A Story about a Birthday in the Cold

Readers – bear with me as I try fiction based on real life today! 

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She realized when she woke up that her birthday was once again coming on the coldest day of the year.

As she mulled this over, doing minor arithmetic while drinking a hot cup of coffee, she came to the unreasonable, irrational conclusion that no one should ever have sex in April. If you have sex in April when birds are singing and flowers are blooming and spring is in the air and you get pregnant, you tend to give birth in January. And having a birthday in January is not fun. Not when you live in a cold place and your birthday just always seems to come on the coldest day of the year.

She loved sun and warmth. Palm trees and desert skies, all the plants that grow in the heat – Bougainvillea, Desert Cactus, Hibiscus, Morning Glory — these were the things that warmed and grew her soul. She thrived best in the warm glow of sunlight.

But her birthday was in the cold – when all of life felt bleak and the only thing to do was eat muffins, drink tea and dream of sun-drenched elsewheres. She suddenly remembered her fortieth birthday, when a party was planned and invitations were sent. Only a quarter of the people came. The following day a friend called her. “The party girl had no one at her party” the friend screamed into the phone! “What’s that about?!” “How come no one came to your party?”

And all she could say was “I don’t know. Maybe it’s because it was the coldest day of the year.”

This year, not only was her birthday coming in the cold, but rumors of a snow storm of epic proportions were filling the airwaves. There were reports of crazy lines in grocery stores, a feverish frenzy to stock up in pantries and kitchens that were already stocked well, a heightened alert akin to the coming of an air raid, and conversations that could focus on nothing and no one else.

So there she was. Turning the lower end of the speed limit on a day when a blizzard would paralyze the city and any attempts at celebration would be quickly thwarted.

At this point she realized she sounded more Eeyore than Winnie the Pooh. With this realization she decided she must recapture her inner Pooh Bear and get on with life.

What was it that Pooh said to Piglet so long ago? 

“What day is it?”
It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.
My favorite day,” said Pooh.”

And so it would be. 

winnie-the-pooh-437940_1920Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/winnie-the-pooh-wall-painting-437940/

Making All Things New

abandoned house

There is a show on television called Rehab Addict. It’s not what you may think from the title. It’s about a woman who takes old, dilapidated houses and rehabilitates them, makes them fresh and beautiful, ready to be lived in again. In her words, she is “addicted to rehab,” the kind of rehab that houses need.

The show is inspiring. She rarely uses anything new. She finds old cabinets and strips them, creating charm and style. She finds an antique door knob that isn’t working, takes it apart and fixes it. Polished up, it’s not only workable but catches the light from its shine. She makes all things new.

And that’s what I think about today as I get ready to face my 54th birthday. I normally love my birthday, even though wherever I live, whether Pakistan, Egypt, Phoenix, or Massachusetts it’s the coldest month of the year. I grew up the princess — one girl in a family of boys and my birthday was a day when even they had to acknowledge my princessshood. I held court that day, something I thought I did every day but only on my birthday was I allowed to flaunt it.

But this year, I’ve dreaded it.

The well-wishes began early from the other side of the world with my dear cousin Judi sending me love from Moscow and my friend Ruth from Shanghai, China. More were pouring in and it wasn’t even ‘the day’ yet.

And I was so glad to get these well wishes. Even as I dreaded my birthday I felt the love of others across the miles.

For the first time in years I don’t like my birthday. I’m 54 and I’m tired. Subconsciously I have realized for awhile that I am heading towards ‘burn out’. I have all the symptoms and then some. My birthday, usually a day I love, feels like a bleak reminder of this state of mind, this stage of my life. Apathy is so thick around my heart that if it were ice, my heart would be frozen.

And then I think of the Rehab Addict who makes all things new. I’m like one of her old houses, needing to be gutted and restored. My soul needs rehabilitation, my frozen heart warmed to a puddle. 

The book of Revelation is an unlikely source of comfort for a tired, middle-aged woman on her 54th birthday, but I’ve found that God delights in surprising us in unlikely ways from even less likely sources.

And it’s there that I find my promise as I begin to face today.

“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’

He makes all things new. He takes this tired body and soul and rehabilitates it for his purpose, to his glory.This then is my birthday promise. I rest in this truth today.

What about you? Are there places of tired in your life? Where do you need a Rehab Addict to come in and refresh and restore? 

“.…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost”. Revelation 21: 4-6

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Today’s Muffins: I look on these muffins from Stacy as my ‘special birthday muffins’. Here is what she says:

“Tomorrow’s muffin was inspired by the wonderful coffee with condensed milk served in various countries around the world, especially Vietnam.  So I am also sharing some random photos from our trips there”. Click here for the recipe.

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Image credit: pictureguy66 / 123RF Stock Photo

The Importance of Being Siblings

I went to boarding school at an early age – 6 years old to be exact. I have selective memories of these early years; most are happy and laced with grace. Others are poignant and bring up the expected sadness caused by an early separation of child and parent. Some memories are sharper when I read through letters written home in a child’s uneven script. Letters that my mother kept through the years.

20130326-212906.jpgEvident in those early letters is a concern for the welfare of my younger brother, Dan. As youngest of 5 he was still at home with my parents. The letters reflect a zealous, sisterly concern for his welfare. I want to know ‘How is Danny? Is Danny lonesome? Does Danny miss me? Is Danny having fun with the kitty? Say ‘hi’ to Danny. I miss Danny”. Every letter holds a sentence or two specifically about Danny, the importance of Danny.

And today Danny – Dr. Daniel Brown – turns 50.

It’s been a long time since those letters. A long time since the small cares of childhood turned into the big concerns of adults. Years since that first grade penmanship that crafted words into sentences into letters home was checked and rechecked by hawk-eyed teachers, deeming it worthy of the eyes of parents.

The sibling relationship is one of the strangest relationships in our world. We grow up with these people called ‘siblings’. Eat at the same dinner table, are loved and nurtured, disciplined and scolded by the same parents. We sit around Christmas trees or Eid feasts, go to churches, mosques, or synagogues with family. They hold similar features, characteristics, and memories.

But we grow older and often apart. And we’re left wondering what happened. When did the ease with which we communicated, laughed, and fought turn into difficulty trying to figure out what to say to each other? When did a solid relationship turn sketchy and strained?

Sometimes, but not always, we figure out this new relationship and move forward – tenuously at first, but then with more confidence.

And that is what has happened with all of my brothers, specifically in this context – Dan.

It’s impossible for me to imagine what my life would be without him. From my concern for his welfare as a little boy to watching him enter his 5th decade of life, I am profoundly grateful for his friendship. He has wisely walked me through crises, soundly rebuked me when out of line, and shared his family and home with ours for years.

He is brilliant, stubborn, and wise. He is a husband, a father, a pastor, and a professor. He writes books of his own and edits those of others, all with a quiet humility.

While I am loud and opinionated – he is quiet and equally opinionated. While I am dramatic – he tends toward the practical. And while I am short – he is tall.

Sibling relationships have always been complex and perplexing. And my guess is that they will be complicated until the end of time. We have only to look at Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, and Joseph and all those brothers to know we have excellent company in our struggles.

But as I look at my children and at times despair at the sibling ‘stuff’ – I have great hope. For blood is thick and family ties are strong, carrying with them an innate recognition of the importance of being siblings.

Because somehow in the life journey siblings matter.

Today, thousands of miles away in his new home in Istanbul, Turkey, my youngest sibling celebrates 50 years of life. With the 21st century ability to communicate I will be able to talk to him, to wish him a happy birthday. But it’s not enough – not the same as being in person. And so in a week and a half we will head to Istanbul to celebrate birthdays, siblings, the skyline of Istanbul, and Turkish coffee.

Because there is an importance to being siblings.

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Making Room for Fancy

The day you were born, the World had to make room for a little more Fancy.*

Dear Stef

Happy 21st Birthday! I can picture the day of your birth like it was yesterday. We were living in Cairo and you were joining an already established family of five – a Dad, a Mom, an Annie, a Joel, and a Micah. I went to bed the night before after laughing myself silly while watching a movie. At four in the morning I woke up and I couldn’t ignore the labor pains anymore. I knew you were coming.

Aunt Terry was there to care for your sleeping siblings so dad and I left in our little red Zastava car. It was the smallest car on ever earth and we still think it was our favorite. We picked up Mary Marlowe on the way to the hospital, my support and labor nurse. Better still, she was my close friend and mother of your first crush.

A short forty-five minutes after we arrived at Nile Badrawi hospital, just off the corniche and steps from the Nile River, you made your appearance into the world. A small bundle of Fancy. Perfect. Tiny. 17 inches. 6 lbs 14oz. Ten Fingers. Ten Toes. (Yes – we counted)

We named you Stefanie Sevim – Sevim means ‘my love’ in Turkish. It fit you like the booties on your baby feet. Perfect.

You were foo-foo dresses and tiaras, red lips and smiles. You were cherished by your siblings and made your sister so happy – you were her real, live, flesh and blood doll. You loved the world and the world loved you back.

FancyAnd yes, the world had to make room for a little more Fancy.

Because Fancy you were. Whether it was about dressing dolls or picking out earrings, you had style and flair.

And today you turn 21.

You are an amazing four-foot eleven wonder. You make the world smile, and your friends and family laugh until it hurts. You are a leader with a strong mind and a quick tongue. And you’re still Fancy. So.Amazingly.Fancy.

So here’s what I want to say on your 21st birthday- and because I blog I’m letting the world in on it. Don’t let our fickle culture tell you who you are – because just as you become what they want, they will have changed their minds. Don’t bow to what others think is best, instead reach higher.  Don’t look across at others, look up to your Creator. You come from a strong line of women, you know who real women are and what they do – don’t settle for less. You have tasted Grace, extend Grace to others.

Most of all know that the love of God is all-encompassing, Greater than you will ever imagine. Loving him, seeking him, serving him will not disappoint. You can never out-love God.

And keep on being Fancy. Because this world that sometimes feels ugly and hurting needs to keep on making room for a little more Fancy.

I love you. Happy 21st Birthday!

Love, Mom

*Curly Girl Designs

Birthdays: A Cross-Cultural Intensive

When Robynn sent me this post this week I shook my head in amazement. You see what she didn’t know is that birthdays in the U.S. have been a picture of my cultural disconnect. I had no idea how to do them and by the end of each party felt alienated and insecure. I’ve come a long way but this post brought back many memories. Enjoy!

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Five years ago we celebrated our first round of birthdays since our return to the US after living in India for over a decade.

English: A child's birthday celebration

Children’s birthdays in India are a big deal. The first birthday is an event! When Connor turned one we had half the town on our roof for an evening of eating, drinking chai and celebrating. We served cake and samosas and sweets. The birthday boy went to bed just after the party started but that did little to affect the party! Guests came late and stayed later. It was a great evening.

In a land where traditionally infant mortality rates have been high that first birthday marks an accomplishment: the child didn’t die! He lived. His community kept him alive. And his life should be celebrated! Each subsequent birthday is a little less important but still the parties are significant and impressive. Fatalism is suspended for a day. Life matters and is honoured with a party!

Born on January 5th, Adelaide’s birthday was the first in our round of family birthdays that first year back in the States. We invited several of the girls from her class, her Sunday School friends, grandma and grandpa and her cousins to come. The invitations we sent out were perfunctory and admittedly, in my mind, a little odd. There was a space to put a start time and an end time. It struck me as strange, but I wrote that the party would start at 3:30 and it would end at 4:30. I really meant that people could come anytime between those times.

As the girls were dropped off I warmly invited moms and dads to stay too. They seem perplexed by that and declined my invitation. All except one. Sue stayed with her daughter Claire. In India, birthdays are a community experience. Parents accompany their children to children’s parties. Often whole families come and enjoy the cake, the conversation, the event.

Apparently it’s not like that here.

And the guests really did show up at 3:30! It was astounding. The doorbell started to ring at 3:26 and by 3:34 all the little girls had been dropped off.  We played some silly little girl games, we ate some cake and drank pink Koolaid…but we had barely gotten started when the parents started showing up to retrieve their daughters! They came promptly at 4:30. By 4:37 all the little girls were gone! I couldn’t believe it.

Thankfully Sue had stayed. At 4:20 she suggested, Perhaps Adelaide would like to open her gifts now? Ah the gifts….! In India gifts aren’t opened in front of the guests. There’s bound to be discrepancies in gifts. One gift might be really nice: a Barbie doll in glamorous evening wear, or a board game. Another gift might be simpler or of a lesser value: a package of cookies with an eraser, or some pencils. The giver of the lesser gift would be embarrassed. That would be awkward. And in a culture where the guest is god it’s important to ensure that no guest is shamed in any way. So to protect the guests, and ultimately the party, the gifts are opened later after everyone has gone home. But here, and I know this now thanks to Sue, the gifts are opened with the guests. It’s part of the party. The little girls squeal and enjoy watching Adelaide opening her gifts. They love the gift they’ve chosen and they want to see Adelaide’s joy at receiving it!

When I look back on that first birthday here in the US I’m so embarrassed. It was the shortest birthday party on record. It was rushed and disjointed. Parents waited awkwardly at the door for the girls to be done. Giggling girls were shoved into chaos and coats and pushed out the door way too soon. Plates of uneaten cake and half full glasses of pink abandoned in the cross-cultural wake of a party.

Adelaide was none the wiser. She loved her gifts and her Sleeping Beauty cake. She loved being surrounded by her favourite people, even if just for an hour. Turning nine was magical and full of surprise and joy!

I learned a lot that day. An Awful Lot! Crossing cultures is more than just boarding a plane with your passport tucked into your bag. It’s more than eating new and strange foods. It’s more than hearing new and strange sounds of foreign vowels in your ears.

Crossing cultures is about people and parties, about birth and living, about gifts and exchanges, about little girls and Sleeping Beauty cakes and pink Koolaid.

Adelaide turned nine that day, but I grew older and wiser in significant ways too!

As impossible as it is to believe, tomorrow that nine-year old turns 14. Happy Birthday Adelaide!

The Milestone of Twenty-Five

There are many milestones for moms. Milestones of birth and first tooth, milestones of first day of school and graduation, milestones of heartbreaks and accomplishments. And one of those milestones is when a child turns twenty-five. I don’t know what it is, but twenty-five is a big deal.

Twenty-five is an adult. Twenty-five is a quarter of a century. Twenty-five is a reminder of my mortality, a reminder that I am growing older and will someday grow old. 

And today my second child and first-born son turns twenty-five. Born on a hot evening in the middle of Ramadan in Islamabad, Pakistan, he came into the world with a full head of blonde hair and the most gorgeous blue eyes I had ever seen. The sleepless night that followed had me staring at those wide open eyes for over 4 hours. It was a moment that I will never forget. In those 4 hours all the love that I could pour out in this world poured out. I was smitten.

The memories I have of a tow-headed toddler are both hilarious and poignant. Running across a carpeted apartment floor with an egg, thinking it was hard-boiled only to lose it on the ground and realize it wasn’t, resulting laughter erupting from the soul. Seeing the Egyptian policemen change uniforms in spring and saying in complete sincerity “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be one of them!”. Cries for me to pick him up when I was pregnant with our fourth and so tired. “Can I tell you a secret Joel? I can’t pick you up because we’re having another baby. You’ll have another little brother or sister!” His eyes went wide with amazement and he walked the entire way up the hill.

The more recent memories come in the form of a picture taken in Trader Joe’s parking lot in Cambridge. He gathered up his older sister and I in his arms and someone snapped a picture. Taped to our refrigerator, it is a reminder of bear hugs and warmth. Memories of this past Christmas in Cairo, late nights in coffee houses, climbing up the highest minarets in the city and laughing on a French express train to Alexandria.

It’s these memories and more I have as I think about this day and milestone. His debating skills, honed on his father; his love of travel and history; his cooking ability; his ability to make friends; his raucous laughter that makes everyone around him laugh, even if we don’t think something is funny – all of this is the person who is Joel.

Joel lives miles away and has been independent for some time. He manages his world without his mom. It’s hard to admit but he does it well.

And today he will turn twenty-five without us. Though presents have been sent, it’s not like being there and raising a toast in his honor. It’s a milestone. A milestone for him, a milestone for me, a milestone for his dad.

Happy Birthday Joel – You came into our lives and our world did a dance. 

Cairo Cool! Joel is second from the right. 

So.Many.Stories – International Party Crashers

I love this story from Anne Bennett that gives a great recipe for adapting to a less adventurous life once you move to your passport country. Enjoy this piece on international party crashing!

I’ve lived in some pretty exotic places.  Places where a nightly blast from a cannon rattles all the windows in the neighborhood and signals that it is now time to eat after a day of fasting.  Places where your sweat begins to smell of curry after a week of eating street food.  Places where even if you were blind and deaf you would know that you are in a different world because of how the air feels on your skin.  Now we have moved back to the land where football is called “soccer”, tea is served with ice and where Coca-Cola is delivered by truck rather than on the back of a donkey.  How are we dealing with the loss of our exotic lifestyle?

We have become international party crashers.

We have chosen to live in a neighborhood highly populated with immigrants from the Middle East, Asia, Africa andLatin America.  This means that even though most of my children’s friends like Sponge Bob and pizza, their parents still prefer Bollywood movies and samosas, (or couscous or tortillas).  Friendships among children inevitably lead to the biggest event in a child’s year – the birthday party.  I always throw big birthday parties for my children, not so that they will get more presents, but so that I can show hospitality to the parents of these children and develop relationships with people who might otherwise not invite me into their life.  (Yes, I know that I’m using my children, but since they end up with more presents, they don’t mind).  Our big parties lead to invitations to the parties  of others and with that a glimpse into the culture of my fascinating friends and neighbors.

Here are a few of my favorite parties that we have either been invited to or just crashed since they were held on our communal playground:

The Bangladeshi birthday party – As my children ran around on the playground, oblivious to the fact that they were the only white faces at the party, my “American-ness” was confusing to the other adult guests.  They were all polite, but were obviously not used to the idea of an outsider wanting to participate in their activities.   When I showed an eagerness to try their food and even eat rice with my hands, their confusion turned to appreciation at my efforts to honor their culture.  We, in turn, received honor in a wonderful custom when the birthday girl fed each guest a bite of cake before feeding herself.   The fact that it was a Tres Leches cake bought at the Mexican supermarket made it all the more fun.

The Kenyan birthday party – Even though this party was held in a beautiful home in the American suburbs, it did not mask the fact that it was very Kenyan.   The older aunties busied themselves in the kitchen stirring rice and cutting lamb while the younger aunties played with a large group of excited children.  The uncles and grandfathers sat in the living room swapping stories.  The fact that half of the people there were not technically related made them no less a part of this extended, cultural family.  This warm and accepting group of people called me “Mama Jasmine” (my daughter’s name), and made me want to be part of a Kenyan family.

The Palestinian birthday party – This simple party of cupcakes and juice boxes was mostly an opportunity for the mothers to talk while the children played by themselves.  Unlike most conversations I have with immigrant women, this conversation turned to the subject of politics in theMiddle East.  Instead of trying to figure out why Palestinians think and act the way that they do in regards to the conflict in their homeland, why don’t we just ask them directly?  This birthday party gave me the chance to do just that in a non-confrontational way as we munched on neon-colored cupcakes.

And then there was the Mexican birthday party, the Vietnamese birthday party, the Afghan party and the party where the other children recited the Qur’an for the video camera while my daughter sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Spanish.  We could choose to raise our children in a neighborhood surrounded by white, middle-class Christians like ourselves, but where’s the fun in that?

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Anne Bennett is the pen name of an American wife, mother, follower of Jesus and friend to Muslim women.  She has lived in Pakistan and North Africa and is now living in a unique corner of the Bible belt where she is happily surrounded by Muslims.

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