Sunday, December 11, 2016

Shades of beauty.

I’m back on the ship after ten wonderful days away; one of the projects I’m responsible for is our safe surgical checklist project (read more about it here) and the team has been on the road for five weeks straight, up in the north of the country, in remote regions where running water is rare and hospitals seldom get outside training opportunities.  I joined them on the road a week ago Thursday, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to help out and be reminded of how much I love this project, this country, these people, and this incredible calling on my life. 

It’s hot up there, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but so dry you don’t even really sweat, a completely different experience to down here in Cotonou where you step outside and it feels like you are drowning in the air, it’s so humid.  The air up there is full of dust and smoke; dry season, dusty roads, bush fires, and the start of the Harmattan which brings dust from the Sahara into the atmosphere makes for hazy skies and tickled throats; but the beauty of the terrain, the delicious food (igname pilee, peanut sauce, fromage peuhl, all the most wonderful eats in Benin), and the calm open spaces were a beautiful respite from the crazy, loud, busy fullness of the streets in Cotonou.

The doctors and nurses tell us they sometimes feel forgotten up there; they eagerly welcomed us into their hospitals and their practice, and received the teaching we offered with excitement and gratitude.  I so love the Checklist project; it’s such a simple thing that can so dramatically change the surgical services and outcomes in these hospitals, and I love to hear their feedback on the training.  Things like we will always have respect in my operating room  and  I’m so happy to be able to have a voice, to speak on behalf of the patient make every early morning rooster crow and bucket shower very, very worth it. 

In one hospital we helped walk them through the Checklist in a real surgical case; a cesarean section, with a team eager to put their new skills into practice.  Teamwork, communication, and encouragement; when a healthy, crying baby boy was presented a round of applause through the operating room put a smile on everyone’s faces.  What a beautiful thing to be a part of.

So I’m back on the ship now, more relaxed that I have been since summer break; I finished a very grueling research module for grad school the day before I left to go up north, and now don’t restart classes until January.  I haven’t had a break from school for more than a few days since I started eighteen months ago, and I don’t think I even realized how much pressure is on my shoulders, always in the background of whatever I happen to be doing, the knowledge that I really need to be reading more or writing a paper or studying something or preparing for a big project.  This last module was particularly difficult; I did a whole small-scale research project on malaria while also writing and editing my dissertation (thesis) proposal.  I really enjoyed it but am glad there is a light at the end of the tunnel; one more ‘class’ module that starts in January and then my thesis module!  Phew.

Now I’m focusing on finishing up loose ends and packing up for the next adventure; flying back to the States next weekend for the holidays for the first time in years.  I might just freeze to death, as it’s about a hundred degrees colder there than it is here, but to see a white Christmas through the eyes of my three-and-a-half year old niece and family will be worth it!  I’ll then hit Seattle for about a week and then speak at a conference in southern California mid-January before heading back over here to the other side of the sea. 

If you’re a friend on Facebook you probably saw my post about money; I’ve lost about 75% of my regular monthly funding in the last few weeks.  Nothing personal, times are tough and I’m so grateful for the consistent support I’ve received for the last four years…  but it does rather leave me in a tough space financially, with no alternative sources of income.  Maybe you could help fill in the gap?  There’s a button to the right of this pane that says donate with an arrow, and then the next page has a green Donate Now button; just click on it and you can join me in making surgery safer across Benin! Thank you to everyone who has made this possible, it’s such an honor to be able to serve and love these incredible people in this place where every day brings forth a new shade of beauty. 
 
An awesome photo captured by Amy Jones; me with my Beninese sister Faridah


Sunday, November 20, 2016

Fruit.

Summer of 2014 I spent a week in Uganda helping to run a pediatric anesthesia course (the same one I ran this week, in fact).  We had some downtime and for some of us it was our first time in that country, so we went for a hike, one of my favorite things to do.

I remember clearly as I was walking up the side of the mountain what I was thinking about.  Our first year of medical capacity building programs was finished; it was a tough year with a lot of discovery and successes led to greater dreams for the next year, a field service in Benin. (if you recall, we were scheduled to arrive in Benin in August of 2014, but ebola changed that plan… but at the time this story took place, my mind and heart were in Benin).

I was remembering my Peace Corps experience in Benin; I worked in the health center quite a lot of the time, and the staff let me see and do quite a lot.  I remember thinking how sparsely equipped it was; how they washed and re-used their disposable gloves, spent hours cutting bandages, and used rusty instruments. I remember being in the room during deliveries; sometimes the baby was strong and screaming and sometimes it wasn’t.  I knew there was something off about what I was seeing, but I didn’t know enough to do or say anything about it.  I wished I could have helped more than I did; I helped them to organize some paperwork and taught a few things but I remember desperately wishing I could have done more.

Fast forward a few years, and during the Congo field service I learned about Helping Babies Breathe, a newborn resuscitation program for low-resource environments (places that don’t have a NICU, supplementary oxygen, emergency drugs, etc).  Exactly the type of environment I had worked in.  As I was walking up the side of the mountain (really, just a hill, to be honest!) I wondered if it could be taught to Peace Corps volunteers, who could then teach it in their villages to the health centers.  It seemed a little crazy, not exactly what we do, but why not?  The algorithm is simple, easier in fact than a standard CPR course which is taught by and for non-medically trained people worldwide.

I pitched it to my boss who was there with me and we brainstormed how we could do it and ways to measure success.  The programs team supported the idea and a project plan was written; I was thrilled to be able to return to Benin and offer this teaching that I wished I could have had when I was a volunteer.  The key point is ensuring babies breathe in the first minute; we would teach the appropriate methods and supply all health centers with the materials needed, the materials that I knew my health center didn’t have when I was there.  So. Excited.

Then we were re-directed to Madagascar and had to adjust everything. The system is a bit different there, with a smaller percentage of births happening in the health centers but an active Peace Corps program, so we decided to go ahead.

It went so much better than I could have imagined!  So much good feedback from the volunteers and the people they trained; overall, a huge success.  It was so rewarding to talk to the volunteers who excitedly told stories of their health center workers saving little lives!  We’ve already done one training here in Benin, and hope to do another in the spring.  

Since the Madagascar project, we’ve been working on writing a paper about the experience, suggesting the model is a good one for wide dissemination of this teaching that has the potential to have a dramatic effect on newborn survival rates.  Finally, this week it got published!

Here’s the link: Link 

What a journey! A few years ago it was just a burst of inspiration while on a hike in Uganda, long before I was a graduate student and even thought about publishing anything!  Now it’s been shown to be statistically and scientifically beneficial and added to the global pool of knowledge… what an incredible thing it is to be a part of this place.  To see a dream come to fruition; to know that babies are alive today because of an idea and a pursuit and that maybe many more will be saved in the future is… incredible. 


Thank you, supporters and friends, for investing in me so I could invest in them.  What an honor. 

The HBB class in Madagascar

Friday, November 18, 2016

Hope.

It’s 6:56 PM and I am curled up in my bed, with cozy sweatpants on and my freshly showered hair is leaving a damp spot on the pillow propped up against the wall.  This is my Friday night.  And it’s glorious.

This week we ran two 2-day courses plus a training-of-trainers in the middle; the topic was pediatric anesthesia, the venue a local hotel, and it’s my job to make it happen.  Often we run these types of courses in a three-day format, which means we usually have Monday to sort ourselves out and the translators out and gives time for the guest instructors to adjust to the culture and the temperature and the, shall we say, more lenient sense of timing among the Beninese.  However we did this one differently, so it was full on from the start; very full, long days, and then dinner together afterwards, so the introvert in me is desperate to lie here and eat chocolate and mindlessly scroll through social media feeds until I turn out my light well before 9pm.   But I can’t help but reflect on the week and feel nothing but gratitude that I get to be a part of this.

Fifty people are now able to deliver safer anesthesia and critical care to the children of this country.  One of the doctors I work with remarked at the end of the course that few parents would value anything greater than they value their children; trusting their most precious possession into the hands of doctors and hospitals is truly an act of courage and hope.  Hope that they can and will save their child; that child that may grow up to be the next president, or the one that cures cancer, or the one that helps to eliminate poverty.  The hope is tangible, among parents and patients and medical staff alike; only fitting that hope is exactly what we are also able to offer, in the form of training, encouragement, methods and processes that hopefully improve the health and wellbeing of everyone involved.  What an honor to be an agent of hope in this place. 

Nine of those people have also been trained and resourced to be able to deliver the training themselves; multiplication, sustainability, hope for a future.  These could be the ones that transform surgery and critical care in this country, in this region, in this continent.  Oh, may it be so!

I’m in the process of training others to take over this responsibility for running courses; when I ran my first course three years ago we were sort of just figuring things out as we went along.  But now we have systems, processes, templates, checklists, and plans that I have loved creating and crafting and adjusting, but now it’s time to pass the baton.  I’m grateful to have been a part of creating something that will last; not only in Mercy Ships, but in the lives of the people we have taught and served and loved.   As I look forward to working on some other capacity building projects I hope and pray those that come behind me will stand on my shoulders and reach greater heights as agents of hope and pursuers of excellence in what we do. 

So tonight I curl up in bed with a tired body and a full, full heart.  Thank you, friends, family, and supporters – I could not do this without you. You are a part of this legacy; you are agents of hope to the people of Benin.  Thank you, from the depths.


xxk

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Life.

I haven’t written much lately, for a variety of reasons.  School is getting tougher and taking more of my non-work time; work has been full on since the beginning of the field service, but going very, very well.  I’m thankful for that.  Mostly I’ve been appalled and speechless about the circus going on back in my country of origin; something in me felt I couldn’t just write like nothing was happening, but couldn’t formulate words.  The thought occurred to me several times that I committed to myself back when I started this blog that I would never use this platform to rant, something I never use facebook for either.  I also tend to think no one asked for my opinion so why offer it; then I thought, well, that’s ridiculous, I offer my opinions all the time on this blog.  But this is different.  Somehow.  I’ve never written about hot button topics and I’ve always believed love and truth and light and life will win.

And I still believe they will.

I am heartbroken.  The hatred, the violence, the deep division.  The greatest weapon of the darkness is pervasive and evil and more prevalent today than any other day in my lifetime, as far as I can figure.  And it grieves my heart.

But I still believe that love and truth and light and life will win.  Always.

So I’m going to keep doing those things.  Loving. Spreading truth. Shining light.  Fully alive.

~~

Something happened a few days ago.  I found myself thinking of “us” and “them”.  As in, I don’t really want to talk to any of ‘them”. 

Something twisted deep inside.  No.  NOOOOOOOOO. 

Us vs. Them is never be a product of the light.  Never.  Forgive me.

Love wins.

It’s not easy.  The best things in life generally aren’t. But they are worth pursuing.

~~

Life continues on, the clock keeps ticking and the calendar keeps turning; I’m deep into revisions of my thesis proposal, there IS a light at the end of this grad school tunnel.  Less than a year left.  We’ve already trained a few hundred people and have another 75 or so coming through this week to learn how to safely administer pediatric anesthesia.  In a few weeks I’ll spend a week in the interior with the Checklist team; a few weeks after that I’ll get to experience Christmas through the eyes of my 3-year-old niece, while freezing my tropical blood back in Minnesota for a few weeks.  I can’t wait.

The future is always filled with uncertainty.  It’s what we do with the uncertainty that matters. Don’t let fear win.  It’s a lousy companion on the journey and takes all the fun out of it. 

xxk


Sunday, October 23, 2016

The story I'm writing.

The last few weeks have been crazy.  When we were planning out the field service calendar, I knew these weeks would push me to my limits.

Two weeks of courses and all that go into that.  Training colleagues on how to do, well, everything.  A conference to present at, meetings with visiting staff only on ship once a year.  Prepping the Checklist team, going with them on the first of 20+ hospitals they will visit this year. Teaching another day course and hosting peace corps volunteers aboard.  Visiting my Beninese family at their home with my friends, welcoming them into my home with a tour and dinner on the ship.  Papers to write, big and small, keeping on with good grades in my Masters program (the end is in sight…) A road trip to the village where I served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Leading a community group. Maintaining friendships.  It’s no wonder few blogs have been written! (though more blogs to come on many of those things…)

In the chaos, I lost my balance.  I moved from healthy becoming mode to a crisis managing survival mode.  I knew it was going to happen, and we all go through seasons of chaos… but that’s the thing.  It should be seasons.  Last field service was an exceptionally long season of chaos and I was determined at the start of this one that that would not be the story I am writing this year. 

I won’t get to the finish line this year with knees bleeding and gasping for breath. 

So I’m relieved to feel myself regaining balance.  Fighting for it, even.  The to-do list is ever present, but the story is not what am I surviving, or what am I achieving, but who am I becoming

I desperately want to be a woman of peace, of grace, of kindness and hope and love and truth.  Survival mode brings out very few of those things, so I’m intentionally moving from survival mode to becoming mode. Who do I want to become?  And then, what will it take to get there?  What is the story I am writing?

I went away yesterday and let the sun soak into my bones as I listened to podcasts, to my friends, to my heart, to Jesus.  I took a nap, I laughed with friends, I left the work and the email and the school and the to-do list at home.  The story I am writing includes taking time to breathe, to feel, to rest, to renew and refresh this heart of mine that needs care once in awhile.

I went for a run this morning.  It was awful, and I’m terribly out of shape, but the fact that I got out of bed and went counts as a win.  I know I am a nicer person to be around when exercise is a regular part of my existence, but haven’t had the capacity the last several weeks.  The story I am writing includes discipline, intentionality, and persistence.

I’m keeping time aside to reconnect with friends and feed the part of me that loves deep heart connection with others.  I’m regaining the love I have for my job, for this thing I’m called to do and these people I’m called to serve.  This story I’m writing, it is filled with good things, and I’m desperate to see them and appreciate them and be grateful for them;  for what they are and what they represent, and not miss them in the chaos that has been.


I’ve got so much to write about, but this is where it starts.  Begin with the end in mind.  Who am I becoming? Thank you, dear friends, for joining me in the journey. 

xxk 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Rhythms.

I wrote the below words last weekend, but never posted them; it was such an interesting mix of awesome and awful, and I wasn’t sure what to share and I think I got distracted and then it kept slipping down the to-do list.

This morning I am reveling in a day off.  Completely off.  No school, no work, and that hasn’t happened in several weeks, I’m really, really excited about it. When I started this year I was determined I would take a Sabbath rest every week, but knew for this little chunk of three to four weeks that would be nearly impossible; two courses to run and a conference to attend in the span of three weeks, plus other things, meant pushing hard.  I don’t mind it, really, as long as it’s a short season and there is an end in sight.  We need, in our lives, rhythms of rest and work, and I know when I lose my rhythm everything just gets hard. As I read my words from last week, I recognize myself out of sync with the most important of things…

~~~

September 24.

This week was our first medical training course in Benin.

My job is to organize all aspects of the course except delivering the teaching.  I recruit instructors, sort out their arrivals and flights and collaboration and connection; prepare and organize all teaching materials, equipment, supplies, and paperwork; ensure everything is translated and provide translators when the instructors aren’t French-speaking; find and organize and pay for a venue and catering; coordinate with a zillion different people involved in providing participant lists and try to identify the best participants for various courses; organize participant invitations, delivery, confirmation of attendance, etc.; take care of various random things throughout the course like making sure people are where they are supposed to be, reorganizing room setup, etc.; and then follow up with every hospital represented, the instructors, the participants, and close out any outstanding logistical concerns like payment and reorganization of the now-disorganized supplies.  I have a great team and am teaching a colleague how to do all of this so she can take over in the future – while this is wonderful, it does lead to many, many more questions needing answers.  We also organize transportation, other activities for the facilitators, and airport transfers and hotel accommodation if there isn’t space on the ship.

This week’s course was SAFE Obstetric Anesthesia and it went super; the participants were eager and engaged, the instructors really fun and great teachers, and logistically everything went relatively smoothly even with a few unexpected hiccups.   It’s a long week for me, as an introvert I recharge my batteries by being alone or being able to focus so an entire week spent pinging around putting out fires, solving problems, and answering questions in two different languages really wears me out.  I really enjoyed the week; last night we all went out for dinner together and it was just really fun; kind words of encouragement from the team that this was one of the best trainings they’ve ever run left me feeling that the tired was very worth it!

While the week was amazing, running this course isn’t my only job.  I’m also thinking ahead to the next course starting in a week; the conference I’m attending this week and was just asked yesterday to present at in a few days; the country-wide safe surgery training program I’m creating and managing that is in its busiest planning weeks right now; and the master’s degree program that is always lurking in the background, the deadlines of which are not flexible according to my working schedule and the 2500 word Ebola mitigation and prevention analysis and proposal due this weekend.  I didn’t sleep well last night and I would rather not talk to anyone today, however in order to even get breakfast I have to face the dining room full of people which means I can’t spend the day in my pajamas as I would really like to…. Also in my head is that one person I am avoiding in the hallways because I know I upset her this week but I just don’t have the energy for one more crucial conversation, the other kind-hearted people who mean well but seriously, if another person asks me if I got hit in the face and I have to explain that no, I’m fine, I just have dark circles under my eyes because I’m tired and stressed and no, it’s okay I’ll be okay I just need to STOP TALKING so please take the hint… sigh.

Always in the back of my head is wonderings of the future, anxieties about more difficult conversations that will likely need to happen this week… I get a phone call from a colleague who needs some advice and I honestly just burst into tears. Some days the decisions of my own life feel overwhelming, I can’t possibly appropriately problem solve for someone else, too.  How do you enforce boundaries in that situation, when I want her to feel supported and encouraged and not left on her own, when at the same time I desperately just need to be left alone and for her to just figure it out?

Sometimes this place is amazing, and I feel so blessed and honored and grateful I get to be here and do this thing.  Sometimes this place is the hardest place ever.  Sometimes I think I can’t possibly stay here even another day.  So I look at hotels to get away for a few days soon or a weekend, and remember that grad school has drained my savings account and oh yeah, another bill is due in April for $9k and where is that going to come from, and I realize a getaway is not going to happen. Then anxiety about money kicks in and I start to wonder what was I thinking doing this thing without a consistent salary (though my donors are AMAZING). Maybe a job with WHO or the UN wouldn’t be so bad, though in reality working behind a desk might just kill me… but if it means I don’t have to face the possibility of seeing any dozen of 400 roommates just to pop a bag of popcorn that will be a suitable substitute for the lunch I forgot to pack at breakfast, maybe it’s worth it.  I don’t know.

For now, I need to focus on the next thing on the to-do list. 

~~~

Today, October 1

Well, I’m happy to report that the difficult conversations I was expecting this week were indeed difficult but ended well.  The conference was great, the paper got written, we’re ready for the next course, the instructors of which arrive today and tomorrow.  My Beninese family got to visit the ship and it was SUCH a joy to have them here.  I got some sad news in an email and some good news in another; the waves and the rhythms of life keep rolling on. 

Thanks, friends, for your support and love and encouragement through it all.


xxk

Source: Link

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My Beninese Family.

This week I was able to do something I've looked forward to, hoped for, and wanted for five years. I visited my Beninese family that I spent the most time with out in my village while a peace corps volunteer.  To see them again five years later was such a privilege; when we said goodbye we really thought it would be forever.  These treasures welcomed me into their home whenever I wandered in, whenever I was lonely in village life or just wanted to eat something delicious!  They dropped everything and took care of me when I had a massive allergic reaction that could have (but thankfully didn't) become life threatening; they cared for me when I got hit by a moto; they taught me how to be Beninese, instilled in me a love for this place and these people that continues on.

They invited me to join them this week as they celebrated Tabaski, a Muslim holiday I celebrated with them five years ago!  They remembered all the things I loved to eat and we filled ourselves with deliciousness, with memories, with stories, with hopes for the future and renewed relationships with each other. What an amazing thing, to have family across the globe.  I can't wait to have them to the ship in a few weeks!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The goal.

I referenced in my last blog a quote from Brene Brown that has really been on my mind a lot lately:

If authenticity is my goal and I keep it real, I never regret it.  If the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, I’m okay.  If the goal is being liked, and they don’t like me, I’m in trouble.

It’s caused me to ask what’s the goal so many times and I think it’s really saved me some panic/anxiety/stress.

How?

~ A colleague printed some invitations in black and white that I thought should have been in color.  I really thought they should be in color, and almost asked her to reprint them… but then thought what’s the goal?  To invite people to training programs, to bring hope and healing to this country.  What isn’t the goal? Impressing people.  The black and white invitations did the job we needed them to do.  I needed to let go of my need to be impressive

~ I had to give a speech in French. I stumbled on some words.  The goal was to get information out and build relationships with the people in attendance, and I did that well.  The goal was not to speak perfect French.  I needed to let go of my expectation of perfection.

~ I could spend eight hours on a school paper, and it would be high distinction level work.  However, the goal is to get the degree and still get enough sleep, take care of my heart and soul, and be excellent in my work.  So really? Four hours will get me a decent paper and some extra chill time.  That’s a win.


I think about friends I see panicking about putting together a perfect birthday party for their children, and I think what’s the goal?  If the goal is impressing all your friends, or the other moms, or the family, then yeah, maybe that stress is worth it.  If the goal is to party and celebrate life and family and joy, then is it worth all that stress and cost to achieve pinterest-worthy photos?  Not a judgement, just a question, that I’m asking myself daily it seems.

What's the goal of this work project? Is it to impress people or to help people?  What's the goal of a sabbath day? What's the goal of writing a blog?  What's the goal of leading a community group? 

I don’t know where I read it or who said it to me, but I have just above my desk a post-it note that says:

Just keep doing your thing with as much integrity and love as possible.

That’s the goal.  Authenticity, integrity, passion, love, purpose, light, truth.  

May it sink deep in my soul. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Create the space.

You have to brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs. ~Katherine Center

This is my eighth year living in Africa.  It’s been incredible and hard and awesome.  So many people call me brave. I’ve written before (here) that my brave isn’t living in a foreign country and culture; my brave is admitting mistakes I’ve made, or asking for help, or pushing through the doubt and fear and lonely and connecting with others.

This year I’ll be leading an open community group aboard the AFM.

This isn’t a closed group of friends that I know well that will be journeying together.  I’d honestly rather it was.  That’s comfortable, for me.  And what I have done the last several years.  So when I was asking God what my involvement would look like in small groups this year (as my entire small group from the last few years has left) it was so clear to me that an open small group was it. 

People can come and go as their work schedules allow.  People brand new on the ship with no friends yet are welcome alongside people who have been here longer than I have.  I know that the ship can be a desperately lonely place, and I know if I feel that I am not the only one.

What is my role in this?  Well, I will tell you what it isn’t.  It isn’t up to me to create spiritual experiences for people.  It isn’t up to me to draw people closer to the heart of God.  It isn’t up to me to make sure people hear from God.  It isn’t up to me to gather a whole big group.  It isn’t up to me to speak to the depths of people’s hearts.  It isn’t up to me to try to fill the room or make people cry or get anyone to say how awesome I am.  It’s not even my job to try to be awesome.

My role, what I have been called to do is this: create a safe, encouraging space for people to connect to others at a heart level beneath the surface.  To start a conversation about what walking with God looks like.  And to encourage authenticity and vulnerability, by being authentic and vulnerable. 

Brene Brown is one of my favorite author-researchers, and she says in The Gifts of Imperfection:

                If authenticity is my goal and I keep it real, I never regret it.  If the goal is authenticity and they don’t like me, I’m okay.  If the goal is being liked, and they don’t like me, I’m in trouble.

So my goal isn’t to have a room full of people, or to be liked, or to be seen as a spiritual leader or really anything about me.  It’s about creating space and leading by example.

So when anyone asks me “how many people did you have?” the answer will be “just the right number.”  Hey, if no one shows up one week, at least it’s a two hour time period I’ve already blocked off and allocated towards the pursuit of God.

Why am I sharing this? 

If you are on the ship, and this connects in some way to your heart, (and you are a woman :)) please join me at 7pm on Wednesdays in the Hospital conference room.

If you aren’t – if you are friends, family, support, strangers afar – I want to encourage you to be brave with what God is asking you to do.  Maybe it’s leading something like me, or planting a church, or stepping into something new, and you need to be told it’s not up to you to create spiritual experiences for people, or bring in the multitudes, or manipulate emotions or experiences…  God never calls us to do any of that.  Promise. It’s only up to you to create the space to do so.   I’ve lived under so much pressure in the past that it’s up to me to bring people to youth group or to church or to a new experience with God… but really, that’s all His work, and He’s got it. 

My brave wall.
Your being brave allows others to do the same. 

I’d love to hear what bravery looks like to you today!  xxk

Saturday, August 27, 2016

On being here.

I blinked and a week has passed, almost as if arriving at home in the car and realizing you have no idea how you got there.  It was a busy week, one full of meetings and planning and challenges and joys; also one of peace, which is truly the cry of my heart for this season.  I am so grateful.

~~

During my time away in France this summer, I spent a whole lot of time evaluating the things that went wrong last field service and what I need to do to remedy the situation this field service.  One of those decisions was I must have a Sabbath day once a week.  One full day, where I don’t do any work and I don’t do any school work.  This was nearly nonexistent for me last year, and I committed to arranging at least one day per week that was free to do whatever my heart needed to do to find peace and be refreshed for the coming week.  Reading, listening to a podcast, running, sitting by a pool, going to church; it might look different every week, but I knew it had to be a day free of school and work.

Then we landed in Benin. And things got crazy.  And two days after arrival I’m already thinking I am going to have to work all weekend to catch up.  We had literally been in country two days and I felt behind; the panic of failure creeping in the back of my mind, with a to-do list a mile long and the desperate need to achieve overriding any other needs, no matter how urgent. 

Two days in.

I took a figurative step back and said whoa.  No way.  I am not starting this way.  This is not going to be this year.  It. Is. Not.

So the weekend came and I worked hard one day to catch up on things, and then I did it. I took a day off from school, from work, from the need to achieve and accomplish and cross off to-do list items.  It was glorious and refreshing and I found that Monday morning not only was I not behind, but I was exceptionally peaceful and productive.  It makes no sense, that one.  The rational part of me says it’s a waste of time.  But I’m beginning to learn that rational doesn’t secretly mean right. 

~~

I went up to someone the other day and said “I’d like to have dinner with you, I want to hear your story.”  Truly, she lit up like a Christmas tree; she said really??? like four times and then said how about tonight? We had a great dinner and a beautiful conversation, but what stuck with me was the excitement she showed when I gave value to her, to our time, to her story.  Isn’t that truly what we are all hungry for?  Someone to tell us I see you, you have value, your story is important and I want to hear it. 

I encourage you to try it.  Be brave. They might say no.  But if their face lights up and they feel seen for the first time in maybe forever?  It’s worth it.   

~~

On Thursday we went as a team to the screening site.  In the last few years we’ve changed our screening strategy dramatically; while huge screenings with 7000 people lining up like we had in Congo has its benefits, from a public health perspective, large numbers of desperate and potentially ill people in a confined area could be a recipe for disaster.  So now our screening team holds smaller screening days over a longer period of time, and they need a lot of help with security and patient escorts throughout the day.

We left the ship long before the sun began to rise; when we arrived at the screening site, the crowds outside the gate were already loud and rowdy.  We couldn’t see them but could hear them; the desperation clear in a group of people who had already spent days in line, sleeping in the rain, the mud, the tropical sun.  It took a lot of jaw clenching and focused concentration to keep the tears at bay.

Once the police had them calmed down they started to file into the compound.  I got to greet each second person as a friend and I were giving everyone who entered a wristband.  They were so eager, the grandmothers and the pappas and the mamas with their little ones.  Some cried at the sight of our pale skin but most were just relieved to be inside and a step closer to their long-hoped-for healing. 

Some we can help; many, many we cannot, and it’s hard to see the disappointment of those who receive a no shuffling out of the compound, their faces and hearts heavy and grieving the death of hope.  Please pray for them; for the multitudes we cannot help, and for the screening team who have to deliver the news.

~~

I guess it should come as no surprise that I aced my last grad school module.  What module was it? Programme and policy challenges in low income countries. Yeah.  Like a transcript of my daily existence would probably be a suitable textbook.  In fact, I had to read very little of the actual course material, drawing upon my own experience proved much more fun and less tedious.  Now I’m struggling through Managing crises and disasters which I think I would enjoy if it weren’t for so many other things I’d rather be doing with my time. 

So I’m still managing to work and do school at the same time; I also will be leading a small group and I hope to spend some time learning the local language of Fon while I am here.  I am not sure why but something in me really wants to learn it!  It’s very different from Tcha which was the local language in my village; speaking of village, I do plan to go up there sometime in the next few months.  Someone asked me today if I had seen anyone that I knew from my previous time yet, and I replied no, but we’ve only been here a week!  


It’s so good to be here. Thank you for your prayers and support, I couldn’t do this without my funders and my friends and emails and family and letters and love.  Thank you, from the depths.  

xxk

On arrival. See me? ©Mercy Ships

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On new life and mango trees.

I was teary several times on Thursday, arrival day, the day we have all been waiting for since 2014. People asked if they were good tears; I said they aren’t necessarily bad tears, just alive tears.  Most people get that, thankfully.  I was awakened by the horrid grinding of metal on metal reverberating through the walls; the pilot entrance being opened!  The usual annoyance of a sound like that was quickly replaced with leaping out of bed and throwing open my window shade – Benin, right out my window!   We entered the harbor and our berth (parking space for ships) with all the pomp and circumstance expected; singing, dancing, a ceremony attended by various dignitaries, representatives, and assorted VIP’s.  During the sail I had shared with the crew some of my Benin experiences; quite a few came around and asked me if it looks familiar.  Well, I was never in the port, so no, not really!  Let me escape these industrial barricades and I think I will feel more at home again.

And it was true.  Yesterday I got to go out and see or HOPE center, and had several meet-and-greets with hospital directors and contacts that I will be working with over the next ten months.   Aah, the familiar streets, the lively colored clothing, the massive assortment of fruits or fabrics or other paraphernalia piled on heads and babies slung on the backs of their mamas.  We pulled in to the HOPE center parking lot (a pre- and post-hospital residence for patients and caregivers) and as I got out of the Landcruiser it just smelled like Benin.  No idea what that is; some combination of the local foliage in thick, humid air with whispers of garbage fires, cooking fires, rotting fruit, and life going on all around us.  I was immediately transported back to just over eight years ago; my first steps on African soil right here in this city, taking it all in with wide eyes and an open heart.  I could feel it in my blood, the feeling that all is as it should be; that a piece of myself that was left here has slipped back into place and I am whole again.

I wandered around the compound, the reddish dirt at my feet and the honk-honk of the Fanmilk man walking just outside the wall.  Laundry hanging out to dry, and a huge mango tree with baby fruits just making themselves seen, and I remember.  So many good times under a mango tree. So many friendships forged and memories imprinted and beverages consumed and laughter and light and joy experienced under mango trees.  They’re everywhere here and they provide a really nice canopy of shade so many gathering places near my village and elsewhere were under a mango tree. That’s where you’d spread out your mat and take a nap during the hottest part of the day in the hottest part of the year; desperate to catch a breeze and unable to do anything but lie still.   There’s a deep joy that wells up in me at the sight of the mango tree; in a cruel twist of fate I happen to be allergic to mangoes, but there’s something about a mango tree that makes me feel at home. 


Today we meet our day crew, 225 locals without whom we couldn’t do what we hope to do here in Benin.  The ship is now blissfully still for the next ten months, so the work of unstrapping, untying, and unsecuring has begun.  Patient screening starts next week, with the hospital opening a few weeks later and the first of many medical training programs also in just a few weeks.  It is a lot of work; but suddenly I find myself thinking not about the work, but about the joy it is to do this, to serve here, bringing hope and healing, light and life and service to the least of these.  I pray our patients find new life, our training participants new hope, and our crew their own mango tree experience here in this incredible nation. 
HOPE center mango tree

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Heroes.

After nine days at sea I feel myself getting rather… antsy, shall we say.  I’m tired of being penned up and I’m ready to hit the ground in Benin; to pour out hope and healing and love and life into the place that will always hold a special piece of my heart.  Instead of a distant point off the horizon, suddenly we are saying things like ‘tomorrow we’ll do this’ and ‘next week we have scheduled this and this’.  Finally, it is time.

This morning we started bobbing a bit more than we have been, and after a long-ish meeting in a windowless room that was rolling and swaying and stuffy, I took some seasick meds and got myself up to deck 8 for some fresh air and a long look at the horizon (the only unmoving thing in my current existence).  Sticky tropical air greeted me; we crossed the equator yesterday, that invisible line that meant exchanging winter for summer and the inevitable teasing of new crew to make sure to look for the line just under the surface as we sail over it.

I took a walk around deck 8, the wind whipping my hair and clearing out the dizzy that had built up earlier.  As I sauntered along, I came across two of our security guards; Gurkhas from Nepal, who are some of the most wonderfully kind and selfless people you will ever meet.  These are the guys you want on your team. If you’ve never heard of Gurkhas look it up; they’re fierce, they’re loyal, they would do anything to protect the people in their charge.  These guys leave their families for months at a time to serve this little crew of world-changers trying to make a difference.  I am forever grateful for these unsung heroes.

After chatting a few minutes I moved along and around the corner; there I ran into our maintenance coordinator, an amazing guy who always says hello and has a word of encouragement on his lips.  I said hi and looked more closely at what he was working on; he was making walkers from plastic piping.   He said he wanted to get a little bit ahead before getting to Benin, because once the big work starts he’d have to put them together at night and on the weekends.  Incredible.  Giving up his time and energy to help make life a little bit easier for our littlest patients; helping them learn to walk on their new legs or their new feet into the gift of a new life and a new future that surgery has offered to them.  Another hero, another world-changer, giving of himself to spread hope and healing.

A bit further along I find our transportation manager picking up a zillion little washers of various sizes that had been spilled across the deck and rolled under the vehicles secured up there. As I stooped down to help him gather the runaways, I couldn’t help but think here is yet another unsung world-changer.  I don’t know much about his job, and like many who work in service, he probably spends the majority of his time fixing problems and handling complaints; I confess, I don’t really think about or appreciate the transportation guys until the cars don’t work.

This organization does amazing things and I’m so grateful to be a part of transformation.  But even more, today, I am appreciative of the community that I get to be a part of.  It takes an incredible amount of unsung heroes to put out the stories of transformation.  Thank you, Africa Mercy Crew, for continually teaching me about selflessness, about humility, about service and loving your neighbor and the power of community, family, and faith; when all rolled together, the result is truly glorious.  


To the unseen and unknown heroes in our midst, my heart echoes His in saying well done, good and faithful ones.  Well done. 


Can you see the line?? 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

May it be so.

It’s the strangest thing to look out the window and see absolutely nothing.

It’s early, the first sunbeams have yet to make their way to this side of the globe. I’ve become used to the rocking; to the unending movement, never still, always swirling and rolling and flowing our way over the sapphire blue to our destination far beyond the horizon.

I feel so small.

As far as the eye can see, rocking, rolling, white-capped water; they say it’s teeming with life, but the evidence of that has been mostly hidden from view.  A few whales have made themselves known; in the early days sea birds would soar around us, but they’ve disappeared now as we’re cruising both along and away from the land mass of Africa.

The first ribbons of light have begun to appear on the horizon; somewhere out in the beyond is Congo.  I remember, with fondness, stepping out in faith and courage to bring great ideas from the dimension of mystery into reality, running our first training courses and mentoring programs; stumbling through the unknown with grit and perseverance and a few tears but a lot of joys. 

That little program has grown; from a few part-time investments alongside our surgical programs to now a large, stable, solid program with full-time staff and international recognition.  I love what I get to be a part of.

And we are cruising towards Benin; the country where it all started for me, my first experience with Africa and her beautiful culture and people and heart and passion. It wasn’t just an experience, it was a becoming; seeping into my blood and bones and skin until I could no longer separate myself from it.  While I’ve loved my time away, and wouldn’t trade it for anything, there’s a longing somewhere deep in the marrow of my existence that needs red dirt caked around my toenails, pounded yams and peanut sauce filling my belly and the enveloping community of ‘we are all family’ that pervades the African spirit.  

One of the hardest things that I faced when I was first in Benin (as a Peace Corps volunteer, 2009-2011) was seeing so much that I intrinsically knew was not okay, but not being able to do anything about it. The baby born with a cleft lip that was abandoned. The way that midwives treated the women in labor and the way they handled the newborns.  The broken, rusty, dirty instruments and equipment used in the healthcare setting.  These things didn’t sit right with me but I couldn’t do anything about it; now I’m returning, and I can.  What an honor.

So we’re just over halfway there; in another few days we’ll enter the harbor of Cotonou; there will be drums and dancing and celebration and joy as we begin ten months of service, bringing hope and healing, to her people and her health system.  May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the works of our hands be pleasing to the One who knows both their deepest needs and our deepest desires, and can bring them together in a glorious symphony of new life this year.


May it be so. 
Photo: ©Mercy Ships

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Citizen of the World.

Thanks to everyone who read my last post and especially those who wrote comments or emails.  I don’t mean to say all labels are bad or that we should not ever use them; on the contrary, I think some are helpful and we all need various ways to try to fit our world/life/universe that is beyond understanding into something manageable for our finite, human brains to make use of.

I just want to be careful with my words.

Someone a few days ago gave me a label that I love and will cling to:

You are truly a citizen of the world.

Oh. Yes.

It’s been a great few weeks in France; the last field service in Madagascar was exceptionally hard and I spent quite a lot of time sleeping, reading, feeding my soul and heart and mind and body with every morsel of beauty I could; lots of hikes, lots of solitude, lots of beauty, of wine, of cheese, and of dear friends.

I celebrated the 4th of July independence day with an Australian and an English friend in France eating hamburgers on the grill and celebrating freedom, friendship, and the fact that even though we threw all their tea in the harbor we could still be friends.  I love that.  Yes, I miss my family and wish I could have simultaneously been here and there at the same time, but I love that life has brought me to France to celebrate my American-hood with English and Australian friends over burgers. Never would I have ever dreamed it for my life, but here I am. Grateful and humbled.

That’s the joy of a global citizen.

There’s also sorrow.

Every day when I look at the news I am assaulted with gruesome details of another heinous attack.  A truck in Nice.  A knife in Japan.  A gun in Florida.  Bombs in Somalia, in Baghdad, in Germany.  Just this morning a priest violently killed in France.   Those victims? They are all my people.  I don’t know every story and I wouldn’t dare claim I understand what their family feels or their friends feel or their brothers and sisters in faith or culture or race or nationality feel.  But these are my people and I grieve. 

What trumps fear, always? Love.

In the next few days I head back to the ship, travelling through Paris and Dubai… Because a few people recently have (with all the right intentions) suggested maybe I stay away from Paris I do want to put this truth out there to counteract the fear and offer a little perspective: The most dangerous thing I can do with my life right now is not go through Paris; it’s not even to move to Baghdad (although I won’t be doing that anytime soon).  The most dangerous thing any of us do is get into a car.  Worldwide deaths due to terrorism in 2015 are less than US-only national deaths due to motor vehicle accidents.  And poisoning. And heart disease, cancer, infectious disease…. On and on.  (all this info is online, try cdc.gov, or statista.com for starters). 

Moving on.

I’m heading back to the ship and I’ve been somewhat ambivalent about that… last field service was extremely hard and while I think this year will be significantly better for many reasons there is still a little fear there.  While hiking the other day I was reveling in the beauty of solitude in the woods, with the damp mulch silencing my footsteps and the birds singing loudly with the sun and blue sky peeking through the branches surrounding me as my heart was beating and my lungs filling with fresh mountain air… It was glorious.  I felt alive, abundantly.  This is heaven, I whispered… but I can’t do this in Benin.  There are no mountains and no clean air and certainly no solitude… if this is how I feel alive, how can I survive in this next field service? 


And then I remembered – I feel alive there, too. I love the African markets and the fabric and the fried dough balls and the noise and the beauty that is completely different than the beauty I experience here but it is still beautiful.

So I’m looking forward to going back, with better boundaries and priorities and with the end in mind; I really hope this means more laughing and less crying and more joy and love and life to the full. I think it does.  Stay tuned to this space to find out, I guess!

The other problem with being a citizen of the world?  As another friend recently put so eloquently: 

The problem with travelling is that you want to live everywhere. And eat everything.


Yep. The struggle is real.


xxk

Friday, July 22, 2016

Defying Labels

Several weeks ago I was having a beautiful, deep conversation with a friend about a plethora of topics; social issues, politics, religion/faith, civil rights, etc.  I say it was beautiful because even in what could be (and often is) highly emotive topics, we were both interested, engaged, free to question not out of judgement or critique but out of curiosity and a desire to understand.  We agreed completely on several issues and were fundamentally opposed on others, and there was nothing but mutual respect, love, openness, and a belief that beliefs in and of themselves matter; the heart behind them matter, and both of us will fight tooth and nail for the freedom to hold dear and respect beliefs even if they are fundamentally opposite in nature and expression.

But something did come out in the conversation that I didn’t really like; it caught me, not enough to mention or discuss in itself, but enough for me to still be ruminating on it several months later.

At one point, this dear friend said “wow, you are really a feminist aren’t you?”.  Later in the conversation she commented on how ‘liberal’ I am, “for a Christian”.

Since that conversation I’ve engaged in several others like it, where labels were also imposed on me; I’ve been called a free thinker, a perfectionist, a republican, a fundamentalist, a democrat, and an ‘old maid’.  I’ve been asked if I am pro-life or pro-choice.  I’ve chatted with people wanting to know my thoughts on gay marriage, racism, the American political system, child vaccinations, and homeschooling – not to understand my thoughts (no problem with that) but rather to give me the right label.  A hardcore republican might call me a raging liberal and a raging liberal might call me a crazy fundamentalist republican. 

I am neither.  Or both, depending on who you are asking.

If you know me at all you know I love a good discussion, and I don’t shy away from people who genuinely want to know and ask and explore differences of opinions; I also don’t know everything, I’m not always right, and there are only a few beliefs I hold that I wouldn’t be open to changing or considering alternatives if presented well.

But labels. 

What is with the need to label people?  In that particularly beautiful conversation, I was labeled a liberal feminist who loves Jesus.  She also said she didn’t think that was possible. 

What?

(all evidence to the contrary, I suppose)

Why do we need to label people? Why does everyone need to fit into a box in the grid of our worldview? 

I don’t really like that now in her mind I am a liberal feminist Christian.  I’d like to just be Krissy, if that’s okay.  Krissy, who stands for love and mercy and justice and inclusion and safety and peace and equality and hard work and relationships and strength and a pursuit of life to the full, whatever that means.  I am for medicine and for alternative therapies, for life and for freedom, for truth and science and art and music and mystery and faith and I don’t think any of those things have to be contradictory; it’s us that decide that they are and put ourselves and each other in the us vs them categories, conveniently forgetting that we are all human and we are all in this together.

I saw this a few months ago and it totally made me tear up and jump for joy at the same time. 




Yes. Can you imagine? What if we all would stop trying to force each other into appropriately labeled beige square holes, and allowed each other (and ourselves) to be who we are, shining in our respective awesomeness… can you imagine what that world would be like? Free of hatred, shame; filled with love and respect. Heavenly, in fact.


Do you think there is a place for labels? Do you think we could ever truly be free from them?  


Friday, July 15, 2016

Be the change.

Yesterday was such a lovely day. 

Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, commemorating the start of the French Revolution.  It’s a lot like our own Independence Day, with a lot of outdoor parties and the day ending with fireworks.

Lauren and I decided to go out for dinner, meet friends for dessert, and watch the fireworks together.  We went to an incredible little pizza place that was full to bursting which is always a good sign; the food was delish. I went with the gourmet pizza menu and decided on the one with goat’s cheese, cream, honey, apples, and hazelnuts – basically a dessert pizza posing as dinner.  And a Bigourd’Ale Blanche, a local craft brew that did not disappoint.

Lovely conversation and garlic bread and friends who joined us for dessert as the sun gradually made it’s way towards the horizon in cool but mostly clear skies. After dessert we wandered towards the centre-ville, where there was live music playing in the courtyard and people milling about celebrating the day.

As darkness fell, someone set off a few firecrackers.  I glanced around and remembered why no one registered any fear at that sound: no one has guns here.  It was a large crowd, it seemed all of Lourdes came together last night; it was full of laughter and different languages and a beautiful sunset.  It crossed my mind that if I was in Paris I wouldn’t have joined in a gathering this large, but then chastised myself for being silly and fearful.  Lourdes is harmless and it’s a day of celebration and relax and enjoy the moment.  I did, however, know exactly where we were and if there was a problem how to get out quickly.

The lights went off and the fireworks began; shot from a castle to perfectly timed music. I found myself blinking back tears as beauty filled my field of vision and the emotive, haunting music tugged at my heart and stirred my emotions for reasons beyond understanding. As the final shimmers faded we said goodbye to friends and headed home; chilly toes and full hearts ready to curl into a warm bed and blissful sleep.



~~~

This morning I stirred slowly, a nagging headache trying to convince me to stay in bed while a gorgeous sunny day beckoned me out. I glanced at my phone to see what time it was and squinted at dozen messages through different avenues all asking the same thing: are you okay?  Confused I glanced through and saw other words like tragic and awful and horrified, alongside we are praying for you and please let us know you are okay. My gut clenched as I stumbled out of bed, pulling on sweatpants and wondering what on earth happened, knowing it must be bad. Was it here in Lourdes? I could hear Lauren had just turned on the news in the living room; I walked out and all I could say was what happened?  

Nice. 84 dead. Terror and mayhem.

Noooooooooooooo.  (Expletives.)

We both stared numbly at the images on TV; eerily reminiscent of 9/11, of Brussels, of Paris, of Dallas.  This time it was tears of despair I found myself blinking back; grief, horror, anger, emptiness.

How?

~~~

What do I do with this?

Innocents, children, vacationers, celebrating life and freedom and summer and family and joy; blackened by hatred and anger and evil beyond understanding.  It could have been me.  It could have been any of us in any city in the world.  Senseless killings around the globe on what is nearly a daily basis. 

I wanted to reply to all the messages, NO, I’m not okay!  None of us should be okay.  We shouldn’t be okay with all of this hatred and anger and evil in action day after day.  Please, don’t be okay with this. Any of it.  Nice. Dallas.  Istanbul.  Baton Rouge.  Minnesota.  Baltimore. Brussels. Baghdad.  Syria.  Don’t just take your anger to Facebook either - get angry and get passionate and do something.  

God has put in me a heart and a longing and a love for travel; for exploring cultures and cities and nature and serving those in greatest need.  It feels deeply and loves deeply and longs for restoration of the brokenness around me. 

It’s also very stubborn.

I will not bury my head in the sand or try to find a ‘safe’ place in the world to hide away.

Love wins. 

There is more love to be spread.

Be the change you want to see in the world. Ghandi



Sunday, June 26, 2016

Life wins.

such a plethora of things to be grateful for...

The ah-ha moment of realizing the difference between isolation and solitude

Dreaming for the future, not based on what I want to accomplish but who I want to become

Really loud crickets

Servant-hearted dreamers fall in love with giving their lives away.  Life is simple: make life better for others with whatever you have in hand.  Matthew Barnett

Blooming poppies along the road


Beauty heals, beauty nourishes, beauty restores.

A physically strong healthy heart... (and we'll get there on the emotional side)

Easy access to clean bathrooms when needed with running water and soap

Local honey and goat cheese spread on a warm, freshly baked traditional baguette

We hear the saying all the time: "don't get your hopes up." I've never liked that saying.  It seems to me that we should be getting our hopes up - and keeping them up all the time. Matthew Barnett

The relief on their faces when I replied in English

This climb was much easier than the last one


A very successful shopping trip with lots of sales

Blending in

Lots of reading on a rainy day

You must take the pressure off. This is essential. Pressure nearly always guarantees you will have a hard time discerning what God is saying, if you hear anything at all.  Pressure clenches up your heart and soul and ties all your insides up in rubber-band knots.  Even if God is shouting, it is unlikely he can get through to you because of the chaos.  John Eldredge

Fresh broccoli and hummus



30 km bike ride and a full body smile

An A on my last paper

I have something to offer, I am not just a consumer of life

There will always be tension between what I do and who I am, because they run so closely together.  Wayne Cordeiro

Setting boundaries and then successfully keeping them

The beauty of the mountains that catches my breath every single time

One of the best days ever - laughter, hammocks, sunshine, chatter, franglais, beauty in friendship and just being together 


Wondering what the future holds and knowing without a doubt who holds the future, and trusting that.

That I am in better shape than I gave myself credit for

Voices of reason in a world of chaos

That I still have several more weeks to lean in to the untangling, the life breathing, the gifts and the beauty that is this place

We have staked it all on this - that life wins.  Oh, dear friends - life wins.  Life wins.  Sometimes now, especially if we will pray.  But life wins fully, and very soon.  John Eldredge



Matthew Barnett quotes from "Misfits Welcome"
John Eldredge quotes from "Moving Mountains"
Wayne Cordeiro quotes from "Leading on Empty"