Gratitude and Grace

It’s the day before American Thanksgiving and I’m sitting in my mom’s living room looking out at the quickly fading daylight. Soon it will be twilight and lights around the city of Rochester, New York will come on, our 21st century way of prolonging daylight.

The mashed potato roll dough is in the refrigerator, pumpkin pies are cooling, cranberry sauce is made, and everything else will happen by tomorrow. While no one would ever call me a traditionalist, when it comes to Thanksgiving, I love traditions of food and activities. I love it all – the turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, and homemade cranberry sauce. I’m happy to add extras like saag paneer and parathas but bring on the traditional foods and I’m content. I love the tradition of sharing memorable Thanksgivings from the past and favorite foods. I love playing games and easy conversation.

As I sit with my mom, a lot of our time is spent reminiscing. Her childhood and early adulthood come up often in these conversations, memories of people and events long gone. Memories return through all our senses – the taste of cranberry sauce, the smell of pumpkin pie, the sight of an old recipe, the sound of a song, the texture of a piecrust – and with their return the stories tumble out, often flowing into the next story before the first one is finished. These stories somehow live deep in our DNA, sometimes pushed far down but never truly forgotten. Listening and absorbing these stories becomes ever more precious knowing that at 94, any event could be my mom’s last.

As I sit in the quiet, gratitude for this season is a welcome companion. While Christmas brings its own peculiar pressure, the gift giving never seeming quite enough and the pressure to please sometimes overwhelming, Thanksgiving is enveloped in traditions and gratitude. No matter where we are in the world there is room for gratitude and feasting. No matter the tragedy or sadness that may be circling around us, Thanksgiving helps us stop and breathe, opening up space to remember friendship, protection, hope, and grace.

And with this, I am grateful to you all – some who I know in real life, some who I know online, others who reach out with kind affirmation and still others who read on the sidelines. I have processed through writing for eleven years….it’s a long time to walk with someone. Thank you! I will never take it for granted.

Image by Denis Naumenko from Pixabay

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.

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.

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]