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One year of Stronger than Death: Love and Service During a Deadly and Contagious Pandemic

Covid has made me think about tuberculosis many times (I also wrote about the way it connected with my cancer treatment here). Contagious, deadly, different people’s bodies have different responses, the feeling of being made a pariah or a leper, fear, societal changes, new vocabulary, life-long repercussions even when cured, global, no great treatment (yet), no vaccine (yet), racial dynamics, economics…

The overlaps could go on and on. And there are also the medical workers saving lives, risking their own lives, choosing to care for the vulnerable, and doing this in the middle of, in some places, broader violence and danger.

Like Annalena Tonelli did with tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

If you want to read about how a woman and a community faced their own “pandemic”, read this book. Read about how she consistently chose love and service over fear and rejection. Read about how she kept on choosing joy and life, even during war and terrible loss.

One reader asked if I hold Annalena as an idol. I don’t think I go to that extreme but I do admire, respect, and feel challenged by her. I know her weaknesses and the ways she frustrated some of the people around her. I know she wasn’t perfect and I don’t even come close to emulating her my own life. But I do find an example in her, an inspiration, ideas for how to live a little bit better, how to love a little bit more.

Every day this week, the 1-year birthday for Stronger than Death and the 17-year anniversary of Annalena’s murder, I will share experiences that I’ve had over the past year in talking about the book.

I’ll tell you about some mistakes and Lord knows I hate mistakes. About the value of reviews and how that little yellow “this book has issues” button that used to be on the Amazon page made me so mad. I’ll tell you about some of my favorite experiences while on book tour, share some reviews, share some reader concerns/issues, and give an update of the impact of the book. Be sure to check back in each day this week for these little tidbits.

And if you haven’t read the book yet, check it out! Also leave a review! Look at how excited I am, I’m using exclamation points!

*affiliate links

Announcing The Expat Cookbook!

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(Anyone who pre-orders the Kindle book and sends me a copy of your receipt will receive a free e-copy of Djiboutilicious. If you order the paperback and send your receipt, I will send you a free e-copy of your choice: either Djiboutilicious or The Expat Cookbook.)

Right now feels like a really weird time to talk about launching a cookbook that is geared toward those of us with international lifestyles. Who is traveling? Well, me, for one. We got home to Djibouti last week (after a 30-hour flight wearing masks and plastic face shields curtesy of Qatar Airlines and a 3-hour wait at the Djibouti airport for spit tests – negative).

The Expat Cookbook could come off as tone deaf. I understand that. I made it a long time ago, before Covid changed our lives. I could have sent it out into the world back in April but the world had broken and I just couldn’t do it. So I shelved it.

I decided to release it in October because maybe you know someone who will travel abroad or move abroad in the new year. Maybe you will be heading back to your host country and want some fresh ideas. Maybe you, like me, just have a lot of hope. I’m releasing this book in hope.

Hope that the planet finds healing. Hope that these recipes are delicious. Hope that this book will help you feel good about what you feed your family. Hope that what is in here will take a little pressure off decision-making and all the work of expat living. Those are small hopes compared to the first one. But we must keep going, making things, living our lives.

Recipes include things like overnight oats like 15 ways and about a million, okay more like a dozen, ways to spruce up pancakes or waffles. So many smoothies. So many ways to make popcorn more interesting. So many ideas for what you can bring on an airplane and how to pack it. Ideas for what to bring camping or hiking, what to eat at the office if you don’t have a fridge, what kind of food can you put in a box and mail to someone you love on the other side of the planet because we all know that food=love.

Anyone who pre-orders the Kindle book and sends me a copy of your receipt will receive a free e-copy of Djiboutilicious. If you order the paperback and send your receipt, I will send you a free e-copy of your choice: either Djiboutilicious or The Expat Cookbook.

Also, I’ve put the book on Payhip as well, this is a digital version only. The difference between Payhip and Amazon ordering is that I receive a much larger percentage of the price (rather than so much of it going to Amazon). If you order from Payhip, the same deal applies as above. Just let me know and I’ll send you Djiboutilicious.

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Making Art or Documenting Facts?

This topic has always felt interesting to me, especially when comparing movies and TV shows to books. There seems to be a much higher standard or sticking to facts with books. A movie or even a show like The Tiger King can say, “based on actual events” and then veer wildly off course. But a book? Not so much.


William Zinsser says, in Writing About Your Life, “To write a memoir you must manufacture a text. You must construct a narrative so readers will want to keep reading. You must, in short, practice a craft. You can never forget the story-teller’s ancient rules of maintaining tension and momentum…give yourself a plot.”

Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, is adamant that writers of nonfiction cannot make things up. He  questions time compression and composite characters. He says, “Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of the available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader.”

Ann Patchett says that Lucy Grealy said, in Truth and Beauty, “’I didn’t remember it,’ Lucy said pointedly. ‘I wrote it. I’m a writer.’ This shocked her audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event.”

Philip Lopate says, in To Show and To Tell, “In giving it shape, a NF writer may be obliged to leave out some facts, combine incidents or even rearrange chronologies. Fine. I do not think we need aply the strictest journalistic standards of factual accuracty to all literary NF.”

Joan Didion says, in On Keeping a Notebook, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

fact or fiction, blurring

Roy Peter Clark in The Line Between Fact and Fiction in Creation Nonfiction says, “The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character.” And he finishes the piece with this: “So don’t add and don’t deceive. If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it. Gain on the truth. Be creative. Do your duty. Have some fun. Be humble. Spend your life thinking and talking about how to do all these well.” (italics mine because, well, amen to that about pretty much everything I do)

And then there is the ever-controversial John D’Agata who says changing a fact is justifiable if you do it in the name of art, Lifespan of a Fact. If three trees sounds better than eight trees, write three. Even if there were eight.

When it comes to writing nonfiction, should writers be held to the same factual standards as news reporters? Is it ever okay to compress time? To create composite characters? To change names and details? How much does art come into play when writing nonfiction?

If that is too many questions to answer, how about just one: Can a nonfiction writer change anything when writing an essay? and if even that is too much to think about, go read the books here. They are all excellent.

In Case You Missed It

Here are some links to essays and podcasts that come out in the past few weeks, just in case you missed them and are looking for something “else.” You know what I mean.

 

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set

COVID19 and the Expatriate, at A Life Overseas

Creating Community in Djibouti, podcast at The Turquoise Table

Out of Africa, podcast at Worth Your Time

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, podcast at Grace Enough

 

Enjoy!

 

Two Podcasts and an Essay

I’m pumped to share two podcast episodes with y’all and an essay.

Maybe we need a break from COVID-19 news?

Maybe we need to be thankful for things like podcasts and reading essays – things we can do while in isolation or quarantine to pass the time?

I know what it is like to be in isolation and it can be lonely or boring (though I almost never get bored!) and so maybe these things can help pass the time.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay kind, stay compassionate, stay generous.

Here you go:

Creating Community in Djibouti, with Kristin Schell of The Turquoise Table podcast and book and community. She has such a lovely vision of creating space in our lives and physical areas to build community. I loved talking, she had wonderful questions focused on what it has been like to find and build community while living in a foreign country.

“Rachel’s story takes us on a beautiful journey from a high rise apartment complex in Minneapolis to a school in The Horn of Africa. Rachel’s story of creating community and connection is one of the most inspiring yet. Relationships that started in her own backyard led her family across the globe to Djibouti.

When she was just twenty-two years old and a new mother of twins, Rachel received hospitality from complete strangers, her Somali neighbors. Her immigrant neighbors befriended her — bringing her food and even offering to clean her house while she rested with the twins. Rachel was overwhelmed by their incredible friendship and a curiosity to know more about their home East Africa was born.

What transpires next is remarkable. Rachel and her family move from urban Minneapolis to a rural part of Somalia. Then to Djibouti. Kristin and Rachel talk about what it’s like to be a Christian in a country that is 99% Muslim and the incredible relationships she’s made with her neighbors. Rachel gives us a brief overview of the Muslim religion and piques our curiosity to learn more. After all, loving your Muslim neighbor is the same as loving your non-Muslim neighbor.”

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, with Amber McCullough at the Grace Enough Podcast. We dug deep into faith and and how I’m learning to love the stranger primarily through being the stranger. Amber was insightful and her questions made me think! Really enjoyed our conversation and I hope you do, too.

Today, Rachel talks about how living as a minority has increased her empathy toward the stranger and has ceased to label someone different as “NON.”

We talk about loving the stranger.

We talk about what she has learned from Muslim practices.

We talk about faith conversations and a deepening faith that is more about being with God and less about right theology and dogma

This conversation is one that will stretch you. It will lead you to ask questions of how and when and where to step into the uncomfortable places and stop assuming.

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set, a magazine of Drexel University. This essay slightly terrifies me. It gets pretty vulnerable and personal. But I’m also kinda proud of it (if writers are allowed to say that). It shows how I’ve changed and grown, things I’ve learned, while living in the Horn of Africa. Specifically, things about the body, embodiment, contentment, strength, and being kind to our bodies. Here’s an excerpt, starting with the easier body parts…

Body: The organized physical substance of an animal or plant either living or dead, fullness and richness of flavor (as of wine), a mass of matter distinct from other masses (a body of water).

Merriam-Webster

I’ve thought a lot about my legs. I pinched the cottage cheesy bulge that oozed out from my shorts on sticky summer evenings when I sat on the pews in my childhood Baptist church sanctuary. I watched my legs swell during pregnancy. I flexed in front of the mirror when I became a runner and double-checked race photos to stare at my muscle definition. I’m slightly knock-kneed and the fourth toe of my right foot is slowly curling beneath my third toe. If I live to 90, they might meld together.

I’ve thought a lot about my nose. It is big and straight with a slight hook on the end. It is my maternal grandfather’s nose. I’ve picked it, pierced it twice, and broken it once. I needed surgery to fix the break and asked the doctor if, while in there, he could give me a cute little upturn at the end or maybe decrease the overall size. He laughed and put me under. I woke with two black eyes and a cast. Yes, a cast on my face. In high school. My friends in Djibouti tell me I have a beautiful, Arab nose, and this is one of my favorite things about being an expatriate. Not the appreciation for what I considered my worst feature, but the way culture offers fresh perspectives. Now that my grandfather has died, I’m thankful the doctor didn’t change my nose. I see my grandfather every time I look in the mirror.

I’ve thought a lot about my hair. Curly and blond. Perfect in the 1980s when I merely had to run a round brush through my bangs and voila, the frizzy poof my sisters spent hours trying to achieve. Not so perfect when I lived in Somalia and my hair was too slippery to hold a headscarf in place. When the scarf slipped, my curls sprang out, unruly and bold. My hair is neither perfect nor imperfect for Djibouti, next door to Somalia and where I live now. I’ve learned how to tie it up and I’ve learned to be comfortable with it flowing down. The trouble with hair in Djibouti is that mine falls out in handfuls, from the salty water in the shower, from the stress, from the extreme temperatures, constant sweat and sun, and from cancer.

I’ve thought about my breasts. I tried to hide them, tried to accentuate them, used them to feed children, wondered if they will eventually develop cancer and kill me. I was wrong about my breasts. It was my thyroid that got the cancer. It hasn’t killed me, yet.

The body as I saw it, called into question the premise I was raised to believe; that God saw what he had created and called it very good.

The body is weak, prone to breakdown and damage. It is vulnerable. It smells weird and makes awkward noises and doesn’t always look the way I want it to in skinny jeans, or any jeans. The body is infinitely varied among humans and all of us have hair and moles, sometimes hairy moles. We have crooked teeth and lopsided earlobes and butts that sag, jiggle, or form shelves behind us. Is this breakable vessel truly something sacred? Can this thing, capable of murder, theft, lying, abuse, lust, greed, pride, and cruelty be good?

There are other body parts I never gave much thought to until I lived in the Horn of Africa. Parts I earned, ignored, damaged, lost, and neglected. Parts I couldn’t imagine having a role in the deep, creative, beautiful goodness of being human.

But life here, in community with Muslim friends, in the steamy desert, in a world upside down from the world of my childhood, changed the way I look at and think about my body parts. It changed the way I thought about goodness, about the intricate handiwork implicit in the way we live and move and have our being…

The essay goes on to cover everything from hemorrhoids to uvulas, thyroids to skin, and even more personal parts, all of them good. Enjoy!

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