Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

A Beautiful Weekend March 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 9:59 am

Instead of writing a lot about my weekend, I’m going to direct you to Brooke’s post because she was there through it all and writes far better than I do.  But here is my brief description:

According to anyone else’s perception, there was nothing beautiful about the weekend.  And yet sometime between 10:00 and 11:00 on Saturday night, sometime between dashing from the car to the stadium entrance in pouring rain and peeing in the horror-movie bathroom with policemen peering in through the windows, sometime between the coffee and the Coke to keep me awake for the mythical Oliver Mtukudzi’s appearance, sometime in between all of that, as I sat on the cement step, watching the rain come down on the very sad-looking football stadium that was probably beautiful when it was built in 1924, in the dark and sketchy neighborhood near the port, and watching the final set-up of the sound system on the wooden platform under the tent down on the field for the concert that was advertised to start at 8:00, I turned to Brooke and said, “I am so happy right now.”  In that moment, surrounded by the cement block ugliness of Beira, wondering why any singing sensation would show up in such weather to entertain a “crowd” of about 50 rain-dampened fans, I felt strangely content.  It’s a feeling I haven’t experienced in a very long time, and there was no rhyme or reason to why I should suddenly feel it then, except I did.  Maybe because I saw Beira or Mozambique or Africa clearly in that moment, in all its imperfection.  Maybe because I stepped back and saw myself sitting comfortably on that cement step, laughing, feeling at ease and even enjoying the imperfection.  Maybe it was simply because I was out late for a change, doing something different on a Saturday night.  Maybe it was because I was there with Brooke, who was also loving the moment.  Maybe it was because where else do I get to hang out with crazy Zimbabweans who laugh far more than Mozambicans, even though they have little reason to.  Maybe it was because I saw how absurd it all was.  And I was fully present in that absurd moment.


The Beauty of the Old Rugged Cross March 23, 2009

Filed under: Faith — Jen @ 12:48 pm

“The old cross would have no truce with the world. For Adam’s proud flesh it meant the end of the journey. It carried into effect the sentence imposed by the law of Sinai. The new cross is not opposed to the human race, rather it is a friendly pal, and if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun, and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged, he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and watching religious films, instead of singing bawdy songs, and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally, if not intellectually.

The new cross encourages a new and entirely different evangelical approach. The evangelist does not demand abnegation of the old life, before the new life can be received. He seeks to key in to public interest, by showing that Christianity makes not unpleasant demands, rather it offers the same thing the world does, only on a higher level. The new cross does not slay the sinner. Rather it redirects him. The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt and violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up His cross and started down the road had already said farewell to His friends. He was not coming back. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more. The race of Adam is under death sentence. There is no commutation, and no escape… our message is not a compromise, but an ultimatum.” ~Dr. A.W. Tozer

I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot lately, before I even read this passage. Tozer has articulated some of what I’ve been bothered by. I’ve been pondering what really distinguishes a Christian in this world, what really distinguishes me in this world. What cross do I believe in? I mean actually, with my life, believe in? Or do I continue to spend my money how I want on what I want, continue to conduct my relationships how I want, continue to eat what I want and how much I want, and in general continue to live my life in a self-serving manner with a bit of Christian seasoning shaken on top? Somehow we justify it, not biblically but with our cultural Christianity: It’s okay to live my life how I want as long as I’m nice to people, give to charity sometimes, and don’t tell too many lies. “The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally, if not intellectually.”

But the old cross is unappealing and even scary. We can hang the new cross on a pretty chain around our necks. The old cross will give us blisters and splinters and a sore back. Tell me which one you find more appealing. I know which one I find more appealing. Yet that choice leaves me with a nagging feeling that I’m seriously missing out on something. Could it be that Beauty is not necessarily all that pretty?



That Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 10:17 am

I had a flatmate who once told me about the term That Day. That’s what she and her housemates in college had labeled that first perfect spring day in Michigan after a long winter. Those of you from the Midwest know what I’m talking about. If you went to the University of Michigan, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It happens in that time after the snow and ice thaw, when the ground is finally dry, flowers are blooming, people are starting to come out from hibernation, and then there’s that first day when the sun shines especially brightly, the sky is a brilliant blue, and you can actually take your jacket off! You might even be able to wear a tee-shirt. If you drive a car, you delight in feeling your back against the seat, without multiple thick layers in between. You roll the windows down. You don’t even want to be in your car; you want to be out walking, running, riding a bike, rollerblading. At the university, it’s that day when everyone is on the Diag. Everyone. They’re playing frisbee, they’re lying on the grass with their significant others. They’re sitting in circles of girlfriends eating lunch from Bruegger’s Bagels. They have textbooks open, pretending to study. Guys and girls stop and flirt in the middle of the Diag on their way to meet other friends. Guys sit under trees alone reading. Girls lay out on the grass. Classes are half empty because you can’t not skip class on That Day.

As a kid in New York, I remember That Day being the day we unpacked summer clothes. I could look forward to wearing shorts and flip-flops and playing outside more.

Today is That Day in Beira. But in reverse. We have endured a long miserable summer and are looking forward to winter. The recent rain has been cooling things off a bit, but it’s still been quite muggy. Then last night I slept without a fan for the first time! And this morning I woke up to the brightest blue sky I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe I’m making this up, but I swear the sky is a brighter blue when there’s less humidity. Everything looks brighter today – the sky, the greens of the plants, the reds and pinks and whites of the flowers in our office garden. The sun is shining brightly, but I just don’t feel the heat like I have been the past several months, and I don’t feel the humidity today. I have yet to begin sweating today. The local weather forecast says we’re having a high of 82F (28C) and a low of 66F (19C)! The breeze is gently blowing, and I can’t stop looking at the papaya and mango trees outside my window and the blue sky behind them. Pretty soon I’ll be able to sleep with covers on at night and drink tea without sweating and wear jeans and shirts with sleeves! I can’t skip work or eat lunch outside or play frisbee, but I might just sit on my veranda and read when I get home and enjoy the last hour or so of That Day.


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Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 9:38 pm

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The Beauty of Cake March 16, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 6:58 pm

The ridiculous succession of cakes began a week ago Sunday when Brooke made shepherd’s pie and chocolate cake for us. We hadn’t seen her since before her birthday, so I put some candles in her chocolate cake to celebrate. Cake Number 1.

On Monday night we ate leftover chocolate cake with Nutella spread on as frosting. Plus, Brooke had used some of the cake batter to make mini chocolate muffins. Cake Number 2.


On Tuesday morning Marina, Jill, Arsenio, and I went to Pastor Manuel’s church in Manga for the graduation of the orphans’ activists that Marina had been training. With any celebration in Mozambique, there is always bolo (cake) and juice or refrescos (soft drinks). As Jill stated one time, “In Moz, where there is relationship, there is cake.” How true. At the graduation we all had two or three pieces of Café Riviera bolo and some bright yellow and bright orange “juice”. Cake Number 3.

That night we went to a combination birthday/farewell party – birthday for a Scottish girl who is doing her gap year here, and farewell for a gap year team of three English girls who came out with Oasis for five months. It was a potluck with a course of main dishes, then a course of deserts, then another course of cakes! I had already eaten a plateful of desert, so when the birthday cake and then farewell cake emerged, all I could manage was a mere taste of each. Cakes Number 4 and 5.

On Wednesday morning we celebrated March birthdays after our weekly Oasis all-staff prayer meeting. Our monthly bolo day is my favorite day at work! This month was especially happy because I was one of the March birthdays, which meant the staff prayed for me and sang to me. I’m having a hard time turning 31, and it helped to celebrate, if only briefly, in a Mozambican context because, unlike in America, age is seen as a gift to be thankful for. To make it to 31 is not something to be taken lightly. I am healthy and strong and hope to, God-willing, live many more years. To be thankful for completing another year of life instead of worrying about what I haven’t accomplished by now was a healthy change of perspective for me. Cake Number 6.

On Wednesday evening, the single girls from Oasis plus Brooke and an American guy, who’s in town temporarily, had dinner with an American family we all know. For desert we had chocolate cake with purple frosting and Kissables to celebrate Jill’s and my birthdays. It was by far the best cake we had eaten (and would eat) all week. The frosting was thick and almond-flavored. SO yummy! Cake Number 7.

We thought Thursday might be a cake-free day; however, all four gap year girls came over for dinner and brought leftover farewell cake with them – the triple-layered chocolate-iced one. Cake Number 5 revisted.

inhassoro-boloFriday was my birthday, and four of my girlfriends and I took the day off to drive south to Inhassoro to spend a long weekend on the beach. Even though it was my birthday, I assumed we were all pretty caked out. No one mentioned making a cake, so I brought jello and custard along instead (a birthday tradition I learned from Norwegians in Honduras). But that afternoon I found a chocolate cake mysteriously baking in the oven of our rented cottage. That night, we ate Marina’s chocolate cake and drank champagne on the beach. Cake Number 8.

On Saturday and Sunday we ate leftover chocolate cake. Eight cakes in eight days, all accompanied by good friends, good conversation, smiles and laughter, and celebration. Relationship. And that is the beauty of cake.


Call It Beautiful March 9, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jen @ 9:33 pm

In Mozambique, the word “bonito” is used to describe anything that’s pretty, cute, handsome, or generally nice-looking. Therefore, when the guys at work want to compliment something in English, they say it is “beautiful”. One day, one of my colleagues, completely unexpectedly and completely innocently said, “Jen. You are beaut-ful?” I was taken aback, and he said again, more confidently but still just as innocently, “Yes, you are beaut-ful.” What he meant was, “You look nice today,” since I was wearing a skirt and had my hair down. But to hear that I was beautiful meant more than to hear I looked nice.

Years ago when a close guy friend of mine started dating his now-wife, he sent me a picture of them together. Jealousy meant I didn’t really want to see what this new girl looked like, but I was completely shocked when I opened the picture. He had always dated skinny, sexy, usually blond chicks (yes, chicks), and this girl wasn’t that at all. She looked so normal! Later we were talking about her and this picture and my surprise. I told him about my reaction and started saying, “She’s not…” He finished: “Hot? I know, she’s not. She’s beautiful.” Right then I knew he was in love. I knew this girl was different. She was beautiful.

I once had a boyfriend who regularly told me I was pretty. He’d look me right in the eyes and state, as a truth, “You’re so pretty.” He’d say this even when, especially when, I didn’t feel pretty – after a run, at the end of a long workday, when I was PMS-y. I never doubted my beauty in his eyes. He also felt it was important, should he ever have a daughter, to let her know how beautiful she was. He wanted her self-esteem to be built up from her father who loved her and not have to seek affirmation later in life from other sources.

When I was in college, I was meeting for a short time, but regularly, with a girl in my dorm for Bible study. I had recently become committed to my faith, and she was informally discipling me. One day, months after we had started meeting, she said out of the blue, “You have really beautified.” She had seen a change in me as I grew in my faith. Beautification.

Last night, when my housemate went to bed, she said to me and a friend who’s staying with us, “Good night, beautiful girls.” It’s unlike her to say something like this, but it was simple and meaningful. Yes, we are beautiful!

We all want to feel beautiful. It goes hand-in-hand with love, and is often just as difficult to say. To feel pretty instead of sexy, to feel beautiful instead of looking nice – these compliments run deeper. Beauty runs deeper than the outfit or accessories I’m wearing, the state of my hair or my skin. To hear it makes me feel a little more loved. To notice it in another person makes me a little more attentive to who they are. To say it makes me feel a little more loving. Who is beautiful to you?



The Beauty of Teaching March 8, 2009

Filed under: Teaching — Jen @ 10:34 pm

I started teaching last week – Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at the Pedagogical University. I have 12+1 students, which means they are first year students of a two-year teacher training program, not a university degree program. In the class there are 35 men and four women! Probably only about half of them can speak English conversationally, yet they are all training to be English teachers. I definitely have my work cut out for me.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taught. The end of June 2006, in fact, was the last time I had a class of students. I led some workshops here last year and plan to do more this year, but they are not my students. I don’t get to build relationships with them and see their progress over time.

On Tuesday I thought things had gone well. I thought everyone understood me. When I looked that night at the profiles I had them write for me, I realized they only half understood.

On Wednesday I went in with lower expectations, reminding myself to be clearer and use lots of examples. I wanted to warm them up with an activity that would make them generate their own ideas/sentences, get them moving around, get them talking, and help them build relationships and community in the class – all very non-Mozambican teaching methods. They first spent a few minutes each writing five true statements about themselves. Then they had to move around the room and ask people if they had the same things in common. When they found someone who did, that person would write his/her name next to the statement. For example, for me, “I have one brother.” Then I walked around and asked people, “Do you have one brother? No? Okay. Do you have one brother? Yes? Please sign here.” When I told them, “Go”, they went! Thirty-nine people, each with five English statements about themselves, milling around asking questions. They had smiles on their faces, they were enthusiastic, they were all completely engaged. And in that moment I thought, “Yes! It works. This is why I teach.”

From across the room, a student waved his paper, “Teacher, I finish.” I gave him a thumbs-up them walked over to see his list and congratulate him. His first statement was, “I have a girlfriend. She is very cutie.” And with the proud smile on his face, he was “very cutie”.

When teaching works, it is such a beautiful thing. Learning well is a beautiful thing – to fall asleep at the end of the day feeling that you have more knowledge and more skills than you did that morning. Having fun and building relationships in the process makes it even more beautiful. And for me to come out of the office where I feel so discouraged and often so useless and purposeless, to teach makes me feel somewhat beautiful too.

I’ll leave you with an anecdote from the class (which may or may not negate everything I’ve just written about any success in these students learning from me!). On Tuesday the students were asking me questions about myself. Someone asked, “What is your marital status?” Someone else asked, “How old are you?” Another student asked, “Where do you live?” I explained that for Western English speakers, these are not polite questions, especially for a man to ask a woman when he first meets her. (Don’t worry, I did it light-heartedly.) They laughed; they seemed to understand; we had a little discussion about it.

On Wednesday four new students joined the class – two men and two women (one young and one probably a few years older than me). I asked them to introduce themselves to the class. No one asked the men anything, and no one asked the “older” woman anything. But when the young woman finished introducing herself, from the back someone yelled, “How old are you?” She said she was 22. Someone else yelled, “Are you married?” I said, “Guys! What did I tell you about these questions?” In unison, several of them recited, “These are not polite questions to ask.” Then from the back a voice called out, “Where do you live?”