Eight years ago, my friend Mary gave me a giant mug as a hostess gift. She had come from Egypt to Boston for a conference and our apartment in Cambridge provided a perfect place and easy access to the conference. The mug was not just any mug – it was from the Starbucks country collection or “You are Here” mugs, so along with being 16 ounces, it also had a picture of the pyramids and the word ‘Egypt’ in large letters across it.
It quickly became my favorite mug. Curling up every morning with a homemade latte, a journal and pen in hand, is how I have started most mornings since the week she visited. It has been my routine wherever I’ve been in the world.
It is a routine that easily transferred to my life in Kurdistan. While I can’t get the same coffee and my foam maker burnt out within a month, I’ve found substitutes and it has been a wonderful comfort as I adapt to life in Rania.
Until this morning….
As I poured the hot coffee into the mug, it began leaking out the bottom. Startled, I ran for a saucer. There above the coffee mark was the unmistakable sign of a crack, and clearly a deep one. I transferred the coffee to another cup and took a look. The crack was beyond repair. My beloved mug was finished. I would no longer be able to use it for my morning coffee.
All of Life’s Cracks….
I sighed and then I cried. The tears fell freely, as if they’d been trapped too long and they needed an excuse. In all of our lives there are items we own that represent people, places, or events that are much bigger than what you see on the surface. This mug not only reminded me of one of my favorite places – it represented my life before Massachusetts. It reminded me of a world that was hidden, visible only through photo albums and occasional retelling of old stories, told a thousand times before. It reminded me that my life in Egypt was a significant period of time – a time of birthing babies and young motherhood, a time of learning what it was to live overseas as an adult, a time of joy with a growing family. It reminded me of my friendship with Mary, the one who gave me the mug. Mary was present at the births of my two youngest children. We were nurses together in Egypt and our kids spent hours playing together while we solved a good number of the world’s problems.
To see that mug crack made me feel all of life’s cracks and broken pieces. I felt all over again the hurt of goodbyes and the long process of new hellos. I felt the intensity of starting anew and the difficulty of keeping up friendships faraway. I felt the sting of misunderstanding and cultural adjustment. I felt the sadness of living between worlds, the diaspora blues of being – “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both”*. I felt the emptiness of lost friendships and the scars of ruined relationships. All of this came over me as I surveyed the spilt coffee and the cracked mug.
I felt so, so sad.
It’s now several hours later, and I still feel myself on the brink of tears. What I wish I could do with this old, beautiful Egypt mug is to mend it with gold, the Japanese art of “kintsugi”. Instead of throwing away the object that has cracked and broken, this restores the piece, making it even more interesting and beautiful. The focus becomes the cracks and the scars. My mug deserves that sort of care, deserves to be an object of interest and pride, like a mended tea pot that I have owned for years and carried around the world. The teapot was broken into many pieces, but painstakingly mended with large metal clips and a metal bottom put on it to make it stronger.
Though broken and having little of its original beauty it is so much more interesting and represents so well the human condition. Despite the original break, despite the cracks – it continues to be useable and stronger than if it had never been broken.
I won’t be able to do that, but I will keep the mug. Instead of using it every morning, sipping my morning coffee as I begin the day, I will put it on my desk. I will use it for pencils and pens – a re-purposed memory bank. It deserves at least that. And, like the teapot, it will serve as a continual reminder that the circumstances in life can crack and mar us, but they don’t get to destroy. They don’t, and never will, have that kind of power.
When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.
We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.
And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.
Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.
She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.
I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.
I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.
We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.
With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.
Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.
Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.
Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.
We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.
It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.
Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.
With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.
More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.
I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.
I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.
I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.
I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.
For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.
And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.
I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.
And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.
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In the city of Cairo twin minarets stand tall, their silhouettes marked against a clear blue sky. They stand distinguishable from a thousand other minarets because of their fame as a city landmark. The minarets frame a gate still standing since the 11th century, the gate of Bab Zuweila. The minaret towers are so high that they were used to look out for enemy troops coming up to attack the city. Now, centuries later, the minarets of Bab Zuweila provide an unparalleled view of the old city of Cairo.
Climbing up the minarets is a journey. Around ancient steps you walk – farther and farther up, dizzy from the spiral and half frightened from the dark staircase. You make it to the first area where you go out and stand looking over the vast city of 18 million people. But you’re compelled to go farther. So on you go. And it gets more rickety and frightening, the centuries-old steps become even narrower and darker. You can see nothing and you are grasping on to the steps in front of you for fear of falling. But you keep going.
You arrive at the second level. And it’s even more magnificent than the first. To your right you see Al Azhar Park, significant for its large and beautiful green space in a city that has so little. In this 360 degree view you see vast numbers of minarets, you hear the call to prayer going off at split-second intervals across the city – a cacophony echoing around you. You see thousands of tiny people, walking about as they go from bazaar to mosque to bus. You see the tent makers bazaar and even from this distance, you can see the beautiful colors.
It’s the view from above. And it is glorious, breath-taking and conversation stopping. But you can go even farther. And once you get to the top, you don’t want to leave – because it took a while for you to get there and you’re so tired. And the stairs going down are still rickety and treacherous, they are still centuries old. But mostly you don’t want to go down because you want to continue to look out over the view, the view above the city, above the chaos. The view from above.
Lent is a time to step back and step up; a time to see the view from above.
That glorious, breath-taking, conversation stopping view. That view that sees the broken world that Jesus died for, the world that Jesus loves, knowing that each day that we fight this fight is worth it.
That view that remembers the words a Son called out to a Father “Why have you forsaken me?” A view that sees the grand Salvation narrative, taller and grander than a million minarets, a love that calls to us louder than a billion calls to prayer. The view where all ‘this’ will make sense, wrong will be made right, tears will turn to laughter, and sorrow to joy. We are invited into this view from above, a view where our story falls into the shadows for a time, and God’s great, redemptive narrative is remembered around the world. A story of mercy and grace, where good triumphs over evil and wrong is made right.
Whether we live in the shadows of a Hindu temple or near the courtyard of a grand cathedral; in a small village or are one of millions in a large, modern city, we know what it is to see poverty and suffering, crime and inequality, evil and difficult circumstances. We learn to love when it’s hard and others learn to love us when we’re hard. We know failure, we know pain, we know how human and flawed we are. Yet daily we experience the persistence of God’s redemptive process.
And today no matter where we are in the world, we are invited to remember this view from above.
“Finally, as if everything had not been felt enough, Jesus cries out in an agonizing moment in the most powerful words that we will read in the world: ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?’ And I am utterly convinced that the reason he said those words was so that you and I would never have to say them again.” – Ravi Zacharias
Note: This piece has been adapted from a piece written for A Life Overseas.
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Gunmen Kill at Least 28 Coptic Christians in Egypt
The headline spares nothing, except that there were children. I numbly read the article describing the pilgrimage. The group was headed to St. Samuel Monastery for a pilgrimage when pick up trucks reportedly drove up to the busses and began firing automatic weapons. I read as little as I have to to get the story. Then I stop and I feel myself getting sick.
During our years living in Egypt, my husband used to love taking our oldest son, Joel, to monasteries. The first time he went, Joel was only three years old. He went off happily into the desert with his dad, secure and excited. The pictures taken later that day show a tow-headed pre-schooler with a bearded monk. They are absolutely comfortable with each other and the camera captures this well.
Our introduction to Orthodoxy came through the Coptic Orthodox Church. My husband went on countless trips into the Sinai desert, enjoying the hospitality and growing through the spirituality of monks who had devoted their lives to prayer in the desert. Christianity in Egypt is alive because of these havens and those that set themselves apart to pray for Egypt and the world. It was a monk who said to my husband “Cliff, you are Orthodox. You just don’t know it yet!” This was years before we entered the Orthodox Church. My husband just thought this is what the monks say to Protestants who they liked. It turns out it was more prophetic than we could have imagined.
These trips to monasteries are a respite from the chaos of the massive cities in Egypt. But they are so much more! Pilgrimages to monasteries are part of the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, so when I read about the group who were attacked it felt personal. It should feel personal. These are fellow Christians, members of what we call the “body of Christ”.
The commands to “love our enemies” and “do good to them that hurt you” are not ambiguous. They are clear and forceful. Along with this, we have the words said by Jesus as he died on the cross:
Father – Forgive Them.
In the most outrageous act of love the world has ever witnessed or will ever witness, we have these words. They are recorded and echo through history. They are heard in great cathedrals and small,village congregations. They are said aloud, and they are whispered in the soul.
These words – they feel too hard. How can a grieving mother say them? How can an angry father believe them?
And yet – still they echo.
After the attack on Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday, a television station interviewed the wife of a security guard who was killed during the attack. It was this man who stopped the suicide bomber and made him go through the metal detector, an act that cost him his life. His widow’s words echo the words of Christ on the cross:
‘I forgive you and I ask God to forgive you. I pray that God may open your eyes to light your minds,’
Violence lasts but a moment, forgiveness echoes forever.
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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.
Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.
On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.
After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.
A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..
I arrived back from Egypt yesterday, bleary-eyed after hours of travel. Having coffee in Cairo, sahlep in Istanbul, and mint tea in our Cambridge living room reminded me yet again of how connected our world is. We fell asleep and woke up on the other side of the world.
The trip was a gift that will take a while to process, and I plan to do some of that online, but for now I feel like I’ve been invited into a bigger picture. The timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have been deeply angered, troubled, and discouraged by the infantile politics that have become an acceptable part of our society. I am increasingly frustrated by how deeply I am connected to social media in all its forms. The trip was a break from all of that and revived me in the best way possible.
Just two days ago I stood in the shadow of a 4th Century church while listening to the Muslim call to prayer. All around me, women in hijab were entering the church to read the history, view ancient icons, and hear stories about this church that has survived centuries of life. The church is known as either the “hanging church” or the “The Church of the Virgin Mary.” Built into the walls of a Roman fortress, this church is considered the oldest in Egypt.
Just down a stone path from the ancient church is the Ben Ezra Jewish synagogue, built in the 9th century over a 4th century church frame. The voices of thousands who had been there before echoed from the silent walls. While leaving the synagogue, we passed a fully veiled woman, only her eyes showing. I had seen her earlier in one of the churches, now she was making her way down the same path we had come to visit the synagogue.
We were in Coptic Cairo, an area known as one of the oldest in Cairo. I have been to Coptic Cairo many times before but I have never experienced the sense of life and God’s orchestration of life like I did.
Throughout the Bible, Egypt is seen as a place of preservation, protection, and testing of God’s people. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all played a part in Egypt’s history, each with truth claims that sometimes seem similar and other times are completely opposite and non-negotiable.
As the call to prayer rang out from mosques across the city, one beginning as another was ending, I was struck by God’s big view of people and history. I see this pinpoint in time; he sees from beginning to end. I focus on the small things while he calls me to see the big things. I am stuck in time; he is the creator of time. I often see a narrow way to grace; he who is grace personified opens his arms wide as he calls us to himself.
In those moments, I realized yet again the call to a see a bigger picture – a picture beyond politics, beyond the current crisis of the day, and beyond my own inadequacy. I’m called to see the world through eyes of love and grace only possible through knowing the Creator.
It’s a mystery that will take a lifetime to understand.
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Firstborn children have the joy and burden of being first. The joy of newness and expectation, the burden of insecure parenting and wanting to get it right. No child should have to be the firstborn. But someone has to, and they deserve special applause as they teach their parents more of what it is to parent, to grow, and to love with an indescribable love.
In our family that someone is Annie. Today, that infamous day when buildings fell and people wept so many years ago, is her birthday. So today I pause and write to our firstborn.
You turn 30 today! I can’t believe it until I look in the mirror and see the laughter lines and tear marks disguised as wrinkles on my face. And then I know – yes indeed! I have a 30-year-old.
No child should have to be the firstborn — and yet, you were. After a long labor, you ushered us into parenthood with hardly a cry. “Is she okay?” we asked anxiously. But you were fine – all six pounds four ounces of your tiny self with your bright blue eyes. You were perfect.
We took you home in baby pajamas that were three sizes too big for you. They were yellow with “Le Petite Bebe” embroidered on the front. During those first few hours at home you slept and slept – and we looked over your Moses basket with worry: “Should we wake her up? I don’t know. Do you think she’s okay? I don’t know.” We decided to wake you up.
That was a mistake. From then on we adhered to the mantra “Never wake a sleeping baby.”
Two weeks later, we moved and this began the trajectory of your life. From a Chicago apartment to a house in New Hampshire to rose gardens in Pakistan; from bustling Cairo to small-town Essex – you have lived in apartments and houses and more apartments and learned to call each one of them home, even when they hurt you.
We look back at pictures and you are so little and we are so young.
You grew up knowing airplanes and airports, thinking that Saturday morning cartoons came in two-hour videos, eating kebabs and curry before you had teeth, having more stamps in your passport at five than many do in a lifetime, and believing that Arabic is the language of the world.
You were so gentle as you taught us about parenting. You were our naiveté and our idealism; you were our youth and our mistakes; you were our uncertainty about curfews and our ignorance about boundaries; you were our energy and our travel; you were our reentry angst and our struggle to fit in the new world we found ourselves.
You have given us so much grace on this journey – and we thank you.
You are a reader and dreamer, you are a shout for justice and a ready made party. You are a writer, an artist, a doula, a friend.
You are daughter of our youth and our heart, and we love you. And so we raise our glasses to you the firstborn – resilient, beautiful, talented, funny, irritating, brave, engaging, and lover of all things champagne on a beer-budget.
Happy Birthday Dear Girl!
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