You x God = Limitless, and Other Mathematical Errors

I like catchy phrases. I like intriguing quotes that reveal a new side of life, or emphasize an old one in a new way. I like to write them down and tell myself “you have to remember this one!” only to promptly forget all about it a day later, until I find another one and do the same thing.

I’m not as fond of clich√©s; I never have been; cute sayings you can crochet on a pillow or hang on your wall, and pretend to believe, even though the oversimplification in the thought is so glaringly obvious it blinds the eyes. And oversimplification brings three things to mind:

Middle school science and mathematics, and Christian theology.

Tongue-in-cheek, people used to tell me that middle school science and math is just a bunch of lies. They teach you a formula or a rule, they tell you it always works that way–no exceptions–and then they wave you away to high school and-

Wham-o.

“Morning nerds, everything you were ever taught is full of lies, and actually, that formula is kind of right, except for all of these exceptions (see list 1 000 000 000 kilometers long). So, for our first semester, we’ll be unlearning and re-learning everything.”

(Warning: some exaggeration applied to the above.)

How is that remotely related to Christian Theology? It’s not. Not always. And that’s not the intention of most catchy Christian phrases when they slip past the lips of the next unsuspecting innocent (read: sinner? Up for debate in theological circles). However, some people were raised hearing things like “Nothing is impossible with God!” and phrases recounting the glorious victory of Christ over death, assuring the abolishment of suffering and sorrow. Others heard the more formulaic: if you do (a) and say (b) and believe (c), (d), and (e) you will absolutely be richly rewarded by God. Wherein “richly” is taken very monetarily.

Kate Bowler was such a woman. And at 35, she was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She’s happily married. A young mother. Her and her husband have a beautiful baby boy. Together, they face the daily realization that it may be her last day. Her son may grow up motherless. She may have to leave them behind.

Kate has meticulously examined every millisecond of her life to try and find out why it must be this way. Why the healing prayers don’t work, why God won’t heal her now, even though he’s supposed to be the great healer. She wrote the book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved to tell her story.

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There is no end to Kate Bowler’s wisdom, truth, and sheer, raw honesty. I didn’t even know I was longing for her words, but just the other week, just before I read her book, I came across a cute, catchy Christian saying that echoed the promises we so often tell each other: “With God, you’re limitless. Anything is possible. Nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams, your goals…”. And then in reading Kate Bowler’s story, I read this:

“What would it mean for Christians to give up that little piece of the American Dream that says, “You are limitless”? Everything is not possible. The mighty Kingdom of God is not yet here. What if rich did not have to mean wealthy, and whole did not have to mean healed? What if being people of “the gospel” meant that we are simply people with good news? God is here. We are loved. It is enough.”

(p. 21. Bowler, Kate. Everything Happens for a Reason. Penguin Random House, 2018.)

This discovery of Kate’s experience compounded on another saying that I became disillusioned with a few years ago; the strange idea that “God will never put you through more than you can handle”. I get the sentiment–I really do. It worked for me for a while. On days when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, I would let myself believe I was strong enough to handle it all, just a little more, just a little more…

Until it all really was too much.

This happens all the time. Too much work. Too many commitments. Too much loneliness, depression, emotion, confusion, pain… There have been countless times in my life where I’ve had to fall, fail, back-down, or back-out simply because I couldn’t handle it. It was too much.

I can feel as close to God as I ever have, and I still can’t convince my friend that she is full of worth and beauty–that her life is worth living. I still can’t pray death away from the one whose time has come. I can’t force myself to be satisfied in a job that leaves me wanting more, I can’t heal my dad’s back or my own head-cold–

There are some things that just cannot be done–changed–altered–reversed.

The easy answer is to say that “Me x God = Limitless” anyways, and the reason I can’t do those things is because He doesn’t will it. But even by that argument, the limits are clearly there. You are limited by this divine will, and the catchphrase becomes an unstable clich√©.

Does it matter?

It’s one thing for a maths and science teacher to welcome a bunch of teenagers into their classroom with the malicious joy in their heart because “today is the day that I tell them their entire curriculum and scientific/mathematical knowledge is founded on lies”. I’d probably find morbid humour in that with the worst of them. But when it comes to theology, why would we teach our children things they only have to unlearn later?

I can’t describe the betrayal I felt when I discovered that all things are not possible with God. People still die, I still make mistakes and bad choices, the environment still suffers, genocide still happens…

I doubt that Christ would think it good practice for theologians and disciple-makers to behave as dry-humoured school teachers. I’d even dare to suggest that Christianity holds us to a higher standard than that.

Is it so difficult for us to say things–great, truthful, meaningful things–while still recognizing the state of reality? All too often our favourite verses and classic Christian-y sayings seem to stuff negativity, pain, and suffering under the rug. But I cannot chisel belief out of silver linings and melodies sung in the rain. Clouds roll in and rain still falls. I need my theology to acknowledge suffering, pain, and disappointment. I need it to recognize that choosing joy is not a universal cure; that grief and deep sadness are equally crucial to existence. Even more so: they’re unavoidable.

How much longer will we keep lying to ourselves and to each other; teaching things that have to be untaught and spouting platitudes that only make us feel worse once the world reveals them as the strawmen we knew they were?

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papercuts

We were gathered for a brief morning staff meeting, and a coworker opened with a short story about a customer who had asked her if we carried anything that had the lyrics of worship songs “without all the negative bits” in it.

Or something to that effect.

The idea caught my interest. What would that look like? No songs came to mind at the time, and my thoughts were quickly interrupted by a host of exclamations of incredulity and scoffing. No one around me could believe it. Aghast declarations of “how could anyone be so blind?” were followed by platitudes spoken with an odious assumption:

Us. Them. We share a perspective. They are clearly wrong.

I cringed inside, and shrunk, to a very small part of me that doesn’t speak up, or speak out, or acknowledge it has any kind of voice at all.

The story continued, in a tone of not-so-subtle horror: “Yes! Apparently someone has gone around and taken all of the “negative” sections out of worship songs, and put them all together somewhere!” Our gathering absconded with accusations of heresy, cowardice, and other such judgements. Whispering through the midst of it was the idea¬† that people need to accept the idea that God has righteous anger. To ignore that is to ignore the nature of God.

I drifted away with questions, and a twisting feeling in my gut.

I grew up being taught that fear and anger were the tools of “the enemy”. In plain English, my religious background taught me that there is an evil force plaguing the world, and that evil force uses fear and anger against humanity, in order to encourage pain and hurtful actions among them. People, in their imperfection, fall for it and cause that pain and hurt to each other.

Today, I find myself in circles where we are using, preaching, and advocating for those same tools. Fear the Lord our God, for he is of a righteous anger. Otherwise you shall feel His Holy Wrath.

Where is the mercy and grace in this narrative? What happened to the everlasting love of God? When we speak of God’s righteous anger, his love seems to evaporate. To disappear. His rage, somehow, overshadows his so-called unconditional love. “God’s angry with me, a sinner. So he’s angry with you too.”

Are we so petty we cannot allow others the warmth of a loving God we don’t necessarily feel?

Would we say these same things to a person who has seen a life of suffering and torment at the hands of angry people? The person who has come to us, desperate for any shred of peace and warm, kind love? What if this person was looking for worship songs “without any negative bits” so that they wouldn’t have to focus on that pain for a while?

What about the abused, who grew up with shouting, angry parents beating them in the name of God?

What about the children hiding under their blankets, because they woke up from a dream about the fires of hell and everlasting torment, where they would surely go if they didn’t say just the right words?

What about the black and blue skin of a person, used and abused, to the melody of “Amazing Grace”?

Will we preach the wrath of God to them?

There are souls on this earth who have heard of nothing but the righteous anger and wrath of God. They know enough pain to make my troubles seem like papercuts. They might turn to me and ask: do you even know what anger really looks like?

Will we pluck these abused, crying children, from their corner, and throw them in alongside the rest of us Sinners; in the Hands of an Angry God?

What of the young woman who never grew out of the mind of a frightened child because she was always hemmed in by people who manipulated her into believing she was small and childish, broken and wrong? What use is a fearmongering, angry God to her? She has no guarantee that He won’t turn that anger on her, because as far as she knows, she is broken and wrong, and there is no love for a broken and wrong girl.

Has anyone even ever told her about the possibility of an unconditionally loving God? Has anyone tried showing her that?

How can a person’s belief in the divine be true and genuine, when it is born out of the fear that, without it, they will eventually burn in agonizing flame for eternity? How can a person’s belief in a Good and Loving God be honest and pure, when it is born out of the terror that, if they don’t believe, they’ll be faced with the violence and wrath of a ferociously angry divine force?

Why can’t we see? Why can’t we hear? We are encountered by person after person, crying out from the pain of their bodies, hearts, souls, minds. Why would we set them on a path to an angry God?¬†Why would we want to? Are we so caught up in judging them as sinners like us, that we can’t accept that God might just … love them?

For in the same way we judge others, we will be judged, and with the measure we use, it will be measured to us (Matt 7:2). There are people on this earth who have known a lifetime of fear and anger. They know nothing else. What a privilege it is, then, for those of us who have seen light, mercy, grace, and love, to reach out and say:

Come, all you who are weary and burdened. There is a place you may yet find rest.

There are those in this world who, for them, a song about the righteous anger of a just God will bring nothing but memories and new experiences of torment and pain. There are people on the earth who have never seen light or love, or mercy or grace, in this lifetime. Who are we to deny them that experience?

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable‚ÄĒif anything is excellent or praiseworthy‚ÄĒthink about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Why don’t we let them?

The wrath of God as a tool to inspire fear and anguish in an already tormented mind is neither lovely nor right–praiseworthy nor excellent–pure, nor noble, nor admirable. It is none of these things. We are not the final authority on who needs a good dose of fear and anger. We are not the final authority on anything.

We are alienating the hurting, suffering people around us with a broken-record narrative of rage and revenge in the name of the Lord our God. And we are doing it with the assumption that we have all the answers — we have it all right — and anyone who gets in our way will suffer the righteous wrath of the deity in our pockets.

The VERY Worst Missionary?

So. I read another book. I would apologize, but … first of all, I work in a bookstore. Second of all, books, reading, and writing, are kind of my life. I think that’s explanation enough. The last book,¬†The Gospel of Trees by Apricot Irving, I sang praises from the rooftops. This time, I bring you a critique. There are aspects of this book that I loved, but I think the overall message the author communicates is too generalized, and therefore damaging. Before I ramble on, the actual review:

35742909The Very Worst Missionary by Jamie Wright is¬†well-written, funny, and so honest in a way that I found enjoyable and lovable (CONTENT WARNING: she swears a lot. This did not bother me, but I know some people take issue with profanity. You have been warned). Jamie has a great sense for how to make people laugh, and to hit important nerves while doing it. There are a lot of good points in here. I think I got a few timely pieces of marriage advice out of it too. Her story astounded, bewildered, and amazed me in all the best possible ways. I think she’s an incredible woman with a very engaging and intriguing history, and reading her life story before her journey into missionary work was an excellent experience.

But this book also lumped all Christian mission, all Christian everything, together and basically told the world to torch it. It ignores the complexities of the over-the-top-numerous Christian denominations, and assumes that all Christian mission endeavors throw random white people into a random less-developed country with little to no preparation or training.

I’m a missionary kid. This is not the case across the board for Christian mission. To me, that makes the message in this book misrepresentative, ignorant, and potentially damaging to a great number of strong organizations who do (and continue trying to do) a lot of good.

That’s a lot coming from a missionary kid who spent the last 5-7 years of her life hating the very air that Christian mission breathed.

It’s too easy to take our individual, painful experiences and use them as a lens by which to colour the world. I’m just as guilty of it as Jamie is with this book. Her experience overseas was horridly hard, as it is for many, many, many missionaries. So was mine. So was my parents’, my brothers’. But that doesn’t give us the license to say “missions” (whatever¬†that means) is the bane of the earth. I believe it identifies us as emotionally compromised. I’ve been back “home” for five years, and it’s taken me until this year to begin to give Christian missionaries the grace Jesus asks us to give to all. I lumped them all together too, ignoring the nuances and believing I had it all figured out. But I don’t.

Another thing this book does really well is that it gets Christians to ask the super important, and very hard questions about their seemingly innocent, altruistic work. No one has it right and perfect. Many carry forward with dangerous flaws. We need people and books that force us to ask ourselves how we can improve, and whether or not it’s time to pull the plug … or keep plugging away. I think Jamie has a lot of good points to make, and many good things to say about the way people carry out Christian missionary work, and the ways they probably shouldn’t. But I know that she doesn’t have the complete picture. She’s missing so many of the pieces, just from a bare-experience-based perspective, and it is so important to do your research before publishing words that can be read by the world.

Our words affect people. What we say affects how people think, act, and live. We have an impact on what people believe and what they say to each other. My biggest critique of¬†The Very Worst Missionary is that Jamie Wright didn’t research enough, and didn’t think enough, before she spoke through her ink and paper to the world. I believe she has a message so important for so many, but there has to be a better way to tell it.

The Gospel of Trees

From one missionary kid to another, this book wrecked me. I spent several days on the brink of tears, and one night crying and crying, unable to stop. I have never seen my own experience reflected back to me so clearly. I was drawn in and carried by the prose, and the vivid descriptions of a place I have never known. I felt like I could feel, taste, smell, and see everything with such clarity. I felt like I’d been to Haiti and back with the family, and I’ll never be the same.

the gospel of trees


Apricot Irving, your book may be a catalyst in my healing journey. I don’t know how to thank you for writing it.


The Gospel of Trees could be described as many things. Told from the perspective of the daughter of missionaries, it covers a vast array of history and family stories, and dares to question a variety of topics. Most of these topics were things that I had thought better left untouched. Apricot Irving dredged up, for me, a host of clamouring memories and thoughts that I knew were so much easier to just look away from. To ignore. What began as an innocent adventure into the life of a missionary-kid in Haiti turned into a a deeply impactful time of reflection on things buried in my mind that I would have found my easier to leave buried. But they were things that, nevertheless, needed to be addressed.¬†The Gospel of Trees¬† pruned their branches, and when it became apparent that it wouldn’t be enough, the book dug the memories up from their rotting roots.

—–

There is a note of heaviness to this book. The Gospel of Trees is a memoir written by a woman named Apricot Iriving, eldest daughter of missionary parents to Haiti. She weaves heartbreak through the story of how she grew up, moved to Haiti and back, and back and away again. She falls in and out of love with the home of her childhood, the prison of her teenage years; the best and worst things that could have happened to her when her parents decided to upend her world.

There’s an overall tone of hopelessness to this story, and yet by reading it, I feel as though I have been freed of questions and anguishes that have plagued me since I donned the mantel of¬†missionary kid¬†when I was seven years old: how do we respond in the face of such blatant, crushing, impossible poverty? How do we respond to our own privilege? Am I lording my white privilege over the other races of the world? Have I grown up believing I was better because I was born into more money?

Whether stated, or implied on purpose or by accident, I think something that Apricot Irving’s memoir stresses is that richness cannot be measured only by money. There is so much more to the world than material wealth.

The Gospel of Trees¬†is, in a sense, an exploration or what happens when people who want to help try to force themselves on another culture, assuming that they know better, when in reality they know nothing about the culture they are “educating” in the first place. This is a major, gigantic, dangerous flaw in the realm of Western Christian mission that can and should be addressed. So often, well-meaning people enter a world in which they don’t speak the language, they don’t know the customs, they don’t agree with the religion, and they desperately want to help. Why do we assume that we¬†can¬†help in the first place, and that our form of helping won’t do more harm than good?

It is possible to damage with our good intentions. It is hugely possible to do great harm under the banner of selflessness and altruism. It is possible for men and women to do evil in the name of Christ, whether they intend for it or not. The Gospel of Trees is an illustration of good intentions gone wrong, and the entitled help of privileged people ravaging a country already riddled with suffering.

Are we entering the places and situations we live in with humility? With questions? Are we leaving our assumptions and pride at the door to make sure we’re not accidentally harming someone by bringing in a good system that, plainly, will not work in the situation we’re in?

This book is not an easy read for people who have lived under or around the mantle of missionary. I don’t know how many times Apricot Irving’s incredible prose made me cry hot, painful tears, and I cannot imagine how depressing and crushing the narrative might be to missionaries living internationally, or returned “home”. But as a missionary kid,¬†The Gospel of Trees¬†gave me permission to confront the questions and pains I had tucked away.¬†The Gospel of Trees¬†breathed calming breaths into my fears and allowed me to look up and out again.¬†The Gospel of Trees¬†was a great, massive weight lifted from my shoulders by the gentle chisel of Apricot Irving’s stunning words. Through this book, she has given me a gift:

¬†¬†¬†“I offered [her] the benediction that an irreverent and holy vicar in London had given me: Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Go in peace.
We clinked glasses.
The missionary mantle, prickly with expectation, was not easily shaken off, and yet it had been our baptism into sorrow and beauty.”
(The Gospel of Trees. Apricot Irving, 2018. p.348)

Forgive yourself, forgive others, and go in peace. That is what I would like to learn to do.

The Point of Our Prayers

I don’t know how to pray, and I’ve given up on it lately, but things like this are working on changing my mind.

Musings and Moments

This article was originally published with Convivium.

I was sitting in a wildly uncomfortable desk chair underneath flickering fluorescent lights when a school-wide favourite teacher posed the question: Why do we pray?

That may sound like an incredibly simple question or a deeply philosophical one depending on how you approach it, but either way the implications have a profound impact on our spiritual life.

There are a lot of questions surrounding why we pray. If God already knows everything that we are thinking, why do we need to pray? Why would we need to ask Him for healing, or for something else we need, if He is all-knowing and all-powerful?

The truth is I don’t fully understand exactly how prayer works on a systematic level in the spiritual realm. But where my knowledge and understanding fall short, the words of Scripture stand true. So where my linear brain can’t…

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call me diverse, or nothing at all

No one likes to be mistaken for something they are not. We brush it off as if it’s nothing; we get incensed in the span of a breath, and scream for retaliation. There are those of us¬†in between, those who master the art of gentle correction, as long as the contender has the mind to be reasonable.

But we don’t like to be seen incorrectly–misrepresented. We have titles by which we would rather not be known, beyond¬†insults and scathing terms. As a¬†Canadian, I don’t like to be¬†mistaken for an American–I’m sure it goes both ways, given the impressive passion with which the many Americans that I know will pronounce their patriotism to the world.¬†French and French Canadians are not to be confused anymore than the Chinese can be called¬†Japanese, or the¬†Japanese, Vietnamese. To do so would be¬†an insult to the nuances of culture that make these each hold a world of difference from each other.

Religion is a category, but each one is different. The similarities are just as important as the differences. A Muslim and a Christian both believe in one God, but not the¬†very same God. A Buddhist and a Sikh value peace–both inner and world-wide–but their paths to that goal will not look the same.

But braving even more daunting intricacy: many Christians would not want to be mislabeled as Mormon, and most Protestants refuse to be identified as Catholic. I speak into these differences as someone who was raised in an Anabaptist-minded stream of Christianity, and I recognize that this has very much shaped my perspective and my bias, but I also grew up outside of my passport country and am in the habit of comparing and contrasting cultures. The innumerable streams of Christianity are defined and differentiated cultures in-and-of themselves that all balk when mislabeled.

Why else would there be so many denominations of churches?

For a diverse people so proud of their nuances and differences, we have started many wars in the name of labels; one of the biggest being the war against political correctness itself. For a people of peace, we have started many battles. Even though we carry such diverse views and titles, we fall under the label of Christianity all the same.

I have no problem with political correctness and seeking out the accepted terms to use in reference to a group of people who wish to remain as individualized as anyone else in this Western culture we live in. I want to know how my words and the titles I use affect the lives of the people around me. As a Third Culture Kid, when someone labels me as Canadian, my hackles raise. A label is an expectation, and the expectation is that I will conform to the speaker’s norm.

Most often, I tend to refuse.

first day of school, 2011

It’s my first day at a new school and I’m late. Not just fifteen-minutes-into-first-period-late; I didn’t get up in the morning because I had a knot of nausea-inducing anxiety in the pit of my stomach, and then I stood at the front door of our apartment crying my eyes out at how desperately I didn’t want to go.

That kind of late.

I’m fifteen minutes late to the first period after the lunch hour, where the professor is in the middle of lecturing students on the technique of linear perspective drawing in the ancient Greek and Roman times. Nevermind that I’m a month-and-a-half late to the start of school itself, but blame French bureaucracy for that, not me.

Is that an overhead projector? Isn’t France a country of la R√©volution? When did they lose touch with advancing technology–again?

The prof seems frustrated with my late entrance. Already. We’re off to a great start, and he indicates my seat: the one right in front of where he’s standing, in his v-neck sweater and hipster chinos. I didn’t know a day could start this badly. I never sit in the front. Front row students ask and answer questions. I never ask or answer questions. I never raise my hand. Then I’d have to speak, and speaking means words, and words means French–out loud, in front of a bunch of French students, and I don’t have a French accent, and they’re going to laugh at me for sounding so Canadian or English or American or whatever and–

breathe–

I never sit in the front.

V-neck-Mister-Chinos-Prof, or whatever his name is,¬†seems to treat me nicely enough after all¬†that, but¬†as I head for the next class with the other girl named Elise (who looks at me like she wishes she shared a name with¬†a warthog instead), I’m overwhelmed by the thought that Monsieur-Encolure-en-V’s class will be a waste of my time.

The Maths professor is a tall man with a full head of grey hair. I don’t think he got the memo that his hairstyle is currently reserved for Justin Beiber, but I guess at that age, with that much grey, if you can grow your hair long enough to whip it, you’d better.

He has the most striking blue eyes, and a wide, kind face. I think it’s the kind of face J.K. Rowling might describe as “toad-like”, but he’s not wearing a fluffy pink cardigan, so¬†I think I’ll like him.

I hate math though. Ten points from Ravenclaw.

I sit in a desk next to the door, at the front. Again. But here, there are as few people near me as possible and I have a clear view of the board. After years of jumping back and forth between classes in English and classes in French, math is the one class aside from the sciences where I have little-to-no confidence. Curriculum varies from school to school, so the leap from country to country is like some kind of hyperdrive-jump through both the space and time continuum–it’s like I’m in a whole other culture or something…

Who knew?

I write a quiz with the class–the professor assures me that it won’t count for marks, since it’s my first day and all (five points for Ravenclaw),¬†but that quiz is all it takes for my educational holes to make their presence known. I think I may have gotten every question wrong.

And I used to be bullied for being smart

The professor pays me extra attention after that, on breaks between classes or lunch breaks, when everyone else is forcibly ushered outside into the school courtyard to tease, mock, bully, and all-around beat up on each other (verbally or otherwise). I watched an actual¬†fight for the first time at this school–the entire courtyard gathered in a ring around the contenders and cheered their favourite on to victory, before supervisors rushed out, hurling students and insults left and right, screaming <<Non, mais, √ßa va pas l√†?!>>

Wild.

But today… today I think I’ve had enough. I finally take a seat at the back of my next class–History, which I naively think can’t be too bad aside from potentially¬†incredible boredom–and the first thing Madame-What’s-It does is call on me.

Me. The new student from the foreign country, with the funny¬†accent,¬†who would like nothing better than to blend in. That, or sink right through the floor and disappear forever–I’d be down for either eventuality to be honest, but here this woman is, calling my name off her class list and making every face in room turn towards me… and she wants to ask about my accent?

Because it’s not like I haven’t been asked to imitate a French Canadian accent already by a classmate, since that would be hilarious, apparently.¬†The Canadians think I sound French, and the French think I sound Canadian, but this prof says my accent is Germanic.

(For those of you who care, otherwise skip this bracket, Germanic simply refers to the Germanic languages collectively, these being English, German, Dutch, Frisian, the Scandinavian languages, and Gothic.¬†Germanic¬†could also simply mean ‘relating to German and/or Germany’–nothing insulting about that, right?)

Right now, big words that I don’t understand intimidate me, especially in my second language. I want to cry again, but she wants me to read a whole paragraph for the class and take my accent for a test drive. I feel like a specimen in a petri dish with every word that slips from my trembling lips.

I just want to go home. These halls and classrooms all smell like cleaning agents and sterilizers, there are buzzers for access to the front doors; and if this school starts to feel anymore like a psych-ward or a prison, I might just commit an act worthy of being admitted inside.

bras d’honneur

October, 2011

It’s my second day at a new school and I’ve just walked out of an intensely nerve-wracking period of P.E., wherein I had no other choice but to display my utter lack of talent in the art that is volleyball to an entire class of students I still feel woefully uncomfortable around.

I’ve survived the horrors of the locker room and changed back into my clothes without incident, and I’m on my way across the courtyard with the gaggle of girls I’ve latched on to, and…really?

We’re going to do this now? We’re going to do this¬†today?

I was at least four hours late to my first day of school yesterday because I was crying my eyes out at my front door, and now a bumbling band of gorilla-boys I’ve never seen before are following me across the courtyard, calling French insults at me and mocking me for my nationality.

I thought the world loved Canadians?

My self-appointed mother-hen-classmate snaps back at them to leave me alone, but they continue to stalk me the whole 50 meters until I stop and abruptly turn around. The ringleader is right in front, of course. I’m pleased to see that he’s considerably shorter than I am, and he reminds me of a small, sweet, pudgy boy I knew in elementary school.

I had much more affection for the sweet, pudgy boy.

I am proud to say that I do not cry. Instead, I place my hand on his shoulder and say, very gently in English, “Shut up, and walk away. Just shut up. And walk away.”

I am very pleased to see the look of confusion that crosses his face, and the faces of all the boys in his posse as they start to mumble to each other-

“I didn’t get that, did you get that?”

“I understood ‘Shut up’, but…”

Of course, the memory of satisfaction is very much obliterated by the large, sopping tears that begin to fall from my face and I turn my back on them even before my victory over their dull, small minds can be assured. My mother-hen friend ushers me beside her and rubs my arm while she hollers after the boys as they start to run from me, muttering:

“Sh**, she’s crying, let’s go!”

Filthy cowards. The lot of them. I wish I had used much stronger words with them before they could run off. Something along the lines of¬†“va te faire foutre”, complete with a nice¬†bras d’honneur.

But that wouldn’t be a good way to make friends.

Present Day…

A recent assignment for a creative-writing class has caused me to relive a thousand-and-one memories from my various experiences in life and in school overseas. Some of them delightful. Others more along the lines of this one. I’ve relived this particular experience so many times already, I shouldn’t be surprised that I gleaned nothing new from it this time. I go over all the horrible things I could have said to those boys, and all the ways I could have made myself feel more powerful than they did… and it changes nothing, because I’m here now, and that is how I chose to react then (not that I chose to cry, but you see what I’m saying).

Nevermind the fact that I could probably never bring myself to say anything especially rude to anyone’s face, and anyone who knows me knows that even better than I do.

I had a couple of very rough days that ended up colouring the rest of my time at that school, that year. I think that, if I learned anything from that day, it’s that those kinds of days and those kinds of people… they hold little weight in the long run. I mean, they hold as much or as little weight as you give them. At the time, that weight was crushing. And at the time, I think I had every right to feel crushed. The important part would be that I didn’t stay that way.

The important part is, always, to grow and keep growing. To learn and keep learning. In many ways,¬†c’est¬†√ßa la vie.

the Moroccan princess

Picture Denny’s. Family-friendly diner, 24/7 so it’s a little bored looking, a little greasy. Pancakes, waffles, bacon, eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches and all the other crucial menu items. I walk into one with grandma and grandpa, the waitress seats us – she looks a little done with the day, a little frazzled, a little worn down. And my grandpa –¬†incapable of seriousness as he is¬†– turns to her and says:

“We have a Moroccan Princess with us today,”

with a meaningful little glance in my direction.

I blush. I grimace a little, on the inside. That’s a piece of my identity thrust out into the open, a piece that I usually keep to myself. There’s a sense of wonder and awe when people find out that you’ve lived overseas. All of sudden your life looks like a grand adventure, like in the storybooks. You’re Bilbo Baggins running off to slay a dragon (even if you don’t know it yet – they¬†know it. They can tell! They’re reading and they have the ending to the story, but you, as Bilbo, just won’t know until you get there. Of course.).

You survived those strange people in that crazy landscape? (You mean the city? um, sure…all in one piece, even. Huzzah!).

I wish people could see the way I look at them, with that same wonder and awe, when they tell me of how they’ve lived in the same house for 18-20 years. Their parents built this house before they were born and it’s all they’ve ever known. Maybe they’ve travelled, maybe they’ve never been outside of the country – the province – the city.

You are the Bilbo Bagginses of my life, living the grand adventure that I can and will never know. I can never know what it’s like to grow up in one place all of my life, because that stage of my life is gone. I can never know what those roots would be like – what I might feel when I say goodbye to my home of 18+ years. What I might feel when I travel away and then come back after two weeks. Comfort and closeness? The itch to get away – as soon and as far away as possible?

Because a house is just a building, and a city is just a sprawl of them, holding people I may never meet, or ever see again. A plane is just a taxi, carrying me over the world, to meet more people I may never remember, or ever meet again. Moving house is just a part of life – jobs take us away, people move us around. We drop everything, drift away from it all, and pick up again because that’s just how it works. That’s just how we do. That’s just where the unexpected takes us. It’s to be expected.

The reality is, though, that I am not a Moroccan Princess. I spent three years there, as a young white Christian girl in a French private school, with the wealthy and the well-off, in the middle a country riddled with poverty and illiteracy, and disability and pain. What do I know of the Moroccans and their world? What do I know of Islam and it’s inner workings?

I’m not a French girl either. I spent five-and-a-half years in their school system and not even three years in their country. I traveled their countryside and explored their fallen castles, like all the loud-inconsiderate-Westerners that come every year to disrupt their grace and peace, and speak the wrong language and ask stupid questions. What do I know of their culture, and the things they care for? The separation of Church and State, the strong influence of Catholicism, and now atheism,¬†and the value of education that surpasses all other rights in importance? What do I know of the culture that demands a child be educated for their parents to be considered worthy of caring for them? What do I know of the French and their world?

I was a player in their dollhouse for a few years, and then gone the next, never staying long enough to become familiar, barely sticking around enough to become acquainted. Just because I can speak to¬†them doesn’t mean we understand each other. Just because I lived there does not make me their poster-child. I’m a foreigner to you just as much as I’m a foreigner to them. “My little foreigner”, my friends¬†sometimes call me, and now “she’s French, you know”. And Canada is my passport country.

I am a foreigner to “my” people just as much as I am a foreigner to the world, so where do I fit, really? To the French, I’m Canadian, to the Canadian, I’m French, and to the Moroccan, I’m American. No one else can get it right and neither can I. I am a citizen of the world,¬†visitor to all.

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

wayfaring stranger

I am a poor wayfaring stranger,

While traveling through this world of woe.

Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger,

In that bright world to which I go.

I’m going there to see my Father,

I’m going there no more to roam;

 

I’m just a going over Jordan,

I’m just a going over home.

–Folk Spiritual, “Wayfaring Stranger

 

 

quoted from:
Brownback, Lydia. Finding God in my Loneliness. Crossway: Illinois. 2017.