Monday, October 26, 2009

Liberia, Here I Come

So, I guess it is really happening.

My bag is packed (mostly), my students' report cards are finished, the sub plans are finished,  the sun will come up tomorrow, and I will depart for Monrovia.  It's a very long journey.  That is primarily because there are no direct flights from the United States to Liberia.  So,  first I fly From Washington Dulles around 6 p.m. to Brussels, Belgium.  My considerate Furball printed an article of fun things you can do in Brussels during a layover.  Alas, we won't be there that long, and the plan is to find a cozy spot in the airport to sleep.  Thanks, husband.  Maybe we can check out Belgium together some other time.

After a several-hour layover, we get on the plane to Monrovia.  We are set to arrive in Africa late at night on Wednesday.  You do the math.  My family must be thrilled to know that they won't be in my company after a 30-hour commute.

I've really been trying to get my heart in the right place in the past few days, primarily by opening myself to the Spirit and letting it do the work it needs to do with regard to me.  I've been acknowledging anxieties as they arise and trying to let them go.  I haven't decided yet if it's been a good idea to read the State Department alerts on Liberia before you go there.  It lists the worst things that could happen - things that happen anywhere and everywhere.  Part of me wishes they would say, "But this will definitely not happen to you."  Fight or flight reflex is kicking in a bit.  But there is nothing that can keep me from this trip!

So, I focus on the staff and students at The Bromley School, and wonder what fruit our encounter will bear.  I have no doubt there will be fruit, but I am pretty sure it will come in ways I cannot imagine right now.  So, I am open and have no expectations.  I'm trying to think of times when I have been open and without expectation, and I cannot think of one.  Hmm.  Guess I'll have to think about that.

I am the kind of person who will read the end of a novel if it is too suspenseful and go on Wikipedia to learn the plot (and ending) of a movie I'm watching - especially if it's too violent.  I can't Wiki this trip or read the ending.  I just have to be present and experience it.

So, one of the ways that I have been preparing my Self for this trip has been to turn to the Carmelite prayer book (The People's Companion to the Breviary) that I love so much.  Yesterday, I did morning prayer and decided to "look ahead" to tomorrow's reading.  Just to see if I could get a hint as to what I can expect as I leave on The Biggest Trip Ever.  God, in His tender mercy, must have taken pity on me because the prayer was wonderful.  Either that or He knows that I can't stand the unknown, and knew this was a good way to get to me.  He knows my "curiosity."  Some may call it a futile need to be in control.  I choose curiosity.  Sue me.

Here's the readingr.  I'm taking it with me and praying it for me.  Please join me.

We are truly on the way with Christ, our Hope and our Promise, if we live a life of thanksgiving for all that God has already revealed and done and of vigilance for what (God) wants us to do in the present moment, even if God wants to surprise us and lead us where we did not want to go.  For those who put their trust in Christ, everything, even the most insignificant or the most unpleasant event, becomes a sign of grace and hope, a school of vigilance for the coming of our Lord.
                                                      --Bernard Haring, Prayer: The Integration of Faith and Life, p. 29. 

So, off I go.  I will not be able to post or blog, as I will not have access to internet in Liberia.  I plan to journal and take many, many pictures and will post them as blogs when I return.  Please pray for me and my fellow missioners, for the children and staff at The Bromley School, and for the good people of Liberia.

Oh, and God, I can't wait to see how you surprise me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

In Praise of Church Ladies (and Gentlemen) Everywhere


Yesterday, I attended the funeral of a Consummate Church Lady.  Church Lady was intelligent, compassionate, engaging, demanding, and delightful.  She lived a long life with obvious commitment to her faith, family, and community.

My fondest memories of her are serving on the altar guild with her several years back at the Little Church in PVille.  Or, better yet, under her.  (Insert curtsy here)  Church Lady would arrive on Saturday morning with her Devoted Husband and take charge:  Do not dare to touch the brass without white gloves! Candlesticks are to be placed precisely one hand-width from the altar's edge.  Silver must be polished.  Linens wrinkle free.  Only the most courageous guild members would arrange flowers in her presence.  I never had enough confidence in my sense of symmetry and design to subject myself to her critique.  I stuck to scrubbing lipstick stains out of purificators.  

Church Lady taught me how to launder altar linens the traveling salesman way.  Wash and rinse their handkerchief in the sink, then neatly press it to the countertop, flattening any bubbles and wrinkles.  In the morning, voila!  It appeared as though it had been carefully starched and ironed. I learned so much from her.

She wasn't a close and intimate friend.  She wasn't perfect, could be quite cantankerous, and downright bossy.  Yet, she was an important person God placed in my life. As I sat in her funeral and participated in the liturgy, I was reminded of so many people who have blessed my life through our shared participation in the community of faith.

It's as if I have my own Cloud of Witnesses from churches past and present who continue to bless my life because of this common experience as members of the Body of Christ.  Anyone who has been a part of a faith community knows full well (if they remove the Rose-Colored glasses) that perfection amongst peers is not something you witness in the church.  The argument that members of a faith community are hypocrites because they are sinners makes no sense to me.  We are members of a community of faith because we are sinful, we know it, and we wish to do better and be better.  We need to love and be loved.  We need to forgive and be forgiven.

I remember studying David years back and wondering how in hoohah God could have chosen such a repulsive man to do such important work.   It took a while, but with the help of my friends, I think I began to get it.  If God chose and loved someone who did things as reprehensible as David, God can love and choose someone like me.  Whew.

So right now, thanks to Consummate Church Lady, I am warmly reminded of and grateful for so many who have touched and continue to touch my life.  The memories and experiences aren't all warm and fuzzy.  Oh heavens no.  There are  times when church politics, egos, misunderstandings, lack of communication, tempers, and different takes on theology made times tough.  Very, very tough. 

But, something like the funeral of an imperfect yet faithful church pillar, humbles me.   All of the petty clay-foot human garbage we carry like heavy bags on our backs drops like the scales from Paul's eyes.  For a brief, and shining moment, All Is Well. The unifying factor in the room full of sinners is the grace of forgiveness and love.  I have never experienced anything as encouraging and transforming as that.  Thanks be to God. 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Minds on the Edge

Today, I write of mental illness.  I just finished watching the Fred Friendly Seminar, Minds on the Edge online.  It is a fascinating program with a format where Moderator Frank Sesno unfolds hypothetical stories about people and families struggling with severe mental illnesses and asks the program panelists to put themselves in the shoes of these characters and talk about what they would do if faced with this situation.

Do you remember the old Roberta Flack song, "Killing Me Softly?"

Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,
Killing me softly with his song,
Telling my whole life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song.

I felt as though  Sesno, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Nobel Prize winning neurologist Eric Kandel, former Washington Post Writer Pete Earley (parent of a son with bi-polar and author of Crazy),  the attorneys, doctors, legislators, consumers with mental illness, and parents of consumers, were singing my life.  Not the joyful parts.  But, one of the most devastatingly painful circumstances a parent can face - the severe and untreated mental illness of a child.

We have encountered everything - and I mean EVERYTHING - they discussed in this incredible program. My first impression was gratitude for the knowledge and empathy expressed by everyone on this panel.  Then, shared outrage at this country's mental health "system."  The panelists were in total agreement that this nation's mental health system is "by definition, crazy."  The respect for the integrity of persons with mental illnesses and those who love them was surprising and immense.  Surprising because empathy and respect are often not the case when it comes to public perceptions and attitudes regarding individuals with mental illness.

Even if you don't believe your life is impacted by mental illness, I encourage you to watch this program.  You can watch it online at the link I am providing below or you can go to your PBS schedule and find out when it is on your local channel.  If you are a parent, a lawyer, law enforcement officer,  teacher, social worker, medical professional, or academic, this program has relevance.  In fact, if you are a human being, it has relevance.

So, please watch it.  It's one hour and is absolutely the most balanced presentation on the issues surrounding mental illness I have ever witnessed.

At the risk of boring you with John O'Donohue, I offer this blessing that I pray often for JSB.  Thanks for your continued prayers and support.  There are not words sufficient to express my gratitude for your friendship and for the times when you have offered us your lovely shoulder on which to lean.

Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness
by John O'Donohue

Now is the time of dark invitation
Beyond a frontier you did not expect;
Abruptly, your old life seems distant.

You barely noticed how each day opened
A path through fields never questioned,
Yet expected, deep down, to hold treasure.
Now your time on earth becomes full of threat;
Before your eyes your future shrinks.

You lived absorbed in the day-to-day,
So continuous with everything around you,
That you could forget you were separate;

Now this dark companion has come between you.
Distances have opened in your eyes.
You feel that against your will
A stranger has married your heart.

Nothing before has made you
Feel so isolated and lost.

When the reverberations of shock subside in you,
May grace come to restore you to balance.
May it shape a new space in your heart
To embrace this illness as a teacher
Who has come to open your life to new worlds.

May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.

May you learn to use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.

May the fragile harvesting of this slow light
Help to release whatever has become false in you
May you trust this light to clear a path
Through all the fog of old unease and anxiety
Until you feel arising within you a tranquility
Profound enough to call the storm to stillness.

May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask why it came. Why it chose your friendship.
Where it wants to take you. What it wants you to
What quality of space it wants to create in you.
What you need to learn to become more fully
That you presence may shine in the world.

May you keep faith with your body,
Learning to see it as a holy sanctuary
Which can bring this night-wound gradually
Toward the healing and freedom of dawn.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How to prepare for a trip to Africa

Preparing for Africa is unlike anything I've ever experienced. A trip of this stature requires many levels of preparation from mundane to divine.

First, you have the legal and medical things to check off your list.  While time consuming and expensive, these are the easiest tasks to complete.   Just follow the list and check them off as you go...

So, renew passport.  I hadn't traveled out of the country post 911 and the passport requirements had tightened.  No longer would they accept my hospital birth certificate;  I had to have Minnesota send me an official copy. I learned this after standing in line for an hour at the local post office.  I remained calm and kind.  It really wasn't the postal worker's fault.   It's hard to imagine that I've managed to live 50 years without an official birth certificate. 

Next, a series of immunizations are required and recommended to travel to Africa: Hepatitis A&B (also good in the classroom in the US); Meningitis, Polio, Tetanus, Typhoid, Yellow Fever, malaria pills, and Cipro in case of severe diarrhea.  I didn't realize until I had the shots and was checking out of the doctor's office that they cost nearly $800.  Insurance does not cover them.  My credit card did not have $800 left and they did not accept checks.  So, I sheepishly asked if they would allow me to go to my bank and return with the cash.  I called Furball and asked for the best place find $800 in our coffers. I will not share his response.  Yikes! I felt like a total doof. A poor doof, at that.

Then, apply to the Liberian Embassy for a visa.  Two more unflattering passport photos.  (I really wanted to keep the pic of the cute 27-year-old on my passsport).  Forms filled out in triplicate, copies of passport, proof of Yellow Fever, and a check for $131.   This was all made more hassle free for our traveling party because All Things Bromley Woman took them over to the embassy for us, and Wonderful Priest is keeping everything together and safe for our trip.

We will be staying in a secure compound in Monrovia and will have van transportation thanks to the planning of All Things Bromley Woman.  Her contacts and knowledge of the country are very comforting to my inner Moses Rose.

Packing is interesting and a little perplexing.  We need a personal first aid kit, protein bars and peanut butter for many of our meals, powdered gatorade to mix with bottled water, rain gear, toilet paper, antibiotic ointment, medications, and hand sanitizer.  I'm still trying to figure out what clothing to bring.  I need professional clothes that are modest by Liberian standards, will not wrinkle, are comfortable and suitable for the heat.  Electricity and laundry are limited, so, I'm not planning on being able to launder or iron anything.

The next item on the agenda is the planning and prep for the teacher workshops we will be presenting. No problem, we do this for a living... right?  Let's just say we are so fortunate to have a group of talented educators who are flexible and willing to walk into a situation where we're not quite sure what they want us to do.  We know we're going to talk about Bloom's Taxonomy - kind of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs only applied to thinking.  You go from lower order thinking - remembering, understanding, and applying-- on up to higher order thinking - analyzing, evaluating and creating.  You want the students using HOTS (higher order thinking skills) more than not.  Good, powerful and universal stuff in education.

The internet is not as accessible or reliable in Liberia as it is here.  So, we've only had one brief email from the principal at the school.  But, no worries.  We'll figure it out when we get there and have had a chance to see what the situation requires.  We are well aware of the fact that we are walking into a culture very different from ours.  I am very sensitive to that, but not quite sure how that translates to how I should "be."  So, please pray for only minimal and minor cultural blunders on my part.

As far as the practical and tangible planning, I'm in a pretty good place.  A week ago, I was feeling stressed and off balance over many, many things going on in my life.  A God-Placed Friend reminded me that I need to prepare my heart for the trip as well.  This isn't a business trip, but a trip in the name of Christ.  Um. Duh.  I was so intently focused on so many necessary-but-lower-level spinning plates in my life, that I was overlooking the higher level spiritual preparation required. Not just for this trip, but for my life.

Thank you friend, for this needed shift in perspective and priority.  I consider myself reminded to renew my commitment to the discipline of daily meditation and contemplation.  My desire is to open my heart to the will of the Spirit, to open myself to the blessings all around me here and awaiting me in Liberia, and to be a blessing to those who encounter me.  I fall short far too often, especially when I rely on my own devices.

One of my favorite spiritual mentors is the late John O'Donohue, author of many wonderful books.  This is the blessing that I read today in my little prayer sanctuary.  I offer it to you, if you're out there, as well.


Somewhere, out at the edges, the night
Is turning and the waves of darkness
Begin to brighten the shore of dawn.

The heavy dark falls back to earth
And the freed air goes wild with light,
The heart fills with fresh, bright breath
And thoughts stir to give birth to color.

I arise today

In the name of Silence
Womb of the Word,
In the name of Stillness
Home of Belonging,
In the name of the Solitude
Of the Soul and the Heart.

I arise today

Blessed by all things,
Wings of breath,
Delight of eyes,
Wonder of whisper,
Intimacy of touch
Eternity of Soul
Urgency of thought,
Miracle of health,
Embrace of God.

May I live this day

Compassionate of heart,
Clear in word,
Gracious in awareness,
Courageous in thought,
Generous in love.

-- John O'Donohue To Bless the Space Between Us

I do believe I will be taking this Celtic poet with me to Liberia.  Please allow me to carry your prayers with me as well.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Here goes....

So, the blog begins. Here marks my maiden voyage into the Land of Blog. This is new, unknown territory for me and the learning curve is steep. What motivates me to begin a blog is my upcoming trip to the Bromley School for Girls in Liberia, West Africa. Let's start with that and see where this takes me. If anywhere.

Inspired by a woman in my church passionate for All Things Bromley, I find myself preparing to travel to a country recovering from a horrific civil war. If you know me well, you know that I am not a risk taker when it comes to my personal safety. My mother-in-law captured my philosophy of putting one's self in situations which could compromise one's well being several years ago. It's called the Moses Rose Society. The legend of Moses Rose, for those of you who do not know, goes something like this: You're at the Alamo. Pretty soon, it's clear you will die. The line in the sand is drawn. You have a nanosecond to make the choice to run away and live or stay and face a certain death. Well, you guessed it, Moses Rose apparently flew the coop. My MIL and her friends had a little "group" called the Moses Rose Society. Cowards of the World Unite. Count me in.

So why am I preparing to go to Africa armed with malaria pills, DEET, my yellow card stating I have received injections for Yellow Fever, encephalitis, typhoid, typhus, and God knows what else? Because there are these children in this school in this place who are the future of this country. Because there are these teachers who have spent most of their adult lives surviving unspeakable violence. Teachers who have next to nothing and are committed to Educating The Girl Child.

It also helps that the All Things Bromley Woman has been there several times in the past couple of years. A youth group has gone to help install solar panels to bring electricity to one of the buildings on the school compound. So, come on, if the teenagers can, so can I.

Liberia is working hard to rebuild their country. The reports I have read indicate that things are improving in Liberia. An entire infrastructure was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt. I can't speak to the war and efforts to reconcile because I only know what little I have read. I do know that the country is healing and focused on moving forward. While it is easy to dwell on the atrocities that occurred during the war, I choose to focus on their efforts to rise above the tragedies of the past. I'm keeping my eyes on the Phoenix.

So, I prepare to go to a place that drop kicks me well beyond my comfort zone. I have scrimped, begged, and raised the funds to get me there. I am thrilled to be going with such a wonderful team - three retired principals of local schools, one wonderful priest, an artist and art teacher extraordinare, All Things Bromley woman, storyteller friend, doctor, and team builder.

We go to provide teachers with staff development in instructional practices to support critical thinking and communication through oral and written language and the visual arts. I think we have a lot to give. I know we will receive much, much more than that.

I pray to my Christ, let my transformation begin.

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