I’ve been quiet in this space. In the past few years, February has been a time of quiet reflection and muted colors. It is equal parts winter, past tragedies, and me. I don’t hate it and I don’t try and push it away. Instead, I probably bake way too much (cinnamon rolls anyone?), find myself frequenting coffee shops even more regularly, and do a lot of reading and journaling.
As I write this, I have escaped the city to Rockport’s beauty and quiet. It was the anniversary of my brother’s death and I needed time for reflection and some mourning. This morning I literally chased the sunrise, knowing that it had to be just around the next corner, finally happening on its magnificent break over the horizon, flames of color spreading across the sky. It was deeply satisfying!
Into this quiet, my dear childhood, now adult friend Mikaere Greenslade posted a beauty of a poem online, specifically tagging me. The poem was titled ‘belong’ and I’m quite sure he has little idea of how much it meant to me.
Mikaere is a beautiful poet who lives in New Zealand. I found out recently from my mum that she considered Mikaere’s mum to be one of her closest friends. We lived in the same city from around 6 years old to 10 years old or so. Then, as is the case of so many global friendships, we parted, each to our respective passport lands. I was to return to Pakistan after a year, but Mikaere did not. Before the advent of social media and the finding of these long-lost friends I never imagined that we would reconnect. But reconnect we did over a shared love of Pakistan and writing.
On this quiet February, where introspection is not an enemy but a dear friend, I offer you his words. Enjoy!
where is home she asked
four walls or
where do the birds call
where does rain caress
the stones that cover your
where a sigh and smile
can hold hands
and the dog sleeps late
nau mai haere mai
haere mai ki tou kainga
whisper the trees
Mikaere Greenslade 2023
To purchase this beautiful book, contact Mikaere through Celestial Press by clicking here. Here is a recent poem he shared on his page. Do think seriously about supporting him for where would we be without our artists, our poets, our writers, our dancers?
it whelms from deep
bones and memory
not a story but
what you know
dark turns and wait
after the cold comes stand
after the joy come scars
it is all precious
and you child
I was exhausted. It was yet another argument about where I was from, arguments that I was beginning to call “Arguments of Origin” – perhaps so that they sounded more academic and less fraught with emotion.
But the reality was, they were fraught with emotion.
This particular argument started out as a benign comment by a friend to something I had posted online. I don’t even remember the original post, but it was about belonging and my connection to my childhood home – Pakistan. In the post I called Pakistan “home.”
“But it’s not really home for you.” she stated matter-of-factly.
“I’m not sure what you mean.” I said “I grew up there, so yes, it was my childhood home.”
“But you’re not from there.” she was not going to let this go.
Fair enough, but it really depends on what “from there” means.
I tried to put a different lens onto the conversation. “Well – where do you say you are from.” “That’s easy” she named a small town in one of the New England states. “Okay, why do you call that town home?” “Well, I grew up there.”
The defense rests their case.
When I returned to Pakistan in 2010, I got to walk through the house we had lived in during my junior and senior years of high school. A tsunami of memories came over me as I walked through the large front rooms, around the verandah, and finally stopped in front of my bedroom door. As I pressed my face against the window, looking into the room where I had spent winter vacations, I gasped. There on the bed was the comforter that my mom and I had picked out so many years before. The previously bright green, pink, yellow, and blue patterns had faded through the years, but there was no mistaking it. I never thought something as simple as a comforter could bring on such a profound sense of belonging. It was, after all, an inanimate object. But in that moment, it was confirmation of a life that I had lived, a life relegated to stories, photo albums, and memories captured in the cerebral cortex of my brain.
Despite 18 years of life packed into old passports, photo albums, old journals, and letters that my mom kept through the years, in many people’s eyes I have no right to say that Pakistan was home, even less rights to saying that I am from Pakistan. My rights to the country are defined by outsiders who tell me who I am and where I am from.
It brings up many emotions and deep empathy for the many around me who, in this era of massive displacement, struggle silently in the same way.
In a beautiful essay called “Reconciling with Less Home: Between Haiti and Me” Martina Fouquet writes:
The real question is who determines where we belong?
Martina Fouquet in Catapult Magazine
Perhaps what people don’t realize about their challenges to our concepts of home and where we say we are from are that the challenges act like a knife cutting to the core of who we are. The knife cuts deep, and we are left with our own origin questions, self-doubt raising its ugly head telling us once again that we don’t really belong. The internal dialogue that we thought we had silenced so long ago emerges once again, loud and accusatory: “You don’t really belong. You aren’t Pakistani. You left years ago.”
“But that’s not really home for you” or “That’s not where you’re really from” viewed as benign statements to many presents as a challenge to personhood and origin to another.
I don’t know what the answer is to arguments of origin, other than reminding myself once again that no one gets to tell any of us where home is. It is uniquely ours to determine where and why. Our stories may not fit into tidy boxes that connect within the experiences of others, but that’s not a problem we need to solve or a burden we need to bear.
Despite awkward questions, arguments, and discussions on home and origin, the paradoxical gift of this journey is that sometimes less home becomes more home, our lives richer for the multiple places we are privileged to call home.
You have to keep living your story. You have to keep living faithfully, seeking God, praying, caring for those things you know are critically important and you have to keep writing about them.
A Kind Friend
Since 2012, at the beginning of every year I’ve gone through a mini writing crisis. 2012 marked a milestone: A year of writing publicly every day. In 2011 I set out on the journey to communicate across boundaries through writing. As 2012 rolled around I was both proud and apprehensive. Now what? I had done what I set out to do, but was I beginning to be a loud noise in a louder world? Was there a place for me to write and an audience for me to write to and for?
Every writer asks themselves the same questions at different points of their journey. Self-doubt is a faithful, all be it depressing, companion to writers, artists, musicians, scientists, doctors, priests, monks and any other vocations that involve the heart.
About a year and a half ago a dear friend of mine who had published a successful book was featured on a podcast. Toward the end of the interview, she was asked a question about writers who meant a lot to her or inspired her. She named two writers who are fairly well known, and then she went on to talk about a writer friend she had who inspired her but wrote largely “in obscurity.” She talked about how much she valued her words and friendship. The writer friend was me. It was incredibly kind. I heard it and I began to cry. My friend was so kind and also, the word obscurity stung.
Obscurity – the state of being unknown, inconspicuous, or unimportant.
I was unknown, inconspicuous, unimportant. My words didn’t matter.
Of course, my friend didn’t mean that at all. She was giving me praise. She was saying I inspired her. She was honoring me in a public forum. But I didn’t hear that part. All I heard was the part about obscurity.
It is a humbling journey being faced with your own desires and weaknesses within those desires. Because here’s the truth – I would love for my words to journey across the hearts and minds of millions. There are times when I fantasize about walking up to an airport bookstore and standing with sunglasses on looking at my own book, just grinning. I’d love to stand to the side and watch others walk up and peruse the stand, finally landing on my books saying, “I love this writer!” There are times when I dream about an agent taking calls about interviews on public radio and speaking at events across the country.
It’s about then that I hear my alarm and know that it’s time to get up and face my day job, where I grab time to write before work and after work and not much in between.
Despite the obscurity, every time I think I’m going to quit putting my fingers on this keyboard, every time I get discouraged and think my words don’t matter, I get a message like the one at the top of this page. And even when I don’t, I remember how much I love writing; how much I love the craft, the ideas that flow or don’t flow. The words and descriptions, the stories and how they are birthed onto the page, the staring into the distance at a coffee shop when suddenly a phrase comes to me. The feeling of hitting “publish” on my own blog, or “send” in an email submission and then waiting to hear if my essay was accepted for publication, the utter joy of seeing my words on the printed or online page…or not, because whether published or not there is deep joy in creating.
It’s during those moments that I know I will never quit. I may go through sabbaticals of quiet, I may take time out to not write publicly, but I’ll keep writing every day.
But I also know another truth that overrides all of this – and that is that my identity cannot be found in writing alone. My security cannot be rooted in who reads or doesn’t read my words. That would be a fickle identity indeed. My security doesn’t lie in my ability to create words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories but as one who is created and beloved by God.
In these 12 years of writing, I’ve learned much about myself and about the human condition. I’ve learned more about what it is to live well in places that are hard, in places where you don’t feel you fully belong. I’ve heard from people who are displaced or in transition, who are struggling to find their place. I’ve received messages from teenagers in France and retirees in the United Kingdom. I’ve connected in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve gone through public and private crises, and asked readers to come along with me in the grief. I’ve learned more of what it is to give both identity and desire to God, to invite him into my writing space, and pray for words. And I’ve come to see that it’s a big world out there and within it there is a place for small writers in small spaces.
I’m sitting at a coffee shop in Rockport, Massachusetts. The sky is grey outside, the cold wind from the ocean biting and intense. Inside is warm with low conversation, the smell of toasted bagels and fresh donuts, and a hot eggnog latte. Sometimes the warm conversation of strangers is the best company of all.
I looked back at some of my writing the other day, caught up in the nostalgia of words with memories. 2021 was a rough year on every level. 2022 started out a shade better and quickly took a dark, dark turn. Despite that, daily gratitude, learning about releasing control, and clinging to God as lover of my soul kept joy afloat amidst many tears.
Life is never just tragedy, it is a poignant blend of comedy, drama, tragedy, and joy. And in the midst of this is a God who walks with us, who will not leave us, and who delights to surprise us with good gifts.
Instagram post from 2021
For over 2500 years, comedy and tragedy masks have been a symbol of theater. These symbolic masks began in the city of Athens in 535 BC. The first theater in the world had just been built – Theater of Dionysus. In a much anticipated first performance, the curtain went up and actors stepped onto the stage wearing masks. The masks represented various characters in the play. Masks became commonplace in theaters, often made far larger than life so that they could be seen by the audience. The first theater tickets in Athens were masks carved out of small pieces of ivory bone. Well before the fall of the Roman empire, masks had become a well-known symbol for theater. The only ones that remain to this day are the masks that show happy and those that show sad. Perhaps the happy and sad masks were the only ones to live on because the ancient Greeks favorite plays were, and perhaps still are, comedy and tragedy.
I wonder if it is primarily the western world that expects life to be free of tragedy. When I speak with friends in or from other parts of the world, I don’t get the sense that their expectation is that they will experience a life free of pain, and yet in the west, people often seem surprised at hardship. What false reality or expectation have we created in the west that assumes a life of magic and order, a life of picture postcard images?
These comedy/tragedy masks remind me that life has always been and will always be a mix of both. The more I ponder, the more I realize I would not have it any other way. What is sun without clouds? What is joy without sorrow? What is comedy without tragedy? As humans we are a bit like Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion. We grow and learn through opposites.
As we end 2022 and walk into 2023, we can be assured that our lives will not go exactly as we imagine. We can rest in one thing – that whether we can see it or not, the sun will rise in 2023 bringing with it unexpected joys, unimagined tragedies, and a lot of in between mundane.
Through it all, God is there. He will not grow tired; he will not grow weary. He will give strength to our weary souls, rest to our tired bodies. As we wait on him, we will find new strength. We will run and not get tired, We will walk and not grow weary.* 2023 will not overwhelm us but will come as it always does – one day at a time.
For 2023, I wish you the joy of living fully, one day at a time.
I was caught in traffic today. I sat in the driver’s seat just five minutes from my house, craning my neck to see what was blocking cars and trucks from moving more than a couple of feet every few minutes. We inched along, caught in a concrete and steel maze. To my left was an iron fence, the top of it oddly ornamental but lost in the garbage and chaos that is city living. To my right, bright yellow graffiti tried to make a statement, perhaps encouraging those of us who were stuck in traffic to see beyond the city scene.
In the middle of this, I began to think about a talented artist and her ability to take the common of the city, infuse the starkness with colors and shadows, and in her own words “beautifying the banal.” She takes the scene I see in front of me and creates beauty. Chain link fences, stop signs, concrete buildings, barriers, all of it painted with precision and care.
I paint spaces that most people pass daily but don’t notice, like alleyways, fences and parking lots.
Christine Rasmussen is an LA-based artist who describes herself as “painter of the in between.” She is also daughter of one of my dear childhood, now adult, friends. Her artist statement gives the viewer a sense of what she is doing. Beyond the words are, of course, the paintings themselves.
As a painter I investigate the in between, depicting cityscapes that hover between familiar and imagined. In observing these urban spaces devoid of people, I play with themes of belonging versus aloneness; memory versus daydream; and narrative versus abstraction. The “story” continues off the canvas, letting the viewer’s imagination step in.
These themes interest me as a global nomad who has often found myself hovering between multiple cultures, time zones, languages and identities. Close observation of my surroundings in every city I encounter reveals recurring materials, shadows or shapes that I paint as symbols of our shared humanity across perceived differences. Through capturing these commonalities – the wondrous details of urban environments – in my paintings, I explore the many complexities and multiple identities of our rich inner lives.
There are many things in cityscapes that are barriers carrying messages that tell us we don’t belong. Red and white signs that give harsh orders of “Do Not Enter,” stop signs, large concrete structures, traffic lights that dictate when you can go and when you must stop, boarded up buildings, and anonymous drivers in snob appeal cars. That is what makes Christine’s desire to introduce us to these as shared symbols of humanity and eye for beauty in the commonplace of the city unique and imaginative.
In a review of her solo exhibition called “Liminal Transcendence” that recently opened in LA, her work was described this way:
In these paintings, we are getting a view of where the sky meets the earth. The horizon is filled with concrete, metal, glass, shadow and urban stories. The sky in her works is filled with clouds (and chemtrails) Angelenos will easily recognize. Christine is asking us to take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Kristine Schomaker in Art and Cake Magazine
Take notice of that in between space where the magic happens.
Pay attention to the beauty in the banal.
Never stop finding beauty in the ordinary moments of life.
It is easy for me to see beauty in the in between of the natural world where the sky meets the earth, where the ocean rises up to the horizon, and where the sun shines through the clouds. Bearing witness to all that beauty gives birth to heart-bursting moments that keep me longing for an eternity where beauty will never end but last forever.
It is more difficult for me to see beauty and magic where concrete meets clouds and chain-link fences connect with the sky, where birds perch on electric wires strung between poles on city streets. And yet, these are part of the sum of where I live. Christine’s work, created from a background that resonates with my own, invites me to see color and perspective, asks me to pay attention and look for beauty beyond my immediate vision. She captures life between far more realistically, precisely because there are so many sharp corners and fences in a life between. Her paintings encourage me to move past the cityscapes and into the coffee shop on the corner where my heart connects with a friend and the saudade is killed. I move from there to my office with sleek black walls and industrial fixtures, finally back to the constant creation and recreation of home and place. And in all of it, the invitation is there – find beauty, look for magic.
When I first began processing a life lived between worlds through writing, it was more about the pain and discomfort of the process. As I’ve grown, I’ve come to see the sharp objects in this life as part of the beauty. Our appreciation for beauty perhaps has more to do with our understanding of suffering then it does with our eyesight.
For all of us, this life on earth is a life lived between. None of us knows what is next. While my faith tradition gives me clues and in faith, I accept those, it also reminds me that this is a mystery. I analyze it and dissect it, but what I really long to do is use my words to articulate the beauty and magic of this life. I want my words to do what Christine’s art does. I want them to say “Look beyond the dirt and garbage, beyond the stop and go, the insecurity and anonymity of the city. Take notice! Pay attention!” Pay attention to the straight edges that meet the cloudless blue sky, or the petunia that grows through the crack in the concrete. Pay attention to the steel objects and the velvet fabrics. Chase beauty like you chase belonging and you will find both.
Let your imagination run with your longing and find rest in a promise far greater than magic, the promise of an eternity better than you could dream it to be, all of our longings and belongings finally fulfilled, wrapped in something far better and greater than we can imagine.
Note – you can see Christine’s work by clicking the link for her website above or by following her on Instagram @christinerasmussenart.
What place or people gave you your fundamental values and shaped the way you see the world?
A number of years ago when I was worried about one of my children, a wise friend said to me “Every chance you can, remind them who they are.” I remember my silence as I thought about what she had said. It was so simple, but so profoundly helpful.
Remind them who they are. Remind them that they belong to a bigger story. Remind them that they are beloved. Remind them of laughter, of fights, of homes and houses, of moments. Remind them.
I’m thinking about that on this Friday morning. Fall is slowly arriving in our area, evident in the chilly air that greets me each morning. Soon we will see the reds and golds that make this area famous for its leaf peeping. apple picking, and cider donuts washed down with hot apple cider.
I’m in a place of needing to remember what shaped me, remember the stories passed down to me, remember the faith of my father and mother, remember who I am, remember that his mercy indeed echoes down through the generations.
Questions of belonging and identity come throughout life in many shapes and forms. When we are younger, they cause more crisis, more angst. When we’re older, it’s more like a subtle despair and deep longing. We silently chastise ourselves for what we feel is the immaturity of our struggle. We try and push it off on other things like our jobs, our friendships, our churches. But a look in the mirror reveals a more difficult truth. And when, as my friend Liz Rice says, our “umbilical cord(s) of identity”* stretch out to cities, countries, and people who are far away or no longer exist, the result can be a profound sense of loss.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to pause, give thanks and move on to the next right thing. Focusing on the losses has the defeating effect of creating more loss. The older we get, the more unbecoming it is to wallow in self pity or despair. Besides, there are walks to be taken, coffee to be savored, sweet rolls to be made, and pedicures to be had. Wallowing won’t give me any of those beautiful gifts.
And so today I pause and I think about those people and places that have shaped me, that have helped me shape my values, my loves, my longings, and the way I see the world.
This past weekend I attended a reunion for others like me who, though not Pakistani, have a deep connection and love for Pakistan through work or through a third culture childhood. After three years of limited contact with these folks, we gathered together in the heart of the Ozark mountains, the kitsch of Branson far enough away to not interfere with our conversation and connections.
Through the years I grow more and more grateful for this heritage that I am gifted, the sense of belonging I can feel with someone 40 years younger or 30 years older than I am.
Coming from all over the world, we celebrated this legacy. There was no need to explain our love of hot curry and airports, our fierce defense of Pakistan and our comfort with travel. We were a group of people who remember the smoke of wood fires as dusk settles over our mountain home away from home, the spicy garlic of chicken karahi, the thick gravy of chicken korma eaten with a hot chapati, the delight of a clear day after a long monsoon, and the joy of sitting in daisy filled fields just minutes from our school. We are people who remember long bus rides up a steeply curved mountain road, vendors hawking at train stations, and crowded bazaars where we searched for bangles and fabric. We are an eclectic group who grew up with a steady diet of old Christian hymns coupled with hearing the call to prayer five times a day. We are men and women of all ages who have experienced the sights, sounds, and smells of Pakistan resurrected in unlikely places, bringing on waves of saudade, that wistful longing for what no longer exists. We are people who have known God’s presence within Pakistan, whether felt through the whisper of wind through pine trees, the sound of the call to prayer, or the sound of ocean waves on Karachi beach.
In March, I spoke to a group of women at our parish. I was invited to share my journey under the theme of “Journeys of Faith.” I titled my talk “Stones of Remembrance” based on a chapter in the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. The story is about God telling Joshua to have each of the tribes of Israel pick up a stone and take it to the middle of the Jordan River so that they could remember God’s faithfulness. I love the concrete picture in this account, the action of picking up a stone, carrying it to a place and having it serve as a reminder of what God has done.
The first stone I talked about was the stone of heritage, the Christian faith that was passed down to me by my parents and the small community that grew me, a gift of faith embodied in my home and school. I included in the stone of heritage the uniqueness of being a little white girl growing up in a Muslim context where Islamic faith echoed in the call to prayer outside of our doors, shaping me with its zeal and devotion.
I was reminded over the past few days of the beauty of this stone of remembrance, the gifts of a heritage that includes shared identity and memories, faith that is based on foundational truths and worked out in different Christian traditions.
In this beautiful setting, we experienced much laughter and joy and many tears and memories of those who have died. We heard updates on Pakistan and a retelling of countless stories, there was bollywood and qawwali, creative presentations and not as creative presentations. There was occasionally that wistful longing for the past, but it was so much more than that.
Because the true beauty of these reunions is that they give us strength to walk forward and remind us that there are others who have traveled a similar journey. They are reminders of a shared heritage, a unique group of people shaped by a distinctive background with its gifts and its challenges.
Gathering and remembering makes us stronger, helps us to remember that we are all a part of a bigger story that is being written around the world and in our hearts.
I recently redecorated my window seat. Designing, whether it be a presentation or a room, is perhaps one of my favorite creative activities apart from writing. Of course, they come from the same roots, do they not? The roots of growth, creativity, chasing beauty.
When I’m decorating I rearrange pictures, pillows, curtains, and furniture like I rearrange words when writing. I look at the effect and know it’s just not right – or, by contrast, it’s perfectly right.
During the time that we have lived in this house, my window seat has been the silent witness to joy and tear-filled mornings. It sits in the center of our living room and has been filled with bright Kurdish textiles. Suddenly I wanted a bit less color. A place where color could still pop but one that drew me in to calm serenity. I changed out the pillow seat to a textured white, added throw pillows of the same, and finished the look with the pop of color from the textiles. I love it. I can escape the world as it draws me in and fills me with joy.
Its in this window seat where I feel seen, known, and loved.
It has been in this window seat where I have read and re-read the words from Psalm 139 – possibly my favorite Psalm. Drawing us in with intimate detail, this Psalm gets to the heart of a God who knows and loves us, who as a brilliant artist, intricately wove us in the secret places. In reading through the Psalm, the messages are clear: We are seen clearly. We are known fully. We are loved extravagantly. The disconnect always comes as I contemplate the truth of those three things with the way I live my life. If I really believe that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved, would I not rest easier? It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time.
This window seat is a witness to many honest emotions, holding them with the steady and secure loyalty that inanimate objects sometimes offer. This Psalm is also witness to many emotions, to darkness as well as light – reminding me that God is present in the darkness, bringing light and offering the solace of his presence.
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you
Psalm 139 Verse 12
In my break from social media I am brought into the timeless truth of Psalm 139 in a new way. There are the fickle responses on social media and then there are words read and memorized through centuries, words that withstand time and speak to the truth of God’s extravagant love for his creation.
Hearts, thumbs up, and ‘I care’ emojis are not a substitute for being seen, known, and loved extravagantly, but I too often get them confused.
I think of the words of Psalm 139. “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” God knew the moment of our first breath, he knows the moment of our last. And all that lies between the two moments – the outrageous laughter, the occasional apathy, the weary wandering, the dark winters, the light summers, the moments that plod and those that sprint, the times of fierce envy, the occasions of deep generosity, the lonely nights, the anxious days when our bodies are consumed, the fear for our futures, the occasional moments of complete and blissful trust, the feasting and the famine – he knows all of it.
There is only one response, and this also is written in the Psalm: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. Too much for me to understand.”
So I’ll seek to sit in the window seat and rest in what I do know – that I am seen, known, and extravagantly loved.