Day 2: The Year I Went All ‘Dangerous Minds’ {31 Days of #WOKE}

My first year teaching in inner city Chicago was a spectacular failure.

 

My first year teaching in inner city Chicago was a spectacular failure.

The middle schoolers at a school in North Lawndale ran off two teachers in the four months before I arrived. A mid-year graduate from a nearly all white Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs, I believed I was different. I would love my students. I would ignite their young minds with a passion for learning. When others ran, I would stay.

In my arrogance, I actually watched the movie Dangerous Minds the week after I accepted the job. In it, beautiful, blond Michelle Pfeiffer transforms her black and Latino students through the magic of learning. I, too, was determined to be an inspirational badass.

I couldn’t wait to be the hero.

I didn’t realize I was stepping into a complex web of poverty, segregation, unemployment, emotional wounds, lack of education and a deadly compulsion to belong even if it meant to a gang. In my desire to be a do-gooder, I added clutter to an already chaotic and confusing system.

I worked 16 hour days, planned elaborate lessons, called parents daily and quickly memorized student’s names. But after having done nothing for the entire year, the students were not about to begin working. On the third day of school, my students egged my car. By the end of the semester, I wept every morning on the drive to school. I was sick a total of seven weeks between the months of January and June.

In 2002, North Lawndale was (and still is) one of the most segregated, drug-riddled, and poverty-stricken areas of Chicago. When asked to draw their neighborhood, my sixth graders drew corners where drugs were sold and houses where gang-bangers lived. To buy anything from a gas station, you had to order it from the cashier from behind a barred window. Boarded up houses, abandoned lots and glass-littered parks spread out like a ghost town. Twelve year olds were checked regularly for weapons.

The school was 100 percent black. Most of my students did not live at home with two parents and the majority were being raised by a grandmother. I had to be careful which students I called home about missing homework or behavior, because they would be beaten. I was convinced that if tested, every single one of my students would have been diagnosed as having some sort of behavioral disorder. Some of them would throw desks if I didn’t call on them to read out of the social studies book.

At first, I couldn’t understand my students when they spoke. They twisted and played with words, volleying back and forth. I struggled to decode their cryptic language and enter into their conversations. Their invisible walls seemed impenetrable.

I quickly realized the dilemma of being the lone adult in the classroom when a fight broke out (which happened at least weekly). As soon as you secured one student, the other would come swinging at both of you. A student accidentally struck me once and from then on I decided to let them fight it out until I could seek help. The office got used to me buzzing down, though I was more likely to send a student next door to enlist the help of the eccentric 60 year-old gay hippie teacher.

The staff was about half black, though our middle school group of four teachers was all white. The other three had been teaching in the neighborhood for many years. The math teacher, who had taught in Lawndale about 30 years, told how the white staff were hidden in the trunks of the African American’s cars on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I remember she would wrap Snickers bars for all her students for their birthdays. Her students adored her.

When my students cursed at me, I said I loved them. I arrived at work early and stayed up late grading papers and planning lessons. I promised I wouldn’t abandon them. I thought if they knew I was in it for the long haul that they’d start to trust me.

But it wasn’t enough. My words and even some of my actions betrayed me.

In spite of working through the summer to prepare curriculum for the fall, the week before school began I received a message from the principal: “Come and pick up your things. We’re really sorry, but another teacher has been hired to replace you.” Was it because I couldn’t control my classroom? Because the parents complained about me? Because of politics within the school that I wasn’t privy to? Because I was white … ?

Or did my students and the administration sense my lack of authenticity? When I thought I was communicating love, did they feel patronized? Was I trying to fit my students into the culture of my whiteness instead of first learning about their culture, bending and assimilating to them instead of expecting them to orient to me?

I’ll never know.

I fought for my job, but lost the fight. When school began, I was sent to different schools each day as a substitute teacher until a new job opened up.

Perhaps my students and the administration saw through my idealism and lust to be the hero who rushed into the inner city to save the day.

Perhaps they saw what I could not.

***

The woman who originally recruited me, Karen Trout, was also white, but her experience was vastly different from mine. With a pixie-cut and a quick smile, she had showed me around, telling me her dreams for the school and for the students. At 31, she and her husband had already lived in Lawndale for almost ten years and had informally adopted three African American boys. Her husband was in full-time ministry, training men to love God, work hard and be educated. I admired her patience and understanding. Without her as a mentor I wouldn’t have made it six days, much less six months.

Her family is still in Lawndale today. They turned the abandoned lot next to their three-flat into a park for their street. Their adopted children are grown and their two biological children are two of just a few white children in an otherwise all-black school. They have started businesses around the city that provide young men and women with jobs that take them off the streets. As much as possible, they have assimilated into the culture and allowed themselves to not only be known, but to know their neighbors.

I think my mistake was telling myself I was all-in without physically moving in. I believed I could make a difference from a distance. And my students, the principal and the other teachers saw what I could not yet see.

I was in it for me.

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

I Tried to Run Away from Love {for (in)courage}

My Love Story

The first time I ever had a date on Valentine’s Day, I was 31 years old. It ended up being the hinge upon which my entire life turned.

Wildly independent, when other girls in college were hoping to snag a man and get their ring by spring, I turned my nose up at them, determined to do something “more” with my life. I wasn’t going to tie myself to a man who would hold me back from all God had planned for me (and I was sure I was destined for Christian Rockstar status).

And so I successfully avoided serious relationships, teaching in the inner city of Chicago and then moving to China to teach English and study Chinese. Although I was lonely at times, I was sure God could bring me a man who was also called to the same area of China I was if that was what He wanted. Until then, I could make singleness work.

But in the middle of my fifth year in China, I was blindsided.

I returned to the states for a wedding and “happened” to carpool with a guy on the way to a lake cottage with a group of friends for the weekend. Convinced God wanted me to marry a man also called overseas, I ignored my growing attraction to this guy with the piercing blue eyes and baritone voice—an actor in Chicago—at least until the ride home.

Oh no, I thought as we talked, laughed, and connected like old friends at the end of the weekend. As we dropped him off, he asked for my phone number and wasted little time in making sure we spent hours “hanging out” over the next two weeks before I flew back to China.

He asked me out for Valentine’s Day the night before I was supposed to leave. Cradling cappuccinos, we finally talked about “us.” What were we doing and what were we going to do?

He had plans—had researched—how to do long distance relationships well. Over Skype we could read books, watch movies, have “dates,” and even play computer games simultaneously. He would come visit me in China, of course.

And he did.

We got engaged after four months of a long-distance relationship where we talked for five hours every other day, read books together and wrote letters, then scanned them in because letters seemed more authentic than emails which could be overly polished. We were married by the following Valentine’s Day.

As I feared, marriage and missions have been mutually exclusive for me. This year is the seventh Valentine’s we are spending together and we’ll most likely get a babysitter for our three littles so we can have an hour or two of peace together involving pasta, candlelight, and coffee.

Our life is not radical, exotic or original, but our love is real and I have no doubt it was God’s intention to derail my pretty plans for myself in favor of blowing me away with His plans for me …

Continue reading at (In)Courage.

 

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Serving Single in China


I recently had this essay published in a magazine for singles in Australia called SPAG Magazine.  The editor has given me permission to republish it here.  

Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China

Cowering behind the faded window curtain, I tentatively peered out into the darkness.  Another explosion sent me inching deeper into the tiny cinder block apartment for safety.  Slowly, logic began to overlap my irrational thoughts.  Perhaps the “gunfire” outside wasn’t a group of Chinese militants coming to kidnap the brand new single woman missionary after all.  Could it be that maybe—just maybe–it was simply fire crackers to celebrate a traditional festival?
In my five years of living in China, the first night was the most frightening.  But as anyone who has done the brave thing has ever experienced, reality often ends up being much tamer than our imagination.  So once I began to adapt to my surroundings, many irrational fears fled and left me with confidence.  In 2004, God had led me to move across the globe from the U.S. to live alone in China as a single woman missionary.
Here is my story.
Choosing Independence
If I told a psychologist three of my literary role models, they could probably psychoanalyze me fairly well.  Anne from Anne of Green Gables, Maria of The Sound of Music, and Jo from Little Women were my heroes.  Though each woman eventually married, marriage was never the goal of their lives.  Instead, they were strong, independent women who knew what they wanted and refused to let a man barricade the way to their dreams.  Like these women, marriage was never my endgame.   
I went to a Christian university where many women’s goals were to leave with the famed “M.R.S. degree.” My roommate’s father warned her that if she couldn’t find a man there, she would have a hard time finding one anywhere. Horrified, I vowed I wouldn’t get married during or immediately following college because God had called me to serve Him overseas and I didn’t want anything—or anyone—to get in the way of that call.
My Call to Missions
When I was 16-years-old, a missionary visited our church to share about his family’s work in Uganda.  Complete with a slideshow of his children growing up learning how to throw spears and wear war paint, I was enthralled.  At the end of his fiery sermon, the pastor did an altar call asking if anyone wanted to “give their life to missions.”  Heart burning and hands sweating, I made the trip forward to answer the call.
From that time on, I read every missionary biography I could get my hands on and absorbed myself in the lives of Amy Carmichael, Bruce Olson, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, George Mueller and Hudson Taylor.  I copied Jim Elliot quotes into my journal and practically tackled visiting missionaries so I could find out about their lives.  I was enamored with the romantic notion of throwing my whole self into God’s service. 
In college, I led the Africa prayer team and signed up for a six month internship in Africa, where I was sure God was calling me to spend my life.  My first experience abroad was in Uganda, where I faced culture shock and came up against many of my unrealistic ideals about being a missionary.  I was less useful and life overseas was harder than I had anticipated.  After returning, I decided that if God wanted me to live abroad, then He would have to make it unmistakably clear.  A few years later, God showed me that it was time to go.  He led me as a 25-year-old single woman to a three-year commitment—which turned into five–to teach English to college students in China.   
Advantages of Being Single
Fear, excitement, hope, anxiety and wonder swirled internally as I prepared to leave for China in July of 2005.  I sold my car, quit my teaching job and said goodbye to friends and family.  Though I had moments of doubt when skeptical family members would question my decision, I was confident that if God called me to China, then He would be the one to sustain me there.
Once there, God proved that He was more than enough.  I was surprised that though the loneliness was acute at times and my marital status was a mystery to the Chinese, who almost always married by the time they were 30, there were so many advantages to serving God as a single woman.
Compared to my married teammates, I had the gift of time.  As I only taught about 16 hours a week, I was able to spend the rest of my time learning Chinese, meeting up with fellow teachers and teammates, having students over weekly to teach me to cook Chinese food, exploring the city, visiting my students in their homes in the countryside, and seeking Jesus in the long mornings.  I noticed that many expat married women with children were much more isolated as their time was spent homeschooling and creating a cocoon for their family.  They often seemed to be much lonelier than I was as they didn’t have time for many other relationships outside of their families.
I soon realized that I felt much more comfortable as a single woman in China than I did back home in the United States.  In China, I was a part of a team that felt like family and was always welcome at the table of my Chinese friends.  They eventually assumed that single women were the norm in my country, so they didn’t put pressure on me to conform to society the way my friends and family back home did.  After summers at home, I was often eager to return to China, where I felt a sense of belonging and like I was more accepted than I was in the church and society during my short stay in the U.S. 
                                                                                                                  
Missions: Sacrifice or Privilege?
My teammate and I had many visitors over the years I was in China.  Some were friends, others were on “vision trips,” but some came for the sheer purpose of encouraging missionaries on the field.  Many times these trips were made up of older married men in ministry with good intentions, but a narrow view.  Sitting down to bowls of spicy noodles, they would ask my teammate and me about the “sacrifices” we had made in giving up everything and going to China. I knew they referred to not being married or having a family, the comforts of home and missing out on weddings, births, deaths and life events back home.  I could tell they felt sorry for us.  Yes, there were sacrifices, but I felt like these men were missing the point.  Being in China felt more like a privilege than a sacrifice.  There is a supernatural peace that settles in your soul when you know you are right in the center of God’s will.  And you don’t want to be anywhere else.
Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China
The street I walked down everyday in northwest China.
Luggage, Logistics and Loneliness
In spite of the overall peace and joy I felt, of course I had my moments of wishing I were married.  Dealing with luggage on long journeys home and simple life logistics were often pity party triggers.  On cross-country train rides, I joked that I wanted a husband so I didn’t have to haul my suitcase up and down the staircases at the train station.  On plane trips, I wished I had someone to watch my luggage so I could run to the bathroom instead of having to lug it into the stall with me.  It seemed life would be easier with a companion. 
But I also longed for a “constant” in my transitory life.  If I had someone who knew both my China and U.S. self, I wouldn’t have to go into long explanations with pictures and diagrams to every single person I knew.  At least there would be one person who knew me on both sides of the globe. 
The biggest internal struggle I had as a single woman was feeling like I was giving up all prospects of marriage by moving to the middle-of-nowhere China.  Like Mary Magdalene, who broke her alabaster jar of perfume at Jesus’ feet, I felt that I was sacrificing all hope of marriage.  There were only three other foreigners in our entire city:  my female teammate and another single male and female from the U.K.—both in their 60’s.  Our organization didn’t allow us to date Chinese men, so I knew marriage would have to be a miracle if it was what God wanted for my life.
Missions vs. Marriage
“In your way, in your time, if it’s your will” was always my prayer when I talked to God about my desire for a husband.  But in a fight for contentment, I stopped praying about meeting someone.  I noticed prayer was sometimes a nice excuse to indulge in fantasizing, so I trusted my mother and other close praying friends to bring my desire before the throne. 
When I returned to the states for my brother’s wedding in the middle of my fifth year in China in January of 2010, I had no aspirations of meeting a man.  Some friends and I planned to spend the weekend at a cottage and I ended up carpooling with a guy who had mysteriously been included on the guest list.  Convinced that if God wanted me to get married, then he wanted me to marry a missionary, I chattered away with this actor from Chicago the entire three hour drive with my guard completely down.  No way could he be “the one.”  But by the car ride home two days later, I knew I was in trouble.  I was falling in love.    
Scraping Raisins Blog Post: Serving Single in China
On the outskirts of the city where I lived my first three years in China.

Questions about Calling
I flew back to the states in July of 2010 for a year-long furlough, but got married six months into it.  Though marriage itself has been easier and better than I expected, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about what it means to be “called,” guilt over leaving the mission field and grief over giving up the life I thought God was leading me to live.
Though God made it very clear that this was His new plan for me, I still struggled with the fact that marriage and missions seemed to be mutually exclusive in my life.  It is much easier to step in to ministry than it is to step out of it.  It is even harder when you are trading in your independence and commitment to your call for a man. 

Amy Young, a woman in leadership with our organization at the time, was gracious as I apologetically confessed that I was leaving for a man.  “Life is long,” she said.  In a book she wrote titled Looming Transitions, she elaborated on this idea and said, “This transition will not become the sum of your life…It’s natural for people to mark things in terms of before or after events: graduation, marriage, a certain job, a baby, a painful breakup, a big move, or a serious health issue. But those events don’t become the story. They become a page in the story or possibly the beginning of a new chapter. They join a plot larger than the transition each one creates. Part of staying fertile, then, involves reminding yourself of the bigger picture–the bigger story–that came before and will live on after it” (pg. 37).   “You will outlive this season,” she says (pg. 47). 

I once met a couple in China who had been leading short term mission trips every summer for 20 years.  They were 70-years-old, which meant that they began their ministry when they were 50.  They were enjoying the fruits of a long life of walking with Jesus.  We have no idea what God wants to do in our lifetime of following Him.  The older I get, the more I appreciate the rear view of life more than the forward view because of all the glimpses I see of Jesus on the road with me when I never even realized it.
Looking back, I am thankful for the years that I was single.  I am now in my sixth year of marriage and pregnant with my third child.  I miss those long mornings in China spent in the presence of Jesus.  I miss the days of exploring, wandering and taking time to get to know people without tiny hands pulling me and high pitched voices demanding my attention.  I am grateful that I had adventures and grew into my skin before I met my husband so that I knew who I was and who I belonged to before I committed my life to someone else.  And I see the wisdom in God leading me home.  He knew I had begun to worship my call.  In the past few years, he has shown me that I am not called to missions, teaching, art, writing, marriage or motherhood.  My first call is to intimacy with Jesus.  And nothing compares to intimacy with Him.
Through going, returning, singleness, marriage and motherhood, God has been my anchor.  He has consistently reminded me that though my circumstances change, He remains the same.  His love is steady and my identity in Him is secure.  Just because I am not serving Him as an overseas missionary right now does not change His character or the way He sees me in any way.  He is still moving, breathing His Spirit and whispering His plans just as much at home in the states as He was when I lived in China.  And it turns out that He—not a man–was my “constant” all along.
References:
Young, A, Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service, 1st paperback ed, pp. 37 & 47, Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, USA. 2015
~~~
Used with permission from SPAG Magazine
Here’s the link to this edition of the magazine, which will only be active until the fall:  SPAG Magazine (June-August 2016)  

~~~

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Single in China~ The biggest internal struggle I had as a single woman was feeling like I was giving up all prospects of marriage by moving to the middle-of-nowhere China.

When You Feel Like God Misled You {Middle Places}

I am honored to be sharing at the Middle Places online community today.


God misled me and lost my trust. From the time I was 16 I believed that I was created to be a missionary. Once, on a flight with violent turbulence, I actually had the thought God won’t let this plane go down, because He needs me to do His work.

It sounds so arrogant now, but at the time it felt incredibly faith-filled.

It’s been 20 years since my original calling and not only am I not living in a hut leading people to Jesus, I just test drove my first mini-van. I’m “just” a regular old stay-at-home mom with a dishwasher and attached garage.

But living abroad did end up being a significant part of my story. From 2005 to 2010 I lived in northwest China, intending to be there forever–even if it meant being single. But God’s narrative looked much different from what I had planned for myself and He had me fall in love with an actor in Chicago who, while open to God’s leading, was not “called to missions.” But he was God’s pick for me. And it was time to go home.

If you’ve ever lived abroad, then you know that your insides feel about like the innards of a baseball as you try and untangle your values, identity and worth as you readapt to a culture that should feel like home, but doesn’t. Now referred to as re-entry, it is synonymous with an astronaut re-entering Earth after adapting to space.

Imagine Alice returning from the Looking Glass, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stepping back out of the wardrobe or Dorothy returning from Oz and you have a bit of a picture of how you might feel after adapting to another culture.

But add in falling in love with that country, culture and people and you have another layer to step through.
And it broke me….continue reading at Middle Places 

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Skinny Dipping and Lazarus

Skinny Dipping and Lazarus~ for Addie Zierman's #NightDriving synchroblog


In the darkness

~~~

My first experience skinny dipping was at a summer camp in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina the summer before my senior year of high school.  Two girls and I snuck out of our cabins after lights out and giggled and tripped along the path into the woods.  We eventually found our rebel river destination, peeled off our cutoff jean shorts and thrift store T-shirts and stepped into the cool water.  Easing into the water, we made an unfortunate discovery: the water was too shallow.  We sat there hugging our knees and gazing up at the stars until small fish noses started tapping our thighs and eventually prodded us back out of the water into the silky black night.

Through that entire experience, the flashlights stayed resolutely “off,” because the beams would have not only exposed our nakedness, but other creatures that might have been lurking behind trees and on rotten logs.  The darkness felt safe.  The light, exposing.

~~~

My roommates had gone to bed and I decided to stay up and finish watching a romantic movie.  I was twenty-four and teaching middle school in Chicago.  Two of my three best friends were nearing engagement and I was always struggling with one crush or another on guys that didn’t know I existed.  As I watched that movie about two teenagers falling in love, a well within me seemed to break and I sobbed uncontrollably.  What if I’m never loved like that? 

~~~

At twenty-six, I had believed he was “the one.”  Truly believed it as if the words had been spoken audibly to me by God Himself.  That’s how much faith I had put in this boy in spite of it all.  I offered my whole heart, and one year later, the boy handed it back.  I don’t want it, he seemed to say.  (But really it was something along the lines of “I prayed and it isn’t God’s will…”).  Confusion, grief and doubt polluted my soul. 

But then Lazarus.  The story of Jesus allowing his friend Lazarus to die and then raising him from the dead was in my morning reading.  And then in a small group meeting that night.  A message for me.  It all seemed so purposeless and cruel.  Why allow Lazarus to die when you plan all along to raise him to life again? 

And yet when Jesus heard the news that Lazarus was dead, he cried.  Though he knew the end of the story, he wept right there with them.

~~~

This morning my children miraculously slept in past 6:30 am, so I shuffled around in the kitchen, contemplating waking them up with the coffee grinder, when I noticed the pink lines through the blinds.  Pulling them open, the brilliant sun burst through the clouds, piercing the sky with an almost unnatural light and color. 

I threw open the back porch door, grabbed my phone and trudged through six inches of snow in my slippered-feet to capture this moment in time.  With a phone camera.  Not surprisingly, the phone image was pathetic in comparison to the original.  Sighing, I turned back inside, leaving my drenched slippers on the door mat and warming my toes by the hidden heating vent by the floor of the kitchen sink.  As I made coffee, I glanced back outside, waiting for the sun to overtake the sky.  Instead, it had disappeared almost entirely behind the clouds.  A wasted sunrise after so much potential.

Much like a dead King Jesus coming back to life only to disappear again.  So promising, so hopeful, so much cause for jubilation and delight.  Finally!  But then, like the sun, he was gone.  What a disappointment.

Until.

Until the day He reemerges from the clouds to take over the entire sky.  The day the sky breaks into song and even the darkest clouds are used as a backdrop for the most exquisite sight we’ve ever seen.

But for now, He weeps with us.  He skinny dips with us.  He shrugs away our guilt and shame.  And He holds our hearts gently after they have been mistreated and rejected. 

Until that day.

~~~~~~

Skinny Dipping and Lazarus~ for Addie Zierman's #NightDriving synchroblog

This is for Addie Zierman’s #NightDriving synchroblog celebrating the release of her new book Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark using the prompt: “It was dark when ________ you wouldn’t believe what I saw in the light.” 

~~~~~~

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Thankful for this Day

Right now, in this moment, I am thankful.


I sway with my 16-month-old daughter, singing her the same two songs I always sing before putting her in her crib, “Jesus Loves me” and “I Love you Lord.”  She reaches up, her face two inches from mine and touches the tips of my eyelashes, then my ears and nose, with her chubby little fingers.  She smiles her gap-toothed smile, her wispy blond hair bits escaping from her tiny ponytail on top of her head and falling across her eyes.  I lay her down and quietly tip-toe out of the room.  My three-year-old son has already quieted down next door and I no longer hear him singing and making noises.

I push the button on the electric tea kettle, rummage through the cupboard for a tea bag, plop it in the largest mug I can find, pour the steaming water into the cup and sit down here to write. 

Right now, in this moment, I am thankful.  I am thankful for the sun streaming in through the too-many windows and creating bright geometric shapes on the couch.  I am thankful for the tiny hand prints on the windows because it means that there are tiny people that live in my house.  I am thankful that both children are sleeping at the same time.

I am thankful for the Colorado sunshine that has proven to be as dependable as promised thus far.  After living in Chicago for nine years total, I am thankful for the change.  Though Chicago had its own appeal–the diversity, culture, movement, rhythm, promise and pace, right now I am thankful to not be there.  

Growing up in Florida, my soul seems to have been conditioned to need sunshine more than most.  I am a sun worshipper.  And so Chicago winters would drill holes in my soul through which joy seemed to seep out during the months of January through May.  Though I know that joy is not dependent on circumstance, I have also found God to be someone who graciously gives us even creature comforts at times when we most need them.  And He knew that I needed a little sunshine for my soul.      

After living in a third floor apartment with two tiny children, with laundry in the basement, no garage, dishwasher or yard and no ability to control our own heat, I am grateful for these new luxuries.  Instead of making 12 trips to the basement in one week, I can now wash clothes at my leisure, watching as my children arrange stuffed animals for tea parties, collect miscellaneous toys in any receptacle possible and scatter cheerios and raisins on the carpet. 

A garage means I won’t have to shovel snow off my car in the mornings.  I can put my children in the car shoe-less, and I don’t have to haul them back inside if I forgot something (or leave them briefly and fear that someone will call child services on me).  And I can open the back door after naps in the afternoon for them to run outside in our backyard that is exactly the right size for our family right now.

Our neighborhood is so dark in the evenings that we missed the turnoff the first few times we came home at night.  We can actually see stars.  Chicago’s skies were always pink and I may have seen three stars on a good night.  And there was constant noise.  Now, we can hear birds, crickets and the distant whinny of horses from the back porch.  A smile creeps across my face on days sitting outside when the scent of horse manure drifts into our yard because it means that we are not in the city. 

The mountains stand serenely in the background of most of daily life.  It caught me off guard the first time I came out of Target to have such a stately background for a common store.  I’m surprised I haven’t gotten into a car wreck yet from gawking at them stretched across the horizon as I drive toward home.  They are a constant reminder of my smallness.  I am thankful for the awe that comes in feeling overtaken by beauty, overcome by God’s creation.

As my parents did not want to live in Chicago and we did not want to live in Florida, Colorado was our compromise place.  My parents are volunteer rangers at Rocky Mountain National Park in the summer.  They now live in the mountains and to get to grandmother’s house we not only have to go over the river and through the woods, but over the highest highway in the country.  Instead of rush hour being our reason for running late to their place, it is more likely elk or moose or the tourists stopping traffic to take pictures of them that causes our delay. 

I am thankful to be living in the same state as my parents for the first time in 18 years.  Now that I am a mom myself, I seem to need them even more.

After writing about The Narrowing in my previous post, this time of giving thanks is a load lifter.  Jesus, thank you for blessing me over and above all that I could have ever asked or imagined.  Thank you for your peace that passes all understanding.  Thank you for your forgiveness of me before I’m even willing to forgive myself.  I know that one day I can expect suffering, sorrows, trials, sickness and death, but today is not that day. 
Thank you for this day.  

Lately, I have been trying to start the day with a better attitude and have been singing aloud,

This is the day, this is the day that Lord has made, that the Lord has made,
Let us rejoice, let us rejoice and be glad in it and be glad in it.


This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Thank you, Lord, for your small and large gifts to us in this day.


What is the largest thing you can give thanks for today?  The smallest? 


Linking up with Thankful Thursday
 
 

Love & Marriage: The Narrowing

Love & Marriage:  The Narrowing

My closest friends know that I have a rebellious streak. And in spite of being a teacher by trade (and a rule enforcer by default as a parent), I may also be a little bit of a rule breaker.  So it should come as no surprise that I don’t do well with restrictions or limits.

Before getting married, I traveled to over 10 countries for various amounts of time (living in two). I learned Chinese, got my masters and planned to get my PhD (my Plan B since marriage didn’t seem to be an option–why not be super educated?). My “verse” was:  

“Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes” (Is 54:2).

And then I fell in love.

The Narrowing began with dating long distance, but became a real heading in the story of our lives when we got married and realized we had so much less time for ourselves and for relationships outside of one another. We were crazy in-love and happy, but began to notice our broad road narrowing as it sloped towards the horizon.

I suddenly felt like a bird tethered to the foot of another bird, exhilarated by the heights, but struggling to negotiate the tension that comes in flying while attached to another being.

Two years later, we had a child and The Narrowing became even more evident. We could no longer spontaneously go out with friends or stay up late. Our time for each other became more precious and our time for others practically non-existent. Baby number two came two years after that and the term “spare time” now elicited much eye-rolling and muttering of “must be nice” under our breath.

When we were dating, I told Adam that my biggest fear was that I would be cooped up with an infant inside a tiny Chicago apartment in the dreary winter. Within a few years, that is exactly where I found myself. It is hard to maintain your rebellious streak when you are nursing a baby around the clock.

But lately I’ve been wondering if The Narrowing isn’t as much a restriction of freedom as a freedom from restrictions? What if I stopped seeing it as an end and began seeing it as a means to an end? What if I started accepting that God may want to prune branches so that new branches may grow?

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (Jn. 15:2). 

It is fall-become-winter time and my son has started asking me why all the trees are dead. They aren’t dead, I answer,
they’re just preparing for winter. They are shedding their excess leaves to conserve their energy during this season.

I am a winter tree, stripped down to bare branches. Teacher, missionary, world traveler, student, friend- who-will-be-there-at-a-moment’s-notice and adventurer are no longer terms I can honestly use to describe myself in three words or less. Now, I am wife, mommy, cook, boo boo kisser, question answerer, pretend game player and bodily fluid wiper.  But perhaps one day vibrant new leaves will replace the ones that were “lost.”

In fact, lately I have noticed that the loss of leaves in our yard is opening up new views of the serene lake across the street, the expansive blue sky and the mighty mountains hiding behind houses that I couldn’t see when the trees were full.  Perhaps the loss of some of what I used to use to define myself is also opening up new views of God, myself and others in this season of my life.  


Any artist knows and respects the eloquence of empty space in a work of art.  The elimination of my extra road is teaching me to walk this narrow path with more precision and intentionality. 


I am being given the gift of lessening. 

Patty Stallings, in her article Pleasant Boundary Lines, pointed out that Jesus Himself was “unknown, hidden and unseen for most of His adult life.” He intentionally limited Himself and allowed Himself to take on the nature of a servant (Phil. 2:7). And we are called to be like Him. 

In the comments, she responded to my mention of The Narrowing:

“Leslie, when I first read your term “The Narrowing” on your blog a couple weeks ago, I thought how fitting for moms of young children. And moms of grown children. And women as they age. And women who take care of aging parents. And… well, the list could go on and on, right? The image that comes to my mind is squeezing through a narrow passageway and you have to shed all the excess “stuff” you are dragging along to fit through the narrow place. And as you do, your hands are freed up to welcome the new and the good on the other side of the passageway.”


My hands are freed?

Maybe this narrow road He has me on is not a road of restriction, but of freedom because I am walking within His boundary lines of love. The Narrowing frees me to walk with greater purpose, emptier hands and a lighter load. 
 
 “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance” (Ps. 16:5-6).


What about you?  I’d love to hear some of your experience with The Narrowing in the comments!


Linking up with Testimony Tuesday and Sarah Bessey’s Synchroblog prompt

A Team of Two

When I was first accepted to serve in China, I imagined being on a team of several strong believers and families who would simulate family for me, providing both my social and emotional stability in a foreign country. 
 
I never imagined that I would be in a remote city–with ONE teammate.
 
It is now ten years later and I just hugged Carolyn goodbye with yet another “See you sometime” farewell.  She is on home leave for six months and was able to stay with my family and I for a couple days.  It felt like China was last year instead of five years ago as we talked about our Chinese friends, laughed about ridiculous memories and discussed how the city has changed over the years. 

Leslie & Carolyn, August 31, 2005

This is one way that I am grateful for aging–for the distance to finally pause and look back, just as a runner runs out and is then surprised to look at how far they have come–and the beauty of the view from here.

 
Carolyn and I are about as different as you can get.  She grew up in a boarding school in Pakistan and really only lived in the U.S. during college. She is an introvert, loves cats and pours herself into a few relationships.  I, on the other hand, grew up in the U.S., am an extrovert, and have been accused of being a “friend collector.” But, though it was an unlikely friendship, we complimented one another in a way that made the “team” work. 
 
Even now, I often think of Carolyn during the holiday season.  We strove to create some semblance of normalcy when we were far from our home cultures in a place that had no concept of Thanksgiving or Christmas apart from cheesy Santa heads pasted up in storefront windows and gaudy fake Christmas trees in every color but green.  
 
We would plan Christmas parties with our fellow teachers and have a large meal with as much Western food as we could make using our tiny convection ovens.  On Christmas, we would read through the Christmas story, sing carols and drink hot chocolate.  My first Christmas in China, I worried about loneliness, but now that I am back in the states, I have actually missed how meaningful Christmas felt when I was far from the holiday clutter. 
 
One or two Easters, we climbed the local mountain (hill) for an Easter sunrise service–just the two of us.  I still remember huddling down as it began to snow and we sang hymns over the hillside.  Behind us, we heard wails of mourning as a funeral procession ascended.  It was such a contrast to the joy of resurrection to hear the hopeless cries of those who had no hope in death.   
 
The city we lived in did not have a legal church, so our only option for a Sunday church service was for us to worship together.  We’d take turns choosing a Scripture passage, download a sermon to listen to and sing hymns together along with Cyberhymnal on the Internet.  We were often off key, but we stayed fully engaged in the service because we WERE the service.
 
Life was so simple.
 
Leslie & Carolyn, November 7, 2015

Though I panicked when I heard that I would only have one teammate, God knew what He was doing.  Carolyn was steady, selfless and showed me how to build lasting relationships with those we rubbed shoulders with on a daily basis.  She encouraged me to take advantage of opportunities to visit my students at their homes in the countryside and take trains and buses to explore China. 

She was respectful of China, yet she had a great sense of humor and we would spend hours laughing about making fools of ourselves or about the quirks of Chinese culture. And her introverted personality gave me the understanding I would need to prepare me for my future husband, who is also an introvert.

 
Like so many friends since I got married five years ago, we haven’t kept in touch as I would have liked, but she is of the “pick up where you left off” variety of friends that I am increasingly grateful for the more narrow and insular my life becomes.
 
And for a friend collector, this one is definitely a keeper.

Day 30: 12 Survival Tips for Re-Entry {31 Days of Re-Entry}


As we’ve established, any number of metaphors can aptly illustrate your re-entry experience: trapped underwater, on a boat in raging waters, emerging from another world like Dorothy in Oz or Alice through the Looking Glass or the story behind the word re-entry itself– the feeling that you are re-entering Earth from outer space.  No matter the metaphor, whether you feel a tremor or have your whole world collapse (just to add another metaphor to the mix), I hope that these tips will be useful in getting you stabilized. 

1. Leave Well
Leaving begins months before you actually leave.  Be sure to leave ample time to sort through and give away anything you won’t be bringing back with you (which, if you have truly strived to make your foreign house your home, you may have a ton).  Sort, give away and sell your possessions well before you need to do your final packing and goodbyes.

Make a bucket list of places you want to visit in the last six months of your stay.  Another really insightful blog series called Falling Forward: Thoughts and Tips on Transition, mentions this as well as intentionally meeting with friends to tell them how much they have meant to you.  If you’re like me and have a hard time doing this, I find writing letters or notes to friends meets the same need.  But however much you would like to skip this step, grieving will actually be more difficult if you don’t try and reach some form of closure before you leave.  

2. Prepare
Come back to this blog series!  But seriously, read articles, books and talk to friends BEFORE you leave so that you have a better idea of what to expect.  If you are reading this now before your departure, then you are already on track.  If you can, attend a conference as soon as you return, but be sure to book it well in advance since many of the good ones fill up early.  It’s kind of the idea of reading marriage books before you are engaged because once you are engaged you’ll discuss the wedding more than that actual marriage to follow. 

You may be in too much of a fog when you return to actually crack open the books or seek out the help you need.  Find and read them beforehand (check out my resource page here).  You may also want to prepare your loved ones by telling them that you may need a little extra TLC in the coming weeks and months.

3. Express
Cry, journal, talk, pray, email or text friends–do whatever it takes to work out your emotions.  I had no problem with the crying, praying or journaling thing, but I had a hard time finding people to talk to who could actually relate to what I was going through.  Find someone who understands and if you can’t, the website Velvet Ashes has some connection groups for women to  join online for encouragement and accountability.  

I can’t speak for men, but being married to one, I would imagine that this tip of surviving re-entry would be the most difficult to tackle.  Perhaps find a female friend to listen to you?  We’re usually pretty good listeners:-)

4. Be a Tourist in Your Hometown
Though Chicago had interesting sites galore, because I didn’t have the attitude of a tourist, I didn’t look for opportunities to explore and be an adventurer in my hometown. I think having that mentality would have helped with my transition.  Even if you live in Dixon, IL, population 16,000 (my husband’s hometown), you could find at least one or two new places to explore.  Take on the attitude of an observer and learner just as you did in a foreign country.

5. Do the Next Thing
You may have heard of this poem by an anonymous poet, but quoted by Elisabeth Elliot, titled “Do the Next Thing.”  For a while, this is how you are going to need to live.  You may need to find a new job, housing, buy a car, acquire new stuff and get reacquainted with friends and family.  Just worry about what you need to do today.  Then do the next thing.  And then the next thing after that.  God will show you, lead you and guide you, but, as Amy Carmichael mentioned in  Candles in the Dark in her devotion titled “The Next Step,” the lamp unto our feet may only light our footsteps one step at a time (Ps. 119:105).

6. Give People a Chance
Your loved ones, while they may have read all your newsletters and correspondence, will most likely not have a framework for what you have experienced.  Imagine talking to someone who has literally gone to the moon.  You would be fascinated…until they start boring you with the technicalities of cargo, equipment and heat shields.  Give them grace and give them information over a period of time and not all at once. 

Along with this, it is easy to assume that people you meet have NO idea what you have experienced, and they may surprise you with their own stories.  Just be prepared with a 20 second, five minute and 15 minute answer to the question, “How was your time in X?”  Read their body language carefully to see if they are the slightest bit interested before you launch into the long answer (shifting eyes and a quick excuse to get another drink is a sure sign of “get me out of here”).  You have lovely stories, just save them for those who love you the most.  And be prepared for people to ask you if and when you are going back.

7. Adjust Your Attitude
This is a difficult one because it will actually be difficult to control your attitude at first.  You are going to love being back, but then, much like culture shock, you are going to hate. it.  And depending on where you lived, you will especially hate the materialism, the fact that you have to choose from 247 bottles of salad dressings and have to decode the newest food and diet fads.  I practically had a break down in one of the biggest Whole Foods in America because I just couldn’t choose what to eat in their café section.

But you need to tell yourself the same thing you told yourself when you moved to an entirely new culture: 
“This country is not better or worse, just DIFFERENT.  It’s just different.”  Say it out loud.  “Not better or worse, just DIFFERENT.”

8. Have Patience
I mentioned in an earlier post that you will want to know how long this foggy, drowning, lost feeling will last and I hate to tell you that it will last much longer than you think it should.  Just as grief begins to spread out into slow, lapping waves, like a boat that has gone by and left its wake, your grief over leaving your old life will return months and even years after you have come back.  A big fear I had was that I would forget all that I had experienced, so one positive aspect of this recurring grief is that it forces you to remember.     

9. Take Root and Bear Fruit
If you are a Jesus follower, my advice to you is to cling to Him.  And as you do, He will enable you to begin to put down some roots in the city where you are living, which will lead to bearing fruit (Is. 37:31).  It may take a little while, but eventually you will need to accept that God has led you home and that He has new ways He wants to bless, grow, mature and use you.  Though your world may feel like it’s spinning hypnotically around, God is in control and He is the same at home that He was abroad.  He is your constant and His Word is a great stabilizer.

10. Find an Outlet
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find other cultures right in your town–even if it’s just an ethnic restaurant, a 7-Eleven or a nail salon.  Since coming back, I found a place to tutor Chinese women trying to get their citizenship, volunteered at an ESL class (with my baby, I might add), hosted an international student party, had a Saudi Arabian girl live with us for a year, and taught at a private Christian school in Chinatown (it all sounds a lot more impressive than it is-some of these were only for a short time–just giving you ideas!).  If you live anywhere near a university or even a community college, most of these places have international students who would love to befriend a native speaker. 

11. Go Back
I had the opportunity to go back to Uganda seven years after I first left, and China, a year after I left. It was so helpful to return to those places to remind me of the realities of living in another country when I had begun to romanticize my previous experience.  Going back to China, it was strange to feel so at home at a place, and yet have so much clarity about being back in the states.  If you have the chance, returning to the place where you lived is a helpful way to further bring closure to your experience.

12. Reflect on Your Experience
You have changed.  You have faced challenges, learned new languages, seen God answer prayers in miraculous ways, been used in spite of your weaknesses and been given what you needed exactly when you needed it.  

Or maybe your leaving wasn’t under the best of circumstances and you feel bitter and wounded.  You feel angry at God and doubt whether He even led you there to begin with.  

Don’t just jump back into the rushing current of your hometown busyness, but take the time to reflect and consider where you have come from and where you are going.  Sit quietly.  Listen.  Get away. Have a silent retreat.  If you have kids, then try and spend some time alone as a family for a week or two in a place where you can decompress. 

If you can, don’t start a new job immediately, but take the time to sit and interact with your experience.  Check out the prayer on this post and insert your own story into the lines.

This is not the end of your story.  This is the end of a chapter in the story of your life, but you are ultimately not defined by this isolated experience.  You are deeply loved by a God who gave you the gift of living in a place where you didn’t fit in order to change your perspective forever. 

And this is not the end of the gifts He wants to give you, beloved child of the King.  This is just the beginning.

What tips would you add to this list?  Which ones do you think will be most challenging for you?

~~~~~~

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This post is day 30 of the series “Re-entry: Reflections on Reverse Culture Shock,” a challenge I have taken to write for 31 days. Check out my other posts in the series:

Day 1: Introduction
Day 2: Grieving
Day 3: No One Is Special
Day 4: Wasted Gifts
Day 5: I Never Expected…
Day 6: Identity: Through the Looking Glass
Day 7: Did I mishear God?
Day 8: When You Feel Like Shutting Down
Day 9: Caring for your Dorothy
Day 10: You’re Not the Only One Who’s Changed
Day 11: 12 Race Day Lessons for Serving Overseas
Day 12: Confessions of an Experience Junkie
Day 13: Longing for Home
Day 14: Readjusting: Same Tools, Different Work Space
Day 15: Book Review: The Art of Coming Home
Day 16: The Story of My “Call”
Day 17: Is Missions a “Higher Calling”?
Day 18: And Then I Fell in Love
Day 19: Is God Calling You Overseas?
Day 20: Life Is Not Seasonal
Day 21: What I Took and What I Left Behind
Day 22: Groundless, Weightless, Homeless
Day 23: When the Nations Come to You
Day 24: The Call to Displacement
Day 25: Scripture Anchors for Re-Entry
Day 26: In the Place of Your Exile
Day 27: Resources for Re-entry
Day 28: A Time for Everything: A Prayer of Leaving
Day 29: Journal: 8 Months After Re-Entry
Day 30: 12 Survival Tips for Re-Entry
Day 31: A Blessing
(Day 32: Writing is Narcissistic (And Four Other Reasons Not to Write)–a reflection on this Write 31 Days experience)

Day 28: A Time for Everything: A Prayer of Leaving {31 Days of Re-Entry}

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

Jesus, as I leave China, I thank you for this chapter of my life.

a time to be born and a time to die,
Gifts and talents I never realized I had were born, but I have also been forced to die to myself, my “rights,” and my desire for the comforts of home.

a time to plant and a time to uproot,
By your grace, many seeds of Truth have been planted and many of my assumptions and presuppositions have been uprooted.

a time to kill and a time to heal,
You have had to kill the sin of cynicism, prejudice, pride, grumbling, and gossip in me and you have brought healing to many of my broken places.

a time to tear down and a time to build,
At times I have felt like a failure.  I have started work and had to tear it down again.  I feel like I have wasted time and money in the process.  But other times, I have had the chance to see projects succeed and flourish. 

a time to weep and a time to laugh,
I have cried for reasons I could not always explain and laughed at myself and the bizarre aspects of the culture I have lived in.  This laughter has been a healing balm on days when I have just wanted to weep.

a time to mourn and a time to dance,
I have mourned what I have missed back home:  new babies born, being in friend’s weddings, funerals, family holidays, and watching my nieces and nephews grow up.  But I have rejoiced over reaching personal goals in language, understanding the culture and seeing Christ change lives.  I have danced with joy in these moments.

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
I have had to let go of dreams by moving abroad.  When I first came, it was the hope of a spouse and children and the longer I stayed, I knew I would also be letting go of the possibility of a successful career back home.  But certain dreams were not meant to remain scattered and God has shown me which ones He wants me to pick back up again.

a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
Relationships have surprised me since I moved across the world as I have kept in touch with some and not with others.  God has begun to take away my guilt for not keeping in touch with every friend I ever had and reminded me that sometimes friends are for a season–and that is okay.

a time to search and a time to give up,
I was searching for a spouse, and it is when I finally gave up that I found him.  I was also searching for significance and have been constantly reminded my life is in Christ.

a time to keep and a time to throw away,
I have kept many gifts and treasures I have collected over these years abroad, but as I try to move into and actually thrive in my new home, this has meant throwing away anything that is keeping me tied to my past in unhealthy ways.

a time to tear and a time to mend,
I have had to tear away my fears, doubts and insecurities in order to minister here.  I have needed you to mend my shattered heart, sewing it back together and making it stronger than it was before.

a time to be silent and a time to speak,
My time abroad is constantly on my mind, but I need your help in discerning when people really want to know and when it may be better to keep silent.  You have also taught me that hearing comes from listening and listening comes in silence.

a time to love and a time to hate,
I have loved hard.  It has been a tough love in this place that was so much like an arranged marriage to an incompatible partner at times, but in the end I loved much of what I hated at first.  Now, I mainly hate that I have to leave.

a time for war and a time for peace.
I have done battle in this place–with my sin, through conflict with others, in my mind as I’ve tried so hard to adjust and assimilate, and emotionally as I’ve wrestled with issues of injustice, materialism, poverty and suffering that I never had to consider before.  But you have given me moments of sweet peace that remind me that this world is not my home. 

What do workers gain from their toil?
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.
He has made everything beautiful in its time.
He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end…

I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.

God does it so that people will fear him.

Lord, thank you for the opportunity to serve you abroad.  Now help me to serve you back home with the same love, intensity and awareness of You.


Ecclesiastes 3: 1- 11, 14  (in bold)
New International Version (NIV)

If you are leaving soon, try out this exercise and write a prayer for each of the segments of this Scripture passage, praising God for what He has done in your life during your time abroad.

~~~~~~

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This post is day 28 of the series “Re-entry: Reflections on Reverse Culture Shock,” a challenge I have taken to write for 31 days. Check out my other posts in the series:

Day 1: Introduction
Day 2: Grieving
Day 3: No One Is Special
Day 4: Wasted Gifts
Day 5: I Never Expected…
Day 6: Identity: Through the Looking Glass
Day 7: Did I mishear God?
Day 8: When You Feel Like Shutting Down
Day 9: Caring for your Dorothy
Day 10: You’re Not the Only One Who’s Changed
Day 11: 12 Race Day Lessons for Serving Overseas
Day 12: Confessions of an Experience Junkie
Day 13: Longing for Home
Day 14: Readjusting: Same Tools, Different Work Space
Day 15: Book Review: The Art of Coming Home
Day 16: The Story of My “Call”
Day 17: Is Missions a “Higher Calling”?
Day 18: And Then I Fell in Love
Day 19: Is God Calling You Overseas?
Day 20: Life Is Not Seasonal
Day 21: What I Took and What I Left Behind
Day 22: Groundless, Weightless, Homeless
Day 23: When the Nations Come to You
Day 24: The Call to Displacement
Day 25: Scripture Anchors for Re-Entry
Day 26: In the Place of Your Exile
Day 27: Resources for Re-entry
Day 28: A Time for Everything: A Prayer of Leaving
Day 29: Journal: 8 Months After Re-Entry
Day 30: 12 Survival Tips for Re-Entry
Day 31: A Blessing
(Day 32: Writing is Narcissistic (And Four Other Reasons Not to Write)–a reflection on this Write 31 Days experience)


Photo: Juan R. Lascorz [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons