Monday, August 19, 2013

What Ethiopia Taught Me

It would be nice if my time in Ethiopia could be cut down to a single, powerful sound-bite and tied sweetly with a bow. I wish I could tell you that Ethiopia changed me in all the best ways or that I now desperately want to adopt one of her orphans and leave it at that. I wish it were that simple.

It’d be easier to wrap last week in some kind of a churchy cliché, and I could, but so much would be left out and I’m just no good at painting half a picture.

All week I found my eyes begging the edge of the horizon, desperate to remember, to really feel that I was there, my feet on the soil of a different world. We drove bumpy down the streets, horses, goats, cows, donkeys wandering in between taxis and vans, the sidewalks alive and thrumming with so many people and I tried my best to take it in while I pondered in the circular. I imagined my children asleep on the under-arc, breathing warm and shallow, while I hopped mud-puddles, ate French fries, laughed with my friends and felt shy and unsure in the noon-day sun of a 3rd world country. It may as well have been a separate Universe. I felt detached from all that I am, and sometimes, painfully, achingly tethered.

We played a game that first night, each of us getting 3 minutes on the clock to tell our story. I knew it was a lost cause. I’ve never been a champion of minimalism and my story is far too complicated, even to me. How on earth could I cram a canceled wedding, a stint in marriage counseling, 3 adoptions and a move from our farm to the city into three sweeps of the second hand? The girls listened well, asking questions with kind eyes and full attention, but it didn’t take long to fall headlong into that dark cave of doubt.

It’s hard enough to explain why I don’t have an iPhone and why I blog for free. There’s no way anyone can be expected to understand why we adopted a 19-year old felon. It’s not normal to tell a room full of strangers that every year you get poorer, by choice. I worry that people will think I’m trying to project my values onto them. I find myself reaching over to off-set that possibility, foolishly believing I have any power over it at all.

On a normal day, I love to share our story. I'm thankful and amazed that this is the life I get to live. But there are those other times, when the whole scenario is prone to making me feel like a super-sized weirdo, with man hands and flat hair. I stew around. Before long, I’m convinced I drew the short straw in the Lives God Gives People game. 

I was surrounded by smart, savvy women who have things like cool boots and titles and gigs. There were chefs, tv stars, performers, ring-leaders and experts, all exceptionally in-the-know with the lipstick to prove it. I started to believe I was lost, at least a little. It's not a feeling I wear comfortably. I don't know it well. The lostness can compound on itself if I'm not careful. So I found sure footing along with the strength of my heart and I refused to let it.

We all closed in, feeling stronger together on foreign soil. We passed pieces of our souls like the host, risking everything that’s at stake when we dare to turn away from ourselves and the things that define us and move instead toward community. 

Right there, in the thick of brand-new family, we found others. We found cocoa-skinned women with head-scarves and moth-eaten sweaters. We found little boys in high-water jeans and ruffle-necked knits. There were rescuers and warriors and even adolescent-minded hissy-fitters. There was humanity, more of all that we are.

So that’s when I knew. It was never Us vs. Them. We weren’t there to save them anymore than they were there to be saved, anymore than they were there to save us. 

They were living their lives, that’s all; thankful for what the day had handed them, thinking of their own loves while their hands worked the looms, sometimes content, sometimes over-reaching. Their world is a stripped-down version of ours, but I’m sure the human condition filters down to Ethiopian clay. I’m positive they aren’t saints or martyrs. They’re humans, fully alive, stumbling and capable, daring to welcome the stranger with love and acceptance, daring to risk being seen as small.

That’s the gift Ethiopia gave to me, and I hold it with shaking hands. I don’t ever want to drop it.
There’s beauty in spending time in the company of those who have less. They show me I have more than I’ll ever need, that I can be content with less, even in the face of glitz and Sunday flea markets and J Crew stores in driving distance. 

There’s beauty in spending time in the company of those who have more. They show me the lurking pride that threatens to fall, tempting me to believe that my less is somehow better than their more. They make safe the pieces of me that still love and value beautiful things. They provide the opportunity to sit uncomfortably in the lower places, even as I’m wistful about the glory days, so quick to forget that these are it.

There’s just no time for comparison or second-guessing in community. There’s room for each of us - a need for each of us. We need the curiosity of the girl so comfortable on center stage just as we need the quiet observer, hanging back against the wall. We need the raucous laughter and the shoulder-popping dance and we need the shy eyes. God’s love is large and noisy. It’s the silent hand sweeping across another’s back, the quiet squeeze of a stranger’s knee. All of it is extravagant.

What Ethiopia showed me is that there’s no such thing as Haves and Have Nots. 

We’re all selling ourselves on the corner without grace. We’re all split and bleeding without love.
We’re stronger together. We win because we’re not alone.

We’re all the Haves, set apart in purpose, placed in the light of community, taking chances every day, carrying the burdens of another because we're able, loving not out of obligation but desire, stubbornly believing in the face of all we see that we were made for truth.