A Cross, A Camel and a Nosepin – Outer Symbols of an Inner Self

20130723-084123.jpgOn a gold chain around my neck I wear an Ethiopian cross and a small gold camel. When I take them off my neck feels naked, but more than that my identity feels compromised.

I also wear a tiny diamond in my nose – my nosepin. I never take it off.

These three objects are outer symbols of my inner self. They come as close as anything will to representing parts of my life that are precious, parts that I can’t always articulate.

The cross was purchased in the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt. This market is famous for its myriad of shops down tiny streets that are so narrow no car could drive through safely.The bazaar sits under the shadow of the Al-Hussein mosque and lures tourists and residents alike into its colors and delights. When you’ve lived in Cairo awhile you get tired of taking your visiting friends to the market, but once you’ve been away you long for those narrow streets and shops filled with perfume bottles of delicate glass, pottery of bright colors, and gold of brilliant shine. We bought the cross on a trip back to Cairo a few years after we uprooted our family and moved to a land far away and unfamiliar – the United States. It represents a a precious faith, a faith that didn’t leave me when I thought I would leave it. A faith that burns brighter through fire, much like the gold in the cross; gold refined by smelting out the impurities.

I love my cross. My Ethiopian cross.

Paired with the cross on the same chain is the camel. One Christmas in Cairo Cliff surprised me with a small gold camel. He had written to parents and family members that he had purchased a solid-gold camel for me for Christmas. For a month following Christmas we received mail joking about our camel. “Could we get it through the door?” “How did we capture it and turn it into gold?” Sarcastic and humorous comments puzzled us until we realized that family thought Cliff was joking. They had never seen the small, delicate camels that were sold in the gold section in Khan el-Khalili and one paragraph ended with “No. Really. What did you really get her?”

I lost that camel. I still don’t know how but losing my signature necklace hurt me in ways that I was unprepared for. Then last year my mother-in-law was taking out some old jewelry to give to my daughter and had two tiny gold camels, camels we had given her as earrings years before. I claimed both of them with a strength that surprised even me. I reclaimed my symbol, my signature piece.

And then there’s my nosepin…..! As a teenager in Pakistan I wanted a nosepin. Someone at the International School in Islamabad had one and I was mightily jealous. But under the roof of my parents, the answer was a resounding “no’. So when I moved to Pakistan with a husband and baby I was determined to change the nose situation. Two months after giving birth to my second child I went to an expensive jewelry shop and sat on a velvet stool. (as Robynn did because it was the same shop) I have never regretted it. Even now, when it’s assumed that I am a left over hippy, I’ve no regrets.

Since time began, we humans have used the tangible to represent the intangible. An object to define what language sometimes can’t.

I am well aware that these are outer symbols. I am aware that they don’t define who I am before God. I still believe outer symbols are important. I believe we wear these symbols to emphasize what we believe and what we love. Just as on Ash Wednesday the ashes mark those who are embarking on a Lenten journey, so do our outer symbols represent some of our journey.

My faith, my travel, my childhood. My God, the Middle East, Pakistan, Identity, Longing — all represented through these symbols. Three simple symbols of a complicated inner self.

What do you think? How have you used outer symbols to reflect your inner self?