Cow Dust Time and Anniversaries of Hard Things

Yesterday evening while driving along the Charles River, we stopped at a traffic light, joining other cars in a long line. It was dusk, those few brief moments where day meets night and melancholy meets mystery. Daffodils dotted the banks of the river, their cheery yellow barely visible in the growing twilight. I gasped at the beauty, longing to capture it even as I knew that this would be impossible.

I love dusk, the whispered end of a day that reaches into the soul. I learned from my brother that Pakistanis call this “cow dust time.” He went on to say “the time around sunset when cooling air makes the dust form a layer a few feet above the ground and little sounds like cowbells or children’s chatter seems to be amplified.” Though I spent my childhood and my late twenties in Pakistan, I had never heard this before. Further reading tells me that in India this was the time when cows were brought home from pasture. Either way, I love this phrase and the description.

Dusk has always been one of my favorite times, particularly in Pakistan or the Middle East, where the call to prayer echoes across sunsets, calling the faithful to leave what they are doing and listen, pay attention, pray.

As sounds are amplified during “cow dust time” so too are the contradictions of a life of faith. The ability to mix joy with sorrow, day with night, contentment with longing. I sighed during the moment, thinking over the past week and all it held, for its biggest holding was the anniversary of a hard time. A time that I don’t want to remember; a time that I honestly wish had never happened; a time that sends reverberations through my body and my heart.

We usually think of anniversaries as happy times. Conventional wisdom brings on images of flowers, candle light, happy conversation, and hearts that could burst from the joy of it all. But most of us know in our bones what it is to face the anniversary of something that is not so happy, something that will forever present as the space between the before and the after. A death, a divorce, a tragedy, a diagnosis, an adult child leaving in anger, the fragile breaking of family bonds, an accident, a job loss – there are many ways in which the world forces us to remember anniversaries that we’d rather forget.

As I thought back to last year I remembered each event as though rewinding a film and replaying it in slow motion. As I did so, a curious thing happened. Details began to emerge that I had previously taken for granted. Details of people walking beside us until the pain and fog gave way to clarity and a spark of hope.

The kindness of my children, each walking beside me in their own unique ways; the kindness and love of our neighbors as shown through a conversation, a meal, a gorgeous, flowering plant, beauty products, more conversation, and absolutely no pressure to share more than I wanted. Then there was the kindness of dear friends as well as those in our parish, poignantly present during the time of Lent, a season of repentance and lament. As I remembered each person and kindness, long forgotten conversations and the generosity of those who sat and walked with me filled my mind. An anniversary of sadness turned into a collage of grateful memories.

Like dusk itself, these times amplify the contradictions in a life of faith. That an anniversary of sadness can hold so many memories of gladness; that joy and sorrow are so infinitely inseparable, that all of it is summed up in the ampersand that is life.

Perhaps from now on I too will call dusk “cow dust time” and it will remind me that just as sounds are amplified during this time, so too is the broken beauty of our lives. Anniversaries of hard things giving birth to memories of extraordinary love and kindness, God’s goodness always and ever present.

And So We Wait – A Brighter Light

Week 4 – Advent

Tomorrow, December 21st, marks the longest night of the year. While living in Kurdistan we found out that Kurds and Iranians honor the longest night of the year with a celebration. They gather together with family and friends eating, drinking, and reading poetry of which the poet Hafez born in Shiraz is said to be a favorite.

I love this. I love that they have taken the shortest day and replaced it with the longest night, making it a celebration instead of a depressing mark of winter. With this celebration they replace resignation with gratitude, and in so doing bring light to the darkness.

After December 21st, the days slowly and steadily get longer. We see earlier and brighter light as daylight increases by around a minute and a half each day.

In the middle of the longest night there is an invitation for us. An invitation that doesn’t have to be old and tired, but instead can rise with new life during this year where sadness and lament threaten to overwhelm us.

It’s a lesson of celebration and life, of hope and a brighter light.

This long year has held a mirror up to many of us individually and all of us collectively. We are more aware of our selfishness, of our need to be entertained, of our desire for comfort and freedom to go where we want when we want. We are more aware of what it is to be lonely, of what it is to collectively grieve. We are more aware of our need for each other and our quest for security and safety in places and from people and governments that can’t give it.

It is still the Advent season and we are entering the longest night. Then, as we journey toward Bethlehem the light will get brighter and by December 25th, though it will barely be perceptible, daylight will be longer. I want to take the longest night and be filled with gratitude. Gratitude that light came into the World, a light that the darkness could not comprehend. Gratitude that it takes long nights of the soul for us to understand how beautiful this light is, how deeply we need it.

In my faith tradition, the Eucharist is not something that we take. Rather, it is something that we go forward and receive. Mouths open, arms across our chests, we lean forward to the priest. He reaches toward us across the cup, “The Servant of God, Sophia Maria, receives the Body and Blood of Christ.” We don’t do anything but walk up to the priest with the chalice. The rest is given to us. This is deeply powerful, a striking reminder that we have done nothing to deserve grace and salvation, rather it is a gift that is given to all. It is up to us to receive it. When we as Orthodox speak to each other about communion, we talk about receiving. We don’t talk about taking communion, instead the words are always around receiving; receiving a gift.

Each time I receive, as I walk away making the sign of the cross, I am filled with gratitude. Gratitude for this gift, this light that came into the world, the “word made flesh.”

This is what I think of as I think of moving into the light of Christmas. Moving forward with gratitude and receiving the light, a gift given to all of us.

Oh God, We come with fragile human hearts, broken by grief, by loss, by so much that hurts in this broken world. We come forward, empty of everything except deep longing. We walk through the longest night and enter into the bright light of morning and in gratitude, we receive you – the word made flesh. Fill us with you, for nothing else will truly satisfy.

Advent 2020

If you would like to catch up on other Advent readings, please see these:

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

Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

Be Still and Create

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“In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness


I sit on my couch, coffee beside me, mindlessly playing a game on my iPhone. This has never been a problem for me before, but it is now.  I was the one that never succumbed to this kind of mindless drivel. I would create through writing, decorating, or planning innovative public health programs.  Now, even when I have time I struggle to focus; struggle to keep any sort of disciplined schedule.  As I play the game, my mind wanders. It wanders to my mom, a recent widow; to one of my children who is going through a crisis; and then on to other more mundane worries. They all have one thing in common: they are out of my control. What is in my control is pressing five red squares linked together. This will create a rocket, and with that little rocket, I will win this game and claim victory over a machine. And then I will do it again, and again, and again.  Until I don’t win, and I restlessly realize that I have just spent an unthinkable amount of time on a phone game.

In The Art of Stillness, author Pico Iyer talks about how many people in Silicon Valley try to observe an internet Sabbath. People take a 24 to 48 hour break from their online jobs creating high tech instruments and content so they can relax and reboot. Employees take this time so that they are at maximum creativity when they return. They rest so they can create programs that keep us, their ever-willing customers, online all the time. It is a profound irony that someone somewhere may have taken an internet Sabbath and then created a game that I now sit and play for hours. I squander my moments of stillness and with it, my ability to create.

I have run out of lives on my game, and so I wait. I wait and I think about what it means to be still; what it means to renew my mind and soul so that I will pay attention; so that I will have both the desire and the will to create.


I live in a city that goes to bed late and gets up in the early morning hours. My first activity as I leave my apartment is to walk 15 minutes to the subway. Noise is immediate and continuous. It’s in the train engine roaring, in people having conversations, in the homeless population at Central Square, sometimes insulting each other and other times laughing, but always loud. I travel three stops to my office in downtown Boston, the busiest section of the city. The pace and demands are relentless, wordlessly declaring that being still is an absurd impossibility. And this creeps into my subconscious mind, so that even when I have time, I have bought into the lie that being still is impossible.

Yet all around, I see evidence of how being still creates life. The small purple flowers of crocuses have just emerged from a still earth.  The brown branches of long dormant forsythia have given birth to brilliant yellow flowers.  Budding trees and bushes join this holy movement and add their pops of color against a grey April sky and cold sterile buildings.  After months of stillness, spring bursts forth like an artist who has taken a sabbatical and moves on to create her greatest work of art.

It is the work of a God whose infinite creativity spoke a world into being, who marked off the dimensions of the earth’s foundations as morning stars sang.

“Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”*

Between marking off the measurements of the earth’s foundations and laying its cornerstone, was God still? Did he create, and then sit in stillness, communing with members of the Trinity, only to go back days, months, and years later and create more? Has stillness always been a part of creation?

Be still, and breathe.

Be still, and create.

Be still, and bring life.

Be still, and know God.


The lives on the game have refreshed. I pause a minute and realize that what I long for, this game cannot give. Only taking a time to be still will equip me to write the words I long to write, to create the programs I long to create.  I reluctantly shut off my phone, the hardest step in the process of disengaging from what has become my adult pacifier. Outside the city is still. Inside, I sit in stillness, my own communion with the holy Trinity. This moment is perhaps the most creative thing I will do today, but it is a start and it is enough.


*Job 38: 4-7 NET

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Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

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!