A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

Lost in the Land of Plenty

A lot has happened since I posted the beautiful piece from my daughter about falling in love with your neighborhood. We moved. Those two words are loaded with weeks of uncertainty, days of planning, and hours of conversation. We took all our earthly belongings out of a seven by ten foot storage unit and began to unpack in our little red house. We unpacked books and set up a kitchen. We made sure we had electricity, gas, and a parking permit so that the difficult Boston parking could be a fraction easier. We carried boxes upstairs and downstairs, unrolled rugs, and filled out a damage claim for a moving company, ruefully shaking our heads at broken glass from a favorite picture and favorite piece of furniture.

We took walks in our neighborhood, marveling at the old gas lamp posts that light our way at night and the church bells that ring on the hour. We hid boxes and hosted our first guests – and all of this in our first week. When you move a lot you know you have to plant quickly and pray that the transplanted roots take in the new soil. In our case, we wanted to make sure we started in the strong soil of hospitality.

The words and recall sound easy and pleasant, but along with that, every day this week I have gotten lost. Every day.

Last week I didn’t get lost. Last week my husband, who has an uncanny sense of direction, was around. If you take him to a city anywhere in the world and allow him to explore for half an hour, you can then blindfold him, turn him around three times, and tell him to find all the land marks within a 10-mile radius. He will be able to take you to said landmarks, even if he doesn’t speak a word of whatever language is spoken in the area. It’s remarkable.

I am not him. If you take me to a place I should know (like Boston) and you turn me around three times with my eyes wide open I will get lost.

So every day this week I got lost. I got lost in a land with English signs posted everywhere. I got lost on street corners and highways, around rotaries, and in grocery stores. I made traffic mistakes and wandered dazed through stores. I even got lost after I asked for directions!

It is uncanny how easily I become lost in the country that holds a legal claim on my life.

It was (of course) in the grocery store where the “lostness” manifest itself most profoundly. I wandered around for many minutes, only to get stuck between pasta and tomato paste. The cereal aisle I would understand. Many of us understand paralysis in the cereal aisle. But pasta? Tomato paste? You can find those things in almost any little grocery store in the world. We have found it in tiny shops in Egypt and tinier shops in Kurdistan. It’s everywhere. So how did I get lost?

Eventually I found my way out, only to get lost going home. To understand the severity of my ‘lost’ syndrome, you need to know that my new home is only a ten minute walk from the grocery store.

Here’s the thing: I did not only get lost – I AM lost. I am lost physically and I am lost metaphorically.

I feel lost in the land of plenty. Lost in choice and direction; lost of ideas and dreams; lost of context and future.

I am lost in grocery stores and I am lost in the online search for meaningful work. I am lost in job descriptions and legalese. I am lost in questions.

As I look for the next right thing, I am achingly, painfully, humorously lost.

I have been in this place before, and I know it can’t be rushed. I know that I need to stop, pull over, and breathe.

So that’s what I’ve done. At one point I pulled over to the side of the road and I took a deep breath. I looked at my phone to determine directions. At the grocery store I headed towards the floral section. There in the midst of the beauty of bouquets and greenery, I took a minute to breathe. Again, as I found myself going around a rotary when I should have been heading to the highway, I had to pull over. Only after I pulled over and took a moment to breathe could I move forward.

This physical, mental, and emotional sense of being lost? It’s going to take some time so I’d best stop and breathe.

As my friend Neil says so well:

home’s the skin we live
in, moving its shedding; you
now new and tender

they say you leave your
heart, i say your lungs; it may
take some time to breathe

From Haiku on Moving – For Friends Newly Moved by Neil Das

A Black Girl, A White Girl, and a Lemonade Stand

mineral-water-1532300_1920

My subway stop in Cambridge is Central Square. I’ve written a bit about Central Square before, but the truth is, it’s difficult to describe this area. While Harvard Square boasts history and sophistication and Kendall Square hosts Massachusetts Institute of Technology and nerdy innovation, Central Square is a cacophony of chaos. The community of homeless are many and loud, challenging anyone who would demean them through pity. The smell of curry from a couple of Indian restaurants is strong on hot summer days, and there is always some sort of crisis that involves police presence.

It is dirtier and grittier than other areas of Cambridge, with a cross-section of people who defy any stereotype. Recent and older immigrants speaking everything from Amharic and Arabic to Portuguese and Punjabi; every age from infants in strollers to the elderly heading to a community center or the library around the corner; and the sassiest and saltiest homeless people you will ever meet – all of these converge in Central Square.

Central Square is a colorful box of crayons that I get to walk through every day.

Diversity is lived out on these streets. You don’t think about it, it’s just there. But on Tuesday as I was walking home, I happened on a scene that has stayed with me. Just outside a blue house on Magazine Street, two mini entrepreneurs were selling lemonade. They had a couple of large pitchers that were sweating in the heat, and big glasses. At fifty cents their price was excellent and below the going rate.

Their voices were loud as they shouted to everyone who passed by – “Lemonade for sale. Come get your ice-cold lemonade!” And so I did, and it was the best lemonade I’ve ever had from a lemonade stand.

One little girl was black, one little girl was white. Why do I mention that? There’s nothing strange about the fact that a black girl and a white girl are together in this neighborhood, but in the current climate in the United States it felt way more important than just two kids selling lemonade. It felt like a glimpse of the future; a future that repents of wrongs and seizes opportunities to bridge racial and ethnic divisions. A future that fights injustice and seeks opportunities to work together providing sweet, refreshing lemonade.

There’s a lot to be depressed about in our world these days. It’s rare to find people who can disagree in civil ways, each giving respect to the other. Fractured relationships are everywhere and we are in deep need of healing – as individuals, as families, and as communities.

But then I meet two little girls on a summer day right in my neighborhood selling lemonade, and I know that all is not lost.

There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven. . . .Wendell Berry in Hannah Coulter

 

A Baby and the Cold Slush of Winter

city-2561014_1280

I slog my way through dirty, melting snow as I walk to work. The pristine fluffy white of one week ago is replaced by the dirt and grime of the city, coupled with slush caused by rising temperatures.

It is Thursday, my last day of the work week, and I am tired. In winter everything takes longer. It takes longer to get ready in the morning, longer to walk to the subway, longer for the subway to arrive, longer to get groceries.

Everything is longer. Everything is harder. It’s more difficult to see grace; more difficult to give grace.

Yesterday I visited a friend who has just had a baby girl. I held her little body in my arms, marveling at her perfection, struck by how this little miracle came to be.

In the midst of the cold slosh of winter, I got to hold this wonder in my arms. Outside may feel cold and heartless, but inside is warm with wonder and grace.

Outside the world is raging, unaware that inside is a six pound wonder. Outside people argue and push, morosely facing winter’s worst. Across the country fires and floods change people’s lives in moments.

But inside there is a baby, perfectly formed and known by a God who still believes that this world is worthy of being redeemed. She is entrusted to, and loved by, an imperfect family and friends; people who will hold her and teach her, love her and cry with her.

And as I hold her I am in awe – in awe of baby soft skin and six pounds of perfectly formed fingers and toes, in awe of the strength and fragility of life, in awe of my friend who waited so long and wanted this baby so very much. Mostly in awe that somehow God believes that we in our human frailty, born as helpless babes who grow to be imperfect children and adults, are worth redeeming.

It’s Thursday and I’m tired. But then I remember – there’s a baby and it’s all okay.

Soul Care and the Reconstruction Process

bridge-286884_1280

When you live in a city you cannot avoid the ever-present construction/reconstruction process. Cranes, detours, iconic orange cones, and construction workers with yellow hard hats and vests are a part of the city landscape.

Healthy cities know that to continue to serve both residents and visitors, they need to repair, construct, and reconstruct. City planning has to allow for growth and change, and sometimes change comes through reconstruction.

The Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston has been under reconstruction for the past three years. It’s a lengthy process. The work takes place steel rod by steel rod and plank by plank with skilled workers supervising and doing the work. When the work is complete, it will be ready to sustain the heavy traffic of cars, trucks, and trains.

Ultimately, the work won’t be noticeable to any lay people. We will just use the bridge and remember back to the time when it was being fixed, and perhaps inconvenient to our travel plans. While cities try to minimize the inconvenience, they know that not doing the needed reconstruction will ultimately prove far more inconvenient.

Sometimes the only way to make things better is to fix them, to reconstruct them.

And so it is with our souls. There are times when our souls need to be under construction and reconstruction, when that is the only way for them to withstand the constant force of life in all its uncertainty.

I heard once at a conference that our “churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal”. This is part of the reconstruction process — realizing that your soul needs to heal and the wisest thing to do is to allow time for the reconstruction and healing process to take place.

our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to healTweet: our churches are full of hurting people who haven’t taken a season to heal

A number of years ago my husband and I went through an extended period of healing, an extended reconstruction period. It lasted over six years. During that time we did nothing beyond attending church and getting together with safe friends. We didn’t take part in any Bible Studies, we were not involved in any ‘ministry’, we did no service. We went through a season of healing and it was invaluable.

Besides achieving the desired result of healing and reconstructing, we learned several things.

1. We learned that we were far more use to God as people willing to be healed than we would have been had we tried to maintain a façade. The Psalmist David in a prayer of repentance says: “A broken and contrite heart you will not despise.” He speaks to the mercy of God, his loving kindness, the bones that God has broken. God has never, and will never, despise a broken and contrite heart. It’s the heart of the proud and the deceitful that concerns him far more.

2. We learned that our worth was not, and never will be, in what we do. Church service, ‘ministry’, getting involved – none of that is wrong. In fact, when done out of love for God it is a gift to be used for his glory. But it does not constitute our worth. Our worth is in this: That we are made in the image of God, his creation, his love. Distorted theology about our worth, thinking it is about what we do rather than who we are, is far more dangerous to the soul than taking time out for healing.

3. We came to realize that when you go through a season of healing, God brings people into your life who are broken and need to hear that there is redemption, there is healing. Even in the midst of the hardest parts of healing, we would meet people who needed to know there was hope, needed to know we were also walking the long, arduous path called ‘healing’. Perhaps broken seeks out broken? I like to think that the broken intuitively sense that they can learn best from those also willing to go through the reconstruction process.

4. We learned that the words ‘ministry’ will never be synonymous with ‘God’, and when we make it so, we are in a state of serious delusion. If we are not careful, ‘ministry’ becomes God. The word itself is held up as the ideal, instead of God himself being the ideal and ministry the result of our love for him. Defined as ‘the one that serves’ we can see ministry for what it is – not an end in itself, simply a way to reflect a love of God.

5. Mostly we learned that God is close to the broken-hearted. He cared not about our lack of service, he cared about our souls. Deeply, urgently, consistently he worked in our souls to reconstruct them to His Glory. The cuts that we sustained by his hand during the healing process were cuts of a gifted surgeon, done only to rid us of what would harm. And oh how they hurt, how they smarted. But when all was done, when surgery ended, the dead tissue was gone, only the healthy remained.

While a major construction and healing period is over, we are still ever aware of our fragility and propensity to go out on our own, thinking our souls are fully fixed. But the reality is somewhat different. Just as the Longfellow Bridge will go through this extended reconstruction period and emerge stronger, it will always have its points of weakness, its need for inspections and regular upkeep.

Like the reconstruction of the bridge, the reconstruction of our souls may not be visible to the lay person. But we know, regardless of what the outsider may observe, that ultimately not being willing to have our souls reconstructed would bring damage beyond what the eye is capable of seeing.

As I pass the bridge today it is early morning and still dark. If I strain my eyes I can see that construction workers are already present, ready to continue this important work of keeping a bridge safe and useable.

It is early morning and still dark, but God is present, ready to continue this important work of keeping me safe and useable in this beautiful and continual work of reconstruction. 


Note: This post has been revised from a piece written four years ago.

Reflections on Morning and Evening Prayers

 

neighborhood sunflowers

It’s early morning. The day is waking to summer in all its blue-skyed glory. Birds sing and chirp loud in chorus  – a liturgical chant to welcome the day.

I am standing at our icon corner, the place in our home where we say our morning and evening prayers. It is here where I try to begin the day. It is here where I take a few moments from the frantic busyness that can take hold if I’m not careful; here where I thank God for the morning, for a new day. I shake my head in wonder as I read the words “at dawn I might sing the glories of thy Majesty” – this is what life is to be.


It is less than an hour later when my morning peace is challenged, where I shake my head in frustration at someone who jostled me on the subway, where I hold my breath because the smell of urine is so strong in the Park Street T stop.

This is my life. Perhaps it is yours as well – peace and contemplation forgotten as we face everyday life wherever we are. My everyday life is the city, where homeless find shelter in door ways and tourists meander, their faces hidden by maps and sun hats. My everyday life is data mixed with stories, real people who need cancer screenings, real communities that face various difficulties.

I stop for a moment and think of the words of Frederick Buechner: Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. 


It’s at the end of the day when I hold out my hands in a physical gesture of surrender. We are doing our evening prayers, a discipline we began three years ago. We stand with our faces lifted toward icons: The Christ Pantocrator, the Theotokos, and our particular saints – St. Sophia, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Isaac the Syrian. A tall, thin beeswax candle made by nuns at a monastery is our only light, but it is enough.

There is something about this evening prayer time, something about this physical opening of my hands in release. Those things that I have worried about and held tight, the backpack full of burdens, even the pain in my body is held out to God. It’s during evening prayers that I fully accept what I know to be true – I can’t do it alone. This thing called life is too much for me. There is too much hurt, too much sadness, too much pain. I cannot go to bed with all this – I must release it.

So I do.

With hands lifted up, I give it all to God. I pray the words “Visit and heal our infirmities for thy name’s sake.”

For those few moments, all that matters is this time where earth drifts away and Heaven seems a bit closer.

Defying the Definition of Beauty

woman-565104_1280

I see her when I go to get coffee on a rainy afternoon. In a busy, city coffee shop, you see a lot of things. Black suited business people, musicians, law students, homeless, and tourists are just a few of those who walk in during the day. She is right in front of me with someone who could have been a friend or a sister. Both of them petite, with dark, straight hair. When they turn around, I see the difference.

One of them is beautiful by traditional standards of beauty. The other? Her face is a map of burnt skin and scar tissue. I know immediately that she is a victim of an acid attack. It would seem that the attackers won; that their actions permanently disfigured the woman they set out to punish.

On the morning of December 23, 2014, as a 30-year-old doctor was riding to work in New Delhi, two men on a motorcycle intercepted her scooter. While one grabbed her handbag, another sprayed the contents of a syringe at her face. It was filled with acid. The liquid quickly ate through her skin and facial tissue. She is currently undergoing treatment and may lose the sight in one eye.*

Beauty is an odd thing. We are told it is in the eyes of the beholder, even as we are accosted by subliminal advertising that assaults us through print and picture, telling us what we are supposed to think, what our eyes are supposed to behold as beautiful. We end up victims of a culture that defines beauty for us and dares us to defy that definition. We see ourselves through society’s eyes, our identity too often molded by the shape of our nose, the size of our hips, the alignment of our teeth.

When acid is thrown on a person’s face, the eyelids and lips may burn off completely. The nose may melt, closing the nostrils, and the ears shrivel up. Skin and bone on the skull, forehead, cheeks and chin may dissolve. When the acid splashes or drips over the neck, chest, back, arms or legs, it burns every inch of the skin it touches.*

But the woman I see defies that definition. Daily, she faces a visual world, a world that tells us what beauty is, and what it isn’t. But she is not staying at home, she is out in this world, defying it to define her, defying this world to see beyond traditional beauty to a new kind of beauty that shines from these faces the world calls scarred. Her scars symbolize the beauty of resilience; the beauty of strength; the beauty of survival. Her scars mean she defeated her enemy; she lives on, loved by her friends and family.

I walk away from the shop, hardly tasting the strong roast that I looked forward to. I am lost in thought over beauty: What it is, and what it isn’t. I feel society’s definition leering at me, daring me to challenge her notion of beauty. I suddenly catch a glimpse of my reflection in a shop window and, just like that, I panic. For my lipstick, so carefully applied that morning, has faded.

*[Source – Indian Acid Attack Victims Share Their Stories]

Click here for more information on acid attacks.

These are the People in My Neighborhood

Our street is a short, one-way street, four blocks from the Charles River. It’s lined with three-family homes, built at the turn of the century as industrial housing for people who worked at factories and needed places to live. The street gets mostly local traffic and even long-time residents of Cambridge don’t always know where it is.

I love this street. There are families and single people, older couples and students. There are Greeks and Chinese and white Americans and more Greeks and more Chinese and then there are even more Greeks. There are those we’ve secretly adopted as grand children, and there’s an Ethiopian family around the corner with the cutest twins I’ve ever seen. We keep on trying to meet them but always end up too far away when they walk by. But one day….one day, we will accost them and find out their story. There is Maria, Carla, Peter, little Peter, Christopher, So, and the uppity couple on the corner.

My Chinese neighbor across the street will wander over to make sure I’ve picked mint in her postage stamp garden; my Greek neighbor will shout out “hello’s” and make sure that I pull close enough to other cars when I parallel park, admonishing me: “We all have to leave space for each other in the city!”

If you head down the street and make a left turn, then a right turn, you may run across Billy Davis. Billy Davis was born on that street and he’s now retired, in his late seventies or early eighties we think. He’ll tell you all about Cambridge in the old days. He’ll talk about how everyone got along: the Irish, the Italians, the Portuguese, all the immigrant families. He’ll tell you how he couldn’t misbehave because there were so many watching mamas on his street and they all had eyes on the kids in the neighborhood. He may do something wrong, but the minute he walked in his own house, his mom would say “Hey, what were you doing down at the park?” and it was all over. His stories need telling and we are eager listeners.

Walk over a block and you reach our neighborhood mechanic, Phil. He’s the best mechanic in all Cambridge and will give you fair prices and honest assessments of what’s wrong with your car. He’ll even make a house call if you really need it.

Walk the other way to Central Square and you’ll come across the Village Grill, run by Theo and Helen. It’s a small, local neighborhood restaurant with an extensive menu. Biting into a piping hot gyros or Greek Salad with grilled chicken, you will find it is worth every penny. You don’t just pay for food, you pay for conversation and it is always interesting. Theo and Helen are Greek as well, so the conversation occasionally turns theological, which means it turns Greek.

I walk out of the house on this Monday morning, and smile at my neighborhood. It’s going to be a hot humid day, and tonight will see many of us on porches, observing each other through porch railings and potted plants.

Because these are the people in our neighborhood. 

Who are the people in your neighborhood? I would love to hear!

The Bus Driver Who Waits

bus

I stand and wait for the 64 bus. It’s early in the day, and though the weather people promise a hot one, in this hour a cool breeze and bright sky makes for a beautiful morning.

In cities all over the world, people rely on public transportation. Throughout the day they wait for the buses, trains, ferries, or other modes of transportation that will take them to jobs around the city.

And none of us think much about the drivers, until something happens to make you think about them. The bus squeaks to a stop at my corner and the driver presses a button to open the door. I step inside and I immediately remember this bus driver.

This driver is the one who waits. He is the one who takes the time to look down the street. If he sees someone running, he will wait. Others leave without a thought. After all, they need to keep to their schedule. But this driver is different. He waits. I first met him in the winter, when massive snow piles covered the sidewalk, making walking almost impossible. He saw someone running. Running in that cold, icy, weather. And he waited. The bus was packed, but he still fit one more person in.

I thought it was just about the cold. But then, a month later there he was again, and someone else was running. And he waited. By this time, the sidewalks were clear and snow was beginning to melt.

And when it happened a third time, I knew that this driver was different. He is the bus driver who waits.

It’s a small thing, but it’s huge to the person who is running, the person who he waits for. It makes all the difference, for if they don’t make their bus then a domino effect goes into play. They arrive late to work, they have their pay docked, they flounder.

In my faith tradition, we talk a lot about we humans being made in the image of God. We hearken back to those beautiful Latin words – Imago Dei. Sometimes just the words take my breath away – they are so big. But they aren’t mere words, they are a theological truth, they are a concept to live by. When we see humans as made in the image of God, then they are worth waiting for. We care about what happens to them, whether we know them or not. And we do what we can to connect, to offer hope, to walk with them on their journeys. We don’t condescend to their every whim, but we do make our relationships count in light of eternity. Because we believe that we are made in the image of the God of that eternity.

This bus driver? Does he believe we are made in the image of God? I have no idea. But I know he waits. He’s the bus driver who waits, and it is a gift.

Someday I may be the one running, and I will get to thank him for being the one who waits. Until then, I ask myself – am I one who is willing to wait?

Seven Feet Under

Boston and surrounding areas are literally buried in snow. The entire public transportation system – commuter rails, subway, trolleys, ferries – have all shut down. The only thing moving is snow plows and a couple of buses that are groaning and creaking their way along snow filled roads. We have had seven feet of snow in two weeks.

Outside our apartment is a mountain of snow. We think there is a car in there somewhere but there is no way to tell.

With far less snow I have been known to shake my fist and unreasonably yell at God and man, but this is so unbelievable that all I can do is shake my head in that disbelief. And laugh.

My husband and I plan our clandestine escape. We will leave jobs, home, everything and just go. We will go to warmer places and we won’t come back until June – when sunshine is predicted and all of life feels bearable. Of course, for this to work, the airport has to be open so even our escape is thwarted.

I’m doing all I can to escape the weight of snow – all the weight, not just the physical stuff but all it brings with it. Anyone who waxes poetic about snow has never dealt with seven feet of it in the city. (That would be Robert Frost who stops in the woods on snowy evenings….) A picture taken in the Southeast part of the state shows a parking space shoveled and heavily guarded by statues of Mary and Joseph. My friend sends it to me with the caption “I wonder who would dare take this parking spot!” Anything to add joy or humor to this seven-foot weight is welcome.

Who would dare take this spot

Here’s the thing: I’d love to indulge in a heaping helping of self-pity topped with whipped cream, but there are hundreds of thousands of people in the same place, and many of them are worse off. You can see it on the faces of people who get paid by the hour: when the subway or bus is late or doesn’t arrive at all, their pay check will suffer. You can see it on the faces of young, single moms just trying to get kids to day care and themselves to work. You can see it on the faces of the elderly, worn down with the weight of age and snow. And you can see it on my face.

It struck me yesterday while walking home from work that any thoughts of self-pity need to be replaced with solidarity. We are all in this together. We are all cold. We are all buried under snow. We are all tired. We are all late. We all hate Robert Frost.

I need to bury the self-pity seven feet under — like the car outside my doorstep. But can I indulge a moment longer? Just until the next snow storm due on Saturday?

Picture Credit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/48295380725/permalink/10153029374700726/?pnref=story

Prayers for Refugees and Loving my Neighbor

All the world stopped for twenty four hours as Boston and the surrounding area went through what is now the famous “Blizzard of 2015.”

Yesterday, as I sat in complete comfort with sun pouring through my windows, able to work from home, I began to pray for refugees. These are prayers I pray all the time; prayers where my heart aches and my soul begs.

Some of the things I think about as I pray for refugees is sanitation and disease. Any time you have a huge number of people in a small space, with limited water, housing, and food, then you have potential for disease break outs. From dysentery to malaria, the setting is perfect for epidemics. And while I’m not a clean freak, I love clean. I love the smell of clean.

A few hours later, when I had turned my short attention span to other things, I heard water running. I thought nothing of it initially. I had just started the dishwasher. But the sound grew louder and I knew this was not normal. Realizing the sound was coming from a bathroom, I ran to it and there it was — water pouring from the light fixture on the ceiling. Literally pouring.

Knowing it was coming from our upstairs neighbors I ran upstairs and knocked ferociously on their door. No answer. I ran downstairs as the water continued to pour onto my floor. I emptied a two-gallon pan. It continued to pour. I wrote an email to the owner who lives in San Francisco. The water continued to pour. I ran upstairs again. The water continued to fill a second pan.

I will spare the details but the people living upstairs had a clogged toilet that they thought would magically disappear. Funny thing – it did magically disappear! Through their floor and into our ceiling and down to my bucket.

And I was really mad. But I kept on saying “No worries. No big deal. I can clean it up. No worries. No big deal. It will get fixed. No worries. No big deal.”

What I wanted to say was “It’s a big ‘fill in the blank’ deal. And I’m tired of neighbors like you. And I’m tired of you not taking out the garbage. And I’m sick of your pacing back and forth with heavy boots.” All this stuff came up in me like vomit.

But I just kept on saying “No big deal.” Because I had prayed for refugees that morning and compared to what’s going on in Iraq and Syria those words are true.

So there are two things going on here – One is that neighbors can be hard to love. Really hard. I would far rather go across the ocean to work in a refugee camp near the Syrian and Iraqi borders and show love there than show love to my neighbors. My neighbors are white. My neighbors are middle-class. My neighbors are spoiled. My neighbors are irresponsible. My neighbors are frankly, not very loveable. And actually they would probably say the same of me.

As I think back on neighbors, I realize that no matter where we have lived in the world, we have had times where we struggled with neighbors. At one point in Cairo our neighbors used to listen to our phone calls. In Islamabad they would order us around. In Phoenix we had a neighbor that yelled at us and threatened to call the Home Owner’s Association when our lemon tree grew into their yard. And in Cambridge they let the toilets overflow through our ceiling.

GK Chesterton says this “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.” and these wise words hit me hard yesterday.

The second thing is this: As much as I wanted to whine, and curse, and proclaim that this was “a big deal and why don’t you unclog your toilet?” in the big scheme of things it really is so small. So.Small. Yukky? Yes. Annoying? Undoubtedly? But life-changing, soul-damaging, despair-filling? Never.

Clogged toilets and ‘hard to love’ neighbors and refugees — all reminders that I don’t have what it takes to deal with any of these. Reminders of how much I need Jesus. Reminders that no matter where I am in the world, these Biblical truths stand. 

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 26-31

Our Shared World

shared world

I entered the bus with relief. It was dark from the early sunset that comes in December and raining hard. Cold wind blew raindrops that stung against faces and bodies as people tried to shield themselves as best they could.

But inside the bus was bright with light and warmth. Even though I was one of the last to get on, a seat was available at the front facing passengers on the other side.

“It’s pretty wet out there!” the bus driver looked at me and smiled. I returned the smile and nodded my dripping head in agreement. “But better than the white stuff – huh?” I laughed “yeah – way better than the white stuff.”

It was rush hour but no one was in a hurry. There was a sense of companionship and collective relief that we were all in this space – safe from the elements, warm, dry. The windows began to steam from all of us. There were nods, smiles, and shaking heads about the cold and the wet; the bus driver greeted each person with a laugh or smile.

We were a group of every color, size, and age. You couldn’t tell a nurse from a gas station attendant, a factory worker from a teacher – together in this space we were all on equal footing. City bus rides are not usually like this. There is always jostling, always someone angry, always someone taking offense. There is usually someone with serious mental illness and bus drivers are rarely patient in these parts. But this? This was different.

Like sitting in the warm sunshine, a feeling of belonging and contentment came over me. I was in the shared world of the city. I heard not a cross or angry word, instead all were just relieved to be there, safe in this space.

I thought about our world, so fractured so much of the time. Yet you don’t have to go far to find a group of people just like us – strangers all brought together by the circumstances of the weather, yet acknowledging each other as human beings, at the mercy of bad weather and difficult days.

I sat back and smiled, content for these moments, content to just be. 

Recently a short essay called “Gate A-4” that made its way around social media last year, resurfaced. The essay is a true story about a Palestinian American woman whose flight was delayed by four hours. While wandering the airport she heard an announcement asking if there was anyone who could speak Arabic and if so, would they please come to gate A-4. It was the gate where her delayed plane was to leave from, she spoke Arabic so she responded to the call. She arrived to find a woman, hysterical, who did not understand the message. She comforted her, explained the situation in Arabic, and the story ends a couple hours later with the previously hysterical woman passing around little date cookies called maamoul, common in the Middle East but not well known in the United States. The author makes this observation as she looked around at other passengers, tired but all laughing and sharing small date cookies covered in powdered sugar.

“And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate— once the crying of confusion stopped— seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.” *

Here in this bus I know what the author is talking about. I know what she means. Because I look around and see the same – weary travelers on a journey, but no one apprehensive, no one worried about the other, all grateful to be there, warm, dry, away from the rain. The only things missing are the date cookies.

All too soon, it was time to push the yellow bar indicating to the driver that my stop was coming. I left the bus, entering into the cold and wet for my final walk home. But my heart was light and glad.

Daily we watch and read stories about a world that is not shared, a world that is fractured by disparities, suffering, killings, racism, and wars. But moments at airport gates and in crowded buses remind us that there is hope. Hope in humanity, hope that a stranger who is frantic and afraid can be calmed down and share date cookies, hope that people are better than they sometimes seem. It’s in these spaces that I feel belonging and hope. Hope for humanity and hope for community.

In these moments, in some inexplicable way our stories are linked together and we understand the truth:this world we live in is a shared world. It’s up to us whether we will serve date cookies or angry words. “Not everything is lost.” 

Blogger’s note: Be sure to take a look at the original story. You can read it here. 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/blur-blurred-bus-city-motion-16706/

Re-Engaged

Sunflower and blue door with quote

In a city, one street over may be the difference between safety and danger; between keeping your possessions and getting robbed; between walking freely and running in fear.

Sometimes its even one side of the street that is less safe. Like where I get off the subway. A while ago I talked about how I crossed to the other side. I didn’t want to face what I was facing, it was too hard and I felt too helpless. And when I didn’t feel helpless I felt judgmental, angry at those sitting on the sidewalk with their paper cups designated for money and their raucous laughter and dysfunctional yet amazing community of the homeless. What I haven’t talked about is how I’ve stayed on the other side.

It’s so much easier. I get off the subway, I walk up the stairs and there I am out in the open on the other side of the street. It’s the side with the famous graveyard where Mother Goose, Paul Revere, and five victims of the Boston Massacre are buried. The graveyard that has been there for over 350 years and sits solid, well cared for, and silent on these city streets. No one in the graveyard is asking me for anything.

This side of the street I don’t have to face the homeless. This side of the street I can be in my own world. This side of the street I can walk in freedom. But this side of the street has become boring. Because I find my thoughts and my self singularly uninteresting day after day. So today I crossed back over to the harder side.

I said hi to Valerie – it’s been so long since I’ve had a conversation with her. I exchanged banter with two younger homeless men, I stopped and talked to Mary who sells the Boston Herald, that terrible excuse for journalism. I re-engaged after being disconnected for a long time. 

In the big scheme of things perhaps this is nothing, but for me it is something. It is a concrete action. It may sound foolish but it’s a small step in being faithful. Because I’ve been trying to figure out what being faithful is all about. And in this moment I know, being faithful is re-engaging with the world around me.

A pastor friend who is much younger than me said one time “If you hate the people that God has placed you among, if you hate the place where God has put you – then you need to repent or move.*” Those words are strong words but I think they are true. If I hate the people around me, if I despise the streets I walk and the faces and spaces that I interact with every day, there is something desperately wrong. And I admit, I’ve had my times of begging God to move me, of feeling there was no way the hate would ever go away. One time he did move me and I was so happy. 

I arrived in my new place in 122 degree heat in the middle of July. As I stepped outside of the airport, met by the desert heat, palm trees and Bougainvillea, I breathed a sigh of freedom. I no longer had to try anymore. My chains were gone and I could embrace the start of a new life.

But then he moved me back. So I’m in a place where I need to re-engage. Because for me re-engaging is about repenting, and moving forward. Re-engaging is about being faithful to the God I love.

How about you? Do you love the people God has placed you among?  Do you need to re-engage or do you need to move? 

*I first heard this from Chris Gonzalez, Pastor of Missio Dei in Tempe, Arizona

Accepting Limitations, Pressing On

I’m back. 

If the cool 55 degree weather doesn’t communicate this to me, the solicitations and “compliments” (Hey are you married? You look my age! Will you be my girl?”) from a stranger do! And I hoped to God I didn’t look his age…..

Early this morning our plane made it in to Boston and we stumbled to our beds, our bleary airport eyes and bodies tired from travel. My dreams held the wonder of rest and sunshine, something I have enjoyed in abundance these past couple of days. My husband and I got away to a beautiful spot in Scottsdale, Arizona and spent four days hiking, swimming, sleeping, eating, enjoying. We can’t count how many times we looked at each other and exclaimed “just what the doctor ordered!”

And now I’m back, realizing yet again that there is no shortage of material to write about in early morning Boston. From strung-out young women to pot-smoking men; from Albanian fruit sellers to high-heeled business executives; from screaming homeless to sleep-deprived students to unwanted solicitations from inebriated men — every human condition and emotion is here.

And though every morning it’s a reality check, this morning just back from a place far removed from the chaos I feel it acutely. Because one of the things I realized as I’ve stepped away are my limitations in reaching into this world around me. What does life in the midst of this mean, what I am called to in the midst of my daily reality? I long to do more, to act more, to be more, to care more. But being away I am also reminded that all of this is way too big for me. I’m one person locked inside my own emotions and circumstances, sometimes aware, sometimes tragically (or blissfully) unaware. I am limited by time, fatigue, and apathy. 

So this reality check means facing who I am and what I can or cannot do. Accepting my limitations and pressing on.

Fall is officially here and with it a new season. The question that looms in my heart, in my soul is how can I better reach into this world around me? How can I better nurture my soul so that I know how to respond to my world?

What about you? How do you accept your limitations while still reaching out to the world around you? 

Blogger’s Note: The pictures give you a taste of my alternate reality the last couple of days – sheer bliss!

Grow Up Boston!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a rant. After an experience yesterday with a woman on the street, in tears because of how she was treated by this ‘city on a hill’ I wrote this. It may sound harsh but I mean every word of it!

Grow Up Boston!

Every day I walk your streets, ride your buses and subways, go to your stores. Every day I am a part of the fabric, a thread in the tapestry that is Boston. Every day I work in your buildings, shop in your stores, interact with your homeless.

I am a part of you and you in turn have become a part of me.

And in so many ways I love you. You have so much potential, so much personality, so much fun.

But Boston — I’m tired. I’m tired of having immigrants come up to me on the street, complete strangers, and cry. I’m tired of the Boston stink-eye, I’m tired of the general meanness. I’m tired of crowded subways where the blind and lame are regularly jostled, pushed, and frowned upon. I’m tired of your arrogance.

Boston — you need to grow up. You need to realize — it’s not all about you.

Did you hear that? It’s not all about you.

Public Gardens and View of Newbury Street through a store window

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon the nation wept for you, the world cried. There was support from around the globe, from the young and old, the small town and the big city. When you have a tragedy the world weeps with you, but you don’t weep with the world. Ever. Because, like a toddler, so egocentric in her development, you only think about yourself.

You boast so much: history, beauty, an ocean, a river, world-famous educational institutions, great food, amazing medical facilities, and more grey cells than we could count. You are Boston Strong with sports teams, and stamina, and guts. But you also boast grumpy people, arrogance, intolerance made more galling because it’s by those who consider themselves so tolerant.

You are creating a culture that despises the old, the feeble, the blind, the refugee, the immigrant. A culture that sits back and does nothing when a disabled, man in a wheelchair falls down and is mocked by a group of high school students. You cater so well to the student, to the ‘twenty something’ yet you have made them so all-important that they fail to understand the bigger picture of life and they are mean right along with you. You are creating a culture of ‘me first’ and ‘no one else matters.’ A culture where no one is given the benefit of the doubt. A culture where immigrants cry to total strangers on street corners, so lonely and attacked they feel.

“I’ve lived other places” they say “Nowhere is it so mean!” There’s always an excuse for why they’re mean — it’s morning, it’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s hot. Well it’s rainy and hot in other places too and they aren’t like this.” “I’m so lonely I could weep.” “I’ve lived here 12 years and still I wonder — will I ever belong? Will I ever feel like people are okay with me?” These are real words Boston, spoken by real people who live in your city and walk on your streets.

You have a hard heart Boston and it needs to soften. You are immature and you need to grow up.

You are so proud of your achievements — first in the nation to have health care access, first to have gay marriage. You are so proud, but you forget the basics — like kindness, honor, respect, and compassion.

Will you stay a toddler forever? Proud of your baby steps but never realizing there are other steps to take, a bigger world to learn, or will you grow up to be the adult, the adult who makes a difference in the world?

Will you ever, can you ever really be the proverbial “city on the hill?”

Tomorrow I will again walk your streets and love your beauty. And I will hope again that someday you will see the other side, the side that we who are ‘other’ see.

On Work and Charlie

disability

Let me tell you about Charlie.

I work in one of the busiest parts of the city of Boston. From tourists with money to spend to homeless without money, this area sees it all. There are the wealthy and the poor, the able and the lame, the seeing and the blind, the casual dresser and the sophisticated business woman.

And there is Charlie.

Charlie is completely wheelchair bound with a body that won’t do what he wants. He is dependent on people for all activities of daily living. His motorized wheelchair allows him to push some buttons and go short distances, but otherwise his chair and his body are prisons. A black bag across the back of the wheelchair holds his supplies for the day – water, a thermos of coffee, a small radio – he is in his own words a “purveyor of un-cool music.” Charlie is difficult to understand, but if you really listen he’s got a great sense of humor and a strong personality.

I first saw Charlie in a church we used to attend downtown. There he was, every Sunday at the end of the aisle. It was a later on that I realized he must live in the area because beginning with the first warm days of spring through the fall, in rain or shine, Charlie is outside. He is the eyes and ears of the area, taking in far more than anyone imagines.

The Charlies of our world make us uncomfortable. We don’t know how to interact or what to say. We feel guilty that we can’t do more and it is so easy to walk by. And Charlie can’t work. There is nothing he can do to be what our society deems as “productive.” Absolutely nothing. But he shows up, he is not despairing, he communicates as he is able and when people will listen.

So when I think about work, value, productivity, and cultural beliefs about work I can’t help but think about Charlie. When I think about a theology of work, Charlie looms ever-important.

Because if work is what gives us our only value than Charlie has no value. If work and salaries are what a society has held up as the only standard, than we must discard many in our world. More so, if this is all we have than we’ve nowhere to go but down hill.

In a sermon on work Tim Keller, a pastor at a large church in New York City says (and I paraphrase) this: When you understand the gospel, a gospel of grace you can rest from the need to find yourself in your work, rest from the need to have your sole identity and your soul’s identity be in your work. If you don’t, he warns, you will work yourself to death or become cynical. Our work is to be for God, for others, for our community. It is an expression of the energy and creativity of our Creator.

And it hit me yesterday as I saw Charlie – my work is for Charlie. Not directly, but indirectly. Being faithful to what God has given me, to where God has gifted me, honors the Charlies of our world; those who would give much to be whole, who would give anything to have Jesus come by their side and say “Pick up your mat and walk – go to work – go and do what you’ve never been able to do.” My work is part of the bigger story in our world – and that is God’s story. Not my story, not Charlie’s story, not your story.

Not only that, Charlie unknowingly serves as my teacher; a guide to what is really valuable in life and a representative of something bigger than I can really understand. And that is our personhood, the fact that we have value because we exist and are made by God. There is nothing else that truly gives us value. 

So today I work for God and for Charlie, and I’ll learn from God and from Charlie. Tomorrow I’ll struggle again – I know that. And in writing tomorrow I’ll work through some of the third culture kid struggle with 9-5 jobs and fitting into a western societal mold. But for today I pray I will honor the Charlies of our world by working where God has placed me.

I loved the comments from yesterday’s post – both on the blog and on the Facebook page. There was so much wisdom in them. Here are a few excerpts but head over to the post to read the full comments:

From Sharon: “I have always believed there is a dignity to work. As we seek to reflect God in all ways, we can’t ignore that our God is a creative, active God. Work is only “one” of the ways we are active. It can be drudgery or delight less by what the actual work is but more so what we bring to it.”

From Maureen: “We are told in Genesis essentially to work our garden, in spite of the weeds which will we will have to constantly remove—a highly repetetive and discouraging but necessary task. For most of us, working is in itself a pleasure, as long as we can imagine the final product coming: the fruit of our labor. When our work flows, when we see the light in a studen’ts eye, when a sick person recovers, we feel content and everything seems right with the world. When we hit snags, peope are unresponsive or deliberately obstructive, schedules stress or patients worsen, the weeds are winning, and work chokes our spirits.”

What about you? What are your thoughts on your work being part of a bigger story? On your work being partly for the Charlies of our world? 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/disability-rehabilitation-wheelchair-224130/

Buy Between Worlds today! Head to Amazon or Barnes & Noble for your copy! 

On Lovers’ Quarrels, Crazy People & Early Morning Grace

homeless sometimes in the city

The following was written at the end of March.

The wind almost blew me down the street. It was bitter cold and came with a force. The proverbial March lion was not going out as a lamb, instead it continued to roar with sub degree temperatures and cold winds.

Hopping off the subway at my early morning hour I came across a lovers’ quarrel. Voices were raised in accusation, frustration, and anger. Like many couples, one was trying to hush the other, embarrassed for the scene.

And like many quarrels, it wasn’t working. Instead, the arguments grew louder and more forceful.

The world – it doesn’t get easier. My senses are alert to pain and brokenness; to lover’s quarrels and severed relationships.

It’s these moments in the city — the moments when lover’s quarrels, homeless veterans, and broken people remind me that I need grace. Every day. Every minute. It is these moments when Valerie asks for money instead of coffee, because she wants to buy black pants and a white shirt – her “interview uniform” she calls it. It’s these moments where I look at the faces surrounding me and every one of them has a furrowed brow. We are the people of the furrowed brows.

And then there are those early morning moments where I pass someone and immediately think “God, be with the crazy people.” and then I immediately follow it by the Jesus Prayer because I know there is such a fine line between the crazy people and me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me.

And in these early morning moments it’s so clear we can’t do this without grace. I can’t do this without grace.

This world overwhelms, Jesus offers the only solution.

Heaven meets earth on a Sunday morning and the body and the blood offer grace. Earth meets Heaven on a Monday morning, begging for restoration. Sunday will transition to Monday until the end of time. But the one who gifts us with time will ever offer grace.

***************

Did you ever think about how muffins can be such grace? This morning it hit me — Stacy’s creativity is grace for me every Monday. She says this about today’s muffins This week’s muffin is going to be a variation on the British traditional Easter simnel cake, made into muffins and decorated with marzipan balls to represent the apostles.” Head here to get the recipe for Easter Simnel Muffins

Enhanced by Zemanta

Apples and Mondays

20131015-084041.jpg

Mondays are not easy for me.

For some, Mondays are a new start — kids go back to school, the counter is wiped clean, there is space and time.

For others, Mondays are perhaps like mine. They are a reminder of my disparate existence, a reminder that even as I cocoon myself in a home with warmth and white lights there is a world out there that can’t be ignored. A world where I smell pot at 6:45 in the morning as I come out of the subway. A world where Mary warns me yet again to “Be careful up there!” A world where I can smell the alcohol from 10 feet away on the breath of someone I regularly communicate with.

And that’s how this Monday began. Except for an apple. A bright, red, beautiful apple.

A man who couldn’t have been older than 25 dressed in business clothes was seated next to a woman who had all her household goods in a shopping cart. Only her face and eyes peeked out from a coat that was too big for her. The man was white and the woman was black. The contrast between privilege and poverty was stark. And then he reached into his bag and brought out an apple and he gave it to her. There was no drama. I was the only one sitting across from them and I doubt anyone saw the act except me. As they made eye contact, she smiled her gratitude through dark brown eyes and they exchanged greetings. A conversation started that was over almost as soon as it began – but at least it started.

It was so small but it felt so big.

I know there are those who would be cynical about this. A young, white man with everything takes pity on a black woman with nothing. But it didn’t feel like that. It seemed redemptive for both, certainly for me.

Much is written on privilege and recognizing privilege. In this, the act of giving an apple, it felt like a young man who knows his own privilege wanted to reach over that division into the life of someone who would be easy to ignore, easy to dismiss. It seemed thoughtful and without guile.

So an apple and a Monday help me to reach across the Sunday – Monday division believing that redemption happens in small ways all around me.

__________________

Stacy’s recipe this Monday combines my all-time favorite liqueur with one of my all-time favorite foods. This combo is called Stacy’s Bailey’s Irish Cream Muffins. (Actually, I added the ‘Stacy’s’ to the title.) I cannot wait to try these! May the Irish among us rejoice!