Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Fifth Addis Herald

In this Issue:
I'm Home (Whew)
The Cat Who Came to Dinner
Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts

Hi everyone. Here's a note to say I'm back safely, as well as a few other things.

I'm Home (Whew)
Alice and I came home (a very relative term) last week. I'm still processing everything—the good, the wonderful, and the completely awful. I'll write more next month. Here's a preview: We went to South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia. We spent 32 days on the road, drove on the left-hand side of the street, and slept in 18 beds, three overnight busses, and a Volkswagen Chico (looks exactly like a Rabbit, but without the "frills" … I do not recommend it). We traveled approximately 11,000 miles, with 4,500 miles of them by land. We are still EXHAUSTED. But we had an incredible trip. There is so much to share once I wrap my brain around it.

And we did not kill each other!!! (Yippee!!) There were moments of temptation for both of us, however. Especially for me, I think, because Alice enjoys spontaneity only if it's meticulously planned and ruthlessly controlled. Microbiologist Dude and Jamie popped in over e-mail periodically and asked me how I was doing. Jamie sympathized. Micro Dude suggested using poisoned darts and a blowgun because of their availability, silence, and speed.

I don't know what Alice's crew suggested for me. :-) But she wants to travel together again, so there was no permanent damage done.

It was an amazing trip. And God took care of us in a few tricky situations (even if Alice doesn't believe in Him). For example, do not get stranded outside the Pretoria train station after 10 p.m. ...

Just give me a chance to process. (And sleep a whole lot.)

The Cat Who Came to Dinner
This quote has stuck with me for years, though I can't remember its source:
"She often wondered what it would be like to wake up with a man instead of her cat. But at least she never wondered if she was waking up with the wrong cat."

About two months ago, a tiny, painfully thin, gray and white kitten appeared in my yard. He ran up to me, tail militantly upright, and said, "MEOW! MEOWmeowmeowmeowmeow!" Then he wove around my legs.

Translated from ancient Ethiopian Hustler Cat language, this means: "Listen, white chick. You and I both know I'm starving and very cute. You won't be able to stand it. You will succumb and feed me. So start your Crazy Cat Lady collection tonight, and throw me some food here."

How does one resist such moxie? I was toast.

I tried to imagine what a cat might eat. Rice and whatever leftovers I had? I boiled some rice (hey, it's a filling main ingredient in cat food, so . . .) and mixed it with the bit of chicken casserole from lunch. He promptly turned his nose up because some of the rice was slightly burned (OK, a lot burned. I told you I'm having trouble cooking in a lousy kitchen at this altitude). He looked at me, all squinty cat-faced, as if to say, "Your cooking is so bad I have only five lives left." I did not dignify that with a response. But a few days later, I bought cat food at the commissary, and I knew I had been sucked into caring about the little beast. Ugh.

There are oh, so many reasons for the new guards to think I'm bats, but the cat was completely over the top. Ethiopians don't usually take care of animals—even work animals. Last month as I gave them instructions on how to feed him while I would be on holiday, they paused, looked at each other quizzically, and spoke in Amharic. I'm not fluent, but I think they said: "This woman is serious. We are going to feed a cat. Special food, no less. They don't pay us enough for this."

So far, the little guy is sticking around (if you feed it, it will stay). He has even become something of a group project, since the guards got attached to him while I was gone. He follows us around like a puppy and talks a lot, even if he's not a great conversationalist. And when he weaves around the guards' legs, I grin at them. They smile and throw up their hands as if they've surrendered to his charms, too. I even let him inside sometimes; I do best with a roommate, but a cat offers some company even if for short periods. I'm careful, however, and took him in for a checkup and shots. Rabies is endemic here, and even though I had three very, very expensive rabies vaccinations before I came, I'd rather not have to test their efficacy.

It surprises me how much I've missed taking care of something. (One of my nurse friends laughs at this, saying she wishes she didn't have so many people to take care of.) Maybe I care deeply because I feel powerless otherwise. Helping one cat is something I can accomplish in a huge city of suffering people and animals. Spiritually and emotionally, I can't handle the 30 or more beggars who approach me every day, but I can deal with a little animal that is plumping up, growing, and not hurting as much since I started to feed him. And besides, cats are cats all over the world— even if it's with a hustler twist. They are eminently universal, and therefore comforting.

I'm looking for bigger ways to help people. The cat is an introductory course.

Coffee, Pizza, or Darwin?
Attorney Guy—who is 29, has taught graduate-level law classes for the past two and a half years, and who will soon return to the States to a $100K-per-year law career, ugh—calls me every ten days or so to invite me to lunch or coffee. His regular invitations feel incongruous because I've never had more trouble talking to another human being in my whole life. (Then again, he probably doesn't notice since he dominates most conversations. :-) ) Other friends think he's great, and I will say he's one of the funniest people anywhere. Still, I rarely feel perfectly at ease with him. Maybe this is because:
a) he is the most intelligent, most intellectually sophisticated person I have ever known. (This is significant because, for whatever reason, I've been around many intelligent people over the years.);
b) he seems a little slick to me;
and c) he seems like an unmitigated pragmatist (get over it, get on with it, find another way, good grief, why are you so upset because it didn't work?). Rightly or wrongly, I'm more idealistic. Actually, I am a guileless bumpkin in comparison, since all his life he's been groomed to think critically and gently manipulate people. He once told our Sunday night group, "Social skills are part manners and a whole lotta BS" (my apologies, I am quoting for full effect …).

Maybe this is why Shakespeare said we should kill all the lawyers. :-)

Last week over lunch, he and I ended up talking about romantic relationships (an awkward topic, yes, though he definitely enjoyed the conversation). But I'm not sure why, a few days later, his thoughts still deeply upset me:

He likened human sexuality to that of animals: elaborate mating rituals of birds and smitten men; men fantasizing about being professional athletes because that would increase their chance of getting sexually attractive mates; men and animals instinctively being more attracted to highly symmetrical bodies that indicate better health and fertility; Darwinian principles and microevolution explaining many of our behaviors; blah blah blah. He also agrees with the duplicity of dating: present the very best front you can, for as long as you can, even if you'll be your sordid self later.

Maybe I'm naïve, but I'm not sure he should still be putting on a front five or six months into a relationship. (I never said this guy is always wise. I just said he's brilliant.)

When I asked him what he thinks most single men are looking for, he chuckled, grinned at me, and said, "Just play the Game, Meredith. It's nothing but a Game." (I capitalize because he seemed to find it that important.)

A Game. Huh. Unfortunately, the only games I enjoy involve boards. Otherwise, I don't think they're always healthy, let alone wholly comprehensible. I do see his point in part, but where is God in his thinking? Can't God bring people together for His glory and their growth? Or am I unrealistic? (Rhetorical questions, all ... don't worry …)

As for his future romantic life, he wants to settle down when he returns to the South in July (side note: Culturally, most single Southern men and I are like apples and vodka or something, forget the oranges). He's all for having everything set up for him through eHarmony (personally, I call it eHarm, and ladies, feel free to call if you're matched with him). He's also open to his Indian family's network for arranged marriages. In fact, he just came back from a month in India and has some compelling evidence in support of arranged marriage. Maybe the West has it all wrong ...

But Attorney Guy does occasionally shed light on things for me. Last night at dinner, he happened to say that Microbiologist Dude would have made a fantastic Jesuit priest, barring the whole anti-Reformation bit. :-) If Presbyterians had monasteries, Micro Dude might sign up. (Yup. I know how to pick 'em. Maybe I should quit picking 'em.)

There's a store on Churchill Avenue with a sign that reads "Custom-Made Gents." It's referring to men's clothing, but it still makes me smile. If only it were that simple. Ha.

Life 101 and Paradigm Shifts
OK. So, you guys are spiritual giants and you caught on to all of this decades ago. I'm a late bloomer. But bear with me. It helps me to (try to) articulate lessons while they are gelling in my mind, and it probably can't hurt to be reminded of them. Maybe you'll identify.

Lately I've been especially struck by this verse: "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4, emphasis mine).

I've been wrestling with how often He does not feel like my life. Instead, problems, or goals, or dreams, or other seemingly urgent things seem much more tangible and pressing. And as hard as it is to admit, I (perhaps, we sometimes?) often treat God as a means to an end. A means to peace. A means to help. A means to blessing.

But HE is the blessing I've (and we've) been looking for.

I don't say this to arouse concern or sympathy—I am an expert in toughing things out and will be OK—but the last few weeks have knocked the wind out of me, to say the least. Still, it's been illuminating. The suffering caused me to live without crutches, with nothing comfortable to fall back on for affirmation, consolation, or control. Except God. So when I heard John Piper say the following in an audio sermon recently, personal experience drove home the comment: "Suffering is designed by God to increase your joy in Him. All the props that you're leaning on will be knocked out, and He is the only one to lean on."

Designed, not merely "allowed." Well, He's a good architect. I haven't had props for quite a while. And when God is all you have, you realize, in a fresh way, that He really is all you need.

I know this sounds insane or "überly" and obnoxiously pious to some of you. In fact, it didn't make sense to me for years. To merely hear someone say it or to read about it is not enough. It takes suffering and prayer to begin to comprehend it. (Enter my favorite "suffering verses": Romans 5:1–5, much of Romans 8, and James 1:2–4.)

We're all striving for joy through something—through career, possessions, marriage, children, achievement, whatever. And if we are completely denied something we deem precious, we might feel as if we are somehow dying. But even when we attain what we want, we're never completely fulfilled by it. Maybe our problem is not that we lack certain things or are let down by them when we do attain them. Maybe our problem is that we fail to see them for what they are: things, and not the true blessing. Our focus is off and we don't see Him clearly for who He is to us.

We miss the point that God is our life. And He LOVES us! (Why???? Have you looked at us lately???) At times, it's simply hard to remember this while slogging it out here on Earth. I (perhaps we?) need to refocus on things above. Anything else is passing, even if it seems ultimate.

My goal now? To remember He Himself is the Blessing.

And so ends the March edition. Be well. The cat says hi.


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