Words to End the Year

It’s noon on December 31st and grey fog fills up the space outside, making its way indoors only to be greeted by light and warmth. New Year’s greetings from around the world have begun, the first one being from my niece in Thailand, where papaya trees dot her yard and memories of our gathering immediately after my brother’s death flood my mind.

Many of us are ready to put this year behind – but for what and toward what? Will next year really be better? We don’t know. We forge forth, willing it to be so, shocking ourselves with our strength and perseverance. Believing somehow, without evidence, that “If something so impossibly catastrophic and unimaginably awful can happen, perhaps something impossibly beautiful and impossibly redemptive can also happen.” (paraphrased from @nightbirdie as quoted in Ann Voskamp blog) And yet, that is the very definition of faith.

Rather than try to pull words from an empty place today, I want to give you some words that others have written that have resonated with me. These are words of hope and wisdom, words to start a year.

On The Word: “This year would have been crushing without God’s Word, shining like a pillar of fire, hovering like a daytime cloud, in what has often felt like a wilderness of worrry and woe. There is so much gooness to savor in this life, and learning to be ruthlessly regular in savoring it is a discipline that I know I’ll have to keep practicing, forever.” Laura Merzig Fabrycky

On Hope: “Our God doesn’t swoop in and save us at the end. He’s here for the whole journey. The whole dark and broken experience of life among messy and messed up people. He’s the friend who sticks with us when we’re not nice to be around. He’s the one who will sit with us in silence, not just offer cliched words of “comfort.” He understands that hope isn’t about twirling in the sunshine; it is about believing in light while living in utter darkness.” Tanya Crossman in When Hoping Hurts

On Loving Others: “The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are by a God iwth an upsetting sense of community.” Barbara Brown Taylor

On Forgiveness: “Human beings need forgiveness and kindness like we need oxygen. A nation devoid of grace immiserates its people. A church devoid of grace rebukes the cross” David French from The Dispatch

On Dwelling: “But I know the place that comes next won’t be a place of stable ground, of settling. I don’t think that’s in the cards for me – of for many of us with wandering hearts and souls that chase after wherever God calls us next. It’s not a place or people or a single purpose that brings our hearts to rest. It’s not stablitiy or control. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O lord and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee,” said St. Augustine of Hippo…..and yet, my heart feels at rest among the mysteries of what is next and who I am becoming, of where my family’s story is headed and how God will lead. I coudn’t ask for a better place to dwell than here in the unknowing with the God who knows it all.” Nicole Walters in A Place to Dwell for Restless Hearts.

On Stories and The Word: “In the beginning was the Word, after all, as I suspect is shall be in the end: stories will remain our transit points, our shorelines, and our home.” Edwidge Danticat as quoted in Plough Magazine

And so as we end this year, making the small mark in history as the year that was 2021, I am reminded of words I wrote earlier in November, words that remind us that each of us walk a hard human path, and giving grace becomes not just important, but necessary.

“We all have something. We all have something that hurts, something that takes up our thoughts and interrupts our dreams.

“And so, in this New Year, I pray – I pray that God will help us with the somethings, from cancer to depression. I pray that God will ease our pain with his presence. I pray that the broken will be mended and the jobless will find jobs. I pray that the depressed will find comfort and the grieving will have permission to mourn. I pray that brains and bodies will be mended and hearts and minds will know the grace that is sufficient. I pray that we who walk this human walk will walk it despite the somethings. That we will chase beauty in the midst of the hard, that we will find light in the darkness. I pray that we will breathe in “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and breathe out “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I pray “God, Help us with our somethings.”

And to you, who continue to read words in this space, thank you! May your hopes for the New Year transcend your helpless somethings, may you know peace, joy, and the incredible grace of God.

On Duty & Dreaming

A couple of years ago my oldest daughter texted me with words that were deeply affirming, if a bit humorous. The text said “I am so glad that you were a mother so committed to leisure.”

I started giggling. Committed to leisure? If she only knew the guilt I felt for not doing enough. For not getting them into more sports and more ballet, for not insisting on more piano and flute. For not doing more crafts and music. The one thing I was really good at was reading and resting. I remember being on our front porch in Massachusetts, all of us just sitting, eating, and lounging. I don’t even remember the conversation – I just remember the summer breeze and being perfectly content.

Here she was affirming what I thought I did wrong. Affirming an unknown but fully experienced commitment to leisure.

I’ve thought a lot about that text in the past few years. Unbknownst to my daughter, it was profoundly moving, encouraging me out of a depth of insecurity about motherhood that I didn’t even realize I had.

I entered motherhood in the 25th year of my life, young by today’s standards. I remember the wonder with which I looked at my newborn daughter, her perfect toes, fingers, and truly rosebud mouth pursed up ready to try out the suck reflex. I remember thinking I had never known a love that could so utterly consume me. I remember the well of emotion, knowing in those first days postpartum that the world would have the potential to hurt my little human and I didn’t know what to do with that. All I could do was cry, and in those moments open my heart to God and his blessed mother, who surely knew hurt like few do.

As I walked into those early days, I still remember the lazy mornings of breastfeeding, the moments when only I knew how to comfort her and the infinite wonder of that reality. I dreamt a lot during those days of what our future family would look like. Would there be siblings? Of course! What would our family look like? What would our family be? Would my children be dreamers like I was, losing themselves in books and films, ever searching for beauty, always with a touch of longing? Our daughter was followed by five more children, and the dreaming days were over….or were they?

I found out that a mother’s walk is a balance between duty and dreaming. Duty is what gets you up in the morning when you know you have to get them to school and yourself off to work. Duty is what gets you up in the middle of the night when you realize that the rasping, animal like sound from the other room is your child who can’t breathe properly. Duty is what has you in the bathroom, a hot shower running full force as you anxiously wait for your child’s breathing to improve. Duty is what has you chauffering children to birthday parties and libraries, doctors visits and Sunday schools.

Dreaming is what keeps you hopeful. Dreaming is what you do as you curl up on the couch reading books in front of a wood stove. Dreaming is what has you taking your kids to Egypt to see their childhood homes, to Florida to build sandcastles on the beach, to Quebec City to wander the walled city. Dreaming is what inspires you to create home and place, memories and traditions. Dreaming is what helps you as you ask your child about colleges they are interested in attending or ideas for plays and stories. Dreaming is what keeps you alive as a mom, determined not to slip into a duty only ethos, because what joy is there in that?

Duty is what pays the bills, dreaming is what makes paying the bills worthwhile. Duty is duty. It is necessary and it is what makes dreaming possible. Dreaming is dreaming. It’s what makes duty possible.

I’m thinking about all these things as I go into the new year. About duty and about dreaming. How duty can creep up and before we know it – all of life is just duty. There is no dreaming. There is just drudgery. Hope is lost in the duty of living. And yet if life is just dreaming, then nothing will ever get done, and life will feel just as meaningless. Like in motherhood, duty and dreaming are a necessary balance. Maybe that is what has felt so difficult in this year of closed borders and closed coffee shops – that dreaming feels impossible and duty overwhelming.

In just a couple of days, 2020 will in an instant change to 2021. Duty will have me changing the clocks, making sure my calendar is up to date, that my work schedule is clear. Dreaming will have me curled up on the couch, committed to leisure and joy on New Year’s Day, writing in my journal and looking at airline tickets. Duty will get me up on the cold mornings in the winter when bed is far more tempting and all of life feels trapped in ice. Dreaming will give me the joy I need to see sunshine sparkling on icy trees and know that “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”*

Here’s to duty and dreaming. Like truth and grace, they are an interwined, paradoxical necessity.

Happy New Year from Communicating Across Boundaries. Thank you for sharing the journey.


*Julian of Norwich

Merry Christmas Eve from Thessaloniki

The wind is rattling the door shutters in the apartment, but inside it is cozy and calm. It’s what I’ve always wanted Christmas Eve to be, yet what it rarely is. Thessaloniki itself is a bustling commotion of people, strolling in plazas and stopping at cafes and shops along the way. There is a festive sense of waiting, evoking childhood memories anticipating the joy and surprises of Christmas.

Thessaloniki is not a new city for us, so we drink in the familiarity even as we explore new places and sights. It’s a special city – a city of miracles and churches, of children caroling out of tune on Christmas Eve, pocketing money and chocolates, and priests coversing with strangers in coffee shops. Time stops as you sit in cafes or tavernas, in churches or apartments.


Being Orthodox we feel at home in these churches, the saints guiding us through every icon, an urgency and expectancy in their gaze, as if to say “Watch and wait – you’ll see. These things you worry over, the cares you hold tight, the burdens you bear – lay them down for a moment. Stop for a moment. Be enveloped in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.” This faith is like this city – familiar yet new; timeless, enduring, ageless yet ever-available.

It is good to stop. It is a gift to be still. My life has taken on the familiar urgency of a large American city and I find myself longing for the time we had last year, longing to stop and reflect. We try and set aside time, and yet the endless tasks, scrolling, time-wasting, and real work creep in making us believe that we are trapped.

As I stop this afternoon, I can’t help but think about birthing babies. It’s something I know well, my earned fact as it were. Each birth was unique – seemingly the only commonality being myself and my husband. But there was one other thing that was common in my births, and that is that time stopped. Nothing mattered but the birth of that baby. Nothing. Each labor pain was separated by what felt like an eternity. And then, with the “I can’t take it any more” pain of transition, the work of pushing began until a cry broke time, and a baby was born. Time stopped, a baby born, a miracle.

The mystery of birth and the mystery of the incarnation – both invite us into a timeless miracle. A baby born, a world changed.

This afternoon, in the quiet of a rented apartment in a city in Greece I will myself to enter into the timelessness that I entered into during those long hours of labor. I will myself to enter the timelessness that believing the mystery of incarnation requires, the timelessness that this city, this season, and my faith urge me toward. The timelessness that birthing babies necessitates. The timelessness of a “long expected Jesus, born to set his people free.”

Merry Christmas Eve! May you too enter the timelessness of the miracle of Christmas.

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.