Reclaiming Lost Things

We used to rent out our beloved cottage in Rockport for a 9-month season. From a financial standpoint, it was smart. From an emotional one, it was awful. At the end of each rental period I would walk into the cottage with a sense of dread. How had the renters treated our beloved space? How had the cottage survived a group of strangers? What would be broken? Dirty? Irreparably damaged?

The first thing we would do is clean. We would scrub and polish until it regained some of the sparkle. Then I would redecorate. I would change things around and make it ours again. I would reclaim it for our purposes.

When something happens that you have no control over – losing a job, having to leave a country, getting a cancer diagnosis, a death, a pandemic, or a myriad of other things in life – you feel like your life is not your own. Things are happening to you and around you. Things that you did not choose. Your place and purpose suddenly change, and you are left in a tornado of doubt, fear, anger, and loss. Part of recovering is reclaiming.

How do you reclaim what is lost?

How do we reclaim our spaces, our bodies, our marriages, our places of refuge, or our very identities that sometime feel lost in crisis, betrayal, or death? How do we reclaim our faith? How do we scrub, polish, redecorate, and reclaim?

It’s a slow process, but the spiritual truth to this is profound. Perhaps the biggest piece is realizing how little control we really have over things that happen to us. It’s a paradox to be sure, but reclaiming is about getting honest, admitting that there are very few elements of our lives where we have control. We cling tightly to so many parts of our lives, imagining that we have far more control than we actually do. Our hot fists hold on, like a child that doesn’t want to relinquish their favorite toy. “Mine!” we cry. “It’s not fair.” “Why us?” “Its’ my life.” So many responses, but all in the same hard-held fist.

After realizing how little control I do have, it’s about moving forward with what I know. Taking back what is lost.

In this season I’m thinking a lot about reclaiming and being reclaimed. I remember our Rockport cottage as it would once again become ours, its beautiful interior being scrubbed and made new. The same thing is happening during these quieter days, where time loses meaning and days blend together into the season of a pandemic. If I’m willing, I experience an inner housecleaning and reclaiming that can only take place when I lay down my right to control, when I allow the hard inner work of repentance and trust to replace the anger, frustration, and the “it’s not fair” that floats barely under the surface. Perhaps its really when I realize that reclaiming is really about being reclaimed.

My fist opens. My body relaxes. And, over time, my soul is renewed and reclaimed.

“The Friendship You Share is Priceless”

It’s our 36th anniversary today. 36 years of marriage to a person I will never fully understand, but who fits in my life like he is the missing puzzle piece.

Yesterday I had coffee with my friend Ava, the first coffee I’ve had with a friend since February. It was amazing to sit inside a cafe, talking together and enjoying the coffee and the company.

I mentioned to her that my anniversary was today – 36 years to the same man. Ava is much younger than I am and has been through more in her young life then I will ever understand. But she looked at me and said beautiful and encouraging words over our marriage.

The friendship you share is priceless.

She went on to talk a bit about what she has observed in our marriage. It was deeply encouraging. Ava is part of our pandemic pod and we have seen her more than we have seen anybody else in these past months. She has seen us in our good and our bad, has observed us through the stress of sadness and death and the unknown of a virus that has changed the world.

Sometimes you need an outsider to help you discern and understand the beauty of something you take for granted. Outside eyes see ingredients that you may have placed on a back shelf and bring them forward, helping you to marvel about all you can make and do with this gift. All the ingredients that western cultures say you need for marriage perhaps account for only a fraction of the lasting value of friendship.

“The friendship you share is priceless….” for what truly makes for the ingredients of a lasting friendship and a brave marriage? I don’t know for others, but for us I’ll give it a try.

Mix one cup of detail with one cup of spontaneity, add a few teaspoons of bitter with a full cup of sweet, a pinch of disaster with a few tablespoons of crisis. Pour in 18 homes and four countries. Mix with four international moves and three job losses. Add in a swiss watch and a sun dial. Mix with faith and a strong cup of the Jesus Prayer. Add 36 years of adventure, a whole lot of 6-second kisses, and some sleepless nights.

Bake at whatever temperature you want. Frost with five children and two (so far) grandchildren. Serve with a fusion of Pakistani, Middle-Eastern, Kurdish, and Southern food. Eat with friends and family from around the world.

And there you have it. Happy Anniversary to my Love. We are brave friends in a brave marriage, and that by God’s wonderful grace and love.

Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.


[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!

Work

We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.

Miscellaneous

Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

Healing Words

Steps souls stronger

In January of 2011, seven and a half years ago, 19 people were shot and six people died in Tucson, Arizona. The target was a U.S. representative, Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head. She survived, but her life will never be the same. The tragedy caused a nation that was hyper focused on how to be as uncivil as possible to each other, particularly in disagreement, to pause and, for a short time, put away the rhetoric.

Barack Obama was president at the time, and he spoke words that were praised across the political spectrum at the Tucson Memorial Service.

Among other things, he said this:

“At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

I reread these words this morning, and I am again challenged by them.

Words that heal are rare and critically important in moments of tragedy.  But they are just as important in everyday life.  I look around as I walk the streets of my city and I see the “walking wounded”.  I go on social media, and I see more wounds. Yet our default mode is not to speak healing words, but rather words of criticism and disapproval. I’d love to blame just the media for words that wound and criticize, but I know differently.  I am far more guilty than I want to admit. The power of language and the way we put our words together is up to us; the way I put words together and how I use them is up to me.

My faith tradition has strong admonition and warning about the tongue. An entire chapter in the New Testament is devoted to talking about the tongue. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.”  And elsewhere I am exhorted to watch what I say, make sure it is gracious and seasoned with salt. “Let your speech be always full of grace, seasoned with salt.” 

These are sobering challenges for me. Just recently I was called out by someone, and appropriately so. She knows what I believe, and what I believe was not reflected in what I publicly wrote. She held up a mirror to me, and what reflected back was not pretty.

Our world is desperate for healing words. Desperate. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise. Public bullying is at an all time high, and we have a plethora of poor public examples and a dearth of good ones in every area of life – whether that be politics or faith.

We can’t change what other people choose to say. But we can change our own words. We can choose to speak words of hope and grace. We can choose to disagree with civility and respect.

We can choose to share words that “make souls stronger”.*

*Ann Voskamp

An East-West Conversation

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“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

Learning Our Enemy’s Stories

Everyone has a story

“An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously.”*


A few years ago I had a long conversation with a physician. The physician was ethnically Indian, but had moved to the United States, become a citizen, and had built up a primary care practice in a suburb of Boston. She came up to me after I had given a talk on the importance of culture and health care.

She relayed the story of some Brazilian patients that came to her practice. “I didn’t like them” she said. They were noisy, always had a lot of questions, and came to appointments with lots of family members. She would dread it when she looked at her daily schedule and saw that one of these patients was coming. She just knew that visits from these patients would put her behind schedule and cause chaos in her brain and her office.

Then one day, she unexpectedly had a bit more time. She stepped away from her computer and stethoscope and into the realm of human dialogue with a Brazilian woman. This wasn’t the first time she had cared for this patient, but it was the first time that she had asked her about more than her symptoms. She ended up in a conversation about family, about Brazil, and about how the woman came to the United States. Instead of the appointment ending in a sigh of relief that it was over, she found herself reluctant to say goodbye. The next time the patient came, the doctor did the same thing. She ended up learning more of the woman’s story, and then the story of her family. She stopped seeing these patients as a bother, and began seeing them for who they were and the stories they carried.

It wasn’t long before the entire community had learned that this doctor was different. This doctor cared. This doctor liked them. Go to this doctor, they said to each other. She’ll take good care of you.

Our world faces a massive empathy problem, an inability to listen to, much less like, those who see the world differently. The story of this doctor shows that when we take a step back and really listen, really get to know someone, our attitudes can change. It is not the only story like this one. In fact, there are many more that tell of how perceptions and feelings toward people changed, once they heard the story behind the person.

A recent article in the Plough quarterly called Meet a True Story talks about the resurgence in storytelling in the United States. The article begins with these profoundly true words: “Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection”

The article goes on to talk about a couple of different storytelling programs that serve to help build empathy. One of these is a program that helps people inhabit another person’s story. The idea is simple: You listen to another person’s story – not with the intent to respond to it, but with the intent to retell it as your own story in first person pronoun. It changes the dialogue completely because in order to do this you have to live in the story of another; often another who you don’t agree with or like.

Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can….get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.

There is a lot of fear in our world. I see and hear the fear every day. It is fear of the other, it is fear that “our way of life”(whatever that may mean) is going, and it is fear that the views of others may hurt our tightly held beliefs.

In the case of the doctor that I relayed above, her life and her practice became richer as a result of her willingness to move from prejudice to really getting to know someone. In really listening to her patient, she began to empathize. When she stopped seeing her Brazilian patients for the chaos she felt they caused, and instead entered into their stories, her attitudes and behavior toward them changed. The last I heard, she had decided to break down a wall in her practice to make more room for family members to come to appointments. She is beloved and trusted in the Brazilian community.

This can be us. If we take a step forward to listening to the story of another, we can learn and grow in respect and love for those who are different from us. We can begin to love the respect the one who is other and love the one who we used to fear. People are more than the views they hold. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and co-workers.

As the quote above says, there are three ingredients. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more, and humble enough to admit when we might have been wrong. The ingredients are simple, but the work is hard. Can we do it?

If we want to change the current climate, I don’t think we have a choice. 


*From Plough Quarterly “Meet a True Story” – I highly recommend this article. It is excellent and goes much more in depth on what it means to hear and inhabit the story of another.

On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.

I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked


Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey will be released in March of this year.

What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?

Worlds Apart is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid (which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years), Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.

My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan.  Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.

In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*

Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.

There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head:  “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.

One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject.  I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.

In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present.  But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.

In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations.  The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.

What made you write Worlds Apart? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?

I began to write Worlds Apart way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.

Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?

There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.  Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.

When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would  look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action.  I believe strongly  that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life. 

Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269) 

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things. 

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States.  It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.

Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?

You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about  “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA.  I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.

What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?

Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.

If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?

I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed,  I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”


*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:

BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”  Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.


NOTE: This piece has been edited to reflect the new title and re-release of Passages through Pakistan to Worlds Apart:A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner

 

Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

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“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

Caution and Compassion: A False Choice

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On Saturday night, my husband and I sat in the small kitchen of an apartment in a nearby city. This apartment is now ‘home’ to seven refugees – all young men. The apartment is heated solely by electricity, an expensive option in our cold northeast winters. All of the appliances are also electric. The electricity was turned off four days before, so we sat, shivering, around a table. Today, the electricicity is still off and we are doing whatever we can to get it turned on. “Whatever we can” has turned out to be far more complicated than it should be.

This is a short story in a much bigger tale of displacement and resettlement. It is an easy story compared to much of what we have heard and seen, but it is still a difficult one.

Refugees have become pawns and scapegoats in a political game, instead of human beings, desperate for safety and refuge. This should not be a partisan issue, this should be a human issue.

Communicating Across Boundaries is not, and never will be, a political blog. It is a blog about communicating across our comfortable borders and boundaries and being willing to see the other side, to hear another’s point of view.

But I think when it comes to the recent refugee order, we are being played by master players. There is room for common ground on most issues, only it is hard to find that common ground when our emotions run high and we see the issue as black and white. Caution and compassion are not incompatible; instead it is reasonable to assume that they work well together.

“This is the awfulness of what has happened this weekend: Trump has exposed his authoritarian streak, and the left has exposed its inability to oppose such authoritarianism in a real, connecting, positive way. We have the theatre of Trump’s strongman act, and the hysteria of a radical take on the politics of fear. Between theatre and hysteria, there has got to be something else: reason, perhaps, and principle, and a true, fear-free moral case for liberty.” – Brendan O’Neill in Spiked*

In the interest of finding common ground on an issue I care deeply about, I have posed a few areas where I hope we can agree.

  1. We can agree that there is a crisis. The number of refugees has become a humanitarian crisis. This is why the United States increased their capacity last year – because UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations begged for countries to help. “An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”
  2. We can agree that governments are tasked with protecting their citizens. Every country has the right to make laws and rules. Every country has a right to vetting policies that take into consideration safety and security.
  3. We can agree that immigration policies have been in crisis for a long time. The immigration policies in the United States have been failing the country for many years. This is not new and it is a travesty that this has not been resolved by law makers. President Obama was known by immigration groups as the “Deporter in Chief.” “Between 2009 and 2015 his administration has removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who “self-deported” or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).” [Source: ABC News] Real people suffer under poor policies. As an independent voter, I am disturbed that lawmakers spent time and money on bathroom bills, all the while ignoring immigration reform which laid the ground work for what we are experiencing today.
  4. We can agree that good policy must be a compromise. Good policy rarely comes out of reactionary hyperbole. Good policy comes when people sit down and look at facts: risk versus value. Good policy comes when both sides of an issue are heard and both sides are willing to compromise.
  5. Finally, we can agree that the state is not the master of the church. If you are part of a faith community the recent orders do not prohibit you and your faith community from reaching out to those who may be affected. They do not prohibit you from reaching out, in love, to refugees in your midst. It is a lot easier to wear a sign and yell “Let them in!” than it is to make a hot meal and take it to strangers. We must be willing to do more than react emotionally. We must be willing to put our loudly voiced newsfeeds into real action.

I have so much more to say – but I fear that I will join the echo chamber if I keep on talking. Thank you for listening. 

I end with this quote: “The ability to love refugees well doesn’t require a certain party affiliation. It doesn’t require you to vote a certain way. But it does require us to show up, to step across “enemy” lines, and to choose love over fear.”

I have included this quote from an excellent article from Preemptive Love: President Trump’s Refugee Order: 5 Things to Know

Vetting and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes we get locked into strident, polarizing positions, as if our only choice is between opening our border completely in the name of love, or locking everyone out in the name of security.  

Let us be clear: this is a false choice.

You can care about refugees and care about securing our borders. This is not a “liberal vs. conservative” issue. It’s not a “Republican vs. Democrat” issue. It’s not all black-and-white. There are shades of gray.

There are entirely legitimate reasons to insist on a careful, thorough screening process for those coming into the United States. Insisting on adequate security does not make you a “cold-hearted conservative.” Nor does insisting on compassion for refugees make someone a “bleeding-heart liberal.”  

More importantly, we need to see beyond the dualistic, mutually exclusive categories of “us vs. them.” Our security versus their well-being.

What if, in reality, our well-being is tied up in theirs? What if our security is connected to theirs?

If that is the case, then we must find ways to pursue our mutual well being. And sometimes, that requires taking risks. See the entire article here

[*Source: Brendan O’Neill]

How to Build a Bridge

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In an old book titled Observations on the Re-building of London Bridge by John Seaward, he says this:

It is generally acknowledged that the construction of a commodious bridge over a wide, impetuous river is one of the noblest efforts of human genius. In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected. On the contrary, it has everywhere been esteemed for its great utility and has engaged the attentive care of enlightened men.

I want to focus on these words: In no country that has made any advances in civilization has the art of bridge-building been neglected.  I’m struck by how much this applies to work of non-physical bridge-building and how wise we would be to pay attention to these words. If we have any hope of moving forward, bridges need to be built. We need to learn the art of bridge-building.

I sat in a clinic this morning talking to a man who is building bridges in the Muslim community. He builds these bridges person by person, activity by activiy, conversation by conversation. His passion is contagious and everything he says reflects a love for this community.

As we talked he told me some things about the community that I hadn’t heard before. A young Muslim man, beaten to a pulp while he was walking down the street; a Muslim mom in hijab out walking with her baby in a stroller, assaulted in broad daylight; Muslim food service workers being told they are “F%&*in terrorists” as they give change back to their customers. Those are only a couple of the stories that I heard.

Every single one of the people we talked about came from Syria.

Think about that for a minute. You have to be an ostrich to not see what is going on in Syria. Ghost towns with bombed out buildings; people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs; stories of families separated, of children lost. It challenges every notion we have of humanity.

And all of them came from Syria. 

At one point he said: “Few people have any idea of the extent of stress present in the Muslim community.” 

I came away wondering “In what universe is this okay?” I came away wondering how this is any different than ISIS. I came away choking on rage. I came away thinking that “bridge-building” is no longer just a nice idea, it’s an essential part of civilization. You don’t ignore the art of bridge-building.

“Bridge is not a construction but it is a concept, the concept of crossing over large spans of land or huge masses of water, and to connect two far-off points, eventually reducing the distance between them.”*

There is an art to building bridges.

I am not an engineer, but I do know how to look things up on google. And there are a few things about physical bridges that can be used when we think about bridge-building in our communities.

Know what you want your bridge to accomplish. Understand why it is important to build a bridge. Maybe it’s easy to understand, maybe it’s about making a community stronger, or offering health care services. But maybe it’s more difficult to know what you want to accomplish. Be able to say in clear language why you think bridge-building is so critical in our world.

Phrases to use: “I’d like to understand” “How can I help you understand why this is important?”

Understand the ‘load point’. The load point is the area on a bridge that needs to be able to sustain the most stress. This is critical. What are the areas where you see the biggest gap or divide in thinking? Those will take the most work, so start with the easier pieces. Perhaps the easy points are around food and kids — focus on the commonalities and then move into the harder things.

Phrases to use: “Tell me more.” “What do you think?” “How else can I help?”

Gather the materials – or the right people. Everyone doesn’t know how to build bridges, but gathering the right people gives credibility and strength to your bridge.

Phrases to use: “Can you help?” “Thank you for being a part of this.” “Thank you for going out of your comfort zone.”

Build the bridge step by step, activity by activity, conversation by conversation. Bridge-building doesn’t happen overnight. A lot of people died building the Golden Gate Bridge until the bridge builders put a safety net under it. Be willing to be patient. Rejoice in small victories and progress that seems slow.

Phrases to use: “I want to learn.” I want to understand.” “I trust you.” “I’ve got your back, I’ll stick up for you.”

Evaluate and learn. Test your bridge, and if it breaks look at why and how. Ask questions, and humbly admit what you don’t know. Keep on building and learning and growing. An Arab proverb says this: “Those who would build bridges, must be willing to be walked on.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that proverb.

Phrases to use: “What else might work?” “What have we not thought of?” “How can we do it better?”

And now I speak to fellow Christians.  Frankly, I’m tired of excuses, I’m tired of fear mongering and hoarding, I’m tired of people saying “we must be practical.” I can’t help thinking what our world would be like had the God of the universe decided to be practical. He surely would not have decided on a virgin birth; he definitely would have dismissed the idea of death on a cross; and as for loving the likes of us? Forget it.

Because this I know, and I know it well: We know the ultimate Bridge-designer who bridged heaven and earth so that we could find our way. So we are called to build bridges and tear down walls. There is no other way. 

Note: When I first wrote this, I didn’t realize that I was writing it on the anniversary of the Chapel Hill Shootings. One year ago on February 10, 2015, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot in their apartment complex. Shot for being Muslim.

*The History of Bridges

I’m Back

She’s BACK! Robynn is back and with it our regular Fridays with Robynn resumes. And I’m so happy……Enjoy! 

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I’m Back!

Whenever Lowell comes home from work, from a long trip, from a coffee shop, from a walk to the library he announces his return with a question, “What’s going on in here?” The “what’s” is elongated and punched, the rest of the sentence quickly follows like the cars behind an eager train engine. He does it every time. And it’s always the same question. It’s his way of declaring that he’s home. He has returned.

When our youngest child, Bronwynn, was five she started kindergarten. One day during those first few weeks of school she came home, burst through the front door, and enthusiastically exclaimed, “Hello my people!” She too wanted us to know she had rejoined her family. She had come home.

Similarly allow me to proclaim my return: Whaaat’s going on in here? Hello my people!

I’m back.

It’s been a long summer. We have grieved. We have made major decisions. We have purged, processed and packed our things. We have un-papered, painted and primped our new house. Renovating, sorting, shifting, boxing, lugging, moving, shoving —all of that and more has happened this summer. I’ve boasted many bruises from bumps I couldn’t even remember. I’ve sprained toes and blistered fingers. Many of you are familiar with our story. It wasn’t just a move (although can one really ever say, just a move!??). The Move was set on a stage of grief surrounded by an interesting cast of characters. There was mystery and intrigue. It was a thickened plot from the start.

And during all of it I didn’t typewrite or pen a single word.  I simply stopped. Partly because I was exhausted, partly because my writing would just have sounded like whining. There wasn’t much to tell and even if there had been, I was sick of my story. I was weary of it.

However looking back on the summer, I am beginning to see meaning in the madness. There are broad strokes of colour in the dismal grays of those long days. I see glory sprinkled in the gory stuff of life. Retrospect is catching glimpses of hope that I missed the first time through.

I suspect that now that I’m back sitting in a different chair, working at a new desk, looking out a different window (which I realize still needs to be washed!) that I’ll begin to see this summer in new ways. The summer of 2014 will give me lots to write about as I look back: still sorting, shifting, boxing, moving and shoving the things I’ve learned into the new spaces my stretched soul now occupies.

Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your encouragement along the way. Many of you have looked me in the eye and enquired after my heart. Many of you came alongside our family and you literally carried us from the old spot to this new spacious place. We’ve been prayed for and fed. We’ve been deeply blest. I’m grateful especially to Marilyn for the space and freedom she gave me to take this sabbatical of sorts from Communicating Across Boundaries. Her early morning affirming text messages meant the world to me. I’m doubly thankful she’s welcoming me back.

Because here I am! Hello my people, I’m back!

Home is Where I Feed My Cat and other 2013 Favorites

This past year, in response to a post on Home, a reader who has become an online friend said this:

Home is where I feed my cat.

Home is Where I Feed my Cat

Soon after, she sent the photograph above. Donna is a TCK living in Chicago. She is a thoughtful writer and thinker. This photo and my interactions with Donna illustrate why I love blogging and connecting to those of you who read Communicating Across Boundaries.

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I began blogging three years ago. I remember the day I decided I wanted to write. I was sitting in our living room with my daughter Annie. Annie is an excellent writer and editor. She also knows social media like no one else I know. The conversation went like this:

“I want to blog”

“Okay”

I listed the reasons:

“I want to have a voice. I need a way to process my time in Pakistan. I need to become a better writer. If Sarah Palin has a voice, I need a voice.” 

Annie didn’t dispute any of this. She just gave me good advice. If I wanted to blog I needed to use WordPress not Blogger because it was more user-friendly and professional. I needed to link to social media sites. The blog posts shouldn’t be too long. There was more but the general tenor of the advice was practical and affirming. She didn’t mock or question my motives. She just gave great advice.

And that’s how it all began. 

So today I celebrate my 3rd year and highlight some of what this year held writing wise.

  • I connected with Djibouti Jones and gained a friend, a writing mentor, and a voice that challenges me every time I read something she writes. Rachel did a series on Third Culture Kids this year that I contributed to (probably my most honest piece of writing ever) and one of my all time favorite stories of hers is called God, Giver of Harmonicas. Take a look at it over at She Loves Magazine. I read it aloud to my family last Christmas; I read it aloud again to my family this Christmas.
  • I began writing for A Life Overseas. It has been a joy to connect to this community and to have a regular place to write with a group of people, all with the same goal. Those of us who have a global background struggle with many faith blogs because the point of view is so narrowly western. The purpose of this blog is to connect people who live overseas. I’ll continue writing for them this next year and hope to get involved more on that site. To see posts that I’ve written for them click here.
  • Robynn Bliss began writing regularly for Communicating Across Boundaries. It has been a gift to have her a part of this blog this past year and a writing project is in the works for us.
  • A couple of organizations approached me to use my posts in orientation materials for people who are heading overseas. This was a gift as the requests came at a time when I wondered what business I had in writing at all.
  • I began writing about my faith journey toward Eastern Orthodoxy in a series called The Reluctant Orthodox. This has been a hard thing to do but I think it’s important in my journey of faith, writing, and connecting the two.
  • Lastly – I compiled the most read and shared posts on third culture kids and cross-cultural journeys and sent them to Doorlight Publications with hopes of a late Spring release date. I’m excited to move forward with this project. Next will be a memoir on growing up in Pakistan but this is a first step forward in actually getting these into book form.

Beyond that were Blogging favorites. The most popular posts written in 2013 were these:

My personal favorites were:

Most important because of content:

Finally – here are some things that caught my eye from around the web:

Favorite New Blog: The Link Between – Jody explores many topics from privilege to culture to cross-cultural relationships. Always thoughtful and engaging.

Most challenging post of the year: Silver and Gold on DL Mayfield’s blog Living in the Upside-Down Kingdom. This blog is amazing – this post by Ben Bishop shook me in a way that I haven’t been shaken in a long time.

Funnest Game: What Would I Say developed by some Princeton grad students takes all your Facebook Statuses and generates a status for you. I’t nonsensical and hilarious. Play it with your family – preferably on Facebook.

The one that brought tears to my eyes: The persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan suffered some tragic events. Two bombs going off in a church in Peshawar and a colony burnt down in Lahore were two of the biggest tragedies, but other smaller ones are continually escaping news coverage. This article Human chain formed to protect Christians during Lahore mass showed Muslims and Christians coming together to protect a community.

Favorite recipe blog of all time: Food Lust, People Love by Stacy, a TCK and expat who has lived all over the world. I love that she weaves expat stories into her recipes. Check out her muffin recipes every Monday on Communicating Across Boundaries!

Favorite Book: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I can’t even tell you how much I love this book! Review coming but for now, trust me.

The story that made me cringe: When a Fox news reporter claimed that Jesus was white. On what planet is this true?

All time number one most read piece on Communicating Across Boundaries: Saudade – A Word for the Third Culture Kid. No matter what the day or time, this post that I spent only a few minutes writing continues to be shared. Third Culture Kids need tools, and one of their tools is using words to articulate feelings. I don’t know this, but I’ve a strong suspicion that this is why this post continues to resonate.

And with that long year-end report I’ll say thank you – to really express my gratitude is difficult. I’ve learned and grown much through this process. Thank you for reading and sharing some of our complicated lives alongside Communicating Across Boundaries.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 180,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 8 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

When There is No Other Hand

English: Fiddler On The Roof Français : Un Vio...

Although I’ve not seen it in years, Fiddler on the Roof is one of my favorite shows/movies. I’ve watched the movie numerous times and seen the performance live as a musical theatre production at least twice.

The scenes that have found place in my memory are what I call the “other hand scenes”. These are scenes where Tevya, a hardworking, ebullient, loving father and husband is talking to himself and to God. He is trying to make sense of the changing world around him and his value of tradition, yet also trying to figure out where tradition is not merely tradition but something far greater, something that cannot be compromised. The ‘other hand’ scenes are great pictures of a dialogue between a man fully comfortable communicating with his God.

We learn early on the value of tradition for Tevya:

“But in our little village of Anatevka, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!”

“Because of our traditions, we have kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer-shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.”

“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as… as… as a fiddler on the roof!”

The ‘other hand’ scenes come as Tevya watches his daughters, one by one, fall in love and want to marry. First his challenge is that his oldest daughter wants to marry a poor tailor, but ‘on the other hand he’s an honest hard worker’. We watch him process and ultimately compromise tradition, giving his blessing on the marriage. We see a similar pattern with his second daughter and feel his pain as she heads off on a train to Siberia to be with the man she loves.

But there comes a point where Tevya won’t compromise. Where in his own words “there is no other hand”; where it’s less about tradition and more about bottom-line belief.

I think a lot about this, about compromise, about what I am and am not willing to compromise. Communicating across cultural boundaries is a lot about give and take, a lot about compromise, a lot about negotiation. And when we communicate across truth claims and faith differences, make no mistake — we are communicating across cultural differences, we are communicating across boundaries.

We live in an age where many are quick to criticize dogmatic truth claims. One of our friends who does a lot with interfaith dialogue says that there are times when you shake your head in disbelief because those who get together for interfaith dialogue water down their truth claims so much that they all sound the same.

That’s not dialogue. That’s monologue

When a Christian says that it doesn’t matter if Jesus is an allegory, and a Muslim says that the creed is unimportant then it’s not an interfaith dialogue – both have given up essential elements of their faith.

There are other times where people clearly and graciously state their claims, and, even if it bothers you, they won’t back down. There is no other hand. They will listen, and ask questions, and have genuine interest, but their faith compels them to hold fast to certain truth.

When it comes to tradition, belief, and truth claims I feel a lot like Tevya. I have this running dialogue with God, trying to sort out where and when I am willing to compromise and when I realize there is no other hand. Because if I bend that far, I’ll break.

“On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try and bend that far, I’ll break. On the other hand… No. There is no other hand.”

What about you? Have you struggled to work through faith, what you will compromise, and what you won’t? I invite you to join the conversation – we need your voice.

A Giveaway, Suggestions Solicited, & a Little Change

So as one who frequently rearranges furniture (in lieu of moving across international borders) I’m feeling Communicating Across Boundaries needs a bit of a change!

So – I’m doing a couple of things.

One: A Giveaway! Yes – it’s been a long time since I’ve done a give away, partly because it’s hard to do a giveaway when people from all over the world are involved. But with Amazon UK and Booktopia or Kindle I can still get a book or a certificate for a book to most of you. So here’s the deal: The give away is for a book!

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Catherine Boo

or

Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service by Mary Poplin

or

A Book of Your Choice (provided it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey)

What do you have to do to participate?

Send or share your favorite post from Communicating Across Boundaries (this includes guest posts!) with a friend who doesn’t read CAB, then share in the comments what post you shared and why. You can also share on the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CommunicatingAcrossBoundariesBlog. Or leave a suggestion or comment on this blog post.  I will draw the name through a computerized program so it is completely fair. The giveaway will close on Monday, May 13. 

Two: What do you want to hear about? What’s of interest to you? Do you have a series you’d like to see on Communicating Across Boundaries? Are there other guest writers that you’d like to hear more from? Share that either through comments or send an email to communicatingblog@gmail.com with your suggestions. I’d love to hear more about your heart, what you want to hear, what resonates with you.

Three: I’m looking at changing the design a bit. I have committed to a ‘no advertising’ policy on my blog – partly because I could never make as much money advertising as I do in my day job as a nurse, partly because I hate busy blogs that interfere with content and my guess is many of you do as well, so the design will still be simple and easy to navigate, just a little change. You know like moving the dining room into the living room and surprising your family!

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What other changes would you like to see? What appeals? Do share through the comments or email!

And make sure you participate in the giveaway!

Year in Review

fireworksIt’s the last day of the year and as I write Boston is gearing up for its First Night Celebrations. I’ve felt too sick for reflections, preferring just to drown myself in tea and books, but I wanted to close out the year on this blog by highlighting posts that you have liked as well as introducing you to a couple of other bloggers that I’ve learned from through this year.

The following posts were this years top crowd-pleasers, meaning they received the most views and shares on Facebook, Twitter etc.

Regular Reader Pleasers – these were the posts that regular readers to Communicating Across Boundaries liked.

  •  Who ‘Kindled’ Your Parents? This post, inspired by my husband finding out that my parents had received a Kindle for Christmas was so fun in the comments it received, reminding me that the world divides on many things. Turns out people have strong opinions on print vs. electronic modes of reading.
  • What’s Mom Doing in My Mirror? Ahh – aging and the sense of connection we feel when others express what this whole aging thing feels like. If you’re over 50, this post is for you!
  • 14 year-old Courage. When Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan in October I felt it acutely. It turns out so did many of you.
  • And God….. As an American citizen I am an Independent voter and felt compelled to write about God’s sovereignty no matter who holds the highest office in the land. Turns out those words landed on hearts that felt the same.
  • The Gifts of Loneliness. This post by Robynn beautifully put into words what can be learned through loneliness.

My Faves…..So, blogging is funny in that those posts that I think might be really good often don’t end up top of the list for readers. I wanted to point out a couple of my favorites from this past year.

  • They Want our Symptoms but not our Stories. I shared a personal story that happened soon after coming to the United States in this post, one that resonates with my immigrant friends and patients. This post is for anyone working with a refugee or immigrant population. 
  • Abigail’s Bread. I was struck by the story of Abigail in the Old Testament. A story of a woman who did what was needed to mend an offense.
  • Just One Click. This is one of my most important posts I believe. We have to be held accountable for attack drones.
  • It Was an Old Love. My response to seeing an elderly couple in our youth-obsessed world.

And Now….Bloggers that have inspired me. 

  • Intersections by Deanna Davis. Deanna’s writing is poignant and leads me to love Jesus even more. She has gone through a major crisis this year and leads us to the source of her strength. 
  • Making All Things New by Amy Lepine Peterson. I found this blog awhile ago but was delighted to find a personal connection. Amy is the sister-in-law of the son of one of my close friends.
  • Little Gumnut. Sophie is creativity personified. A fellow third culture kid from Pakistan, she now makes her home in Australia. She writes about everything from creative projects to belonging and what that means.
  • Cecily Mostly. Cecily Thew grew up in Pakistan and now lives in New South Wales. She is an award-winning author and her book Love, Tears, and Autism can be found here.
  • Outside-In. My friend Joanne, another TCK from Pakistan (I promise there isn’t bias here!) has a witty and insightful approach to all things cross-cultural.

It may sound odd but blogging continues to be something I do to make sense of the world around me. Truth is I’m a nurse and I’ve never even taken a college level English class. (you may have noticed some of the grammar and mixed metaphors?!) There are amazing writers one click away from your fingers but you still come here – I’m honored.

In 2013 you can look forward to more Robynn on Fridays. She has been a wonderful addition to CAB. Also I hope to bring on my daughter Stef. She is a great photographer and my hope is to weekly treat you to some of her work. And I’ll be bringing you more from the world around me.

Have a great evening celebration from Kuwait to Karachi to Kansas! 

So.Many.Stories – Primary School Pentecost

Many who read Communicating Across Boundaries live in communities where the world is at their doorstep. This story takes us to a classroom with representatives from all over the world and one woman’s interaction in that classroom. Enjoy this post by Allison Sampson who writes about everyday things at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com

Every Tuesday I spend time in a classroom with kids from all over the world. Most are from the Horn of Africa; others are from Burma, Pakistan, China, or Afghanistan; and a few are Anglo or Indigenous Australians. We all speak Strine; most of them speak Arabic; and many have a third language up their sleeve.

Together, we read, write and tell stories; and this year, we are experimenting with journaling. What this means is that I read a picture book aloud; we sit in silence for a minute; we ask some wondering questions; and then we write.

On a recent Tuesday, we delved into a story about a ‘half’ birthday. Afterwards, a girl and I wondered. I wonder how the family crossed the busy road? I wonder why the birthday boy fell asleep? I wonder where their dog is running through the trees? I wonder why they celebrated a half birthday? I wonder why his sister took her dinosaur back? I wonder what we celebrate, and how?

After a bit more wondering, the girl decided that we would each write about one of our own birthdays. While she scribbled away, an arm crooked around her work, I remembered turning four. My mother asked me what sort of cake I wanted. ‘A crooked man cake!’ I said. My mother rolled her eyes, then squared her shoulders and set to work. She baked a slab cake, then sliced off a wedge so that it sat crookedly. She iced it and set Lego doors and windows skew-whiff. A path zigzagged from the front door to a lopsided stile, where she leaned a bent Lego man. She found a small curled cat and made a mouse with a pipe cleaner tail (crooked), and added them to the scene; and finally she placed a snapped chocolate coin next to the stile. Thirty-odd years later, the memory still makes me smile.

I wrote it all down and, when our time was up, I read out my piece through the small lump in my throat. Then I taught the girl the rhyme ‘There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile. He had a crooked cat who caught a crooked mouse and they all lived together in a little crooked house.’

She repeated it over, committing it to memory. Then she read me her piece, a story about too many lollies, some extra television and a very late night.

As she read, I reflected that we were communicating across so many boundaries: age, religion, family background, country of origin, income and culture. Our stories may have been about small things, but they were about the special times which shape our identities; they were stories of our lives.

As I looked around the classroom I was taken back to a time long ago when boundaries were crossed; a time when Christianity was just beginning.  I reckon the earliest Christians looked a lot like the children at my primary school. Just like the residents of my inner-city neighbourhood in Melbourne, Australia, the earliest Christians came from all over the empire, places we now identify as Greece,Italy,Palestine, the Middle East, and North Africa. Most spoke the language of an earlier empire – Koine Greek – as well as their native language. And many years ago, on a day that is commemorated by Christians around the world during the Festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on a gathering of disciples, bringing with it the gift of language; and we are told that they began to communicate in each other’s mother tongues.

Reflecting on what a great privilege it is to be able to speak and listen to all, I gave thanks that I belong to a tradition which continues to share stories across boundaries, whether it’s with children at my local primary school or you who read with me now; for it is in these stories that we learn to love one another, and bridge the differences which threaten to divide.

About the author: Alison Sampson is a mother, a writer, a dreamer, a cook. She writes about small things at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com

So.Many.Stories is usually posted on a Friday but this week I’m posting early because of a family birthday. If you would like to participate in So.Many.Stories read all about it here and send an email. We want your story! 

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Contest Results: And We Have A Winner!

Thanks to all those who entered the “Blog Party”! I love comments and love that you chose to participate.

And now….the winners, chosen randomly through a computer process are:

Judy

Robynn

Christi-Lynn

An extra prize will be given to Ruth because she was the first one to “arrive” at the party. Great to have you all reading and bringing your voices to the conversation. So winners: Pick your books and keep on reading!