2.8.14

On Stories, Sagas, and Wingfeathers

I started reading at the age of 4, and have been in love with stories ever since.  When I start reading a new book, I generally devour it in several sittings.  I’ve been known to read entire books in the airport bookstore during long layovers.  The seventh Harry Potter?  Read the entire thing in four sittings at Barnes and Noble (yes, to be fair, since then I have purchased the book so I’m not just free-loading off of B&N’s free books and comfy chairs).  My favorite books have always been fiction, usually fantasy literature, and more’s the better if it’s an epic series.  I guess the appeal is the new world to be explored and discovered, a story about heros and rescues and justice and love and hope (with a little bit of magic and swordplay and impossible creatures mixed in).  A world where good DOES conquer evil, where the good guys win, where hope does not disappoint.

What changes a book series from good to great for me is the grand “aha!” moment at the end where I discover that all along, the author was leading me down a path to reveal a grand destination.  From the first page of the first book, there was a specific ending in sight and at the end, I can turn around and look back at the path, look back at all the little clues and seemingly insignificant details scattered along the way, and they are all pieces of a whole that fit together.  JK Rowling nailed this with HP.  Christopher Paolini (Eragon) not so much.  I enjoyed his stories along the way but was left very unsatisfied at the conclusion of the book, too many loose ends and not enough resolution.  Robert Jordan and his Wheel of Time series may or may not have done this....he rambled so much that he lost me along the way.  

I recently finished a new series that I began reading in 2008.  Generally, I prefer to start reading a series after it’s been completed so I don’t have to wait for the newest books to come out (although rarely has this worked for me), but I started Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga as a blog reviewer just before the first book was officially released.  The fourth and final book in the series, The Warden and the Wolf King, was just released last week, six years later.  Long have I enjoyed Andrew’s songs and songwriting.  I would expound on why, but his website actually says it better than I could:  

“Peterson’s most loyal fans in fact, tend to be those who find resonance with the “glowing ache” that permeates his body of work. But it’s never been the ache of hopelessness or despair. Instead it’s the ache that comes from deeply loving something that has been lost, and from daring to hope that it will one day be restored. It’s the recognition that any pain we now feel is somehow inseparable from the joy that was intended for us from the creation of the world. And it’s the undying hope that that same pain is also a promise, a forward longing, a deposit of the redemption and restoration of the greater joy that is yet to come.”  


Now, if that doesn’t inspire you to listen to his music, I don’t know what will. :)  His books actually feature more of that same “ache” as his music.  He starts out a little goofy in book one (On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness) but matures as a writer and really hits his stride by book three (Monster in the Hollows).  And by the time I set down the fourth book, I was extremely satisfied in how cohesive the story was, how bits of story from book one were revisited and elaborated on to play a major role on book four.  I set down the last book with tears in my eyes.  If you like books like Narnia and Harry Potter, give the Wingfeather Saga a try.  It’s my free and unbiased opinion.

18.7.14

Family Visit

We recently had the once-in-a-lifetime (probably) chance to spend three solid weeks together with my family--my mom, my brother Eric, and his wife Haidee.  Since Eric and Haidee have gotten married, we have spent something less than 48 hours together, and that was before Toby was born.  So when Eric emailed and said they were thinking of a visit this summer, I knew this was going to be a special time!  They spent the last 2-6 years in Japan teaching English through the Lutheran church, but now are transitioning back to the US for grad school and such.  SO they had more or less a summer vacation, 2-3 months worth of time off.  And since my mom just retired this May, she had plenty to time to visit, too.

Everyone arrived on a Friday night flight with all their luggage, and we spent a few days in Buja on the front end, celebrating Mom's retirement, shopping, and playing!






Then we headed up to Banga on Sunday morning, the village where we had done our language school.  Despite none of our plans working out (we had grand plans to show them the lovely singing at church, which for some reason was cancelled, and also to stay in the nicer guesthouse with generator electricity, which was full), they got the "real deal" experience of what life in Banga is like, complete with walks down the hill to mealtime, and power outages at night.
Lunch at the Banga Guesthouse!

Banga countryside

Finally, to Kibuye for 2 1/2 weeks of talks, games, food, and fun.  It was wonderful.  We took a couple of trips to Kibuye Rock, the waterfalls, and the Source of the Nile River.  Also Eric and Haidee were able to come see our work in the hospital.  Otherwise, we just hung out at home and enjoyed ourselves immensely!  

Kibuye Rock conquerors!

Tea party with the girls
La source du Nile
Congo River Basin
Karero Falls
4th of July potluck!
It was a special trip and while we were sad to see Eric and Haidee go, my mom will be here through September, hooray!

24.5.14

Sabbath, Part the Second: Wendell Berry Poems

Since moving to Burundi, we have come to enjoy the in-country presence of the Miller family, who live in the capital and work with the same medical school as we do.  They are extremely gracious hosts, who continue to house us when we visit, but always in a way that we never feel like we are being a burden.


Joel and I enjoy talking books.  Several months ago, he loaned me “A Timbered Choir” by Wendell Berry, a poet/author from the American South who, for decades now, has spent his Sabbaths wandering through the rural hills around his farm and occasionally writing poems.  These are bound into a couple volumes.  He’s an old man now, and the aging process comes out in the progression of his poems throughout the years.  But with that kind of ritual, Sabbath walking for over 30 years, he has a lot of wisdom to share.

He speaks of trees, friends lost, the passing of time, birds sitting on high branches, invisible in the “at-home-ness”.  He speaks of the songs he hears all around him, and his own song that he tries to sing.  He speaks of rest, and his attempts to practice it.

Sabbath observance often feels frustrated by the imminent demands of parenting.  But Rachel and I usually understand one another’s need, and try to carve out a little time for solitude each Sunday.  

So lately, that’s where one could find me during that brief interlude, sitting outside on a log with a copy of the psalms and Wendell Berry’s “A Timbered Choir”, slowly reading, savoring the words, watching the branches move in the wind, trying to embrace the image of a day to come, when our rest is made complete, thanking God for the way he continues to transform and lead our lives.

“And I, through woods and fields, through fallen days,
Am passing to where I belong:
At home, at ease, and well,
In Sabbaths of this place
Almost invisible,

Toward which I go from song to song.” (-W.B.)

20.5.14

Sabbath, Part the First: Resting and Rhythm

Never is the routine of normal life more appreciated than after traveling overnight abroad with three small children.  We are back from Greece, where we had a wonderful time working on credentialing, seeing friends, and enjoying my parents’ company.  And now, the quieter, steady life here at Kibuye has returned.  Obviously there are lots of challenges to life here, but lack of routine is not currently one of them.  

Walk to the hospital, walk back.  Each day of the week has a set program, and they roll by reliably.  The kids know the routine for the most part, and that helps.

My enjoyment of this sort of surprises me.  Ten years ago, I would have feared that such a pace would be boring.  There are probably lots of reasons for that, and I imagine the greatest reason is that our phase of life includes three small kids, which certainly makes a quiet steady life schedule more desirable than the alternatives.

But there is another thing, which is my growing appreciation of the role of Sabbath.  I guess it began when Janet Tang gave us “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly” by Marva Dawn, back when we were in the US, and I read it around the time we arrived in France.

I think, prior to that, I would have said obedience to the Sabbath meant 1) having enough days off from your regular job and 2) going to church as often as possible.  Dawn challenged this by defining “rest” a lot more logically, as “not working”.  Shocking, I know, but to stop from all that is work (catching up on emails, catching up on housework, running errands, reading preparation for work or some other commitment...) meant something that I think I had rarely experienced, which highlighted how much of my identity rests on what I accomplish.

So we rest.  We stop.  And we celebrate.  Our family watches a movie together every Sunday night, while eating popcorn, pickles, and assorted luxury foods for an informal dinner.  The kids love it, and it separates this day out as special.

It’s been about a year and a half since we started this, and I think another element that Dawn mentioned is starting to come to pass:  the rhythm of life.  She argues for the importance of every seventh day, that it is a rhythm for which we are created, and that it’s observation will ring true.  As with any discipline, this grows with time, but more and more I’m coming to appreciate this.  Throughout the week, the sense of the Sabbath gone and the Sabbath coming inform the emotions of the moment.


More to come...

7.4.14

How To Make Your Own Passport Photos - Optimized

One of the unexpected areas of expertise we have developed is in the area of passport photos.  We have of course needed them for keeping the passports updated, but in our lives, they are needed for many other events: long-stay visas, visas that you need to buy before arriving at the border, even lots of official documents such as driver's licenses still use a "bring your own passport photo" policy where we live.  I have at least 4 passport photos in my current passport, associated with various visas.  So we keep several on hand, just in case.

When I was in college, I went to a Mailboxes, Etc, and paid about $13 for two passport photos.  They were awful and the source of many a border guard's amusement for the next ten years of travels.  Thankfully, digital photo technology has progressed to a more convenient and less expensive way to fill this function.  So here are a few things we've learned about efficiently creating your passport photos:

1.  Chose a big blank background and shoot a bunch of photos with a "more than you think necessary" margin of blank space around you.  You can always crop later.

(1a.)  For newborns:  All three of our kids had their first passport photos taken in their first week of life.  Method:  Put a white sheet on the bed.  Swaddle the kid up tight, and lay them awake on their back on the white sheet.  Fire away.  Choose the one (and there will likely only be one) with eyes open and both ears visible.

2.  Load the picture into Picasa or editing program of your choice.  Crop with a square dimension.  Aim to get the total head height about half of the total picture height.  Err on the side of a smaller head if necessary, because these things are often cut further when getting used.  This is a further reason to give yourself a generous white margin at the outset.

3.  Whiten the background.  We just learned this one, as the Burundian visa office's scanner was having trouble with our off-white/greyish background.  It can't be too white.  The Picasa "highlight" function works well.

4.  Make a JPG with a 2x3 grid of your square photo.  This will come out perfectly in a 4x6 photo as 6 standard size passport photos.  Alternatively, Picasa's collage function works well in a grid if you set the collage size to 4x6.  Save photo and print.  VoilĂ !  Six photos for about 28 cents.  Here's our recent one (Rachel got spot 6 because she's the most likely to travel again the soonest.)


24.3.14

Struggling with Sleepless Nights

Toby's first birthday is in a couple weeks.  He does not sleep through the night.  He never has.  Not once this past year.  It's been better the last few weeks, but prior to that, he averaged waking up 3-6 times per night.  Here are some thoughts that may or may not be helpful to someone else in the same circumstance.


  1.  This is hard.  Very very hard.  We know something about sleep deprivation after years of medical residency.  That also is very hard.  This is probably harder, because it never stops.
  2. This has been a little easier for us because Ben also didn't sleep through the night until 15 months old (Actually, it's been harder because of the same reason).  What I mean is that a significant part of the stamina battle is the despair that "my child will NEVER again sleep through the night".  Corollary: "I will NEVER again sleep through the night."  Things were such a struggle with Ben, and yet the large majority of nights where Toby was waking up, Ben was sleeping peacefully.  And so will Toby.  It.  Will.  Happen.
  3. The perfectly natural response of many people to hearing our difficulties is "Wow, that's hard.  What do you think the problem is?  Have you tried…?"  We would prefer them to stop after "Wow, that's hard."  And maybe follow with, "Would you like some coffee?"  It's very natural, but another significant part of the battle is being plagued by the feeling that this is due to something we are or are not doing.  And such innocent questions make us doubt ourselves all over again.  And yet we have tried everything.  Let him cry.  Pick him up.  Put him down awake.  Put him down asleep.  Absence of sleep cues.  Presence of sleep cues.  Quiet separate environment.  Different foods.  Sleeping in bed.  Swaddling.  Unswaddling.  White noise.  And every slight improvement gave birth to false hope which was followed up until those hopes dissipated into another sleepless night.  

So we have decided that it is not something we are or are not doing.  And we are done with that.  For whatever reason that we do not understand, God is allowing this to happen.  And we pray it ends soon.  But we will try to trust him in the ambiguity until then, believing that good things can come out of trusting in difficult circumstances when God is weaving his story.

It is exhausting.

But it will not last.

And it is not your fault or a deficit in your parenting.

9.1.14

If a Tree Falls in Burundi, It Definitely Makes a Sound

Our house is currently being built.  And one of the amazing features is that it has yet to require a single machine.  Bricks are hand-carried.  Cement is hand-mixed.  There is a guy whose job it is to make mud with his bare feet like grapes in "A Walk in the Clouds" (strange, but that allusion was completely lost on him).

And there have also been trees cleared.  We feel somewhat guilty about this, but work to assuage our conscience by promising to plant more and doing penance by repeatedly reading "The Lorax" to the kids.

I don't know how this process goes down in a land of machines, but here are a few photos of one of the big pines coming down.  Before this first photo, a man climbed 40ft or so and hacked off branches, and then tied a rope around the trunk.  The tree itself is maybe 60 feet tall.

The plan is evident.  Some guys (seen below) will pull the rope he tied around the trunk in the direction they want it to go, while other guys hack at the base.  When it starts to fall, everyone will scream and run.

And it's a good plan.  But a few things to note.  First, that an existing house (where we are currently living) could be crushed if the tree falls in the wrong direction.  Second, a few weeks prior, a similar tree-felling had gone a bit unexpectedly and taken out three other trees on its way down.  So, of course, we all came out to watch.

First, the guys hacking at the base.
 Second, the guys on the other end of the rope, pulling.  The goal is to land it in a 8 ft wide stretch that runs between our garden and the current home building site (for the Cropseys, this time).  Ambitious.
 And after a lot of screams, and an impressive boom, the result was a total ace in the hole.  They landed that giant trunk exactly where they intended.  Amazing.

4.1.14

Tuning a Piano

Ever since the Cropsey's graciously gave us their piano here in Burundi, I've been looking forward to having a real piano in the house again.  However, years of not being tuned, transatlantic boat travel, and a numerous bumps along the way had put the ole' upright in a bit of a dissonant situation.  So I would play it every once in a while, but it wasn't very pretty.

Rewind:  Before leaving for Tenwek in 2009, the music director at our church in Michigan, Scott, handed me a piano tuning wrench and small rubber wedge (seen above), apparently the essential tools for tuning a piano, and told me that he could see how I might have use of these, in a world with no piano tuners.

Well, of all the mighty things that arrived last month in our container, I was particularly on the lookout for these little tools, and when we decided to host a night of Christmas carols at our house on Christmas Eve, it seemed obvious that now was the time to try them out.

I don't know how to tune a piano.  And I don't think that I can do a professional job.  Nevertheless, I tuned a piano.  And it sounds, not great, but SOOO much better.

Armed with said tools, and a $5 chromatic tuning app I had downloaded in Kenya, I set to work, with only the knowledge that the rubber wedge is used to mute two of the strings to isolate the third.  The process took about 4 hours altogether.  The really high and really low notes didn't register well on the tuner, but I had never noticed before how hard it is to tell whether those notes sound in tune anyways.

Life in international missions in remote places has several challenges, but sometimes they are just fun.

31.12.13

2013 Wrapup

Well, we have embarrassingly ground to a halt on the Adventures of Eric and Rachel blog.  Believe me, we are still having adventures...it's just becoming more and more difficult to chronicle them!  Lest we start work at the hospital (Jan 2) before blogging and then become even MORE unlikely to post a blog, let me give you a brief update on our Kibuye adventures.

We moved in on November 1.  Our house at that time was little more than concrete footings.  But the progress has been remarkable!  Here it is in early December.  Eric is standing in what will become our bedroom.  It's been quite a time (mostly for Eric) planning out our house.  I foolishly thought we wouldn't need to have more than minimal input in the process, but Eric has spent a lot of time designing blueprints, planning window sizes, arranging bathroom layouts, etc.  The trusses are up now and next week the roof and floor should be placed.  Still thinking it will be early spring before the interior is complete enough to move in, but exciting none the less.


We celebrated Thanksgiving with our team (on a Saturday).  Some of you may recall the infamous "large turkey in a small French oven" oven fire of 2012.  Well, I am happy to say that my oven is quite a bit bigger, and Burundian turkeys are quite a bit smaller, so that I was able to cook 2 of them side by side in my oven this year and there wasn't even any smoke.  We pulled out all the stops and there were American delicacies a-plenty (including jello and green bean casserole).  There was much to be thankful for this year.

Maggie and Elise in their "Indian princess" costumes:

Toby will be 9mo on Jan 1.  He is crawling, pulling up, and cruising, although still not sleeping through the night.  Sigh.  Guess you can't have everything!  He is a sweetie, though, when he's not complaining about the lack of attention a third born gets.  He has been eating lots of solid foods and so I was particularly glad when the pack and play and high chair showed up on the container (aka the Big Red Box, which arrived with Christmas cheer less than a week to spare).  He's cute to feed on my lap but it was getting to be a bit challenging...

Here he is with Anita, our Burundian "nanny."  The language barrier is challenging to all of us except Toby, who seems to enjoy time spent with her.  She is very nice, and we pray all goes well during the 1 1/2 days per week that both Eric and Rachel are working at the hospital at the same time.

And then, Christmas.  The kids got their traditional Christmas jammies from Eric's mom, Mimi.  All 8 (!) of the grandkids have a matching pair.

 We also had our Christmas tree (shipped on an early container) and some ornaments and stockings, so our house looked Christmas-y even before the container arrived on Dec 18.  But it did come bearing Christmas gifts (purchased up to 2-3 years earlier), more ornaments, and a general good time of rediscovering things long since packed away.  All that to say, we had a fun time celebrating with our immediate family and teammates, although as always, we missed our families dearly.

2014 will bring the beginning of clinical work at Kibuye.  Pray for us in this last big transition.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


29.12.13

Merry Christmas from the McLaughlins


12.11.13

Old House, New House

Sometimes there is just too much to say, and not anywhere close enough bandwidth to say it in blog form.  So, at least a few photos to show that this blog is still alive.

2 weeks ago, we packed up from our temporary home at the Banga guesthouse.  Here is our "living room".

The front of the house, with the adjacent Catholic church.

The view from our place, which will certainly be missed.

Et voila! Our "new" house, the old mission house where we are staying for the next several months.

And just across the yard, the foundation for our real new home is being laid.

And who wouldn't want to finish with kids-in-baskets?

27.9.13

Toby Photo Shoot

Last Saturday I had a good time playing around with our camera and Picasa on the computer.  Toby will be six months on Tuesday and that's around the age when I had formal photos done of Maggie and Ben.  Of course, there are no JC Penney or Sears studios within a few miles of here, so I had to try it myself.  A few blankets, a chair, and a bedsheet in the front yard made up my studio.  Here are the best results:





25.9.13

International Grooming


I think almost any guy would consider it a boast to have pretty minimal trappings when it comes to grooming, and I would say the same.  Yet, it struck me the other day that, simple though it may seem, daily grooming has taken on quite a complex history.

  1.  Showering.  Here in Banga, if there is power (+/- running water), I will take a bucket sponge bath every other morning.  The reason for the power is that I prefer to use one kettle full of boiling water.  Both the shampoo and the kettle are from a Chinese store here in the capital, and it takes a special adapter to plug it into the wall here.  The soap is Burundian.
  2. Brushing teeth.  Tooth care is culturally interesting, and I have come to believe that no one prioritizes it like Americans.  We have a Colgate "herbal" flavored toothpaste we got in Kenya.  The toothbrush is American.  I have a stockpile of American floss that a friend brought out.  Good luck finding reasonably-priced dental floss anywhere else, including Europe.
  3. Deodorant.  Another very cultural thing.  Unthinkable in many parts of the world.  In Kenya, I once found a roll-on stick made by Umbro, the soccer-shorts people, but it didn't last long.  In France, I tried a spray, but the scent left something to be desired (per Rachel).  I thought I would go back to stockpiling American stuff, but found a French store with a good option just before leaving, and that's what I have here in Burundi.
  4. Shaving.  Though shaving cream is hard to come by in Burundi, normally this is not a hard one.  I have cream and razors from France, as well as a set of 220V clippers from France.
  5. Meds.  My allergies flare up in setting of blooming green foliage, which is most of the time here in the equatorial highlands of Africa.  When I got to Kenya, I asked the pharmacy to order some nasal steroids, so I have a stash from Kenya.  A visiting eye doc got me some allergy eye drops, and I'm not sure where they are from, but a lot of there stuff is manufactured in India.

And now, I'm ready to go.  I mean, I can still consider myself a low-maintenance guy, right?  It only takes the USA, France, Kenya, China, Burundi, and possibly India to get me through daily grooming.  Oh yeah, and electricity.

21.9.13

Kindle + Library = Revolution

Yes, we like books.

Yes, we moved to rural Africa (again).

So, what does one do in that setting?

Well, really there are several options.  One can fill a container with books that you got free at a rockin' venue in Baltimore, called the Baltimore Book Thing.  You can also load your Kindle with every free book (published before 1923) that you've ever wanted to read.  Lastly, you can raid the personal library of every anglophone family you encounter.

And we have done all those things.

Yet, there are a few holes.  We like to read some more obscure books, hard to find at cast-off library sales.  And then there are new books.

And then the eBook world met up with the public library world.  All you need is a library card, and you can download library books from the comfort of your own home.  Even if your home is in Burundi.

And part of the beauty of this is that Kindle books are amazingly small, usually less than 500kb, making them downloadable even with really slow connections.  Suddenly new books by favorite authors are available to us.  The latest Newbery winners are available to us.  In short, we have shifted from "what is around to read?" to "what would we like to read?"  Whoa.

15.9.13

Brief Update

Sorry for the long blog silence!  Internet is pretty sketchy here in Burundi (at least, upcountry where we are staying for language study).  I am taking advantage of a Bujumbura weekend to post a few pics.  We are focusing most of our internet efforts on email and the McCropder blog, but thought I'd post a few kid pics (for the grandmas). 

First, Toby has been growing like a weed!  Almost 19 lbs now and I think I can say, officially a sitter.  He has rolled front to back, back to front, and inches a lot by flailing his legs while lying on his back.  Such a sweet kid.  Not a great sleeper, but always cheerful.  We tried him on bananas (which he really enjoyed) but he slept particularly bad those days, and spit up a lot more, so maybe we'll hold off another few weeks before more solids.



Ben is now 2 1/2 and potty training pretty well, actually.  His favorite activity is playing "bad guys."  He is pictured below with his "sword" and "bad guy hat."

Maggie is loving her preschool (with Micah and Abi) and was recently featured in a play about David Livingstone healing a chief's daughter of appendicitis.  She was the tribal chief and was (in my humble opinion) awesome.  Deadpan delivery, didn't forget any lines, classic.  "If she dies, you will die."  I see a future.

 And just for fun, our kiddos loved a friend's slip and slide this weekend in Buja.  It was so hot and sticky, an afternoon in the water was perfect!  Even Toby stuck his feet in.