Ladies Day Out

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I am driving from the downtown area of Rockport when I suddenly decide to stop and sit a spell by the ocean. The day is perfect September, all blue sky and mild temperatures. It is low tide and the beach has lost the crowds of summer, leaving pristine sand and so much space. I easily find a bench to sit on and pull out my notebook and pen.

It is then that I begin to observe a group of ladies gathering at the beach. They come in a large group and they are every shape and size. They unpack beach bags and bring out books and suntan lotion. Older wrinkled bodies are revealed without embarrassment, just relaxed satisfied smiles and pure delight in their surroundings. They are short and tall with dyed hair and grey hair. They pull large caftans off of fat bodies and beach coverings off of thinner ones. Their bathing suits seem to perfectly reflect their personalities – the one with dyed hair made up to perfection with the loud Italian voice has a bright coral suit with splashes of white flowers adorning it. The one that struggles to walk has on a black suit with white piping, unremarkable in its style.

Their canvas, beach chairs face the ocean, their backs are to everything but the cool, blue sea. Because really – nothing else matters.

There are no kids. There are no husbands or boyfriends. Just a group of contented women, enjoying a perfect September day on a ladies day out. Their conversation is lost in the waves, but their laughter is loud.

“Look at us!” it says. “This is a day that asks us to leave all our troubles behind. It asks us to enter in with joy and abandon, to splash in a cold, late summer sea; to squint at a bright sun; to smell of coconut lotion and salt water.”

Not all days are like this. Many days require great patience, others require tears, still others ask for anger. But this day? This day says “Welcome! Feel the joy and sand. Feel God’s pleasure. Take it in. Let it revive you. Let it heal you. Let it sustain you!”

And then?

Then go out into this world with strength for what comes your way.

This group of women? They are seasoned and spiced with life. There are undoubtedly countless tragedies among them. Tragedies of broken relationships and marriages; tragedies of death and separation; tragedies of selfish choices and unkept promises – because this is our broken world.

But tragedies are not a part of today’s outing. No – today’s outing is suntan lotion to make them feel young again, ocean waves to cool wrinkled feet, laughter and joking over seagulls stealing sandwiches, and maybe – just maybe a little frozen rosé to sweeten a near-perfect day.

I sigh as I leave these ladies of a certain age. Unlike them, my responsibilities are calling hard today, and I have already ignored them to vicariously participate in this ladies day out. I am rapidly becoming one of these women, and one day soon I hope I too will gather at the ocean with all my friends. Our bodies will be exposed with lots of flaws and little embarrassment. Our laughter will echo across Front beach so all the neighbors will hear and envy us.

I will be the one in the coral suit.

This piece is for the two Carols, Karen, Amalia, Suzana, Leslianne, & Poppadia Paula – with so much love. 

On Waiting…

Jenni Gate - Waiting

We are sitting in a government office in Suleimaniyah (commonly called Suli) and we are waiting. We left Rania at seven in the morning. The sun had already welcomed the day and a beautiful breeze accompanied us on our walk to the university.

The road between Rania and Suli begins as a one lane, heavily trafficked highway. Even early in the morning cars, trucks, and lorries are moving fast. Traffic in this part of the world is not for the fainthearted. There are few rules and those who observe them are much more likely to get hurt than the rest of us. Until we reach Dukan, a small city beside a winding river, the road is narrow and crowded with little room to pass. At Dukan it widens and becomes much more comfortable for those in the back seat of an old Toyota pickup truck.

We get to the residency office in Suli and this is where the waiting begins. People are scurrying here and there, some of them lawyers or handlers, others are people like us who don’t have a clue what they are doing. What we do know is that we need to be here and we need to behave. We are guests in a country and mama always said that guests need to behave. The busy looking people have a lot of paper and a lot of passports in their care, and it matters what they say and what they do with the paper and the passports. They are our go betweens. While we must perfect the art of waiting, they must perfect the art of acting and doing. They understand both the language and the process, and we desperately need them.

Black numbers mark small cubicles where government workers, separated by glass, interview or authoritatively stamp approval or disapproval on official looking papers. This is Kurdistan, so the number of people smiling far exceeds the number who look grumpy. I love this and feel an affinity with Kurds in their generally optimistic outlook on life. They have much to teach the world about waiting and about hope.

There is a lot of waiting in this building. My colleague makes the insightful observation that knowing you are waiting for something automatically changes the quality of time you have. If I suddenly had this long stretch of time at home, I would be delighted. There would be so many things I could do and so much possibility created by knowing I have extra time. Not so when I am forced to wait. Suddenly I feel paralyzed and can’t do anything.

Just before we left Massachusetts we ended up at the Division of Motor Vehicles, non-affectionately called the DMV by those in the know. The line for the DMV went out the door and down the hallway to a nearby Target store. It was a nightmare. In any country, in any language, government bureaucracy looks similar. What changes is whether you know what’s going on or not, otherwise the lack of ability to control what goes on is exactly the same. And world-wide the approach is similar with these four rules:

  • Be as nice as possible without seeming like you are trying to butter your way onto the bureaucracy toast
  • Have just the appropriate degree of assertiveness
  • Say please and thank you
  • Whenever possible make people smile.

In any country and in any language there is another universal truth: the truth of waiting. Waiting. Suspended between. Not sure when you’ll be able to leave or if you will leave with what you came for.

We wait. Always we wait. It’s a universal experience, one that will not be over until our final breath. Airport terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings are just a few of the spaces where we live in the limbo of the “not yet arrived.”

Sometimes we wait patiently and other times we are impatient. Sometimes we wait with a good sense of humor while other times we are grumpy. Sometimes we wait with anticipation and other times we wait with dread.

While I am waiting for a residency permit, you may be suspended between a blood test and a diagnosis; a job interview and a job offer; a visa application and a stamp of approval; a pregnancy test and a definitive little pink line; an abnormal mammogram and a biopsy; an offer on a house and an acceptance of the offer; a child who is far away and their homecoming; a journey or question of faith and an answer.

May you know the song of the waiting one. May you be able to rest despite your nerves and your tears; may you be able to trust against the odds; may your imagination be enfolded in grace; may your heart rest in the knowledge that in all the waiting, there is one who waits with you.

May you know grace and peace in the margins of waiting. 

“Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in an orchestrates our plans, our movements. We may never know the reason for the waiting – they may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.” 

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

“And so I wait [in a government building], thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.” from “Mumbai Airport” in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

Dear Dad, I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday….

Dear Dad,

Soon after you died, I began planning Mom’s 90th Birthday. As I planned, I would periodically panic – something seemed to be missing. Now I know that something was a someone. It was you. Normally I would have talked to you about it, talked to you about what you would want to add, talked to you about the place and especially, the food! But that was impossible because you’ve been gone these seven plus months.

I remember last October how she told you she was going out to buy a dress with me and Stef.  You looked right at her and told her to buy two – one for your funeral and one for her 90th birthday. Even in the midst of your hard last days, you knew there needed to be a celebration. I think she knew you weren’t long for this world at that point – you were so willing to let go of money. Where you were going you wouldn’t need it!

I wanted to write to you today because I miss you and I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday.

We got together at an inn in Fairport, right near the Erie Canal. Family came from as far as Thailand, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, and Greece to as close as downtown Rochester, because movement, even with its high cost, is in our family’s DNA. The area was perfect and the weather even more so. The Inn on Church is at the corner of Church Street and South Main. The rooms are spacious and lovely, boasting all their original character with new amenities. There is a large wrap around porch with plenty of rockers and a sign that  invites people to sit a spell and join the “Porch Sitter’s Brigade”. Inside was enough space for 42 of us to congregate, first for breakfast on Saturday, followed by a late afternoon tea – something that you know Mom loves.

You would have loved the breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and a gorgeous frittata with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and just enough spinach to look healthy. We laughed and talked over breakfast, so much to catch up on since we last saw each other at your funeral. There was time and space to walk, go kayaking, sit and read, or play croquet in the back yard.

Early evening came and we gathered for a high tea of scones, bread, ham, salads, and cupcakes made by one of your granddaughter’s. The head table’s unseen guest was not Jesus, but you.

And then we celebrated Mom. We went through her life with poems, songs, skits, memories, and prayers. We laughed a lot and choked up some as we thought of you being gone.

It’s a long way from small town Winchendon to celebrating a 90th birthday, but it happened! Some of your grandsons began the program with a tale of Mom’s life until she went off to college. Your granddaughters did you proud as they reenacted the young Polly with a crush on Ralphie. There may have been references to a former girlfriend – Joyce – but they were quickly squashed as Aunt Ruth and Aunt Charlotte remembered your wedding and Aunt Ruth led us in singing “Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Her voice is beautiful; her spirit more so.  Still more of your kids and grandkids went through stages of her life – Pakistan, 8-Acre Woods, South Hadley, and then retiring in Rochester. A couple of your kids remembered you as a couple, one in a rhyme that would make your heart swell with pride. Singing and prayers for the past, present, and future finished the program.

Our hearts were so full – full of the joy of memories, full of the time with each other, full of the love that you and Mom so generously gave; the love that she continues to give.

And oh how we missed you. You would have loved celebrating the 90th birthday of the love of your life. These past months since you left us have not been easy for her. Losing you was like losing a couple of limbs and half a heart. Those losses would make anyone limp a little. No matter how much the rest of us love her, we can never love her quite enough, never love her the way you loved her.

But though she lives with these missing pieces, she still radiates joy, wisdom, and strength. She continues to pray for all of us; continues to reach out to others and allow others to reach out to her.

Toward the end of the program, your grandson, Michael, sang a hymn. He sang it with his beautiful, strong voice and though I know where you live there is extraordinary beauty and singing like we’ve never seen, from our still limited perspective his song was a taste of heaven.

I’ve included a verse for you, because I think these words may best express what your dear Polly is experiencing.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

So what can we say? It was amazing, but we sure do miss you. 

Airports – Spaces Between Goodbye & Hello

Airport Happy Place

I love airports. Whether they are small regional airports in the middle of Pakistan or large, metropolitan mega centers of the world – I love them.

I find that airports are contemplative places. They provide a place of quiet watching in the middle of chaos; they allow me to stare out at nothing in particular without interruption; they offer me cinnamon buns, with gorgeous thick icing and gooey middles.

Today I’m sitting at JFK airport in the Jet Blue terminal. It’s a relatively quiet Thursday morning with few family travelers. As I was settling in for a long layover, I suddenly heard my name paged over the loudspeaker. Because I am who I am, in 30 seconds I had gone through a list of catastrophes. By the end of the list, most of the people I love more than life itself had died.

And then I mentally kicked myself and told myself that God doesn’t give us grace for our imagined tragedies. It’s amazing how quickly the brain can go from slow contemplation to imagination induced funerals to relief. I headed to the Jet Blue “Just Ask” spot, and I “just asked” why they had paged me. It was my license. It must have slipped out as I was walking between gates.

The kindness of strangers always amazes me in airports. Just a small incident of a misplaced license is an example — the anonymous person who found the license and turned it in; the person who paged me; and then the person who met me halfway between gates just to make it easier.

I see other acts of kindness – the person who gave up their seat for an older woman who looked like she needed rest; employees who work day in and day out seeing anonymous people and still smile when they serve you; the mother/daughter duo who stop to help a young mom struggling with a toddler and a baby.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders. Airports are also non-places and though I love them, most people don’t.

The Terminal, a 2004 Spielberg film, tells the story of an Eastern European man trapped in the same airport where I now sit. He is caught between worlds in “diplomatic limbo” as his fictitious country experiences a coup rendering his visa and passport useless. The country he comes from no longer exists, so he is not allowed to set foot on U.S soil. Instead, he makes his home in the international departure lounge.

The main character (Victor Navorski played by Tom Hanks) is sympathetic and pure. He doesn’t lie or try to take advantage of the situation, instead he gets to know the people in the airport as human beings. He intervenes in what could have been a tragedy and he drives the customs and immigration official, Dixon played by Stanley Tucci, crazy.

I love this film.  I love the pace. I love the characters. But most of all, I love the story. It’s a story of people stuck in the space between who end up opening up to each other and becoming friends.

My friend, Mariuca, says that my life is like The Terminal. I laugh when she says it, because in recent months I’ve done little traveling, but I’m also the only person I know who wouldn’t mind if my life was The Terminal. The idea of befriending airport employees and driving immigration officials crazy sounds incredibly appealing.

But I don’t live in the terminal. I live in real life where this morning I said goodbye to my husband and in a bit I will say hello to my mom. And that’s the thing that every person in this airport has in common, no matter their age or nationality; no matter if they are airport employees or travelers; no matter what their occupations. Every single person is between goodbye and hello. Every single person left wherever they left this morning saying goodbye. It could have been a painful, poignant, or relieved goodbye and it will end with a painful, poignant, or a relieved – perhaps ecstatic – hello.

We’re fellow life-travelers between goodbye and hello. Some of us know to make the moments count, others haven’t seen enough of life to know that moments matter.

Living between worlds in the liminal space of an airport may not be what many would enjoy, but I sit in happy contemplation.

I am content in the terminal, content between goodbye and hello. 

Hospital Time


I’ve woken early today. Only the birds sing outside, alerting me that it is spring. 

I have been on hospital time since Friday. It’s a strange, twilight time where what we think of as important vanishes, in its place comes a subdued submission to all of life. 

Hospital time is well-known to many – the cancer patient going for weekly chemotherapy; the dialysis patient praying for a kidney; the family of the child in an accident, an induced coma taking the child away for a time. 

Hospital time is part of the human experience, a definite part of aging. We are seen by doctors, recommended to surgeons, and humbly, like sheep being led, go to classes and appointments, lest we be the .3% who doesn’t do well. 

On Friday last week I entered into hospital time. I had a 3-week lead time, so in a sense, hospital time came on slowly, incrementally. 

But on Friday, it was real. Friday I was stripped of my normal identity and became a woman who was being prepared for surgery. With the signing of my paperwork, hospital time began. 

Outside, the world rushed on. Social media erupted over something, the stock market rose and fell, news stations put their overly dramatic news teams onto things both menial and important. 

But none of that mattered. What mattered was hospital time. 

When I think about Eternity, I think about hospital time redeemed; a time when all creation is healed and time surrenders to the Creator. No longer are our moments filled with rage at injustice, fear of the unknown, sadness of loss, or worry about the millions of things that are out of our control. Because time is redeemed and reconciled to our creator. 

In the meantime, I am still in my other world of hospital time, taking the moments to heal and rest, realizing that life will go on without me at its center. And in this time, I am enveloped in grace. 


Readers- I would love it if you entered this book giveaway for Passages Through Pakistan at Goodreads! 

Enter here! 

Get a Life

“Oh, for God’s sake…get a life, will you?”–William Shatner

 

Connor left nearly a month ago to return to the University of British Columbia. As he and Lowell pulled away from the house I felt the bottle of grief shaken within me lose its scarcely screwed on lid. Before I knew it I was drenched, inside and out, with sadness. I came into the house, sat in my chair, gently held my coffee cup and cried.

In my sad spot I remembered that this is our Adelaide’s last year of high school too and a fresh wave of grief dragged me under. It felt like my heart would break.

I wondered at the strangeness of parenting. We wrap our lives and our hearts around these miniature people. We tend, nurture, guide, direct. We attend concerts and games, plays and competitions. We give up our rights to complete thoughts, finished sentences, sleeping in on Saturdays, uninterrupted conversations, Sunday afternoon naps, free time, long showers, the late show. We trade it all in for diapers, runny noses, giggles, knock knock jokes, princesses, pirate ships, play dough, lego towers, swing pushing, nail painting, homework helping, eye rolling, door slamming, curfew pushing kids! And if we get a minute we’d admit that it was a fair trade. For the most part we’ve loved it—!

In that sad moment in my chair I wanted those days back again. I wanted another turn at it all. I wanted to hold fiercely on to the childhood of my children. They said it would go fast and for the longest time I thought they were mocking me…but now I realized with horror at how right they had been. It was over with my kids before it had really begun in me.

As I sat sipping my coffee, which now oddly tasted like nostalgia and sorrow, I thought to myself, “Robynn, You need to get a life”! I suppose it was a mild rebuke from my more sensible self to my emoting sobbing self. Even as I thought it another thought quickly jumped up in defense of me. Wait a minute…I do have a life!

I do. I have purpose. I’m a spiritual director in training. My brain is being stretched and stimulated by the program I’m enrolled in. I have a broad worldview. I’ve had the humbling privilege of travel and crossing cultures in varying places around the globe. I’m a part of an Environmental Missions effort. I’m passionate about climate change and its effects on the world. I care deeply about the oppressed and long for justice. I have deep friendships with interesting people who expand my world in significant ways. My thoughts are often outside of my inside domestic duties. I read books, I engage in conversation, I watch the occasional documentary, I listen to intellectually stimulating podcasts.

Honestly I think that’s one of the best gifts I’ve given my children. They’ve seen my heart for others. They know I have a wide circle. They’ve heard me rant about racial injustice, about welcoming the immigrant, about caring for the poor. They’ve seen my eyes fill with tears with concern for friends that are hurting. They know I have dreams and goals and longings outside of our home.

I attended an international boarding school in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. Multiple times a year we’d have to say goodbye to our parents. It was devastatingly difficult. But I’m convinced it was made marginally easier because we knew my parents had purpose. We knew they loved each other well. Their marriage was solid. We knew they’d be ok without us.

Kids need to know that their parents are going to be all right when they’re not around. It’s too much pressure for a child to believe that his mother’s or his father’s emotional well-being is connected to him. He needs to know they have a life without him.

There are ways we interpret our obsession with our kids that sound noble and self-sacrificing. But I wonder if we scraped those notions back down to the frame if we’d find something more self-serving than we originally thought? Does it give us a sense of importance? Are we tethering our identity solely to our role as caregiver?

I’m not saying that being a parent is not an important vital job. By all means it is! But the goal is to work yourself out of a job. We want to raise adults that are independent, that no longer need us for their daily cares. We want to train up people that know what it means to contribute in valuable ways to the world around them. They will not know about that unless we show them. It will be important to your health and the health of your progeny that you have some other meaningful thing to give yourself to.

I suppose there’s no real easy way to say this….but moms and dads –you have got to get a life! I don’t care what age your kids are now, begin, even today to imagine a little life outside of your children. Start researching ideas of what you might want to do. Pray it through. Take up a hobby that energizes you. Are there distance education classes you could enroll in even now? Are there places you could meaningfully volunteer? Are there courses offered in your community that might spark your imagination? Do you have dormant dreams that you used to think about? What would it look like to fan some of those back into flame? The little people won’t be little for long. Start now and get a life!

 

 

“How did it get so late so soon?”

pocket watch with Seuss quote

The house is dark as I get up and make my way to the kitchen, bleary-eyed, knowing I need coffee.

It has been nonstop people, meals, dishes, talk, games, presents, more tea, more talk, more games, more presents, and more tea. Thank God for tea.

And it is wonderful and exhausting, but mostly wonderful.

I try hard to be quiet as I get ready, but the minute I put on my heeled boots, the click click click on the wooden floor sounds loud, echoes across the darkened house. I put on the Christmas tree lights, longing to sit for just a minute but I’ve been off work for a while now and I need to get back.

I pull my thick coat close to my body, a scarf wrapped tightly around my neck. The warm of the past few days has given way to the seasonal cold and I feel it. My neighborhood is still asleep and the Hanukkah lights of some neighbors radiate blue into the morning sky.

Inside our home it is still festive, full of light and Christmas with frosted cookies still on the dessert menu, their red and green slowly getting grainy. But outside it is business as usual. All around me is evidence of a society ready to close out Christmas and pull people in for end of the year sales.

Christmas has ended. It is being packed up, put into tissue paper like fragile ornaments. Wreaths and ribbons are slowly taken down, the lights rolled up, and soon we will see Christmas trees put out on sidewalks, their boughs casting sharp, green needles all over the ground.

I’m not ready. During Christmas we give ourselves the gift of time. Time to curl up and read. Time to play games. Time to have long breakfasts and dinners. Time to talk. That’s one of the gifts of Christmas — time.  I’m not ready to pack that gift away. I’m not ready to get back into a busy schedule, slave to deadlines and projects. In the words of the sage children’s author, Dr. Seuss, I wonder:

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

When I was a kid, time felt so slow. I would wait in anxious anticipation for everything from Christmas to a boy asking me to sit with him and exchange furtive glances. Time took forever. Now I wonder how it got so late so soon. 

So I walk, bundled up, to the subway, thinking all these thinks, pausing for a minute to speak words of gratitude for time to the One who is timeless.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pocket-watch-jewel-chain-stone-560937/ word art Marilyn R. Gardner