What Place or People Made You Who You Are?

“What place or people made you who you are?

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.

*Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

Stones of Remembrance – Heritage

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.

Seen,Known, and Extravagantly Loved.

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.

Finding My Way on the Freedom Trail

This morning I met with a dear friend at a coffee shop along the wharf in Boston. Blue sky and warm temperatures had us both exclaiming with delight as we sat outside drinking coffee and eating croissants. Our conversation went from Afghanistan to Islam to culture to cultural schizophrenia to the U.S election to Boston and back around again. Though much younger than me, we share our hearts during these times together, finding solace in mutual understanding.

We said goodbye by the bridge that separates the North End of Boston from Charlestown and I headed back home.

I soon found myself in an unfamiliar park and was just about to check my phone for directions when I spied the brick path that identifies Boston’s famed Freedom Trail.

Family and friends who come visit Boston always ask us about the Freedom Trail. Boston’s Freedom Trail is not a hike in the woods as some mistakenly think when they first arrive. Instead, it’s a path that winds through the city taking you to famous sites along the way. Every step of the path leads you into a story from the past and you find yourself immersed in America’s beginnings and fight for freedom.

Churches, museums, graveyards, and a ship are just a few of the treasured sites along the way. The trail begins at Boston Common and takes you 2.5 miles to an ending point at Bunker Hill Monument, an 11 minute walk from our house in Charlestown.

I smiled with relief as I found the Freedom Trail. I now knew where I was! I had a reference point and could follow the path. Instead of feeling a sense of confusion and disorientation, I felt safe and secure. If I just followed the brick path I knew exactly how to get home.

As I walked I thought about how weary and lost I have felt. I thought about the disorienation and lostness I feel when I sink into the abyss of discontent fueled by social media and the isolation it can create. I thought about how tired the world feels with this pandemic. And then I thought about the freedom that a known path allows, even when it winds and twists and turns.

I think a lot of us are feeling lost. We don’t know how to plan and how to walk forward. While the pandemic and the changed plans that it has brought is part of the reason, each of us have our own private reasons as well. These public challenges just make our private worlds more complicated.

Weary. Lost. Frustrated. Sad. Angry. Confused. Disoriented. These are just a few of the words that I have shared with friends and they have shared with me about this time. How do you find your way when there are so many twists and turns?

This sense of feeling lost is when I know I have to go back to the beginning. My life is recentered by remembering that my story, small as it is, is important and fits into a bigger story. As the Freedom Trail is to American history, so is my story to this bigger story. It’s small, but remembering it can remind me how to get home. I have churches and graveyards, ships and museums in my story as well.

As I remember my story, I remember who I am. More importantly, I remember whose I am.

The solid brick path of the Freedom Trail showed me the way today. Somehow, it also centered me in my story. As I walked the trail, I remembered who I was. The Freedom Trail brought me home.

It’s Complicated

It’s a complicated time to be an American. From wearing masks to views of political parties to ideas for restrictions on police, we are a divided nation. So divided it seems, that when someone says something is purple, you are guaranteed a response of “well, maybe it’s not really purple. I mean – you think it’s purple but it’s really not.” Or worse “Let’s crucify them and cancel them on social media because they dared to say it was purple!” Bam. Canceled.

It’s exhausting. It’s defeating. It’s depressing.

As we end July 4th weekend, a weekend normally given to barbecues, fireworks, parades, and large gatherings, we have a skyrocketing number of COVID 19 cases, a huge segment of our society that is feeling the effects of inequality not only through virus deaths but through the injustice in law enforcement, and seemingly irreperable divisions between hardline party members of both sides.

People are angry. People are dissatisfied. People are depressed – and it’s not just about a virus.

Celebrating a nation’s idependence during this time is not easy.

Even before I learned about Juneteenth, I had a complicated relationship with America’s “birthday.” Living between worlds gives one the unique perspective of seeing through a double lens, of being able to both love and criticize across cultures and cultural values. I have loved some of the freedoms afforded in this country even as I am uncomfortable with the high view given to individualism, often at the high cost of community.

Through the eyes of my non-American friends, I have seen the United States as a place that has given many people and entire families great opportunities. The places I’ve lived here have been places of diversity of thought and appearance and many of my friends in Kurdistan, Egypt, and Pakistan dream of a ticket to this country. At the same time, through their eyes I’ve seen many of America’s flaws and weaknesses. I’ve also seen a different America through the eyes of my friends from minority populations in the United States. Through friendship, reading, and film I have seen two countries emerge – the one of opportunity and the one of inequality at best and oppression at worst.

The echoes of “Make America Great Again” ideology are ugly and have allowed racism, ethnocentrism, and nationalism to grow in dangerous ways. Lady Liberty’s “Give me your poor” speech feels trampled by fear, poor policy, and hardened hearts.

I have always known that my allegiance is to something far stronger and greater than any nation. My loyalty and world view are defined not by a country, but by a faith. I am called to a higher calling and a far better identity than that which is indicated in my passport. The idea that God’s awesome redemptive story is aligned to or limited by a country, a people, or a political party is far from the truth I know and believe.

Believing that a national identity is greater than a spiritual identity is quite simply idolatry.

My faith calls me to pray for countries and the leadership of those countries. It is part of every liturgy and even though I sometimes cringe and think “No! I don’t want to pray for the United States!” I do it. I do it out of obedience, and when I do I feel a sweet relief, not because things are better, but because I have a clearer picture of God as not ruled or defined by any country or place. I know that leaders ultimately answer to God.

This weekend feels like a time of reckoning and sobriety. A time to pray harder for a nation that has tremendous potential but is part of an imperfect world and functions with an imperfect government. The absence of large gatherings and parades, with fireworks cancelled and travel limited feels appropriate, a reminder that perhaps we need to grow into the greatness we celebrate and the potential we have by challenging injustice, caring for the weak, welcoming the outsider, having empathy for the marginalized and feeding the poor.

“The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Hubert Humphrey- 1977

Eid Celebrations & Memories

عيد مبارك

Each year, the sighting of a crescent moon tells Muslims around the world the date of Eid al Fitr. With that date, a month of fasting ends and festivities and celebrations begin.

Today is Eid al Fitr and I wake up full of memories of past Ramadans and Eid celebrations. I indulge these, even as I head out into a world far different from the one where I grew up.

I’m seven or eight, holding tight to my dad’s hand.We are across the street from the largest mosque in the city of Hyderabad in the Sindh region of Pakistan. There are thousands of men gathered to pray before heading home to their Eid feasts. I still remember brilliant white, starched cotton shalwar/kameez – the Eid clothing glowing with newness.

I’m in junior high and we are on vacation in the Swat valley. We stay at a rest house with views that make it into National Geographic magazine. Our scenery is rushing rivers with small foot bridges that perch precariously over certain tragedy should you fall, beautiful green mountains and valleys, nature in all its glory and lack of pollution. Later in the day, we begin to smell goat cooking over an open fire – the pungent, delicious aroma wafts through the open area below the rest house. We are treated to some of this goat by Pakistanis, hospitable beyond words to these strangers, white people in their territory.

I’m 15 and thrilled to have a day off. I think little about Ramadan or Eid celebrations other than grabbing sweets from a box on the table. My world is me and I don’t realize how much I will regret how little I care about the culture that surrounds me.

I’m 27 and I’m in labor. I know the Eid celebration is coming but it’s still Ramadan. Okay. Breathe. Slow and steady, make it through this pain.I must be around 7 centimeters and I know it will get worse before it gets better. This is the second baby I’ve birthed and I glance at the clock and think “I hope Dr. Azima comes soon!” I know she’s breaking the fast for one of the final days of Ramadan, and the days are long with sunset coming around 9pm, but my baby is coming and she better be here. I care not about culture or Ramadan or Eid celebrations. Laboring to bring a baby into the world has changed any outward focus to inward. Just before midnight I give birth to the most beautiful, blue-eyed boy I have ever seen and I am smitten.

I’m 36 and it’s our last year in Cairo. I hear the drums of Ramadan and know it will be a long time before I hear them again. I will no longer hear the call to prayer, my alarm clock since birth, echoing across the city of a thousand minarets. Instead mosques will be far away and familiarity even farther. But I can’t indulge in what will be. I have kids to care for, people to see, friends to enjoy.

I’m 53 and I wake up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It will be business as usual as I head to work on the subway. Muslim friends will take the day off but overall it will go largely unnoticed. There was no last day of Ramadan frenzy and today holds no air of festivity. I pray that I will see people on the subway who will remind me of where I’ve been. As I get to the station, an entire Muslim family is waiting on the platform, dressed in beautiful silks and cottons. I wish them “Eid Mubarak,” knowing what it’s like to feel alone and homesick for family on holidays when you are far away from family thinking how similar this must be for them. They smile in surprise, and my day is made.

I’m 55 and I’ve been waiting over a half hour for the subway. This is the last day of my work week and I am tired. A computerized announcement has told me three times that “we are experiencing delays because of a disabled train.” The platform fills up with people, anxious and irritated. The train finally comes after 45 minutes. The train is so crowded that I don’t think I can get on, but I am determined. As I cram into a space, I see that the young man next to me is wearing a kurta shalwar, and without a thought I say to him“Eid Mubarak!” He looks at me in surprise, and then says “Khair Mubarak!” followed by “That’s a welcome surprise!” The next 20 minutes we talk and the wait no longer matters. He is Pakistani, raised in Pakistan until teen years, when the family moved to Virginia. We talk about Pakistan and share some family stories. He goes to Harvard and graciously invites me to a celebration at eight in the evening. He is on the train with several other Harvard students, all Muslims heading to the Eid prayers at the main mosque in Roxbury. My stop comes too soon, but I leave with a full heart. What a gift to be able to have this conversation, to connect at a time when the world is so at odds.

I am 59 and living in the small city of Rania in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. I have just learned that we have to leave Kurdistan at the end of June and my heart hurts. I am angry. Angry at the government and angry at the university. I’m also sick with a bad cold and feeling the misery of self-pity. We hear an unexpected knock on the door in the evening. It is our friend Rania and her brother. They have come with beautiful homemade sweets and this hospitality and generosity make me weep. No wonder I don’t want to leave this place I’ve grown to love.

And today? Today I am in Rockport, Massachusetts – in a place I love though far from other places I’ve called home.

As I write, I think about the honor of growing up where I did and of having lived where I have lived. To have participated in countless Eid celebrations in both Pakistan, Egypt, Kurdistan, and now the United States; to have learned more about my Christian faith through the faith of my Muslim friends – this is a gift.

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

Posted by Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL 

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

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


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

DR. MICHELLE HARWELL

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

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

DANAU TANU AUTHOR OF GROWING UP IN TRANSIT