As the End Begins

We began packing yesterday morning. Before coffee or tea, before breakfast, before we had a chance to breathe and then catch our breath, we were removing books from shelves and pictures from the walls. “And so it begins” I thought. Compared to what we had to do to come here and the dismantling of our homes and lives in Boston, this is nothing. But it is still hard. It still hurts. I still prefer creating a home to deconstructing one.

The weekend was full of travel and play with 23 Kurdish students and young adults who are volunteers at a local NGO. We piled into a bus with questionable shocks and took to the roads of Kurdistan. We saw rivers and mountains, hiked to Neanderthal Caves and drove through the city of the three wise men. We ate good food and danced to Kurdish music. We had discussions on goals and why we are here and played games. Laughter was the background to every event and meal. It was the perfect way to spend our last weekend in Kurdistan. All together we traveled over 15 hours in a bus across Kurdistan and all of us are richer for it.

We never expected to form these close friendships. We did not know how much we would laugh, that we would find our people among the younger generation in Kurdistan. We did not know that they would support us by bringing medicine when we were sick; heaters when we were cold; invitations when we were lonely; and laughter when we most needed it.

The future in Kurdistan is bright because of these people. They are men and women who are smart, funny, wise beyond their years, and compassionate. They recognize the hypocrisy in their government and in their institutions, and they are fighting to change first themselves, and then their community. We could not be more honored that they have chosen us to be their friends. We could not be more grateful for their willingness to enter into our lives with so much generosity and joy.

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine and the tasks at hand: sorting, distributing, packing. We walked up and down stairs to pack a truck to deliver to one friend who is getting married, another friend who is Iranian and far from her own home comforts, and a local NGO. With every picture taken down and every piece of furniture given away we know that the end has begun.

How do you measure ten months?

In picnics,

In sunsets,

In calls to prayer,

In cups of chai,

In centimeters, in kilometers, in laughter, in strife.

Seasons of Love from Rent (adapted)

When we first found out that we would have to leave the cry of my heart was “Why did we only get ten months? Why?” Now, I think “We got ten months in Kurdistan. We are so fortunate.”

Ten months of laughter and joy; ten months of learning some of the challenges that Kurds work within and around. Ten months of Ranya Bazaar and Cafe 64; ten months of invitations and English talk club. Ten months of Toranj restaurant and our dear Iranian friends. Ten months of unforgettable conversations and amazing food; ten months of learning what advocacy is and is not. Ten months of some of the most challenging work interactions we have had in our many years of working in four countries and on three continents. Ten months of being offended and of causing offense. Ten months of feeling both understood and misunderstood. Ten months of this small apartment that is chilling cold in the winter and delightfully cool in the summer. Ten months of creating a home and a community.

Ten months of picnics, of sunsets, of calls to prayer, and cups of tea. Ten months of centimeters, kilometers, laughter and strife.

How do we measure our time here? It defies the metric and the imperial systems of measurement so we won’t try.

We just know that we are forever richer by Kurdistan.

Ferdinand’s Secret

Ferdinand’s Secret by Anonymous

I am happy to see the story of Ferdinand, that gentle, flower-sniffing, pacifist bull has made the big screen. I have not seen the film, but unless it completely betrays the book, Ferdinand offers us an astonishingly simple, though not entirely painless solution to a vast range of contemporary problems. Handwringing at many of the world’s apparently intractable difficulties – resurgent authoritarianism, Kim Jong Il’s missiles, Harvey Weinstein, Putin’s flaunting of his six pack, the crisis in the Catholic church, Evangelical support for Trump, the ridiculously crowded field of democratic candidates and the looming demographic disaster of an excess of young men in China – might end if we better understood Ferdinand’s secret, which is really not much of a secret at all. Though obscure to me as a boy, Ferdinand’s back story is clear to me now. He had experienced a small, life-transforming operation that freed him from that great plague of humanity – and bulls – which, to maintain the subtlety of children’s literature, we prefer not spell it out. Yes, it does begin with a T, and so do the excised parts. 

I am likely to be severely criticized for oversimplifying many complex problems, but I think that instead we overcomplexify a simple problem. Freud understood this problem better than most. When I was young I thought Freud probably had a puerile mind, though I didn’t know the word. Now, as I shudder at the rash of towers plaguing the skylines of world cities – Istanbul’s is just being erected – I think Freud may have undersold his big idea. I also used to be shocked, like any good Puritan should be, at the Hindu lingam and at the Near Eastern statuettes – I recently saw one at Ephesus Museum – depicting the effects of what appears to be superhuman levels of testosterone. Either that, or an extraordinarily potent premodern Viagra. But anyone who thinks seriously about modern world leaders, Kim Jong Il’s missiles, or our recent #metoo moment surely must see that we still have far more (begins with a T) around than is good for us. We just aren’t as honest about our idolatry as were ancient near eastern idol carvers. 

The solution is right in front of us in the form of a delightful, warm-hearted children’s book. We might begin symbolically. Suppose we replace the Wall Street Bull, so heavily weighed down at the back, with a more balanced, flower-sniffing statue of Ferdinand, appropriately bandaged. Who could argue with a kinder, gentler capitalism? But we need more than symbols. We need role models. I suggest our presidential candidates might begin leading the world by example. Voluntarily? I am of two minds.  A legal requirement would require a pesky Constitutional amendment, and I can see how the idea might be tough to sell at first. But with some appropriate incentives – a requirement for participation in debates? a massive influx of campaign cash? unparalleled publicity? – who could resist the peer pressure, and the potent benefits – somehow that seems like the wrong adjective –  of such a small operation. Mike Pence would never have to worry about being alone in an elevator with a woman again, and neither would the women. President Trump could clearly demonstrate once and for all that, whatever may or may not have been fake news from the past, he will certainly have no future interest in the Wrong Sort of Playmate. Imagine Melania’s relief.   

But it’s the democrats who stand to benefit most. If the idea caught on, we would likely see an immediate and virtuous thinning of that over crowded field. Those who remained would have the immediate benefit of casting away any past #metoo type scandals, and preventing future ones. What about the women candidates? Wouldn’t this give ambitious women an unfair advantage? The IAAF – the the International Association of Athletics Federations – has shown the way, recognizing the fundamental unfairness of excess testosterone.  Amy Klobuchar, judging from her alleged treatment of her staff, should certainly be tested and disqualified, unless she is willing to submit to hormone suppressants and ongoing monitoring. Imagine the love fest our last Presidential election might have been if the race had been between a Ferdinand-like Donald and a Hillary with suppressed hormones, and smiling in the background an entirely benevolent and disinterested Vladimir Putin smelling the flowers of a new Russian Spring.   

If we Christians truly want to distance ourselves from modern paganism – I’m thinking of the statuette in the Ephesus museum again – then why not just cut if off. Literally.

There is excellent biblical warrant. Origen saw this, acted on it, and has been unjustly castigated ever since. Yet it seems the obvious solution to the modern scandal of the Catholic church. If life long celibacy is really such a good idea, why not make it easier and safer?  It could be a truly back to the Bible moment for evangelicals who have inexplicably resisted application one of the clearest of our Lord’s recommendations.   

So I have a dream, a dream in which crowds of men, all with the face of Harvey Weinstein, fill the Mall in Washington, and like the massive gathering of eunuchs in “The Last Emperor”, hold aloft the evidence that they are no longer a danger to humanity and proudly chant “ME TOO!”  It would mark the beginning of an invigorated – sorry, wrong adjective again – and truly gender-inclusive #metoo movement.  Inspiring!   

*Note: The brilliant author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.

God of Loss

Just Your Faithful God of Loss

It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.

Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.

When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control.  Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.

I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.

There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?

I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.

Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.

So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.

I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.

In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:

Yes, we will leave here without a trace
Take a new name and an old shape
I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade
Just your faithful god of loss

Darlingside

Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

“History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.”

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

The messages began early yesterday.
“Are you okay? Will you be leaving?” “What are your thoughts on the news? When are you all coming back?” “Hey! What’s going on over there?”

At this point, I was involved in a totally different crisis, seemingly unrelated to the one that was being broadcast by all major media outlets in the United States and evidently, around the world.

A message from my amazing nephew who works at the State Department gave me more information, and I began responding to the messages that we received. Evidently the United States had called for all non-emergency government personnel to leave Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq citing tensions with Iran as the reason. Rumors of war had begun and the news was everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but it’s really important to repeat: Behind the clean yet oh-so-dirty fingers of every politician that supports war there are real people who get caught in the middle and lose. They lose every, single time. People in the middle are caught between and never win. They lose. They lose security. They lose jobs. They lose peace of mind. They lose hope.

We live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the rumors of war involve Iraq because the tensions are rising between the United States and Iran. Geographically Iraq is next to Iran; politically Iraq is caught between. Our region is finally feeling a measure of hope after a massive financial crisis and the chaos of D’aesh, or ISIS. People are beginning to feel more settled, more secure. They are receiving salaries regularly after a long time of not being paid.

And now this.

I am not a political analyst but I do suspect that wars are sometimes started to detract from real life problems. What better way to distract people then to go to war? Suddenly all the news and focus is not on poor national policy, or the latest tweets, but instead on what is happening the other side of the world.

I just finished reading a book by David Ignatius, a prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post who covered the Middle East for many years. Bloodmoney is a spy thriller that is set between Los Angeles, Pakistan, and London. It’s fast paced and interesting, a book that seems made to be a movie. At the very end of the book, Ignatius talks about how the book is about how wars end. Though he spends some time toward the end of the book discussing this, from a reader perspective, I wish he had spent more time on this.

One of the dynamic characters in the book is a Pashtun from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan called “the Professor.” At one point he is thinking about the tribal code of revenge. He thinks about how often wars end just because people get tired. They lose people and money, and suddenly both sides are done, exhausted by the bloodshed, unable to even remember what the war was really about to begin with. But, he surmises, wars that end that way don’t bring about “good peace.” Instead, they bring “dishonor, shame, and a shimmering desire for revenge.” This is something that the Professor feels the Western world doesn’t know or understand. “The victor in the war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war.” (page 348, Bloodmoney)

The tribal code for restoring harmony was called nanawatay in the Pashto language. That was how wars ended among honorable men. The vanquished party would go to the house of the victor, into the very heart of his enemy, and look that man in the eye and request forgiveness and peace. The defeated man was seeking asylum, and the victor could not but grant him this request. To refuse would be dishonorable and unmanly. When a man is asked to be generous, he can unburden himself of his rage toward his enemy. He can be patient in forgiveness and let go of the past.

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

A couple of pages later, our professor is on a plane, ready to fall asleep: “He fell asleep thinking of his favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, which meant “hospitality.” That was the way wars ended.”

I read these words yesterday afternoon, after I had responded to many messages and written an email off to family and friends.

Hospitality. Communication. Communicating Across Boundaries. Backing down. Forgiveness. Generosity. Looking people in the eye and requesting forgiveness and peace.

Yes – this may be the way wars end. More importantly, this is how they never start. This is prevention at its best.

When will we learn? If we can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks differently then us, then there is no hope that wars will ever end. When I look in the mirror, I see someone looking back at me who is just as culpable in the little picture as the war mongers of the world are in the big picture. Everyone of us is probably at war with someone in our lives. Though the outcomes may seem different, on a small scale they are the same. Are we tired yet? When will it end?

And to our leaders I say the same: Are you tired yet? When will it end? When will you get tired enough to have bad peace, or smart enough to forgive, extend hospitality and have good peace?

If wars end with hospitality, surely with true hospitality they should never begin.

Communicating Across Boundaries

As for us, we are staying – at least for the time being. We are continuing to enjoy the love and hospitality that surrounds us. We are in the month of Ramadan, where all of day life slows down and the evenings light up with food and joy at the breaking of the fast. What happens next, only God knows.

Hard Goodbyes; Sweet Hellos

Sometimes I think my writing flows best when I am at the airport. It is here where my thoughts and feelings find a space in my brain, and the words come naturally.

They are not forced but rather, like a pianist who knows her keyboard so well that her fingers fly, so do my words trip over each other just wanting to get out on the page.

We are in Istanbul’s new airport waiting for our flight to Erbil. It has been a busy two weeks. Hard on the body, but good for the soul. I have been in seven cities and taken eight flights; my ninth boards shortly.

I saw my beloved mom, celebrated Pascha, saw our beloved Priest and Poppadia, reconnected with best friends, enjoyed seeing four of our five children, hugged and played with two grandchildren, saw our godson, celebrated the quiet, significant life of my father-in-law, and had countless meaningful conversations in English. It was a gift.

Goodbyes are never easy. A sign high above me at the Istanbul Airport states it bluntly under three airplane windows: Hard to say goodbye. Living on the other side of the world you say hard goodbyes on both sides of the globe. In saying hello to one set of loves and lives you say goodbye to another. We have only been gone two weeks but we have missed our Kurdish friends greatly.

There is anonymous solidarity here at the airport. I join countless others who have said goodbye to those they love. Some said goodbye in early morning hours, just after breaking the newly begun Ramadan fast. Others said goodbye in the mid afternoon with the sun shining brightly high above them, church bells echoing the noon hour. Still more hugged goodbye after the last call to prayer, heading off on journeys unknown. Now we wander through airport malls, browsing here, picking up something there, grabbing coffee in the in between spaces of our lives.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders.

We who spend many hours in airports are both richer and poorer through our travel. Richer in experiences, but perhaps poorer in settled spirits. For one thing this life does to you is place you on a path of always being between and there is an inherent restlessness in that space.

As hard as these goodbyes are, it is such an honor to live in a place that is not your own, to be welcomed by a group of strangers and invited to share their lives. This is the mystery of travel and cross-cultural living. The mystery of learning more about communicating across boundaries; the mystery of living in the spaces between.

So I acknowledge the sign high above me in the airport even as I press forward to the joy of what awaits. Hard goodbyes and sweet hellos are hallmarks of the journey. At this moment I wouldn’t trade this. There is so much grace in the space between.

Celebrating a Quiet Life

Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.

On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.

My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.

Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.

In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.

This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.

In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.

In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.

There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.

On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:

Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”

Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.

Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.