Tears in a Bottle

I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned.

Bettie Addleton

I wake to bright sunshine, a stark contrast to a couple of days ago when it rained as if it would never stop. This is our life – one day is wet and gray, drops of rain falling down like tears on the face of a mother who has lost her child. Overnight the sky changes and I wake to sunshine and glorious colors. One day is so full of grief that one’s heart feels it can no longer beat; the next day you wake up to a heart that still beats and the laughter of children.  One day there’s a party and the next day there’s a funeral. Grief and joy, coexisting under the umbrella of grace.

Our world feels full of tears. In a news article I read of an Italian family in New Jersey who has lost three members to the coronavirus in the past week – the mother died not knowing that her son and daughter died just days before her. The death toll in Italy rises, so high that it feels like numbers instead of people.

Years ago during the SARS epidemic, my sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned that SARS was changing the way people were able to grieve. Isolated, unable to bring family and friends together, their grieving and mourning was trapped by physical and social distancing.

This virus is causing the same difficulty, grief trapped outside an isolated hospital room, where a loved one is being cared for by capable strangers. Trapped during that intimate and difficult moment of death, unable to reach out and touch, grieving instead through heavy glass barriers as hospital staff with masks and gowns care for the person you love as they take their last breath. A heart monitor flatlines while a family watches through a window. Death is never easy, never convenient but orders for isolation, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place make it even more difficult.

Our own family is experiencing the difficulty of grieving during the time of coronavirus as last week we had to postpone my brother’s memorial service. It was the right thing to do, but I cried deep tears of mourning. Our time in Thailand was precious as we grieved as a small group, the love, tears, and laughter evident in all our interactions. But there are more family members and friends who need to grieve this man who lived well and died too soon.

Sunshine sometimes feels incongruent to the world news, as though rain better represents life during these days. Rain collecting on city streets creates a sloppy soup of cigarette butts, paper leaflets, and garbage – a broken mess of life. Rain hides the tears falling down my cheeks, gives me grace to weep tears that I don’t want seen in public, but that I can’t hold back until I am in private. But just as I think I have cried all the tears possible, that the grief will never stop, I wake up to sunshine.

A few years ago I wrote about tears and my friend Bettie responded:

Sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, pleasure, joy, happiness, and other emotions turn on the tears. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals. Like torrents of rain or an uncontrollable flood, and even slow and haltingly, they flow, bringing cleansing and as you say redemption. I have chronic dry eyes, a condition when the eye is unable to produce tears. It is not healthy. My vision is affected. For good eyesight, the production of tears is necessary. I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned. Bring on the tears for they have redemptive quality.

Tears in a bottle, tears redeemed. Permission to mourn. Tears that renew my vision and enable me to see the marks and manifestation of God-breathed redemption.

“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

Those Damn Decade Photos

It was last January when I saw the first decade photo. I remember it well. It was of a gorgeous 27 year old who had also been a gorgeous 17 year old. No awkward photos there. Just lovely teeth, lovely hair, lovely – I mean really lovely – skin, and a cute caption. Something like “Wow – it’s been a decade. So much has happened but I guess I’m holding up okay!” All of us responded positively to the beautiful perfection that was her. She also had a chin, which for some of us was perhaps the most enviable part of her photograph.

I began to see more and more decade photos, and finally I thought “Wow! Wouldn’t it be fun to find some photos and do the same?”

I would periodically set out to find the decade photos, but every time a memory would stop me. A memory from the last decade of life. A memory that didn’t find its way into social media, but found its way into my mind, floating there until I gave it the laughter, joy, or tears that it deserved.

These damn decade photos – they capture a couple of seconds in time, but the moments before and after dance around them, creating an album of life that isn’t easily shared.

For so many of us, these decade photos are tough. A decade ago, some had a home to go to for Christmas – now they long for their phones to buzz with a text of invitation from someone who knows they are alone. A decade ago, a grandmother could walk quickly and unassisted, conquering her eighties like a boss. Now she walks with a cane or walker, ever aware of her fragility. A decade ago, a couple pledged their lives to each other- family and friends witnessing and celebrating. Now a casket holds the body of one of them while the other lives through the unimaginable.

When we first search for the photos, it’s a fun game. “Let’s look!Let’s see how the pictures differ!” The kid with braces and a god-awful haircut turns into the male model – or not. The pictures we carefully curate may be beautiful or fun but they hide much of what the decade held. For me, the longer I searched, the more i realized the moments lived in the decade were far deeper than the pictures we took.

A decade ago, I was parenting a child in middle school, a child in high school, two college students, and a young adult. Now I’m parenting 5 adults, all on their own in different cities of the world. How could I possibly find photos that captured the differences between them and now? More than that, did I have the resilience to look back at the hard, hard things that transpired? The “non-curated” moments where life fell apart and you weren’t sure you could go on.

But I kept searching, because ultimately I wanted to see how life had changed, and how we had changed and adapted with it. ⠀

This morning I looked back in the archives and found the long sought-after pictures. Memories and moments hidden from the one-dimensional camera lens tumbled over each other, but I pressed on.

For most parents, mingled in with the pictures are a million stories of our kids growing up and facing equal amounts of joy and pain without us able to bear witness and be a soft landing for them. They have grown up and grown on. And though we may still be very much a part of their lives, we are not going to know everything, because we aren’t supposed to. ⠀

The best we can do is embrace them when they come home, give them a soft pillow and a warm drink, and love them, love them, love them. And we can pray mercy and grace over them by the handfuls, and pray that they will have the tools to face whatever is going on in their lives. ⠀

And then sometimes we get golden moments. Weddings, births, and reunions – visible evidence of families expanding to include partners and grandkids. And somehow the love that we have for them grows to include the extra people. It’s a miracle really – this human capacity to love. A miracle of God.⠀


Next time I see a decade photo, I’ll remember that even the most beautiful picture includes a storied life of joy and pain, sometimes visible, other times invisible.

Here’s to the untold stories of this past decade, the ones that never make it to social media, because they aren’t supposed to. The stories we hold close to our hearts and first in our prayers. And may we always remember, we are all so much more than we appear.

2009-2019

A Life Overseas – On Family Albums and What I Didn’t Know

Posted by Marilyn

Our family albums tell amazing stories. Picnics in the shadow of the Great Pyramids of Egypt; bucket baths in Swat Valley – home to Malala the brave; hiking in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains; feeding pigeons outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul; climbing on canons in Quebec City; wandering through Topkapi Palace with cousins, an added bonus; early morning train journeys from Ankara to Istanbul; roaming the streets of Cairo and boat rides on the Nile. 

Amazing stories, each one of them. Each one an entry into a thick family album.

And then the stories changed, and with them the photographs. Those fading photographs changed from plane rides to road trips, from palm trees to sugar maples, from apartments in a large Middle Eastern city to a Victorian home on Main Street in New England. Suddenly there were leaves to rake during golden autumns. Warm winters with no need for snow boots changed to delighted cries of “It’s snowing” followed by sledding on the small hill in our back yard. Spring saw us aching for the warmth of summer and forcing forsythia to bloom and bring color and new life. And then there were the summers, where daily trips to the ocean, even if it was for only an hour, were necessary as we experienced the magic of low tide on rocky New England beaches.

We were no longer on planes every year, our passports ready to be stamped. Our suitcases had layers of dust on them and the trunks that had so faithfully crossed the ocean found other uses storing legos and other toys. The reminders of our former lives were reduced to photo albums, stories, stamps in our passports, and Arafat and Rabin, sworn enemies, looking out at us from a heart-shaped frame on our mantle.

Our photo albums capture points in time, but not the whole narrative. Not the narrative of transition and loss, of starting a new life and trying to recreate home. Written through every picture is the hidden narrative of finding home within transition. Finding home in a world that changed frequently.

And what about our children in all of this? What about those blonde and dark heads, those blue and brown eyes, those toddler And elementary school bodies that even then were growing into a space far beyond our walls of safety? What about those kids captured so well in photographs, and yet – not really captured at all?

I knew nothing of the third culture life when we began this journey. I knew that I felt most comfortable between worlds but I had not discovered the language to articulate this. I knew I felt different in the United States then I did in Pakistan, but the research was new and not mainstream. I was a third culture kid raising third culture kids, and I didn’t have a clue as to what that really meant.

Shallow roots are tender, they need care as they are being transplanted. We hurt shallow roots because we didn’t know any better.


In the midst of such constant change, how do we still find a way to be in the world, to build a home under ever-changing conditions? I think the answer is found not in the concept of home per se but what a home provides us, which is a place of dwelling. To dwell is to linger, to safely be.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

When we live lives that take us miles from family and home cultures, we learn that a home is far more than four walls and a roof. Home becomes people, routines, precious objects that make their way across oceans and transitions, and digging up roots that, though shallow, are still roots.

How do we navigate all of this? How do we adapt when change and transition feel like the only constants?How do we keep up the rhythms of home, and a sense of belonging when the walls of home have moved?


As children, I think we take for granted that a home is gifted to us. It’s made for us through the routines, the four walls that surround and the emotional rhythms that build a sense of familiarity and holding. As we grow, that sense of belonging to a place and a people translates to a more robust internal belonging and holding that allows us to venture further and further out into the world.

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

I didn’t know back then – but now I do know, and this is what I would tell my younger self – Click here to read the rest of the piece at A Life Overseas.

“At two and a bit, he understood neither distance nor time. What he understood was that we were there, but he was not. For the first time in his short life, he learnt how to say goodbye.”

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT 

Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

On 35 Years of Marriage

We get to the Athens Central station early but already it is filled with travelers. We look around at crowds of Greeks on their way to Thessaloniki or other stations along the way to celebrate Nativity.

A train security man, zealous for our safety, periodically walks the yellow line along the platform, presumably shouting at all of us in Greek to not, under any circumstances, walk into that yellow line. We dutifully comply.

We stand and I look at my husband as he leans against a pole, our train tickets in hand. I smile, overwhelmed with a sense of great love for this joy-filled, fun, adventurer that I have married. He grins back and I capture the picture.


It is this picture and event that I remember as I wake up to our 35th wedding anniversary. Though it is six months after the train ride, it captures what this year and our married life has been. This is us – the grin, the train tickets, the sparkle of adventure that we see in each other’s eyes, the luggage, the chaos, the jostling, the unknown.

35 years ago we said “I do” to all of this and so much more. Would any of us say the words “I do” if we knew what was ahead? Perhaps that is the beauty and mystery of marriage – that despite all the mistakes, all the failed marriages, all the hurt that can happen, there still emerges this splendid hope that two people can combine intimacy with individuality and make it.

My faith tells me this is more than a man-made institution, that there is a spiritual mystery beyond understanding that undergirds these fragile vows made in the beauty and unwrinkled days of youth.

Though promised in innocence, they have matured in the fire of life and emerged from that fire scarred but worthy. Worthy of celebrating, worthy of announcing, and worthy of remembering and looking ahead.

It was a year ago that we made the seemingly radical decision to upend our life in Cambridge and step into the unknown. Many of you have followed us on that journey and its unexpected ending. The year has been a paradox with some of the most difficult situations accompanying some of the best. The year mirrors marriage – the good, the hard, the sad, the lonely, the loss, the bargaining, and the acceptance. Unexpected joy and unanticipated grief met together, and we are still reeling in the aftermath.

But today, we forgot all that in a near perfect celebration.

We spent the day with our oldest daughter, an example of the grace that comes with adult children. She is here with her young family and we spent the day in sunshine and the relaxation that only a perfect summer day in Rockport can bring. The wonder and excitement of a three-year-old and the miracle of a seven-month-old punctuating our time with appropriate exclamation marks of joy.

We completed it with a balcony dinner of clams and linguini made by our daughter, accompanied by a perfect white wine.

As the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean, God’s stamp of approval came with the sunset and a sky painted in blues, greens, purples, pinks, and oranges.

This indeed, is us.