Women of the Year

Each year a certain mainstream magazine publishes its Women of the Year. Their choices range from the obvious to the obscure, featuring women who have made remarkable impacts on their little corners of the world. That got me to thinking: What women have made a difference in my life in the last year? Who would I dub my Women of the Year?

2017 was one of the most extraordinary years of my life. I had recently resigned from a 24-year career in teaching and had more flexibility than before. I traveled to places I’d only dreamed of: Israel, Alaska, and Poland. I saw my only daughter marry into an absolutely terrific family. I began and ended a second career. 2017 was hard and wonderful and everything in between.

As I reflect on the last twelve months, the people and experiences that shaped me, I see that two very different ladies have taught me the same very important lesson: gratitude.

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From the time I met a group of Holocaust Survivors four years ago, I began praying about going to Israel. It is a tiny, mysterious land, ripe with historical and spiritual significance. It was also home to some new friends who had almost immediately wrapped themselves around my heart. But making a trip to Israel is no small feat. There are places where it simply is not wise for a woman to go alone. I have never been farther than the shopping mall by myself, and I can get lost going somewhere I’ve been a dozen times. There was no way I could do this on my own. Enter Karen. I shared with her my dream of making the trip to Israel: I had the time and the money (a totally cool story in itself) but I needed someone with experience to go with me. She immediately volunteered.

Here’s the thing. I could not have chosen a more perfect travel companion if I’d tried. Karen is a former airlines employee who has literally been all over the world, including several trips to Israel. While I am a very much the introvert, Karen has never met a stranger. She has contacts in most any country or culture you can possibly imagine…and even when she doesn’t, she knows someone who does. She’s also extremely laid back, which was a much needed balance to my OCD tendency to over-plan and then nut up a little when the plan doesn’t work. So this woman, this amazing woman, at her own expense, gave up a month of her life to accompany me on the trip of my dreams. Wow.

That’s not even the best thing about Karen. Karen is a woman who has this uncanny ability to breathe in chaos and breathe out peace. If you are around her for more than five minutes, you will hear her say, “I’m so grateful….” All day. In any situation. Now most people have a pet saying, like, “You know what I mean?” or “Ummm” or some such. That can get annoying. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. Not so with Karen. A genuine heart of gratitude continually flows out of her. It is, without question, who she is. And after spending time with her, it starts to color who you are and how you see the world around you.

More than once we got lost in questionable neighborhoods and the two block walk back to our lodging might easily turn into a mile or more. Somehow we always managed to find our way back, fueled by her optimism and excellent memory. Even the wrong turns became mini adventures. I saw new places and ate new foods and tried new things that I probably never would have on my own. And I am grateful for the experience.

IMG_0042The second woman who has taught me gratitude is my friend Hawa. She is from Sudan, the mother of nine of the sweetest children I’ve ever met, and though we are different in practically every way imaginable, she is my sister and I cannot imagine living my life without her.

I first met Hawa a little over a year ago when I began volunteering in an English language class. The second week, the leader asked me if I could give Hawa a ride. I was so nervous about having someone in my car who I could barely communicate with. But we both survived it, and I drove her again the following week. Somewhere along the way, things just sort of clicked. A few weeks later I spent the day with Hawa and she taught me how to make a traditional Sudanese meal (which was unbelievably delicious!) Periodically I go over to visit her and play with the children. We will build with blocks and put together puzzles. Before too long, someone will bring out a book, and we have an impromptu English lesson. Two of my favorite memories were last year when my family had the opportunity to introduce Hawa, her husband, and all the kids to their first American Thanksgiving and Christmas. We played in the floor (all of us), ate together, then taught the adults and older children how to drive the golf cart. Now THAT was hilarious! Language can be an issue sometimes, but never a barrier. Usually our miscommunication moments leave us laughing, and laughter is the same in any language.

One of the things I’ve learned from watching Hawa is how naturally the social graces are a part of her DNA. She always asks about my family and friends that she has met, then shares greetings from her friends I have been introduced to. And she feeds me. Have mercy, she feeds me! A visit to Hawa’s house is always accompanied by coffee (which she confessed she doesn’t really like, yet she always makes and drinks some with me) and snacks, or even a light meal. This beautiful woman spoils me rotten.

My Sudanese friends have a close bond that many American families would envy. It is not at all unusual to find the entire family together outside, sitting on a blanket in the sunshine, drawing pictures, practicing writing English words, or kicking around a soccer ball. They are affectionate and kind and always take care of each other. You have not lived until you have held a sleeping Sudanese baby. They just sort of melt into you…melting your heart at the same time. Hawa’s family lives very modestly by American standards. Their small home is humble, impeccably clean, and somehow there’s plenty of room for everyone. There is no pretense. No putting on airs. What they have is enough. They are grateful for it, and more than willing to share.

Karen and Hawa have both quietly made an incredible impact on my life, not so much because they set out to teach me lessons in tranquility and gratitude, but simply because that is who they are. It is impossible to be around them and not soak that up. I am a better person, calmer and more loving, for having spent so much time with these two special ladies.

For that, I am truly grateful.

Cutting & Rolling: Lessons From a Paintbrush 

Truth be told, I really hate painting. Not the fancy kind that people display in art museums and dentist offices. The kind where your living room looks dingy or dated and the obvious cure is a fresh coat of paint. That’s the one I’m not so fond of.  

I think it all started when we were building our house. My husband told me that as soon as we were done painting, we could move in. I thought, “YES!!! We will be in by the weekend!” HA! Or not. We painted for a month. One long, hot, thought-it-would-never-ever-end month. We both worked full-time jobs, came home, consumed some manner of edible substance, grabbed our brushes, and picked up wherever we’d left off at midnight the night before. It was not my favorite aspect of the house-building process. 

My first job was putty-er. Jeff would nail the trim down with an air hammer, then I would come along and putty each and every individual hole with caulk. I used a caulk gun, popsicle sticks, my bare fingers, damp cloths, anything to make the job go easier and faster. Then I had to sand the trim to a smooth texture. By the time this was completed, my fingertips were raw and swollen, my back ached all the time, and my attitude was slightly south of chipper. Then…and only then…was I given a paintbrush. Finally, we’ll make some progress, I thought. Or not.  

While Jeff and some friends who were kind enough to come bail us out on occasion were wielding paint rollers and even this awesome electric air sprayer for the cathedral ceilings, I had a brush. A stinking, hand-operated brush. I may have contemplated bopping them in the head with their fancy equipment. Maybe. One thing is for sure, I was exhausted, and I was grumpy. It’s a wonder that people who were around during this season of life still spoke to me without an armed guard and a pound of chocolate present. 

I’ve matured a little bit in the last twenty years. Painting is still my least favorite construction activity and I will do just about anything to avoid it. While on mission trips with my church, this has led to me developing other skills, like operating a skill saw, running a weed eater, and even using a bit of feng shui to build a pretty amazing rock-lined ditch.  

Recently my friend asked me to help paint the stage at church. I still hate painting, but I love both my friend and my church. Of course, I said yes. As is so often the case when there is painting to be done, I found myself in command of a hand-operated brush. I got a little pan of paint and set to work. Rather than being resentful of this particular duty as I have in the past, I found myself waxing philosophical as I began tracing around the edges of the trim. 

When it comes to painting a wall, there are two primary roles: roller and cutter. Rolling creates the more noticeable end product. Great masses of wall can be covered in a very short time. The results are obvious, and the room looks better almost instantly. Rolling is showy. Rolling is glam.  

Cutting-in, by contrast, is slow. It is tedious. It takes time and precision, and often brings tired knees and aching backs from sitting in the floor to carefully trace over electrical outlets and along baseboards, window casings and door jambs. Cutting-in requires a steady hand; rushing can be disastrous.  There is little to show for your work. Certainly it lacks the “ooooh” factor of rolling an entire wall in five minutes.  

But is one better than the other? Absolutely not. If the wall were to be painted using only a roller, the outer perimeter would look sloppy and highly distracting, in a word, awful. Of course walls can be painted using only a regular brush, but the time and effort involved would most likely outweigh the benefits. Your list of available friends would diminish quickly if that were the proposed painting plan.Each method of painting has its strengths and weaknesses. Rolling gets the job done quickly and thoroughly, and and cutting-in provides the pop, the attention to detail, that sets the room off properly. Cutting makes rolling “work”. 

So that’s all well and good if you happen to be standing there with a gallon of semi-gloss and a natural bristle brush in your hand. But what does this have to do with real life, you may well ask. Quite simply, everything. We all have our own fair share of both strengths and weaknesses. There are things that we do well and things that we wish we were better at. In the Bible, Paul speaks to this very issue in 1 Corinthians 12. Using the analogy of the human body and its many parts, he says that while some are more prominent than others, the contributions of all are essential to the proper functioning of the whole body. Ever broken a finger or had a toothache? It impacts the efficiency of the entire body. This is true of our physical bodies, our churches, our businesses, our families, and of our society as a whole.  

We each have different roles to play. Some are more flashy, more noticeable. Some are more subtle and occur quietly, behind the scenes. Each has great value. Every individual part matters to the proper functioning of the whole. So we all need to figure out what we are wired to do. What is your passion? What are you doing when you feel most alive? Writing news stories? Cooking? Building houses? Balancing budgets? Organizing gala events? Designing spacecraft? Teaching a toddler to use a spoon? All of these things matter. Learn your role and do it with excellence. Even if you are one of those wacky, amazing people who just so happens to love painting. Whether you are the roller or the cutter or the kid who stirs the paint, give it all you’ve got. Our businesses and families and nation and world need you to get out there and be you! 

You are the only one who can. 

(On a side note, in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 12 is followed by Chapter 13. I’m pretty clever, huh? This famous passage is known as “The Love Chapter”. I don’t think this progression is an accident. Once you figure out your passion, consider how you might use it to love the people around you, and maybe even those on the other side of the globe. Goodness knows, genuine love and compassion can be hard to find these days. But we can be the generation that turns that around. You hold in your hands an incredible amount of power. You possess the ability to impact the world …..beginning by being nice to the people you come into contact with. Think about that.) 

A Tale of Two Tables

Friday was hard for me. Actually, it all began much earlier than that. I have been away from home for almost a month now. The homesick that had been nipping at my heels for weeks finally caught up. A friend in Israel I had been so looking forward to connecting with was unable to meet with me. It was the first time in 27 years I missed my daughter’s birthday. It was a trifecta of circumstances, the perfect storm for a pity party. Thursday night I cried myself to sleep, silent sobs of deep despair.

This trip has been so good, yet nothing – absolutely NOTHING – has gone as expected. I have seen some absolutely amazing places and God has opened my eyes to things in Scripture that I never noticed before. Yet the things I most wanted to happen, the conversations and stories I most wanted to hear, didn’t. I began to question why I was even here. What was the purpose? I only know that God said, “GO!” The how and why of what He will do with these experiences remains to be seen. In all fairness, I did pray for God to wreck my plans with His. On the one hand, it is exciting that He most certainly has, but perhaps I will be a little more selective with my choice of verbs the next time I pray something that bold. 😛

Friday morning as my friend and I joined our hosts at the breakfast table, I was a basket case. At first I tried to hide my feelings, but I simply could not stop crying. Five good minutes would pass then the tears would start up. Again. The three people sharing this incredibly awkward meal did all they could to point me in a positive direction. They acknowledged my sadness but did not allow me to wallow. Sometimes the best thing to do is just keep moving. We went to Nazareth Village that day. The more the day progressed, the more my focus shifted. I learned so much in this humble place, and my emotional energy was transferred from myself to the wonder of all that Christ has done. Seeing this site, perhaps more than any other during this trip, made me hungry to revisit Scripture now that I have walked where they took place: the vineyard, the olive press, among the almond blossoms, the grazing sheep, the flowers of the field, the dust of the paths. What an honor that is!

Friday evening, just after sundown, we sat again at that very same kitchen table. What a stark contrast this meal was from the one mere hours before. I celebrated my first Israeli Shabbat. Our hosts invited us to join them and a couple friends for this weekly feast. We lit the candles and sang songs of praise and worship. We spoke traditional prayers and blessings over each other. We toasted the fruit of the vine. We ate challah and roasted chicken and apple pie. It was a time to reflect on the goodness of God, to be still, to rest in His Presence.

My bent heart is mending. Although the book I envisioned writing simply is not going to happen right now, I choose to trust. I believe there are still stories for me to tell. I have mourned the perceived loss of a dream, but in my quiet times, God has been taking me beyond that kind of thinking. In some crazy way this time in Israel feels more like an introduction than a conclusion.

Driving in Israel – Part Two

A week before I left home, it was decided that I would get an international driver’s license to save a significant amount of money on excursions. This offered us great flexibility and really did save a ton of money. After paying $150 to take an hour-long drive by taxi, $200 to rent a car for four full days was a very logical choice.

Only, that meant I had to do all the driving. When it comes to long road trips, I’m a great passenger. I love to press my nose to the window and see all the amazing sights, or curl up and fall asleep. Now I was going to have to pay attention to the road. Having never driven in Israel, there were some unfamiliar signs, and the traffic signals operate slightly differently than the ones in the US. I accidentally ran a red light or two before I clued in to the difference, but at least we were on the same side of the road as at home. There was some comfort in that.

The friends we were staying with wanted to show us the city of Be’er Sheva. I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I am a country girl and would have been nervous driving in a large American city. I saw nothing but the asphalt. My eyes were glued to the road, the traffic signs and signals, and other drivers (who, are considerably more aggressive than American drivers but not as much as those in Europe.) My only aim was to neither kill nor be killed. I am sure that Be’er Sheva is a lovely city, but all I can say with any degree of certainty is that they do seem to have a nice system of roads. There are few standard crossroads, but the plethora of roundabouts keep things moving and people are generally considerate of other drivers – unless you pause long enough to inspire honking.

Though he no longer drives, Sasha is far better than any GPS. When he says turn, you need not question him. Sasha knows. The one time we got really turned around, Sasha hesitated, I missed the turn-off from the highway, three people all started talking at once in two languages. An hour-long quest to get back on track began. As it turns out, Sasha was right all along, the GPS was wrong (it was a brand new road), and we ended up seeing a different part of the countryside, which would have been quite pleasant had I not been so anxious about having led us so far astray.

The most treacherous driving experience was reaching the Dead Sea. Periodically the side of the mountain was marked with your elevation in regard to sea level, +1000m, +500m, etc. The distance may have been 25 km as the crow flies, but it was, I assure you, considerably longer when you are the one behind the wheel making the hairpin turns on the side of a mountain, descending further and further down to the lowest elevation on planet earth. Leaving the highway and reaching the Dead Sea took over an hour. By the time we arrived, I was one stressed Georgia girl, longing for the flat lands of home. I think the other three passengers all expected me to blow a gasket at any moment, but some cappuccino and exploration of the Dead Sea smoothed out my wrinkled nerves.

One of the coolest things we saw along the descent was a group of young Bedouin shepherds. They had a flock of sheep – perhaps 20-30 – and camels – around 10 – mothers and babies, grazing on the side of the mountain. We passed by far too quickly for anyone to snap a photo, but I am sure that this is a rustic imagine that will live in my mind for many years.

On the way back to Ofaqim, we decided to fill up the car with gas. Sounds simple enough, right? Not even. Since they live in a metropolitan area, neither Fira nor Sasha drive. They counted on me to make this happen. I was not a bit concerned as we pulled into the dark station after regular hours since I do know how to pump gas and do self-pay at the pump.  The only problem here is that the directions are in Hebrew. Sasha reads and speaks Hebrew but he doesn’t know the procedure for using the card scanner at the pump. We developed a chain of translation. Sasha read the Hebrew directions, then translated them into Russian to Fira, who then translated them into English. I could not help but recall the I Love Lucy episode where Lucy is arrested in Paris for using counterfeit money and it takes a five-language chain to plead her case and set things straight. Meanwhile in Ofaqim, much confusion ensued. There was vigorous reasoning together in Russian, my head snapping back and forth like I was watching the championship match at Wimbledon, trying to catch a recognizable phrase so I’d know how to proceed. After some time, Fira called her grandson to talk us through the proper procedure, her eyes wide with concern as she explained our predicament to him. I had to bite my lip and turn away as I heard him laughing on the other end so I wouldn’t do the same. After more emphatic discussion, it was decided that we would wait until the next day and go to a different station so an attendant could help us. Storm over, we all climbed back into the car and headed home.

 

Photo credit: http://reachingutopia.com/save-money-at-the-gas-pump/

Driving in Israel – Part One

Coming to Israel has been the trip of a lifetime. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much biblical and historical importance all around you. Every experience is new and weighty with importance. Culture shock is too small a term. Not all of my observations, however, are deeply philosophical.

Two stereotypical notations from my first week in Israel:

  1. If you are a man in Israel, you are required to smoke.
  2. All drivers must honk their horns as soon as the traffic signal changes.

This is a deceptively simple game. Drivers in front are in competition with all those behind them. The aim is to be in motion immediately after the signal turns green. Time is not allowed for the transfer of the foot from brake to gas. All drivers from the second position back are poised for honking. The first one to do so is the winner, though there may be consolation prizes for a close second.

Occasionally several drivers combine the tones of their horns into some sort of native melody of varying tone and frequency. There is the short, high-pitched DINK of tiny sedans, series of staccato beeps from the truly impatient, and elephant-like blasts from city and tour buses, all of which combine into a symphony of sorts.  I believe there may be some sort of code embedded in the honks, like

  • “I’m about to pull in front of you”
  • “Hey! Who do you think you are for pulling in front of me??”
  • “Pedestrian, you better move!”
  • “And just WHY do you think it is OK to stop here? Unload your passengers elsewhere.”
  • “I have places to be and you are driving far too slow”

There may be others that, as a foreigner, I am not yet privy to.

My most extreme honking encounter came when we returned the rental car. The rabbit warren that passed as the lot was full of cars with only a narrow passageway for entering. Think of any Bass Pro parking lot on Black Friday, minus clearly painted spaces. Now stick some additional cars in every available nook and cranny.

There was only one path leading in and out. This T’ed left and right to more lines of bumper-to-bumper cars. I pulled up to the branch of the T. Another driver hemmed me in from behind, just as drivers also emerged from the left and the right. I was literally boxed in. All three of these drivers began honking in turn and there was quite a bit of yelling. To try and appease one raised the ire of the another. No matter what I did, someone was yelling and honking. Finally, I pulled forward, and that was decidedly the wrong thing to do, because when I moved, each of the others did as well, leaving me even less room to maneuver. I backed slowly (NOT my best direction) and almost scraped the full length of a parked car before I got straightened up enough not to cause damage. Seeing the tiniest bit of daylight, I was able to stick my car on a patch of dirt so that the other three drivers could then go wherever they wanted.

As my passengers and I emerged from the car, suddenly three other men standing nearby began yelling at me. Now, I’ve never been cussed out in Hebrew before, but I have all ideas that this is precisely what was happening. Somehow their tone and gestures did not imply a celebration of my superior driving skills. Sasha said to leave the car where it was and we went inside to finish up the lengthy return process. After a heated discussion with the man behind the counter, Sasha then burst into his hearty laugh, and the incident ended as quickly as began. People finally quit yelling at me and everyone was friends again.

Fortunately, I’ve had just enough exposure to these cultural interactions to be amused rather than rattled. In this particular instance, I’m rather glad NOT to know what anyone was saying. Ignorance can indeed be bliss.

Photo credit: MyParkingSpace.com

Zest for Life

One of the things I dearly love about the European Jews that I have met is their zest for life. They have lived through one of the most horrible eras of world history and somehow manage to continually bounce back.

In Poland, when we were given our room assignment at the retreat center, my digs were on the third floor. My suitcase was the size of a young manatee, barely squeaking in under TSA’s 50-pound limit. Yikes! Fortunately, there were a couple gentlemen around who helped this damsel in distress, and I was more than happy to let them do so. As the Holocaust Survivors arrived with more reasonably-sized bags in hand, they didn’t hesitate but headed straight up the stairs. Some had to pause momentarily, but most did not.

In this retreat center, the dining room was at ground level, on the second floor, and the showers were on the first floor. If, during the day, you needed to “go”, you would be hitting the stairs, heading either a flight up or a flight down, as there were no rest rooms on the main floor. There were also no elevators or wheelchair ramps. We all just hoofed it.

Never once did I hear the Holocaust Survivors complain about all the walking we did while on excursions. Certainly, as these folks are anywhere from 75-95 in age, some would tire quicker than others and therefore find a bench in the shade for a few minutes. While resting, they were quite likely to burst into song. They sang folk songs from their youth, and when I say they sang, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they belted them out. I could tell if the song was happy or wistful or a vigorous call to action by observing the cadence of their voices and the expressions on their faces. Then, just as swiftly as a butterfly flits away to another flower, the verse or chorus would end, and a new conversation would begin, or perhaps they would stand to walk further on. The moment was over as quickly as it had begun. More than once I was moved to tears by these impromptu concerts. Their tunes drew me in, and for that instant, I felt their pain, their joy, their determination. It was real and raw, and I felt honored to be given a brief glimpse into their hearts.

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One of the most fun things we did during our time together was a Camp Olympics. The Holocaust Survivors were divided into two teams to compete in a variety of athletic events, like kicking soccer goals, shooting basketballs, and the all-time favorite, using a giant slingshot to hurl water balloons at their trip leader. These people are some kind of competitive! They cheered their team on with enthusiasm, as former athletes and former spectators gave it their all. You didn’t have to speak the language to tell that there was a constant flow of good-natured trash talk with the other team. Just like with 12-year-olds from around the globe, there were heated discussions about whether or not the kick was “in-bounds” or if someone participated out of turn. Not one person entered the contest with the slightest intention of losing. At the end of the activity, however, the staunchest of rivals walked away arm-in-arm, laughing and recounting moments of failure and glory. Perhaps with an elbow to the ribs and a semi-jesting, “Just wait till next time!”

Without question, my favorite trait of the Holocaust Survivors I have met can best be visualized by the HaagenDazs Gelato commercial,  entitled ‘Arguments’. You know, the one where the Italian couple bickers, then reconciles over a tasty dessert. In much the same way, my European-Israeli friends will give each other what-for, holding nothing back. They conclude with an emphatic hand gesture that seems to signify, “And THAT’s the way it is!”, then they walk away. When next they meet, they are fast friends again, as if the previous conversation never took place. In a similar situation, most Americans I know would hold a grudge for years. Decades-long family feuds have developed over far less. For them, however, when it’s over, it’s over.

My personal introduction to this behavior was about fifteen minutes after meeting the Holocaust Survivors for the very first time. There was an incident with towels, to which I responded quickly but ineffectively. One lady, who I called Sassy Pants until I learned her name, was completely unimpressed with my inability to resolve this issue. I was severely reprimanded in Russian. The words were unintelligible to me, but her message was crystal clear. I was crushed. I walked away stunned. Here I was, minutes into living out a lifelong dream, and I had already alienated the very people I had come so far to meet. I honestly wanted to cry. The next morning at breakfast, however, she met me with hugs and kisses and a silver bracelet, which she insisted I put on immediately. The bracelet was too large, so she said (via translator), “You eat more. It will fit.” And just like that, we were friends.

I have come to love these Holocaust Survivors so much. They captured my heart right away and have refused to let go. While I am still reluctant to name them by one event in their history, they are indeed Survivors in every sense of the word. Their passion is contagious. They are affectionate and brutally honest. They are loud and loving. They are strong-willed and optimistic. They are considerate and tenacious and inspiring. They welcomed this awkard country girl with open arms, and gave me the best gift of all – their friendship.

 

Lemon zest photo from http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/45079/best-lemon-zest