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.

Weary of Walking in the Dark

At the time of darkness, more than anything else kneeling is helpful.

St. Isaac the Syrian

I’m weary, and I wonder about you. Perhaps you are weary as well.

When I try and get to the bottom of this I realize that I’m weary of doing the next right thing. I’m weary of praying for my enemies and loving those who hurt me. I’m weary of family fractures. I’m weary of getting up every day and working. I’m weary of walking forward with so many unknowns.

Most of all, I’m weary because all seems dark and God seems so very distant.

Job’s friends would stop me right now. “Have you looked at your life?” they would ask. There must be some unconfessed sin. There must be some reason why God is distant, why all is dark. But here’s the thing – to believe that all of the dark and difficult things we go through are a result of our behavior is distorted theology. Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew are clear: “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” In fact, in the Old Testament, the Psalmist is constantly asking why the evil prosper and do well, seemingly free of trouble, something that turns a health and wealth gospel upside down.

Sometimes there is not an earthly answer. Sometimes all we get is silence. Sometimes darkness is everywhere we turn.

It’s in this season that I have taken to reading the book Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. This book is an interesting study on darkness. When asked in an interview what her ‘working definition’ of darkness was, she said this:

Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.

Barbara Brown Taylor in Religion News Services 2012

Taylor’s search led her to explore darkness literally and metaphorically. Through exploring a cave; being led in complete darkness by a blind person, physically experiencing life through her other senses; and by spending the night in a solitary cabin with no light to be found, she experienced the physical absence of light. Beyond that is her deep exploration of “dark nights of the soul” and how the physical experience of dark can perhaps teach us something of the spiritual. Her search is not to diminish the need for light, rather, she wants the reader to appreciate the importance of darkness both physically and spiritually.

The book is marvelously free of platitudes and that in itself is a gift for me in this season. But it is also a reminder of a truth I know, but regularly need reminders. When we are in hard, dark places, God may seem distant, but He is as fully present as in the light. He dwells there with us. Psalm 139 verse 12 reassures me of this: “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

So here in the dark, where I am exhausted in weariness, where I have no words, and where the way forward seems absent of light, will you join me in a quest to believe it is okay, to believe that he is here with us in the dark? To sit as companions, free of clichéd conversation, and know he can be trusted? I don’t have much beyond that for you today – but perhaps that is enough.

“Even when light fades and darkness falls–as it does every single day, in every single life–God does not turn the world over to some other deity…Here is the testimony of faith; darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”

Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

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.

Words for Younger Women

“I am convinced that in every generation God has his people and is working out his plans. What more can I say?”

Pauline Brown

My mom turns 94 today. From an earthly convential perspective, she has no platform, no followers, and would not be considered an influencer in today’s world. Yet, she has led an extraordinary life and has influenced thousands in her life. She has spoken words of wisdom that people still remember. Most of all, she has been faithful to what and who she believes.

I asked her last night what advice she would offer to younger women. Initially she said “I have no advice!” I pushed her and she said what I have quoted above. I love it, because it’s a reminder to me that though our view is limited, God’s is not.

The question I asked my mom came out of a post that I saw earlier this week from a younger woman who posted a series of prompts on social media focused on women in the second half of life. She talked about watching some women ‘coast’ their way to the finish line. It got her thinking about what it would look like for her to pursue a heart of wisdom, to live fully and faithfully in this second half of life. I loved the questions she posed and wanted to publicly answer a few of them. If anything resonates, I’m grateful, but as with anything I write – if there is not wisdom or grace in this, then blow it away.

If you could go back in time and whisper one thing into the ear of your 40 year old self (and know it would take root in your heart) what would it be? Belonging is not about a place, though place does matter. Belonging is about a Person. Identity is the same. When I forget whose I am, I forget who I am. I fall into that trap all the time, and I wish it would take root. Somehow, the weeds of insecurity and envy get in the way and I forget.

What are some pitfalls you see women in their late 30s and early 40s falling into today? I ache for women today. From TikTok to Instagram to Twitter to Facebook to whatever will be the next big platform, there is so much competition for your time, your intellect, and your soul. I see oversharing and it scares me. I see selfie on selfie on selfie. None of us need that many pictures of ourselves. I see outrage spewing off the pages day after day. There is a lot to be angry about, but it is not sustainable. You will wear yourself ragged. Your kids and family will suffer. You will suffer. And you will not change the world. I’m not saying don’t have a presence. I obviously use social media, but I’ve learned the hardway of what it does to my mind, emotions, and soul. We have to control social media and not have it control us. Mostly though, here is the truth:

The world needs the embodied you, the you who shows up with persistence and resilience, the you who is learning to love well, forgive continually, and laugh with abandon in your family, place of worship, neighborhood, and broader community.

What are unique challenges facing women in their 40s today? What would your advice be for avoiding them? My generation did you a disservice by making you think you could do it all. You can’t. Pick your priorities and stick with them. When you are looking at major work decisions, ask the question “Who do i want to like me when I’m 80?” It’s probably not the organization or institution that you are giving your life blood to and for. It’s definitely not the people online, because they may cancel you before you’re 50.

What are you thankful you leaned into in your 40s? My 40s were still so busy raising kids, learning how to parent college students and still be present for a preteen and teenager. It’s in my 50s that I leaned into speaking and writing. I am so glad I did. When I first began writing, I didn’t know it would turn into books and magazine articles. I didn’t know I would get paid to write. I wrote because I wanted to become a better writer. I’m deeply grateful that I finally had the discipline to write daily. As for speaking, I remember long ago realizing that by God’s grace and goodness, I could be a good communicator. At that point, I made a promise that every opportunity I was given to speak publicly, I would do so. I had to readjust that through the years, but at the time, it was a good decision. Building on both writing and speaking as ways to communicate across boundaries has become something I am passionate about.

What did you intentionally do in your 40s that made what you’re doing now possible? I took every free opportunity for training that came up in my career. I ended up with a diverse set of skills, knowledge, and training ability. From brease and cervical cancer awareness to chronic disease to mental health first aid, I ended up with an eclectic skill set that worked perfectly in serving diverse communities.

How did your mothering shift as your kids became teens? Negotiation became the big word. Instead of saying “Go clean your room – NOW!” I learned to say “Your room is becoming a public health hazard. You have until Friday to clean your room. Please make sure you do it by then.” Oh my gosh. I would be a wreck! I’d think inside “I know they won’t do it, I know they won’t do it, I know they won’t do it!” And then – they did it! It was amazing. It helped me learn a lot about releasing control. That release of control has to go into adult kids as well. They don’t need me to constantly tell them what I believe. They know. They don’t need me to tell them how to parent, make decisions, or anything like that. As the title of a book says “Keep your door open and your mouth shut.” And I have learned the hard way that this is true. I am grateful for the grace of my kids and God’s grace in this journey.

What are spiritual disciplines you’ve leaned into that weren’t as much a part of your earlier years of walking with him? An embodied faith that leans on Divine Liturgy and prayers of the Church. I wish that I had not been so stubborn about entering into the Orthodox Church and faith tradition. In Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren says “Patterns of prayer draw us out of ourselves, out of our own timebound moment, into the long story of Christ’s work in and through his people over time.”

What is different about your walk with [God] the longer you live? Leaning into mystery. I am so grateful that mystery can be a part of my journey. I’m so grateful that I don’t have, or need all the answers. Again from Prayer in the Night “I needed this moment of crisis to find its place in something greater: the prayers of the church, yes, but more, the vast mystery of God, the surety of God’s power, the reassurance of God’s goodness.” (emphasis mine) And I think if I could raise kids all over again knowing what I now know (or don’t know) I’d focus more on the big, grand story of Redemption, a story that is so much bigger than we can imagine. I’d focus more on mystery and grace. I’d be careful of the do’s and don’ts and focus on the freedom that comes with faith. And, in more words from my mom, I would look them in the eye and say: “I think you’ll find your way!”

New Beginnings and the Seduction of Safety

I resigned from my job yesterday.

Yes – we are in the middle of a recession. Yes – it was on paper a good job. Yes – I need to pay bills.

And I also know that it was a good decision. As soon as I sent the letter, a backpack of burdens fell off my back. I didn’t know how heavy it was until it fell off.

In To Bless the Space Between Us, the poet John O’Donohue speaks to new beginnings in a fresh way, a way that I have never considered:

"In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,
Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,
Noticing how you willed yourself on,
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the gray promises that sameness whispered,
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground...." 

I first read the poem over a month ago and the words on playing with the “seduction of safety and the gray promises that sameness whispered…” began going through my mind on repeat. This was me. I knew I had outgrown this organization a long time ago, but I’m a sticker if nothing else. I never quit, even when perhaps I should.

So I stuck, and I gossiped and I whined and – well you get the picture. It has not been pretty nor has it been healthy. Writing and submitting my letter of resignation is an act of faith and an acknowledgement that leaving this position is an important step forward.

When I first began writing publicly, I relayed a poignant story that Sheila Walsh told of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in this retelling of the story and a child’s simple comment. The times that I would go farther except my backpack is too heavy – the things I carry too weighty. 

I love the story and I love the visual picture.

My resignation is my way of shedding the load that is keeping me back, an active way of saying “I can go farther without this heavy backpack.” With it, I step into a new place and I accept what comes.

There will be growing pains, of course. There will be times of fear and some self accusation. But right now, there is so much delight, there is peace, and there is so much grace.

Here’s to entering the “grace of new beginnings.”

You can read the entire poem here.

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.

Pascha 2022

It’s getting late as I sit, resting before heading to church. Charlestown will soon be asleep with only the liquor store down the street open.

Ever since we became Orthodox I have used this time before heading to our midnight service as a time of reflection. It has changed through the years. When we first became Orthodox, we still had kids living with us and as the rest of the family rested, I would write. Now they are all adults in various parts of the country and world and like Christmas, I miss their presence and the collective excitement that we had for several years.

In this Orthodox journey, our lives are now marked by Pascha and Pentecost, by Dormition and Nativity, by Theophany and the beginning of Great Lent. It has taken some getting used to, but I am beginning to love it. To love the rhythms of the church calendar, the Great Feasts and the more minor ones. In a world that I have found changes with the wind, a world where worldwide disasters accompany personal tragedies, I am learning the value of something as solid as this calendar and the faith that orders it.

Far more than a calendar is the reality of being a part of a bigger story, for it is sobering and freeing. To be a part of a story where the central theme is sacrificial love is extraordinary, and though I try, I will not fully grasp it’s fullness and mystery until I enter eternity.

So I willingly put aside regular bedtime routines entering into the biggest event of the entire church calendar and celebrate Pascha at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. Because this love story and the God who orchestrated it is worth celebrating.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Select Portions from St. John Chrysostom Easter Sermon