Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

A Life Overseas – Living Borrowed Lives

“A Syrian painter recently told me that we all have a map in our bodies, composed of the places we have lived, that we are constantly in the process of redrawing. A street from our childhood might be traversed by a train car in which we once fell in love. A garden from a year in London might yield, unexpectedly, a rose from the graveside of our grandmother. This map not only marks who we are but informs the way in which we encounter the world. The painter, a refugee originally from Damascus, was busily sketching the buildings of Istanbul, trying to move his map forward to the new country he now called home.” Stephanie Saldaña as quoted in Plough Magazine

I am writing my map in the other direction. I am trying to remember who I am.

Stephanie Saldaña

I curl up on the couch, reading an old letter from a friend. We were friends during our Cairo days years ago. We saw each other regularly, went to Bible Studies together, had coffee dates, traded ideas on how to adapt recipes with substitutions. How to make a cranberry-orange salad with no cranberries? What is the right proportion of molasses to sugar to create a brown sugar substitute? We arranged play dates and talked to each other about our family members who were far away.

I’m lost in memories as I read her letter. I left Cairo years ago. She left much later, but we both left. A good description of our lives as expatriates is that we lived borrowed lives. The maps of our lives have had to be redrawn as the places have changed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about borrowed lives as I continue to face my own transition. I thought about this recently as I heard about someone who had to leave her adopted country. She did not want, much less plan, to leave. But like my own story in Iraq, governmental decisions sometimes dictate the time when our borrowed lives end.

In the past few months I have heard of over 25 families having to unexpectedly leave their adopted countries. Just now, as I opened my email, I read yet another story of a family unexpectedly repatriated.

These are hard, hard stories. Each story has different details but the common thread is that it is not their choice. Their choice, indeed my choice, would be to stay. They have forged relationships and created homes in places far from their passport countries. Sometimes they have lived for years in a place, only to arrive at an airport and be refused entry.

Admitting our expat lives are borrowed is a difficult thing to do. We often fight this, imagining perhaps that we have more control over our lives than we actually do. But with admission comes great, great freedom.

As I thought more about our borrowed lives, I realized that we can apply some of the same principles of borrowing things to our borrowed lives.

A borrowed life may be borrowed, but it is still a life. When I borrowed my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner, it may have been my neighbor’s but it was still a vacuum cleaner, and actually a far better one than I had ever owned! And what do we do in life? We live – we don’t fear what might happen. God doesn’t give us grace for our imagination, he gives us grace for what actually happens. We plant gardens and hang up pictures. We buy furniture and we create homes. We make friends and we find coffee shops. We seek the welfare of the cities where we live. Our life may be borrowed, but it’s still a life.

We respect and care well for the things we borrow. We know we don’t own them and some day we will need to return them, so we take good care of these things. We treat them with respect. This same principle applies to our expat lives. We treat these lives with the respect they deserve. It’s an honor to be invited as a guest into another country or home – yet often we act like they are the people lucky to have us. We may come with specific skills, but we are not God’s gift to any country or place. God is the gift, not us. God has been at work in places far before we arrived, he will continue to be at work once we leave, so we treat our borrowed lives as the gifts that they are.

We borrow things we need. The reality is that we need this expat life more than we admit. We have come to rely on the rhythms, though they be difficult. We reach a level of comfort living between and we don’t want to lose that. We are also often more comfortable with our economic status in our adopted countries. Often our residence comes with a government stipend that we would never have in our home countries. Other times, the currency of our passport countries yields a good return on exchange, putting us into places where we don’t have to worry about money in the same way. The cost of living in Kurdistan for my husband and I was a fraction of what our current Boston life costs us. Yes, there were hard things about living in Kurdistan – but I think we needed Kurdistan far more than Kurdistan needed us. I’m still trying to process that one.

Sometimes borrowed things get lost or damaged. The mature person will admit this and make proper restitution. So it is with our borrowed lives – sometimes we don’t treat them with care. Sometimes we take relationships for granted. Sometimes we assume our lives hold greater value simply because of the color of our skin or our passport. While this is rarely an open admission, this attitude subtly works its way into our work and relationships. Confession, repentance, and restitution are the only healthy ways forward.

Everyone has a borrowed life, we are just more aware of this fact. Here’s the truth – every breath, every step, every word – it’s all borrowed. We have been given this life for such a time as this, but none of us – whether expat or not – know when this life will be over. Job loss, health loss, death – all of these things are part of our journey. The worker or expat can be in a much healthier position to realize this than many of their peers in their passport countries.

The question remains, what happens when I lose my borrowed life? How do I move forward? How do we move forward? We grieve. We cry. We pray. We praise. We redraw our maps with the One who created us. We continue our borrowed life in another place, trusting that one day this will all make sense.

Cappuccino with Barzan: Friendship and Betrayal in Kurdistan

The Beginning

Around eleven o’clock every morning, Barzan would look through the door of my office and say “Come! Let’s have cappuccino!” I would look up at him and respond enthusiastically “Yes!” Five minutes later I would find myself seated at a chair by his desk, stirring a cup of instant cappuccino made in Turkey and readily available in the Kurdish market. That was when our conversation would begin.

It began in early May. May in Kurdistan is when you begin to feel the change in weather. Spring with its rain and lush green fields is gone, but the high temperatures of summer have not yet arrived. The days get longer, and you feel the joy of a season’s change. This May however, the holy month of Ramadan had just begun, and that changed things. The days were long and the nights even longer. For Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. From sunup until sundown, strict Muslims abstain from food, liquid, smoking, and sex.

Instead of a normal May, Ramadan overlaid it with spiritual highs and physical lows. The latter seemed to far outweigh the former. Everyone was grumpy. Everyone was self-righteous. Everyone had a headache, and everyone claimed they were feeling the best they’d ever felt.

As an outsider, I too was feeling the change in temperament and temper, so the first time Barzan invited me, I looked at him in complete surprise.

“But it’s Ramadan!” I said, shock evident in my voice.

“Yes, and sometimes we need to have cappuccino during Ramadan!” His answer was priest-like in its authority and conviction.

I looked at him with joy and amazement. Here was someone who I could relate with, who worked out his faith practically with room for questioning, and perhaps going against the crowd.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is an autonomous zone in Northern Iraq. Unlike the surrounding countries of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, Kurds in this region have carved out a semblance of autonomy. Kurds consider this area to be Southern Kurdistan, one of four parts of Kurdistan, the other parts being Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (northwestern Iran), and Western Kurdistan (northern Syria). Kurds themselves are divided as to what would be best for the people of the region. One more nation state, or more independence within the boundaries of their existing countries? Talk to one person and you’ll get one thought, another and you’ll get a completely different opinion.

For Kurds in Northern Iraq, carving out this autonomous region was not easy, and it continues to have significant challenges. An uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, a United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a safe haven for Kurdish refugees, and a “No Fly Zone” established by the United States and Coalition forces all worked toward a common purpose and in October of 1991, the Iraqi government finally left, allowing Kurds in the region to begin to live and govern independently. This is a simplistic overview of a much more complex political reality, but it helps outsiders to understand a little of the fierce independence and pride that characterize the area.

The Kurdish Region of Iraq is home to approximately five million Kurds. The solidarity shared with Kurds in the surrounding countries is important to understand. Just like family, I can criticize my family, but you have no right to because you don’t belong, is much the way I experienced Kurds solidarity with each other. They may fight within, but when faced with outside threats, the solidarity and unity is profound. The fight against D’aesh (the Islamic State) was symbolic of Kurds being willing to put aside their differences and come together to fight against an external threat. They did so bravely and selflessly, ridding the region of terror and allowing families to return home after long exiles.

This is what I have been thinking about as I read and react with tears to the recent invasion of Syria by Turkey. Kurds are feeling this acutely. If you’ve watched any recent news, you don’t need me to tell you this. Far more learned and qualified people are writing extensive articles and opinion pieces.

So why does my voice matter?

Maybe because of cappuccino with Barzan.

First Encounters

We first visited the region in 2015 at the height of the crisis with D’aesh. Massive movement had taken place in Northern Iraq. Arab Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh had left homes, factories, businesses, and restaurants to get their families to safety, away from the tyranny of the Islamic State. Churches and businesses in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, opened their doors to people who had arrived in crisis.  Unfinished malls and apartment buildings were quickly equipped with particle board and moveable walls to create rooms for families. At one building we visited, 120 people shared the same kitchen and bathroom. Families left most everything behind as they moved to the area for safety. And Kurds welcomed them – welcomed them with jobs, food packets, and homes. The stories we heard during that time will remain with me forever, stories of hope and horror, humanity at its best and worst. My husband and I left after ten days in the region with only one thought: We wanted to return. We wanted to move to Northern Iraq. Specifically, we wanted to move to Kurdistan.

Some dreams become reality while others remain silent and still, occupying our hearts and minds in quiet moments, but unable to be voiced because they hurt too much. Our dream became a reality and in September of last year, my husband and I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. To say we left everything is true. We left excellent jobs at health departments and universities in Boston. We gave away everything except our car, which we sold to an eccentric lady who belonged in a novel. We packed up our lives and our faith and we moved. We didn’t really know how long we would be gone, but we expected to live in the region for at least two years. In one year, you barely begin to understand a new country and culture and cultural adjustments occupy a good amount of your time and energy. You need at least two years, and after that – who knew?

That’s why cappuccino with Barzan was so significant. In the space of a half hour we would talk about everything. Politics (Kurdish, Iraqi, and American), faith, friendship, the profession of nursing, nursing students, marriage, differing cultures, worldviews, and even Wanda, Barzan’s hostess during a time when he lived in the United States. Wanda was an unseen part of every conversation. Barzan and I didn’t always agree – we didn’t have to. Cappuccino made our disagreements sweet and palatable.

Leaving Kurdistan

It was after having cappuccino with Barzan one morning that I found out a decision had been made by the Kurdish Government that dramatically altered our lives. The Minister of Finance had passed down a decree to the Minister of Education that affected all contract employees. Anyone with Bachelor’s Degrees would lose their job; anyone with a Master’s or PhD would lose half their salary. We were summoned to the university president’s office and were given the news. We left the meeting in shock.

We did not want to leave. We wanted to stay in the small city where we had carved out not only morning cappuccino, but also significant community through friendships. My husband taught swimming every Tuesday at a local pool to men who had never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. I was beginning to work with a group of women to teach health classes in the community. We had connected with an NGO and begun game nights every Thursday, and Fridays saw us at an English Talk Club participating with a group of Kurds who we had formed deep friendships with through discussions on many topics all conducted in English. Leave? How could we leave? We had to stay!

A tumultuous month followed, where rumor and fact collided and the truth of the edict was difficult to uncover. But by the end of June we had resigned ourselves to the idea that we would be leaving Kurdistan. The decision was irreversible.

We felt betrayed. Though it was a non-personal decision made at a high governmental level, it felt personal. We watched as Iranian colleagues packed their bags and moved back across the border to Iran. We heard from Kurdish colleagues who were also contract employees and had lost their jobs as well. It was a decision that couldn’t be fought and could take months or years to be reversed.

Our hearts broke. Tears flowed at odd times, our grieving was raw and real. We arrived back in the United States right before the fourth of July and the release of Stranger Things. We had lived our own version of Stranger Things, and it was a relief to binge watch something that took our mind off our transition and grief.

No Friends But the Mountains

The Kurds have a proverb, rightfully born of being surrounded by countries that don’t want an independent nation of Kurdistan to exist. “We have no friends but the mountains” was something we heard from our Kurdish friends over and over during our time in the KRG. We would hear the proverb as we were walking and talking with friends or sitting with them eating a delicious meal and sipping hot tea from glasses.

When I found out that the current administration had made the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, an area that was being controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, I thought of the proverb and how Kurds would be feeling and talking about this as they learned of the decision. I felt betrayed with my Kurdish friends by my own government. Had I still lived in Kurdistan, our cappuccino time would be spent grieving the decision.  Instead, it was my husband and me, cursing and grieving the short sightedness of this move. Generally able to look at a decision from multiple angles, this one was political and personal. Destabilization of a fragile area; abandoning loyal allies and paving a path for ISIS to re-emerge are just a couple of the potential outcomes, but largely not understood by many was the ethnic cleansing tragedy waiting to happen. How could America do this? How could we abandon allies that helped defeat D’aesh and be able to sleep at night? How could we not know that the area would create another massive displacement of Kurds and Christian minorities in the region? How could thoughtless leaders not understand the repercussions of this in a world that is so deeply interconnected?

And then there was the sense of personal attack! How could they do this to the Kurds, our friends, people that treated us like family for ten months? Ten months of extravagant invitations to tea and meals. Ten months of learning the history of the region, the horrors experienced during the time of Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary resilience and generosity that characterized the community. Ten months of friendship forged through time, food, and laughter. It didn’t matter that this was not the community where we had lived and worked – these were their Kurdish brothers and sisters, and blood lines are not easily severed in the region. The how coulds got lost in my fury of feeling.

If only we were there. If only we were there to sit with our friends and get angry with them. If only we were there to walk beside them, to show them that the world had not left them. If only we could sit with them and let them see that they do have friends beyond the mountains. But we weren’t there because of the Kurdish government, not the American government. Two governmental decisions. Two betrayals. But one with far more devastating effects than job loss.

But instead of drinking cappuccino with Barzan, tea with Yassin, and eating ghormeh sabzi with Behnaz, we were in a city oceans and continents away.  

Who is My Neighbor?

The feelings of sadness come over me regularly, and I try not to monitor the news 24/7. And I pray. I pray for the Kurds I don’t know, and the ones I know – the ones who opened their homes and lives to us – strangers and Americans.

Many years ago, a man came to Jesus and asked him a question about neighbors; specifically, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with a story. I learned a lot about being a good neighbor this past year and I didn’t learn it from people who looked like me. I learned it from my Kurdish, Muslim friends. I learned it from Yassin, who offered friendship through time, invitations to dinner, and helping us understand Kurdistan and Kurds. I learned it from Behnaz, a young Iranian Kurdish woman who offered me laughter, joy, and an artist’s eye for beauty. I learned it from Zana and Karwan who taught me how to heat my home and where to buy items in the bazaar. I learned it from Dr. Sanaa who passionately led the university department where I worked. I learned it from Rania who was a patient cultural broker and my fashion consultant.  I learned it from so many people that I can’t even name them all.

And I learned it from Barzan, who invited a foreigner into his office every day during Ramadan to drink cappuccino.  

When Your Soul is in Chaos, Chop Vegetables!

It’s a rainy fall day here in Boston. The bells at the church across the street just chimed five times, telling me it’s almost evening.

I woke up restless and sad, a soul in chaos. The gloom outside found its way inside and I struggled to find a rhythm. The news has not helped. As you who read this blog know, I’ve long loved the Kurds.

Three years before we moved to the Kurdish Region of Iraq (Kurdistan) we had the opportunity to visit. It was at the height of the ISIS crisis, and displaced people and refugees had altered the landscape of the area. ⠀

Even before that time, we had always been interested in Kurds and the Kurdish story. ⠀

Having the opportunity to live and work in Kurdistan last year was one of the great privileges of our lives. And by all accounts, it ended too soon. We grieve the loss of community and miss the deep friendships we formed every day.

Kurdish people face challenges, threats, and obstacles from within and without. From their own leaders making rash and ludicrous decisions about finances, pay checks, jobs, and governance to outside forces making tragic decisions on invasions and non-interventionist decisions when they have already intervened, Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria suffer. ⠀

Despite this, resilience, hospitality, and sheer joy are hallmarks of who they are as people. This group that spans man-made divisions and borders needs your prayers and help. ⠀

The news of the attacks in Syria have deeply affected the community where we lived and worked in Rania. Our friends are sad, but they are also angry. They feel betrayed. I feel betrayed with them and I have felt it in my soul.

But I am many miles away, and my restless, chaotic spirit is not helping anyone.

I learned long ago that there are some antidotes to restless, fractured souls, so if you are feeling as I was today, here are some ideas.

  • Bake bread. The measuring, mixing, kneading, and baking will go from your arms to your heart to your soul.
  • Chop fresh vegetables for a soup or stew.
  • Clean the house. Scrubbing, scouring, mopping, and dusting – cleaning out the dirt that accumulates can satisfy in immeasurable ways.
  • Write a letter to someone. The old fashioned kind that will have them shocked and deeply pleased. Taking pen to paper and writing news or a note of encouragement is a way to take your mind off yourself and focus it on someone else.
  • Donate time or money to a local charity. There are so many organizations doing good work in our world. It just takes intentionality to find them.
  • Light candles and listen to music. There is something about light and music that pushes against the darkness we sometimes feel in our souls.
  • Phone or text someone. There is someone out there who is feeling as chaotic, lonely, or sad as you are. Reach out and offer friendship through your phone.
  • Read the Psalms. Even if you are not from a Christian tradition, the Psalms can offer extraordinary comfort. King David who wrote many of the Psalms was up against some bad guys. He regularly cried out to God, begging him to destroy the wicked. His words resonate to this day , offering us a blue print of prayer and communication to God.
  • Read a book about someone who made a difference. Right now, I’m reading the book Stronger than Death by my friend, Rachel Pieh Jones. It is an a remarkable story about a woman who broke boundaries and rules to love those at the margins of society. It takes me out of my current chaos and reminds me that loving others is a costly calling that I know little about.
  • Dance. Just put on that music and go for it. Besides being good exercise, your body will pour forth endorphins in gratitude.
  • Call one of your friends who has a baby and go hold that baby. Blow on its belly and listen to that baby laugh. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world must go on”*
  • Read The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman. This book has nuggets of wisdom that surprise and delight. At one point she encourages the reader to look at doing the next right thing for the next ten minutes. It’s an exercise that continues to stay with me.
  • Love someone well. “Ordinary love, anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God’s grace in our daily lives.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, pp 79)

This list is not exhaustive and it’s not extraordinary, but today, as I chopped vegetables for soup, kneaded bread, and scrubbed the dirt off the floors of this little red house, my soul rested and I felt an incomparable peace.

*Carl Sandburg

On Needing Grace During Transition

We have been back for 10 days and it’s already beginning to feel like Kurdistan was a dream that never really happened. A dream with a few nightmare like qualities, but a dream nevertheless.

The last time we went through a period of transition of this magnitude was when we returned from Egypt with five children, 26 suitcases, and a gorgeous Egyptian Siamese cat called Pharaoh. It was not an easy transition and it was months before we felt settled. I am trying to see this as a different time and situation, but the memories of how incredibly difficult that season of our lives was tend to pop up. I push them down, reminding myself that this is not then, we are not the same people.

Before leaving, we had decided to take July off to debrief and reconnect with family and friends. While it is a good decision, the current reality of no jobs and not knowing where we will be living next is heavy. We live in a culture where your worth is measured against what you do, not who you are. This is an inescapable fact and we have much empathy for those whose circumstances have put them into a place where they are unable to work. Work is a gift, but it should not be an all encompassing identity.

Many people are well meaning but somewhat clueless as to our circumstances. “So glad you are safe!” Said in slightly breathless tones is the default comment. It is kind and it is also somewhat irritating. Particularly because it usually comes from people whose daily lives hardly revolve around our safety. The second comment is “So glad you are home!” Strangely, though in the past this comment would have unnerved me, in this season of transition it feels deeply comforting. Before I left for Kurdistan, I realized that Cambridge had indeed become home and I was grateful. It took such a long time to be willing to attach myself that once I finally let go of my fears and hung my heart in place, a backpack of “where is home” baggage fell off of me and I experienced deep peace.

The back pack is filling once again. Cambridge is no longer home. We packed it up a year ago. Can a place be home when you make a conscious choice to leave it in its entirety? These philosophical questions are hardly useful in the midst of transition, but I ask them anyway.

In all of this I want to beg people to give us grace, to be patient with us during this transition period but I lack the words.

A friend who is transitioning back to the U.S. from Bangladesh recently wrote this and I am grateful to use her words:

It’s the small things about being in America again that feel weird. Enormous stores and all the options in the world.

People saying things like, “it feels like you never left” and feeling totally misunderstood because it feels like a whole new foreign world to you, not like you never left.

There are a ton of little things that give us joy…But there are also just as many things that should feel like home but don’t and that feels disorienting, it hurts.

Please, give grace to the people in your life in transition (of any kind). It feels like living on another planet. We don’t mean to offend or to act strange or cry for no apparent reason. We aren’t sure where the new normal is. But we will get there eventually.” Nicole Walters

Like Nicole, I too ask for grace. We will get there, but we don’t know when.

During this transition time of decisions and indecision, our Rockport cottage is welcoming us with the joy of ocean walks and the beauty of Rockport gardens, to slow days of grandchildren and long evenings of connecting with adult kids.

There is much to decide, and much that needs to happen. We will be in transition mode for a while. After last summer’s major uprooting it will take time to reroot. It will take time to find jobs and a place to live, time to reorient to life on what sometimes feels like a different planet. ⠀

For now, there is the ocean, Rockport, friendship, family, and our marriage. Jobs seem trivial in comparison. We are too fortunate. ⠀

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.

God of Loss

Just Your Faithful God of Loss

It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.

Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.

When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control.  Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.

I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.

There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?

I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.

Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.

So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.

I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.

In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:

Yes, we will leave here without a trace
Take a new name and an old shape
I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade
Just your faithful god of loss

Darlingside

Rumors of War – musings from Kurdistan

“History was a recording that played continuously, so that you did not realize it was the same song, over and over.”

David Ignatius in Bloodmoney

The messages began early yesterday.
“Are you okay? Will you be leaving?” “What are your thoughts on the news? When are you all coming back?” “Hey! What’s going on over there?”

At this point, I was involved in a totally different crisis, seemingly unrelated to the one that was being broadcast by all major media outlets in the United States and evidently, around the world.

A message from my amazing nephew who works at the State Department gave me more information, and I began responding to the messages that we received. Evidently the United States had called for all non-emergency government personnel to leave Iraq and the Kurdish Region of Iraq citing tensions with Iran as the reason. Rumors of war had begun and the news was everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but it’s really important to repeat: Behind the clean yet oh-so-dirty fingers of every politician that supports war there are real people who get caught in the middle and lose. They lose every, single time. People in the middle are caught between and never win. They lose. They lose security. They lose jobs. They lose peace of mind. They lose hope.

We live in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and the rumors of war involve Iraq because the tensions are rising between the United States and Iran. Geographically Iraq is next to Iran; politically Iraq is caught between. Our region is finally feeling a measure of hope after a massive financial crisis and the chaos of D’aesh, or ISIS. People are beginning to feel more settled, more secure. They are receiving salaries regularly after a long time of not being paid.

And now this.

I am not a political analyst but I do suspect that wars are sometimes started to detract from real life problems. What better way to distract people then to go to war? Suddenly all the news and focus is not on poor national policy, or the latest tweets, but instead on what is happening the other side of the world.

I just finished reading a book by David Ignatius, a prize-winning reporter from the Washington Post who covered the Middle East for many years. Bloodmoney is a spy thriller that is set between Los Angeles, Pakistan, and London. It’s fast paced and interesting, a book that seems made to be a movie. At the very end of the book, Ignatius talks about how the book is about how wars end. Though he spends some time toward the end of the book discussing this, from a reader perspective, I wish he had spent more time on this.

One of the dynamic characters in the book is a Pashtun from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan called “the Professor.” At one point he is thinking about the tribal code of revenge. He thinks about how often wars end just because people get tired. They lose people and money, and suddenly both sides are done, exhausted by the bloodshed, unable to even remember what the war was really about to begin with. But, he surmises, wars that end that way don’t bring about “good peace.” Instead, they bring “dishonor, shame, and a shimmering desire for revenge.” This is something that the Professor feels the Western world doesn’t know or understand. “The victor in the war must find a way to salve the dignity of the vanquished; otherwise, there would just be another war.” (page 348, Bloodmoney)

The tribal code for restoring harmony was called nanawatay in the Pashto language. That was how wars ended among honorable men. The vanquished party would go to the house of the victor, into the very heart of his enemy, and look that man in the eye and request forgiveness and peace. The defeated man was seeking asylum, and the victor could not but grant him this request. To refuse would be dishonorable and unmanly. When a man is asked to be generous, he can unburden himself of his rage toward his enemy. He can be patient in forgiveness and let go of the past.

Bloodmoney by David Ignatius, p. 348

A couple of pages later, our professor is on a plane, ready to fall asleep: “He fell asleep thinking of his favorite word in the Pashto language, melmastia, which meant “hospitality.” That was the way wars ended.”

I read these words yesterday afternoon, after I had responded to many messages and written an email off to family and friends.

Hospitality. Communication. Communicating Across Boundaries. Backing down. Forgiveness. Generosity. Looking people in the eye and requesting forgiveness and peace.

Yes – this may be the way wars end. More importantly, this is how they never start. This is prevention at its best.

When will we learn? If we can’t have a conversation with someone who thinks differently then us, then there is no hope that wars will ever end. When I look in the mirror, I see someone looking back at me who is just as culpable in the little picture as the war mongers of the world are in the big picture. Everyone of us is probably at war with someone in our lives. Though the outcomes may seem different, on a small scale they are the same. Are we tired yet? When will it end?

And to our leaders I say the same: Are you tired yet? When will it end? When will you get tired enough to have bad peace, or smart enough to forgive, extend hospitality and have good peace?

If wars end with hospitality, surely with true hospitality they should never begin.

Communicating Across Boundaries

As for us, we are staying – at least for the time being. We are continuing to enjoy the love and hospitality that surrounds us. We are in the month of Ramadan, where all of day life slows down and the evenings light up with food and joy at the breaking of the fast. What happens next, only God knows.

Hard Goodbyes; Sweet Hellos

Sometimes I think my writing flows best when I am at the airport. It is here where my thoughts and feelings find a space in my brain, and the words come naturally.

They are not forced but rather, like a pianist who knows her keyboard so well that her fingers fly, so do my words trip over each other just wanting to get out on the page.

We are in Istanbul’s new airport waiting for our flight to Erbil. It has been a busy two weeks. Hard on the body, but good for the soul. I have been in seven cities and taken eight flights; my ninth boards shortly.

I saw my beloved mom, celebrated Pascha, saw our beloved Priest and Poppadia, reconnected with best friends, enjoyed seeing four of our five children, hugged and played with two grandchildren, saw our godson, celebrated the quiet, significant life of my father-in-law, and had countless meaningful conversations in English. It was a gift.

Goodbyes are never easy. A sign high above me at the Istanbul Airport states it bluntly under three airplane windows: Hard to say goodbye. Living on the other side of the world you say hard goodbyes on both sides of the globe. In saying hello to one set of loves and lives you say goodbye to another. We have only been gone two weeks but we have missed our Kurdish friends greatly.

There is anonymous solidarity here at the airport. I join countless others who have said goodbye to those they love. Some said goodbye in early morning hours, just after breaking the newly begun Ramadan fast. Others said goodbye in the mid afternoon with the sun shining brightly high above them, church bells echoing the noon hour. Still more hugged goodbye after the last call to prayer, heading off on journeys unknown. Now we wander through airport malls, browsing here, picking up something there, grabbing coffee in the in between spaces of our lives.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders.

We who spend many hours in airports are both richer and poorer through our travel. Richer in experiences, but perhaps poorer in settled spirits. For one thing this life does to you is place you on a path of always being between and there is an inherent restlessness in that space.

As hard as these goodbyes are, it is such an honor to live in a place that is not your own, to be welcomed by a group of strangers and invited to share their lives. This is the mystery of travel and cross-cultural living. The mystery of learning more about communicating across boundaries; the mystery of living in the spaces between.

So I acknowledge the sign high above me in the airport even as I press forward to the joy of what awaits. Hard goodbyes and sweet hellos are hallmarks of the journey. At this moment I wouldn’t trade this. There is so much grace in the space between.

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 4

We are enjoying spring in this part of the world. The rain has tapered off and with it the large puddle that forms in my kitchen. I am so happy to see that puddle gone. I love the sun and I love light so with these days of 60 degree weather, a joy comes over me that it unashamedly connected to sunlight and warmth. Spring here is stunning – high above green fields of wheat are the Kewa-Rash (Black Mountains) and beyond that the snow-capped mountains of Kurdistan and our neighboring country. All day long the light changes creating dramatic effects on the ridges of the mountains. It is magnificent.

International Women’s Day…

For the first year since I began blogging I did not write about International Women’s Day. My guilt threatened to overwhelm me until my husband looked at me and said “Why are you feeling guilty? You’ve been too busy meeting with women and planning an important symposium on women’s rights to actually write about it!” It’s true. With a group of Kurdish women and men colleagues, we worked hard to put together an International Symposium focused on women’s rights and gender based violence. We held it yesterday and were so grateful and pleased with the response. Guests included Kurdish women activists talking about politics, governance, and law as well as international speakers from the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the United States. It coincided with National Kurdish Clothes Day so the conference hall was full of color and sparkle. It was amazing.

The symposium planning reminded me of the need for cultural humility and tested my cultural competence at many levels. In other words, it was really humbling and good for me. Plan with, not for, a community, at every level involve people from the community, slow down, listen, clarify, drink tea, drink more tea, drink ten cups of tea and other key principles were critical in the success of the symposium. One of the things I learned during this time is that there is no future tense in the Kurdish language. This made so much sense to me as I wanted to plan far ahead and I learned that culturally, you don’t plan that far ahead. You do things right before the actual event, because who knows what might disrupt your plans. For a region that has been through as much trauma and displacement as this area, it makes complete sense. It’s easy to want to fight against what we don’t understand.

The Kurdish speakers were brave and honest as they spoke about divorce, female genital mutilation, and gender-based violence. I have so much to learn from these women. Among other things, I’ve learned that the rates of FGM and honor killings in this area are high. Many Kurdish women want to change this and we are in conversation at the College of Nursing about what change might look like. I am honored to be a part of these important conversations. While every culture in the world has aspects that are beautiful and can be appreciated, every culture also bears the scars of a broken world and system. When you enter into a place and become a part of it, you learn more about the beautiful and the broken. Yesterday included both.

I’ve posted some pictures to give you a sense of the day and give you a glimpse of the rich colors and beauty of traditional Kurdish clothes.

Dear friends – Yassin and Mohammad, and Rania – my dear friend and Cliff’s colleague
Four of our beautiful students at the College of Nursing
Group Photo of Planning Committee, University Officials, and Speakers

Korek Mountain…

On Friday, our holiday, we were invited to join the staff of a local NGO to go on a trip to Korek Mountain. This mountain is around 2000 meters and you get there by way of a four kilometer cable car called a “teleferic”. This was a new word for me…you?

There were around 30 of us so we took a tour-type of bus and traveled two and a half hours over sometimes smooth, sometimes rough roads through amazing scenery. Rolling hills, rugged mountains and mountain waterfalls were all part of the landscape. We ate lunch in the city of Soran just a half hour from Korek Mountain. We then went on to the base of the mountain and waited in a loud and fun line to catch the cable car up the mountain. It was the longest cable car I’ve ever been on, and I have to admit to some stomach knotting moments as I looked down at the earth so far beneath and eight of us chatting happily in Kurdish and English. “Be careful of the ‘whatifs’ child” says the author Shel Silvlerstein. It was good advice as I stopped myself from imagining the cable breaking, or the electricity going off (a not unlikely case scenario I might add….)!

The highlight of the trip was not the beauty, but the people. We laughed until our stomachs ached. We danced to Kurdish music. We listened to Kurdish Karaoke. We ate Kurdish food at a restaurant that our Kurdish friends would tell you was “not so delicious” but we thought was great. It was an amazing time of getting to know people better and realizing yet again how much we love Kurds and Kurdistan. It is times like this that make leaving all we left behind worthwhile.

Lent Begins….

Our Orthodox Lenten journey began this morning. It is odd and not easy going on this journey without our church community. Holy Resurrection Church in Allston has been there for us each Lent and we travel this spiritual journey as a community. We have none of that here and it takes its toll. Lent is a time of joyful abstinence and preparation. We are grateful for a faith tradition that encourages fasting, special prayers and readings, highlighting the significance of the journey that takes us up to Pascha, our Jerusalem. We are planning to be with our church community for Pascha and I know it will be a celebration like no other after our long absence.

It took us years to find a church community that we would commit to; that we would grow to love and they would love us back. At the same time, we are so grateful to be a part of life in Rania. It is the paradox that anyone who has lived between worlds knows. Indeed, it is the paradox of any Christian. Always longing, never fully a part of life on this earth, always longing for that place where our hearts find their home. C.S. Lewis says something about this in his book The Problem of Pain, and I will end my slice of life with his quote.

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with out friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

May you, wherever you are in the world, find your pleasant inns even as you long for your true home.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

img_0350

img_0341

img_0341

img_0233

img_0236

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

Eight years ago, my friend Mary gave me a giant mug as a hostess gift. She had come from Egypt to Boston for a conference and our apartment in Cambridge provided a perfect place and easy access to the conference. The mug was not just any mug – it was from the Starbucks country collection or “You are Here” mugs, so along with being 16 ounces, it also had a picture of the pyramids and the word ‘Egypt’ in large letters across it.

It quickly became my favorite mug. Curling up every morning with a homemade latte, a journal and pen in hand, is how I have started most mornings since the week she visited. It has been my routine wherever I’ve been in the world.

It is a routine that easily transferred to my life in Kurdistan. While I can’t get the same coffee and my foam maker burnt out within a month, I’ve found substitutes and it has been a wonderful comfort as I adapt to life in Rania.

Until this morning….

As I poured the hot coffee into the mug, it began leaking out the bottom. Startled, I ran for a saucer. There above the coffee mark was the unmistakable sign of a crack, and clearly a deep one. I transferred the coffee to another cup and took a look. The crack was beyond repair. My beloved mug was finished. I would no longer be able to use it for my morning coffee.

All of Life’s Cracks….

I sighed and then I cried. The tears fell freely, as if they’d been trapped too long and they needed an excuse. In all of our lives there are items we own that represent people, places, or events that are much bigger than what you see on the surface. This mug not only reminded me of one of my favorite places – it represented my life before Massachusetts. It reminded me of a world that was hidden, visible only through photo albums and occasional retelling of old stories, told a thousand times before. It reminded me that my life in Egypt was a significant period of time – a time of birthing babies and young motherhood, a time of learning what it was to live overseas as an adult, a time of joy with a growing family. It reminded me of my friendship with Mary, the one who gave me the mug. Mary was present at the births of my two youngest children. We were nurses together in Egypt and our kids spent hours playing together while we solved a good number of the world’s problems.

To see that mug crack made me feel all of life’s cracks and broken pieces. I felt all over again the hurt of goodbyes and the long process of new hellos. I felt the intensity of starting anew and the difficulty of keeping up friendships faraway. I felt the sting of misunderstanding and cultural adjustment. I felt the sadness of living between worlds, the diaspora blues of being – “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both”*. I felt the emptiness of lost friendships and the scars of ruined relationships. All of this came over me as I surveyed the spilt coffee and the cracked mug.

I felt so, so sad.

It’s now several hours later, and I still feel myself on the brink of tears. What I wish I could do with this old, beautiful Egypt mug is to mend it with gold, the Japanese art of “kintsugi”. Instead of throwing away the object that has cracked and broken, this restores the piece, making it even more interesting and beautiful. The focus becomes the cracks and the scars. My mug deserves that sort of care, deserves to be an object of interest and pride, like a mended tea pot that I have owned for years and carried around the world. The teapot was broken into many pieces, but painstakingly mended with large metal clips and a metal bottom put on it to make it stronger.

Though broken and having little of its original beauty it is so much more interesting and represents so well the human condition.  Despite the original break, despite the cracks – it continues to be useable and stronger than if it had never been broken.

I won’t be able to do that, but I will keep the mug. Instead of using it every morning, sipping my morning coffee as I begin the day, I will put it on my desk. I will use it for pencils and pens – a re-purposed memory bank. It deserves at least that. And, like the teapot, it will serve as a continual reminder that the circumstances in life can crack and mar us, but they don’t get to destroy. They don’t, and never will, have that kind of power.


When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.


http://www.iskandar.com/waleed911/griefwalterstorff.html

*https://www.theijeoma.com/

Success Redefined

It has not been an easy week.

From difficulty with websites to difficulty with people, there are times when I would like life to be easier.

I’m sitting now at one of the two coffee shops in Rania, listening to Adele on repeat. Adele is easy on the ears, and I find myself gradually relaxing. Just before I left the university today, I spoke with two colleagues. “I don’t know how you do it” I said. “You face barriers in every single thing you do, and yet you don’t give up. You continue to face life with hope, joy, and laughter.”

This is the honest truth. Most of our Kurdish friends have life circumstances that are much more difficult than ours. Yet, I don’t hear them complaining. They face every day with far more joy and hope than I have. This is remarkable.

Much of what my husband and I face here is learning to redefine success. Success at our jobs in the United States was easy to define. We had deliverables and performance reviews. We had deadlines and targets. Our lives were both dictated by grants and all that goes into them: problem statements, proposed plan, graphs, evidence, tables, objectives, outcomes, conclusions, and attachments. All of it wove together to create a fairly concrete system of success. It was easy to know if we were doing our jobs well.

We have entered into a system where none of that exists; where we search and search and search to find grants that our university is eligible to apply for. Once we find those proverbial needles in haystacks, we search and search to see if they fit with our universities capability. The amounts of money are tiny. I was used to dealing in hundreds of thousands to a couple million dollars while my husband was used to dealing in millions. Now, we get excited when we see a grant for five thousand dollars. The smaller the grant, the more the funder seems to want in terms of paper work. So we end up spending as much time on writing a grant for five thousand dollars as we used to for a million.

There are times when we are convinced it is a losing battle. We set up our ‘to do’ lists, only to be outdone by lack of electricity, no internet and hard to describe infrastructure challenges.

Lately I’ve come to not try to redefine it. I’ve come to realize that success is an arbitrary losing battle. But faithfulness – that feels possible.

Success is defined by performance. Faithfulness is defined by constancy.

Success is defined by accomplishment. Faithfulness by devotion.

Success is defined by achievement. Faithfulness by commitment.

Success is defined by attaining a goal. Faithfulness by being true to a promise.

As long as we posed the question “How do we redefine success?” we were still coming out as losing. We felt like failures. But changing it to “Are we being faithful?” This feels helpful.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s not just us. Maybe there are others out there that are defining their lives by success when that leaves way too many people out of the equation. Maybe changing the paradigm to faithfulness would change society in indescribable ways. The person who is considered “mentally challenged”, the refugee with no job, the elderly who struggles to move in the morning, the one who is chronically ill, the child, the newborn…. how do they fit into our paradigms of success? How can our world be changed to include faithfulness or mere existence as markers of value?

So what does faithfulness mean to me at this moment? It means that I’ll not complain about lack of resources. That I will learn to love across cultural differences. That I will not rage about no internet. It means that I will be kind and honor others, that I will communicate in spirit and in truth, that I will love hard and pray harder, that I will love God and love others, that I will read, speak, and write words that honor God, that echo truth.  

“Just be faithful.”

Just be faithful – it’s something I’ve written about before, and so I’ll close with some words I wrote some time ago:

The words continue “Marilyn, I know you’re tired. Just be faithful. With my strength be faithful.” There is now a heavy rain falling and those of us on our way to work are leaving the subway. There is a puddle three inches deep on the platform right before the stairs, just deep enough to seep into shoes before going up to dark clouds and rain. I’m still tired but I walk with One who knows tired, with One who knows pain, with One who knows what it is to live out faithful in this beautiful, broken world.

Sometimes You Choose to Feed the Kittens

Sometimes all you can do is feed the kittens….

Just before we head to bed, we hear the echoing mew of a kitten. It is pitiful and anxious, a mournful sound on a cold night. The sound reverberates through the hallway, as if to voice all the sadness and loss of the world.

My husband steps out into the cold hallway and there on the landing is one of the family of kittens that we had fed earlier in December. While we were away during Christmas break the mama cat found another place for her babies. This kitten wandered back to the first home she knew, and there, lost without her family, all she could do was cry.

He fixes some bread and milk and takes it to the stairwell. He comes back inside and asks me if we have a spare towel. We do, and with it he creates a bed of sorts in an upstairs area for this wandering kitten.

The kitten is pure black with yellow eyes and reminds me of the cats we had while growing up in Pakistan. There were several – favorite family pets through the years. Soon after the kitten is joined by her sibling, a golden/black mixture of fluff.

Sometimes all you can do is feed two kittens whose mother is nowhere in sight. Everything else is too big, too hard, too complicated. Everything else will take years for you to see results, but feeding kittens doesn’t seem impossible. So many other things are so far outside of our capability.

We can’t cure the cancer that is slowly taking the life of a friend’s family member. We can’t move the process of grant funders to get them to make a quicker decision about funding that we have requested. We can’t finish building the hospital that sits, less than a mile from us, desperately needed but sitting unfinished because of lack of money. We can’t change some of the societal values that hurt women. We can’t heal the sick, bring sight to the blind, and restore the lame.

But we can feed kittens. And sometimes that is enough. At least for that kitten.

The cynic might scoff: “Don’t be a white savior!” The realist might chide: “It’s a bandaid on an ulcer!” The social justice warrior might shake their head in disbelief: “But what about the really important things?” The idealist might challenge: “Dream bigger!”

But for us, for today – it’s our choice. And so we feed the kittens.

“By God! I don’t Know!” – A Post on Aging


We were sitting Kurdish style on the floor, a kerosene stove pumping out heat to keep us warm in the solid concrete building, when the subject of age came up. We were all in good spirits after enjoying a hearty meal of Yaprak, assorted vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and cooked in a lemon sauce, and had begun to drink hot, sweet tea. In Kurdistan, it is not rude to ask someone their age. First it was our host telling us how old he was, then it came to my husband and myself. The younger members of the family all chimed in – 18, 21, 23, 33, 28 – the numbers were called out like a Bingo game at a Catholic Church hall. Finally it was the mom of the house. “How old are you?” said one of her sons. We all looked at her, waiting expectantly.

“By God! I don’t know!” She said. We burst out laughing. I repeated the words after her in Kurdish, marveling at them and wanting to memorize the phrase. The conversation quickly turned to much more important things, like the weather and when the pregnant daughter-in-law would give birth, but I kept on thinking about her response.

What a great response to the question of age! Age is so fickle and so contrary. Time is already a cruel dictator, why must age also be? This woman might not have known her age, but she sure knew that it didn’t matter. “By God! I don’t know!” So many things were said in that one statement!

It doesn’t matter!

Let’s get on with it!

Who cares?

Let’s talk about something else!

It’s just age!

There are a million ways to interpret that one statement!

I turned 59 years old yesterday. Unlike my new friend, I do know how many years I’ve lived. 59 years around the sun. 59 years of trying to figure out what this life is all about. 59 years of growing and hurting and laughing and loving. 59 years of eating, sleeping, and participating in the mundane of life, only to learn that none of it is really mundane – it’s all sacred.

59 years of learning to forgive and working to live at peace. 59 years of learning that discontentment creates far more wrinkles than the sun and envy rots the soul. 59 years of learning the value of friendship and family. 59 years of learning how to live out of abundance not scarcity. 59 years of laughter and joy, 59 years of sadness and tears.

I have birthed five babies on three continents and watched them grow into young adults with their own dreams and sadness and joy. I have lived in four different countries and learned to count to ten and bargain in several different languages. I have hurt people and people have hurt me. I have loved people and people have loved me. I have had days where my stomach ached with laughter and other days where my heart ached with tears. And the days have turned into years and they have both slipped away – sometimes with a lot of drama and other times quietly, like a background person in a television show. You see them, and then they’re gone.

Last night, after birthday cake and a sweet offering of presents from my husband, we watched a couple of episodes of a television show that we have been following during this rainy, Kurdish winter. During a dream sequence, the grandmother in the show is talking to the mom who died two years previously. She is talking about getting older. As they sit companionably on a twin bed in the grandmother’s bedroom, she contemplates aging.

The days slip under the closet and disappear.

Shtisel

These words describe so well the journey of aging. You blink and the days have gone under the closet, never to be retrieved. Unlike dust balls that gather unwanted but always present, the days turn into years and disappear. They slip under the closet and into the memories that each us have, creating tapestries of people, events, and conversations, each tapestry as unique as its owner’s fingerprints.

This past year has taught me much about faith, advocacy, resilience, hope, and joy. I have learned and I have grown. And then just like that, it slipped under the closet and disappeared.  

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

On Scarcity and Abundance

On Scarcity & Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, and it is broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off.

I have thought a great deal about scarcity in recent weeks. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged.

Until moving to Kurdistan, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to horde what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance.

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live.

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives.

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash.

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this?

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”.

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life.

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity.


If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance.

As I write this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”