Happy Birthday Marilyn!

Six years ago, Marilyn Gardner picked up her metaphoric pen and she began to write. Her written voice called us together. We connected with her story. There were issues she highlighted that we were passionate about but for which we lacked language. There were hidden things we hadn’t considered until she pointed them out to us. She dared us to Communicate Across Boundaries. Marilyn brought us to tears and she made us laugh at her foibles and at our own fuss ups.

Marilyn has served as a sign post in a crowded spot. She stands straight and shows us things we need to see. Marilyn invites us to notice the invisible. She insists we stop and make eye contact with those that are different than we are. Issues we’d rather sweep away—because they make us squirm, or because they’re inconvenient or awkward –she walks right over to those things and asks that we hold steady in our unsettledness. She invites us to meet the refugee, the newly arrived immigrant, the homeless person on her street, the violent man on her subway. She’s takes us with her to Turkey and Egypt; Pakistan and India. We’ve been with her in refugee camps and in coffee shops.

Quick to laugh and quick to cry, Marilyn has a tender heart. She loves well and without judgement. Her own story has been pockmarked with suffering and personal pains and consequently she knows intimately the deep salve of grace. She’s generous with it. And I love that about her.  She pours coffee or tea or wine with ease. She delights in tasty morsels and makes the simplest sweet into an excuse for joy and celebration. I can hear even now her, “oooh! Let’s have….,” and I want to rush over to see what she’s cutting into!

One thing I really admire about Marilyn is that she writes her own story. She’s never betrayed another :–not her children, her husband, her family or her friends. She’s a loyal wife, a protective mother, a respectful daughter and a kind friend.

Don’t get me wrong—Marilyn isn’t perfect! I’ve seen her exasperated, angry and annoyed. I’ve heard her cuss and stamp her feet. She can be sarcastic and cynical at times. But I suspect it’s these very qualities when redeemed that reveal injustice and discerning insight to her world and to us.

These are dark days. Things are grim. More than ever we need people like Marilyn that will take a stand against injustice. People that raise their eye brow questioning the American dream. People that prophetically point out that things aren’t all hairspray and glimmer and shine. People that are willing to own their white privilege and look around for ways to align themselves with the oppressed and the marginalized. People like Marilyn—who do all that in high heels and lip stick!

Here’s to Marilyn Gardner, the founder and not-so-quiet Queen of our far-flung Communicating Across Boundaries community! Happy Birthday Marilyn! We wish you much joy as you come to realize how deeply beloved you are!

(Your much younger friend and CAB contributor also wishes you fresh pakora, a cup of hot chai, some Italian gelato, a quiet moment, lots of laughter, a good curry, and a really big spoonful of Nutella!)

 

“Technical Issues”

By Robynn


 I think my computer is beginning to show its age. This machine came to me secondhand by very generous friends. I’m not sure how old it was when I got it and really I’ve only had it for two and a half years but lately it’s been a little ornery and difficult to work with. The poor thing starts up nicely but then freezes. I will just settle my fingers on the keys and she clams up. I guess she startles easily. 

At any rate, I’ve had the hardest time sitting down to write lately. It’s disheartening to think that any minute the computer might shut down. The last piece I started I just can’t complete. What I was able to complete—maybe three or four paragraphs on Psalm 136– is there, started, safely saved in my documents, but I can’t convince my computer to let me have access to it. (Even now I’m typing this up on my husband’s machine.) 

Have you noticed how people always have their stated reasons for doing something but often there lurks a deeper reason, the truer explanation, for the choices they make. It’s like they don’t realize they have complete freedom to make whatever choice they want to make. Instead they cloak it and cover it with some other rationalization.

We’re leaving town so our daughter can get the medical care he needs.

​These visas won’t work for us long term so we need to leave the country now.

We have theological differences.

​I didn’t like the music style so I left my church.

Typically the given reason is one that others can easily understand. It makes sense. Of course you’d leave for the sake of your son, or your family’s sense of security or because of your theology or to find a more familiar worship style. That makes complete sense. Those reasons gather empathy and garner support. The community will rally around those reasons. There will be a send-off, a farewell party, a proper goodbye. The departee can hold their head high as they leave, the victim of unfortunate circumstances. 

It would be much more painful and require too much vulnerability to admit the real reason behind the decision.

​We’re deeply hurting. Our hearts are breaking with disappointment. Our ​​​marriage is in shambles.

​Our expectations have been dashed. We realize we made a mistake. What on ​​​earth were we thinking? We can’t possibly live here.

​You hurt me so horribly. I’m not sure I can ever get past this.

​I’m terribly lonely. My feelings have been hurt. I feel isolated and alone. 

“Technical Issues” is the reason I’m using for the writer’s constipation I’ve been experiencing in my blog posts. My computer isn’t working.  

If I’m being completely honest, if I peel back the layers of acceptable justifications, I would have to admit to a deeper cause for my wee writing crisis. I’ve been at a loss for words for several months now. The election process has overwhelmed me. This wasn’t your normal partisan divide. Meanness has seeped up through the mud. The creepy crawlies of cruelty have been released. Things are different now. I know I’ve written of this before. It’s as if the entire nation has a low-grade fever that we just can’t shake. There’s no getting over it. There’s no going back to how things were.

The wider world is chronically ill too. Aleppo has been obliterated while we all stand by and hopelessly, helplessly watch. Bombings in Italy, Turkey, Cairo bring death and destruction. ISIS continues to exert itself in Iraq. The Philippines continues to use violence to purge itself of their drug war. South Sudan is engaging in ethnic cleansing. Myanmar is guilty of active genocide too. If you think about it at all, if you let your heart wander to peer over the edge of your own bubble for even just a tiny time, it’s too much. It’s just way too much.

(For the other piece I was trying to write on my computer I made the mistake of Google searching acts of terrorism in 2016. Did you know that Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to that? Each month in 2016 is given it’s own spreadsheet. There were acts of terror around the world on nearly every single day of the year. It’s beyond horrifying and overwhelming.) 

At some point, I know, we do have to learn to live with this malaise. We have to learn to walk with a limp. We’re still called to faith and endurance. There is still joy to be found. Beauty still surrounds us and invites us to worship the Creator. There are countless blessings to be enjoyed. We have enough to generously give away. But for those who have eyes to see below the surface, for those whose ears hear the pain underneath the veneer, for those whose hearts break with the weight of sin and injustice, and hatred, it might take some time.

In the meantime….I’m having “Technical Issues.”

That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it for a time.

“Give Your Pen to Me”

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Our public world is not the way to define our relationship with God. Who we are is defined when no one is looking. –Jennie Allen

 

“Give your pen to me” he says.

I slowly hand it over, unsure as to whether I really want to.

He is gentle with me, but daily I hear the same thing: “Give your pen to me.” 

*****

When I began writing, every day I would pray.

I would pray “Let my words tell your story. Let my words be bigger than I am, bear witness to a greater reality.” It didn’t matter whether people read or not, I wanted my words to reflect God’s glory.

Slowly, people began to read. I was so grateful. Then more people read, and I was excited and grateful.

But I lost sight of my original intent. I became a better writer, a more popular blogger, and a worse person. It began to be more about me, more about statistics, more about popularity. I lost sight of whose pen was in my hand and I focused on who I was.

I lost sight of God in the midst of my own noise. So I burned out. Because when it’s all about me, it’s uninteresting and unsustainable.

I wanted to blame it on others; I wanted to point the finger. But over and over the fingers pointed back at me.

Slowly I began to realize what I was doing. Slowly I began giving my heart and my pen back to God.

Slowly I am making my way back to the beginning, back to the bigger and better story, back to the Author.

And my longing grows stronger by the day – to bear witness to a greater reality.

*****

“Give your pen to me” he says.

Exhausted with self effort, I finally hand it over willingly. I – a slow learner, he – a patient teacher.

The pen is no longer in my hand and I sigh, realizing it was never mine to begin with. 

Live Slowly; Enter in Gently

I find it impossibly difficult to return to writing after summer time. It’s so maddening. I finally have the space and the quiet I need to write and … nothing. Brick walls. Dead ends. The words refuse to come. I have nothing to say. I have nothing more to write about.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but I really don’t write much during the summer. Like many I greet every summer with joy at the longer lazy days. Summer in Kansas smells like fresh cut grass and barbecues, sunscreen and chlorine. I enjoy my kids streaming in the front door and heading out the back. The youngest teenager still needs shuttling around and it pleases me to drop her off at the pool or at a friend’s house. One would think that with flexible scheduling would come serendipitous wide-open moments to write. However in my experience those moments never seem to materialize. I end up frustrated and greatly peeved at the people and perturbances that seem to conspire to keep me from picking up my proverbial pen! The problem perplexes me every year and then I’m perpetually surprised at my perennial seasonal shock!

The summer is now over. At least here in Kansas it seems that way. University students are pouring back into town and settling in on campus. Our local school district officially welcomed back elementary and secondary school students on Tuesday. The air is cooling off a little at night now. The fall football schedule is published. Summer is over.

I sat down to write yesterday morning. Granted, I did have some technical problems with my aging Macintosh computer, but that didn’t fully explain why I had the hardest time writing. Nothing would come. I started several attempts, bits of words, bobs of ideas, but nothing stuck. I couldn’t write. I contemplated messaging Marilyn that I’m done. I can no longer write. I really do have nothing to say.

I suppose it’s similar to how I felt when we got back from our family vacation on August 10th. August 11th I woke up completely overwhelmed. I sat in my chair with my morning cup of coffee and quietly contemplated the day and the daunting list of things to do. The amount of things on that list left me paralyzed. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Lowell joined me on the other side of the room, in his chair, and he enquired after me. I took a deep breath and said, unbeknownst even to myself, “I’m determined to live slowly today.” I’m not sure where that bubble of wisdom broke loose from but it rose quietly to the surface in response to my own panic and Lowell’s question and it seems to apply to the writing thing too.

More wisdom came today when I finally prayed about my writing woes. I brought my stubborn fingers to the Father; I laid bare my broken word bank to his scrutiny. Any purpose in me that points to writing comes only from him. I’m created to bear the Divine’s image to the world…part of how I do that is through my words, my writing. Of course it makes sense to pray about it. And as I did another quiet thought floated to the top, “Enter in Gently, Robynn”.

It was balm and bandage. It was consolation and (hopefully) a quiet cure. I will live slowly. I will breath in and out the creative courage that comes from the very Spirit of God. I will enter in gently.

I know the application is broader than returning from a holiday or coming back to writing. We are given many opportunities to live slowly and enter gently. Oftentimes it seems more efficient to rush through our panic, to push past our own obstinacies or hesitations. But I think more often than not, even if the to-do is accomplished, we’ve only served to muddy the waters and stir up our spirits to greater anxieties. Living slowly and with gentle rhythms works against that frenzy and mysteriously frees us up to be more present, more whole hearted.

There’s an old song we used to sing at boarding school. I think the words went something like this: I want to be the pen of a ready writer; and what the Father gives to me I’ll bring. I only want to do his will. I only want to glorify my king. I knew it was from a psalm but for the life of me I couldn’t remember it well enough to find it. Until today. Psalms 45:1 is a writer’s holy mandate and when read gently reads like this (in a modern slightly me-modified version):

My heart bursts its banks,
spilling beauty and goodness.
I pour it out in a poem to the king,
shaping the river into words….slowly and gently!

 

 

A Look Back and a Look Ahead

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May the wind be always at your back, and the sun shine warm upon your face, may the rains fall soft upon your fields, until the day we meet again. 

*****

After four years of blogging, this was the year that a couple of pieces here at Communicating Across Boundaries went viral. As of the beginning of this week, CAB had over 1,172,000 views and counting. And the great thing about this is that nothing changed. Absolutely nothing. I still love, but have to work hard at, writing. The same people who have read, encouraged, and emailed me during the last four years still read, encourage, and email.  I’m still the same person with the things I care about deeply  – like refugees, third culture kids, and cross-cultural communication. I’ve long known that in God’s dealings with me, he tends to wait on any sort of success. I’ve come to cherish that, because if success comes it is so clear that it has precious little to do with me, and a great deal to do with him.

So as we close out 2015 and move into 2016 I want to thank you so much! I never take it for granted that you will read. I am always touched, surprised, and delighted when you share what I write, when you like what I write, when you contact me or comment on a post.

You have helped me in more ways than you will ever know. And yet I’ve never met most of you. So to you who I’ve never met – thankyou! 

Top Posts of 2015

Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis – With 328 thousand shares, this piece, written quickly but passionately, resonated deeply with people. It made me so sad that so many of us have experienced a crisis compounded by the pain of words poorly chosen. But then there is also grace – and those pieces were shared a great deal as well.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole, the familiar, patient presence of another says to us ‘it’s too much for you to bear, but I will be with you, I will sit with you.’

If you haven’t had a chance to read the first piece and then the two inspired by it, here are the links:

Giving Grace to People in Crisis 

A Final Note for Those in Crisis

Dear Mr. Graham – Let me Introduce you to Some Friends... – You don’t have to spend much time on Communicating Across Boundaries to find out that I am passionate about correcting some of the misperceptions of Muslims and of Muslim Majority Countries. This article was written passionately in response to what I feel were some misguided and dangerous words spoken by Franklin Graham, a Christian leader and son of the beloved evangelist – Billy Graham. The piece was picked up by the Zwemer Center and I was honored that they used it. It was widely read and some people agreed with it while others vehemently disagreed.

Hear this Mr. Graham – You do not need to give up your truth claims to have dialogue. You do not have to give up the things that you hold dear, that you believe with all your heart, to be willing to form friendships and talk within relationship. In fact, your truth claims should guide you into those relationships without fear, without fear-mongering, but with humility and a desire to love and to understand. I am not asking you to not be angry about terrorism. I am not asking you not to express outrage at attacks against others that are carried out in evil malice. I am asking that you not stoop to the low-level of stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists.

Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye – I wrote this post over a year and a half ago, but it resurfaced this year and was widely read by a community that knows goodbyes. We know the joy of hello and the pain of goodbye, and I wrote this because I think it is so important to honor these feelings.

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye…. I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid – This is the third year where Saudade has been one of the top viewed posts. It’s just something about that word. This essay is also featured in my book Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging.

I have often been looked at with impatience. “Third culture kids are not that different!” says the skeptic. “We all have times of longing,” but I would argue, gently, that our experience is different. We are neither of one world nor the other, but between. Our earliest memories are shaped by sights, sounds, and smells that we now experience only in brief travels or through movies and television. All of those physical elements that shaped our early forays into this world are of another world. And so we experience saudade. And the simple discovery of a word gives meaning to those feelings, and can validate and heal. 

A Poem of Hope – Two Rows By the Sea – Of all the pieces posted on Communicating Across Boundaries, it thrilled me that this was so widely read. It’s because it was written by a group of Egyptian Christians at the Bible Society in Egypt after Daesh killed 21 Coptic Christians on the banks of the sea. It is beautiful and it was a privilege to be able to post it on CAB.

One row stood steady, pall-bearers of death,
The other knelt ready, welcoming heaven’s breath,
One row spewed wretched, contemptible threats,
The other spread God-given peace and rest.

Paris is White, Lebanon is Brown, Mizzou is Black – As we collectively grieved the Paris attacks, I had some strong thoughts about internet outrage. Whether right or wrong, they were my thoughts at the time.

And I wake up troubled. The world feels so broken, so beyond repair.And I too weep for Paris, for the grief and loss that cannot be quantified. But I can’t help thinking about how little the other events matter to our world. I can’t help thinking that somehow we have been deceived into believing that the white, Western world is more worthy of empathy and concern, not only in our sight, but in the sight of God.

The last widely read post was Toward a Fellowship of Suffering. While it was written over two years ago, it surged in reading because of the topic.

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we could to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

_____________________________________________________

So what’s new for 2016?

  • I go to Lebanon and Jordan on January 7th, the same day as Orthodox Nativity. It will be a gift to go to be present with refugees in both of those countries and support those who work with refugees daily.
  • Robynn and Lowell Bliss will be starting a regular blog, so Fridays we will be linking up with that blog. I’m so excited for many of you to begin to hear from both of these gifted writers.
  • I hope to continue to write three times a week, more when something sparks my interest.
  • I have a new book coming! Passages Through Pakistan will be available sometime in 2016. I am excited and terrified about this book. It is a lot more vulnerable than my blog posts and tells more of the Pakistan story. But overall, it is a story of faith.

So thank you – for the myriad of ways you speak into my life. My hope is that I will be worthy of speaking into yours and above all, that I will not waste your time. Love to all of you!

When Two Writers Meet–A Lunch with Elizabeth Trotter


Yesterday I drove across the great Kansas plain, over and down through the Flinthills, to meet someone, Elizabeth Trotter—a fellow writer, that I’ve only ever known on-line. It wasn’t a very long drive, I think it took me maybe an hour and a half, but it felt much longer. Truth be told, I was nervous. I admitted as much to my friend Marilyn in a gasping text message an hour before I left the house, “Here’s a stupid thing: can you pray? I’m meeting Elizabeth Trotter for lunch and I’m having all these second thoughts and insecurities and misgivings. And I think I might have been the one to initiate… which I never do! What was I thinking?!

It’s a little daunting to meet someone face to face that has only known you through your writing. I write my heart. She’s read my heart. I write my pain and problems. She’s read my problems and my pain. It’s one thing to think of the ‘reader’ as a nameless, faceless thing out there—it’s another to imagine your expression as my words are ingested by your eyes and taken into your brains. You’ll either spit out those words as irrelevant or meaningless or quite frankly wrong, or the words will land inside you. They’ll settle on your souls. An expression, a turn of phrase, a metaphor, enters and springs to life in you and takes up residence. It’s risky to write. It’s risky to write to readers. It’s riskiest of all to meet one of those readers, who has only known me through my writing, face to face.

I wondered if I had a headache yesterday morning. I didn’t. I wondered if my mother-in-law, who had woken unusually early, was well. Maybe I needed to stay home with her? She was and I didn’t. I wondered if the car, which did seem very shaky and who’s muffler must surely have a hole in it for the noise it made as I rattled along the I-70 highway, was safe enough. Perhaps I should turn back? I didn’t.

Instead I bravely went to meet Elizabeth Trotter.

There’s this thing that happens when two writers meet. So much ground had been covered by our writing and reading of each other’s lives, we jumped into conversations half way through. It’s like we’d been talking for years, we were mid-sentence in each other’s stories. We simply loaded up our plates with delectable Indian food, filled our mini-mugs with hot spicy chai, sat down and continued where we’d left off, transitioning without hesitation from the written words we’d read, to spoken words with voice.

Having shared written pains, spoken heartaches were easier to articulate. I found myself confiding in Elizabeth the stuff of blog posts I’ll never be able to publish. Those things landed safely on her. Elizabeth never flinched or gasped. She received with grace my various confessions.

Jonathon and Elizabeth Trotter are on home assignment. It’s a nebulous, often misunderstood, role. It’s hard work. There are joys of reunions and dreads of departures. Their time is consumed with connecting with people long known, reporting to churches and donors, attending to administrative details. I remember the ‘mixed-bag’ of emotions associated with home assignment and they have my sympathy. I also know how very busy and exhausting home assignments can be. I was deeply honoured that Elizabeth carved out time to meet me, a friend she hadn’t ever met. I was thankful to Jonathon for sacrificing the time to allow it to happen.

And I’m thankful for the graces embedded in our conversation. Elizabeth affirmed me as a writer. I often struggle to think this is real for me. I’m married to a real writer, I write with a real writer. But Elizabeth looked me in the eye and blessed the gift I’ve been given. We talked about being writers. We talked about being married to writers. She empathized and laughed a little at some of the writing arguments Lowell and I’ve had over the years. Elizabeth gave space to my current pains. She didn’t rush into fix them, or talk me out of them. She heard my heart and she let the pain come to the table and join us. She taught me some American Church history and it’s relevance to today. We reiterated the central role of Jesus in all of that—and in our own lives. We talked about mothering a little, the stages we’ve loved, the stages we’ve struggled through—all the while drinking masala chai from the lunch buffet.

I felt very brave, in the midst of my anxieties, driving down the highway toward Elizabeth. I felt deeply blessed afterwards driving toward home. Although the chai cups had been emptied many times, or maybe in part because they had, my heart was full. Whether a reader or a writer, it didn’t matter in the end. I had met a friend.

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

Grace in the Space Between

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In a world of online noise, I often wonder where this space stands, what it can do. More and more, I’ve had to evaluate – does this blog belong? Is it useful? Does it really say anything different or new? I’m not sure. And I’m not looking for compliments when I say that – really!

When I first began blogging, it felt easy. I had so much to say and so little time. And then I realized, every time there was a controversy, everyone wrote about it, whether they were qualified of not. Because in online space it seems that to merely exist is qualification enough. Every time there was a major scandal, millions of voices spoke into the scandal, some screaming for grace, others screaming for judgment.

And I have become so tired.

Perhaps you too are tired. Perhaps you too are wondering where you stand. During the short break I took from daily blogging, I decided that Communicating Across Boundaries would continue.  So many of you honoured and encouraged that break. Through comments and messages, you spoke words that were like  gifts.  And the break was so good. It was so necessary.

But now I’m not so sure about this space.

More and more my prayer as I go forward is that I don’t waste this space. That I don’t waste time – either yours or mine.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote the words below for the online community at A Life Overseas. They are the words I give you today as I think about this space.

My prayer for us today: That we may have Grace in the space between.

Between the taxi ride and checking in at the airport
Let there be Grace
Between the tears of goodbyes and the joys of hello
Let there be Grace
Between a warm bed at home and the halls of boarding school
Let there be Grace
Between Sunday rest and Monday work
Let there be Grace
Between doubt and faith
Let there be Grace
Between grief and laughter
Let there be Grace
Between bitter anger and redemptive reconciliation
Let there be Grace
Between life on earth and longing for Heaven
Let there be Grace
Let there always be Grace in the Space Between

Choosing a Smaller Font

  
Choosing a Smaller Font by Robynn

Lately I’ve been struggling to write. There are several reasons I’m sure. It’s always harder for me to find quiet uninterrupted time when the kids are home from school. The rhythm in the house slows. A laid back lovely laziness seeps over this place. The kids sleep longer and later. There’s more television watched, more games played, more art created, more books read. I manage the absolute necessary: the laundry gets done, the place gets cleaned. Obligations connected to my job are usually completed but with less energy and enthusiasm. Things still get checked off my to do list, but the creative juices fueling my drive seem to seasonally run dry. It’s nearly impossible for me to write during the summers.

As I was exploring this yesterday with Lowell, he asked me why I write. What motivates me to keep working at it? I was surprised he had to ask–obviously, I have things to say. (Insert smiley face emoticon here!) There are passions in me that need voice, truths that need to be elaborated on, soapboxes I want to stand on. I write also to process what’s at work in me. When I don’t understand things writing seems to help me clarify them. When I’m confused writing often mysteriously brings clarity to my cloudiness.

I’ve developed relationships through writing. I have come to humbly love and appreciate my readers. I suppose on one level I must assume people read, but when I actually meet someone who admits to reading I’m astounded that people really read what I write. I feel a connection to those readers. Readers are a part of my community, my sense of belonging, my place. I take you seriously. I feel responsible to you, and in some cases, for you.

Deeper underneath those things there lurks another more ignoble reason. I think, if I’m completely honest, that I write to remain seen. I’m afraid that if I stop writing, I’ll somehow disappear.

All my life I’ve longed for a broader scope. I’ve ached to have a global impact. I’ve wanted to make a difference to the world. I suppose that’s what happens when, as a little girl, you watch your parents cross the seas to enter their vocation. The international collection of colleagues they worked with must have further cemented this in my mind. People leave their various countries to make a difference in the world. They came from far away corners of the earth and went into all the world. That must have rubbed off on me. It’s what I’ve dreamed of for years.

I remember, rather sheepishly now, telling Father Albert at Conception Abbey in St Joe, Missouri, several years ago, in a spiritual direction session, that I wanted to be famous. His hands escaped his dark cassock, slapped on his knees, and he threw back his head and guffawed. He guessed he’d never really heard anyone admit that before. But it wasn’t fame I wanted; it was that big stage with a big audience, a big impact on a big world. 

My life has shrunk. We used to live loudly in India along the banks of the Ganges River. Now we live quietly in Kansas, in the middle of a large country. We used to travel by airplane, with layovers in large bustling airports. Now we use the car and we stop at gas stations and rest stops. We used to need suitcases and carry-on bags, tickets, passports and visas. All we need now is my purse and an overnight bag thrown in the back of the car. We used to host countless people for meals and overnight stays. We were a destination stop and people came to see us. Now we rarely have guests for more than the occasional meal. We used to speak two languages regularly. Now we speak one. We used to have three kids living under this roof. Now one is preparing to move away to his own life experiences and adventures. Soon we’ll be down to two.

My life is shrinking. Deep inside, in a core, hidden corner, I constantly battle the dread that I’m slowly disappearing. My life is getting smaller and smaller and I fear that I am too.

Shrinking isn’t necessarily bad. Alice in Alice in Wonderland, had to get smaller and before she would ever meet the Mad Hatter, the white rabbit, and the Queen of Hearts. The children in the movie, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, came to truly know their father loved them only after he accidentally shrunk them. Hagar, in the Old Testament story, had a personal encounter with the God Who Sees, only after her world had forcibly squeezed her into smaller spaces. 

John the Baptist knew that if Jesus was the Bridegroom then he was simply the Groom’s attendant. Understanding that John said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). He must become bigger, I must become smaller. John the Baptist seemed to understand that Christ expanding mandated his own shrinking. He didn’t resent the size exchange. It wasn’t forced on him. He chose it with sincere joy. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:29-30).

I’m feeling the squeeze. I feel hard pressed on every side. I fear myself shrinking. I know in my head that writing is powerless to stop the process. I’m trying to give myself over to this as a spiritual discipline, a holy refining process. Intentionally I want to choose small. The Apostle Paul seemed to understand this. He could volitionally choose to be shrunk and stripped away. He could choose a smaller size for a larger purpose. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things…. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:7-11).

I think I’ll struggle on in my writing. I’ll push through this season of summer sludge. Perhaps, in alignment with the lessons I seem to be learning, I’ll choose a smaller font.

State of the Blog

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Every year I look back on blogging and write about it. I look to see what your favorite pieces were, I remember what my favorite pieces were, and I think about whether Communicating Across Boundaries should continue. Is it just white noise in an ever growing amount of word clutter across this thing we call the ‘internet’? Does it have a place, a purpose? Is it worth continuing? I think these are important questions. I don’t want this space to be a waste of time. If Communicating Across Boundaries continues with myself, Robynn, guest writers, and you as readers, I want it to be something good and life-giving.

So it’s not only a time to look back and review favorites, it’s also a time to look forward and think about what may be ahead. I’ll continue the contemplative tone later, but first — a look at the favorites!

first off, a word about you:

You came from 168 countries with the top three being the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. You came from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Cameroon, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Brazil, China…..and so many more. This makes me beyond happy! I couldn’t believe it when I looked at the map and saw the span of where readers came from. You found the blog primarily through Facebook, Twitter, A Life Overseas, Bloglovin’, and Freshly Pressed.

most read & shared pieces:

Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid. You’d think people would be tired of this one, it’s been on for over 3 years. But people still come back to it. It reminds me that words are important, and finding words that we can use to describe difficult identities can be part of a healing process.

“I’m From…” by Adelaide Bliss. This amazing post by Robynn’s daughter spurred many to write their own “I’m from” pieces. I love that and I love that this piece was so widely read.

Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran (3-part series on Iran) by Cliff Gardner. This post was Freshly Pressed and is a window into my husband’s trip last January to Iran.

The Third Culture Kid Dictionary. This was a fun piece that resonated with readers. Again – it’s partly a mystery and partly how much we rely on language to describe who we are and how we feel.

You Know You Married a TCK When…. Spouses and TCKs alike read this avidly. It was fun post to do and I think helps to describe those oddities and idiosyncrasies that make us who we are.

Mourning for Pakistan. This was a recent post and I am so grateful it was read, passed on, and read more. Pakistan has my heart in so many ways and to know people cared enough to read it and pass it on was a gift.

my favorites:

Moving is Hard or This Too is India – by Robynn. I loved this piece, reminding me that wherever we live, wherever we unpack our suitcases, there are challenges.

Experiencing the Gray: A Daughter’s Grief by Lauren Robertson Gardner. My daughter-in-law wrote this poignant piece on the anniversary of her dad’s death. It is lovely and I would also encourage you to read A Daughter’s Gift to her Dying Father.

The Forgotten Ones – this piece was so important to me. On my trip to Turkey and visit to a refugee camp I fell in love with the Yezidi people. This piece gives a glimpse into their plight.

We Speak the Language of Elsewhere – a post on being other and reaching out to those who are displaced.

On Sun-Drenched Elsewheres – a fun post when you’re cold and longing for places far away.

The Reluctant Orthodox #22 – On the Baptism of a Son – My love and respect for my youngest son grows by the day. This was written on his Baptism and Chrismation into the Orthodox Church.

what’s ahead:

It’s hard to know, right? I’m thrilled about being able to publish Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging and look forward to the Kindle version being ready any day now so it is more available to the many who are overseas and don’t have easy access to purchasing books made of paper and ink. If you do have access, I would love it if you picked up a copy! I’ll include some links to reviews at the end of this piece.

One of the things I have heard from people who have read Between Worlds is “Tell us more about Pakistan.” So a set of essays on growing up in Pakistan is in the works. I am embarking on a wonderful project with my friend and partner in all things related to cultural competency, Cathy Romeo, on culture and healthcare as that is what I spend so much time doing in my day job. And I hope to have something else to announce a bit later in January so stay tuned.

As long as you keep reading, Communicating Across Boundaries will continue. If blogging dies, I will say goodbye with drama and flair and book giveaways and more, with a hope to continue connecting in other ways!

quotes to consider in 2015:

“A cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to Hell than a prostitute.” C.S. Lewis

“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” C.S. Lewis

“…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

As we tell our stories we realize that these transitions and moves are all part of a bigger narrative, a narrative that is strong and solid and gives meaning to our lives. As we learn to tell our stories we understand not only the complexity of our experience, but the complexity of the human experience, the human heart. So we learn to tell our stories – because your story, my story, and our stories matter.” from page 162 Between Worlds.*

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.” T.S Eliot

 “Remember not the former things,
    nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.”Isaiah 43:18-19

For now, I want to wish you a Happy New Year! Thank you so much for being a part of this space!

*[my brother says that now that I have published a book I’m allowed to quote myself]

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/old-books-book-old-library-436498/ Word art by Marilyn R. Gardner

Sometimes What I Write is Just Dunderheaded

Sometimes what I write is just Dunderheaded by Robynn. You can follow Robynn on Twitter

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As many of our readers know, this has been a difficult season for me. And now I find myself in that horrid spot of endless transition. We are moving but we’re not entirely sure when. The closing date on our new place hasn’t yet been established. Once we do close we’ll need to rustle us up some electricians, plumbers, wall paper strippers, painters, kitchen tweakers. Once that work is done we can set a date to move in. Thankfully we have willing friends and family that will descend on us from all corners to generously lend a hand. This move will happen.  Eventually we will be settled again in that new house.

In this dark no man’s land of transition and waiting I’m experiencing all manner of angst. I have sadness at the prospects of leaving our little blue house. I’m excited to move into a new space. I have virtually had to step back from everything in order to cope with all the changes. Most of those things will not be re-engaged. This next chapter includes becoming my mother-in-law’s primary care-giver. I will need to be at home more. I will need to move at a slower pace. My capacities have shrunk significantly as I’ve struggled to manage the place our extended family is at after the sudden death of my father in law two months ago. I can’t do as much. I’m distracted. I’m managing emotions and stability and decisions and details.  I’ve dropped all manner of the balls I was juggling. Some of those balls I’ve kicked under couches; some I’ve shoved under piles of papers; some I can’t even remember ever having had!

One of my friends is about to publish a book. I was highly honoured to be asked to write up an endorsement for the book. I dedicated time to it. It was one thing, outside of my things, that I was determined to preserve. I refused to drop this one. Somehow in all of the shuffle I wasn’t given a specific deadline. Imagine my shock and profound sadness to realize I hadn’t made it in time. The book is coming out and I will not be endorsing it. I cried. I was so upset. I sobbed. I felt so sad that I had missed out on this way to bless my friend. I felt angry at the miscommunication. I felt devastated that I had disappointed my friend.

Mostly I felt, what I’ve suspected is true, that I’m slowly disappearing.

This morning I woke early and was working on some writing. The house is yet quiet. The cool night air breezes by as I sit near an open window. Distracted, I started poking around in a file I have on this computer labeled, “Robynn’s Writing Blog”. I started reading some of my old pieces.

I read in one piece I published in March 2013, Boxes, that I found it particularly comforting to know that the boxes that I’m not currently rummaging through haven’t disappeared. They’re not gone forever. My dreams and plans, my longings to travel, the things I want to try my hand at—those are kept for another day, another season.  Robynn hasn’t been shelved…just some of my boxes are pushed to the back for now.

That’s dumb! I’m surrounded by literal boxes just now. I’m not even sure that metaphor works.

In a different article entitled The Gifts of Loneliness I wrote, Loneliness highlights my need. She gives me my emptiness. This is a good thing.

Seriously, Robynn?  A “good thing”?? What a heartlessly stupid thing to say!

But somehow it helped that I had already given God permission to embarrass me. I had let him off the hook. I said it’s ok for You to do things Your way. You are God. You can be in charge. I felt more relaxed. I felt my faith increase. Prayer is a vulnerable thing. Asking for prayer is risky. Letting God do His thing meant I could stand back. I didn’t feel the need to explain Him away, or defend Him in anyway.  God is God. He can be Weird and Wild; Awesome and at times, Awkward  (from Giving God Permission).

That’s just crazy talk!

Some of the stuff I’ve written is ridiculous.

Or it reads that way, when I’m knee deep in change and chaos. When I stop the sentences mid-paragraph and say them out loud they sound overly simplified and trite. I shake my head, embarrassed. Some of the stuff I’ve written is dumb!

However, when I let the paragraphs have their way, when I let the thoughts come to a close, when I remember the realizations, the end of the story, the resolutions, there’s some good stuff hidden in the blogs. It’s helpful to remember lessons I’ve learned. It gives me hope to see other difficult spots I’ve stopped in and then to see the ways I was gently led through. It’s heartening to see the greater context. Read the sentences within the paragraphs. Read the paragraphs within the blog posts. Read blog pieces within the greater context of Communicating Across Boundaries. There are bigger things at work. There is a higher source for hope and help.

And my friend forgave me for not getting my endorsement in on time. She entered my pain and penned me a precious message which included this, “You are not disappearing – I won’t let you disappear.”

I’m sorry if what we write here ever comes off as dumb, insignificant, overly simplified, dunderheaded. Keep reading. Read to the end of the piece. Read to the end of your paragraph, your chapter, your current story. See if any of it makes sense in the Broader Context. I think sometimes hope hides in the bigger picture. Hunt for it. But maybe wait for the end of the moment; the break in the story. 

What about you? Have you ever said or penned thoughts that you think back on and say – now that was just dunderheaded? But is it still dumb at the end of the story? 

Release of Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging

Between Worlds is available NOW! Order your copy by going here!

I began writing three years ago – “I want to have a voice!” I said to my oldest daughter, 26 years old at the time. And on July 1st the “voice” will be transformed into a book titled Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging. 

And I am excited. Really excited. And I am scared and I feel like achild who thinks she’s mastered the art of tying her shoes only to realize that one loop doesn’t make a bow” (author unknown)

And yes – I will be honest: I want people to buy it! Of course I do – it would be crazy for me not to. Though my identity is wrapped up in something far greater and stronger than the temporary tissue paper of public opinion and selling books, I want people to read and be able to say “Yes! that’s me!” or “Yes! That was my experience!”

So just as you have joined me thus far in reading, commenting, and encouraging both me and each other, I hope you will join me on this new book launch. There will be a give away next week of two books so stay tuned for that! In the mean time here is what some others have said about this set of essays:

Between Worlds

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“To read this remarkable collection of essays is to journey with Marilyn Gardner between the worlds of East and West, home and not-feeling-like-home, touching with her the boundaries of culture, the inspirations of faith, and the comforts of loved ones. Her stories are compelling and unforgettable. And while her essays will instantly resonate with those, like Marilyn, who have lived between worlds, they speak volumes to those like me who have not. Every one of us has been at some point between two worlds, be they faith and loss of faith, joy and sorrow, birth and death. Between Worlds is a luminous guide for connecting – and healing – worlds.~Cathy Romeo, co-author, Ended Beginnings: Healing Childbearing Losses

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“Drawn from her honest, penetrating blog writings, Marilyn Gardner’s Between Worlds invites us into her memories with loving hospitality, connecting the various and vivid threads of her fascinating life without over-sentimentalization. She is a wise raconteur, knowing that memories are living, formative things. Her richly evocative descriptions of the places that have formed her engage every sense (and will likely leave one a bit thirsty for chai), and the book is delightfully adorned with her daughter’s pen drawings. Throughout her essays, Marilyn presses in on the questions with which every human soul wrestles, particularly our God-given desire to belong, and to live securely and coherently with oneself and others.

In a world that has grown ever more globally connected, her recollections engage us all to think through how “God uses place” — and, at times, acute feelings of displacement — to make us into the people we are. Adult third culture kids will find in Marilyn a compassionate, empathetic friend, and anyone who has lived “between worlds” will appreciate her gentle approach to the more disorienting facets of a globally nomadic lifestyle.”

Laura Merzig Fabrycky, The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture

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Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available NOW! 

Read reviews of Between Worlds here: 

Purchase here:

Readers – thank you! It really belongs to you – and I would love for you to walk with me through this whole “book launch!

“So You Think You Can Blog?” Advice for New Bloggers

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In September of 2015 one of my posts went viral. I had been blogging almost daily for four years and had built up a loyal and amazing group of readers. The law of averages could have predicted that given the sheer number of pieces I was writing, at some point one of them would get picked up. Of course it was the post that I spent fifteen minutes on instead of a week. The piece is Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis and to date it has been shared on Facebook 596 thousand times. (596,000) That being said my first piece of advice is Do not blog because you want to go viral. No. NO. NOO. That’s not why you blog. You pick a reason, and you stick with it. I wanted to repost this piece because in the last week I’ve spoken to at least 20 people who want to start a blog.

So this is for you who are beginning this journey.

It’s the new year and last night you had a blast of inspiration – as you were thinking about 2014, you suddenly realized you wanted to start a blog.

That’s what happened to me in 2011. And it’s one of the best activities I’ve ever started.

So there’s some things that I want to pass on to you who are beginning this journey in 2014.

  1. Keep it real. Be yourself – don’t try to blog about something you don’t know. Your blog will attract people who are interested in the subject, they’ll stay connected because they begin to like you, your style, your writing. Don’t try to be someone or something you’re not. Readers are smart – they’ll figure it out.
  2. Be fully present. In other words — Care about your readers. If readers come to your blog and take time to comment, reply to their comments. There are literally millions of things to read on the internet. They’ve chosen to read you. Be fully present and willing to respond to them. Read the comment well and think about how to respond. Don’t treat comments like discardable, inanimate objects when they come from real, animate people who took the time to put fingers to keyboard and type out words. That being said – watch out for spammers. If they have a dot com website and say inane things like “I have looked all over web and truly I found this site to be quite surprisingly wonderful how do you do it” then don’t approve their comment. They are spam.

Don’t treat comments like discardable, inanimate objects when they come from real, animate people who took the time to put fingers to keyboard and type out words,

3. Connecting happens when you least expect it. Rachel Pieh Jones said this recently “Some posts will resonate with people and some won’t. Sometimes it is surprising to me which way things go. I think a post will fall flat or almost don’t publish it ….and it goes nuts. I think a post is wicked good and it barely raises a flicker on the traffic stats. I’m still trying to figure out what it is that makes a post spread.” Sometimes what you spend the least amount of time on ends up making the biggest impact. There is a mystery to this. Don’t spend too much time analyzing. Just continue connecting and writing.

4. Freshly Pressed is wonderful….but even more wonderful is when the post that didn’t get Freshly Pressed gets some traffic. I was incredibly grateful to WordPress for highlighting 3 of my posts on Freshly Pressed. The two on Egypt were purely because Matt Mullenweg found them. I will always love Matt for this. That he found these posts was a gift and allowed my unknown blog to be seen by a record number of people. What I found however is that readers will arrive from Freshly Pressed, but only a fraction, say five to ten percent, will stay. You want the readers who will stay, the readers who will engage with the piece and each other. 

5. Don’t write controversy for the sake of controversy. It’s tempting to get on the social media circuit with what’s enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame, but there is no staying power in those posts. Once the controversy is over, no one cares about your post anymore. Besides that, there are hundreds of other articles written on the same subject and you are a new blogger so people won’t find your post. You want the post that can be resurrected two years later and still be shared. If you feel strongly about something like this or this, don’t hesitate to write about it, but don’t do it just to get views. It won’t last.

6. Blogging takes time. There are other people in my family that are far better writers than I am. The difference is that I do it. Every. Day. Every day I write an average of 500 words. I can’t tell you any secrets, any suggestions — it’s a bit like the Nike commercial: “Just do it”. Just write. Even if you post once a week, just write. And always, always do the spell and grammar check. All mistakes won’t be caught but a number will and for the rest you will have cousins and friends who take the time and mercy to gently let you know where you erred.

7. Keep posts relatively short. We’re in an age of short attention spans and vying websites. 700 words for a post is ideal. If it will be longer, just warn people to get a cup of tea and sit down. That way they’ll be ready and willing to sit down and spend a bit more time.

8. Keep a note-book on hand. Always. Small moleskin journals are perfect for this. Ideas for blogs will come when you least expect and you can’t always rely on your memory. The idea for this one came while I was sautéing onions to put in an egg dish on New Year’s Day. A note-book where you can write your ideas down is critical to keeping your blogging fresh and real.

9. Promote your blog to non-bloggers. While most people will tell you to connect with other bloggers — and that is great and sound advice — I would also encourage you to try to connect with non-bloggers. Other bloggers are working towards their own blogging goals and audience. The people who don’t blog? They will be a huge encouragement and impetus to write and write well. Use social media of all types to do this – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest — all of it. Sometimes you’ll connect with people who don’t have a blog but want to write. Encourage them to write by asking them to do guest posts.

10. Have fun with your blog. Above all, have fun. Enjoy learning to craft a post, to put words together, to learn how to respond to others. Don’t do it for the money you think you might make! Making money on a blog takes a long time and more than our allotted 15 minutes of fame. Along with that, you become a slave to the products that you write about. Do it for fun – do it to find your voice – do it to become a better writer – do it to connect – but don’t do it for money.

So you think you can blog? I know you can! And if you just started, leave a comment with a link to your new blog.

Note: WordPress always does some great posts at the beginning of the year encouraging new bloggers or those who want to revive and old blog. Take a look here and here. Rachel Pieh Jones wrote a great post with lessons learned from her last year of blogging. I’ve linked above but if you missed it go here. 

Pick up your copy of Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging today

This book is a set of essays on living between worlds. It is divided into 7 sections and each section is illustrated by my talented daughter – Annie Gardner. Home, Identity, Belonging, Airports, Grief & Loss, Culture Clash, and Goodbyes set the stage for the individual essays within each section.

Between Worlds is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Home is Where I Feed My Cat and other 2013 Favorites

This past year, in response to a post on Home, a reader who has become an online friend said this:

Home is where I feed my cat.

Home is Where I Feed my Cat

Soon after, she sent the photograph above. Donna is a TCK living in Chicago. She is a thoughtful writer and thinker. This photo and my interactions with Donna illustrate why I love blogging and connecting to those of you who read Communicating Across Boundaries.

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I began blogging three years ago. I remember the day I decided I wanted to write. I was sitting in our living room with my daughter Annie. Annie is an excellent writer and editor. She also knows social media like no one else I know. The conversation went like this:

“I want to blog”

“Okay”

I listed the reasons:

“I want to have a voice. I need a way to process my time in Pakistan. I need to become a better writer. If Sarah Palin has a voice, I need a voice.” 

Annie didn’t dispute any of this. She just gave me good advice. If I wanted to blog I needed to use WordPress not Blogger because it was more user-friendly and professional. I needed to link to social media sites. The blog posts shouldn’t be too long. There was more but the general tenor of the advice was practical and affirming. She didn’t mock or question my motives. She just gave great advice.

And that’s how it all began. 

So today I celebrate my 3rd year and highlight some of what this year held writing wise.

  • I connected with Djibouti Jones and gained a friend, a writing mentor, and a voice that challenges me every time I read something she writes. Rachel did a series on Third Culture Kids this year that I contributed to (probably my most honest piece of writing ever) and one of my all time favorite stories of hers is called God, Giver of Harmonicas. Take a look at it over at She Loves Magazine. I read it aloud to my family last Christmas; I read it aloud again to my family this Christmas.
  • I began writing for A Life Overseas. It has been a joy to connect to this community and to have a regular place to write with a group of people, all with the same goal. Those of us who have a global background struggle with many faith blogs because the point of view is so narrowly western. The purpose of this blog is to connect people who live overseas. I’ll continue writing for them this next year and hope to get involved more on that site. To see posts that I’ve written for them click here.
  • Robynn Bliss began writing regularly for Communicating Across Boundaries. It has been a gift to have her a part of this blog this past year and a writing project is in the works for us.
  • A couple of organizations approached me to use my posts in orientation materials for people who are heading overseas. This was a gift as the requests came at a time when I wondered what business I had in writing at all.
  • I began writing about my faith journey toward Eastern Orthodoxy in a series called The Reluctant Orthodox. This has been a hard thing to do but I think it’s important in my journey of faith, writing, and connecting the two.
  • Lastly – I compiled the most read and shared posts on third culture kids and cross-cultural journeys and sent them to Doorlight Publications with hopes of a late Spring release date. I’m excited to move forward with this project. Next will be a memoir on growing up in Pakistan but this is a first step forward in actually getting these into book form.

Beyond that were Blogging favorites. The most popular posts written in 2013 were these:

My personal favorites were:

Most important because of content:

Finally – here are some things that caught my eye from around the web:

Favorite New Blog: The Link Between – Jody explores many topics from privilege to culture to cross-cultural relationships. Always thoughtful and engaging.

Most challenging post of the year: Silver and Gold on DL Mayfield’s blog Living in the Upside-Down Kingdom. This blog is amazing – this post by Ben Bishop shook me in a way that I haven’t been shaken in a long time.

Funnest Game: What Would I Say developed by some Princeton grad students takes all your Facebook Statuses and generates a status for you. I’t nonsensical and hilarious. Play it with your family – preferably on Facebook.

The one that brought tears to my eyes: The persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan suffered some tragic events. Two bombs going off in a church in Peshawar and a colony burnt down in Lahore were two of the biggest tragedies, but other smaller ones are continually escaping news coverage. This article Human chain formed to protect Christians during Lahore mass showed Muslims and Christians coming together to protect a community.

Favorite recipe blog of all time: Food Lust, People Love by Stacy, a TCK and expat who has lived all over the world. I love that she weaves expat stories into her recipes. Check out her muffin recipes every Monday on Communicating Across Boundaries!

Favorite Book: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I can’t even tell you how much I love this book! Review coming but for now, trust me.

The story that made me cringe: When a Fox news reporter claimed that Jesus was white. On what planet is this true?

All time number one most read piece on Communicating Across Boundaries: Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid. No matter what the day or time, this post that I spent only a few minutes writing continues to be shared. Third Culture Kids need tools, and one of their tools is using words to articulate feelings. I don’t know this, but I’ve a strong suspicion that this is why this post continues to resonate.

And with that long year-end report I’ll say thank you – to really express my gratitude is difficult. I’ve learned and grown much through this process. Thank you for reading and sharing some of our complicated lives alongside Communicating Across Boundaries.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 180,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Blog Reader Love

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The connection started with an email that a reader of Communicating Across Boundaries sent me. She would be in Boston for a conference with her husband. She is a good friend of Robynn’s. Could we meet?

I sent back an enthusiastic reply. Yes! That would be great.

We exchanged dates and phone numbers over email.

Meeting readers in ‘real life’ is a gift. That someone would like your writing, your blog enough to contact you and want coffee together? That is remarkable. In October I had another reader contact me. She’d been raised in Pakistan and, though years younger, had recently begun following the blog. We met over curry in a local Indian restaurant and talked for three hours. Last year another reader contacted me. Turned out she knew my brother, lived a block away, and had recently been to Egypt.

But before you meet them there is always a hesitation, an insecurity. What if they don’t like the real deal? What if I’m not who they think I am? What if their perception through my writing is all wrong? What if I’ve not given word pictures of my world authentically?

If I’m not careful I’ll get stuck on the ‘what ifs’, and if I get stuck I’ll back out, not meet them, and be the lesser for it.

Because meeting readers keeps me honest and alert. If I make up stuff about my community, my neighborhood, they’ll know, they’ll call me out. And that is a good thing. Meeting readers is simultaneously humbling and affirming.

Using our words in the public sphere is vulnerable and opens us up to criticism from strangers. Using our words in public also carries with it a responsibility. A responsibility to truth, to not write just to get an audience, to pray over what is posted, to grow through the process. And meeting readers in real life reminds me of this. Reminds me that what I write matters, that I can’t throw frivolous words out and expect them to be heard.

But there’s something more. When I meet readers, I get a chance to hear what’s important to them. They know what’s important to me, they read my words. But it’s not reciprocal. Meeting someone puts a face and personality to a comment. I learn that one reader is in school to be a physical therapist, that another is applying to medical school.

So Jill and I meet over coffee. I get to meet her husband as well. I hear just a bit about what is important to them, about an innovative program to help the homeless, those on the fringes of society who live on streets and vie for spaces at shelters. I get to see pictures of children and learn a bit about how they know Robynn. We share hot cider, laughter, and exchange written words for spoken. The time was short – I had to get back to an evening commitment. But I am the better for having met her.

So to all of you who I haven’t met – thank you that in a time where words are used too often, and not always well, you read the words put forward on this blog.

About the picture: I was in an artsy store in Atlanta, Georgia browsing through cards when I found the card above. I got to laughing so hard I could hardly speak. I took it to the cashier, a young, artsy person, and as I handed it to him, I said in a little voice: “I blog.”  He didn’t get it at first, and then burst out laughing, and shook his head: “It would have been better if someone else had found it and given it to you!” So there you have it.

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Blogs are Relentless Critters….

By Robynn

English teachers always say, “Write about what you know”.

Well today I don’t know much. I think I’m all wrote out.

Being a part of the Communicating Across Boundaries blog has been a high privilege for me. I love the weekly discipline of writing. I love being forced into a corner and being made to put it all down on paper. It’s been so good for me, so cathartic, so healing. I love you, the readers. I cherish your interactions with each piece, your comments. The moment, although rare, when a friend or an acquaintance who, unbeknownst to me, reads the blog and tells me so when we meet…that moment is priceless! I’m humbled by the idea that you take time to read and interact with what you read.

But blogs are relentless critters. The weekly blog starts whimpering the minute the previous one has been submitted. Blogs refused to be ignored. They bark. They bicker. They belch and bitch.

And they make so many assumptions. Each week the blog presumes I have one great thought, or one brilliant insight, or at the very least one mildly amusing anecdote. There’s no room for nothing. I must generate something. I must encapsulate one moment and wrap it in clever jargon and serve it up with a discerning punch line or wise moral message.

Today my pen is dry. My thoughts are garbled. My moments mock interpretation. Wisdom is scarce. Amusing isn’t funny.

A friend of Henri Noewen, the prolific Catholic writer, once said of him, “Henri never had an unpublished thought.”

I guess some of mine aren’t worth publishing…at least not today.

Of course the bemused reality is that –voila! –I did indeed generate a clever blog piece for today and I did provide one thoughtful insight, namely that not all insights are that thoughtful. So the subversive blog wins again, proving my point and bringing up that old cliché: damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Or perhaps it’s what that great writer Madeleine L’Engle says: “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”
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Blogging Trips – the New Short-Term Missions

Blogging - the new short term missions“Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” *quote to author Katherine Boo from a woman in a community she was reporting on.*

When Katherine Boo wanted to write about a community in India she spent 4 years living within blocks of the neighborhood. She went to the slum that she wrote about every day. She took copious notes and recorded conversations making every effort to check facts and verify stories.

She didn’t swoop in like an eagle eyeing its prey, ready to snatch and eat. She was steadfast and disciplined. It sounds like a laborious task, but also like a writer who was determined not to dishonor those she was writing about.

I didn’t realize until this year that there was such a thing as blogging trips for Christians, a short-term mission if you will.

Let me explain.

Let’s say an organization that works in the developing world wants to promote their work, get the word out on what they are doing. The new way to do this is to bring on popular bloggers, bloggers with thousands of readers and tens of thousands of twitter followers. The thought is that these bloggers will take their 7-day or 10-day trips to a country and come back with stories. Compelling stories of poverty and women and justice and why it’s important that we know about these people and these situations. Ultimately there are two goals: Raising awareness and raising money. The two go hand in hand.

A good writer can use their platform to do both those things for the organization.

But I’m not sure I agree with this approach to awareness or advocacy. And, though I’ve read several blog posts that challenge short-term missions, I’ve read only one essay that brings up blogging trips. 

Before I move forward let me be clear: I am really trying to work through this one. I’m not trying to point a finger, I’m not trying to judge, but I am trying to get my head around this and why I question the validity of these trips.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

The bloggers that go on short-term blogging trips are complete outsiders. They rarely know the language or the culture to which they are going. The chance of them misreading culture clues, misunderstanding what is communicated, and thus misrepresenting the situation is high, indeed probable. The chance of getting a distorted view of the country and the people is also probable. While this can happen in regular short-term mission trips, in the case of blogging trips the material is distributed to a wide audience, an audience who (in general) has not traveled, does not know the developing world in all its complexity.

The story is big, but the understanding is small.

There’s another problem that I see. And that is of glorifying the poor as sainted in their poverty, barely capable of sinning or evil. The beautiful African kids, noble in their poverty, the woman who uses her hands to sew clothes for livelihood and raises ten children on the side. The one-dimensional views that the blogger gets in their limited exposure to the situation can come across as naïve and creative writing, instead of fact telling and informative.

I think stories are important, I tell them myself. I also think that it’s important to see other parts of the world, to have our worldviews challenged and exposed, to rethink Christianity beyond a western lens. And if that is all the bloggers were doing I think I would be okay.

As I’ve tried to work through my feelings on this new type of short-term missions, I continually come back to the writing and work of Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and one who works hard to write well on poverty. I was first introduced to Boo through the excellent writing of D.L.Mayfield. She and Rachel Pieh Jones have become internet mentors to me on story telling, largely because they do it so well and have wrestled with this longer than I have. D.L.Mayfield wrote a piece called “Katherine Boo, Short-term Missions, and the Earned Fact“. In her essay she confronts well the tendency of the church to simplify problems and write without regard for the complexity of the issues.

The goal would be to write without glorifying or demonizing, to tell a story that is accurate and compelling, free of stereotypes and broad representation. In Boo we see a writer who does this, a writer with the rare ability to remove herself and ego from her narratives of others, a difficult task. She does not get lost behind sweeping generalizations but in her own words “Nobody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense. People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” (from Reporting Poverty in Guernica Magazine)

I see in Katherine Boo a real and honest struggle with how to report. She does not gloss over the difficulties, she does not use words like a “voice for the voiceless” or “advocate”, something that I would argue takes far longer than a week or ten days to achieve. Instead, she wrestles honestly through this work and this vocation.

I have spent a great deal of time overseas, and thankfully when I was there I had not yet discovered that I loved to write. I say thankfully because I fear it would have been far more about me than about the people or countries that I love. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent so much time overseas that I struggle with a 7 to 10 day trip that supposedly equips the writer with material that will be widely distributed and read.

I began this piece with a quote taken from an article in Guernica Magazine called “Reporting Poverty” in which a writer interviews Katherine Boo. I come to the end of this piece with another quote – one that pierces to the heart of the issue:

“We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.”

Blogger’s note: I realize this may be controversial and I welcome diverse opinions. As I said in the piece, I’m trying to work through this and may well end up with a different opinion.

*as quoted in Guernica Magazine: Reporting Poverty by Emily Brennan