The Big Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leigh Stein

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

Therapy in a Hair Salon

I feel something oddly comforting as I walk into the hair salon. It smells of conditioner and peroxide, of hair color and shampoo. Everything is black, grey,and chrome. Sleek black chairs with chrome swiveled bases, black framed mirrors, grey baskets on black shelves, shiny black sinks with chrome fixtures, silver sprayed plants, and a vintage grey metal trunk serving as a resting place for a plant and magazines. The look is sophisticated and sleek, luring me in with a vision of all that I am not.

For I am neither sleek or sophisticated and, though I should feel out of place in this space, I don’t.

A lovely young woman with shiny dark hair and smiling brown eyes greets me, laughing as I confess that I look a fright.

“When I saw myself on a video chat the other day, I was so puzzled. I thought my grandmother had come back from the dead only to greet me through 21st century technology, and then I realized it was me!” I said shaking my older than middle aged head.

“Ahh! We’ll get you fixed up in no time,” She said leading me to a chair.

As she expertly worked my hair we chatted and my sad, busy week suddenly felt not so bad, not so sad.

We talked about the pandemic, about masks, about the vaccine hesitation in different communities. We talked about family and loneliness, about fear of others and the sadness of loss. We talked about long summer beach days and picnics on the sand, about her favorite television show centered on Persians in Los Angeles.

None of us has made it through this past year unscathed. Instead, we bear the wounds of disconnection and the discomfort of fraught friendships. We hold this tension in our bodies and our souls. We are more desperate than we know.

We are created for each other, for community, for the kindness and conversation of both strangers and friends. The stylist may never realize the impact she had, the therapy she gave on that black and chrome chair, but in the comforting conversation of a stranger I found myself relaxing. I left more whole, more thoughtful, and less of a fright.

Thanks be to God.


Image by bigpromoter from Pixabay

For the Global Souls

You are the bridge builders and the listeners, the ones who understand what it is to live between.

You are the border crossers and the visa holders, the ones who say goodbye to a million friends, and make a million more.

You are the sorters and the packers, putting a world into a suitcase – the ones who know that packing up a suitcase and packing up a life are two different things. Into one you put your belongings, into the other – you pack your heart.

You are the language learners and the mistake makers, the ones who try to sort out grammar and idioms, ruefully accepting the good natured laughs that your language skills provoke.

You are the world news gatherers, catching your breath as you hear about a tragedy across oceans and continents that affect the people and places you love. Praying and hoping as you await news beyond the headlines.

You are the challengers of stereotypes, knowing that “No one is a single story.”*

You are the defender of accents, the one who knows that limited language ability does not mean limited intellectual ability; the one who knows that accents are the badges of honor in a world that needs connecting.

You are the ones who know the strength of ‘saudade’ and have cried tears of longing for what no longer exists.

You are the ones who can bargain for the best produce in five languages yet get paralyzed in the cereal aisle of your passport country.

You are the holder of stories and hidden experiences, the lover of all things travel, the one who knows what it is to be lonely on a Sunday night in an international or domestic airport.

You are the ones who know what it is to be displaced and culturally confused, the ones who long to end the refugee crisis and closed borders, the ones who speak out against policies that hurt people and shut them out.

You are the ones who feel the pain of closed borders and the sadness of unused tickets, the ones who are forever separated from so many places and people you love.

You are my fellow travelers and global souls, you are my friends and my family, you are my tribe. May you take comfort in your stories and your memories, your sacred objects and your soul friends.

May your life of movement help you to love more, judge less, and reach across the boundaries that divide knowing that all is not lost.


*Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story”

Pandemic Pages & Healing Words

Though the blog has been quiet, my journal pages are full. Full of what I call my “Pandemic Pages” – page after page of blue ink, my heart poured out onto the lines filling up the page. There is very little in there that I would ever share with the public….we keep private journals for a reason. It’s a bit like talking to God – I can rage, rejoice, weep, shake my head in disgust, and ultimately come back to that simple, powerful phrase “But God.” Perhaps you too have your pandemic pages – pages that walk you through this time, sometimes hope-filled and other times so desolate you can scarcely believe it is you. Yet, these words are important for us, and equally important not to share. To share them might be something of a betrayal.

A few years ago I read the words “Only speak words that make souls stronger.” I copied them down several times. For me that translates into writing – “only write words that make people stronger.” It’s easy for the sake of more readers, more likes, more shares to want to hop onto the latest scandal or crisis. It’s easy to react. It’s far more difficult to restrain myself and write words that do indeed make souls stronger.

Nine years ago, after a national crisis, then President Barack Obama said these words at a funeral:

At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

President Barack Obama

During this time where everything is debated, where job loss and pandemic stress have hurt millions, where worldwide loss and grief are ever present, I am reminded how important it is to work toward offering healing words.

Just this morning I had to ask forgiveness of someone I love dearly because I quipped something that had no connection with what we were texting about.

“Only speak words that make souls stronger….” Only write words that make souls stronger, lighter, braver, and more joy-filled. That doesn’t mean that I won’t challenge and be challenged. It means that I learn to be careful with what I write and with what I say. It means I ask myself these questions: “Does this reflect the truth of my faith tradition? Does this encourage? Does this appropriately challenge? Does this make people laugh or rejoice? Does this spread false rumors?”

 As I walk the streets of my city I see the “walking wounded.” I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words that accuse, criticize, mock, and assume the worst. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. A few years ago I thought that public bullying could not possibly get worse. I was wrong. With the rise of “cancel culture” and social media shaming it has become infinitely worse. Added to this is the plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

I can’t change what other people choose to say. But I can change my own words. I can choose to speak words of hope and grace. I can choose to disagree with civility and respect. I can choose to give people a chance instead of assuming the worst.

I can choose to share words that “make souls stronger.”*

*Ann Voskamp

Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

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

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

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

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

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

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

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

And now this.

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

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

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

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

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communicating Across Boundaries

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

Healing Words

Steps souls stronger

In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.

Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.

Among other things, he said this:

“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.

Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy.  But they are just as important in everyday life.  I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”.  I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” 

These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.

We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*

*Ann Voskamp