Take a breath.

23 June 2017

It's been five days since I arrived in France, and it's been a glorious time of rest and renewal.

I've slept, I've eaten well, I've hiked and run and went for a bike ride and walked and shopped and explored and relaxed.

What a gift this is, the gift of time; time to take a breath, to drink in the beauty of mountains and green and songbirds and church bells in the distance.  It's different this time, for the first time in many years I have been able to truly relax, with no work to be concerned with, no programs to plan or problems to solve or conference calls to plan around.  I've only got my thesis to write, which is really and truly enjoyable, not stressful for me at all, and I'm way ahead of where most students are just ten weeks in.

But I'm also not one to waste my time; I want every moment to be intentional, on purpose.  Sometimes that purpose is to sleep just a little bit longer.  Sometimes that purpose is to bless others, like taking the time to mow the lawn.  Sometimes it's physical fitness, sometimes it's intentional stillness, listening, feeling, breathing, living.  Sometimes it's kicking back and reading a book that's not a school book. Sometimes it's working on my thesis. It's all important.  I don't want to get to the end of my time here and wonder where it went.  But I do want to bless and to be blessed, to breathe and embrace all the goodness I possibly can.  What a gift this is.

Le départ.

16 June 2017

It’s T-minus-one day until my departure from Benin.

My research has gone incredibly well, and thanks to a string of non-rainy days and hard working translators, I’ve changed my ticket to leave a week earlier than planned. I’m thrilled to be heading to the south of France for some time to breathe, to unwind, to process this transition and some residual baggage that I’d like to have sorted out before tackling the next adventure.  But I’m also sad to be leaving this place, where I’ve spent over three years of my life. 

It’s a different leaving this time; when I waved goodbye to my dear village friends nearly six years ago after two and a half years of life together, I thought it was forever. I remember the leaders of a previous service trip I had done telling everyone to please not tell the kids we were serving that you would see them again, that you’d be back. The last few days together are incredibly emotional, and you might feel with everything you are that you couldn’t possibly continue on in life without coming back here, and the kids are sad and you want to comfort them by saying you will come back, promising you will come back… but nearly always, without fail, you’ll get back to America, to your life there, and things that maybe seemed less important when you were hugging the necks of the needy across the globe feel more important when they are right in front of you, and you have to think of your family, and money, and time, and the zillions of other things that fill our American consciousness… and the promise is forgotten, and the kids are disappointed yet again, and stop believing the promises of the foreigners, and instead grasp on to foreigner visits as what they really turned out to be; not relationships or people who care deeply, but rather people who come to give them things, so they learn to take advantage while they can.  It’s problematic in so many ways, and not easily repaired; but as a start, please don’t promise them anything... especially your return.

It resonated with me deeply, those instructions, and still echo throughout, every time I come to the end of things; which, on this journey of mine, has been more times that I can keep track of.  When I left Benin those years ago, I knew it was possible I might return, in the same way anything is possible for an adventurous nomad like me. But when I said goodbye, in my mind, it was a permanent goodbye. But somehow, in my heart, it never was. I’ve always felt I’ve left a piece of myself here. It’s always been in my head that I need to come back, in a way that I’ve never felt for any other place I’ve visited.  But I held it loosely as I hold most things, and when the journey brought me full circle and I returned, I felt that little bit of myself slip back into place.

I carried a lot of invisible baggage from this place; baggage that doesn’t need to be shared but needed to be sorted out and forgiven and redeemed.  And this last eleven months, it has been everything I needed it to be.  I’ve encountered incredible, beautiful, loving people who have left me feeling nothing but hope and contentment in this place. I can look back on my time here with joy and not with regret. I can remember fondly this place, and not feel as though I have unfinished business here. 

And as I process through this, I realize, I won’t miss it here, the way I don’t really miss any one place.  I remember fondly every place I’ve been, and I would love to return to some of those places once again, but somehow the feeling of ‘missing’, of longing to be elsewhere… I don’t feel that, and I’m glad I don’t feel that.  Because I want to be present completely, in whatever place or whatever company I find myself in.  I don’t want to feel as though I’ve left a part of my heart elsewhere.  My heart is so full; so grateful for the journey, for the players in the story, whether in big roles or small, and I’m looking forward with anticipation that which is to come.

So as I walk through yet another departure, without any guarantee or promise of return, I will squeeze out every drop of glory I can.  Final visits with people I love, filling my face with peanuts and pineapples and other deliciousness that just isn’t the same anywhere else, last photos and smiles and gifts and kisses and treasured moments that last to eternity.  I love this place, I love these people, and I hope and pray I have the opportunity to return one day.


14 June 2017

I can’t sleep.  I can’t her face out of my mind.

She’s beautiful.  She’s 22 years old, her whole life ahead of her, full of possibility and hope and dreams.

Except she’s blind and lives in here. So she doesn’t have any of those things.

So I lay here in bed, inside I’m railing and kicking and screaming and yelling about the injustice of it all, in the way that I do; silently, the tears escaping the corners off my eyes and dampening the pillow. 

It’s not fair. It shouldn’t be like this.

If she was born in America, she probably wouldn’t be blind. And if she was, it wouldn’t stop her from living a full life of possibility and hope and dreams.  But she wasn’t born there, she was born here.  Doctors have passed her around from one clinic to another, taking her money and giving her eye drops or pills and promising they would help.  Empty promises.

This, this is why I do what I do.  This is my thing.  I can’t stand that it’s her reality.  I can’t stomach the injustice of it.  It’s why I’ll keep fighting for her, for them, for the five billion people who lack access to safe, affordable surgical care. It’s why I’m thrilled to be joining the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard, it’s why I think I’ll probably be back with Mercy Ships someday, it’s why I can be so confident in my calling that doesn’t include children of my own or roots in the ground somewhere.  Because I’m fighting for her and for the billions like her, and I will not give up.

Upside down.

10 June 2017

Is my life truly meaningless and void of purpose if I don’t ever have children?  Because I haven’t had them, does that mean I’m incomplete, missing out on what is surely to be the most magical experience that will encapsulate all my hopes and dreams and longings forever?  It might seem as though my life is pretty awesome already, but clearly nothing will ever come close to the ecstasy and fulfillment I could feel with a child in my arms, and until that happens, well, I’m really just biding my time and taking up space until this real, true, divine purpose for those of us blessed with two x chromosomes has been achieved.

These phrases and questions probably seem like one of two things to you – either they are completely ridiculous, or you believe they are, to some extent or another, basically true.  I hear a lot of these types of things regularly.  Not always put in such a blunt manner, but it seems especially recently I’ve been around people who seem to adamantly believe I won’t ever be fulfilled, or my life is a waste, unless I’ve reared children.   I’ve written previously here and here about the fact that I’m single and totally okay with it, but it seems it’s time to address this child topic.

I don’t want children. 

Now, did I say I will never have children? Nope. Have I ever said that? Nope.  I’m not interested in putting God in a box.  Might I have children some day? Yep.  Absolutely I might and I’m totally open to that possibility. When will I know when it’s right? When I want them.  When I believe with all my being it’s the next right thing, not just for now but for the rest of my days on earth, to raise children. When that happens, bring it on.  But it isn’t now.

And when the topic comes up at the dinner table and I answer the question I was asked, that’s when the condescending, patronizing, and downright obnoxious comes out of a lot of people’s mouths. 

Oh, you’ll want them.  You’ll regret it someday.  Your work will never be as important as your children.  You don’t realize now what you are missing out on.  They’ll turn your life upside down. Five years from now you’ll be holding your own bundle of joy and wondering how you lived without them.

Sure, that’s a possibility.  Again, maybe someday I will want them, or regret not having them.  But I think it would be far worse to regret having them. Maybe I’m called to this nomadic life, of adventure and of travel and meetings with first ladies and prime ministers. I couldn’t have gotten on the plane to Guinea with three days’ notice if I had a family.  And it’s not actually the words that bother me, it’s the attitude, the condescending, patronizing way in which they are spoken over me, as if I don’t really know what’s really important.  As if I won’t really experience life to the full without being called mama, as if I am somehow incomplete in this life I lead.  

Side note: would anyone ever say that to a man? That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. Anyway.

I would much rather live a life without children than ever, ever look my child in the eyes and feel regret at having them.  I want to know I was born to be a mother.  One of the big problems of the world today? There are far too many people out there who have no business being parents.  They had children because they were supposed to or because they wanted someone to love them or to try to hold on to a wayward spouse or any one of a million wrong reasons to have a child.  The one reason to have a child? You were born to do this, you have been called and created to raise up this person to be an upstanding citizen of the earth.  And there are millions and billions of amazing parents out there living out that calling on their lives.  You’re amazing, it’s an amazing calling, well done.  But it’s not mine. Not now.

And really, let’s be real.  I want to say sometimes to these type of people, who clearly feel they know much more about the realities of life than I do, that I could go get knocked up if you think I would experience this nirvana you seem to think childrearing is.  I could find someone to marry me, too, if that’s what the world is waiting for.  I could probably be married and pregnant in a matter of weeks – is that really what you want for me? Not at all. I think what people want is really what I want as well, and that is the best God has for me; but they can’t possibly open themselves up to the possibility of imagining God’s best might not include children.

I know there’s an argument that the reason women exist is to have children, to multiply and fill the earth.  I get it, though I completely disagree.  But let me suggest that the earth is already full.  The earth can barely sustain the people we have in it.  But that’s another discussion for another day, a rabbit trail I’m not going to continue down right now.  For now, let’s just maybe consider God’s best for me may not include a spouse or children, and I’m okay with that.  But the rest of the world seems not to be.   



There’s been a lot of talk around the world in the last few years especially about privilege.  White privilege, American privilege, male privilege, upper class privilege, etc.  It’s the idea that one group of people is better off than another.  Some people say it doesn’t exist.  They’re either blind or closed-minded or both, and it seems most of those people are actually the most privileged of them all. 

It’s from a privileged place that I have a choice, and I know it.  I can choose not to have children.  In many, many countries across the globe, this would be a death sentence, to be alone as a woman with no one to care for me later in life.  And it grieves me that so many don’t have the choices and options and opportunities I have.  So they marry for necessity and have babies for security and sometimes there is love and respect but sometimes there isn’t, and there isn’t anything they can do about it.  It breaks my heart and makes me want to rail against the injustice of it all.  I had this conversation just the other day with the guys I’m working with. They asked why I don’t have children. I don’t mind the question, especially from these guys; they work in a place where your very survival is dependent on having children.

But for some reason beyond all human comprehension, I wasn’t born there. I was born in middle class educated America, where my value is not determined by my progeny, although it seems in some eyes it still is.  Where I can work and own land and vote and save for my future and decide where I want to live, things millions of women can’t do.  I recognize it and don’t take that privilege lightly, I’ve been gifted a tremendous amount of favor and desperately want to steward it well.   It’s one of the reasons I do what I do, living this life that is not about me but is about us, this collective race called humanity that is terribly unjust and needs people willing to stand up and speak up against the injustice of it.


It takes a village.

A few years ago I was thinking about this whole mothering thing, wondering if there was something broken in me that made me weird and different, asking God to speak to whatever that was. And it was stunning. 

What first came to my mind were the faces of some of the amazing women who have helped shape me into the person I am today.  My mom is awesome but it truly takes a village; one person cannot raise a child. I think about all the incredible other women who played that role at one time or another in my life; Shirley, Debbie, Cynthia, Kathy, Yvonne, Ruth, Kelly, Kim, Leslie, and many, many others ahead of me in this journey who have offered guidance, wisdom, truth, correction, safety, compassion, and the zillion other virtues who have shaped and guided me to the present.  I still need them and am eternally grateful for being a part of my story.

Then what came to mind were the beautiful faces of some of the young women I’ve had the privilege and honor of mentoring through one season or another.  Incredible girls and women I’ve offered guidance, wisdom, truth, correction, safety, compassion, and the zillion other virtues that shape and guide them into their future.  Some for a short season, some for a longer season, but all of them also a part of my story.  The children of my heart.  It takes a village, it takes incredible women pouring into incredible women, regardless of their genetic makeup and story and struggle. 

One author I love always says there is no such thing as other people’s children.  And I choose to live my life in agreement with that statement. 


Upside down.

Often after telling me in condescending tones that someday I will want children, they will also say something like they’ll turn your life upside down.  And yes, I know this to be true, and believe it wholeheartedly.  And what I’d like to say (and occasionally do) is EXACTLY, why on earth would I want to do that? Because my life is awesome, thanks.  And I’m not eighteen years old making brash statements about a life I can’t imagine. I’m thirty-six and have done pretty well for myself, (no) thanks for your concern.  In the same way God doesn’t call all of us to be married, or to work overseas, or to be mechanics or bankers or teachers or doctors, he doesn’t call all of us to have children, either.

So finally, a public service announcement and I will get off my soapbox: I know you mean well.  I know you just can’t imagine life without children and want me to be as happy as you are.  And I mean well too, when I say, I can imagine life without children and right now it is much more appealing to me than a life with. And that doesn’t diminish my value as a woman, as a sister and aunt and friend and member of the human race, striving to leave this earth a bit better for those who follow in my footsteps and stand on my shoulders and reach greater heights than I could ask or imagine. 

Field research, day 1.

06 June 2017

It was a sunny, steamy morning yesterday; I picked my way around the giant puddles left by the deluge of rain over the weekend, silently thanking the sky for being blue and sunny on this day, my first day in this student-researcher role.  I woke up a ball of nerves, anxious about anything and everything related to this thing I was embarking on.  What if no one would talk to me? What if I actually really suck at this? What if none of the photocopy places were open today and I couldn’t get started? What if... Maybe this was really a big, silly, stupid idea and I would be better doing something that I wasn’t actually responsible for; sometimes being a cog in a wheel sounds like an amazing career choice.  I really felt like a little girl playing dress-up; pretending I belonged here. But then I remember who I am; strong, independent, and smart, among other things, and this is exactly what I am supposed to be doing, I do belong here and I have everything I need.

It’s not always easy, that.  I mean, someone a week or so ago used the term ‘fearless’ to describe me and the coffee I was drinking nearly shot out of my nose.  Fearless? Never.  I’m a big ball of fear and anxiety and nerves much of the time… but I don’t let those things make decisions for me.  I won’t let fear stop me from doing what I need to do. And today, that’s putting one foot in front of the other, trusting my education and experience, and being okay with the possibility of failure.  Because risking failure is worth it, if it means trying. The alternative is to hide in a closet.  

So, having reduced the anxiety level to a nervous quiver in my stomach, I set out of the comforts and confines of the house and out into the world.  Picking my way around those puddles, the hem of my Beninese skirt skimming the surface, the security guards greeting me with a respectful Bonjour Madame, I couldn’t help but smile huge as contentedness filled my whole being.  I love this place.  I love being on land.  I love speaking French and I love that I get to spend my day solving problems and trying new things and collecting stories and spreading my wings.  And I can’t wait to begin, as I take a deep breath and dive into this next project.

It was fantastic.

The guys I am working with are two Beninese translators I worked with on the ship; they are wonderful men of excellence who care for me as their own sister. I feel very safe with them, and together we discussed the project, advising each other on how to best go about collecting the data we need.  The data we need is stories; I’m really a story-collector, and the stories are beautiful.  I can’t share them now, but someday I hope to; these former patients so eager to receive us, so welcoming, so honored that we would come chat to them and willing to share anything that might be helpful.

I felt truly alive, and honored that I get to do this.  I’m thrilled at how things have fallen into place and that I was able to start on the day I had hoped to when the plans started forming several months ago.  I know not every day will be this wonderful, but I’ll warmly receive the gift it is, squeezing out every moment of glory, purpose, joy and fulfilment I can wherever I find myself. 

The other side.

03 June 2017

Day two on the other side of the gangway; it's pouring down rain and I'm doing my best to catch up on a few months' of lost sleep.  Life is good. 

It was a sunny day on Thursday, and I kept my departure time somewhat quiet - I hate long drawn out goodbyes on the dock, preferring to say goodbye and give hugs throughout the day instead.  A few dear friends came to see me off and waved until the car was out of sight; while I didn't think I needed this, my heart argued and was filled with gratitude.  If I'm honest, as irrational as it is, I believe most people are just relieved to see me gone; so to experience the opposite was touching and brought tears to my eyes. 

I'm settled now in my temporary home on land; staying with friends in Cotonou for at least three weeks to do my thesis research.  I'm so excited to get started and that story is one of favor as well.  I officially started the thesis portion of my Masters in Public Health on April 8, and I have ten months to submit the final paper.  I'd be matched with an advisor who would walk me through the whole process of approvals first; proposal approval, ethics approval, etc.  I'd read some horror stories about this part of the process from other students who were five months into it and still didn't have an approved proposal.  I'm staying in country on my own dime, and have a job waiting for me back in the states, so I really pushed hard from day one to make it clear I have no intention of dinking around, and thankfully I got matched with a great, very responsive and encouraging advisor. I had my proposal approved in ten days and just yesterday got my final ethics approval, which can sometimes take months in African countries with less--than-straightforward approval processes. It means I can start contacting participants, our former patients, on Monday and plan to have all the interviews, about their experiences of surgery and perspectives of surgery as a result, done in three weeks' time.  

It's a lovely thing, to be focused on just one thing right now.  I've juggled multiple projects simultaneously plus being a student for the last several years; to be solely a student, to not even have to think about community expectations either, is such a breath of fresh air.  I get bored easily and won't be one to stay in this place for long, but for right now, I'm embracing this season for the blessing it is. 

Thank you, friends and followers, for continuing to read my blog. I've changed the layout about a dozen times, and think I'll leave it like this at least for a little while... let me know if you have any feedback! 
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