The Big Questions

In March of this year I happened on an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The subtitle was telling “How did influencers become our moral authorities?” I am not from the demographic that this piece was written for, but I found myself nodding along as I read, struck by the author’s insight into what I’ve seen, what I’ve perhaps feared. As is often the case when you are nodding along thinking “yeah! people need to read this!” I found a mirror held up to my own life. How often do I go to social media for my soul, not even realizing that’s what I’m doing? How often do I get my own dopamine rush and look to my online crowd that I sometimes, and perhaps wrongly, call my “community” to console, praise, and approve of me.

I urge you to take a look at the article, but let me quote a couple of paragraphs to frame why I am writing about this today.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.”

It was about two months later when I began reading a completely different genre than a newspaper article in George Saunders new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This book is like taking a graduate school course in literature, something I have longed for but never had the time to do. Saunders references other big questions in his introduction: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He talks about the process of writing as a way of “training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiousity.” Saunders then takes us through several essays/short stories written by Russian authors with exercises and commentary mixed in between. It is a wonderful book.

But both these writers who come from completely different places and generations have me thinking about some changes I need to make so that I too can connect to those big questions in life, so that my writing doesn’t stem from a desire to please, but instead stems from a desire to challenge, to encourage, and to chase beauty. Why? Because my own observations are that those three things are lacking in our online discourse.

Quite frankly, I have become a lazy writer. I have become too reliant on quick responses and feedback that are abundantly supplied online, instead of pursuing the rigors of writing longer pieces with substantive content. And that is not fair to those of you who read or to myself. I sell both and all of us short.

So I am announcing, in an effort at accountability, that I am heading off of social media. While I won’t be deleting my accounts, and while this blog will automatically post to my facebook page, I will be heading away for an indefinite time. It’s time. I find myself increasingly cynical, discouraged, and dishonest as I observe my own interactions on social media. As much as I want to be a presence for the good and the beautiful, I fear I too often follow the crowd.

My real life communities and friends are where I can have the most lasting impact. My neighbors and coworkers, whom I adore, get less of me when my focus is on my next post. My family gets only half of me when I am focusing instead on those who don’t know me, yet ironically, I seem to care deeply what these strangers think.

I’m writing this as I sit in our cottage in Rockport. In the midst of all the beauty that is Rockport, I feel tired and I feel scared. It’s not only the writing piece. It’s also the significant challenges our family has faced this past year. Challenges that largely go unshared on social media. If I’m looking at the big questions, I find my mind worrying about the small questions: What if I lose the small audience I have? What if I just get distracted by something else? What do I hope will happen? I don’t know. I only know that the questions I ask are a minute fraction of what really matters, and the questions that both Leigh Stein and George Saunders ask are questions worth asking again and again….and again.

It’s time to delve deeper into the big questions. I hope you will come along for the journey.

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein

If you would like to keep up with my writing or communicate, please feel free to subscribe to the blog, email me at communicatingblog@gmail.com or through messenger.

Pandemic Pages & Healing Words

Though the blog has been quiet, my journal pages are full. Full of what I call my “Pandemic Pages” – page after page of blue ink, my heart poured out onto the lines filling up the page. There is very little in there that I would ever share with the public….we keep private journals for a reason. It’s a bit like talking to God – I can rage, rejoice, weep, shake my head in disgust, and ultimately come back to that simple, powerful phrase “But God.” Perhaps you too have your pandemic pages – pages that walk you through this time, sometimes hope-filled and other times so desolate you can scarcely believe it is you. Yet, these words are important for us, and equally important not to share. To share them might be something of a betrayal.

A few years ago I read the words “Only speak words that make souls stronger.” I copied them down several times. For me that translates into writing – “only write words that make people stronger.” It’s easy for the sake of more readers, more likes, more shares to want to hop onto the latest scandal or crisis. It’s easy to react. It’s far more difficult to restrain myself and write words that do indeed make souls stronger.

Nine years ago, after a national crisis, then President Barack Obama said these words at a funeral:

At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

President Barack Obama

During this time where everything is debated, where job loss and pandemic stress have hurt millions, where worldwide loss and grief are ever present, I am reminded how important it is to work toward offering healing words.

Just this morning I had to ask forgiveness of someone I love dearly because I quipped something that had no connection with what we were texting about.

“Only speak words that make souls stronger….” Only write words that make souls stronger, lighter, braver, and more joy-filled. That doesn’t mean that I won’t challenge and be challenged. It means that I learn to be careful with what I write and with what I say. It means I ask myself these questions: “Does this reflect the truth of my faith tradition? Does this encourage? Does this appropriately challenge? Does this make people laugh or rejoice? Does this spread false rumors?”

 As I walk the streets of my city I see the “walking wounded.” I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words that accuse, criticize, mock, and assume the worst. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. A few years ago I thought that public bullying could not possibly get worse. I was wrong. With the rise of “cancel culture” and social media shaming it has become infinitely worse. Added to this is the plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

I can’t change what other people choose to say. But I can change my own words. I can choose to speak words of hope and grace. I can choose to disagree with civility and respect. I can choose to give people a chance instead of assuming the worst.

I can choose to share words that “make souls stronger.”*

*Ann Voskamp

The Evolution of a Writer/Blogger

blogging

  1. Dream about writing
  2. Write beginnings of articles and books in your mind
  3. Dream more about writing
  4. Write copious amounts in your journal
  5. Realize that blogging is a thing
  6. Read other people’s blogs and think “I want to blog”
  7. Consider starting a blog
  8. Talk to daughter about starting a blog
  9. Listen to daughter’s advice about said blog
  10. Start a blog on New Year’s Day
  11. Write your first blog and hit “Publish”
  12. Get a phone call from your mom who read your first blog
  13. Write your second blog and hit “Publish”
  14. Realize that there is something called “stats” that will tell you how many people have read your blog
  15. Write your third blog and see that two people have read it: Your mom and your husband
  16. Blog and realize your mom, your husband, and a lot of old friends from Pakistan have read your blog
  17. Blog and realize your mom, your husband, your friends from Pakistan and a whole lot of strangers have read your blog
  18. Get terrified
  19. Think that you’re supposed to blog about everything that happens everywhere
  20. Get exhausted at pretending you have a voice and knowledge about everything everywhere
  21. Get comments and emails from strangers who, amazingly, really like your writing
  22. Write a blog that gets a lot of response from a group you love
  23. Write, Write, Write and realize that even when people don’t read it, you really love to write
  24. Settle into a happy little corner of the big, wide, interwebz
  25. Write a blog that goes viral (it was bound to happen considering the sheer volume you write) and get mad because you know that other things you have written are better, but this one was the one that went BAM!
  26. Go to conference and have a stranger recognize you
  27. Write a book from your blog posts
  28. Go to another conference and watch the speaker click to a slide with a quote from YOUR BOOK (whisper to all the strangers around you “That’s me!”)
  29. Continually struggle with envy when others seem to have a bigger platform
  30. Confess said envy and take a break from blogging
  31. Go back to blogging refreshed and realizing that you are developing your own style and voice
  32. Realize that your blog will never send you rejection letters, so you should probably branch out to other magazines in order to grow as a writer
  33. Branch out and get a rejection email.
  34. Publish the rejected blog post on your own blog
  35. Decide that you are a terrible writer and no one should be reading you anyway because you’re a sheer waste of time
  36. Get an email that says “I never comment, but I love your writing!”
  37. Decide maybe you’re still a terrible writer, but someone loves you, and if even one person loves you – then maybe it’s worth it.
  38. Branch out again and send out more articles to magazines and journals
  39. Get articles accepted and work with editor that doesn’t know you or your writing
  40. Be humbled as you write and rewrite sentences and paragraphs
  41. See your work published outside of your own blog
  42. Proudly send out more articles
  43. Get email saying “You are a solid writer, but we won’t be using your article”
  44. Scream with rage “I DO NOT WANT TO BE A SOLID WRITER. I WANT TO BE AN EXCELLENT WRITER”
  45. Cry
  46. Pray
  47. Realize that your missing ingredient is generosity
  48. Seek to be generous with your writing, your platform, and your praise and affirmation of other writers
  49. Be humbled
  50. Continue writing because the heart of all of this is that you absolutely love putting letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into thoughts and ideas. YOU LOVE IT – and no one can ever take that away from you. No one. Ever. 

PS – Oh, and also realize that when you first started blogging you linked everything to Wikipedia, and only found out about when your daughter said to you one day “Mom, why do you link everything to Wikipedia?”  So you lie and said “I don’t” and then secretly late at night you go through 120 blog posts and take out all the Wikipedia links…..

About a Book….aka Kill Those Darlings!

Worlds apart promo

Some of you may remember a big announcement last year. It was about a book. A book that I was so excited about. I talked about it on the blog and on social media sites. I had a book reading and signing. But something just wasn’t right.

That book, that precious book where I let my childhood memories in all their vulnerability out into the world, did not sell. Meanwhile, my previous book kept on selling.

I couldn’t figure it out. It was so defeating and so depressing. I had been writing that book for eight years. What happened? Why was it so poorly received? I didn’t talk to anyone about it, because when you love writing and you want people to receive your words….well you don’t talk about the hard stuff.

Right after the book came out I had major surgery. While I had hoped to spend my recuperating days writing, instead I ended up just healing. It was the hardest and most humbling work I’ve ever done, and it was a fulltime job. Soon after that, I realized that my dad was entering into his final illness. I needed to spend as much time as I was able with my mom and dad, which is never enough time. He died in October, and soon after that, some of the stuff you never talk about on a blog happened.

And the book got lost in all of the stuff that was happening. But I would still think about this book. Why on earth did I write it? What did I expect? Dear friends from Pakistan were writing me regularly telling me they would never read the book. It was just too hard for them. So what was it for anyway?

I realized I hadn’t written it for them. I had written it for a far more general audience, but the book didn’t reflect that. I also realized some things about writing. Just as an artist puts their heart and soul into their art, we who write put our heart and soul into our words. We craft and recraft sentences. We look for meaning behind things that happen to us and we invite others into those events, hoping they too will find meaning. As Joan Didion says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live….We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices….” 

Writing helped me to understand more about how important stories are to our understanding of others and ourselves. I thought more specifically about the third culture kid’s journey, the stories behind the arrivals and departures, the narrative that captured the sweetness of hello and the bitterness of goodbye.*

In the middle of all these life events, I did a book reading.  It was there that one of my friends asked me about the title. She said it so graciously, but I took the words to heart. “What about the title?” she asked. “Why did you choose to call it that?”

My friend is Israeli and Jewish – in other words, we come from different countries and different faiths, but she loved the book. Her words took root in my heart.

It was in early winter that Doorlight Publications reached out to me. They wanted to reprint the book. It wasn’t selling well. What did I think about retitling the book and adding a foreword as well as a section that would take the reader from reading about my story to writing about their own journey?

There is a phrase in the writing world that talks about killing your darlings. In other words, the things that you hold onto the most in writing sometimes need to be killed off, taken out, severed from the body of the book.

The title was my darling. I so wanted ‘Pakistan’ to be in the title. And it seemed to make sense that I would put faith in it. But it narrowed the focus of the book too much. The book was my journey through my developmental years in Pakistan and included so much more than Pakistan and faith. Would I be willing to kill my darling?

I would, and I did.

Just last week the book was re-released under the title Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey. I love it. I love the cover. I love the foreword by Rachel Pieh Jones, who is writing her own book to be released in 2019 by Plough Publishing. I love the ‘Mapping Your TCK Journey’ at the end, followed by book resources.

And I’m excited for this new start. You don’t always get another chance with a book, but I did with this one.

So would you give it a chance? Would you consider buying the book? I would love it if you did!

I would love to have you purchase the book! It’s on sale through Amazon and available wherever books are sold.

*Page 184 Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey


barnes and noble

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books a million


A Morning Walk and Being a Flâneur

A few years ago, Rachel Pieh Jones did a blog series called Let’s Go Flaneuring. The series was based on a French word flâneura word that was popular in nineteenth century France, particularly among writers. Essentially a flâneur was someone who walked (or rather – strolled). As the flâneur strolled, they observed. So they strolled and observed, and then they strolled and observed some more, and often they took notes or recorded their observations in their heads. But basically, it seems like a writing technique based on strolling and observing.

As I read more about the flâneur, I was fascinated by this idea of strolling in the familiar and in doing so, being able to craft stories from the commonplace. To take a step away from glorifying busy lives and instead embracing the idea of a slow and thoughtful stroll seemed not only delightful, but also wise.


I think about this today – a Wednesday morning. Usually I have one thing on my mind as I walk to work, and that is coffee. Coffee is my morning medicine, my adrenaline push, and my comfort in a cup. But I’m approaching a birthday, and suddenly I want life to slow down.

The sky is beginning to lighten as I get off the subway at Park Street and step out into Boston Common. Though the sun has not yet risen over the Atlantic Ocean I know by the light in the sky that it will be a bright, sunny January day.  I stop and look around. To my left is the State House, it’s gold dome already reflecting the morning light. In back of me, the Boston Common stretches toward the Public Gardens with tall buildings looming large in the distance. In front of me is the steeple of Park Street Church, a historic church that spoke out against slavery in the early days of the abolitionist movement.

I begin strolling from Boston Common up Tremont Street. I pass the famous Granary Burying Ground, Boston’s third oldest cemetary where the likes of Paul Revere and Samuel Adams are laid to rest. As I reach School Street, a florist delivery drops off its morning boquets at the Omni Parker Hotel – cherry blossoms and light pink tulips. They are stunning, a sign that sometime down the road the bright and beautiful colors of spring will come. A woman nods at me, as though she knows what this flâneur is thinking.

I turn at School Street and head down to Washington Street. At the corner of Washington and School Streets, the bronze statues commemorating the Irish famine look at me in mournful memory. I smile. My family could tell you a story about my misunderstanding of these statues, but that’s for another day.

My office is a half block shy of the Old State House but instead of my usual “pick up the pace, there’s coffee in sight” I slow down.

Today I am a flâneur, and I don’t want it to end too soon.

But it does end. I’ve reached my office and the Starbucks right next door. It’s the end of this stroll. Work is calling, and I don’t get paid to flâneur. 


The problems of the city are not lost on me. Homeless still huddle in doorways. There is always an argument going on, even at early hours. Garbage is still wadded together, made mushy by the recent rain. City grime is ever-present.  But what better way to confront these and seek the welfare of the city than by taking a step back, turning my quick steps into a slow stroll, and learning to observe.

In the the middle of my morning prayers, there is a longer prayer about being raised up from sleep and despair by God’s compassion “that at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty.” Taking a step away from busy and entering into the stroll of the flâneur gives me time to sing the glories of God’s majesty in the midst of Boston’s city streets.

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey – Film & Reviews

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance.
It comes as a surprise to be tied to things so far back

Human Landscapes from My Country

by Nazım Hikmet

____________________________________________________

Worlds Apart was released in the spring of 2018. Previously released under Passages Through Pakistan, the new edition includes a final chapter focused on writing your own story.

Below is a short video about the book with some amazing pictures of Pakistan taken by a couple of friends, as well as me. Enjoy!

Advance Praise for Worlds Apart
 
“Worlds Apart tells the captivating story of Marilyn Gardner’s childhood as a ‘third-culture kid’, raised by her Christian, American missionary parents in the heart of Pakistan. Gardner’s eloquent story of the trials, tribulations, and lessons of growing up as a bridge between these rich cultures serves as an important lens through which Americans and Pakistanis can learn more about one another and their important long-term partnership in a time when the gap between the two nations seems to be growing ever larger. By shedding light on how our faiths, our cultures, and our worlds are far more alike than different, Gardner’s story is a must read for those wanting to build bridges.”Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University,Washington, DC
 
*********
 

Marilyn demonstrates sensitivity and understanding toward an often misunderstood part of the world…

“Marilyn Gardner’s Worlds Apart is a wonderful book, presenting in both a descriptive and reflective way the wonder of her childhood that took place in the mountains of northern Pakistan, the villages and deserts of southern Pakistan and the small towns of New England, along with some of the places in between.
As the only daughter in a remarkable family that included four brothers, Marilyn emerges as a sensitive observer with an impressive eye for detail as well as a well developed memory for the small anecdote that often reveals a much larger meaning.

Part spiritual reflection, part childhood reminiscence and part travelogue, Marilyn’s book will be especially welcomed by those trying to make sense of their own personal stories, especially if they involve transitions across multiple cultures and geographic locations.

A deeply moving observer of the places, people and events that have surrounded her, she demonstrates sensitivity and understanding toward an often misunderstood part of the world, presenting the sights, sounds, landscapes and peoples of Pakistan in ways that are largely absent in both newspaper headlines and superficial social media accounts that all too often know little and understand even less.

Americans growing up in Asia and Asians growing up in America will especially gravitate toward this account, capturing as it does the complexity as well as the wonder and astonishment of childhoods spent in unlikely places. It will also resonate strongly with missionary kids and third culture kids everywhere.” – Jonathan Addleton, former US Ambassador to Mongolia, is the author of several books including The Dust of Kandahar:

 

A Diplomat Among Warriors in Afghanistan and Some Far and Distant Place

 
Passages Through Pakistan is available at the following locations:

An Angry Diva and a Fragile Psyche

Yesterday my book, Passages Through Pakistan, was released. I have been looking forward to this day – a day when my 8-year-old baby is born and the world sees it. I’ve also been nervous. This journey of writing is a vulnerable journey. Whenever we put words on paper and they are released to the world there is a chance that they will not be well received. That’s life and it comes with any public creative process.

Advance copies were sent to several folks who would assist with the book launch. Everything was ready. Until we realized that the advance copies were poorly printed, the font color uneven and distracting.

It’s a small thing, but to my fragile psyche it felt huge. Emails and messages flew back and forth yesterday afternoon and I couldn’t rest. I became an Angry Diva, convincing myself that this was the most important thing that anyone could or should think about.

At seven o’clock, I collapsed on the couch in tears. My book baby with its eight year gestation had birth spots. Suddenly I wanted to pull the whole thing. Uneven color font be damned, I was done. Why on earth did I think I could write anyway? Why did I even try?

The downward spiral didn’t stop. Instead it continued and soon I moved on from questioning my ability to write to questioning why I existed. I was questioning my worth as a mom, as a wife, as an employee, and ultimately as a human being.

Earlier in February my husband and I watched an interesting film featuring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant. The film is called Florence Foster Jenkins after a historical person of the same name. Florence Foster Jenkins was an opera singer who lived in New York. She had inherited a lot of money and no talent.

“The historian Stephen Pile ranked her ‘the world’s worst opera singer’. ‘No one, before or since,’ he wrote, ‘has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.’*

The movie portrays the way her partner, a Shakespearean actor, protects her. He hides reviews of her concerts so she doesn’t see the criticism; he pays other reviewers to write glowing and effusive reviews; he even pays people to attend her concerts.

As you can imagine, one day the charade crashes. You can only hide the truth for so long. Sooner or later it will be revealed. So Florence reads some nasty reviews, and she is shaken to the core.

In a poignant scene toward the end of the film, she looks at her partner and says to him: “They may say I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” 

This morning as I was reflecting on how I acted like a diva to disguise my fragile ego, how I suddenly began questioning my worth in every area of my life, I began thinking about Florence Foster Jenkins and how her spirit was wounded, but not completely crushed when she realized the truth. And I thought about my writing, how its been an unexpected gift these past eight years, how no matter what happens with this book – it has been a cathartic, healing process.

I have put down memories and feelings. I have revisited my faith. I have processed boarding school joy and pain. And I have met incredible people in the process.

So in the spirit of Florence Foster Jenkins I give you the honesty of an angry diva, the humiliation of a fragile psyche, and the words “They may say I can’t write, but they can never say I didn’t write.” 

Also, the printing problem is almost corrected, so I can assure you that you will get a good copy should you choose to stroke my ego and buy my words! And I would love, love, love it if you did.

*