Sacred Meals and Invitations

This morning I slowly opened my eyes to bright sunlight. As I lay in bed, still sleepy, I reflected back on the last few days and on Thanksgiving, just hours before.

A dear friend arrived on Tuesday from Ghana to stay with us. The first time she ever came to the United States was as an 18-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, here to attend college in Western Massachusetts. She arrived just days after the 9/11 attacks that sent the world into a spin and redefined wars and border crossings. Mariam has now lived in multiple countries with her family, and writes well on what it is to be globally mobile. She is the epitome of what it looks like to learn and grow across cultures and communicate across boundaries.

Her arrival sparked stories and conversations that have been lying dormant in my heart. These global connections are more than friendships – they are opportunities to share stories, they are ways to promote understanding, they are journeys into our hearts and what is really going on. Every morning we have curled up on my couch with homemade lattes, savoring the sweetness and time. These hidden stories don’t make sense to everyone, but they do to Mariam.

Yesterday we worked together to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. Traditional turkey and stuffing blended with Palak Paneer and parathas with a goal to make sure every guest was suitably full to the brim with food and thanks.

It was an eclectic group of us around the table. In today’s climate, some may consider it a dangerous Thanksgiving. An American raised in Pakistan and an American raised in the military feasted with friends from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Iran. There were no walls and there was no talk of walls.

There were stories topped with cranberry sauce, thankful hearts accompanied by whipped cream. There were linguistic comparisons and nostalgia over favorite foods from passport countries, there were missed references and laughter to make your stomach hurt.

There is something sacred about sharing a meal. In the liturgy of our faith tradition we experience the bread and the wine, the body and the blood in remembrance of a meal. But the sacred act of sharing a meal continues when we, equipped through the liturgy, go out into the world. That is why the meals that Christ shared while on earth feel so important. As humans, our need for food and water, the reaching across a table to share these with simple words like “please pass the bread” bind us together in mysterious and hopeful ways. Author Leslie Verner says “A meal equalizes, for as we dine together, we lift the same utensils to our lips and touch the same bread to our tongues.”

There are times when I lose hope for this country, land of my birth and my passport. I wonder how a place with so many resources and such abundance can collectively operate without generosity, with an ethos of scarcity instead of abundance. I think about the lessons I have learned about hospitality and invitations, living out of abundance from the land of my childhood, and the lands that I have loved and lived in as an adult. I lose hope for myself, for how quickly I get caught up in the pervading attitude of “me first” and others last. I feel anger toward the fact that in a worldwide crisis of displacement and refugees, a nation with room to spare has stalled resettlement.

But when I think about yesterday, about a room full of people from around the world who gathered with laughter and joy for a shared meal, I know that’s not the whole story. I know there is more. I know that there are many opening up their homes and making room for more; many who hate walls and want to build bridges.

And I am convinced that inviting others into our homes is one of the most hopeful acts of resistance possible.

We are going into a season of excess and abundance – my prayer is that we – that I – channel that abundance into loving well and serving more, that I channel it into invitations and hospitality.

The ending paragraph of the book Invited is nothing less than inspired. Throughout the book we see an invitation to a different way of living and being, a way of living out of abundance not scarcity. So I close with her words on this day after thanksgiving, inviting all of us into another way to live.

Lord, pry the film from our eyes, the scales from our skin, the shield and sword from our hands. Equip us to notice the stranger and the strange. Embolden us to be the stranger and the strange. Pull us into the flow of your Spirit at work in the world, infusing our ordinary days with your extraordinary presence. Hold open our eyes to to admire your wonders and delight in your mysteries. Fill us with gratitude for the paths you’ve paved for us, and all the ways you’ve proven that you are Emmanuel, God with us.

Motivate us to always invite, because you never stop inviting. Inspire us to welcome, because you lavish generosity on us and promise to refill the gifts we give away.

Come Lord Jesus.

Let us live like invited ones.

Epilogue of Invited by Leslie Verner

Amen

Cappuccino with Barzan: Friendship and Betrayal in Kurdistan

The Beginning

Around eleven o’clock every morning, Barzan would look through the door of my office and say “Come! Let’s have cappuccino!” I would look up at him and respond enthusiastically “Yes!” Five minutes later I would find myself seated at a chair by his desk, stirring a cup of instant cappuccino made in Turkey and readily available in the Kurdish market. That was when our conversation would begin.

It began in early May. May in Kurdistan is when you begin to feel the change in weather. Spring with its rain and lush green fields is gone, but the high temperatures of summer have not yet arrived. The days get longer, and you feel the joy of a season’s change. This May however, the holy month of Ramadan had just begun, and that changed things. The days were long and the nights even longer. For Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan is a time of fasting and prayer. From sunup until sundown, strict Muslims abstain from food, liquid, smoking, and sex.

Instead of a normal May, Ramadan overlaid it with spiritual highs and physical lows. The latter seemed to far outweigh the former. Everyone was grumpy. Everyone was self-righteous. Everyone had a headache, and everyone claimed they were feeling the best they’d ever felt.

As an outsider, I too was feeling the change in temperament and temper, so the first time Barzan invited me, I looked at him in complete surprise.

“But it’s Ramadan!” I said, shock evident in my voice.

“Yes, and sometimes we need to have cappuccino during Ramadan!” His answer was priest-like in its authority and conviction.

I looked at him with joy and amazement. Here was someone who I could relate with, who worked out his faith practically with room for questioning, and perhaps going against the crowd.

Iraqi Kurdistan

The Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is an autonomous zone in Northern Iraq. Unlike the surrounding countries of Syria, Turkey, and Iran, Kurds in this region have carved out a semblance of autonomy. Kurds consider this area to be Southern Kurdistan, one of four parts of Kurdistan, the other parts being Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (northwestern Iran), and Western Kurdistan (northern Syria). Kurds themselves are divided as to what would be best for the people of the region. One more nation state, or more independence within the boundaries of their existing countries? Talk to one person and you’ll get one thought, another and you’ll get a completely different opinion.

For Kurds in Northern Iraq, carving out this autonomous region was not easy, and it continues to have significant challenges. An uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, a United Nations Security Council Resolution establishing a safe haven for Kurdish refugees, and a “No Fly Zone” established by the United States and Coalition forces all worked toward a common purpose and in October of 1991, the Iraqi government finally left, allowing Kurds in the region to begin to live and govern independently. This is a simplistic overview of a much more complex political reality, but it helps outsiders to understand a little of the fierce independence and pride that characterize the area.

The Kurdish Region of Iraq is home to approximately five million Kurds. The solidarity shared with Kurds in the surrounding countries is important to understand. Just like family, I can criticize my family, but you have no right to because you don’t belong, is much the way I experienced Kurds solidarity with each other. They may fight within, but when faced with outside threats, the solidarity and unity is profound. The fight against D’aesh (the Islamic State) was symbolic of Kurds being willing to put aside their differences and come together to fight against an external threat. They did so bravely and selflessly, ridding the region of terror and allowing families to return home after long exiles.

This is what I have been thinking about as I read and react with tears to the recent invasion of Syria by Turkey. Kurds are feeling this acutely. If you’ve watched any recent news, you don’t need me to tell you this. Far more learned and qualified people are writing extensive articles and opinion pieces.

So why does my voice matter?

Maybe because of cappuccino with Barzan.

First Encounters

We first visited the region in 2015 at the height of the crisis with D’aesh. Massive movement had taken place in Northern Iraq. Arab Christians from Mosul and Qaraqosh had left homes, factories, businesses, and restaurants to get their families to safety, away from the tyranny of the Islamic State. Churches and businesses in Erbil, the capital of the KRG, opened their doors to people who had arrived in crisis.  Unfinished malls and apartment buildings were quickly equipped with particle board and moveable walls to create rooms for families. At one building we visited, 120 people shared the same kitchen and bathroom. Families left most everything behind as they moved to the area for safety. And Kurds welcomed them – welcomed them with jobs, food packets, and homes. The stories we heard during that time will remain with me forever, stories of hope and horror, humanity at its best and worst. My husband and I left after ten days in the region with only one thought: We wanted to return. We wanted to move to Northern Iraq. Specifically, we wanted to move to Kurdistan.

Some dreams become reality while others remain silent and still, occupying our hearts and minds in quiet moments, but unable to be voiced because they hurt too much. Our dream became a reality and in September of last year, my husband and I moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. To say we left everything is true. We left excellent jobs at health departments and universities in Boston. We gave away everything except our car, which we sold to an eccentric lady who belonged in a novel. We packed up our lives and our faith and we moved. We didn’t really know how long we would be gone, but we expected to live in the region for at least two years. In one year, you barely begin to understand a new country and culture and cultural adjustments occupy a good amount of your time and energy. You need at least two years, and after that – who knew?

That’s why cappuccino with Barzan was so significant. In the space of a half hour we would talk about everything. Politics (Kurdish, Iraqi, and American), faith, friendship, the profession of nursing, nursing students, marriage, differing cultures, worldviews, and even Wanda, Barzan’s hostess during a time when he lived in the United States. Wanda was an unseen part of every conversation. Barzan and I didn’t always agree – we didn’t have to. Cappuccino made our disagreements sweet and palatable.

Leaving Kurdistan

It was after having cappuccino with Barzan one morning that I found out a decision had been made by the Kurdish Government that dramatically altered our lives. The Minister of Finance had passed down a decree to the Minister of Education that affected all contract employees. Anyone with Bachelor’s Degrees would lose their job; anyone with a Master’s or PhD would lose half their salary. We were summoned to the university president’s office and were given the news. We left the meeting in shock.

We did not want to leave. We wanted to stay in the small city where we had carved out not only morning cappuccino, but also significant community through friendships. My husband taught swimming every Tuesday at a local pool to men who had never had the opportunity to learn how to swim. I was beginning to work with a group of women to teach health classes in the community. We had connected with an NGO and begun game nights every Thursday, and Fridays saw us at an English Talk Club participating with a group of Kurds who we had formed deep friendships with through discussions on many topics all conducted in English. Leave? How could we leave? We had to stay!

A tumultuous month followed, where rumor and fact collided and the truth of the edict was difficult to uncover. But by the end of June we had resigned ourselves to the idea that we would be leaving Kurdistan. The decision was irreversible.

We felt betrayed. Though it was a non-personal decision made at a high governmental level, it felt personal. We watched as Iranian colleagues packed their bags and moved back across the border to Iran. We heard from Kurdish colleagues who were also contract employees and had lost their jobs as well. It was a decision that couldn’t be fought and could take months or years to be reversed.

Our hearts broke. Tears flowed at odd times, our grieving was raw and real. We arrived back in the United States right before the fourth of July and the release of Stranger Things. We had lived our own version of Stranger Things, and it was a relief to binge watch something that took our mind off our transition and grief.

No Friends But the Mountains

The Kurds have a proverb, rightfully born of being surrounded by countries that don’t want an independent nation of Kurdistan to exist. “We have no friends but the mountains” was something we heard from our Kurdish friends over and over during our time in the KRG. We would hear the proverb as we were walking and talking with friends or sitting with them eating a delicious meal and sipping hot tea from glasses.

When I found out that the current administration had made the decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, an area that was being controlled by Syrian Kurdish forces, I thought of the proverb and how Kurds would be feeling and talking about this as they learned of the decision. I felt betrayed with my Kurdish friends by my own government. Had I still lived in Kurdistan, our cappuccino time would be spent grieving the decision.  Instead, it was my husband and me, cursing and grieving the short sightedness of this move. Generally able to look at a decision from multiple angles, this one was political and personal. Destabilization of a fragile area; abandoning loyal allies and paving a path for ISIS to re-emerge are just a couple of the potential outcomes, but largely not understood by many was the ethnic cleansing tragedy waiting to happen. How could America do this? How could we abandon allies that helped defeat D’aesh and be able to sleep at night? How could we not know that the area would create another massive displacement of Kurds and Christian minorities in the region? How could thoughtless leaders not understand the repercussions of this in a world that is so deeply interconnected?

And then there was the sense of personal attack! How could they do this to the Kurds, our friends, people that treated us like family for ten months? Ten months of extravagant invitations to tea and meals. Ten months of learning the history of the region, the horrors experienced during the time of Saddam Hussein and the extraordinary resilience and generosity that characterized the community. Ten months of friendship forged through time, food, and laughter. It didn’t matter that this was not the community where we had lived and worked – these were their Kurdish brothers and sisters, and blood lines are not easily severed in the region. The how coulds got lost in my fury of feeling.

If only we were there. If only we were there to sit with our friends and get angry with them. If only we were there to walk beside them, to show them that the world had not left them. If only we could sit with them and let them see that they do have friends beyond the mountains. But we weren’t there because of the Kurdish government, not the American government. Two governmental decisions. Two betrayals. But one with far more devastating effects than job loss.

But instead of drinking cappuccino with Barzan, tea with Yassin, and eating ghormeh sabzi with Behnaz, we were in a city oceans and continents away.  

Who is My Neighbor?

The feelings of sadness come over me regularly, and I try not to monitor the news 24/7. And I pray. I pray for the Kurds I don’t know, and the ones I know – the ones who opened their homes and lives to us – strangers and Americans.

Many years ago, a man came to Jesus and asked him a question about neighbors; specifically, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered him with a story. I learned a lot about being a good neighbor this past year and I didn’t learn it from people who looked like me. I learned it from my Kurdish, Muslim friends. I learned it from Yassin, who offered friendship through time, invitations to dinner, and helping us understand Kurdistan and Kurds. I learned it from Behnaz, a young Iranian Kurdish woman who offered me laughter, joy, and an artist’s eye for beauty. I learned it from Zana and Karwan who taught me how to heat my home and where to buy items in the bazaar. I learned it from Dr. Sanaa who passionately led the university department where I worked. I learned it from Rania who was a patient cultural broker and my fashion consultant.  I learned it from so many people that I can’t even name them all.

And I learned it from Barzan, who invited a foreigner into his office every day during Ramadan to drink cappuccino.  

As the End Begins

We began packing yesterday morning. Before coffee or tea, before breakfast, before we had a chance to breathe and then catch our breath, we were removing books from shelves and pictures from the walls. “And so it begins” I thought. Compared to what we had to do to come here and the dismantling of our homes and lives in Boston, this is nothing. But it is still hard. It still hurts. I still prefer creating a home to deconstructing one.

The weekend was full of travel and play with 23 Kurdish students and young adults who are volunteers at a local NGO. We piled into a bus with questionable shocks and took to the roads of Kurdistan. We saw rivers and mountains, hiked to Neanderthal Caves and drove through the city of the three wise men. We ate good food and danced to Kurdish music. We had discussions on goals and why we are here and played games. Laughter was the background to every event and meal. It was the perfect way to spend our last weekend in Kurdistan. All together we traveled over 15 hours in a bus across Kurdistan and all of us are richer for it.

We never expected to form these close friendships. We did not know how much we would laugh, that we would find our people among the younger generation in Kurdistan. We did not know that they would support us by bringing medicine when we were sick; heaters when we were cold; invitations when we were lonely; and laughter when we most needed it.

The future in Kurdistan is bright because of these people. They are men and women who are smart, funny, wise beyond their years, and compassionate. They recognize the hypocrisy in their government and in their institutions, and they are fighting to change first themselves, and then their community. We could not be more honored that they have chosen us to be their friends. We could not be more grateful for their willingness to enter into our lives with so much generosity and joy.

Saturday morning we awoke to bright sunshine and the tasks at hand: sorting, distributing, packing. We walked up and down stairs to pack a truck to deliver to one friend who is getting married, another friend who is Iranian and far from her own home comforts, and a local NGO. With every picture taken down and every piece of furniture given away we know that the end has begun.

How do you measure ten months?

In picnics,

In sunsets,

In calls to prayer,

In cups of chai,

In centimeters, in kilometers, in laughter, in strife.

Seasons of Love from Rent (adapted)

When we first found out that we would have to leave the cry of my heart was “Why did we only get ten months? Why?” Now, I think “We got ten months in Kurdistan. We are so fortunate.”

Ten months of laughter and joy; ten months of learning some of the challenges that Kurds work within and around. Ten months of Ranya Bazaar and Cafe 64; ten months of invitations and English talk club. Ten months of Toranj restaurant and our dear Iranian friends. Ten months of unforgettable conversations and amazing food; ten months of learning what advocacy is and is not. Ten months of some of the most challenging work interactions we have had in our many years of working in four countries and on three continents. Ten months of being offended and of causing offense. Ten months of feeling both understood and misunderstood. Ten months of this small apartment that is chilling cold in the winter and delightfully cool in the summer. Ten months of creating a home and a community.

Ten months of picnics, of sunsets, of calls to prayer, and cups of tea. Ten months of centimeters, kilometers, laughter and strife.

How do we measure our time here? It defies the metric and the imperial systems of measurement so we won’t try.

We just know that we are forever richer by Kurdistan.

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

Betsy – An Extravagant Friend

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.

Ladies Day Out

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I am driving from the downtown area of Rockport when I suddenly decide to stop and sit a spell by the ocean. The day is perfect September, all blue sky and mild temperatures. It is low tide and the beach has lost the crowds of summer, leaving pristine sand and so much space. I easily find a bench to sit on and pull out my notebook and pen.

It is then that I begin to observe a group of ladies gathering at the beach. They come in a large group and they are every shape and size. They unpack beach bags and bring out books and suntan lotion. Older wrinkled bodies are revealed without embarrassment, just relaxed satisfied smiles and pure delight in their surroundings. They are short and tall with dyed hair and grey hair. They pull large caftans off of fat bodies and beach coverings off of thinner ones. Their bathing suits seem to perfectly reflect their personalities – the one with dyed hair made up to perfection with the loud Italian voice has a bright coral suit with splashes of white flowers adorning it. The one that struggles to walk has on a black suit with white piping, unremarkable in its style.

Their canvas, beach chairs face the ocean, their backs are to everything but the cool, blue sea. Because really – nothing else matters.

There are no kids. There are no husbands or boyfriends. Just a group of contented women, enjoying a perfect September day on a ladies day out. Their conversation is lost in the waves, but their laughter is loud.

“Look at us!” it says. “This is a day that asks us to leave all our troubles behind. It asks us to enter in with joy and abandon, to splash in a cold, late summer sea; to squint at a bright sun; to smell of coconut lotion and salt water.”

Not all days are like this. Many days require great patience, others require tears, still others ask for anger. But this day? This day says “Welcome! Feel the joy and sand. Feel God’s pleasure. Take it in. Let it revive you. Let it heal you. Let it sustain you!”

And then?

Then go out into this world with strength for what comes your way.

This group of women? They are seasoned and spiced with life. There are undoubtedly countless tragedies among them. Tragedies of broken relationships and marriages; tragedies of death and separation; tragedies of selfish choices and unkept promises – because this is our broken world.

But tragedies are not a part of today’s outing. No – today’s outing is suntan lotion to make them feel young again, ocean waves to cool wrinkled feet, laughter and joking over seagulls stealing sandwiches, and maybe – just maybe a little frozen rosé to sweeten a near-perfect day.

I sigh as I leave these ladies of a certain age. Unlike them, my responsibilities are calling hard today, and I have already ignored them to vicariously participate in this ladies day out. I am rapidly becoming one of these women, and one day soon I hope I too will gather at the ocean with all my friends. Our bodies will be exposed with lots of flaws and little embarrassment. Our laughter will echo across Front beach so all the neighbors will hear and envy us.

I will be the one in the coral suit.

This piece is for the two Carols, Karen, Amalia, Suzana, Leslianne, & Poppadia Paula – with so much love. 

This is 58

It’s my birthday. One week ago I woke up in a foul mood. It was a mood rife with I hate life and life hates me. I hated who i had been; I hated who I was; I hated who I would become. I began to believe my feelings were truth.

Thankfully I have people in my life who won’t allow me to wallow. (Things like “Snap out of it, ya big baby” might have been said by family members.) Sometimes you need empathy and other times you need to “snap out of it, ya big baby!”

So today I’m here to talk about 58.

What is 58?

It’s a massive thank you to a Mom who birthed me, nurtured me, and continues to love and challenge me in ways she will never know.

It’s a Dad whose memory is eternal; who lived life well until the day his body could no longer go on.

It’s four brothers who live around the world; who model tenacity, joy, and faithfulness to me and to their families. It’s four brothers who teased me mercilessly when I was little, and have my back now that I am older.

It’s four sister-in-laws who love well, who have raised amazing children, who continue to wrestle with the big and hard questions of parenting and faith.

It’s nieces and nephews who I would kill for; who are opera singers and nurses; diplomats and day care owners, who make the world a better place for you and me to live in.

It’s a husband who makes me laugh every, single day. A man who can make friends with an inanimate object like a wall and make that wall feel special, not to mention the people he befriends from around the world. A man who tells stories in virtual reality, prays for and loves his children so much it hurts, and will remember the names of refugees long after he has met them. A man who affirms my writing, challenges my faith, and prays with me every night.

58 is four (no five) adult children who are smart, passionate, and gifted. Who meet the challenges of life with stubborn resolve. 58 is the cutest grandson on ever earth who has a waddle toddle and is growing to be his own person.

58 is the dearest friends from here and around the world that a woman could ever hope for – friends who love the world and their families; who are not caught up in what culture says is worthy and instead fight for what is true, good, and right.

58 is cousins who live as far as Moscow and as close as Washington DC; cousins who are also friends.

58 is a creative job with often horrid bureaucracy; fighting for good healthcare for marginalized communities and pressing forward when it’s hard.

It’s colleagues who make me laugh hard, work harder, and allow me to get mad and cry.

58 is a body that sometimes betrays me, but responds pretty well when I treat it properly; it’s 10,000 steps a day because modern medicine allowed for a bionic hip; it’s wrinkles that I can only partially hide; it’s girlfriends laughing together because we never thought we’d have beards or boobs that hang to our knees. (The boobs that is)

58 is curling up on week nights and watching Stranger Things; it is knowing that grilled cheese served in candlelight with the man you’ve been through hell with is really great.

58 is a church community that I never thought possible; it is entering into Divine Liturgy with the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the troubled. It is working out my faith with a community of broken people, all desperately in need of the Eucharist.

It’s realizing that #metoo is no match for who I really am and no man can truly take away what God said is good;

58 is knowing in the depths of your soul that no matter what, you are God’s beloved and no amount of wrinkles, stretch marks, saggy boobs, or dementia will ever, ever take that away.

58 is you reading this and letting me know in a million creative ways that you care.

And 58 is a Mimosa, calls from Family and friends, and celebrating this thing called life — because tomorrow anything could happen.

58 is pure grace.

Also, I made a little video – watch it if you like!

The Resilient Orthodox: Pepper & Salt


My Godmother came into my life around four years ago. At the time, I didn’t know she would be my Godmother. In fact, she didn’t know she would be my Godmother.

When I first asked her to be my Godmother, she looked at me with not a little terror in her eyes. At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.

The Godparent/Godchild relationship is taken seriously in the Orthodox Church. Every person, whether a child or an adult, is to have someone who takes on this role. The role and responsibilities are lifelong. From baptism and onward, the Godparent is to pray for their Godchild, to take interest in who they are both in and out of church, to model faith in all of life, and to cultivate a relationship.

But I didn’t know all of this when I asked her to be my Godmother. I just knew that it was something I was supposed to do. And it had taken me long enough to get on the bus for this journey; I wasn’t going to let the matter of a Godmother stop me. Still, it was not easy to ask, especially when I didn’t know her well.

She didn’t respond quickly. Instead she paused and looked at me. “Well…,” her tone was measured. “If you need to get together all the time and talk, then I’m probably not the right person.” I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I wanted was an overly sincere, motherly Godmother. I wanted someone who would walk alongside me but not be pedantic. I wanted someone I could trust, who wouldn’t guilt me into being someone or something I couldn’t be. Most of all, I wanted someone who knew that Orthodoxy was a long journey, not a short hike.

And so, she agreed.

We are two different people, she and I.  

I am pepper and she is salt. I am feisty and angsty, reactionary and passionate. She is calm and rational, thoughtful and steady. I am the questioner, she the receiver of questions.

But we both know the long road of obedience is never easy.  We both know that community takes work. We both know that we are desperately in need of grace. And so the differences dissolve, the tastiness of pepper and salt realized in the relationship. Slowly, I realize that Salt is not only my Godmother, she has become my friend. 

Now these four years later, I wonder sometimes – if she really knew what the role included, would she still come alongside? I like to think she would. 

“Just Your Presence”

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A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College

The Story of a Christian/Muslim Friendship – a Guest Post

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Every September, when cool breezes off the Nile River replaced the sweltering heat of summer, the expatriate community in Cairo, Egypt would reunite. Most employers planned a variety of activities to introduce any newcomers to Egypt in general, and the gigantic city of Cairo in particular.

Our employer, the American University of Cairo, put together an orientation week full of events and talks all designed to ease these overwhelmed rookies into life in both the city and the university. It was during orientation week that I met Lubna for the first time.

On the first day, I noticed Lubna standing alone at the break. I ignored my conscience and left her alone. On the second day, the internal nudge was too strong to ignore. I felt compelled to go and speak with her. I was nervous. Lubna was fully veiled. She wore both the abbaya (long black coat) and a niqab, the veil that covered all but her eyes. While I was used to communicating with women in the hijab (head covering), I had no friends who wore the full veil and I felt my discomfort acutely. I stumbled a bit as I asked her how long she had been in Cairo.

After seconds, we were engrossed in a dynamic conversation and within minutes found significant commonalities. Raised in Canada by an Egyptian family, she had married a Tunisian man who had immigrated to Canada just a few years before. She had one child, a baby girl.

A couple of weeks later, Lubna invited me to her home. Until this time, I had only seen her at outside events and I looked forward to being able to sit with her over tea and get to know her better. I arrived at her apartment around 10 minutes late – a little early for a Middle Eastern visit. I knocked on the door and …..

You can read the rest of the piece here!

Passages Through Pakistan is available here for purchase.

Friendship, Facebook, and an Impossibly Soft Couch 

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“I miss you and your impossibly soft couch,” my friend writes to me. I smile as I think of her and the hot mugs of tea we would drink as we would sit talking together. There was no clock in sight – time was unimportant. What was important was the friendship, kindred spirits meeting together on an impossibly soft couch.

Our living room couch is soft. As you sit, your body sinks into the cushions and you’re immersed in soft comfort. It’s hard to get up out of a couch like that. You want to stay there forever, especially if the weather is cold or rainy.

Our couch has witnessed a lot. It has witnessed tears and joy; sleepy teenagers and tired adults; long talks with good friends and oh so much laughter. Our couch has also witnessed disagreements, passionate and heated arguments, and stomach-aching laughter.

All of those are easier on this impossibly soft couch. Whether it’s disagreements, arguments, stories, discussions over world events and politics, or secrets shared from the heart – an impossibly soft couch is where these things go down easy.

Facebook is not an impossibly soft couch. Facebook is a hard, electronic, computer or smart phone screen. Facebook witnesses all the same things that my couch witnesses – but it’s not soft and so it doesn’t always end well. You cannot snuggle into Facebook and come out okay. In fact, there are times when you end up so shaken that you have to give yourself a long break.

During the election season in the United States, Facebook was at its worst. From outright lies that were posted to ferocious arguments and accusations, Facebook saw it all. It was not impossibly soft, it was not comfortable, and it left me in need of confession and soul-searching.

Post-election Facebook is looking as though it will follow the same pattern. A pattern of misinformation, explosive allegations, and general meanness. I don’t think that we as a human race will make it through unscathed. I think we will sustain wounds and broken relationships. It will not be a “social” network as much as an “anti-social” network. We are all becoming more like trolls and bullies then any of us ever wanted or intended.

I don’t have a lot of answers except to say that you are welcome to my couch. You are welcome to come and sit awhile. We may disagree – and that’s fine. We may argue – that’s fine too. On my impossibly soft couch, it will go down easy.

Dialogue is best done in relationship, over breaking bread, over coffee or tea — and on impossibly soft couches. 

It Takes a Long Time to Grow an Old Friend

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Friends – I am in Cairo, Egypt on a speaking trip. It is a gift to be here in a place that has meant so much to me through the years. Though things have changed, there is a sweet familiarity all around me. It is in the palm trees and dusty roads; in the call to prayer and the easy smiles on faces. I will be writing more about where I am and what I’m doing when I return, but I wanted to post this piece that I wrote last week. I wrote it as I was thinking about my dear friend Karen, and how she welcomed me into her world so many years ago. Enjoy! 

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Karen entered my life 20 years ago on an Autumn Day. We had moved from Cairo to the picturesque and provincial coastal town of Essex in late August when the humidity and heat index were high. The kids entered school at the beginning of September and my husband and I found jobs in October.

It was a time of transition for our family. For me it was also a time of deep grief. Every day I grieved for what had been, for what I had left.

We found a church fairly quickly — my parents knew people at every Baptist church in New England and we found a church about a 15 minute drive from our house. We didn’t consider ourselves Baptists per se, but the people seemed friendly enough and we were slowly forging our way into the life of the church.

The day that I met Karen was  a Sunday afternoon. Our family and hers had been invited to dinner at the home of another couple from the church. We stood outside on a lawn covered with golden leaves and Karen extended friendship to me. I almost dismissed her. I was in a place where I didn’t know what each day would bring and I wasn’t sure I could enter into friendship, much less with anyone as open and confident as Karen.

The truth is, I’m not sure I did take up her offer, or if she was just so persistent that soon I wouldn’t know what it was to not have her in my life.

Karen and her husband Jon had two little ones similar in age to two of our kids. We quickly identified a mutual love of curry, film, and fun. We didn’t really believe them when they said they loved making curry. Our experience of others in the area had confirmed that most people thought good curry was a bit of meat or vegetables with some water and curry powder thrown in. But we kept that to ourselves, and to this day we talk about how after a first bite of their curry, my husband and I looked at Jon and Karen and exclaimed “Wow! This is so much better than we expected!” We couldn’t even hold it in – we were that surprised.

Through the years we have filled our memories and photo albums with apple picking, pumpkin carving, watching rowers on the Charles River, birthday celebrations, walks by the ocean, long conversations over dinners, films, Christmas Eve gatherings, and so much more. When we moved to Phoenix, they visited us. When we moved back to the Boston area, they were right there, ready to welcome us in the middle of three feet of snow.

There is a safety and peace in our friendship that is special and not something that happens in every friendship. I can go for a long time not seeing Karen and then walk into her kitchen and, with a massive hug, pick up at the very place we left.

“It takes a long time to grow an old friend,” the quote says. There is an undeniable history in our friendship and the roots now go deep into the soil of New England. Through the years events and times together have come and gone, like the cycle of leaves on a tree. We have watched our children grow up and leave home, forging their way into worlds of work and marriage, sometimes complicated worlds where we cannot fix things the way we did when they were younger. We have been through cycles of sadness and cycles of joy, those normal rhythms that make up a life well-lived.

As I look at my friendship with Karen, I am grateful for so much – for persistence, for memories of open fires on the beach, long talks over good meals, laughter over films, deep soul talks that cleansed and made me walk away larger –  but most of all I am grateful for a friendship that grows deep into my life soil.

Because it takes a long time to grow an old friend. 

The Loneliness of Immigration

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My husband and I repatriated to this country many years ago. We came from the city of Cairo, Egypt and arrived at Dulles Airport with five children, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat. It was the sum total of everything we owned.

The first two years were excruciating. We didn’t know anything about living as a family in the United States. From school to church, everything was new, everything was different.  We didn’t know how or where to shop, get licenses, set up utilities, or find doctors.

Loneliness would creep up on me at unexpected times and places, it’s vice-like grip clutching my heart so that it felt difficult to breathe. I would find my solace in a couple of close friendships and in finding my safe spots – the odd coffee shop where I could retreat with a book and hot drink while the kids were in school; a space in our living room where the sun would shine in the afternoon, bathing the room with light.

The move was many years ago, yet every time I sit with an immigrant or refugee, I still remember the time as though it was yesterday. I still remember the loneliness and isolation I felt; the disconnect of coming from a relational society and moving to one that was based on the individual.

There is a body of research that points to the disenchanted immigrant as susceptible to becoming radicalized. More and more governments are paying attention to this and strategizing on what to do and how to change this trajectory.

The marathon bombing is a an excellent example. Tsarnaev was a part of the community in Cambridge — where we have made our home for the past 8 years. Tsarnaev was at the same high school as my daughter and they had many friends in common. He was a student in a school that deeply cares about tolerance and diversity. Yet, once Tsarnaev was no longer a part of that community, he was lost. Everything I have read or heard points to a fundamental loneliness and isolation that can be a part of the immigrant experience — the loneliness of being ‘other’, parents in Russia, hasn’t spoken to his uncle for years, and living anonymously in a big city. This does not excuse or justify his behavior. His actions killed and wounded people and those wounds have left scars to last a lifetime. Many people feel lonely and estranged and they don’t build bombs and kill people.

I don’t want to tackle the radicalization piece of this – it is too complicated and multi faceted. But the loneliness and isolation is important to address. How can those of us who understand what it is to be ‘other’, to be new to a place, extend friendship to those who are missing so much?

As I think about that question, I can’t help but think about my husband. Through the years he has befriended hundreds of people who are immigrants or visitors in this country. He approaches them with genuine interest and understanding. He is not afraid to enter the story of a stranger. Our lives are so much richer because of the people that he has met.

The seats around our table at Thanksgiving are filled with immigrants, most of them present because of a conversation with my husband. Years ago, he memorized the capital cities of every country in the world and he knows several phrases in more than a dozen languages. All of this has brought our family rich friendships. From pictures to silver bowls to pungent spices, the items in our home are a witness to these friendships.

Loving the one who is ‘other’ is in the fabric of his being and all of us benefit.

We are living in a time of fear and mistrust of immigrants and refugees. This is not new or unique to the United States, nor is it new to other countries. But it is still troubling. As long as we remain isolated in comfortable cul-de-sacs and enclaves, this fear and mistrust will continue and get worse. The only way to escape this problem is to take a deep breath and extend a hand of friendship. If you don’t believe me, just ask my husband.

 

Love Goes the Extra Mile

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We’ve just come back from a family vacation where we spent seven nights near the Smoky Mountains in northern Tennessee. Every morning we woke up to far off frothy fogs rising up between the hills and ridges across the horizon. Every evening we watched the sun’s benediction settle over and under and behind the mountains. It was glorious. And in between the rising and setting of the sun we lazed and lounged around. Exploring the area, we found a lake to swim in and a nearby state park ropes course to climb. We played board games. We watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics on a large TV. We made a fire and roasted marshmallows. We slept at unusual times during the day. Everything that vacations are supposed to be, it was. Re-creation at work as we rested.

The plan was for us to leave on the morning of the seventh day and drive further east, over and beyond the mountains, across the dividing lines of states to Philadelphia to attend a nephew’s wedding. As the day came nearer I began to feel dread rise up like smoke around my own soul’s edges. I couldn’t bear to think about the long hours in the car. Driving east meant we were driving further away from home. The drive back to Kansas would be longer and harder. I was convinced our vacation would be erased. Our soul’s rest would be eroded.

The thought of it encroached on many of my Tennessee days. The idea of that future drive threatened to rob me of large parts of those glorious moments during those wonderful days. My inability to enjoy the moment made me mad at myself and increased my angst and my dread mounted on wings like crows. I finally asked Lowell if we shouldn’t think about maybe possibly skipping the wedding and head instead straight for home. The thing is I really was torn. I love this nephew of Lowell’s dearly. We really wanted to attend his wedding. And yet –It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a long way to go. Talking, praying, discussing it over with each other wasn’t necessarily bringing clarity.

It finally came down to this: What would Love do? The answer was immediate! Love goes the extra mile. Love celebrates. Love shows up for family and friends. Love attends monumental moments. Love sacrifices and enters into the joys of another. It’s what love does. Love makes the effort.

My friend Julie is one of the most lovingly loyal people I know. She once told me that her and her husband have come to realize how important it is to be present for life’s big moments: funerals, weddings, baby showers. They recognize how much these things matter to relationships and to community living and they choose to attend. Scott and Julie show up every time. I love that about them.

And so it went that we packed up the car on the morning of our departure and we turned toward the east. We crossed through Tennessee, drove up the length of Virginia, and scooted across bits of West Virginia and Maryland before entering Pennsylvania. Stopping for ice cream and to change clothes we arrived in plenty of time for a Sunday afternoon wedding. The sky was blue and pillow pocked with the fluffiest of clouds. The church was simply set and ready to host happiness. We joined those on the groom’s side with pride and deep affection. What a fabulous celebration it was! The profundity of the wedding promises were matched with a true reception party. We ate good food and goofed our way through hilarious dance moves.

When it was over and the car was once again turned to the west like a homing pigeon returning to the familiar, we felt deep satisfaction. There wasn’t room for regret in the lingering joys of the wedding. Being present to the union of the dearly beloved groom and his bride was enough. We love this new Mr and Mrs very much. At the end of the day, Love really does go the extra mile.

The Story of a TCK Friendship

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The first picture that was taken of me with my friend Lois was on the shores of the Dead Sea. There we are, two little girls – one blonde, the other dark-haired; one taller, the other shorter. We are holding hands with our fathers and we are oblivious to the fact that our lives are already intertwined, that we are experiencing the world in a completely different way than our peers in our countries of origin. After the picture was taken, we went back to our respective homes – me to Pakistan, her to the Kingdom of Jordan.

We would not remember or think about each other until I was 18 years old, beginning a nursing program on the edge of Chicago. At that point, we were destined to become friends.

Our friendship began in earnest that year as we dealt with classmates, Freshman nursing instructors, the cold of Chicago, and the business of being third culture kids who were trying to fit into their habitat but finding it was a bit of “square peg meets round hole.”

There was no word for us at that time. We were missionary kids and the expectation was that we settle back in and make our missions and our parents proud.

She had a year up on me in negotiating life in the West – she had already been through a year of college – but we were still fish floundering on land, trying to breathe through gills that were created for water. I remember going to a wedding together where we were supposed to do the guest book. “What’s a guest book?” I remember thinking. A few years later, my husband and I would find out we were actually both at the same wedding. “I always wondered why there was no one attending the guest book!” he said with surprise. My guilt was absolved when he said that it was not the right job for two third culture kids. We stood by the guest book for five minutes and then abandoned our posts, uncertain on how to respond to the small talk of rural Pennsylvania and clearly out of our element in both dress and responsibility.

Our conversations covered Pakistan, Middle Eastern politics, the Iranian revolution, and which restaurants in Chicago served the most authentic Pakistani or Middle Eastern food.

When we graduated from nursing school, Lois went on to work in a refugee camp in Somalia, while I moved for a short (though oh so long) year in Massachusetts. She was learning how to function in tents with limited supplies and overwhelming problems; I was learning how to survive a head nurse who took such an active dislike to me that she accused me of overdosing someone with morphine.

I was at her wedding a year later, celebrating her union with Dave – a blonde haired, blue-eyed man who had captured her heart. A few weeks later, I flew to Pakistan to work as a nurse, only to return a few months later and meet the man who became my husband.

My husband and I moved overseas, while Dave and Lois moved to the woods of Maine. Children were born. Then more children were born. All the while, Lois and I would talk by phone every time I was in the United States. She would come visit me in Massachusetts at the home we lovingly called “Eight-Acre Woods.” We visited their growing family in Maine, where we found a Pakistani restaurant and ate off of styrofoam plates, our forks sticking into the sponge as we inhaled a chicken curry. They came to Egypt, where we visited the famous Pyramids of Giza and had the most memorable visit of our seven years in the country. Between us, we had five kids and a baby and as the sky turned a grainy yellow, we knew we were caught in a sand storm. We stumbled along, trying to appreciate ancient ruins while protecting our eyes and our children’s from the blowing sand, the gritty particles getting in our mouths, our hair, and our ears. I remember muttering meanness at my husband, even as I tried to behave for the sake of our visitors.

Lois and I knew what it was to grow up Christian in Muslim countries; to struggle with the missionary kid identity, even as we burst with pride at who our parents were; to grieve goodbyes and multiple losses; to have adventures that people would never believe; to long for places and people with an indescribable ache – and yet to not regret how and where we grew up. We learned early that this third culture kid life was a life of complexity and contradiction; that faith was a struggle worth the pain. We always argued whether the sky over the ancient ruins of Petra or the sky at 7000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range had the best stars. (My husband, who has been both places, says without doubt that it’s Petra.)

Through the years, my friendship with Lois has seen me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. I can’t imagine having walked the journeys that I have without knowing Lois was there. We have never lived near each other since that time, but the friendship has survived.

Despite living miles apart since our Chicago days, Lois has walked me through distorted theology, anger, and deep grief. Mingled throughout have been times of laughter, eye-rolling, head-shaking, and pure joy. Because anger and grief go down easier when you know joy is around the corner.

We still have our “diaspora blues” — times when we know  we don’t fit in here or there, when we realize we will always be “too foreign for here, too foreign for there.”* Despite this, we have both found our niches in our passport countries.

The thing with Lois is that I’ve never really had to say goodbye, because I know she’s always there. Maybe that’s what makes her so special.

*Diaspora Blues by

On Making Recent History

I leave my Cambridge apartment mid-morning on a Friday. Usually I would be walking, but I am going to a store that is too far so I pull out of my driveway in our small, city car.

The first person I see is our neighbor, Christopher. I wave and he waves back, a smile on his face. Just steps away, So is walking toward her apartment that sits across from ours. She too smiles and waves. I stop and roll down the window. “Can I steal your mint again this summer?” She laughs. “Come anytime! You not stealing.”

On my right, John is watching as little Peter draws in chalk on the sidewalk. We have seen him grow from newborn baby to a seven year old. This week is school vacation and the weather is fully cooperating, enabling this city kid to enjoy the outdoors.

I drive slowly, marveling that I know my neighbors. But I need to move on – in the afternoon we will host a rehearsal dinner for a friend who will be married on Saturday, a dear friend I met when we moved to the area seven years ago.

I realize something. Our history is no longer just with people from “there,” no longer just with people from our past homes and lives. We have made history with people here.

Cecily Paterson’s excellent post Seven Stages of Reentry Grief takes the reader through the stages that Cecily has identified in order to survive and thrive in our passport countries.

Stage Four of Cecily’s post is called “Making Recent History.” She says this: “….I found that memories from 10 years ago appear more faded than memories from say, two years ago. ….” 

It is liberating and wonderful to realize that we’ve made recent history; that we can now look at people who we regularly see and say “Remember that time? Remember that Christmas Eve? Remember that holiday? Remember that small group?”  Photographs and stories have not only captured the old memories, but they are capturing the new. The album of our life story continues to fill, new pages added, recent history recorded.

My thoughts echo Cecily’s words: “Just by continuing to breathe and eat and live, I’d been able to make my own ‘recent history’.”

I smile and I drive on. Staying in one place for eight years has had its challenges. There are times when I have climbed the walls, and then rearranged the furniture; times when I couldn’t wait to head to Terminal E. But this day? This day I delight in recent history and in knowing the names of my neighbors. This is what it is to live in the present and I am grateful.

To You Whom I’ve Never Met


Last week, my husband came home with a package. After tearing off the brown paper, I opened a beautiful, decorative, handmade sign for our home. Someone who I’ve never met, who has never seen my world, took the time to make it for me. I couldn’t believe her kindness and generosity. And so I began thinking about so many of you, you whom I’ve never met. You who email, comment, and encourage. This is for all of you. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met….

I read your messages and I alternate between weeping and laughing. We share so much – yet we’ve never met. From boarding school tears and laughs to awkward first days in our passport countries it is like we are brothers and sisters.

And yet – we’ve never met.

We know the joy of international terminals, and the tears of the word ‘goodbye.’ We share the cynicism that overpowers when we confront narrow world views and the fresh breeze that comes of kindred spirits communicating. We know what it is to grow up too quickly and yet be considered immature in many ways. We don’t have a clue what it would be to stay in the same place for life and yet we partially envy it.

We share all these things – and yet we’ve never met.

I receive your emails and your messages, your tweets and your texts. We might share our thoughts through a couple words, or through long paragraphs that detail our stories. No matter – there is a common thread that binds us.

We come from places of faith and places of doubt, from different countries and political persuasions, but something binds us together.

We know what it is to live in a world between, we know what it is to communicate across boundaries. Whether those boundaries be in our back yard or across the ocean, we navigate them regularly and learn through the hard and the easy.

And yet, we’ve never met.

Others of you have stayed in the same place all your lives. Yet, you read and connect with my words with warmth and empathy. You encourage me to be settled but not stagnant, to love places that are near and far.

Thank you. For being a part of this journey; for living between worlds so well; for being okay with home not always being a ‘place’; for laughing at the funny and crying at the difficult; for loving the world and understanding negotiation; for getting what it is to be ‘other’ and using that to make a difference. Thank you for being the third culture kid, global nomad, and lover of the world that you are.

Maybe someday we’ll meet, but until we do, I’m grateful. 

And Jenn Sforza, thank you for my beautiful sign! 

When your Heart Finds a Home

Jonny and Yasmin got married on a beautiful day in New Plymouth, New Zealand. While hints of rain threatened in the morning, the afternoon was clear and sunny. It was perfect.

Yasmin is a kindred spirit and daughter of my dear friend Jenny. She is years younger than I am, but through background and personality we have a definite and unique connection. 

Yasmin was first raised in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, an area known primarily because of Malala Yousafzai. Swat Valley is a ruggedly beautiful place with deep gorges and mountain streams that grow into rivers that run over rocks. Swaying rope bridges connect mountains together high above these rivers. This is the same Swat Valley where the Taliban shot a 14-year-old girl because she was a threat and the  United States droned innocent civilians with one click because surely among the many innocent there would be one who was guilty. 

At the time, much of Swat was stunning untouched terrain and Yasmin’s family, the McGrane’s, were the only foreigners most people had ever met. 

While growing up, our family would vacation in Swat Valley, staying in a sturdy family tent or a rest house. When my husband and I lived in Pakistan with our first child, we too vacationed there, recording the trip through pictures taken of the two of us holding a baby and a toddler, steady as only the young can be on a rope bridge swaying high above a scenic river.  

I didn’t meet Yasmin in Pakistan. I met her when she was ten years old and the family had moved to Egypt. Our families connected and developed a lasting friendship, challenged by miles of continents and oceans once we both left Cairo. I will never forget the night we left Egypt – a night when our hearts broke. The McGrane’s helped to pick up the pieces through a meal, talking, and a blessing through a hymn and a prayer.

Yasmin and I have both had the experience of learning to live well in places where we don’t always feel we belong. Though years and continents apart, her adjustment back to New Zealand in her teen years parallels that of mine in America during my college years. Both of us alternate between feeling at home and alien in our passport countries. After high school in Cairo and New Zealand, Yasmin went on to cho0se medicine as a profession and has already used her skills in resource poor settings, largely because of her background. 

With this as our history, it was a gift to be a part of Yasmin’s wedding day. 

After a ceremony at a church, we went to an old barn that was beautifully decorated with lights, brass, and white linen. We ate curry and naan served out of large, brass dishes and danced until our legs ached.

Speeches were given by those closest to the couple, and one minute we teared up while the next minute we were laughing. Because that is what life is – the poignant and the hilarious, the sacred and the ordinary all mixed up in a speech. It was when Yasmin spoke that I knew she had truly found her partner in life. As she looked at Jonny with the eyes of a bride on her wedding day, she said this: “In you, my heart has found a home.”

“In you, my heart has found a home.”

For the third culture kid, global nomad, refugee or immigrant, home takes on a life of its own. We search for it, we get angry about it, we try to find answers that will satisfy the questions we inevitably get, and we write about it. We talk about going home, but when we get there we find that it is no longer the home that we knew, and we are disappointed once again. Home eludes us and place betrays us until we exhaust ourselves and others with our quest.

“In you, my heart has found a home.” Yasmin has known many homes. Swat Valley, Peshawar, different places throughout New Zealand – but her words echoed what I know in my soul, even as I try to pretend that this is not true: Homes are not places, they are the people, places, memories, and events that span the globe.

I said goodbye to Yasmin at the airport, honored that she wanted me to come with the family to see her off on her honeymoon. We waved goodbye from the terminal window, and my eyes were misty as she walked away with the man who has given her heart a home.

*****

I write this as I journey “home” from New Zealand. It has been a time of rest and warmth, and I am so grateful. I said goodbye to my friend Jenny outside security and felt the familiar choking in my throat as I said goodbye, both of us tearful.  I know that I will arrive in Boston and feel alien. Alien until I am greeted by the man who has made his home with me for the last 31 plus years – and in him, my heart will be at home.