Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

Lengthening Light

Today the darkness begins to grow shorter and the light to lengthen, as the hours of night become fewer…. realize that the true light is now here and, through the rays of the gospel, is illumining the whole earth.” St. Gregory of Nyssa

I sit in my living room, watching daylight arrive. The Christmas tree continues to bring much needed light to the room. Orthodox Christmas was two days ago and our tree illuminates, providing beauty and hope in the still dark days of winter.

I’ve often talked about how I am solar powered. No matter how cold it is, when the sun is out the days feel easier. Light makes all things better. The days of winter are indeed dark and yet, the light is lengthening. Darkness is growing shorter. My colleague told me that from January 1st to January 31st, daylight increases by two minutes every day. A year by year, decade by decade miracle of light and seasons.

The thing about light is that you can never diminish it by taking from it. When you light a candle from another candle, it doesn’t take any light from the first candle. They both burn bright. When you put a window into a wall, the outside light is not diminished by bringing light inside. Maybe that is why there are so many metaphors of light in scripture, because the nature of light is that even a little light will spread. A fraction of light is more powerful than all the darkness that surrounds it.

We are not in an easy time. World events collide with personal tragedies yielding an entire universe that feels like it will never be right. The news shouts at us from every corner, a dark and bleak picture of humanity. Beyond the miracle of seasons and measured time, what does lengthening light mean for us at this time in history? At this time personally? Perhaps our challenge is to witness this lengthening light as a witness to God – God who is above all the seasons and all the chaos. God, who illuminates the world with never diminishing, always lengthening true light. A light that pays attention to the tragedies, but knows there is a story beyond and above our current reality.

In the midst of the horror of Nazi Germany, Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest who was imprisoned for his outspoken resistance to Hitler, wrote these words that speak to lengthening light and to our present day turmoil: “The grey horizons must grow light. It is only the immediate scene that shouts so loudly and insistently. Beyond the present tumult there exists a different realm, one that is now in our midst. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered him beneath her heart, and given birth to the Son. The world has come under a different law. Christmas is not only a historic event that happened once, on which our salvation rests. Christmas is the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.“

Lengthening light, grey horizons growing light, “the promise of a new order of things, of life, of our existence.”

And So We Wait – A Brighter Light

Week 4 – Advent

Tomorrow, December 21st, marks the longest night of the year. While living in Kurdistan we found out that Kurds and Iranians honor the longest night of the year with a celebration. They gather together with family and friends eating, drinking, and reading poetry of which the poet Hafez born in Shiraz is said to be a favorite.

I love this. I love that they have taken the shortest day and replaced it with the longest night, making it a celebration instead of a depressing mark of winter. With this celebration they replace resignation with gratitude, and in so doing bring light to the darkness.

After December 21st, the days slowly and steadily get longer. We see earlier and brighter light as daylight increases by around a minute and a half each day.

In the middle of the longest night there is an invitation for us. An invitation that doesn’t have to be old and tired, but instead can rise with new life during this year where sadness and lament threaten to overwhelm us.

It’s a lesson of celebration and life, of hope and a brighter light.

This long year has held a mirror up to many of us individually and all of us collectively. We are more aware of our selfishness, of our need to be entertained, of our desire for comfort and freedom to go where we want when we want. We are more aware of what it is to be lonely, of what it is to collectively grieve. We are more aware of our need for each other and our quest for security and safety in places and from people and governments that can’t give it.

It is still the Advent season and we are entering the longest night. Then, as we journey toward Bethlehem the light will get brighter and by December 25th, though it will barely be perceptible, daylight will be longer. I want to take the longest night and be filled with gratitude. Gratitude that light came into the World, a light that the darkness could not comprehend. Gratitude that it takes long nights of the soul for us to understand how beautiful this light is, how deeply we need it.

In my faith tradition, the Eucharist is not something that we take. Rather, it is something that we go forward and receive. Mouths open, arms across our chests, we lean forward to the priest. He reaches toward us across the cup, “The Servant of God, Sophia Maria, receives the Body and Blood of Christ.” We don’t do anything but walk up to the priest with the chalice. The rest is given to us. This is deeply powerful, a striking reminder that we have done nothing to deserve grace and salvation, rather it is a gift that is given to all. It is up to us to receive it. When we as Orthodox speak to each other about communion, we talk about receiving. We don’t talk about taking communion, instead the words are always around receiving; receiving a gift.

Each time I receive, as I walk away making the sign of the cross, I am filled with gratitude. Gratitude for this gift, this light that came into the world, the “word made flesh.”

This is what I think of as I think of moving into the light of Christmas. Moving forward with gratitude and receiving the light, a gift given to all of us.

Oh God, We come with fragile human hearts, broken by grief, by loss, by so much that hurts in this broken world. We come forward, empty of everything except deep longing. We walk through the longest night and enter into the bright light of morning and in gratitude, we receive you – the word made flesh. Fill us with you, for nothing else will truly satisfy.

Advent 2020

If you would like to catch up on other Advent readings, please see these:

On Cardinals and Bread Making

A female cardinal heads toward our bird feeder, interrupting my thoughts as I stare out the window. She is not the dazzling, deep red of her mate, instead her beauty is more subtle – a beak that the most beautiful lipstick could scarcely imitate, a warm red hue at the edges of her wings, but otherwise a light, lovely brown. Her mate is nowhere to be seen, smartly taking cover on a chilly May morning. It is early morning and her interruption is welcome during this time of solitude, nature reminding me that all will be well.

I am deeply influenced by the weather and I look out the window toward the city of Boston, grateful for sunshine and blue sky. Despite that, I find myself sighing, willing myself to focus on the beautiful distraction of the cardinal and not the unknown of the days ahead.

The spoken and unspoken words within all of us are “When will this end?” And even as we speak the words, we know that many have gone through far more difficult times for much longer periods. The cry “How long, Oh Lord?” daily escaping their lips, seemingly without answer.

Those daily chores of eating, taking walks, working from home, video chatting with friends and family, texting and more texting have all achieved heightened importance.

But by far, the most therapeutic, calming act for me has been making bread. I have loved making bread. Not sourdough, with its complicated starter that seems to the uninitiated an organism as needy as a newborn baby. Instead, oatmeal bread – a tried and true recipe that has fed our family through new born babies, tragedies, cold winters, and joy-filled soup suppers. It is therapeutic to create and it is therapy to eat.

I love eating bread, I love making bread. I have written in the past that making bread is better than a counseling session. It is redemptive work, this work of bread making. It grounds me in something solid and sustaining. It is no wonder that throughout history, from France to Egypt to Boston, bread riots have come about when shortages occur or prices rise. Bread is symbolic to life.

Every place I have lived in the world has given me more and more appreciation for bread and the thousands of ways to create it. Each type comes with a unique flavor despite most of them using fairly standard ingredients. Head out to the bazaar at dinner time in Kurdistan or Pakistan and you will hear vendors shouting, luring customers in to buy the fresh naan, fresh bread, hot out of clay ovens.

During this time of worldwide uncertainty and fear, we all long to have something to sustain us. The abundance of recipes and people creating starters for sourdough bread is evidence of how we look to bread to do this for us. In the midst of so much unknown, we want to hold on to the known and the stable, want to grasp things that will take us through uncertainty. No wonder Jesus said “I am the bread of life” to his disciples.

Bread. Beautiful, life-giving, life-sustaining bread – both the physical, tangible bread that I eat and the less tangible spiritual bread of life that I daily seek. Bread that brings order out of chaos, comfort out of despair, and peace out of pandemics, and with it the reminder of words that have lasted thousands of years. “Take. Eat. My body broken for you.”

[Picture Credit: Image by Laura Retyi from Pixabay]

Those Damn Decade Photos

It was last January when I saw the first decade photo. I remember it well. It was of a gorgeous 27 year old who had also been a gorgeous 17 year old. No awkward photos there. Just lovely teeth, lovely hair, lovely – I mean really lovely – skin, and a cute caption. Something like “Wow – it’s been a decade. So much has happened but I guess I’m holding up okay!” All of us responded positively to the beautiful perfection that was her. She also had a chin, which for some of us was perhaps the most enviable part of her photograph.

I began to see more and more decade photos, and finally I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be fun to find some photos and do the same?”

I would periodically set out to find the decade photos, but every time a memory would stop me. A memory from the last decade of life. A memory that didn’t find its way into social media, but found its way into my mind, floating there until I gave it the laughter, joy, or tears that it deserved.

These damn decade photos – they capture a couple of seconds in time, but the moments before and after dance around them, creating an album of life that isn’t easily shared.

For so many of us, these decade photos are tough. A decade ago, some had a home to go to for Christmas – now they long for their phones to buzz with a text of invitation from someone who knows they are alone. A decade ago, a grandmother could walk quickly and unassisted, conquering her eighties like a boss. Now she walks with a cane or walker, ever aware of her fragility. A decade ago, a couple pledged their lives to each other- family and friends witnessing and celebrating. Now a casket holds the body of one of them while the other lives through the unimaginable.

When we first search for the photos, it’s a fun game. “Let’s look!Let’s see how the pictures differ!” The kid with braces and a god-awful haircut turns into the male model – or not. The pictures we carefully curate may be beautiful or fun but they hide much of what the decade held. For me, the longer I searched, the more i realized the moments lived in the decade were far deeper than the pictures we took.

A decade ago, I was parenting a child in middle school, a child in high school, two college students, and a young adult. Now I’m parenting 5 adults, all on their own in different cities of the world. How could I possibly find photos that captured the differences between them and now? More than that, did I have the resilience to look back at the hard, hard things that transpired? The “non-curated” moments where life fell apart and you weren’t sure you could go on.

But I kept searching, because ultimately I wanted to see how life had changed, and how we had changed and adapted with it. ⠀

This morning I looked back in the archives and found the long sought-after pictures. Memories and moments hidden from the one-dimensional camera lens tumbled over each other, but I pressed on.

For most parents, mingled in with the pictures are a million stories of our kids growing up and facing equal amounts of joy and pain without us able to bear witness and be a soft landing for them. They have grown up and grown on. And though we may still be very much a part of their lives, we are not going to know everything, because we aren’t supposed to. ⠀

The best we can do is embrace them when they come home, give them a soft pillow and a warm drink, and love them, love them, love them. And we can pray mercy and grace over them by the handfuls, and pray that they will have the tools to face whatever is going on in their lives. ⠀

And then sometimes we get golden moments. Weddings, births, and reunions – visible evidence of families expanding to include partners and grandkids. And somehow the love that we have for them grows to include the extra people. It’s a miracle really – this human capacity to love. A miracle of God.⠀


Next time I see a decade photo, I’ll remember that even the most beautiful picture includes a storied life of joy and pain, sometimes visible, other times invisible.

Here’s to the untold stories of this past decade, the ones that never make it to social media, because they aren’t supposed to. The stories we hold close to our hearts and first in our prayers. And may we always remember, we are all so much more than we appear.

2009-2019

Sacred Meals and Invitations

This morning I slowly opened my eyes to bright sunlight. As I lay in bed, still sleepy, I reflected back on the last few days and on Thanksgiving, just hours before.

A dear friend arrived on Tuesday from Ghana to stay with us. The first time she ever came to the United States was as an 18-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, here to attend college in Western Massachusetts. She arrived just days after the 9/11 attacks that sent the world into a spin and redefined wars and border crossings. Mariam has now lived in multiple countries with her family, and writes well on what it is to be globally mobile. She is the epitome of what it looks like to learn and grow across cultures and communicate across boundaries.

Her arrival sparked stories and conversations that have been lying dormant in my heart. These global connections are more than friendships – they are opportunities to share stories, they are ways to promote understanding, they are journeys into our hearts and what is really going on. Every morning we have curled up on my couch with homemade lattes, savoring the sweetness and time. These hidden stories don’t make sense to everyone, but they do to Mariam.

Yesterday we worked together to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. Traditional turkey and stuffing blended with Palak Paneer and parathas with a goal to make sure every guest was suitably full to the brim with food and thanks.

It was an eclectic group of us around the table. In today’s climate, some may consider it a dangerous Thanksgiving. An American raised in Pakistan and an American raised in the military feasted with friends from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Iran. There were no walls and there was no talk of walls.

There were stories topped with cranberry sauce, thankful hearts accompanied by whipped cream. There were linguistic comparisons and nostalgia over favorite foods from passport countries, there were missed references and laughter to make your stomach hurt.

There is something sacred about sharing a meal. In the liturgy of our faith tradition we experience the bread and the wine, the body and the blood in remembrance of a meal. But the sacred act of sharing a meal continues when we, equipped through the liturgy, go out into the world. That is why the meals that Christ shared while on earth feel so important. As humans, our need for food and water, the reaching across a table to share these with simple words like “please pass the bread” bind us together in mysterious and hopeful ways. Author Leslie Verner says “A meal equalizes, for as we dine together, we lift the same utensils to our lips and touch the same bread to our tongues.”

There are times when I lose hope for this country, land of my birth and my passport. I wonder how a place with so many resources and such abundance can collectively operate without generosity, with an ethos of scarcity instead of abundance. I think about the lessons I have learned about hospitality and invitations, living out of abundance from the land of my childhood, and the lands that I have loved and lived in as an adult. I lose hope for myself, for how quickly I get caught up in the pervading attitude of “me first” and others last. I feel anger toward the fact that in a worldwide crisis of displacement and refugees, a nation with room to spare has stalled resettlement.

But when I think about yesterday, about a room full of people from around the world who gathered with laughter and joy for a shared meal, I know that’s not the whole story. I know there is more. I know that there are many opening up their homes and making room for more; many who hate walls and want to build bridges.

And I am convinced that inviting others into our homes is one of the most hopeful acts of resistance possible.

We are going into a season of excess and abundance – my prayer is that we – that I – channel that abundance into loving well and serving more, that I channel it into invitations and hospitality.

The ending paragraph of the book Invited is nothing less than inspired. Throughout the book we see an invitation to a different way of living and being, a way of living out of abundance not scarcity. So I close with her words on this day after thanksgiving, inviting all of us into another way to live.

Lord, pry the film from our eyes, the scales from our skin, the shield and sword from our hands. Equip us to notice the stranger and the strange. Embolden us to be the stranger and the strange. Pull us into the flow of your Spirit at work in the world, infusing our ordinary days with your extraordinary presence. Hold open our eyes to to admire your wonders and delight in your mysteries. Fill us with gratitude for the paths you’ve paved for us, and all the ways you’ve proven that you are Emmanuel, God with us.

Motivate us to always invite, because you never stop inviting. Inspire us to welcome, because you lavish generosity on us and promise to refill the gifts we give away.

Come Lord Jesus.

Let us live like invited ones.

Epilogue of Invited by Leslie Verner

Amen

As the End Begins

We began packing yesterday morning. Before coffee or tea, before breakfast, before we had a chance to breathe and then catch our breath, we were removing books from shelves and pictures from the walls. “And so it begins” I thought. Compared to what we had to do to come here and the dismantling of our homes and lives in Boston, this is nothing. But it is still hard. It still hurts. I still prefer creating a home to deconstructing one.

The weekend was full of travel and play with 23 Kurdish students and young adults who are volunteers at a local NGO. We piled into a bus with questionable shocks and took to the roads of Kurdistan. We saw rivers and mountains, hiked to Neanderthal Caves and drove through the city of the three wise men. We ate good food and danced to Kurdish music. We had discussions on goals and why we are here and played games. Laughter was the background to every event and meal. It was the perfect way to spend our last weekend in Kurdistan. All together we traveled over 15 hours in a bus across Kurdistan and all of us are richer for it.

We never expected to form these close friendships. We did not know how much we would laugh, that we would find our people among the younger generation in Kurdistan. We did not know that they would support us by bringing medicine when we were sick; heaters when we were cold; invitations when we were lonely; and laughter when we most needed it.

The future in Kurdistan is bright because of these people. They are men and women who are smart, funny, wise beyond their years, and compassionate. They recognize the hypocrisy in their government and in their institutions, and they are fighting to change first themselves, and then their community. We could not be more honored that they have chosen us to be their friends. We could not be more grateful for their willingness to enter into our lives with so much generosity and joy.

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine and the tasks at hand: sorting, distributing, packing. We walked up and down stairs to pack a truck to deliver to one friend who is getting married, another friend who is Iranian and far from her own home comforts, and a local NGO. With every picture taken down and every piece of furniture given away we know that the end has begun.

How do you measure ten months?

In picnics,

In sunsets,

In calls to prayer,

In cups of chai,

In centimeters, in kilometers, in laughter, in strife.

Seasons of Love from Rent (adapted)

When we first found out that we would have to leave the cry of my heart was “Why did we only get ten months? Why?” Now, I think “We got ten months in Kurdistan. We are so fortunate.”

Ten months of laughter and joy; ten months of learning some of the challenges that Kurds work within and around. Ten months of Ranya Bazaar and Cafe 64; ten months of invitations and English talk club. Ten months of Toranj restaurant and our dear Iranian friends. Ten months of unforgettable conversations and amazing food; ten months of learning what advocacy is and is not. Ten months of some of the most challenging work interactions we have had in our many years of working in four countries and on three continents. Ten months of being offended and of causing offense. Ten months of feeling both understood and misunderstood. Ten months of this small apartment that is chilling cold in the winter and delightfully cool in the summer. Ten months of creating a home and a community.

Ten months of picnics, of sunsets, of calls to prayer, and cups of tea. Ten months of centimeters, kilometers, laughter and strife.

How do we measure our time here? It defies the metric and the imperial systems of measurement so we won’t try.

We just know that we are forever richer by Kurdistan.