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.

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