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.