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Thursday, June 21, 2012


I have been reflecting lately on the lessons I am learning here in Tonga, and that has led to larger reflection on the lessons I have learned from people all around the world during my entire life.  Some of you know that between the two of us, Jim and I have lived in 10 countries for a year or more, in addition to visiting another 20 countries.  I don’t say this to brag, I say it simply to qualify what follows: I have learned the same life lessons as many of you, it’s just that I have had remarkable opportunities to learn it from a variety of God’s children.
I cherish the friends I made with good people in all these places.  I have lost contact with many of them, but they still influence my life, and those few with whom I still have contact are absolute treasures. This week and next, I want to record my thoughts about a few of the life lessons I have learned from people in very diverse places on this planet.

My first life lessons were taught to me in Arlington, Virginia, where I grew up.  One that has profound implications for me is this:  you have individual value.  I have never been known to stay serious for long, hence this picture, but I have learned that smiles and laughter create many more friends than sullenness and withdrawal.  Whatever I have contributed to others has come back to enrich my own life as well.  And I love being the unique monster that is me. 

This rural road is a good symbol to me of the long-term
perspective of the Swedes I got to know.
This country spends most of 5 months a year or more in semi-darkness, and its people have learned a rhythm of life that reflects their love of light.  They are often in their pajamas by 6 pm in the winter, but come summer they are out on their apartment balconies until 11 p.m. or later.  They are drawn to sunlight, but they are also seekers of light and truth, and their long history in their land lends them the perspective of seeking long-term solutions to problems, not “magic bullet” ideas and proposals like those I’ve encountered in my professional situations and civic discussions. 

This is the famous Yemeni town of Mareb, where archeological evidence
supports the claim that it was the home of the Queen of Sheba.
Jim says his most remarkable memory of the people of Yemen is their devotion, and it has affected him for the rest of his life.  He lived in Yemen for a year just before he joined the LDS Church, and the way the Yemen people carried their religion with them everywhere turned out to be a foreshadowing of how Jim Szoka has lived according to the principles of the doctrine of the Mormon Church.  He is a man of integrity, and he learned integrity at his mother’s knee, but he also learned it in Yemen.

During the Vietnam War, Jim was stationed in the mountains of Thailand, in an Air Force unit.  Though he faced the horrors of war, he was blessed at the same time to enjoy the ways of the Thai people around him.  The Thai people have a gentility about them that is indeed something to aspire to – their gentle habits of persuasion and kindness helped him endure a difficult time. Many years later, when we hosted a Thai exchange student, that profile of gentleness was once again manifest.  Whenever we think of being gentle, our Tee comes to mind.  He sought excellence in his studies and in his personal relationships, and was always the example of a true gentleman.  And thanks to our internet connections, I know he still is.

We have one of these at home - to remind us.
During the five years we lived in Japan, I was always impressed with the honesty and respect that is such a huge part of the Japanese character.  I was a young mother, and three times in those five years I left my purse behind – and three times it was returned to the gate guard, who simply telephoned me to come pick it up.  All three times the cash, credit cards, military ID, and other important documents I carried with me were intact.  Because of this level of honesty, Jim and I could leave our doors unlocked, could leave our bicycles with the hundreds of others outside a train station, all unsecured, could leave our young children in a Legos play pit inside a store while we shopped.  And the effect it had on our family is still felt – we all have our flaws, but honor, with all its associated meanings, has a prime position in our family.

To be continued...

Monday, June 11, 2012


So the electricity in the tiny Tongan home was turned off.  Husband Taniele and his wife Mele, who lived on one of the outer islands, were undeterred.  Neighbors gossiped about them, and even confronted them:  “Aren’t you ashamed to bring your children back here for the summer?  You haven’t managed your finances properly.  And now your five children will come back to a home with no electricity.  They will have to use candles to read, and you must now cook outdoors, over an open fire!  You have not been wise parents!"


The neighbors’ words and looks had the same kind of impact as beating a coconut with a palm leaf; Taniele and Mele smiled in return.  “We do not care about the electrical power,” said Taniele.  “I have worked hard to catch the crabs near the cliffs of our island, and I have saved enough money to pay for all five of our children to return home for the summer, after living at school all year.  All five of our children will have money to pay for their ferry ride when school ends this month.  If I must sacrifice our electrical power, is that not worth it?”

“We may not have electrical power, but we will have our children with us for a few months,” continued Mele.  “I will gladly cook for them over an open fire.  And they will help me, and they will help their father with his fishing.”

Taniele searched the faces of his neighbors.  “Electrical power is nice to have, but it is not a necessity in my life,” he said.  “When my children arrive home, I will light a fire in the yard.  I will gather them around the fire.  And I will teach them again how they should light the world around them, using the light of their own knowledge.  I will teach them to share their light, to lift those around them, to provide clearer understanding for those who are confused, to provide confirmation for those who doubt, to provide a pathway for those who are lost, to provide support for those who have fallen, to provide illumination for those who are searching. And I will remind them that their first duty is to provide light for each other – the older children for the younger, and sometimes the younger children for all of us.

“Then, when I have taught them, I will give each of my children a candle to take to their beds. They will certainly tell me their candles offer only a poor light, but I will remind them that it only takes a few candles to light an entire room.  Together, our five candles will light our way to our home.  And once inside the room, we will kneel in prayer, to offer thanks for their safe return to our home.  And the candles will remind us of the source of all light and knowledge, our Heavenly Father.  And they will remind us of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has lighted our way so that we may return to our Father.  And we will love the light, and seek for it together, so that we may live in the light together.  And when my children are grown, their light will be stronger than mere candles – they will be bright lights to each other, to their friends, to their husbands and wives, because they will carry within themselves the light of the Spirit of God.”

Taniele and his wife Mele are typical of the faithful Saints in Tonga, who realize that using the power within ourselves to benefit others is eternally important, while other types of power are just earthly conveniences.  Their perspective, their faith, and their humility has affected me deeply.  I hope this story has a deep effect on you, too.  Remember what is truly important.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


This is the way we wash our clothes...

I remember when our oldest son Kai came back from serving a two-year mission in Brazil, that the first thing he did was go down to the basement and kiss the washing machine.  He had spent two years washing clothes in a bucket.

Well, that’s how it’s done here in Tonga.  Washing machines are available (senior missionaries have them, but not 19-21 year olds), but most people can’t afford them – they cost about half a year’s salary.  Plus, the electricity to run them is very expensive - this is an island, after all.  So, the family wash is done in a bucket, like the woman in the picture at right.

One of the larger missionary quarters.

Young missionaries are housed in what are called missionary quarters, tiny pre-fab buildings which consist of a ½ bath, shower, sink and toilet, and then a small sitting room, usually furnished only with a table and chairs, and a bedroom with two beds.  Missionaries are responsible to keep their quarters clean, which is a new habit for many Tongans, most of whom have never even had a bed to sleep on, and who have to be instructed in how to make a bed, how to wash sheets every two weeks, and how to sweep and mop a floor.  (When you have a dirt floor, or you sleep out in a little hut behind the main house, cleaning is not something you learn to do.)  But amazingly, most missionaries do a very good job at learning to keep their quarters clean, and their clothes too, by washing in a bucket.   

One of the senior missionary couples here, Elder and Sister Sanders, has the assignment of inspecting missionary quarters (along with about six other assignments – they stay busy!).  As they entered one a few days ago, Elder Sanders noticed a long extension cord running from the main room into the bedroom.  Thinking that there might be a problem with the electricity in one of the rooms, Elder Sanders asked, the elders, “Why do you have an extension cord in your bedroom?”

These are NOT the two elders in the story!  But you get an idea
of how they dress, every time they're out of their quarters.
The two Tongan elders just stared at the floor.  Apparently they thought they were in trouble, and they were very reluctant to give any answer.  Elder Sanders said, “Look at me.  Now tell me, what is that extension cord for?”

One of the elders finally mumbled, “washing machine.”  Elder Sanders did a double-take.  Washing machine?  He turned to the Tongan maintenance worker who had accompanied him to the missionary quarters, and asked him to ask the elders what the extension cord was for.  The maintenance worker asked the elders, in Tongan, and then translated their answer.  “Washing machine.”

Elder Sanders was very confused.  A washing machine?  There was the bucket, in the bathroom, with a PVC pipe to use as an agitator.  There was no washing machine outside the little building.  The cord seemed to stretch from nowhere to nowhere, and suddenly Elder Sanders got tickled.  “Um, I got some bad news for you folks,” he smiled to the maintenance worker.  “Tell these elders that apparently, someone has stolen their washing machine!”  Haha!

As it turns out, the family who owns the land where the missionary quarters is located has a washing machine, and they let the elders do their laundry in the washer, provided the elders use their own electricity.  So the extension cord is used once a week, to run from the family's porch to the missionary quarters.  This time the cord did not get put completely under a bed.  No harm, no foul.  No elders, you’re not in trouble.

This was a perfectly sensible solution, but here in Tonga, all kinds of options run through your head.  You never know what the “rest of the story” might be.  When Elder Sanders told this story, he was interrupted by our mission nurse, who speculated that the elders had tried turning a fan face down into the bucket, to agitate the laundry!  So now we are all promoting the invention of bucket fans…the next big thing, of course!