The Pulse of a City

push pin Boston

I hear sirens as I’m walking up from the subway onto Tremont Street.  I turn my head and see the blue and red flashing lights of an ambulance. Instinctively I know that the ambulance is heading to Tufts Medical Center in the heart of Chinatown. If I had seen those same lights on Storrow Drive I would know that it was heading to Massachusetts General Hospital. If on the Arborway, it would be heading to the medical area at Longwood.

I know these things just as I know the bus schedule, the subway schedule, where the homeless hang, and when traffic will be gridlocked around Boston University Bridge.

I know that on September 1st you don’t want to go out at all, because students are moving in and couches, chairs, and stuffed animals, symbols of a childhood that passed too quickly, fill the streets. I know when there is a Red Sox game, or a Bruins game. I know that the best night to go get cappuccino and canolis in the North End is Monday. I know the best Pakistani restaurant and the worst coffee places. I know the subway stops where I need to watch my back, and others where I could go on the latest train and be completely safe.

I suddenly realize that I know the pulse of this city like I know my own pulse. This city has become my city. The realization brings panic and assurance. Panic, because I’ve never lived anywhere this long before. I’m always the one who is leaving. When you’ve had a lifetime of moving, it’s not easy to stop. Panic because I’m not ‘from’ here – and I don’t want to be ‘from’ here. Assurance because I love the familiarity, I love the city, I love the early morning walk from subway to work. I love the evening walk from subway to home. Comfort because there is a sense of belonging that I never imagined I would achieve. Assurance in the friendships I have formed and the strange sense of community that I sometimes feel.

This is forever the third culture kid story – assurance and panic; belonging and not belonging; native and alien; comfortable and uncomfortable. We feel grief and loss with movement and we feel guilty and restless with stability. We are always living a paradoxical life.

How do we work through this paradox and continually adapt to where we have been placed?

I wrote this in a piece called “Homelands” and I stand by it today:

We learn to listen, to look outside of ourselves, to see others and remember it’s not all about us. We learn to grieve well, to use that holy gift of laughter and laugh hard, to cry when we need to. We learn that it is not disloyal to love two places at the same time. We learn the art of entry. We learn that ‘homelands’ can change, and we can adapt to them, adapt with them. 

We learn the pulse of a city. 

This is Holy Ground 

Holy Ground

This is Holy Ground by Robynn

Sister Mary Elizabeth, in an opening prayer session for the spiritual direction program I’ve recently been enrolled in, encouraged us to kick off our shoes, to feel the earth beneath our soles and our toes. She wanted us to know and appreciate that this, where we stand, where we are right now, is holy ground.

I suppose it might be said that there’s nothing more opposite from someone who’s lived his or her life as a child of missionary parents far away from here, to that of a Benedictine nun. The former tend to be restless and rootless—they’ve travelled extensively. Their community is scattered. They feel constantly a pull to be somewhere else. Their longings are as far flung as the languages they speak. They belong nowhere. They belong everywhere. They often move frequently. Quite likely they’ve been to Egypt and stood barefoot by bushes that still speak of holiness. Vocation and calling often mean leaving and going.

A Benedictine sister, on the other hand, is connected to a place. Her sense of community is strong. Perhaps she has travelled some but she is magnetically drawn back to her monastery, back to her community. She is well schooled in obedience, in stability, in simplicity, in an even-tempered, well ordered life. This Sunday, Sister Mary Elizabeth, celebrates her golden jubilee at the monastery. Sister Sylvia has lived there 57 years, Sister Marcia over 40. These women are remarkably steadfast. For them vocation means staying here, called and grounded to the holy ground beneath their feet.

Imagine then the cross-cultural contortions I went through last week where I spent a week with these sisters and others at Mount St Scholastica, in Atchison, Kansas. I was there attending the Souljourner program—a training in spiritual direction, at the Sophia Center.

It was important to the sisters that we recognize the holy ground beneath our feet as we entered the week long intensive. We are connected to the ground beneath our feet. Sister Mary Elizabeth is so completely tethered to the present. She and her colleagues seemed very aware of the sacredness of now. She reminded us that Ignatius of Loyola identified hope as the profound realization that God is with us in this very moment, here and now.

I found that very challenging and simultaneously comforting. So much of me wants to recreate things as they were. I want to be somewhere else. I long for different dirt under my toes. And yet, now and here, are really all I have. What would it look like for me to sincerely trust that the place I am in is the sacred place for me at this moment? What if I truly understood that God has called me to this here and now?

The theme of the holy now continued throughout the week. The key-note speaker, elaborated on it some more. We live now…it’s really our only option. It’s all we have. But when something in our now reminds us of our past a wave of seemingly unwarranted emotion might be stirred up. It behooves us to bring that emotion forward. We can only truly feel in the present. Certainly, there are memories of past emotions, but for healing to take place, we have to feel in the present. We have to acknowledge those feelings in the now. She then encouraged us to be gentle with those emotions, to take care of them, to listen to them, to sit with them a little.

It all felt so new and transformative for my third culture adult self! So much of my energy goes to keeping my past at bay and my longings for the future deferred. Many of my days I squelch my self and my emotions. I stuff them down. They don’t seem to fit my current reality and so, to the best of my ability, I ignore them.

What if, instead, I actually identified my feelings? What if I admitted that I’m sad? I don’t necessarily know where the sadness is coming from but it seems bigger than the moment calls for. Perhaps something from yesteryear is creeping on to today. What if I spent a few moments with that sadness? What if I gently cared for it somehow? What if instead of trying to avoid my sadness, I actually made eye contact with it and was present to it.

The movie Inside Out certainly illustrates that the emotions we feel are all legitimate and valuable. The question is, how much power do we give them. How much control are they allowed to have? The un-cared for emotion in us keeps demanding more and more control. We can keep trying to keep sadness at bay…but sadness grows and grows until it’s no longer containable. It seems to me that naming my emotion (that’s sadness again), feeling the emotion (sigh…. Sadness feels sad…and a little lonely, there’s no getting around it) and then gently caring for that emotion (I’m sorry you’re sad. It’s ok to be sad.) actually attends to our selves and brings us back to the present where holiness is and healing can happen.

From that original burning bush God introduced himself to Moses as the I AM—the Always Now God, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex 3:14). The Psalmist also knew God to be present tense. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1). God is now. He is here. Present. Active. He invites us to come live in the here and the now too, to meet him in the moment. 

This is holy ground and a hope for healing rises out of our present place. Admittedly my Third Culture Adult self is curiously mystified by this. Over the years, (and this will come as a shock to many of you), I’ve struggled to fit in. I have endured deep self-imposed shame for the angst of not fitting in and then felt isolated and insulated hidden behind that same shame. The idea that I might experience this space I’m standing in right now as the tiny arena for God’s great grace extended to me at this present time is expansive and freeing. It’s comforting and hope-inspiring. I can slip off my sandals and stand with naked feet next to my Benedictine sisters. If I close my eyes I can nearly imagine my toes warming in the heat emanating from another burning bush. This, right here, this, right now, is holy ground!

For my Friend and the Kids he’s Raising

I sit in a row of cubicles toward the front of a large building in downtown Boston. One of my cubicle mates is a man from Malawi that I’ll call Paul. He is a handsome, intelligent man and we have become good friends in the past few years.

Today he asked me if I had seen what happened in McKinney, Texas. McKinney, a suburb of Dallas, is described as a “fast-growing, mostly middle-class suburb with deep racial and economic divisions.”*  The setting was a suburban neighborhood on the west side of the city that is described as racially diverse. It is considered a place where there are good relationships between a diverse group of people.

The details slowly emerge. A pool party in a subdivision. A lot of teenagers. A white woman making a racial slur, telling the kid whose mom was hosting the party to “Go back to Section 8 housing; a physical fight; police called; and then an escalation of violence. It had all the ingredients of a tragedy. There was none, except for in the life of a 14-year old girl. 

McKinney now joins the infamous ranks of places that have highlighted the racism present in the United States. Boston, Ferguson, Tamir Rice, “I can’t breathe”, Black Lives Matter, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin – these are the household words of the past couple of years.

And so I had seen what happened in McKinney. I had watched the video feeling sick to my stomach. I wanted to throw up as I saw a man who should know better escalating a situation. I thought of my black friends and colleagues, and realized yet again that the world they live in is different from the world I live in.

But back to my colleague — Paul has two children: a beautiful daughter who just finished her freshman year of college, and a son who is in middle school. And when he saw the video of the 14-year old girl in a bikini, a towel wrapped around her, he saw his daughter. He saw his daughter thrown on the ground, her face in the grass. He saw his daughter, crying out for her mama. He saw an officer, knee on the back of a little girl, his little girl. Because he is black, and his daughter is black.

I have two daughters, and they are strong young women. One of them has been known to yell at a police officer, to shake her finger in his face. I am not proud of that, but I never worried that she would be thrown to the ground — because she lives in a different universe than Paul and his kids.

I’m not arguing the full case of McKinney here. I was not there. I know some of the story, but I don’t know all the story. I am arguing that you don’t throw a 14-year old girl to the ground. It’s not okay.

My heart is breaking for the Pauls and those they are raising – their girls and boys. My heart breaks for that little girl. I don’t care what she was yelling, that she was thrown on the ground, face to the grass, is not okay. She calls for her mama at least three times, and each time my heart breaks.

The United States is grossly arrogant when it comes to the world stage. We claim the moral high ground on every issue. We claim freedom, justice, liberty for all.

For all but Paul and the kids he’s raising. 


I highly recommend this article from Austin Channing – This is What it’s Like. Here is an excerpt:

But for a moment. Before this becomes about you and your actions and your reactions and your thoughts and your assessment and your judgements, i need you to know two things. 

1. I need you to know that she is fully human. I need you to know that she is a full person who exists outside this one moment and also felt every yank, tug, pull, press of what you watch. I need you to know that this is not “just another” anything. This is a moment in this girls life forever. She slept in her bed this weekend, and ate breakfast prepared by her momma, and received phone calls from her girlfriends, and is right now trying to make sense of how her body, mind, emotions and spirit will carry on in the world. She is human. 

2. I need you to know that whatever feelings I had as I watched this unfold, whatever pain I felt, whatever reaction I had, God had tenfold. God felt every yank and pull. God felt every shooting pain and press of the body. God felt her sobs. For God knows the violence of this world, is intimately aware of state-sanctioned brutality. God needs not imagine. God knows. God knows this little girl’s pain, a pain she didnt choose and should not have endured. – Austin Channing

*Jarring Image of Police’s Use of Force at Texas Pool Party – NY Times