A Life Overseas – ‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.

Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan

“Write more about Kurdistan! I want to hear more about your life!”

This text came from my younger daughter recently. I realize I haven’t written much about my new normal. Perhaps it’s because my new normal sometimes seems so far beyond what I ever imagined that I can’t find words. Other times it feels so similar to my past lives in Pakistan and Egypt that I feel I have stepped back in time.

My work at the college of nursing is difficult to describe. Every day is different and every day I learn something new. The route to my office is changing as the weather changes. These past few days as I walk to work I don’t revel in the crunchy, golden leaves of fall in Boston. Instead I see mums, a cactus, and a palm by our plant store along with an open fire boiling tea for students and faculty as they pass by.

Yesterday I went with the 4th level nursing students to the village. I have spent a good deal of time with the community health teachers, as that is my specialty, and this is the second trip I have taken with the group. The first was to one of the primary care centers in the city of Rania. Like the United States, Kurdistan has worked hard to strengthen its primary care infrastructure. The result is that every district has several primary care centers. This takes the strain of preventive and regular care off of a hospital system, and puts non-emergent care into clinics. Vaccines, sick visits, well-child visits, physiotherapy, tuberculosis care, and more are all done in out patient settings. The students visited the center and had an introduction to everything the center does. They then split into groups to observe a specific area of the center. Yesterday, continuing in the vein of community health, we went to one of the villages outside of Rania to do home visits.

We traveled by bus along a winding road that, if taken far enough, would eventually lead to Iran. The weather was cloudy and the mountains surrounding us have ground coverings of green from the recent rains. On the way we passed orchards of pomegranates and figs, the pomegranates bright red as it is late in the season. You could see people going about their daily lives in every village we passed. Two women in Kurdish house dresses chatting at the side of a road, men sitting and eating sunflower seeds and drinking steaming cups of tea, children on their way to school – all normal activities for this time of the morning.

About 25 minutes from the university, our bus driver found a gravel area to park off the side of the road, and faculty and students got off the bus.

I stood there for a moment looking at my surroundings and found the whole situation surreal. It was quiet and you could hear birds chirping, whether in Kurdish or English – who could know? Here I stood in a village in Northern Iraq with thirty some nursing students and three other teachers. I was surrounded by mountains, winding roads, Kurds, and Kurdish. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to comprehend my life. I couldn’t. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be in this position, I don’t think I would have believed them! I think I would have said “In my dreams, maybe, but not in reality.” Yet here I am.

The students divided into groups of four and headed off to complete questionnaires through home visits in the village. I followed along with one group and another teacher. We stood on a balcony overlooking the street while the students sat and asked questions of a mother and her daughter. Culturally, this is not easy for the students. To go to a stranger and invite yourself into their space, to ask questions about their family, to find out things about their health and their living situation – none of this is easy. But it is part of learning about a community, part of learning about the health of the community. In what I have learned is typical of Kurdish people, we were all invited inside – Come for tea, come for a meal, come stay! But the students came with a specific purpose, so we refused all but the tea. The tea was most welcome, served hot, strong, and sweet in small, decorative glasses with saucers that matched.

Soon after we hugged goodbye, but not without promising to return. We headed back to the bus but first had our prerequisite group picture, standing on an incline near the village school.

That’s just as small snapshot of my life. As I said, It feels at some points unbelievable, and at other points unbelievably normal. That’s what strikes me each day.

I get up every day and I sit in my living room to reflect and wonder and pray. I sit and watch the sun’s light grow brighter on the mountains that I can see from our living room window. I drink my coffee and think about life, what it means to live, to redefine success from my narrow view; what it means to live here in Kurdistan.

I think about how my life has changed and what it is like to continue living in a paradox, my worlds so far apart. I think about living between worlds, how hard and yet how rich it is. I think about how I am an outsider here, and yet sometimes it’s easier to live as an outsider here than it is for me to live as a supposed insider in the United States. I think about the dilemmas that we between worlds people feel and face, how the complexity of these feelings never really ends, but we learn to be content within them. We learn to be satisfied with life in the in between.

I think about all those things, but most of all, I think about what it means to love God and love people a little more each day.

So that’s my slice of life today. Who knows what tomorrow may hold? 

“Why?” – On One ‘Why’ Question a Day

“Really?”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”

“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!

“Does too!” I replied.

“Does not!”

We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.

The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”

It was this that I responded to.

We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.

We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.

In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.

She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”

One ‘why’ question a day.

Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.

So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.

It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.

Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.

“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”

Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”

“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”

“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”

Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.

“Why are all the tire stores together?”

Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”

The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.

The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.

If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.

Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.

Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.

So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!

Physical Well-being and Cross-Cultural Adjustment

I was sick yesterday. Not laid flat in bed with a high fever sick, but a low grade fever, aches, and general feelings of misery.

I was scheduled to visit the maternal child hospital with the Maternal Child Health Professor- Mamusta Renas. I had been looking forward to this visit, and I was not going to miss it. We arrived at the hospital around nine in the morning. It was already full of patients – younger, pregnant women, children, older women with gynecological problems, and babies. We headed straight to the delivery room, where several nurses were working with patients. One woman was obviously in labor, and flashbacks to my own laboring days brought on waves of empathy. I wished I could coach her through the process and tell her how amazing she was, but “How are you?” and “Stop the mini bus!” and “That’s way too expensive!” is the extent of my Kurdish.

It was as we were heading upstairs to the pediatric ward that I suddenly knew I was going to faint. I leaned against the wall, where a poster warning of the dangerous impact of violence in hospitals to patient care was hung. I thought I would slip to the ground and be completely out but I rallied enough to get to a room. I felt like the woman depicted in the poster – fearful and overwhelmed.

I sat down and drank some cold water, then put my head down. An overwhelming sense of failure added to my nausea and light head. It was awful.

Suddenly I questioned everything. Why did I think I had the capacity to make an international move? Who was I kidding? I was no use to anybody in my passport country, let alone a new place, new people, new job, new language. Plus, I was in the land of Nineveh, where fig trees dry up and wither. Isn’t that what happened to Jonah?

Here I was, sitting in a hospital two hours from the nearest airport, interrupting the learning process of bright and lovely Kurdish students, while one of their teachers sat with me.

Why did I think I could do this?

Physical well-being has a massive impact on our ability to adjust. I remember years ago in Pakistan someone talking to me about how she didn’t know what was wrong. Why was she failing at everything she did? Why was she always tired? Why couldn’t she keep up with even the small things of life? It turned out that my friend had a silent but deadly amoebae wreaking havoc with her body. She was not well. It had nothing to do with ability, or stamina, or resilience. It had everything to do with her physical state. She was diagnosed, given a prescription of that awful and necessary drug we call flagyl, and within one month she was a different person.

As a nurse, I know the importance of paying attention to my body. I also know the importance of not immediately googling my symptoms. I did it anyway. At a minimum I had the flu, with the most serious of my findings pointing to Hepatitis. Ridiculous? Yes, but sometimes we find ourselves giving in to these things.

Last night as tears began to fall over my fruit at dinner time, I didn’t remember anything. I felt like a failure at every level.

So here are some tips for me to remember and maybe they will help you as well!

  • If you’re eating right, sleeping enough, and you still feel tired and that you can’t cope – there may be something physically wrong. Get checked!
  • You are not a failure. You are human, made of flesh and blood, cells and vessels. Sometimes you get sick. This happens in countries where you know the language perfectly, and in countries where you don’t know the language at all. Take extra time to rest and get well.
  • Everything is harder when you are sick. Language, understanding culture cues, figuring out food and food substitutes, even making a decent cup of tea feels harder.
  • Give yourself space and a break. Cry. Sleep. Drink tea. Mourn and lament the world. Ask for help – such a difficult thing to do! Sleep some more.
  • Sometimes it takes only a day to feel better…. other times it takes longer. I woke up this morning feeling so much better. I’m not at my full capacity, but I no longer feel like I’m going to faint. I don’t have a fever. I see the world through a different lens and I clearly don’t have the flu or hepatitis.

I’m in a different place today, but this will come again because of the ‘flesh and blood, broken world, our bodies don’t always cooperate’ reality. And Grace enters this reality.

Grace – that space between failure and success, that space where cross-cultural workers are always invited into, a space that makes a burden light and a yoke easy.

Speak Out Loud

Keep in mind to speak out loud the works of God! As you transition with your soul mate it will be good to hear your voices remembering what God has done…*

One month ago we left the United States with 8 suitcases, two carry on bags, and two hearts that were open to whatever awaited us. We arrived in Kurdistan two days later and since that time have been creating home in the small city of Rania. Many of the words I have used in the past fail me as I begin learning to live and love in this part of the world.

Our move is an unexpected answer to a heart desire that I have had for many years. The longing that I have had to return to the Middle East has never completely gone away. It was like Baba Gurgur, the eternal flames of Kirkuk, always there just above the ground. “Just two more years!” I would write in my journal. Just give me two more years. “Why just two?” my husband asked at one point. I don’t know. All I know is that’s what I’ve been asking for. Anything more felt like it was audacious.

As I think about all that went into our move it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. The fact that we were both offered jobs at the same institution; that our landlord responded graciously to our leaving; that the timing coincided with me being able to take retirement from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; that our friends and family were supportive even as they expressed their sadness that we would not be a daily part of their lives; that we were able to sort and pack up ten and twenty years of stuff without going insane; mostly that God was so present in and through all of it.

And though I speak of writing in my journal “just two more years”, I will confess that it has been years since I have truly brought my desires to God. What’s the use of speaking your desires? How does it help? My every day thoughts most resembled a slightly optimistic fatalism, an “oh well, it doesn’t really matter what I long for, because it won’t happen” thinking. It was my sister-in-law, Carol, who gently confronted me on this, and when she did, I knew the unmistakable feel of hot tears on my cheeks. I had begun to cry. I remember hanging up the phone and crying and crying, tears brought about by the realization that I had held my desires in a tight fist, subconsciously believing that they didn’t matter and that God didn’t care.

It was one year ago when this happened. I remember crying for what seemed like a long time. In reality, it was probably only a short hour. At the end of my tears I was exhausted. I also had determined some things. I had determined that Cambridge was a good, actually great, place to live, that if I never went overseas again it really would be okay, and that my fist was tired, so very tired. I was tired of holding all of this in. Tired of not believing. Tired of being tired. Tired of thinking there was some magical formula that only existed overseas.

My life changed in ways outsiders would never have seen, but I saw and I knew. I had one of the best work years that I have had in a long time. Friendships were strengthened, I was more active, and I drank deeply from the well of orthodoxy through my parish at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church.

And now, a year later, I wake up every day in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. I am learning to live again in a part of the world I love. I am reviving invisible skills that lay dormant for many years while in the United States — things like finding substitutes for recipes, peeling pomegranates, putting the flour in the freezer to kill the bugs, bargaining at the market, and trying to grasp the nuances of a new language. I am center stage to the most hospitable people on the planet. I pick pomegranates and figs off of trees at a friend’s garden. I laugh and learn from Kurds who have opened their lives and homes to us. I stretch my legs and muscles as I sit on the floor for hours of talk, food, and tea. I eat savory kebabs wrapped in bread with raw onions and tomatoes. I wake up every day to sunshine and the call to prayer.

And everyday I realize anew the need to speak out loud what God has done, speak out loud what it took to get us here, speak out loud thanksgiving.

Speak out loud the miracles that happened so quietly it might be easy to forget.

*from Carol Brown – my sister-in-law in Istanbul.

Beauty in the Ordinary

The light was just going over the mountains and shades of purple, blue, rose, and orange all melded together into an ordinary sunset. Miraculously ordinary.

I wanted to capture it, even though I know that there will be another one tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after. Beautiful sunsets are a part of ordinary life here in Rania.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ordinary things of life. The cooking, cleaning, working, eating, sleeping things that make up the majority of our days wherever we live in the world.

My life in Cambridge was radically different than my life here in many ways. In other ways, it is strikingly similar. Both places were made up of a good amount of ordinary. The ordinary sleeping, waking, cooking, cleaning, praying, writing moments.

To be sure, the tools that make up these moments have changed. A mosque next door is our alarm clock, an oven that is difficult to light is one of the ways I cook, a sun-filled sky in Kurdistan greets me in the morning quiet, and my view is of stark mountains instead of my Cambridge neighbors. Yet still, those ordinary moments are related, because I’m the one within them and because life is made of ordinary moments.

And the question is the same – how do I live well in the miraculous ordinary?

I honor it.

I take those moments and recognize them as miraculous.

I write about them.

Baking bread, whether it be at 5 Newton Street or in my small apartment at the university.

Drinking tea while curled up reading a book in Rockport, or in the busy cha-khana at Rania bazaar.

Watching the sun set, whether it be over the Charles River in Cambridge, looking toward Boston and Watertown, over the mountains in Rania, or over the Atlantic Ocean by Andrew’s Point in Rockport.

There is so much beauty in the ordinary of life.

Where do you find beauty in your ordinary, everyday world?