wall of thanks

My Thanksgivings the past few years have looked (and felt) very different than they used to. Granted, I've celebrated most Thanksgivings of my adult life across the ocean in a country that doesn't even recognize the holiday. But it didn't matter. We made them uniquely special, and always a memorable celebration of giving thanks.

My favorite tradition is one I began in Africa. Every year, we build a Wall of Thanks.

I place out Post-it notes and markers, and throughout the day, people write down things they are thankful for and post them on the wall.

I always make multiple trips to the wall—to read and to add more things I am grateful for—and love watching others do the same.

It is heart-filling to stand and read the gratitude plastered on that wall. Deep, meaningful, significant things as well as the humorous, inside-joke-only kinds of things.

The wall stands as more than a list of what we are collectively thankful for. It holds memories, hope, promises, truth. It holds what was and may never be again, but also what will someday be. It holds the joy of loving and being loved. It holds... me.

And this altogether new and different and somewhat strange Thanksgiving, I'll surely have my Wall of Thanks yet again.

Will you join me?

Maybe it's a new tradition you can start with your own loved ones. And together we can build our Wall of Thanks wherever we are...

If you post pictures of your Wall or your Post-its, I wanna see them! Tag me on Facebook—and on Twitter and Instagram, use the hashtag #WallOfThanks, so we can celebrate with each other.

No matter what is going on in our lives—no matter the season we've just endured or are currently crawling through—we can choose to say "Thank You" to the One who understands even when we don't.

And please know this... YOU, my Gritty family, will certainly be a Post-it note on my Wall of Thanks.

Will you join me with your own Wall of Thanks this year? What's your favorite Thanksgiving tradition?

i want to get this right

I have wrestled through each of these posts as I've begun telling my story. I've spent hours writing and rewriting. I've had a friend look them over and make changes. I've slept on them and come back to make more edits the next morning. It's been hard to write them because it's forced me to sit in the hurts all over again. It's been difficult because of the responsibility I feel to the ministry I love, and my desire to represent her well. And it's been impossibly hard because of the weight I feel in how I speak about Niel.

I feel an undeniable tension between wanting to remain honoring of my husband and sharing authentically about what happened and how it's affected me.

I'm laboring over every word I write because I need to get this right. I want to get this right.

And yet I know that without me dressing it up at all, the truth is ugly. It's shocking. It's devastating. Even in the simple telling of facts in the most tactful and respectful way possible, it can seem like I'm being malicious.

But that certainly isn't my intention.

I hope my true heart shines through my words even as I share about the worst season of my life. I pray that in my transparency, you can see more than just my pain. I hope you can also see the love I still have for my husband and my unshakable desire to honor him even in this.

It's been a scary thing for me to feel so vulnerable and exposed by putting my raw heart out there for the masses to see and give their two cents on. But while it frightens me, I crave authenticity. It's been the single greatest intentionality of my blog---to foster authentic community. To share transparently and in doing so, make others feel safe, free, and comfortable to be transparent in return.

So I am committed to continue writing honestly and authentically about my story, while remaining mindful of how my words affect and reflect my ministry and my husband.

And I will continue to choose to honor him.

Because ultimately I desire to honor Him.

face time

Have you seen Dentyne's current ad campaign?

I think it's sheer creative genius. Mostly because it deeply resonates with people. And while it doesn't make me want to blow bubbles with Dentyne gum, it does make me want to put down my laptop and enjoy some face time.

Living in Africa for over a decade, the internet has been my life source for connections. Most of my friendships have never been sustained with phone calls, coffee dates, lunches, or visits. Instead, they've been cultivated with emails, instant messages, blogging, and video chats.

Lately I've heard a lot of dialogue about whether or not community can be found online. This much I know is true: It can. I'm grateful for the rich, genuine friendships that I've fostered over the internet.

But while I appreciate the value of "technologically advanced" friendships, I also recognize the significance of what I've missed in actual face time. A text message communicates far less than a long, tight hug. A phone call pales in comparison with the unspoken expressions of a glance or a touch. An online chat is merely a shadow of a chai-in-hand conversation on a coffee shop couch.

I'll always be grateful for whatever form of connection and affection I'm blessed to have. But whenever possible, please can I have some face time?

'Cause, seriously... What I wouldn't give for a hug like this today---


straight talk to men

Men---all few of you who read my blog---can I talk to you for just a minute? I'll be quick, I promise. The way you love your wife shows her the way Christ loves her. What?! Too much pressure for a fallen man?! I didn't say it; God did. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church..."

Your wife will believe and experience Christ's love for her only to the degree that she believes and experiences your love for her. God can miraculously work in anyone's heart and life, and women with very ungodly husbands can certainly still experience intimacy with Christ. But God puts the responsibility on you to show your wife how much God loves her.

Help your wife believe that Christ thinks she's valued, treasured, and adored today.

forrest gumping

Niel and I basically Forrest Gumped our way around Sicily, literally stumbling into some amazing things that we probably wouldn't have discovered had we even tried.

: :

  • Like an incredible restaurant for our anniversary dinner. With a Dustin Hoffman lookalike as the manager, excellent service, and the best cannoli Niel's ever tasted, this was hands-down our favorite place to eat.

  • Like ancient ruins in the middle of a vineyard. We couldn't resist exploring the old abandoned buildings, surrounded on all sides by row after row of grape vines.

  • Like one of the best wineries in Sicily. We managed to get in on a tour and tasting, even though they're not open for walk-ins!

  • Like amazing pizza at a podunk bakery in a tiny village that we really only stopped at because my bladder was screaming profanities.

  • Like a restaurant that's been around since 1890. They serve the best homemade ravioli---we went back another night just to eat it again!

  • Like an outdoor market festival in the village closest to Europe's largest active volcano. The market was abuzz with locals buying and selling crafts, honey, jam, etc. At one of the meat and cheese stalls, Niel sampled a gelatenous cow tongue concoction that wobbled like an overgrown Jell-o Jiggler gone bad.

  • Like a small trattoria where Niel told the chef, "Surprise me!" He ended up with a whole fish (head, tail, and all!), several large prawns, and a stomach ache!

  • Like a wine shop where you bring your own empty bottle (of any variety) and they fill it with wine from an oak barrel (using a glorified gas pump nozzle).

: :

I love that we saw and experienced the less-touristy side of Sicily. Which goes to show, there are real benefits to not having a clue where you're going or what you're doing!

burden of leadership

I've been pondering the burden of leadership. Let me explain...a heavy heart A lot of people have come through the revolving door of our ministry in the past decade: interns, mission team members, staff. Many others are tied into us through their support. All in all, we have a huge spiderwebbed network of people that are connected to Thrive Africa. And that makes them connected to Niel and I.

While I don't personally stay in touch with every single person in the Thrive spiderweb, I correspond with as many as I can (and as many as want to write back!) and we pray often for our entire extended family.

The past few weeks have unraveled some heartbreaking things that are going on in our family members' lives. It culminated this morning with the news---before 8 AM, mind you---that two people had just lost loved ones.

And it's left my heart feeling heavy.

So I'm wrestling with this whole burden of leadership thing. I know I'm not responsible for people, only to them. I know I can't carry the burdens that others carry in their lives. I know that allowing myself to get "emotionally involved" with even a fraction of the thousands of people that are connected with Thrive is more than I could ever handle. I know that I can't be everyone's fixer, that I can't always have the answer, that I can't always be there for people. I know all of that.

But that still doesn't make it any easier to hear that people I know and love are facing

  • the deaths of two family members within 9 months
  • sexual abuse at the hands of someone they should've been able to trust
  • unceasing physical pain
  • emotional scars and hurts that have festered for years
  • inexplicable health problems
  • a long road ahead due to horribly wrong life decisions

What are your thoughts on the burden of leadership? Where's the line between compassion and an unhealthy taking-it-on-yourself-ness? How much caring is too much, and how much is not enough?

saying goodbye (again)

As we explored my Grandma's hometown, I saw her all around me: in the expression on an old woman's face, in the butcher shops and bakeries, in people's mannerisms, in the abundance of food and wine. Knowing that the city looks totally different now than it did in 1926 when Gram left for America didn't at all take away from the sense that I was walking where she walked. While the streets and buildings aren't the same ones she saw, the mountains are. The ocean is. I smile even now, just thinking about being where my Gram spent the first thirteen years of her life. I hope she was smiling from Heaven at the sight of Niel and I, hand in hand, walking the streets of her beloved Palermo.

Our last day there, we walked along the pier with a dried rose in our hands. At my Grandma's funeral, Niel saved the rose that was intended to be tossed atop her grave along with the rest of the family's. He brought it back to Africa and then to Italy. We stood together on the pier for a long while; I cried as I held the rose in my hand.

And then I let it go. I tossed it gently into the water. Niel held me and we cried together.

In those moments I was so overwhelmed by both how much I miss my Gram and how much I love my husband. Niel's thoughtfulness to even think about doing this made me feel so loved, and seeing tears stream down his face left me confident of how deeply he loves me.

Walking away from that pier, I felt more peace than I had in a long time...

fauxhawk for funds

I've been home for about four hours. (Does anyone even still check my blog!?) So far I've...

  • cleaned out and restocked my fridge (after a quick stop at the grocery store)
  • made cappuccinos (we miss Italy!)
  • weeded through my work emails (all I did was delete trash)
  • transferred PayPal donations (praise God for His provision)
  • scribbled a few "I'm home!" emails (if you didn't get one... I'm home!)
  • gasped when I saw 767 posts in my Google Reader (uhhh, that's gonna take a while), and ...
  • checked out what the interns have been up to on Facebook.

There's lots swirling in my head about our trip, but I'm saving my thoughts till I have more time to write a real blog post. (Or three. Or seven.)

In the meanwhile, if you've got three minutes to spare, check this out. Niel placed a challenge before our interns just days before we left for our vacation:

If they can raise $2,000 for the ministry, they can cut his hair however they want---and he'll keep it that way for their entire debriefing trip!

Wanna get in on the action? You can see the interns' progress, make a donation, and share a suggestion for Niel's haircut right here. And of course you'll see pictures of my husbter's new do on haircut day!

I'm off to unpack!

PS -- I've missed you guys!

one step further

How many times have I said, "I never want to be like that" or "I don't ever want to do things the way that person does them"? More times than I can count. But it's not enough for me to say I don't want to do something.

I can hate something---truly loathe an attitude or action---but if all I do is think about the fact that I don't want to do that same thing, I'm not doing enough. I need to proactively think through what I will replace it with. Otherwise with all my mental space focusing on what I don't want to do, when I find myself in that situation, that very thing is probably going to be my first reaction.

Instead, I need to think about what I should do in its place.

I need to take more time to process through the things I've seen and experienced that I dislike and that I swear I don't want in my own life. I need to take it one step further and discover for myself what I will replace those things with, by using common sense, God's Word, and the input of those I trust and respect.

It's not enough to just say "I'll never do that!" I need to determine what I will do.

kitty litter

I just reread an email a friend sent me after my surgery a few weeks ago. I saved it in my inbox because I knew I wanted to read it again. But I couldn't remember exactly why when I clicked on it tonight. And then I got to the last sentence.

"Oh, and Kitty... I sure am glad you woke up."

There is so much love, understanding, and care wrapped into that sentence. My heart can feel the hug of Amy's words in a way not many will ever understand.

And soon I'll be hugging her back. For real.

Our dearest friends arrive in South Africa today, after about 24 hours of travel with two kids under three: my Peaberry namesake and my raspberry-loving Siloh. I cannot wait.

Off to pick up some Kitties!

four-minute friday: convalescing

Go. I wore a bra for the first time in a week.

Let me back up a bit. This morning, I made myself get out of bed and not only shower, but also shave.  (I swear, my body grows an ungodly amount of hair in seven days!) I put on makeup and my glasses (although my eyes were seeing just fine all week without 'em), and did my hair. By "did my hair", of course all I really mean is I pulled my bangs back in a clip and tousled the rest with my hands.

I put on real clothing (I've been rocking the PJ Queen look), slipped my feet into flip flops, grabbed my purse, and exited my bedroom. And then the house. (GASP!)

I had a follow-up appointment with the surgeon, and figured I'd do some errands while I was "out that way".

Doctor's office. Check. UPS. Check. CVS to get more drugs. Check. (Yesssssss!) Pizzeria. Check. Target. Check, check, check. Sporting goods store. Check. Outlet mall. Check. Chinese restaurant for take-out. Check.

I arrived back at home in serious pain, just about unable to speak, and utterly exhausted. My butt is finally planted back on my bed, where I plan to remain for the rest of the night. Just as soon as I take my bra off and get back into pajamas.


toothpaste, travel mugs, and wedding bells

The only questions I remember were about toothpaste and our kitchen. After we got married, my application for permanent residency in South Africa was expedited. Having a South African husband put me into the fast-track category. But before I'd be granted permanent residency, the government wanted to make sure I wasn't faking our relationship just to stay in the country. They wanted proof that we were really married.

It was like a scene from a movie.

Niel and I were interviewed separately by government officials. They asked us questions that would supposedly help them determine whether or not Niel and I had known each other as long as we said we had.

I was seated across from a large man behind a desk. I was nervous, fidgeting; I felt like I was on The Newlywed Game Show. Things went smoothly until the kind sir asked, "What is your favorite toothpaste?" I started to sweat. Do I answer with what I'd really say or with what I think Niel might say? I mumbled something about my favorite being an American brand that isn't in South Africa. "Just answer the question," he snapped. "Crest...?" I said, with a question mark at the end. He nodded and moved on.


I was asked to describe what our kitchen looked like. I'm way more detail-oriented than Niel is, so I wasn't sure how Niel might have answered that question. I gave vague, general details first---the guy's face remained expressionless---and then I started to give more specifics. When I told him that the top of our cabinets were lined with Starbucks travel mugs, he interrupted me and told me that would be enough. I smiled, and wished I could high-five Niel right then and there.

Needless to say, I received my permanent residency a few months later.

And if we were quizzed with the same questions today, I guarantee we'd both still get them right.

back to the basics

With all my new friends here at the G & G, I realized there may be some basic things you don't know about me...

  • My name is pronounced uh-lease. I won't even try to teach you my last name.

  • My husband is South African. And he is white. Yep, it's true.

  • I'm from Long Island, New York.

  • I live in South Africa. That may be hard to believe if you've only been reading since April, because I've been in the USA for a long time this year.

  • We have no kids. We take care of a lot of other people's kids, though.

Anything else you're wondering about me?

birthday extravaganza

Niel and I spent both our birthdays with an ocean between us this year. I think that was a first for us.

My man turned 34 at the end of July, just days before he flew back to America. (He is so much older than I am!) Since I wasn't there for his party, I sent a birthday note for a friend to give him at his shindig. Niel and I chatted online as he read the note, which told him about some surprises I was saving for a week of summer birthday fun.

This is our first time together on Long Island in August, and I wanted Niel to experience some summery bliss. Tomorrow we're going to a water park; later this week, we're visiting the aquarium, picking fruit at a nearby farm, touring a local brewery, and kayaking in a state park. I've been letting Niel in on the surprises by revealing one a day since we reunited in DC.

The last one I revealed was the biggest. The best. The one I was most excited about. And his big birthday surprise took place today.

I sent Niel for a two-hour introductory flying lesson.

He loved it, and totally impressed the flight instructor with his "natural ability". (He's watched a lot of Discovery and History Channel!) When Niel came back into the office where I was waiting during his flight, he looked happier than I've seen him in a long time.

Happy birthday, Hombre! I love you!

just plain hard

She asked me what my weekend would hold. I told her my Grandma had passed away and that the memorial/burial service is on Saturday. I will never forget her response. "At least you're used to facing a lot of death in Africa, so that makes this easier to deal with."

Let me tell you what I didn't tell her: Nothing makes this easier.

The fact that I live in a country with an astronomical death rate, where I often know people who pass away, makes nothing easier. One in four South Africans have AIDS, but those numbers, the ones and the fours, aren't just numbers. They are people. They are you; they are me; they are our families.

Consistently facing sickness and death makes neither easier to deal with. Maybe it makes my approach different than someone else's, maybe it even makes me want to be numb to it all, but it certainly doesn't make it easier.

Although I wanted to say all that, I simply smiled a flat, unconvincing smile. She changed the subject and moved on, for which I was grateful.

We are on our way to the cemetery this morning. Nothing makes this easier.

Today is just plain hard.

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.

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.