This past year has been one of slow and steady revelation. While on the island, I could sense a steady stirring - pieces of my identity, world-view, and understanding of God continuously shifted. These rumblings reverberated through my skin, but I could rarely recognize the reconfigurations taking place within my own being. Yet, the past twelve months have brought clarity and the ability to retrace the stirs and shifts - to sense the meaning behind the moments.
While still on the island of Madagascar, I tried to write a newsletter for my family, friends, and support back in the US. I had experienced a soul-stirring moment and deeply wanted to share the beauty. I sat down at my laptop and documented in great detail the events of the moment. However, when I reached the end of the story, I froze. I knew with great certainty the experience held importance - a spiritual significance. Yet, the precise importance escaped me. I reflected, wrote, and prayed. Still, I could not figure out why the moment had struck my heart with such impact. Eventually I abandoned the blog post. I left it to sit in the files of my laptop, and the memory solidified itself in the creases of my heart. Now, I offer that moment in full detail.
I occasionally glanced up at the crescent moon and countless stars glaring above me. I felt lost in the moment, but sudden and short jolts of pain ensured my mind did not wander far. After dinner, I had found a small bench in our dirt-covered front yard; I desired to watch the nighttime sky - a place I have always encountered God. Still slightly damp from my shower, my hair rested around my shoulders. I rarely wore my hair down; Zafy and my other host sisters quickly gathered to run their fingers through my long straight strands. Three of them started to playfully braid, twist, undbraid, and comb. However, what seemed like light play soon turned into a genuine endeavor. Zafy started to work with great concentration. She was only sixteen, but I could feel the expertise in her hands. Many braids has come before mine. Yet, my hair was particularly difficult. It was malamy - slippery. It was hard to hold onto and quick to undo itself. In response, Zafy seemed to pull with extra might, or perhaps I simply wasn’t accustomed to the strength with which Malagasy women braided. Each tug left my scalp with a twinge of pain, but I refused to say anything. This was an important moment. This provided a chance for accompaniment - to do life with my Malagasy loved ones. I needed to sit still. It was early in my YAGM year, and my language skills were still quite limited. I occasionally muttered something in Malagasy, but most of the moments passed in silence. Zafy and the rest of my host sisters didn’t seem to mind. They focused on my forming braids. Zafy would reach the end of a braid, step back, and examine her work. Then she would consult with my host sister, Esperance. Not straight enough. Zafy would unweave the entire braid and start again. Her tugs did not soften. Again and again, I thought Zafy had finished her work. Again and again, she saw opportunity for more beauty. She unwove and started again. Tug. Tug. Tug. I felt surrounded by love, and longed for Zafy to braid forever - if only she would stop pulling so darn hard. I tried to run my fingers over the braids. I had no mirror, but I longed to know what I looked like. I wanted to how the braids could possibly become straighter or tighter. I strained to understand whatever pushed Zafy to keep pulling and creating. Eventually, Zafy stopped. My sister, Esperance ran about searching for a hair tie. We both knew I had several in my room, but she was determined to find one of her own to offer me. Then, they determined their work complete - at least for the night. Once inside my room, I pulled out the small mirror I had bought at the market down the road. I glanced at Zafy’s work and smiled. It was unlike any braids I had ever seen atop by head, and I loved it.
Throughout my year, several of my dear loved ones took on the task of braiding my hair. Each time, they noted how difficult it was to work with my slippery and smooth hair - how easily it wanted to return to its original state of straight. Yet, each loved one pulled with enough might (and induced enough pain) to create as they pleased from my hair. The various hands and moments brought various styles, but they all brought winces and then great joy.
It required almost a year for me to understand these stories of braiding as more than simply moments and memories. I now see a reflection of God, my YAGM year as a whole, and a process of recreation and reformation. God and people of God pulled, tugged, and often yanked on my heart throughout my year in Madagascar. Some moments brought me to the edge of tears; some moments brought me tumbling past it. Throughout it all, I could feel something changing. I could sense myself being formed into a new creation. I had no mirror clearly reflecting my image, and running my fingers over the rough outline did not provide true understanding. Clarity would come later.
I often sensed an ease in the tugs - a completion of change. I would start to sigh with relief. I praised God for challenge and change but appreciated a respite from the persistently painful tugging. But the tugging would start again. Work remains, dear child. Room for beauty exists here.
I did not need to offer much throughout this process. In honesty, I would not have been able to offer much if I tried. All I could do was sit. Sit beneath the moonlight and know that sitting was important.
My very nature sometimes resisted recreation. More than my hair slips back to its original state. However, God persists - sometimes pulling with a bit more strength to ensure it all sticks.
All of the tugging, pulling, and yanking has not ceased since leaving Madagascar. In fact, life in the United States has sometimes felt even more jarring. Yet, I trust the hands braiding my hair. The painful pulls lead to new creation. Even when I cannot yet see that new creation, I know that it is good.