A Free Cart


A Free Cart by Robynn. Follow Robynn @RobynnBliss and see all her pieces here.

Earlier in the week I went grocery shopping. It wasn’t that the cupboards were completely bare, far from it, but certain teenagers couldn’t find the snacks of their preference and they were beginning to protest: “There’s nothing to eat!”

I did an Aldi run! I don’t know if you have Aldi where you live, or something equivalent, but Aldi is an extremely low cost grocery store. In order to keep their prices low it’s a pretty bare bones experience.  The grocery carts are kept chained together outside. In order to get one you have to insert a coin into a metal slot. Later when you return your cart the coin pops back out. The food is kept in cases on basic metal shelving. You put your choices into your cart and then onto the conveyer belt for the check out clerk to scan it. When they’re done doing that they throw it into your cart again. If you want it bagged or boxed you do that yourself, later, over to the side, out of the way.

On Tuesday morning, as I arrived at the store, I began my routine rummage for a quarter, the magic coin that will unlock the all-important cart. (For the record Canadian quarters or Indian 1 rupee coins don’t work. I’ve tried!) My specially reserved quarter had been stolen (probably by the same “hungry” teenager). I searched in the bottom of my purse, in the car’s cupholders, under the seats. Finally I found one. With coat zipped to my chin and a tightly pinched quarter between my be-gloved fingers, I made my way toward the carts.

There was a bit of a ruckus at the cart stop. It seems someone, long gone before, had left their quarter in the slot. They had not taken the coin with them. How scandalous! One lady pulled that particular cart out of the way. “I can’t take this one. I have a quarter,” she snorted. The gentleman behind her, clearly a little confused, started mumbling, “I don’t need that. I’m okay. I have a quarter.”  Another elderly lady, just shook her head, back and forth, perplexed. Someone approaching shouted to the gathering cart seekers, “I don’t need that. I have my own quarter.”

It was beginning to be a bit ridiculous! With my silver quarter obviously out and ready since leaving the car, I wasn’t sure what to do.  I put my gloved hand in my pocket and bravely declared, “Well, I have a quarter too, but I’m happy to receive this!” It broke the independence ice. People started laughing and chuckling. Suddenly there was community in the air. And a little joy.

People here in the Midwest are very proud of their independence. We don’t need anything from anybody. We take care of our own. Asking for help is a sure sign of weakness. Midwesterners never want to appear needy or insufficient. These are a proud independent people.

In times of disaster—an earthquake, a prairie fire gone out of control—the people of the Tall Grass are undeniably the first to generously step up to help. Tell us what you need and we’ll be there; quickly, with a casserole, and cleaning supplies. We love to give. We love to help.

But on the other side, receiving from others seems to be a difficult thing for the people of the prairies.

True community is formed in the give and take of life. As we reach out to one another, and let others reach out to us, there is a depth of friendship and strength of relational network formed. It’s beautiful. It’s winsome. I would argue, it’s essential!

I remember an old song we used to sing, The Servant Song. The words went like this:

Brother, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I might have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are brothers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.

Recently I was convicted of independence. A family member offered to change the oil in our car. It was a very kind offer, one we weren’t expecting, nor deserving. I was tempted to blow it off and say no. In some ways it would have been easier to take it down to the Jiffy Lube and pay a stranger to do it. But here was someone offering to be our servant in this simple task. I felt in me the quiet voice of God saying I should receive. I should say yes. I should accept the gift. Let this person do this. It was important for my soul. It was also important, somehow, for his.

Receiving from others is humbling and quieting. It makes us feel small and needy. Receiving from others is also a sweet sacrament. We admit our humanity. We admit our need. We have a moment to see that we cannot do it alone.

Put your quarters away. Receive the gift.  Push the cart with your head held high. There is no shame in receiving from others. Ask for the gift to be occasionally in need.  Pray for the grace to let others minister to you and meet those needs. Refuse the temptation to believe that independence is strength. In the grand metaphor of life we are all weak and frail. We need each other.

What about you? Do you feel weak when you need help? Do you struggle accepting gifts of grace? Would love to hear from you through the comments.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/shopping-cart-shopping-supermarket-58863/

Our Shared World

shared world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunflower and blue door with quote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designed to be Dependent


Central Square, Cambridge is a 10 minute walk from our apartment. It’s not a tourist attraction, nor is it the prettiest square that Cambridge has to offer. Central Square is utilitarian. Bus and subway stops are easy to navigate. Several banks, a couple of churches, and all the major chain drug stores dot the streets surrounding the square. Restaurants and coffee shops are in abundance and whether meeting someone for business or pleasure it’s an easy place to gather.

A couple of years ago the Central Square Wendy’s closed. While we rarely frequented this fast-food establishment, known by the red-haired, freckle-faced little girl on the signs, many others did. Large groups gathered near the front of the restaurant — they were regulars.

It was their place to gather.

I thought of this recently as I read an article about a McDonald’s in Queens that was ‘evicting’ a Korean group for over-staying their welcome. The restaurant has a prescribed 20 minute customer dining period and this group was staying for hours at a time. The writer of the article wanted to find out why – why this McDonald’s? Why didn’t they go to the senior center, a place designed to be used by retirees as a gathering space? What did this group, picking this restaurant, have to do with urban space?

This McDonald’s had become a “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community” or a NORC. There were several reasons why this happened. One was just proximity. When questioned all but one said they lived within one or two blocks of the restaurant so they could come without assistance at any time they chose. The second was that this particular McDonald’s had large picture windows, perfect for people watching.

But ultimately – it was all about community and finding a place in the city. 

All this makes me think about community and finding our spaces. We are designed to be dependent on one another, to not live in isolation. This is an undeniable thread in our DNA. So we will search and search to find that community, whether it be at a McDonald’s in Queens or an online chat room. The places and spaces we find may not make sense to outsiders looking in– why this McDonald’s and not a burger king down the road? And some of the communities we find are not healthy, not life-giving. But if questioned, we all have our reasons for why we have picked the community and the space that we pick.

If anything proves our deep longing and search for community it is the results you get when you google “How to find community”. In under a second I got 1,810,000,000 results. My jaw dropped when I saw this. In fact I had to count the zeros.

We want to be welcomed in to a physical space that is close to us, to a place with those who are like us where we can sit together and watch the world outside go by, to a place where time stops and all life makes sense while we’re together.

We are designed to be dependent.

Which leads me to ask these questions: Do you have a “McDonald’s” in your life? A place where you gather for community and friendship? Where do you find community? Do you believe we are designed for dependence? 


Stacy is in Uganda and says this about today’s muffins which are Banana Sour Cream: “Since I’m still in Uganda, once again, I’ve chosen an ingredient that is produced here in abundance, bananas. We’ve been eating them every day and the farm where we are staying grows several types, including ones called Matoki that the Ugandans served cooked and mashed.” Click here for the recipe.

*Image credit: ronfromyork / 123RF Stock Photo. Words added by https://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/

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Living in the Blue Zones


In 2004 a man named Dan Buethner along with National Geographic went around the world looking for places where people lived well; where people had longer lifespans and healthier bodies. They identified 5 places with the highest life expectancy. Once they identifies these places, they took in a team of scientist to find out why.

Were there characteristics that these communities shared that could be replicated in other places?

They found 9 specific traits or characteristics of centenarians who lived in these communities. They called the communities “Blue Zones” and the nine characteristics the “Power 9.”

These are the 9 traits they found:

  1. Move naturally. The healthiest communities in the world did not have fancy exercise machines. They did not have expensive gym memberships. They participated in no exercise classes. Instead they lived in communities that forced movement. They planted gardens, they walked, they did house work.
  2. They had purpose. Each community called it something different, but the idea was the same. They had a reason for getting up in the morning. Researchers found that having a sense of purpose added years to the life expectancy.
  3. Routines to ‘shed stress’ — the researchers called it “down shift”. None of the places were stress-free. But they all had ways to relieve the stress. Some communities napped, some had a happy hour, but all had something.
  4. Something called an 80% rule. Each community had the belief that you stop eating before you’re full. You stop eating when you’re at 80%. And all ate their lightest meal in the evening.
  5. They all ate a lot of greens, a lot of plants. Meat was not eaten in much in any of the communities, rather it was a diet high in plants.
  6. They belonged to something. All but 5 of the people studied in these communities were part of a faith-based community. Belonging was critical, faith was critical.
  7. They put family first. They were part of extended families, committed to one life partner, cared about the elderly. Family was critical.
  8. Something researchers called the “right tribe”. To age successfully, free of chronic disease, you either have to choose, or be born into, the right social circles – circles that support healthy choices.

So why am I writing about this? Because I find this fascinating, particularly the last three:

Belonging. Family. Tribe.

I grew up with a strong sense of community and family. There was my immediate family, but beyond that was my extended missionary family, and within that were Pakistanis that were part of my community. Back in the United States there were extended family–blood relatives that cared. Faith was equally important – faith as foundational to all we did, faith as a hallmark of our lives. Lastly I felt I was part of a tribe – a group of people who, though different, were tied together by common purpose, similar culture, and equal economic status. None of us were rich in money, many of us felt rich in family, community, and purpose. In a way, I grew up in a blue zone. 

Turns out that these things matter to our health, because health is about so much more than our physical bodies.

I no longer live in a blue zone. And it makes me wonder, can we create our own blue zones? Our own places of health for both body and soul? Since we are created for community and connection, I don’t think living in our self-created blue zones is enough. There have to be others who are a part of our lives, who become our community and ‘tribe’.

What do you think? Do you currently live in a Blue Zone as defined by the common characteristics? Do you wish you did?


Today’s muffins are Dark Chocolate Cherry Muffins. As always Stacy has managed to come up with a creative, delicious muffin. Click here for the recipe.

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My Colorful Neighborhood

This post was first published in February of 2011 – it’s one of my favorites, if only because it gives the reader a colorful picture of where we live!


It’s a 8 am and I’m a kind of drunk and I want you!” were the words sung to me at Central Square, Cambridge.  The truth is – It was 7:30, he was drunk, and he didn’t want me!

But it brought laughter to my heart and I realize how much I love my colorful neighborhood.

While Harvard Square is full of intellectuals of all ages, brain cells abounding with funky stores,coffee shops, and Out of Town News – Central Square is hardcore life. It is dirtier and grittier with a cross-section of people that defies 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 converge in Central Square.

If you don’t give money, the homeless population have no problem escorting you to the nearest ATM or looking you up and down with derision and the comment “That’s ok! What goes around comes around!” and you are left feeling cursed.

Central Square T Stop
Central Square T Stop

Maybe the reason I feel so at home in this neighborhood, as opposed to Harvard Square with its sophisticated milieu, or Kendall Square filled with Geeky MIT students and biotech engineers, is that I feel like I am a cross-section of worlds and people. The suburbs stifled me as I felt the need to fit in with beautiful homes and more beautiful people, never quite measuring up to what I perceived as the unspoken expectation.

My past of both Pakistan and Egypt didn’t seem important in the suburbs, but in Central Square it feels like my background belongs. Central Square welcomes me with its imperfection and honesty. There is the ability to feel fully alive and authentic, even as I am serenaded by intoxication at 7:30 am.

With burnt orange, brick-redelectric lime, and hot magenta all mixed together in one place, Central square is like a box of crayons that are primary colors – no pastel pinks, light blues, or pale yellows in sight.

“Suzana Sent Me!” – The Importance of Connections

20130307-081457.jpg“Suzana sent me.” I said it with complete confidence. I had a connection. If Suzana sent me, then all would be ok. The owner of the shoe repair store smiled “Ahh Suzana! How is she? We’re buddies, me and that one!”

Suzana is Portuguese and you can’t walk down the street without her knowing someone, establishing a relationship with someone. Suzana knows how to connect. She also has a thousand pairs of shoes. She frequents the shop a lot. Arriving with her name on my lips was like arriving at Buckingham Palace and saying I was Kate Middleton, or arriving at the White House as Sasha Obama.

By virtue of my relationship with Suzana, I was known, I had a relationship, I was connected. It meant all the difference.

I grew up in a culture that placed high value on family and connection. Within minutes of meeting someone, connections were established. I was Ralph and Polly Brown’s daughter, I was connected with the women’s and children’s hospital, I was connected to a host of surrogate aunties and uncles – all part of the larger missionary community. To the outsider this was seemingly small, but huge in a place where relationships were everything. A place where connections were more important than education, and who you knew meant the difference between service, or no service; between relationship or none.

It was connection and belonging that I desperately missed when I moved to my passport country. My passport country seemed to be more about where you worked or went to school than who you knew.

Connections are about belonging. They are about relationship. They are about having an “in”. I realized this again the other day when I confidently used Suzana’s name.

We are made for connections, we are wired to ‘be known’, our DNA spells out the importance of human contact. As a society moves away from acknowledging this need what happens to its soul? Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community speaks extensively to this need, and how disconnected the United states has become from family, friends, and community in general.

He calls these connections ‘Social Capital’ “the fabric of our connections with each other”and looks at these trends over the last 25 years:

People who attend club meetings:
58% drop

Families who eat dinner together:
43% drop

Having friends over:
35% drop

His analysis shows that this decrease in ‘social capital’ “impoverishes our lives”. Those “impoverished lives” include isolation, poorer physical health, changes in mental health, and emotional struggles.

How do we work toward repairing these connections and slowly rebuilding strong communities?

I’m the wrong person to ask this question for I have no answers. I’m tired. I work long work weeks, have family priorities and obligations, and would sooner sit on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book then go try and foster community in my neighborhood. That’s me being completely honest.

But then I think of summer and my Chinese neighbor coming to tell me I can come to her garden and pick mint leaves anytime I want, I think of our Greek neighbors and their little boy who knows my husband by name, and I think about the conversation I had with a cobbler, a familiarity I now enjoy in the middle of a busy city – all because Suzana sent me. And I feel a glimmer of hope. Because this repairing of connections happens in small ways all around me and I’m encouraged to run with it – to be a connector so perhaps one day someone will say “Marilyn sent me!” and the kinship will be immediate.

What about you? Have you struggled to build connections where you live or work? Did you grow up, or live as an adult in a place where connections and community seemed to have a higher value? Would love to hear through the comments.