Packing Ballast (on gaining weight, for good)

One of the things I really love about belonging to a book club (okay, I lie, I belong to two. Three over the summer…) is that I get introduced to books I would not otherwise have picked up. Most recently, I read Lansing’s book Endurance: Shackleton’s Amazing Voyagea biography which tells of the ill-fated attempt by Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 to cross Antarctica in 1914. Spoiler alert: it did not go well.

The ship Endurance got stuck in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea before the crew even set

foot onto Antarctica. The terrific pressure of the ice crushed their mighty vessel, andShackleton and his men spent the winter, the following summer, and yet another

250px-Endurance_Final_Sinking winter adrift on make-shift camps of ice, surviving on a diet of seal, penguin, and heroic courage.  In the final unfolding of the drama, the crew (all of whom survived: a testament to Shackleton’s remarkable leadership skills) rowed to Elephant Island, just off the shore of Antarctica, and made one of their ramshackle lifeboats as seaworthy as they could to try and make it over the Southern Ocean. No one in the world knew where they were and there was no technology to make contact: if they were to survive, six of them would have to cross the stormiest sea on the planet – 800 miles in a 22 foot yacht (and just for perspective: that little vessel would be facing hurricane-force winds and waves measuring up to 60 feet.) Biographies are not usually my thing, and maritime ones even less so, but I stayed up late in the night reading what happened to this feisty crew. Here’s a little documentary if you’re curious:

That final leg of the journey had me holding my breath – that one voyage even has its own wikipedia page.  The crew slept in snatches, the rest of the time bailing water as if their lives depended on it (they did), spending every last breath on holding their course through wind and waves. And, they repacked the ballast.

I don’t know that I had ever given a moment’s thought to what ballast was or why it was needed until I read this part of the book, but it became clear why it was critical. In preparation for the James Caird’s voyage, the men had devoted significant time to finding stones to pack into the base of the boat as ballast. The weight was needed to make the boat stable against the waves, giving it balance and a center of gravity (in as much as anything on the sea can have such a thing). These days, elaborate pumps push water and air in and out of the base of sea-going vessels to add (and lose) weight as needed for stability, but Shackleton’s men had to do as the seafaring Vikings had done centuries before: they packed stones in the hull.

ballaststonessmall.jpg
Reconstruction of ballast in a Viking vessel, by Stephen Fox (archaeofox.com)

As the James Caird was buffeted by walls of water, one of the many brutalities the men endured was being bashed and bruised by rocks as they tumbled around the base of the boat. And no sooner had rocks tumbled their way to the starboard side, the little boat would once again be somewhat unbalanced, and the crew would have to pick up those rocks and repack the ballast. So much of their energy in preparation had been to making sure they had enough weight for the voyage. And so much of their energy in the arduous journey involved repacking and redistributing that same weight so that they would remain stable.

I’ve been thinking a lot about ballast. I won’t be so dramatic as to compare my life and calendar right now to crossing the Southern ocean, but it certainly has had its ups and downs and is requiring a focus and discipline I can’t remember having needed in quite the same way before. To be sure: it’s an adventure. I’m working hard on writing a book, I’m loving working as an editor and curator for Propel Women’s ministries, I’m delighting in the preparation and study and teaching of a 9 week series on the parables, and there’s no small amount of travel and house project and kid stuff going on, too. But the possibility of taking on water and the feeling that I’m about to sink feels all too real. I’ve long loved the image of Jesus being my anchor in a storm, but I didn’t know until reading this book that a ship being buffeted in a storm needs more than an anchor: it needs ballast. Something weighty to keep me from keeling over. Some centering stones, which may need to be tended to and re-packed from time to time.

My ballast comes in the form of sleep, setting aside time to exercise, and to be quiet and pray . In truth, those are the first things I tend to chuck overboard when things feel choppy, but if I think of them as ballast – things that will not sink me in a storm, but in fact keep me stable, it helps. I’ve set reminders on my phone to go to sleep on time. I’ve got calendar appointments to “be with God”. I’ve installed an app that reads Scripture to me, and set a reminder so that it pops up right around the time I’m usually wiping down the kitchen counters at night. This week things got crazy and I needed to repack my ballast: exercise isn’t working at the same time of day now that daylight savings time has kicked in, so I’ve needed to move it around. Redistribute the ballast because I feel myself tipping.

But paying attention to the ballast is the thing: some items on my to-do list feel heavy, but others are weighty. Weighty is not the same as heavy. Weighty helps us stay the course, even when the going is heavy.

Is a Green Card really green?

 

 

So, is a Green Card really green? Well, after 12 years, 7 months, and 8 days (but who’s counting?) of being in the US, I finally know the answer. Yesterday brought the squeal-and-dance party worthy news that we are finally Permanent Residents of the US. Or, to put it in everyday language: we got our green cards.

It has been a long, long wait. And, it has been fraught with massive expenses, crazy immigration scares, deep frustrations and (no kidding) thousands of pages of paperwork along the way. We are so relieved, so grateful, so wildly happy to have these big little cards in our possession.

We have longed for this day for years. It is such a relief to no longer worry that something could go wrong and leave us suddenly separated from our kids or dizzyingly displaced because of losing a job/catching a border patrol official on the wrong day/being at the whim of an administration that suddenly changes its immigration policies.

I wish this news had come years ago, but as I reflect on today, I am grateful for some good that has come from the delays:

  • today we celebrate with so many more who have prayed with us and supported us along the way. Thank you.
  • having hit as many obstacles as we did along the way, I learned a massive amount more about the immigration process in the US – and along with that knowledge came a huge amount of compassion for anyone who has to navigate the system (whether through valid, open channels; or trying to untangle and resolve a situation where they are undocumented). If it was this hard for me—an educated, english speaking, Christian, legally-trained and financially-privileged person—to navigate the system… how much harder is it for others?
  • As such, the long delay meant I’ve been emotionally invested in the state of immigration and the church’s involvement in it and have landed up feeling compelled to speak as an advocate for better understanding. The first semi-viral blog post I ever wrote was about immigration (I am the immigrant), and a subsequent piece (What you don’t know about immigration) republished at the Huffington Post earned me my first death threat and no small amount of hate mail. The obstacles we faced opened doors for advocacy and entering into the suffering of others, and I will never be sorry for that.
  • With somewhat comic timing, our photographs and biometric data for our green card applications were done on the day before the Presidential Election last year. We stood in the queues of hopeful applicants, seeing pictures of President Obama on the wall, and wondered whose face would replace his in the coming weeks, and how that might affect us as newly minted residents of the US if our petition was successful. The weeks and months following led to drama beyond our wildest imagination in this department, and when we left to visit our family in early February, I experienced real fear about whether we might be caught up in some kind of airport-immigration-drama on our return. (We weren’t. It was fine. But that wasn’t everyone else’s experience.) All of this has made me read more, pray more, care more. I’m grateful for that.
  • This experience has made me a fan of a new podcast Maeve in America – hosted by comedian Maeve Higgins, and telling the stories of immigrants in the USA. Give it a listen. It’s fabulous.

But for us, for now, the great wait is over; and we are excited about continuing to invest in the lives of those we know and love in America. We want to “seek the good of the city”, as God says to do in Jeremiah 29, and settle down, plant a garden, and seek the welfare of the community we’re in. We’re delighted to legally be able to do so; and we do so with such a deeper gratitude for what a rare privilege that is.

So, with confetti and fanfare and praise and gratitude, I’m signing off this blog post. And one more thing:

Is a green card really green?

Why yes it is.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes 🙂

Choruses from the Rock (TS Eliot)

  
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying! The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know That it is hard to be really useful, resigning

The things that men count for happiness, seeking The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting With equal face those that bring ignominy,

The applause of all or the love of none.

All men are ready to invest their money

But most expect dividends.

I say to you: Make perfect your will.

I say: take no thought of the harvest,

But only of proper sowing.

Excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock

Illustration by Corrie Haffly



I recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s Lifesigns, in which he distinguishes between fruitfulness and productivity. Too often, he says, fear of feeling useless and homeless drive us either to sterility (it’s pointless, so why bother?) or productivity (I am a human do-ing, not a being). Instead, love should call us live fruitful lives. 

This poem, with its echoes of Ecclesiastes, speaks of this to me. For the fruitful life surely flourishes in a more rooted life. One where stillness and truth have a place, and not everything is frantic, frenetic, and furiously busy.