On Viruses

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Arundhati Roy

I opened my email this morning to find a message from a friend who I’ve known and worked with for over ten years. The message was asking me to weigh in on a public service announcement (PSA). The subject of the email said just this:

“Anti-racism campaign PSA ideas – need your feedback by the end of today.”

In the body of the email were three scenarios. My job was to read them and comment on which one I thought would be most effective in reaching the public. She had asked for a quick turn around time so before I did anything else, I responded.

It was after I responded that the weight of the email hit me. My friend is from Taiwan. She has lived here for years and is an amazing community member and activist for Asian women’s health. We’ve worked on some extraordinary projects together through the years, projects that don’t make the news but have a powerful effect on the community.

In the midst of a pandemic crisis, my friend is having to worry about and work on an anti-racism campaign. She holds the dual burden of protecting her family and community’s health along with the weighty burden of protecting their safety

I know the excuses. I know the fear that is gripping people. I know what I do when I fear, when I’m insecure, when I want to blame – and I’m quite sure that what I feel is symptomatic of the rest of us. But it is so wrong.

I appeal to all of us, but especially those of us who are white and may have friends that are crafting and spreading memes and messages that spread laughter and racism. We must open our mouths, our keyboards, and whatever other ways we communicate to speak up and out against this racism.

The focus on anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment comes from the myth that the corona virus is a Chinese virus.

Here are the facts: This corona virus was unknown until an outbreak in Wuhan, China in late 2019. “Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases have been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population.” [Source: Scripps Research Institute]

Rather than blaming China, we need to begin thanking them for identifying the virus and going to massive lengths to quarantine a huge population. Yes, their government had missteps (just as most governments did and are daily facing the consequences of those missteps.) This piece is not about government action or inaction. It’s about the wrongs that are being committed against a group of people under the guise of a virus.

Here are some truths about racism: It is a virus. It has to find a host. It cannot be spread without people -it lacks the ability to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body. Racism can mutate. It takes root in a willing host, then it mutates and changes, depending on the particular issue or people group. The racism virus is also like other viruses in that it is unsophisticated. It lacks the ability to live independently. It can be invisible, but it manifests itself in outward, visible symptoms.

The outward symptoms we are seeing of this virus are many. Spitting on people, physical violence, racial slurs, yelling ‘there’s a corona’ as they pass by someone who appears to be Asian, memes that attack a specific group, hate mail, invisible blame that comes out in subtle ways are a few of this disease.

And here’s the thing – Corona virus will eventually go away. But the virus of racism? That’s a lot harder. It takes root and stays in its host a long, long time. It can’t be treated with traditional cures and medicine. Instead, it needs to be rooted out with repentance and healed in relationship.

So here is my plea to all of us: May we not be willing hosts to this virus. May we see it before it takes root and run far away. May we examine our hearts and souls. May we refuse to pass on memes and cartoons that can damage others. May we learn the facts about the illness. May we call or email our friends who are from Chinese or other Asian families and check up on them because let’s face it – the American public are not good at distinguishing where people are from – right now, if you even look remotely Asian, you can be a target. May we always be ready to speak up and speak out in support of someone who is facing racism in a store, on a street, or in a public place.

Most of all, may our inner examination of heart and soul continue – where does racism find a willing host and what am I going to do about it?


“We’ve all been exposed. Not necessarily to the virus (maybe…who even knows). We’ve all been exposed BY the virus. Corona is exposing us. Exposing our weak sides. Exposing our dark sides. Exposing what normally lays far beneath the surface of our souls, hidden by the invisible masks we wear. Now exposed by the paper masks we can’t hide far enough behind. Corona is exposing our addiction to comfort. Our obsession with control. Our compulsion to hoard. Our protection of self. Corona is peeling back our layers. Tearing down our walls. Revealing our illusions. Leveling our best-laid plans. Corona is exposing the gods we worship: Our health Our hurry Our sense of security. Our favorite lies. Our secret lusts. Our misplaced trust. Corona is calling everything into question: What is the church without a building? What is my worth without an income? How do we plan without certainty? How do we love despite risk? Corona is exposing me. My mindless numbing. My endless scrolling. My careless words. My fragile nerves. We’ve all been exposed. Our junk laid bare. Our fears made known. The band-aid torn. The masquerade done. So what now? What’s left? “

Clean hands Clear eyes Tender hearts. What Corona reveals, God can heal. Come Lord Jesus. Have mercy on us. As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.


*I do not know the author of what I have printed. If any of you do, please contact me and I will give credit where credit is due.

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

Enlarging our hearts in Ranya ڕانیه

View from our front balcony/sunroom

It’s difficult to believe that we have only been in Kurdistan for 48 hours.

Our flight from Qatar was uneventful. We connected with another new faculty member just before boarding the plane. The fact that she spotted us so easily was a reminder that we are westerners and everything from the way we talk to the way we walk identifies us as such.

We flew into Sulaymaniyah, also called Slemani, a large city two hours from Ranya. The way the plane entered the air landing strip allowed us to see the entire area before landing.

The airport in Sulaymaniyah is small and customs and immigration was easy. We had our pictures and finger prints taken and temporary visas stamped into our passports in record time, then on to retrieve our eight large pieces of luggage on the other side.

A faculty member from the university was there to greet us and load our luggage into a truck and we took off on the two-hour journey to our new home.

Ranya is a town of 230,000, established in 1789. It is surrounded by a mountain range called the Kewa Rash (Black Mountains) and, for lack of a better word or because my thesaurus is not loading properly, nestled by a beautiful lake called Lake Dukan. Driving up a hill, you know you have arrived in Ranya when you see a large concrete statue of the number five. The statue commemorates March 5, 1991 when Ranya boldly rose up against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Though the most notable recent uprising, it is not the only time in Ranya’s history where they defied the ruling authorities. Indeed, this is part of Ranya’s story since the early 1900s. Because of this history, many Kurds refer to the city as Darwaza-I Raparingateway to uprising. It feels particularly important for me as a newcomer and stranger to acknowledge both the history and wounds of this place where we will work and make a home.

The University of Raparin (literally the University of Uprising) is at the edge of the city and we saw the buildings immediately after passing the commemorative statue. Going past the university, we arrived at the apartment complex where we will be living. Our apartment building is one of six buildings built specifically for faculty at the university. We arrived and were graciously welcomed by university staff. They also graciously carried our heavy luggage into the apartment, no small feat!

We walked up three flights of stairs and opening the door crossed over into our new home.

Earlier today I sat in a sun-filled room, listening to Georgian chant in a town in Kurdistan. An hour later I embarked on the task of heating water for a cup of tea for a guest. While this sounds simple, it didn’t feel simple. Still later, we made our first trip alone to the bazaar and the triumphal feeling of shopping in a language I don’t know in a city that is new is akin to giving birth. I, indeed, am Woman! Hear me roar – in Kurdish, no less.

The enormity of all of this converges with how normal it feels and I feel yet again how beautifully complicated Home can be.

But though all of this has expanded our hearts and minds, nothing compares to the conversations, afternoon snacks, and meals we have shared the past days. In just two days our hearts have grown larger and I marvel at the new friendships, primarily with young men and women who are our kids’ age. They are the future of Kurdistan and we are so honored to be with them during this time.

I will write more specifically about some of our new friends later, but for now, I am filled with gratitude and my heart is enlarged in the best way possible.

That Magic Word – Home

My younger daughter was recently in Toronto at the wedding of a friend. On return she had some difficulty with her ticket and had to go early to the airport in order to clear it up. As she was talking to a woman in security, she said “I just want to get home.”

Responding with wisdom, empathy, and an accent that indicated she knew the truth of her words, she said: “Somehow I understand that magic word – ‘Home’”

Throughout childhood we hear this word, used in various ways and forms.

Are we home yet?”

“How long until we get home?”

“I can’t wait to get home!”

“I hate leaving home.”

“It’s so good to be home!”

And then adulthood comes, and home becomes more complicated even if you don’t mean it to be. Is home where you grew up? Where your parents live? Where you now live? Where you are raising your family, or all of those combined?

You return home and home has changed, as have you. You leave, unsettled and discombobulated, happy to be leaving and sad that you are happy.

As life moves on, you become the one responsible for creating home, and in that space, home sometimes loses its purity and its magic. When we were little, magic and home happened. When we’re big, someone has to create it. Yet somehow along the way, most of us figure that out. We learn that home and what Wendell Berry calls “membership” are an incredible privilege, and we grow to protect that privilege. We learn that our connection to place matters, and our keeping of that place is vital for mental and physical health. Home may no longer feel like magic, but it has become so much more.

It is our anchor in a world that is fickle and our bridge that equips us to cross over to the outside.

Home. That place where we learn our first stories, where we lose teeth and grow inches, where we play and fight with siblings and grow nostalgic over time. For some, it is geographic; for others it is people, memories, and events that span the globe.

And one thing is sure–there is never more magic in the word then when we’ve been away, and we get to go back.

Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”*

*Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

An East-West Conversation

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“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

An Old Love

mom and dad

Every night before they went to sleep, my dad would kiss my mom. Even during his final month of life, when he was feeling weaker by the day, the last thing my dad did before he fell asleep was kiss my mom goodnight. They would pray and then he would kiss her. He knew that time was running out and so he got his kisses in before death came and separated them.

My dad was 91 when he died, my mom 89. “I’m so glad we had nothing between us. There were no regrets.” My mom has a far off look in her eyes as she tells me this. They were one in body and spirit, a tremendous heritage to give those who come after you.

Their love was an old love, but it hadn’t always been that way. Old photographs showed their young love, crinkled with time. A faded wedding picture, honeymoon pictures of a young couple by a lake and that same couple climbing a mountain are all evidence that they were young once.

But the years came, and with them five children, then daughters and son-in-law, grandchildren, and finally great grandchildren. Before they could catch their breath, they had an old love.

Old loves are free from the false expectations of youth.  Old love passes by newsstands featuring glossy magazines with covers that guarantee sleek, well-chiseled bodies, amazing sex, and “real love”.  While the images suck others in like dust in a vacuum, old love is oblivious. The world’s obsession with “young lust” and “young love” does not faze them. They travel as beloved ones in their own world, a world that knows better.

I will remember these love gifts forever.  The look my mom would give my dad, a look that whispers so confidently of care and shared understanding that even strangers would know this was born of a lifetime of loving. Or my dad, his formerly strong body broken, still looking out for my mom’s safety.

Theirs was a love that had died a million small deaths to self and false expectations. It was a love that saw others as better than self, and gave people bouquets of forgiveness, something far more costly than roses. It was a love that understood the hard process of aging, and the losses that come with it.

My eyes mist over as I remember their old love; wordless stories of a lifetime of sacrifice and trial; hurt and healing; misunderstanding and forgiveness. Their old love may have limped at the end, but it shouted of strength.

There are many times when my dad wistfully talked about an inheritance and how he wished that he could leave his kids and grandkids more money.  But he left us so much more. He left us a lifetime of loving my mom and that is enough.


 

Amphibians, Chameleons, and Cross Cultural Kids

“But those people who are fishes out of water were often the most vibrant ones in the room. I’ve begun to recognize a social type, the Amphibians — people who can thrive in radically different environments.” David Brooks “The Rise of the Amphibians”

In a recent article in the New York Times, David Brooks writes about interviewing millennials. In all of the interviews he conducted there seemed to emerge a certain type of millennial, one that he calls the “amphibian”. According to him, these amphibians look beyond surface labels and across cultural identities. They seek to understand those who think differently. Their goal is not necessarily to agree, but to find common ground in disagreement.

As I was reading I realized that this is the concept of the cross cultural kid or CCK that Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock talk about in the 3rd edition of the TCK book.

Cross cultural kids don’t necessarily grow up in a different country. Rather, they are often raised in a subculture of their passport country. So it could be the southern kid who moves to the East coast and navigates the north-south cultural tension. Or it could be the kid from Navajo nation who is daily bussed to a school off the reservation in a suburban area. It could also be a kid who is raised in a faith-based subculture and homeschooled but navigates cultural differences between her home and life in a non faith-based university. There are many examples of kids who grow up understanding and navigating cultural differences. To be sure, third culture kids are a strong subset of cross cultural kids, and the literature and research on them is invaluable, but they aren’t the only ones who navigate cultural differences.

Cross cultural kids naturally seek to see beyond divisive labels. They seek common ground and try to understand the other side, no matter what that side is. They understand that each of us has a story, and that those stories have shaped us.

They are often called chameleons and accused of not knowing who they are. But knowing who you are and obnoxiously making sure your values and views are the loudest in the room are vastly different. Living and navigating effectively across cultures takes cultural humility and the ability to listen well, something that cross cultural kids have to learn early in life.

Cross cultural kids can be active negotiators – taking both sides of a story and finding space for agreement. It can be a lonely space, but it’s a vital one.

As I think about our world today, I feel tired. The level of incivility in Western societies and the amount of cyber bullying by grown ups is appalling. If you disagree with someone who is conservative, you’re quickly termed a liberal. If you disagree with someone who is liberal, you are emphatically called intolerant. I know- because I’ve been called both. We are desperately in need of of amphibians, chameleons, and cross cultural kids. Without them, we’re in deep trouble.

“The Amphibians’ lives teach us that backgrounds are more complicated than simple class- or race-conflict stories. Their lives demonstrate that society is not a battlefield but a jungle with unexpected connections and migrations. Their lives teach that what matters is what you do with your background, the viewpoints you construct by combining viewpoints. Their lives are examples of the power of love to slice through tribal identity.”

The Rise of the Amphibians