usa trips

lady in waiting

So i'm sitting at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver's license. Now I don't know if all DMVs are set up the same way, but in New York after waiting in line at counter #1 just to state the purpose of your visit, you're given a ticket that basically numbers you in the queue. (I can say queue. I live in South Africa where British English rules. Long live the Queen!)

Then you move to the waiting area which is nothing more than rows of benches. Up on the wall is a big digital screen that displays ticket numbers and directs people to the appropriate counters for assistance. Every time the digital screen changes, a short bell sounds. Everyone looks up, every time it dings, even though the wait is always ungodly long.

So here I am, sitting on a bench at the DMV, ticket in hand.

Twenty or so minutes have already gone by and not only has my patience worn thin, but so has my attention span. Or maybe it's my sanity.

The digital screen changes.

The bell sounds.

I hold up my ticket, jump out of my seat, and shout, "Bingo!"

It's not even my turn. I sit back down with a proud yet embarrassed smile on my face. Around me, people begin to clap. And cheer. Someone on the bench behind me leans forward and pats me on the shoulder.

Who says a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles needs to be boring?

crazy love

I had to bring my engagement ring to the jewelers' in New York for a cleaning and a li'l fixing. While we were there, Niel asked the saleswoman about upgrading my stone to a larger carat size. (!) She jumped into high-gear and showed us a gorgeous diamond. Niel was all for it, but I told him I thought we should wait due to economic reasons. Ms. Jeweler leaned over the glass counter. "He wants to do it and you're saying no? You're crazy!"

My heart swelled in that moment. Not because I was proud to be called crazy, but because I am so blessed to have a husband who wants to love me in crazy ways, just because.

And I was so glad we left the store without another anal incident.

french cuisine

I'm about to fly home to Africa after being in America for five months. That means for almost half a year I've...

  • stayed in other people's homes.
  • not sat at a desk for a normal days' work.
  • traveled a lot.
  • not cooked a real meal.
  • drank gallons of frothy beverages from Starbucks.
  • had friends on speed-dial and made frequent use of those buttons.
  • did my own laundry.
  • strolled through Target whenever I wanted to.

I'm going to miss aspects of each of those when I'm back home. (Yes, even the laundry!) Okay, I may not really miss staying in other people's homes; I am definitely ready for my own space with my own couch.

I think even more than I'll miss my beloved grande non-fat extra-hot chai lattes, I'll miss not cooking. I'm not good at it. I don't like it. And I hate having to plan out meals. But alas, duty calls. And cook I shall.

French toast anyone?

phelps phans

Here's my family-friendly highlight from last weekend in DC---my reunion with my long-lost husband after 11 weeks apart: We watched Olympics, a lot of Olympics. Those who know me well know that I get pretty into sports. Now, let me clarify that a bit. I'm not athletic at all, and I'm not a big sports fan. But if I'm going to watch a sport---any sport---then I am going to get into it.

I may not typically go out of my way to watch swimming, but seeing Michael Phelps win so many gold medals and break so many world records had me bouncing on the bed, pumping my fist in the air, and hollering my lungs out. It was a blast.

But the best part was when Niel said, "I'm so glad we won that."

Do you even realize why? He said "we"---the collective "we" that is America. And he's South African.

Yeah, my heart felt the full weight of the significance of that statement. I threw my arms around his neck and told him I loved him even more for saying "we".

So, yes... We are Phelps phans.

sensational reunion

I still can't believe that two weeks ago I met friends I'd never met before. I still can't believe how much I loved every minute of it. I still can't believe how comfortable I felt in an altogether uncomfortable situation. I still can't believe how much I miss my new friends. That weekend, Cathi told Mandy and I that the best advice she received on her wedding day was to take time to consciously absorb what she was experiencing with all five of her senses. I tucked that thought away, like a smooth pebble from the beach, and attempted to do what she'd been challenged to do. I knew I didn't want my heart to forget a thing, and so I consciously paid attention to what my senses were, well, sensing.

Smell The wonderful aroma of Dunkin Donuts coffee reminds me of the sweetness that is Mandy's husband and the joy that comes with sharing a latte with a friend.

Sight I close my eyes and the first picture I see of our reunion weekend is the three of us on the couch, talking and laughing. There was no pressure or obligation to do or to be anything in particular. We couched it for hours, which to me is a sign of a close and strong friendship.

Sound There was such significance in getting to worship together at church on Sunday morning, which was multiplied even more by the sound of Mandy's sweet, strong voice singing to our Father as she led from the stage. What an honor to worship alongside my sisters and friends.

Taste Chicken and dumplings, boiled peanuts, salsa, zucchini bread... But mostly it is the taste of laughter that seems to linger in my mouth. Pure, unadulterated joy that only comes with authenticity and sincerity.

Touch During communion at church, Cathi reached over and grabbed my hand. That touch, both delicate and gripping, told me I am loved, wanted, and valuable.

Our reunion was indeed sensational!

What have been your best five-sense moments recently?

six feet of marblehead beach

six feet, three friends

Mandy took Cathi and I to her favorite beach. In typical us style, we didn't do much. We strolled; we looked for sea glass and pretty stones; we walked in both silence and laughter; we took flaughter pictures; we got Cathi in the water.

At one point, I called my friends over to me. I asked them to stand close, and with puzzled looks on their faces I angled the camera towards our feet. Suddenly they understood; they smiled and laughed and said what a great idea it was.

I felt the significance of that moment---of our feet, from all over the world, sharing the same space.

Looking at this picture, my heart swells. It holds a lot of meaning to me, in ways I can't even articulate.

I am thankful I'm not alone...

girlfriends with semi-colons

From the moment I hugged Mandy (accosted her is more like it) and got shoved by Cathi, they felt familiar and comfortable. We were all trembling from the nervousexcitement of meeting friends for the first time; we were literally shaking and out of breath. It was pure wonderful from the very first second. There was not a single moment of awkwardness.

We found ourselves saying the same thing at the same time and finishing each others' sentences. Even though we are at very different places in our lives, we share more common ground than I ever realized. My heart felt known and understood.

I've always watched with envy movies that depict a group of girlfriends. While I have closeness with a small group of friends, it's only ever been as one-on-one friendships. I've never had that same level of intimacy and authenticity with more than one person at a time. So I wasn't sure how that would play out this past weekend.

I feared feeling like a third wheel. I was scared that being the "quiet one" of the three would make me feel isolated. I thought my feelings of inferiority from not being in the academic world like the other two, would leave me feeling stupid and unloved. All of my fears were unfounded.

Now as I think about those movie scenes that I've always viewed with jealousy and pangs of longing, I can't help but smile. It is possible. I've felt it, experienced it, held onto it with my own two hands. Sadly, I had to leave it behind.

But I know that our time together didn't end with a period. No closure, no termination. It ended with a semi-colon; there's more to come.

essentially it's the non-essentials

We made sure we hit all the essentials during our reunion. We talked about how we got saved, how we met our husbands, how we got into ministry. I loved those conversations and learned so much about my friends through their stories. But I loved talking about the non-essentials even more.

The essentials, though wonderfully insightful, are things that anyone would/could know. They're the commonly asked questions and commonly told stories. But the non-essentials, that you can't plan for or script, are what make friendships so great.

I think the more non-essentials I know about someone, the closer I feel to them. When I had to say goodbye to Mandy and Cathi, I felt like I was saying goodbye to old, close friends. We shared a lot of non-essentials. And I loved every minute of it.

What non-essentials do you want to know about me? (Feel free to ask me questions and I'll reply in the comments.)

three a.m. craziness

The last night of our reunion weekend, we------ Hold on. We interrupt this broadcast for an explanation. I know Mandy, Cathi, and I had never met before. But we were already friends, really and truly. And seeing each other felt like coming home. So in my heart it seemed way more like a reunion than a first-time meeting. Okay, back to what I was saying...

The last night of our reunion weekend, we pulled an almost-all-nighter. This is what we were doing around three a.m.

chicken soup for the soul

A missionary, a worship leader, and a church planter walk into a bar together. Sounds like the start of a great joke, doesn't it? Actually, it was the end of a great weekend.

I feel like my heart is brimming with things to say, and yet I can't seem to find any suitable words. I wanted to take notes during the past four days, just jot things down as they happened so that I wouldn't forget a thing. But I intentionally made myself not do that.

I didn't want to experience things through the filter of how I'd write about them on my blog.

I know I've missed out on the full wonders of sunsets and elephant sightings and carefree African children playing in the street because I've watched them through my camera's viewfinder. So this weekend I chose to set down my "camera"---my cognitive attempt to hold onto memories, put adequate words to them, and help someone else see what I see. I chose instead to just be there. To soak the weekend in, for me rather than for someone else.

My heart is full, my eyes are heavy, and my mind is stewing a myriad of thoughts. My life won't ever be the same.

niel's pda

I made it to the airport in record time. I think my excitement added some more lead to my already heavy foot. Of course the flight was delayed, so I had to wait... and wait... and wait. Then I got a call from Niel, who was still back in the customs area with the gang.

Niel: "Do you know what the plan is for these kids' flights?"

Me: "Yeah, the only flight we could get was out of LaGuardia... [blah blah blah, detailed explanation inserted here, yadda yadda yadda]."

Niel: "So, do I need to take them there? I don't think I'll get back in time for my flight."

Me: "All you need to do is come through customs and baggage claim, and then you'll see my face."

Niel: "You're here?" (I could hear him smiling.)

An hour later, I finally got to see Shaggy McShagster, I mean, my unshaven and unruly-haired yet still adorably hot husband. He approached me with a trail of teenyboppers following him.

Me: "Hey handsome! Should we tell the kids to avert their eyes?"

Niel: "No, let 'em look!" he said as he grabbed me and kissed me.

My husband rocks.


I'm pretty excited right now. As I type, Niel's on a flight to America. I'm sure he's cramped up in his tiny seat, jamming his knees into the back of the poor soul sitting in front of him. I imagine he's enjoyed (?!) at least one Pepto-necessitating airplane meal and climbed over his neighbor at least once to use the way-too-small bathroom. I bet he's watched a movie or two, slept a bit, and sorted out 1/4 of the world's problems in his brain (he's just amazing that way). He's most likely looking at his watch right about now, counting down the hours till he exits that flying tube of steel. Did I mention that the flight from Johannesburg to New York is 17 hours long? It is.

But that's not why I'm excited.

I'm smiling so big my eyes close because I'm going to surprise Niel when he lands in New York tomorrow morning. He's catching a flight out to Orlando just a few hours later, but I'll get to steal a quick kiss (maybe a not-so-quick kiss) and a long hug (that's the best part right there...).

There's a long story behind the "why", but the short of it is that there are 7 Thrive Trippers on the flight with Niel. Because they took off from South Africa almost 3 hours late, the kids will miss their domestic connections. They've been rebooked on later flights out of a different airport. So I'm going to meet their flight, make out with my husband, shuttle 7 kids I've never met before across the city to LaGuardia ("Hi, I'm Alece! What's your names?"), get them checked in and through security, catch a cab back to JFK, and then drive back to Long Island.

And all this starts with my alarm going off at 6 AM.

Seeing Niel makes that totally worth it. And if you knew how much of a morning person I am not, you'd know what a big deal that is for me.

The bestest part? Since all of this was arranged after Niel boarded the flight 7 hours ago, he has no idea about the excitement that is going to unfold at 9:00 tomorrow morning.

I wanna bring Niel some tangible love. Considering I can only bring things I can find around my house, what do you propose I bring for him?

the ski-man

While decorating their house for Christmas one year, Grandpa curiously eyed a little ski-man figurine. It didn’t match any of the other decorations and we have no idea where it came from. Grandpa walked around the living room, trying to find the best spot for this interesting little piece. He wandered into the kitchen, absently flipping the ski-man over in his hand. His eyes scoured the room and finally settled on the perfect spot.

He pulled a chair out from under the table and moved it over to the door. Climbing up on the chair, Grandpa reached up and placed the ski-man on the edge of the door frame. Quite pleased with himself, he showed Grandma his shining moment of holiday decorating.

After Christmas came and went and the New Year was adequately rung in with Dick Clark, the decorations got boxed up and stored away---well, everything but the ski-man. He stayed right where he was, perched high in the kitchen---where everything happens in an Italian home.

From his high and lofty seat, the ski-man saw my dad and uncle grow up, watched my brothers and I make forts, peered down on a sad family when Grandpa passed away. He saw my dad move back in when my parents separated, witnessed the unceasing prayers of my Grandma, and looked down on loud family gatherings around an overly-full table.

Saturated with the history of our family, the ski-man moved with Grandma down to Florida fifteen years ago. He found himself atop a new door, in a new place, but he remained a constant in our ever-changing lives.

When Gram moved in with my uncle five years ago, the ski-man moved with her but didn’t get elevated to his usual position. Maybe no one offered to climb up and do it; maybe she didn’t want to ask someone for help. Maybe she felt he’d lived a long and full life and didn’t need to be burdened with the job of “family overseer” anymore. I don’t know the reason, but the ski-man was never seen again.

Moments after my Gram passed away, my Dad got Niel on the phone. I walked back into Gram’s bedroom to talk to him. As I talked and cried, I paced around her room, looking at pictures and familiar mementos. I dug through the little bowls and boxes on her dresser, finding treasures and buttons and rosaries. In a small, open basket made of popsicle sticks lay the ski-man. I gasped and scooped him up.

I flipped him around in my hand the whole time I talked on the phone, finding a strange sense of comfort in his presence.

My family came into Gram’s bedroom to check on me. As I got off the phone, I opened my hand and showed them my discovery. Every eye filled with tears as we passed the ski-man around. We decided my older brother should have him. So he flew back to New York with us.

I’m sure you can guess where he put him.

like gram

Ways I am like my Grandma:

  • She was short.
  • People always noticed her smile.
  • She could eat a surprising amount.
  • She was immensely sentimental.
  • She'd do anything for those she loved.
  • She didn't usually have a lot to say.
  • She remembered people's birthdays.
  • She disliked playing games she knew she'd lose.
  • She was a giver.
  • She rather enjoyed sitting indoors on a sunny day.

My beautiful Grandma...

Ways I want to be more like my Grandma:

  • She consistently displayed the fruit of the Spirit.
  • She made the best pot of sauce and meatballs.
  • She didn't care about material things---at all.
  • She had the patience of a saint.
  • She prayed faithfully.
  • She persevered with joy through every trial.
  • She wasn't afraid to let people see her cry.
  • She loved tirelessly, even when it hurt.
  • She remembered everything.
  • She rarely spoke negatively about anyone.
  • She drank a glass of red wine every night with dinner.

i'm the rock?

About the time that my Grandma passed away, I should have been driving my Dad to the airport for his flight back to New York. As soon as I could think clearly enough, I told my Dad we had to change his flight before he missed it. He was a mess (understandably) and couldn't wrap his mind around that task just yet. I jumped online and took care of it for him, delaying his return by a few days. My younger brother was scheduled to leave the following morning. In light of the situation, he wanted to change his ticket too, to stay a few days longer. He squeezed my arm gently. "Can you help me with this? I just can't think straight to deal with it right now." Of course. Ten minutes later, he had his new itinerary in hand.

A while later my older brother came over and hugged me. "Would you please help mom with the funeral arrangements and everything over the next few days. I don't know how to do any of that stuff." "I don't either; I don't even live in this country. But of course I'll help her." He looked me in the eye and said, "I could figure it all out if I needed to, but I'm just having a hard time with all this and I know I won't be able to really focus on it." "No problem..."

It was only as I cried in bed that night (or was it the next night?), that I put all those situations together in my mind, and I felt perplexed. I'm the rock?! For about an hour that day, my entire family had cried together. We'd hugged; we'd sobbed. All of us were hurting and broken. I don't know why I was the one they came to---even just for logistical help. Whatever gave them the impression that I'm the rock?!

Maybe it's true that, more often than not, others see in me things that I don't.


When we arrived at my grandma’s house Sunday morning, I realized I forgot my sweater at the hotel. I’m always cold in air-conditioning. “Go get a sweater from my room," Gram said. Just like old times, I wore a hug from Gram all day.

After a while, she said she was tired. She got herself comfy on the couch. With her favorite daytime television shows providing easy-listening background noise, she nodded off. We ran out to do some errands.

When we got home a few hours later, Gram was still asleep. I checked on her a few times as we unpacked bags, making sure her chest was rising and falling.

When I came into the living room to check again, she started to open her eyes. “Gram?” She winced a bit and reached out her hand. I sat next to her on the couch, holding her hand in mine and talking to her. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking past me, through me.

Gram mumbled something. I think it was in Italian; I wish I knew what she said. She squeezed my hand. I knew what was happening. Her labored breathing and unfocused eyes seemed to make it evident.

I called my mom, and she gathered the family.

With all of us---her children and grandchildren---surrounding her, Gram was smothered in love. We held her, prayed over her, and thanked her. She mumbled again.

And exhaled one last time.

I held Gram tightly and told her I love her. Amid my sobs, all I could think was, I wonder what Grandpa said to her. And I wonder what she was saying to him…”


Sitting around the dining room table, conversation flows as easily as the wine and espresso does. I tell Gram that Niel is taking me to Palermo, Sicily---her hometown---in October for our wedding anniversary. Her face lights up. Her eyes shine; her smile spreads slowly across her face. I wish I could see the slideshow of memories that seems to pass through her mind in that instant. “That trip will be so wonderful! I’m so glad you’re going.”

Naturally, Gram starts reminiscing about life in Palermo. She spent the first thirteen years of her life there (1913-1926) before emigrating to America. Life back then was simple but hard; they didn’t have much, but they were content. As a child, Gram walked a few blocks to the bakery at the end of each day with a pot full of beans or lentils. After the bakery closed, customers could bring in food to cook in the already-hot bread ovens. Gram describes the smell of the bakery, the long walk with the heavy pot (“Thankfully the baker would add the water to the pot, so it wasn't that heavy."), and how their food always tasted better cooked in the bakery.

I've never heard any of this before.

Gram switches gears and talks about Grandpa. He died when I was only three; the memories I have of him are really just memories of the pictures I’ve seen. They met on the bus; Gram dropped her handkerchief and he picked it up for her. She was forty years old when they met and married. The year of their thirtieth wedding anniversary, Grandpa died suddenly. Gram talks a lot about that day. “I can’t believe we went to Canada and he lost his life there.” Grandpa worked for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which made him exempt from fighting in the war. He enlisted in the Marines anyway. He fought in the infamous Battle of Peleliu, where 1500 Marines (in his division) walked onto the island and only 300 walked off. Grandpa, of course, was one of them. He survived that, but not a weekend in Canada…

“He’s been waiting for me a long time,” Gram says. She looks lost in thought; she stares over our heads. “I wonder what he’ll say to me when he sees me. And I wonder what I’ll say to him.” She sits in silence as she ponders the unfolding scene. Her eyes well up with tears.

Mine do, too---I can’t help it.

now i feel old

"You better come down to Florida and say your goodbyes.” Even though Gram is ninety-five, those words felt like a punch in the gut. We booked tickets, not knowing what to expect when we arrived.

When I saw my grandma three months ago, she was the same as she’s always been. We spent over an hour walking around the grocery store, she made “black coffee” (espresso) old-fashioned style on the stove for her and Niel, she regaled us with stories (old and new), she laughed, and her beautiful smile never left her face.

Last week Gram was treated for extreme dehydration. The doctor told her that her kidneys and heart are beginning to fail; he said he could run some tests to find out what’s wrong with her heart. “I’m old, that’s what’s wrong.” She declined tests; she signed a Do Not Resuscitate order.

When we arrived on Saturday, Gram looked pallid. Pale. Fragile. She needs to use her walker to get around the house; she gets out of breath just talking. It hurts my heart to see her suddenly looking her age. “I never felt old,” she said, "until just a few weeks ago. Now I feel old.” Her ninety-five years caught up with her fast.

She rubbed her hands incessantly. “My fingers are cold, but inside they’re sizzling.” She showed us her swollen feet. “I’ve never had that happen before. After so many years, you’d think I’d have experienced everything by now. At least I’m still experiencing new things, even if it’s swollen feet.” Her attitude, despite her frailty and discomfort, is astounding.

Aside from giving birth to her sons, Gram has never been hospitalized.

That night she was feeling pretty down about suddenly feeling her age. Yet, she was so happy to see all of us. She still talked and laughed, same as always. When my dad teased her, like he usually does, she responded with her typical sarcastic, “Yeah…” She slapped Dad’s arm when he poked fun of her; she was in her element.

Gram said over and over again how wonderful it is to have us all together. Her happiness was visible in her face, in her eyes, in her smile.

She just realized that she is indeed ninety-five. But she’s also fully aware just how rich and full her ninety-five-year life actually is.

explanations (in a french accent)

It's my first July in New York since since I was 13 years old---a very long time ago! It's hot and balmy, but wonderfully splendid to be here. I'm staying with my parents over this next month, and then my hombre is flying back in from South Africa. We'll probably put in a few weeks of ministry travels and then we'll be coming back to New York for me to have surgery to get my tonsils removed (dun dun dun). I'm not sure how I feel about all that yet---let's just back burner those thoughts for the time being.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying time with family, all things Long Island, and an American summer. (It's always been my dream to spend these months in America so that I can avoid winter in South Africa!)

I have a lot of catching up to do... So bear with me!