loose ends

It’s Friday afternoon. I just made myself a cup of iced coffee, grabbed two cookies, and drug one of the semi soft chairs out onto the porch. It’s hot, but there’s a kicky breeze, so no complaints.

We kept our younger daughter home from school today—she threw up during the night—but then she seemed to perk up enough that we took her along to Bezaleel with us. Walking down the driveway, we first passed the neighbors’ maid and then a hired hand. Both greeted us with the usual Buenos dias, but they greeted our daughter by name. When we take her out in public, it always amazes us how everyone seems to know her. She’s forever wandering off and smiling at little kids, so she makes friends quickly. And with her blond hair, she turns heads. This morning I had the distinct feeling I was walking with a celebrity.

finger combing on the go

Once at Bezaleel, I dropped off my ingredient list for the next week’s baking project (sweet raisin biscuits), visited with the librarian, checked in with a teacher who is helping me set up a twice-a-week tutoring program, signed out some children’s books (in Spanish) to prepare for said tutoring program, and interviewed a student. I’ve made up a general student interview and am attempting to interview about 30 students in hopes of getting a better understanding of the student body, their perceptions of the school, and their struggles and dreams. Also, the interviews provide me an in to the (what often feels like) impenetrable school.

When I was ready to leave, my daughter opted to stay at Bezaleel with her papa, so late morning I headed back into town solo, made a couple purchases, and then walked home. Upon arriving, I was pleased to discover I still had nearly three whole hours before the kids barged through the door. I ate some cornflakes, typed the interviews into the computer, chopped up a giant mango, and then headed outside to the hammock for some reading.

My husband and I have been feeling a little at loose ends with our work here. The only specific tasks and jobs we have are the ones we create for ourselves. On one hand, this is great. We are in complete control over how we manage our time and where we put our energy. But on the other hand, it’s exhausting to constantly be fishing around for meaningful work, and I often end up feeling guilty.

Guilty that I’m not putting in more hours at school.
Guilty that I’m not hanging out with the Guatemalans more.
Guilty that I’m not making lots of creative meals with all the local produce.
Guilty that I’m not spending more time tutoring my own children.
Guilty that I’m not reading more books.
Guilty that I’m not doing more to improve my Spanish.
Guilty, even, that I’m opting to go to bed early instead of staying up late watching movies.

Work harder! Do more! Be productive! Relate! Push! Struggle! Stretch! Grow! Relax! Have fun! shriek the voices in my head.

So I try to pace myself. I try to make some food from scratch to counterbalance all the white bakery bread. I do a little recipe testing and then tell myself that’s enough for one day. I send some emails and try not to feel bad about the ones I haven’t sent. I focus hard for 15 minutes of Spanish study with one child before releasing him to go play. I lay down in the hammock and make myself read eight pages of an interesting, but definitely not light, book because it will make me a better person and I need to be disciplined, dagnabbit.

I think what’s bugging me most is my lack of friends. There are lots of friendly people, lots of good people, lots of people who, by all appearances, seem to respect and enjoy us. But we haven’t found people like us. I don’t have Guatemalan girlfriends. We don’t have other families with which to get together and feel at ease. We are by ourselves here.

Which makes sense, really. I mean we’ve only been here three months. But we only have six more months to go, yikes! I gotta get cracking!

And then, naturally, I beat myself up. I should reach out more. Invite people over. Work harder. Be more carefree. And for crying out loud, lighten up already.

And so it goes. 

The rational part of my mind tells me that while I certainly could improve in some areas and it’s always a good thing to try to better one’s self, it’s better to start slow (maybe stay slow, too) and keep things in balance then to throw all caution to the wind and burn out in no time flat. We can be helpful and do little bits of good here and there, but honestly? How much can we really do in nine months? We can give our time, share our skills, offer encouragement, and that’s about it. It’s not like we’re going to swoop in here and blast the place full of earth-shattering good deeds. I had no illusions that we would do that, but being here and experiencing The Not Doing It feels a bit awkward.

“What’s the point?” we frequently ask ourselves. “Why are we here? What purpose does our bulky, foreign presence serve?

These are hard questions, and I worry them over, some days more than others.

But the answer, perhaps, is no different whether I am in sitting in front of the wood stove on my down-filled, Ralph Lauren (secondhand) sofa or sitting on a rat-chewed, saggy chair in the tropics. The answer is to care for those I love, learn new things, treat people kindly and gently, listen and watch and ask questions and smile.

Is it enough? I really don’t know, but here’s to hoping!


  • Jennifer Jo

    Thank you, everyone, for speaking truth to me. I so needed to hear your nuggets of wisdom. I feel more grounded now. So thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone you talk to there will that you chose to be there, with them. How is that simple fact not warming and powerful? You're amazing.

  • Suburban Correspondent

    In the words of EM Forster, "Only connect." Life is what happens between (among?) people. You're right, 9 months isn't enough – you'd need 3 years to effect any meaningful change. You are there more as a helpful witness; and I think we both know how much a little assistance or some kind words at the right time can make someone's life brighter. And your children are learning that there is a big, wide world out there, unlike my suburban born-and-raised progeny, who can't even comprehend life with Target. Your stay there is like the stone thrown into the pond – you can't see all the ripples that spread outward from it, both in space and time.

  • Margo

    I'm up late trying to finish up a little talk, a testimony, on hospitality for church tomorrow. And the gist is this: that we offer hospitality and the rest is up to God and God doesn't waste anything. Take heart, sister!

    Thank you for your honesty and head-on approach. I find it so refreshing.


  • Shannon

    By the way, the author of that book, Dignity, Donna Hicks, was at EMU and I heard her talk about her book. I don't know if that is the one you are trying to read, but the author is an amazing person with a very simple, yet profound message. It fit in directly with the STAR training and class I took, yet I haven't bought/read it yet. It was easy and simple in the way she explained it, but maybe the book makes it more complicated.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Yes, that is the book I'm reading, and it's REALLY good—just not exactly a novel. I'm surprised that it's not required reading for the STAR training. (The leaders are the ones who clued me in to it.) I'll be bringing it home, so you can borrow it then, if you like.

  • Kathy

    I agree with Dawnbdh above. You are there, and even though you might not know it, just your presence there is sometimes enough.
    I remember once when I was having a hard time in life, an acquaintance came and just sat in the same room as I was. He didn't say anything, and you can tell he was uncomfortable being there, but it spoke volumes to me that he was there.
    Sometimes people think they need to do something more productive, and validate their own self-worth but in reality, that really isn't necessary.
    Think about the children who rush home to tell stories about the blonde girl in school who talked to them, and how excited they are to talk with her. And the people who came this time weren't just a young/old couple, but a FAMILY just like they have. And they will talk how you shared your gift of cooking with them, and the cake was so good that the teachers bought all of it before the students had a chance to buy it.
    By you being you, you are validating and supporting their personal growth and self-esteem. In my opinion, that is the best thing you can do with your time there.

  • Mama Pea

    Seems to me you have a rough road to hoe. In so many ways. Lack of structure and support of your "directors" whomever they may be. Having the responsibility for your four children. Learning to function (just the difference in food — procuring, preparing, etc. — would send me over the edge) in an "other world" society and culture. The language barrier.

    Having no set rules to follow or structure to function within can often send a person into depression. Being the highly responsible person you are you demand a lot of yourself. Perhaps in this situation too much. Enjoy more, stress less? If your length of time there were to be longer, it might be different. Nine months is just a blip of time.

    I truly am humbled by what you are doing and admire your bravery and honesty in sharing it. Perhaps your greatest accomplishment of this journey will be to be an example of good (in the best sense of the word) Americans, something sadly lacking in the world today. I think your presence will be remembered fondly for years to come.

  • Kathy ~ Artful Accents

    From looking at the picture of the young man above, I can see that you did something in your interaction with him…you brought him joy! Whether it was simply having his picture taken or the time you spent with him, his face shows joy. Plain and simple.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Thank you, Kathy. It's interesting, but once I sit down with these kids and ask them a few questions, the words start pouring out. Sometimes there are tears, too. At first I was surprised, though I guess it makes sense—there's a lot of power in simply listening.

  • Second Sister

    As you already know and are simply being reminded again, this is all part of the deal. When you drive your own work, it sometimes gets tiring because you know if you stop, nothing will happen. This is even more exaggerated here in our situation where we are in essence the sole directors and staff of a mini traveling capacity building and coaching organization. We try desperately to get initiative of our "clients" to at least meet us half way, but most of the time we fail. The amount of material we cover is so piddling and few and far between just like you said- we wonder if its worth our huge foreign presence. There are moments of reward, though. And we know we are loved- at least as much as you can really love someone who you see as your ticket to money and resources. Though, apparently, here in Africa this is not only with outsiders. Your friends are people who you expect to get stuff from- part of the culture and not offensive like we see it in our culturel Also, for us, no friends and no real chance of peer friends is a marathon challenge for the next 2 yrs. I think the absence of the validation we feel when other people see our lives and our situations is perhaps one of the hardest parts. There's nothing that can substitute actually being in our house, seeing how the neighbors live, seeing our interactions, feeling the lifestyle and challenges. And we're alone. No-one comes to visit- not even other "team" members. They all live in more urban or suburban settings which are literally a world away from this place where a "stone-age" lifestyle and mindset are the norm. So,I agree- this might balance the lack of purpose with some eternal purposes: staying humble ("ask questions"), keep trying to learn the language (I thought I was a little good at language and come to find out this new language is REALLY HARD!), and try my best to be kind.

    • Jennifer Jo

      Sister, I get this. We are urban here compared to what our rural setting was in Nicaragua, and THAT was urban when compared to your Kenya rural.

      When we were in Nicaragua, our CRs were diligent about making sure everybody visited everybody else. This has not been the case here (not that we expected to travel around to see all the other team members since we're here for such a short time, but we haven't seen other members being encouraged to make visits either)—maybe this is a CR personality issue, or maybe MCC has a new policy (ie budget cuts)?

      However, I think MCC leaders need to be extra careful with (and caring of) their workers in the rural placements. Long-term isolation can be demoralizing. Maybe you can address this issue head-on with your reps?

  • dawnbdh

    It is.
    It really is enough.
    But don't sell yourself (and your family) short.
    The small, little things don't seem like much now, but when they are added up, it's huge!
    I have no doubt that the people's lives that you touch today and in the coming days will not soon be forgotten.
    I'm sorry that you are feeling lonely, but know that there are many people thinking and praying for your family
    (even those that don't "know" you, like me!)

  • jenny_o


    Yes, it is enough. And you have neatly covered in a few words all the important stuff that many learned people have spent ages trying to stuff into thick books.

    My two cents 🙂

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