The Fat Lady

Dear Internet,

We’re baaaaaaack!  Having been stuck in a rut of non-communication since January due to limited internet access in Cuba, and, consequently, paralyzed by how much there is to share about the last six weeks, we’re working hard on Candy Crush to process and sort through everything. So much to tell. So little blog space. So much magazine to write.  Continue reading The Fat Lady

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My Big Fat Cambodian Monthly Update

Hey Guys.

If you were sitting around today (middle of the night) thinking, I wish Brooke would post a real long monthly update, this is your special day!

In Rwanda, I was frantically posting every 72 hours because Jeff & I were the only people experiencing most things, it was all brand new, and I felt like it would a) slip through my fingers too quickly to internalize if I didn’t write it all down and b) verify to 62 people who funded us we didn’t run off with a wad of cash to the Cayman Islands.

In Cambodia, there are 7 of us providing content (Anna, Sarah and Hannah and Tara each have blogs), my first feature was due 2 weeks after we got here which occupied most of my time and mental energy, and I feel generally less spazzy this time around. Also, at least 20 of those 62 people told me they felt confident Jeff and I were not rolling around in piles of cash on a remote beach somewhere, so that’s good.

Either way, here are some things I’ve been dying to share but just now getting onto paper/the internets.

Weather
I don’t care what the iPhone says, it’s not 90 degrees here; it’s 90 thousand degrees. Every day is a constant struggle not to rip off my clothes and run around naked OR to stand underneath the cold shower for 11 hours at a time with 30-minute breaks. It’s just really hot. Never have I ever spent so much time organizing clothing into tiers of importance and “saving” certain things for days when I know I’ll be out walking around. I tried to combat this issue by having one of the girls make me some traditional freely flowing lightweight pants the locals seem to love, but ended up with these beauts: yellow polka-dotted pants gone wild.

Housing
We are staying at a compound rented by CGI for the girls in the Imprint program, so although we have our own living space (kind of like a little apartment), we have 7 housemates ranging in age from 17-26 with a combined 20 words of English, and we have a groundskeeper/people-keeper named Mom-sung, who we have renamed Monsoon because of all the swooping in and helping.  Here is a little picture sequence demonstrating the Monsoon-ness, but yesterday took the prize when she tried to physically lift me onto her lap in the van because sunlight was streaming in the window onto my arm. She is the personification of the spiritual gift of hospitality, with a dash of crazy and a sprinkle of obsession.  Monsoon and the girls are sweet, though, and we’ve spent time together watching scary Cambodian soap operas, looking at photos of friends and family on the laptop, and eating dinner together every night. Speaking of food…

Food
We eat well. The girls feed us a variety of greens, veggies and meat, and mealtime constantly smells like fried garlic, which is awesome. Unfortunately, each meal also includes a 14-thousand foot mountain of rice or noodles, sometimes both, with chili and soy sauce. Every morning we are served two French baguettes each, which we protein-ify with peanut butter and a side of Nescafe instant coffee, but we are fighting off the squish with jump ropes and I-candy. Every meal, no matter what the food is, everyone yells, Nyam bai! Nyam bai! which means Eat rice! Eat rice!  Also, three people have put their hands on my belly and gestured a baby, then when we say no, they laugh and shovel pretend food into their mouths and say, Nyam bai? Nyam bai? Eat rice? Eat rice?  *Hangs head* I will not say anything else about that, because I’ve realized (this is profound) that if I continue to present myself in this way, although funny, people will begin to see me in this way. I will say that when our poor intern started puking, Jeff came up and said, in his best Cambodian accent, Throw up rice? Throw up rice?

Jeff has sought out a little more culinary adventure than I have: whole fried frogs and duck fetus. Gag me. He almost had fried tarantula, but lucky for him (me?), the team was sick that day and we opted to stay in. Somewhere inside the world wide webs are the videos of the fried frogs and duck eggs. We also visited this cool picnic area that served toasted turtle. We did not partake.

Language
Khmer is the hardest. Everyday we communicate with Monsoon and the girls through gestures, which we’ve gotten really good at. Picture me scooping up invisible ice cubes and dropping them into my empty glass, saying tink, tink, tink. Ohhh! Ice! Ice! Picture Jeff squawking like a chicken, laying a pretend egg, cracking it on the surface of an invisible frying pan and making a Chhhhh noise. Oh! Fried Egg! Fried Egg!  Imagine Monsoon with her hand above her head saying Shhhhh and washing her armpits. Oh! Shower! Shower!  And, if you dare, imagine Monsoon walking past the dinner table with my clean bra (she does our laundry) around her waist trying hard not to laugh. Oh!  Saggy boobs! Saggy boobs! Monsoon is funny even with no words.

Work
Each morning we meet Srey Leak, CGI staff, at the primary school to speak with the teachers in each class. Usually we’re greeted by excited and squirmy students, and the top one or two are selected by the teacher to stand up and perform a song or greeting, which is adorable. But we actually come in search of the lowest ranked students, not the highest, and they’re often times sitting at the back with embarrassed smiles and very little eye contact.  We walk home with a different struggling student every day at lunch to visit with families and learn what might be keeping each child from being successful.

We’ve gone home with students whose parents are fighting or divorced or using drugs. Our hearts broke with a student whose siblings were killed in a car accident three years ago and who is being called “a gentleman’s boy”—the equivalent to being called gay—by other kids in the class. There was a little boy whose parents had each abandoned him leaving his two grandmothers in a deadlock over whether or not to sell the little boy to ‘His Excellency’, another term for rich man.  There have been orphans and single parent homes and homes with disabilities. We’ve seen families of four living in 10×15 sq foot rooms, and four families of too-many-to-count living in a four-bedroom house. We’ve seen families who simply don’t have the means to pay for afternoon classes or for lunch. We’ve seen kids who live too far away to walk back and forth every day. And we have visited with kids whose families can’t care for them at all and have arranged for their stay at a Children’s home, which most refer to as an orphanage.

We are also learning that the stories not told over lunch are those things that happen when the poverty becomes insurmountable. When the snails don’t sell, and the fish don’t bite, and the kids have already dropped out of school, and there is nothing left to eat. In that tight spot, we’ve found the underbelly of poverty. It’s not hunger or filth or lack of education—though these things are difficult enough. For some families, there is one last option, one final economic recourse: selling or renting out a child. The underbelly of poverty here is the sex trade. It’s what happens when there is simply no other solution.

But! We’re seeing the prevention of this recourse through the program we’re working with: CGI Kids. CGI is working hard to identify and intervene through relationships and community involvement before the family reaches this level of desperation. J and I got the chance to meet two little girls and their families, for whom CGI has provided an alternative.

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My feature article in July will be the story of these two little girls and their families, about CGI Kids and Kien Svay kids and my little nieces and how all of these things fit together. So download the July issue! It will be broadcasted from a virtual blowhorn on all my social media accounts when its ready for download.

Church
You thought this update was over, didn’t you?

Church yesterday morning: hour-long van ride to the bank of a river with wooden steps leading into the water, a boat appeared and ferried us to an Island, we removed our shoes before entering the church, sang worship songs in Khmenglish, then voted on 2 of 4 singers who were competing in a singing contest to be the new worship leader. People around us wanted #2 and #3 to win, so they took our #1 and #4 slips, but somehow #4 won, and he was definitely in last place. All this was followed by a sermon and kool-aid communion, my legs lifted off the floor the entire time due to 3 big spiders roaming the tile, and with a couple of 4-year-olds sticking their little hands through my chair to tickle my armpits. Door to door? About 5 hours.

Play
Due to my lack of legit updating, it might appear via FB that all we do is play. That’s because I posted like 300 pictures of bike rides through our neighborhood, some bamboo picnic areas on stilts, a bamboo train ride with the team, and a fantastic 24-hour anniversary celebration in Phnom Penh. Some friends let us borrow bikes for the summer, and we’ve been making friends with neighbors, visiting the “ploating” restaurants on the river behind us, and finding ways to explore Phnom Penh by rooftop when we make it into town.  We’ve visited the S-21 genocide memorial, the National Palace and Museum, the Silver Pagoda, the Fine Arts District, a sunset boat tour of the Mekong, and will visit the Killing fields this week. We’ve also had a couple of team days in Phnom Penh and Battambang and will head to Siem Reap this weekend by boat for our mid-trip retreat. What?! Half over already?

Our anniversary was awesome because school was conveniently closed for testing, so we packed up and went to Phnom Penh.  For the entire 24 hours we did activities that benefited ministries all over the city. We ate lunch at Friends, a restaurant that trains and employs street kids, got massages by trained blind masseurs using their skills for self-sufficient living, and river toured with a company who’s profits maintain an orphanage.  Pics from the weekend: here.

Okay. I think that’s it for now, except everything else, which you’ll find in the July issue of World Next Door! Speaking of, did you download Rwanda’s Issue? DO IT! But if you can’t download the app, you can still find the content online here. It’s our first published content for World Next Door and we’re pretty pumped about it. People outside the family even like it :)

Welp. If you’re still here, you’ve made it until the end. For your diligence, here is a dancing kindergartener:

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For more pics of our time in Cambodia, click here.

For more pics around our Kien Svay neighborhood, click here.

For additional posts about Cambodia, click here.

Bye!

I Am (eating too much rice)

It’s Sunday again. How’d that happen?!

I Am two entire loaves of French bread every morning that are so tough on the outside I’ve thrown out my neck ripping a bite off, and so soft on the inside I want to throw out my lumpy pillow and remake it with French bread guts. I am crunchy peanut butter on top of the bread and half a teaspoon of instant Nescafe and boiled water every morning.

I Am on a rooftop looking over the entire city of Phnom Penh in the blazing heat, and standing underneath the best-feeling cold shower of my entire life in a tiny Kien Svay bathroom at least 3 times daily. I am allowing Cambodia to redefine the cold shower. I am walking off the last wooden step over a river onto a boat that will ferry me across to an island church, and I am singing Shout to the Lord in English from the third row while everyone around me sings it in Khmer. In that moment, that thin place, I am in heaven.

I Am cared for by the personification of the spiritual gift of hospitality: Monsoon. I am all feet-washed, pillow fluffed, clothes folded, three utensils in my cereal, shirt tucked, hair behind my ear, and today, physically lifted off my seat and onto her lap in the van to escape the sun shining inside the van window onto my skin. I am a tissue from her purse wiping the peanut butter off my face and fingers, and I am her hands all over my outfit trying to get the bread crumbs off. Wait. Grams? Is that you?

I Am (phonetic spelling) “Nyam bai? Nyam bai?” Eat rice? Eat rice? I am the following gestures from Cambodians weekly: swirly motion on my belly, baby rocking, question mark? I am shaking my head no. I am laughter while everyone around me pretends to shovel food into their mouths as they say, patting my belly, “Nyam bai! Nyam bai!” Eat rice! Eat rice! I am recalling an article I read that tells me to speak kindly to myself and shake this one off. I am rolling in laughter when, as our poor intern pukes, Jeff says in his best Cambodian accent, Throw up rice? Throw up rice?

So. WHO ARE YOU? Food, places, people, and words spoken into your life… Go!

Musical Chairs. Sort of.

This morning we attended church at Kigali Institute of Education (KIE), where about 11 simultaneous church services of various denominations were occurring in each of the classrooms surrounding the courtyard. So cool. University students from different parts of the country studying at KIE worship together with their associations on this campus each Sunday, and once a month all the denominations worship together. We happened to be worshiping with the Free Methodists, which I think is funny, because the free Methodist Church World Ministries Center is in Indianapolis. Wait, what?

We were not the only visitors this morning. Our preacher, Jean Paul, was a visiting minister from a local church and also a pastoral staff for World Vision. Several former students, including the PR/Communications guy for the Ministry of Disaster Management who also happens to be a photojournalist (THAT was fun), along with the Finance Director of ALARM who just moved from Kenya in January, plus a gospel singer and her guitarist husband were all visiting the student congregation today from their own local churches. Our host, the Country Director of ALARM, travels all over to these university congregations, because he is in charge of the University Youth Associations for the Free Methodist denomination in Kigali City. He brought us along for the English speaking service, which happens once a month.

About 20 students attended, including an 8-person choir. We asked to take some pics after the reason for our being in-country was explained, and below is a clip of the choir. Some songs were in English & some in Kinyarwanda, but most of the preaching was in English. Here is an example of a Kinyarwanda word: Mwaramutse (good morning) or Murakoze (Thank you). Now imagine seeing words like this for the first time in a hymnal and trying to sing them :)

Before the actual service was an interactive Bible study, and after the service was a Q&A time between our team and the students (pic below). We learned about the ways in which ALARM has impacted their lives, faith, and education by asking two questions: What is it really like to live here? and What is God doing in Rwanda through ALARM? We will continue to ask these questions for the next 7 weeks throughout different projects of ALARM and other ministries.

After church, we hopped a public transport bus for lunch, which reminds me: Anytime I’m transported anywhere, I just stare out the window in amazement at the beauty of Kigali city and countryside. The thing about this bus ride, though, is that the middle aisle is actually just one fold-down seat in the middle of each row, so if you are lucky enough to get a middle seat, you are actually sitting in the aisle. Poor you.

Each time someone behind you has to get off the bus, you must get up, lift up your seat and move back to the person’s empty seat behind you. The person in front of you then takes your seat, and the person in front of them takes theirs, and so on. It’s like musical chairs without the music and with no prize. Being the last five people on the bus, Jeff, Barry and I got the last three aisle seats, so who do you think ended up in the very back row after several rounds of musical chairs? The three of us, plus Peter, the finance guy, one row ahead. Winners! (Right?)

We then enjoyed a fantastic buffet and loads of conversation with ALARM staff, a breezy walk downtown past the Tulane office (Wait, what?) and a quick taxi home. So, to recap: We left for church this morning at 8a, and arrived home at 4p. That’s eight hours of church, eating and transport!

What Is Saving Your Life Right Now?

My friend posted a blog, after reading another blog, and that blogger had read a book, and the author of that book had been asked to speak on what was saving her life right then. Today* a bunch of people and synchronized blogs are answering this question: What is saving your life right now?

*When I say Today what I really mean is three weeks ago. But three weeks ago I was in such a despairing place, I could not come up with a list of things that were saving my life.  I could only come up with a list of things I wished were saving my life. Yes, I realize this kind of defeats the entire purpose of the exercise.

So, as all the life-savers rushed passed me on the internets, optimistic and enlightened, I sat on the sidelines chicken-scratching a bunch of things that were absolutely not saving my life right then (picture McKayla is NOT impressed) and feeling angry I couldn’t find optimism and gratitude- my two best things! You will lose all respect when you see my list. It’s bad.

Things I Wished Were Saving My Life Three Weeks Ago:

Food. Loads of goat cheese. On chicken. Wrapped in bacon. On bread. With oil. Small plates as far as the eye can see. If these things were happening right now, my life would be saved. Instead, due to the need for restraint (calories, waistline, cash, time) we are on a meal plan. Five meals per week, 20 ingredients or less, all organic, under 600 calories. Blast that meal plan! The inability to go out to eat for every meal and order anything I want is killing me. Salads in jars are killing me. For a person who communicates via food and weather patterns, who would rather ingest a tiny amount of taste-bud-bursting goodness than loads of mediocre anything; for a foodie, I wish amazing food was saving my life right now.

Hawaii. I wish Hawaii was saving my life right now.

Riches. Yes, I know how hard it is for a rich person to get to heaven, and that we’re not supposed to store up treasures and all that. I get it. But seriously, I could go for some cold hard cash. I would (you might have gathered) go out to eat every single meal and buy a personal trainer to work most of it off, and then a med spa to take care of the rest. I would go to two movies this weekend, and I’d have an outdoor living space with a plush couch, and tomorrow, I’d quit my job and vacation in Cuba for a month. I’d buy land in Belize, adopt some kids, and eat some more food without consequence. I would also go hiking in CO, visit all my friends in NOLA, and then go to Nepal. Yes. I wish those things were saving my life right now.

I wish single digit sizes were saving my life right now. My life would be saved if at the end of the day I could catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and think, Yep. Instead, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and gnash my teeth.

I wish God’s voice in human form and his face in human flesh sitting across from me were saving my life right now. I would ask him a direct question and get a direct answer. He would also likely buy my coffee, I think. He would tell me exactly how to pray. He would say, Yes, you have enough faith to do this one thing. Or, He would say, No, you’re not really believing believing. He might reveal that I’m praying in safe ways that leave wiggle room for God not to answer prayers, in case these things are Not His Will, instead of praying expectantly. He would let me know once and for all if expectant prayer is entitlement or faith.

I wish some kind of everything-fits-perfectly feeling was saving my life right now. Instead- well, just read this. She says it perfectly. J and I have a case of the wanderlust. If some kind of Holy Passion presented and everything suddenly fit, my life would be saved.

I wish God’s breath into a mess of cells and tissue was saving my life right now. It’s not all I want in life. It’s not even something I wanted until a year ago. It’s not the only thing I think about. But if it happened, my life would be a little bit saved.

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Three weeks later, thanks to things that are actually saving my life, I am able to identify some things that are saving my life. Funny how that works.

What Is Saving Your Life Right Now?

My aunt is saving my life right now. On the prayer thing, she said: When you prayed that prayer the very first time– the unanswered one, the one in which I don’t know if I have enough faith- God heard it. It has already been answered. You just don’t know how or when or in what form this thing will appear. But God heard it, it’s been answered, and you are free to move forward.

Limes and La Croix are saving my life by being all refreshing and tart, and caffeine free, sugar free and sweetener free. This combo tricks my taste buds into thinking I’m having some kind of dirty carbonated beverage. Really, it’s just soda water with some limes.

My little community of women are saving my life right now. Kim’s words: These women are teeming with so much life. Giving me so much life. Saving me on days when I couldn’t find hope with a floodlight. Saving me by letting me point out hope when it’s their turn to misplace it. Saving me with plans for a weekend away, just our despair, and our hope, and margaritas as big as our heads.

A new friend who came over for a long walk is saving my life right now.

A friendly neighbor who stops by more often than not is saving my life right now.

My writing group is saving my life right now.

My job is saving my life right now. Three or four weeks ago, after the worst worst MD visit, I really wanted to cancel all my appointments the following day to give myself time and space to recoup, emotionally. Being a therapist is for the birds on days when you need a therapist. But it was too late, and I am reliable. So I went to work and resolved to be 100% present. For 8 whole hours, I did not think about myself even one time. I came home lighter, and my life was a little bit saved that day.

My husband is saving my life right now. His insight and care. His partnership. The way he ushers me up to the roof to watch shooting stars on a blanket. The way he could never write an ungrateful I wish list, because he’s got that much perspective. His humor and kindness save my life every single hour.

Our blooming flowers that were dead a month ago are saving my life right now. The way these flowers, planted on almost the exact weekend we began our journey through unparenthood, have become reflective of my insides- bright and cheery, withered, dead, sprouting, full-bloom, wilted, thirsty, drowning, blooming… endless, the stages, and totally dependent on things they’re not in charge of.

Church is saving my life right now. Each time I show up, the question bouncing back and forth between J and I all week is answered. It’s not Jesus in the flesh, but I’m learning more about the Spirit. The Spirit is saving my life right now.

Our pet electronic vacuum is saving my life right now. Purchased before the Hartman recession hit, in a fit of crumb-despising-fed-upness, to which most people respond with a broom and dustpan, we feed this pet/child/swiffer thingy scraps from our dinner table and speak to it as though it has a heart and soul. Don’t tell anyone.

Week Twelve: SOS

I’m drowning in Fruit Loops and America’s Next Top Model.

It’s killing me, literally. I may have turned diabetic this week for lack of self-control and the abundance of Oreos and Milano cookies. I turned down lunch at the Indian buffet today, because yesterday I ate my weight in cheesy potatoes and didn’t think I could be trusted at a buffet.

Also, I spent 5 hours in the eye-shadow section at Ulta and tried to buy shampoo a few times with a 20% off coupon and finally settled on the Paul Mitchell Color Care line with a buy 2 get 1 free option, but gave up after not being able to pick the third product.

I guess you could say I am overwhelmed with the overabundance of food and hair product options.

After a complete meltdown on Sunday, it took a full 24 hours to figure out what was really going on.

Here it is: There are holes in my life that can’t be filled with Paul Mitchell Color Care Detangling Conditioner or cheesy potatoes, even though I am thankful for those things and love them with all my heart on a normal day.

I have come to the sad realization that we have everything backwards.

I was upset on Sunday because my family jumped through hoops to get to the right church (out of hundreds in the city) at the right time (out of 8 services) to meet my brother and sister-in-law, who didn’t even show up or call to tell us they weren’t coming.

In Santa Familia there is one church with one service, and your brother lives 5 houses down. Not everyone has cars. Most people just walk. And if Antonia doesn’t show up, Father Foley goes to her house for lunch—just to make sure everything is okay. Most people go to church if only to make sure Father Foley doesn’t show up for lunch.

As I settled in on Sunday afternoon with my bag of Oreos and the Disney Channel (don’t judge), I understood that no matter how many cereals I can choose from, or how many Salon Style conditioners I get to use, no matter how great it feels to drive around 8-lane highways in my shiny SUV, passing two malls and 15 Starbucks, I will never have the quality of life I had in the village for those short few months.

My entire family will never live on one street; I’ll never be within walking distance from everyone I’ve ever known; my best friends are not my cousins or my nieces or my back-door neighbors.

Kids there have 15 moms and 15 dads—aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends. It was so cute to watch David’s eight-year-old son curl up in Imanuel or Ricardo’s lap, and to watch Juliet be passed around the church from aunt to aunt to cousin to cousin (though it was sort of embarrassing when she woke up while I was holding her, took one look at me, and wailed like she had been abandoned at the local homeless shelter).

I’ll probably never speak 3 languages or enjoy a fresh orange or a chocolate-chip ice cream cone as meaningfully and effortlessly as I did with Inez and Frances— though my cherished single-dip cones on the curb of Ben & Jerry’s and Baskin Robbins with Bec and Sprinky rival.

But that’s my point. Happy, simple meaningful moments are rare and hard to come by here, which is why they are etched into my memory and logged as happy places for me. It was never about the ice cream (except that one year when they had Chocolate Oddessy 2001). It was 20 uninterrupted minutes on the curb with my good friends.

In the village, moments like that happened all the time. Nobody had anywhere to rush off to. My time there was a thousand simple, meaningful moments strung together into days and weeks. One of my favorite memories will always be that half-an-hour between dusk and total darkness when Inez and I would walk to the shop for an ice cream or a snickers or in search of hard-to-find flour. It was just nice to be with her, and to not have anything else to do but walk around together.

Now I have no choice but to settle for The GAP and America’s Next Top Model in lieu of everything my heart really wants—community, an entire Sunday afternoon with all my friends and family in one place (can you even imagine it—all your best friends and family together in one location, for LIFE?)

My friends and I used to joke about living in a commune.

In the village, they have that. They have community. Not as a concept or a small-group idea. But as their actual life.

We have water, Tyra Banks, paved roads, Fruit Loops and Paul Mitchell.

(And we think we’re the lucky ones.)

I agree: in some ways, we’re privileged. I feel blessed to live where I live with the opportunities that have been given to me. Even after village life, I don’t feel guilty for loving Target. Or TV. Or the mall. But more than privileged, I would argue that, mostly, we’re distracted. And I sort of feel sorry for us. I think we are distracted in order to not be depressed.

For example. On Sunday, when family plans fell through, I got my tall-nonfat-sugar-free-caramel-macchiato, sat down with a handful of Oreos and the Disney Channel (don’t judge), periodically checked my Macbook for emails, and when there were no emails, I downloaded new songs on iTunes.

So I enjoyed a day of first world conveniences. But only as a filler for what I really wanted, which was to hang out with my brother, or chat with friends, or, in the deepest part of my heart, be celebrating Easter with everyone in Santa Familia.

Moments:

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“Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.”

For Good
Steven Schwartz