I’m going to write something every day.
January 1: It All Begins
In the beginning of 2015, Ken summoned the creatives to a challenge. Now the new year was just beginning, and the habit to create was waiting to be formed. And the spirit of inspiration was hovering over the brave souls who had signed up for the 31 days of creating.
And Ken said, “Let the challenge begin!” And it began.
The writers poised their hands over rows of strategically arranged letters. The artists picked up their freshly sharpened pencils and approached blank canvases. The musicians tuned their ears to the melodies waiting to emerge.
And there was slow cooking. And more slow cooking. And then, a fresh idea burst forth! And then, a dose of practicality to ground it! The creative saw it was good. There was novelty, and there was relevance—the first day.
January 2: The Beginning of Home: The Entryway
My mother used to refer to our house as a “cheesebox.” Designed in the late 70’s by my practically-minded engineer of a father, the original structure was simply four sturdy walls of red brick topped by a black-shingled roof. Of course it was built to be completely functional. Yet it missed the aesthetic touch of an architect.
The split-foyer layout gave visitors two choices when they entered through the front door: up or down. The tiny dark-tiled foyer provided standing room only for a few guests. They could see the black, wrought-iron handrail leading up the stairs carpeted in burnt orange. Or they could peek downstairs and see the basement, walled with dark wooden paneling and carpeted in golden yellow.
Over the decades, as aesthetic appreciation increased, along with the budget to make it happen, the cheesebox house underwent phases of renovations and makeovers. One of them was the entryway.
The front door and tiny foyer were transformed into a grand entryway that extended well beyond the limits of the original front wall. The peaked ceiling of the entrance became the tallest in the house. The foyer became large enough for people to actually walk in, and the dark tile was replaced by a classy marbled pattern. Generous light flowed in from a row of three tall adjoining windows crowned by a semi-circle window. The front door was outfitted with side panel windows and an arched window of its own on top.
The new entryway was also large enough to add other elements of hospitality. A two-story closet stood ready to house guests’ apparel, and a cushioned bench sat ready to host a weary traveler. Potted plants graced the corners, their long bushy ferns bowing their greetings with a green flourish. Guests could linger in the spacious entryway, or they could mosey up or down the stairs, glowing with a natural wood varnish and clean white paint. At least after this renovation, the house was now a welcoming cheesebox!
The Kitchen (Part 1)
A decorative wooden plaque hangs prominently above our kitchen table. The words engraved on it capture a motto for our family’s home: Sit Long. Talk Much. Laugh Often.
How apropos that it should be placed in the kitchen, in many ways the heart of the home. This is one of the first rooms in the house that underwent renovations. Undoubtedly, visitors who are welcomed into our household soon find their way into the kitchen, for it’s just up the stairs and around the corner.
The renovated kitchen is large enough to comfortably hold a 7-foot long island in the middle and floor-to-ceiling rows of maple cabinets. The granite countertops sparkle like a midnight sky speckled with gold stars. The 6-burner gas stovetop attests to the fiery action that often takes place when the chefs have donned their hats.
My father is affectionately known as “Wok-Man” when he’s cooking Chinese dishes. When he’s entertaining, he will bring out the three large woks and set them on the blue flames to heat up until they’re steaming. A squeeze of oil, a dash of garlic, a sprinkle of salt—the cooking stage is set. From there, it’s a whirlwind of ingredients being tossed into the woks—marinated meats and colorful flashes of chopped veggies. The woks hiss and sizzle in puffs of steam and spatters of oil. The tantalizing aroma of fresh ingredients being seared with flavor wafts throughout the room. With flicks of the wrist and quick sleight of hand, Wok-Man simultaneously conducts the sizzling round irons with the bravado of a ringmaster.
The Kitchen (Part 2 – January 4, 2015)
On the other side of the kitchen, across from the sizzling wok action, my baker of a mother is also creating delicacies of her own. With glove-mitted hands, she gently coaxes pans and trays laden with goods in and out of the oven. While the stovetop is the stage for fast-paced stir fries, the oven is the treasure chest for slowly melded gems of deliciousness —juicy roasts of meat that have tenderized for hours and savory sweets baked to golden perfection. The air tingles with the blend of mingled aromas and anticipation.
The dinner guests come not just for the meal, but also for this “cooking show” that precedes it. What a scene to behold! Watching the feast being assembled in this household kitchen is like being in a personal restaurant. You know the chefs, and each dish is catered to your palette!
The table is filled with heaping portions of mouth-watering dishes, and the dinner gong announces that it’s time to eat with a resounding clang. Then, as we all eagerly partake of the homemade meal, we welcome our guests into the traditions established on the plaque above. Through merry mouthfuls, we sit long to linger over the food. We talk much, exchanging stories and memories and sharing hearts. And with the revelry of good company and jolly folks, we laugh often. Welcome to our home!
January 5: The Garage Switcheroo
It’s not a simple task to move the garage from one side of the house to the other, let alone, from the bottom level to the top. But that’s what we did in another major renovation to the house.
The original garage was nestled within the confines of the cheesebox structure, as part of the basement level. The new two-and-a-half car garage was built on the opposite end of the house, and it was raised to join the top main level in accordance with the sloped grade of the land. This meant the original four brick walls had another four walls added to them—only these were fashioned in light gray siding.
This also meant our driveway had to be switched around. The original driveway, which had served as a practice runway when my sister and I first learned how to ride a bike, turned into lawn. And what used to be lawn turned into a practice runway for when we first learned how to drive a car. The new driveway also became a fancy half-circle of blacktop on our front yard, with two entrances from the street.
The new garage was lined with shelves, cabinets, and pegged walls—an attempt to organize the sundry tools, sports equipment, and vacation gear we’d accumulated over the years. This addition was even equipped with temperature control options, in case one day it became a woodshop for an aspiring carpenter.
And what became of the original garage? That was turned into a 2-bedroom, bathroom suite for me and my sister. That was part of another major renovation…
January 6: Man with a Remodeling Mission, and Girls Helping with Sticks
My ambitious handyman of a father (known as “Tool-time Dad” when he’s puttering around the house), took on the task of renovating the basement largely by himself. Well, with just a bit of help from his teenage daughters too. He wielded the heavy tools and provided the genius behind the plans. We helped out by holding sticks.
One of the first activities we did in the renovation process included surveying the land. My dad borrowed the necessary equipment from his engineering company’s site department. To a girl who had never heard of “topo” before, the whole thing seemed strange. My dad peered through a view-finding type device on a tripod while I stood on the yard holding a pole upright. I had no idea why I had to stand there holding this funny stick. But I did. And I guess it helped somehow.
The second stick-holding opportunity came when my father was working on the dry wall ceiling in the basement. He needed us to help hold the dry wall up in place until he could secure it. Since my sister and I are both petite, and definitely less muscled than a Popeye, my father rigged up devices for this task—T-shaped wooden planks. We would hold the vertical portion of the T, while the horizontal portion would be holding up the dry wall.
So there we were, standing on top of step ladders, grasping these rough T-sticks, pushing up the dry wall over our heads while my dad rushed around with his tools to secure the ceiling. It was then I realized how heavy dry wall really was. And it was times like that I wished I had brothers. But through the straining muscles and the muttering complaints, we got the task done! And the labor put into holding those topo poles and wooden T planks made me all the more grateful for the house I called home.
January 7: The Backyard Park
Stan and his wife had driven nearly two hours to enjoy the hospitality of our rural-suburban home. Used to their metropolitan setting, they reveled in the tranquil beauty of the land we lived on. Stan gazed at the luscious grass of our yard, spanning over an acre. “Listen!” he exclaimed, a grin spreading across his face. “Do you hear that?” He cupped a hand behind his ear. “It’s the sound of grass growing!”
Many a visitor has likened our backyard to a park. If only they knew it was originally an unwanted swampland. Over the decades my parents cultivated the property to become the beautiful land it is today.
The backyard of green grass fades into a backdrop of dense woods. Bordering our property line runs a babbling brook, flowing just steadily enough to create the murmur of water mingled with rocks.
In the summer, the birds waken us with their rousing melodies and sweet choruses. In the fall, the squirrels scamper about the yard, up and down trees, scurrying hither and yon to prepare their winter’s bounty in time. In the winter, the deer bound through the snow in their dark fur coats, leaving their trail of hoof prints.
Just as the wildlife are in tune with nature’s tempo, the trees also change outfits according to the season. In the spring their branches pop alive with verdant buds emerging in pale green hues. With a gentle triumph, the leaves grow until the trees are clothed in a thick canopy in the summer. They sway in the breezes like dancers set free, and slowly meld into the rich vibrancy of fall. In swirls of crimson and gold and burnt umber, the leaves cascade to the ground, shimmering in the waning sunlight. And after the branches have become bare with winter, they wait for the scene to begin again, when the sound of grass growing is heard once more.
“The trolls are after me!”
When I was a child, trolls were all the rage. You know, those little figures with the wide beady eyes and the neon colored spiky hair. Their mouths grinned impishly, their tummies protruded in a tubby kind of way, and their arms were outstretched toward you.
To some children, they were cute toys to play with, a different kind of doll. To some adults, they served like some kind of fetish.
Back in those troll days, my family attended a local baseball game, Orioles vs. Yankees. A fan outfitted in Yankees gear a few rows ahead of us clearly believed he had a good luck troll of some kind. At critical moments in the game, he would stand up, grasping his troll, and wave it back-and-forth toward the field. Strangely enough, somehow the Yankees seemed to turn a good play after each time he did that.
Perhaps that incident spooked me in a way, for one night I had a vivid nightmare as a little girl. In my sleeping mind I saw these trolls grow to be larger than life. They towered above me, with gigantic bodies and spiky hair growing even taller. Their beady eyes were all focused on me, and their mouths were salivating at the sight of a helpless little girl. With lumbering steps and outstretched arms, they started toward me, gaining speed on me as I screamed and tried to run away. I was sure they wanted to eat me. Their big bellies must have been filled with other children.
The fright must have jolted me awake, for I scrambled out of bed and ran crying down the hallway. My father must have heard my distress, for he was already heading toward my bedroom. I ran into his arms and held him tightly, sobbing “The trolls are after me!”
What went through his fatherly mind, I know not. But I knew the comfort of his presence, and the assurance of his embrace. And that was enough to dissipate those ominous trolls.
I am a little sheep bell. I’m tied around the wooly neck of a little stuffed sheep that our mistress affectionately named Ptόchos. I am cylindrical in shape, about the size of our mistress’s thumbnail all around. My metallic shine has faded over the years, so now I am a lusterless bronze. I am hollow inside, housing only a tiny metallic pellet that rattles within me when I’m shaken. The muffled reverberations are a mix of ring and clang. These sounds emanate from the hole designed on my outer circle. The hole is in the shape of a doggy bone, with the two ends of the bone resembling hearts. The holes on my inner circle enable me to be fastened with a cord to Ptόchos. I was originally tied with a scarlet ribbon, but that broke. So our mistress tied a new red ribbon to connect me to Ptόchos. She didn’t want me to get lost. The original one still hangs through me though, the frayed edges dangling down Ptόchos’ chest. So I live nestled right under Ptόchos’ chin, securely in the shallow nest of matted wool.
Ptόchos and I are from Jerusalem. We were handcrafted there by a master artisan. Skilled in metal work, he forged me together with carefully chosen materials. I remember the intense heat of the smoldering fire. The embers glowed with a sizzling orange, and the sparks flew as the master formed me into being. Within that fiery womb I came to life.
I knew I was a bell created for a special purpose. I was soundly formed on the outside, made of fine metal by a master. He polished me until I shone with a brilliant luster. I knew I was hollow inside, but I had something within me that made me ring, made me a bell. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t ring on my own though. I had to wait until the master picked me up in his rough hand and shook me back and forth. Then, my beautiful sound would ring forth.
The master created the little sheep, later to be called Ptόchos, with the same care he made me with. He selected the finest wool, as soft as fresh fleece, and as cream-colored as sunlit wheat tops at harvest time. He gave Ptόchos round ebony eyes, and stitched a little T-shaped nose into the muzzle. The master fashioned two tiny ears and a stub of a tail for the little sheep. Then he put his Israeli marks onto a tag that was also stitched near the tail. What those symbols mean, I can only imagine. But they are a telltale sign that we were crafted in our homeland of Jerusalem. And then, Ptόchos was gently filled with the stuffing that makes all good animals come to life when in the loving hands of a proper master or mistress.
I knew that Ptόchos and I would serve together well. I could only function if I was with a creature that could move me to ring. And Ptόchos needed a bell to help be found again should the case of the wandering hooves strike, as it does in most sheep.
As the master threaded the scarlet ribbon through me and around Ptόchos neck, I was so proud to be paired with such a fine sheep! I glimmered and glistened and rang with clarity whenever Ptόchos moved around.
Then, the time came for us to leave our master’s warm handy shop. He packed us up into a large container, filled with other sheep and their bells. We were anxious, not knowing where we were going or what was happening to us.
I clung to the wool around Ptόchos’ neck as we were taken out of our transportation packaging and brought back out into the open air. Our master placed us on a table along with the other sheep he had brought. With a final pat of the hand, he gave us an affectionate goodbye. While I haven’t seen him since then, I know that we still bear his trademarks in being so finely crafted.
This new environment was drastically different from the cozy confines of the master’s shop. We had been taken to the heart of Jerusalem city, to a merchant’s table stand. The cobblestone streets bustled with people going about their market business. Women draped in long head coverings and flowing dresses paused at produce stands. Children frolicked among the stands, eyeing the colorful toys and cute stuffed animals out for display, such as us. Merchants called out to prospective customers, hoping to entice them with their products. The sound of mixed voices and pattering footsteps all around me was an urban cacophony. The pungent smell of Mediterranean spices filled the air, tingled with a faint aroma of roast lamb and falafels from an open market café.
Ptόchos and I were resigned to stay at the merchant’s table until a new owner came to choose us. We were silent observers to the noisy city scene unfolding around us, and yet very much a part of that scene as our new owner walked down the Jerusalem street toward our merchant.
The afternoon call to prayer had just finished sounding. The final echoes of the high pitched song-like voices lingered in the hot summer air. Local Muslims dutifully pulled out their prayer mats and bowed down in the same direction. Ptόchos and I witnessed this ritual five times a day while living in the Jerusalem market. Little did I know that this time, the call would herald the beginning of a new season in my life.
After the prayers were over, and the marketplace tempo resumed, I spotted him. He was strolling down the street, glancing around at the various goods for sale. Fair skinned and white-haired, I could tell this man was not a local. He wore spectacles and was stoutly built. He came closer and closer to our merchant’s table, and then paused right in front of us.
Our merchant was eager to make a sale, especially to a foreigner who seemed interested in a Jerusalem souvenir. In his thickly accented English, our merchant pointed out this and that on his table. The foreigner nodded thoughtfully, and with him standing so closely, I could see the wrinkles around the corners of his mouth. I figured those well-worn creases came from him smiling so much. What a nice owner he would be!
He seemed interested in the stuffed camels at first. But then he started looking at the sheep! He picked up one of the sheep adjacent to Ptόchos, and then put it back down. Then, his hand hovered over Ptόchos, and we were picked up. He turned us up and down, and I tried to ring as pleasantly as I could. And it must have worked, because he decided to buy us!
Our merchant was happy to do business with this American man. And Ptόchos and I were happy to have a new owner and start a new adventure!
Our new owner hand-carried us away, walking through the winding stone streets of Jerusalem. After a little while, he entered a youth hostel nestled among other local buildings. I saw small groups of teenagers milling around the courtyard. I could tell they were all visitors to my homeland.
Our owner headed toward a small entryway arched with large gray stones. It led to a stairwell, and we followed the narrow steps as they spiraled down. Once we arrived in the lower level, I noticed we were in a large open area filled with bunk beds. The walls were also made of the same large gray stones. The only dim light came from small lanterns hung throughout the room, as there were no windows. The air was damp and cool down here, a respite from the summer heat outside.
Our owner carried us toward one of the bunk beds. Sitting cross-legged on the top bunk was a petite girl with black hair. Her head was bowed and she wiped her cheeks with a tissue already wet from tears. As we approached, she lifted her head and forced a trace of a smile. Our owner spoke softly and comfortingly, and I wished I could have better understood the words he spoke in English. Then, he handed us to the girl, and walked back toward the stairwell.
I looked up at our mistress, realizing that we had been entrusted to her care. She stroked Ptόchos’ soft wool, and I softly jingled, trying to cheer her up. More tears ran down her face, dripping onto Ptόchos’ head, and onto me.
I didn’t know what was making her sad, but I wanted so much to comfort her and brighten her heart. It was in those emotion-filled moments when she named the little sheep Ptόchos, meaning poor in spirit.
In the days that followed, Ptόchos and I served as a faithful companion to our mistress. She and the other young people in that hostel would go out during the day. Meanwhile, we were carefully set on our mistress’ bed, settled comfortably in the soft crook of the pillow. But when it came time to rest, she would return to us, holding us close. We would snuggle against her warmth, and comfort her with the softness of lamb’s wool and the lustrous jingle of my bell’s ring.
Eventually it came time for us to leave Jerusalem. Our mistress placed us in her backpack, and we were carried around for several more weeks to various countries. I don’t even know all those places we went, but I know we spent time on buses, in tents, in various hotel rooms. And then, we flew to America, our new home.
Ptόchos and I enjoyed the cozy comforts of being in an actual bedroom. We enjoyed the company of our mistress’ other stuffed animal friends, and learned they each had their own stories too. But, I’m proud to say, we’re the only ones that can claim Jerusalem as our homeland, and bear our master artisan’s marks to prove it too. Ptόchos and I were the ones to comfort our mistress in her time of sadness while she was in our homeland. And that has made this worldwide journey worthwhile and given me someone worth ringing for.
“3…2…1…Happy Fruit Year!”
It’s that time of year when you catch up with friends after the holiday hiatus. You exchange stories of trips and celebrations. As you share, you relive those awkward family moments, those harrowing adventures on the road, and those funny incidents that you can laugh about—afterward.
Last week our small group reconvened for the first time in about a month. As we chatted about our holidays, the newlywed couple in the group shared about their unique way of welcoming in the new year.
“We don’t have a TV,” began Anna, the bubbly redhead with black-rimmed glasses. “And my friend was visiting from out of town. So we wanted to do something to celebrate the new year.”
She grinned as she continued the story. “We couldn’t watch the ball drop, so we decided to have our own ball drop! I thought, what do we have that’s round and can be dropped out the window?”
Laughing, she exclaimed, “Grapefruit! We have like 10 of them!”
So she proceeded to explain how at midnight they opened the window from their upper-level apartment and dropped the grapefruit outside. The fruit hit part of the roof, rolled down, and then landed on the ground. Happy new year!
Sharing in the amusement, Anna’s husband commented, “I’m sure anybody watching us would have assumed we had alcohol at our party!”
“Yeah,” Anna agreed, “but we only had leftover sparkling pear juice from our wedding! And you know, it did taste kind of funny…”
If this couple’s new year’s countdown was any indicator, 2015 seems like it’ll be quite fruitful!
Helping Sheila – Part 1
It was the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s. Goodwill sentiments from a season marked by giving and receiving mingled with anticipation of newness around the corner.
My friend visiting from out-of-town and I were in downtown Baltimore, participating in a conference focused on reaching out to others. In between sessions the two of us decided to head out for a quick dinner. We zipped up our coats, pulled on our gloves, and braced ourselves for the blast of outside air that would nip at our noses.
As we stepped onto the sidewalk, a middle-aged African-American woman scurried over to us. She was bundled up in a dark down coat that hung to her knees. In one hand she grasped a plastic grocery bag, tied with a knot.
“I’m not asking for money,” she began, “I just want something to eat. Can you help me?” She looked pleadingly at the two of us.
My friend and I exchanged surprised glances. As I quickly pondered the situation, I knew that we had come to the conference to serve. And here, right outside the conference itself, was an opportunity that just walked up to us.
“Ok,” I responded. “How about we bring you back a sandwich?”
“No, I can’t just stand here waiting for you,” she said. “I’m not from around here. They won’t let me. Can I walk with you?”
“Ok,” I agreed. “We were planning to get some dinner anyway.”
As the three of us started walking, the lady introduced herself as Sheila. She told us she was 54 years old and that her husband had gotten into a fight with her because he was with another woman. She was originally from DC and he had dropped her off in Baltimore and left. And she was pregnant too. If only she could get the $7 more she needed to buy a train ticket home…
“Sorry,” I shook my head. “We can get you a sandwich, but we’re not giving you any money.”
We entered the sandwich shop, and while my friend and I spent time to glance over the menu, Sheila knew right away that she wanted the Italian cold cut sub. She ordered with a sense of familiarity that seemed to undermine her claim she’d never been there before.
Helping Sheila – Part 2
While we waited for our sandwiches to be made, the three of us sat down at a small round table. Once we were inside and I was sitting next to her, I could smell that Sheila had not bathed properly for quite awhile. She mentioned she didn’t even have a decent place to use the bathroom so she just had to wet herself. She didn’t have any safe place to sleep, so she walked all night and then slept during the day.
In an effort to help her, I named several shelters in the city, but she always had an excuse. That one was only for men, that one was too far away, that one didn’t have any openings, that one required ID and she didn’t’ have any.
Once our sandwiches were ready, I told Sheila we were going to pray before we ate. She agreed to that and bowed her head with us. After the “Amen” Sheila eagerly tore into her sub. She chewed and swallowed as quickly as she could, bite after bite.
In between mouthfuls, I asked Sheila if she believed in Jesus, and she said that she did. I tried to reassure her (and myself) that Jesus knew her needs and would provide.
What was the best way to help Sheila? I doubted she would use any money for a train ticket. Providing a meal was a practical way to help, but was it sufficient?
Sheila had quickly eaten one half of her sub. The other half she wrapped up and stored in her plastic bag for later. My friend had only eaten half of her sub too. Sheila asked if she could take that one with her as well. Figuring Sheila needed it more, my friend agreed.
Realizing we had already given her the extent of our hospitality, Sheila prepared to leave. As she stood up, she said, “Well, I still don’t have the ticket money to get home, so you might see me around here again!”
And with those parting words, Sheila walked back out onto the cold dark streets of Baltimore city.
She left us sitting at the table with partially full stomachs and partially full hearts. The quick meal of bread and cold cuts had curbed the physical hunger we had, for now. The act of kindness had helped Sheila get something to eat, for now. But soon enough our hunger would return. And Sheila’s needs would continue to be felt in a very real way.
What’s the best way to help people like Sheila? And if you see her walking around the streets of Baltimore, how will you respond?
When I was about 7 years old, my grandmother came to stay with our family while she recovered from surgery. I was excited to have her around the house because we usually didn’t get to see her often except holidays and special occasions. Por-Por, as we called her, taught me all sorts of exciting things during that time. She showed me how to make paper airplanes. She played tic-tac-toe with me. And she taught me something special about teeth!
As a typical 7 year old, I was in the prime tooth fairy season. Each little tooth that was carefully wiggled out was a prize to be cashed in.
“Mommy!” I would call out. “I lost another tooth!” I knew she had special connections to the tooth fairy, so I had to be sure she knew.
I would tape each tooth to an index card and bury it under my pillow at night. The next morning, I would delightedly find the tooth had been exchanged for a quarter! If I was lucky, sometimes there would even be a dollar bill! I figured the tooth fairy was especially generous for a larger molar, or perhaps more compassionate for a particularly painful lost tooth.
One night while my grandmother was staying with us, I headed into the bathroom to brush my teeth before bed. I noticed a see-through container sitting on the sink counter. Horrified, I gasped at what was inside—a full set of teeth, floating in some liquid, smiling back at me!
I recognized those teeth as usually smiling at me from within my grandmother’s mouth. But this time, they were all by themselves!
“Mommy!” I cried out. “Por-Por lost all her teeth!”
Little Biker, Big Pride
Dad was coaching me and my sister through that childhood rite of passage—how to ride a bike. I admired all the older neighborhood kids who could zip through the streets on their two wheels. I didn’t want to be burdened anymore by that set of training wheels on my bike!
We spent hours practicing going up and down the driveway. Dad helped steady the bike as I learned to balance while pedaling. As I wobbled shakily with the bike, I also tried to balance my excitement with the fear of falling.
Finally, the time came when we were confident enough to try it on our own. Mom came out of the house with the video camera to record the big moment in her young daughters’ lives.
Of course this made me and my sister even more excited. We were going to be the movie stars in this home footage!
Dad started us off at the top of the driveway near the street, while Mom stood at the bottom near the house. Once the camcorder was rolling, my sister and I started biking down the driveway.
My little legs pedaled away, and I triumphantly pulled ahead of my sister. Yard by yard, I made it closer to Mom. I wanted to show off how good I was!
As I neared the video camera, I risked taking a hand off the handlebars to wave. With a big grin, I shouted “Hi, camera! Look at me!”
Noticing my sister was still lagging behind me, I added with a smug whisper, “I’m better than she is!”
And then, I quickly realized I had reached the end of the driveway. Trying to brake and turn all at the same time, I just couldn’t keep my balance. The bike fell over, and I went down with it.
As I started to cry from my skinned knees and bruised ego, Mom ran over to help. The video footage blacked out.
I learned that lesson quite literally—pride goes before a fall.
Conquering the Squatty Potty – Part 1
Sally knew it was going to be an unforgettable summer. A junior in high school, she had signed up for a 5-week mission trip to a developing country in southeast Asia. The sponsoring organization promoted the opportunity as a “summer of service for a lifetime of change.” What a meaningful way to use that time off school! It was sure to be an experience that couldn’t be taught in the classroom.
She had done all the required prep work before the summer began. Raised all the support. Read the required materials. Packed the suggested items. Sally was ready for the adventure! Or so she thought.
The summer experience began with training camp in the States. This gave the team members a chance to bond and prepare together for their time overseas.
Training camp was set up on an expansive hayfield. Rows of neatly lined up tents covered the grass. A big top canopy provided shelter from the sunlight during group meetings. The rigged up trough provided a source of running water. And the porta-potties were strategically placed to be close enough for convenience yet far enough to keep their offensive odors at bay from the rest of the camp.
Conquering the Squatty Potty – Part 2
There were about twenty-some American teens on Sally’s team, plus several leaders. There was Sonia, a slender girl with long blonde hair. She was genuinely kind and well-intentioned, but there were certain times when she acted stereotypically of girls with her hair color. There was Dave, a round fellow with glasses and the beginning of a beard. And there was Laura, a gentle yet spirited gal who spoke with the wisdom that qualified her as one of the mentor-leaders for the team.
The challenges of training camp were meant to prepare them for the trials they’d encounter overseas. For one, it was hot. The summer rays beat down mercilessly throughout the day, and there was no air-conditioning on the hayfield. Sally and the others sweated constantly, and to make matters worse, they couldn’t shower for three days straight! When Sonia had first arrived, she was concerned about not having an electric outlet to plug in her hair dryer. Then, as the days went on, the concern turned out to be not how to dry her hair, but how to wash it! So the girls braided their hair to keep the sweat and grime out of their faces.
Other training challenges made the teens feel like they had signed up for the military! The team members were roused from their tents at the crack of dawn to begin calisthenics and to run through an obstacle course. They spent time during the day running drills and practicing team skills that would be used in serving overseas. They even had to practice using chopsticks while eating their spaghetti dinner.
Of course in these boot-camp-like conditions, using the porta-potties was an inevitable necessity. Sally was used to the comfort of her clean porcelain toilet at home, in a bathroom that smelled delicately of lilac air freshener. At training camp, she was forced into the tiny, claustrophobia-inducing plastic outhouse that steamed away in the summer heat. Yet even that experience didn’t prepare her for what she’d face overseas—the squatty potty.
At the end of training camp, Sally and her team flew the 13-plus hours to get to Asia. Once they landed in the international airport, weary from jet lag and a long flight, the first chance came to make a pit stop in the host country.
As Sally queued up in the ladies room, she peered ahead to check out the situation. She noticed the stalls had images outside the doors to indicate what kind of toilet was inside. On the left side were Western style sit-down toilets; on the right side were the toilets traditional for this country—essentially, a hole in the ground that flushed.
Sally debated which side she should go for. She figured she’d have to face the squatty potty eventually…it was just a matter of when. Was now a good time to practice? She stepped up in line, and her legs felt stiff from sitting for so long on the plane. Better not risk having to squat now with her lower body practically numb from the flight.
So Sally avoided the first opportunity to tackle this bathroom challenge in the host country. But Sonia was brave enough to try.
After Sonia emerged from the stall, Sally asked her how it went.
Sonia grinned somewhat sheepishly. “Well, once I got in there, I wasn’t sure what to do!” she said. “I was so afraid I’d miss the hole and get my pants wet!”
She giggled and whispered to Sally, “So I took off my pants first and then went!”
Sally gave a nervous, sympathetic laugh. Was it really that hard? She needed a strategy for when her time came.
The team had flown into the capital of the country, but their main ministry was going to be in a city in the western part of the country. They spent the night in the capital (to Sally’s relief, the hotel they stayed at had Western style toilets!), and then they prepared for the 24-hour train ride to their destination city.
They bought instant dried noodles and bottles of water and other provisions for the train. Then the 20-some of them wove their way through the crowded train station. They paired up and walked in two parallel lines, all wearing backpacks and pulling matching gray suitcases on wheels.
Sally and her teammates boarded the train, which was crammed with 6 bunk beds per compartment and a narrow side aisle. The beds were so tightly spaced that only the bottom bunks had enough room for passengers to sit fully upright. The passengers on the top and middle bunks had to either sit slumped or lie down on their beds.
After getting themselves and their luggage situated, the teens settled down for a long train ride. The train pulled away from the station with a lurch and started chugging away on the rails. Sally had to get used to the way the train swayed back and forth.
Over the hours, she looked out the window and watched the cityscape of buildings and crowded streets slowly turn into scenes of farmland and simple huts. She saw peasants with cone-shaped hats plowing the fields and watering their animals at the river.
Seeing the animals drinking out there made Sally realize that she should stay hydrated too in the summer heat. The train was stuffy and stifling, and as time went by, the air became saturated with cigarette smoke from local passengers, and with the distinct odors of unflushed toilets.
Sally’s teammates brought back reports of the bathroom situation, one by one.
“Oh man,” sighed Dave, wiping his sweaty brow. He rejoined the group in the crowded bunk area. “The only option is the squatty potty. You either use that thing, or hold it for the whole train ride!”
He grabbed the bunk post to steady himself as the train swayed and rocked along the tracks.
“And with the train bumping around like this…” Dave shook his head. “It’s so hard to keep your balance over that nasty little hole…I almost fell into it myself!” Sally didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Sonia was sitting next to Sally on the lower bunk. “It’s true,” Sonia confided to Sally. “I tried the take-off-my-pants thing first, you know, like I did in the airport.” She lowered her voice some more. “But that toilet area is so small, like a closet. There’s barely enough room to move around in there without stepping into the hole!” She paused, unsure of whether to add the last comment. “And you know, people don’t really have good aim, so you don’t want to get yourself in any of that mess!”
Sally grimaced. She was feeling even more anxious now. Her bladder was getting to the point of needing relief really soon. The bumping train didn’t help matters either.
Laura, the experienced leader who had been to this country before, had some advice to share. “Oh, and just so you guys know, the train makes a few stops before we get to our destination city. You can’t leave the train while it’s stopped, and they also lock the bathrooms during that time. So if you need to use the toilet, you’d better go before you get locked out and end up in a desperate situation!”
Sally already felt like her situation was desperate enough. She decided to ask Laura for tips before she battled the squatty potty.
Laura was happy to share from her experience. “The key is to make sure you squat low enough,” the mentor shared. “Otherwise, you’ll probably end up missing, and needing a new pair of pants.”
Sally nodded her head, taking mental notes.
“It might be hard at first to keep your balance in this train,” Laura continued. “But use your arms to help steady yourself. And just be careful you don’t slip…It can get kind of wet in there too!”
“Ok, I think I can do this.” Sally tried to give herself a pep-talk as she walked to the end of the train car toward the bathroom.
A local man stepped out of the toilet closet, and Sally tried not to gag as the stench wafted out the open door.
Holding her breath, she cautiously stepped inside the tiny bathroom and locked the door behind her.
Minutes later Sally emerged, greatly relieved, and none the worse for the wear. She was grateful that she had successfully used the local-style toilet without mishap. Laura’s advice had been well-heeded!
Throughout the following weeks, Sally and her teammates had many more opportunities to practice with the squatty potties. The Spartan dorms they stayed in had no other options. The school they served in, the local sites they toured, and the small restaurants they frequented only offered the one kind of toilet.
Sally learned to always bring tissues with her since public toilet paper was not offered. She carried hand sanitizer with her because soap was usually not available at public restrooms either. And she realized that it’s helpful to have small bills on hand for those bathrooms that charged a fee.
Sally saw different versions of the squatty potty as she traveled around the host country. Some flushed with a step pedal. Others flushed with a pull string. And some didn’t flush at all. Besides the stainless steel ones on the train, there were the white ceramic kinds common in restaurants. There were the open trench kinds in the parks. And there were the basic literally-a-hole-in-the-dirt outhouses in the rural areas. Sally spent a night with a host family in the rural area, and at night they simply offered a plastic bucket in the room for bathroom hospitality.
After all these experiences, Sally grew more and more confident in her ability to use the local toilets. She actually started to understand why this host country preferred them. You didn’t have to actually touch anything, unlike the sit-down toilets, so it was considered more hygienic. And you could even use the bathroom without taking off your backpack!
It came time for Sally and her teammates to return to America. They were back at the host country’s international airport they had first landed in. Sally queued up in the restroom once more. It was the last chance for a pit stop before boarding the plane. This time, she unhesitatingly chose to use the local-style toilets. Who knew when she would get to use one again?
Back home, Sally eagerly shared about her experiences overseas, including the fruitful ministry and the challenges of cultural adaptations. Hearing her stories, good-natured family members and friends smiled at the anecdotes and mentioned how Sally could be a mentor-type now to other would-be visitors to that country.
In fact, Sally could even write a little guide, call it “Conquering the Squatty Potty” or something like that. It would be great bathroom reading for a potential traveler—that is, while they still had the luxury of lounging on a sit-down toilet!