The Sunday Nation newspaper was our favourite. As the parents caught up with how the world was being governed, we, the children, had a field day with the children’s pullout. This was a treasure trove of stories, crossword puzzles and ‘join-the-dots’. At first glance, the join-the-dots puzzle seemed like randomly numbered dots, but we knew better. One only needed a sharpened pencil, locate number one, and from there on draw a line to the next number and the next, and soon enough, the picture would let you know whether it was a flower or a dog.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives worked like that? But more often than not, they look like a tangled ball of yarn or a preschooler’s drawing – anything but a clear picture. In earlier seasons of my life, the progression of dot one to dot two was clear. Primary school, score high marks, secondary school – score a B, make it to the university, get a job, get married, wait a year or two, get a baby. In the last few years, however, the pattern of dot to dot hasn’t been as clear.
I have a clear mental picture of that Saturday evening when my family landed in Addis Ababa from Nairobi. We had checked in 11 bags of what we considered the minimum we needed to start life in a new country. One bag did not make it. As it so happened, it was the one with all I had packed by way of clothing for myself. Looking back, I realise that had I been more astute in the art of spiritual discernment, I would have heard the voice telling me, “New wine needs new wineskins.”
You are embarking on a new life; that wardrobe will not suit!
I have since gained up to 10 kgs (true story) depending on whether you use the weighing scale at the hospital or the ones operated by little boys (why are they not in school?) on the streets of Addis Ababa. You give them a birr coin and step on and off fast enough before it starts beeping, “one person at a time, please!”
For sure, those amazing clothes would not fit me today.
But I am sure what I was meant to understand did not necessarily have to do with an expanded waistline.
The metaphor (quite costly as the bag never showed up) was lost on me. I am not the kind that does cryptic or whispers…. Spell it out in capital letters if you want me to get it.
That did not stop the script from unfolding.
I was going to get a new life, although I did not know it yet. I tried to continue joining the dots of my life as I had always done (job applications and interviews). It seemed someone had mixed them up. I could not find the next dot (all those rejections and silences). Some numbers appeared to have been erased or labelled in Amharic – a language I have yet to get the hang of. Sometimes I couldn’t even find a dot to join. I wondered whether I had made a mistake – should I go back or re-do (is that even possible?). The picture was anything but clear… sometimes what had seemed to be shaping like a leg turned out to be a leaf… was there really a plan?
Muddling through this fog, I got the idea that I at least knew what was possible to do on any given day. Lots of cooking and cleaning up, writing Facebook posts, hanging out over coffee or on WhatsApp, a bible study group, a book club, online courses, a pro bono writing/editing assignment and such. Nothing at the time looked important enough, and it was definitely not what I had asked for.
Occasionally (like now), the mists lift, and for a while, it makes sense. You are granted a moment to see that, indeed, every action, however confused or confusing it was, was one more line on a real picture and not a child’s crayon creation. E.L. Doctorow advising on writing a novel, once said, “… is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.
This is relevant not only in writing but also in life. “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. (Soren Kierkegaard) In a process that the Quakers call – way leads to way or dot after dot in my case, I did end up in a new profession – meaningful but certainly not perfect (for instance, the pay…).
Sometimes we choose a path (like my sojourn to Ethiopia), and sometimes the path is chosen for us (my lost wardrobe… and what followed). But if we have faith in an all-knowing, good and sovereign God, we can trust that his silence is not absence, and his hiddenness is in no way abandonment (Timothy Keller).
That encourages us to do what we can – today. Take the next step and the next, patiently (very hard) trusting there is a larger hand scripting. He knows where each dot is and how it fits with the others and as we follow him, step at a time, the picture will eventually be clear – whether in this life or the next.
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