A Cup of Coffee

With Five Friends Afar

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If we were having coffee right now, Laura, we’d both be in Spain. How cool is that! I would be gatecrashing your international conference and we’d be jealous for time together as we’d have so much to talk about. It’s been almost a year since you left Ireland to go back to the Sates with your family and it’s been hard going without you. I’d like to know how you are getting on in the day-to-day of your new role in your job as a returned missionary. I’d ask how your daughter’s wedding plans are getting on, I’d love to see photos of her dress on your phone. I’d be telling you about the exhibition I saw in the Wexford library today, I can’t pass that place without thinking about you. We’d be chatting about all sorts of art and book-related topics. You’d be wanting to hear about the ladies in the Bible study group and we’d be marvelling together in how God has answered prayers and transformed lives. We’d cry about the fact that we’d have to say goodbye. We’d laugh too – from the belly, like crazy things – few people make me laugh as hard you do.

If we were having coffee right now, Trudy, I would have to book time with you away from my eldest daughter who absolutely adores you. I would be telling you how tanned you are from your days in the Australian sun. I would be giving you letters and cards from my youngest daughter to yours who still goes by the title of her best friend. You would be telling me all about your work with the teens and how much they have matured in their faith and how it has been for them leaving a small town in Ireland to travel right across the world to be there with you. We’d talk about how cold it is in Ireland and the mad way how, when you used to lived here, you’d like to wear flip-flops just because the sun was shining. We would probably cry together too as we have done on our weakest days and we’d search the truths of scripture together.

If we were having coffee right now, Tania, we would lag lekker!! The coffee would be in the most stylish cups on a tray with some Woolies rusks and we’d be under the lapa by the pool. We’d be making braaibroodjies with, amongst other things, Melrose cheese spread and Bovril while the guys light the fire. You’d make amazing food you could win awards with (and have done) to go with the broodjies. I’d like to know how else you are putting your remarkable creativity to use and I’d be admiring the way you’ve put your unique stamp on your home. You’d be telling me about My Father’s House and the awesomeness of our awesome God and then we’d make more coffee. My cheeks would be hurting from all the laughing. I’m on holiday back in South Africa and I’ve just been spending time with family. You’d encourage me to go and take a nap and I’d be telling you that you are my oasis.

If we were having coffee right now, Robs, we’d be chatting like we’d only just seen each other yesterday. I’d be asking you all about your latest trip to the in-laws in Kilkenny. We would talk about our high school friends with whom we are still in touch and wonder whether we’d be getting together for the next reunion (30th in 3 year’s time!!) I’d love to see photos of how your London home is getting on with all the amazing revamping work you’ve done to it. We’d also chat about you and your husband’s church work in your neighbourhood. I’d probably be cooking the dinner too slow, thereby making both of us anxious as your ferry departure time draws perilously closer. You’d be telling me that you’d have been happy with scrambled eggs. It would take longer to find your kids and get them into the car than you expected and we’d say how much we’d love to have spent more time together. My family would eat the dessert after you had all left.

If we were having coffee right now, Maggs, how many years would we be catching up on? 2o or 21 maybe? I’d actually be trying to remember whether you like coffee as I seem to think you don’t, but I can’t remember. I’d finally get to meet the younger two of your three nearly grown up children and hear their voices. I’d love to see around your house, get to know your neighbours and see first hand what it’s like being a missionary in Senegal. I’d be telling you how amazed I am at the length of time you’ve been living there and how much I admire you. But you’d blush and be saying: “Don’t be silly, God can use anyone for his Kingdom’s sake, I don’t feel very great at all!” You’d be wearing something in a bright and flowery local fabric and you’d be smiling all the while. I’d like to hear you speak in Wolof. We’d talk about the time long ago when we used to work together and the lovely people we worked with. We’d talk about who they have married and how their children have grown. We’d pray for one another before we say goodbye.

Dear women, I miss you, I’m grateful to know you and I count myself privileged to call you my friends. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have you all over for coffee at the same time? Maybe one day…

At the Table

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I remember the first time we sat around my parents’ dining table after my father died. Apart from him we were all there. Nobody sat in his chair, nobody spoke about it who should or even whether we should. It didn’t feel right. Actually nothing felt right but most especially us without him. How horrible and uncomfortable was this feeling. To me my family was unpalatable and tasteless as though a vital ingredient in the mix had been left out. “So this is how it will be from now on”, I thought to myself. We had no choice but to grow used to the new flavour that was us even though it was all wrong, even hateful.

That was sixteen years ago and over time we have worked to create what we can with the ingredients that are left. There are many days though where I am holding the bowl that contains myself, my mum and four siblings, stirring angry tears into the mix, I hate the way I can’t fix and replace or restore what is lost.

Today I opened a book I have called ‘Grieving the Loss of a Loved One’ by Kathe Wunnenberg. It’s styled a devotional companion and my aunt, my dad’s sister, gave it to me not long after he died. I noticed my entries that dried up a year after his death are about half way through the book. That’s at the end of Section 5 : Crying. So that’s after working through Denying, Venting, Questioning and Bargaining.

Section 6 moves on to Surrendering, followed by Accepting, Praising, Being, Celebrating, Relating and Living. There is a part of me that feels I am still too angry to move through the rest of the process even though it’s been such a long time. I have been more or less good at holding it all together all this time. I do accept that some of my ‘Why?’ questions might never be answered. Such as why his death had to be such a drawn out four day process of having little idea where he was. And why my uncle had to live with grim memories of having to identify a body which was only recognisable by his tie as he’d been in water all that time and his face was destroyed from a gun-shot wound. Or why we were still living in a crime ridden Johannesburg which he was trying to to put plans into place to leave. I’m definitely still angry about those why’s.

I would like to move on from the hurt of grief, if that was possible and they say it’s good to open wounds to enable healing. I’m not sure one does ‘move on’. Maybe the pain is not as intense but you never forget and there are still times when remembering is a physical sensation in my gut. During those first days when everything was so bewilderingly changeable and inconstant I had the image of God in my head as the Rock and found comfort in knowing that although everything around me may have changed forever, He was the one thing I could count on to always remain the same. At that time of searching when we didn’t know whether my father was dead or alive, the first lines of Psalm 121 came to mind “I lift up my eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Maker of heaven and earth”.

So today I started the journal again and marvel once more at the way the Psalms echo my thoughts. Wow, these words from Psalm 42: “My tears have been my food day and night…deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, all your waves and breakers have swept over me…I say to God my Rock ‘Why must I go about mourning?’ Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God.”  I have been overcome at times and yet He is still my Rock and my Salvation, there is no other that could compare with what he has done and what gives us.

I will work on through the rest of the book my aunt gave to me. I know there is no such thing as going back to what we had before but there is hope in finding new ways of living without forgetting what was good then. I’m trusting too that what remains in the recipe can be remade into something good to be brought to others as a blessing. Maybe the recipe can be rewritten in a way that incorporates a new generation of our little ones. There has been increase and abundance which has brought joy. The chairs around the table have been rearranged to add all the new bodies and the flavour of get-togethers is sweeter than it was in those early grieving days. Even so, it would have been lovely for him to still be at the head, to savour that which we now have.

Pearls in Bree

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“It comes in loving community
It comes in helping a soul find it’s worth
Redemption comes in strange places, small spaces
Calling out the best of who we are

And I want to add to the beauty
To tell a better story
I want to shine with the light
That’s burning up inside

This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful”

Sara Groves

There really is a little village not far from where we live called Bree and I look forward to going there every week on Wednesday evenings for about an hour, or a bit longer if all goes well. It’s up a on a hill with a lovely view. The far off fields in varying green shades are outlined by hedges and trees, with farms, houses and cows dotted in between. Rearing on the horizon is the purple whale-back of Forth Mountain which shields from sight Wexford Town and the sea beyond.

No hobbits in this Bree I think but plenty of little people. I come here so that my smallest daughter can take part in the local athletics club. She’s in the youngest group so the cuteness factor is high. In between races she and her friends bounce and cartwheel and skip about. Not too different to lambs I suppose, except for the cartwheeling.

Last week I strolled over at the end of training to watch her attempt the javelin which was something new. It’s probably a sort of training javelin that she uses as it’s short and stumpy with no sharp pointy bits anywhere. I think it’s filled with water as it gives a surprising little spurt every time it lands. This week is the relay across all the age groups which is a whole lot noisier and more confusing. The lines move forwards and backwards with some bumping off one another in the middle which I’m fairly sure is not meant to happen. They are all having bucket loads of fun though.

In Tolkien it’s the dwarves who are the miners and they don’t even live anywhere near Bree. But like them I collect treasures for that lovely hour and a bit within the cocoon of my car. It’s a time of being lost in other worlds apart from the one I see outside. Time moves at a different pace here, regretfully quicker. I’m oblivious to it’s passing and am surprised always by the final whistle.  I have a bag to carry my books which vary from week to week, sometimes a novel to read or a notebook in which to plan stories. This evening I have my Bible and a commentary on the Psalms in preparation for a women’s study in the morning.

The gems I am collecting are pearls and I’m carefully stringing them together in order to bring them to the faithful women tomorrow so that I can adorn their necks and make them beautiful. The words of Sara Groves, one of my favourite artists stir around in the back of my mind, workman’s words about building on what has already been done and about grace that looks beyond who we are with an invitation to be lovelier.

I am grateful as I could be tempted to feel inadequate and unworthy to be working with such precious gems. Then my mind moves on to older words that have been preserved for us safely through the ravages of time and they remind me that the Master Craftsman who fashioned these pearls makes all things perfectly and his purposes will remain.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.  Matthew 6:19-21

This Was No Safari For Us

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There are few things more exhilarating than flying into the Okavango Delta in the smallest aircraft you could imagine. Especially when your pilot is a trainee and there are several visible thunderstorms ahead which are not particularly friendly to tiny Cessna four-seater planes. As we make our first foray into the Botswana wilderness, it becomes fascinating in a ‘can’t look away’ sort of way watching how the senior pilot points the safe route between tall columns of rain hanging from even taller columns of cloud.

As we approach our miniscule airstrip for the tented camp, which was to be our home for the next 4 nights, our ever vigilant but surprisingly relaxed looking trainer pilot spots a large flock of secretary birds – not the smallest birds in the aviary, note – enjoying a conference at the foot of the runway. With no desire to break up their party in any distressing way it becomes urgent for our aircraft to swoop giddily up and over the flock and take advantage of what meager offering remained of the runway. We bravely hit the hardened earth and grass stretch and proceeded to eagerly speed towards a large puddle that looms into lake-like proportions as we approach. Happily we slew to a stop, short of the embracing bush, after a diagonal path through the water. Adrenalin charged we leap out into the waiting arms of our driver, flicking away tears of relief. Our African safari in one of the most beautifully unspoilt wilderness areas in the world has begun.

The next five days are filled with large and small moments of delight. The staff who people the luxury tented camps of the Delta are passionate about their jobs as well as the landscape that surrounds them and it’s easy to see why. This is a glimpse of how one would imagine Eden to have been like. There is little evidence of man’s interference here, the camps are extremely sympathetically built with the environment being their chief concern.

Life takes on a new tempo, languid and easy. We wake before sunrise to watch zebra and giraffe take their first drink before the threat of lion send them into their grassy hideaways. Afternoons are spent dozing in the shade of our tent away from the hottest time of the day. Later we catch a ride in dugout canoe or mokoro, gliding between bubble tracks created by hippos as they tread their way along subaqueous paths. Evenings are another adventure out into the bush to visit the carcass of a kill or witness a herd of bachelor elephant bulls strut their stuff. Occasionally they’re angry elephants who flap their ears, toss their trunks and kick up earth at your human intrusion into their world.

Africa is a complete sensory experience. The variable bird and animal noises, the spicy bush, earth and dung smells, the heat on your skin all captivate one. And always as a never ending backing track is the high-pitched shrill of the cicada beetle – the ubiquitous lovesong of the bush which intensifies with the heat of the day. Oh, and the tastes! Being a luxury camp all our meals and drinks are included in the rate – so we feast like kings. Our sunsets are accompanied by the comforting icy clink of a G&T (bottomless if you prefer). We are replete and sleep deeply.

Four nights and five short days are not enough to satisfy our new-found love affair so we leave with a thirst to return. As the word safari derives from the Swahili word for journey I realise this was no safari for us as it hasn’t ended. It was merely the first step in what will ultimately, hopefully become a lifetime of travel.

To our relief we don’t recognise the pilot who brings us back to Maun. But I presume our young trainee friend has passed with flying colours, and even if he hasn’t I would allow him fly me back into the Delta again, because surely it’s true when they say that ‘perfect love drives out fear’!