I’m not sure when I first discovered the comfort of cafés. Perhaps it was years ago when I discovered the Marriott Bakery within the Marriott Hotel on the island of Zamalek in Cairo and found the best brewed coffee in the city. Perhaps it was a bit later when I discovered another bakery walking distance from our flat in that made amazing croissants.
Or perhaps it was after that, when cafés became more available, coinciding with more freedom in my life as my kids got older.
But it has been through writing that I have discovered the true magic and comfort of cafés. When I began writing 11 years ago, I found it difficult to concentrate if I just wrote at home. I would sit with my fingers hovering over the typewriter, my mind blank for things to say. I’d pack up my things, walk out the door and down the street to Central Square in Cambridge, find a café and with a coffee by my side my fingers went from hovering to furiously typing words and sentences.
Though I sometimes struggle with insecurity in public spaces, all that insecurity leaves me as I sit in a café. I am surrounded by life, by music, by sounds from the kitchen, and by conversation but within that noise I’m completely focused. Usually, I hear English as the dominant language followed by Spanish and then others. Living in a busy city it is never English only.
There is something deeply comforting in the anonymity of sitting and working, or reading, or simply enjoying a hot drink by myself in a café.
I write, I look around, I stare into space, I think, I get ideas, I type the ideas into a document, I pray, I wonder, I repeat.
These public spaces help me pay attention to life around me even as I get immersed in my writing. They envelope me with the joy of people watching and remembering the shared human story. And describing the human story and experience is one of the things I love best about writing.
I know I am not the only one. As I sit in a cafe today, I am with several people who came in before I did and will probably stay after I leave. This shared experience of those I may or may not meet does not feel lonely. It feels companionable, as though we have membership in an invisible club.
I also know this is not accidental. We are human beings who are connected not only to each other, but also to place. Place attachment and forming emotional bonds to place begins early in life and there is a lot of research on what makes a place meaningful for people. Places root us to the environment around us and form a context for us to flourish.
But it’s not the academic nature of this that I care about. It’s the physical and emotional nature. For in a world that often feels restless, frantic, and fractious, it’s the wonder, the peace, and the comfort that comes with finding my space in a café.
On Thursday night I fell. It was dark, wet, and my arms were full of bags. I had been in downtown Boston for a meeting, and I was so ready to be home. Parking was difficult, but I finally found space a couple of blocks down the hill. I had almost reached home when I lost my footing and splat – down I went.
I spontaneously cried out but there was no one to hear me. I was shaking badly as I tried to get up. My whole body ached. I knew my left knee was hit the worst as it took the brunt of the fall. Tears began to fall as I finally regained my balance and began trying to pick things up from the ground. Little chocolate stars with white dots were strewn all over the ground, the leftovers of a beautiful afternoon tea at my daughter’s house shining in the light of a gas lamp. It felt like they were mocking me “See – just a couple of hours ago you were having a wonderful time, but it doesn’t last. It will never last.”
I finally pulled everything together and limped my way to my door. Sniffling, I walked into warmth, light, and a husband who was deeply concerned for my wellbeing.
The tears continued to fall. I felt like all the pain in the world was wrapped up in that one fall. All the displaced suffering that I know exists around the world. All the extended family struggle and pain, death and betrayal that has been a part of our family for the past couple of years was in that fall. All the difficult nights and angry days were represented in my bleeding hands and knee. I cried and I cried.
We are all just one fall away – one fall away from tragedy; one fall away from illness; one fall away from a life changing event. No one goes to work on a Monday morning expecting to fall, or to die, or to hear that someone else died. Yet, every single day people go through events that change their lives.
In truth, my fall on Thursday night was not life changing. Though my knee has turned all shades of pretty colors, I didn’t break it. I skinned my hands, but they will heal with minimal scarring. I bruised my body, and it brought me to my bruised heart and soul. And that’s why I cried and cried. That’s why my tears fell. They were my expression of looking to God for comfort, looking to God for healing.
In the classic book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, author Eugene Peterson talks about the honest expression of suffering found in the Psalms. The model in the Psalms is far removed from the platitudes of comfort that are often offered to us by friends and acquaintances. Instead of telling us to get up and dust ourselves off, the Psalmist cries out against all the pain, suffering, and evil in the world. The Psalmist cries out in agony asking God why he has left him. It is a tremendous comfort and challenge to me that we have this model. The Psalmist doesn’t look at God as someone who will scold him and tell him to try harder. Instead, the Psalmist begins in pain.
Help God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!….By setting the anguish out into the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing that must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived
Eugene Peterson – Psalm 130 in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
I don’t know what is going on in your lives right now. That is the reality of writing publicly. But I know that Advent, the time of waiting, can give rise to hard emotions. I know that when all around looks shiny with bright lights and sparkles, the things that are hard seem magnified. And that’s why we have those beautiful Psalms. They invite us into honest dialogue with a God who loves us so much. They allow us to cry out to a God that hears, that sees, and that dignifies our suffering by allowing us to express it. And when it’s all cried out, written or voiced in lament, we end in the same hope that the Psalmist did.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.*
I was caught in traffic today. I sat in the driver’s seat just five minutes from my house, craning my neck to see what was blocking cars and trucks from moving more than a couple of feet every few minutes. We inched along, caught in a concrete and steel maze. To my left was an iron fence, the top of it oddly ornamental but lost in the garbage and chaos that is city living. To my right, bright yellow graffiti tried to make a statement, perhaps encouraging those of us who were stuck in traffic to see beyond the city scene.
In the middle of this, I began to think about a talented artist and her ability to take the common of the city, infuse the starkness with colors and shadows, and in her own words “beautifying the banal.” She takes the scene I see in front of me and creates beauty. Chain link fences, stop signs, concrete buildings, barriers, all of it painted with precision and care.
I paint spaces that most people pass daily but don’t notice, like alleyways, fences and parking lots.
Christine Rasmussen is an LA-based artist who describes herself as “painter of the in between.” She is also daughter of one of my dear childhood, now adult, friends. Her artist statement gives the viewer a sense of what she is doing. Beyond the words are, of course, the paintings themselves.
As a painter I investigate the in between, depicting cityscapes that hover between familiar and imagined. In observing these urban spaces devoid of people, I play with themes of belonging versus aloneness; memory versus daydream; and narrative versus abstraction. The “story” continues off the canvas, letting the viewer’s imagination step in.
These themes interest me as a global nomad who has often found myself hovering between multiple cultures, time zones, languages and identities. Close observation of my surroundings in every city I encounter reveals recurring materials, shadows or shapes that I paint as symbols of our shared humanity across perceived differences. Through capturing these commonalities – the wondrous details of urban environments – in my paintings, I explore the many complexities and multiple identities of our rich inner lives.
There are many things in cityscapes that are barriers carrying messages that tell us we don’t belong. Red and white signs that give harsh orders of “Do Not Enter,” stop signs, large concrete structures, traffic lights that dictate when you can go and when you must stop, boarded up buildings, and anonymous drivers in snob appeal cars. That is what makes Christine’s desire to introduce us to these as shared symbols of humanity and eye for beauty in the commonplace of the city unique and imaginative.
In a review of her solo exhibition called “Liminal Transcendence” that recently opened in LA, her work was described this way:
In these paintings, we are getting a view of where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is filled with concrete, metal, glass, shadow and urban stories. The sky in her works is filled with clouds (and chemtrails) Angelenos will easily recognize. Christine is asking us to take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Kristine Schomaker in Art and Cake Magazine
Take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Pay attention to the beauty in the banal.
Never stop finding beauty in the ordinary moments of life.
It is easy for me to see beauty in the in between of the natural world where the sky meets the earth, where the ocean rises up to the horizon, and where the sun shines through the clouds. Bearing witness to all that beauty gives birth to heart-bursting moments that keep me longing for an eternity where beauty will never end but last forever.
It is more difficult for me to see beauty and magic where concrete meets clouds and chain-link fences connect with the sky, where birds perch on electric wires strung between poles on city streets. And yet, these are part of the sum of where I live. Christine’s work, created from a background that resonates with my own, invites me to see color and perspective, asks me to pay attention and look for beauty beyond my immediate vision. She captures life between far more realistically, precisely because there are so many sharp corners and fences in a life between. Her paintings encourage me to move past the cityscapes and into the coffee shop on the corner where my heart connects with a friend and the saudade is killed. I move from there to my office with sleek black walls and industrial fixtures, finally back to the constant creation and recreation of home and place. And in all of it, the invitation is there – find beauty, look for magic.
When I first began processing a life lived between worlds through writing, it was more about the pain and discomfort of the process. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see the sharp objects in this life as part of the beauty. Our appreciation for beauty perhaps has more to do with our understanding of suffering then it does with our eyesight.
For all of us, this life on earth is a life lived between. None of us knows what is next. While my faith tradition gives me clues and in faith, I accept those, it also reminds me that this is a mystery. I analyze it and dissect it, but what I really long to do is use my words to articulate the beauty and magic of this life. I want my words to do what Christine’s art does. I want them to say “Look beyond the dirt and garbage, beyond the stop and go, the insecurity and anonymity of the city. Take notice! Pay attention!” Pay attention to the straight edges that meet the cloudless blue sky, or the petunia that grows through the crack in the concrete. Pay attention to the steel objects and the velvet fabrics. Chase beauty like you chase belonging and you will find both.
Let your imagination run with your longing and find rest in a promise far greater than magic, the promise of an eternity better than you could dream it to be, all of our longings and belongings finally fulfilled, wrapped in something far better and greater than we can imagine.
Note – you can see Christine’s work by clicking the link for her website above or by following her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart.
I may be biased, but Charlestown is the loveliest place to live in all of Boston. It has charm, character, and beauty all wrapped up in a complete package. It is a city space with a small town feel. Neighbors know and care for each other, people say hello as they walk their babies and their dogs, and the owners of the bodega down the street laugh goodnaturedly as I try my Spanish which is limited to Ola! and Gracias!
Though every season is lovely, springtime feels particularly so as forsythia blooms bright yellow, quickly followed by flowering trees, azaleas, daffodils, and tulips. An already friendly place becomes friendlier, the sheer joy of living is present everywhere.
Charlestown helped to heal my heart last spring. As half of me lay in a hospital bed not two miles away, the other half walked the streets of Charlestown with one of my sons, marveling at how beauty, joy, and tragedy could be so mixed up together. Tears that I thought would never stop dried on my cheeks, joy exploding like the blossoms around me.
The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote the words “Beauty will save the world” many years ago. Those words became my reality, for in the midst of the tragedy of last year, beauty was exactly what I needed. Beauty saved me.
Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived.
Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived. Beauty tenderly woke me to the Beautiful One and to a coming reality where there will be no more death, suffering, crying or pain.
As I walk the streets today, sun glistening off dew drops on newly sprouted buds, I am in a different place. The tragedy of last year has given way to the hard work of healing. The beauty all around welcomes me as I continue to walk in faith, faith that the pain of today and the fight to see beauty will someday give way to a forever that is far more beautiful and less fleeting than springtime in Charlestown.
Chaste and ardent eros for the Beautiful is the first task of human life, and falling in love with Beauty is the beginning of every adventure that matters
Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.
I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.
Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.
As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.
We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.
As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.
The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.
Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.
Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.
I’m in a coffee shop sipping a delicious latte while I work on a report. I stare out at bright sunshine, trying to find the right technical words while Aretha Franklin serenades all of us, her voice and style distinctive, beautiful, and unmistakable.
From where I sit, I see sunlight reflected off the Charles River. Trees stand with perfect posture on the river bank, their bare-treed branches naked but still tall.
At this time of year I tend to retreat into my winter cocoon. The cocoon is a way that I cope with the cold world around me. My cocoon has a lot of good things in it. Hot drinks to warm the soul, good books to fill my mind, and a journal to write my thoughts. But the cocoon is too self-indulgent to stay in for long. This is why I have found my way to a coffee shop – because just being around people is a reminder to me that I must step out of my cocoon and communicate.
I am acutely aware of all that I have, all I’ve been given. From a warm house to a spot in a coffee shop drinking an expensive drink, my material ‘blessings’ are uncountable. And at the same time, I am so restless. Restless for what? I’m not even sure of that. Just restless. Restless for more.
I’m caught in one of those all too human dilemmas – the “blessed yet restless” dilemma.
In years past, I would want to climb the walls when this restlessness began. Knowing that I couldn’t climb the walls, at least I could book a trip somewhere, anywhere. I would want to do anything that would take away this restlessness. Worldwide travel restrictions that began in 2020 and ebb and flow these two years later create a pause on clicking “book trip” and my mind goes through rapid tests and vaccine cards, often ending up in a sigh and a click as I close the travel site. Perhaps, ever so slowly, I’ve come to see this as one of winter’s gifts.
Winter’s gift reminds me that a restless heart can’t be filled with material things. It’s not a good job, a beautiful home, or a full bank account that fill up the empty, restless spaces. It takes something far better than the material and transient things in my life. A restless heart doesn’t need material things, it needs the beatitudes – the blessings.
My restless heart needs to know more about the blessings – the comfort for those who mourn; the righteousness for those who hunger and thirst after it; mercy for the merciful; the Kingdom of Heaven for the poor in spirit; and seeing God for the pure in heart. Those are the blessings that fill a restless soul.
As I sit restless, wanting to climb the walls of winter and jump to the other side, I turn my face to the sun coming through the ice frosted window. I stop and wordlessly surrender this restless heart. As I do, I find that it leads me straight into the arms of God, where comfort, righteousness, mercy, and purity of heart find their home.
A soft snow fell over night, blanketing our city with white grace. I woke up to grace still falling – huge flakes floating effortlessly from a grey sky.
A city gathers dirt quickly. All the trappings that make our modern life easy and comfortable find their way into the air and onto roads and buildings. Silently moving over and through the city, snow covers all of it.
As I look out on the snow, I think on how desperate I am for snow-like grace, how I am looking, longing for, and trying to grasp mercy and healing for myself and for others. It is an awful and wonderful privilege to be invited into the pain of another. And yet, there is a cost. Sharing and bearing the pain of another does not come without a price tag.
My theology should fare well under pain, I think to myself. Is not Christ my example? Christ, the Suffering Servant? Christ – the one who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities?
In the second century, a slave named Felicity was imprisoned for being a Christian. She was a slave of Perpetua, a wealthy woman who was also a Christian and had discipled Felicity. Both were young women and on their imprisonment they lost everything. Perpetua was put into a part of the prison reserved for the wealthy, the only ones who had relatives wealthy enough to bribe the guards, ensuring better treatment of their loved ones. Felicity remained in the worst part of the prison, that part reserved for slaves.
Perpetua had a baby and Felicity was pregnant.
Both were sentenced to die a martyr’s death in the arena unless they renounced their faith. Before the time came for them to be put in the arena, Felicity gave birth. On seeing how much pain she was in during labor and childbirth, the guards mocked her. How would she stand the arena, they wondered, when something like childbirth caused her so much pain.
“Now I am the one who is suffering,” Felicity said “but in the arena, Another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.”
Felicity knew that in the arena God would not leave her, that he would be fully present bearing her pain. I never thought of the arena being filled with grace, but how could it not be grace-filled with the presence of God’s spirit when those killed were killed because of their faith?
You and I are unlikely to die the death of a martyr, but daily we do battle in the spiritual arena. Daily we face wild beasts and lions, often disguised as benign pets. These arenas can cause extraordinary spiritual pain. And we are sometimes called into the arena of another. Called to love, called to fight for them, called to walk with them, called to help them bear the pain, called to be reminders of the presence of God. In the words of my dear friend Lois, we are “given the calling of ministering grace in painful and profound ways.”
“In the Arena, another will be in me, suffering for me, because I will be suffering for Him.” The words of Felicity, spoken so long ago, are a profound challenge to which I prayerfully respond: May it be so, Lord Jesus. May it be so.
Note: Parts of this blog were previously posted under another post “In the Arena” published in 2016.
I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.
My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.
It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.
I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.
A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀
Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.
How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids? ⠀ During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy.
After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.
I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.
There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.
In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.