable expectation to fit in, we went inland to Kohi for a few months. Here, again, I was surrounded by the unknown. There was some crazy jungle bird that lived in the wetness behind our house, and shrieked a deaf child's cry of pain at all hours, day and night. The Melanesian culture was foreign to me, seemingly untrusting and closed off compared to the more open Polynesians I was used to. Instead of being viewed with collective indulgence as 'our adopted white girl', dark eyes followed me everywhere and people gave me the wide berth of an outsider. I spent a lot of time in my room, where I had stapled snapshots of Austin and West Ridge Middle School to my wall.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Valley of Decision

"Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision" ...

I know it's from the bible, from Revelation, talking about the multitudes of people who have not yet made a choice for or against the Living God. But tonight, for me, it is the phrase that repeats itself like a skipped record over and over again in my mind. I feel like I'm standing here, in a valley of decision, the deepest I've encountered so far in my life. Behind me stretches two years of preparation, planning, and prayer. In front of me, a darkness, the hidden future, my immediate destiny. Only God knows.

I've stood in other valleys of decision in my life. The first I can remember is when I decided whether to join my family in the Solomons, or finish high school in the States, alone. Where to go to college was another one, an easy decision bolstered by my faith in a good and providing God. Choosing to give Scott my heart was scary. But I trusted him, and I trusted my God. Moving to New Mexico while pregnant was hard, but the choice was easy and clear because of all the opened doors and divine provision.

This valley is different, because the decision is not mine to make. Scott and I already made our choice to run for this political office. I now stand, with the steep climb behind me and darkness ahead, empty and poured out, with everything on the line --- waiting to see what thousands of voters will choose tomorrow. I am empty, frayed, worn, standing here with only one certain thing to cling to:

I know that when 7:00 pm rolls around tomorrow, my God will be with me. My faith is not in what I believe He has told me, or promised to me, or will give me, but in who I know He is. I know God is always with me. He will never leave me or forsake me. He is with me always, even to the end of the age. He doesn't owe me anything. He has His own reasons for exalting some, for choosing one over another. All in this world is just sifting sand, and the only thing I have to cling to is that He is with me, and His purpose is higher.

I hope that when the darkness clears, when the decision has been made (whatever it is), my little heart will be able to trust still in my God.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Throw Back to the Simple Life

I took the kids to the park today. We went not to a tangled jumble of slides and metal railings, but to the open, wind-swept stillness of a pee wee soccer field. We brought along a $1 bottle of bubbles, and a Little Mermaid kite, and camped out on the lonely bleachers.

I sat with elbows propped against the step behind me, stretching my sun hungry face to the open sky. Beside me, Alexander explored the metal bleachers in his determined, 16 month old way. He carefully got on the lowest step, and walked along it with one hand out to catch himself as he navigated the narrow plank. He left a sticky trail of drool along the way, and a line of baby snot eased itself unnoticed by him onto his upper lip. His brow wrinkled in concentration as he put one foot in front of the other. Looking up, he caught my eye and grinned, "Look, Mom, at what I can do!"

Sophie had settled herself with her bottle of bubbles, and was intently trying to get the wand to produce. "Here, Sophie, let me show you," I said, reaching to take the bottle from her.

"NO!" Sophie yanked the bubbles to her chest and frowned at me. "I'll do it." I sat back a bit frustrated (why won't she ever let me just help her?!), and watched my little 3 year old as she went through the process of trial and error, until finally bubbles were floating along in the wind in front of us.

Usually, our trips to the park leave me harried and stressed. I'm constantly on alert, watching to make sure somebody's not in danger of falling, or needs to be pushed on the swings, or caught at the bottom of a slide, or dumping a box of crackers on the sand. Here, with no distractions, the three of us focused in on the simple things. I studied how the grass grew long and slender below the bleacher steps, and then was reminded how the sun creates rainbows on soap bubbles as one floated past me. How long had it been, I wondered, since I've just sat and taken in the world around me? What am I doing to my children, by not providing more simple opportunities such as this one to explore their world?

Meanwhile, Xander came upon an indentation in the grass where water had collected. He charged along full speed ahead, oblivious to the obstacle until he had splashed full force into it. Surprised, he sat down, and muddy water immediately soaked his pants. I grinned to myself and watched to see what he would do. My baby looked at me with a look of stark betrayal in his eyes - "How could you let this happen, Mommy?" - gave one surprised squawk, then thought again about being upset and decided he liked being wet and dirty. He spent the next ten minutes running out of the puddle, then in again, squatting in it, batting his hands in it, stomping on it, and poking at it.

After a while the kids got tired of our present situation, and we wandered over to explore a deep drainage ditch that ran between the soccer fields and the parking lot. "Come on, let's go on an adventure and see what we can find!" I said, grabbing Alexander's hand.

Sophie wasn't too sure, and hung back. "No, Mommy, I don't want to. I just want to stay here."

"Ok, you can just stay here and watch while Bubba and I explore," I said, letting her have the space to test the unknowns for safety. I led Alexander down the slope into the rock-lined ditch. It was really very steep, and once in it, I could not see above ground level. Sophie, her mind made up, was right behind us.

We spent the next twenty minutes or so exploring. I sat on a dry rock and watched the two little blond heads bob along as they met their world. Sophie hopped in between puddles with her feet together and a stick in her hand, punctuating each jump with, "Hop ... hop ... hop ... look, Mommy, I found a pine cone!" Her brother, on the other hand, sought each puddle out as an ocean to conquer, and splashed happily through them all. He climbed up the rocks, sliding down again on his little butt into a pile of leaves.

Soon it was time to go. I packed up the kids into a grocery laden car, gathered the half empty bottle of bubbles and discarded jackets and stuffed them in, as well. I drove away with an increased longing for a simpler life, one in which there are no schedules to follow or events to attend. A life spent befriending the sun and wind, getting up close and personal with weeds and caterpillars. A life with less clutter and more open spaces.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Flip the Switch

I have a memory of the time period between SIL training, and our departure to the Solomons. We had been in Dallas for a year, my parents attending linguistics training in preparation to go overseas. After this sojourn, we went back to Austin for just a few months, to bide the time before we got on the plane to fly into the unknown. My dad had taught us a few songs in Pijin - 'Jesus Loves Me', and some other typical Sunday school fare.

Returning to Austin should have been returning to the familiar, but I was already learning an underscoring theme of my life, that every move means change. Even if I move to a familiar place, the people have changed, moved on, grown. It leaves an unsettled feeling, like wearing glasses of the wrong prescription. Everything is just slightly off.

We went to our 'home' church, after having been gone for a year. My parents dropped the four of us off in our respective classes, but somehow I got mixed in with the older kids. I was scared of their big bodies and loud voices. I didn't know any of the teachers. My brother Nathan was sitting towards the very front and didn't see me. I retreated to the back of the room, crawling underneath a table, and sat there hugging my knees to my chest. I could just see out across the floor at all the children participating in the flannel graph story.

I hid from the room's occupants for most of the allotted hour, sitting separated and afraid under the overhang. My feeling of isolation grew as people continued not to notice me. Perversely, as I shrank deeper into the shadows I grew angry at being overlooked and abandoned there.

The teacher began to sing, 'Jesus Loves the Little Children'. I tried to sing along, but my confused mind could not remember the English words to the song. Pijin came to my tongue, and I started to cry as my brain locked down. It scared me that I could only remember the foreign words to the familiar song, words of a language I hadn't really even learned yet.

An adult finally noticed me crying beneath the table, and kindly came to help me up. My tears increased as my brain refused to operate with my mouth. The two languages became crossed on my tongue. I was desperate to communicate, but couldn't.


Now, looking deep into my heart, I wonder if that little girl is still there, hiding with her tongue tied, unable to do anything except to cry from frustration and confusion, lost in the shuffle as life plays out around her. I have spent so much of my life suspended between cultures. Anna and I were talking today about the duplicity of growing up third culture, and she hit the nail on the head. "When somebody isn't right in front of me, they don't exist to me," she said. "It's like I just flip the switch and they're gone, and I don't have to feel anything." That's exactly how I feel, too. It is way too difficult to deal with every change, every goodbye, every loss.

I left America the first time - flip the switch, move on. I left Honiara for Luaniua - flip the switch, move on. I left Luaniua again for Honiara - flip the switch again. Every time I leave a place, even if I'm going somewhere I've been to before, it's a new loss, because the people have all changed. They don't put their lives, growth and development on hold just because Danica's leaving. So the little Danica inside of me is still hiding underneath her table, not sure really of where she is, what language to speak, who all these people are, and with each flip of the switch I shove another suitcase packed with relationships and experiences under there for her to keep with her.


All this revelation comes after a day spent in tears, the source of which I was at a loss to find. I was thinking about missing my mom today, as I folded laundry, and tears came up out of my heart like a faucet had been turned on deep inside of me. An hour later, they still hadn't abated, and all I knew was that I needed to talk to somebody. I called an older woman who I trust, but don't know well (hadn't let in), and she lovingly listened as I blubbered like a seven year old, trying to put into words what was churning in my heart. Translating my feelings into words, going from my heart's language to common English was difficult, but she stuck with me, prayed with me, and I got a few of those suitcases opened.

My biggest realization today was that there is more hidden in my heart than I had ever suspected. With every change, every flip of the switch, I have neatly packed up all my previous relationships, emotions and experiences and hidden them deep in my heart. This blog is becoming more and more difficult to write, because as I look at the events of my life, I inevitably must unpack and examine the contents of every hidden suitcase stowed in the recesses of my heart. So when I'm not writing, you will know why - I'm just trying to get brave enough to open another one up. Bear with me, please. I invite you, the reader, to come along with me on this journey into the unknown.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Epic Boat Trip pt. 6 - Shipwreck

Dawn was greying through the lashing rain and contending ocean swells. Everywhere around me, men were shouting, women screaming and children were crying confusedly. Anna, Matthew and I huddled with our mom, who was shoving items into a plastic 5-gallon bucket.

The Baruku's engine had died just as we reached Sikaina, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific, sporting just one island the size of two football fields. Our ship had battled the biggest storm in decades all night, sputtering over towering waves, while the desperate sailors continuously poured engine oil into it, to keep it from seizing. Perhaps it was the prayers of the saints that kept the ship going all night, but it finally quit just on the ocean side of the island.

There was panic on deck. I looked over the side and saw the reef showing bright blue through the water, just yards from our ship's vulnerable hull. One wave could cast us against the rocks and we would be thrown at the mercy of the angry ocean. With the engine ominously silent, the pump was impotent against seawater seeping into the hull. We were taking on water at a continual rate. The Baruku had one life boat, with enough room for about 9 people. There were over 50 on board, half were women and children.

I couldn't see my dad or older brother, Nathan, anywhere. I think Nathan was helping with the life boat, and Dad was trying to get information from somebody about the status of our situation. Anna, Matthew and I scrambled to the highest part of the cargo hatch, watching Mom frantically decide what to shove into the bucket.

Just then, a solitary, brave canoe appeared through the waves. Its bright orange hull almost glowed against the gloom of rain and salt spray. Somehow, it made it over the dangerous breakers on the reef, and came up alongside our ship.

"We have room for 10!" the driver called. "Load up all the children!"

Before I knew what was happening, my dad had me in his strong arms, squeezing me tight and laying a kiss on my hair. "Danica, take care of your brother and sister," mom told me, looking deep into my eyes. I looked back at her uncomprehending. Then, I was being handed over the side of the ship into the fiberglass canoe. A seed of panic stirred in my chest. Anna and Matthew were passed down next to me, and sat on either side of me. Matthew, only 4 years old, clung to my wet shirt. I waited for my mother to join us, but more and more children, then two women came into the canoe. The driver said, "That's enough!" And we were pushed away from floundering ship.

Our canoe sat low in the water. We all clung together, leaning in towards the center to ballast it. Somehow, we stayed afloat over the crashing surf that was churned up by the reef, and were soon flying through relatively calmer swells towards the island. Rain and salt spray stung my face, and my wet hair whipped my cheeks. I had my head down over Matthew, and Anna clung to my other hand. I looked up for a second, and met the kind brown eyes of one of the two women who had escaped with us. I hated her in that moment, because she wasn't my mother. She said something to me in Polynesian which I didn't understand, but I looked away.
I thought about my mom, standing at the railing of the Baruku, her anxious face pale and drawn, shining like a beacon at me as I was carried away from her and the sinking ship.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 5 - The Storm

We passed through Auki with little fanfare, picking up some bananas and fried bread at the little, muddy market. The Baruku then turned East, heading out into deep sea for the little island of Sikaiana.

View Baruku Trip in a larger map

Standing on the bow of the ship that evening, I could see massive clouds building on the horizon in front of us. Turrets and fortifications added themselves to the towering structure as I watched, billowing up into the atmosphere and out across the sea. The space between clouds and sea turned black. As the sun descended behind us, the brave Baruku marched on toward the angry mass.

I went below as the wind picked up. Sailors were already lashing down the sides of the tarp that stretched over the cargo hatch. Soon, we were all enclosed in a dark little cocoon, rocking up and down on the increasing waves.

I tried to sleep that night. I know I must have, because periods of time would pass suddenly between long minutes of agonized waiting. Waiting for the sun to come up. Waiting for the storm to pass. Waiting to be sick. The ocean released its full fury on us in the night. The ship was tossed like a soap dish in a toddler's evening bath. We would ride up a wave, then fall with a heart sickening CRASH!, rock side-to-side madly to stabilize, and repeat the process all over again. People around me were groaning and puking over the side of the hatch onto the metal deck. The tight tarp closed in the smells of vomit, body odor and fear. Another wave of nausea socked me in the gut and even more acidic waste rushed up my esophagus and out of my mouth.

As I lay spent, I tried to gauge the incline of the ship when the deck in front of me dipped towards the sea. My mattress slipped a little a the steepest point, and everything that wasn't tied down slammed against the railings. Desperately, I flattened myself out, clenching my body into the mattress and hard wood below. Ocean rushed in to claim the deck for a few breathless moments. Then, the ship tipped back the other way, and I relaxed while the passengers on the opposite side of the hatch braced themselves.

The process continued on through the night. The faithful Baruku battled her way deep into the tempest. Far away in Austin, Texas, a man watching the news saw that there was a storm in the Pacific, near the island nation of Solomon Islands. God spoke a word to his heart, and he began to pray for us.

Dawn came dreary and wet. It brought hope in the form of a little black dot, sitting defiantly between grey sea and sky. Word quickly spread among the beleagured passengers that Sikaiana was on the horizon. By now I was past the point of caring, caught in the hellish cycle of slipping toward the sea and back up again, crashing down, vomiting, crying.

The island, however, slowly grew larger and larger as we approached it, until finally we were skirting the ocean side, a safe distance from the reef, soon to be on the lea of the island and finally sheltered from the storm. That's when the engine stopped.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 4 - Dolphins and Flying Fish

Next morning, children's shouts drew my attention away from my breakfast (dry Navy biscuits and bananas). I hopped down from my nest on the cargo hatch and climbed the ladder up to the bow of the ship. Kids were hanging over the railings at the front, pointing excitedly into the water. Pushing into a free spot, I looked down and saw the source of the commotion.

A school of dolphins was frolicking in the frothy furrows cut by the ship's hull. I watched in delight as the playful creatures leaped in and out of the water, chasing each other in their race to get ahead of the boat. We laughed and clapped and pointed at the playful abandon with which the dolphins carried out their dance below us.

Leaning over the railing, the sea breeze hit me full in the face, fresh and sweet. The sky had only a few token puffs of cloud, and had already turned bright, deep blue. The breeze must have been created by our movement through the water, because the ocean itself was stretched taut around us, like silk sheets on a slightly hilly bed.

Flying fish now joined the dolphins in the water around our ship. The funny little creatures would suddenly shoot out of the waves in a shallow arc, almost like a covey of quail startled from their bush. They looked like some medieval wizard had been dabbling in alchemy, and accidentally stuck leathery wings on a fish, or, from the top, like little silver airplanes sailing over the water. I sat down on the deck at the very edge, hanging my bare heels over the side, with my arms slung over the bottom railing. I let the breeze tickle my toes, and the kids push around me. I was sitting in that attitude when first land was sighted.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 3 - Asleep on the Cargo Hatch

I went to sleep that night curled up between my mom and sister on the little two-inch thick foam pads we'd put over our square of cargo hatch. I covered myself in a lava lava and lay there for a while, listening to the settling sounds around me. There was a cranky baby's cry, followed by steady and contented sucking as its mother put it to breast. The tarp overhead went 'slap, slap, flap' in the breeze. Rigging jingled and clanged against the metal posts and awnings. Two women talked quietly together in rhythmic Polynesian. Underscoring it all was the deep chug-chug as the Baruku made her patient way across the vast openness.

My mom, on the cargo hatch.

From where I lay I could see some of the horizon. The ocean breathed quietly, blue-black underneath the star scattered sky. The water was a calm, gentle friend tonight. The ship's lights spilled out onto the water in ethereal amber swatches. Stars looked down on us aloofly. I could just see Orion rising out of the sea. I always greeted Orion as my friend, because it was a constellation that I recognized from the Texas skies. Wherever in the world I traveled, Orion was my constant night time companion. He watched over me kindly as I finally let sleep take me that night.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, part 2 - Departure

The sun had completed its rapid descent into the sea. Its reds, yellows and golds were mopped up by the clouds, leaving the sky a tired plum fading to indigo. My mom, sister, youngest brother and I were clustered in a tight little group on the wharf, waiting for Dad to show us the spot he had secured for us on the cargo hatch. Nathan had disappeared with some friends to help load last minute items onto the ship.

The entire pier was packed with the sweating, brown bodies of both passengers and well-wishers, there to see their loved ones off. Harsh, electric lights illuminated the scene, glittering off of the inky water and various clanging metal fastenings. The harbor glistened ominously in the dark. Mike, our SITAG director who had brought us here, prayed briefly with my dad over us.

Mike always gave me the impression of a charming Southern gentleman, suddenly transplanted from his plantation porch into the tropical jungles of the Equator. He had a quizzical smile that you couldn't help responding to, like a father in a Normal Rockwell painting. His wife, Sal, spoke with a soft Georgian lilt. I don't know if I ever heard her raise her voice above the level of mild agitation.

"God's speed, guys," Mike said, encompassing us all with his reassuring smile. "Lukim iu." (See you later)

Anna, Matthew and I, with some SITAG 'cousins' and an Islander friend.

Some unspoken signal rippled through the crowd as the passengers all suddenly started boarding the boat. People swung up to the top deck from the wharf, aided by hands above and below, or jumped over the narrow space between dock and boat into the lower cargo area. A woman next to me grabbed her niece's face with both hands, and rubbed her nose on each cheek in the island good-bye kiss. Little tremors of change electrified my arms and legs, causing my hands to shake slightly and my brain to schiz from one unconnected thought to the next.

I climbed with my mom and sister onto the boat, grabbing friendly hands for support as I transitioned from the solid dock onto the gently rocking deck. Hair thin treads of anxiety wound themselves surely around my heart. Looking over the side, I could see the water, glossy in the darkness, alien and sinister.

Deep shouts from the men sounded as the fastenings were loosened of their moorings. The ship eased away from the restricting wharf. One foot. A yard. There was suddenly a yell of alarm. A young man had been talking on the other side of the boat and hadn't realized that it was departing. He raced to the wharf side, stood on the railing for a brief, breathless moment, and launched himself at the concrete pilings. He barely made it.

A second later, we were several yards away from the wharf and the engine kicked on reluctantly. I ran with Anna to the bow of the ship, claiming a spot against the railings. Behind us, the lights of Honiara spread cheerily up the hill. I savored my last look at the wonders of modern conveniences as we slowly chugged deeper into the harbor. The heavy, engine-oil smell of the wharf dissipated as a fresh ocean breeze claimed us. The air became cooler and lighter. The water, which from the dock had seemed ominous and angry, now embraced our little boat. We would spend the next three days cradled in its bosom, trusting it to treat us kindly and gently, helping us on our way.

As the last of Honiara's artificial lights faded behind me, I turned my face out towards the open sea and whatever adventure awaited me.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Epic Boat Trip, pt 1 - Guadalcanal

The trip started simply enough, with the six of us standing on the packed wharf in Honiara, the Solomon Islands' capital city. Honiara is nestled on the Northern face of Guadalcanal Island, a throw-back from the GI's fight against the Japs in WWII. It consists of a cluster of concrete block buildings that line a dusty main road, sidewalks that are stained red from betel nut spit, and piles of the inevitable assorted garbage and rotting brush inherent to all third-world cities. People from villages all over the Solomons live there, in the sprawling slums that spread backwards through the hills. These grass and jungle covered hills are peppered with old fox holes, rusty bullet cartridges, and even the occasional grenade, pin still intact. Every other Saturday, you can hear explosions as the government explodes two weeks worth of still-active bombs, grenades, and other live munitions left over from the War.

View Larger Map

The group we served with, SITAG (short for Solomon Islands Translation Advisory Group), had a couple of houses strung out along the first big hill that rose against the harbor. I remember one day, Matthew and some other SITAG kids were playing down in the valley behind the houses. They had found a heavy, rusty orb in the soft soil beneath a cassava plant, and were playing a game of hot-potato with it, throwing it back and forth over increasingly wider distances. They were standing about five yards apart when my mom caught them. "MATTHEW!!!" she yelled in the panicked, sharp voice instinctive to mothers across the world. It is the voice that says, 'you are doing something potentially life threatening, and you'd better ... stop ... NOW!'

"What is that? Bring it to me!" They all trooped up to her, and relinquished their plaything. Turns out, it was a still-active grenade. I don't have to tell you about the lecture we all got over the dinner table that night. You can probably imagine it.

We came in to Honiara for group conferences, and to have a respite from the harshness of village living every six months or so. We would enjoy the modern comforts of electricity, bakery made bread, flushable toilets, and (wonder of all wonders!) television. SITAG formed our little family away from home. We were all aliens in a foreign land, and bonded together into a sort of extended family. The other parents were my aunts and uncles, and the kids my cousins.

My family had been in Honiara for a few months, and it was time to return to the village. Mom had spent the past weeks stocking up for supplies to last us over the next six months. We loaded cases of canned food, buckets of rice and flour, Christmas and birthday presents to cover everyone, enough hygiene products to cover a family of six for half a year, dish soap, laundry soap, school supplies ... all these went into the hold of the rusty old cargo ship, the Baruku.

The Baruku, recipient of our hope and faith for the next three days, was an old freighter put out to pasture by the Japanese, but regarded by the Solomon Islands government as having many good voyages yet in her. The term 'rust bucket' could have been coined specifically for her. The decks turned your feet and hands orange from the rust. The engine had an odd knocking rhythm, and had to be kept continually going in order to pump out the water that constantly gushed through the many gaps in the hold. If you stood at railing and looked over the side, you could see the stream of water shooting out from the pump into the ocean. It was as round as the opening of a fire hydrant, and ran full force, constantly.

The cargo hold was filled with everything from our stuff (which probably took up half of it), to supplies for the village trade stores, bags of dried fish, coconuts, chickens, bolts of cloth, and anything else the villagers wanted to transport to or from the outer islands. Passengers on the Baruku slept under a tarp on the raised roof of the hold. My dad went out to the wharf hours before the rest of us got there in order to secure a spot for us to sleep on that coveted, elevated place. If you didn't get a place on the cargo hold, you were relegated to sleeping at the bow of the ship, which had no cover and you could get rained on, or on the deck itself. This was not optimum, because on the deck you were a target for any wave that splashed over the side, and in danger of being assaulted by the slosh of refuse that sought the lowest point; salt water, vomit, pee, pig poop, and engine oil, to name a few. There was one trip that I spent curled up across two barrels, because the cargo hatch was full. But on this time, we were lucky.