Life Lessons


I know, I know. I’m still processing my trip to Ethiopia – two months later. I’ve always been a late bloomer, and sometimes it just takes me a bit of time to think and learn and realize the truths that exist around me. And there are so many truths to be realized. Here are a just a few life lessons I carry closely with me, long after the scent of coffee and adventure and joy has left my suitcase:

Choosing a way out and asking for help is far stronger than not.
Somewhere down the line, I’ve associated the need for help with weakness. Surely I should be able to handle my circumstances alone – people do it every day, right? Single mothers, widowed elders, orphaned children. They pull themselves through life, sometimes without the blessing of a strong support system existing around them. But the strong ones? They create one.

They ask for help and rely on their communities, swallowing pride and shedding tears and holding hands. And I can’t imagine that’s easy, to break habits or set boundaries or change lifestyles. It’s precisely the reason we need help – because it’s hard and real and scary. Reaching out requires a great deal of strength.

I read somewhere that our muscles atrophy when we do the same thing with them each and every day. Walking, sitting, going through the motions of our daily lifestyle. So of course, it makes sense that to extend your arms and reach out for help is a very real and physical act of strengthening ourselves. Perhaps doing so is the only way to fight the atrophy of our habits.

I’m working on this.

Communication has little to do with language.
I came home from Ethiopia with a new appreciation for nonverbal cues, body language and facial expressions. I know just a few Amharic words, but for every phrase I couldn’t remember, a smile filled in the blanks. For every question I didn’t know how to ask, a kind gesture answered. For every idea I tried to communicate, an embrace was offered.

Of course, there is a risk in communicating with those that don’t speak our language. Sure, we might unintentionally offend. We might break an unspoken rule. We might create a misunderstanding. But it’s worth the risk, isn’t it?

On one of our last days together, we visited in an open courtyard, enjoying freshly brewed coffee and painting each others nails. And my mind immediately reeled: “By offering to paint my new friend’s nails, will she think her nails aren’t good enough as/is? Will she think we’re covering up her natural beauty? Will I leave a hint of doubt in her heart that she was made perfectly good and lovely, just the way she was?” I hope not. That was certainly not my intent, but I struggled – I couldn’t communicate my fears with her, because I didn’t have the words.

Instead, I offered anyway, with a smile and a gesture and a hopeful spirit. And judging by her giggles and songs that my new friend loved our time of makeshift beauty parlor together, just as I did. We had a moment of connection together – of nail polish and mutual respect and endless dreams.

How many times have I not taken that risk? How often do I see a frenzied mother in the Target parking lot with a screaming baby and a cartful of groceries, struggling to steer as she chases her 2-year-old? And because I don’t want to offend, I give her a knowing smile of sympathy, hesitating because I fear she’ll feel inadequate if a helping hand is offered.

It’s backwards and unnecessary and selfish of me that I wouldn’t risk a few moments of awkwardness or misunderstood intentions to help someone experience a bit more peace or joy or simplicity in their days. To make a connection with another person going through life in the next lane over.

I’m working on this.

 A smile can brighten someone’s day, but mostly your own.
On our way home from Ethiopia, we had a harried travel experience full of flight delays and unexpected surprises and missed connections. Still, there was a permanent smile on the faces of so many of us. How could we fret a few extra days in an airport when we have so much to be grateful for? So many lessons to be realized? So many facets of light to see through?

We smiled and laughed and connected with each other, and as a result – something beautiful happened. We felt better. The ticketing agents felt better. The other passengers felt better. It was as if we made a collective, conscious decision to press on through circumstances beyond our control and embrace these rare, few moments of uninterrupted conversations.

I found myself smiling a lot in Ethiopia, mostly as a form of communication – an attempt to share my gratitude to the women who are sharing so much of themselves and their stories and their country. And even after landing in the states, where my words were understood and language was expected, I still relied on a smile to communicate my thoughts and feelings to perfect strangers.

And the effect was magical. Walking through the airport, everyone was smiling. Because I was. I sought to make eye contact instead of looking down at my feet, and nearly everyone who met my eyes would smile back – a brief connection in our day, yes, but a meaningful one.

My smiles have been fading lately, and it’s disappointing. Responsibility and details and work have crept into my life and tugged a bit on the corners of these lips. But I’m making an effort to remember how important those smiles are to those around me. To my family. To my community. To myself.

I’m working on this.

Music and dance are the great connectors.
In Ethiopia, when there was no translator and no words and no common language, we danced. We hummed and sang and swayed and clapped, and the rooms filled themselves with joy. Dancing is often reserved for celebration, but don’t we have so much to celebrate? Why aren’t we throwing daily dance parties where the music is good and the energy is high?

I have a friend that tap dances while having arguments with her husband. It chases away the negative energy and they can faster and more easily resolve the tension, getting to the heart of the issue and proceeding with a solution.

I don’t want to wait for an argument to tap dance with my husband. I don’t want to wait for a celebration to dance with my daughter. May our home be filled with music and beats and rhythm, voices riddled with joy.

I’m working on this.

Change is made by growth, not leaps.
I’m often frustrated when I don’t make progress in certain areas – healthier eating habits, a calmer spirit, a more grateful perspective. But change isn’t something that’s easy to track. Progress is often little more than a series of choices in the right direction, steps toward something bigger and greater that we might not stumble on until we’re looking behind us at the breadcrumbs we’ve left behind.

The women of FashionABLE each made huge changes in their lives, rehabilitating themselves from lives of prostitution and sex trafficking. And I can’t imagine how difficult that change must have been, slow and steady with slips and mistakes and many moments of self-doubt. But with each day, they pressed forward and showed up – for classes and training and community. And what looks like a leap was likely more of a slow growth – some steps forward, a few back and a lot of shuffles along the way.

I’m learning to see change in this way. A series of choices – some bad, but more good – that slow spiral around and around and around the base of a mountain until, years later, steady and hopeful, I’ll have reached the peak.

I’m working on this.

I have a lot to work on indeed. But I’ve had some excellent teachers who have spiraled and are spiraling and will continue to spiral with a steadfast heart and a willing spirit. And someday we’ll meet at the top of our mountain, smiling and dancing and singing side by side – celebrating the peaks and valleys of our Ethiopia.

  • Thanks for sharing your very thoughtful, gentle but powerful insights. Having worked in the area of Int Development, the humanous of how you are making sense of people coming together, is really striking. I read each section, and paused when i read your pauses.

  • i haven’t visited your site in years (i kind of fell off the face of the blogosphere) but what a pleasant return! awesome write up of what sounds like something that was an incredible experience. i will be visiting more frequently from here on out!

  • Thank you so much for this. I lived in Iraq for a year and it is amazing how much my communication style changed. I learned to slow down and accept that sometimes I would just simply be lost. I came home much less controlling and much more open to new experiences.

    • Love hearing that, Kandy! International travel really does kind of slow you down a bit, yes?

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