Now is the Time of Goodbye

The mist hangs heavy over the Charles River as I make my way onto Storrow Drive. It is the day after a holiday weekend, and the traffic in Boston is heavy. Glancing over at the river, I see a line of ducks placidly making their way through the mist and utterly content.

I know that soon the mist will give way to blue sky and sunshine, but right now it is welcome. It reflects my inner world. I have just said goodbye to my youngest son.

Last week it was my other son and his wife. One day we were picking apples and making apple crisp and the next day I was hugging them goodbye. One day the house was full, the conversation loud over games and ideas and I was eating the best breakfast sandwiches on the planet. The next day? Empty space.

Jonathan has been with us since mid June. He arrived as summer was beginning and is heading back to Greece as the leaves change and golden Autumn arrives. He arrived as a support and help during a deeply difficult time. He arrived and suddenly, there was music in the house. He arrived and my mind spun as we shared theological truths and philosphical beliefs. He arrived, and now he is leaving.

Last night we took a long walk by the harbor. I looked over at the Zakim Bridge and said “Look – a perfect sunset for the evening before you leave.” It was indeed. A benediction of a time well spent.

My job schedule dictates my inability to take him to the airport so the goodbyes happened in the sanctuary of our living room. It was better this way. No matter how warm the temperature, airports can be cold places to say goodbye.

Just yesterday morning my own mom said goodbye to me, and I watched through a car window as she waved until I was out of sight. Generations of goodbyes – this is our family. Three generations of living between. Three generations of waving until you can no longer see the person, whether because they are out of sight or because the tears blur your eyes so much that you can no longer see clearly.

Now is not the time to say how rich our lives have been. Now is not the time to say how much I love the airport, adventure, and the fact that my kids know what it is to live in different places and cultures. Now is not the time to be in awe of my son’s ability to speak Greek, of his thorough investment in another country, another city, another world. Now is not the time to say “but aren’t we lucky?” Now is not the time for others to say “You’ll adjust” or “You can always video chat.”

Now is the time to say goodbye. Now is the time to weep, to say “I will miss you so much.” Now is the time to say “God go with you, God be with you.”

Now is the time of goodbye.

The Stories Behind Our Silence

It’s been quiet here. It feels eerily quiet to me, though for those of you who read – the silence may be welcome. No one needs more noise in their lives. But the quiet feels strange to me because so much of my processing is done through writing.

Whenever my writing goes silent, there is a story behind the silence. I would think that this is true for most of us. Though everyone doesn’t process through writing, we all go through journeys where our inner world and trauma don’t reflect our outward circumstances, where there are stories behind our stepping away from life.

Some things are not for public consumption. In a world that more and more demands our every thought, our every hurt and pain spewed out through whatever public means possible, it feels important to say this.

Yet, too often, people insist on the story. They seemingly can’t give grace without the details. It makes me wonder how we can grow to be the kind of people who can honor the silent stories, giving grace for behavior and actions that don’t reflect what we know about the person’s life. How can we honor the stories behind the silence, knowing that people must feel safe in order to share? How can we become people who don’t operate off a sort of voyeurism, insisting on the hard ingredients instead of offering unconditional comfort?

It was a number of years ago when I first discovered the difference between outside circumstances and silent stories. It was in trying to figure out how I could help a friend. Her outside circumstances were seemingly ideal. A “put together” family – the kind that takes pictures of all their kids with blue jeans and white shirts on a pristine beach – a good job, beautiful kids, talent beyond believability. But behind her perfect smile was an undefinable sadness. At first I was impatient and frustrated. Of all the people I knew, she was the last person who seemed to have a reason to be sad. It was in the midst of frustration, that I felt a strong rebuke and challenge to look beyond these seemingly perfect circumstances. I realized that there must be more to the story then her observable beautiful life.

In truth, I should have been quicker to identify this. I say this because I too have been judged as one who has “nothing to complain about.” Judged for being a baby who can’t cope with the perfect life I’d been given. There were silent stories behind my observable “good” life. Stories that were difficult to share, and even more difficult to live.

The stories remained silent until I trusted a friend enough to reveal them.

Whether others give us freedom for silence or not, there are time honored and tested verses from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes that offer space for these seasons of silence:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

May we strive to be people of the seasons. People who honor all of the times in our lives, including the stories behind the silence – may we be people who offer the gifts of grace, comfort, compassion, and hope, all given without expectation, without insisting on details. And through these gifts may stories be heard, silence give way to a voice, and above all, the seasons of hope and healing be restored.

Seen,Known, and Extravagantly Loved.

I recently redecorated my window seat. Designing, whether it be a presentation or a room, is perhaps one of my favorite creative activities apart from writing. Of course, they come from the same roots, do they not? The roots of growth, creativity, chasing beauty.

When I’m decorating I rearrange pictures, pillows, curtains, and furniture like I rearrange words when writing. I look at the effect and know it’s just not right – or, by contrast, it’s perfectly right.

During the time that we have lived in this house, my window seat has been the silent witness to joy and tear-filled mornings. It sits in the center of our living room and has been filled with bright Kurdish textiles. Suddenly I wanted a bit less color. A place where color could still pop but one that drew me in to calm serenity. I changed out the pillow seat to a textured white, added throw pillows of the same, and finished the look with the pop of color from the textiles. I love it. I can escape the world as it draws me in and fills me with joy.

Its in this window seat where I feel seen, known, and loved.

It has been in this window seat where I have read and re-read the words from Psalm 139 – possibly my favorite Psalm. Drawing us in with intimate detail, this Psalm gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us, who as a brilliant artist, intricately wove us in the secret places. In reading through the Psalm, the messages are clear: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect always comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved, would I not rest easier? It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.

This window seat is a witness to many honest emotions, holding them with the steady and secure loyalty that inanimate objects sometimes offer. This Psalm is also witness to many emotions, to darkness as well as light – reminding me that God is present in the darkness, bringing light and offering the solace of his presence.

even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you

Psalm 139 Verse 12

In my break from social media I am brought into the timeless truth of Psalm 139 in a new way. There are the fickle responses on social media and then there are words read and memorized through centuries, words that withstand time and speak to the truth of God’s extravagant love for his creation.

Hearts, thumbs up, and ‘I care’ emojis are not a substitute for being seen, known, and loved extravagantly, but I too often get them confused.

I think of the words of Psalm 139. “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God knew the moment of our first breath, he knows the moment of our last. And all that lies between the two moments – the outrageous laughter, the occasional apathy, the weary wandering, the dark winters, the light summers, the moments that plod and those that sprint, the times of fierce envy, the occasions of deep generosity, the lonely nights, the anxious days when our bodies are consumed, the fear for our futures, the occasional moments of complete and blissful trust, the feasting and the famine – he knows all of it.

There is only one response, and this also is written in the Psalm: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. Too much for me to understand.”

So I’ll seek to sit in the window seat and rest in what I do know – that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved.

On Launching our Children

Children are characters in the family story we tell — until, one day, they start telling it themselves.

Rachel Cusk

For a month I have wanted to write a piece about launching children. I don’t know much about parenting, despite having parented five who are now adults, but I do know something about the feelings that come with launching children. I also know that many of you are going through this for the first time. I’ve seen the pictures. I read the captions. More importantly, I can also guess the subtext, the unspoken, the words that are in your hearts and your journals because only those places can capture your true feelings.

From the time they put our children into our arms for the first time, we enter into a place and journey best descibed as a foreign land. Never have we been so confronted with our own weakness or strength, never have we been asked to do so much for so little. These small humans are part angel, part dictator, and part parasite. In one momentous event we enter a place of protection, responsibility, and love all combined and we are never quite sure which one is playing out at any given time. Perhaps it’s because they are so entwined. The incomparable Rachel Cusk says it well in her book A Life’s Work:

Having lived so high up in the bickering romantic quarters of love, it is as if I were suddenly cast down to its basement, its foundations. Love is more respectable, more practical, more hardworking than I had ever suspected.

Rachel Cusk in A Life’s Work

As moms we are tuned in to these extensions of our bodies and hearts. We have eyes in the back of our heads, and ears everywhere. We have the sixth sense that comes with parenting – and then they’re gone. We birth them — either through the physical labor of the birth process or the emotional labor of the adoption process. We carry them home in soft and sweet-smelling 0-3 month baby clothes, making sure the car seat is facing the proper way. We teach them to brush their teeth and tie their shoes, eat healthy food and get enough sleep, learn to trust and learn to pray. We bravely wave goodbye at first days of Kindergarten and watch them cross over, alone, to school play grounds–their (and our) version of the river Jordan. We yell at them, hug them, cry with them, laugh with them. We vehemently advocate for them — just as strongly as we urge them to grow to be people who advocate for others.

And then it’s over. One day we could be accused of neglect if we don’t know where they are and the next day we aren’t even allowed to see their medical records.

And as we wave goodbye they rarely look back. It’s part of the armor of growing up, this not looking back. They look forward, as well they should. But we are left waving silently at their backs – and brushing away tears as we recognize this is a rite of passage and nothing will ever be the same.

Suddenly we miss the round marks on the wooden coffee table because we miss the ones who made those marks so very much. The house is too quiet. There are too many cookies in the container, and in our case, too much hot sauce in the refrigerator.

So what of this launching? What can I offer you beyond words?

I offer you these things:

  • Trust your intuition – if you wake up in the night and you can’t get them off your mind, there is a reason. Call or text them. If they don’t answer, call someone who can check on them. Buy a plane ticket and go see them. You won’t regret it.
  • Try not to equate your university student not following in your faith path as lack of respect and love on their part. It’s not. Believe me, I’ve learned the hard way. As they journey forward, the faith of their mothers and fathers must be taken on and worn to become a part of their being, or not worn as they choose.
  • Send care packages. If you live far away and mail is not reliable from where you live, you can find people and places that will do this for you. In the United States, Spoonful of Comfort is one such company.* In the United Kingdom, this company could work for you.
  • Learn to release. This is the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. Releasing is a daily act of faith and trust. It is a daily giving up of our right to know what’s going on with our kids. We were editors of their stories for a long time – 18 years – but we are no longer the editors. Instead, we become the readers of some good and some hard stories. As we learn to release, we become better readers, better listeners, and better at journeying beside these children of ours.
  • Remember that from the beginning parenting has not been all light. There have been the shadows, otherwise how would we recognize the light? It’s easy as we enter the launching stage to imagine that all that came before was bright and light. But the truth is more complicated. Now we enter a stage where for awhile it may feel quite dark. Sophomore and junior years of university in particular can feel fraught with disillusioned youth, but the light will shine through and be all the more precious for the dark.
  • Don’t look to the right or to the left. If you look to one side you will be proudly preening wondering how you got so lucky with your kids; if you look to the other your shoulders will slump in dejected insecurity. Again I look to Rachel Cusk as source of wisdom and brilliant writing. She says that the public narrative of parenthood denies the light and shadow of reality and “veers crazily toward joy.” Nowhere is this more evident as on social media. Carefully curated feeds insult our hurting hearts and we wonder how the rest of these parents seem to do this thing so well. Remember – you are seeing only a public narrative. Grab a cup of tea on a dark day with any one of those parents and you will cry tears together. Parenting young adults levels our proverbial playing field.
  • Honor their journey. You’ve raised them for this. It’s true that you no longer play the same role – if you did, it would hold its own hard journey – but you are always and forever a part of the story. You’ve just traded places in who gets to tell it.

So there you have it. You’ve entered a new season. Before long, it will be normal, but before it gets that way enjoy the change in colors. Like leaves that fall to the ground too quickly, this too will some day be gone. In the mean time, eat those extra cookies. You wouldn’t want them to go stale.

*No compensation is received for this post!

On Paying Attention

It’s a late summer evening as I walk down the hill toward Boston Harbor. Jupiter is shining high in the sky, as bright as the street lamp in front of me, yet millions of miles away.

I’m learning to pay attention.

In a recent interaction online, I read these: “Does anyone else feel like they’re in constant transition mode? What helps you keep a good attitude amidst all the changes?”

I responded with these words: “What helps me keep a good attitude? Paying attention. Paying attention to the feelings – they are valid, they are important. Don’t dismiss them for the “this world is not my home” mantra. Pay attention to your surroundings, buy the flowers, buy the bookshelf even if you only use it for six months. Buy the tapestries and beauties from your host country. Pay attention – to beauty and chasing beauty. Jesus cares about place and space. He was born into time and space so of course it is important. That’s my advice from a longing heart living in my 34th house.”

While the post was clearly on transition and temporary home, it got me thinking about paying attention. I thought I knew how to pay attention. I thought I was good at it, but I realize that I’ve needed to be retaught.

With my focus on slow worrying and quick distractions, I’ve forgotten how to pay attention.

My need to pay attention begins with my surroundings. The beauty, the broken, the city sounds and streets, the mid-September blooms, the shorter days. Mornings with their chill, middays with the sun, and cool dusk scented with oncoming Autumn (and let’s be honest, also pot because we are in the city and it is now a legal drug.) Paying attention to the physical world around me is a start.

I then move to the people around me – family, neighbors, colleagues, friends both near and far. What do I really know about their lives? Their hopes? Their dreams?

But in all that, I neglect an important piece of paying attention – the ways I respond, my irrational anger when certain things happen, my heart’s longing. It’s an ironic paradox that the more I ignore or neglect these things, the more they overtake my life and time.

And so I’m paying attention. I’m paying attention to the anger – what’s behind it? I’m paying attention to the longing – why after all this time, after 34 houses, does it suddenly feel critically important? I’m paying attention to my responses – are they reflecting something bigger that’s going on? What do I need to do to heal, to grow, to move forward?

Above all I’m paying attention to God. Do I really respond as one who is beloved by God? Do I lift my heart to him each day, asking him to tell me who I am instead of bending toward others? Am I dealing with the same things that I’ve been dealing with for years, with no change?

I’m not sure of all the answers to those, but I’m paying attention so I can learn.

And, as the gentle teacher that he is, God’s spirit comforts me through beauty and grace, considering the lilies and late blooms, basking in late summer, and learning yet again that he is good.

The Big Questions

In March of this year I happened on an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The subtitle was telling “How did influencers become our moral authorities?” I am not from the demographic that this piece was written for, but I found myself nodding along as I read, struck by the author’s insight into what I’ve seen, what I’ve perhaps feared. As is often the case when you are nodding along thinking “yeah! people need to read this!” I found a mirror held up to my own life. How often do I go to social media for my soul, not even realizing that’s what I’m doing? How often do I get my own dopamine rush and look to my online crowd that I sometimes, and perhaps wrongly, call my “community” to console, praise, and approve of me.

I urge you to take a look at the article, but let me quote a couple of paragraphs to frame why I am writing about this today.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.”

It was about two months later when I began reading a completely different genre than a newspaper article in George Saunders new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This book is like taking a graduate school course in literature, something I have longed for but never had the time to do. Saunders references other big questions in his introduction: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He talks about the process of writing as a way of “training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiousity.” Saunders then takes us through several essays/short stories written by Russian authors with exercises and commentary mixed in between. It is a wonderful book.

But both these writers who come from completely different places and generations have me thinking about some changes I need to make so that I too can connect to those big questions in life, so that my writing doesn’t stem from a desire to please, but instead stems from a desire to challenge, to encourage, and to chase beauty. Why? Because my own observations are that those three things are lacking in our online discourse.

Quite frankly, I have become a lazy writer. I have become too reliant on quick responses and feedback that are abundantly supplied online, instead of pursuing the rigors of writing longer pieces with substantive content. And that is not fair to those of you who read or to myself. I sell both and all of us short.

So I am announcing, in an effort at accountability, that I am heading off of social media. While I won’t be deleting my accounts, and while this blog will automatically post to my facebook page, I will be heading away for an indefinite time. It’s time. I find myself increasingly cynical, discouraged, and dishonest as I observe my own interactions on social media. As much as I want to be a presence for the good and the beautiful, I fear I too often follow the crowd.

My real life communities and friends are where I can have the most lasting impact. My neighbors and coworkers, whom I adore, get less of me when my focus is on my next post. My family gets only half of me when I am focusing instead on those who don’t know me, yet ironically, I seem to care deeply what these strangers think.

I’m writing this as I sit in our cottage in Rockport. In the midst of all the beauty that is Rockport, I feel tired and I feel scared. It’s not only the writing piece. It’s also the significant challenges our family has faced this past year. Challenges that largely go unshared on social media. If I’m looking at the big questions, I find my mind worrying about the small questions: What if I lose the small audience I have? What if I just get distracted by something else? What do I hope will happen? I don’t know. I only know that the questions I ask are a minute fraction of what really matters, and the questions that both Leigh Stein and George Saunders ask are questions worth asking again and again….and again.

It’s time to delve deeper into the big questions. I hope you will come along for the journey.

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein

If you would like to keep up with my writing or communicate, please feel free to subscribe to the blog, email me at communicatingblog@gmail.com or through messenger.

Before the Crisis, There was a Crisis

South Lebanon January 2016 working with Syrian Refugees

Afghanistan. The land that has mystified and defeated would-be colonizers and conquerers for centuries, now on every social media account known to our current world. Suddenly, everyone has a friend in Afghanistan. It’s uncanny and a bit unnerving. They join others who have a friend of a friend of a friend in Afghanistan, creating an outraged public calling for compassion, open borders, and funding. Memes slap us in the face with their “Let all who want to leave, leave!” “Make room for all!” One does not need to ponder long the impossibility of that idea, yet I’ve not seen many challenge publicly the impossibility of it.

I’d like to spend a bit of time getting a perspective on all of this. Please hear at the outset that I am deeply sad and angry about the current situation in Afghanistan. From friendships with Afghans and those who have spent years living and working with Afghans (yes- I too am guilty of mentioning this…) to memories of vacations and school trips, Afghanistan has long been on my heart. After 20 years, one could argue that we should have known it was always going to be a messy leave taking. The question then becomes: “Did it have to be this messy?” But discussing our complicated foreign policy in Afghanistan is not my area of expertise. In addition, writing about the messiness feels singulary disrespectful to those remarkable people who have risked and lost their lives, and the many who have worked tirelessly to bring people to safety. For them alone I daren’t comment publicly. They are true heroes and know a courage of which I have little understanding. What I want to do is to give some perspective, something I work toward every day, so that is my desire here.

Perspective

There has been an Afghan refugee crisis for many years with little attention paid to the problem, and even less accomplished in finding sustainable solutions. There is also a Venezuelan refugee crisis, a Syrian refugee crisis, and a Myanmar Crisis. Before the crisis, there was a crisis, and before that crisis, there was a crisis. It brings to mind the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This applies to Haiti and Afghanistan equally well, both nations crippled in crisis after crisis, both desperately needing stability and peace. This does not mean we should not pay attention – we should. And we should also recognize that this makes an already difficult crisis even worse.

As of June of this year, over 82.4 million people in the world had to flee their homes because of conflict and violence. Of those 82.4 million, 26.4 are refugees. Half of them are under 18 years old. In addition, there are millions of stateless people with no nationality, no border security, and no rights. When I say no rights, I mean no freedom to move, no access to healthcare or education, and no legal employment.

1 out of every 95 people has had to flee their home.

68% of refugees orginate from five countries: Syria – 6.7 million; Venezuela – 4 million; Afghanistan – 2.6 million; South Sudan – 2.2 million; Myanmar – 1.1 million. There are five countries who have been the major hosts of refugees: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. Geographically this makes sense – these are bordering countries and borders become more porous during major conflicts and disruptions. The majority of the world’s refugees (86%) are hosted in developing countries. Only 14% are hosted in developed countries. It really makes one question the words developing and developed, doesn’t it? If developed means decreased hospitality, inflated sense of self, and living out of scarcity instead of abundance, no wonder so many of us find the developing world so attractive.

So what of all this? Prior to all of this, those who work with refugees and displaced people were already working hard to serve and care for people. Resources have been limited for a long time and sustainable solutions were already difficult to come by. This current crisis will soon die down for most of us and a new season of outrage will be upon us, begging us to do our our part in performing for the crowd. But there are many who do this work year in and out, with limited funds and a lot of heart.

There are a couple thoughts I have on what we can do:

  • We can give. Many of us have the ability to give, if even a small amount. I will list some organizations at the end of this post for you to check out. Remember to weigh all of them through Charity Navigator to ensure accountability. As wonderful as your friend’s gofundme may seem – it is likely not a sustainable solution. So give to the gofundme, but also find a place where you can give regularly to a program that is ongoing.
  • We can write our elected officials. America is quite simply not doing enough to help in the current crisis. Both the last administration and the current administration err on the side of doing too little, too late. Those of us who are lay people can make noise through an email or a letter. The time is perfect as every September the President sets the number of refugees that are allowed entrance for the next fiscal year. Click here to send an email or call your representative.
  • We can pray. This high form of empathy helps us to recognize that we are small, and God is big. Through prayer we can discern our part in an ongoing crisis.
  • We can volunteer. This is tricky during a pandemic that continues to stretch on. But check out the organizations I have listed as most of them can use volunteers.
  • We can educate ourselves. It is not helpful to pass on incorrect information. It is not helpful to make situations worse than they are for the sake of sensation. What is helpful is to find good sources and recognize that even good sources have their limits. What is helpful is to remain humble as we learn. The refugee crisis is ever changing and what is true today may have changed by tomorrow. There is no quick answer and there is no simple answer. Refugee and immigration issues are complicated. But there are sources and places where you can find out more. I’ve linked some at the end.
  • We can remove ourselves from outrage and ground ourselves in facts and truth. Outrage limits our ability to function. Outrage creates massive inner conflict. Outrage does not and cannot last. Grounding ourselves in facts and truth helps us discern the voices that reflect the same.
  • We can be part of the chain of goodness that makes a difference for all those around us.

As I have thought about all of this in the last few weeks, the words of the prophet Micah have often come to mind. Micah was one of the original and true social justice champions, a prophet who cared about oppression, who cared about injustice to the poor, who cared about women and children cast out of homes. His was not an activism of social media, but a true heart for those who were hurt by false righteousness. He had harsh words of judgment, but those harsh words were always followed by faith that was practical and down to earth, by faith that invoked the beauty of a God of mercy. The people and the world Micah wrote to and about are not so different from the one we face every day. It is Micah that writes words that are heard through the centuries:

He has shown you O Man, what is good, but what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

And that, my friends is perspective. May we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God – only then will we have the wisdom to respond to any crisis, be it a refugee crisis or another that comes our way. Amen and Amen.

To make it easier to see the magnitude of this problem, I’m including a series of photographs.

Note: Primary source for all statistics is as stated on photographs – UNHCR