Thresholds

Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away. Sometime, when it’s this late at night, I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does. But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave.

Fatima Bhutto, Songs of Blood and Sword

It’s a blue, blue sky and for the first time this year I have the joy of sitting outside to drink my coffee.

Several of these past days have started with a thick fog covering the area. The buildings in downtown Boston, usually easily visible from our upstairs window, covered in misty grey.

The thing with fog is that you feel it will last forever even though your head tells you that’s ridiculous. So there’s this tug between feeling and thinking as you will yourself forward by head rather than heart.

But today? There is no fog. Just the crispest blue sky and a weather app promise of a warm day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds, largely because of a writing prompt from a group that I connect with on social media. One of the definitions of threshold is gate or door. Explore a bit more and this is expanded to mean “the place or point of entering or beginning.” Perhaps, too, the foggy beginnings of the last few days have made me think about thresholds. Thresholds as points of entering or beginning can be foggy and disorienting.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned from a Russian friend that you never hug someone over a threshold. You either go in, or come out. Once you are both out (or both in) then you can hug. She was emphatic that I not hug her across th threshold.

I have more questions for my friend, but what I love about this is that you have to commit. It’s like a mom saying “Either come in or go out, but don’t stand in the doorway.”

And that’s what happens when you are standing in the threshold of something. You can’t stay there. You have to pass through.

May and June are threshold months. They are months of soul aching goodbyes, each goodbye a mini death. They are months of nervous excitement and wanting to lengthen the moments and stretch them into hours and days. They are months of laughter at what has been and so many tears at what will no longer be.

Graduations, moves, sorting, packing up, giving away, wondering what’s to come – all of these and more are packed into threshold months.

In World’s Apart, I write this about one of my threshold moments:

“The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying ‘every time a cow died in Pakistan.’ Others would stoically move forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world…..The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.”

Of all the endings and beginnings I have had, this is the one that was most pivotal. It was my exit and my entrance – from Pakistan to the United States, from child to adult, from home to the unknown. It was clarity and fog, warmth and cold, peace and anxiety.

A couple of weeks before I stood on this threshold between worlds, I had some of the happiest moments imagineable. It was early summer in Murree and the weather was perfect. The moments of connection and friendship were memory-making; the joy I felt palpable. I knew who I was, I knew where I was going, I would make Pakistan and my little school in her mountains proud. Looking back, I am so grateful for those moments. They would sustain me for a long time when life became foggy and I no longer knew who I was or where I was going.

So for you who are on the threshold of something new, hold on to the moments. Honor what has been even as you prepare for what will be. You have been shaped and raised by the places and people that you will soon leave – know that this shaping is a gift and uniquely prepares you for your next journey. Take good, long looks at the people and places you have come to love. Those memory snapshots will give you strength for what’s to come.

As you step over the threshold of what is to come, remember this:

Thresholds are doorways into future wonder, but before you step through them, you need to be able to hold close what you are leaving behind.

[Image by Margarita Kochneva from Pixabay]

Healing Through Beauty

I may be biased, but Charlestown is the loveliest place to live in all of Boston. It has charm, character, and beauty all wrapped up in a complete package. It is a city space with a small town feel. Neighbors know and care for each other, people say hello as they walk their babies and their dogs, and the owners of the bodega down the street laugh goodnaturedly as I try my Spanish which is limited to Ola! and Gracias!

Though every season is lovely, springtime feels particularly so as forsythia blooms bright yellow, quickly followed by flowering trees, azaleas, daffodils, and tulips. An already friendly place becomes friendlier, the sheer joy of living is present everywhere.

Charlestown helped to heal my heart last spring. As half of me lay in a hospital bed not two miles away, the other half walked the streets of Charlestown with one of my sons, marveling at how beauty, joy, and tragedy could be so mixed up together. Tears that I thought would never stop dried on my cheeks, joy exploding like the blossoms around me.

The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote the words “Beauty will save the world” many years ago. Those words became my reality, for in the midst of the tragedy of last year, beauty was exactly what I needed. Beauty saved me.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived. Beauty tenderly woke me to the Beautiful One and to a coming reality where there will be no more death, suffering, crying or pain.

As I walk the streets today, sun glistening off dew drops on newly sprouted buds, I am in a different place. The tragedy of last year has given way to the hard work of healing. The beauty all around welcomes me as I continue to walk in faith, faith that the pain of today and the fight to see beauty will someday give way to a forever that is far more beautiful and less fleeting than springtime in Charlestown.

Chaste and ardent eros for the Beautiful is the first task of human life, and falling in love with Beauty is the beginning of every adventure that matters

Dr. Timothy Patitsas in The Ethics of Beauty

And so I ask you: When has beauty healed your heart?

Pascha 2022

It’s getting late as I sit, resting before heading to church. Charlestown will soon be asleep with only the liquor store down the street open.

Ever since we became Orthodox I have used this time before heading to our midnight service as a time of reflection. It has changed through the years. When we first became Orthodox, we still had kids living with us and as the rest of the family rested, I would write. Now they are all adults in various parts of the country and world and like Christmas, I miss their presence and the collective excitement that we had for several years.

In this Orthodox journey, our lives are now marked by Pascha and Pentecost, by Dormition and Nativity, by Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent. It has taken some getting used to, but I am beginning to love it. To love the rhythms of the church calendar, the Great Feasts and the more minor ones. In a world that I have found changes with the wind, a world where worldwide disasters accompany personal tragedies, I am learning the value of something as solid as this calendar and the faith that orders it.

Far more than a calendar is the reality of being a part of a bigger story, for it is sobering and freeing. To be a part of a story where the central theme is sacrificial love is extraordinary, and though I try, I will not fully grasp it’s fullness and mystery until I enter eternity.

So I willingly put aside regular bedtime routines entering into the biggest event of the entire church calendar and celebrate Pascha at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. Because this love story and the God who orchestrated it is worth celebrating.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Select Portions from St. John Chrysostom Easter Sermon

When You’re in the Middle of the Story – and You Want to Know the End

Several years ago I was in the middle of a riveting book. Every time I had a spare moment I would pick up the book and continue reading. My husband was traveling and so after I got my five children settled for the night, I got into my own bed and continued reading. The night got later and later as the book took on more and more suspense. I suddenly looked at the clock and it was three o’clock in the morning. I was stunned, but also faced with a dilemma: Do I go to bed? Do I keep on reading? Or….and this will stun many of you….do I skip forward and read the end?

Knowing that I may disappoint you, I will not tell you what I did. The bigger point is that sometimes we’re in the middle of the story, and we desperately want to know the end. Will the protagonist’s longing be fulfilled? Will the boy find the girl? Will the child be rescued? Will the villain be caught? This is what makes The Princess Bride such a delighful and longstanding movie favorite. Princess Buttercup, Wesley, the Villain, the Giant, Inigo Montoya….it’s all there and it is deeply satisfying because we get to see the end. Wesley’s words to Princess Buttercup “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” stay with us even after watching countless other movies.

The stories each of us live, sometimes caught up with the story of another, are a bit more complicated. We don’t always know the ending. We pray for healing only to watch someone die of cancer. We pray for peace only to see war after war after war. We pray for courage only to see ourselves cower in the moments that we most want to be brave. We pray for understanding only to be crushed by the weight of misunderstanding. We pray that we will have faith to believe in something bigger than ourselves only to doubt everytime life gets difficult. We pray for unity in churches and families only to watch as chasms grow in both. We long for a good ending, but in the dark of night we wonder “How will it all end?”

This week it is Palm Sunday in my faith tradition. Palm Sunday was an amazing story. It is the hero riding into Jerusalem. Right there in the middle of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” is a story of hope and joy. Things will change! Here he comes! We’ve watched what he can do and he will make everything right.

But a few days later, the unbelievable happened and all hopes were gone in a moment. A moment of denial, a moment of a mother’s tears, a moment of fear. They thought that this was the end of the story.

But it wasn’t. It was the middle of the story and it felt like the end.

We are much like that. It’s easy to feel despair, to sit in the middle of the story thinking it is the end. Because in this Christian faith, a faith that I describe as my oxygen, the Story is not yet over. It is ultimately a love story that continues to call us into believing the impossible, to hope in the unseen, and to live in the light of a bigger reality. It calls us follow that great cloud of witnesses that went before, It whispers in the night, and shouts in the daylight that there is more and that it matters.

As for faith and the middle of the story? I so often want to skip to the end, to forget the pages inbetween. To get resolution and redemption without all the pain that goes along with it. Here is the truth: Sometimes I believe, sometimes I doubt, always I pray “Help my unbelief.” Sometimes I love God and people, sometimes I do not; always I pray “Teach me to love more and judge less.” Sometimes I believe the story is not yet over, other times I believe that it has ended, that what I see is all there is; always I pray:

Help me to remember that the story is not over, that the story I see with limited vision continually points to a bigger story with an absolutely astonishing ending.

And since ultimately this Christian story is a love story, perhaps I too would do well to remember the words of Wesley in The Princess Bride “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

Safety Was Never Part of the Promise

If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.

Madeleine L’Engle in And It Was Good

The first conversation in the United States about safety that I remember came after 9/11. Suddenly “the enemy” had come to our soil and we were no longer safe. Money, big houses, security systems, fat retirement accounts, and good jobs were not enough. Most of those killed in 9/11 had those and more but it did not save them.

The solution was war. No matter what lawmakers and politicians say now, the general consensus made by the powerful of the land in the United States was that war was warranted, war was justified. And so we went to war.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

“The enemy” moved closer. The enemy was now at our borders. Those who would take our jobs and bring in drugs must be stopped. Those who would bring their ideology to disrupt our “way of life” had to be kept out. So we proposed walls and fences, bans and limited entry.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

ISIS emerged, a real threat to people living in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, but arguably not so much to those watching the nightly news on their plush, comfortable couches. There was more fear. The world was a scary, scary place. A formation of a broad international coalition was designed to defeat the Islamic State and ISIS went undercover to emerge only randomly.

But it did not take away the fear.

As my husband and I periodically went to the Middle East to work with humanitarian aid groups on the ground the number one question people would ask us is “Is it safe?”

I never knew how to respond. In the essay “The Proper Weight of Fear,” my friend Rachel Pieh Jones writes what is a fitting response to that question:

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.“

Rachel Pieh Jones in The Proper Weight of Fear

And then came 2020. Suddenly “the enemy” was no longer over there, far away from our homes and our television screens. The enemy couldn’t be kept out through a wall or closed borders. Instead, the enemy was everywhere. It was a virus, a virus that could be anywhere at anytime, floating through the air, ready to randomly attack. But it was more than a virus. The enemy was our neighbor. It was anyone who was not wearing a mask. It was the spring break revelers and covid partiers. It was the people who didn’t take the virus seriously. It was the person passing us who coughed. The enemy was the person who shopped at our grocery store and chose to go the wrong direction, defying loud orange arrows. Danger was everywhere and our fear was out of control.

But even when we wore masks and did all the right things, people were still afraid. Afraid and deeply angry at those who did not do the right things.

It turned out that no one was safe. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts, random strangers…they were all potential carriers of this virus that rocked the world.

We learned that no place and no one was safe. As much as we wanted to carve out our little utopias where everyone was safe, where the enemy was far away, and fear was nowhere to be found, it was not possible. Instead, everywhere we looked there was danger. It didn’t matter how big our houses were or how much we scrubbed our groceries, we were not safe. We couldn’t build walls to keep people out. We couldn’t create wars to send a message. Our own families became our enemies. We were victims of a virus much smarter than us.

So we created vaccines. The vaccines would solve the crisis were the words from the leaders. We would all be safe. We could begin living.

Vaccines were created – But they did not take away our fear.

Some chose not to get vaccinated and they became the enemy. And then “the Omicron” came. And even if we were vaccinated, even if we were boosted, Omicron invaded our households and took hold of our news sources. An insidious enemy, you didn’t know where it was and you didn’t know how to avoid it. Locking doors didn’t help. Cleaning didn’t help. Isolating didn’t help. Even the vaccine couldn’t keep us safe from the virus. We needed boosters. And more boosters. And still more.

The saviour vaccine had failed us and it did not take away our fear.

Could it be that we have safety all wrong, that we will never be truly safe as long as we live on this earth? Could it be that safety was never promised, that the nature of being human is one of risk, one that will ultimately lead to death on this earth for everyone?

What do we do in a dangerous world when we crave and long for safety? What do we do in a world that demands risk-taking just by existing?

We keep on going. We keep getting up, even when it’s difficult, oh so difficult, and we dread the day. We keep on loving, even when it hurts so much. We keep on taking risks, because life itself is a risk and trying to live risk free is a terrible and impossible life to live. We keep on going from strength to strength, because really – the only truly safe option is recognizing that we are not safe.

If we strive to be safe, we will never, ever win. That’s the reality of life. We were never promised safety, we were never promised a life without difficulty. We were promised God’s presence.

And in his presence today, I slowly learn to rest.

[Photo by Bill Nino on Unsplash]

Sometimes All You Need is Kleenex

My friend Jaenia tells a poignant story about going to a doctor’s appointment not too long ago. A couple of things about Jaenia – she is a strong woman. She loves her people well and bears the burdens of others, always offering hope. What some don’t know is that all of this comes at a personal cost.

At the time of the visit, she was going through some difficult things in her personal life. Just prior to arriving, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She pulled herself together long enough to sign in, but the minute she got into the exam room and saw the doctor, she choked up again.

“What’s going on?” said her doctor. And with that, the tears began to fall again. The doctor reached for a box of Kleenex and handed it to her. Jaenia did what most of us do during these situations. She began to apologize. The provider stopped her and said “It matters. All of this matters.” And then she allowed her to cry.

“It matters. All of this matters” This is wholistic care at its best.

Sometimes we think we have to have all the right words, that if we don’t we dishonor the one who is in front of us with their tears flowing. But sometimes, all we need to do is give kleenex and wait. Our waiting is a nonverbal affirmation that the person in our midst matters, their pain is acknowledged through patient waiting and kleenex.

This is part of what it is to bear witness to stories, whether they be stories of pain or of joy. I often talk about the ingredients to active listening and bearing witness being about the head, the heart, and the body. We listen with our heads, our intellect, the brain we’ve been gifted, the knowledge we have; we listen with our hearts, the pain and joy of our own experiences moving out of self absorption and into an empathy for the one in front of us; and we listen with our physcial selves, our bodies tuned in to the story that we are now honored to hear.

Kleenex, patient waiting, bearing witness with our heads, hearts, and bodies – it all matters. It’s what makes fractured hearts heal, one person at a time.