How Time Abroad Teaches Resilience

A view of the banana trees and terraced fields of the Rwenzori mountains bordering the DRC

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that right after we graduated college and got married, J and I spent six months in rural Uganda from 2008-2009. Until the last couple of weeks, our time in Uganda had faded into a footnote in our lives, a fun piece of trivia, the explanation for our batik cloth napkins. I’d only receive occasional striking reminders of our time there — filling out a TB exposure questionnaire when pregnant with Pip and noting that, hey, actually I lived on a hospital compound that treated TB, for instance. Mostly I’m just a Target-shopping mom now.

But so many of the lessons we learned in Uganda have been flooding back, recently. Living in dread of infectious diseases is something we did a lot while residing on an equatorial hospital compound: malaria and hemorrhagic fever, then rabies after a patient died from it later in our stay. In Uganda, we couldn’t see most of the people we loved. (And with shaky internet, they were much harder to contact than they are in this coronavirus crisis.) In our rural village, there wasn’t a third place for us to hang out beside work and home, just like now. (Except the office is also out now, too, actually.) Just like now, we couldn’t go shopping very often for most of the things we’d normally buy, and I remember spending hours carefully drafting in my journal a shopping list for when we’d finally visit the capital city and its mzungu shopping mall. And I learned to cook very flexibly with my severely limited kitchen tools and circumscribed ingredients.

A local woman working in the communal hospital kitchen to prepare a meal for herself and a hospitalized family member.

This long-ago experience has made the last few bewildering weeks a little less unsettling for us, because they’re somewhat familiar. But I believe international experience of any kind helps to build up this kind of resilience for a person. My children have only visited the UK on our study abroad adventure last summer, but along the way, they (and we) got more comfortable with scrambled schedules, flexible eating habits, and separation from friends and extended family. Travel has made all of us more flexible, adventurous people. One of the scariest thoughts I’m dealing with right now is that this kind of travel could be a long way off for our world right now.

Watching practice for the Queen’s birthday in London last summer, jet lagged as all get out.

What experiences do you believe have helped equip you for coronavirus? Homeschooling? Camping? Watching entirely too many end-of-the-world movies?

Pause

I remember the golden Friday afternoons in college, the afternoons when I’d soon be on my way. I’d throw clothes and a couple textbooks in a bag, and my roommate and I would set off, through the south Georgia countryside which, in my memory, always rustles with roadside cotton. There are songs that still instantly transport me: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Jayhawks, Nick Drake. I rolled the windows down low. I was headed home, headed back to the boy I loved.

Travel was uncomplicated then, my life at college easy to put on hold. By contrast, life now is a sprawling thing. Because as it turns out, for every root you put down in a place, leaving it becomes just a little bit trickier. Read More »

Family Work

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“Have you ever asked what work your family is supposed to do together?”

It’s a question I came across this winter in Jennifer Fulwiler’s One Beautiful Dream as I recovered from a particularly nasty stomach bug. And sometimes, as on that day, the answer can be summed up succinctly: SURVIVE.

It was a striking question, because while I vacillate a lot about what work I’m supposed to do — tiny library job? pouring more of myself into writing? fully embracing this time at home? — I think I do have a sense of what our family is supposed to do together.Read More »

The Special Kinship of Oxford

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This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercy and while I have limited patience for the lovey-dovey beginning, I love the Oxford era Sheldon Vanauken describes mid-book.

It’s always an energizing, painful experience, talking to other folks who lucked into studying abroad in the city of dreaming spires. There’s so much I wish I had done, seen, explored, but it was only a single fall term, and I was only 21, on a budget, and had to, you know, actually study, too (which may have been one of the best parts). Vanauken writes evocatively,

“Coming back to Oxford, we were always, it seemed, greeted by the sound of bells: bells everywhere striking the hour or bells from some tower change-ringing, filling the air with a singing magic. We explored every cranny of this city of enchanting crannies and unexpected breathtaking views of towers and spires. We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages’: this wall was part of a great abbey; the Benedictines built the long, lovely buildings that are part of one college quad; the narrow passage where we bought tea things has been called Friars Entry for centuries; the Colleges bear names like Christ Church and Mary Magdalen and Corpus Christi; and the bells with their lovely clamor have rung through the centuries.”

Unlike trying to find someone from the tribe we lived among in Uganda (hasn’t happened, eight years and counting), it’s relatively easy to find friends who enjoyed a stint at Oxford. A friend here studied at Oxford a whole year, including the Michaelmas term when I was there, and he attended Mass at ancient churches while I vacillated lackadaisically between the union and the Oxford Oratory.  Pip’s godmother was an RA for a study abroad program there the summer before I arrived and lived near Black Friars, far from the “slightly dodgy” flat I’d call home, near Christchurch. I keep in touch to some degree with two of my three flatmates and another woman who studied in our program but lived in a different flat. My freshman college roommate studied two terms before me, and caught so much more: May Day, for instance. And so we reminisce, and I think for the umpteenth time of all the things I didn’t do, forgetting the things I did do: learn to enjoy Indian food, talk endlessly with my flatmates, take early morning walks just because, never ride a bus if I could help it.

Sometimes I regret that I only studied one term, instead of staying a full year, but I would have had to delay our wedding, which seemed like craziness after dating since 17, and I still stand, reluctantly, by that decision. What’s more, I was comforted by Vanuaken’s reflection, after spending three whole years in Oxford, that:

“[T]here we did feel that despite all that became part of us — bells and spires, C. S. Lewis and a host of friends, the face of the Warden of All Souls and the River Cherwell on a sunny day — there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough — to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.”

SV argues that this is evidence that we are out of place in time, made for eternity. Our longing that we continue to be surrounded by such beauty is natural, or rather supernatural: we are meant to be surrounded by the beauty of God, forever.

What’s more, Oxford isn’t a forever place for most of the students passing through, even if they’re lucky enough to take a degree there. It’s part of the wild, wandering freedom of college, if you’re fortunate and get to do things right, without the obligations of a family or earning an income as you go along (noble as those things are, of course). Vanauken notes,

“In a way all of us at Oxford knew, knew as an undercurrent in our minds, that it wouldn’t last for ever. Lew and Mary Ann expressed it one night by saying: ‘This, you know, is a time of taking in — taking in friendship, conversation, gaiety, wisdom, knowledge, beauty, holiness — and later, well, there’ll be a time of giving out.”

Though we might be wistful for that time of taking in as we find ourselves deep into an era of giving out, it’s a lovely thing to have the memories.

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“All this grey magic of Oxford”

 

Travel Thoughts

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hashtag: drowning (from last Christmas)

Sometime we should pretend we are going on a big trip, load up the car, then immediately go back into the house and get rid of 1/3 of our stuff fueled by hatred and overwhelm.

There’s a melancholy as I walk through the empty house, lights off, rooms hollowed out. I take out the trash, straighten some surfaces, and imagine what it will be like when we return, days or weeks later. Vacation will be over. Anticipation will be over. We will collapse among our bags and parcels and return to this life. It’s a sobering thought.

Relatedly, I could never, ever be the kind of person who rents out my house on AirBnB while I’m on vacation because much as I try, the house is wrecked when we leave. Without fail.

***

Things that have worked really well for the four-year-old in the car this go round: a magnet board with a bunch of different magnet shapes; a reusable sticker board; downloadable Netflix.

Things that have worked really well for the eighteen-month-old in the car this go round: CocoaPuffs in a claw cup; little toy pieces she can put into and take out of one of those diaper wipe tubs.

Things that have worked really well for the oldsters in the car: Mars Hill audio journal podcasts;  the Voyage of the Dawn Treader audiobook; extensive playlists of Advent and Christmas music from Amazon Music.

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Let’s take this app global and give it a better avatar. And name. Changing Times. Cha-Cha-Changes. Help me here. Developers, get on it.

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Car travel, man. (From last summer)