The Return

It was 10 years ago today that my sister-in-law and I arrived in Pakistan to participate in a 2-week medical relief trip.

At the end of the summer of 2010, Pakistan had been overwhelmed by floods with millions displaced. Camps for those who had lost their homes were set up across the country and aid was coming in from many countries around the world. Anytime there is a disaster like these floods, there is a domino effect of problems. Malaria, severe malnutrition, dysentery from poor water supplies, and skin diseases that happen when you have thousands of people living in close proximity to each other.

As my childhood home and love, Pakistan has a special place in my heart and to go back in this capacity was a gift. I returned with far more than I gave. What I didn’t know at the time is that it would change the trajectory of my life, for it was during and soon after that trip that I began to write.

I began writing about childhood memories and belonging, about the trip to Pakistan and what it meant to me. I wrote about saudade and identity, about faith and being an adult third culture kid. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Soon after, I began a blog. The blog propelled me into writing a book, and then another book that I had begun several years earlier. Writing was my therapy, my way to make sense of so much that had happened long ago.

At the end of my trip, I wrote an essay called “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.” It was later published in my first book, but as I remember the anniverary of that return, I wanted to post it here.

To you who have read my words, who have encouraged me in my writing journey, who have stuck with me through mixed metaphors and my sometimes grammatically dubious sentence structure – I am beyond grateful. You have made my words live by reading them and posting them, by emailing or messaging me to say that my words resonate. I am so thankful.

On this 10 year anniversary of my return, here is the essay “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.”


Given the choice of a five-star hotel or camping, I will pick a five-star hotel every time. I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury. So it was with some surprise that I found myself eager to return to Pakistan on a medical flood relief team.

When I first heard news of the floods, I felt a sadness that was somewhat distant and removed. Pakistan was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East through work and travel. My connections with Pakistan had been reduced to occasional emails from friends and to moments on the subway when, eyes closed, the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood. That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under floodwaters.

Jacobabad, in the Sindh province, was home to my family when I was a little girl. I broke my leg there. My mother’s artificial flowers were stolen in Jacobabad. Mom had planted them around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything. They provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone. The New York Times photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated, and through what could only be a work of God, an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse on a medical relief trip to care for internally displaced people in northern Sindh.

I never imagined that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story. Although I grew up in Pakistan, raised my family in Islamabad, and lived for seven years in Cairo, my current reality is downtown Boston, where I drink a Starbucks coffee daily. I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don’t have time to put on my eyeliner. But in early September the idea of working with victims of the flood suddenly became real and I became cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but willing to take that chance.

On October fifteenth, accompanied by my sister-in-law, Carol, and thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies, I boarded an Etihad airliner and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh. Outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were based we passed the burnt remains of a convoy of twenty-seven trucks that had been featured in the New York Times “Pictures of the Day,” and I realized that I hadn’t paid as close attention to the location of that picture as I perhaps should have.

The two weeks that followed were filled with holy moments. I watched as a mom pointed to heaven in thanks for food distributed to her family. I laughed with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi. I prayed in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at four months of age and for the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have. I put shoes on the ulcerated feet of an ancient woman, countless stories written into the wrinkles on her face. We delivered a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head. We saw and served people created in the image of God. These women and children in their beautiful, brightly colored clothing were “no mere mortals” and dear to the heart of God.

Our team — a doctor, two nurses, a community healthworker, interpreter and food distributors — were like a mini United Nations. We represented six people groups and six different languages, but we shared a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency, laughter and joy. In fourteen days we covered eight villages, surveying needs, running medical camps, and distributing food. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, and charpais combined with chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina. But everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe.

There was, for me, an added bonus. Almost anyone who was raised in a country other than his or her passport country can relate with the immigrant experience. The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills, and being ‘other’ can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one’s passport country. Our lives are lived between worlds.

But for those two weeks I was not other. I was home. I saw friends who knew me when I was young, received blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walked through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and was woken yet again by the call to prayer. These were holy moments that I had not anticipated.

A wise friend once told me that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are. During those two weeks, I was given the gift of remembering who I was.

Since leaving Pakistan as a child, I, like many, had to redefine my faith. It has often been a painful process. I struggle with unanswerable questions about life and God. This trip back was a humbling reminder that the God who sustained me when I was six years old at boarding school, crying into my pillow, is a God who still provides holy moments in places where real life happens.

I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after twenty-three hours of travel and within a few minutes felt ‘other’ again. I faced a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options. Was I really a resident alien? An alien? No. I was a US citizen, shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own making. In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.

 I don’t know why I was given the gift of going. That is a mystery to me. But I know it was Grace.

“How do we say that God is good when life is not?”

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How do we say that God is good when life is not?

I read the words and my eyes brim with tears. I’m sitting by the window and bright sun radiating off fresh snow bathes the room in cold light.

I continue reading: “And what, if anything, can be made of the prayers we’ve whispered in the middle of nights, restless with fear and the threat of loss, prayers that have had no apparent answer, no just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue?” *

I read the question again “How do we say that God is good when life is not?” When you bury a child or a parent too early, and Job’s comforters tell you they are in a “better place.” When you watch your body succumb to cancer, and you know that you will not live to see your daughter’s fifth birthday; when your husband of less than a year dies in a tragic accident – how, then, do you say that God is good? When your brother dies from a tragic accident in Thailand while on business and visiting his daughter?

At the end of a life, every single human being has a reason to believe God is not good. But the opposite is also true. At the end of every life, there is evidence of God’s goodness in every breath we’ve been given.

It is tempting to want clean answers, to be able to point to healings and miracles. But clean answers have never helped the one who is suffering.

How do we say that God is good when life is not?

There are no easy answers. We limp our way through this question, sometimes full of faith and confidence that the character of God is ultimately good; sometimes shaking our heads saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Theologians call this ‘theodicy’ – a noun that literally means “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil.” Vindication of divine goodness – God on trial, his very character being questioned.

As I think about this question, I realize that this is some of the thread through Worlds Apart. Yes, Worlds Apart is about Pakistan, and being a third culture kid/missionary kid, and living between worlds. But ultimately, the book is my testament of faith. In Worlds Apart, I work through what it is to believe God loves, God cares, and God is good when life is not. The tapestry of God’s redemptive plan is not without pain or suffering, but ultimately I have deep confidence that God is good, even when life is not.

This I knew, and I knew it well: when you’re six and you wake up at five in the morning, away from home and unconditional love in a dormitory of seven other little girls, just as young and equally homesick and insecure, there is no one to comfort you. When you are twelve, and your backside aches for a week because of the beating of a house parent, there is no person to comfort you. When you question why dads and babies die in the middle of the night, there is no person to answer you. When you are sixteen, and you feel misunderstood by all those around you, unable to articulate your heart, there is no person to comfort you. When you are eighteen, and your heart is breaking at the thought of leaving all you know and all you love, there is no person to comfort you.

My faith was more than theology – it was a living, breathing entity. It wrapped me with a profound sense of comfort and love, and I knew beyond any previous doubts that God was real. I knew in the marrow of my bones, and the depths of my soul, that there was something greater than boarding school loss, stronger than the grief of goodbyes, deeper than the pain of misunderstanding. I knew that redemption was not just a theological idea, but that somehow it was more real than anything on this earth. Faith was the story written on my life, and my life was witness to a greater reality.**


*Teach us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

**Worlds Apart pages 165-166

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. 


Hanging Our Hearts Around the Globe

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Through all the travel and all the moves, I’ve hung my heart a lot of places around the globe. But none is so special as Pakistan.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.”

Over the weekend we visited Pakistani friends in San Diego who are very dear to us. Rehan was my husband’s best friend during college. The friendship continued strong through marriage, kids, and now adult kids. We don’t see them often enough, but when we do it is non stop talking, eating the best Pakistani food in the world, and laughing hard. The conversation moves from one topic to the next without a gap. We interrupt each other, go off topic, and we’re loud.

It is always delightful, and this time was even more so.

Beyond the blue skies, Palm trees, and ocean was a house alive with warmth and hospitality. I didn’t want to leave. My heart was so full! Full of friendship and Pakistan; memories and curry. But too soon the visit was over and I’m now sitting back in Boston, in a house that feels cold, with a heart that aches with the leaving.

When you’ve lived across the globe, you end up sharing your heart with a lot of people. Each one of them holds a small piece that makes up the whole, rather like a mosaic with bits of colored tile that an artist fits together to create a beautiful piece.

But when you’ve left your heart in so many places, it’s also hard to come home, especially when home feels cold and lonely. Edward Said talks about exile and the “unhealable rift” between humans and their native places. My native place was Pakistan, a place far from the one marked as legal on my passport. So when I experience these times of connection, no matter how short, that unhealable rift is filled with the salve of understanding.

That’s what I feel right now as I sit on my couch. A lonely cat is cuddled as close as possible to me, willing me to never leave again. I know how she feels. I hate leaving those I love. I hate the loneliness I feel when I walk in to a cold house in a place where I have to work so hard to belong. My heart is a dead weight, my sighs fill up the silence.

Frederick Buechner says this about loss “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” I read it, but right now I’m not sure I believe it.

The thing with feelings is that they can change in an instant. So I sit with a heavy heart filled with memories of those I’ve loved around the globe. Some gone, some still present but far away. These feelings will pass, my heart will feel lighter, my memory bank fuller.

But right now, I sit, holding on to archived memories to give me strength.


* Edward Said ‘Reflections on Exile’

Masala Dhaba Memories


Sights, sounds, and smells can transport us to places we love in mere seconds.  I hear the Call to Prayer and suddenly I am in Pakistan, walking the dusty streets of Shikarpur. I smell curry and shut my eyes – I could swear I am at the Marhaba in Murree. But I’m not, I’m in Central Square, the fragrant smells of the Indian restaurant wafting across the street luring me back to my childhood and begging me to enter. 

The imagination is a wonderful, terrible thing. 

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell:

Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

Last night I refilled my masala dhaba, My masala dhaba is a spice box that my husband gave me seven years ago. It was one of the loveliest Christmas presents that I have ever received. Yesterday, as I took spices out of their boxes and bags and put them into my masala dhaba, I was like the character in Mayle’s book: vividly transported back to my childhood.  

I wrote the piece below after I had received the gift and I offer it today – a tribute to spice, color, and memories. 


For years I have kept my Pakistani spices in a large Tupperware bowl with a red lid. The kind that you use to bring the gargantuan pasta salad (that no one will eat) to a potluck dinner. The lid is sticky with the years that the bowl has held spices and (sometimes) dust. Christmas 2010 I received a proper spice box as a gift. Not a western spice rack, but a genuine masala dhaba (spice box) of stainless steel.

Yesterday, while making a chicken curry, I transferred the spices from the Tupperware to the masala dhaba. It was like someone had told me I had won the lottery. I can’t stop looking at it.

It is shiny and beautiful, full of the colors of Pakistan – yellow/orange turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, red/orange masala spice, light brown coriander, darker brown garam masala, and to add a Middle Eastern flare – green/brown zahtar.

The spices sit like contented children in a circle, satisfied in their round stainless steel bowls. A small spice spoon pokes out of the bright orange-yellow turmeric in the center. The lid is see-through so the colors are visible even as the spices keep fresh. It is magnificent.

These are the things I love about where I was raised. The simplicity of colorful spices, the feel of a dupatta over my shoulders as I wear a colorful, silk shalwar kameez; the smell of curry cooking, and anticipation of hot naan and samosas to come; the glitter of bright-colored bangles in a shop at the local bazaar. 

I love being able to duplicate these small things even as I look outside and hear the sounds of my current reality. Sounds that make me feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she realizes she is not in Kansas anymore. 


“This is My Fate” – A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

Fate - Homes in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. [1500x1000] - Imgur

(photo credit)

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, I self-righteously reasoned, if this had happened at a laundry facility in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back.

But, I was not in the United States.

Looking back on the event, I cringe in embarrassment. I don’t even remember what the clothes looked like – but I will never forget the sadness and resignation on Rehmet’s face. She looked as though she had been kissed by a Judas, betrayed by one she thought she knew.

I began to apologize. My speech, so articulate while angry, suddenly lost any semblance of cohesion. I was fumbling over my words, over my grammar, most of all over my ugly heart.

She looked at me with tired, brown eyes, her gaze steady and unyielding. Then without pause, she shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is my fate.”

I went cold. I would rather have heard anything but this. I would rather she yelled, screamed, got sarcastic, quit the job… anything would have been better.

I, the person who talked long and wrote hard about wanting to empower people, had taken advantage of what I knew to be a cultural value – a servant is subservient to the employer. In a culture where she was a minority as a woman and as a Christian she would never have other opportunities, this was her fate. Even if she wanted to walk out on the job, she couldn’t have. Rehmet did not have choices and I had used that against her. I had taken advantage of education, relative wealth, and influence in my ridiculous reaction to a simple mistake.

And I had done this, subconsciously knowing that it would pack a mighty punch. That is what made it so painfully wrong. My white-skinned entitlement and privilege made me cringe. Who was I? Why had I reacted this way

It was important to confess – to Rehmet, but also to God. For I had acted in a way that hurt another, had wounded knowing she had no recourse.

Rehmet and I were able to repair the relationship, largely because of her generosity of spirit and sheer joy in life. In her bucket of life experience, this was small change and she would not remain low for long. But the story has stayed with me, for it reminds me of how important it is to have cultural humility.

For cultural humility demands a process of self-evaluation and critique; a constant check of attempting to understand the view of another before we react and recognizing our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up a role as expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.

It’s a hard subject that demands honesty but what do you do when you have caused offense? When you have wounded in a place where you are a guest? When you have exhibited cultural superiority instead of cultural humility?

Note: This article was first published in A Life Overseas

An Excerpt on Friendship & Loss


Friends, there is a giveaway of Passages Through Pakistan on Goodreads! It ends on June 7th, and two books will be given away. In honor of the giveaway, I’ve included an excerpt from the book on friendship and loss. I hope you enjoy! Also – the electronic version of Passages will be released on June 15!


Friendships formed in our small community were and are unique. We forged relationships with likely and unlikely people, and they occupied our hearts and souls. Together we faced birth, death, tragedy, sickness, political instability, separation from blood relatives, car accidents, boarding school, tension in relationships, food rations, and so much more. 
These memories and events were woven together into an immense tapestry. But unless cared for, a tapestry gets loose threads, and those threads can unravel into holes – holes of too many goodbyes, unraveling of loss. We push the losses aside, dismiss the goodbyes as just part of life, part of being third culture kids. 

But buried losses don’t stay buried. Like a submarine, they eventually surface, and we realize that they were never gone. So our griefs, our goodbyes, would surface later in life, like angry monsters demanding a redo of the goodbyes, demanding time to grieve the losses, demanding another chance. But we get only one chance at childhood. When that childhood is lived thousands of miles and oceans away from the place you live as an adult, you can’t go back. When our childhood is good and lived with a sense of wonder, it outweighs the pain and grief that came along the way. We may long to recreate it, perhaps because in it we see something of what the world should be, what the world could be. But recreating it is an impossibility, and in our case, even revisiting the places and people was impossible. 

…Like so many things in childhood, I didn’t know what I had until I lost it. 

I didn’t realize the extraordinary community I had around me until I was no longer in Pakistan, until I had to forge my way in the rocky and seemingly hostile territory of my passport country. 

From Passages Through Pakistan: An American Girl’s Journey of Faith, pp 104 a 105, Tonga Rides

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