“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

On Turning 60

This is 60!

I’m turning 60 on Monday, and I’m here to tell you that if you let it be, life is terrifying. Just today, four days before the auspicious birthday, a news article made its way across the algorithms of social media to inform me of the “Wuhan coronavirus.” Evidently even as I write this, a patient is being isolated in a tiny room, treated by robots, as doctors protect themselves and others from this deadly virus.

And here I thought I would die of old age and wrinkles – but no – it’s going to be Wuhan coronavirus – virus 2019-nCoV to be more exact. By the time I had finished reading the article I was that patient. As a true trauma thief, I had stolen the identity and the disease and instead of celebrating me on my 60th birthday, my children were gathering to say goodbye.

It was a beautiful moment, though just in my imagination. Every mother secretly longs for the deathbed remorse of their children, don’t they? The “if onlys” and “I wish I hads.”

But these moments were not to be, because this was all in my imagination. So, in the spirit of Ann Lamott, here is my “I’m turning 60 and this is what I know…” post, here you have it. (Except that she was turning 61, but whatever.) Do with it what you will, but please be nice to me.

  1. 60 is not an age. 60 is a concept. “I’m turning 60!” I say to the mirror, trying to get used to is, but it won’t happen. My internal middle age self won’t have it. I’m going to be one of those people that looks in the mirror when I’m 80 and says “Who are you, and why are you in my mirror and where did you put my chin? Show me my real self!” Which leads me to my second point…
  2. Real is not what we see. Real is much deeper than that. We spend so much time curating and cultivating, pretending and posturing – but real is beyond all that. Real is wondering how anyone can truly love you, yet moving forward believing that anyway. Real is knowing that the eternal is forever and the now is just now. Real is knowing there is a greater reality in this thing called life. Real is the paradox and dance of joy and sorrow in this thing called life.
  3. God will never give you grace for your imagination – so, my mom taught me this many, many years ago. I believe I first heard it when I talked to her, crying, saying I was afraid that my husband was going to die. He didn’t die, though I went to his funeral that day and wept. It was a beautiful funeral and I was a beautiful widow…..of course it wasn’t real, and I wasted a lot of time crying that day. “God doesn’t give you grace for your imagination, he doesn’t give you grace for what you think might happen. He gives you grace for the real thing – and that in abundance.” Ask anyone who has gone through a tragedy, and they will echo this.
  4. Motherhood is hard. You will never love more, you will never have your heart so broken, you will never have more sleepless nights – and not because of babies that don’t sleep. But if you can get through it, and that is a big if, the friendships of your adult children and the grace that they find in their hearts to give you is just miraculous. Trust me on that one.
  5. Find yourself a faith. I borrowed that from this past season of The Crown. As Prince Philip’s Orthodox mother enters the scene, she says this to her son: “Let this be a mother’s gift to her child – the one piece of advice. Find yourself a faith. It helps. No. Not just helps. It’s everything.” Life is so dang hard. Faith for me has made it not just easier, but so worth it. Just the other day a stranger told me “you wear your faith in your cross and in your eyes.” I’ve never had a more lovely compliment. I just hope it’s true.
  6. Make friends with people who are younger than you. When our son visited us in Kurdistan, he looked at us and said “Mom and Dad! All your friends are my age!” It was true, and there were reasons for it within that context, but beyond that, we’ve always had friends – good friends – who are younger. They keep us grounded. They remind us that we don’t have to have our lives all together. They accept things in us that our peers find tiresome. They remind us that life will go on once we are gone.  
  7. There is nothing like a good cry. It’s like the first signs of spring after winter, like the longing and release when you see a stunning sunset. It’s the release of all those things we bottle up and think we can control. Have yourself a good cry when you need it.
  8. Get your preventive health care appointments. I mean it. That colonoscopy? It will find the polyp that turned into cancer for your friend 6 years ago when she was due for one. That mammogram? Get it – I mean it.
  9. Forgive, and forgive, and forgive again. The bitterness that wells up from lack of forgiveness is so much worse than the polyp that turned into cancer. It’s a poison that you drink every day. I have learned the hard way. Give people the proverbial “benefit of the doubt” – don’t assume the worst. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to assume bad intent. Especially when we’re tired, when we’re sad, or when we think we see the person’s middle finger angrily sticking out at us. But maybe they were just born that way. Maybe it’s not us.
  10. Love fiercely, protectively, and with abandon. You will get hurt – of course you will! You will want to smash things. You will cry. You will rage. But oh, to have on my gravestone “She loved God, and she loved others.” That would be success my friends! That would be true success.

Okay – I’m done. I haven’t died of Wuhan yet – but there’s always time before Monday.

Oh and also, if you are interested – what I really want for my birthday? I want my dear ones to support this community health initiative in a place that I called home last year, a place and people that I love dearly. Click here to give a dollar or ten! Community Health Initiative in Kurdistan

Love, Marilyn

Those Damn Decade Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

2009-2019

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

On 35 Years of Marriage

We get to the Athens Central station early but already it is filled with travelers. We look around at crowds of Greeks on their way to Thessaloniki or other stations along the way to celebrate Nativity.

A train security man, zealous for our safety, periodically walks the yellow line along the platform, presumably shouting at all of us in Greek to not, under any circumstances, walk into that yellow line. We dutifully comply.

We stand and I look at my husband as he leans against a pole, our train tickets in hand. I smile, overwhelmed with a sense of great love for this joy-filled, fun, adventurer that I have married. He grins back and I capture the picture.


It is this picture and event that I remember as I wake up to our 35th wedding anniversary. Though it is six months after the train ride, it captures what this year and our married life has been. This is us – the grin, the train tickets, the sparkle of adventure that we see in each other’s eyes, the luggage, the chaos, the jostling, the unknown.

35 years ago we said “I do” to all of this and so much more. Would any of us say the words “I do” if we knew what was ahead? Perhaps that is the beauty and mystery of marriage – that despite all the mistakes, all the failed marriages, all the hurt that can happen, there still emerges this splendid hope that two people can combine intimacy with individuality and make it.

My faith tells me this is more than a man-made institution, that there is a spiritual mystery beyond understanding that undergirds these fragile vows made in the beauty and unwrinkled days of youth.

Though promised in innocence, they have matured in the fire of life and emerged from that fire scarred but worthy. Worthy of celebrating, worthy of announcing, and worthy of remembering and looking ahead.

It was a year ago that we made the seemingly radical decision to upend our life in Cambridge and step into the unknown. Many of you have followed us on that journey and its unexpected ending. The year has been a paradox with some of the most difficult situations accompanying some of the best. The year mirrors marriage – the good, the hard, the sad, the lonely, the loss, the bargaining, and the acceptance. Unexpected joy and unanticipated grief met together, and we are still reeling in the aftermath.

But today, we forgot all that in a near perfect celebration.

We spent the day with our oldest daughter, an example of the grace that comes with adult children. She is here with her young family and we spent the day in sunshine and the relaxation that only a perfect summer day in Rockport can bring. The wonder and excitement of a three-year-old and the miracle of a seven-month-old punctuating our time with appropriate exclamation marks of joy.

We completed it with a balcony dinner of clams and linguini made by our daughter, accompanied by a perfect white wine.

As the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, God’s stamp of approval came with the sunset and a sky painted in blues, greens, purples, pinks, and oranges.

This indeed, is us.

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. ⠀

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.