Embrace Your Face

Superficiality Disclaimer: This post is not so much about Africa or Mercy Ships or helping people…it’s about wrinkles and arm flaps.

I downloaded one of those airbrush apps. Forget trendy filters – this lets you legit remove and reshape stuff on your face and body.

It started with a bad photo.* I donated blood on the ship and the bandage was wrapped tight (as to be expected). But the combo of the bandage, the angle of my bent arm and the extra skin that ensued was simply…unflattering.

Despite my vain brain, I sent it to my mom, sister and aunt to tell them about the experience, knowing they wouldn’t judge the not so great shot of me in the photo and instead be excited about the cause. 

Still, I couldn’t let it go. I wanted so badly to snip this little piece of arm fat out of the photo in the case that I’d want to use it in a blog post to describe how the crew are the ship’s “human blood bank” (an AMAZING reality that’s worth sharing).

First, though, “a little fudging to avoid any judging.”

I’m embarrassed to say…I went to bed early but stayed up late playing with my new app, drifting into what felt like every girl’s dream – an image perfection playground.

I got to see myself with all different colors and styles of makeup. (How does it know where to paint eyebrows? Crazy.)

I was able to completely eliminate the wrinkles and imperfections on my face along with puffiness under my eyes.

I brightened my eyeballs.

I made my teeth electric white.

The one thing I couldn’t figure out was how to eliminate this extra bubble of skin on my arm – the reason it all began. I blurred it out but you could tell I was an amateur.

Still, the more I played, the more I noticed, the more I changed.

I went ahead and made my nose skinnier. And then straighter.

I attempted to add muscle tone to my arm (which didn’t go so well).

I kept tweaking. Everything became an imperfection needing erasure.

By the end, I had become something I can only describe as a creepy, sexy, malnourished alien:

As I moved my finger around the screen and watched my face change, I thought of God and what it must have been like in the moments he was designing me. (Did he use an app?) His finger deciding exactly where my cheekbones would be, how my green eyes would sparkle, how my face would be formed in what some would call “heart-shaped.” How my features would be a perfect blend of my precious mother and my dearest father. How hereditary traits from generations before me would be blended with something new and fresh – something unique to me. He determined it all – not randomly, but on purpose, specific details with a Windsor-intention.

When I see other women with perfect skin, features, figures – I’m sometimes hypnotized. My eyes blink twice to remove what feels like an Instagram filter – but there isn’t one. It’s real. I stare with a bit of envy. I think to myself, “I want that!”

But after last night, the more I thought about it, the more I realized – I earned this face. I went through joy and pain to get it. I use these arms – these are MY arms. That’s MY flap of extra skin. Those are MY bags. MY smile marks. MY angry or crying face lines. MY fervent prayer creases.

This face, these arms, this body – they’re my proof of life. A showcase of the results of my actions and others’ actions which impacted me – good and bad. My body is my truth revealed. Evidence of my journey.

My dad used to tell me (in his Texan accent), “Honey, there will always be someone better-off than you and someone worse-off than you.” And sometimes he’d substitute richer, poorer, smarter, dumber, etc., depending on what we were talking about. It’s a good truth to remember. Comparing is a tricky business, but if you’re gonna do it, be prepared to see both realities.

There are plenty of options within my reach (like weights lol). If I want toned arms, I have to work for it. It will take a lot more than a few swooshes on my app, but my body will show the proof of my efforts and my inner feelings of accomplishment will make it worth it.

There are plenty of things I can’t really change (without some serious “help”). Like wrinkles. For now, and I hope for many years to come, I’m just going to “embrace the face.” And arms. And body. Maybe the serenity prayer could apply here? “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot (or should not) change, courage to change the things I can (and should), and the wisdom to know the difference?”

And now, some final, contradictory thoughts to everything I just wrote: I wear makeup. I futz with my hair. I dig fashion. And while these are technically “enhancements” which make me look quite different than when I wake up and roll out of bed in the morning, I happen to enjoy them – a lot. I’ve given myself permission to indulge in what I consider a sort of artsy way of creating, using my ‘self’ as a canvas. However, someone (like my friend Renee who tells me all the time, “You don’t need all that!” – thank you Renee :)) could make the same argument I just made above about the other stuff…

Perhaps there are many degrees of beautification. Everyone gets to make their own personal decision. And we shouldn’t judge each other. We all have our reasons for behaving the way we do, don’t we? 

In conclusion, I’ve decided:

  • I will respect and honor the beauty of people around me – natural or otherwise, resisting the urge to feel envious or judgmental by remembering God is an awesome designer – of me and others.
  • I will not airbrush myself with my new app. (I will, however, continue using harmless filters like those in Instagram, but will refrain from cutting off any arm flaps or erasing any lines or wrinkles.)

I will embrace my face. You should embrace yours, too.

*Shout out to Jenny Banakos who took a fine photo. The term “bad” was used incorrectly (but on purpose) for effect. Also, yesterday’s blood donation was the best I’ve ever experienced. Thank you Jenny – and God – for how the two of you got me through something I’m quite scared of.

Holding Micah

I hold this little nine-month-old baby quite often:

©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo by Miguel Ottaviano

I was calling him “Michel” (with my best French accent), but his name is actually Micah – after the prophet, his mother Eunice told me. I have been following his sister – a patient, Divine, for several weeks, so I can tell her story. We’ve started to become quite close, this little family and I.

©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo by one of our amazing photographers – not sure which one…

“I don’t have kids,” I tell Eunice, in one of our many conversations. She looks at me like I’m insane. She crunches her eyebrows, tilts her head and frowns. Even though we’ve kind of talked about this before, this time we go deeper as she asks me why once again. “J’ai besoin une homme, premier!” Not sure if I’ve said it right, but it’s my attempt to make her laugh with my French, “I need a man, first!” She’s so beautiful, and her daughter and baby boy are no different. When she laughs, I feel lucky. I try to explain – with my best boxed answer, but adding a bit more raw truth than usual. (Enoc, who translates for us, sometimes gets a lot more than he bargained for with this job…)

The truth is, it just didn’t happen. There were times I wanted it, and times that I convinced myself I didn’t. I think God spared me by not adding a level of complexity to a marriage He knew would end. For that, I’m truly grateful. Now, nearly 40 and single, I have no clue what the future holds – all I know is that I want to be – and feel I pretty much am – content. Today. And I want to be content tomorrow, with whatever tomorrow has in store.

Recently I read in Exodus about the Israelites and manna. I was reminded of Matthew 6 when Jesus gave guidance on how to pray: “Give us this day, our daily bread…” God provided manna for each day and didn’t want the Israelites to collect more than they needed for each day (except for the Sabbath). And Jesus teaches us to practice this approach. It seems that God wants to provide for us daily. He doesn’t want us to have so much that we think we don’t need Him anymore. He wants to give us exactly what we need for a short period of time, so that we return for more, staying close to Him. We run back each morning for a new fill, another batch. We get to enjoy His provision, always being confident that there’s more to come. He wants us close. He knows us so well that he wants us to learn not to peek into the future with the desire of controlling everything for “tomorrow,” resisting the urge to try and take every matter into our own hands. Otherwise, we’ll think we don’t need Him, and then we are on our own. Until we become lonely – and look for Him again.

There are also verses in Psalms where God tells us to “Cease striving and know that I am God.” How much of life do we spend trying to get more? Trying to fill up space and time with stuff. Sometimes it’s good to stop all of that and just be still. Just be.

Eunice has five kids. She’s younger than I am, and still can’t quite understand why I’m living this way – living childless. Even when I tell her that I wouldn’t be able to do the job I’m doing today – hopping over to Africa to tell her story – if I had a husband and a family of five to take care of.

It really does take all sorts, doesn’t it?

I worry, a little, that she’s going to try and give me her precious Micah. I’ve heard about and even encountered some who are willing to give their child to another family member – or anyone, actually – if it’s believed that the person would be able to provide a better life for the child. My concern grows as I process this reality in the back of my mind – and then Eunice plays the next joke on me, saying, “You keep him!” I look at Enoc in a panic…but he’s already laughing with Eunice. He tells me, “She’s kidding!” And I breathe a sigh of relief…my heart still pumping with adrenaline.

©2016 Mercy Ships

Still, I feel so blessed, even if it my life-choices seem strange to Eunice.

©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo by Lindsay McCurley

A few days prior, I held Micah while his sister had her rehab appointment. I looked down into his little face as his head rested in the crook of my arm. He looked into my eyes and smiled – the whitest baby teeth and the brownest dark eyes – eyes from which I can see my reflection. I felt pure joy having him in my arms, and it dawned on me – little Micah is made in the image of God. I get to see God in this little tiny bright shining face of God’s creation. And I felt God looking back at me, smiling.

©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo by Justine Forrest

I know there will be times where I’ll feel lonely. Or wanting. Even wishing for what never was. But I do hope that I can stay attuned to and enjoy the freedom life is offering me…right now.

©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo by one of our amazing photographers – not sure which one…Micah has touched many hearts around the ship 🙂

Patchwork

We have a tailor who visits the ship. She takes the fabric we buy at the local market and makes it into whatever we ask for. One piece she did for a friend was with the remnants of all the fabrics put into a beautiful work. I think it’s stunning. I don’t have a photo of the dress…but I can show you an artistic shot of some fabric – taken by my friend Justine!

This is a photo by Justine Forrest taken at one of our patient’s home visits – a sample of the colorful fabrics we see everywhere in Benin.

So here are some patches of the work we’ve been doing on the communications team.

Photos by Timmy Baskerville and Justine Forrest

Meet David: a ten-year old boy who had maxillofacial surgery on the ship. I followed him early on in the field service.  Click here to read David’s Story.

Photo by Justine Forrest

 

 

 

Here’s the story of Miracle, who had ortho surgery to fix her windswept leg at just four years old. Click here to read more about Miracle.

 

 

 

Following are some samples of our “Weekly Scoop” – a snapshot of photos and updates we provide to our national offices each week. They’re compiled by the writers with shots from our very talented photographers:

January 9 Weekly Scoop

January 16 Weekly Scoop

January 30 Weekly Scoop

Photo by Windsor Marchesi
Photo by Windsor Marchesi

Speaking of photography…This is Yasmine – she was one of my favorite patients (not that I have favorites). I haven’t finished her story yet, but will soon!

 

I was feeling inspired one day so I borrowed a camera and set out to take a few shots. As it turns out, this photography stuff ain’t as easy as my colleagues make it look! Still, two of mine came out well (after taking over 200…)!

 

Here’s another one of my other favorite patients – Maurinho – who’d always steal my phone to look at photos of my dog Rory. This is me standing over his shoulder, smiling on the outside while cringing on the inside for fear that he’d somehow erase everything on my phone! (I’ll share his story soon!)

Photo by Justine Forrest

I’m just so proud of the patchwork of talent it takes to make our visuals and stories come together! Here’s a shot of the crazy communications team…

Photo by Rodrigo Silva

Ship Yoga and Dead Fish

I downloaded a few yoga videos for some friends and me to do on the ship. Even with it moored, it still rocks, making some of the simplest yoga poses VERY challenging!

Don’t you find that yoga instructors say some of the funniest things in their videos? I look forward to them, laughing every time. Other times, they’re just plain strange. Take Pradeep, for example, who meets me at a yoga-pose finish line with, “Welcome home! As the wise people say, ‘home sweet home.’” Okey dokey, Pradeep.  

Since we’re on the subject, I might as well share where home will be for me in a few months.

I’ve decided (well, actually me and God decided) that one field service with Mercy Ships is the perfect amount of time for me. My original commitment was 2 months of onboarding and 10 months in Benin. And now, as that comes to a close in June, it feels right for me to return to the states.

A number of my friends are gonna join the ship for the next field service in Cameroon. And I can see why. Being here is such an incredible experience…really hard at times, but very worth it when you get to be a part of something that’s not about yourself. When you’re forced to stretch fast and far.

“Home sweet home” is going to be mom’s house in upstate New York. That’s right, I will be that 40-year-old divorcee living with her mother…and I couldn’t be more excited! (She is too :)) Of course, when I start to smell like a dead fish (as every long-term house guest eventually does), I have some other wonderful family members who have offered to open their doors. It’s a good feeling. Though I won’t couch-surf forever, I may linger just long enough to catch up on giving and receiving love from those most dear to me.

It’s weird to be in a place in life where you have no idea what’s next. But then I remember, this isn’t the first time. There have been many for me, and probably for you, too. To be fair, we never really know what’s next, do we? When I think back to first applying to Mercy Ships in February of 2016, then quitting my job, leaving my apartment and hopping on a plane with two large bags to spend a year in Africa, it felt just a tad “uncertain.” Yet God always manages to take care of me. And you. In fact, just this morning I was encouraged by this well-known passage in Proverbs 3:5-12 (The Message):

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
    Run to God! Run from evil!
Your body will glow with health,
    your very bones will vibrate with life!
Honor God with everything you own;
    give him the first and the best.
Your barns will burst,
    your wine vats will brim over.
But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline;
    don’t sulk under his loving correction.
It’s the child he loves that God corrects;
    a father’s delight is behind all this.

I was inspired recently as I met with an amazing woman, Sarah, to write her crew bio (part of my job). I’m continually blown away by the inner beauty of people. I’m the luckiest girl to get to hear their stories – and what Sarah shared really stuck with me.

We talked about values, and the differences from where we’ve been and where we are today. She referred to values that develop due to experiencing other parts of the world as as “global values.” We agreed that the experience of working with an international crew, living in a third-world country, and having an open mind that wants to learn from others has helped to expand the values we came with. We spoke about petty things we’ve see ourselves and others complaining and arguing about in the past – like choosing a paint color for a wall. And how some people living here in Benin don’t even have walls. We went on to agree on finding a balance – that deciding paint colors is perfectly fine – but we have to keep things in perspective, not letting certain kinds of issues become real issues. We talked about how we want to take our global values with us wherever we go, rather than revert back to old ways. Keep seeing life with fresh eyes. Have right priorities. And we talked about not judging others who think differently, remembering how gentle and patient God is with all of us.

How timely to then hear an online sermon from Bert Crabbe, pastor at True North Community Church, about how wrong it is to judge others. I’m guilty at times. But I’m gonna work on it.

So as I think about returning, I can’t help but hope that I left things better than when I came, and that I bring home an even better version of myself, wherever “home” ends up. This will only be possible because of the gift of my experiences and the way God’s worked on my heart during my time with Mercy Ships.

(And by the way, I’ll also do my best to avoid becoming a smelly dead fish.)

Watering My Own Grass

There isn’t much grass around the Cotonou port in Benin. The air feels a bit on the polluted and steamy side…

Africa Mercy at dock of Cotonou, Benin during Harmattan. Photo by Miguel Ottaviano

But sometimes, when I want some freedom and alone-time, I decide to go off-ship. I hit the crew bank before the weekend to grab CFA, the local currency. I reserve a phone from reception, grab my helmet, sign and scan out with my ID at security, wait for the shuttle, ride to the port gate, negotiate a moto-taxi price (in French), try to explain directions (in French), grab some groceries at the market, negotiate a moto again, return to the port gate to wait for the shuttle (where rats and roaches run around at night), get my temperature taken for protocol disease prevention measures, wash my hands at the station, and sign/scan back in with security. I return the phone back to reception, put my helmet back, and sit on the couch wondering why I’m exhausted…

Most often, though, I forego all that and stay on the ship. But there are many times when I need space and quiet and wish for some control over my surroundings. Sometimes I don’t want to be in the top bunk, banging my head when I sit up. I don’t want to have to check with my roommates before hogging the bathroom with my two-minute shower. I want to pick out my own food and decide what time it’s ready. I want a glass of wine! I want to grab coffee or water without having to get dressed and put makeup on to go to the dining room. And if, in the rare case that I don’t put on makeup, I want to be able to dash through the hallway without someone stopping me to chat or asking me, “Are you OK? You look ill!!”

There are times, when I get stuck in a rut, wishing I could change my surroundings, my situation, my environment. And sometimes even the people around me.

But then I realize…it’s not the environment. It’s me.

Back at home, I was also discontented at times. The pace – rushing around, too much crammed into an overambitious schedule, never feeling accomplished. The apartment needing to be cleaned, feeling overwhelmed, too tired to cook, the long hours and days at work, only to earn a paycheck to support my weekend habits of spending. Always accumulating. But always wondering if I was really doing what I was meant to do…

The whole concept of “enjoying every moment,” “seizing the day” and “living in the now” sometimes seems lost on me. I find myself wanting something else – something different, dissatisfied in the present.

If I could just shift my focus…

I fast forward to when I leave the Africa Mercy and return home. Will I miss it all? The ship, people, culture, country, continent?

I imagine my future self thinking back to the lack of grass around Cotonou. I will probably consider it insignificant. What will stay with me are the enriching experiences – like living in a small community where most people are actually really kind, special, unique, trying their best to be real. A place where everyone is part of something bigger than themselves, where the focus is other people.

I’ll embrace memories of the times when I struggled with motivation or inspiration at work and my office-mate prayed with me and encouraged me.

Or when the woman I interviewed grabbed my hands and prayed for God to speak through the words I was about to write. 

Or the time I finished interviewing Don Stephens and he taught me how to say ‘Thank you.’ Don Stephens Thank You Lesson.

Here’s Don Stephens being himself: a wonderful man of integrity with a loving touch and genuine heart for people. Photo by Katie Callow.

Or seeing Dr. Gary Parker, a surgeon at Mercy Ships, humbly waiting in the dining room line, smiling sweetly at other crew members. That man. Those patients. The work. Country. Culture. Experience.

Dr. Gary Parker meets with patients. That’s him – whether it’s in the OR, or in the dining room line after a 14-hour surgery…he’s love in action. Photo by Katie Callow.

I’ll look back, wishing I could return to a place where close connections with good friends is never lacking. 

Or the times I played games – thinking I’d hate it – but actually loving it (sometimes). And feeling wanted when the younger peeps asked me to play even though I was confused about the rules or took too long to make a move. And how they’d continue inviting me despite how often I said “NO!” until I finally started saying “OK fine…”

I’ll think about the work we did within our communications team and the privilege we had spending time with patients and their caretakers. And what a gift it was to be able to honor patients through photos, film and words, giving others around the world a peek into their life – one that’s just a bit better now.

And the laughs we shared! In our meetings and in-between. Of course, there were the rare occasions when we couldn’t stand each other, but still loved each other…sometimes even more-so because of the vulnerability and forgiveness.

I’ll remember how nice it was to live on a ship where there was no commute to work and everything was within reach or walking distance (even if lots of stairs were involved).

I’ll wish I could have access to a team of chefs to prepare good food. I’ll reminisce over what it was like not to wash dishes, do yard work or clean a large house or apartment.

I’ll wonder how I ever lived with so few outfits…and then wish my life was simpler again. Simpler, but so complexly rich. 

I’ll probably miss the limited options – and in a sense, less opportunity for distraction, which forced me to read, exercise and self-reflect more often.

I’ll miss getting to meet regularly with a highly qualified “chaplain” (a.k.a. psychologist) who cared about me deeply and helped me work through my regular old stuff…at no charge (since we’re all volunteers)!

All this and so much more…like an email inviting me to go get my teeth cleaned. Or the weekly accountability classes where a talented dietitian helped us stay motivated to be healthy. Or the weekly workout classes, volleyball, French classes and loads of other opportunities that were always available. 

I’ll miss the challenge of having no choice but to always be challenged.

I know “me.” I know that when I get to my future and think back to my now, I will most certainly say, “Boy, that was beautiful grass.”

So today, I enjoy today. I refuse to long for past comforts, security and predictability, or wistfully dream of future “in-a-perfect-world” -ness. The grass under my feet is perfectly green so I’m gonna grab the hose and water it.

The Luxury (or Shackles) of Choice – OR – When Two Worlds Collide

Choices. To me, it seems that some people’s lives can actually be complicated by options. What initially seems a luxury – like getting to select something from a variety of options – can actually become a burden. When I think about something as ‘simple’ as buying coffee at Starbucks and having to choose from four walls of options. Or those book-style menus at restaurants…and forget about clothes…

What’s the opposite of options? 

What does it feel like to have limits on choices? Or even no choice? Does a kind of reality exist where there are few or even no options? Does that result in a person being more content? Does lack of choice lead to an acceptance of a current state? Are there people existing in a reality of life where an alternative isn’t possible? If one doesn’t know any different than the life they’ve been dealt, do they just deal? Cope? Exist? Survive?

These thoughts have taken over as I struggle to get to know the locals – the “Beninois.” I ask lots of questions and want so badly to truly understand the people I meet on a deeper level – to comprehend what they’re feeling – to do my best to experience a small piece of their world, a glimpse of their innermost thoughts. I subscribe to the theory that to get to know someone is to know their passions – what drives them. I ask through loads of questions about family, home, job, food, past, present, future. I ask and ask and ask.

I’m embarrassed to say that in my search for a more personal connection in an unfamiliar environment with a culture I’m so far from understanding, I’ve posed questions like this: “So, what do you like/dislike?” “What is your favorite _____?” “What are your hobbies?” “What do you do in your spare time?” “What made you decide to do _____ for a living?” “Do you have any pets?”

It’s through my lack of understanding that I’ve started to realize (remembering I’ve only been here a short time so I don’t claim to know much as of yet), my approach isn’t working. I’m searching for answers to concepts that don’t seem to apply or even exist. The responses tell me so, with long pauses and confused facial expressions adding emphasis. I’ve come to see the term “favorite” as a word that only those with choices and extras have. There isn’t “free time” – there don’t seem to be “hobbies.” And pets? No, there aren’t pets. It’s a different world I’m in – one that I can barely relate to sometimes, no matter how hard I try. The people I’m meeting are dealing, coping, existing and surviving.

But they’re also living; just a different “living” than I’m used to.

I recently visited the home of a former patient who we’d spent a lot of time with. But I wasn’t expecting to see living conditions like what we pulled up to. I was stuck in a thick fog of confusion while we set up to film the interviews. A small child peed on the ground near where we stood, a dirt pathway connecting tin-roof structures. Where do they sleep? Where do they get water? Where’s the toilet? 

They squeezed all ten of us into the main part of their home – an 8 x 8 ft mud structure with a cement floor, two small foot stools, a few mats and a rusty tin roof. I felt like shock was oozing out of me and I wanted so badly to keep it from spilling out. I tried to hide my struggle of absorbing the reality in front of. I wanted this family to know that I appreciated their hospitality and tried my best to go with the flow. I blew up balloons, handed out bubbles and put stickers on the kids. We conducted our interview, grabbed photos, exchanged goodbyes and left. 

Here are some photos of our time there (by Miguel Ottaviano):

On another occasion, I spent time with a 63 year-old man with severe cataracts. His couldn’t see or walk. He received a vaccination at a very young age that crippled him for life. He had never been to school. He couldn’t read. He had no wife or children. His brother said quite simply, “Who would want him?” – not in a mean way, but as a basic fact.

I talked with him while he waited to be seen by a doctor. He sat across from me, staring ahead. Through two translators (English to Fon, Fon to Haussa) I asked him lots of questions as I tried to get to know him, wanting him to feel comfortable with me and our dialogue. I even took a stab with my silly humor, an especially tough challenge with the language barriers. But I got him to smile, even if was at my weirdness. (“Crazy yovo” he was probably thinking – “yovo” being Beninese slang for white person.) Still, by the end of our chat, what I had learned about this man wasn’t much. While his brother arranged their transportation to head home, I sat and held his hand. It was my first time feeling like we connected even though no words were spoken. It was as though we had a silent conversation through that one, simple touch.

Photo by Miguel Ottaviano

I consider the lines of moms, dads and kids waiting to be seen by our doctors. They don’t bring much (if anything) to pass the time. Some have little nokia phones for making calls, but that’s about it. Most just sit. Some sleep. Some moms nurse their babies. A few chat, but for the most part, everyone just waits. Quietly. Calmly.

Photo by Justine Forrest

What are they thinking about? Are they praying? Are they taking a pause from the life they’re accustomed to and observing what’s going on around them? I’ve even asked the question, “What do you do to pass the time while you wait?” but I think it comes across as a strange question from an even stranger stranger. 

I can barely imagine going somewhere without something to do. Whether it’s music playing for a long drive, or my iphone always in hand, a book, social media, game, email, Netflix, amazon – I’ve always got my apps, sounds and pictures to entertain me. Constant seeking to see, planning to do, things get, lists to write, news to read, posts to like. Choices galore. And I can’t stop. I can’t possibly just sit.

After all this processing of information, I heard this remark from two different friends:

“And we think WE have all the answers? We’re all broken, struggling, in one way or another.”

I’m sensing that folks like me from nations like the U.S. have a lot of extreme conditions and severe deformities just like the people I’m meeting in Benin – but ours are on the inside. The kind of life that’s privileged with choice and opportunity yet bombarded by stimulation makes it very difficult to see things clearly and purely. In this kind of life, one becomes bound by stuff, disabled by options and shackled by the notion that life is so very, very good when full and maxed out.

In the midst of trying to make sense it all, coats are being bought for my two dogs back at my home in NY. Reconciling the differences between the two worlds I’m living in hurts my brain. (And I’m not saying dog coats are bad. They’re great. But you get what I’m saying, right?)

So what do I do? I’ve gotta find a way to dig deeper. I think it might just have to come more naturally in time. Not time passing, but time being. Connecting. Listening. Observing. Learning. Erasing the habits of my hardwired former self and resetting to understand the new normal around me.

Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit [through factional motives, or strife], but with [an attitude of] humility [being neither arrogant nor self-righteous], regard others as more important than yourselves.”

I pray that I can remove the tendency to think I know better or that my ways are the right ways and instead learn from those I’m privileged to meet and regard them as more highly than myself. If you agree that this is a good idea wherever you are too, then let’s pray it for each other.

The choices we have are a gift, but they can also be a hindrance. With all that freedom comes a lot of responsibility and a need for even more self-control and wisdom in decision making. We have to choose wisely.

Luke 12:48b says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (NIV) Or, in the Message translation, “Great gifts mean great responsibilities; greater gifts, greater responsibilities!” Let’s encourage each other to do great things with what we have, remembering that we don’t have all the answers, and there’s much to learn from the world around us.

Check out the momma in this picture – thinking back to the visit, I can’t remember what was so funny, but seeing her laughing makes me so happy. She’s a good mother. She takes good care of her family. And despite tough circumstances, she still has her joy.

There’s just so much to learn.

My J.O.B.

My Mom put in a special request for a blog update about what work is like as a writer for Mercy Ships. OK, Mom…your wish is my command 🙂 Just remember, I’m still pretty new. But I’ll let you know what I know.

The Team: Our Communications Team is made up of two writers, three (give or take) photographers, one videographer, one creative coordinator, two media liaisons and a director. We’re responsible for capturing and sharing from the front lines (the ship while it’s in country) through photos, videos and stories, the amazing stuff that Mercy Ships does. We produce raw materials for our 16 offices in nations around the globe. This means whatever’s going on with our programs, patients, crew and current events, we need to provide updates to keep everyone in the know. These resources are important to raise awareness about how Mercy Ships touches lives in poor nations so we can continue to raise support – by way of donors, prayer partners and volunteers. (The media liaisons interact with the media, host special guests for ship tours and deal with lots of other important matters for important people like partnering with National Geographic as they film on the ship.)

As for me, I’m still learning how to do my job…but here’s what I’ve gathered so far:

I write weekly updates. Each week, our team collaborates to put together a bundle of pics and captions that describes the past week. Anna (the other writer) and I share the work with the photographers. It can be used in whatever way our national offices want – such as in a Facebook post (each office has their own page):

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I write patient stories. The writers get to write about patients and tell their stories (with their permission). There are different types (light versus in-depth) and they require different things (short/long stories, pics, video, etc). In order to write about a patient, I need to spend time with them – through all aspects of their experience whenever possible. Imagine sitting and talking with an African momma who’s waiting to find out the date of when her little one is going to receive a life-changing surgery. As she tells you about how other kids have been making fun of her child, you know you’ll be there to witness when the bandages come off…it’s really special to be a part of describing her journey to others. This means I need to be on top of everything that goes on with every patient I’m following, tracking dates and times of each stage of the process so I don’t miss something important! I also get to interview crew members who care for the patients I’m following. Hearing their perspective adds tremendous color and depth to the stories.

Orlane, Gladys and Herve on the dock before receiving treatment for their neglected club foot.
Orlane, Gladys and Herve on the dock before receiving treatment for their neglected club foot. Photo Credit: Katie Callow. (These are three of my favorite little people. So sweet and so good during their Ponseti treatment.)

As an aside…I like my boss. A lot. She’s a very special woman – and has a background in teaching and writing, so when I asked her for some help in refining my writing skills, she delivered. She prays for all of us and has made it clear that our team is one of her main priorities. It shows in how she conducts herself. I respect her a lot.

I write “Mercy Minutes.” Each month, Anna and I get to write 8 (each) very brief stories of merciful moments. For example, one is about my friend Liz Harter, who was a nurse to the first patient on the ship. He happened to need blood during surgery, and ended up getting it from the first donor…Liz! So cool. And I got to write a little “somethin’ somethin'” about it. These get sent off for editing and may one day be read by Don Stephens (Founder of Mercy Ships) on the radio.

I work closely with a translator. His name is Enoc and he’s wonderful. He’s from Benin and speaks French and Fon (one of the local dialects). Since every patient that I’ve met – except for one – speaks another language, I can’t really go anywhere or do anything without Enoc. He is really good at conveying my questions and answers in the way I intend. He’s also good and not translating anything I say that might be culturally unacceptable. LOL. Sometimes he and the patient will be talking for what feels like forever in another language – and I’ll say, “C’mon!! What are you guys talking about?? I wanna know! Don’t leave me out!!” I’ve learned, with some help from Enoc and others, how to say hello and goodbye in Fon: Mikwabo (hello) and Edabo (good bye). Patients really love it when you make an effort.

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Enoc translating at screening. Wonder if he’s really saying what I’m saying…?

I hang out with patients. Being with patients is part of my job. (It’s not always just about getting a story.) Sometimes I will go down to the rehab tent and spend time with the little kids who are getting casts (Ponseti) in preparation for surgery for conditions like a neglected club foot. When one of them is scared of the machine that’s about to buzz through their cast (because it looks and sounds like a saw), I can try to help calm them down. I can offer my arm to the Physical Therapist so she can put the vibrating tool against my skin and prove that it doesn’t actually hurt. (I almost screamed the first time – that would have been bad…) Sometimes I even get to sprinkle glitter onto the cast and draw pictures. Or, I can blow bubbles or bop a balloon around to help pass the time or keep these sweethearts from crying. I can also visit our patients in the hospital ward on the ship – before and after surgery. I can pray with them or make silly jokes to make them laugh. (I don’t think Enoc translates the really stupid things I say that aren’t funny. I need him to maybe filter all my words…?) I try to practice my French and Fon, and the patients appreciate it 🙂 It’s so cool to tell them how great they’re looking – especially after they’ve had a major tumor removed from their face. I also get to hold little babies. I like that a lot.

Potential patient Mary with her mother waiting for surgeon screening results.
Potential patient Mary with her mother waiting for surgeon screening results. Photo Credit: Timmy Baskerville
Patient Juste plays in the screening waiting area while awaiting his turn to be examined. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano
Patient Juste plays as he awaits his turn to be examined. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I put together crew bios. Anna and I do these monthly. We each get to interview crew members and then share their stories, too. It’s wonderful to listen, learn and then tell of how someone got to be here on the ship. Sometimes these are told through video, other times it’s a written story with photos. It’s important for us to get a nice slice of the crew to celebrate all the different nationalities, positions, backgrounds and personalities. It’s especially cool to witness the selflessness in every person we meet. Each person is SO incredible.

Texas A&M Maritime Academy alumnus Captain Jon Fadely, and A&M 3rd year Cadet James Meredith on the bridge of the Africa Mercy. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano
Texas A&M  Maritime Academy alumnus Captain Jon Fadely, and A&M 3rd year Cadet James Meredith on the bridge of the Africa Mercy. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano

I go to meetings.  Like any job, there are meetings to keep us all informed and working together to achieve the same goals. One of our weekly team meetings starts with a round of “Happy,” “Crappy” and “Sappy.” We all share various highlights from the week prior and usually laugh, cry, pray or all three – together. It’s helped us get to know each other and learn how each one of us ticks. Other meetings talk about our priorities and goals, the direction of our materials, story angles, what our patient story status is, how social media posts are tracking, etc. Outside of that, there are operational meetings and community meetings each week. (We also have safety drills, certain required educational/ship stuff…I also go to two small groups and ship church…no wonder it feels like a lot…?)

I log and track stuff in systems. We have systems to track info and they need to stay current so everyone can action off of due dates. We also use email, Whatsapp, Box, Google Docs, shared drives, intranet, spreadsheets, forms and more…I’m still learning how to stay on top of it all because it can be a bit overwhelming at times. But I’m getting there 🙂 And I think I get why it’s all used. Fortunately, the writer before me is still on the ship but in another position – and she has been AMAZING in answering questions and pointing me in the right direction whenever I need help. (Thank you Tanya.)

I follow (or at least attempt to follow) a lot of processes. There’s a system or procedure for most everything, which is good and necessary. Some are more intuitive than others. Sometimes you need to do things as prescribed, other times you need to step back and say, “Why not try it this way…?” Because this is an organization made up of volunteers who stay for different lengths and bring different skills and talents, and who are rarely able to be trained by a predecessor, things can be organized in many different ways. I’m trying to find a balance where I am flexible and go with the flow, while at the same time, implement enhancements wherever I can – without interfering or throwing a wrench into anything. With regard to patient processes, they can be a bit more complex because their needs are very highly protected and respected by everyone, and there are a lot of people to get to know and protocols to follow. I don’t want to get in the way! But I also have to be purposeful and intentional and practice good follow-up skills. All in all, it’s a lot to remember at first, just like any new job. I have to remind myself that I’ve only been doing this for a month and a half…so it’s gonna take some time to learn the ropes…

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Me lassoing a calf. Just kidding. Me learning the ropes. Just kidding. Deckhand throws lines to dock on arrival. Photo Credit: Timmy Baskerville

Miscellaneous things. Sometimes I help with things that pop up or need to get done or whatever comes my way. For example, I’m an admin for one of our Facebook pages. It’s very low profile, but I’m getting to learn new info and post weekly updates. I add some content to our intranet, which took me some time to learn at first due to technical issues (sometimes I forget I’m in Africa LOL). A couple of weeks ago, we had guests from the US Embassy visit and tour the ship – I (along with several others) was asked to mingle 🙂 I don’t always love small talk, but apparently I do it well LOL 🙂 I’ve helped with some talking points for leadership, which was a good learning experience. I’m working on some fun projects right now which I’ll share after it’s all said and done!!

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Photo from US Embassy Cotonou FB Page 🙂 Me mingling and smiling to cause a distraction so I can grab that cookie…

I go to classes. This is a bit extra-curricular, but also somewhat required if I want to do my job well. And it takes time! It’s hard to connect with people if you don’t speak their language – and while I can speak a little French, I need to practice more. So stay tuned! Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gary Parker (one of my most favoristist people on the planet – even though he doesn’t really know who I am LOL…yet) and other surgeons on the ship give lectures on our surgical procedures for medical professionals to get educational hours. Since my writing of stories involves a lot of medical stuff, it’s important I understand what the heck we’re doing on the ship – medically speaking. I never thought I could sit through a lecture about a face being peeled wide open and a muscle being moved from a temple to a cheek…but I can! And I kinda like it…it’s really incredible how it all works.

Dr. Gary Parker meets with Oceane and her mother 7 years after removing a large mass from the back of Oceane's head.
Dr. Gary Parker meets with Oceane and her mother 7 years after removing a large mass from the back of Oceane’s head. (Look at his face! He’s the sweetest man.) Photo Credit: Katie Callow

I watch and learn. National Geographic is filming a series about Mercy Ships and will be here for several months. How cool is that? I’ve enjoyed watching them work, seeing what types of things peak their interest. Our team has had to coordinate having a second story teller in the mix, one that needs a lot of time and space with patients and crew – and we’re having to respect each other’s needs and support each others’ projects in a small space with very tight timelines. But I’m reminded often that the stories they air will have an extraordinary impact – which is wonderful.

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Me taking a picture of National Geographic videographer, who decided to come film our volleyball championship – in the rain!

I would say that I’m definitely enjoying my job so far, but it isn’t always easy. This ship functions because everyone works really hard…for God:

23 Whatever you do [whatever your task may be], work from the soul [that is, put in your very best effort], as [something done] for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing [with all certainty] that it is from the Lord [not from men] that you will receive the inheritance which is your [greatest] reward. It is the Lord Christ whom you [actually] serve. (Colossians 3:23-24) AMP

Learning and growing and stretching in an unfamiliar environment is hard in the beginning (or always?). Not knowing how to do something sucks and being far away from my “normal” can be hard. But I’m figuring it all out just like everyone else is. (We’re all in the same boat.) And so many people on the ship are so kind and patient and supportive of each other – both in our strengths and in our weaknesses – that it’s not a bad way to try something new and get feet wet. Or soaked.

Other photos I couldn’t resist posting:

A little girl plays in the sand on the dock while her mother awaits surgeon screening.
A little girl plays in the sand on the dock while her mother awaits surgeon screening. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano
Potential patients during screening process.
Potential patients during screening process. Photo Credit: Timmy Baskerville
Patient Juste plays in the screening waiting area while awaiting his turn to be examined.
Patient Juste plays in the screening waiting area. Photo Credit: Miguel Ottaviano

The Traveling Thank-You Notes…and Africa

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“The pile.” Half of this is often in my purse. If someone snatches my bag, they might be disappointed by the contents…however, they’ll be able to write me one heck-of-a-fine thank-you note.

(Cover photo by Katie Callow)

I carry thank-you note-cards around like a boss. I spend ages picking them out (buying stationary is one of my hobbies – using it is not). I seek out the perfect pen. I look for a nice little pouch to carry my note-cards, pens and stamps (or a zip-lock baggie, as it turns out). I look for a little spot that’s perfect for writing. Then I feel like the spot across the way looks better. Suddenly, I realize that this whole thing would really come together if I just had a cup of coffee – no, wait, tea – or perhaps hot chocolate! Yes, hot chocolate. I notice, “Boy it’s sunny, and I forgot my sunglasses. And I should probably grab a sweater. OK, where’s my list of kind sponsors…ugh! I can’t pull it up without wifi…I need to take a picture of that donor list next time I have wifi and then I can sit and bang these out…” Then, I pack everything back up, carry it all around for another day or two, and finally put them neatly back in a drawer, saying, “Very soon will I do this! Yes, very, very soon!!!!”

So, while I continue to seek out the perfect spot, pen, beverage, lighting and note-cards, I want to say thank you, dearest friends and family, for supporting Mercy Ships and the work we’re doing during this 10-month field service in Benin. I’m sorry I haven’t been better about reaching out to each of you, but know that I will (once I get more note cards since the ones I picked up in Cape Town are now very outdated…LOL.)

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Who needs inspiration when you’ve got God’s sky everywhere?

I have a lot of joy in my life. I have no regrets about my decision to join Mercy Ships, attend onboarding in TX, sail from Durban to Benin, and now, start work in Benin.

Here are a few highlights since I last shared.

I love what Mercy Ships does through their onboarding program. I don’t believe I could have adjusted to these changes in my life without the loving people of Mercy Ships and their careful plan and design of a program that prepared me physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally to enter into a very different world and lifestyle. In fact, I’m even certified in some legit stuff – like Crowd Management, Personal Safety and Social Responsibilities, and First Aid & CPR. I’m also certified in Basic Fire Fighting, which included timed dress into full-on fire gear (including oxygen masks and tanks), extinguishing fire with hoses and various types of extinguishers and dragging a heavy mannequin out of a smokey container (with a partner). I’ve also had the privilege of donning an immersion suit and learning how to single-handedly return a capcized life-raft to its proper position while in the water, part of my Personal Survival Techniques training.

The last portion of our preparation for Field Service was in Winterton, South Africa, for what’s known as “Field Practice.” While there, we visited a local church, with such beautiful people. Loud songs filled the small, cement churc building with a boldness and passion for God – like this one:

In Winterton, our group was privileged to spend about 10 days with some really special, Mother-Teresa-like leaders of the community to help make improvements to some local facilities as well as visit people living in really sad, sick or disturbing situations. We split up our onboarding group of 30 to cover all the jobs – like making play structures for the kids out of tires,
putting up fencing, digging holes, pouring and paving cement, laying gravel and more. One project a bunch of us spent time on was repurposing tires for these cuties to play on:

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Oh My Goodness. These little ones were so much fun!!!!! They loved making silly faces for the camera 🙂 And they loved rolling the tires away when we weren’t looking…

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Some focused on building a ramp for a woman and her husband who is wheel-chair-bound. Others cleaned out a shed and put up shelves to make it more functional. We also visited homes of very sick people – with illnesses like HIV and cancer – and did whatever we could to ease their pain or sadness. Most, if not all of the time, no real medical services could be provided, so our support was in the form of praying and talking and being present. I was privileged to witness my onboarding friend Stefanie provide physical therapy to a stroke patient.

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The home of an elderly couple that needed a ramp for the wheel-chair-bound husband.
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Steffi, one of my favorite Phyical Therapists on the right, and our new friend on the left. (This girl’s a fighter.)

The changes we saw in this woman’s face by the end of our visit were really different than when we started – she even let us take a photo with her. I’ll never forget her. And I’ll never forget Stefanie’s love in action as she looked deeply into the eyes of this woman while gently massaging her hands, watching for any signs of discomfort as she carefully moved her arms to help her range of motion.

The living conditions of many of those we visited were like none I’d seen before. It makes me want to always remember – so that when I’m feeling dissatisfied or discontent with what I have or what I’m going through, I can step back and look how much God has blessed me. Even now as I type this, weeks later, I’m surprised at how little time it has taken for me to revert back to patterns of wanting “more” versus being thankful for the abundance that I already have…

Seeing so much raw reality also helped us learn to appreciate our accommodations while in Winterton, which were very different than the comforts of our homes back home. We stayed in an old air force base, which was without heat. It’s hard to imagine it being cold in Africa (and I’m still terrible at converting Celsius to Fahrenheit so I can’t remember the actual temperature), but we were there during its “winter,” and could see our breath in the mornings and at night, and at one point, there was snow on the mountains nearby!

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Me trying to get warm in my bed!

We had our sleeping bags, and hot showers. We had modest food, and it was different, but we were grateful. We huddled together around a fireplace each night after a demanding day of giving our all – and shared stories about the defining moments of our days. It was a special time.

At the end, we drove 3 hours back to Durban to meet (many of us for the first time) the Africa Mercy at shipyard. It was surreal to walk the gangway onto a ship which would be my home for 10 months.

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Yep, top bunk is all mine. Although I’ve since updated the bedding…stay tuned for new and improved photos 🙂

From there, we had a few days of sailing to Cape Town. The seas were ROUGH. Check out this waves-video! I thought the stories I had heard were exaggerated – but they weren’t. Before we left, we had to lock everything down for sail. This means to plan for everything in your cabin and office to be turned upside-down. Through the use of bungees, really strong magnets and lots of other tips and tricks, and because my cabin mates are professionals, it worked out pretty well for the most part. But lots of folks struggled during the sail with seasickness even though pills were distributed to us during our “pre-sail briefing.” The dining room was the most interesting during this time, as plates and cups would launch from tables if not being held securely by your hands at all times. A lot of us had to sleep during the roughest parts of the sail because the pills made us so drowsy! Being on the top bunk made me nervous, but God held me in place and I learned to sleep with my limbs out like a starfish so as not to roll out. I’m also learning that my almost-40ness should automatically disqualify me from a top bunk. It’s really hard to get in and out on a tiny ladder!

I really love my roommates.

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Roomies: (L to R) Catrice (USA), Carmen (CAN), me and Valerie (CHE)!

They’ve helped me get acclimated really well and are so kind at sharing space with the newbie – me. There are four of us in our cabin and it’s decorated so nicely and I’m just so happy to share space with these three girls.

dsc07164-2We were in Cape Town for a few days and it was an amazing time. I helped the team with a little behind the scenes work in preparation for some tours of the ship. It was a privilege to watch 50 local nursing school students’ eyes widen at seeing a hospital on a ship and understanding what Mercy Ships actually does!

Being my second time in Cape Town, I kept the sight-seeing to a minimum. I climbed Lion’s Head mountain and really enjoyed it (even though it was really scary coming down), but spent the rest of my time doing girly stuff – walking around the mall, getting some stuff for my cabin, having delicious coffee, and really enjoying some self-care “me” time. (From what I hear, it’s really important to take care of yourself by doing what refreshes and recharges you – because it can be intense living with so many people and doing what we’ll be doing for the field service.)

After a couple of weeks, I’m finally getting to know my way around the ship and falling into somewhat of a system/rhythm. The food is really delicious, I’m sleeping well (most of the time), and the activities have been really fun. It’s a new way of life that I’m learning, and so far, enjoying. I have really nice office space shared with three amazing girls on the Communications Team – and there seem to be plenty of spots to go to find people or find quiet. We play games at night, or watch movies. I’ve found a way to replicate my old routine at home (Netflix at night), which is through our Africa Mercy movie library – I found Criminal Minds on there (out of a couple of thousand options!). Each night, I watch an episode and nibble on chocolate in my bed. It’s my “thing.” My bunk-mate showed me that I can magnetize my ipad to the ceiling so it hangs down perfectly! I plug in my earphones and voila – my own, private surround-sound movie theater!

During the 10-sail from Cape Town to Cotonou, Benin, there were events almost every night – a sock golf tournament around the ship, trivia night, scavenger hunts, and more.

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Fun pics of fun peeps doing fun things in fun places 🙂

There was a celebration when we crossed the equator (I’m now considered a “shell-back” instead of a “polliwog.” This stuff is real in the marine world!) We almost headed towards the crossing of the equator and the prime meridian, which would have made us diamond shell-backs or something…but it wasn’t doable this time around.

We prayed for safety as we had some time sailing past some higher-risk waters where piracy is a legitimate ‘thing.’ But our captain took every precaution to make sure we were protected – including drills, watches, barbed wire, hoses and of course, prayer. And God answered – no issues. Amen!

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Words can’t describe what it’s like to see a bunch of tough deck guys who aren’t afraid to pray.

We also had surprisingly calm seas, making the sail a precious and beautiful time. We arrived in Benin as scheduled on Thursday, August 18, 2016.  Pictured left here are the deck hands, who were huddled in prayer as we made our way to shore. (This picture melts my heart.)

And here are some of the amazing locals of Benin welcoming us to their country!

©2016 Mercy Ships - Photo Credit Katie Keegan - Dancers perform at the Arrival Ceremony
©2016 Mercy Ships – Photo Credit Katie Keegan – Dancers perform at the Arrival Ceremony

 

 

So, all is well. And I’m absolutely grateful for every moment. I can’t wait to tell you more in the weeks to come.

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My new “baby.”

 

(As a side note, I got a new bible. The one I brought on this journey was too big so I sent it back home. I came across a guy who operates “Paul’s Leather CO” www.paulsleatherco.com who makes the most gorgeous leather-bound bibles – including super slim ones for traveling. I asked him to rush one to me while I was in TX – and as I researched his company, I learned that a portion of every purchase helps to support missions in Africa! Isn’t that coincidental?? And of course, as we wrote back and forth, Paul told me he knows someone at Mercy Ships! Crazy-small world, isn’t it? SO, I told him I’d give him a shout-out! Hi Paul! Thank you for my beautiful bible! I love it SO much!!)

If you’d like to learn more about how to get involved, visit http://mercyships-us.donorpages.com/crewmates/WindsorMarchesi/ – Thanks! 

My Second Post: “Aha Moments”

Aha Moment #1: “For such a time as this.”
It’s becoming more apparent to me that my life experiences have been preparing me for right now. Each day of learning at Mercy Ships on-boarding is giving me a strangely cool feeling of refreshingly reassuring relatability (say that five times fast). During these recent “aha” moments, I’ve come to recognize that the circumstances of my life up ‘til now have played a critical part in preparing me “for such a time as this.” Here are a few examples of how things in my past have prepared me for my future:

  • The years I spent in Human Resources, which included developing an understanding of the areas of business operations and how they all play a part in the overall success (or failure) of an organization
  • Opportunities to learn about organizational development, design, structure, data and analytics
  • Being able to work with all levels and types of people within an organization
  • Interviewing people regarding their concerns and facilitating conflict resolution
  • The struggles I faced when transitioning out of HR, dealing with some pride issues, and the journey of learning how to function in a new role
  • Learning and understanding communication and culture
  • Networking and collaborating on various projects with a variety of people, personalities and skill sets
  • The experience of a company acquisition and the impacts of change on different people
  • Exposure to many knowledgeable and influential people and the privilege of learning from them and their different leadership styles
  • Gaining an awareness of the importance, impact and influence of leadership (good and bad)
  • Experiences working with faith-based organizations like Tres Dias – such as:
    • Getting to know a bunch of strangers with different faith backgrounds
    • Dealing with the “fear of the unknown”
    • Learning how to work together to achieve common goals
    • Listening, being silent, dealing with conflicts, working through challenges, leading following, serving
  • Attending different churches with different styles of preaching, music and traditions
  • Organizing music for church retreats, teaching Sunday school, leading youth groups
  • The relationship challenges I’ve faced, which have brought about clarity and new perspectives
  • Being alone to learn about myself and what’s most important
  • The circumstances I’ve experienced that allow me to relate to others who are experiencing similar things 
  • The personality tests and traits I’ve learned about and how people have strengths and weaknesses which impact how they interact 
  • The benefits of journaling
  • The joy of expressing thoughts through words
  • The benefits of speaking to a trusted friend about stuff
  • Learning about love languages
  • Continuing to learn French in college
  • Learning so many things “the hard way”
  • My parents – my family – and their courage, patience, support and unconditional love 

As I’ve been enjoying my first couple of weeks of on-boarding at Mercy Ships, I can’t help but be reminded of Mordecai’s words to Esther in chapter 4. It encourages me to know that through a series of circumstances, life experiences and learnings, one can land the right place at the right time…or, “for such a time as this.”

Aha Moment #2: “Some Answers to Prayer Aren’t Limited by Time”

Shirt designed for and modeled by Brady Cox (Mercy Ships Accountant)

This past week, we heard from one of Mercy Ship’s dearest women, Nancy, who shared about answers to her grandfather’s prayers that occurred after he passed away. It became apparent to me that some of my own father’s prayers, things he asked of God on my behalf, are happening now. I’m pretty sure he asked for me to be able to fulfill my God-given purpose, to use my unique talents and abilities, to have an abundant life, to be protected, to know I am loved, and to have great joy. I see these things happening in my life now. And of course, as I thought about this, I was then asked to read aloud a verse from Psalm (19:14): “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” My dad made it a goal to pray this verse every day, and I just happened to be the one selected to read it in class as I was processing thoughts of his prayers for me. It was really beautiful to know that what we pray for can come to fruition long after we’re gone.

The Latest and Greatest Most Embarrassing Moments:
OK – enough serious talk. Now for the raw, unfiltered stuff.

#1 – Booty Coughs.
You know how little kids think they’re invisible when they close their eyes? Well, when I’m wearing noise-canceling headphones, for some reason, I feel as though no one can hear the sounds I make. Unfortunately, this is not true. I was recently lying in bed reading and wearing my noise-canceling headphones while my roommate was resting in her bed. It was so quiet in my private world of silence that I decided to release a “booty-cough” (a.k.a. “fanny beep” or “heinie hiccup”). I soon realized that just because I couldn’t hear it, didn’t mean she couldn’t. (I’m sorry, Nicole.)

#2 – Mighty Teamwork Bugs. IMG_6081                                  We took a little “silent retreat” at a nearby state park. At the end, we spoke of all the special moments we experienced. Of course, I decided to share several things (because I’m seldom silent) about the nature around me – including this cool spider spinning its web:

I also felt it noteworthy to mention the three little bugs I observed working in
unison to move a rock around. They were a beautiful emerald green and very busy little critters, showing some massive heavy-lifting and teamwork skills. However, I later learned that they are called “Dung Beetles.” (OK, so that was not a rock.)

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A Few More FAQs:

Is the ship safe? Yes. There’s a team of safety personnel who are in charge of all that stuff and take it very seriously. I’m impressed. There are even Ghurkas on board – supercool.

What’s your favorite extracurricular activity? Hmmm…Walmart trips? Not kidding, each week, about 20 of us go to Walmart to pick up stuff we want/need – snacks or things we forgot for the trip. My go-tos have been chocolate and fireballs. And chocolate. I also finally bought nail polish for my toes. (The more I learn, the more I realize that I don’t have to be completely without pretty stuff on the ship.) We can send a bunch of stuff to the ship in advance, which is really nice. We’ve also had some fun heading to other towns and eating out and doing fun stuff: IMG_6033IMG_6104

Have you learned a new language yet? Nope. But all of us are practicing French (the native language of Benin) using Duolingo…and there’s a bit of a competition underway, one that I’m losing. What has been really beautiful is hearing people pray in different languages like Swiss-German, German and Spanish. I really love it.

Do you like everyone you’re spending all this time with? IMG_6016YES! I’m surrounded by an incredible group of people. We’ve already become somewhat of a family. I love the stories of how each person ended up coming to Mercy Ships. I love hearing everyone’s culturally-specific ways of doing things and saying things. We’re all so different. So extraordinarily beautiful. Everyone respects each other’s need for space, but there’s also always a group doing something fun – playing a game, watching a moving, going for walks, swimming, working out, or sitting on the couch and talking while “devicing.” We all have responsibilities and take care of our living area to keep it clean, stocked and comfortable.

Have you seen any wildlife? IMG_5816Yes! I’m addicted to birds now. There was a family of adorable baby birds all packed in a nest which I visited daily:

FullSizeRenderLittle by little, the babies started moving out of the nest, and finally, they were all gone! So sweet to watch and enjoy.

I also came across a decent-sized snake while walking in the woods one evening. No one believed me until I pointed it out on my phone…but if you look closely at this pic, you can try to find it!FullSizeRender[1]

There have been three scorpions in one of the family houses. Scary, but apparently fairly common.

IMG_6031We also saw a skunk the other night but kept our distance. (No photo, sorry.)

So, needless to say, I’m loving my time here and feel so fortunate to be in this environment, preparing to do some tough but rewarding work. Thanks for your thoughts, prayers and support!

Visit my Mercy Ships support page to learn more: Capture

My First Post

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Photo by the one and only Miguel Ottaviano

I love my 3 (sometimes 4!) new roomies. Unrelated, but worth sharing, I also love my noise canceling ear phones. (Thank you AP!) However, I’ve learned to become accustomed to and almost appreciate the sounds that come with sharing small spaces with others. I even found myself checking on my suite mate to make sure she wasn’t dead the other night during a brief and alarming moment when she slept silently for approximately 10 seconds…yes, we laughed about it the next day, because, well, it’s pretty creepy that I was leaning over her at 2:00 am ready to hold a mirror to her nose…but she is alive and well and I’m very grateful. (I love you Nicole.)
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So this is just one of many “new normals” at Mercy Ships eight-week on-boarding course – a beautiful place in TX, where, after just a week, I’ve made tons of new friends and am starting to fall into a bit of a rhythm. (Minus the time I used the men’s room by mistake.) It is here, at Mercy Ships corporate headquarters, where 31 of us ‘newbies’ are spending eight weeks of our lives to get submerged (pun intended) and fully prepared for what’s ahead.IMG_5559

So far, I’ve been utterly impressed with Mercy Ships as an organization, and have no doubt that I’ve made the right decision. It’s hard to describe how I know, but I’ll try.

This “hospital on a ship,” founded by Don Stephens (you can read about it in his book, Ships of Mercy), provides safe, accessible and timely surgeries to help the world’s forgotten poor – people in countries like Benin, West Africa, where I’ll be headed in August. There’s so much that goes on to make these “field
services” happen, and I’ll try to include more in the weeks and months to come. From what I’ve learned so far, Mercy Ships goes beyond providing surgical care and also delivers capacity building and training to help provide long-lasting and sustainable solutions through tools, resources, learning and support.IMG_5531

What strikes me most are Mercy Ships visionary leaders, applying
cutting-edge business philosophies, leveraging a team of highly skilled, talented and trained professionals, in an environment that ‘corporately’ loves God so much that they don’t want to just talk about it, but even more, show it. How do they pull this all off? A bunch of surgeons, nurses, captain, crew, food servers, HR people, accountants, carpenters, videographers, photographers, physical therapists, chaplains and more (you can check out the list of opportunities here), sign up to serve on the Africa Mercy to volunteer. This could be for a year, or, it could be for 25 years.

Also amazing are Mercy Ships acts of unconditional love. No one has tIMG_5534o convert or profess a certain belief or faith to receive treatment. In fact, absolutely nothing is required. Someone can come to the ship for eye surgery, leave with sight, but have no obligation. Unconditional love is about having ‘no expectations.’ This is what Mercy Ships refers to in their mission where they speak of following Jesus’ 2000-year old model of showing love to the world’s forgotten poor. https://www.mercyships.org/

Once you experience the people and the cause and how they make this happen, you realize what a privilege it is to be a part of something so beautiful. I could go on and on, and have the notes and highlighting to prove my “aha” moments, but for now, I just want you all (should I be saying ‘y’all?’) to know that I’m beyond excited about what’s ahead.IMG_5532

For me, giving up my stuff, my comforts of home, taking a pause from my daily life, to be a part of this – it’s absolutely worth it. Sacrificing comfort for growth is a good strategy. If that includes sharing a room with a bunch of cool gals, well, I’m in.

Answers to questions I’ve been asked:

Q: Is it a cruise ship?

A: No. It’s actually a donated ferry ship. I’ve recently learned that during the two-week sail from Durban, South Africa, to Benin, West Africa, we may puke the entire time, as the ship reportedly feels like a floating milk carton on its side.

Q: Are you going to die from malaria?IMG_5542

A: No. Well, hopefully not. I’ve got malaria pills and bug spray so that should be really enjoyable.

Q: How much did you pack?

A: I brought two large duffels and two carry-on back-pack style bags. I had to pay extra because the duffels weighed too much.

Q: Did you pack any of your high-heel shoes?

A: I re-calibrated my “fashion over function” scale and made wise(r) choices.

Q: What is happening with Fred and Rory?

A: Freddie is happy and healthy and enjoying a new life at Ben’s
girlfriend’s house. Rory is living with Ben and Chelsea and staying busy. (I miss them both dearly and don’t want to think about it.) HOWEVER, IMG_5517around the corner from where I’m currently staying lives a teeny-tiny cute puppy named Sophie – and her parents let me walk her whenever I want, so I’m getting my ‘pooch’ fix on a pretty regular basis.

Q: Are you going to marry a surgeon?

A: Unlikely. My goal in joining Mercy Ships is to use my skills and abilities for a good cause. I would imagine there is a much easier way to meet a guy that doesn’t involve quitting my job, leaving my apartment, storing all my stuff, going to training in Texas, and then living in close quarters on a ship for 10 months. If securing a man were the goal, I’d pass go, collect $200 and log on to match.com.

Q: Can you have wine on the ship?IMG_5541

A: No. There are some conservative and culturally sensitive policies on
board and locally, which I respect and understand. There may be special occasion to enjoy a beverage of this nature, but again, it’s not the focus,
and practicing some moderation is a nice healthy exercise.

Q: Are you going to get “Mercy Hips?”

A: I’m trying not to indulge on all the carbs that are being provided during training – and I’m trying to work in some exercise from time to time, like a walk or swim.

Q: How many people are on the boat?IMG_5533

A: It’s called a ship, not a boat. Trust me, this is not something you want to slip up on. As you know, I learn everything the hard way.

(Approximately 450.)

Q: What nationalities are on the ship?

A: Pretty much all of them! It’s a very diverse crew, which is super cool.

Q: How do you afford to do this? What does it cost and what about your bills?

A: Great questions.

Costs can vary, but there are some expenses related to Capturetravel, shots, and room/board on the ship. I’ve estimated that my one-year commitment equates to approximately $11,000, which does not include any personal spending money. (I intend to cover any personal expenses.) All volunteers on board Mercy Ships raise their own financial support. I didn’t understand this at first, but now I see how some individuals can pick up and go work on the front lines (like me), while others are part of it all through support and encouragement (financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) If would like to learn more about Mercy Ships or how you can offer support, visit my donor page: http://mercyships-us.donorpages.com/crewmates/WindsorMarchesi/

Q: Will you be able to use your cell phone while on the ship?

A: I will use apps like WhatsApp and skype. I will not have phone service.

Q: What about the love of your life – your Jeep Wrangler?

A: I miss her dearly, but she is eagerly awaiting my return. In the meantime, Ben is guarding her with his life.

Q: What will you do when you get back?

A: Not sure. Only God knows what the future has in store.

*Feel free to post questions or comments below!*

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Important Disclaimer: Although I am currently serving with Mercy Ships, everything communicated here strictly reflects my personal opinions and is neither reviewed nor endorsed by Mercy Ships. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Mercy Ships.