Sunday, May 25, 2014

the hardest thing (part 1): consumptive environment

One of the questions that we get asked by westerners is, “what is the hardest thing about living where you do?” I always stumble over this question. I usually end up giving a canned answer instead of a thoughtful one. To pristine friends, I usually mention on the snakes and the use of pit latrines; for the foodies, I talk about the lack of red meat and being weirded out by swallowing  caterpillars; to the sentimental folks, I talk about missing family too much.

The truth is that sometimes I’m a little annoyed at having to look over the edge of the bed to check for snakes before putting my foot down. Sometimes I dream about strolling the isles of Wegmans, particularly when I’m bored with soya pieces and rice. And anyone who has met my mother understands why I might miss her an awful lot.

But for all my snake-hating-meat-loving-mama-missing-ness, I wouldn’t call any of these things “the hardest thing.” Almost, but not quite. 

“Bush coping” is a made up “technical term” I sometimes use to refer to the knapsack of knowledge, skills and attitudes that Jeremy and I use to survive in an environmentally-inhospitable, isolated place. These are the resources that keep us plodding through that which is often less than desirable. Mosquito nets and machetes, steak flavored seasoning packets and an internet dongle with which to Skype are just some of the things that keep us going strong day after day, year after year. 

But the hardest thing, for me at least, is something unmanaged by any tool in my knapsack. The hardest thing can only be explained by the phrase “consumptive environment.”

Welcome to nerd-dom, walk with me a while, won’t you?

This hardest thing came into perspective when some dear, wise friends explained to us the difference between collaborative and consumptive environments.

In a collaborative environment, interaction with other people reflects a general balance of give and take. I help you, you help me, a little pouring out, a little tanking up, ebb and flow and for the most part, we are all capable of remaining healthy, balanced individuals. Even for those whose careers demand much giving, the taking is still there in the form of friends, family, church and other positive inputs. In a collaborative environment, if an individual is feeling drained, the return to fulfillment is not about accessibility so much as proactivity in seeking out that personal care. 

collaborative environment depicted by a russian egg. I pine for this.

Contrast the above picture with the following description of a consumptive environment: In a consumptive environment, the normal give and take of life reflects a marked imbalance. A generous individual in this environment may provide goods and services to a large number of other people who gladly receive the benefits, but almost never reciprocate. The individual pouring out may empty herself endlessly without being able to access the typical life-giving sources of a collaborative environment. Instead, her energy, time, resources, emotion are consumed until she physically leaves that environment in search of a more collaborative one.

Most people living within their own culture would consider a wide-scale consumptive environment to be so totally… foreign. And that it is. Being privileged, white, foreigners in an impoverished African village is what has created for us the unhealthy dynamics of a consumptive environment. This, friends, is the hardest thing.

Bethany, teach me to read. Play with me. Take me to the hospital. Lead this meeting. Stand. Present. Pray. Give. Cook. Write. Cry. Nourish. Mourn. Create. Believe. Run...

These are the kind of directives that roll unceasingly from the hearts, minds and mouths of the people around us. All day. Every day. Forever and ever. Amen.

 "I NEED SOMETHING FROM YOU!!! I know you aren't napping because I CAN SEE YOU!!!

"waiiiiit! we're not finished with you yet!!!"
And we love it. This is why we live where we do. Because the Lord has called us to serve those who do not read and to those who have not experienced unconditional love; to those whose are physically weak and to those who have untapped creative potentials. The kingdom is bursting forth in lives such as these and we catch glimpses of glory in the twinkling eyes that were once sunken and in the confident prayers that were once timid.

And it’s exhausting. The cost of service in this particular context is that we pour out 24/7/365 without nary a pat on the back nor a congratulatory ice cream sunday. There are no “off” hours. We are ready to be the maternity ambulance at 3 am. We will entertain all the beloved children of the village in our 20 square foot living room. We can mediate your family feud on our Valentines Day. We will engage and arrange and plan and provide. Yes. We will. But the reality is that sometimes, at the end of the day, when everyone else has had needs and not a one has asked me how I’m doing, I feel a little like I'm reenacting the torture scene from Princess Bride.

Joy is the blessed bi-product of living in service – even sacrifice. It really is. And it is in this joy that we find the motivation to keep going. But sometimes joy is elusive, and the life-fuel gets weaker and weaker. Sometimes, those we sacrifice for aren’t thankful. Sometimes, people are whiny and ask why we didn’t throw in a bicycle with our nutritional support. Sometimes people snub free and fantastic training programs because the food menu doesn’t interest them. Sometimes our friends stop being our friends when the relationship stops being lucrative. Sometimes, we give all we have and people still verbalize their disappointment. Sometimes, people are people.

It was a missionary friend who said these words to me – words that are so obvious it makes me blush that I ever expected different: People are people. Always. Everywhere. As a Professional People Person (PPP), you’d think I would not be surprised, and certainly not overcome, by humanity. Selfish, ungrateful, stubborn, unchanging: normal. But even still, when the consumptive environment sucks me dry and I have not found a source of replenishment – my bush coping skills sometimes come up short. Healthy confrontation with humanity requires more than knowing how to use a hoe or perfecting aim in the pit latrine. The trials delivered up NOT by creepy-crawlies or inclement weather but by sinful, broken p.e.o.p.l.e. – this requires conviction, theology, trust, hope, confidence, security and wisdom.

And sometimes, I come up short. Sometimes, I'm a pitiful version of sister Maria, spinning and singing, free fancy and bewildered. My confidence wavers and my energy tank just won’t budge off of empty and my heart hurts so much my husband buys me a plane ticket so that I can go be with people who collaborate more than they consume and I can be well again.

I’ve long felt guilty about my propensity for burnout, particularly when that burnout is related to the very job and the very people that I do genuinely love. But through the counsel of the wise I am learning to accept the complexities of my own heart and the reality of compassion fatigue, and I am slowly grasping the truth that I am not alone.

The greatest missions myth in the church is that missionaries *magically* interact with *fictitiously  awesome* creatures, and that all is *gloriously well* in said storybook life. For all the tired missionaries wishing they could come clean... I'll say it:

People are messy and so am I.

And honestly, I don’t yet know what to do with this. I’m talking to people and reading several books simultaneously and listening to all of the 249 recently downloaded pod casts (I did not make that up – you can come look at my itunes account) that are teaching me about missions and ministry and fallenness and soul care. As one who makes her home and responds to her calling in a consumptive environment, I have to be brutally diligent about putting all these pieces together lest IT ALL fall apart. There is no obvious answer singular, but there are many answers plural and many of them are grounded in the deep, deep love of God for me. It was in that love that I first launched oversees and it is in that love that I will always stay.  

And that, friends, is the hardest thing. (part 1)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

mommies plural

When Bronwyn’s first word was “No,” (actually it was “awe”, which is “no” in Bemba) I felt super loved. And by super loved I mean I felt completely not loved at all. Isn’t “mommy" supposed to be every child’s first word? That’s what I had been led to expect, at least. Thankfully she soon learned to say "mommy" and everything was right in my world. Until she started calling other women mommy. Bana Chiti was the first, then Bana Robert. I actually confronted them on it: “When Bronwyn calls you mommy, can you please tell her that no, you are not her mommy, because I’M HER MOMMY!” I swear, if these women were not my best friends they would think me a lunatic. They never have corrected Bronwyn and I eventually relaxed about it. Mommies are wonderful, so, the more the merrier? I guess? 

bana chiti. absolutely her fave.

And then we visited America and now my sisters are mommy, and Grandma is mommy and Nana is mommy and our friend Edith is mommy. She sounds like the little bird character in that one children’s book in which the bird falls out of its nest and wanders around asking all the farm animals, “are you my mommy?” Except Bronwyn is not asking – she’s telling. You ARE my mommy. And everyone thinks it’s SO CUTE while I giggle awkwardly because all I know is that childbirth is a one woman show, folks.

"damma mommy damma" is this woman's name
Jealously issues aside, I write this post as a mother’s day declaration that all children deserve a swarm of mommies. You see, Bronwyn does not indescriminately call all women mommy. There are plenty of women at whom she casts a stink eye while nestling her head into my neck. BUT, when Bronwyn lifts her arms to a non-bio-mommy, it means she has identified that person as...

someone who cares about her
someone who is safe
someone who is kind and warm and giving
 someone who nourishes
 someone who loves
and someone who affirms.

And every child deserves a hoard of people like this in their lives.

Village drama occurs outside our hut most nights as Bronwyn comes back from playing either at Bana Chiti or Bana Robert’s house and we reenact the nightly weaning ritual as Bronwyn cries for “Chiti” and “Bobart” and as they dramatically hold out their arms and walk away realllllly sloooowly  while soaking in the admiration that accompanies the fact that Winnie Bupe loves them to pieces. Jeremy rolls his eyes at the unnecessary melodrama but I’m so indebted to these ladies who spend time with my girl not to do me a favor so that I can work but because they treasure her

When Bronwyn was born, I learned to love in ways that I never knew were possible. I adore everything about her, including her tantrums which reveal her spunk and tenacity with which she may one day change the world. The greatest gift I can think to give her is to surround her with worthy women who are unwaveringly FOR her, committed to her growth and wellbeing, teaching her to be kind and showing her the best way to be a mommy. That she has multiple “mommies” who are showering this kind of care upon her is a gift from heaven.

a mommy in the making. a good mommy...
Once upon a time I wanted to push away the other mommies – kicking them in the shins, grabbing Bronwyn’s hand and running the other direction while yelling "miiiiiiiiine." I've come to realize that I am indeed irreplaceable in Bronwyn's world. I'll always be her number one. But as I put her to sleep each night, responding to her request for a bedtime story including Jesus, a chicken and a Chiti, I know these souls are an important part of her story. Motherhood is a product of more than biology or legality. It is a matrix of tenderness and care, continuity and love. And so to all of you who have been "mommy" to me and to my little one, I say, “Happy mother’s day.”