Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud

Brown's Bay

It’s January 21st – my birthday!

January 21st has other meaning in my life too.  Six years ago – six years ago today – I was on an airplane headed to New Zealand for six months.  The time in New Zealand had been years in the making, starting with a distinct calling to go there.  It was as if God attached my heart to an arrow and flung it at the country and kept the tether tight, pulling me ever closer.  Reeling me in.

New Zealand was in my dreams, it occupied my thoughts and daydreams, too.  But for years, the doors to go were slammed, dead bolted shut.

And then they opened.  They opened wide and fast, and within a few months I was there.  I worked with a Christan family-help organization.  It helps families in crisis, and helps families avoid crisis.  Even a place as beautiful as New Zealand cannot stamp out ugliness.  There is domestic violence and teen suicide and a lot of drug abuse.

I’ll tell you more about New Zealand someday.  I could talk about it for hours.  But until then, here is an excerpt of a blog post written six years ago, just a few days after I arrived.  (The pictures are from throughout my trip).

Doubtful Sound

Flying into NZ was amazing.  The seemingly endless Tasman Sea was streaked with long lines of clouds.  But then the clouds began to change shape.  Now they were curved, mimicking the shape of the unseen coast line.  And then, without warning, imposing fingers of land – untamed cliffs covered in emerald green grass – jutted out of the sea.

And there it was.  New Zealand – my New Zealand.  The New Zealand that God whispered into my ear four years ago.  Beautiful pasture dotted by the occasional house.  Green fields segmented by British-looking hedges. I could see it with my eyes and soon it would be beneath my feet.

My first thought was from Rilke’s Poem (I, 19 from his Book of Hours) where he writes from God’s perspective:

I Am, you anxious one.

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings.
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in stillness?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

 I am the dream you are dreaming
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting.
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.

The dream is a reality, and I am standing on its soil.

That first night, as I lay in bed and thought about the hours I spent crossing seas to get here, I was struck by how small this little island is compared to the massive oceans.  I felt very exposed and vulnerable.  Maybe even scared.  This little blip of green in a mass of blue between Australia and Chile is very far from home.

I live with Paula and her three children: Daniel (9), Dominic (“nearly 7”) and Kristin (4).  They have been incredibly accommodating as I adjust to many things.

Having everything so different all at once is a bit of a shock – I guess that’s why they call it culture shock.  It is all so different, but I like it, and I know that in time it will be home and I will be sad to leave.

And it’s true.  I was sad to leave.  There is not a day that goes by that I don’t feel that tether, that I don’t long for my New Zealand, my New Zealand routine, my New Zealand usuals like perfect coffee and tea and chocolate and fruit.  I miss how skinny I got from having to walk two miles every day between bus stops.

But most of all I miss my New Zealand family.  My throat clenches when we chat on Skype and Daniel has a man’s voice now, or when I realize that Kristin is the age that Daniel was when I was there.  I miss Paula, who became one of the most important and beloved people in my life.  I don’t call them as much as I should.  Mostly because when I do, the tether grows tight again in those moments.  It is equal parts joy and pain.

That tether, that arrow.  It still pins down a chunk of my heart that will forever be tied to New Zealand, or as the native Maori call it, Aotearoaland of the long white cloud.

New Zealand |

But What If?

The Professor and I don’t have any kids yet.  Someday, just not yet.

As I think about someday having children, my heart is full of excitement and expectations and a thousand unspoken and spoken fears.  The “but what ifs?”

But what if when we start trying, we can’t have a baby?
But what if we have a baby with Down’s Syndrome?
But what if I have a still birth?
But what if I have conjoined twins?
But what if our child gets a horrible childhood cancer?
But what if we have a child with debilitating autism or cerebral palsy?
But what if something happens to The Professor and I have to raise a baby alone?

There are thousands of questions.

The reality is that when we have a child, no matter how perfect we think he or she is, between the ten fingers and ten toes and ringlets of blond hair, our bundle of joy will be imperfect in some way – an imperfect little person born into an imperfect world.  A world where babies are born with impairments.  A world where that perfect little angel will learn how to manipulate and disobey within months.  A world where children get terminal diseases.  A world where babies die in their mothers’ wombs.

A world where beautiful little children learning colors and shapes and how to tie their shoes are killed in their kindergarten class by a man filled with so much hurt and so much anger, he decided to make other people hurt as bad as him.

Even if we have a baby and there are no complications, the risks don’t end there.  So I guess I have two options – take the risk or hide under a rock.

It’s days like today that I remember this verse:  “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33.

Pain, imperfection, injustice – they seem to be guaranteed.  And apparently all the anxiety I can muster won’t change a thing.

It takes a smarter person than me to say why bad things happen.  All I know is that He promises he’ll win in the end.  And when Jesus faced loss – even knowing he would win – he wept and cried up to heaven.

So that’s what we will do.  We will weep and pray.  And strangest of them all, we’ll keep hoping.

Thanksgiving with Homeless Illegal Aliens

Photo via.

My favorite Thanksgiving was spent with homeless illegal aliens.

I was in middle school in San Diego.  Near our neighborhood was a canyon where a group of  20 illegal aliens lived.  The group of men were day laborers who sent everything except a meager pittance back to their families in Mexico.  And so there near the red-tile roofed tract homes in the deep cuts of the canyon where you couldn’t see if you weren’t looking, was a little shanty town of cardboard box structures.  Our church, also near the canyon, left their courtyard bathrooms unlocked all the time so the men could use them.

Victor was one of those men.  He started coming to church, and not just to use the bathroom.  Before my eyes, Victor transformed from an illegal alien to a family friend.  He spoke adequate English with a heavy accent, and was short and strong with a cowboy hat and a thick mustache.  He always came to church in his Sunday best – a plaid, pearl snap long-sleeved collared shirt and jeans with inexplicable starch marks down the sharp creases.  Did he have an iron in his shack, I always wondered?

Victor had a lot to be thankful for, and he’d tell you if you asked.  He spoke with pride about his wife and children, and how much money he made here in America.  Occasionally, he would go on vacation to visit them, packing his few belongings into a hard backed, 1970’s suitcase.  A few weeks later, he would return and take up residence in his cardboard shack once again.

With all our extended family in Texas, holidays were always a patchwork quilt of friends, adopted family and a straggler or two.  One year my mom decided we should invite Victor to our house for Thanksgiving.  For days she talked about having him in our home, introducing him to our favorite American traditions and favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

But as she planned out the meal, she realized it led to one inevitable conclusion – us staying in our home and Victor going back to his cardboard box.  And rightly so, it broke her heart.  Determined to do something that would introduce Victor to Thanksgiving and give him a good meal, my parents put together a Thanksgiving feast in our church courtyard for Victor and his friends in the canyon.

It grew and soon there were three other families helping us throw the feast, and it was glorious.  I still remember that day better than any other Thanksgiving in my childhood.

I remember looking down at the large picnic table from the second floor of the courtyard to see my family and friends and our guests from the canyon enjoying a meal together.  I remember helping my dad open a gallon-sized can of green beans.  They’re small, silly memories, but those are the moments that stick, I suppose.

I also remember that this meal was a sacrifice.  We lived paycheck to paycheck.  Being the typical first child, I knew that things were tight.   But that Thanksgiving, I saw that you didn’t have to have much to give much. I also saw that you could make an impact on someone’s life simply.  Poverty, illegal immigration, homelessness – we didn’t solve any of those problems that day.  But we did feed our friends in the canyon, and we continued to help them after Thanksgiving.

That year I realized there are shanty towns everywhere, if you’re willing to look.  Some of them are a collection of cardboard box shacks in neighborhoods rich and poor.  And some of them can’t be seen at all.  These shanty towns hold regular looking people in regular looking homes – the lonely, the depressed, the mourning.  They suffer from the poverty of the soul.  You don’t have to go to Brazil or South Africa to find a shanty town.  There’s probably one in your suburb.  Just look.

And, of course, I remember Victor – a man who had much to be Thankful for, and he’d tell you if you asked.

What are you thankful for?