A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

ROBYNN BLISS

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

On Soft Landings and Waiting

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.

Mary Oliver

We arrived yesterday on a flight from Doha, Qatar. It was a long flight full of people and movies. We were greeted so well by our dear friends – friends who have walked us through several centuries of joys, sorrows, moves, and changes. They are our people. They brought a truck to transport our many and heavy bags. They fixed dinner and gave us Moscow Mules as we waited. They took us on a walk and they stocked our fridge with food. They are our soft landing after a long six weeks of up and down emotions and decision-making.

I woke to unfiltered sunshine bathing our cottage in light and joy. A bird outside sang an endless song of contentment, begging me to do the same. The joy and grief that have been entwined in my body for weeks have reached a pinnacle – so much joy at being back, joy of Rockport, joy of reunited friendships, joy of return. And so much grief – grief of missing our friends, grief at being away from our beloved Kathy, grief at missing the call to prayer and the Kurdish sun, grief that the Middle East – where my body and soul feel connected in indescribable ways is again no longer home. The poem I quoted at the top of the page is my heart and I am grateful to a friend for reminding me of it.

I wrote this on social media, and I rewrite it here – more as a reminder to me than anything else.


It’s been a long journey. From the time we heard about the edict from the ministry of finance, to the fight to stay, to the realization that we had to leave, to the bag packing and apartment cleaning, to the getting rid of stuff, to the trip to Turkey, to the inevitable trip back to Kurdistan, to the hours of movie watching in a plane, to the hugs of dear friends on arrival at Boston’s Logan Airport, to the full truck of our luggage, to walking in the front door of our beloved cottage in Rockport. ⠀

We took a risk when we bought this cottage 11 years ago, and every year we look at each other and say “It was worth the risk!” Never have I felt this more than today, as I wake up. ⠀

The sun shines in and it is perfectly quiet. A bird outside is joyfully responding to its surroundings. Our favorite books and pieces of home surround us, and dear friends have given us a soft place to land. ⠀

There is pain – it is inevitable when you say goodbye. There is anger and a desire for revenge for a situation poorly handled. There is the sting of unemployment in a culture where your identity comes from what you do. But those will be put on the table and dealt with in time and through counsel and prayer. ⠀

Right now there is sunshine and peace, and a bird whose joy is contagious. ⠀

All is well as I wait.


A few years ago I wrote about waiting in an essay that ended up in my first book. In this new season of waiting, I reread the words and I rest.

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 and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It 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. In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters’

And so I wait in Rockport 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.”

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

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Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel

I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades.

This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven. The apartment is on the third floor and has a bedroom, living room, large kitchen, sunroom and balcony. With high ceilings and a chipped marble floor, it is built for a hot, dry climate. It is cooled by a desert cooler, a system of cooling that works best in dry places and is far more economical than air conditioning. The electricity is based on a local and national system that we don’t yet understand. When the local electricity goes off, the national comes on. We’ve only been without electricity a couple of times.

We brought a few touches of home but have also gone to the local bazaar and purchased some household goods. Pictures of our family and friends stand on a large window sill, reminders that movement has a cost, but also surrounding us with love, our grandson claiming his prominent place in the line up.

The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday afternoon. We are reminded at every turn that the culture we have moved to is relational above all. Any question we have is met with a “I can take you!” Or “Let me show you!” Or “Come to our house and my mother will help you.” Coming from Boston, this is a shock! We have a joke in Boston that the reason people don’t use their turn signals is because it’s none of your damn business where they are going! Here? Here it is everyone’s business. We are not alone. We have help at every corner and beyond!

I am reminded of desires today, and the years of longing that have led me here. There are frustrations for sure, but above all, we are so grateful. We are so lucky that we get to do this, to have our world turned inside out and upside down; to be in a place where we need people to explain everything to us; to grow and learn and be changed.

As I finish this week and head into another adventure this weekend, I am reminded of the oft quoted and beloved words of Pico Iyer. Perhaps you too know them and love them:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

In Rania, I have fallen in love once more.

3 AM in the First Class Lounge

I have never been in a first class lounge before. This hits me as I sit in a chair at three o’clock in the morning at a first class lounge in the Qatar Airport, my head resting on on of those brilliant, semi-circled plane pillows. We are here because of an extra long layover after an extraordinary, though quick, trip to Iraq.

The lounge is nearly empty, but an hour ago people from a multitude of cultures and countries converged on this space. Women in black abayas with bedazzled hijabs loaded plates of food for kids of all ages. Blonde-haired Europeans with skinny jeans and sweatshirts lounged on modern furniture scrolling through smart phones, their faithful links to the world’s they left behind. Tall and short men of varying ages, some eating, some drinking tea or coffee, still others snoring, oblivious to anything but the deep sleep that consumes them.

And then there are the staff, so attentive in their caring for weary travelers, yet so weary themselves.

A large, unavoidable screen gives airline information in vivid white, a reminder that we are only temporary sojourners. Each of us will leave this room, for it is merely a temporary resting place. We will never be fully comfortable here, but it does provide respite for a time.

How like our life on earth! The invisible but unavoidable screen of mortality reminding each of us at that our time on earth is limited.

If we let it, travel ushers us into reflective humility. All these travelers representing individuals, families, countries, cultures, languages, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. All these travelers, and I am but one of the millions that are traveling throughout the world today.

We are so small in the big scheme of things, yet so utterly beloved by our creator, without exception. The person I may despise the most is deeply and completely loved by the same One who loves me. It is beyond my ability to understand yet at three in the morning, it is deeply comforting.

A little girl has fallen asleep nearby. I smile, memories of traveling the world with my own children coming back to me. They would have loved to see the likes of this lounge.

I am so grateful for these moments. In a short time I will be on my way, the humility that travel affords too quickly replaced by my everyday erroneous thinking that I can control my world, replaced by my pride. But I thank God for the moments.

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C.S. Lewis

I Hate Saying Goodbye

It’s a sunny day in Thessaloniki. The sky is indescribably blue and Mount Olympus is in full view, the snow capping its peak like marshmallow fluff. From far away snow is so pretty!

I got up early, knowing that I didn’t want to be rushed, instead opting for a leisurely coffee and pastries.

We came here four all-too-short days ago. Our son has made his home here and we saw the city through his eyes and his wonderful balance of rest and visiting churches and other sites. Yesterday the city stretched in front of us with a perfect view from a monastery on the hill near the old city walls. A peacock strut around – turquoise beauty with a lot of pride. Other than me, he wasn’t getting any attention from females but it didn’t stop him from parading. Some things are just too pretty for their own good.

During our time here there was rest and coffee and visiting, followed by more rest and coffee and visiting. The pace of Greece is so welcome after Boston, with its unrelenting schedule and cold weather.

Last night we met with a group of our son’s friends, eating foods with all the flavors and drinking sweet Greek wine. Our throats were sore from the laughter and trying to shout our conversations above the noise of two other large groups and musicians singing popular Greek songs. A small opening of space was enough to get some Greek dancing going and my legs ache even as I smile with the recent memory.

But today has come, and with the sunny skies comes a goodbye. Three weeks ago I said goodbye to my mom in New York. Two weeks ago I said goodbye to our son in Los Angeles. One week ago I said goodbye to our daughter and grandson in Chicago. Today it is saying goodbye to our son in Thessaloniki.

I hate saying goodbye. I especially hate saying goodbye to my kids. I hate it. I write words and talk a good talk about all this but when it comes down to the awful truth, saying goodbye hurts the heart more than any of us can possibly describe. We can philosophize, or be practical, or spiritualize the idea of goodbyes, but it doesn’t take away that we are created for relationships, created for family. We are impermanent people created for permanence.

I’d love to offer beautiful words about goodbyes and honoring them, but right now, I think I just need to put it out there: I hate saying goodbye to my kids and those others whom I love.

Yeah – I really hate it.

You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.” Frederick Buechner