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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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.