Speak Out Loud

Keep in mind to speak out loud the works of God! As you transition with your soul mate it will be good to hear your voices remembering what God has done…*

One month ago we left the United States with 8 suitcases, two carry on bags, and two hearts that were open to whatever awaited us. We arrived in Kurdistan two days later and since that time have been creating home in the small city of Rania. Many of the words I have used in the past fail me as I begin learning to live and love in this part of the world.

Our move is an unexpected answer to a heart desire that I have had for many years. The longing that I have had to return to the Middle East has never completely gone away. It was like Baba Gurgur, the eternal flames of Kirkuk, always there just above the ground. “Just two more years!” I would write in my journal. Just give me two more years. “Why just two?” my husband asked at one point. I don’t know. All I know is that’s what I’ve been asking for. Anything more felt like it was audacious.

As I think about all that went into our move it strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. The fact that we were both offered jobs at the same institution; that our landlord responded graciously to our leaving; that the timing coincided with me being able to take retirement from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; that our friends and family were supportive even as they expressed their sadness that we would not be a daily part of their lives; that we were able to sort and pack up ten and twenty years of stuff without going insane; mostly that God was so present in and through all of it.

And though I speak of writing in my journal “just two more years”, I will confess that it has been years since I have truly brought my desires to God. What’s the use of speaking your desires? How does it help? My every day thoughts most resembled a slightly optimistic fatalism, an “oh well, it doesn’t really matter what I long for, because it won’t happen” thinking. It was my sister-in-law, Carol, who gently confronted me on this, and when she did, I knew the unmistakable feel of hot tears on my cheeks. I had begun to cry. I remember hanging up the phone and crying and crying, tears brought about by the realization that I had held my desires in a tight fist, subconsciously believing that they didn’t matter and that God didn’t care.

It was one year ago when this happened. I remember crying for what seemed like a long time. In reality, it was probably only a short hour. At the end of my tears I was exhausted. I also had determined some things. I had determined that Cambridge was a good, actually great, place to live, that if I never went overseas again it really would be okay, and that my fist was tired, so very tired. I was tired of holding all of this in. Tired of not believing. Tired of being tired. Tired of thinking there was some magical formula that only existed overseas.

My life changed in ways outsiders would never have seen, but I saw and I knew. I had one of the best work years that I have had in a long time. Friendships were strengthened, I was more active, and I drank deeply from the well of orthodoxy through my parish at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church.

And now, a year later, I wake up every day in Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. I am learning to live again in a part of the world I love. I am reviving invisible skills that lay dormant for many years while in the United States — things like finding substitutes for recipes, peeling pomegranates, putting the flour in the freezer to kill the bugs, bargaining at the market, and trying to grasp the nuances of a new language. I am center stage to the most hospitable people on the planet. I pick pomegranates and figs off of trees at a friend’s garden. I laugh and learn from Kurds who have opened their lives and homes to us. I stretch my legs and muscles as I sit on the floor for hours of talk, food, and tea. I eat savory kebabs wrapped in bread with raw onions and tomatoes. I wake up every day to sunshine and the call to prayer.

And everyday I realize anew the need to speak out loud what God has done, speak out loud what it took to get us here, speak out loud thanksgiving.

Speak out loud the miracles that happened so quietly it might be easy to forget.

*from Carol Brown – my sister-in-law in Istanbul.

On Waiting…

Jenni Gate - Waiting

We are sitting in a government office in Suleimaniyah (commonly called Suli) and we are waiting. We left Rania at seven in the morning. The sun had already welcomed the day and a beautiful breeze accompanied us on our walk to the university.

The road between Rania and Suli begins as a one lane, heavily trafficked highway. Even early in the morning cars, trucks, and lorries are moving fast. Traffic in this part of the world is not for the fainthearted. There are few rules and those who observe them are much more likely to get hurt than the rest of us. Until we reach Dukan, a small city beside a winding river, the road is narrow and crowded with little room to pass. At Dukan it widens and becomes much more comfortable for those in the back seat of an old Toyota pickup truck.

We get to the residency office in Suli and this is where the waiting begins. People are scurrying here and there, some of them lawyers or handlers, others are people like us who don’t have a clue what they are doing. What we do know is that we need to be here and we need to behave. We are guests in a country and mama always said that guests need to behave. The busy looking people have a lot of paper and a lot of passports in their care, and it matters what they say and what they do with the paper and the passports. They are our go betweens. While we must perfect the art of waiting, they must perfect the art of acting and doing. They understand both the language and the process, and we desperately need them.

Black numbers mark small cubicles where government workers, separated by glass, interview or authoritatively stamp approval or disapproval on official looking papers. This is Kurdistan, so the number of people smiling far exceeds the number who look grumpy. I love this and feel an affinity with Kurds in their generally optimistic outlook on life. They have much to teach the world about waiting and about hope.

There is a lot of waiting in this building. My colleague makes the insightful observation that knowing you are waiting for something automatically changes the quality of time you have. If I suddenly had this long stretch of time at home, I would be delighted. There would be so many things I could do and so much possibility created by knowing I have extra time. Not so when I am forced to wait. Suddenly I feel paralyzed and can’t do anything.

Just before we left Massachusetts we ended up at the Division of Motor Vehicles, non-affectionately called the DMV by those in the know. The line for the DMV went out the door and down the hallway to a nearby Target store. It was a nightmare. In any country, in any language, government bureaucracy looks similar. What changes is whether you know what’s going on or not, otherwise the lack of ability to control what goes on is exactly the same. And world-wide the approach is similar with these four rules:

  • Be as nice as possible without seeming like you are trying to butter your way onto the bureaucracy toast
  • Have just the appropriate degree of assertiveness
  • Say please and thank you
  • Whenever possible make people smile.

In any country and in any language there is another universal truth: the truth of waiting. Waiting. Suspended between. Not sure when you’ll be able to leave or if you will leave with what you came for.

We wait. Always we wait. It’s a universal experience, one that will not be over until our final breath. Airport terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings are just a few of the spaces where we live in the limbo of the “not yet arrived.”

Sometimes we wait patiently and other times we are impatient. Sometimes we wait with a good sense of humor while other times we are grumpy. Sometimes we wait with anticipation and other times we wait with dread.

While I am waiting for a residency permit, you may be suspended between a blood test and a diagnosis; a job interview and a job offer; a visa application and a stamp of approval; a pregnancy test and a definitive little pink line; an abnormal mammogram and a biopsy; an offer on a house and an acceptance of the offer; a child who is far away and their homecoming; a journey or question of faith and an answer.

May you know the song of the waiting one. May you be able to rest despite your nerves and your tears; may you be able to trust against the odds; may your imagination be enfolded in grace; may your heart rest in the knowledge that in all the waiting, there is one who waits with you.

May you know grace and peace in the margins of waiting. 

“Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in an orchestrates our plans, our movements. We may never know the reason for the waiting – they may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.” 

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

“And so I wait [in a government building], thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.” from “Mumbai Airport” in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel

I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades.

This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven. The apartment is on the third floor and has a bedroom, living room, large kitchen, sunroom and balcony. With high ceilings and a chipped marble floor, it is built for a hot, dry climate. It is cooled by a desert cooler, a system of cooling that works best in dry places and is far more economical than air conditioning. The electricity is based on a local and national system that we don’t yet understand. When the local electricity goes off, the national comes on. We’ve only been without electricity a couple of times.

We brought a few touches of home but have also gone to the local bazaar and purchased some household goods. Pictures of our family and friends stand on a large window sill, reminders that movement has a cost, but also surrounding us with love, our grandson claiming his prominent place in the line up.

The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday afternoon. We are reminded at every turn that the culture we have moved to is relational above all. Any question we have is met with a “I can take you!” Or “Let me show you!” Or “Come to our house and my mother will help you.” Coming from Boston, this is a shock! We have a joke in Boston that the reason people don’t use their turn signals is because it’s none of your damn business where they are going! Here? Here it is everyone’s business. We are not alone. We have help at every corner and beyond!

I am reminded of desires today, and the years of longing that have led me here. There are frustrations for sure, but above all, we are so grateful. We are so lucky that we get to do this, to have our world turned inside out and upside down; to be in a place where we need people to explain everything to us; to grow and learn and be changed.

As I finish this week and head into another adventure this weekend, I am reminded of the oft quoted and beloved words of Pico Iyer. Perhaps you too know them and love them:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

In Rania, I have fallen in love once more.

Enlarging our hearts in Ranya ڕانیه

View from our front balcony/sunroom

It’s difficult to believe that we have only been in Kurdistan for 48 hours.

Our flight from Qatar was uneventful. We connected with another new faculty member just before boarding the plane. The fact that she spotted us so easily was a reminder that we are westerners and everything from the way we talk to the way we walk identifies us as such.

We flew into Sulaymaniyah, also called Slemani, a large city two hours from Ranya. The way the plane entered the air landing strip allowed us to see the entire area before landing.

The airport in Sulaymaniyah is small and customs and immigration was easy. We had our pictures and finger prints taken and temporary visas stamped into our passports in record time, then on to retrieve our eight large pieces of luggage on the other side.

A faculty member from the university was there to greet us and load our luggage into a truck and we took off on the two-hour journey to our new home.

Ranya is a town of 230,000, established in 1789. It is surrounded by a mountain range called the Kewa Rash (Black Mountains) and, for lack of a better word or because my thesaurus is not loading properly, nestled by a beautiful lake called Lake Dukan. Driving up a hill, you know you have arrived in Ranya when you see a large concrete statue of the number five. The statue commemorates March 5, 1991 when Ranya boldly rose up against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Though the most notable recent uprising, it is not the only time in Ranya’s history where they defied the ruling authorities. Indeed, this is part of Ranya’s story since the early 1900s. Because of this history, many Kurds refer to the city as Darwaza-I Raparingateway to uprising. It feels particularly important for me as a newcomer and stranger to acknowledge both the history and wounds of this place where we will work and make a home.

The University of Raparin (literally the University of Uprising) is at the edge of the city and we saw the buildings immediately after passing the commemorative statue. Going past the university, we arrived at the apartment complex where we will be living. Our apartment building is one of six buildings built specifically for faculty at the university. We arrived and were graciously welcomed by university staff. They also graciously carried our heavy luggage into the apartment, no small feat!

We walked up three flights of stairs and opening the door crossed over into our new home.

Earlier today I sat in a sun-filled room, listening to Georgian chant in a town in Kurdistan. An hour later I embarked on the task of heating water for a cup of tea for a guest. While this sounds simple, it didn’t feel simple. Still later, we made our first trip alone to the bazaar and the triumphal feeling of shopping in a language I don’t know in a city that is new is akin to giving birth. I, indeed, am Woman! Hear me roar – in Kurdish, no less.

The enormity of all of this converges with how normal it feels and I feel yet again how beautifully complicated Home can be.

But though all of this has expanded our hearts and minds, nothing compares to the conversations, afternoon snacks, and meals we have shared the past days. In just two days our hearts have grown larger and I marvel at the new friendships, primarily with young men and women who are our kids’ age. They are the future of Kurdistan and we are so honored to be with them during this time.

I will write more specifically about some of our new friends later, but for now, I am filled with gratitude and my heart is enlarged in the best way possible.

3 AM in the First Class Lounge

I have never been in a first class lounge before. This hits me as I sit in a chair at three o’clock in the morning at a first class lounge in the Qatar Airport, my head resting on on of those brilliant, semi-circled plane pillows. We are here because of an extra long layover after an extraordinary, though quick, trip to Iraq.

The lounge is nearly empty, but an hour ago people from a multitude of cultures and countries converged on this space. Women in black abayas with bedazzled hijabs loaded plates of food for kids of all ages. Blonde-haired Europeans with skinny jeans and sweatshirts lounged on modern furniture scrolling through smart phones, their faithful links to the world’s they left behind. Tall and short men of varying ages, some eating, some drinking tea or coffee, still others snoring, oblivious to anything but the deep sleep that consumes them.

And then there are the staff, so attentive in their caring for weary travelers, yet so weary themselves.

A large, unavoidable screen gives airline information in vivid white, a reminder that we are only temporary sojourners. Each of us will leave this room, for it is merely a temporary resting place. We will never be fully comfortable here, but it does provide respite for a time.

How like our life on earth! The invisible but unavoidable screen of mortality reminding each of us at that our time on earth is limited.

If we let it, travel ushers us into reflective humility. All these travelers representing individuals, families, countries, cultures, languages, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. All these travelers, and I am but one of the millions that are traveling throughout the world today.

We are so small in the big scheme of things, yet so utterly beloved by our creator, without exception. The person I may despise the most is deeply and completely loved by the same One who loves me. It is beyond my ability to understand yet at three in the morning, it is deeply comforting.

A little girl has fallen asleep nearby. I smile, memories of traveling the world with my own children coming back to me. They would have loved to see the likes of this lounge.

I am so grateful for these moments. In a short time I will be on my way, the humility that travel affords too quickly replaced by my everyday erroneous thinking that I can control my world, replaced by my pride. But I thank God for the moments.

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C.S. Lewis

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.

No Better Place Than This…

“Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners.”

“We find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of other, we find belonging and rest, whether in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time, sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.” (p. 181 of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging)

I got together with a fellow immigrant (she – a real one, me – an invisible one) the other day. Talking together was easy and natural. Oh there were plenty of missed cues, and ‘what do you mean by that?” questions, but the ease with which we communicate across those boundaries are what was so refreshing.

We were at home in the shared experience of being outsiders. We are the ones who don’t completely fit into our surroundings, but work to live well despite the poor fit. The gift of shared experience lasted for a couple of hours, and then it was time to be on our way. We left the coffee shop, bound more tightly together by our vast global network of people, places, events, and memories. We left with more stories that link us to each other and to the world.

As I walked back to my apartment, a cold rain was falling. Slush and rain puddles crept through my boots, but somehow it didn’t matter. I thought about friendship and contentment, and how long it sometimes takes to accept our reality.

It has taken me a long time to live effectively in my passport country. For so long I looked and wished for a better place. Slowly, I’ve given up a dream idea that there is a better place than right here, right now. I no longer live with unrealistic expectations and frustrations with those around me (at least not most of the time!) Instead, I’ve realized there is no better place. Right here, right now – wherever that is for any of us – is the best place.

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

And in the “no better place than this” I will continue to meet strangers and soulmates, fellow immigrants and those who have lived here forever. I will connect immediately with some and tentatively with others, because that’s life.

And in all of this, I will learn more about loving and keeping place, and in doing so, join it to Heaven.