I was exhausted. It was yet another argument about where I was from, arguments that I was beginning to call “Arguments of Origin” – perhaps so that they sounded more academic and less fraught with emotion.
But the reality was, they were fraught with emotion.
This particular argument started out as a benign comment by a friend to something I had posted online. I don’t even remember the original post, but it was about belonging and my connection to my childhood home – Pakistan. In the post I called Pakistan “home.”
“But it’s not really home for you.” she stated matter-of-factly.
“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said “I grew up there, so yes, it was my childhood home.”
“But you’re not from there.” she was not going to let this go.
Fair enough, but it really depends on what “from there” means.
I tried to put a different lens onto the conversation. “Well – where do you say you are from.” “That’s easy” she named a small town in one of the New England states. “Okay, why do you call that town home?” “Well, I grew up there.”
The defense rests their case.
When I returned to Pakistan in 2010, I got to walk through the house we had lived in during my junior and senior years of high school. A tsunami of memories came over me as I walked through the large front rooms, around the verandah, and finally stopped in front of my bedroom door. As I pressed my face against the window, looking into the room where I had spent winter vacations, I gasped. There on the bed was the comforter that my mom and I had picked out so many years before. The previously bright green, pink, yellow, and blue patterns had faded through the years, but there was no mistaking it. I never thought something as simple as a comforter could bring on such a profound sense of belonging. It was, after all, an inanimate object. But in that moment, it was confirmation of a life that I had lived, a life relegated to stories, photo albums, and memories captured in the cerebral cortex of my brain.
Despite 18 years of life packed into old passports, photo albums, old journals, and letters that my mom kept through the years, in many people’s eyes I have no right to say that Pakistan was home, even less rights to saying that I am from Pakistan. My rights to the country are defined by outsiders who tell me who I am and where I am from.
It brings up many emotions and deep empathy for the many around me who, in this era of massive displacement, struggle silently in the same way.
In a beautiful essay called “Reconciling with Less Home: Between Haiti and Me” Martina Fouquet writes:
The real question is who determines where we belong?
Martina Fouquet in Catapult Magazine
Perhaps what people don’t realize about their challenges to our concepts of home and where we say we are from are that the challenges act like a knife cutting to the core of who we are. The knife cuts deep, and we are left with our own origin questions, self-doubt raising its ugly head telling us once again that we don’t really belong. The internal dialogue that we thought we had silenced so long ago emerges once again, loud and accusatory: “You don’t really belong. You aren’t Pakistani. You left years ago.”
“But that’s not really home for you” or “That’s not where you’re really from” viewed as benign statements to many presents as a challenge to personhood and origin to another.
I don’t know what the answer is to arguments of origin, other than reminding myself once again that no one gets to tell any of us where home is. It is uniquely ours to determine where and why. Our stories may not fit into tidy boxes that connect within the experiences of others, but that’s not a problem we need to solve or a burden we need to bear.
Despite awkward questions, arguments, and discussions on home and origin, the paradoxical gift of this journey is that sometimes less home becomes more home, our lives richer for the multiple places we are privileged to call home.
How I wish words could accurately describe this unique retreat center in the desert that has provided peace, safety, rest, council, and retreat for so many years!
We arrive at night traveling the Cairo-Alexandria Road at dusk. A starry sky with no light pollution is the only light as we drive into the compound. Night comes quickly in the desert, the bright sun replaced by a cloudless night sky, billions of stars light years away are a reminder of how small I am in this big universe.
My room is simple and charming, domed ceilings, stone floors covered by bright colored rugs, and a bed covered by mosquito netting welcome me. I haven’t slept in a bed with mosquito netting since Pakistan, and I have always loved the feeling of being protected so completely with the gossamer mesh. Dinner is by candlelight in the large communal dining room, sitting on rattan chairs covered by bright blue and white patterned cushions,
A candle lights my room, creating shadows on the whitewashed walls and I read by its light. Within minutes, my shrunken heart weighed down with fear, worry, anxiety, and anger is made larger. “How fortunate I am to be here!” was the only thought on my mind.
Before I fall asleep I whisper a prayer “Thank you O Lord, Thank you. Let me not waste this precious, precious time. Instead, let me observe it with gratitude.”
I wake up early the next morning, the circled sky lights in the ceiling providing multicolored light that fills the room. I look out at the arched door that leads to a patio. My room looks out on date palms and olive groves that stretch as far as my eye can see. For the millionth time in my life, I wish I was an artist and could capture my surroundings. Palm trees wave at me past the peach-colored stucco archway and wall. There are multiple shades of desert green, none of them the bright of my New England home, all of them perfect for this setting. A round table less than a foot off the ground sits to my right with a chair of cushions to the side of it for comfort from the hard stone floor. It is quite simply, perfect.
I quickly realize that my distractions follow me. As much as I want to quiet my mind and take every advantage of this desert gem, a phone, my thoughts, and my circumstances all follow me, begging me to pick them up and fret. I know it will take effort to release them. But I have time, that beautiful and sometimes fleeting commodity. The concrete walls and stone floors are a comfort to my distracted thoughts, the date palms outside my door spreading their dates all over the ground are a reminder of a past life in Pakistan, a reminder of a God who has never let me go, who has always been there since my earliest days.
Anafora is a Greek word that means “to lift up.” The community was formed under the leadership of Bishop Thomas, a man that I was able to meet on my second to last day. His desire is to see people come to this place and be refreshed, be lifted up, and meet God. Through the years the community has grown to be a vibrant multicultural space with a constant flow of worldwide visitors intersecting with those who live and work at Anafora. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are communal meals served in the large dining hall. Dinners are served by candlelight, adding to the rest that the entire space cultivates. Food is served in beautiful pottery pots, and the silverware is arranged in beautiful patterns every meal. Large bottles of olive oil, and jars of olives are ever present, as are different kinds of loose leaf tea – mint, karkade (hibiscus) and chamomile to name a few – that can be accessed any hour of the day. I am quickly aware of the many hands and hours of work that go into making sure everyone who stays at Anafora feels welcome. Coptic services are held daily as well as evening vespers. Evening vespers are particularly beautiful, the large church lit with candles in alcoves around the room. While the service is primarily in Arabic, the Gospel reading of the day is read in every language present – English, Greek, Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian.
My purpose is primarily a solitary retreat, but it is a perfect mixture of solitude and people. From my patio I hear laughter and voices chatting away in Arabic, but I can’t see anybody and it feels completely private.
The grounds are simple and lovely. Low buildings with domed ceilings are connected and I am told by my friend Marty that the block of rooms where I am staying are in the shape of a question mark with the dot at the end of the question mark being a prayer chapel “Because at the end of every question is prayer” – she quotes Bishop Thomas as she tells me. Pools and fountains of turquoise and blue run alongside paths, small bridges linking parallel paths. It is easy to find one’s way around in the daylight. What felt like a maze the night before quickly becomes familiar. The date palms are ever present, squishy sticky dates left over from the harvest fall over the ground. It is clearly date season! Pottery with desert plants of bright-colored bougainvillea and other species that I don’t recognize are the only décor and it is perfect. I am so grateful for the simplicity and beauty, a welcome respite from my overcrowded world.
As I sit on the patio, journal in hand, thoughts finally resting, a pesky fly begins to bother me. I laugh, amused at how perfectly imperfect life always ends up being. My husband and I have this theory we call “Ants in Paradise.” We thought it up on a family vacation. Everything was perfect. The most perfect beach, warm water, amazing food, great room – and suddenly we were bothered by a line of ants. We had no idea where they came from – we certainly had not invited them to come. But there they were. In that moment, we had the laughing realization that no matter how perfect our circumstances on earth, there will be ants, flies, or worse that remind us we don’t live in a perfect world. Instead of letting this depress us, we instead laughed it off, vowing to remind each other of this on a regular basis. There I was in the perfect setting of beauty and simplicity, but a fly kept on buzzing around me, annoying in its persistence. I decided to go brush my teeth and wash my hands with hopes that the smell of clean would annoy them and they’d find another victim.
Fly gone, I begin writing and reflecting. I have five days here and because I fail so often at stopping and being present at the moment, I am already planning my next trip and know that it will be longer. I stop and breathe, reminding myself that all I have is this moment.
There is something about returning to a place that shaped you so profoundly, something about the mixture of thoughts, feelings, and reactions – all lobes of the brain engaged in a dialogue labeled “Return.” Whether by car, train, boat, or plane, the exhausted euphoria has as much to do with your mind as it does with your body.
Cairo airport was busy at 8pm on Saturday, October 15th. I left Boston the day before at almost midnight Eastern Standard Time. The overnight flight arrived in Istanbul at four in the afternoon leaving time for a coffee and croissant in the Istanbul airport before boarding the Cairo flight. It’s a short flight and before I could doze off, I saw the lights of the massive city of Cairo below me, a shining beacon rising from the desert.
Memories of arrivals past flooded over me. The first time I visited Cairo was as a 23-year-old. I was with my boyfriend, the man who would become my husband just 7 months later. All our luggage was lost enroute so there I was in a strange city with a man who had suddenly become a stranger to me. A friend he had made a few months earlier picked us up and he, too, was a stranger. In other words, it was all strange and unfamiliar.
Six years later I would arrive with three children, four years and under, to make a home in the city. What was initially strange became dear and familiar, the city pushing its way under my skin, up through my blood stream and into my heart. It made its home there, squeezing in between space I had reserved for other things and planting itself, a pacemaker of sorts that quickened or slowed my heartbeat. You don’t take out a pacemaker just because you move. It stays there, not always working as well as you want it to because it’s so out of sync with its surroundings.
Through the years I have arrived and left Egypt around 26 times, but who or what is really counting? The pacemaker, that’s who.
On arrival, the familiar mixes with the strange, almost like a recipe changing. You don’t remember the recipe quite the way it now tastes. And so it is with return. The picture that you have planted in your head conflicts with the images you are seeing, initially feeling like a betrayal. What happened to that restaurant? That coffee shop? That family? I thought they would always be there. Once the betrayal is confronted, I feel a new freedom to relax and enjoy.
Marty, a dear friend of many years picked me up from the Cairo airport and we happily chatted as the driver dodged the ever-present traffic, finally arriving in Ma’adi, the place where Marty has made her home for 34 years. If outside had changed, inside was the comfort of familiarity in a dear place with dear friends.
Everyone has a different routine when going back to places they have lived in the past. For me, it means carving out of a new niche. This is not metaphorical but concrete. I have to find a new coffee shop, the space where I will go daily while I am visiting. I found it quickly, a small outdoor space with perfect lattes and delicious mint, lemon smoothies. The first few days found me content to just be, casting off the stress of my U.S. life and taking on this extraordinary chance to rest.
I chose the perfect month to return. Cairo in October is generally spectacular, the heat of summer making way for cool mornings and warm days, gentle breezes and even occasional rain. There is a new energy and gladness in folks who had previously succumbed to summer’s lethargy, knowing that fighting it is useless.
A desert retreat, chance to speak, and time with friends would come later. For now, all I knew was that I had returned to the pacemaker, the place where two of my children were born, the place where I learned to be a mom, where some of my most enduring friendships were born. I returned to a desert with splashes of fuchsia, orange, and white bougainvillea creating a striking and beautiful contrast to the dust. I returned to old memories and friendships and to creating new memories and new friendships.
I had returned. I was back and the world was alright.
Author’s Note: Dear readers, I’ll be taking you through a tour of my recent trip to Egypt and Turkey these next few days! Thank you for following along. Here are a few pictures to go with today’s post!
This is what happens when you come back. Time fails. Geography wins. We’re in the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown in which the little bunny keeps trying to run away, but his mother is always there, arms outstretched, embedded in the landscape. This is what [coming back] is doing to us. We are her children, and we are being claimed.”
What Falls From the Sky
“We’re going to Winchendon today,” I texted my husband on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago.
“Safe travels sown memory lane,” he replied.
The “we” referred to my oldest brother and my mom. We were in Central Massachusetts visiting my younger brother for a short two days and two of the places that had been home for our family during furloughs were within a forty minute drive.
My mom was born and raised in Winchendon, Massachusetts before leaving the United States to spend a lifetime overseas. I was born in the same town and spent my first three months of life there before arriving in Pakistan as a three-month old. I returned to Winchendon at four, then at fourteen – each time living for a limited amount of time before returning home to Pakistan. I had also lived in the city of Fitchburg, about a half hour away from Winchendon, when I was 10 going on 11. Though I have lived in Massachusetts for many years now, I had never gone on a trip down memory lane.
Memory lane travel began on Klondike Avenue in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Klondike Avenue received us, a missionary family with a bunch of kids, made us feel like we were at home, like we belonged. As we drove down the street I eagerly waited to see the house where we lived during that unforgettable year. I remembered it as being an old New England home on a dandelion dotted hill that sloped down to the road. Like many things in my memory, the house was far smaller, the hill was not as large, but the house looked happy and well cared for with bright red and pink geraniums beckoning from the back steps. The area around the house was completely built up, farm land sold to a developer many years ago. Paradise had indeed been paved to make way for homes, families, and urban growth.
Klondike Avenue was thousands of miles away from our world in Pakistan. We traded boarding school for day school, a land rover for a Ford station wagon, Sunday night singspirations for Sunday night cereal. We were the missionary family with all the kids and as we entered, the neighborhood seemed to know we were coming.
Memories flooded over me of swimming in the Pierce’s pool and playing softball on late spring evenings on the Pierce Farm field; riding bikes to the book mobile that came every Thursday and Vacation Bible School at Highland Baptist Church; laughing and talking with Carin Waaramaa who lived at the end of the street and generously offered me her friendship and her family, no strings attached, no motives, just pure grace.
For kids coming from Pakistan, Klondike Avenue was near perfect.
At this point we were miles into memory lane and I wondered aloud if we could find East Street School, the old brick building where my youngest brother and I went to school that year. Just around a corner, we unexpectedly came on it. It’s sad facade begged us to stop and pay attention, clearly no one else had. Windows were boarded up and resilient plants sprouted their way through cracked concrete. A young woman with a brilliant smile that sparkled of good dental care had pulled up to the side of the road. She looked at us curiously, what would bring people to stop and take pictures of this sad building? Through an open window I explained to her that I had attended this very school many, many years before.
Highland Baptist Church, an old New England Church with white clapboard and a tall steeple, was our next stop. We chatted with the current pastor, my mom relaying some of her memories and we hearing some of the current happenings in the community.
On to Winchendon where we visited the cemetery where my grandmother and grandfather are buried, as well as two stillborn children and a first wife that my brother buried before he was 28 years old. Sometimes you need to be reminded of the suffering of your siblings. In that space, the midday sun shining brightly on us, I remembered.
We drove on to the veteran’s cemetery, the graves lined up like tidy soldiers, a startling contrast to the untidiness of death, to the untidiness of war. It took a couple of text messages and looking on a website to find my father’s grave. Not having thought ahead, we shamelessly “borrowed” some flowers from another grave for a photo op, and we will ever be grateful to the family of Kenneth Proos for their unknowing generosity. Immediately after the picture was taken we returned them to their rightful owner. I like to think that the laughter it brought us was gratitude in itself, but we will never know.
My mom’s childhood home at 485 Central Street in Winchendon was our next stop. To our amazement we connected with Mr. Walker, a man who has lived there for decades and remembered my grandparents. “You’re a Kolodinski?” he asked my mom. He and his wife bought the house not too many years after my grandmother moved. It was a poignant connection and gift to hear memories of the house and neighborhood. As we drove away, we weren’t thinking much about memories. Pizza and subs were on our collective minds. How can memory make one so hungry? Revived by sub sandwiches at a local pizza place, more family stories were told.
Our last stops were the schools we attended and 40 Hyde Park Street, the street and house where my cousins lived, a home base of sorts for us every four years until it wasn’t. My great grandfather, a Polish/Lithuanian immigrant, bought farm land when he moved to the area hoping his son would take it on after he died. Like so many immigrant families, what the parent wanted and what the adult child wanted were two different things. The farm land was slowly sold off, in its place stand an assisted living center and other homes. We had lived in the house next door for my freshman and sophomore years of highschool, a perfect location with cousins, an aunt and uncle, and grandmother next door.
As I looked up at the windows of the tiny room that had been my bedroom, I remembered tumultuous teen years in a place where I didn’t fit, a round (quite round as I gained a lot of weight that year) peg trying desperately to fit myself into all of the square holes around me only to realize that I was too round, too different, too “other.” And yet, I still remember sweet friendships with people who could reach across the barriers that divide, inviting me into relationship and connection.
It was mid afternoon when we began to drive back to Clinton. There was still a lot of daylight left, the summer sun not yet tired, but our return trip was quieter, perhaps each of us were lost in memory and story.
I have often tried to forget this area, to deny my connection to the geography or people. Whenever I thought about Winchendon, the only colors that would come to my mind were grey and sad, while the colors that came into my mind with Pakistan were brilliant reds, yellows, blues, and greens. But it is as impossible to forget this area as it would be to forget Pakistan. They worked in tandem to raise me. This is a place that has been part of my extended family for generations and has given me a heritage that I cannot deny.
Each of us has an invisible box of told and untold journeys and memories. Some of these have names and faces, roads and mailboxes. Others have emotions and conversations, wishes and regrets, dreams and hurts. There are the valleys of gravestones and unimaginable pain and there are mountains of unexplainable joy. Memories remind us who we are, where we’ve come from, what we’ve lived through. They connect us even when they are hard and sad, for a life without contrasts is no life at all.
It is now a couple of weeks later. Life moves forward and, as Dumbledore tells us, “It does not do to dwell on dreams (or memories) and forget to live.” Perhaps that’s why we need the caution to travel safely down memory lane. For whether the memories be good or hard, living color or deep grey, they can trap us into imagining life was far better or far worse than it actually was or is.
As for me, my travel down memory lane was safe and secure, full of stories and laughter, a day of being claimed by the memories and geography that make me who I am.
This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.
Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.
Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.
In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.
The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.
I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.
In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.
Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.
Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.
Amidst all this madness, all these ghosts and memories of times past, it feels like the world around me is crumbling, slowly flaking away. Sometime, when it’s this late at night, I feel my chest swell with a familiar anxiety. I think, at these times, that I have no more place in my heart for Pakistan. I cannot love it any more. I have to get away from it for anything to make sense; nothing here ever does. But then the hours pass, and as I ready myself for sleep as the light filters in through my windows, I hear the sound of those mynah birds. And I know I could never leave.
Fatima Bhutto, Songs of Blood and Sword
It’s a blue, blue sky and for the first time this year I have the joy of sitting outside to drink my coffee.
Several of these past days have started with a thick fog covering the area. The buildings in downtown Boston, usually easily visible from our upstairs window, covered in misty grey.
The thing with fog is that you feel it will last forever even though your head tells you that’s ridiculous. So there’s this tug between feeling and thinking as you will yourself forward by head rather than heart.
But today? There is no fog. Just the crispest blue sky and a weather app promise of a warm day.
I’ve been thinking a lot about thresholds, largely because of a writing prompt from a group that I connect with on social media. One of the definitions of threshold is gate or door. Explore a bit more and this is expanded to mean “the place or point of entering or beginning.” Perhaps, too, the foggy beginnings of the last few days have made me think about thresholds. Thresholds as points of entering or beginning can be foggy and disorienting.
A couple of weeks ago, I learned from a Russian friend that you never hug someone over a threshold. You either go in, or come out. Once you are both out (or both in) then you can hug. She was emphatic that I not hug her across th threshold.
I have more questions for my friend, but what I love about this is that you have to commit. It’s like a mom saying “Either come in or go out, but don’t stand in the doorway.”
And that’s what happens when you are standing in the threshold of something. You can’t stay there. You have to pass through.
May and June are threshold months. They are months of soul aching goodbyes, each goodbye a mini death. They are months of nervous excitement and wanting to lengthen the moments and stretch them into hours and days. They are months of laughter at what has been and so many tears at what will no longer be.
Graduations, moves, sorting, packing up, giving away, wondering what’s to come – all of these and more are packed into threshold months.
In World’s Apart, I write this about one of my threshold moments:
“The magnitude of what I was leaving was not completely lost to me that night. Even in the midst of the goodbyes, I felt my throat catch. But as I look back I am overwhelmed by it. We left behind our entire lives the night of graduation. We said goodbye to all we knew. For the rest of our lives we would struggle to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ We would rage at those who attacked our adopted country, even as we raged at Pakistan herself. Some of us would be accused of crying ‘every time a cow died in Pakistan.’ Others would stoically move forward, silent about the impact of being raised in another world…..The next day I would leave Pakistan and never sleep in this house again, never walk up the hill to catch the school bus. The final chapter of life as a child in Pakistan had ended. I was the baby turtle, making its way slowly to the sea. No one could do it for me. In order to survive and thrive, I had to do it by myself.”
Of all the endings and beginnings I have had, this is the one that was most pivotal. It was my exit and my entrance – from Pakistan to the United States, from child to adult, from home to the unknown. It was clarity and fog, warmth and cold, peace and anxiety.
A couple of weeks before I stood on this threshold between worlds, I had some of the happiest moments imagineable. It was early summer in Murree and the weather was perfect. The moments of connection and friendship were memory-making; the joy I felt palpable. I knew who I was, I knew where I was going, I would make Pakistan and my little school in her mountains proud. Looking back, I am so grateful for those moments. They would sustain me for a long time when life became foggy and I no longer knew who I was or where I was going.
So for you who are on the threshold of something new, hold on to the moments. Honor what has been even as you prepare for what will be. You have been shaped and raised by the places and people that you will soon leave – know that this shaping is a gift and uniquely prepares you for your next journey. Take good, long looks at the people and places you have come to love. Those memory snapshots will give you strength for what’s to come.
As you step over the threshold of what is to come, remember this:
Thresholds are doorways into future wonder, but before you step through them, you need to be able to hold close what you are leaving behind.
In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.
“While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.“
She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*
Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.
Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.
Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place.
I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.
There are two types of ambiguous loss:
Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*
Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.
There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.
Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.
Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.
Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.
Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.
Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.
Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.
Lastly,God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.
Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas
“The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life”
Recently I have been longing to purchase a home. For a long time we did own, first in a small town in Massachusetts, then in the city of Phoenix. I loved those homes. They were our spaces, places where we could share our lives. One was an old Victorian home with 36 windows, five bedrooms, and a side porch with a doll house and wicker furniture. Our children climbed the trees in the side yard in the summer and fall and sled down a small hill in the back yard in the winter. We would order and stack chopped wood each fall to use in the wood stove in the living room, where we would gather each evening after homework to drink tea and talk.
The other was a much younger southwest home with archways and tile, cool stucco and high ceilings. Fans whirred most of the year and the diving pool was in constant use. A large back yard faced the desert and the famous Phoenix sunsets brought on quiet beauty and longing almost daily. We created a large patio at the far corner of the yard, and spent hours sitting, talking, and listening to our teenagers hone their guitar skills. In those completely different venues, we created space and place so that any guest or stranger would know the space was undeniably ours.
Growing up we never owned a house. We went from mission house to mission house and each one I loved. There were similarities in all of them – ceilings taller than 20 feet, archways, small windows just below the high ceilings called roshandons, often made of stained glass that helped to circulate air, and fans hanging from the ceilings with 12 foot thick wire. Salts crept up the walls causing them to bubble and crumble, but they were home. Courtyards with dusty Bouganvillea and Hibiscus grew wild with brilliant color, a sharp contrast to the dust of the ground and walls. The flat roofs allowed us to look across houses and trees, mosques and shops giving us a birdseye view of whatever city we lived in. They were all home. They were, above all, safe.
As an adult I’ve called four countries home and always welcomed the challenge of creating beauty out of odd colors and spaces, of transforming kitchens and living rooms into places we could call home. With all their warts and impermanence, we still called them home.
We’ve rented now for many years. I don’t think we set out to rent. I think we didn’t think about it, and the next thing we knew, prices around us had risen and owning was far out of our affordability. This worked out well when a dream of being back in the Middle East became a reality and we rid ourselves of seventy five percent of our posessions, taking on a journey that would have us fall in love with a place and people more than we’d ever imagine.
But, as those who read my writing know, that ended and we found ourselves back in the Boston area rebuilding what we had left, grieving even as we moved forward. Six months into our move, the world stopped, borders closed, and we experienced limited movement like we’ve never had before. It was soon into this closure that a longing for a house began in me. While we have our beautiful cottage in Rockport, it is too small to host our kids and our guests, and I long for something that can create memories for this next stage of life.
In recent weeks, its reached a feverish level of longing. Almost before my prayers in the morning I look at my realestate app. I try to imagine living in places that I don’t even like, and then shake my head in frustration. Why has it reached this sort of longing? Why is my heart so aching for place?
I’ve written a lot about place. And indeed, I want my next book to be about place. From Paul Tournier’s A Place for You to Wendell Berry’s Port William series, I read words that remind me place is important. We are created for place. Our longing is not misplaced so much as it is affected by our limited vision of what place is and where it fits in our spiritual and physical journey.
I don’t know what will happen with this longing. I don’t know if it will be fulfilled. Even as I write this, I know how incredibly fortunate I am, how I do not wonder where my next meal will come from or where I will sleep tonight. I am warm. I am safe. I have place even as I long for place. This longing is real to be sure, but it is not like the longing for a child, an empty womb and hands a continual sword in the heart. Or like the longing for a close one who has died. But longing is longing, and telling myself it’s minor is like slapping myself.
That God meets us in our longing is something I know in my bones, but even as he meets us, we are flesh and blood. We ache and long for permanence in the impermanent; in a world that can’t possibly deliver. As I wrote several years ago: We are tethered to earth with hearts made for Eternity. Surely Christ, who experienced the impermanence of place and a human body on this earth knows this. In the quiet of my heart I sometimes feel his whisper of the permanence that awaits me, more glorious than I could imagine, but seemingly so very far off.
In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, he writes poignantly of place. And whether place is rented or owned, there is something in the keeping of it that matters. I grab onto this on this day, a day when I looked yet again at the real estate app, desperately searching for something. As I grab hold, the words settle into my spirit. I sigh, close the app, and bake a lemon blueberry cake. It is enough for this moment.
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…