Arguments about Origin – a TCK post

I was exhausted. It was yet another argument about where I was from, arguments that I was beginning to call “Arguments of Origin” – perhaps so that they sounded more academic and less fraught with emotion.

But the reality was, they were fraught with emotion.

This particular argument started out as a benign comment by a friend to something I had posted online. I don’t even remember the original post, but it was about belonging and my connection to my childhood home – Pakistan. In the post I called Pakistan “home.”

“But it’s not really home for you.” she stated matter-of-factly.

“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said “I grew up there, so yes, it was my childhood home.”

“But you’re not from there.” she was not going to let this go.

Fair enough, but it really depends on what “from there” means.

I tried to put a different lens onto the conversation. “Well – where do you say you are from.” “That’s easy” she named a small town in one of the New England states. “Okay, why do you call that town home?” “Well, I grew up there.”

The defense rests their case.

When I returned to Pakistan in 2010, I got to walk through the house we had lived in during my junior and senior years of high school. A tsunami of memories came over me as I walked through the large front rooms, around the verandah, and finally stopped in front of my bedroom door. As I pressed my face against the window, looking into the room where I had spent winter vacations, I gasped. There on the bed was the comforter that my mom and I had picked out so many years before. The previously bright green, pink, yellow, and blue patterns had faded through the years, but there was no mistaking it. I never thought something as simple as a comforter could bring on such a profound sense of belonging. It was, after all, an inanimate object. But in that moment, it was confirmation of a life that I had lived, a life relegated to stories, photo albums, and memories captured in the cerebral cortex of my brain.

Despite 18 years of life packed into old passports, photo albums, old journals, and letters that my mom kept through the years, in many people’s eyes I have no right to say that Pakistan was home, even less rights to saying that I am from Pakistan. My rights to the country are defined by outsiders who tell me who I am and where I am from.

It brings up many emotions and deep empathy for the many around me who, in this era of massive displacement, struggle silently in the same way.

In a beautiful essay called “Reconciling with Less Home: Between Haiti and Me” Martina Fouquet writes:

The real question is who determines where we belong?

Martina Fouquet in Catapult Magazine

Perhaps what people don’t realize about their challenges to our concepts of home and where we say we are from are that the challenges act like a knife cutting to the core of who we are. The knife cuts deep, and we are left with our own origin questions, self-doubt raising its ugly head telling us once again that we don’t really belong. The internal dialogue that we thought we had silenced so long ago emerges once again, loud and accusatory: “You don’t really belong. You aren’t Pakistani. You left years ago.”

“But that’s not really home for you” or “That’s not where you’re really from” viewed as benign statements to many presents as a challenge to personhood and origin to another.

I don’t know what the answer is to arguments of origin, other than reminding myself once again that no one gets to tell any of us where home is. It is uniquely ours to determine where and why. Our stories may not fit into tidy boxes that connect within the experiences of others, but that’s not a problem we need to solve or a burden we need to bear.

Despite awkward questions, arguments, and discussions on home and origin, the paradoxical gift of this journey is that sometimes less home becomes more home, our lives richer for the multiple places we are privileged to call home.

Home is more than just a place where we come from, it is a part of us. And the longer we distance ourselves from home, the less complete we are.

Martina Fouquet

The Weight of Winter

In winter, the whole story doesn’t show

Paraphrased from Andrew Wyeth

I’m discouraged. It’s not uncommon for me during the winter months, but it is still hard. I do all the things you are supposed to do when you are low and feel defeated. I light candles, I chase beauty, I seek out joy. But sometimes no matter what you do, you still feel the weight of life, still feel the limitations of candlelight and beauty. Beauty may save the world, as Dostoevsky claims, but it doesn’t necessarily take away the weight of winter.

Some of this has to do with things that cannot be changed – feeling the sadness of my brother’s birthday coming on Wednesday, knowing that he is not here, that a phone call is impossible. In addition, my own birthday arrives later this week and I feel some of the emotional cost of aging, the heaviness of responsibility coupled with the weight of wrinkles and a changing body.

What do other writers do with the weight of winter? They write. They describe and, in their descriptions, I find comfort. The quote by Andrew Wyeth is perhaps my favorite. this idea of the story being hidden, but still present is something I think about all year long, not just in winter.

If you are feeling the weight of winter on this Monday, I invite you to read these quotes and to write or find your own.

“I prefer winter and Fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape–the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show. “
–Andrew Wyeth

“How many lessons of faith and beauty we should lose, if there were no winter in our year!”
–Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“I pray this winter be gentle and kind–a season of rest from the wheel of the mind. “
–John Geddes

“The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics. “
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness. “
–John Steinbeck

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

Edith Sitwell

What are your favorite winter quotes? How do you face the weight of winter?

Security within Obscurity

You have to keep living your story. You have to keep living faithfully, seeking God, praying, caring for those things you know are critically important and you have to keep writing about them.

A Kind Friend

Since 2012, at the beginning of every year I’ve gone through a mini writing crisis. 2012 marked a milestone: A year of writing publicly every day. In 2011 I set out on the journey to communicate across boundaries through writing. As 2012 rolled around I was both proud and apprehensive. Now what? I had done what I set out to do, but was I beginning to be a loud noise in a louder world? Was there a place for me to write and an audience for me to write to and for?

Every writer asks themselves the same questions at different points of their journey. Self-doubt is a faithful, all be it depressing, companion to writers, artists, musicians, scientists, doctors, priests, monks and any other vocations that involve the heart.

About a year and a half ago a dear friend of mine who had published a successful book was featured on a podcast. Toward the end of the interview, she was asked a question about writers who meant a lot to her or inspired her. She named two writers who are fairly well known, and then she went on to talk about a writer friend she had who inspired her but wrote largely “in obscurity.” She talked about how much she valued her words and friendship. The writer friend was me. It was incredibly kind. I heard it and I began to cry. My friend was so kind and also, the word obscurity stung.

Obscurity – the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant.

I was unknown, inconspicuous, unimportant. My words didn’t matter.

Of course, my friend didn’t mean that at all. She was giving me praise. She was saying I inspired her. She was honoring me in a public forum. But I didn’t hear that part. All I heard was the part about obscurity.

It is a humbling journey being faced with your own desires and weaknesses within those desires. Because here’s the truth – I would love for my words to journey across the hearts and minds of millions. There are times when I fantasize about walking up to an airport bookstore and standing with sunglasses on looking at my own book, just grinning. I’d love to stand to the side and watch others walk up and peruse the stand, finally landing on my books saying, “I love this writer!” There are times when I dream about an agent taking calls about interviews on public radio and speaking at events across the country.

It’s about then that I hear my alarm and know that it’s time to get up and face my day job, where I grab time to write before work and after work and not much in between.

Despite the obscurity, every time I think I’m going to quit putting my fingers on this keyboard, every time I get discouraged and think my words don’t matter, I get a message like the one at the top of this page. And even when I don’t, I remember how much I love writing; how much I love the craft, the ideas that flow or don’t flow. The words and descriptions, the stories and how they are birthed onto the page, the staring into the distance at a coffee shop when suddenly a phrase comes to me. The feeling of hitting “publish” on my own blog, or “send” in an email submission and then waiting to hear if my essay was accepted for publication, the utter joy of seeing my words on the printed or online page…or not, because whether published or not there is deep joy in creating.

It’s during those moments that I know I will never quit. I may go through sabbaticals of quiet, I may take time out to not write publicly, but I’ll keep writing every day.

But I also know another truth that overrides all of this – and that is that my identity cannot be found in writing alone. My security cannot be rooted in who reads or doesn’t read my words. That would be a fickle identity indeed. My security doesn’t lie in my ability to create words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories but as one who is created and beloved by God.

In these 12 years of writing, I’ve learned much about myself and about the human condition. I’ve learned more about what it is to live well in places that are hard, in places where you don’t feel you fully belong. I’ve heard from people who are displaced or in transition, who are struggling to find their place. I’ve received messages from teenagers in France and retirees in the United Kingdom. I’ve connected in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve gone through public and private crises, and asked readers to come along with me in the grief. I’ve learned more of what it is to give both identity and desire to God, to invite him into my writing space, and pray for words. And I’ve come to see that it’s a big world out there and within it there is a place for small writers in small spaces.

A Prayer for New Year’s Eve

Here’s to the elderly, their memories thick with days gone by, wistfully longing for the time when staying up until midnight or dancing until dawn was a joy. May they know their lives and their memories count.

Here’s to the one who has been left, either by death or divorce, unshed tears just behind their eyelashes, as they watch the clock longing for bedtime to come. May their tears be received, and their hearts healed.

Here’s to the couple with the newborn, eyes wide open with newness and hope, bodies aching with the tiredness a newborn brings. May they have enough sleep to love each other and their little one well.

Here’s to the couple who just met, the ones who are wondering if this is just another in a long list of disappointing relationships. May they not put their hopes in another person but in a relationship-loving God.

Here’s to the ones who just got engaged, starry-eyed with the delight of sharing a lifetime of dreams together. May the strength of their love and the mercy of God equip them for the joys and tragedies ahead.

Here’s to the one who is single in a world of couples, always wondering why they feel second best. May they walk tall in the joy of friendship, growing in God and knowing in their bones how much their lives count.

Here’s to the new arrivals, fresh off a flight from warmer places, the cold and the unfamiliar hitting them as they walk out the doors of the airport. May they be greeted with bread and tea, a place to sleep and people to help.

Here’s to those who pray for peace but suffer in war. May they be safe, and may they know that they are not alone, that there are those praying for them – that wars would end, and peace would reign.

Here’s to the suffering one, who dreads the dawn of a new day. May they be wrapped in comfort and love.

Here’s to the dying one, ready to enter eternity on the cusp of a new year. May they die knowing the love, rest, and mercy of God.

Here’s to those who are heavy with conflict, weary of fighting, broken with fractured relationships, longing for peace in their families and communities. May we know the one who is mighty counselor, everlasting God, and Prince of Peace.

Here’s to you and to me, wherever we are and whoever we are with. May the hopes and dreams of all our years be met in the One who promises his presence.

Happy New Year’s Eve.

Comedy & Tragedy

I’m sitting at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The sky is grey outside, the cold wind from the ocean biting and intense. Inside is warm with low conversation, the smell of toasted bagels and fresh donuts, and a hot eggnog latte. Sometimes the warm conversation of strangers is the best company of all.

I looked back at some of my writing the other day, caught up in the nostalgia of words with memories. 2021 was a rough year on every level. 2022 started out a shade better and quickly took a dark, dark turn. Despite that, daily gratitude, learning about releasing control, and clinging to God as lover of my soul kept joy afloat amidst many tears.

Life is never just tragedy, it is a poignant blend of comedy, drama, tragedy, and joy. And in the midst of this is a God who walks with us, who will not leave us, and who delights to surprise us with good gifts.

Instagram post from 2021

For over 2500 years, comedy and tragedy masks have been a symbol of theater. These symbolic masks began in the city of Athens in 535 BC. The first theater in the world had just been built – Theater of Dionysus. In a much anticipated first performance, the curtain went up and actors stepped onto the stage wearing masks. The masks represented various characters in the play. Masks became commonplace in theaters, often made far larger than life so that they could be seen by the audience. The first theater tickets in Athens were masks carved out of small pieces of ivory bone. Well before the fall of the Roman empire, masks had become a well-known symbol for theater. The only ones that remain to this day are the masks that show happy and those that show sad. Perhaps the happy and sad masks were the only ones to live on because the ancient Greeks favorite plays were, and perhaps still are, comedy and tragedy.

I wonder if it is primarily the western world that expects life to be free of tragedy. When I speak with friends in or from other parts of the world, I don’t get the sense that their expectation is that they will experience a life free of pain, and yet in the west, people often seem surprised at hardship. What false reality or expectation have we created in the west that assumes a life of magic and order, a life of picture postcard images?

These comedy/tragedy masks remind me that life has always been and will always be a mix of both. The more I ponder, the more I realize I would not have it any other way. What is sun without clouds? What is joy without sorrow? What is comedy without tragedy? As humans we are a bit like Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. We grow and learn through opposites.

As we end 2022 and walk into 2023, we can be assured that our lives will not go exactly as we imagine. We can rest in one thing – that whether we can see it or not, the sun will rise in 2023 bringing with it unexpected joys, unimagined tragedies, and a lot of in between mundane.

Through it all, God is there. He will not grow tired; he will not grow weary. He will give strength to our weary souls, rest to our tired bodies. As we wait on him, we will find new strength. We will run and not get tired, We will walk and not grow weary.* 2023 will not overwhelm us but will come as it always does – one day at a time.

For 2023, I wish you the joy of living fully, one day at a time.

*Paraphrased from Isaiah 40: 28-31

Advent Reflections – Falling

On Thursday night I fell. It was dark, wet, and my arms were full of bags. I had been in downtown Boston for a meeting, and I was so ready to be home. Parking was difficult, but I finally found space a couple of blocks down the hill. I had almost reached home when I lost my footing and splat – down I went.

I spontaneously cried out but there was no one to hear me. I was shaking badly as I tried to get up. My whole body ached. I knew my left knee was hit the worst as it took the brunt of the fall. Tears began to fall as I finally regained my balance and began trying to pick things up from the ground. Little chocolate stars with white dots were strewn all over the ground, the leftovers of a beautiful afternoon tea at my daughter’s house shining in the light of a gas lamp. It felt like they were mocking me “See – just a couple of hours ago you were having a wonderful time, but it doesn’t last. It will never last.”

I finally pulled everything together and limped my way to my door. Sniffling, I walked into warmth, light, and a husband who was deeply concerned for my wellbeing.

The tears continued to fall. I felt like all the pain in the world was wrapped up in that one fall. All the displaced suffering that I know exists around the world. All the extended family struggle and pain, death and betrayal that has been a part of our family for the past couple of years was in that fall. All the difficult nights and angry days were represented in my bleeding hands and knee. I cried and I cried.

We are all just one fall away – one fall away from tragedy; one fall away from illness; one fall away from a life changing event. No one goes to work on a Monday morning expecting to fall, or to die, or to hear that someone else died. Yet, every single day people go through events that change their lives.

One Fall Away

In truth, my fall on Thursday night was not life changing. Though my knee has turned all shades of pretty colors, I didn’t break it. I skinned my hands, but they will heal with minimal scarring. I bruised my body, and it brought me to my bruised heart and soul. And that’s why I cried and cried. That’s why my tears fell. They were my expression of looking to God for comfort, looking to God for healing.

In the classic book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, author Eugene Peterson talks about the honest expression of suffering found in the Psalms. The model in the Psalms is far removed from the platitudes of comfort that are often offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Instead of telling us to get up and dust ourselves off, the Psalmist cries out against all the pain, suffering, and evil in the world. The Psalmist cries out in agony asking God why he has left him. It is a tremendous comfort and challenge to me that we have this model. The Psalmist doesn’t look at God as someone who will scold him and tell him to try harder. Instead, the Psalmist begins in pain.

Help God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!….By setting the anguish out into the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing that must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived

Eugene Peterson – Psalm 130 in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

I don’t know what is going on in your lives right now. That is the reality of writing publicly. But I know that Advent, the time of waiting, can give rise to hard emotions. I know that when all around looks shiny with bright lights and sparkles, the things that are hard seem magnified. And that’s why we have those beautiful Psalms. They invite us into honest dialogue with a God who loves us so much. They allow us to cry out to a God that hears, that sees, and that dignifies our suffering by allowing us to express it. And when it’s all cried out, written or voiced in lament, we end in the same hope that the Psalmist did.

I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.*

*Psalm 130: 6-7

[Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash]

Advent Reflections – Time Redeemed

One of my first impressions of Orthodox Christianity (besides a jarring dose of culture shock) was that time flows differently here. Something mysterious happened when I entered the church for services: time became beautiful. No longer merely the engine of change and decay, time in the Orthodox liturgical setting seemed to bear something of eternity.

Nicole Roccas in Time and Despondency

We put up our Christmas tree this week – a Frasier Fir, fresh from the forest of Quebec via a large truck and Boston Christmas Trees situated right in the middle of a busy part of Boston. We did not wander into a forest and, in a Hallmark movie moment, cut down the tree with an axe and drag it through the snow. No – we went to an area busy with traffic, bars, hair salons, and Korean restaurants. It is steps away from our church and a place we’ve been going to pick our tree every year since 2008, with the exception of our year in Kurdistan. Trees are piled up high as seasonal employees help the idealists, romantics, and realists pick out the perfect tree (which of course is different for all of them!)

It is decorated with no less than 400 twinkle lights as a way to bring light to a season characterized by waiting in the dark. We had neighbors come over to help decorate, filling the void that five children who have left, now establishing homes of their own, creates. Our home filled with laughter, mulled wine, and Christmas treats as we enjoyed creating beauty together.

In our church tradition, Advent is not only a time of waiting, but also a time of fasting. It is counter intuitive and counter cultural to be sure, but I have come to appreciate the fast before a feast, the way this draws me into deeper contemplation of pivotal events in the church, in this case the Incarnation and God becoming man.

It is an extraordinary mystery that the creator of time willingly confined himself to the limitations of time through the Incarnation. Suddenly he who is above and beyond time knew what it was to enter into it. His entering time came full circle and allowed us to enter eternity – first by being reunited with God himself through Christ and then recognizing, believing and entering into these events through the Church and her liturgical reminders of what goes into a life of faith.

Our Epistle reading yesterday was from the book of Ephesians – specifically Ephesians 5 where the writer of the book exhorts the readers to walk as children of light, “redeeming the time.” It’s a beautiful and hard phrase. Beautiful because those of us who have lived for a while have regrets and long for time that we wasted, or time when we hurt people or suffered hurt, to be redeemed. We long for hurt and suffering to mean something more than a wasted time of pain and grief. It is a hard phrase for the same reasons. “How can this be redeemed” we ask during the quiet, dark of a sleepless night when no one is there to listen except God. How are these things that are so broken restored? How are relationships mended? How is wasted time and conversation ever really redeemed?

We also long for the more mundane aspects of seemingly wasted time to mean something. I was just in traffic that made me batshit crazy. It’s those Boston drivers….and I’m one of them! How do I redeem that time? Meetings at work that mean nothing to eternity – how are those redeemed.

Again, I come back to the mystery of Advent. If a virgin can give birth to a Savior, give birth to a Redeemer, then surely in some mysterious way, time can be redeemed. In recognizing Christ’s incarnation, I also recognize his capture of time, this one event changing all of history – what came before and what came after. This birth that led to death and resurrection is the pinnacle of time redeemed.

What does it mean for me, then, to live as one who walks in the light, redeeming the time? Perhaps an important step on that journey is recognizing Advent and giving thanks that a time of waiting brought forth a glorious life altering birth. Perhaps in the waiting in the hard of the night or the hard of the morning traffic, the waiting is bringing about a redemption that I can’t even imagine. I’ll be on that journey until the day when my breath and life stop. Until then, these words from St. John Chrysostom offer me a further glimpse into what this looks like.

The time is not yours. At present you are strangers, and sojourners, and foreigners, and aliens; do not seek honors, do not seek glory, do not seek authority, nor revenge; bear all things, and in this way, ‘redeem the time’.

St. John Chrysostom

Advent Reflections – Faith in the Irrational

If you are like me, everywhere you turn you will see someone writing Advent Reflections. While I’d like to apologize for joining the crowd, I find I can’t. One look at headlines around the world and I’m convinced that our world needs as many Advent Reflections as possible.

From suicides to refugee traumas, from wars to famines, from deep loneliness to deeper despair, we are a people in need of hope. My job takes me into this hopelessness (if not physically, emotionally) on an almost daily basis. From statistics to stories, I witness so much difficult news, so much sadness, so much despair. It is in these darkest days, when even the physical days grow dimmer and shorter, that we come upon Advent – the coming of the Christ Child.

As I was reflecting on Advent and all it means this afternoon, I was once again overwhelmed with the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of Christ coming, his channel for coming a woman’s womb. For nine months he was nourished through what his mother ate and drank, protected by his mother’s body. He was, like all babies, connected to her through his umbilical cord, his life sustained by God through Mary’s placenta. The God who said, “Let there be light” and so there was light, reduced to the smallest of cells to become one of us. There is a line in one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church that says, “All of creation rejoices in you, O full of grace…. He made your body into a throne, and your womb become more spacious than the heavens,” and when I first heard these lines, I could hardly breathe for the wonder of them.

I get it when some of my friends and family say to me “I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense. I just can’t believe it.” It IS irrational and yet, every day, I choose this over all else.

Perhaps this is why the first Sunday of Advent focuses on faith. Because faith is foundational to Advent. How can I possibly move into hope, love, and peace unless I first acknowledge the faith it takes to believe that God is the creator, author, and perfector of all of those?

I choose faith to believe the seemingly impossible. Faith to get up every day and live by this impossibility. Faith to not get defensive when others challenge that belief. Faith to say, “I don’t know how this all works, but I’m still going to believe.” Faith to believe in the irrational, hope in the impossible, and love with abandon. Faith to believe that somehow in the presence of God, all of this will make sense, mystery wrapped up in indescribable love.

This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild! Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child

Madeleine L’Engle

If you are one who celebrates Advent, may you be encouraged to continue on in this wildly irrational faith journey that ultimately leads all of us Home.