- Sarah Nicholson
- Malindi, Kenya
- This blog used to be about me and my new husband starting our life together in Brookhaven, Georgia. Now, 8 years, 3 children, and 1 trans-continental move later, I'm writing for me; to document the emotional and spiritual journey I am on so that I don't forget the paths I have traveled in my heart and mind.
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
There are things in Africa that will always amaze me. I was driving with Iddy the other day and we passed some women on the road carrying heavy loads on their heads. He asked me if that still impressed me, and I said it did. He told me that on another day he and Chris had seen a woman with a 20L jug of water on her head bend down to pick something up, all the while keeping her load perfectly balanced. Chris remarked at how impressive this was, and Iddy thought it looked perfectly ordinary. I never get tired of seeing all the things people choose to carry on their heads here. Sometimes it's 1L bottle of water, sometimes it's a backpack, sometimes it's bicycle. The head is the default "carrying place." It kind of makes sense when you think about it: all the weight of your body and the load you carry stay centered and your posture remains upright. Then there is the whole "bend at the knees" gospel that we preach in America. They don't preach that gospel here. Bending at the hips is the way to go (unless, of course, you are carrying something on your head!). Whether tying a shoe lace, picking up something you dropped, or planting a garden, the body is always bent at the hip. I love observing all these differences. If life was a meal, these differences are the spices that make it so much more delicious. Everyone is different, and these differences are beautiful, meaningful, interesting, maybe even... necessary.
Some differences are more subtle and go a bit deeper. Consider this common children's song that we often sing:
"Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream"
My girls sing this version of it which they learned at school:
"Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
If you see a crocodile
Don't forget to scream"
Of course, they love this version because it involves screaming, but it also teaches children a valuable, practical lesson. Crocodiles are dangerous, and you should stay away from them. There are a lot of crocodiles around here. If you see one, you should most definitely scream (and run). We teach "life is but a dream." This is not necessarily bad, but it reveals a difference in perspective.
There's another song that Iddy and Oscar taught me when we lived in Kisumu. These are the words:
"It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay
It's okay, my dear, it's okay
In the land of paradise where there is no surprise
No sorrows, no worries at all
Dear friend am leaving now
And the train is waiting by
To take me with my body over there
We will meet in paradise where there is no surprise
No sorrows, no worries at all"
I think I have written about this before, but I'm always struck by the fact that paradise is depicted as a place with no surprises. In my American mindset, I generally think of surprises as good, but I can think of many people, both in America and Africa, who would love to live with no more surprises. Don't we all find security in knowing that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? No surprises! The Kenyans claim this promise for themselves, and we can do that, too. Just as Paul said he became "all things to all people," so our God is the God we need, at all times, and for all people. When I was young I loved this song about heaven:
"Come and go with me to my father's house
Come and go with me to my father's house
It's a big, big house
With lots and lots of rooms
A big, big table
With lots and lots of food
A big, big yard
Where we can play football
A big, big house
It's my father's house"
As I sang this song to my girls last night, their imaginations took off. "What about lots and lots of ice cream?" Abby Jones asked. "What about a big, big espresso machine?" Chris joined in. "How about a big, big playground?" Yes, yes, yes. God is big enough to be who each one of us needs him to be. When I describe God, I don't use the same words (or even the same language) as a Kenyan would, but there is a sense that we are talking about the same thing. It isn't as if I think, "oh no, I don't think God is like that." Instead I think, "oh wow, God can do that, too!" And my picture of God gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It isn't paradoxical, it is perfectly harmonious. He is elegantly simple, but also eternally complex. He is the God that I need, the God that I want, the God that I serve, the God that I love. I know Him so well, yet there is so much about Him I don't know. The more I know of Him, the more I realize I have yet to learn. In a sense, I knew more before I ever started because I didn't know anything about what I didn't know yet (ha... that doesn't really make much sense). The point is, I love adventure, I love learning, I love mystery, and God continues to offer all of these things to me in my life. And for Abby Jones, he created ice cream.
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Children can bring so much joy and also so much grief. Life seems to be full of ironies like that. My mom used to say that she could only be as happy as her saddest child. I now know what she means. How do I keep all my children and my husband happy at the same time? And when one of us is down, it's like there is a black rain cloud over the whole family. Ruth Michael and I struggle with the same melancholy demeanor. Lately, she has turned a corner and no longer wants to go to school. She cries when I drop her off at school, and in the evening she starts worrying out loud about school the following day. We try to ask her what could be happening at school that makes her so fearful, but she has no reply. Are the children at school bullying you? no. Does your teacher treat you unkindly? no. Does the work you do seem too difficult? no. no. no. and no. I tried letting her stay home one day. I tried letting her come home a little early another day. I tried bribing her with ice cream. Finally, we got tough with her and told her that if she can't be happy at school then she can't watch T.V. anymore. She promptly responded that she guessed she just wouldn't have anymore T.V. because she could not be happy at school. We have talked to her teachers and the director and everyone is baffled. What I now know, is that leaving your kid crying at school in the mornings day after day feels really, really bad. This brings the general happiness of the whole family down a couple of notches. We all feel the pain a little bit. Then, add on to that a teenager who has never liked school and a husband who is sleep deprived because of the wakefulness of our children at night, and things aren't looking too pretty.
You cannot have deep love without also experiencing deep pain. The pain I feel over Ruth Michael's tears is only because I love her so much, and I wouldn't trade that love for a million tear-free years. The problem comes when I am called upon to be the cheerleader of the family. This is not a natural role for me... then again, it would seem that life rarely allows me to fulfill roles that I would consider natural. My parents and I often laugh when we recall the years we had together, just the three of us, after my brothers and sister had left home. My mom was the cheerleader on those evenings when my dad and I were in more somber moods. We would sit around the dinner table, and she would try everything she knew to bring up cheerful conversation. Let's just say, she had her work cut out for her. Some days I feel like I'm trying to do what she did, and I have very big shoes to fill.
How do you find joy when you aren't happy and how do you help others find it? These are billion dollar questions, I think, and the answers vary from person to person. For me, I have learned that I have to retreat, process, read, think, write, focus. And I have also learned that there is no way to transfer joy to another person directly, but joy can be contagious. I know this because I have been around people whose joy has rubbed off on me before. Sometimes it's a person who is naturally joyful and jovial, like Chris or Abby-Jones or my mom. Other times it is people who are naturally more thoughtful or pensive, and their unexpected bit of humor or light-heartedness catches me by surprise and makes me smile on the inside as well as on the outside. Iddy and Ruth Michael and my dad all have this effect on me. But then there are days when everyone just seems to drop below the "happy" threshold at the same time. On those days I look out at the ocean and consider God's love for me, or I look up at the stars and try to grasp the vastness of the canvas on which that beautiful picture was painted, or I hug someone that I love and feel the warmth that goes so far beyond physical energy and moving particles. God has truly given me everything I need to live a joyful life. I hope it rubs off on people around me. I have started telling Ruth Michael to stop being a rain cloud and start being a ray of sunshine. That is what I want to be for my family; a ray of sunshine that brings light and life and warmth. I guess if one sun can manage to do that for the entire earth, and one Son can do it for all of humanity, then I can find a way to do it for my own family. Lord, when my family needs me to spread the joy around, please give me an extra dose!
Friday, July 28, 2017
I left Iddy and Chris this morning at a tennis lesson. Iddy was playing with a friend and Chris was sitting to the side watching them play, surrounded by four guys conversing in Italian. As they play a family of monkeys make their way across the top of the fence surrounding the court. I didn't make it very far (just out of the gate of the compound) when the beast broke down. It had broken down on the way to tennis but I was able to get it started again. This time, no. Ah... the beast. She is such a great car, but you just never know. We recruit a few men to help us push it out of the way (which is no small task... the thing weighs at least a ton), I take the black car, and I am on my way again. Chris and Iddy will catch a ride on a tuk-tuk when they need to come home. Inside the car I find a copy of the police report detailing the things that were stolen from us in a recent incident. I wonder if the police will really follow up on it or not. I decide it best not to put my hope in that and put the paper back down. Chris and Iddy have now gone for lunch with two other boys to talk about how to start a soccer tournament in town for the local kids in the community as a way to build relationships and also help keep kids out of trouble. I am here at the house by myself, as two young girls that we are close to have taken Abby-Jones and Ruth-Michael out to play at a local playground. This playground is hard to explain, but the best way I can describe it is to say that it looks like old equipment from a fairground which no longer has motors, and so the rides are pushed manually by local boys who work there to make a little bit of spending money. When I go with the girls, there will be a boy there who comes around with us and helps to operate/push the rides. The girls rode there on a tuk-tuk, which I think they enjoy even more than the playground.
Right now we are losing our big supermarket, Nakumat. This really is a shame because it provided us with daily outings (AJ would say let's go to Nakumat early and wait for it to open), I was able to get everything I needed in one place, and it was a great place to network as everyone else in Malindi did their shopping there, also. Not to mention, it provided a lot of people with much needed work. Well it would seem that someone at the top didn't pay the bills and things are falling apart. With the elections coming up, there is no sense in trying an overhaul now because no one knows if chaos will ensue after the election and there is always the risk of political uprisings and looting. We hope that after the elections, Nakumat will try to restock and start over, but for now, we disperse out to the other smaller markets, which are about the size of a large QuickTrip. I am trying to keep a stock of non-perishables in the house in case things go bad during the elections and food becomes more sparse. Unfortunately it's been very tempting to use the food from our stock supply to avoid another trip to the market, so the supply is dwindling... I gotta work on that soon.
Our relationships here are growing. Last night we had dinner with Jen, a friend who moved here from Kisumu with her daughter, Anyango (one of the young women that is playing with my girls today), and another couple, Dan and Elyse (a couple we met at Nakumat... sigh). It has been great to feel like we have friends here. I got to have dinner two nights ago with three other women living here, each one that I love and respect dearly. Chris graciously offered to take the kids so the ladies could talk, and he had 7 kids with him... we joked about starting a youth group, but it's not a bad idea. I imagine a circle around us that represents our community, and it seems to be expanding more and more as we stay here longer. You know that feeling you have when you plan a party, and you need a certain number of people to come to really feel like it was a success? There seems to be an imaginary cut-off line, such that after you reach that number of people, others will see and want to join, too. Or if you're dancing, there has to be a certain number of people dancing on the floor before others will feel comfortable to come out and join you. When we first moved here, I felt like I was out on the dance floor, dancing by myself... super uncomfortable. As more relationships came into my life it felt better, but still vulnerable. Now it's starting to feel a little more like a dance party. I'm so thankful for the friendships in my life and the love and support I have felt from people here, and also coming from the States. It's hard to pull people in from the fringes when you are just offering for them to come and dance with you alone. But when there is a group involved, and they can come be a part of it, it's much more enticing. Life here is funny... quirky. But when you do life together, the quirks are just something else to laugh about. When you dance by yourself, a funny dance move is embarrassing, but when you do it together, you all laugh about it and it just adds to your fun. Maybe that is what church is all about. A life lived alone can be tedious and arbitrary, but life lived in community turns challenges into strength and inconveniences into blessings.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
I've had a lump in my throat all morning. Isn't it funny how the vey things you long for can also bring you sadness? Today is Abby Jones' second day of preschool. I know, I know, NO BIG DEAL! So why is it hitting me this way? Chris took the kids to school for me this morning so I got up, took a shower, did a little research online and made myself a new work-out plan (note- I did not actually work out), and then decided to catch up on my writing. I like to write about the kids and little things they do to help me remember each stage of their lives. It was great to have time to do all this, but of course writing memories of my children's lives just reminded me, yet again, how much time has already passed. I'm determined not to be one of those weepy, "I can't live one second of my life without my children" kind of a mom, but I find myself feeling very sad at the prospect of a morning alone. Which is weird. I love alone time and have had mornings alone fairly recently. Something about the fact that they are all at school makes it feel different.
I think every blog that I write at least mentions the fact that I don't really like transitions, yet that seems to be such a huge part of what my life offers me. Transition, after transition, after transition. What could possibly be the point in my going through all these transitions? Is it to help me empathize with others when they face transitions? Is it to prepare me for the biggest transition of all, death? And when I enter into a new life after death, will I no longer have to deal with transitions, or will they be a part of my new life as well? I think maybe the transitional times in our lives are the times of greatest growth. Growth can be painful. Muscles must be torn in order to grow. Children often have growing pains as their bodies get bigger. Plants need to be pruned in order to thrive. When I go through a transition, I lose old identities I have made for myself and I am forced to present to the world just myself, without any masks. This is when I grow the most because it is when I am the most vulnerable. Walking around a foreign city not knowing the culture or any of the language- that's vulnerable. Going home from the hospital with a new baby, not sure what to do with her or how to get through the day- that's vulnerable. Sending my kids off to school for the first time and feeling like my life begs the question "what next?"- that's vulnerable. So I'm out there yet again. Naked and exposed. My transitional coping muscles are feeling the burn. I've got growing pains, and I am most definitely being pruned. I pray that it's all for a good cause. I may never have rock hard abs, but if God is the personal trainer of my soul, He's gonna make sure that thing is ripped.
I guess the difference between physical exercise and spiritual exercise is that we can always choose not to do physical exercise. Spiritual exercise is thrust upon us whether we like it or not. How I respond to it is totally up to me. It can either make me weaker or stronger. So I will choose to be stronger. I will let myself feel the pain of vulnerability and wait for God to show me what's next. I'm pretty sure the only people who would judge me for the way I look without my mask are the ones who have never lived life without their own.
Monday, May 8, 2017
I just recently turned 33 years old, and, as birthdays generally do, this one made me think back about my life and ponder all the things I have and have not done. There have been so many occasions that made me think, "if only I knew then what I know now, things could have been so different!" I try my best to live my life according to the motto "no regrets" and I have told this very thing to my mom many times, but the truth is that regrets still plague my mind from time to time. This year, however, I have had some different ideas about myself and my life and I decided to express them as letters to myself.
Dear 6-year-old Sarah,
You are still so uninhibited and undaunted by the problems you have not yet faced. Moving from the country where you were born and lived in up until now to the United States is undoubtedly a huge challenge for you. This year you will be enrolled in three different schools, spend many Sundays in a new church with a new Sunday school, and live in three different houses. If I had written this letter last year, I would have told you to "hang on to your French"! What comes so easily to you now will not come so easily to you later and you will mourn the loss of it. But my message to you today is this. You do what you need to do to make it through this transition, and making it through will be the first of many times you surprise yourself by how strong you can be. Yes, another language is incredibly useful, but it certainly doesn't determine your worth, and the most important things are to continue finding yourself, stay close to your family, adjust to a new culture and school and church, and you are going to do these things beautifully.
Dear 13-year-old Sarah,
This is undoubtedly the hardest year of your life. Take courage! Life gets better! I know that right now you don't like the way you look. In fact, you may have a hard time finding something about yourself that you do like. You are incredibly smart, although the cool kids don't value that very much. And that certainly won't catch the cut boys' attention. You will quit piano this year. Oh how you will regret that! Piano is a talent that you could have carried with you for life and used for yourself and others. Last year I would have written to you and told you not to quit. But my message to you today is this. Do what you need to do to make it through the year. Life is hard, and it is especially hard when you are thirteen. The important things now are not to lose yourself in becoming what others want you to be, not to compromise your values to win others' approval, and most of all don't lose hope. Let go of what you need to let go of as long as you stick to these goals. In the words of Dr. Seuss, "kid, you'll move mountains!"
Dear 22-year-old Sarah,
You have come so very far! You made it through high school, and college was a breath of fresh air. You have a new sense of confidence and a new sense of self. You made it through your summer internship in Africa and a summer internship working with a high school youth group. You are at the starting line. You will choose to go to grad school and get a PhD in genetics. You won't know exactly why and, to tell the truth, neither do I. Last year I would have written you and advised you to do something else. Go to med school. Go to nursing school. Get licensed to teach. Do something that can be used in a way that other people can understand and that you can feel good about. But my message to you today is this. Go to grad school. You will learn so much more than you even realize at the time. You will learn how to express yourself in front of people and on paper. You will learn how to ask good questions and how to think critically about problems you are faced with. You will learn about working with others and taking criticism. You will learn how to get back up after being knocked down over and over and over again. You will make priceless relationships, and you will begin unpacking your faith in a place where most people disagree with you. I think this last one might possibly be the most important. You will want to quit but you won't. Soak in all these lessons, because I desperately need them now. In fact, I'm still finding out what all I learned in those grad school years. Don't worry about making the right or the wrong choice just move forward with confidence in whatever you decide. God is big enough to work through you and carry you through whichever path you choose.
Dear 32-year-old Sarah,
You have a beautiful family that means more to you than anything else in this world. You live in a third-world-country, fairly isolated from your own culture except what you see on Facebook and Instagram, which doesn't usually leave you feeling very good about yourself. Your body looks different than it did ten years ago. You aren't really sure what your life is about. You live in Kenya with a dream that you and Chris can change the world for a few people over here who desperately need a chance, but you don't get to participate in that dream all that much. Hang in there, mama. Life still stretches far beyond diapers and bedtime stories, or so I'm told. Pretty soon you will learn not to regret the things you regret now because life is big and important and regrets are small and petty. You've got one more letter to write but you aren't ready to write it. I think one day you will be. There are three things you can do that you will never ever regret: 1. Spend time with your kids. 2. Spend time with Chris. 3. Spend time with the Lord. So be about the business of those things. I'm not sure yet myself, but that last letter may just write itself.
Monday, April 10, 2017
Yesterday Chris and I were talking about our future and what would be best for our family. I always feel like things could change drastically for us at any time. And then again we might stay put for a while. But there is really no way of knowing or predicting. We were each sharing what we thought would be best for the family. I finally said that whether we stayed or went wherever we are going to go next, I just wish we could find a place we could settle and have a chance to put down some roots. Chris simply said, "that is just not a part of the kind of life we are leading." Immediately after he said it I knew it was true. Actually, I knew it was true before he said it, but sometimes things have to be said out loud so that I can start to process and manage whatever the reality is that I am dealing with. I would say this aspect of our lives has been challenging for me as a person who likes stability and resists change, but God has brought me so far in accepting and even appreciating this rhythm of life. I think the biggest challenge for me is that "settling in" somewhere takes a lot longer for me than it does for Chris. I need a house, I need that house to be fully unpacked and organized, I need to know the local grocery store and where to find things in it, I need to be able to cook a few decent meals with whatever food is available, I need to know a good doctor or two for my kids, I need a friend or two that I can call on or just hang out with, I need some sort of school situation for my kids, and I need my kids to be settled. I haven't asked Chris this question so I'm not entirely sure but I think his biggest needs are a car to get around with and for me to be settled. So, I guess, in that sense, it takes us the same amount of time to feel settled.
I sometimes hear people in movies or that I am friends with talk about the house they grew up in and all the memories they have there. I experienced this myself, as I lived in the same house from the time I was seven until I left for college. I remember being so sad when my parents left that house, knowing I could no longer come home to my old bedroom. Knowing I would no longer experience the sensation of walking barefoot across the parkay tile floor and feel the loose tiles lifting up under my sticky feet. Isn't it funny how things that are annoyances become sentimental when they are in the past? Unless the course of our lives changes drastically, my kids will probably not experience these emotions. After Chris pointed this reality out to me in the car yesterday, he followed up with this, "but I think our kids feel so much stability just from our own family, which I would much rather it be that way if I had to choose one or the other." I couldn't agree with him more. We will just continue to find ways to build a house that offers safety and stability and comfort to our children, and even ourselves, that isn't made of wood or cement or brick.
Last year I started blogging about my children. I just write any little memory or anecdote that I don't want to forget and add a picture or two whenever I have some time to myself. I'm not going to put it in a journal or a scrapbook or an album because these things are heavy to pack in a suitcase and they get rained on if placed in a moving truck with a leaky tarp as the cover. When I "nest" I am usually getting rid of things, always thinking about how to minimize the amount of luggage we will have for our next move. We no longer own a set of pots and pans or bed sheets or towels or any furniture because the place we are renting now was fully furnished and the idea of paying to move all these things so that we could pay to store them so that we could pay to move them again the next time just seemed too impractical. At this rate, after a few more moves we will be able to pack up and leave in all of five minutes. Chris will grab the kitchen knives, I'll grab the photo albums (which I made before I realized how impractical they were), Iddy will grab his skateboard, RM will grab her colors, and AJ will just be happy to leave all her clothes behind so I'm not forcing her to wear those stupid things anymore. So what kind of "house" are we left with at this point? I'm still working on that. But I think it goes a little something like this:
Each day we do life together we build memories and our love grows stronger.
Every time I use a Bible story to teach my kids a truth about life and a God who is love, their character is growing.
Whenever I stop what I'm doing to listen to what they want to tell me, I'm showing them that they are intrinsically valuable.
When Chris and I make time for each other and go on dates together, we are ensuring our kids that the foundation of their house is secure.
And when I put God first, deciding to always choose love, kindness, and compassion, and turning to God for help when I am hurting, I ensure my kids that the earth beneath the foundation of their house will not be moved.
This is how I will build my house for my children, and this house we will never move out of. This house will always be here for them to come home to, and mom is already fully settled here.
Monday, March 27, 2017
I love/hate Africa. Somedays I just cry to myself in the car as I drive down the road because I want to be home so badly. Home is where I feel comfortable, where I’m surrounded by people that I understand (most of the time), and where the challenges are things that I’m so used to dealing with that they almost don’t seem like challenges at times. I’m used to being bombarded with media and having a million choices of cereal and sitting in Atlanta traffic and having to get places on time and rushing everywhere. I can never seem to get used to the way men here treat me like I’m less than Chris. I hate getting pulled over by a policeman BEFORE they notice anything wrong so that they can then find something wrong, making my children late for school and me really ticked off, only to find out that when Chris stops by later they tell him everything is fine. I hate people looking at the color of my skin and automatically charging me double what they would charge an African (and no matter how many times I tell myself that I am privileged and they are impoverished and need the money it doesn’t seem to make me feel better about it). I hate that I never know what I will or will not find at the grocery store. Milk? butter? yeast? So I have to have a plan B for supper if I am missing an ingredient and a plan C if the power goes out and I can’t bake and a plan D if we run out of gas. Okay, this one really isn’t that bad but it is annoying. Some days these things are all I can focus on and it discourages me so much.
But there are other days. There are days when I visit a local school during their chapel time, and I get to listen to Kenyan students worship the Lord. I could take a video, but it just wouldn’t be the same, so I put down my phone and I soak up the moment. I am standing in a small concrete church. The wooden benches are old and broken with extra nails sticking out here and there to make them last a little longer and threatening to snag my clothes or my skin if I’m not careful. The old rusty ceiling fans caked in dust turn a little, giving me hope they are coming on, but then I realize they are only turning with the wind because there is no power. The hot steamy air from the way people are packed into this small chapel is made bearable by the occasional refreshing breeze reminding me that the Lord is there, and sweet little faces are peering in through every window because they want to see what’s inside, and there is literally not a space left. Then a young man stands up in front of his peers and starts to lead them in a kind of worship that can’t be taught or learned. It comes from a place somewhere deep down inside of him, and as it comes up it carries with it the African heart that has been beating for thousands of years, and the Kenyan soul that stirs up pride in the hearts of these students, and each individual story in the room where I am sitting that tells of hurt and suffering and trials but also of endurance and strength and courage. This worship is not something that I could ever produce because I do not know the African heart or the Kenyan soul or the stories of these students, but my own worship stirs up within me from my own heart and soul and story and somewhere in this hot, concrete, crumbling room their worship and my worship connect us and I hear the Lord saying to me, “Receive!” And so, I do. I remember why I agreed to come to Kenya. I remember why I am still living here. I remember that my calling is so simple, to pick up my cross and follow Christ. And I remember that Christ continues to pour out on me and to ask me to receive all of his wonderful and glorious riches. I fall in love with my Lord all over again and I fall more in love with this place that I still know so little about. Christ is living here among these amazing people, and when I die to my desires to be back “home” I gain the world. I gain a world of people, each with their own heart and soul and story, and I am connected to them in a way that I can only experience in worship. I stop striving. My soul is still. I know that my Lord is God. I receive Him.