Monday, February 24, 2014

Big E Little e

Today I read an account of a 17 year-old girl who is part of a literacy program MCC supports in the northern part of Guatemala.

Illiteracy rates there are the highest in the country. Most people don't pass 6th grade, usually dropping out to work or help at home. The poverty rates are so high that most people spend their days trying to meet their primary needs. Learning to read and write are not necessary to survive and therefore are not a priority.

That's right. If you can read my words right now, you are privileged in a way you may have never thought about before. You can read and write. You probably didn't wake up today focused on where you would find water or food to feed your family.

My three-year old is learning to read and write. We practice her letters and numbers and sounding out words and rhymes. I forget at times that this is an opportunity I too easily take for granted. She's three and she can write her name. She's years ahead of so many in poverty.
The girl in the story I read today had to quit school when she was 11 because her father died and she had to help her mom with household chores. She works the fields, sews traditional dresses to sell, and works with her mom at home.

When a literacy program came to the area, she enrolled without her mom knowing. Her mom wasn't happy at first, but when she discovered that the simple tools like paper and pens were provided, she realized it was a good opportunity. She wants her child to have a better life than what she has had.

This 17 year-old just finished 6th grade. She's now more educated than the majority of her neighbors, friends, and family. She hopes to be a teacher someday.

I was inspired by this story and so many like it. MCC supports adult literacy programs in the area and every time I hear a story from a literacy student I remember how basic a privilege it is to be able to read and write.

How am I using my own ability to read and write to make a difference in the lives of others?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What They Didn't Tell Me On My Wedding Day

I recently met an engaged couple who will live thousands of miles apart until their wedding day. They explained how it will be difficult when they get married, but they assured me that if they didn't think they could handle it, they wouldn't be getting married.

That's when I realized that everyone thinks this as a new couple, that we're invincible.We think, Of course we can handle it. Sure, it's going to be hard. But we did our pre-marriage counseling. We dated a long time. We weathered painful situations and emerged stronger because of them. We communicate well. We won't make the mistakes of our friends and families. We're good. We're the exception. We're special.  

As a young engaged couple, several people warned us about the difficulty of marriage.

Marriage is hard, they'd say. It takes a lot of work.

I believed them on some level, as much as I could. Kind of. The problem is that no one knows what it actually means. It's vague and unhelpful. It's more of a threat or a warning than helpful advice. 

I remember the first time I thought, Wow, this marriage thing IS hard, just like they said. We were about 6 months into our marriage. I don't recall the details of the argument, but I remember exactly where we were sitting and how I felt when that first feeling of doubt and panic washed over me.

After 9 years of marriage, I remember my just-turned-22-year-old self on my wedding day. I was confident. I was happy. I felt ready. Only, I wish someone had been bluntly honest with me about a few things.
I wish someone had told me that no couple is invincible or untouchable. Human beings are susceptible to loneliness, depression, anger, miscommunication, assumptions, misunderstandings, and irrational thoughts. I suppose someone may have said this to me in some form. If they did, it felt inapplicable to me.

It's dangerous to believe you're immune to problems. The number of friends and family members who have experienced painful divorces tells me this is true. We all think somehow our situation will be the exception. Therein lies the danger.

Marriage IS hard, but not because a couple will fight over who washes the dishes, or how to wash the dishes, or when to wash the dishes. Arguments are expected and normal and can be healthy. Those are the comical honeymoon stage arguments that we laugh about later. 

I wish someone had told me it's hard because no one can predict the unexpected pain, the losses, the mistakes, the impatient rash words. No one can predict how simple decisions can turn into life-altering events. 

People erroneously think big life changes will help "fix" relationship problems: having a baby, moving, buying a house, getting a new job. These don't fix problems, they create a new lens with which to amplify already existing problems.

Damaging words can't be part of the vocabulary. I know couples who toss around the ominous d-word (divorce) in arguments like a ping-pong ball. They might as well sign the papers now. That word can't exist. Half of all marriages end in divorce. It's too real a word within too close a reach to be used in any capacity. 

I wish someone had told me to focus on my own problems and not so much on my spouse. I once had a counselor tell me that the problem with popular marriage advice books is that they focus on spouses fulfilling each other's needs. Though there is validity in finding ways to love your spouse in a way they connect to, it's not the whole picture. If your marriage is not fulfilling, these books say, it's because your spouse isn't speaking to you in your "love language" or isn't filling your "love tank." The responsibility of your happiness, therefore, lies on your spouse. This is unfair and unrealistic for both, and can lead to looking to other people or things to replace what is lacking.

I wish someone had told me that "for better or for worse" could be worse before it gets better, but it can get better. There is hope in all this. Couples who have weathered unimaginable storms do survive. They can come out stronger, closer, and wiser. It requires hard work and commitment. It requires humility and grace. It requires waking up every morning with the firm choice to go forward together, letting go of yesterday. For better or for worse. In good times and in bad. By the grace of God.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Preschool Times

Another sign my baby is growing up:
Her first homework assignment.
Ok, actually, this is her second because yesterday I forgot to take a picture of her real first one because I forgot about doing it until breakfast. So, I'm hoping the mojo from her second homework ever will be what carries her through THE REST OF HER LIFE. Not to be dramatic.
Also, how cute is my youngest with her two babies?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Less is Still A Lot

We're in our new house. And we love it.

My friend and MCC country representative in Nicaragua wrote a blog post last summer, as her and her husband had just started in their roles and were looking for a place to live. It has stuck with me. Here's part of what she wrote:

And so in our work we interact with people who lead lives very different from our own. For the vast majority of people in Nicaragua and other lesser developed countries around the world, opportunities for education, just housing, and even access to basic food staples is incredibly limited.  Because we personally have not and will not ever struggle in the same way, as we enter this context, it feels like every decision counts.  People we work alongside get by with so little.  Can I really claim to need space for my kids to play?  Conflicts like this are always present.  It is often difficult to differentiate between needs and desires.  I second guess myself all the time.
And so it has been a challenge – figuring out our needs, navigating these dissonances that are here as long as we are.  How do we have a fulfilling family life?  How do we find contentment and joy (outside of work) while still living out our values?  I continue to pray for wisdom and humility as we do our best to meet our children’s needs, love and care for ourselves, and work alongside our neighbors for a more just world in Nicaragua.
This got me thinking about what we need versus what we want. Do we truly "need" a back yard with grass for the girls to play in? Do we "need" a guest room? Do we "need" a kitchen with counters or cupboards? Sometimes referred to as first world problems, some of these are issues that I'm privileged as a North American to even have the opportunity to consider.

We had been looking for houses and apartments to rent for a few weeks. It just happens that this is the same month when yearly budgets are due, as well as several other program planning type reports. It's a busy month, and not ideal for moving.

But, because we were looking for housing while simultaneously working on our budget, we were extra conscious of how much money we were willing to spend on a place to live. We've lived in some awkward yet expensive apartment in the States. We were deciding between two houses to rent, right next door to each other. The floor plans are similar, though one had a couple added bedrooms and a second story patio for about $120 more per month. It was a little nicer, a little bigger, and a little more expensive.

For many Americans $120 doesn't make a huge difference, especially when the rent is almost half of anything we've ever paid for in the US, but it was more than we needed. We didn't need more space. So we chose the smaller, slightly more outdated house.

And actually, we like this house better. We have a back patio and a separate back grassy area for the girls to play, which the other house didn't have. We are five minutes (without traffic, 20+ with traffic) from our office and the girls' school. It was less than what we thought we might have to pay to stay in the same area. We pounced on it the same day it was advertised in the classified section of the newspaper.

Another benefit is that we have a very sweet neighbor who we share a driveway with. She's an American missionary who has been here for 29 years primarily working with terminally ill and cancer children and their families as they pass away (a hospice-type service). She's already been a blessing to us. Yesterday Michael went on his first trip out of town without me and the girls. In our old house that wouldn't have been an issue but he took the truck and we can no longer walk to school and the office. I was debating either staying home or calling a taxi. Then last night I came down with something and felt pretty awful, and our kind neighbor offered to take the girls to school (along with one of our workers staying with us this week) so I could stay home and get some much needed rest. I slept all morning.

She obviously has a generous heart and lives with a few Guatemalans, two of which are deaf. Last night Ellie was out in the driveway playing soccer with all of them, and I found myself so thankful that we found such a great home where we can host well, have great neighbors, and can live freely knowing we made a good choice for our family in our commitment to live simply.