The Stories Behind Our Silence

It’s been quiet here. It feels eerily quiet to me, though for those of you who read – the silence may be welcome. No one needs more noise in their lives. But the quiet feels strange to me because so much of my processing is done through writing.

Whenever my writing goes silent, there is a story behind the silence. I would think that this is true for most of us. Though everyone doesn’t process through writing, we all go through journeys where our inner world and trauma don’t reflect our outward circumstances, where there are stories behind our stepping away from life.

Some things are not for public consumption. In a world that more and more demands our every thought, our every hurt and pain spewed out through whatever public means possible, it feels important to say this.

Yet, too often, people insist on the story. They seemingly can’t give grace without the details. It makes me wonder how we can grow to be the kind of people who can honor the silent stories, giving grace for behavior and actions that don’t reflect what we know about the person’s life. How can we honor the stories behind the silence, knowing that people must feel safe in order to share? How can we become people who don’t operate off a sort of voyeurism, insisting on the hard ingredients instead of offering unconditional comfort?

It was a number of years ago when I first discovered the difference between outside circumstances and silent stories. It was in trying to figure out how I could help a friend. Her outside circumstances were seemingly ideal. A “put together” family – the kind that takes pictures of all their kids with blue jeans and white shirts on a pristine beach – a good job, beautiful kids, talent beyond believability. But behind her perfect smile was an undefinable sadness. At first I was impatient and frustrated. Of all the people I knew, she was the last person who seemed to have a reason to be sad. It was in the midst of frustration, that I felt a strong rebuke and challenge to look beyond these seemingly perfect circumstances. I realized that there must be more to the story then her observable beautiful life.

In truth, I should have been quicker to identify this. I say this because I too have been judged as one who has “nothing to complain about.” Judged for being a baby who can’t cope with the perfect life I’d been given. There were silent stories behind my observable “good” life. Stories that were difficult to share, and even more difficult to live.

The stories remained silent until I trusted a friend enough to reveal them.

Whether others give us freedom for silence or not, there are time honored and tested verses from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes that offer space for these seasons of silence:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

May we strive to be people of the seasons. People who honor all of the times in our lives, including the stories behind the silence – may we be people who offer the gifts of grace, comfort, compassion, and hope, all given without expectation, without insisting on details. And through these gifts may stories be heard, silence give way to a voice, and above all, the seasons of hope and healing be restored.

A Childhood Erased

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood is closing its doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night with my younger daughter and husband I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend Paul. I got to experience the thick fog of Jhika Gali, and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class will graduate. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

The closer the closing ceremony comes, the more I feel an urgent sadness that needs to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that this day would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school has dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had. Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

Fellow MCSers, what are your stones of remembrance?

Disturbing Stories and Bearing Witness

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.

Eli Weisel

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, when we are willing to listen.

Bearing witness means that we are showing that something exists; that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love and belief is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost.” To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Sometimes we are unable to bear witness in person. Sometimes the situation is far away and a writer or journalist brings it to our attention. This was the case for me recently when I read the horrific stories of abuse and torture that are taking place among the minority Uighur populations in China. The BBC is bringing light to these atrocities so that we might bear witness. So that we may not be silent. The headline reads “Women in China’s “re-education” camps for Uighurs have been systematically raped, sexually abused, and tortured, according to detailed new accounts obtained by the BBC.” followed by a note that the reader may find the account disturbing.

More than a million men and women have been detained in what is described as a “vast and secretive system of internment camps” in China’s Xinjiang region. The camps are set up for the “re-education” of the Uighur people and other minorities in China. All freedoms have been taken away and these groups face detention, surveillance, forced “re-education”, and forced sterilization. Documents state that China’s president has given and edict to respond to Uighurs with “No mercy.”

A first hand account from a woman who was interviewed for the BBC special report revealed this:

“Tursunay Ziawudun, who fled Xinjiang after her release and is now in the US, said women were removed from the cells “every night” and raped by one or more masked Chinese men. She said she was tortured and later gang-raped on three occasions, each time by two or three men.”

Sometime after midnight, they came to the cells to select the women they wanted and took them down the corridor to a “black room”, where there were no surveillance cameras.

Several nights, Ziawudun said, they took her.

“Perhaps this is the most unforgettable scar on me forever,” she said.*

We should be disturbed and awakened by this. When we lose our ability to be distressed and disturbed we lose our humanity. That we as humans can perpetrate this kind of cruelty shows our desperate need for repentance and healing. That we can allow this cruelty shows the same.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering, and in our entering offering hope and healing. The account in BBC is not a story I want to enter, but it’s a story I must enter. I may be helpless to do something physically, but I am not helpless to pray all of God’s mercy on the women who have been so deeply hurt.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Or perhaps to a news story far away, that you may never enter in person, but you can enter through prayer with the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on the Suffering. Have Mercy on the Hurting. Have Mercy on Your Creation.”

“But witnesses incur responsibilities, as anyone who has ever seen a traffic accident and had to go to court to testify, knows. In the new world of globally televised war crimes, the defence of ‘not knowing,’ or neutrality, will dissolve for everyone. To be a witness or bystander is not a value-free choice but, inadvertently, a moral position; and in this sense the ‘guilt’ of people who live with the memory of crimes committed by members of their families, or communities, has been unwittingly extended to everyone who watches appalling pictures on the news.” Erna Paris in Long Shadows: Truth, Lies, and History


[*Source: BBC News Special Report on Uighur Detention in China – © copyright 2021 BBC]

Finding My Way on the Freedom Trail

This morning I met with a dear friend at a coffee shop along the wharf in Boston. Blue sky and warm temperatures had us both exclaiming with delight as we sat outside drinking coffee and eating croissants. Our conversation went from Afghanistan to Islam to culture to cultural schizophrenia to the U.S election to Boston and back around again. Though much younger than me, we share our hearts during these times together, finding solace in mutual understanding.

We said goodbye by the bridge that separates the North End of Boston from Charlestown and I headed back home.

I soon found myself in an unfamiliar park and was just about to check my phone for directions when I spied the brick path that identifies Boston’s famed Freedom Trail.

Family and friends who come visit Boston always ask us about the Freedom Trail. Boston’s Freedom Trail is not a hike in the woods as some mistakenly think when they first arrive. Instead, it’s a path that winds through the city taking you to famous sites along the way. Every step of the path leads you into a story from the past and you find yourself immersed in America’s beginnings and fight for freedom.

Churches, museums, graveyards, and a ship are just a few of the treasured sites along the way. The trail begins at Boston Common and takes you 2.5 miles to an ending point at Bunker Hill Monument, an 11 minute walk from our house in Charlestown.

I smiled with relief as I found the Freedom Trail. I now knew where I was! I had a reference point and could follow the path. Instead of feeling a sense of confusion and disorientation, I felt safe and secure. If I just followed the brick path I knew exactly how to get home.

As I walked I thought about how weary and lost I have felt. I thought about the disorienation and lostness I feel when I sink into the abyss of discontent fueled by social media and the isolation it can create. I thought about how tired the world feels with this pandemic. And then I thought about the freedom that a known path allows, even when it winds and twists and turns.

I think a lot of us are feeling lost. We don’t know how to plan and how to walk forward. While the pandemic and the changed plans that it has brought is part of the reason, each of us have our own private reasons as well. These public challenges just make our private worlds more complicated.

Weary. Lost. Frustrated. Sad. Angry. Confused. Disoriented. These are just a few of the words that I have shared with friends and they have shared with me about this time. How do you find your way when there are so many twists and turns?

This sense of feeling lost is when I know I have to go back to the beginning. My life is recentered by remembering that my story, small as it is, is important and fits into a bigger story. As the Freedom Trail is to American history, so is my story to this bigger story. It’s small, but remembering it can remind me how to get home. I have churches and graveyards, ships and museums in my story as well.

As I remember my story, I remember who I am. More importantly, I remember whose I am.

The solid brick path of the Freedom Trail showed me the way today. Somehow, it also centered me in my story. As I walked the trail, I remembered who I was. The Freedom Trail brought me home.

Celebrating a Quiet Life

Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.

On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.

My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.

Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.

In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.

This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.

In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.

In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.

There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.

On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:

Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”

Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.

Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.

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/

#WorldRefugeeDay 2018

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“you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” 

“Home,” by Warsan Shire

In the past few years I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing stories from many refugees and displaced people in different parts of the world. From the Sindh region of Pakistan to Northern Iraq, these are people who live out a stubborn resilience and will to not only survive, but thrive.

Brave.Resilient.Fierce.Tenacious.Creative.Strong. These are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe the people who I’ve met. The stories I have heard include tragedy, humor, and everything in between. It’s a tapestry of the human spirit and a representation of the image of God in each woman, man, and child.

In the midst of the world wide crises another refugee/migrant crisis has been created on the borders of the United States. Children are being separated from their parents due to a ‘zero tolerance’ policy put in place on 4/6/2018. The policy was created by John Kelly and Stephen Miller to serve as a deterrent for undocumented immigration. It was approved by Trump and adopted by Sessions. While previous administrations detained migrant families, they did not have a practice of forcibly separating parents and children unless the adults were deemed unfit and unsuitable to care for their children.

Make no mistake – when voices on the left and the right all agree, then truth has risen above politics. That truth is this: This ‘zero tolerance’ policy that has been implemented at the U.S./Mexico border is immoral and evil. It separates families in unthinkable ways and punishes those who are desperate.

Consider these words released today by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on World Refugee Day: “The United States will continue to be a world leader in providing humanitarian assistance and working to forge political solutions to the underlying conflicts that drive displacement.” 

And yet, recordings of children sobbing at detentions centers go viral while in the background an agent is heard joking with the words: “We have an orchestra here.”

This, my friends, is cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Most of us have little influence when it comes to big policy decisions, but truth challenges all of us to seek justice and a better way, and what better day to do that than the day set aside for #WorldRefugeeDay?

Can we ask ourselves these questions today:

  • How can we combat the cognitive dissonance that we see in ourselves and many around us?
  • What can we do to overcome apathy or fear?
  • What do you specifically need to do to avoid compassion fatigue and information overload so that you can care about what matters? What prayers need to be a part of our daily life? How do we need to start the day in order to face, with wisdom and grace, our life and the news around us?
  • What specific things in your community could you do to welcome refugees?
    • ESL Classes
    • Boston Area volunteer opportunities to teach English
    • Invite refugees and immigrants into your home or church.
    • Employ refugees – whether it’s for short or long term, if you have the ability to employ someone, do it.
    • Volunteer your skills – Are you a nurse? Social worker? Coach? Artist? Teacher? Use what you do well – don’t try to do something you are not good at!
    • Take this free online course on refugee rights.
  • How can we change some of the common myths and narratives, that are not based on fact, that marginalize refugees?

Lastly, will you take a moment on this day and pray this prayer:

Prayer for refugees from Catholic Relief Services

God of our Wandering Ancestors,
Long have we known
That your heart is with the refugee:
That you were born into time
In a family of refugees
Fleeing violence in their homeland,
Who then gathered up their hungry child
And fled into alien country.

Their cry, your cry, resounds through the ages:
“Will you let me in?”

Give us hearts that break open
When our brothers and sisters turn to us
with that same cry.
Then surely all these things will follow:
Ears will no longer turn deaf to their voices.
Eyes will see a moment for grace instead of a threat.
Tongues will not be silenced but will instead advocate.
And hands will reach out—
working for peace in their homeland,
working for justice in the lands where they seek safe haven.

Lord, protect all refugees in their travels.
May they find a friend in me
And so make me worthy
Of the refuge I have found in you.

Amen.


Friends – I am also incredibly excited to invite you to participate in the GoFundMe to help a country that has faced more than its share of war and displacement. Would you consider helping?


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