Saturday, August 23, 2008

Noticing

Lately I have been reading a charmingly silly series of novels by Ray Blackston. His second offering, A Delirious Summer, features a missionary on home assignment from Ecuador. Visiting suburban Greenville, NC, his character reflects, “While I understood the rush to purchase what was man-made, five years on the mission field had one me over to the leisure of observing what was created.” Something about that sentence made me smile. In my former life, I thought that pretty sunsets and flowers were delightful, but they did not necessarily feed my soul. My perspective has changed dramatically. Living in a place where the rhythm of life is meandering, conversation with strangers is easy and fluent, and beauty is either absent or astounding, one’s quest for satisfaction seems to change focus. Bottom line – I notice things that I used to miss. Small details that have now become the backdrop of my life, nuances which once were so foreign.
I have a beautiful garden surrounding my home. With six months of daily rain, the hybiscus have blossomed, the grass is a vibrant green, and towering eucalyptus trees guard majestically over the dalias, bouganvilla, and xenias that pepper the flower beds. In Texas, I had a struggling patch of impatiens beneath the front windows, always withering under the heavy heat, starving for water in the Brazos clay. So I was not a gardener. But here, the blackest of thumbs has a chance, as our fresh taki (manure) and fertile soil are very forgiving to the novice. As the sun sets over the horizon, Tim and I sway lazily on our back porch swing, enjoying the left over smell of rain on the wet earth and feeling deeply content at the sight of so much floral beauty.
Last summer, I found myself wandering the same streets in Bryan where our children learned to ride their bikes. Cassidy was brought home to the little house on Kensington, our first home. We had an amazing life in that little neighborhood – an excellent school, an abundance of wonderful friends, and an awesome church. My heart broke when the Lord nudged me to leave that life behind. I will never forget our final evening as homeowners on Kensington. After packing the last of our meager possessions into our minivan, we made one final sweep of our home, saying emotional goodbyes to the walls that I had scrubbed, the rooms where we had loved, the tile floors that we could barely afford. I was trying to stall, for I knew that if I could not close the door on my home, then I would never have to hug my friends good bye. But the moment did come when we tore ourselves away from the Greiner’s, the Vessell’s and the McMath’s. Their children chased our van, sobbing their farewells, and our children cried back their devotion to their little friends. My heart throbbed with the need to comfort my children, but my own inability to control my sobbing revealed to them the gravity of what was happening. Our lives would never be the same. This seems like a rabbit trail, a real divergence from my thoughts about “noticing things.” Maybe so. But last year, as I strolled down Kensington Road, my mind went right back to that rainy night in June 2004, and my heart felt torn between my two worlds. I realized that my family and so many best friends are a tether, binding my heart to the world of manicured lawns and full calendars. There is no replacement for you people, no moving on to something more important than you. So in your absence, I have sought something else, and a deep longing in my soul is filled, at least part way, by the little things that I notice in this African life. This reflection was driven home during that walk through the old neighborhood. I was listening to the sounds of suburban America. The children were in school, so there was no raucous of play. Most of the adults were probably at work. I happened upon a lawn crew at work, with the sounds of the mower and weed whacker breaking the silence. But as I drifted farther from them, the only sound was the occasional air conditioner, launched into life by the warm fall weather. A little wind, my feet hitting the pavement, the cadence of my breathing, the occasional bird call, and …silence.
Nigeria is the opposite. We live in a very nice cement block home, but it is still one step up from camping. There is no drywall or insulation in our walls or ceiling, only a thin layer of particle board separates us from our zinc roof. Our windows have screens and leuvered glass panes, which are always open, providing us with our only source of air conditioning. The floor is cool terrazzo, usually host to much of the outside dirt as the children are constantly in and out, in and out. It would be very inappropriate to close our front or back door during the day, so they stand open and waiting for the arrival of so many visitors. Screen doors hang from the hinges in a vain attempt to keep the flies, mosquitoes, and two little Dauchsunds from gaining entrance on the heels of our visitors. With infrequent electricity, there is no ambient noise of television, the clothes dryer, or the hum of the refrigerator. Instead, we have a constant symphony of birds during the day, the electronic chirp of bats at night. From all over Jos, we hear the incessant beeping of motorcycle horns, soliciting their availability as the City Taxi. Each evening, thousands of dogs raise their voices in a cacophonous racket of howling which lasts for an hour or so. The constant tinkle of rain hitting our metal roof, then rushing like a river through the drainage ditch in our backyard sounds like our own private waterfall. There is a new house being built beyond our own, so the happy chatter of day laborers, punctuated by easy laughter floods into our home. The noise of hammer on steel and saw on plank is tolerated but unwelcome. Even without the television, we always know the score of a national soccer game by the number and volume of cheers that erupt outside the walls of our compound.
With this sort of accommodation, we are also subject to the smells of the outdoors, defenseless against their intrusion. The fragrance of the orange blossom and rose garden under our bedroom window may at any moment be interrupted by the pungent incineration of burning rubbish across the driveway. Two years ago, our neighbors left 200 dead chickens in the gutter outside of our gate. To ward off the stench, our guards decided on petrol-doused old tires as a more pleasing option, so the odor of burning rubber mixed with dead chicken filled our home for the next week.
Lastly, when you live at one with nature, whatever temperature you find outside, you will also find inside. If the air is heavy with moisture, drenching everything under its canopy, our house is also soiled. The clothes never really dry, sheets and pillows feel damp when we slide into bed, and our closets have the faint aroma of mildew. The cold, wet wind blows briskly across our open living room, chilling us to the bone. In the dry season, a thick layer of dust coats every countertop, imbedding itself in our hair, our furniture, our computers. Much to my chagrin, it is impossible, even with closed leuvers, to keep the insipid stuff out of the house. Without the tent poles and fishing rods, this is a life of camping.

1 comment:

Susan said...

Thank you Kelly for drawing such a vivid wonderful picture of your life there. I know that nothing can compensate for your missed family and friends Somehow your make-do attitude make even mold, stench and bugs sound ok. You are awesome and an inspiration! Love you!