Parasites, People, Pain; Anger, Frustration, Futility. And Hope. Eventually.

I haven’t been writing much, especially not here, in a while. At the risk of oversharing–and to put it in sweet, verbose evangelicalese–I have been blessed with the opportunity to graciously host a variety of God’s precious microscopic creatures in my home and body, and in the bodies of several of my family members. So grateful to do my part to facilitate the growth and development of these vigorous and rapidly adaptable creatures! I have to admire their resiliency–how quickly they learn to resist the drugs that brilliant scientists are constantly racing to produce to destroy them and their kind!

What perseverance.

Extending hospitality (and, subtle hints that it was time to go, and then, eventually, eviction notices) to these creatures has occupied much time and energy. I’ll spare you explicit details, but let us say that both the Giardia family and the P. Falciparums have been making themselves at home and encouraging them to make their departure has involved numerous trips to the doctor as well as the lavatory, and more than a few potentially carcinogenic remedies.

(As a chemist friend recently told me, the whole thing with drugs is that they’re designed to kill the stuff that can potentially kill you…without killing YOU in the process, too. Encouraging words from a professional, no?)

The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could've been leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while laughingly looking at each other in wonderfully "casual" postures, perhaps with the kiddos in a wheelbarrow for good measure.
The Giardias, who regret this staid, old-school studio portrait. They wish they could’ve been photographed while leaning against a barn badly in need of a paint job while casting whitened, straightened, adoring toothy grins at one another, perhaps with the kiddos in a vintage red wagon for good measure.
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens. #nofilter
The P. Falciparums, on the other hand, are feeling retro-fabulous in olive greens and distressed browns. #nofilter

One of my sons is so robustly healthy that he’s scarcely been ill for an entire day in his life. No exaggeration. If a member of the Rhinovirus clan so much as glances his way, his immune system scares it away with a mighty roar. The only time he needed antibiotics was for a spider bite that got infected from being scratched too much. He was the fruit of a pregnancy during which I survived on Breyer’s vanilla ice cream, selected specific flavors of Jelly Belly beans, and Canada Dry ginger ale. So basically: sugar.

{The other son, who was nourished in utero on organic kale and quinoa and whatnot–he’s another story. (And I’m not giving prenatal nutritional advice. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is SO not a legit thing, okay, no matter how many times folks tell you that living in areas with high concentrations of armadillos makes you more likely to get a divorce.}

Anyway, this second son gets dramatically sick. His normally prodigious appetite vanishes, as well as any trace of his equally prodigious mirth. (If you ask him whether he plans to be a comedian when he grows up, he’ll tell you, with a straight face, “No–I plan to be a chameleon!” and then guffaw with laughter. I won’t give you his whole medical history, but let’s just say he’s sampled urgent medical care in no less than five countries and three continents, and this past week his condition gave my prayers (and the prayers of many other beloved folks–thanks, dear ones!) an especially desperate tone.

This morning, the woman who helps me keep house came. (Yes, yes, I have hired help. If I didn’t, I would be considered a horrible rude mean selfish person who withholds employment from others when I have the means to employ them. Just doing my trickle-down part here, folks. I actually LIKE to clean my own house, so there!) And over coffee, I told her about my son’s illness, and we thanked God for mercifully allowing him to be restored to health. And then I asked her about mosquito nets.

She doesn’t have one, because her kids have some, and even a cheap net costs several times more than the average Malawian earns in a day…and people have to eat. People have to pay for school fees. So she takes her chances. As we continued talking, it became clear that she wasn’t entirely aware that malaria comes from mosquitoes at all. I explained (briefly and probably slightly inaccurately) how malaria was eradicated in the USA, and how folks like Bill Gates are helping to find a way to get rid of it in places like Malawi, too.

I have heard crazy stories, stories of well-meaning people coming in from the west to distribute nets in areas where malaria isn’t much of a problem–the kind of thing that eases middle-class consciences but does little to prevent death and illness. I have heard of teenagers and adults with long-term, chronic damage from malaria (of which they were unaware) becoming acutely ill and dying within hours or days. Last year, the young man (I’ll call him Nick) who was helping us in the yard and learning some basic carpentry skills had a baby who got sick and died at around 3 months–and we don’t even know why.

These are people who don’t have the kind of insurance that pays to Medivac them to state-of-the-art hospitals.

What about their urgent prayers, and those of their loved ones? Does God not hear those prayers?

And how to respond? I can buy a net for my house helper, but not for everyone. There are stories of hope, for sure, but also so very many stories with tragic endings. We got a call from Nick at 2 am telling us his baby boy was gone, and it was so fast that this was the first time we’d even heard that the baby was ill.

There are no answers. Even to try to explain these things is almost always to do a kind of violence to human experience, or to speak ill of God, who, in spite of everything, I believe to be holy, just, loving, and good. The only thing I can cling to is the thought that Jesus took on flesh. As a poor boy and young man in a village, he probably played host to more than a few parasites. He took on all of this. He took hate and abuse and an absolutely unjust punishment.

And he didn’t just conquer P. Falciparum, or Giardia, or Rhinovirus, or E.Coli, or HIV/AIDS or rotavirus. He conquered death itself.

But I still think he would be handing out mosquito nets and supporting those people standing all day in laboratories trying to find cures for all these ills. Come to think of it, perhaps he is. Through the hands and feet and faces of all kinds of people, perhaps he is.

Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}

The Ordinary, Extraordinary, Ancient Craft of Pottery

 

I’ve always wanted to learn pottery. As a child I had no fewer than two very crappy toy potter’s wheels that did nothing but frustrate me. I don’t think my high school had a pottery class. My college certainly did not. And after that, well, I never seemed to have the time, money, or opportunity–all at the same time!–to learn pottery.

So when we found out about a lovely lodge on Lake Malawi where you can stay, swim, eat, and learn to make pottery, I knew we had to try it. It’s in Nkhotakota, where David Livingstone facilitated the agreements ending the slave trade in Malawi. And it is simply gorgeous. At certain moments, and from certain angles, you may as well have been transported 5,000 years into the past:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 3.52.40 PMThat is the view from the porch of the little cottage where we stayed. I only saw this one herd of cattle, though. There was a friendly half-blind dog who kept coming around to make sure we were okay, though. All the dogs and cats at the lodge were the fattest of their kind that I’ve yet seen in Malawi. It’s because they get lots of kitchen scraps.

I thought I would be most interested in learning to use the wheel, which is a mesmerizing and lovely tool. (Cue embarrassing scene from Ghost. Wait, not really.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.20.12 AMScreen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.19.56 AMWhen our instructors couldn’t explain how to do it, they just put their hands on ours and showed us the way.

Even the children had a chance to make some things, especially the older one:

Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.
Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.
Decorating a traditional pot that he made.
Decorating a traditional pot that he made.

So as I was saying, I thought I’d be most enamored of the wheel, but was surprised at how much I loved making traditional pots by hand. I loved it. I can’t wait to do it again. They’re made out of the clay of termite mounds, so, essentially, they’re made out of termite poo. And all the shaping is done by hand, with the help of things like a piece of bamboo, a shell, and a rock. Yet another thing that might as well be 5,000 years old. (As in fact it is–but older.)

Finishing my msugo, traditionally used for carrying water. On one's head.
Finishing my msugo pot, traditionally used for carrying water. On one’s head. That’s Gloria on the left. She has the best laugh and smile combo in the world, probably.

There is so much that I love about pottery: how the elements involved are undeniably simple: earth, water, fire, but how pots are decidedly of culture, not nature and must be shaped by human ingenuity. I love how ancient the craft is and how even the simplest pot always has some touch that is gratuitously, needlessly lovely. I love the transformation involved in the making and firing.

And I love that when we got tired of making pots, we could go jump in the lake. Literally.

Graeme doesn’t love taking showers–all they had at the lake–but he fits nicely in a bucket:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.18.51 AM

And the puppy wanted to be sure we got the memo about not leaving her behind next time:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 4.17.12 PM

If You Are New To This Blog…

Amy Julia Becker asked me to write a little introduction to what my blog is about (it appeared on hers yesterday) but it occurred to me that it is a good introduction to those of you who may be new to the blog.

Plus, here’s a new picture of me that I haven’t yet uploaded to my “About Me” page:

Stone-Headshot

When I started my blog (almost exactly!) two years ago, it was called Eat With Joy, which became the title of my book. The blog started out as being mostly about issues related to food and body image from a Christian perspective, and I usually have posts related to some aspect of these at least once a week.

One of the most popular posts from the early days of my blog is called “My Audrey Hepburn Problem.” In it I discuss my youthful admiration of the film star, and how I (very unfortunately) conflated her reputed kindness and philanthropy with her (very unusual) good looks.

Another post that gives a good sense of the kind of writing I do on the blog is “The Cultural Evolution of Candy Land.” It all began when I laid out my old Candy Land game (circa 1980s) next to the 2010, and was shocked by how thin–and sexualized–the characters had become. It grew into a series including My Little Ponies and Polly Pockets as I noticed the trend in other toys, more or less concluding with a post on why it matters whether a toy is thin and sexy (or not.)

I write about the books I’m reading at least once a week (Mondays often feature book reviews) and sometimes post simple, family-friendly recipes.

And because I’ve been living and working in Malawi, Africa–where my husband and I teach at a Christian seminary, and where I occasionally volunteer as a labor doula–there are occasional posts about the state of maternal health globally, pictures of animals seen on our travels, and thoughts on wealth, poverty, and gratitude for all of God’s gifts: not just the edible, but the beautiful, the hilarious, and the eminently re-readable.

Evangelicals Climate Change Brownies (with recipe)

A few weeks ago, my family and I had the pleasure of welcoming a bunch of people who were on a trip to Malawi to learn about how climate change is affecting folks here. I’d been in touch with the group’s leaders, including Ben Lowe of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) about how possibly to meet up with the group as they traveled, but as plans finalized I realized I wouldn’t be able to do that, as I’m phobic both of driving here and of taking public transport. Plus, our car had been less than functional for QUITE a while. (Though it is doing fine now.)

Anyway, as I looked over their itinerary, I realized that they’d likely be passing right by our house as they made their way from the south back to the north. So I offered our house as a rest stop, knowing, as I do, that American style rest stops are pretty much non-existent along the road they would be traveling. What bathrooms do exist are…well, maybe it’s better if we don’t talk about that. Suffice it to say that I was happy to offer my bathroom for everyone’s use.

My kids were so excited.

Jonathan Merritt looked at my kids’ Lego creations and, I think, wished he had time to stop and build a few himself.

Jenny Yang asked Aidan to play his violin (which he did.)

Karen Swallow Prior delivered a hug from my buddy Ellen.

And Leroy Barber told me that my brownies may have changed his life.

It was fun, if brief. It made me wish that in addition to conferences, where we all stay in hotels, drink too much coffee, and rush from session to session, people working in similar fields and in similar ways could somehow visit each other in their houses. It’s nice. It feels right, somehow.

I prepared a number of things to eat that day (how could I not!?) and here is the recipe that Leroy said changed his life. Which of course isn’t true, but which made me smile.

Life-Changing, Hopefully Not Climate-Changing Brownies

Preheat the oven to 325 F

Prepare an 8” x 8” pan by lining with parchment, buttering the parchment, and dusting liberally with granulated sugar, shaking off the excess.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt together:

10 tablespoons butter

1 and ¼ cups sugar

¾ cup + 2 tablespoons Dutch-process (fair trade, if you can) cocoa powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Whisk until smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool 10-15 minutes. Beat in two eggs, ONE AT A TIME, beating thoroughly after each addition.

Stir in 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract and beat in 1 cup all purpose flour until just blended.

Pour into prepared pan and bake at 325 F for 20 minutes. Cool completely in pan on cooling rack before attempting to cut.