(Surely my identity is not) Skin Deep

Readers – Here’s a Fun Fact! Both Robynn (from Fridays with Robynn) and I have our noses pierced. We got them pierced years ago — years before it was cool to do so….! And the thing is – we’ve sort of forgotten that they’re pierced. They are so much a part of us. Until something happens…..Join Robynn for (Surely my identity is not) Skin Deep.

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Last week was a wonder week. I cancelled everything. I stripped it down to an empty calendar. I needed to rest and recover. I had an episode of vertigo that knocked me off the my kilter the previous weekend but I was also just worn down, tired out, empty.

So I took a week off.

And it was lovely.

Until I realized, to my horror, that my identity is only skin deep.
On Thursday I was dressing in a rush. I pulled my tee-shirt over my head and it caught on my ski-slope nose, grabbed onto my nose pin and yanked it out. With my shirt safely on I began to look for my nose pin. My husband, seeing my distress, immediately began to help me. We searched. We patted down the carpet, feeling for it with each tap. We looked in my shirt. We looked on the bed, under the bed, on the cat, under the cat. It was nowhere. The magic tee-shirt had made it disappear!

Really in the large scheme of things,….it’s no big deal. And yet you wouldn’t have known that by my response. My eyes filled with tears and I began to sob. I cried hard. I fell apart. Lowell kindly held me, knowing somehow, that this was bigger than a nose pin.

The nose pin disappeared in the context of a bigger identity quest. We’ve been back in the US now for 6 years. I feel in my bones that it’s time for a big change. It’s time to move on. It’s certainly time to live again someplace foreign and then familiar. It’s just time. But a move isn’t on the horizon. The suitcases are safely stowed downstairs. The passports are in the tornado-safe safe. No one here is going anywhere.

My nosepin served to mark me as a little different. Although nose piercings are now in vogue for the younger generation, it’s still a mark of peculiarity for a middle-aged woman. It set me apart. It said she may look like you but she’s foreign, strange, from a different place than you. And I liked that distinction. It was a forever reminder of my other places: Pakistan and India.

I first had my nose pierced when I was 18 years old. Boarding school ritual always included an “under pillow present” for the first night of boarding. After agonizing goodbyes mom and dad would drive away through their tears. I would stand at the bathroom window and wave until they were gone from sight. And then I’d wipe the tears from my eyes momentarily and rush to my pillow. Underneath it was always a little present of some kind. When I was in grade 12 that present was a note with some money saying that I could get my nose pierced! I was ecstatic! I had wanted that for a long while and it thrilled me that my parents had said yes. The one stipulation mom and dad placed was that Marilyn Gardner had to be the one to take me. Even in those days, Marilyn was a trusted person. She was a nurse–mom and dad were sure she would take me to a clean, hygienic place. They were probably afraid I’d let the first back alley piercer I could find put a hole in my nose and I’d catch gangrene and a horrendous infection and my entire nose would fall off.

But they trusted Marilyn.

We made a weekend of it! Cliff and Marilyn were living in Islamabad at the time. I caught a ride down the hill and went to visit. They treated me like royalty! They loved on me lavishly. This wasn’t my only weekend with them. Each time was a sweet treat. Coming from the boarding school group, they generously interacted with me as an individual. But this particular weekend visit also included a trip to Jinnah Market. There in an upscale jeweller’s shop I had my nose pierced.

And my soul was further tethered to Pakistan, the land of my childhood.

Just under a year later, after I had graduated from high school, the conservative Bible College I attended requested that I remove my nose pin. They felt it would hinder my settling into Canada. I think they had never encountered such an anomaly before and they framed up their freak out in terms of cultural adjustment. Initially I resisted but then I quietly removed it. I regretted that removal for years. Those years of settling into Canada were so incredibly painful…I actually think having the nose pin might have helped. My fellow students often assumed I was just like them…having my nose pierced would have told them what I already knew:

I was different.

Years later, after Lowell and I were married, and we returned to Asia to settle in North India the first thing I did was have my nose repierced. My friend, Dianne, accompanied me. We went to a Chinese Beauty Parlour (unsettlingly close to the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant!) and the Nepali beautician, with red paste on her forehead and a green gingham apron tied around her waist, pierced my nose.
And so my soul was now tied to India.

But last week it fell out. After twenty years I lost my nose pin. And I didn’t handle it very well. It was like I lost me in the weave of the carpet. I disappeared into the floor of the bedroom. I was yanked out violently and mysteriously I am now gone.
Of course I know logically that I am not my nosepin. My identity is not skin deep. I am more than this outer identifying mark. My counsellor has been slowly telling me, in my moments of agony over issues of identity, that part of who I am is what I contribute. I bring to the world my self, my true self, and I give. That’s helped me deflect some of the inner anguish. I didn’t bring to the world my nose and it’s lovely bling. I bring to the world my story, my passions, my convictions, my experiences, my joys and sorrows, the ways that I am wired and gifted.

The hole has already closed over. I found another pin in my stash of bits and pieces but I couldn’t get it back in. It had already sealed up. My nose feels naked and vulnerable.

Tucked away in the book of Exodus there are some obscure laws concerning servants. In those days if a slave did not want to leave his master – if he loved his master.and wanted to stay, there was to be an outward symbol declaring this commitment. The man’s ear would be pierced and this would be an outward identifier of who he was, and who he loved, who he was loyal to…

This post is not about slavery but about identity. —And my nose pin? It was an outward identifier of who I was and what I loved. Perhaps I should repierce it. Maybe that would serve to settle me here, tether my restless spirit and tie my roaming heart to a new place, to this place.

Wrapping up the Week ~ 6.01.13

It’s hot. It’s as though all the passionate pleas for warmth during winter gathered in the Heavens and sunshine and heat have come in abundance. I love this weather with all its sweat and lethargy. The whirring fans spell ‘h-o-m-e’ and the heat takes me to palm trees and dust, to Pittman’s house in Karachi and Addleton’s in Shikarpur, to Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Cairo back to my couch in Cambridge. I love this.

The cottage 3And today we unpack ‘place’. A small cottage-condo by the sea will be ours for the summer until fall rolls round and new renters sign a lease. Rockport is a special place for our family. Rockport means slow weekends with no internet or television, piles of books, long walks by the rocky coast, and art projects galore.

And so my blogging schedule will change. I will be posting Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, Robynn will continue on Fridays, and Saturday wrap-ups will go on hiatus until the fall.  Any extra time will be spent enjoying summer life and working on a two book projects – one with Robynn where we explore more of our TCK roots and compile what we’ve already written and add fresh, new material; and another that is shaping in my head with input from my husband and brother, Dan.

Onto wrapping up the week….

On Photography: My brother Stan has submitted a photo to the National Park Photo Contest in the United States. Stan is a superb photographer and this picture does not disappoint. Take a look at ‘Realignment’ and pass it on to others. You can share on Facebook as well as vote on it.

On getting rid of books and moving on: All of us know what it’s like to go through that gritty, difficult passage from one stage to another. Sometimes it happens through moving countries, other times through other life events. In a NY Times op-ed Stanley Fish explores this in a piece called Moving On. He begins the article on looking at what it was like to get rid of books and look at empty shelves but moves it from there to looking at retirement. A quote from the piece:

“I’m not going to go on forever. I avoid this realization, even as I voice it. I say, “I’m not going to go on forever,” and at the same time I’m busily signing new contracts, accepting new speaking invitations, thinking up new courses, hungering after new accolades. My books are clearer-eyed than I am. They exited the stage without fuss and will, one hopes, take up residence in someone else’s library where they will be put to better uses than to serve as items in a museum, which is what they were when they furnished my rooms.” from Moving On NY Times May 27,2013

On writing: I was delighted to be asked to be a monthly contributor to A Life Overseas. I’ve contributed two articles to A Life Overseas and love the perspective I see from other authors there. They are working through thoughts and feelings on poverty, nationalism, saying goodbye, having household help, and faith with passion and strong voice. I feel privileged to join them on this journey.

On the amazing book by my bedside table: It continues to be Americanah and oh I am loving this book. The descriptions, the attention to detail, notions of home, flawed and fully relatable characters  – all of it wrapped up in a great package. I don’t want this book to end quickly so I’m taking it in sips.

And to you who read….last night I met someone at a wedding who reads Communicating Across Boundaries.  I had met her only once before and she found the blog through a link on someone elses’s site – so humbling and wonderful to meet her. That’s how I feel about you all – it’s an honor that you read and share. Thank you and see you on Monday!

Wrapping up the Week – 5.25.13

This weekend in the United States is Memorial Day Weekend. Practically speaking, in the U.S this means we have a 3-day weekend bringing some extra rest and fun. The weekend always brings about nostalgia for two reasons: When we moved to the United States from Cairo, we would celebrate this weekend with my cousins. Even if we hadn’t seen them all year Memorial Day would find us at a (usually) cloudy but delicious barbecue and playing killer croquet with my Great Aunt Lottie. Aunt Lottie died some time ago, and we moved, and my cousins and the Scuzzins (cousins kids) moved.

The second reason is that 26 years ago today we welcomed our second child, first-born son to the world on a hot day in Islamabad, Pakistan. You can read more about that in my post An Expat Lady and a Ramadan Baby. So nostalgia reigns today as I think of life as it was, breathe a sigh, and embrace life as it is.

On to the wrapping up the week.

On Memorial Day: A Life Overseas posted an excellent essay on Memorial Day. Called “God Bless the World“, it captured much of what many of us who have lived overseas feel about this event. Take a look and see what you think. One of the quotes that stood out to me was this:

A life led overseas often reveals the enmeshment between our faith and our nationalism.  And we begin to ask questions that we may not have considered, questions that we might not like the answer to.

On Place: You can’t hang around Communicating Across Boundaries for long before there will be a conversation around identity or place.  These things matter. Place matters. Place shapes us. Place is used in our lives, for good or for ill. I found a short op-ed in the NY Times particularly poignant this week. It’s not about third culture kids, or global nomads, or expats. But it is about Place. Because everyone can relate to Place. The quote that shouted out to me was this: “Place is not meant to be eulogized. I don’t want to think that my place may have to be.” And yet many people have had to eulogize Place. My husband’s childhood home was razed to the ground to build a parking lot for a zoo in Miami. Places where many of us vacationed in Pakistan have been droned, and a eulogy rises creating further conflict between two countries who don’t “get” each other. The specific place in this article is Seaside Park, NJ – severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. I’d love to hear your thoughts on place and eulogizing place. Here is the article called Seaside’s Last Summer?

On the blog: There was great conversation on prejudice and bigotry on CAB this week! One of my favorite comments was from Jenni:

“I grew up in urban Australia, under the influence of my father’s extreme prejudice against indigenous Australians. Before going to live in an Aboriginal community as an adult, I confessed my prejudice & asked my church family to pray that I would learn to love “Aboriginal people”. I didn’t. I learned to love June and Stephanie, Peterson and Wurrip, to be disgusted by the behaviour of others, (some of them friends), hurt by some, to ache for the children and love little Jethro (though not so much when he taught my son how to turn a frog inside out) – I learnt relationship”

Also – There’s a new look on the blog….take a look and see what you think! 

On my bedside stand: A great new read called Americanah about a Nigerian immigrant who returns to Nigeria. It’s about identity, place, culture and so much more that I am not doing it justice. Stay tuned for more on this book.

What about you? What did you read, see, hear this week? Would love it if you shared through the comments.

And a Very Happy Birthday to my son Joel!

Guest Posting at A Life Overseas – “This is My Fate”

Readers – I’m over at A Life Overseas today! I hope you’ll come join me as I write about cultural humility and what we do when we offend in a country where we are guests.

Here is an excerpt:

“This is My Fate” – A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, if this had happened in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back……Read more here.

When the Sh*t hits the fan!

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We love to watch the show, MythBusters. On MythBusters  Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman and their team use the scientific method to prove or disprove movie stunts, YouTube videos, rumours, myths, news stories, idioms or even their own personal curiosities. They tackle seemingly impossible hypotheses to see if there is any truth in them at all. My personal favourites are their attempts to test idioms.  In season 9, episode 3 they tested the plausibility of the English expression, “When the shit hits the fan”! A series of ridiculous experiments revealed something quite unexpected and it certainly made me laugh and gave me pause to think.

According to the online urban dictionary “shit hits the fan” when ‘things get chaotic or uncontrollable’ or it’s ‘the point at which an already unstable situation devolves into utter chaos’.

Our family has a long-standing attachment to the word ‘shit’—I know it’s shocking but true! My mom and dad never permitted us to use swear words or foul speech when I was growing up. The word ‘fart’ was even off-limits. In our home we passed gas. At the very worst we “tooted” or “cut the cheese”.

We never farted. That was crude and crass and completely unacceptable.

The only exception was the word “shit”…and that only if we said it with a Pakistani accent. Something about that combination made my dad start to shake. The little lines around his eyes would start up first and eventually his convictions would melt off his face into complete laughter. It never failed. Dad would laugh and mom would say his name, “Gary!” with as much as sternness as she could muster as if dad himself had used the offending language!

Later when Lowell and I moved to India we had other opportunities to use the word. In our experience in North India, shit is the expletive of choice for anyone who speaks any amount of English. It’s not really a cuss word. Shit is used to denote poop, plain and simple. The ancient place we rented on the banks of the Ganges River provided ample opportunity to use the word. Frequently the sewage backed up on our bathroom floor. Using the word was a way to secretly let off some frustration but it was also a way to communicate to our landlady what was going on! She understood that word.

The word shit isn’t just used to talk about sewer– it has a variety of uses in India. It was a word that sympathized. When I told our landlady that my dad had been in the church that was attacked by terrorists in Islamabad in 2002, her first response, with her hand quickly coming to touch my arm and her face contorting in sadness and sympathy was, Ah shit!”  When I told her that Lowell had dengue fever, I got the same face with the same concern and the same word of choice, Ah shit!” When I told her something funny that had happened in the market she would laugh and say, “Oh shit!” When I showed her the bathroom floor where the sewage had backed up she’d groan and appropriately exclaim, “Oh shit!”

So you can imagine my intrigue and my amusement with the episode on MythBusters where they try to prove the validity to that interesting expression, “when the shit hits the fan”!

The funny thing is after Jamie and Adam had gone to the work of creating their own blue simulated poo, making a testing site, setting up a fan and then throwing the blue poo into the fan, not much happened. It was so anti-climactic! The blue poo just sort of hit the fan’s protective grate and then fell with a disappointing thud to the ground. They made some changes. They made their blue poo more gooey, they increased the size of the fan, they removed the grate. Eventually they were not disappointed. The blue goo flew! The anticipated results were finally actualized.

It made me stop and think.

Sometimes we expect our stresses and our strains to be far more grand and far-reaching than they are. Our imaginations move into our fears and we become anxious and over-wrought. We dream up horrors and hells and we allow them to paralyze our souls. These fears keep us awake at night. They force us to the edge of our calm. We live in dread of the “shit hitting the fan”.

But what if the shit just sort of plonks against the grate and nothing much happens? What if our worst fears are never actually realized? Or when they are realized we see it wasn’t as we thought it would be? Perhaps we’re stronger than we thought we’d be. Perhaps God was more Present than we thought He’d be. Perhaps our support structures held more than we thought they would.

I think about all the time I’ve spent dreading, fearing, and imagining the worst. (I’ve written about some of them: Better Widow than a Wife, When Fear Proves Love). I’ve spent hours blowing up my anxieties, like balloons for a funeral. I’ve wasted more hours trying to think up ways to protect myself from those same dreaded outcomes.

Like Jamie, on Mythbusters, I’ve donned perfect protective gear to safeguard against the flying poop.  More often than not, it never hits.

I’m not entirely sure what the answer is. I do want to live more fully in my now, in my here. Hopefully the pathetic results of Adam and Jamie’s test will remain with me and tutor me. What they worst feared didn’t actually happen! Jesus didn’t use the expression, “when the shit hits the fan”, but he did teach on imagined future dreads.  He wanted us to live today!

                So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Choosing to Remember -Remembrance Day 11.11.12

poppies, remembrance dayNovember 11th is Remembrance Day Sunday in Canada (and Great Britain and in several other European nations and throughout the Commonwealth). This is the day Canadians remember those who have died in conflict: in the Boer War, in the Great War and in World War 2, with US forces in Vietnam, under the United Nations in Korea, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and in various peacekeeping missions around the world. Americans similarly commemorate Veterans Day. Poppies take the place of profile pictures as we remember and say thank you.

There are other ongoing conflicts around the world where hatred and violence seemingly prevail. And as I approach Remembrance Day, I have to ask aloud: Who’s remembering the victims of those conflicts? Who are the peacemakers? Who speaks out for the innocent? For those who have no voice? For those the world has forgotten?

The persecuted church remains largely undefended and forgotten.

Because of God’s grace, my dad is the survivor of one such forgotten moment of conflict. What lasted only a few minutes has changed the 75 people in attendance forever. The moment was short, but the effects continue, even up until the present.  On November 11th I ask you to join me in remembering. Let this be a token event that calls to mind countless other events happening all around the world. Let us remember.

My parents served as missionaries to Pakistan from 1979 until 2003. They lived out their lives in the tiny desert town of Layyah in the heart of the Punjab. There they raised their two children, my brother, Neil, and me. As a family we grew to love Pakistan: her culture, her food, her people. Pakistanis in return loved us. They accepted us. They welcomed us. We attended hundreds of weddings, funerals, festivals, ceremonies. We celebrated Christmas and Easter with dear Pakistani brothers and sisters, Aunts and Uncles. Even now when Neil and I go home for Christmas with our spouses and our children we sing Urdu Christmas Carols and enjoy Chicken Curry and Mutton Pulau together. Pakistan has become a part of who we are.

In March 2002 my dad was in Islamabad with a Pakistani friend, Rashid. They were there to welcome some new American colleagues who would be flying into the Islamabad International Airport. Dad and Uncle Rashid arrived in the capital city a few days early to run some errands and to take care of some business. While they were there they decided, at the last moment, to attend church on March 17th at the Protestant International Church in Islamabad. The church was located near the diplomatic enclave. It was a safe area of the city. They had no second thoughts about attending.

Midway through the service, after the children had been dismissed to attend children’s church in the basement of the church, two gunmen entered through the back of the building. They began to lob grenades into the congregation. All was suddenly chaotic and smoky. The bombs that went off were loud and horrific. There were screams and scramblings. Instinctively my dad knew to hit the ground. An undetonated grenade had landed right by his feet. Uncle Rashid, didn’t immediately fall to the ground. In the end the shrapnel from his own eyeglasses penetrated his eyes and his vision was lost.

That was a day our family will never forget. Five people died that day. Many more were injured. The nightmare still plays itself out most nights when my dad sleeps. He will likely forever suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He lost both his eardrums that day. Since then he only hears, and even then not completely, when he’s wearing hearing aids. He will always remember.

I will also always remember the story of Mahmood. Mahmood was my dad’s friend. One day he sincerely wanted a Bible to read. He took it to heart. Soon afterwards he came to visit my dad. He had begun to believe in Jesus. He was changed and full of joy and enthusiasm. It was a thrilling transformation.

Less than two months later my parents received word that Mahmood had been murdered. He was driving his vehicle and he drove over the bank and into the canal. It was later revealed that his brakes had been tampered with. His brothers and his father were most likely involved. There was too much at stake for them to have a brother and a son betray his faith. For them it seemed that if Mahmood chose Jesus he was rejecting them, their families, their faith, their traditions. They couldn’t handle the shame. They killed him.

Today I choose to remember.

I remember Mahmood, who died for his new-found faith. I remember the others like him who are persecuted and martyred for simply believing in Jesus. I remember those who died in the Protestant International Church on that fateful day in March 2002. I remember the injured.

On this Remembrance Day will you please join me in remembering those others have forgotten? There are silent victims of persecution that no one remembers. There are conflicts where the victims die quietly, buried in graves without markers. There is no bestseller written about them, often there is not even and article or obituary.

Every day there are those who die for their faith and for their convictions. Let us be the ones who remember. Let us begin today. Let us thank God for their lives. And let us remember their families who yet grieve.

Re-Post: Memories of an Expatriate 4th of July

At 52 years old, I have spent more fourth of July holidays overseas, celebrating with other expatriates and a grudging realization that I like the holiday, than in the US. Today’s post is a re-post from last year when many of you were not CAB readers. Enjoy!

In capitals like Islamabad and Cairo, the celebrations were a highlight of our year. Free food and entertainment combined with celebratory fireworks and raffle prizes enjoyed by all passport holders. Our children loved the chance to meet with friends and eat the uniquely American fare of hamburgers and hotdogs coupled with canned soda and topped off by ice cream cups.

In Islamabad the parties were held at the large compound that housed the American club and pool. As life has become increasingly more precarious for Americans living in Pakistan, I have no doubt the celebrations are far more low-key if at all. Cairo’s venue was Cairo American College, the large international school compound and hundreds came to these events.

One of my best memories came in the summer of 1992. We had received news of the death of my maternal grandmother only days before the 4th of July. She was my only living grandparent and a compassionate soul who deeply loved all of her grandchildren. My mom and dad had left Pakistan after making it their home for 35 years in December of 1988 to be closer to her, knowing that her earthly body was declining and longing to be near her during the remaining time she had left.

On news of her death I experienced a deep longing for family. The longing hung over me like the dust hangs over Cairo-heavy and impossible to remove. Coupled with that I had given birth to my fourth child, a baby girl, just six month before. The only relatives who had met this personality-filled baby were my sister-in-law Terry and my niece, Christi-Lynn. With a tiny, still breast-feeding baby in my arms and three other small children, I wanted the comfort of blood relatives but knew that the trip was financially impossible.

It was during this time that we packed up our young family and set off by foot to the large 4th of July party. There my sadness was in temporary reprieve as our kids got their faces painted, ate hotdogs until they were sick and played with friends.

There was also a raffle. Companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Swiss Air had donated large prizes like nights in hotels, and free airline tickets to the lucky ticket holders.

At the time my husband was taking a summer Arabic course at the American University in Cairo. He had befriended other classmates, some American, who had come to our home to escape the inevitable culture shock that had overtaken them. He told them about the “Free party on the 4th!” and as a result a couple of them had come. They were on their way back to “real Cairo” when they saw Cliff and asked him if he wanted their raffle tickets. Realizing that he would lose nothing, he took them and so we had in our possession 8 tickets.

You know the rest of the story before I put it down – Yes, we won. Not one prize but two. The first was a breakfast at the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek, renowned for its amazing morning spread. The second? A round-trip airline ticket, generously donated by Swiss Air from Cairo to my choice of anywhere in the continental United States.

To say I was over the moon does not adequately describe my excitement, or gratefulness. I felt in that time when I needed to know my heart was heard, God with great grace gave me a free pass. Like I was losing at a game of Life, only to land on a “Win a TV Game Show, Collect $100,000!” only this was real.

While other 4th of July celebrations have come my way, each holding their share of beautiful fireworks, fun foods, and a grudging recognition that it is one holiday where I proudly carry my U.S. passport, none will ever come close to that day when God met me at an expatriate celebration.

Blogger’s Note: Our 4th of July holidays have changed through the years. They now include a barbecue with friends, watching fireworks while sitting on the beach and a small town parade. For those of you who are from the U.S – Happy 4th! To the many other readers who are not – thanks for bearing with me and hearing about this holiday! I plan to give equal recognition through a blog post to Pakistan Independence Day on August 14!