Thursday, August 20, 2020

Summer Small Group: "the Book of Nature"

Psalm 145:5 (ESV) On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

It all started with an easy walk along the Potomac in May.  It didn’t take long to realize our new puppy needed a lot of exercise and the whole family was desperate to get out of the house, so we started seeking out trails to enjoy as a family.  We delighted in watching Honey's innate understanding that a dirt path leading through the woods was to be followed with enthusiastic abandon.  Fast forward three months of gradually tougher and longer trails amounting to 75 miles of family hiking. It’s safe to say we’re hooked! We’ve got the day hike down now; the water, the gear, the packing, and the incentive; every hike ends with local ice cream. We finish a hike and I’m already looking forward to the next one. I love the time together, the exercise, the exploration, the sense of accomplishment, but mostly the peace and renewal I feel being in and among nature.

Our favorite mystic monk, Thomas Merton reflected on the act of becoming one with nature and how “listening to Nature's silence becomes the path for spiritual communion with the divine as well as a way to detach from the preconceived ideas about self and the world.” I tune in to church with St. Matt’s every Sunday and then we go to CHURCH on the trail. 

In between the kids’ singing (often to get through the last few miles) and complaining (75 miles has not happened without a good amount of complaints), I’ve been doing a lot of listening and praying on the trail.  I’ve never seen a more beautiful sanctuary and Psalm 145:5 hits the nail on the head. As I put one foot in front of the other, my mantra is, “Get out of my head, be present with God”.  In this way I don’t waste miles mulling over all the same mental garbage I mull over day in and day out. I’m constantly reminding myself to be present in the moment on the trail-with the trees, wind, dappled light, noises of the forest, and God.  

One of the first profound things revealed to me once I started to pay attention is that beautiful, diverse, complex and certainly divine-inspired life is thriving everywhere in the wilderness.  Completely independent from humans and right under our noses. As our daily life grew smaller and smaller in self-isolation, the life happening in the wild bolstered my hope. The teeny tiny snail climbing a twig, the bright orange slime mold decomposing a rotten log, the spider webs, the mushrooms that sprout only under birch trees, the seafoam green lichen on the rocks, the lizard joining us on the rocks, and the frogs in the creek. The last few weeks we have watched monarch season arrive! One especially beautiful gift was walking up to a creek teaming with monarchs drinking among the rocks.  As we got closer, they all took flight and gently fluttered among us as we gasped at the beauty of it. God’s plan for each and every living creature is not meant to be understood but it is absolutely something to marvel at.  

Marveling at the divine design of other living creatures is a great relief from the lack of splendor in humans. Merton says it simply in New Seeds of Contemplation

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It “consents,” so to speak, to [God's] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree”.  How can I give glory to God by being truer to God’s intended design for me? What is my design?

 When I get out of the plotting, planning, list-making, repetitive churn that goes on in my mind, I experience God’s presence in myself, our family, and everything around me. Being in nature brings me closer to God and maybe just a little more in tune with what my intended design is-I feel centered and at peace. 

The more I listen to nature, the more I want to learn from others who have communed with God through nature. I looked for Thomas Merton’s writings on nature. I found the Appalachian Trail Conservancy blog and read about volunteers that have devoted 30 or more years of their lives to building and preserving the AT as their life’s legacy (this to me is steeped deeply in the idea of being in service to God).  I happened upon John Muir, the father of our U.S. National Parks, founder of the Sierra Club, America’s first naturalist, conservationist, writer, and  wouldn’t you know it-theological naturalist.  Famously, Muir backpacked with President Roosevelt in Yosemite and convinced him the best way to preserve the natural landscapes in the U.S. was to set aside federal dollars to do so.  He was called “the Patron Saint of the American wilderness” Muir lived in Yosemite for long enough he started to see “another primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature”.  As a prolific nature writer his goal was to write about “this creation in words any reader could understand”.  

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

-- Our National Parks , John Muir 1901, page 56. 

I would not have found God in nature had I not spent so much time there over the past few months. Thomas Merton and John Muir both spent vast, un-bounded amounts of time living in nature and I can’t help comparing their experiences to the gift of un-bounded time I’ve received.  And by that, I mean a free calendar without chunks blocked off for sports, dance, school obligations, summer camps, and vacations.  All the chunks of time have been freed and with no end in sight of this freedom, I made zero plans and just let life happen.  I started living more in the present instead of counting the weeks as finite time until the first day of school. This brings me to another profound understanding; the destination, while it may be unexpected, is so much more satisfying and life giving when I meander and explore than when I’ve mapped it out from the beginning.  If you would have told me that summer 2020 I would spend exploring Appalachia, sign up for an REI membership, learn about mycorrhizal fungi/tree relationships, and spend more and more of my waking hours craving the trail, I'd assume you were talking about the wrong lady.   

For further contemplation:

Where have you found God? Does a traditional church building help you connect with God, or is there a more unconventional location where that happens? 

Has a specific situation or location given you greater insight to God’s calling for you?

When was the last time that you felt like one small part of God’s great unit of creation?

I end with the following thoughts from John Muir

“Why should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit - the cosmos? The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge. From the dust of the earth, from the common elementary fund, the Creator has made Homo sapiens. From the same material he has made every other creature, however noxious and insignificant to us. They are earth-born companions and our fellow mortals.... This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere man was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere man appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation's plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.”
- from
A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (1916)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Village tour in Bogor

Adelaide and I had quite an adventure on Saturday.  We spent the entire day in Bogor experiencing traditional Sudanese village life.  We rode about an hour and a half south of Jakarta on the toll road.  I can't help but mention how ridiculously nice the highway was.  We drove on beautifully landscaped parkway style roads and up to modern toll booth, Addie asked, "Are you sure we're still in Indonesia?"  I had to laugh.  It is unbelievable how nice the infrastructure is here.

It was a wonderfully kid-friendly day.  We learned how to play a local instrument, took a tour of the local village and their homes, mucked around in rice paddies and planted rice, washed a water buffalo, posed in traditional Sudanese Indonesian dress clothing, ate a traditional meal, painted farmer hats, made pandan leaf puppets, and made traditional rice flour cookies.  It was such a lovely introduction to one of the cultures in Indonesia.

Now the photos.  It's so fun photographing our new adventures in Indonesia.

Rice paddies

The water buffalo named Bintang (meaning star)
Addie in the traditional women's dress costume.
Planting rice
Washing Bintang
Lunch: tofu, chicken, soup, rice crackers and rice.  
Exotic flowers
Local foliage.  

Making panda leaf puppets

Saturday, August 16, 2014


Jakarta is full of shopping malls.  Luxurious Western style, air-conditioned shopping malls.  Having just spent so much time in America (and shopping for most of it), we aren't really interested in spending our first days in Indonesia at the mall.  My first phone call to a neighbor was to ask her suggestion for where we could find local handicrafts or art for sale.  Something that felt truly Indonesian.

I'm a huge proponent of buying a souvenir right away when moving to a new country.  It's a fun way to immediately feel like you are apart of the community and you tend to buy things in your first few weeks that you would likely pass up months and years down the road.  I like being able to look back at our first purchases with fondness.  Before you've seen too much of everything, it's fun to put something pretty in your home.

My neighbor pointed us to Pasaraya which happens to be a huge multi-story mall (go figure) of locally made goods.  One entire floor was of batik fabric, shirts, dresses, table linens etc.  Another floor was household decor and art.  The bottom floor was a specialty grocery store, market style food vendors and Indonesian coffee.  We spent most of our time searching for the perfect first batik shirts for Justin and dresses for the girls.

We ate at a quiet Indonesian cafe where I had my first truly Indonesian meal of beef rendang.  It's a lovely coconut curry beef stew over rice.  Spicy and delicious.  The girls had fried rice and chicken.  They were hit with a little more spice than they are used to so we taught them to follow each bit with the pickled vegetable salad that was served with the meal to cool down their mouths. Ashlynn doesn't mind the spice.  She takes a bite, chews and breathes through her mouth muttering "spicy" over and over.  But she always goes back for another bite.  We all had iced tea sweetened with condensed milk to accompany the meal.

We explored a bit more and I purchased a hand woven ikat patterned tablecloth and table runner.  On first glance, the ikat patterns are a bit more casual and usable in a modern dinning room than some of the more formal Indonesian batik patterns.  I'm on a mission to find batik for my dinning room.  For now the ikat is perfect.

The girls enjoyed picking out patterns and styles for themselves.  I forced them to pose with their new dresses when we got home.  I imagine we'll have a closet full of batik apparel in a few years.
As you can see I am still sorting out the best locations in our apartment for photos.  Lots of shadows on this one.  But they are still cute.

pancake and pool Saturdays

I had a few days to get our home sorted out before I started work full-time. It was quite ambitious for me to give myself only 5 working days (2 of those spent checking in at the embassy) to get everything settled at home with a nanny and driver and schools etc. I had to hit the ground running and my saving grace was having hired a pembantu (the Indonesian name for a nanny/maid/cook) before I arrived via email. Her name is Aunty, and I'm sure you'll here loads more about her. We've already fallen in love with her.

Anyhow, Thursday and Friday of last week were relatively free. They were also the last two weekdays I had with my girls at home before our life got significantly busier with school and work. We decided to explore our apartment complex a bit while Ashlynn was napping.
Note the amazing apple Ash is eating
We live in a fairly new highrise apartment complex. There are multiple apartment towers, underground garages, opulent lobbies, and two large pools as well as a small playground, and a very well equipped gym. While the apartment is rather small for our family of five, it's a very comfortable place to live and it won't be hard to make it feel like home. Addie, Bella and I wound ourselves around to the other apartment tower, through the brick-oven pizza place (we tried it-only in a pinch ever again), farm to table grocer (perfect place to grab eggs, onions, apples-the basics if we run out), up the stairs and past the smaller fitness center to an outdoor pool that sits up on the second floor terrace. 

We weren't prepared to swim so we just lounged a bit in the chairs and enjoyed the view. It was another moment where I couldn't help smiling. The pool is very pretty and has tile planters built into the water with mature trees. The tree cover over the pool provides shade and dappled light. It's a tiny little oasis. The girls and I immediately decreed we would swim here every Saturday morning after our favorite family breakfast of Justin's from-scratch pancakes and real maple syrup.

Two days later, on our very first Saturday morning in Jakarta, after only 6 days in our new home, Justin made his famous pancakes (with ingredients I bought at the local stores-real maple syrup from the commissary), he brewed a pot of our new favorite Indonesian coffee (quite an easy transition from Ethiopian coffee to Indonesian coffee). Once we'd had our fill, we put on our suits and took a dip in the oasis pool. Not a bad tradition to start!

Live from Jakarta

Flowers that fall front the trees at our pool.  
It took ten days for us to get internet at our new apartment in Jakarta.   I actually wrote this blog post on the second and third day after we arrived in Jakarta.  Technically, we've only been in this country for two weeks but it's amazing what a difference a week can make!  We're entirely settled in at this point but I still want to share my first thoughts on our new home.    
Once again home with embassy furniture.  It's oddly comforting!
My thoughts on day 2:

It's hard to think of a proper introduction on my blog for our new life in Indonesia. So much has happened since we left Ethiopia and yet it's still so close to our every thought. One thing that is an interesting feeling is just how comfortable and normal it feels to once again, be in a third world country. It's also wonderfully familiar to be in SE Asia. Many of experiences we're having are very reminiscent of our time in Manila, Philippines. Ethiopia is so different from Indonesia but all one does upon arrival in a new country is compare it to the country you were coming from. We have enormous grins on our faces every day in Jakarta. When comparing Jakarta to Addis Ababa it's easy for Jakarta to come out on top. I'm sure this city has it's own set of challenges but for our family, coming from Addis Ababa, we can't see anything but the positive. We've only been here since Sunday, August 3, so we haven't seen much, but so far everything is so nice. It's wonderfully easy settling into a country where the roads are clean and well made, the city is crowded with a growing economy, grocery stores are full of everything we could ever need and the Indonesian people are wonderfully friendly.
My favorite part of our new apartment.  Our closet.
Some very small things that have made us very excited about our life in Indonesia:

Immediately getting beef pho for lunch after just a few hours of sleep in our new apartment
Walking into the Hypermarket at Lippo Mall (which I can see from my apartment window), and seeing rows and rows of fresh produce, entire refrigerated sections of chicken, beef, milk, yogurt and imported cheese, as well as staples like peanut butter, olive oil, and cereal. And this was the low-end grocery store.

Seeing the eager friendly faces of Indonesians when they see our sweet girls.

Lippo Mall has a Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, and Mod. It's so nice to see familiar brands.

Nannies with white nurse-like uniforms, carrying the toddler, and pushing the stroller, while Mom walks empty handed. To clarify, it made me smile because it's something we're used to seeing in the Philippines, it's just as ridiculous in Jakarta as it was in Manila.
My least favorite part of our new apartment.  The Asian mini fridge.
Siting on our embassy issued couches watching our welcome kit TV felt wonderfully familiar.

The ache in my feet and ankles after a day of walking on our all-marble floored apartment.

Amazing New Zealand apples at the grocery store. I know I'm from Washington State-home of awesome apples, but I love New Zealand apples. They are so crunchy!

When my new Indonesian pembatu (nanny/cook/maid), Aunty, arrived and immediately displayed super human patience with my 3 year old and a book of stickers. SE Asian women are the most patient human beings on earth.

When the girls and I returned from the playground and the floors were sparkling and the laundry was folded. Day 1 of housekeeper-win!
Batik shopping on weekend 1
Fireworks every single night. Gotta love all the fireworks in Asia.

Pools, gym, playground, sauna, cafe, mini mart, produce stand are all within our apartment building.

Meeting ladies who lunch, Jakarta style.

KFC delivery men on motorbikes!

Dumping a quarter of our first bottle of water on the floor, since it's been so long since we've used a commercial water dispenser. I sort of miss the endless supply of water the distiller in Addis provided.

No travelers tummy! Maybe our guts are just used to the changes. We've also had conflicting advice about properly washing our vegetables and fruits. Our sponsor washes only with bottled water. Other people insist on vegetable detergent and bleach. We followed our sponsors advice and ate our first few fruit and vegetable heavy meals without washing and rinsing with bleach or detergent and have had absolutely no issues. Yay for stainless steel stomachs and not having to bleach soak our food!

Eggs come pre-washed in plastic egg cartons. Oh be joyful!

Food Network on our cable package! No way!

It's fun to see and experience so many of these things similar to Manila. It's great to be back in SE Asia. We have tons to explore in this new country. We aren't entirely naive honeymooners though. We know this lovely dreamy phase will pass. For now there are only a few things I can see, I might have trouble with.
We have noticed that the language barrier is fairly significant. After a few days, I still cannot decipher what “hello” and “thank you” in Bahasa is. With the chaos of the first few days, I haven't even had a chance to look it up!

The traffic is pretty epic and from what I've deduced, this keeps people from exploring and getting out. It tends to overtake people's lives here. If you live in the North, close to the embassy, you stay there. If you live in the South, close to the schools, you socialize there. Which means there is a good portion of the embassy community you likely won't get to know very well.

I've also found it to be true that a larger post may provide more efficient services but looses much of the small community feel. I'm already missing the idea of knowing every single family at post and automatically rounding up all the moms with little girls to be our immediate friends. That's not to say we haven't met wonderfully lovely families. We are going to have lots of good friends here, I can already tell. 

More to come!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

packing adventures

It took a crew of eight men, three full days to box and crate all of our personal belongings.  I was impressed with the way they carefully wrapped every item.  Our small air freight shipment was 660 lbs.  We are sending 5900 lbs of HHE (Household effects) to Indonesia.  That's a big drop from what we brought from Manila!  Which means I can definitely have a dining room table made in Jakarta!  Maybe even another piece of furniture!  But seriously, I can't believe I'm already thinking of the next pack-out as the crew is still nailing up the final crate here in Ethiopia.  
This hoarder looking pile was a portion of our UAB.  

I will spare you the sordid details, but I've been very grumpy for these three days.  It's not fun having people traipse all over your home, rummage through your belongings and ultimately take it all away.  And at the same time, in a paradox I can't explain, it's a huge relief to be without all our things right now.  There aren't toys to clean up, dishes to wash, clothing to fold.  All the stuff in my life is packed away and it's sort of nice to be rid of it for awhile.

For the next 5 month or so we are living out of seven suitcases.  For the next week while we are in Addis Ababa we have a hospitality kit with household basics and a few things we've decided will stay in Ethiopia, like old towels, our garbage can and some of our clothes which are especially holey.  I'm just too old to live out of a hospitality kit.  Pouring red wine in a cheap tumbler or coffee cup is just not my speed anymore.  The cooking pans USED to be non-stick surfaced.  I recognize my disdain sounds snobbish.  It's true, I guess I am when it comes to my kitchen.  I really like my own stuff!  I think it's my grumpiness shining through because deep down I am grateful that the embassy issues us a hospitality kit. It's only a week which is silly!

Our home has gone through a number of transitions over our time here in Ethiopia.  Upon our arrival it was big and empty and it felt very different than our past home experience in Manila. Our house in Ethiopia is big, concrete and felt very strange at first. It took a long time for us to spread out in the space after being used to our cramped living quarters in Arlington, VA. But slowly, we moved in and  it really didn't feel like home until our shipment arrived.  Then our home became our sanctuary in Addis.  One could forget what was on the other side of our walled compound when we were in our home.  I had a really fun time setting up the home and decorating.  It's the biggest home we've ever lived in, that's for sure.
Our growth chart.  Which is sad for me to think about how it will be painted over when we leave.

That isn't to say we didn't have issues with the house.  We are the first US embassy residents in the home. Which means we had maintenance crews in and out for issues throughout the 2.5 years we lived here.  We had a hive of African bees form a nest in a downspout that opened into our master bathroom.  The same area of the roof experienced major leaks during rainy seasons and our master bathroom and bedroom experienced flooding over and over, the flooring in our bedroom is buckled and moldy.  While we were on R&R the hot water heater in the girls bathroom burst and the water flowed down our stairs and flooded the entire main level of the home ruining the hard wood floors.  We've lived with them buckled and gaping now for almost a year.  The funny thing about both the homes we've lived in in developing countries is that on the surface, everything looks good at the beginning.  The "make-ready" process of a home paints over mold, polishes up the rough parts of a home, but the lifespan of this surface work only lasts for a short period of time.  So within the last year we've seen the moldings fall off the walls, plaster slough away from the walls, toilets break, counter tops pull away from the sink, electrical issues become a problem.  The wiring of our house is not correct so that every time you turn off the kitchen light the breaker on the upstairs box flips.  It took us a long time to figure out this was why there was never hot water for the girls bathtub.  But you get used to quirks, safety issue or not, we just learned to turn the breaker on every time we pass by in the hall.
Ashlynn is going through a naked phase.

Even with all the maintenance issues; water shortages (we have to run a hose from our outdoor faucet to our water tank to keep it full), power outages (our generator blew when the maintenance crew forgot to change the oil regularly) and all the little things in between (broken washing machine, water pump calibrations, door handles and locks falling off); we've enjoyed this house.  It functioned well for our family purpose.  I enjoyed having the master bedroom on the third floor while the children's rooms were on the second.  The open main level was perfect for entertaining and overall we were happy with the house!  I can feel myself around this house in the dark.  There are no shadows that alarm me, everything had a place and it really felt like home.

During pack-out that all changes.  The home that you've built for your family gets torn down layer by layer.  First the organizing, then the moving, packing, boxing and watching it all drive away on big trucks.  Then your house is big and empty again and your stuck making eggs in a 6 inch Teflon skillet that looks like someone scrubbed with steel wool.  We don't feel any ownership in the home and it doesn't hurt that things are really starting to fall apart.  But for these 2.5 years, this was our home. It's hard to let go of some of our memories in the house.  It's where our children grew and we sighed with relief after we walked through the door after an exhausting trip out of the city.  It's where I built my baking business and hosted parties. It's the front door Daddy came through every evening to squeals of delight and hugs from his girls.  It's where we slept and ate and played and laughed.  As the last boxes leave our compound on that big truck, the house goes from ours to not ours and it's a quick transition.

Now is the waiting game.  One more week in the big empty what-used-to-be our house.