So we’ve been back in Canada for three weeks now – the first time our family has been here in 3 years. And like last time we were here, there always seem to be things that catch us off guard.
NOTE: I hesitated to post this, as I realize it can easily be taken as a kind of passive-aggressive boasting. In the vein of “oh, ourkids don’t know what a Happy Meal is…” So just know that it comes from a place of us chuckling at how out of place our kids can appear, even to us. That’s it.
Things which shock & /or surprise
“Wait, so you can drink the water from any tap? Even the hose outside? wait…what? Even the hose outside?”
“does anyone else drink shower water – not because you’re thirsty, but just because you can?” -Matea
“Oops…forgot about supper” .. as the sun is still up at 8:30
‘Woah…were these carrots dipped in sugar or something…they’re so sweet”
the size of pickup trucks which seem to be used for transporting one or two humans around the city
me: “Oh man… I totally forgot about voicemail…” (my 16-year-old reading this over my shoulder: “wait, for real, what IS voicemail?)
the sense that you can just…use the internet. Streaming a video does not take away from someone else’s ability to load a web page. There is no sense of “how many other people are likely using the internet right now”…you just use it. (when we moved to Kibuye, our entire team had a 30GB download cap…per month, for all of us combined. Which we consumed in small chunks over a speed of 512kbps (1/2MB) satellite hook up. So having an unlimited cable with 30GBps (30,000MB) for less than 1/3 of our family’s portion of that satellite feed is pretty strange)
Things never seen before – mostly from the eyes of an 8-year old:
dishwasher (which ‘someone’ is scared of “because of the huge blade that spins at the bottom of it”)
blueberries? wait..they’re grapes? not grapes…weird…then what are they?
Saying something supportive and celebratory about mothers seems a bit odd. It’s like celebrating kindness, or an end to war, or ice cream. Of COURSE, we all love, support, celebrate those things. It’s just human nature to do so -only a monster would not be happy about things like a great cup of coffee, or a birth, or less gun violence.
However, Mother’s Day is not about the concept of motherhood, but an opportunity for those of us who have had strong, kind, caring mothers in our lives. So here are my thoughts looking back on my life thus far, realizing how blessed I’ve been.
Of course, my own mother. The woman who put up with a lot from me in the first 18 years or so of my life. (After 18 I did not immediately become mature or wise, but I became somewhat less her problem and more someone else’s). Everyone who meets my mother realizes immediately that she is kind, giving, and generous. No one gives more than my mom, and looking back on my childhood I realize that her kindness was one of those things that I took for granted. You assume your family is normal, that your childhood is more similar to others, that the way you experienced life is more the norm until you really face the world. Looking back, I realize that I and my four siblings were raised in a house where our mother was so incredibly giving, and kind, and generous, and gracious with us. When we didn’t deserve it. Honestly, when we didn’t ‘need’ it. (But of course, you always do). She’s travelled to see us in Kazakstan, France, and Burundi two times. Not many people in their 80’s will take ~30 of flights by themselves to see their kids and grandkids, but my mother shrugs it off as if it were nothing compared to the joy of visiting us. Because to her it really isn’t
My mother-in-law who has been an influential part of my life since I was 16 years old (!) Beliving in me, and thinking I was good enough for their daughter, often being able to see things in me I think I didn’t see myself. Celebrating my wins and consoling my defeats for the past three decades, I was blessed to have her in my life early enough to be so influential on who I’ve actually become.
Then there is the unique joy that comes from watching someone become a mother. Being there with Susan from the birth of our firstborn, over 18 years ago, to the time she went to bed last night gives me a pretty unobstructed view on the kind of mother she truly is.
The honest truth is that it is a privilege to be able to parent our children with her.
She wants our kids to be kind, and generous and to stand up for what’s right and to be assertive. She is bold enough to have whatever hard conversation needs to be had. She wants them to show kindness to others, to look out for those who are often overlooked, and to show compassion.
She wants our kids to be brave more than safe. (Every year I realize a bit more how incredibly beautiful and uniquely hard thing that is for a Mother). But she doesn’t just want these things, she models them, she encourages them. She is bold enough to have hard conversations. She holds them accountable but does so in a way that clearly is based in love. She is their biggest support, and a loving shoulder they know they can always turn to. Above all, she wants them to love and serve others as a way of loving and serving God, and she makes that so evident to them, and all, by her example. The way she serves not only her own children, but orphans who have no mother, and widows who have a hard job as a mother. Her kindness as a mother clearly expands to those vulnerable, and in a difficult situation, and her mother’s heart is as huge as it is strong.
Then there are all the incredible mothers who have influenced my life in other ways. Aunts who lived in the same small town on the Canadian prairies for essentially their entire lives, and women who we’ve met as they move around the world. Those with a heart for adoption. Those with quiet serene homes where Mom is the calm bedrock, those with exuberant life busting out every window where Mom is frequently bandaging wounds. I know women who try to balance role as a mother with their running their own business, or working as a doctor in rural Africa, or working as a counsellor, professor, nurse. Those who are in the stage of life where they’ve stepped away from all formal work outside the home to focus on their kids. I have been privileged to know Godly, loving women who play out their particular role of mother in a village in rural Africa, or a Canadian city, the silicon valley, the French Alps, and so many other places. All of them highlighting a trait that shines in their lives to a unique degree, showing how multifaceted motherhood truly is.
And to those we know who find this day hard, really hard. To those mourning the loss of their mother, and those who only ever knew a destructive mother figure in their lives, and those whose deep unfulfilled desire is to become a mother. To those mothers who are going it alone due to an untimely death, or a fractured vow and feels hard to survive. I’m sorry. I pray you can read these words without feeling like the rest of us are rubbing it all in your face. Motherhood, in its most beautiful expressions, is too good to go on celebrated. I hope you can join us at least in that.
I had never before experienced anything like what happened in our home in February. The closest was a time when we lived in Kazakhstan where we (Susan, her sister visiting from Japan, and I) were abducted by a rogue taxi driver late at night and we were only able to escape when the car we were in was rammed by another car – but that didn’t feel at all the same.
This trauma we experienced was specific, targeted, thorough, and long enough for all of us to understand just how much danger we were in. Since we knew our lives were in danger yet it all burst into our house so quickly we experienced shock and difficulty making sense of it all.
As we’re coming through to the other side of healing from the armed robbery at our house, I realized I’ve learned a lot about trauma. That sure doesn’t mean I know a lot now, merely that I knew almost nothing before. This is in no way meant to be a list of “what you should do” or even “what you should have said to me.” This is merely a few things that I have learned having gone through this, that will shape how I respond to others in the future. I just thought I’d share it in case it’s helpful.
Don’t say/do nothing. I think a LOT of people don’t know how to respond to people who have gone through a traumatic event- and for good reason. Again, this may only be true for me, but I found that saying “I’m sorry… I have no idea what to say” was often meaningful enough for the time. Saying nothing can be seen as indifference or diminishing what you went through. At least for me, it felt like I was very sensitive for weeks to anything that seemed to diminish what we went through. Even in those first 24 hours we had a lot of people just say “I heard what happened, I’m so sorry… I don’t know what else to say” – and that was a sufficient sentiment.
Don’t compare – unless you really have something to compare – and even then probably don’t do it anyway. Saying “I know what you’re going through…someone stole my wallet right out of my pocket when I was in Rome one time…It’s a horrible feeling isn’t it…yeah the trauma is real” does not feel good at all. Again, going back to the above, maybe I was very sensitive to what felt like people diminishing what we went through, but that just feels nasty. If you’ve never had a loaded gun pointed at you, don’t say you know what it feels like. If you have never thought you or your family members might be killed in your own house, don’t compare. In fact, in my experience, it ended up that we did know a few people who had been through something similar, but they were never the ones to say “I know what you’re going through.” I’m sure this is true for all life experiences, and the more significant they feel to us, the more it feels insincere or even insulting when people say “yeah – I know what it feels like” Men shouldn’t say “I know what it feels like to give birth.” If you’ve never lost a child, don’t say you know what it feels like to someone who has. I’m sure I’m totally guilty of doing this to others in the past as I don’t remember anyone doing it to me I don’t think I realized fully what it feels like.
Don’t leave it in my court. In my experience the best would be if someone said “I’m going to call you tomorrow at 10 so we can talk” or “I’m going to do this thing for you right now” Less good would be “can I do this specific thing for you?” like “Can I bring you supper tomorrow?” Less helpful for us was “Call me any time – really – just let me know” and even harder was “let me know if you need anything.” We found we were emotionally exhausted all the time, and even making simple decisions was taxing. Telling me to think about what I need, then deciding, then taking the initiative to get back in touch and inconvenience you with my problems just seems too much.
When we got to Kenya, our Serge team there had already made a list to bring us supper every day. They didn’t ask, they just told us when we got there “someone will bring supper every day around 5:30” that was a truly beautiful gift and something we never would have asked for. Along these same lines, we needed people to speak into our decisions in ways we normally don’t. Telling us to leave for Kenya, booking tickets for us, getting us going. Honestly if left completely on our own we would have put it off for days, if we would have left at all. The same with the decision to come back to Canada now. If we hadn’t had people step in and say “given what you’ve gone through – you really should leave now while you can” we may not have left. Our counsellor told us that when you’ve gone through that kind of trauma, a huge chunk of your normal cognitive bandwidth is just taken up trying to deal with and make sense of what you’ve gone through. It really does feel sometimes like you’re working with only 50% of your brain capacity, and even making simple decisions can feel exhausting.
So there you go – take it for what it’s worth (which honestly may not be much). If nothing else I needed to sort out some of these things for myself. And now in the future – if I am acting like a schmuck when you go through something hard you have my own words to use against me to make me less of a schmuck.
Today our family is 11 days into our mandatory 14-day self-isolation, the requirement for returning to Canada from overseas. It’s been filled with yard work, school at home, house projects, and appropriately socially distanced visiting. Our house here which we’ve owned for 12 years and rented out for the last 10, has been vacant for the past 8 months so we were able to move right in, and there is no shortage of repair jobs and fixing to do.
Coming back to COVID-Canada has been strange. Overall, I’ve been impressed and quite proud to see the way the various authorities here have handled this incredibly risky, unforeseen, and novel event. I think because we have been exposed to places where there are extreme responses in various directions. In Burundi right now there are mass gatherings of hundreds or even thousands of people as they start the full month of campaigning for the presidential election. No schools are closed, people are packed into churches, and public transit. In countries around Burundi, there are crackdowns so harsh that police beat people with sticks if they dare leave their houses after curfew, and mobs stone foreigners seen to be the source of the virus.
Here in Canada the daily press briefings are led by medical officers, non-politically appointed health care professionals who have balanced a sense of both calm and seriousness throughout the last few months. Stay at home orders are massively being followed, as communities give up individual freedom for the sake of protecting those most vulnerable, and giving the medical workers a chance at winning this battle.
And it appears to be working. While clearly the response has included mistakes, right now Canada has one of the lowest rates per capita (of nations with wide-spread and &/or reliable testing) for both total cases and death.
Since getting back, we’ve enjoyed visiting from our deck, as people come and sit on our front lawn. Of course, it’s very hard – and awkward – to see close family and friends we haven’t seen for at least three years, and only be able to wave from 2 meters away, but it sure feels closer than being on the other side of the world.
It’s clearly a hard time for many people – but we actually feel like it is easier on us than on many here. So many people here had plans for the summer, they had things prepared, things they were looking forward to – and now all those have been taken away. We came back knowing it would be like this, and we didn’t have anything planned, so we feel like we didn’t have anything taken away. We haven’t really lost anything from what we thought our summer in Canada would be like. People’s jobs and lives have been significantly upended, completely unexpectedly and unwelcomed. Our lives of clearly vastly, vastly different than Burundi – but we knew that, and in fact that a huge part of why we’re here.
The other thing that’s become apparent is that it seems we’ve been training for this.
Over the last few weeks as millions around the world hunker-down in isolation to slow and prevent the spread of this virus, we’ve seen that people are starting to say things that seem not unusual to us. That is, aspects of people’s lives in COVID-lock-down North America in some ways resembles what our lives look like all the time
People who are shocked, amazed, horrified, angry, surprised, or happy about new facets of life – that sound a bit like life in our normal conditions.
We honestly essentially never go anywhere in the evening – well, nowhere outside our little residential compound. There are no meals out, no movies, no concerts or meetings. There are no sports practices or music lessons. No popping out to the store, no driving over to friends’ places. We quite simply are never off our hill after dark, basically inside our residential compound by 6 every day.
We can go weeks without getting in a car
We stock up on food, because we have to, and make things from scratch because it’s the only option.
We are used to stores – or sometimes the entire country – running out of things
We can only use calls and video calls to keep in touch with family and friends
We only see the same people – day in day out.
We can feel pretty cut off from the rest of the world.
We feel like there is always a sense of uncertainty, a lack of clarity for what’s coming next.
This is not meant to diminish what everyone is going through – as this has brought real, significant, hardship to so many – but merely to share that it seems like COVID-Canada is in some ways more similar to regular-Kibuye than regular Canada was.
So that’s the view from the perspective of leaving the country for a few years – and popping back in the middle of all this. Strange. But still good.