Masked Mourners & Bagpipes

Across the street from our house stands an old Catholic church, its magestic steeple reaching far into the sky. From eight o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, the church rings out the hours on bells that echo across Charlestown. During this time of year, along with the bells are old Christmas Carols – “In the Bleak Midwinter,” “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” are all treats for the ears during this season. The carols start at the beginning of Advent and go through Epiphany on January 7th.

It is also a church that holds a lot of funerals. Almost weekly, parking signs will appear warning us not to park across the street by the church. The unspoken message is for us to give honor to those attending the funeral by giving up our hard fought parking spaces, for it is a city, and fights landing people in jail have happened over parking spaces. Most of us willingly give up our spots, our contribution to what is already a grief-filled time for those who attend.

In recent months the most common scene at the church has been masked mourners, the most common funeral sound bagpipes, their melancholic sounds echoing through the neighborhood. It has brought me to tears more than once. Could there be an instrument more mournful? I don’t think so.

Whenever I hear the bagpipes I know that a hearse is not far behind.

Though I feel sad, I also feel hope with these funerals. People are gathering. They are mourning together. As a family that has gone through profound grief alone, postponing a memorial service for months following a death, I delight in seeing these masked mourners gather. They are bearing witness to grief and in doing so showing the strength of community.

As I think of the regular occurrence of funerals across the street, and the millions of other deaths and subsequent funerals from this past year, I think of the words of Psalm 139, a Psalm that I have been reading and rereading during these first couple of days of the New Year.

More than any other Psalm or words in scripture, this one gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us. The words “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” are a powerful reminder that God knows the number of our days. He knows when the masked mourners and bagpipes or their equivalent will be played for each person.

But the Psalm is so much more than just knowing our days. The messages are profoundly comforting: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen clearly, known fully, and loved extravagantly, would I not rest easier? Would I not be more secure? It’s something I’ve struggled with for possibly my entire life.

The Psalmist, because he is human, seems to understand the disconnect. Indeed, he admits his own inability to understand saying that it is too much and too wonderful to understand.

Our world offers a lot of substitutes for the truths in Psalm 139, and many of them feel quite real, but the past year has shown that they are fleeting at best. Our security in health, jobs, travel, friendships, and safety is an illusion. While the “enemy” used to be something that the West thought they could keep out with high fences and strong borders, an invisible virus has broken through all of those illusions, making us servants to fear and grasping and gasping for hope.

What better time then, to lean in hard to these truths of being seen, known, and loved, for the more I lean in, the more aware I am of false substitutes and the more I find rest in God’s safety net.

All things find refreshing calm and peace when they have found their center.

Based on writings from St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain written in verse by Scott Cairns in Endless Life

A Boy and a Bunny

When my brother Stan was in high school, he rescued one of our baby bunnies who had been rejected by its mother. The bunny was so young that it had not yet grown fur. He set up an incubator type space for the bunny in a box with a lamp and a soft cloth, feeding it with an eye dropper every few hours and watching over it constantly. Despite his efforts, the bunny died. I remember all of us feeling the sting of loss and death. It was deeply sad. It might have been only a bunny, but it was a bunny that had a devoted caregiver determined for it to live.

We cried the sobs of the young who encounter early experiences with death only to discover that it is not something we have power over. Instead, it would come and it would bring sorrow and pain throughout our lives.

Growing up in the developing world, I understood early on that sickness and death were part of our world. We were not shielded. I have found that this was not necessarily the case for those who grew up in the western world. Yet, if there is anything that this year has shown to all of us, it is that we don’t have nearly as much control over our lives, over sickness, over death as we may have thought we do.

I can fight this, but it doesn’t change reality. Sickness and death seem to be excellent teachers. When faced with these, I don’t know what the next minute will hold, let alone the next week.

I’ve always known in my head that I have no control over death, but I think in my heart I somehow felt I might be able to stall it, to negotiate it for better times. Like making a doctor’s appointment: “I’m sorry, that time won’t work for us. Could you make it for Tuesday at ten? Thank you so much!”

It doesn’t work like that. The death of the bunny was only the beginning. And it was a small prick of pain compared to pain that would come later.

One of my biggest honors in writing is hearing from people around the world. I get emails and messages that tell me of hurts and struggles, of family members near death and of struggles in life. This Monday morning I have received messages that have made me weep, made me realize the fragility of life. One reader tells me of an early morning trip to a hospital for his child, another tells me of their daughter facing such deep loneliness during this pandemic isolation that she has been hospitalized, another tells me of his family member who is dying. Each story has so much more to it than the few lines that have been shared. Each story involves multiple hurting people and families.

It is a Monday morning and the world feels deeply broken and hurt, deeply wounded. Like the bunny in the homemade incubator, our world feels to be hanging on to life by a thread.

I have no words of comfort other than this: If a teenage boy can care so much about a baby bunny that he sets up an incubator and watches over it, feeding it with an eyedropper, then surely the God whose image that teenage boy bears can care about the deep pain present in all these situations.

So today, if you are in pain, if you are grieving and hurt, if you are watching someone you love die by degrees, may you know that God – a God who cares about teenage boys and bunnies, a God who whispers in the quiet nights of our pain, a God who not only bears witness to a suffering, fragile world, but also entered it – may you know that God cares infinitely about you. May you have people to walk with you through your pain.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to be present through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

from Just Your Presence

[Image by Milchdrink from Pixabay]

Where Does Your Soul Hurt?

November in the Northeast of the United States colors gray. Though there are some bright days of sun and leftover reds and golds from a brilliant October, those aren’t as common as the more dull days that whisper of a winter coming and shout of a summer long gone.

And today colors grayer than gray. Though it began with a brilliant sun shining through our kitchen windows, the sun faded out of sight with thick clouds taking over.

The first question that came at me this morning was from an app that I have been using called “Soul Space.” This five minute meditation focused on “anchoring your thoughts to the love of God” is a beautiful way to ground me after my morning prayers. The question was one that quickly brought tears to my eyes.

“Ask your soul: Where does it hurt?”

Where does it hurt? Where are the painful spots in my soul today? The spots that others don’t see as I go about life. Through the meditation, listeners were invited to put their hands over their hearts and listen to where it hurt.

I felt like I was putting a stethoscope up to my soul to find the wounds and murmurs. I hadn’t realized how much my soul was hurting until I stopped to listen. Tears filled my eyes, and I brushed them away impatiently. But it was no use. They came again and I gave in to their therapeutic healing.

None of us can go through much of life before encountering soul wounds. We can keep busy and ignore them, but sometime they will catch up to us.

This pandemic season they have caught up with us. This time has revealed some deep soul wounds in many of us and we are feeling their weight. Loneliness, isolation, lack of community, division among friends and families, changes in friendships, marriage tensiton, online strife, not seeing family and friends for extended periods – all of this is taking its toll on our bodies and our souls. We are a hurting people who don’t know how to help.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine sent me a poem. Since that time I’ve seen in quoted many times in many places, proof of it resonating across the world.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Warsan Shire

And though I love the poem, I don’t believe we are left hurting alone. I have come to know that there is a wound healer that comes beside us and enters our soul wounds, if we are willing.

And so I imagine God picking up that same atlas in an embrace of love, running his fingers across the whole world and whispering these words:

I heal the broken hearted, and bind up their wounds.  
I whisper hope into your soul wounds and give you joy.  
I take your burdens and make them lighter, invite you into a resting place.  
 
The atlas replied "But it hurts so much."   
"I know" he whispered back. 
"But let me bear it with you so you will not be alone,"  
Ever so slowly the atlas responded to the embrace. 
It still hurt, but she was no longer alone.  
And so she rested.  

[Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash]

Prayer for a Sunday Afternoon

It is on Sunday afternoons when my longing feels the strongest, when I feel exiled from all around me, when my heart cries out for its eternal home.

It is on Sunday afternoon when the cries and sadness of the week settle into tears that the world is not as it should be.

It is on Sunday afternoons when darkness comes quicker, and I scurry to light candles and turn on lamps eager to chase the darkness away.

It is on Sunday afternoons when my soul settles in to one long cry of longing and exile.

It is on Sunday afternoons when the Divine Liturgy, only hours past feels far, and I have to cling to the ‘heaven meets earth in Divine Liturgy’ truth of my faith.

God be with us on Sunday afternoons.

Be with us in our deep longing for earthly family and eternal home.

Comfort our hearts with the knowledge that just as we urgently long for something nameless, you urgently long for us who are named.

When we feel the deep sadness of those who are not with us, soothe our souls with the balm of your presence.

May our bodies relax in you, the one who has created us for your glory.

Give rest to our minds so we do not overthink our restless longing.

Allow us to accept our feelings without shame, instead with a knowledge that you have gifted us with them.

May your ever present voice of love birth in us holy desire in the lonely places of a Sunday afternoon.

In our longing, give us rest and peace.

This we pray on a Sunday afternoon in November.


May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.

May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.

John O’Donohue in To Bless the Space Between Us

Lonely Tears and Sunflower Hope

I wake up lonely. This does not happen often, but when it does I know tears are just below the surface and I feel the heavy weight of distance between me and the world.

It is not surprising, but it is unwelcome. Just last week I was surrounded by family and life, by water and activity in Istanbul. My husband and I had a 3-country trip planned to celebrate both of us turning 60 this year. Besides the state-side celebrations, our plan was to go to Egypt, Kurdistan, and Turkey.

All of those plans were laid in the large, globe sized pandemic grave of missed opportunities and revised plans and expectations. We felt glad to be alive and have food in our cupboards. Forget any grand plans.

But as the summer wore on and curves flattened, borders opening their doors just a tiny bit, we decided to push them open wider. My brother and sister-in-law and niece and her family were all in Istanbul, a place open to Americans with no quarantine needed. We may not get to Egypt and Kurdistan, but we could certainly take the nine plus hour flight to Istanbul.

And so we did. We left on a Friday night, arriving on the other side of the world on a Saturday afternoon. We took in the beautiful breezes on the Bosphorous as we went on ferry rides to the Black Sea and over to the European side of Istanbul. We took a cable car up to Pierre Lotti’s house overlooking the entire city, and we ticked a stay at the famed Pera Palace off of our bucket list. We ate delicious food, drank hot glasses of steaming tea, and laughed until our bellies ached.

Better still, our son who lives in Greece decided to surprise us, showing up at dinner time on our second day in Istanbul. The tears and joy filled my heart.

The entire trip was a gift. A gift of beauty and family, of hope and longing fulfilled.

And then – we returned. We returned to more strife than we left. We returned to a nation that is fighting, fearful, and jaundiced. We returned to mask shaming and covid deniers. We returned to a nation full of people who assume the worst of their fellow human beings, who spit on the Imago Dei to win an online argument. And me? I’m the worst offender of all.

For the first few days I braced myself. “I’m okay” I kept on saying. “I can do this.”

But today? Today I woke up and the loneliness that had hovered just around my heart closed in, squeezing it to a full physical ache. I began to cry. I cried and cried and cried. You know the kind of tears that are so healing and good for the soul? Those kind. They weren’t tears of self pity. They were tears of loneliness, brokenness, and pain for our world.

I felt lost in pandemic exile, trapped in lonely isolation. I sensed the cold weather that will inevitably come, and like the runaway bunny, my thoughts run unchecked and too far into a cold, lonesome future.

I know where to take this ache, but it feels heavy and I’m not sure I can carry it and drop it at those feet, those dust-covered, blistered, scarred feet of Jesus

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

It is now several hours later. My eyes hurt from the crying, my soul is exhausted, but somehow I know it will all be okay. This God who has heard me since I was a little girl when the tears flowed in boarding school still hears me, still comforts me with his invisible presence. Hope blooms out of lonely tears, like the sunflowers that unexpectedly bloomed in our garden, welcoming us on return.

May the loneliness I feel be the catalyst for reaching out harder, praying longer, and knowing even more fully that sometimes only God alone can be the comfort we all so desperately need.

We Aren’t All Okay

You know those signs that appear on pretty suburban lawns? The ones that say “It’s all going to be okay!” or “Everything will be okay!” in cheery colors? Well guess what!?

We aren’t all okay. We are far from okay. I learned today that gun sales in Massachusetts, the hardest state in the nation to buy a gun, have gone up by 85% compared to a year ago. I learned that overdoses and suicides are up. And we all know that unemployment is a rocking 20% in the United States.

And guess what? All the posts on social media moralizing everything we are doing – whether it be wearing or not wearing masks, or opening up the economy – none of that is helping. It’s like watching kids bickering and finally saying “Enough! Go to your rooms RIGHT THIS MINUTE! I don’t want to hear another word from you!”

So don’t tell us we are all going to be okay. We are not in the same boat. If you have a regular pay check, then you may want the country to stay closed. If you don’t have a pay check – you may want it to open so that you can feed your family and pay your rent. If you are a recovering addict, desperately needing your support group, then you may want the country to open. If you have diabetes and other co-morbidities that make you more at risk for COVID-19, then you may want it to stay closed. You may think keeping an economy closed is a moral issue, but the person who just learned that their family member struggling with depression committed suicide, a result of severe depression and loneliness, may think that opening the country is a moral issue. We all have things we’d like to moralize about. GIVE EACH OTHER A BREAK and stop this nonsense.

None of this is easy and we are not okay.

So what? What is my solution?

The only thing I have is to lean into your discomfort. Lean deep into it. Scream. Cry. Rage. Bite your pillow. I promise you it will help.

“Lean into your discomfort” – face the sadness, the madness, the anger, and the hard.

Lean into your discomfort.

But how? How do I lean into my discomfort so that I can come out the other side?

Google the phrase and you get about 7,090,000 results in .45 seconds. This is a phrase that people use a lot. It is the social worker’s mantra – Lean into your discomfort. Don’t deny the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration.

There are times when leaning into my discomfort is less complicated than others. Today is a perfect example. I just had to do it, I had to navigate the feelings, the tears, the email system that didn’t work, the powerpoint that I had not yet completed, the things that are making me angry – all of it. Other times leaning into my discomfort is so painful I want to anesthetize the process with whatever I can, whether it be sleep, or food, or denial, or putting so much distraction into my life that I don’t have to think about the discomfort.

But ultimately, I have to do it.

“Lean into your discomfort” is a phrase that works for me. It doesn’t deny the process, it doesn’t diminish the pain. Instead it challenges me that in leaning into the pain, the discomfort, the confusion, the grief, we learn to walk. First in baby steps, then in regular steps, finally in giant steps.

The steps are like playing the childhood game of  “Mother May I?”

“Mother may I take three giant steps” says the child. And the one who is ‘Mother’ says “No but you can take three baby steps” or “No but you can take one scissor step”. The goal is to reach ‘mother’ who is at the end of the court. When ‘Mother’ isn’t looking, the child on the court tries to sneak a couple more steps in, wanting to reach the goal faster. Leaning into our discomfort is sometimes like asking for giant steps and getting baby steps; or asking for baby steps and being told we have to take a giant step — only our legs are short and our giant steps feel small.

It is a long process. But the more we lean, the less we try to gloss over and pretend it’s all okay; the less we sit defeated, mourning the life we find ourselves in. The more we face our feelings and circumstances, the quicker we arrive at a place of understanding, at a place that is more comfortable. The more we lean, the taller we stand and the braver we become – and the kinder we can be to each other.

That’s all I have. That’s it. Because it really isn’t all okay right now.

[Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/atlanta-background-brick-city-5065797/]

Siblings and the Third Culture Kid Journey

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

Recently I was thinking about an event in my childhood. It took place at the time of the Indo-Pak war – the war of independence for East Pakistan, the outcome being East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.

As I remember, it coincided with a mono epidemic at our boarding school, where many of us were sent home early to recover from what used to be known as the “kissing” disease.

My parents were living in the city of Larkana in Southern Pakistan at the time, and we were the only expat family, the only English speaking family in the area. It created a unique family dynamic, one where we relied heavily on each other without even realizing it.

My brothers decided to build a trench in our front yard, a worthy act that could hardly have saved us from Indian bombs falling but was, nevertheless, a creative outlet. When finished, they proudly invited my parents and me to take a look. We were duly impressed, although secretly I remember thinking it didn’t look like it could survive an air raid. I’m not sure why I wasn’t involved in digging the trench, but knowing the princess that I was and continue to be, it was wise that I was on the sidelines – ever appreciative but not getting my hands dirty.

And so it went, my siblings and me. They were the ones that traveled with me through the same places and situations of our between worlds life. Home leaves, where we went through the painful process of trying to adjust to our passport country and the strangeness of New England for a short year before packing our bags to head back overseas; winters in the dusty, Bougainvillea laden homes in the Sindh region of Pakistan; long Punjabi church services listening to Miss Mall lead singing with her powerful bass voice; boarding school and the ups and downs of being away from home; camping in Kaghan valley with the monsoon season ensuring everything was damp; eating curry by the side of the road during family trips; falling asleep to the sounds of ocean waves hitting the sand during our yearly week at the beach; and so much more that went into our sibling journey.

The situations changed, but the main characters were always the same. Ed. Stan. Tom. Marilyn. Dan.

Until they weren’t. Until the actors, one by one, left the scene and it was finally left to me and my younger brother to continue the play. A few years later I would be the one to leave the stage and my brother would continue on his own. What used to be a chaotic and ever-stimulating conversation among siblings changed to a silent monologue, different for each of us.

If the time and sounds of childhood are marked by our siblings, then perhaps it is even more so for the third culture kid. The daily events, the arguing, the all out fights, but overall the undying loyalty to place and to each other that connects our memories.

“Remember that time in Greece when we ate cherries at the outdoor cafe?” “Remember that time in Japan when I fell into the fish pond outside the hotel?” “Remember the time in Murree when we were on the mountain during that storm and thought we would get struck by lightning?” “Remember picnics by the canal?” “Remember leaving for the beach in the wee hours of the morning, landrover packed tight with stuff?” “Remember baby turtles and Hawkes Bay?”

Remember? Remember? Remember?

We were named and claimed as members of a family, marked by faith and place. In life’s journey, we knew that siblings mattered; sometimes they were all we had.

In losing one of our siblings, we have lost not just a person, but a piece of place, a voice of our memories logged deep in our souls. We have lost a place at the sibling table as represented by Stan.

A friend recently captured this well in a comment written to me about a photograph:

I see in the photo and hear in the words that loss of places in a person too…the sibling. One of the precious few who embody all those places and things collected from those times, and in so doing, they are our truth-sayers about that unique snapshot of those two years here and three years there.

Jody Tangredi

Siblings – those ones who represent the places we lived and the events that went with them. The ones who we will always have with us until they are no longer here.

A friend of mine wrote this article for Thrive Global. “Covid-19: The Third Side of the Coin – Hope, grief, and complexity in times of the Coronavirus“. It is an excellent, nuanced article that I found to be hopeful and encouraging during this time.