Everything seems to be telling me to slow down and breathe deeply. Sometimes I listen to these rhythms and other times I fight silence and space. It’s best when I give in to the slowness and listen to its message. It’s the worst when I try and force the rhythms to go faster.
If you are living in a developing country, I have a feeling you know what I mean. There are rhythms all around us sending us messages. The power goes out. The water tank is empty. The internet hasn’t worked in days. The car breaks down. The baby just wants to be held. In those moments there is a very critical choice that will make or break my day; will I listen to the rhythms or try to create my own?
Shauna Niequist summed up everything I would want to say about the rhythms of my life with this quote from her book Present-Over-Perfect:, “Lake life has those invitations to rest and slowness woven right into the fabric of our days—rain showers that send us inside, nightfall that lays us down. But so many of us, myself chief among them, have forsaken those natural rhythms and stayed at full speed, through the night, through the storms.” So you may not live on the lake where you are boating and barbecuing everyday but the metaphor of the lake life powerfully relates to expat life—you are removed from the normal and “invitations to slowness are woven right into the fabric of our days.”
Some of my best memories on this continent of Africa have been found in listening to these rhythms and accepting their invitation; a romantic candlelight dinner on a Tuesday night with no power; my husband reading Ben Hur aloud on a Saturday afternoon with no internet; laughing about the dishes and laundry piling up on a Monday with no water; opportunity to see provision when the car breaks down on a Friday; and looking into my baby’s eyes on a Wednesday when she just wants to be held. Some of my worst memories on this continent are when I resist the rhythms and their messages to me. Imagine all the moments I just described but insert an angry, frustrated woman looking at the lack instead of the opportunity. You wouldn’t want to be friends with that version of me.
There is a huge opportunity while living overseas to reorder and re-rhythm our lives. It is not just the slow internet or power outages—it’s being able to step back from everything that once seemed important. It’s being able to decide—away from certain cultural pressures—what is our life about? From friends and the community in my homeland I hear comments like, “I don’t see how you live in Africa.” Yep! There are some hard moments, but I think it is actually really hard to live in America. Living here, I get to take a pass on many of the pressures of life in America—busyness, comparison, and consumerism.
If you haven’t read Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh I highly recommend it. It was written in the 1950s but her message is timeless for woman-kind, “It is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul. And this is not only true of my life, I am forced to conclude, it is the life of millions of women in America. I stress America, because today, the American woman more than any other has the privilege of choosing such a life. Woman in large parts of the civilized world has been forced back by war, by poverty, by collapse, by the sheer struggle to survive, into a small circle of immediate time and space, immediate family, immediate problems of existence.” All the parallels are not perfect—most of us don’t live in war or poverty—but the life of multiplicity is still true for many of us, in regards to busyness, comparison, and consumerism, which are typically three of my greatest downfalls.
Take some examples from my life—there is not as much keeping me busy in our town. This fact can drive me up the wall at times but there are some huge upsides—my husband and I aren’t pulled in a million different directions. We eat breakfast AND dinner together most nights. Yeah we don’t have girls’ nights or yoga classes or Super Bowl parties but we have time to talk and dream and remember where we came from.
I also don’t struggle as much with comparisons. I honestly always feel beautiful in Ethiopia—it might be the horrible lighting and mirrors in our house—but more than that, I think it is the lack of comparing myself to others. My problem starts when I see a 45-year-old woman carrying her surfboard down to the beach in San Diego with a better body than me, and I start to question my figure as well as my wardrobe. Then there is always the act of comparing homes. When I am in Ethiopia, I always feel like my house is just what I need—it’s a functional-oasis. I don’t ask myself questions based on style or design. We use what we have and there is no pressure to have the latest trends or matching furniture. I made our bedspreads, most of the kitchenware I found at Goodwill in America and brought over, and our furniture is a random collection of what was already in the house when we started renting it. Honestly, I am just thankful that our couches are tan instead of the culturally popular purple velvet. Now, I do have a cow skull hanging on my wall, which is super trendy, but my husband picked it up in a field-dump two doors down from our house.
Consumerism takes on other forms in Ethiopia—like hoarding Nutella jars in the guest bedroom—but Amazon doesn’t deliver here and my internet is too slow to make online shopping much fun. We spend so much less money because there is nothing to buy here. I am so tempted to buy stuff when we are in America but then I remember that I have to fit it in my suitcase. Sometimes I ask myself if I want a block of cheddar cheese or this new pair of shoes that will be immediately destroyed the moment I step outside my gate in Ethiopia. I’ll take the cheese please.
I know myself and it would be hard for me not to want to accept the invitation to master the life of multiplicity that my homeland offers, all the while having a perfect house, perfect body, and perfect children. I need boundaries. To borrow from one of the oldest books, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6a).” For me the boundaries of slow internet, limited electricity, and a sleepy town help me to remember what is important to me.
I guess I could be guilty of escaping from my problems instead of facing them, but I am going to take advantage of the opportunity to listen to new rhythms here in my expat life. I am forced back to immediate problems of how to get water to clean the house or how to get dinner cooked without any power. When there is no internet, I am forced to listen to a book on tape while feeding the baby instead of scrolling through Instagram. I am forced to make the simple special. I am forced into the quiet. I am forced into my chair to read and write. I am forced into contentment. Obviously, I don’t always choose these rhythms of peace and contentment. Just this weekend I was mentally unhinged about being homebound with a baby and the hot water heater not working in the shower, but then I remembered to look for the invitation and rhythms that are trying to send me a message.
What are your rhythms telling you today? And how can you accept the invitation?