In Memory of a Friend, In Memory of a Community

The news came, as it does these days, over the waves of social media. It was the death of a childhood friend, the news posted by her brother. Within minutes, a community of us, some who hadn’t seen Ruthie for many years, others who saw her this past June, and still others who were with her recently were collectively remembering, collectively grieving.

Ruthie was three years younger than me, a classmate and friend of my younger brother, Dan. She was petite and pretty with a smile that radiated from her bones to her face. She came from a dynamic family, all of them uniquely gifted musically and relationally.

I had the chance to see Ruthie in early June at a reunion for those of us connected to Pakistan. It was the first time I had seen her since 1993 when she visited Cairo with her boyfriend Mark, the man who would later become her husband. We had just left our beloved Maadi community and moved to a different area of Cairo. I was getting used to a new flat in a new part of the city, the kids were anticipating a new school, and my husband was starting a new job. In the midst of all that new came the familiarity of an old friend. Every morning before she and Mark went off exploring the city we would laugh and talk. Every evening we would do the same. The familiar mixed with the new, a gift of memory and discovery.

As I talked to her this summer, I brought up the memory. I was delighted that she, too, remembered. I learned that it had been a key moment in her life with Mark. I knew as I was speaking with her that cancer cells were overwhelming her healthy cells, that she was fighting a hard battle with the tools of chemotherapy, gifted doctors, and prayers of “Thy will be done.” I saw the deep love that she and her husband had formed through the years, a love large enough to embrace four biological and twelve adopted children. But I knew that I only saw and heard a fraction of what her journey had included.

The service was at two in the afternoon, Albanian time. It was broadcast as a gift to many around the world who, through computer screens, could participate in honoring her life.

As I sat in my living room in Boston, miles away from Albania, I began to see others from my Pakistan family and community sign on. With each one, came a rush of memories and thoughts. Ruthie was little sister, mentor, friend, classmate, big sister, and more depending on who you were and how you knew her. Most of all, she was one of us.

In our small community we shared tragedies like they were our own. When a father or mother of one of our friends died, it was like losing a beloved family member. The limbs on our missionary community tree stretched wide and when one of them was gone, no matter how we lost them, it meant leaves and fruit, nourishment and love were gone. These many years later we still feel losses when we hear of the death of someone we loved, someone we knew. No matter if it was another lifetime, they were part of us, and we feel the ache. The names still come to me – Dale, Carolyn, Angela, Val, Joy, Roy, Stan, Tim….and these are only a few of the ones that we have lost. Some were long, slow deaths, others were quick, tragic accidents – no matter, the way they died, their deaths put another nail in a community coffin.

Yesterday we grieved the loss of another. Yet, it was not only her life that we grieved. It was all of it – the loss of one brought up many other losses. In grieving for Ruthie, we had permission to grieve for lost community, lost time, and lost childhood. In grieving the loss of one of us, we once again felt saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. In seeing her life, the adult version of Ruthie featuring a life lived large with joy and love, we perhaps questioned our own scarcity and unwillingness to live large, our inability to love with abundance and live generously.

“Everything precious is costly” were words that were said of Ruthie at the memorial service. Her beloved Mark, her children, her parents, her siblings, and her community are already experiencing the costly loss of wife, mom, daughter, and sister. And we on the periphery, we hear those words and know their truth, for we have lived and witnessed an extraordinary and precious community, gone but still glimpsed in memorials and memories.

But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.

Frederick Buechner

Post Traumatic Growth through Re-Storying

In some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Boston is immersed in a heat wave. We lazily walk around in the evenings, speaking “weather” to neighbors. The conversations go like this “Wow! It’s hot!” “It sure is!” “Keeping cool?” “Trying to.” Then we limply smile and amble off. Of course, to my Kurdish, Pakistani, and Egyptian friends, 95F (35 C) is not hot. 120F or 49C is hot. And yes, there is much truth to that. But, let us wallow in our heat wave. I, for one, love it. All I can think is how much better it is to be hot than to be cold.

It was fascinating to see the response to my post on TCKs and Post Traumatic Growth. There were emails, texts, and messages that showed much interest in hearing more. One of the biggest things that came out of conversations that I had with people is the importance of story or narrative in post traumatic growth.

As a reminder, Post Traumatic Growth, or PTG is about “positive psychological changes experienced as the result of the struggle with major life crises or traumatic events.” So what does trauma do? It shakes our world, it confuses our lives, and it challenges our worldview. When we face trauma, the story we have been living is massively impacted. Our stories change. Our trajectory changes. Life takes on a narrative of before and after – before the earthquake, after the earthquake. Before the Twin Towers fell; after the Twin Towers fell. Before a death; after a death. These are, to use the earthquake analogy, tectonic plate-shifting events. When the losses have been so great, how do we not live within them? How do we move into new growth?

We learn to “re-story.” As humans we are wired for narratives. Most of us are more likely to remember the story than the chart, the illustration than the data. Whether we are the story teller or the audience, we make meaning out of stories. And when trauma has altered our stories, we fare best when we can find meaning within it. This doesn’t mean that we wish the tragedy and trauma hadn’t happened. I would give anything to have not experienced some of the stories I’ve lived through. But I don’t have that choice. The trauma happened. Now it’s about what I do with it.

Into these narratives of loss and trauma comes the idea of re-storying them by incorporating the loss into the new story. This is not about sugar coating the past; rather it is about self-reflection and coming to terms with how we have grown and things we have learned through pain. Research shows that when someone reflects on painful memories and experiences with the goal of making meaning out of them, they gain wisdom. This wisdom translates into making better decisions, more effective problem solving, and the ability to give better advice. This making of wisdom and gaining perspective is Post Traumatic Growth.

Joan Didion emphasizes this:

We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.

Joan Didion

Practically speaking, how do we do this? There are many articles and books that speak to this, but a June article by Arthur Brooks in The Atlantic called “Making the Baggage of Your Past Easier to Carry” gives some easy practical tips. The first is to keep a data base of postitive memories, the second is to practice gratitude, and the third one is this:

In your journal, reserve a section for painful experiences, writing them down right afterward. Leave two lines below each entry. After one month, return to the journal and write in the first blank line what you learned from that bad experience in the intervening period. After six months, fill in the second line with the positives that ultimately came from it. You will be amazed at how this exercise changes your perspective on your past.

I don’t know what your re-storying looks like. What I do know is that it isn’t about finding answers, because in truth, there are few if any. It is about finding meaning within the trauma, and that makes all the difference.

[Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash]

Fractures

I experienced two fractures in my life, both occuring when I was a child. The first was my leg. I fell off a bunkbed as a tender, evidently fragile-boned five year old. I won’t go into the details of how I sort of threw myself off the bed, angry at my mom, instead I’ll focus on the pain, the intense pain that followed. We were in the city of Jacobabad in Pakistan, far from good medical care. My parents weren’t sure how serious this was so we waited overnight. I will never forget that night. I came in and out of sleep, pain waking me up at every move, my pain medication that of my mom’s soothing voice reading to us from the book Rainbow Garden. The next day we drove along bumpy roads to get to a mission hospital in the city of Sukkur. I ended up with a cast on my leg from ankle to thigh.

The second fracture happened when I was 11 while playing the child’s game “Steal the Bacon.” I got the bacon, but I fell onto my left wrist. Again I felt the intense pain, the pain of a fractured bone.

You never forget the excruciating pain of a physical fracture. Medical professionals describe bone pain as deeper, sharper, and more intense than muscle pain. Yet, as hard as that pain is, emotional fractures in families, friendships, and societies cause far more pain. And unlike fractured bones, a cast or brace put on by a skilled physician is not available.

While many have never had fractured bones, my guess is that most of us know the pain of fractured relationships. Most of us know the pit in the stomach, the sleepless nights, the grieving too deep for tears that comes as a result of these fractures. We would give anything for a cast, anything for pain medication, anything to relieve the deep ache.

I’m in a season of fractures, fractures that I don’t know what to do with, fractures that cloud my vision and hurt to the bone. These are fractures that have few answers. In addition, I live in a society that has profound fractures. Fractures that, though they be societal, have shards that reach into families and friendships. These too are fractures with few answers.

And if the fractures are not difficult enough, the public response is deafening. So deafening that I find I can’t think for myself.

Layered in with all the fractures are people. Beloved, beautiful, made in God’s image people. People who on one hand drive me crazy and on the other fill me with compassion. People who come with profoundly difficult stories, people who are angry, people who are rejoicing, and many, many who don’t know how to show love.

I was walking by Boston’s Harbor yesterday evening with a heavy heart, thinking about fractures and about people. There is a public art display that has just been put up around the Harborwalk. It features the sculptures of Michael Alfano – a gifted artist. All of the sculptures are extraordinary, but one in particular hit my soul. A dove on one side turns into a hawk on the other. In between are two outstretched hands. The inscription says this:

In Peace Offering, the dove conveys the hope for peace, while its tail transforms into a hawk, representing hostility. The dove’s wings become open hands, which might be ours, in an asking, weighing, or offering pose. Or they might belong to a larger force that welcomes two people to dialogue.

Michael Alfano – Peace Offering on Harborwalk

“The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true but few can put it into practice.”

The Tao

I felt extraordinary peace as I saw this sculpture and read the description, for this is a piece that challenges me to keep my hands and my heart open – open to change, open to dialogue, open to listen, and above all – open to show love.

The battles and fractures in our hearts rarely take place in public. They take place in the dead of night, when noone is around to witness them. They take place in the early morning hours of begging for mercy. They take place in the wordless prayers of our souls.

I don’t know what your wordless prayers are today. We can only know our own, and that is enough. What I do know is that I long to be a dove in a world that rewards hawks. I long to open my hands in a peace offering in a world that asks me to close them. I long to see God and people first, and the pain of my own fractures second.

I long for the day where the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the broken are made whole, and hearts no longer break from fractures. Until that day I hold to the comfort that comes through the author of all beauty and art and I offer up my hands to the One who knows best how to use them.

[Image by Carola68 Die Welt ist bunt…… from Pixabay.]

[Sculpture Photo Credit – Michael Alfano website photo by Adrien Sipos]

Grieving and the Casserole Ladies

Several years ago, a colleague at my work place lost her father to a tragic accident. It was right after Thanksgiving and the family was paralyzed with grief. Tragedies during holidays are a degree more painful as shock mixes with holiday expectation, creating a numb disconnect. A couple of day’s after the tragedy, my colleague’s roommate, a dear friend of mine, called me and said “I don’t know what to do! There are no church ladies. No church ladies means no casserole ladies! How are we going to help this family?”

Initially I responded in stunned silence. It has been years since my friend went to church, so why the church ladies, the casserole ladies? “What do you mean?” I asked. My friend went on to say that growing up she knew that whenever there was something hard or life changing, like funerals or births, there was a guarantee that the family would not have to worry about meals. Whether they knew the family or not made no difference, the casserole church ladies would show up like fairy godmothers with delicious and plentiful food. With everything else that a grieving family or community was going through, at least they wouldn’t have to wonder how to feed people. Like magic, casseroles, brownies, cookies, seven-layer salads, jello salads, rolls, bread, and Robert Redford cake would appear at their doorways. There was no expectation of conversation and no expectation of reciprocity. It was a “We are so sad. We are so sorry. Here! Have a brownie!” It wasn’t to minimize the grief, rather it was tangible support in the form of food.

I knew in that moment exactly what she was talking about. I’ve been a recipient of the goodness of the casserole ladies and have experienced this tangible comfort many times. One time it was an entire Christmas feast, another time a week’s worth of freezable meals. Just one long year ago during a family crisis, my son opened the door to a massive lasagna and huge container of salad, enough food to feed a family of 30. Words would have been ineffective and difficult, but food? Food was perfect.

Yesterday a friend sent me the cooking newsletter that comes out of the New York Times. It was a couple of paragraphs – simple and timely, titled “Grief and Cooking.” There it was – a perfect description of the role that food plays when there is a tragedy or crisis.

Food plays a central role in our reaction to tragedy, to death and grieving. It’s why casseroles appear on the doorsteps and countertops of those experiencing it, why we feel the urge to roast chickens or assemble lasagnas when the news is grim. Food is comfort of a sort, and fuel as well, for anger and sorrow alike. We cook to provide for those we love and for ourselves. In the activity itself we strive to find relief, strength, resolve.

Sam Sifton from NYTimes newsletter: Grief and Cooking

Right now, more than anything I wish I could make a casserole for the grieving families of Uvalde, Texas. where I imagine sleepless nights barely ending as nightmare days begin, an entire community forever changed. I wish I could make them a roast chicken and stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce and finish it off with my specialty apple cake. Or maybe a delicious lasagna with fresh garlic bread, because when you are grieving, carbs are necessary. Like many of you who are miles away, unconnected to the tragedy other than the human capacity of empathy and grief recognition, I still long for concrete ways to enter into their suffering.

I can’t make a casserole and a loaf of bread for the grieving families of Uvalde. But I can make a casserole and a loaf of bread for a neighbor who is hurting. I can take the heart and warmth of my kitchen and cook it into food. I can translate love, care, and prayers for courage into bread dough, delivering a loaf packed full of empathic goodness to someone in my world who is desperate for comfort.

And as I measure and whisk, I will pour my prayers for Uvalde into the mix, praying that somehow, as impossible as it seems, comfort will come.

[Image by RitaE from Pixabay]

Healing Through Beauty

I may be biased, but Charlestown is the loveliest place to live in all of Boston. It has charm, character, and beauty all wrapped up in a complete package. It is a city space with a small town feel. Neighbors know and care for each other, people say hello as they walk their babies and their dogs, and the owners of the bodega down the street laugh goodnaturedly as I try my Spanish which is limited to Ola! and Gracias!

Though every season is lovely, springtime feels particularly so as forsythia blooms bright yellow, quickly followed by flowering trees, azaleas, daffodils, and tulips. An already friendly place becomes friendlier, the sheer joy of living is present everywhere.

Charlestown helped to heal my heart last spring. As half of me lay in a hospital bed not two miles away, the other half walked the streets of Charlestown with one of my sons, marveling at how beauty, joy, and tragedy could be so mixed up together. Tears that I thought would never stop dried on my cheeks, joy exploding like the blossoms around me.

The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote the words “Beauty will save the world” many years ago. Those words became my reality, for in the midst of the tragedy of last year, beauty was exactly what I needed. Beauty saved me.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived.

Beauty healed my eyesight and my heart. Beauty called me into a greater reality than the one that I saw, the one that I lived. Beauty tenderly woke me to the Beautiful One and to a coming reality where there will be no more death, suffering, crying or pain.

As I walk the streets today, sun glistening off dew drops on newly sprouted buds, I am in a different place. The tragedy of last year has given way to the hard work of healing. The beauty all around welcomes me as I continue to walk in faith, faith that the pain of today and the fight to see beauty will someday give way to a forever that is far more beautiful and less fleeting than springtime in Charlestown.

Chaste and ardent eros for the Beautiful is the first task of human life, and falling in love with Beauty is the beginning of every adventure that matters

Dr. Timothy Patitsas in The Ethics of Beauty

And so I ask you: When has beauty healed your heart?

Safety Was Never Part of the Promise

If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no.

Madeleine L’Engle in And It Was Good

The first conversation in the United States about safety that I remember came after 9/11. Suddenly “the enemy” had come to our soil and we were no longer safe. Money, big houses, security systems, fat retirement accounts, and good jobs were not enough. Most of those killed in 9/11 had those and more but it did not save them.

The solution was war. No matter what lawmakers and politicians say now, the general consensus made by the powerful of the land in the United States was that war was warranted, war was justified. And so we went to war.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

“The enemy” moved closer. The enemy was now at our borders. Those who would take our jobs and bring in drugs must be stopped. Those who would bring their ideology to disrupt our “way of life” had to be kept out. So we proposed walls and fences, bans and limited entry.

But it did not make us safer and it did not take away our fear.

ISIS emerged, a real threat to people living in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, but arguably not so much to those watching the nightly news on their plush, comfortable couches. There was more fear. The world was a scary, scary place. A formation of a broad international coalition was designed to defeat the Islamic State and ISIS went undercover to emerge only randomly.

But it did not take away the fear.

As my husband and I periodically went to the Middle East to work with humanitarian aid groups on the ground the number one question people would ask us is “Is it safe?”

I never knew how to respond. In the essay “The Proper Weight of Fear,” my friend Rachel Pieh Jones writes what is a fitting response to that question:

Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.“

Rachel Pieh Jones in The Proper Weight of Fear

And then came 2020. Suddenly “the enemy” was no longer over there, far away from our homes and our television screens. The enemy couldn’t be kept out through a wall or closed borders. Instead, the enemy was everywhere. It was a virus, a virus that could be anywhere at anytime, floating through the air, ready to randomly attack. But it was more than a virus. The enemy was our neighbor. It was anyone who was not wearing a mask. It was the spring break revelers and covid partiers. It was the people who didn’t take the virus seriously. It was the person passing us who coughed. The enemy was the person who shopped at our grocery store and chose to go the wrong direction, defying loud orange arrows. Danger was everywhere and our fear was out of control.

But even when we wore masks and did all the right things, people were still afraid. Afraid and deeply angry at those who did not do the right things.

It turned out that no one was safe. Sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts, random strangers…they were all potential carriers of this virus that rocked the world.

We learned that no place and no one was safe. As much as we wanted to carve out our little utopias where everyone was safe, where the enemy was far away, and fear was nowhere to be found, it was not possible. Instead, everywhere we looked there was danger. It didn’t matter how big our houses were or how much we scrubbed our groceries, we were not safe. We couldn’t build walls to keep people out. We couldn’t create wars to send a message. Our own families became our enemies. We were victims of a virus much smarter than us.

So we created vaccines. The vaccines would solve the crisis were the words from the leaders. We would all be safe. We could begin living.

Vaccines were created – But they did not take away our fear.

Some chose not to get vaccinated and they became the enemy. And then “the Omicron” came. And even if we were vaccinated, even if we were boosted, Omicron invaded our households and took hold of our news sources. An insidious enemy, you didn’t know where it was and you didn’t know how to avoid it. Locking doors didn’t help. Cleaning didn’t help. Isolating didn’t help. Even the vaccine couldn’t keep us safe from the virus. We needed boosters. And more boosters. And still more.

The saviour vaccine had failed us and it did not take away our fear.

Could it be that we have safety all wrong, that we will never be truly safe as long as we live on this earth? Could it be that safety was never promised, that the nature of being human is one of risk, one that will ultimately lead to death on this earth for everyone?

What do we do in a dangerous world when we crave and long for safety? What do we do in a world that demands risk-taking just by existing?

We keep on going. We keep getting up, even when it’s difficult, oh so difficult, and we dread the day. We keep on loving, even when it hurts so much. We keep on taking risks, because life itself is a risk and trying to live risk free is a terrible and impossible life to live. We keep on going from strength to strength, because really – the only truly safe option is recognizing that we are not safe.

If we strive to be safe, we will never, ever win. That’s the reality of life. We were never promised safety, we were never promised a life without difficulty. We were promised God’s presence.

And in his presence today, I slowly learn to rest.

[Photo by Bill Nino on Unsplash]

Sometimes All You Need is Kleenex

My friend Jaenia tells a poignant story about going to a doctor’s appointment not too long ago. A couple of things about Jaenia – she is a strong woman. She loves her people well and bears the burdens of others, always offering hope. What some don’t know is that all of this comes at a personal cost.

At the time of the visit, she was going through some difficult things in her personal life. Just prior to arriving, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She pulled herself together long enough to sign in, but the minute she got into the exam room and saw the doctor, she choked up again.

“What’s going on?” said her doctor. And with that, the tears began to fall again. The doctor reached for a box of Kleenex and handed it to her. Jaenia did what most of us do during these situations. She began to apologize. The provider stopped her and said “It matters. All of this matters.” And then she allowed her to cry.

“It matters. All of this matters” This is wholistic care at its best.

Sometimes we think we have to have all the right words, that if we don’t we dishonor the one who is in front of us with their tears flowing. But sometimes, all we need to do is give kleenex and wait. Our waiting is a nonverbal affirmation that the person in our midst matters, their pain is acknowledged through patient waiting and kleenex.

This is part of what it is to bear witness to stories, whether they be stories of pain or of joy. I often talk about the ingredients to active listening and bearing witness being about the head, the heart, and the body. We listen with our heads, our intellect, the brain we’ve been gifted, the knowledge we have; we listen with our hearts, the pain and joy of our own experiences moving out of self absorption and into an empathy for the one in front of us; and we listen with our physcial selves, our bodies tuned in to the story that we are now honored to hear.

Kleenex, patient waiting, bearing witness with our heads, hearts, and bodies – it all matters. It’s what makes fractured hearts heal, one person at a time.