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/

Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.

A Life Overseas – Failed Missionaries and “But God”….

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Readers – I’m at A Life Overseas today talking about failure. I would love to have you join me!


When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

Read the rest of the piece here. 


One Fall Away

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I slipped and fell on my way to work today. It was early morning and I was walking from the subway to my office. Unnoticed black ice was the culprit, and in a blink, I was down and struggling to find my footing.

It’s not a big deal – except that it felt like a big deal. It felt like a massive, defeating event and I suddenly realize how fragile I am and how fragile I feel.

Security and safety cannot be guaranteed. We don’t live foolishly, we recognize the laws of the land and the laws of gravity, but we can still fall and hurt ourselves. We can still get in car accidents and end up in hospitals. We can still be victims to unscrupulous people who wish us harm.

We are all just one fall away – one fall away from tragedy; one fall away from illness; one fall away from a life changing event. No one goes to work on a Monday morning expecting to fall, or to die, or to hear that someone else died. Yet, every single day people go through events that change their lives.

Last week I went to a service of interment for my Uncle Jim. He died in February, but was buried at a the same veteran’s cemetery as my father, just an hour and a half away from Boston. My cousin Jayna is my youngest cousin in that family and had flown from Texas to carry out the arrangements.

My cousin knows what it is to wake up one day and have your life change. Her husband died unexpectedly in late summer, leaving her a young widow with two small daughters. When she woke up on the day of her husband’s death, she could never have dreamt of what she would go through.

God gives us grace for our falls, not our imagined falls. God gives us grace for reality, not grace for what we imagine. And he has given her grace, so much grace. She walks steady and takes care of her girls. With the support of friends and a church community, she is dealing with the unimaginable.

The Psalms offer up a model for responding to suffering, surprise, and tragedy. We are never told in the Psalms to pull up our bootstraps. We are never told to minimize suffering. Instead, we are offered up a blueprint for offering our suffering to God, for openly acknowledging pain, for openly asking God why our souls are disturbed and why our enemies are winning.

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God*

I feel undone by a fall on slippery ice, and I know why – because it represents those much bigger falls that could be around the corner, those falls that are irreversible and cause more damage than a few bruises.

Today as I struggled to get up from the ground, a man came out of nowhere, helping me to my feet and asking me if I was okay. I gratefully accepted his help, acknowledged my own frailty.

It reminds me that even as we are only one fall away from disaster, we are also only one person away from help.


 “The Psalm begins in pain: Help God – the bottom has fallen out of my life!….By setting the anguish out into the open and voicing it as a prayer, the psalm gives dignity to our suffering. It does not look on suffering as something slightly embarrassing that must be hushed up and locked in a closet (where it finally becomes a skeleton) because this sort of thing shouldn’t happen to a real person of faith. And it doesn’t treat it as a puzzle that must be explained, and therefore turn it over to theologians or philosophers to work out an answer. Suffering is set squarely, openly, passionately before God. It is acknowledged and expressed. It is described and lived” – p. 138 of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

The Holy Work of Grieving

Why must holy places be dark places?”*

Two days ago, my friend’s dad died. In twenty first century vernacular – she “lost” her dad. “Lost” is such a silly thing to say – like she needs to just go searching for him and she will find him; like it’s a child’s game of hide ‘n seek.

“Lois – just look for him! I’m sure you’ll find him.”

My dark humor comes through as I think about this. We humans delight in deceiving ourselves about death and loss by using words that are ambiguous and sweetly horrid.

As I heard the news, I immediately revisited my dad’s death and the resulting losses. The first picture taken of Lois and me together was on the banks of the Dead Sea. Each of us is holding hands with our dads. Our dads are so young and so alive. Two adventurers – as at home in Pakistan and Jordan as they were in the United States. They lived between worlds – learning languages with sounds that seemed impossible, deciphering a script that was completely foreign, and traveling to places that topped the U.S State Department watch list. They learned about Middle Eastern hospitality; about what it was to send their children to boarding schools; and about friendship in a Middle Eastern context. Most of all, they learned what it is to follow a faith until the end and to never give up.

Grief sets its own agenda, it cannot be controlled. You don’t know when it will flood over you and what the manifestation will be, but when I found out that Lois’ dad had died, the impact of death flooded over me and I found myself grieving.

I am grieving for Lois and I am grieving for myself. I am grieving because we will never again sit down with our dads, never again speak with them on the phone. I am grieving because when we spontaneously think “Oh, I should talk to Dad about that!” it won’t be possible.  I am grieving that two good men are gone and they are not lost – they have died.

All of the physical pieces of grief are present – the nervous stomach, the choking in my throat, the distraction…I realize no one ever talks about the taste of grief and yet there is a taste. It’s gritty and it makes my mouth dry, a bit like sand.

But I find as I grieve that grieving is holy work.

How have I never seen this before?

In C.S. Lewis beautiful but lesser known book ‘Til We Have Faces, the protagonist says “Why must holy places be dark places?”  I think about this and the holy work of grieving; the holy ache and the dark places of tragedy and pain that come across the lives of anyone who identifies as human.

When I stop analyzing grief and simply allow myself to grieve – this is when I know it is holy work, for it is in these times of greatest need that I am most aware of how much I need God.

The holy work of grieving is the place where holy tears fall. And as grief and tears come, so does comfort; sometimes through human arms or words, sometimes through God’s seeming silence, but obvious presence, sometimes through the Psalms.

The holy work of grieving is ever present in the Psalms. Written with full knowledge of the human condition, they speak with authority and complete understanding of how fragile we are. The Psalmist, a master poet, writes of grief and rage, of depression and sorrow. Softly, lyrically, with grace and great love these Psalms continue through generations. They were there for our dads; they are here for both Lois and me.

“He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

And I know in my heart, my soul, and my body that these words are true.


*C.S. Lewis in ‘Til We Have Faces

Information Overload and the Cost of Caring

 

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Confession – as I read or listen to the news I am not feeling much of anything besides tiredness and incompetence. I am embarrasingly disconnected as I watch flooded streets and homes in Texas.

My husband and I were talking about this over the weekend, about our inability to care about everything we hear about; about our ability to self-select newstories and situations that we care about and dismiss the rest. As I filter through news stories I want to care about every tragedy, but it turns out I don’t have the emotional capacity to do that and remain sane.

In the 1950’s a new word made it into our lexicon of trauma related diagnoses. The word was “Compassion Fatigue” and was first seen in nurses. As a nurse, it makes sense to me that we were the people who first displayed a tendency towards these symptoms.  The symptoms included negativity, lessening of compassion, tiredness, and feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and inadequacy for the job at hand. It was the ‘cost of caring’.

The word has evolved over time and is often called ‘Disaster Fatigue’. Used by the media and donor organizations to describe the response to tragedies and world events over time, it gives an accurate picture without having to be explained.  Events that have such massive implications that our brains can’t quite take it in and our responses show a disconnect between what we see and hear and how our hearts and bank accounts respond.

If I list off the events that have happened even in the last month, I know immediately why I have compassion/disaster fatigue. News and events transport us from Syria to Charlottesville to Houston and back again. Every aspect of human need has been affected. The need for shelter, security, food, safety, and the list goes on so that self-actualization seems laughable. The pain and shock of people and nations are felt across oceans and continents creating a sort of secondary trauma zone. How much am I capable of caring about before I move into the disaster fatigue zone? Not very much, it turns out.

Added to this are the things that might not affect the world, but they affect me and my extended family. Family tragedies and crises that make me cry out to God in the night, begging for strength and help for those that I love.

We are overloaded and our minds can’t handle the overload. This in turn leads to apathy, despair, and callous hearts. To compensate, we often update our social media status, just to prove that we really do care, and we expect others to do the same. It’s like wearing a badge of honor; a status symbol of caring.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author Neil Postman describes what he calls the “low information to action ration”. He links this concept back to the invention of the telegraph. Before the telegraph people received information that was relevant to their lives, information over which they had a measure of control. After the telegraph, people received information from miles away, information that they could do nothing about. News of wars and tragedies from across the world began to take central stage, while local news took a back page. “the local and the timeless … lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed … Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods—much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping coughs—became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day'” (pp. 66–67). So a “low information to action ratio” refers to the sense of helplessness we have when faced with information that we can do nothing about.

As Tish Warren says in an excellent article We are small people who, for the most part, live quiet lives, but we have access to endless stories of pain and brokenness.” 

I have been learning something about information overload and the cost of caring over these past years. I have found that I have to exit the noise. I cannot sustain the information overload. It renders me useless in every day life.

despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload

When I give myself permission to exit the noise, when I allow myself to move to a place of quiet, I become healthier and more compassionate. In that quiet space I become far more able to see that despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload.  “Think about it, Mom” says my son “prayer is the highest form of empathy, the greatest act of compassion.” He is wise beyond his years.

Prayer leads me to a reliance on a God who “will not grow tired or weary, and whose understanding no one can fathom” and in the comfort of those age-old words, I can lose the guilt and rely on a never-ending resource of compassion and strength, available to all in crisis.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:28

It’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be

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Friends, my youngest cousin tragically lost her husband just a day ago. My heart is breaking for her and her two littles. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. They are a young family and my heart hurts thinking of the grief and loss that they are experiencing. He leaves behind so many who will mourn his death.

One of the ways I can best show love to people is through writing. So today, I dedicate this to Jayna, my beautiful cousin and her sweet girls.

If you are one who prays, can you pray for this family? I have included more information here. 


“It’s not the way it’s supposed to be” – the cry of the mother whose child has been shot in a kindergarten class on a seemingly normal Friday in December, presents already purchased, hidden in a closet in anticipation of a Christmas morning. The “hurry up! we’re going to be late” already a memory of the day. The “make sure you tie your shoe laces, don’t forget your lunch, honey you can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty” now poignant reminders of a life that was, that is no longer.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The cry of the husband burying his wife and little one – deaths from a complicated childbirth; the cry of the husband who buried his 28-year old wife, dead from a brain tumor; the cry of the young woman who watched her husband die on their honeymoon; the cry of the mother of a soldier – killed during the war on terror; the cry of thousands of mothers in Afghanistan and Syria – all of whom have watched a child die.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the cries echo toward the Heavens, in agony, in fear, in anger, in the deepest grief imaginable to man. And the throat catches, and the grief is wordless and boundless and rips the soul, the Whys and the Hows echoing all around. Hearts broken with grief, words of “how can we go one? how will we heal?” whispered through sleepless nights.

And on this day I look up and shout toward Heaven “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” And in the quiet, still of the morning, He whispers in my heart “I know child, I know.”

And so “I lay my ‘whys’ before your cross — In worship kneeling. My mind too numb for thought. My heart beyond all feeling. And worshiping realize that I – in knowing You, don’t need a ‘why’. “*

poem by Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham.