A Life Overseas – ‘Tis the Season of Incongruity

Deck the halls with calls for charity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

‘Tis the season of incongruity! Fa-la-la-la-laaa, la-la-la-la!

#CottageChristmas or starving children? Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!

My heart is caught and I cannot win this thing! Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-laa.


I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this. The sense of incongruity is overwhelming me this Christmas. I go from essays and photos of unbelievable beauty to my current reality, which includes messy, messy relationships, rain and mud up to my knees, no sign of Christmas lights and beauty,and long, long hours of no electricity.

I scroll through Instagram and the abundance of beauty is eye-popping. Pristine cottages bedecked with lights and color and living rooms with soft lights and all white furnishings with that splash of red and green color that just makes them pop. And then in the next picture, I catch my breath as I see a starving child in Yemen and an organization begging the world to take notice.  I breathe fire as I see another picture reminding me of the never-ending war in Syria and the continued devastation on people. And it hits home as I take my own pictures here in Kurdistan and I am reminded that there aren’t enough resources to meet the needs of the population, honor killings are still part of the landscape, and we can barely get funds for a single project.

‘Tis the season of incongruity – the season where the contrast feels too stark and I don’t feel like I have the ability to cope with these conflicting images.

And yet…

And yet, God’s story has always been a story of conflicting images. There is the image of the manger and the image of the cross, the image of judgement and the image of mercy, the image of truth and the image of grace. What I am seeing and feeling is nothing new to God.

God came into a world of contrasts. A world of the beauty and the broken. He came in a way that was so gentle, so unassuming – how could a baby threaten anyone? He came into a setting that was the height of incongruity – a king in a manger. For 33 years he lived as one who is unknown, going through daily life as we do – an image that is so mind boggling I stop thinking about it. We are told that he set aside greatness and “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death” – a violent, horrific death. And then, the glorious resurrection and the words that we live by every single day: “He is not here! He is risen!”

My heart longs for peace and harmony in a world of broken incongruity. Read the rest of the piece here.

On Patriotic Parfaits and Competing Loyalties

patriotic parfaits

The picture shows a perfect patriotic parfait: blue jello, white whipped cream, red strawberries. Above the perfect parfait was a sign that read “Patriotic Parfait. These Colors Don’t Run!” Click the mouse and there’s another version – blueberries, whipped cream, strawberries, more whipped cream. Red.White.Blue.Red.White.Blue – the colors echo through the dessert. And indeed, it is gorgeous. 

At an early age we learned that God is not North American. He spans nation and ocean, culture and ethnicity. To bind him to one nation is idolatry. To attach Him to one country elevates our own perceptions of that country. Secretly believing that God is North American justifies our private beliefs that we are superior. It’s not true

Even if you wanted to, you could not escape that there is a national holiday in the United States this week. From patriotic table settings to patriotic menu themes, red, white, and blue abound. July 4th is the quintessential holiday in the United States. It brings out a fierce patriotism and loyalty, along with the ever-present colors of the American flag on everything. From cupcakes to plates, from store decor to napkins — everything screams nationalism. There are even instructions for patriotic manicures! 

The holiday is a strange one for me. It forces my divided loyalties and living between worlds to the forefront and it’s not necessarily comfortable.

What is the ‘right’ response for the third culture kid, the one who lives between worlds, at home on both sides of the globe to independence day celebrations in their passport countries?

More importantly, what is the proper response for a citizen of Heaven? One who defines their loyalty less on their country and more on their faith?

The first one is less complicated than the second. I always loved the 4th of July overseas. Throughout the world, amazing 4th of July parties hosted by embassies are held. These parties are like nothing I’ve ever experienced in the United States. From hot dogs to face painting, they are incredible celebrations. One of my personal favorite stories is about winning a trip to anywhere in the United States at a 4th of July celebration in Cairo. It came at a time when I was aching for extended family and the trip was a gift of grace. On those days I held my American passport and citizenship with pride and excitement.

I’ve come to recognize a phenomenon of many of us who live between worlds: when we are in the West we are fierce supporters of the East, challenging those who would criticize these places we love; when in the East we veer toward fiercely defending the West, aware of all its faults but wanting to explain it to others. It’s like family – I can criticize my family, but if you criticize them you are in big trouble.

Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. So from a third culture kid perspective, I had no problem accepting the party piece of the celebration and not thinking too deeply about the rest of it. And truth be told, I like it that way. I don’t want to think too deeply about it other than this is a holiday celebrating an event in history. Just as August 14 is a holiday in Pakistan celebrating Pakistan’s independence from British rule as well as from its neighboring country, India, so July 4th is a holiday celebrating independence, where friends and food, small town parades and fireworks come together in a day off from work.

There are many things I love about the United States. This is a country of extraordinary diversity and the cities that I have been privileged to work and live in offer opportunities to interact with people from all over the world. From restaurants to cafés, from hotels to green spaces, from recreation activities to public transportation there is much to enjoy, to be grateful for. And we do have freedom.  I wake up daily to the sweet smell of freedom and it is a gift.

There are also things I love about Pakistan – from food to hospitality; from the beauty of the north to the Indian ocean in the south; from the resilience of a people to the friendships I’ve been privileged to have. And then there is Egypt – one of my beloved places. I have learned what it is to love on both sides of the globe, and this is a huge step for me. And with this in mind the TCK question I posed is easy: I can enjoy barbecues, I can enjoy burgers, I can enjoy fireworks, I can enjoy parfaits — no matter what color they are.

But the second question is more difficult. We are in an era where American exceptionalism is touted by many, where the United States is seen as a country “blessed” by God and therefore superior.

More recently, the “Make America Great Again” ideology is an ugly one that has allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech is trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

This thinking is highly concentrated in many conservative Christian groups. This is deeply troubling. When the underlying message becomes about the supposed moral superiority of the U.S. – that it is intrinsically ‘better’ than other countries, I cringe and step back. The pretty parfaits turn to bile in my mouth and I struggle to find words that articulate my issues with this thinking.

I do not believe that the United States is uniquely “blessed”. I do not believe it has a divinely appointed mission to police and save the world. In fact, right now I believe the United States is in an age of reckoning.

I do not believe that my friends, from all parts of the world, are to be pitied for where they live and what nationalities they hold. And in no way do I believe that America or Americans are more deserving, more unique than others that God has placed on his earth, in his world.

My allegiance is to a citizenship far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined less by a country and more by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far greater identity than that which is indicated by my passport.

So as a Christian, I will enjoy July 4th — because it’s a holiday, because I love a good barbecue and a small town parade, because it’s a day off, because there are many things I am grateful for – and freedom is one of them. But if I ever confuse my identity as an ‘American’ with that of being a ‘Christian’ may I be called out and challenged by those around me. Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

*****

 *Robynn and Marilyn in What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us

#OnlytheGood – Christmas 2017

It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.

I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.

We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.

In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.

The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.

Starlight shines, the night is still
Shepherds watch from a hill
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Perfect child gently waits
A mother bends to kiss God’s face
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing
Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace
Loves come down for you and me
Heaven’s gift, the holy spark
To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door
Came the hope we’ve waited for
The world was changed forevermore
When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born*

A baby born on a Pakistan International Airlines Flight! 

On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!


My friend Rachel has a book deal! She will be writing the story of Annalena Tonelli!

Plough Nabs Bio of ‘Somalia’s Mother Teresa’

“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”


New York Today: Alone in an Empty City

This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.

“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’

Nowhere.

At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.

But then we become the lucky ones.

We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”

Quote from my friend Jo: 

I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.

“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”


Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.


And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.

With love to all of you,

Marilyn ♥️

Song by Bernie Herms / Mark Schultz / Mark Mitchell Schultz / Stephanie Lewis When Love Was Born lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc<<<<<<<<<<
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Christmas on Beacon Hill

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Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

The Season for Candle Time

candle- messiah

This is the time of year where morning comes slowly and evening quickly.

I feel melancholy as I wake up far before the sun rises over the Atlantic ocean, just a few miles to the east of us. As much as I want to embrace these days and all they hold, I am a woman who loves light and sun. I love it when sunlight floods my living room and bright light and warmth comfort me beyond my bones to my soul. As soon as I rise, I go to the kitchen and turn on the lights of the newly decorated Christmas tree and light a single candle. Somehow these small acts are enough to comfort; enough to calm my anxious soul and bring light into life.

It was during days like this that we began our favorite Christmas tradition, something we call “Candle Time”. It began in Cairo with my sister-in-law, Carol. We had the joy of having them live just a few blocks from us during our second year in Cairo. During the Christmas season we found ourselves back and forth at each other’s homes a lot. Together we had five children – three belonged to us, two belonged to them. One evening as our children were winding down after dinner we started “Candle Time”.

We began by turning off every light in the flat. Clad in their onesie pajamas, their toddler fat still squeezable, they sat still in wonder as we lit a candle and began singing Christmas carols. Then we walked each of them off to bed and looked at each other in amazement. We had never had this calm a bedtime routine.

And so began a tradition. Beginning soon after Thanksgiving we started Candle Time. By candle light we sang Christmas carols, talked, and prayed. By candle light we ate frosted sugar cookies. By candle light we drank rich, hot cocoa. By candle light we then walked each child to their beds, kissed them good night to the sound of Silent Night.

It became a favorite part of our holiday season.

Candle time became a treasured tradition, a time of quiet and connection during what is often the busiest time of the year. As the kids grew, guitar music accompanied our candle time, initially clumsy with chords but soon playing confidently and leading our singing. At times our time became less sacred and funnier as we tried to harmonize, laughing at those who could never quite find the right note.

Sometimes I would beg to keep one hall light on but the kids would have none of it. It was all lights off except the Christmas tree lights, one candle lit, all of us together. There was no talk of presents. No mention of Santa Claus. Just singing carols and quietly closing the day.

We no longer have little kids and candle time has had to evolve with our family growing up and away. But every year, once the tree is decorated, we try to have candle time during the season with who ever happens to be home.

Because no matter how old we get, it helps to stop. It helps to turn out all the lights, light a single candle and, with the glow of the Christmas tree lights creating magic and joy, reflect on the season as we wait for the One who has already come.

”I’m not from here…wherever ‘here’ is.”

Not from here

I’m from the edges of the map
the edges of the Pacific

I’m from the edges of the room
the outside looking in

I’m from Southeast Asia
unless you mean my nationality

I’m from the U.S.
unless you mean where my heart is

I’m not from here
wherever “here” is

by Cindy Montgomery Wyneken


A few months ago. I was with a group of global nomads and the “I’m From” poem exercise came up as an activity to do with students, third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, expats and all those who live between. We talked about using words to explore the complexity of our journey. These “I’m From” poems become mini memoirs telling a part of our story that otherwise remains hidden.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, holidays were the times when I struggled the most. The “Who am I?” and “Where am I from?” questions became much more acute.  I’m not in the same place anymore, but I remember well what it was to be in that space.

If you are around third culture kids, global nomads, or cross-cultural kids during this holiday season, it may be good to be aware that this is not an easy season for those struggling with identity. The families and communities that we create when we are away from our passport countries are close and unique, borne of mutual need and shared understanding. Our extended biological families do not always have the same intense connections. Auntie Anne may be wonderful and warm, but may not have much understanding of where the third culture kid is coming from both physically and ideologically.

These “I’m From” poems are a window into the world of those who may look like you on the outside, but have had a vastly different life experience because of where they were raised. These poems express in writing what can be so hard to articulate verbally.


If you are one who opens your home to these kids and adults, Taylor Murray at the blog A Life Overseas has some suggestions of questions to ask that may help you communicate and connect.  She divides the questions into “Church-Lobby Questions” and “Coffee Shop Questions”.  Taylor says this about connecting with third culture kids:

Most MKs/TCKs are asked hundreds of questions during their families’ home assignments. Ironically, many of us leave our passport countries feeling unknown. In all honesty, we usually don’t answer questions well. Our fumbling answers can create distance.  Many times we feel as though these questions are asked politely, without time or desire to listen to our answers. In order to avoid awkwardness or unintentional hurt, TCKs can detach and dispel memorized responses.

This makes it difficult for those who truly want to connect. Have you ever longed to know a TCK, but don’t know how to reach his or her heart?  Have you sensed that we struggle to respond to your questions, but don’t know what else to ask? As an MK/TCK, I’ve learned that certain questions can unlock the heart.**

These questions can be a way to bridge gaps of understanding and help connect the third culture kid to others in the room.

I have my own favorite questions adapted from Taylor’s piece:

  1. What is one of the funniest things that happened to you in your host country?
  2. Where do you feel most at home?
  3. What are some impressions that people from your host country have of your passport country?
  4. Can you tell me a bit about the political situation in your host country?
  5. What have some of the biggest surprises been about living in your passport country? Challenges?
  6. What are some of the things you had to leave behind?

*Recently, the “I’m From” poem that Adelaide Bliss wrote three years ago resurfaced on the blog. A new reader found it and, inspired, wrote her own “I’m From” poem.

**I have changed Taylor’s response to include TCK, not just MK (Missionary Kid).

 

Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn