“By God! I don’t Know!” – A Post on Aging


We were sitting Kurdish style on the floor, a kerosene stove pumping out heat to keep us warm in the solid concrete building, when the subject of age came up. We were all in good spirits after enjoying a hearty meal of Yaprak, assorted vegetables stuffed with rice and meat and cooked in a lemon sauce, and had begun to drink hot, sweet tea. In Kurdistan, it is not rude to ask someone their age. First it was our host telling us how old he was, then it came to my husband and myself. The younger members of the family all chimed in – 18, 21, 23, 33, 28 – the numbers were called out like a Bingo game at a Catholic Church hall. Finally it was the mom of the house. “How old are you?” said one of her sons. We all looked at her, waiting expectantly.

“By God! I don’t know!” She said. We burst out laughing. I repeated the words after her in Kurdish, marveling at them and wanting to memorize the phrase. The conversation quickly turned to much more important things, like the weather and when the pregnant daughter-in-law would give birth, but I kept on thinking about her response.

What a great response to the question of age! Age is so fickle and so contrary. Time is already a cruel dictator, why must age also be? This woman might not have known her age, but she sure knew that it didn’t matter. “By God! I don’t know!” So many things were said in that one statement!

It doesn’t matter!

Let’s get on with it!

Who cares?

Let’s talk about something else!

It’s just age!

There are a million ways to interpret that one statement!

I turned 59 years old yesterday. Unlike my new friend, I do know how many years I’ve lived. 59 years around the sun. 59 years of trying to figure out what this life is all about. 59 years of growing and hurting and laughing and loving. 59 years of eating, sleeping, and participating in the mundane of life, only to learn that none of it is really mundane – it’s all sacred.

59 years of learning to forgive and working to live at peace. 59 years of learning that discontentment creates far more wrinkles than the sun and envy rots the soul. 59 years of learning the value of friendship and family. 59 years of learning how to live out of abundance not scarcity. 59 years of laughter and joy, 59 years of sadness and tears.

I have birthed five babies on three continents and watched them grow into young adults with their own dreams and sadness and joy. I have lived in four different countries and learned to count to ten and bargain in several different languages. I have hurt people and people have hurt me. I have loved people and people have loved me. I have had days where my stomach ached with laughter and other days where my heart ached with tears. And the days have turned into years and they have both slipped away – sometimes with a lot of drama and other times quietly, like a background person in a television show. You see them, and then they’re gone.

Last night, after birthday cake and a sweet offering of presents from my husband, we watched a couple of episodes of a television show that we have been following during this rainy, Kurdish winter. During a dream sequence, the grandmother in the show is talking to the mom who died two years previously. She is talking about getting older. As they sit companionably on a twin bed in the grandmother’s bedroom, she contemplates aging.

The days slip under the closet and disappear.

Shtisel

These words describe so well the journey of aging. You blink and the days have gone under the closet, never to be retrieved. Unlike dust balls that gather unwanted but always present, the days turn into years and disappear. They slip under the closet and into the memories that each us have, creating tapestries of people, events, and conversations, each tapestry as unique as its owner’s fingerprints.

This past year has taught me much about faith, advocacy, resilience, hope, and joy. I have learned and I have grown. And then just like that, it slipped under the closet and disappeared.  

Dear Dad, I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday….

Dear Dad,

Soon after you died, I began planning Mom’s 90th Birthday. As I planned, I would periodically panic – something seemed to be missing. Now I know that something was a someone. It was you. Normally I would have talked to you about it, talked to you about what you would want to add, talked to you about the place and especially, the food! But that was impossible because you’ve been gone these seven plus months.

I remember last October how she told you she was going out to buy a dress with me and Stef.  You looked right at her and told her to buy two – one for your funeral and one for her 90th birthday. Even in the midst of your hard last days, you knew there needed to be a celebration. I think she knew you weren’t long for this world at that point – you were so willing to let go of money. Where you were going you wouldn’t need it!

I wanted to write to you today because I miss you and I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday.

We got together at an inn in Fairport, right near the Erie Canal. Family came from as far as Thailand, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, and Greece to as close as downtown Rochester, because movement, even with its high cost, is in our family’s DNA. The area was perfect and the weather even more so. The Inn on Church is at the corner of Church Street and South Main. The rooms are spacious and lovely, boasting all their original character with new amenities. There is a large wrap around porch with plenty of rockers and a sign that  invites people to sit a spell and join the “Porch Sitter’s Brigade”. Inside was enough space for 42 of us to congregate, first for breakfast on Saturday, followed by a late afternoon tea – something that you know Mom loves.

You would have loved the breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and a gorgeous frittata with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and just enough spinach to look healthy. We laughed and talked over breakfast, so much to catch up on since we last saw each other at your funeral. There was time and space to walk, go kayaking, sit and read, or play croquet in the back yard.

Early evening came and we gathered for a high tea of scones, bread, ham, salads, and cupcakes made by one of your granddaughter’s. The head table’s unseen guest was not Jesus, but you.

And then we celebrated Mom. We went through her life with poems, songs, skits, memories, and prayers. We laughed a lot and choked up some as we thought of you being gone.

It’s a long way from small town Winchendon to celebrating a 90th birthday, but it happened! Some of your grandsons began the program with a tale of Mom’s life until she went off to college. Your granddaughters did you proud as they reenacted the young Polly with a crush on Ralphie. There may have been references to a former girlfriend – Joyce – but they were quickly squashed as Aunt Ruth and Aunt Charlotte remembered your wedding and Aunt Ruth led us in singing “Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Her voice is beautiful; her spirit more so.  Still more of your kids and grandkids went through stages of her life – Pakistan, 8-Acre Woods, South Hadley, and then retiring in Rochester. A couple of your kids remembered you as a couple, one in a rhyme that would make your heart swell with pride. Singing and prayers for the past, present, and future finished the program.

Our hearts were so full – full of the joy of memories, full of the time with each other, full of the love that you and Mom so generously gave; the love that she continues to give.

And oh how we missed you. You would have loved celebrating the 90th birthday of the love of your life. These past months since you left us have not been easy for her. Losing you was like losing a couple of limbs and half a heart. Those losses would make anyone limp a little. No matter how much the rest of us love her, we can never love her quite enough, never love her the way you loved her.

But though she lives with these missing pieces, she still radiates joy, wisdom, and strength. She continues to pray for all of us; continues to reach out to others and allow others to reach out to her.

Toward the end of the program, your grandson, Michael, sang a hymn. He sang it with his beautiful, strong voice and though I know where you live there is extraordinary beauty and singing like we’ve never seen, from our still limited perspective his song was a taste of heaven.

I’ve included a verse for you, because I think these words may best express what your dear Polly is experiencing.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

So what can we say? It was amazing, but we sure do miss you. 

This is 58

It’s my birthday. One week ago I woke up in a foul mood. It was a mood rife with I hate life and life hates me. I hated who i had been; I hated who I was; I hated who I would become. I began to believe my feelings were truth.

Thankfully I have people in my life who won’t allow me to wallow. (Things like “Snap out of it, ya big baby” might have been said by family members.) Sometimes you need empathy and other times you need to “snap out of it, ya big baby!”

So today I’m here to talk about 58.

What is 58?

It’s a massive thank you to a Mom who birthed me, nurtured me, and continues to love and challenge me in ways she will never know.

It’s a Dad whose memory is eternal; who lived life well until the day his body could no longer go on.

It’s four brothers who live around the world; who model tenacity, joy, and faithfulness to me and to their families. It’s four brothers who teased me mercilessly when I was little, and have my back now that I am older.

It’s four sister-in-laws who love well, who have raised amazing children, who continue to wrestle with the big and hard questions of parenting and faith.

It’s nieces and nephews who I would kill for; who are opera singers and nurses; diplomats and day care owners, who make the world a better place for you and me to live in.

It’s a husband who makes me laugh every, single day. A man who can make friends with an inanimate object like a wall and make that wall feel special, not to mention the people he befriends from around the world. A man who tells stories in virtual reality, prays for and loves his children so much it hurts, and will remember the names of refugees long after he has met them. A man who affirms my writing, challenges my faith, and prays with me every night.

58 is four (no five) adult children who are smart, passionate, and gifted. Who meet the challenges of life with stubborn resolve. 58 is the cutest grandson on ever earth who has a waddle toddle and is growing to be his own person.

58 is the dearest friends from here and around the world that a woman could ever hope for – friends who love the world and their families; who are not caught up in what culture says is worthy and instead fight for what is true, good, and right.

58 is cousins who live as far as Moscow and as close as Washington DC; cousins who are also friends.

58 is a creative job with often horrid bureaucracy; fighting for good healthcare for marginalized communities and pressing forward when it’s hard.

It’s colleagues who make me laugh hard, work harder, and allow me to get mad and cry.

58 is a body that sometimes betrays me, but responds pretty well when I treat it properly; it’s 10,000 steps a day because modern medicine allowed for a bionic hip; it’s wrinkles that I can only partially hide; it’s girlfriends laughing together because we never thought we’d have beards or boobs that hang to our knees. (The boobs that is)

58 is curling up on week nights and watching Stranger Things; it is knowing that grilled cheese served in candlelight with the man you’ve been through hell with is really great.

58 is a church community that I never thought possible; it is entering into Divine Liturgy with the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the troubled. It is working out my faith with a community of broken people, all desperately in need of the Eucharist.

It’s realizing that #metoo is no match for who I really am and no man can truly take away what God said is good;

58 is knowing in the depths of your soul that no matter what, you are God’s beloved and no amount of wrinkles, stretch marks, saggy boobs, or dementia will ever, ever take that away.

58 is you reading this and letting me know in a million creative ways that you care.

And 58 is a Mimosa, calls from Family and friends, and celebrating this thing called life — because tomorrow anything could happen.

58 is pure grace.

Also, I made a little video – watch it if you like!

Remembering those First Days of a Newborn

It’s my daughter Annie’s birthday today.

Annie is our firstborn. She ushered us gently into parenthood 32 years ago. On day two she slept so long that we sat around her woven Moses basket like we were humans examining an alien being.

The conversation went something like this:

“She’s so perfect.”

“Yes. She is SO perfect.”

“Look at her tiny hands.”

“Look at her nose.”

“She is so tiny.”

“She is so beautiful.”

“Do you think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I don’t know. Do YOU think she’s sleeping too long?”

“I kind of think so.”

“Me too. Maybe we should wake her up?”

“Do you think we should wake her up?”

“I kind of do.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“It’s been so long since she’s nursed.”

“Yeah. Let’s wake her up.”

“Okay.”

“How?”

“Well, maybe if we pick her up she’ll just wake up.”

“Okay.”

“You do it.”

“No. You do it.”

“Okay.”

Sigh.

“But she looks so peaceful!”

“I know but I think she needs to wake up. She needs to nurse.”

“Okay.”

“Look at her feet!”

“I know. They are so perfect.”

“Look at her rose-bud lips! Look at how they are quivering.”

And so it went on and on and on.

Finally, we woke her up. And then….well, then we couldn’t get her to sleep. She was the wide-awake baby girl.

So the conversation continued.

“Do you think she’s still hungry?”

“I don’t know. I think she nursed a lot.”

“Do you think anything is wrong?”

“Maybe we should change her diaper again.”

And on, and on, and on. Because we were smitten and all we could do was talk about our baby. The most perfect baby in the entire world.


There is something about those days with your first-born child that you will never, ever forget. Your whole being is raw with love. Your heart is on the outside of your body and there is no protection for the arrows that come your way. You marvel at every tiny move, expression, furrowed brow, slight smile. You hold the tiny thing close, afraid to let it go. Your nights and days are no longer your own, and they swim together, closing in on each other. You have never known that kind of exhaustion. You thought exhaustion was about research papers in college, but you now scoff at that exhaustion. That exhaustion is kid’s play compared to this real, grownup exhaustion.

You can’t get enough of this little human. When you play charades, this little baby is your favorite person to act out. First touch, first smiles, first tooth, even their poops and peeps are cause for amazement or distress. And your conversations? You hide it from your friends but when you’re alone together, all you want to talk about is this little baby that now consumes your life.

Today I remember those first days and I smile. My first-born now has her own first-born and I delight in watching the two of them. His face lights up when she enters the room and his smiles brighten her world, just as her’s did mine.

In the dance of parenthood, we have left the slow dance of the beginning, with it’s long moments of sheer wonder. We are now in the era of jazz, where you agree on the notes, and then you improvise. Slow jazz plays in the background, but this dance of parenthood is no longer the central part of our lives. The furniture is rearranged and sometimes the house echoes with empty. We miss them but we have raised them with wings to fly and they exercise those wings well.

But still there are those moments, especially on their birthdays, when we are taken back to the beginning.

We remember and we smile.

Happy Birthday Annie! Being your mom is an undeniable gift.


Note: The above dialogue went on for much longer than it took you to read it!

On Birthday Cards and Aunt Charlotte

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Each year for as long as I can remember, I would receive a birthday card from my Aunt Charlotte.

It didn’t matter where I was in the world – that card always came.

While other aunts lived in nice suburban houses with picket fences and bay windows, Aunt Charlotte lived in the city – New York City to be more specific. My first memory of visiting her was when, at four years old, my parents took me to the World’s Fair. At that time Aunt Charlotte lived in the heart of the Bronx, a place as foreign to me as Pakistan was to her.

In early years of living overseas, when we would travel by boat, Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Les would accompany our family to the New York City Harbor. Aunt Charlotte would bring goody bags for each of us kids – a treat to open each day of the journey. It was magical. There were hugs and kisses and more hugs and more kisses. Then, under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty, they would stand and wave goodbye. We would watch until they were only small specks against a massive horizon.

It was during a hot summer in July that I first got to experience city life with Aunt Charlotte.  At this point, she had moved to Brooklyn and my cousin Judi and I were invited to spend two weeks in the city. I was sixteen years old, in the midst of the angst of adolesence made more difficult because of a strong personality and trying to unsuccessfully negotiate a life lived between.

While my aunt and uncle worked during the day, Judi and I explored the neighborhood by timidly venturing to a local McDonalds, only to come quickly back and sit on a rooftop eating burgers and drinking milkshakes, trying not to be overwhelmed. We walked on streets steaming with the smell of hot tar to a city pool, cooling ourselves in sparkling blue water that was crowded with kids, all on summer break. We ate icecream and red jello, and Aunt Charlotte spoiled us with treats.

Aunt Charlotte was and is a city girl through and through. Nothing scares her about the city. She traverses subways and streets – going to work, shopping, meeting friends, exploring. Though raised in the small Massachusetts town of Winchendon, she has a city savvy that I envied when I was younger, and emulated when I was older. Though small towns can be wonderful, Winchendon was too small for Aunt Charlotte – she needed a city.

And through all those years, those years where she lived on busy New York streets, and I lived in cities around the world, those birthday cards would come. I would open our mailbox and smile, knowing immediately who the card was from as I saw her characteristic handwriting on the envelope.

Perhaps it is only as we age that we realize the worth of these simple acts. For it is now that I realize the great gift of those birthday cards. They were never fancy, that wasn’t the point. They were more than cardstock and picture, more than sweet sentiment. They were the gift of recognition; the acknowledgement of a person’s worth. Simple cards that radiated the sentiment “I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist.”  

Today is my Aunt Charlotte’s birthday and I did not send her a card. I wish I had. I wish I had taken a fraction of the time that she took all those years, writing out those simple words “Happy Birthday,” licking a stamp, walking to a city mailbox that says “Pick-up – 1:00 pm” and dropping it inside. It is my daughter Stefanie who seems to have inherited this gift, who has the ability to create cards and send them, letting people know she is glad they exist.

As for me? Instead I write, thinking and hoping that perhaps this can serve as my birthday card to her, my acknowledgement of her worth.

So Aunt Charlotte, I wish you a Happy Birthday. I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist. And thank you – thank you for all those cards, your love letter to your nieces and nephews. 

We can Celebrate!

When my husband was little, his mom looked at her boys (four at the time) and said: “Pick your cake and stick with it!” So each of them picked a favorite cake and every year, that was the cake they had on their birthdays. It was a wise move for a woman who had four boys by the time she turned 21.

My husband picked carrot cake.

When we first got married, I don’t think I had ever made a carrot cake. But I began that year and have made one every year since. It is a production of sugar and oil; of carrots and coconut; of pineapple and nuts. It is delicious. Truly delicious.

Yesterday evening I went out to buy all the ingredients. As I was paying for them, I looked at the woman at the checkout counter and said “I think I might make the best carrot cake in the world!” She burtst out laughing and relayed her story of trying to make a carrot cake, wondering why it didn’t turn out right only to realize she had forgotten the carrots. At home I began the process — first whipping up eggs to a light yellow, then adding the other ingredients until it was ready to bake. It now sits on our kitchen counter, a splendid golden brown, ready to be iced with homemade cream cheese icing.

I have noticed that the older my husband and I get, the less interested we are in celebrating birthdays. Yet, in so many ways, we have so much more to celebrate now than when we were younger.

We can celebrate the confidence that comes when you realize your security cannot be in your looks or your physical strength; when you ruefully laugh at another grey hair and an extra chin. We know when we look in the mirror that we don’t have to believe everything that we see.

We can celebrate a growing family, a grandchild who even at two months old lights up our life, bringing giggles and so much joy.

We can celebrate our children – amazing human beings in their own right. Each uniquely gifted, each walking a journey that includes both joy and pain.

We can celebrate the extraordinary friendships we have with both family and friends — some who have walked by our side for years and others who have more recently come into our lives.

We can celebrate the miles and kilometers that we have traveled; the countries we have traversed; the people we have met along the way. We can celebrate the journeys that are still to come, the adventures that are awaiting us.

We can celebrate that we don’t give up. Ever. We are doggedly determined to continue living through the hard; determined to love better and learn more.

We can celebrate that we know how important it is to express love, to walk through the hard stuff, to support each other when life gets stormy and forgive each other when the inevitable conflicts and opinions start to choke out compassion and love.

Most of all, we can celebrate God’s great kindness to us; celebrate a God that has promised to sustain us through old age and beyond.

So Happy Birthday Cliff!

Thank you for bringing the world so much laughter and joy. May we celebrate well today! 

Note: We can also celebrate Carrot Cake!

  • 2 cups grated carrots (I put them in food processor with pineapple juice)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 cup coconut
  • 1 cup crushed pineapple
  • 3/4 cup walnuts
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Put carrots in food processor or equivalent and add some of the pineapple juice. Blend and set aside. Beat up those eggs! When they are whipped to a frenzy add in the light brown sugar. Beat that up until it is smooth and perfect looking. Then add white sugar and do the same thing. Add the oil and beat until blended. Add in cinnamon, vanilla, baking powder and soda. Add 2 cups of flour and blend till smooth. Then add mashed carrots, coconut, pineapple and walnuts. Mixture will be dense. Put into greased 9″ by 11″ pan and bake for about 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees. Cool and then frost with your favorite cream cheese icing.

 

On Being Bold on my Birthday

So….today is my birthday! For years, I would wander around my workplace, Eeyore-like, thinking “No one is going to wish me a happy birthday. I hate this. I hate being here.”

And then I watched my gorgeous and sassy friend from Portugal on her birthday. She let everyone, I mean EVERYONE, know about her birthday. And she was so happy. And we all celebrated her and wished her happy birthday and it was great.

So this year – I’m being bold. I’ve told everyone it’s my birthday. Big meeting with advertising company? “It’s my birthday!” I announced as I came in late. Bus driver? “It’s my birthday!” I said as I got on the bus. Colleagues I barely know? “It’s my birthday!” I say. So now everyone knows, and it is so much fun!

I bought a pumpkin cake with cream cheese and pecans to my work. I bought pretty napkins. I’m celebrating!

Because – My Birthday!

And so here in this space, I’m going to be so bold as to ask for something. The director of three schools for Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon has a dream of having a small library in each school. And we want to make it happen.

We want to send her $15,000 – $5000 per school. One of the schools is in a poor area of Beirut, the second is in Bekaa Valley, the third is in South Lebanon. These schools reach the most at-risk children who have lost one or both parents. The teachers are amazing, dedicated professionals who love these kids.

So through Conscience International we are raising funds. I am so excited about using Communicating Across Boundaries to help in this way! In the past year, the blog has grown exponentially and I know the audience. You care about the world! You hang your hearts across the globe and grow to love the countries where you live and work. You care about the marginalized and the refugee. You read and comment and pray.

So on my birthday – I would love to ask if you can give toward these libraries. Here is the link to donate. In the area where it says: “I want my donation to go toward”, highlight Lebanon from the dropdown list. Then where it says “in honor or memory of” – you can put Communicating Across Boundaries, so we can track what has come in.

Thank you so much for reading! And Happy Birthday to me!