no country.

a week and a half ago, after five nights with new friends, we were handed the keys to our new flat. and four busy days and an ikea trip later we had just about everything unpacked, built, organized, ready. though it still seems unreal, i can confidently say we live in glasgow now.

and we settle into life here. we walk, ride the bus, explore old churches, buy cheap necessities at the ubiquitous charity shops, visit parks, acquire library cards. the little things of life, of learning a new place.

and school. all week i’ve been attending orientations, meeting folks, making connections, all giving a clearer picture of what happens when classes begin on monday. i’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. the program director spoke to the assembled community development cohort of the overall aims of the course, the work that follows, of seeking out the marginalized, undermining oppression, and all those heavy, incredible things to which i feel the pull. i tried not to tear up as he spoke. i am not daunted by the long reading lists, i embrace them. i am glad of the chance to read not only because i am interested in the subject (and would probably do all that reading in my own time otherwise), but also because it is necessary for my academic advancement. i hope i do not regret these words in the following months.

and ministry. paul and emma showed us around this week to a handful of the various outlets to meet and support refugees and asylum seekers, the churches, organizations, individuals involved. meals, assistance to the destitute,  english classes, women’s groups, sports, the ever-present opportunities to simply meet people who may need a friend. we saw one long-established church operation that felt a lot like the food and clothing distributions of my former work with salt and light in champaign. and we met with the dynamic leader of another church offering services to asylum seekers and refugees, had a wonderful conversation on what they do, hope to do, how things might develop, our possible places. we are excited for these opportunities, for the friendships and connections to be formed, and interested also in what possibilities there are for community involvement in our own diverse corner of the city. emma gave us the rundown on the legal side of things. it is a curious, confusing, sometimes cruel system of hoops and paperwork asylum seekers must navigate. we shook our heads at the little injustices, fumbling attempts at support, the restrictions on everyday life, and how these things affect in myriad ways a family or individual.

all that to say, we won’t be idle this year.

before things really get busy i am still reading voraciously, immersing myself in texts that fuel and inform my coming research, based, often, on my inability to shake myself of our previous rwandan existence. i’ve read through the brilliant rage of fanon’s the wretched of the earth, ngugi wa thiong’o’s piercing decolonizing the mind (my first book checked out from the university library), the satirical plays of wole soyinka, freire’s wonderfully insightful pedagogy of the oppressed, and even the depressingly informative a people’s history of the united states by howard zinn. these things deepen the unease i feel in this world. and this is good. as we hang out with broken people we need this perspective. we need to see the cracks, large and small, to patch them. we must be, as tiring as it is at times, constantly unsatisfied with the way things are, which empowers us to challenge the oppressive structures around us, change them or tear them down, rebuild. i like life, i like to laugh, but i don’t think i would be doing my duty to the world if i wasn’t righteously angry at least some of the time.

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mercury and lightning.

glasgow’s an eclectic place, a mix of old and modern, hip and depressed, industry and craftiness, parks, treeless roads of crowded stone, church spires and addicts. it has the feel of other large european cities, similar smells and architecture, but has its own identity, something beaten, but looking up, hobbling away from ashes, burdened, hopeful. and rainy.

with the blessing of paul and emma, our team leaders, to get settled before we really engage in ministry, our days so far in the city have been somewhat unstructured, punctuated by periods of focused wanderings. apartment viewings mainly. we are waiting currently to hear about when we might be allowed to move into our chosen apartment. it is not terribly far from the university, on a main road laced with convenient bus routes, near a grocery store, near a library. around small bits of productivity we have been learning, learning streets and public transport, phone plans, mental currency conversions, glasgow slang. we’ve seen tourist thoroughfares and alleys and back roads through the hills, churches, museums, cafes, bookstores, parks, plenty of apartments.

and since our days in an airbnb ran out and we realized the entire region’s hotels were booked for games and festivals, we have also seen the homes of some very gracious acquaintances. we have shuffled around in the last couple days, from glasgow to stirling to milton of campsie, staying with friends of paul and emma’s who have spare rooms. it feels a bit like being homeless, but perhaps more like being a part of a larger, very welcoming community. we’re heaving luggage around we hoped would be unpacked by now, sleeping in strange but cozy beds, and making great connections, having great conversations.

and before the madness hits again, before grad school and ministry and all the time-defying extra-curricular activities those terms entail, we are thankful for this time of strange rest. these days are creating a distance between the busy last year, and setting up for the year ahead. i have to say that moving to another country this time feels oddly normal. even though little feels settled in this time of waiting, we are less unnerved than we could be. maybe that’s because of rwanda, maybe because we have begun to accept the tiny, persistent ways that God provides when we don’t expect. we are here, we are there, we are moving forward somehow; we make plans, plans change, we are moving forward. we embrace necessary fluidity. we celebrate steph’s birthday. we wait for john mark mcmillan’s new album to come out. ivy gets more steady on her feet everywhere we go. i can’t say i’m angry about how these first glaswegian days have turned out, but we readily welcome being handed the keys to our next little home.

 

 

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four winds.

[robbie]

and that was the year.

a year of waiting, in a way, but a year of waiting importantly. and learning.

i worked. i learned much about education in diverse settings. diverse in age, ethnicity, nationality, disability, academic ability, social awareness, language. this year was a chance to explore different educational outlets, a way of testing this whole master’s in education thing i go to now. and, yeah, i still want to do it.

we became parents. adding ivy to our family has been one of the greatest joys of my life. all the cliche’s about parenthood are true. i love her. she surprises me often with her happiness when i am bitter, her friendliness when i am lonely, her adventurousness when i am tired. i look forward to every day with her.

i wrote. my goal this year was to finish the book, a narrative nonfiction compilation of stories from congo, kiziba refugee camp, showing how refugees reckon with their pasts and shape the future. it’s been an emotional journey, to say the least. i miss my friends in kiziba daily. i hope my work honors their stories.

we rested. i say that after two weeks of constant motion. make no mistake, this was a hectic year, but there was peace in the busyness, a break among friends and family, a comfort in familiar places, a refueling, growing, reevaluating time.

while a part of me wishes we had been able to depart for glasgow last year as planned, i do not regret this year. it was, in many ways, necessary. it has prepared and readied us for this next step and we are excited for that. glasgow means to us a chance to better ourselves, sharpen our skills and awareness, both in the classroom and on the streets, putting theory into practice for a degree and more than a degree.

i am going to study. which means i will, hopefully, be better equipped to do what i feel called to do in this world.

we are going to hang out with refugees. which means we will again walk alongside those with heavy pasts, uncertain presents.

we are going to be parents still.

we will be visitors in a new land.

we ask for your prayers through these processes. we anticipate all the joys and depressions we know come along with this kind of life. pray that Christ would work through us, in us, steady us, provide for us. and those around us.

though i have neglected the blog this year, this new adventure calls for my words. stay here and stay tuned, join the facebook group, pray, support us and the ministry.

for, tomorrow, another plane.

 

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homeward.

i have a confession to make.

i voted for hillary clinton.

and that may not be the confession that some of you think it is. though she may not have been the greatest of choices generally, i had my reasons for voting thus and we can talk about them later if you’d like. my confession is of a different sort. we’ll get there soon.

i am one of many surprised and saddened by this week’s election results. for all the battles we’ve fought in this country against racism, sexism, and bullying we just elected a racist, sexist bully. his only concrete campaign promises were about controlling minorities. he made lewd comments about sexually assaulting women; the guy who laughs at him gets fired; he gets elected president. he can’t be trusted with a twitter account. the list goes on. it sends a fearful message, whether we see all the layers or not, to anyone not white and male. all of my students are in demographics that he has insulted or belittled during his campaign and many are confused. whether he believes what he says or not, he used hateful rhetoric to gain power and that alone is heinous. 

i voted because i deeply wanted what i saw as the lesser of two evils for this country. and i voted as an american who had some duty to do so. but this duty seems to me hollow, an acting for the sake of acting, supporting a certain side of a non-choice. and i realize that in voting for clinton i was betting one set of human ideas against another and God felt absent.

throughout the bible we see often, especially in the gospels and revelation, the theme of the Kingdom of God as the opposite to the worldly empires we know. and any empire, whether babylonian, assyrian, egyptian, alexandrian, roman, holy roman, ottoman, british, or, indeed, american, is destined to fall. its ways are man’s and not God’s. as Jesus clearly demonstrates, God has some very serious issues with things like institutionalized religion and earthly empires and all the things the world convinces us make us powerful. empires fall; the kingdom is eternal.

so my confession is this: i voted for empire.

i set aside things i know to be true and thought, maybe, focusing more on america than on Christ, i can help this one country suck a little less in some ways. i willfully voted for one version of empire against another version of empire.

though i feel somewhat dirtied by this knowledge, i console myself with the thought that in casting my vote perhaps i simply gave to caesar what was caesar’s. and i will let that be that. there is a larger calling to the Kingdom which i hope i am answering.

and perhaps i come now to why i feel so down about this election. we the church operate in the world, in the ‘forgotten corners of empire’, and yet operate using very different ways and means than the empire. or we should be doing so, anyway. i don’t think we are called to use the tools of the empire for some attempted good, but act rather in the unconventional ways of Christ. but this is very hard. and i’m afraid that many of our brothers and sisters – both democrat and republican in their own ways – see their first duty to some christian fantasy version of this country, and this country as their hope in place of the Kingdom itself.  supporting leaders who talk on our preferred side of a handful of issues, we imagine we’d be a more godly nation if such things were forced upon everyone. which, of course, doesn’t make any sense if we are also talking about everyone having freedom.

this is folly. in spite of what is said about the religious foundations of this nation, it has always been a version of empire and is hardly in accordance with how Jesus directed his disciples to act. we irresponsibly pair the idea of freedom we have in america with some kind of moral buffet plucked from half-remembered misconceptions about the bible and suddenly an empire becomes the tool of God. though it is not unprecedented that God uses empires to his own ends, i have trouble believing that america is God’s way to bring about His Kingdom. from slavery to the genocide (and continued oppression) of native peoples to segregation to wars to proxy wars to businesses that put profits before people to institutionalized racism, and on and on, at which point in america’s history did it really reflect the call of Christ to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves or teach and make disciples and work to bring the Kingdom here on earth?

if some are trying to make america into a ‘christian’ nation through forcing policy, how can they read the parable of the good samaritan on sunday and then vote to make sure no more syrian families fleeing war can come to this country on tuesday? the answer to this and other dilemmas is that there is more than one response. There is a fearful empire response that has to do with control and a response that hopes to see widows and orphans cared for no matter the personal cost. is there a way to reconcile these responses? should we even try to? how do i reconcile the part of me that longs to follow Christ and the part that is an american? can i even do so? perhaps the Kingdom invites us beyond such dichotomies. and perhaps those of us who get too bogged down in using politics to regulate elements of Kingdom ideals will be someday accused of holding the keys but not letting others in and not entering in ourselves.

my point is that the empire (america, in this case) cannot bring about the Kingdom of God for it is and will always be concerned with the things of the empire and the maintaining of the empire in a very earthly, worldly sense. to focus more on the Kingdom would mean giving up all that makes it an empire and thus it would cease to be. the people of america, high on ideologies about freedom and liberty, are not ready for this and probably never will be, no matter how much of a ‘christian’ nation it becomes. following Jesus, as we see in the scriptures, looks nothing like american capitalism. how can those of us who strive to be like Christ live and die for a set of faulty ideals written by man? how can we settle for anything less than the Kingdom?

so i gave my vote. i gave to caesar what was caesar’s. and though it is not an issue of salvation if we choose to cast a vote or use politics to help what we believe needs to be helped, lets just remember the government of america is not the Kingdom of God. 

some are saying whatever the election results that  God is still in control. true. but let’s remember that He is in control in His own ways and not in our worldly, fallen, human ways. and our job is to follow Christ and work to bring the Kingdom, which often means subverting any oppressive worldly power, seeking out the forgotten, and setting aside our own desires.

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if you need a little pick-me-up this week, future of forestry just released a new album and it brims with hope and is often musically stunning.

and if you want to understand more about where i am coming from when i say all this, you could ask me about it. i’d love to talk. and because i have only poorly said what others have said well, you could also check out these books:

the politics of Jesus, by john howard yoder

Jesus for president, by shane clairborne, et al.

that holy anarchist, by mark van steenwyk

the theology of the book of revelation, by richard bauckham

searching for sunday, by rachel held evans

also the book of revelation.

and especially read the gospels.

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well-dressed.

these  mornings have a refreshing crispness to them, laced with that earthy smell of old leaves. this weekend the wind blew in constant breaths and waves. the sun was warm, asserting its summertime dominion over clear skies still, but the wind, ah the wind was something else;  the wind was ice and i loved it.

stephanie and i have not experienced the season of autumn since it ended near the conclusion of the year 2013. since then we have been in a perpetual summer and i can count on one hand the number of nights i have had to bundle up to stay warm – two of which were on mountain slopes above 11,000 feet. we have been warm always, rarely needing a jacket or socks. we’d pretend on those chilly rainy kigali mornings it was fall and drink coffee under the j.lynn’s awning, watching the water drip from tropical plants, wearing sweatshirts though they were still unnecessary. and then the afternoon would bring the sun and summer would return with humid vengeance.

perpetual summer was not bad, but I missed dearly those favorite seasons of mine when leaves turned and snow fell. i have longed for this time of year again in the northern hemisphere;  the cold, the changes. and now that such an undeniable bite is in the wind i almost fear it. my body recoils from the low sixties and trembles at the thought of fifty or, heaven help us, below freezing! i want it and i don’t. so warm for so long what are we supposed to do with cold air, when we can’t simply walk out our door in t-shirts and sandals every day of the year? i suppose we’ll adequately remember how humans should respond to the deep cold in time.

and so we embrace the early autumn. much green still lines the streets and paths, most trees still clinging to summer colors. a third of the trees around have started the change, their tops crisped and yellowed as if burned by the sun. and a smaller percentage stand naked already, their strength weakened by the cool nights, feeble branches stripped by winds unforgiving, leaving boney, spindly twig-fingers  to shake, shiver, rattle, empty. some street corners hold summer; some have succumbed to winter. the gutters gather their annual collections of tattered rainbow pieces. the prairies send up one last blossom of summer’s purples, yellows, and whites, while the green fields whither to brown.

but most trees are patient. they are in no hurry to change, their leaves in no hurry to die. they calmly, quietly, casually allow the green to seep from their long corners as they soak up the daily fading warmth, turning softly into themselves; the way enduring trees have always done for eons immemorial.

the summer job search has found me doubly employed. after we made our decision to defer admission to the university of glasgow and stay this year in the states i had hoped to find a job or jobs that would in some way connect my work in rwanda – kiziba specifically – with my studies next fall, studies in community development and education. i believe i have found such jobs.

the first is an aide position with the wheaton school district’s transition program, a place for post-high school special needs students to continue learning life skills and find job placements. i ride my bike from thence  through the windy afternoons into glen ellyn where i help coordinate after school activities and tutoring for elementary school kids, most of whom are from resettled refugee families. in both jobs i find myself learning as much as i teach – about education, about immigrant and refugee communities in the states, about disabilities, etc. i hope that the experience and knowledge continue to prepare me for grad school and beyond.

with the job question answered for the time being we have settled into the suburbs of chicago as our home for now,  until next summer takes us to glasgow. there is a strange sense of defeat in this, something i imagine many returning expats experience. ‘settling’ is a word i don’t like to use. this year is a transition, i must remind myself of this, and is not permanent. and it is a transition with purpose. i learn and work and i write and we both watch our wonderful new daughter grow. she learns humorously to use her voice and limbs and smiles often with her adorable chubby cheeks. she daily gives us joy. and she sleeps really well, which is something we are in no way angry about.

and yet a subtle unease eats at me. i have to remind myself that those two years in rwanda were real and have somehow brought us to where were are currently, and i try to live in such a way that honors that long and formative experience. yet I feel an odd lack of validation from others in that experience, which is perhaps why i have found it difficult to process. when we first returned to the states we wanted to enter back into old friendships half-buried by time and distance with a casual simplicity, a picking up of where we left off. it was in a way refreshing to not talk about rwanda and not bring it up, to be people together again without our time abroad being some glaring definition of our lives and persons. but now i feel like i have not spoken enough about what those years meant. the memories sometimes mark me like a wound,  something blatant that i feel deeply but that no one else wishes to mention.  i met someone new not long ago who asked me if it was true that i used to live in rwanda. i said yes. his next question was, what’s it like being back? as if those twenty six months on a distant continent could be explained by talking about a handful of months in america.

i feel perhaps a little too bitter about this. but realistically i have to remember that i, in writing a book based on refugee lives, in posting on voices of kiziba, in talking about my refugee friends in job interviews, am still closer to that world that anyone around me, including stephanie. these feelings are things i carry with me in a way no one else does or can. they are my stories and others’ stories and i leaf through their tattered pages daily. at times i feel sad, burdened,  overly nostalgic; at other times, emboldened, hopeful, weathered and proven.

yet this all makes sense in some way. if no one else feels what i feel having lived what i have lived then how could i expect others to talk about it if i don’t even know how to talk about it?

so the days continue, the year turns; the leaves change, the earth spins. two years living and working in rwanda, beautiful and challenging though they were, were not the apex of my life. i am not yet thirty. rwanda was a step, a big one, but talking about the now and what comes next will be just as important. some days the steps forward are just harder than others.

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some grace.

i was going to write a thoughtful, introspective post about the various elements of our decision to stay in the states this year, about how we deferred my admission to the university of glasgow until next year. i would have talked about how my days were filled with preparations for the coming child, rosetta stone french lessons, reading and research, writing the book, getting as much hammock time in the park as i could. but i could never write that post, getting only sentences out here and there, hitting mental walls and walking away. i planned on getting those words out this last week as we made the final life adjustments, waiting for the baby.

that post will never be completed and what weak words were written have been swept aside. this is because this last sunday, while at steph’s grandfather’s eighty-forth birthday, she calmly informed me that she was having weak contractions. by midnight they had developed into a near-continuous presence. we waited out the night, timing contractions, steph somehow managing to snatch some sleep between them. by late morning we were on the road, hospital bound, told we would get in to see our midwife, isabelle, in between her other appointments.

during her check she noticed something strange and pulled in an ultrasound machine to see what was going on inside. and then a doctor for a second opinion.

‘breech,’ is the opinion. ‘c-section,’ is the verdict. the doctor says, ‘we’ll get you into surgery at 1.15.’ an hour away.

and the next hour is a whirlwind of nurses and information and doctors, operation prep, steph on a rolling bed, i donning that weird operation room garb. steph’s parents arrive. isabelle sits and chats with us between informational sessions with this or that nurse or doctor. she tells us more about her sister who lived and worked in kibuye, rwanda in the 1970s and ’80s, teaching art and painting the walls of the dispensary in town; leaving in 1994, being evacuated from the mille collines hotel in kigali with other expats fleeing the genocide.

steph goes into the operating room, i wait with her parents until summoned. in that serene and precise room i am warned to touch nothing and i sit by steph’s head, the rest of her behind a screen with surgeons aptly at work.

and then it is time. they lower the opaque screen and we watch the doctors slide our daughter out feet-first through their incisions. her head gets stuck for a moment, big as it is, and this mildly kills the mood of joy in new life, making more real this bizarre half-birth in a strange, science fiction room. but still, suddenly, amazingly, there she is, being wiped down; we hear her first mumbled noises and smile. all the pregnancy, the labor, the preparations ended in that one moment. now is the time to be a parent. steph would say later that she wondered in her precarious position, lying inert with her midsection open, how in the world they expected her to become a mother then.

we stayed in the hospital a couple more days, steph recovering and both of us learning the ins and outs of diapers and feedings and midnight wails.

we named her ivy hope watson. there are reasons behind these names.

ivy we liked for its reference to the natural world. which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. and after we were fairly settled on the name steph was reminded and i learned that her dad’s grandma was named ivy, and we hear she was a pretty awesome lady.  but the name for us has a deeper meaning. as literarily minded people we love in the gospels the imagery and metaphors used to describe Jesus: the word, the shepherd, etc. and we wanted to reference something along these lines when naming her. in john Jesus likens himself to a vine, the disciples to branches. vine and branches. ivy. a name used by family long ago and a metaphor and a reminder of that to which we must remain connected.

and hope. again a family name, the name of my mother’s grandmother, and the middle name of her mother (my grandmother), and the middle name of my sister. but for me, again, there is deeper significance.

i’ve spent the last many years purposefully working among people in rough situations, from those below the poverty line in central illinois to refugees in italy and rwanda. and as i think on all the things i’ve seen and the stories i’ve heard and the news these days that feels ever more dark and brutal, i sometimes honestly wonder if we should even bother to try and fix anything anymore.

this may sound overly cynical, and that’s just because it is. the world’s ugly and i am an empathetic person and i feel it all. but i am not giving up. and when we named our daughter hope it was because in some place inside me i realize that God’s not done with us yet and despite everything broken and unfixable there is, somehow, miraculously, hope. and i’ve been talking about this a lot recently maybe just to remind myself that hope is real and shouldn’t be ignored.

and so she is named hope. ivy hope. her presence gives us joy, maybe more so than we expected. and in a multitude of ways she is a connection to life and a future, our addition to the expectation that the next generation could be better than this one and the ones before. without too much pressure placed upon her, of course. she is our reminder of the good things for which we live and work and try.

 

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old friends.

they took a roundabout way on their return.

on a day stopover in addis ababa they see a city that kigali, where they just left, could be like in twenty years – and in some ways already is; bursting with people and aching with new construction.

next, to jerusalem. an old friend – groomsman-in-their-wedding kind of friend – studies there, shows them the sights between study groups and finals. they get a tour of the holy sites and a tour of the active oppression. they process eastern african living with one living in an epicenter of middle eastern tension, draw connections, and everyone learns.

and then to europe. they meet his parents in zurich and travel with them for a few days, crossing and re-crossing the rhine, through the black forest and alsace, into cute little country towns and castle ruins, and dodging other tourists. they part ways; the parents continue their adventure, the couple sees zurich’s spring festival, complete with parades and an exploding snowman. all in the pouring rain.

another plane trip. after a whirlwind tour of london, where they glean inspiration from shakespeare and dickens, they stay with friends in oxford, and glean more inspiration from other loved authors. then a train up the coast, the first time seeing open water in a long time, and over to glasgow. they dream of what it might be like to live in that old, burdened city. they meet friends of friends, explore parks and shops, get a feel for it all. and there are meetings with university people, helping them visualize what his master’s program would be, and what they need to do to get a visa and stay there. every detail of the program described touches on topics he has been stewing around in his brain for months or years, and gets pumped to address these things in a setting that stresses action as a part of learning theory.

and at the end of three weeks of travel he looks at her and thinks, what an awesome lady to do all this while so pregnant.

and just like that, another routine plane flight, and they’re back in their home country. the united states. it is incredibly strange to be back in places so familiar, the last two years seeming to fade into a dream world, where they have to remind themselves that those years actually existed, and that they didn’t just sleep all of a long weekend filled with a thousand strange dreams to confuse them when they awake.

in a place that actively creates systems to lose sight of distant problems, they attempt to live in such a way that honors those years, the experiences, the places, the friends. yet it is easy, incredibly so, to slip back into american ways, easy to eat too much of the flavors they’ve missed from their favorite restaurants – and easy, thus, to add some extra weight. and in places like costco they marvel at the mountains of food and materials and wonder what their friends in kiziba would think of it all. and so each day becomes a new exercise in wondering if living this kind of life is actually ok and not unjust, knowing that so many in the world do not have access to so much. and he wonders also if this american opulence is actually to be desired for all the world. he thinks back upon the world of international aid and development; and grows in his belief that aid organizations, especially christian ones, should be very clear about their goals and practices, to ensure that their goals are not entwined with the goals of economic empires, but rather with the kingdom of God.

in some way the return feels like an awkward conversation with an old acquaintance, or an unexpected disappointment. there is waiting, with undertones of aimlessness. and then there is the realization of rest. they take time doing this or that, they read and talk about being parents, they visit doctors, they play music together, honored to play soon in a wedding of friends.

he carves out space in the general basement clutter for an ‘office’ and defends his daily writing time. this work keeps him connected to the now distant friends living as refugees. though location has changed, nothing in the heart has.

many of his thoughts now are of their impending parenthood. being finished with all the madness of wrapping up things in rwanda and planning a multi-week trip, he has a lot more time, happily, to think about being a father. she takes a nap and he lays down and places his hand upon her belly, feels the child kicking and rolling inside. and he thinks, this is the first time he has hung out just he and their daughter. it is a wonderful moment.

and so in the waiting, in the subtle, creeping busy-ness, they dream and plan – for the baby, for the move, for school again. much is up in the air as to the future, but they have their ideas and their prayers and time will tell.

 

 

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