Worldwide Peace Day

People often say that life is overwhelming. We all recognize the sick feeling that rises in our stomach at the visitation of the unexpected. Sometimes our worst fears our confirmed; other times a great hope is disappointed.

Being a teacher is a very rewarding, but also very discouraging, profession. We want to see instant progress and dream of making a discernible impact in our students lives. But the truth is, we are a small cog in the whirring machinery of the clock of a student’s education, and even a student’s life as a whole.

We make so many mistakes, failing in a plethora of ways. A few weeks ago a student informed me that she used an online translator during exams and quizzes the entire first semester. So did she learn anything this entire year? Doubtful.

But here’s where we all need a change of perspective. Life isn’t about success; it’s about faithfulness. Some of the least “successful” people in the history of the world have been those who chose to serve God faithfully. Do you call being thrown to lions in the Roman Colosseum, burning alive at the stake for heresy, suffering in a concentration camp, or spending years of your life rotting in a prison cell, success? No, but God does.

Today at school we celebrated world-wide “Peace Day” for the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death. People nowadays have a very warped idea of peace. In our first class this morning we listened to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, which says:

Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

I was singing along with the video in class, but when we got to the phrase “And no religion too” I shut my mouth as soon as I realized what I was saying. No religion? Is that the answer? Would demolishing religion bring about world peace?

“All of the greatest inhumanities in the history of the world have been brought about religion,” people often say. The injustice of that statement makes me sick. The 20th century, the age of atheism, was the bloodiest century in all of history. Is it a coincidence that in this era, when men began to “liberate” themselves from religion, they committed some of the greatest atrocities imaginable? Destroying religion is not the answer. Stalin, the greatest murderer ever to walk the face of the earth, was a dogged atheist.

The inhumanities of history have been brought about, not by religion itself, but by the abuse of religion. Men are sinful, and will find ways to manipulate and harm others with or without religion, depending on which is most effective and convenient. Christianity has been abused throughout history, and consequently Christ’s name has been stained.

In one class this morning the teacher discussed the importance of acceptance of others, and of open-mindedness. The term “open-mindedness” is another abused term. She cited homosexuality as an example; heaven forbid we should be one of the “closed-minded” and “prejudiced” people who actually believe that homosexuality is wrong, and that judges gay/lesbian couples.

When one of the girls in the class persisted in her view that homosexuality is unnatural and disgusting, the others immediately pounced on her. “As long as they’re happy, that’s the important thing,” said the teacher. “There is no right or wrong.”

If there has ever been a time when my blood has pounded in my ears, it was at that moment. “Say something,” I sensed the Spirit whispering within me. Here was this girl, who didn’t believe the teacher or the others when they blindly applauded homosexuality, and she had no one to support her or show her the truth. And there was I, desperate to say something but not sure how. The girls in that class already think I’m strange because I get up early and read the Bible, but they still look up to me. If I spoke up, I would risk being one of those intolerant, close-minded bigots that the teacher condemned.

“Can I say something?” I asked the teacher, my temperature rising about 100 degrees and my heart beating fast. “Okay, Kara is going to say something,” she said, probably expecting that such a balanced young lady as myself would support her.

“I am going to explain what I believe, but I don’t want to offend anyone,” I began, the blood rising to my cheeks. “The problem is, happiness isn’t the goal. We can’t let people harm themselves just because they want to. If Claudia [looking at a girl in the class] told me she was going to jump off a cliff, I wouldn’t say, ‘Okay, go ahead – if it makes you happy!’ I wouldn’t let her. I believe that homosexuality is harmful, and that it is wrong. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean I’m going to say to a gay person, ‘I hate you; you’re foolish.’ I love them and I respect them.”

“So you’re against homosexuality?” asked the teacher, as if trying to decide how to manage this new turn of events.

“Yes. But [turning to the girl who had pronounced it disgusting] that doesn’t mean you should stop being friends with a homosexual. Tolerance is respecting someone without being in agreement with them.”

Of course, I’m sure what I actually said was a bit more confused then the version I wrote down, but that was the gist of my argument. Perhaps I completely messed up – there were a million other things I could have said. But what I realized was that by taking that step of obedience and speaking up, I had been faithful.

In some circumstances, silence is a great sin.

After the adrenaline had calmed down, I realized that I taken a small step toward bearing the reproach of Christ. Granted, a minuscule step. Nothing, really – but a step nonetheless. “Okay, Jesus, I’m willing to be seen as intolerant for Your sake.” There was joy in that realization. I felt freer, as if I recognized for the first time that it doesn’t matter what others think of you when you follow Christ; in fact, the more they reproach you the better.

My poor attempt to represent Christ most likely will not lead anyone to salvation. Maybe everyone will forget about it, and so it was not “successful” in the sense of proving a point or changing anyone’s perspective. But faithfulness, not success, is what God asks of us. And what I have realized more and more by living with absolutely no other Christians for the first time in my life is, that God gives us very small tasks to start with. If we walk in faithfulness and repentance every day, He will gradually entrust us with more. There’s peace in that recognition – peace in the knowledge that if we keep our eyes fixed on Him and faithfully obey what He calls us to do in each moment, He will guide our paths. That’s true peace.

Advertisements

Christmas in Spain

I’ve done it! Christmas in Spain, and what’s more, Christmas Eve in the heart of Madrid. I will endeavor to compare an American Christmas with a Spanish one, and give you a taste of the celebration here (I wish I could literally give you a taste; the food was absolutely spectacular!).

Because Spanish culture is quite secular, despite the fact that the majority are nominal Catholics, there isn’t much sense of Advent leading up to Christmas. And just like in America, there are some who treat Christmas as a burden. I’ll never forget the conversation I had with the cook in the teacher’s salon at school. “What makes Christmas any different from any other day of the year?” she bellowed (and I really do mean bellowed). I felt like Scrooge’s jolly nephew Fred in “A Christmas Carol.” I was taken aback. “Why, because it’s the day when Jesus was born! It’s a wonderful day!”

IMG_E8736I was determined to keep Christmas, at least in my house. I begged Luis and Marta, my Spanish parents, for a real Christmas tree (have I mentioned how much I disdain fake Christmas trees?), so we piled into the car and drove to the pistachio fields, next to which is a grove of pine trees. To my surprise, Luis sawed off a few large pine branches and called it a day. But to our horror, we discovered a gooey tangle of caterpillar eggs wrapped in one of the pine branches. My pockets full of chestnuts I had picked from the ground, I retreated to a safe distance. Christmas TreeWe left that branch, of course, and gingerly packed the others into the car. Although we were attacked on the ride home by a host of ladybug beetles crawling out of the branches and clinging to the ceiling above our heads, it was worth the effort. Luis tied three of the branches together, and after decorating my Charlie Brown Christmas “tree,” it doesn’t look half bad. In fact, I’ve grown fond of it.

My little village house is now decorated cozily for Christmas, a taste of America in the middle of Spain. I had limited materials, I’ll admit, but it’s incredible what you can do with oranges, popcorn, pine clippings, string, a calligraphy pen, watercolor pencils, and (of course) some imagination. Decorations

A week ago Marta, Julia, Laura (the cousin) and I went to a nursing home where a friend of ours, Luis, brought his music group to play traditional Spanish folk music and Christmas carols. The sense of déjà vu was overpowering. All throughout my childhood I went each year to nursing homes to carol, and here I was again, sitting in a room full of elderly people fidgeting and telling each other to be quiet. This time, however, the music was played with tambourines, a drum and a flute, and instead of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” I listened to traditional love songs (one of which was an ode to a beloved donkey) and Spanish Christmas carols.

On Friday the children from school had a Christmas performance. One of the pieces was a rendition of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” performed by some of our English students. They handed me the mic to guide the students, who accompanied themselves with tambourines and triangles. After the first round, Marta (my Spanish mother and also the director of the school), Basilio (a college student currently working at school) and I entered the stage with reindeer horns and played an interlude, they on their bandurrias (a traditional instrument similar to a guitar) and I on the violin, after which “Santa Claus” waltzed in, broke up the Classical ambiance and took us away on the electric guitar. Certainly memorable!

But that wasn’t the only musical trick we had up our sleeves. Later that day, as all the teachers gathered at a restaurant for an end-of-the-year celebration, Marta and I excused ourselves and slipped out to the car to get our instruments. Moments later, Basilio came running like the wind to meet  us and we all headed back to the restaurant to surprise the teachers with a rendition of the traditional song “Cielito Lindo,” a love song often played in Tunas. A Tuna is a group of (traditionally) male singers with bandurrias who are hired to go to a girl’s balcony and woo her, or to play at weddings and in universities. The tradition began when universities were first established in Spain (around the 16th century), as poor students paid the cost of tuition by playing publicly. Our spontaneous Tuna would not have had nearly as much success in America. If we entered an American restaurant and started playing, people would respond in various ways: stare at us strangely, smile and nod in time with the music, maybe clap. But in that Spanish restaurant, after sheets with the lyrics were passed out, everyone joined in the singing with gusto, and the restaurant quivered with rowdy familiarity and comradery.

Julia Opening PresentsOn Christmas Eve we drove to Madrid (the province, not the capital) to be with Marta’s side of the family. Christmas lunch, eaten around 2:30, was absolutely spectacular: a soup of squid and potatoes. After lunch, we opened presents with Julia from “Santa.” Although Santa Claus is not a traditional figure in a Spain (in the past, the Three Kings have been more popular, celebrated on January 6), because of America’s influence he is now a common presence at Christmas.

That afternoon we boarded the sub that would take us to Madrid the capital to see the lights. For Julia’s sake, we visited “Cortylandia,” a glamorous display on the facade of a department store with singing polar bears and snowmen. In the Plaza Mayor of the city, we were greeted by long rows of stalls selling manger figurines and Christmas trinkets, while the walls of the surrounding buildings glittered with blue and white Christmas lights. Walking a little further into the city, we saw the large electric tree and, in the distance, the famous clock that chimes out the hour on New Year’s Eve. Madrid Christmas Eve

Right before we boarded the sub to go home, we stopped at a street vendor’s stall for some roasted chestnuts, which are traditional at Christmas time. They were delicious: warm, soft, and faintly sweet, with a taste that reminded me of maple syrup.

Christmas Eve

Marta, Luis and I stopped at a bar after coming home to meet up with some of Marta’s old friends, and although I felt a bit out of place, it was interesting to observe the others talking, hugging, and drinking. Right behind me a couple sat at the counter, kissing passionately. All around me people asked for a second, a third, a fourth beer. And this, on Christmas Eve? This, when all my friends were sitting in a Christmas Eve service (my favorite service of the year), singing Christmas carols in the candlelight?

Christmas dinner was spectacular. I wasn’t a huge fan of the paté, a greyish-pink substance spread on toasted bread which, I found out (after trying it) is made from duck liver. However, the mushroom and gambón (gambones are large prawn) patty in carrot puree was mouth-watering, and the lamb was spectacular. Gambones and Mushrooms.jpg

Christmas day itself was relaxing, as we had already opened presents the day before. I serenaded my Spanish family with American Christmas carols on the violin and then sat down to yet another spectacular Spanish feast, with cold lobster soup, chicken filled with dried fruit and walnuts and swimming in an apple salsa, and pineapple cake.

“Is your family as loud as we Spaniards are?” I was asked during the meal. “We frighten the French because we aren’t quiet or soft-mannered. “Yes,” I replied. “It feels like home. My family is neither quiet nor soft-mannered.”

Christmas Day.jpgThen followed the packing up, the goodbyes, and a three-hour car trip back to Moreruela. But although the festivities had ended, I wasn’t ready to be done with Christmas. Even after I had talked with my family and some of my close friends, I still felt something was missing. It’s hard to celebrate Christmas in a culture that really pays very little attention to Christ, despite the manger scenes. I felt empty; Christmas had been stripped of its sacredness. And I realized that it wasn’t just homesickness or loneliness I was feeling; I sensed the absence of the wonder, mystery and reverence that has always made Christmas my favorite season of the year. This ache in my heart couldn’t be filled by Hallmark movies, or snow (which is conspicuously absent here), or even family and friends and treasured traditions. I needed to direct my attention back to Christ. I felt as if I had just attended a birthday party without even congratulating the host.

I only had about one hour of Christmas left, but I was determined to savor it. I turned off the lights, made sure my tree was glowing, lit my candles, and knelt down with my Bible.

“The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has a light shone…

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:2,6, English Standard Version).”

The candles flickered gently, piercing the darkness.

This Christmas I was confronted with a vivid paradox: the season of light, of life, of hope, riddled all over with despair. Angels heralding a Messiah, mocked by a rowdy cook who classified Christmas as a bothersome day of spending money and preparing food. The Savior has come; why doesn’t anyone see Him? After spending your whole life surrounded by a loving church community, it is strange to live in another country and realize you’re the only one around who actually approaches Christmas with reverence and awe.

But the incredible thing I realized in those moments of reverent solitude, was that it didn’t matter to me that no one else was celebrating the Savior on that holiest of days. He was there; His presence surrounded me in the dark room, flickering inside me like the flames of the candles and warming my numbed soul. I haven’t been inside an Evangelical church for months, and I haven’t met a single professing Christian here. But God’s Spirit is as alive in me as ever, as potent. That is, after all, the meaning of Christmas, isn’t it? Light in the midst of darkness. Fullness dwelling in emptiness, and shattering it. Creation being pulled toward hope, and peace, and joy, even in its decrepit state. It excites me to celebrate Christmas here, in this secular environment. I have joy, and peace, and hope. This year, more than any other year, I am aware of the darkness. And that makes the Light all the more potent.

“Why are you always laughing?” one of the boys from school asked me. Am I always laughing? Why yes, I suppose I am. We all have a reason to laugh this Christmas. Great, boisterous laughs, bubbling up from the core of our beings, laughs so vibrant that people around us stop to ask us what’s so funny. No, not funny. But incredible – oh, marvelous! Myriads of angels and light ricocheting across a black sky; shepherds treated as princes and a prince entering the world as the Good Shepherd, poor and scorned; social institutions toppled over and the masses singing in the streets; a virgin giving birth and prostitutes purified and praised…what could be more reason to laugh?

 

 

The Man in the Park

The man with ashy trousers, felted cap,

And cane shuffled to the bench and glanced

At Julia folded, sleeping, in my lap –

 

Then drowned in vacancy. A fly danced

On Julia’s nose. She stirred; I brushed the fly

Away. The old man spluttered, broke his stance,

 

Resumed his meditation. In the sky

The shadows shifted: blue that glinted green,

And green that glittered gold, direct and dry.

 

She shifted in my arms; my head leaned

On hers; his knuckles tightened on the cane,

His eyes ahead, gaping and unseeing.

 

The old man’s eyes are dusty window panes

That I, a stork, can’t penetrate. I’m young

And vagrant, open, and large-sighted – I strain

 

Against secluded places; my nest is hung

Beneath the open sky above the church.

But he is old and airless, closed,

 

From yesterday, exhausted, dripping, strung

Into a thousand shapeless forms – his hands

Have written a hundred stories yet unsung,

 

Nurtured children melted in the sands

Of time. I wonder – does he envy me,

Or pity me? A stork traverses lands

 

And seas; a stork is limited, though free –

But he stands two feet from eternity.

Castles and Cathedrals

FullSizeRender (14)
Feeding ducks in the Thames

London, Bath, Windsor; scones with clotted cream and misty moors; gentleman smoking pipes among billows of factory smoke; women with curls dancing waltzes.

England is, for many of us, a legendary land. Along with Jane Austin’s romantic heroines; the grimy slums of Charles Dickens; and the bombings of World War II, rise older, more mystic images: King Arthur and the Code of Chivalry, the elusive Stonehenge, castles and boiling oil, and – of course – the Holy Grail.

Despite my now having been on British soil, England’s mystery has not dimmed for me. I’ve seen London, I’ve seen Windsor, I’ve seen the English countryside. But even so, England escaped me; I couldn’t grasp it. History is something we can study, but never possess. The voices have already faded, and the buildings have shut themselves up into the secrets of those who lived and breathed in them.

FullSizeRender (13)
The Tower of London

We began our tour with the Tower of London, the site of so many senseless beheadings, kidnappings, and mysterious disappearances. The stories are terrifying to any decent human being – people display an astonishing capacity for brutality. And when in power, evil people have an amplified platform from which to commit atrocities.

In St. Peter’s Chapel within the Tower, I sat only feet away from the grave of Lady Jane Grey, one of my most beloved heroines – a 17 year old who was executed along with her young husband under a false charge of treason due to the ambitions of her relatives. She was a profound Christian and an extremely intelligent young woman.

IMG_7630
Westminster Abbey

After the grimness of the Tower, the sacredness and wholeness of Westminster Abbey was illuminating – it filled me with light. I felt as if I was being buoyed up and lifted straight to Heaven. The pulpit to the right of where we were singing was inscribed with the words: “Attempt great things for God.” As we quietly absorbed Evensong, basking in the strains of music that drifted to the ceiling and the priest’s melodious voice, I was surrounded and wrapped up in Eternity.

St. Paul’s Cathedral took my breath away. I can’t describe it; there aren’t words beautiful or expressive enough to capture the incredible grandeur of the place. Picture-taking is forbidden within the Cathedral, and it’s better that way. What is sacred should be kept sacred. You must physically be in the Cathedral to absorb the magnificent immensity of Whispering Gallery, with the dome rising above you and statues of the saints – Jerome, Augustine, Gregory – surrounding you. The builders of the Cathedral sacrificed time, strength and creativity to construct something for which they would never get glory – we don’t know their names or the sacrifices they made to participate in this great work. But they counted the Creator of the Universe worthy of the sacrifice.

IMG_7673
Inside of the Globe

The next stop was Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built in the late 20th century as the third Globe (the first burned down in the Great Fire and the second was torn down by the puritans). We bought tickets for a Mexican version of “Much Ado About Nothing” and settled down to watch Shakespeare in the context of Revolutionary Mexico. Scores of people clustered in front of the stage to watch the entire performance standing, just like the riffraff of Shakespeare’s day. Fortunately, these standers were not drunk and filthy like those of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was believed in those days that chewing garlic prevented one from catching the plague…

FullSizeRender (15)
Convent Court

Paddington Station, Friday. After boarding the train and chugging through the English countryside to Windsor, we caught a cab to Convent Court, a renovated convent transformed into a set of apartments.

Library at Blenheim Palace
The library at Blenheim Palace

The next morning we drove to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birth of Winston Churchill and the home of his uncle. The palace breathes with dignity; we walked through room after room of grandeur, gazing at family portraits, luxuries oddities, and faded tapestries. But when we stepped into the library, I was overwhelmed. It felt as if I had stepped into Beauty and the Beast – tiers of books, shelves of books, rows of books of different languages and colors and sizes stretched along the walls invitingly. And at the end of the long, airy room, a grand organ rose in majestic taciturnity until melting into an alcove. Our guide explained that Churchill, who visited the Palace often and struggled with insomnia, used to ensconce himself in an armchair by the fireplace and read into the wee hours of the night.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

On Sunday we toured Windsor Castle, the perfect fairy-tale fortress. Begun by William the Conqueror in 1070 and improved throughout the centuries, Windsor Castle has been the home of England’s monarchs ever since its construction. Its luxuriance was overwhelming; its opulence stifled and dazzled me. As Anne of Green Gables said, such richness “leaves no room for the imagination.” My imagination had become reality, and I didn’t know how to handle the incarnation.

Inside Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

On Monday we boarded the train to Bath and spent the morning peeking into Bath abbey and touring the Roman baths. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that two thousand years ago the Romans had walked on the stones my feet were touching, breathing in the same space where I was breathing. One of the exhibits that impressed me most with the strange distance between the Romans and I were the “curses” of the ancients – imprecations against suspects of theft or other wrongdoers inscribed on led and tossed into the baths in the hopes of obtaining justice from Sulis Minerva, the goddess of the water. The Romans wrote curses for crimes as little as the theft of a bathing tunic, begging Sulis Minerva to take revenge on the miscreant who had dared to rob them of their possessions.

Tea at Bath
Tea at the Pump Room

We commenced the afternoon with an authentic English tea at the Pump Room, complete with a live pianist and a three-layered tray of tea sandwiches, scones, and darling little desserts. And at the end of the day, we relaxed in a spa, refreshing ourselves in naturally-heated water just as the ancient Romans did.

But despite my enjoyment of the tea and the bath, I still remember vividly the grave plaques lining the walls of Bath Abbey:

Here lies the body of Mrs. Hannah Alleyne, wife of Thomas Alleyne Esqr. of the Island of Barbades. How amiable of the many virtues she possessed!

But none more religiously exemplary, than in the exercise of her patience and entire resignation to the divine will during a tedious and painful illness which she bore with a truly Christian fortitude, and died as sincerely lamented as she was beloved.

Or another (edited for the sake of legibility):

Near this place are deposited the remains of the most noble Jane Marchioness of Ely…Endued with unaffected piety, unassuming manners and unostentatious benevolence. She manifested in her life an eminent example of religion, meekness and charity, and in her death of patience, tranquility and resignation, esteemed and regretted by those who knew her, beloved and lamented by those connected with her.

No, I am not morbid. But I do believe that studying gravestones can be an edifying exercise. In the midst of the excitement of seeing new places, it is crucial to refocus, to remember that in the end, all human accomplishment will cease and only that which is done in Christ’s name will endure.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of travel recently – its purpose and how to do it well. If we go merely as sightseers, if we merely want a sensation, I think we’re missing something. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past year, and I’ve come to realize that travel for its own sake is empty. Travelling, just like all endeavors, must be a search for Truth. It should give us new perspective, guiding us to eternity by reminding us how rich, deep, and fragile is this world and its history.

FullSizeRender (16)
View over the Roman Baths towards Bath Abbey

 

First Days in Spain

Yes, I’m finally settled here in Spain. Some of you think I’ve disappeared off the face of the earth, and that’s partly true. Honestly, this past year has been such a crazy adventure that I’m only now catching my breath enough to process everything that has taken me to up this point.

The adventure started last winter when my initial gap year plans crashed, leaving me with a thousand possibilities and zero certainties. I frantically searched for an alternative gap year option, desperate to have a plan. Those were scary, soul-searching times. At one point, I even considered going to China for a year, but that’s another story…

After a long and complicated journey, I ended up in a teeny village in Spain called Moreruela de Tábara, a village so small that it barely makes the map. Before coming here to Moreruela, however, my sister and I spent a week sightseeing in Madrid and Barcelona, only days before the terrorist attack on La Rambla of Barcelona.

IMG_6217
El Palacio Real, Madrid

Madrid is a clean, sophisticated city with stunning architecture and narrow, quaint streets. Our apartment was located within walking distance of a lovely cathedral, an art museum, and a botanical garden. I generally don’t fall in love with big cities, but I could imagine myself living in Madrid. The atmosphere is very different from, say, New York City – more relaxed, more congenial. Here people spend hours sitting in open-air restaurants chatting and watching the world go by.

One of the highlights of the trip was el Palacio Real, a magnificent edifice full of ornate furniture and beautiful artwork. Walking through el Palacio Real is like taking a tour through a Medieval conception of Heaven, complete with a Stradivarius violin and statues of Ferdinand and Isabella. I now understand the awe and respect with which 17th century peasants viewed their sovereigns; the palace breathed dignity.

IMG_6360
La Chocolatería, Madrid

Of course, the awe-inspiring aura of el Palacio Real didn’t prevent us from enjoying the traditional hot chocolate and chorros of la Chocolatería in Madrid, which were absolutely delicious.

FullSizeRender (8)
La Rambla, Barcelona

After an 8-hour train ride to Barcelona, we spent a day visiting the beach and walking along La Rambla, a famous line of shops and stalls in the heart of the city. Surprisingly, although Barcelona is a famous tourist destination for Americans, Spanish natives don’t consider it as a prime city to visit.

Getting to the beach was trickier than we imagined, since we took the wrong bus two or three times before finally getting to our destination. But no worries – at least we got an informal tour of the city!

IMG_6304
A music shop in Barcelona

We experienced a bit of a shock at a seafood restaurant after our afternoon at the beach when the waiter brought us a plate of little fish (heads and tails included) as an appetizer. Not only that, but I made the mistake of ordering “arroz negro,” thinking that there couldn’t possibly be anything dangerous about rice…until I was presented with a platter of rice smeared with black squid ink. Let’s just say that when dessert came around, I was happy not to find any surprises with my lemon sorbet.

Here in Spain street musicians liven up city squares and subway tunnels with the sounds of violin, flute, cello, and guitar. For any student interested in the arts, Spain is a utopia of cultural experiences.

IMG_6574 (2)
Me riding Poppy bareback

Now that I’m here in Moreruela, life couldn’t be more tranquil. I feel like I’ve been planted right in the middle of Belle’s “little town, it’s a quiet village, every day like the one before…”. The majority of the population here is at least 40, so I haven’t met many people my age. My days are filled with picking vegetables from the garden, visiting the animals, reading, and, of course, speaking English with two-year-old Julia. We have two horses, Poppy and Mistral, three dogs, and a guinea pig named Florindo.

FullSizeRender (9)
Marta, Julia, and I

My Spanish host family is extremely nice, and immediately accepted me as one of their own. I have my own little house, including a kitchen and an office where I can teach online Spanish classes, write poetry, and sketch. Little Julia is sweet, stubborn, and adorable, and has already begun to repeat some words in English (including her favorite

FullSizeRender (11)
Julia and I at a birthday party 

 food, “peanut”). I’ve loved entering into village life: going to a Spanish birthday party, walking around the historic city of Zamora, signing up for my library card so I can borrow books from the Bibliobus (a mobile library), riding our horses…

FullSizeRender (10).jpg
A field of sunflowers owned by Luis’ family

One thing that took me by surprise is the traditional Spanish greeting: two kisses, one on either cheek. People here rarely shake hands, let alone hug. Everyone kisses you when you’re introduced, which can be awkward at first. The culture here in the village is warm and relaxed, perhaps overly so. When Marta and I asked the mayor to sign an important document for my visa during a local gathering, he cheerfully set down his bottle of beer to sign the paper without even reading it.

IMG_6429
Fish at the supermarket

Another thing that surprised me is the Spanish meal schedule: breakfast in the morning, a snack at 12:00, lunch at 3:00, a snack at 6:00, and dinner at around 9:00-9:30 (or later, as generally happens in our case). For a morning bird, it’s been an interesting adjustment to make, since 9:00 for a Spanish native is still practically daytime. But I’m not complaining about the scheduled snacks; that’s something I can definitely handle! We have an endless supply of fresh vegetables from our garden, a leg of cured ham on the counter (technically it’s raw, but preserved with salt), a Tupperware of blackberries picked from bushes not far from our house, and a basket of nuts above the refrigerator: peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios. I still haven’t gotten used to the lines of whole fish (heads, eyes, tales, fins, and everything in-between) in the supermarket, but I’m taking it one step at a time…

A Summer in Constanza

Okay, I’m finally sitting down to write about this summer and to be honest, it’s a daunting task. I feel like I lived a lifetime in the past six weeks, and to come home and find everything the same (even my car keys were still sitting on my desk, exactly where I’d left them) is jarring. But now is the time to step back and thank God for the rich blessings He gave me this summer…

IMG_3519After a few days of training in Jarabacoa, I headed off with the other interns on my team to Constanza, a little farming town nestled in a valley and surrounded on all sides by mountains.

The place where we worked, the Ark, is both a school (open to community and orphanage kids) and an orphanage. The Ark is very unique in that the orphanage is made up of four separate houses, each of which has house “parents” and several children. That way, each child feels like he is part of a real family. Each child has a place to belong.

I was placed with four other interns in Constanza: Grace, Mac, Erin, and Augustyna. All of us except Grace and Mac, who were younger, lived in the director’s house (the old director had left, so the house was open) inside the Ark compound, which enabled us to be a part of the orphanage community. Erin was a mother of three children (adopted from Guatemala), so I had three little siblings for the summer!

IMG_5622.JPG
Augustyna, Erin, the kids and I

I helped teach second grade in the mornings, which was a difficult but also a beautiful and rewarding job. The curriculum we used focused on a different Asian country each week, with coloring pages and activities to go along with each country.

The community kids came from difficult home environments, which meant that we had several discipline issues; there were days when it was extremely difficult to maintain any degree of calmness in the classroom, let alone actually teach. However, it was encouraging to see the way God softened their hearts as the summer progressed.IMG_5087

IMG_4741
Feivi

One little boy in particular, Feivi, could be very difficult to work with and sometimes displayed aggressive behavior. One day he was having so many behavioral issues that I stayed in the classroom with him while the others went out for recess. At first, he paced the room knocking over chairs and kicking things aside, refusing to look me in the eyes and pulling away from me when I touched him. Eventually, however, as I spoke to him gently and let him sift through his frustration, he calmed down enough to read a simple picture book describing God’s love with me. That time with him, when he calmly listened to me explain how much God loved him, when he looked at the sweet drawings in the book, was a beautiful moment for me. After that day, he was more open to building a relationship with me and more open to physical touch. Even though he eventually was kicked out of summer  school for violent behavior and so I was no longer able to reach him, I know he’s in God’s hands. The seeds that have been sown will continue to grow and hopefully will bear fruit some day. As Vick and Lesley, a missionary couple in Jarabacoa, explained, it’s hard to let go of those kids, but you have to recognize that God has them even when you don’t.

Another of my students, Yorlenis, was a sweet little girl who always listened and who sat quietly while the others misbehaved. Twice I walked home with her after school was over, which showed her I was invested in her as a person, not just as a student. That act of friendship strengthened our relationship and enabled me to understand her, and other kids, better. When a relationship extends beyond the school walls and into a child’s personal life, that relationship has a great deal of power.

It was hard to see the more difficult kids wasting time and preventing good students like Yorlenis from learning, to spend so much time addressing behavioral issues that there wasn’t much time left to teach. But God views productivity differently than we do. What really mattered to Him wasn’t memorizing facts about China and Japan, but instead pouring into each child’s life day in and day out, even when it didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere. What God really cared about were the relationships I formed with each of those children, relationships in which each child knew he could trust me to discipline him in love. When a child realizes that you’re dedicated to helping him change his behavior for the better, he trusts you more, even when discipline hurts.

IMG_5050
Kirobe

One of the little boys I worked with, Kirobe, was simply a bundle of love. He was what the Dominicans call “special.” That is, he didn’t relate to others like a normal child or necessarily understand what was going on in the same way that other children did, but he constantly looked for an affirming smile and a warm hug, even when he misbehaved. That little boy showed me so much about gentleness and patience this summer; he was the kind of boy who picked the little fruit growing on the tree by the gate and offered it to me with a huge smile, just because he wanted to give me something.

IMG_4792
The girls in my dance class

In the afternoon we offered different workshops to the older kids depending on their interests: sports, cooking, sewing, etc. I volunteered to help with the dance class, not knowing that I would actually be the one teaching the class! Teaching ballet in another language was a challenge, and we faced some attitude issues along the way, but by the end I had become very close with my girls. What struck me was that one of the more difficult girls, Yennery, wanted me to take a video of her thanking me for teaching her…It was such an encouragement to know that all those days of pouring love into each beautiful girl payed off. Of course, I couldn’t have gotten through the summer without Keila, my faithful Dominican friend and assistant. Her patience, gentleness and humility kept our class together. At the end of the summer, my class had a “recital” and presented the dance to “Océanos” (“Oceans”) we had choreographed throughout the five weeks, and it was beautiful to see everything come together.

Outside of teaching, we developed countless rich relationship in the community with other young people, with adults, and with kids. Our nights were filled with ice cream outings, worship nights, youth group, and just sharing life. For me one of the big differences between going to Constanza for a week and going for an entire summer was the ability to integrate fully in the community. Rather than being tourists, we were living in the community and taking part in community life: buying fruits and vegetables at the colmados (little stands on the side of the road), going to the salon with Dominican friends to get my nails done, rushing out to buy soda before having people over our house… Whenever I walked along the streets, there was always someone (or several people) I knew who I could greet. Constanza was my home, and the people of Constanza became my family. I even attended a wedding during my time there! I also celebrated my 18th birthday in Constanza, so I invited several of my Dominican friends over and we all gathered in a circle to play guitar (or listen) and eat fried plantains. What a special birthday!

IMG_5007
My 18th birthday party

One of the biggest things God taught me this summer was the value of community – of simply being, rather than doing. If I entered the school each day with a mindset of productivity, I was quickly disappointed by the kids’ lack of attention and by their behavioral issues, and quickly discouraged by how little we got done. But when I entered the school with relationships as my top priority, I had the freedom to focus on the needs of each individual child rather than worrying about how little we accomplished.

But as much as it’s important to build into the lives of other people, you also need to let others build into you and help you when you’re ready to give up. We can’t do this alone, and as much as we Americans like to be strong and independent – to utilize our talents and resources for a good cause – sometimes we just need to learn how to receive.

Hopefully this post gives you a glimpse of what my experience was like this summer, but of course there were so many things I wasn’t able to say here, and so many things I’m still trying to process. I would absolutely love to go back to Constanza (on the next plane!), but we’ll have to see what God has in store…

IMG_1216
End of the summer resort trip

 

Mapping Out the Future

The train is rumbling along the curves of the mountain outside the screened-in porch where I’m sitting; the birds are singing (it’s been so long since I’ve heard sustained birdsong that it almost feels unreal); and a gentle spring breeze stirs the loose thread on my seat cushion every few moments.

With spring comes lots of decisions. I visited one college today, and I’m off to another one tomorrow. That would be, if I have counted correctly, the sixth college so far. I don’t exactly know why, but college visits leave me utterly exhausted, physically and emotionally. Physically speaking, I only listened to a lecture on Macbeth, chatted with the Education and English professors, got a salad and a dish of rice and stir fry for lunch, and walked around campus. But a college visit involves so much more than observing a class or getting to know possible future professors. It’s a journey of the soul; it takes you deep into yourself, making you question your future and all the plans you have set out for yourself.

What if I make a mistake and choose the wrong path?

My appointment with the Education professor was the last event on my schedule. At a little before 3:00, I walked into a little office with potted plants sitting drowsily on a windowsill and sat down at a round, black table. A whiteboard with a marker drawing of a girl in speakers and a blue and green earth hung on the wall, directly below a poster with the smiling faces of several Grove City graduates, now teachers, and their students.

“You’ve probably already heard a lot about Grove City,” Dr. Nichols began. She had a friendly face with brilliant blue eyes and an endearing smile. “I want this session to be as helpful as possible. Let’s start with any questions you might have.”

That question always intimidates me, since I feel pressured to ask some extremely discerning question and impress my potential future professor with my intelligence. I glanced sideways for inspiration. No intellectual, discerning question popped into my head. Instead, my heart was bursting to know, how on earth do I know if I’m called to be a teacher? The words that actually came out of my mouth were more diplomatic, but still confused and maybe a little desperate.

She smiled reassuringly and assured me that God will inevitably bring to fruition His calling on my life, and that I don’t need to have it all figured out. “You probably have friends you say that have it all planned out,” she explained, “but that’s so unrealistic.”

But it’s so much more comfortable to have it all figured out, to have some kind of a plan. People are capable of making huge mistakes. Would I really have the same future if I went to Grove City as if I opted for, say, a secular community college? Or if I decided not to go to college at all?

My Spanish teacher sent me an email the other day that shed perspective on the process of discerning God’s will. Paraphrasing the message of Kevin DeYoung’s book, Just Do Something, he explained that “God has not planned out a specific course for us that He expects us to follow, but then hidden that course so that we need to be wracking our brains and scrutinizing every sign to make sure we don’t miss it. Yes, He knows each of our days and is sovereign over them. But ‘determining His will’ is not about trying to unscramble the clues he has given us so that we can follow the path he marked out…If we have multiple good options to choose from, we can freely consult our own desires with a view to loving and serving God in every situation.”

I don’t need to look for omens, or signs, or some miraculous proof that I’m choosing the right path. How freeing. God gave us a mind and a heart for a reason, and He expects us to use them. And regardless of the mistakes we make, He will ultimately bring us into the calling He has designed specifically for us.

I still have questions (lot’s of them), and I’m still dreading that May 1st decision deadline, when I’ll have to commit to one college and say no to all the others, which means slamming all those doors on my own fingers. I’m still terrified of making the wrong decision, of choosing the wrong college and thereby missing my dream calling and flunking my future. But at the same time, I also have a kind of stillness inside – a sense of being guided, and protected, and deeply loved by Someone greater than colleges and career paths and even the future. It doesn’t depend on me at all, not really. And that’s comforting.