To face giants and rescue snails (Finding courage part 3)

I thought I was done writing about courage a couple of posts ago, at least for a while. However, I was out with a friend recently and as we chatted I recalled a story from Buenos Aires Argentina involving my middle child, Talai, a story in which she showed great courage. With so many unknowns in our future as a nation and a world, I figured one more dose of encouragement couldn’t hurt. So without further adieu, allow me to share a tale of snails, bullies and courage.

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Outside our apartment in Corrientes. In the background is an asado or, “barbeque pit.”

When we first arrived in Argentina to study trauma counseling and work with victims of human trafficking, we lived in the northern province of Corrientes. The girls were so excited. We had finally completed our long road trip from Northern Michigan to Argentina and after months of endless adventure and travel we were getting ready to settle in to what would be home for the next several months. As a family we looked hopefully and excitedly towards a seemingly bright future. Unfortunately, we didn’t detect the dark clouds of bullying quickly approaching on the horizon.

The particular area we were in was one of the most anti-American places we’ve ever been. I remember standing in line at the store one day and trying to make small talk with a woman standing behind me.

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Homeschooling at our Corrientes apartment

“Hello, how are you?” I said.

“You know the Russians beat you to the moon,” the gal responded. “Stupid Americans; you think you rule the world.”

It was an intimidating experience, but with love and patience we won over most of our neighbors. It was a difficult time for our whole family, but Talai had the worst of it. Talai is an Aspy, which means she has a super-cool personality, but she sometimes struggles to read social queues and make new friends. At the base we worked on there were many children. Several of them picked up on Talai’s quirks and soon she was the focus of daily bullying in the community. During kids church one Sunday a teacher came and got Sal and I. Talai had been in a fight, or more like an ambush. Two boys had held her down while another punched and kicked her. During Sunday school.

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Enjoying a mate (being a South American green tea shared amongst friends from the communal cup, mate, and straw, bombilla) in front of our apartment

At one point we thought things were getting better when a girl around her age befriended her. The two girls were peas in a pod; they teeter-tottered and laughed and whispered together. Other kids started to leave her alone and Sal and I were so relieved. Then one day her “friend” led a co-ed group of kids into the bathroom and kicked in the door to Talai’s stall. She was mortified and heart broken.

The rest of our time in Corrientes was very hard on Talai. Sal and I tried working with parents and teachers to stop the bullying, but in the end we had to keep Talai in our sights constantly and discipline the other kids ourselves to keep her safe. Sal employed some interesting tactics to deter kids from picking on Talai, but even their fear of him was not enough to stop it completely or help her make friends. I think the most difficult thing for her was that these were fellow missionary kids; they were supposed to be her brothers and sisters in Christ. Truthfully, it was a sad commentary on a community where holding on to their racism was more important than embracing the international Christian fellowship.

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A game at a sort of party/vbs we held for local children in Buenos Aires, Argentina

As soon as we could transfer our studies, we left there and moved onto a missions base in Buenos Aires. We had been part of a daily program for street children and saying goodbye to them was difficult and sad, but we had to take care of our girls. Initially we liked the new base a lot. Both the adults and children seemed friendly and sincere. They apologized for the racism we had encountered and assured us that everyone was family on the base. We lived, studied and worked on the base and our whole family was adjusting well and making friends.

When the rainy season arrived, large land snails started emerging all over. My girls are lovers of all animals including the creepy crawlies and they loved seeing the snails everywhere. We noticed that broken shells started littering the sidewalk, but we weren’t sure why. Then one day Talai burst through the front door with tears in her eyes holding a smashed snail in her cupped hands.

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So many snails!

“Mom!” she exclaimed. “The kids are smashing the snails! They just take the poor snails and smash them on the sidewalk for fun.” She could barely get the story out as sobs of indignation and sadness wracked her. I did the best I could explaining to her the cultural and background differences that caused these kids to seem to her so heartless, but there was little I could do to console her, and nothing I could do to make it right.

I rocked her in my arms until she calmed down and then we buried the remains of the poor dead and broken snail she still held. Over the next few days she built a snail hospital and started collecting broken-shelled snails and caring for them. She poured her whole heart and all her time into it. A couple curious boys came by to ask what she was doing. They were intrigued by the hospital and so they went out, found a healthy snail, threw it on the concrete and then brought it to Talai to care for. Talai put her hands on her hips and proceeded to scold the boys for hurting the snail in the first place. The boys were abashed and quickly apologized. Then, they asked if they could help with caring for the snails. She sent them out to scavenge for food and they returned that afternoon with lots of greens and flowers from various people’s gardens which earned them official snail hospital staff positions. They came by daily to help and learn from Talai.

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Talai and the original Snail Hospital

Word spread quickly and soon we had large groups of kids in our front yard investigating the snail hospital. Most kids were puzzled over why she would care for snails (which they smashed because they thought they were gross) and left laughing among themselves. I began to worry for Talai. She had endured so much at the hands of bullies just a little while prior and now she was taking a stand that, although noble, was seen by her peers as foreign and odd. I worried that the other kids would use this as an opportunity to tease and ridicule her.

Sal and I discussed this and one night we sat Talai down to have a talk with her. We explained that, although we were very proud of how she was caring for the snails, her actions in doing so could possibly make her a target for ridicule. We told her to consider the possible price this endeavor might cost her if it resulted in being bullied again. We assured her that none of the bullying had been her fault, and that what she was doing for the snails was right and good, but even so it may have negative consequences for her.

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Talai selling Aloe Vera to raise money and awareness for her snail hospital

Without pause she explained to us that under no circumstance was she going to abandon her patients; as a doctor she was bound by the Hippocratic Oath. She told us that Jesus said that anyone who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is not worthy of Him and she assured us that, while she appreciated our concern, she had counted the cost and that standing up for the helpless was always worth it.

What was there to do but hug our little world-changer and support her in her work? We watched her closely day-by-day, ready to jump in and defend her. But then, something unexpected happened. More and more kids became intrigued by how she cared for her little victims and started volunteering at her hospital. Meanwhile, Talai changed her attitude of anger towards the perpetrators into one of patience and understanding. She started approaching groups of snail smashers and reasoning with them, explaining how even snails were created by God and how it was much nicer to enjoy and play with them than to smash them. The change didn’t happen overnight, but it came on steadily.

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That’s part of my garden

More and more kids started to disapprove of snail-smashing. Talai received new hospital volunteers daily, which was a good thing because her hospital, which had expanded and annexed our entire front yard, now had hundreds of patients. Then, one day, snail-smashing ceased completely.

With almost all of the base kids involved in the hospital to some capacity, and without the emergency room being overcrowded from smashed snails, Talai led the kids to expand the hospital into an all-out snail rescue. My beautiful exotic garden became a sort of snail hospice (“Snail Heaven” as Talai called it) where snails who weren’t expected to survive went. As it turned out, my garden must have had some healing powers because many of the snails made a turn-around and became so healthy that they ate most of the plants to the ground. We also had the constructed and expanded hospital and the graveyard for those who didn’t make it in our front yard.

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Talai takes a shift on a rainy day as a snail shuttle scooter driver

Other kids volunteered their yards and gardens and soon there was a snail playground for the younger ones, physical therapy for the older ones and a diner. They started a shuttle service to transport the snails from one area to the next and designated “drivers” would carry the snails on their scooters. They even painted the snails’ shells and kept records of their progress. Scouts would go out in search of snails who had run away from the hospital and others hiding around the base and bring them to the rescue where they would receive health screening and a check-up before being released back to the wild. It really was an incredible operation.

My garden was devoured beyond repair; there was a constant stream of kids through my front yard and peeking in our windows; parents were complaining to me about their raided flower beds; and I couldn’t be happier. My daughter had changed the minds, hearts and destructive practices of an entire community. She convinced others to enjoy and embrace something that they had previously reviled. Many a good missionary has spent years and even decades trying to do that very thing. I was so very proud of her

Many people ask me what I do with my kids while we are in the mission field, as if my girls were annoyances impeding on “real mission work.” I don’t “do” anything with them. Together we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the widows and the orphans and preach the gospel of freedom and peace to the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. And sometimes they do it without me.

Thank you for reading this post. God bless you.

 

Finding courage; Part two

This post continues where the last one left off. If you haven’t read that yet you may want to before continuing.

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Another event that occurred during these past couple of weeks required my 11-year-old daughter to fight her fears, quite literally. She decided to join a Jiu-Jitsu tournament. Not long ago she had competed in an unofficial tournament where she had gotten seriously hurt. At one point she was fighting a boy who was double her weight and the referee was allowing him to do illegal moves like slamming her and picking her up by her neck in a standing guillotine. It was my daughter’s very first competitive experience in Jiu-Jitsu and she was really shook by it. Honestly, we failed as parents as well. We should have thrown in the towel and then confronted the referee, but it was one of those unexpected moments where you’re trying to decide on the fly what the right thing to do is and we chose poorly. (You can read Sal’s reflections on this whole ordeal on the Facebook page “A Father’s Missionary Journal” by clicking on the link in the right-hand column.)

So when Sal mentioned that there was an official Jiu-Jitsu competition at the end of the week, Talai was less than enthusiastic, even though it had a strict rule-set and weight divisions. My husband gently, but persistently encouraged her to go and eventually she agreed. For the rest of the week she studied the rules and rolled with her sisters. We could all see that she was afraid, and though we repeatedly tried to reassure her, she remained very nervous right up until the tournament.

FB_IMG_15840677153665511“Do you think I’m doing the right thing having her compete?” my husband asked me. I didn’t have an answer. I knew this competition would be different, but would it help her confidence or break it further? We didn’t know. We prayed continually for her and for a good experience.

Saturday came and Talai weighed in at the Grappling Industries tournament with Sal as her coach. She was the only girl in her weight class. All of our nerves were stretched as we waited to see how Talai would do. She won her first bout by points with her opponent on the defense the entire time. During her second match, her opponent shot in super fast but Talai pulled off an impressive reversal and took him to the ground. An exciting match followed and she wound up getting the boy in rubber guard, which she had only just learned that morning. From there she threw him in a triangle choke that no one, including Sal, saw coming and even the referee was impressed. She won the fight by submission and took home the first place medal for her weight division,  kicking off her official record as undefeated.

Her performance alone that day was enough to make Sal and I extremely proud of her. Many spectators complimented her great form and several coaches approached Sal with words about how well trained she was. But they only saw part of the victory story that day. Talai had faced very legitimate fears and quite literally stepped up to fight them. To be honest, I’m not sure I would have shown that level of courage if I was in her shoes. She demonstrated incredible bravery, and for that, we couldn’t be more proud of her.

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Talai awarded first place in her weight division at a Grappling Industries Jiu-Jitsu Tournament

So, back to my initial question: how can I teach my kids to be brave? As missionaries and avid travelers, I want our girls to be able to face our vast world with confidence, poise and courage, but the necessity to be brave is no less for someone who doesn’t travel much. The world, at times, is a scary place, and I’m afraid I foresee it getting worse, not better. How can I prepare my youngsters so that they will thrive?

I don’t really know. But having watched my girls these past couple weeks and the courage they exhibited, I was filled with hope. I think perhaps the best thing I can do is not hinder their adventurous spirits or fill them with fear. I have to allow them to experience and challenge the adventures that God has painted right into His creation. Nature is full of wonders and risks and I need to let our girls discover and embrace them. I must not hold them back because of my own fears. I need to teach them to trust God and good companions, to get up and try again, even when it hurts, to take risks and not fret over possible misfortune, to take on life as it comes at them and not hide from it (or perhaps that’s what they’ve taught me). I liked how Ana put it in the movie Frozen II to “do the next right thing.” I must encourage them, tell them that I believe in them (and mean it) and remind them to focus on the goal or prize whether it be the light at the end of the tunnel, a gold medal, or a life which pleases Jesus. We must encourage all of our youth to be strong and courageous, for they were born into such a time as greatly demands it.

As always, thank you for following this blog and my family. I pray that you and yours will be blessed.

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Our girls posing in the cage at Warrior Combat Academy, an awesome MMA gym we used to train at and the team Talai represented in the Grappling Industries Jiu-Jitsu Tournament

Finding Courage; Part One

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Amtrak takes Hadassah and I through a cute town in the Appalachian Mountains

As I write this I’m on an Amtrak train headed for Toledo with my worn-out-but-wiggly-even-asleep eight-year-old sprawled across my lap. I’ve got my laptop perched on the fold-out table attached to the chair in front of me (like the ones you see on planes) and she keeps bumping and kicking the table as she twitches sporadically in her sleep. This wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that I ordered some red wine hoping that it would help with this splitting headache I’ve got and each twitch brings the glass closer to spilling all over my computer and lap. Everyone is so freaked out about the Corona Virus that I was afraid to ask for some Tylenol so I ordered an over-priced cheap cup of wine instead. Earlier today I had entertained the fantasy of sophisticatedly sipping a glass of wine as I typed out a blog post with my daughter sleeping peacefully beside me. Oh well, I suppose that, in it’s own way, this reality is even better.

As far as an update goes, we’ve been busy doing the typical settling in things as well as a bit of exploring. Certain events from these past couple weeks, however, have caused me to return to a topic I often consider. Courage is a common theme of discussion in our home. We talk about how the Bible admonishes us to be brave and about having the courage to stand up for what is right, to defend the helpless and downtrodden and to speak boldly for Jesus even when it’s unpopular. We talk to our girls about standing up for each other, their belief system, their God and their country. We read historical accounts and fictitious stories about courageous men and women, boys and girls who stood fast despite great peril. But as the stories tell, courage always involves risk, sacrifice and discomfort. Being immersed in a culture that worships self, entertainment and comfort, how can we find it within ourselves to choose great courage and sacrifice, let alone teach our children to do so?

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”

~ Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV

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photo courtesy: Stuart Miles @ freedigitalphotos.net

I don’t actually have the answer to those questions, but a couple of events these past weeks have prompted me to ponder them and I’ve concluded that my girls have taught me much more about what it means to be courageous than I have ever taught them.

Recently we went on a fun little hike that led us along a stream. The stream had tall banks (for a stream, that is) suggesting that it had previously carried more water than it currently contained. Along the banks were a series of small caverns that turned into tunnels burrowing into the ground horizontally. My girls jumped down the banks, stuck their heads in the caverns and shouted into them. Most of the time, the sound echoed and then disappeared, but one cavern proved different. When they shouted into it they realized that their voices emerged ten feet upstream from a one-square-foot half-submerged hole in the bank.

“I’m going in,” declared my oldest. “Mom, can I have your phone so I can catch this on video? I promise I’ll do my best not to get it wet.”

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The girls checking out caverns in the stream bank

I looked at the cavern and then upstream to the small hole we suspected was connected. The tunnel was pitch black and trees grew up to the bank directly above us. I could just see her getting stuck between a wall and root four feet underground, or the ground caving in on top of her, or the tunnel becoming so small that she got stuck. My oldest has an insatiable taste for adventure which causes her to be a bit reckless at times and I had no doubt that she would press on when most others would turn back. However, I told myself that this was the perfect opportunity for her to build confidence and practice courage. It was her chance to prove to herself that she has what it takes, that she was brave enough. So I handed her my phone, held my breath and forced my best encouraging smile.

Just a couple minutes later she wiggled out on her belly from the small hole upstream. “That was awesome!” she exclaimed. “Hey, want to go through it with me?” she asked her sisters. Thanks Mila; now I get to visualize a catastrophic underground accident involving all three of my girls. I wasn’t too worried about my 11-year-old. Her history said this would be a piece of cake for her. My eight-year-old, however, was another matter. She doesn’t really like the dark, or tight spaces or being cold, or taking instruction from her older sister. The day was chilly and the water was freezing and anyone going through the tunnel would get quite wet and be cold for the whole hike back to the car. Despite this reality, all three of my daughters looked up at me with hopeful eyes.

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The girls inside the entrance of the cavern that led to a small, half-submerged hole about ten feet upstream.

“Look here Hadassah,” my husband piped in. “If you go into that cave you’ll get wet and cold. It will be pitch black and you may run into spiders and mice. It will get tight and you’ll feel the walls pressing up against you. If you get stuck, neither mom or I can make it in to rescue you so Mila will be your only hope; you must listen to her no matter what and not panic. Once you make it through you’ll be wet and cold all the way back to the car. That said, I believe you can do it. Do you understand the risks?”

“I understand,” responded Hadassah solemnly.

“Well then,” said Sal, “what do you want to do?”

I watched Hadassah’s face as she recounted and considered all that my husband had laid before her. On it I saw fear and watched as determination chased it away. “I can do this Dad,” she finally responded. “I’m going in!”

“In that case,” said my eldest daughter Mila, “we should start upstream and enter there.”

“Wait a minute,” I cut her off. “That would mean that you are entering at the smallest scariest part of the cave and that once Hadassah enters she’ll have no choice but to go forward. There would be no turning back from the start.”

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My brave young explorers

“Exactly,” replied Mila. “It would be scary at first but then the worst would be over. I think that will be better for Hadassah than having all that time to worry. I think it will be easier for her to navigate that way as well. Please, trust me on this one.”

Hadassah grabbed my hand, looked up at me and said, “It’s okay Mom, I trust Mila. I can do this. I’m brave enough,”

Every instinct in me told me not to let her go, but how could I deny her this: her very own chance to be brave? What message would I be sending her if I refused her? Sure, I could tell her that she was the youngest and should wait until she was older, but having already allowed her older sister to go through, I wondered if such a blow to her self-esteem would be worth keeping her safe. After a deep breath to slow my own heart I nodded approval and watched my youngest disappear inside a dark underground tunnel. After a minute or so I heard Hadassah calling out in a panic-fringed voice. She started to cry and I immediately prepared to dive into the larger part of the cave and get to her even if I had to dig my way through the dark to do so. Then I heard Mila’s calming voice responding and guiding her. It was quiet again for another couple minutes before they emerged downstream.

Hadassah’s face wore worry as she emerged, but as soon as the sunshine hit it, it became radiant with victory and excitement. “That was awesome!” she shouted. We shared high-fives and fist-bumps before hiking hurriedly back to the truck with the girls laughing and talking about their adventure the whole way.

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Talai using a key to try and entice some ducks along our hike a little closer

I was so proud of all three of my girls that day. Not only had they demonstrated their perpetual courage in the way they sook out adventure, but the youngest faced legitimate fears that many adults would have succumbed to. She confronted and overcame them, even regaining her composure without mom or dad in a moment of weakness.

This post is getting lengthy so I will conclude it in a day or two. As always, thank you for reading this blog and tracking with me. May God bless you and yours.

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”

~ Joshua 1:9

Above is the footage of their underground adventure that the girls recorded.