How We Return – Anafora

How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!

We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.

My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,

A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.

Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”

I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.

I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.

Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome.  Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.

My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.

The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.

As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.

It worked.

Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.

This moment for rest, for retreat, for Anafora.

How We Return

Cairo – October 15, 2022

There is something about returning to a place that shaped you so profoundly, something about the mixture of thoughts, feelings, and reactions – all lobes of the brain engaged in a dialogue labeled “Return.” Whether by car, train, boat, or plane, the exhausted euphoria has as much to do with your mind as it does with your body.

Cairo airport was busy at 8pm on Saturday, October 15th. I left Boston the day before at almost midnight Eastern Standard Time. The overnight flight arrived in Istanbul at four in the afternoon leaving time for a coffee and croissant in the Istanbul airport before boarding the Cairo flight. It’s a short flight and before I could doze off, I saw the lights of the massive city of Cairo below me, a shining beacon rising from the desert.

Memories of arrivals past flooded over me. The first time I visited Cairo was as a 23-year-old. I was with my boyfriend, the man who would become my husband just 7 months later. All our luggage was lost enroute so there I was in a strange city with a man who had suddenly become a stranger to me. A friend he had made a few months earlier picked us up and he, too, was a stranger. In other words, it was all strange and unfamiliar.

Six years later I would arrive with three children, four years and under, to make a home in the city. What was initially strange became dear and familiar, the city pushing its way under my skin, up through my blood stream and into my heart. It made its home there, squeezing in between space I had reserved for other things and planting itself, a pacemaker of sorts that quickened or slowed my heartbeat. You don’t take out a pacemaker just because you move. It stays there, not always working as well as you want it to because it’s so out of sync with its surroundings.

Through the years I have arrived and left Egypt around 26 times, but who or what is really counting? The pacemaker, that’s who.

On arrival, the familiar mixes with the strange, almost like a recipe changing. You don’t remember the recipe quite the way it now tastes. And so it is with return. The picture that you have planted in your head conflicts with the images you are seeing, initially feeling like a betrayal. What happened to that restaurant? That coffee shop? That family? I thought they would always be there. Once the betrayal is confronted, I feel a new freedom to relax and enjoy.

Marty, a dear friend of many years picked me up from the Cairo airport and we happily chatted as the driver dodged the ever-present traffic, finally arriving in Ma’adi, the place where Marty has made her home for 34 years. If outside had changed, inside was the comfort of familiarity in a dear place with dear friends.

Everyone has a different routine when going back to places they have lived in the past. For me, it means carving out of a new niche. This is not metaphorical but concrete. I have to find a new coffee shop, the space where I will go daily while I am visiting. I found it quickly, a small outdoor space with perfect lattes and delicious mint, lemon smoothies. The first few days found me content to just be, casting off the stress of my U.S. life and taking on this extraordinary chance to rest.

I chose the perfect month to return. Cairo in October is generally spectacular, the heat of summer making way for cool mornings and warm days, gentle breezes and even occasional rain. There is a new energy and gladness in folks who had previously succumbed to summer’s lethargy, knowing that fighting it is useless.

A desert retreat, chance to speak, and time with friends would come later. For now, all I knew was that I had returned to the pacemaker, the place where two of my children were born, the place where I learned to be a mom, where some of my most enduring friendships were born. I returned to a desert with splashes of fuchsia, orange, and white bougainvillea creating a striking and beautiful contrast to the dust. I returned to old memories and friendships and to creating new memories and new friendships.

I had returned. I was back and the world was alright.

Author’s Note: Dear readers, I’ll be taking you through a tour of my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey these next few days! Thank you for following along. Here are a few pictures to go with today’s post!

Safe Travels Down Memory Lane

This is what happens when you come back. Time fails. Geography wins. We’re in the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown in which the little bunny keeps trying to run away, but his mother is always there, arms outstretched, embedded in the landscape. This is what [coming back] is doing to us. We are her children, and we are being claimed.”

What Falls From the Sky

“We’re going to Winchendon today,” I texted my husband on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago.

“Safe travels sown memory lane,” he replied.

The “we” referred to my oldest brother and my mom. We were in Central Massachusetts visiting my younger brother for a short two days and two of the places that had been home for our family during furloughs were within a forty minute drive.

My mom was born and raised in Winchendon, Massachusetts before leaving the United States to spend a lifetime overseas. I was born in the same town and spent my first three months of life there before arriving in Pakistan as a three-month old. I returned to Winchendon at four, then at fourteen – each time living for a limited amount of time before returning home to Pakistan. I had also lived in the city of Fitchburg, about a half hour away from Winchendon, when I was 10 going on 11. Though I have lived in Massachusetts for many years now, I had never gone on a trip down memory lane.

Memory lane travel began on Klondike Avenue in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Klondike Avenue received us, a missionary family with a bunch of kids, made us feel like we were at home, like we belonged. As we drove down the street I eagerly waited to see the house where we lived during that unforgettable year. I remembered it as being an old New England home on a dandelion dotted hill that sloped down to the road. Like many things in my memory, the house was far smaller, the hill was not as large, but the house looked happy and well cared for with bright red and pink geraniums beckoning from the back steps. The area around the house was completely built up, farm land sold to a developer many years ago. Paradise had indeed been paved to make way for homes, families, and urban growth.

Klondike Avenue was thousands of miles away from our world in Pakistan. We traded boarding school for day school, a land rover for a Ford station wagon, Sunday night singspirations for Sunday night cereal. We were the missionary family with all the kids and as we entered, the neighborhood seemed to know we were coming.

Memories flooded over me of swimming in the Pierce’s pool and playing softball on late spring evenings on the Pierce Farm field; riding bikes to the book mobile that came every Thursday and Vacation Bible School at Highland Baptist Church; laughing and talking with Carin Waaramaa who lived at the end of the street and generously offered me her friendship and her family, no strings attached, no motives, just pure grace.

For kids coming from Pakistan, Klondike Avenue was near perfect.

At this point we were miles into memory lane and I wondered aloud if we could find East Street School, the old brick building where my youngest brother and I went to school that year. Just around a corner, we unexpectedly came on it. It’s sad facade begged us to stop and pay attention, clearly no one else had. Windows were boarded up and resilient plants sprouted their way through cracked concrete. A young woman with a brilliant smile that sparkled of good dental care had pulled up to the side of the road. She looked at us curiously, what would bring people to stop and take pictures of this sad building? Through an open window I explained to her that I had attended this very school many, many years before.

Highland Baptist Church, an old New England Church with white clapboard and a tall steeple, was our next stop. We chatted with the current pastor, my mom relaying some of her memories and we hearing some of the current happenings in the community.

On to Winchendon where we visited the cemetery where my grandmother and grandfather are buried, as well as two stillborn children and a first wife that my brother buried before he was 28 years old. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the suffering of your siblings. In that space, the midday sun shining brightly on us, I remembered.

We drove on to the veteran’s cemetery, the graves lined up like tidy soldiers, a startling contrast to the untidiness of death, to the untidiness of war. It took a couple of text messages and looking on a website to find my father’s grave. Not having thought ahead, we shamelessly “borrowed” some flowers from another grave for a photo op, and we will ever be grateful to the family of Kenneth Proos for their unknowing generosity. Immediately after the picture was taken we returned them to their rightful owner. I like to think that the laughter it brought us was gratitude in itself, but we will never know.

My mom’s childhood home at 485 Central Street in Winchendon was our next stop. To our amazement we connected with Mr. Walker, a man who has lived there for decades and remembered my grandparents. “You’re a Kolodinski?” he asked my mom. He and his wife bought the house not too many years after my grandmother moved. It was a poignant connection and gift to hear memories of the house and neighborhood. As we drove away, we weren’t thinking much about memories. Pizza and subs were on our collective minds. How can memory make one so hungry? Revived by sub sandwiches at a local pizza place, more family stories were told.

Our last stops were the schools we attended and 40 Hyde Park Street, the street and house where my cousins lived, a home base of sorts for us every four years until it wasn’t. My great grandfather, a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant, bought farm land when he moved to the area hoping his son would take it on after he died. Like so many immigrant families, what the parent wanted and what the adult child wanted were two different things. The farm land was slowly sold off, in its place stand an assisted living center and other homes. We had lived in the house next door for my freshman and sophomore years of highschool, a perfect location with cousins, an aunt and uncle, and grandmother next door.

As I looked up at the windows of the tiny room that had been my bedroom, I remembered tumultuous teen years in a place where I didn’t fit, a round (quite round as I gained a lot of weight that year) peg trying desperately to fit myself into all of the square holes around me only to realize that I was too round, too different, too “other.” And yet, I still remember sweet friendships with people who could reach across the barriers that divide, inviting me into relationship and connection.

It was mid afternoon when we began to drive back to Clinton. There was still a lot of daylight left, the summer sun not yet tired, but our return trip was quieter, perhaps each of us were lost in memory and story.

I have often tried to forget this area, to deny my connection to the geography or people. Whenever I thought about Winchendon, the only colors that would come to my mind were grey and sad, while the colors that came into my mind with Pakistan were brilliant reds, yellows, blues, and greens. But it is as impossible to forget this area as it would be to forget Pakistan. They worked in tandem to raise me. This is a place that has been part of my extended family for generations and has given me a heritage that I cannot deny.

Each of us has an invisible box of told and untold journeys and memories. Some of these have names and faces, roads and mailboxes. Others have emotions and conversations, wishes and regrets, dreams and hurts. There are the valleys of gravestones and unimaginable pain and there are mountains of unexplainable joy. Memories remind us who we are, where we’ve come from, what we’ve lived through. They connect us even when they are hard and sad, for a life without contrasts is no life at all.

It is now a couple of weeks later. Life moves forward and, as Dumbledore tells us, “It does not do to dwell on dreams (or memories) and forget to live.” Perhaps that’s why we need the caution to travel safely down memory lane. For whether the memories be good or hard, living color or deep grey, they can trap us into imagining life was far better or far worse than it actually was or is.

As for me, my travel down memory lane was safe and secure, full of stories and laughter, a day of being claimed by the memories and geography that make me who I am.

TCKs and Post Traumatic Growth

It’s high summer in Boston. Tourists wander, water bottles in hand, silently glancing at fitbits, observable proof that Boston is indeed a “walkable” city. Chalk drawn hopscotch decorates the sidewalks in bright blues, greens, and pinks. Jimmy, the icecream man, is parked by a large park where tourists and locals wander. His business is understandably booming. And my favorite café barely has room for me to settle with my computer and thoughts. I squeeze in and find my way, happy for the busy chaos after a couple of years of masked misery.

I’ve been thinking a lot about post traumatic growth, the specific growth that can occur after deep trauma. PTG or Post Traumatic Growth theory was developed in the mid 90s by two psychologists (Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun). They wanted to be able to explain how people can move beyond deep trauma with a deeper appreciation for life and a strength and resolve to help others.

The literature is careful to distinguish between PTG and resilience. Resilience is described more as the quality or characteristic of being able to bounce back and resume life. When someone has experienced an event that affects their core beliefs, they sometimes can’t bounce back. Their entire world has been rocked to the core by what often seems like meaningless violence or trauma.

In an old article called “The Post Traumatic Growth Theory: Measuring the Positive Legacy of Trauma,” the authors talk about being able to measure growth after trauma through a 21 question-inventory. The inventory looks at positive responses to questions that address appreciation for life, relationships with others, new possibilities that have emerged, personal strength, and spiritual change.

“People develop new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, how to relate to other people, the kind of future they might have and a better understanding of how to live life,” Richard Tedeschi.

Until very recently I never knew there was a theory or an inventory that identified PTG. What I do know is that I have watched some of my refugee, immigrant, and TCK friends live out this reality. I’ve watched them move from bitterness to using appropriate anger for positive change. I’ve observed them taking deep pain and loss and using it to empathize and work with others. I’ve benefitted from their joy and strength, the color they add to the world.

How are some people able to do this, while others remain in a place of post traumatic stress? I don’t think it’s always about the level of trauma, although complex trauma has many, many layers. Yet, even with complex trauma there are examples of people who are able to move forward. One important factor seems to be not being pushed into growth or a positive response. People need time to come to this on their own. For the caregiver or friend, this is difficult. We want to see any small signs that a person is coming out of their pain or darkness. We see every little movement as hopeful and then fall into our own traps of believing nothing will ever change for the person. But experts and counselors working with trauma victims are careful to stress not to push someone into discovering positive growth until they are ready. Healing occurs in stages and the stages are not linear.

I want to look at this in more depth, but I feel this is an area where TCKs can benefit. To know that childhood or adult trauma can be transformed, leading them into personal and professional growth is hopeful and encouraging. This is not rocket science, but when we are in the middle of the hard pieces of life, it feels that way.

So why look at this? I’m not a trauma expert, I am not a counselor. I look at this because in the past few years I have walked with more and more people who have experienced profound pain in life. In addition, I’ve had my own realization of profound pain. My practical theology and belief in a God who is good has led me to believe without doubt that God does not waste pain; that pain, when given to God, is a transformative gift. It doesn’t make pain and trauma easier, but it does make it less senseless.

If you want to take a look at the inventory to take it or have it for reference, click here.

Fractures

I experienced two fractures in my life, both occuring when I was a child. The first was my leg. I fell off a bunkbed as a tender, evidently fragile-boned five year old. I won’t go into the details of how I sort of threw myself off the bed, angry at my mom, instead I’ll focus on the pain, the intense pain that followed. We were in the city of Jacobabad in Pakistan, far from good medical care. My parents weren’t sure how serious this was so we waited overnight. I will never forget that night. I came in and out of sleep, pain waking me up at every move, my pain medication that of my mom’s soothing voice reading to us from the book Rainbow Garden. The next day we drove along bumpy roads to get to a mission hospital in the city of Sukkur. I ended up with a cast on my leg from ankle to thigh.

The second fracture happened when I was 11 while playing the child’s game “Steal the Bacon.” I got the bacon, but I fell onto my left wrist. Again I felt the intense pain, the pain of a fractured bone.

You never forget the excruciating pain of a physical fracture. Medical professionals describe bone pain as deeper, sharper, and more intense than muscle pain. Yet, as hard as that pain is, emotional fractures in families, friendships, and societies cause far more pain. And unlike fractured bones, a cast or brace put on by a skilled physician is not available.

While many have never had fractured bones, my guess is that most of us know the pain of fractured relationships. Most of us know the pit in the stomach, the sleepless nights, the grieving too deep for tears that comes as a result of these fractures. We would give anything for a cast, anything for pain medication, anything to relieve the deep ache.

I’m in a season of fractures, fractures that I don’t know what to do with, fractures that cloud my vision and hurt to the bone. These are fractures that have few answers. In addition, I live in a society that has profound fractures. Fractures that, though they be societal, have shards that reach into families and friendships. These too are fractures with few answers.

And if the fractures are not difficult enough, the public response is deafening. So deafening that I find I can’t think for myself.

Layered in with all the fractures are people. Beloved, beautiful, made in God’s image people. People who on one hand drive me crazy and on the other fill me with compassion. People who come with profoundly difficult stories, people who are angry, people who are rejoicing, and many, many who don’t know how to show love.

I was walking by Boston’s Harbor yesterday evening with a heavy heart, thinking about fractures and about people. There is a public art display that has just been put up around the Harborwalk. It features the sculptures of Michael Alfano – a gifted artist. All of the sculptures are extraordinary, but one in particular hit my soul. A dove on one side turns into a hawk on the other. In between are two outstretched hands. The inscription says this:

In Peace Offering, the dove conveys the hope for peace, while its tail transforms into a hawk, representing hostility. The dove’s wings become open hands, which might be ours, in an asking, weighing, or offering pose. Or they might belong to a larger force that welcomes two people to dialogue.

Michael Alfano – Peace Offering on Harborwalk

“The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true but few can put it into practice.”

The Tao

I felt extraordinary peace as I saw this sculpture and read the description, for this is a piece that challenges me to keep my hands and my heart open – open to change, open to dialogue, open to listen, and above all – open to show love.

The battles and fractures in our hearts rarely take place in public. They take place in the dead of night, when noone is around to witness them. They take place in the early morning hours of begging for mercy. They take place in the wordless prayers of our souls.

I don’t know what your wordless prayers are today. We can only know our own, and that is enough. What I do know is that I long to be a dove in a world that rewards hawks. I long to open my hands in a peace offering in a world that asks me to close them. I long to see God and people first, and the pain of my own fractures second.

I long for the day where the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the broken are made whole, and hearts no longer break from fractures. Until that day I hold to the comfort that comes through the author of all beauty and art and I offer up my hands to the One who knows best how to use them.

[Image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay.]

[Sculpture Photo Credit – Michael Alfano website photo by Adrien Sipos]

Stones of Remembrance – Heritage

This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.

Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.

Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.

In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.

The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.

I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.

In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.

Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.

Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.

Thresholds

Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away. Sometime, when it’s this late at night, I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does. But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave.

Fatima Bhutto, Songs of Blood and Sword

It’s a blue, blue sky and for the first time this year I have the joy of sitting outside to drink my coffee.

Several of these past days have started with a thick fog covering the area. The buildings in downtown Boston, usually easily visible from our upstairs window, covered in misty grey.

The thing with fog is that you feel it will last forever even though your head tells you that’s ridiculous. So there’s this tug between feeling and thinking as you will yourself forward by head rather than heart.

But today? There is no fog. Just the crispest blue sky and a weather app promise of a warm day.

I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds, largely because of a writing prompt from a group that I connect with on social media. One of the definitions of threshold is gate or door. Explore a bit more and this is expanded to mean “the place or point of entering or beginning.” Perhaps, too, the foggy beginnings of the last few days have made me think about thresholds. Thresholds as points of entering or beginning can be foggy and disorienting.

A couple of weeks ago, I learned from a Russian friend that you never hug someone over a threshold. You either go in, or come out. Once you are both out (or both in) then you can hug. She was emphatic that I not hug her across th threshold.

I have more questions for my friend, but what I love about this is that you have to commit. It’s like a mom saying “Either come in or go out, but don’t stand in the doorway.”

And that’s what happens when you are standing in the threshold of something. You can’t stay there. You have to pass through.

May and June are threshold months. They are months of soul aching goodbyes, each goodbye a mini death. They are months of nervous excitement and wanting to lengthen the moments and stretch them into hours and days. They are months of laughter at what has been and so many tears at what will no longer be.

Graduations, moves, sorting, packing up, giving away, wondering what’s to come – all of these and more are packed into threshold months.

In World’s Apart, I write this about one of my threshold moments:

“The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying ‘every time a cow died in Pakistan.’ Others would stoically move forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world…..The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.”

Of all the endings and beginnings I have had, this is the one that was most pivotal. It was my exit and my entrance – from Pakistan to the United States, from child to adult, from home to the unknown. It was clarity and fog, warmth and cold, peace and anxiety.

A couple of weeks before I stood on this threshold between worlds, I had some of the happiest moments imagineable. It was early summer in Murree and the weather was perfect. The moments of connection and friendship were memory-making; the joy I felt palpable. I knew who I was, I knew where I was going, I would make Pakistan and my little school in her mountains proud. Looking back, I am so grateful for those moments. They would sustain me for a long time when life became foggy and I no longer knew who I was or where I was going.

So for you who are on the threshold of something new, hold on to the moments. Honor what has been even as you prepare for what will be. You have been shaped and raised by the places and people that you will soon leave – know that this shaping is a gift and uniquely prepares you for your next journey. Take good, long looks at the people and places you have come to love. Those memory snapshots will give you strength for what’s to come.

As you step over the threshold of what is to come, remember this:

Thresholds are doorways into future wonder, but before you step through them, you need to be able to hold close what you are leaving behind.

[Image by Margarita Kochneva from Pixabay]