It’s a rainy fall day here in Boston. The bells at the church across the street just chimed five times, telling me it’s almost evening.
I woke up restless and sad, a soul in chaos. The gloom outside found its way inside and I struggled to find a rhythm. The news has not helped. As you who read this blog know, I’ve long loved the Kurds.
Three years before we moved to the Kurdish Region of Iraq (Kurdistan) we had the opportunity to visit. It was at the height of the ISIS crisis, and displaced people and refugees had altered the landscape of the area. ⠀ ⠀ Even before that time, we had always been interested in Kurds and the Kurdish story. ⠀ ⠀ Having the opportunity to live and work in Kurdistan last year was one of the great privileges of our lives. And by all accounts, it ended too soon. We grieve the loss of community and miss the deep friendships we formed every day.
Kurdish people face challenges, threats, and obstacles from within and without. From their own leaders making rash and ludicrous decisions about finances, pay checks, jobs, and governance to outside forces making tragic decisions on invasions and non-interventionist decisions when they have already intervened, Kurdish people in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria suffer. ⠀ ⠀ Despite this, resilience, hospitality, and sheer joy are hallmarks of who they are as people. This group that spans man-made divisions and borders needs your prayers and help. ⠀
The news of the attacks in Syria have deeply affected the community where we lived and worked in Rania. Our friends are sad, but they are also angry. They feel betrayed. I feel betrayed with them and I have felt it in my soul.
But I am many miles away, and my restless, chaotic spirit is not helping anyone.
I learned long ago that there are some antidotes to restless, fractured souls, so if you are feeling as I was today, here are some ideas.
Bake bread. The measuring, mixing, kneading, and baking will go from your arms to your heart to your soul.
Chop fresh vegetables for a soup or stew.
Clean the house. Scrubbing, scouring, mopping, and dusting – cleaning out the dirt that accumulates can satisfy in immeasurable ways.
Write a letter to someone. The old fashioned kind that will have them shocked and deeply pleased. Taking pen to paper and writing news or a note of encouragement is a way to take your mind off yourself and focus it on someone else.
Donate time or money to a local charity. There are so many organizations doing good work in our world. It just takes intentionality to find them.
Light candles and listen to music. There is something about light and music that pushes against the darkness we sometimes feel in our souls.
Phone or text someone. There is someone out there who is feeling as chaotic, lonely, or sad as you are. Reach out and offer friendship through your phone.
Read the Psalms. Even if you are not from a Christian tradition, the Psalms can offer extraordinary comfort. King David who wrote many of the Psalms was up against some bad guys. He regularly cried out to God, begging him to destroy the wicked. His words resonate to this day , offering us a blue print of prayer and communication to God.
Read a book about someone who made a difference. Right now, I’m reading the book Stronger than Death by my friend, Rachel Pieh Jones. It is an a remarkable story about a woman who broke boundaries and rules to love those at the margins of society. It takes me out of my current chaos and reminds me that loving others is a costly calling that I know little about.
Dance. Just put on that music and go for it. Besides being good exercise, your body will pour forth endorphins in gratitude.
Call one of your friends who has a baby and go hold that baby. Blow on its belly and listen to that baby laugh. “A baby is God’s opinion that the world must go on”*
Read The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman. This book has nuggets of wisdom that surprise and delight. At one point she encourages the reader to look at doing the next right thing for the next ten minutes. It’s an exercise that continues to stay with me.
Love someone well. “Ordinary love, anonymous and unnoticed as it is, is the substance of peace on earth, the currency of God’s grace in our daily lives.” (Liturgy of the Ordinary, pp 79)
This list is not exhaustive and it’s not extraordinary, but today, as I chopped vegetables for soup, kneaded bread, and scrubbed the dirt off the floors of this little red house, my soul rested and I felt an incomparable peace.
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Wingaersheek Beach is a beach in Gloucester, Massachusetts. A winding road off Route 128 takes you up hills and around curves, like you’re traveling to nowhere. But beyond the winding roads and heavily wooded area you realize there is an extraordinary beach, hidden from the unaware traveler.
Wingaersheek beach is unique among beaches. Massive rocks in the middle of the sand create a natural playground for children or seating spaces for adults to lounge. High tide pushes everyone toward the marshes and soft, white sand while low tide transforms the area into sand bars in the ocean and empty beach to roam and play.
For us the real magic of Wingaersheek comes after 5, when tired beach goers walk toward their cars, sand and sun covering their bodies, and we arrive. The real magic is low tide at sunset.
Our love of Wingaersheek began many years ago, during another tumultuous time of transition. We had been living in the mega city of Cairo, Egypt for seven years but circumstances urged us to return to the United States. We landed in Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. with five kids, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat named Pharaoh. Two of our kids had been born in Egypt, and none of them knew much about living in America. In fact, none of us did. In total we had lived in the United States for 12 months in 11 years. The best way to describe us was as hidden immigrants with good English skills.
We thought we would make our home in the suburban landscape of Washington D.C., where politicians, lobbyists, and power brokers hide behind expensively unassuming brick homes and everyone has to know someone to get anywhere. It turns out that this was the wrong place for us, and six weeks after arriving we found ourselves on the Northshore of Boston.
We were jobless and initially homeless, with an extended family that was praying hard.
I remember the palpable fear of a new beginning in the United States. I remember the unknown, the newness of everything, the anxiety about the future. I remember the sense of being on shaky ground; like an earthquake where you don’t remember where to go, and instead stand paralyzed, wondering when the tremors will stop.
Our hopes and plans for the future were all focused on living overseas. We never imagined that this would change, never imagined that our dreams would have to change, that our plans would have to shift. It was a death of expectations. It was the death of our life as we knew it. It was the death of a dream.
If someone had asked us what we had left behind, we would have said “Everything. We left everything behind.”
We found a ranch style house in the small town of Essex with a bright orange kitchen. It was an unimaginative house, but the pond behind the house provided hours of joy for our kids. We enrolled our three oldest in school, and we began to look for jobs.
It was now September and Massachusetts was at its finest. Each day dawned bright and golden, temperatures in the low seventies, blue sky that artists and lovers dream about.
We would wake up in the morning and get the three older kids off to school, comforting them as they bravely set out to make their own way in an American school in a small town. After the three older ones were off, we would sit down and look for jobs, scanning newspaper want ads and filling out job applications, all the while praying silently.
And then, we would go to Wingaersheek Beach. The two youngest were one and four years old, and we would pack them into car seats in our red mini van and ride the winding road to the ocean.
The ocean never disappointed. Laying a picnic blanket on the sand, we would sit and munch on sandwiches and fruit. One year old Jonathan was not yet walking and was content with a shovel and bucket. Four-year-old Stefanie would prance all over the sand in a polka dot bikini, her whole being alive with the joy of sand, sun, and ocean.
And we would rest. There was nothing else we could do. We couldn’t make people call us back to interview us, we couldn’t beg people for jobs, we couldn’t do anything to speed up the process. We did all we could do in the morning, and then we went to Wingaersheek Beach.
It was a gift during transition. A healing gift that filled our souls with hope when so much else felt hopeless. Allowing the gift of creation to do its solid work, we rested and we drank in the beauty all around us.
I never knew so many years ago that Wingaersheek would again become a solace during transition, but this August it has. With our unexpected early return from Kurdistan, we have done much the same as we did so many years ago. We have looked for jobs, contacted people, gone for interviews – and then we have gone to Wingaersheek Beach, where low tide and sunsets have wrapped us in hope.
So many years ago, a pond became a solace to my children while an ocean became a solace to my husband and me, making a difficult transition bearable. And so it is this time, nature doing what it does so well if we allow it – providing healing and fostering resilience.
I will always love low tide at Wingaersheek Beach, where heaven meets earth in ocean waves, sand, and sunsets, a tribute to a Creator who calls it ‘Good.’
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“The fear, bigotry, and hatred within us is what we often have to fear the most.“
Friends – One of our dear friends, Sami DiPasquale, and a former student from the Middle East Studies Program that my husband started many years ago, lives and works in El Paso. He loves the community deeply and recently wrote a beautiful and challenging post about the grief the community is experiencing. I am honored to post this on Communicating Across Boundaries.
I don’t know how to express my grief from these last couple of days. Our communities in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are deeply hurting and in shock. My family and our team of coworkers are safe, but we also know that many in our community are just one or two steps removed from victims of the massacre that took place at a nearby Walmart. One of our coworkers was planning to be at that same Walmart Saturday morning but had changed her plans. Another coworker lives very nearby and the shooter was apprehended not far from her apartment. Many from our neighborhood shop regularly at that Walmart since it is close and easy to get to by public transportation. So this act of terrorism hits very close to home.
I want to give a little context to this shooting from my perspective. Someone from far away traveled to the border, to El Paso, in order to inflict great harm on our community. This harm did not come from the south, from one of the thousands of people seeking asylum at the border a mile from my house. This harm was not inflicted by immigrants. This harm was not even inflicted by anyone from El Paso who was unhappy with the situation on the border.
The terror, the murder, the invasion that our city experienced Saturday was brought to the border from inside of the United States, not from outside of the United States. The irony runs deep and bitter. We as a nation have long been told to fear the possibility of terrorism at the border. On Saturday terrorism hit the border in El Paso for the first time in recent memory. And it had a different face than we have been told to expect. According to the ongoing investigation, it had the face of nationalist white supremacy and targeted racial hatred towards immigrants and those of Hispanic descent. A list of the victims has not been released but we know seven of those killed were Mexican citizens who were shopping at Walmart on Saturday.
If you pray, please pray for El Paso and Juarez and for the families of the victims of the shootings. Please pray for healing for El Paso and Juarez, and for the other cities that have experienced similar atrocities. But also please examine your own heart and your own prejudices.
The words we use to talk about others matter, the fears we stir up matter, the walls we build against those who are different than us matter. Whisperings of pride and superiority take hold and grow and turn into something very ugly. And then they manifest themselves in the kind of terrorism we experienced on the border on Saturday. Do not let your homes, your workplaces, or especially your places of worship flirt with this temptation. The fear, bigotry, and hatred within us is what we often have to fear the most.
Last night I attended a vigil hosted by faith leaders from many religious traditions. Our mayor and members of congress were also present and shared. The overriding message was a spirit of love overcoming hate. I have great hope in the capacity of the people of El Paso (a city that is 83% Hispanic and made up of many immigrants) to love and be hospitable. El Paso is the friendliest place I have lived in the U.S. Maybe that is another reason that El Paso was targeted; because it has served as a model for the rest of the country as to what it looks like for a community to respond in compassion to strangers in need. A network of 30 groups in El Paso, mostly churches, has been providing temporary shelter for asylum seekers for the past few years, and now sister churches across the border in Juarez are sheltering those affected by the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Many of these churches have very limited resources and they are not giving out of their surplus but out of their faith and a belief that they must help those in need regardless of the circumstances. We have much to learn from these brothers and sisters.
Thank you to all of you have reached out to check in and send your love. I am very grateful for your friendship and support! Many of you have asked how you can help. The best way you can help is by combating the dangerous attitudes described above wherever you are, and by loving those you come in contact with regardless of their background. If you would like to support families of the victims of the El Paso shooting, the El Paso Community Foundation has started a fund and is accepting donations. https://payments.epcf.org/victims
Over the past year I have been working with members of our team in El Paso to formalize a new initiative, Abara, focused on addressing some of the most pertinent issues in the borderlands. Currently we are supporting migrant shelters on both sides of the border, hosting border encounters for those who want to learn more, and connecting with others engaged in similar work. We hope to inspire connections, contribute to positive narratives about the border and invest in a generation of peacemakers. If interested you can learn more about what we are doing and ways to support this work through the Abara website. You can also sign up for our newsletter to get regular updates on the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and ways to get involved. https://www.abarafrontiers.org
About Sami DiPasquale: Sami was born to American parents in the country of Jordan and spent the majority of his childhood and young adult years in the Middle East – living in Jordan, Cyprus, Egypt and then India – before completing college in the United States. He holds a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies (International Development) from Wheaton College and an MBA from the University of Texas at El Paso. He has spent the last eighteen years immersed in refugee and immigrant communities in the U.S., working in refugee resettlement with World Relief in the greater Chicago area prior to joining Ciudad Nueva and then starting Abara. Sami’s desire to engage border issues through Abara has emerged out of 15 years of neighborhood-based work with youth and families at Ciudad Nueva Community Outreach. He lives and works with his family in the Rio Grande District, a beautiful community in the heart of El Paso, Texas where most of his neighbors have recently moved from Mexico and are striving to acclimate and pursue their dreams.
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It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.
Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.
When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control. Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.
I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.
There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.
In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.
I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?
I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.
Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.
So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?
In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.
I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it. Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.
In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:
Yes, we will leave here without a trace Take a new name and an old shape I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade Just your faithful god of loss
Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.
On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.
My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.
Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.
My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.
In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.
This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.
In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.
In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.
There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.
On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:
“Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”
Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.
Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.
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A long ago friend is killed miles away from his family.
Notre Dame Cathedral burns, an icon in flames.
A dear Kurdish friend’s sister dies. I sit at the funeral, silent and alone with my thoughts, a sea of women and children are quietly talking all around me. The mom’s tears are a window into her grief.
My Kurdish colleagues are told there is no money for their salary this month, leaving many of them at a loss as to how to provide for their families.
My own family members struggle with projects that cannot continue if they are not funded. Important projects in places that matter to God.
It is the 6th week of Lent and as I sit here on a Tuesday afternoon I feel the heavy weight of life. In every one of these circumstances I am helpless. There is nothing I can do. I numbly respond to emails and scroll through pictures of Notre Dame, conscious only of the fact that I am powerless in making any of these things better.
All these thoughts come under a cloudy sky and I long for the Kurdish sun to appear again. Just three days ago the signs were so clear. We had just completed a successful international conference for the college of nursing. The world and the air were sunny and light. It’s easy to have faith when things are going well.
Now, I am in danger of forgetting – forgetting that appearance is rarely reality. Forgetting that part of faith is walking through air that is thick and heavy with grief and pain. Forgetting that the air will not always be heavy and thick, laughter and joy will come again. They always do.
In the Volume 6 of the Narnia Series, The Silver Chair, Jill is tasked with rescuing Prince Rilian and returning him to his father. It’s a seemingly impossible task, but the lion Aslan gives her a series of four signs to watch for. He makes her memorize the signs and repeat them, because he knows that the journey will be difficult and the signs might not always be clear. Today I think about this book and realize that I too need to remember the signs. The air is thick down here in Narnia and I’m struggling to remember the signs.
But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.
CS Lewis in The Silver Chair from the Chronicles of Narnia Series
We are in Athens, mere steps away from the Acropolis that sits high above the city inviting people of every tribe and nation to come and walk its ancient paths. It is the height of privilege to be here and I am deeply mindful of this.
And though Athens has its magic that I could write many words about, it’s not what I’m choosing to write about today. Instead, I want to write about an extravagant friend.
Her name is Betsy and on Christmas Eve, she died.
She died at home, surrounded by her family – her big beautiful family – a husband of over 40 years, children, and grandchildren. After God and coffee, Betsy loved family, but she also invited many into that family. I was one of those people.
I met Betsy when I was 29 years old. My husband and I had arrived in Cairo with our three small children a few weeks before. I was desperate for friendship. We limped our way through the first few weeks and then on the same day both of us had encouraging breakthroughs in unexpected offers of friendship – his through a man named Fred Perry, mine through Betsy. When we look back on this time, it was these two friendships that were the starting point in helping us unpack our bags and hang our hearts in Cairo.
I was emotionally and spiritually lonely. As I sat with my three kids in my fifth floor walk-up apartment one morning, loneliness flooded over me and tears quickly followed. I reached for the community newspaper, lovingly called the Maadi Messenger. In between the “I am Fatima. I wash kids and clothes” and “Learn Arabic quickly!” ads was a section on community activities. There, under community Bible studies, was the name Betsy McDermott and a friendly “Call if you’re interested in joining a Bible study.” I resolutely picked up the phone, checked to make sure the neighbors were not on it as it was a party line, and dialed the number. The next minute Betsy’s unforgettable “Mcdermott Home! Betsy speaking” came from the receiver. It was a voice from Heaven. I paused and then launched in to a halting introduction.
We talked for 45 minutes and by the end of that call I had a Bible study, a best friend, and a wise mentor. Just minutes before we hung up that day, Betsy said “You sound so familiar! Are you sure we haven’t met before?” We figured out that we had mutual friends in two missionary families who had lived in Karachi and knew both of us. We had indeed met! We met when I was in junior high and she was in high school. She was in a singing group in high school with our mutual friend “Auntie Grace” Pittman. It sealed the friendship in ways I could never have expected. She understood the third culture kid piece that I didn’t even know was a word.
With that commonality, I was invited into Betsy’s world of friendship, and what an amazing world it was! It was a world where coffee and hospitality were like oxygen. They were followed by laughter, listening, deep theological discussions, and always long talks about family. It was through this world that I met Martha, Karen, Marian, Christine, and a long list of others who had been invited in and were feasting at the table of friendship.
Betsy’s home became my sanctuary. At Betsy’s house, everything was better.
Expatriate friendships come with an asterisk, and that asterisk is a reminder that all friendships end with goodbye. If you can survive the goodbye, there’s a chance that the friendship will survive the ocean chasms that separate continents. The first was a partial goodbye. Though not separated by an ocean, we were separated by a bustling city of 15 million as we moved to a different part of Cairo. I grieved not being able to drop in on a whim. It was my two-year-old who took on the grief. I remember one day saying goodbye to Betsy as I hopped into a taxi to head from Betsy’s house to mine. Stefanie looked out the window at Betsy and burst into tears. She took in all her mama’s emotions and instead of having a lump stuck in her throat as I did, she grieved in big, gulping two-year-old sobs. I can still see Betsy’s startled face through the grimy taxi window as she waved goodbye.
Two years later, Betsy moved from Cairo to London and the chasm of people became an chasm of water. Although our across the city move two years earlier was difficult, this was now a different country, different time zone, and different life. I didn’t know if I would make it. But the friendship survived, and Betsy’s home in London became my yearly friendship and therapy session. Along with that, we kept in touch through letters, visits during the summer when we were both in the United States, and phone calls. When I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant just before Christmas in 1995, I had told no one. I got off the plane in London after Christmas and burst into tears with Betsy. She hugged me tight. “You’re so lucky!” she said – and in that moment, I began to believe it.
We left Cairo in 1996, but the yearly trips to London continued as I faced the most difficult adjustment I had ever made within a small town in Massachusetts. Soon after, her oldest child began university in Boston and I got to briefly see her on her periodic trips to visit him. In 1999, Betsy moved to Rochester, New York – just 15 minutes away from where my brother lived. Her home there continued to be a place of peace and grace for my life. I was struggling with many, many things – but at Betsy’s house I had a temporary respite. I could relax in her hospitable embrace.
It was in 2003 when we began to see less of each other. Our family moved to Phoenix, her kids began moving away, and trips that included each other were less frequent. Periodically we would reconnect, and it was always as though I was the only person in the world who existed. Our friendship continued with the competition of adult kids, aging parents, and grandchildren. We were now lucky to grab coffee once a year. At this point, I knew she had breast cancer but she was doing well. Each time I saw her she seemed to become more beautiful and more resilient.
Betsy was a third culture kid. She had been through coups, wars, and earthquakes. She had her appendix taken out by an undercover CIA operative, had evacuated countries, and raised her own kids around the globe. She was as comfortable at a fancy dinner party as she was in a slum in Cairo. The stamps in her passport had more stories than a book could contain.
With this as her background, it’s no wonder that her heart was the size of the globe and filled with people that represented that globe. I got to be one of them and even though her heart was heavily populated, when you were with her you thought you were the only one.
More than that, Betsy had a deep relationship with God that affected everyone around her. “Scarcity” was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She radiated the joy of being alive. Betsy was extraordinary.
I wish I could get together one more time to tell her how much I love her, how she met me in my tears and my weakness and gave me strength to move forward. I wish I could thank her for the coffee and friendship, both served so well. I wish I could hug her and hear her laughter and voice one more time. I wish I could thank her for her extraordinary generosity.
I can’t do any of those things. But I can learn from her. I can learn more about what it is to open my heart and my home to people, not afraid that the love or coffee will run out, not worrying that there is not enough to go around.
I learned so many things from this friendship. I learned that faith is a journey and that to question doesn’t take away a rock solid foundation. I learned that loving people is costly – it cost Betsy to love, but she did it and made it look effortless. I learned that hospitality opens up our world and our hearts grow larger.
I didn’t know that Betsy was so near the end. To Betsy, suffering was matter of fact. At my dad’s funeral over a year ago, I asked her about her breast cancer returning. She looked at me “Everyone has something” she said. She didn’t have a mental scale that she kept, weighing her suffering compared to others. She welcomed it with grace, and in doing so had room to comfort others. It was after Thanksgiving that I learned she had stopped treatment and was in palliative care. It hit me hard. I had just welcomed a new grandson into the world and found out that my father-in-law had died. The contrast between life and death felt tender and raw; the veil that separates these two so thin.
For Betsy, that veil was lifted on Christmas Eve when a host of angels welcomed her into the arms of a God who is above all extravagant – extravagant with grace, hospitality, and love; a God who never acts from scarcity but from an abundant well of goodness.
And so I grieve. I grieve not having a last coffee with her. I grieve not having a last hug. I grieve not having a last heart talk. I grieve that I will never again hear her voice or listen to her laugh.
I want to hug my friends and family a little tighter and open my door a little wider, I want to love out of abundance, not out of scarcity.
And so Betsy, I thank you. You lived and loved extravagantly and without hesitation. May I learn to do the same.
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