“Who ‘Kindled’ Your Parents??”

“My parents got a Kindle for Christmas”, I said to my husband. It was, I thought, an innocent statement.

“WHAT??” Who ‘kindled’ your parents?” He demanded indignantly. “Let it be known that I will never, ever have a Kindle.”

The Kindle is not a popular concept in our house. Books pile coffee tables, night stands, and book shelves. The feel of a book, the turning of pages, the cover pages with their enticement to look inside – all of it, all that represents a physical book, is loved. We are all avid readers, but my husband is the most avid of all.

My parents love books as well. As much as us. But they have progressively moved into smaller homes where too many books, instead of comforting, can suffocate. So they have slowly and I might add, painfully, had to get rid of books. They have parted with them a bit like they would a beloved pet, hoping they will find a good owner, sometimes even handpicking the owner. This is what inspired the idea to give them a Kindle. A place where they can still read and enjoy those beloved books, without the space and difficulty in moving them.

But the indignation the Kindle raised in our house last night was strong. Family members had Kindled my parents and they were now on the dark side of technology.

Worse yet, living with a bunch of haters, how can I admit that I really want one?! What about you? Kindle lover? Kindle hater? Neutral (if there is a neutral, which I doubt!)

It’s a Blog Party!

It’s a blog party and you’re invited!  I’m celebrating the birth of this blog and over 50,000 views in less than a year. I’m celebrating 312 posts, 2,289 comments, 65 categories, 674 tags, and 533 followers! Most of all I’m celebrating writing and communicating with people through the medium of a blog, and I’m celebrating you, the reader, for being willing to read, give feedback, email encouragement and be a part of this process.

In honor of the celebration (besides the mandatory Proseco that I am committed to) I am giving away three books. But to get these books I ask for something in return….

I am inviting you to do one of two things:

  1. Comment on this post giving the title of your favorite post, perhaps a reason why it’s a favorite and suggestions for future posts…..or
  2. Invite someone to read Communicating Across Boundaries who you think would enjoy the blog.  Make sure they comment and let me know that you recommended the blog. If you choose this way to participate, here are some of my favorite posts that you may want to recommend – A Sun Dial and a Swiss Watch – The Story of a Relationship; Learning to Speak Coffee; Meet me at Terminal E and Hookah Hypocrisy.

I will put the names of those who take part into a hat and randomly select three. Those three people will have their choice of one of the books I love and have talked about on this blog.

Here are the books you can choose from:

You have until Tuesday, December 20th to participate. I’ll send out a couple reminders as a way to tell you how much I want you to participate!

Please join in the fun. No one wants to party alone so if no one participates I will cry myself to sleep on my wee pillow!

(Notice that Digging to America and The Day the Chicken Cackled are missing from the photograph. They are on loan to friends!)

A Moment of Truth from “Digging to America”

Digging to America” by Anne Tyler is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of 2 little girls from Korea, both adopted by people in the United States. They arrived in Baltimore, Maryland on the same plane, an evening flight from San Francisco. I can picture the scene in my mind having been at many airports as they are slowly shutting down, only one or two vendors still open along with sleepy janitors slowly moving their mops across floors that carry the world back and forth during the day.  The “Caution Wet Floor” signs are evidence of their effort. During those times, airports, usually the best places for people-watching become a tad lonely and people often sit with only their baggage, their thoughts, and an evening summary of the news in subtitles on overhead screens.

The baby girls are adopted by two very different families, and as they grow they give proof that culture is not genetic. The first family is a comfortable, friendly, homey, liberal couple whose hearts were as big as their appetites. They arrived at the airport to greet their new daughter with a number of loud and excited relatives, described like a “gigantic baby shower”.  The second family is an Iranian American family, striking with their beautiful olive skin and aquiline features, an air of aristocracy surrounding them like perfume.  They were quieter, just three of them, a beautiful young couple and an elegant grandmother, Maryam-jon. The two babies looked like they were custom-made for the couples, one being chubbier and actively awake, the other petite and quiet.

In the book, Ann Tyler gets at the heart of cultural difference as she explores the growing, and sometimes hesitant, connection between the families. Throughout the book, the author weaves two perspectives – one of a family who is completely at home in the U.S having never known life anywhere else, the other of a family that feels “other” and is confronted with their sense of difference and being “outsiders”, even as they are continually welcomed by the born and bred “American” family. Ann Tyler’s skill is clear as she takes us inside the head of the Iranian grandmother, and gives us an intimate look at the struggle to belong, yet hold onto the things we cherish the most.

The book will strike a chord with anyone who has felt other, whether through life experience, or living cross-culturally. Maryam has her moment of truth, where she realizes she loves this other family. For all their differences, their loudness, their “in your face” concern, she belongs.

I think a moment of truth comes for many third culture kids, where we suddenly realize that it’s ok for our lives to be upset and overtaken by what we considered foreign and alien, suddenly realizing that we belong. It’s ok to evolve, and learn to love a country and place, understanding that we are not betraying our past, but rather, living up to how we were raised. And that is as adaptable and flexible, ever willing to try something different.

Jin-Ho was quiet a moment, rhythmically kicking the passenger seat in a way that would have been irritating if anyone had been sitting there. Then she said ‘Remember when me and Susan were digging a hole to China?….So the kids in China, are they digging to America?

Bloggers Note: For those who have followed the story of the American hikers jailed in Iran, breaking news is that they have finally been freed. Take a look @ CNN’s Live Blog for details.

Identity and the Girl From Foreign

Cover of "The Girl from Foreign: A Search...

I finished reading The Girl From Foreign by Sadia Shepard over my vacation last week. To capture this book in a post will be difficult. At heart it is a book about identity, not just identity of body but identity of soul – spiritual identity.

The author grew up in Chestnut Hill, a village to the west of Boston center and known primarily as home to Boston College. Her mom is a Pakistani, a Muslim and her dad is American from an Episcopalian background.  Sadia’s grandmother, Nana, was originally from India and headed to Pakistan with her husband during the time of partition when Muslims living in India left for the new Islamic state that was Pakistan. Although married to a Muslim her grandmother was Jewish, descended from a small group of Jews who were shipwrecked off the coast of India in the 1800’s and struggled to keep a faith alive with barely a Torah left to remind and sustain them. I write about this background because therein is the story.

Sadia has a Fulbright scholarship to go study the Bene Israel Jewish community in India from which her grandmother came. In her study of this community she is really searching for her role within the three faiths. Can she embrace all of them? Must she choose? Who is she as an American who grew up with three faiths and the inevitable cultural trappings that accompany a faith? Added to this is her struggle with cultural adaptation. She knows America well as her childhood home. She has visited Pakistan several times but, by her own admission, was kept within the safety of her Pakistani family. In India she is alone, struggling to find the community that is the focus of her research as well as her identity as a foreigner.

Woven between her childhood memories in Chestnut hill with frequent trips to Pakistan, to a history of her grandmother that she has discovered through family stories, letters and research in India, and then on to her current quest in India the story alternates between being about her grandmother and being about her. The reader takes a journey into her world, and struggles with her, as she tries to find out who she is, who she can be.

The ultimate question – Could she embrace all three faiths? This critical question emerges in conversation with one of her new friends – A Jewish man from the Bene Israel community named Sharon. The conversation as written in the book goes like this:

You think she has to choose, Sharon?” Sharona asks...

“I think she absolutely has to choose….

Sadia, may I speak frankly, as your friend?’…”I think, Sadia, that if you are not going to go into depth, then you can be quite comfortable with all three religions in your life. There are certainly a great number of things that Judaism and Christianity have in common, and a great number of things that you will find similar in Islam and Judaism. But if you look at all three in depth, I think you will see that there are also a great number of contradictions. So that, if you believe fully in one, you cannot believe in the others.

I won’t tell you the outcome. That is neither fair to the author or to you! But as you read this and think about identity, spiritual and cultural identity, have you chosen? Do you think you have to choose? What’s your story and where has your faith journey taken you? Sadia’s journey took her to India. Mine has taken me from a small missionary community where big questions seemed easy to a world where big questions are not as black and white, but where my faith is the lens through which I view all of life. Feel free to add to the discussion and share a bit of your journey and by all means – read the book!

Autographed at Eight Bells

8 Bells, Rockport, MA

On Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Massachusetts is a shop called 8 Bells. The shop mixes a vintage charm with a beach feel and has everything from uniquely designed vintage door-knob bouquets to pictures in weathered frames. Old window panes stenciled with lacy white templates are beside vases and signs showing off the talent of an inspired artist. Despite the small area, 8 Bells is a shop you can stay in for hours just for inspiration.

On the front desk in a container are copies of  a book called Night Swimming” holding their own inspiration. Inspiration for making life happen when you believe you don’t have much to lose. The author of the book, Robin Schwartz, is also the owner of the shop and is as unconventional as her created character, Charlotte.

The first time we visited the shop, Robin looked at us as we left and said “You’re not going to buy anything?”  She was incredulous and her incredulity was guilt-inducing.  The next time we didn’t leave until I had picked up a copy of “Night Swimming”. Robin autographed the book for me that very minute. The autograph reads:

Dear Marilyn, Thank you for coming back. I think you will enjoy Blossoms blooming. And as she swims, may you get lost in laps of laughter and reflection. I hope you come into 8 Bells again and again and I hope Night Swimming rings your bell. xoxo Robin Schwartz

On this rainy weekend, as I read the  book in two sittings while curled up on a couch,  I did get lost in laughter and reflection. It is a delightful account of a woman living a boring, quiet, predictable life in a small town in New Hampshire. The protagonist Charlotte Clapp, who is eating her way into oblivion, gets bad news from her doctor. Actually terrible news. Her blood test results show that at 36 years old she has cancer and only a year to live.

Her response to this news is to promptly go into the small town bank where she has worked for 15 years and quit her job. Following this she robs the bank and cleverly disappears from town with two million dollars, reinventing herself along the way in her last year of life.  What the reader knows that Charlotte doesn’t is that the physician got the blood test results mixed up with another woman by the same name from another town in New Hampshire. She’s not dying. But even as the FBI becomes involved in searching for her, she is busily oblivious on the opposite side of the country, spending the two million dollars and living out her final year of life so she has no regrets. The reader leaves behind any predisposed views on justice and punishment and prays that the FBI will come up empty-handed as they go alongside Charlotte rooting for her.

So why does the book resonate with me? For two reasons. One is that it makes me wonder what I would do if I was told this was my last year of life. It wasn’t a morbid thought so much as a healthy self-reflection. The other is recognizing that we all get to points where we need new beginnings. Charlotte, although her means were unconventional, actually went for this. Deciding that she had nothing to lose, she bought a luxury apartment in Hollywood and began discovering who she really was.

In Charlotte’s character is something that will resonate inside many women. That deep desire to develop our true potential and learn how to love in the process.  So if you go into 8 Bells, make sure you tell Robin that you read about her book here!~

Dull Women Have Immaculate Coffee Tables

This piece was featured on Freshly Pressed at the end of May 2011! Thank you WordPress! 

How many books and magazines does one coffee table need? Turns out our coffee table needs between 25 to 35. Those occasions when I want to create order from chaos in my home I look at our coffee table in despair. Armed with Pledge and a cloth I resolve to decrease the clutter and get to work, determined to have no more than 10 books and magazines by the time I am finished.

And then I begin – there’s Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa, a story that captures the experience of a Palestinian family after 1948. Just the opening sentence is enough to warrant a place on my coffee table.

In a distant time, before history marched over the hills and shattered present and future, before wind grabbed the land at one corner and shook it of its name and character, before Amal was born, a small village east of Haifa lived quietly on figs and olives, open frontiers and sunshine.”

That book definitely stays. I put it back. Then there’s The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah, a humorous, entertaining account of a man who leaves cold, rainy England and relocates his family to sunny Casablanca, Morocco, taking on the daunting task of remodeling a villa. That one stays. It’s a tale that reminds me dreams can come true in the middle of winter.

I move on to 5 copies of the New Yorker Magazine. But they all look so interesting and although my husband has read several articles, I have not,  so I place them back on the table. I’ll get to them this summer.

Jars of Clay and The Day the Chicken Cackled? No way can those two be put away. The first, written by Pauline A. Brown (my mom!), is a reminder of  my heritage on days when it feels threatened. That too has a first sentence that I have memorized and used:

“I take missionaries out and monkeys back and I don’t know which is worse!”- We recognized that voice – the captain of our ship was talking to the captain of a passing ship.”

Through words and images I’m brought into the world my parents experienced as they headed to Pakistan in 1954 and set up a new home in a place they had barely read about, creating a new normal for their young family that would ultimately expand to 7, then 12, then grandchildren and ultimately great grands. The second, penned by Bettie Rose Addleton, gives stories from a life in Pakistan, an intimate look at friendships and customs. Both books are vital to my life and my past. They serve as reference books and challenge me to continue writing this blog and think about writing more.

At this point, I realize I have only gone through 4 books and 5 magazines and have 20 more to consider but I’ve already gone over my self-imposed limit of 10. Sighing I decide that Infections and Inequalities (Paul Farmer); The Dude Abides (Kathleen Falsani); and Songs of Blood and and Sword (an autographed copy from Fatima Bhutto) and my small blue Bible (my lifeline to all of life) all have to stay. Even if read only a chapter at a time, they signify something of our interests and loves.

I make a judgment call realizing it’s the only way I can justify clutter: Dull women have immaculate coffee tables. 

I realize that it’s a losing battle. As much as I want to decrease clutter, these books are like friends and to take them off my coffee table is like taking them out of my life. I realize just how irrational it is as I look at the packed bookshelf directly across from the coffee table. I give up and console myself by paraphrasing a well-known quote.

“Women with immaculate coffee tables rarely make history.”

The Fine Line of Storytelling

I love a good story and I love telling a good story – in fact I want to get better at writing and telling stories (I sometimes trail off and leave my readers dazed and confused!)

Our entire family loves stories and the joke is that once someone tells us a story, it becomes ours and our version could be better!

Since last night I have considered the fine line between story telling and lying. Where does one end, and the other begin?

The impetus last night was the 60 minutes segment on Greg Mortenson, well-known author of “Three Cups of Tea”. Greg Mortenson is a third culture kid. Raised in Kenya he probably faced what many of us have faced in terms of identity loss and wanting to make a difference. The controversy centers on the facts uncovered by the investigative reporting team of 60 Minutes that presented a different picture than the one portrayed in the book – a picture of fewer schools, no kidnapping, and questionable relationships, to name a few. Perhaps the statement that was most helpful to me as I process this information is Jon Krakauer’s: “If Greg had built only 3 schools that’s a feat in itself, why does it have to be embellished to such a degree”.

Those of us who grew up in the area seemed to have two reactions from the beginning. The first was a deep connection. A connection to a place and a people, to the well-known difficulty in getting things accomplished in the area, to the need to drink not just 3 cups of tea, but perhaps 30 or 100, before a relationship is solid. The second was one word “Really?” as in “Umm are you kidding me? Some of this does not ring true”. But most of us accepted the story with appreciation for bringing the relational and human face to the masses who lump all of Pakistan and Afghanistan into a terrorist beard.

So in this case, where did storytelling end and lying begin? I don’t know. Neither probably does he. When we tell ourselves a version of a story long enough, it becomes true and unquestionable. And when we are telling the story in person, and someone else who was also there listens, they will often nod their heads and grin, noting at the end “Well, it wasn’t quite like that” and give the black and white tale versus the living color, or virtual reality version.

I articulated my response this way in a thread on Facebook that began through posting the story on my wall “Do I really believe that he is building 68 schools in Afghanistan this next year? No, I don’t. Do I believe that he cares about a cause and has given his life’s work for this and challenges others to do something – Yes I do”. Added to this: do I believe his integrity is in question?  Integrity is another blog post altogether and one that I would be cautious to write lest the fingers point back at me.

It brings up another big question – what in our culture craves sensationalism from Fox News to Greg Mortenson? We have so dumbed and numbed our responses that 3 schools is not enough – we need 68 and a bestseller to get out of our apathetic armchairs.  We have been deadened by sensationalist versions from religion to politics. Perhaps original stories start as core truth but end up as a product that has been marketed so carefully through sound bites that none of us know the real story. Or the real story is just not good enough. Sort of like the airbrushed women on magazines like Glamour or Vogue – What is the real deal and what is a made up version? Or what is allowed to be embellished and what should not be?

Many people faced the disappointment of an idol falling last night – the question is this: Should they have had an idol in the first place?

Bloggers Note: To add a little humor to the story, my brother Stan plans to write a book called “’One Cup of Ovaltine’ to promote my new startup with my brother Ed: “The Curiously Impertinent Project” whose mission is to keep the right balance between knights and cynics. Our mascot was going to be “Don Quixote”. Maybe we should wait until the dust clears.”

Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

“When Cesar modeled his new coat, my father nodded his approval and remarked that my brother would surely grow into it. It would surely help him survive his first American winter. Alas, the opposite proved to be true. The coat was so large it shielded him far less effectively than one his own size. It was as if, marooned in America, we had lost our perspective, our sense of proportion…” from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007

Who of us that have made our homes in different countries do not relate with this poignant picture of a family, struggling to figure out how to live, shop, and survive in new territory?

Our first winter in New England after living in Cairo and Islamabad was painfully cold as two of my sons walked around in jackets 3 sizes too large. “But they were on sale!” I exclaimed to my husband, completely overwhelmed with the task of clothing a family of seven for winter. Gone were the Cairo winters where it rarely reached freezing, where honeysuckle and magnolias came out in early February lining the streets with a color and fragrance that dramatically indicated spring was upon us.

Not only were the coats too large, the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) Payless Shoes filled our entryway with only one problem. The shoes and boots bought in the midst of culture shock were too small – the tightness causing blisters on the uncomplaining feet of kids who were completely flexible and thought this was normal.

I tried to explain some of this recently at a workshop on ‘Culture & Healthcare’, the words to articulate failing to come. How could I find words to describe how badly we wanted this new country to work for us? How silently desperate we felt, not wanting to seem as outsiders or ‘other’ but failing so miserably at the minor tasks in life that the larger tasks were pushed hopelessly aside, our angst obvious.

The more I failed, the more defeated I became. I sensed I could never make this work and like the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai wilderness I had the unspoken memory of “the fish I ate in Egypt at no cost!” * ‘Take me back to Egypt where I belong’ was my silent prayer.

Years after those first traumas, I found Lucette Lagnado’s poignant portrayal of her family’s journey from Cairo to the United States. I felt like I was going to bed with my friends every night as I read chapter after chapter, not wanting the book to end. The pictures that she created with words were a salve, a precious ointment, soothing my memories and the hidden wounds I had sustained during those first years of arrival to the United States. They mirrored our journey and experience despite being of a different time and the move to the United States being for different reasons.

Just as Lucette’s family left Egypt with 26 suitcases, so did our family consolidate our years of living as a family in Cairo  down to 26 suitcases and the backpacks on our shoulders. Just as they felt lost, displaced and without context in their new world, so did we.

The shopping experience was merely a symbol of the far greater adjustment to a country whose lifestyle, beliefs, and values would create in us a conflict and discomfort akin to the cold from a coat too large, or blisters from shoes too small; our consolation and solace coming from those who understood – whether in person or through a book.

*(Numbers 11 verse 5)

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Books that Inform

Blogger’s note: In light of world events and the often present  ‘information gap’ in conversations on Islam – here are two books that inform!

Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think” should be a mandatory read for diplomats and administrative personnel who hold positions where communicating with those in the Arab world is a regular occurrence.  It is also a good book to recommend for those interested in learning more about this part of the world and the complexity surrounding what the west thinks ‘they’ think and should be concerned about vs. what ‘they’ say they think and what they are concerned about.  This small book with a red cover is the result of a Gallup poll that took place over a few years time.  Thousands and thousands of interviews were conducted in 35 Muslim-majority countries asking clear and pointed questions of the interviewees.  Important to note: this wasn’t the thoughts of either those with extreme views or those who speak as experts but rather regular people going about their lives.  People like many of the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain.

The second book that I have found to be a great resource is the book “A New Introduction to Islam” by Dr. Daniel Brown. This 269-page book with a beautiful cover is an excellent introduction and ‘go to’ book for history and a greater understanding of Muslim beliefs and practices. For coffee lovers, be sure to check out “The Coffee Debate” on page 116! Full disclosure here – Dr. Brown is my brother and an excellent writer and thinker! But lest there be any accusation of nepotism in my urging people to read I will include the recommendation from Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed, currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC.

“The events of September 11 and afterwards have forced us to ask questions about the nature and history of Islam, Daniel Brown’s clear and authoritative book helps us to understand this world religion now at the center of controversy, discussion, and debate…”

Both of these books are excellent ways to begin to fill the information gap and will make great additions to your coffee table or bedside stand.