How to Fall Down the Steps with a Baby

My mother has been preparing for this nightmare from the day she found out I was pregnant. 

I live in a two-story house with a reasonably steep staircase, so naturally, my mother’s first pre-birth concern was, “What if I fall down the steps holding the baby?” 

But she wasn’t really asking because she already had a plan.  “At first,” she told me, “I was thinking I could use a small box, tie a string to it, and use that to pull her up and down the stairs.”  Ummmm… no?

“But now,” she continued, “I see myself with the baby on my back.  I am wrapped in large fabrics.  And I am sitting down and scooting down the stairs.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.  And I couldn’t stop telling everyone I know.

And then… 9 months into Miss Ella’s life… I fell down the stairs while holding her.  It was probably about four steps… an unfortunate perfect storm of carpeted stairs, bare feet, and too-long jeans that got tangled in the mess.

It’s one of those slow motion moments where you find yourself thinking, “Wow… I am actually falling down the stairs.”  Thankfully, I gripped my daughter tightly and she characteristically found the whole death-defying, adrenaline pumping adventure something worthy of sheer glee.

What did I take away from this experience?  ALWAYS listen to your mother.  I will no doubt repeat this story to my child over and over so that she can learn this crucial lesson herself.

What advice has your mother given that you wish you’d heeded?  What nuggets of wisdom has she passed on that you still refer to? 

The Face of Justice

To me, justice can really only be understood in a relational context.  

 If no one you know experiences the ramifications of unjust healthcare, immigration law, education, or working conditions, then you can easily forget when life gets too busy.  You can easily step back if it feels like a lost cause or if the movement loses momentum.  You can simply choose to ignore it when something else comes along.

Social justice without relationships will be fruitless.

“Issues” don’t ask you the hard questions when you think about giving up – they don’t ask you through tears to borrow your social security number or tell you that they can’t read at age 11.  “Issues” don’t hold your hand when disappointment strikes, when the unspeakable happens, or when you are wounded along the way.  “Issues” don’t bake the cake when celebration is in order or tell their stories with passion and inspiration that remind you why this endeavor was so important in the first place.

Social justice without relationships is unsustainable.

I never chose immigration as my “issue.”  Immigration met me at church, asked for my phone number, laughed at all my jokes, and offered to spend the rest of its life with me.  Sure, the papers are in order now and you might think that I could choose to forget. 

But I can’t.

The people I’ve met along the way… with all their individual stories and experiences… have forever changed my life. 

Give Me Some Sugar! And Your Name Was.... ?

“Greet one another with a kiss of love.  Peace to all of you who are in Christ.” 1 Peter 5:13-14

You probably already know that many Latinos say hello and good-bye with a kiss on the cheek.  Therefore, joining this world has translated into kissing a lot of strangers. 
This… as you might imagine… has been an adjustment for me. 

At first, I was characteristically awkward.  It’s hard for me to make lip to skin contact coming from a parallel angle.  Do I simply kiss the air by your ear?  Do I wait until after you kiss me and then turn to kiss you?  Or do we kiss simultaneously?

It was all a little too much for me.  

I have grown accustomed to the practice and our recent four month stay in Argentina helped turn it into a habit.  One that I have decided I quite like.

Once I moved past my ridiculous awkwardness, I have realized that this is such a nice way to welcome people.  When I meet Billy’s friends, I never have to give a small wave after he says, “This is my wife Sarah.”  Instead, I am hugged and kissed by everyone simply by approaching the group.  The introduction is a natural follow-up to the welcome.

I wrote earlier this week about the practice of greeting everyone in a social setting.  When the kiss becomes part of that interaction, I think the sense of welcome and inclusion grows stronger.  How can someone be overlooked or feel invisible in the crowd when everyone in the room took a moment to kiss them?  I didn’t realize you were here… oh wait, are you wearing strawberry scented lotion?  I DO remember meeting you. 

When we returned to the States from Buenos Aires, we discussed with our interns the stark transition we were all experiencing with the greetings.  A quick smile and a “hi” suddenly felt so cold.  Sometimes I wonder if it would be too shocking if I started greeted everyone with a kiss.  Hmmm...

Do you think American culture should make room for more kissing?  Do you, like me, find the practice a bit intimidating or welcoming or both? 

Nice to Meet You. And You. And You. And You.

“Did I meet everyone?” my husband looks at me while turning in a circle in the middle of the room to take social inventory.

Billy is pretty introverted, but you’d never guess by the way he enters a room and greets every, single person individually with a handshake and a hello.

I’m pretty extroverted, but you can’t tell by the way I enter a room full of people, dart to a corner hoping no one saw me, look for something familiar and then slowly make my way to meeting everyone. 

Billy’s response?  “You can pretend like no one can see you, but they can, and you look rude.”  Nice.

He’s right, of course.  And maybe this is more manners than culture, but I have noticed among my Latino friends that there is a pattern of full-scale, individual greetings at any social gathering.  No mumbled “hey” and a head nod here.  There’s personalized pleasantries to go around.

This practice also takes place upon exiting.  You can’t dart out and risk people looking around for you later.  Nope.  Every person must say good-bye to every other person individually before leaving.  I think it must be hard to be a spy in Latino culture.

So I’m working on it.  I try to catch myself when I enter a room and remember to say hello to each person there.  Recently, I was leaving early from a pretty large gathering, but I knew everyone, so I walked around the gymnasium waving and saying good-bye to all the various groups that had formed.  I felt a little bit like I was on a parade float, but I knew my hubby would be proud.

Do you say hello to everyone individually when you enter a group?  Do you notice if others do or do not say hello to you? 

How I Know We Didn't Kill Him

“How is your family?” I asked when my husband got off the phone.  

“Good,” he said.  “They just called to check on us and tell me that they killed that Argentine guy.”

Maybe this is all couples, I can’t say, but it took me about five more full minutes of conversation before I said, “Did you just start this conversation by saying that they killed someone?”

As my time with Billy has progressed, I’ve developed a non-detectable filter.  Now,  my husband has impeccable English, but sometimes words come out in a “unique” way.  

My filter lets me hear what I know he meant, not what he actually said.  

For example, the reason I didn’t catch my in-laws apparent murder confession was that I immediately knew that he was saying his parents called to let him know someone in Guatemala murdered this Argentine folk singer.  It made sense.

I also know that “We were talking with Sarah’” means, “Sarah and I were talking.”  And “I heard that the other day” probably means about five years ago, before we even met.

And when Billy got tired of hanging wall art, but I had a few more picture frames... he handed me three nails and a hammer, saying, "Go kill yourself."  This one stumped me for a minute.  Until.... "knock yourself out" came to mind.  

Sometimes knowing a little bit of Spanish helps.  If I feel confused for a moment, I can translate it back to Spanish and realize the English was a direct translation.  Like “she has 5 years” isn’t a prison sentence... it’s a direct translation from Spanish of “she’s 5 years old.” 

The Filter.  Undetectable, but absolutely necessary.

Do you have short cuts for cross-cultural communication?  

How to Get Kicked Out of a Community Garden

Community gardening is all the rage. It’s the perfect way to combine environmentalism, local food, and good neighboring in one fell swoop. 

I was thrilled when I saw the hand painted invitation on a piece of plywood hanging from the chain link fence of an empty lot on my street.

I was the first one to respond, the organizer told me.

When that first workday rolled around, I walked over to the lot and checked in. I met a lovely woman named Perla who was willing to decipher my makeshift Spanish and chat with me about the neighborhood, gardening, and her life. She even promised to teach me how to make tortillas a mano (by hand) – something I had always wanted to learn how to do.

I planted four stalks of corn, but ants enjoyed three of them since it was an entirely organic gardening community. Of course, Perla made me promise not to “tell” when I saw her spray ant and roach killer directly on her plants, which I knew would eventually make their way to the community compost. I didn’t tell, and she had terrific looking vegetables.  

I also got to know her sweet son. Rico would sit next to my garden and talk to me about soccer in Spanish but then sing English Christmas songs to me that he’d learned in school. As time went on, I watched him grow taller and witnessed the magnificent power of children to learn a second language as his time in public school honed his English.  

My husband and I also chatted with a man from Guatemala, who appreciated our fond connection to his home country.  He explained to me how he had created a grid in his garden. He secretly let me try a natural sugar he had grown, begging me not to tell others. He was certain everyone would steal it if they found out! 

Another family – a dad with two daughters – shared their woes as birds nibbled away at their blueberries. They also shared their excess of herbs that grew like wildflowers in their full and delicately cared for plot. 

It wasn’t long before I received an email telling me my section of the garden was “under planted and under cared for” and that they would like to give my plot to someone else who could make better use of it. (Actually, I think it was Perla since she was displaying stellar gardening skills.)

At first I was hurt. I had been the first person to sign up after all. But, it turned out I was more interested in the community part than the gardening part. Most everything I had grown ended up in the compost pile. Bugs had eaten it. Or I’d waited too long to water it, or weeds had choked it to death.

I suppose I was in the garden a lot, but doing very little actual gardening.   

And so I accepted my dismissal from the garden, but I remember it fondly as the place I met terrific neighbors, heard a wonderful child sing, and even did manage to grow enough zucchini to share with anyone who would take it.

Are you into community gardening? 

Photo credit: Zsuzsanna Kilian

The Day My Daughter Drove the Car

Yep… last week… my 8 month old stood on the drivers’ seat, held onto the steering wheel, and navigated us through the neighborhood.  Honestly, I think the most fascinating part to her was the bumps on the steering wheel cover and trying to see what they tasted like.

If you didn’t already guess… we were in Guatemala.  (I’d also like to add… for the heart health of my mother… that we were going 2 miles an hour on a completely deserted road…)

Spending so much of my daughter’s first year of life outside the United States has also meant that she has not be required to sit in a car seat.  Infant safety looks a little different globally. 

In fact, when we returned from Argentina, it took some time adjusting back to the standards here at home.  We were horribly lazy about strapping her into the seat. 

Then, one recent day, I took her on a brief outing, and I made the conscious effort to thread arms and legs and lock nylon into place.  Proud of myself, we pulled out the parking lot. 

I changed the station on the radio and heard her whimper.  I checked the rear view mirror to make sure she was just complaining when I realized I was looking at what appeared to be the bottom of the car seat.

Apparently, while I belted Gabriella into the car seat, I forgot to secure the car seat to the actual car! 

She was basically rolling around in the backseat strapped to a plastic chair.  And the “Parent of the Year” award goes to….

Thankfully, the girl never cried and a quick pull-over got her back into position safely. 

­­­­­I figure I’m doing okay because once I saw a mom breastfeeding her baby while riding on the back of a motorcycle.  Baby safety is all relative…

What variations on “safety” have you witnessed across cultures?  Am I the only parent whose child has rolled around the backseat?    

Why Are American Girls So Smelly?

Billy asked me this question the other day. 

He continued by telling me that he and his friends in Guatemala had often wondered because they would see girls with ratty hair and smelly clothes, and they just didn’t understand.  They eventually just assumed that American girls weren’t really into hygiene. 

Hmmm…. after (subtly) sniffing myself, I gave it some thought. 

Then it hit me… missions trips. 

Everyone I know that has participated in a missions trip has usually been to Guatemala.  In fact, since I’m friends with so many missions-minded folks, it’s uncanny how many people meet Billy and know his home country. 

And it seems to me that a lot of missions trips stories involve some sort of fantastical bragging about how many days people went without showering.  It has never occurred to me (or probably to them) that people who live in these countries and shower daily may have questions about this practice.

I can say that several years ago I lived in Guatemala for one month to (try to) learn Spanish.  I showered once every three days, which was completely in contradiction to my daily showering habits in the States.

My excuse?

Electric shower heads.

I couldn’t figure it out.  You had to turn it on hard enough so that the lights flickered, meaning that the electric heater had kicked on to warm the water.  But turn it on too strong, and there’s too much water to warm, making it cold again.

I absolutely could not master this skill.  And how many times can you ask your host family (in broken Spanish) to come into the bathroom with you to “help you” before it becomes awkward?  (I decided two.)

So I took a freezing cold shower once every three days.  This also eventually led to me being reprimanded for washing my hair in a natural hot spring.  I know… embarrassing… I was just so happy to have hot water… that’s not a good excuse, I realize… just an explanation.

So this is my response to the question “Why are American girls so smelly?”  Have another one?  Do your showering frequencies change when traveling abroad?    

Home Is Where the Global Heart Is

Sometimes culture hopping leaves you feeling like you have no true home.

I am not Latina.  I don’t speak Spanish well.  And I am not “at home” in Guatemala.

But I am also no longer fully at home in an American context.  I experience the world differently.  My perspective is changed.

But sometimes… maybe more than I care to admit… I miss fitting in. 

And then you have those moments.  Usually, it’s a connection with someone else who doesn’t quite know which culture fits best… a second generation immigrant… a missionary kid… another cross-cultural couple.  

Rarely is it in church. 

But recently… at church… I had one of those moments.   

The worship team led a song written by Julio Melgar, a friend of my husband’s and an incredible Spanish worship leader.  They had translated it into English.  I love the song in Spanish, but I felt so touched to be able to sing it in my first language… in my predominately black church… with a Spanish chorus for good measure.

It was this unexpected culture clash that allowed God to whisper to me… “You are at home in my house.”
A Life with Subtitles. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.