New Beginnings and the Seduction of Safety

I resigned from my job yesterday.

Yes – we are in the middle of a recession. Yes – it was on paper a good job. Yes – I need to pay bills.

And I also know that it was a good decision. As soon as I sent the letter, a backpack of burdens fell off my back. I didn’t know how heavy it was until it fell off.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the poet John O’Donohue speaks to new beginnings in a fresh way, a way that I have never considered:

"In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground...." 

I first read the poem over a month ago and the words on playing with the “seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered…” began going through my mind on repeat. This was me. I knew I had outgrown this organization a long time ago, but I’m a sticker if nothing else. I never quit, even when perhaps I should.

So I stuck, and I gossiped and I whined and – well you get the picture. It has not been pretty nor has it been healthy. Writing and submitting my letter of resignation is an act of faith and an acknowledgement that leaving this position is an important step forward.

When I first began writing publicly, I relayed a poignant story that Sheila Walsh told of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in this retelling of the story and a child’s simple comment. The times that I would go farther except my backpack is too heavy – the things I carry too weighty. 

I love the story and I love the visual picture.

My resignation is my way of shedding the load that is keeping me back, an active way of saying “I can go farther without this heavy backpack.” With it, I step into a new place and I accept what comes.

There will be growing pains, of course. There will be times of fear and some self accusation. But right now, there is so much delight, there is peace, and there is so much grace.

Here’s to entering the “grace of new beginnings.”

You can read the entire poem here.

Stones of Remembrance – Heritage

This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.

Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.

Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.

In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.

The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.

I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.

In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.

Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.

Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.

Grieving and the Casserole Ladies

Several years ago, a colleague at my work place lost her father to a tragic accident. It was right after Thanksgiving and the family was paralyzed with grief. Tragedies during holidays are a degree more painful as shock mixes with holiday expectation, creating a numb disconnect. A couple of day’s after the tragedy, my colleague’s roommate, a dear friend of mine, called me and said “I don’t know what to do! There are no church ladies. No church ladies means no casserole ladies! How are we going to help this family?”

Initially I responded in stunned silence. It has been years since my friend went to church, so why the church ladies, the casserole ladies? “What do you mean?” I asked. My friend went on to say that growing up she knew that whenever there was something hard or life changing, like funerals or births, there was a guarantee that the family would not have to worry about meals. Whether they knew the family or not made no difference, the casserole church ladies would show up like fairy godmothers with delicious and plentiful food. With everything else that a grieving family or community was going through, at least they wouldn’t have to wonder how to feed people. Like magic, casseroles, brownies, cookies, seven-layer salads, jello salads, rolls, bread, and Robert Redford cake would appear at their doorways. There was no expectation of conversation and no expectation of reciprocity. It was a “We are so sad. We are so sorry. Here! Have a brownie!” It wasn’t to minimize the grief, rather it was tangible support in the form of food.

I knew in that moment exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been a recipient of the goodness of the casserole ladies and have experienced this tangible comfort many times. One time it was an entire Christmas feast, another time a week’s worth of freezable meals. Just one long year ago during a family crisis, my son opened the door to a massive lasagna and huge container of salad, enough food to feed a family of 30. Words would have been ineffective and difficult, but food? Food was perfect.

Yesterday a friend sent me the cooking newsletter that comes out of the New York Times. It was a couple of paragraphs – simple and timely, titled “Grief and Cooking.” There it was – a perfect description of the role that food plays when there is a tragedy or crisis.

Food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving. It’s why casseroles appear on the doorsteps and countertops of those experiencing it, why we feel the urge to roast chickens or assemble lasagnas when the news is grim. Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike. We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.

Sam Sifton from NYTimes newsletter: Grief and Cooking

Right now, more than anything I wish I could make a casserole for the grieving families of Uvalde, Texas. where I imagine sleepless nights barely ending as nightmare days begin, an entire community forever changed. I wish I could make them a roast chicken and stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce and finish it off with my specialty apple cake. Or maybe a delicious lasagna with fresh garlic bread, because when you are grieving, carbs are necessary. Like many of you who are miles away, unconnected to the tragedy other than the human capacity of empathy and grief recognition, I still long for concrete ways to enter into their suffering.

I can’t make a casserole and a loaf of bread for the grieving families of Uvalde. But I can make a casserole and a loaf of bread for a neighbor who is hurting. I can take the heart and warmth of my kitchen and cook it into food. I can translate love, care, and prayers for courage into bread dough, delivering a loaf packed full of empathic goodness to someone in my world who is desperate for comfort.

And as I measure and whisk, I will pour my prayers for Uvalde into the mix, praying that somehow, as impossible as it seems, comfort will come.

[Image by RitaE from Pixabay]

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