(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!

mythbusters.jpg

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!

The Milestone of Twenty-Five

There are many milestones for moms. Milestones of birth and first tooth, milestones of first day of school and graduation, milestones of heartbreaks and accomplishments. And one of those milestones is when a child turns twenty-five. I don’t know what it is, but twenty-five is a big deal.

Twenty-five is an adult. Twenty-five is a quarter of a century. Twenty-five is a reminder of my mortality, a reminder that I am growing older and will someday grow old. 

And today my second child and first-born son turns twenty-five. Born on a hot evening in the middle of Ramadan in Islamabad, Pakistan, he came into the world with a full head of blonde hair and the most gorgeous blue eyes I had ever seen. The sleepless night that followed had me staring at those wide open eyes for over 4 hours. It was a moment that I will never forget. In those 4 hours all the love that I could pour out in this world poured out. I was smitten.

The memories I have of a tow-headed toddler are both hilarious and poignant. Running across a carpeted apartment floor with an egg, thinking it was hard-boiled only to lose it on the ground and realize it wasn’t, resulting laughter erupting from the soul. Seeing the Egyptian policemen change uniforms in spring and saying in complete sincerity “Mommy, when I grow up I want to be one of them!”. Cries for me to pick him up when I was pregnant with our fourth and so tired. “Can I tell you a secret Joel? I can’t pick you up because we’re having another baby. You’ll have another little brother or sister!” His eyes went wide with amazement and he walked the entire way up the hill.

The more recent memories come in the form of a picture taken in Trader Joe’s parking lot in Cambridge. He gathered up his older sister and I in his arms and someone snapped a picture. Taped to our refrigerator, it is a reminder of bear hugs and warmth. Memories of this past Christmas in Cairo, late nights in coffee houses, climbing up the highest minarets in the city and laughing on a French express train to Alexandria.

It’s these memories and more I have as I think about this day and milestone. His debating skills, honed on his father; his love of travel and history; his cooking ability; his ability to make friends; his raucous laughter that makes everyone around him laugh, even if we don’t think something is funny – all of this is the person who is Joel.

Joel lives miles away and has been independent for some time. He manages his world without his mom. It’s hard to admit but he does it well.

And today he will turn twenty-five without us. Though presents have been sent, it’s not like being there and raising a toast in his honor. It’s a milestone. A milestone for him, a milestone for me, a milestone for his dad.

Happy Birthday Joel – You came into our lives and our world did a dance. 

Cairo Cool! Joel is second from the right. 

Indescribable Joy – Reflections from Surviving a Suicide Bomb

In the midst of such horror and hurt, Kate’s overwhelming memory was of the indescribable joy knowing she had saved her son.

On March 18, 2002, a suicide bomber attacked the international church in Islamabad, Pakistan. It felt personal as it was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. I will never forget the letter we received from two friends soon after the attack, written as she was recovering from an injury sustained during the event. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that event, an event that by their own admission changed our friends Jon and Kate Mitchell. They have graciously given permission for me to share this powerful story with hopes that the God who revealed himself to them, and continues to do so, will do the same for those who read the narrative. I urge you to pass this on for in Jon’s words “These things need to be shared!”

Today, March 18, 2012 is a special day for us.  It marks the 10th anniversary of a day that was both horrific and blessed for us.  10 years ago today, a suicide bomber attacked our church in Islamabad, changing our lives forever.

We were about half way through the service, the sermon having just begun.  Our son Daniel was downstairs in children’s church and Iain was in the sanctuary with us, sitting in Kate’s lap.  I remember the bomber bursting in through a rear door, and I can still see his silhouette as he tossed some objects in among the pews.  I instinctively ran to the back of the church, not sure what I was going to do when I got to him, but certain he had to be stopped.  Then the first grenade exploded, and a wave of panic swept over me.  “Kate and Iain are down there.  I’ve got to protect them”.  As I desperately raced back down the aisle towards where they were sitting there was another explosion in front of me.  I remember the heat of the blast, the sand and grit hitting my face and I can still see chairs flying through the air past me.  The explosions continued and when I got to our row of chairs I tried to peer through the smoke and dust to where Kate and Iain had been.  I didn’t know what I would find.

Kate and Iain were on the floor, lying side by side where we had been sitting.  Kate’s clothes were torn and she was bleeding, but the wounds looked superficial to me.  My heart rejoiced, and then I saw it.  There was an unexploded grenade just to Kate’s right.  Thank God for Russian grenades.   I helped her to her feet, grabbed Iain and ushered them out of the church before going in to help others get out of the building.  Each time I came out of the church I stopped to check on Kate and our boys, but I didn’t realize she had a serious lung injury until she told me she could taste blood in her mouth.

As I raced her and another injured family to Shifa hospital, I remember Iain stating “That was a bad bad man.  He did that on purpose”.  Even his three-year old mind was able to grasp what had just happened.

Later that evening, after Kate’s lung had been re-inflated we were recounting the events of the day, giving thanks for God’s hand of protection on us.  Kate had recognized the seriousness of the attack before I did, and she had thrown Iain on the floor and jumped on top of him. As she looked back towards the attacker she could see three grenades rolling across the floor towards her.  “Here I come Lord” she thought as she did her best to cover Iain with her body to shield him from what she knew was coming.  One grenade exploded under the chair in which I had been sitting.  The force of the blast threw her off of Iain, and when she opened her eyes her first thought was for him.  In her words

I wanted to save my boy.  I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

As Kate said that, it struck us both at the same time.  Wow, in the midst of such horror and hurt, Kate’s overwhelming memory was of the indescribable joy knowing she had saved her son.  Jesus loves us more than we could ever love Iain.  There must have been an element of joy in Christ’s suffering on the cross, knowing that he was taking the punishment intended for us. What a revelation!  We were reminded of Ephesians 1:17-18 where Paul prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray also, that eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know the hope to which he has called you . . . ”

We have much to be thankful for and rejoice in.  We were given a Spirit of revelation, and the eyes of our hearts were opened that day.  The next year God gave us our beloved Sarah, new life and hope coming on the heels of death and destruction.  And God brought us to a place of safety and rest and a caring church here in Cary North Carolina.  Now he has privileged us with a call to minister to Christian ministries through Concentric Development.

We invite you to rejoice with us today.  We serve a mighty God who is still revealing himself, and may our blessing be a blessing to you.  These things are not to be kept to ourselves, and you are welcome to share this story with others.

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When Kids Kill Kids

When our daughter Annie was two years old she saw television for the first time. We were in Islamabad, Pakistan and she was invited to a birthday party of some older children. My husband took her while I stayed home with our brand new baby boy. When they came home he relayed to me her reaction to this first time of watching TV. She was watching a cartoon and the character was hit over the head with something. As often happens with cartoons, there was a bonk, birds flew over the head of the character and then the scene faded out. She began to cry. She thought the character was dead and was inconsolable. In her 2-year-old mind she was unable to distinguish real from imaginary on the screen.

This is huge. Until a child is seven years old, they cannot differentiate between imaginary and real; fantasy and reality. So when young children see television violence, it’s accepted as not only real, but a part of “normal” life.

Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, in an article released in 2000 called “Trained to Kill”, speaks in-depth to this problem. In nature, he says, “Healthy members of most species have a powerful, natural resistance to killing their own kind.” So while rattlesnakes bite others, they wrestle each other; while piranhas use their fangs on others, they fight each other by flicking their tails. So it is true with humans – we don’t naturally want to kill, we are taught to kill.

He talks about three ways of being conditioned to kill – the first is something we would think of when we think of boot camp. Everyone is taken and their heads are shaved, they are shouted at, they get up at unearthly hours and go through relentless discipline and violence. At the end the recruit believes this is normal. This is a perfect segue into a war zone.

The second is “classical conditioning” where violence is associated with pleasure. The author would suggest that “classical conditioning” takes place in kids as they watch violence while eating their favorite foods of popcorn and soda, or smelling a girlfriend’s perfume, all while watching horrific movie violence as “entertainment”.

The third is “operant conditioning” which is a stimulus response. This is where in target practice a target shaped like a man would pop up. If you shoot the target correctly, it will fall, and so on. Contrast this, he says, to video games, where for hours at a time a kid is pointing and shooting, pointing and shooting, getting better and better at hitting the targets and gaining points every time they do so.

The article is well worth looking at and provides irrefutable evidence of the problem: all this is teaching kids how to kill. The evidence is present in the tragedies that read like headlines from newspapers – because they are.

  • Jonestown, Arkansas Massacre 1998 – An 11 and a 13 year-old, camouflaged in the woods kill four kids and a teacher with ten others wounded.
  • Paducah, Kentucky 1999 – A 14-year-old opens fire on a prayer group at school and hits eight kids.
  • Columbine High School, 1999 – Two kids in trench coats terrorize the school ultimately killing twelve students, one teacher. 21 other students are injured and ultimately the kids kill themselves.

There are more but this makes the point. All of these have one thing in common – they are kids killing kids. It begs the question: Why are we shocked when we see child soldiers from the widely seen Kony 2012 video?

So why am I suddenly bringing up violence and kids killing kids? In the newly released movie “The Hunger Games” that is the premise and it has some people disturbed. And that is the very point of the author. My friend Stacy, who blogs at Slowing the Racing Mind, wrote an excellent post on this called “Hunger Games – Disturbing? Indeed” Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, wants us to be disturbed so that we can discuss this and question it, talk with our kids and know that there are times where we must stand up to what is wrong.

I won’t go into The Hunger Games further, as others have done a fine job of doing just that, but I would argue books like these, and movies like these, are not what creates violence in our kids. It’s gratuitous violence in movies and video games that evokes laughter as opposed to tears, mocking as opposed to compassion. That’s what we should be worried about. Crying because a 12-year-old was killed in a society’s sick attempt at control is a human response; laughing when a teacher tells you that a middle schooler ambushed a school, killing kids and a teacher, is a an inhuman response born of inappropriate exposure to violence at young ages.

It’s a big issue – What do you think?

“On June 10th, 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a definitive study on the impact of TV violence. In nations, regions, or cities where television appears there is an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That’s how long it takes for a brutalized toddler to reach the “prime crime” years. That’s how long it takes before you begin to reap what you sow when you traumatize and desensitize children. (Centerwall, 1992).” (from Teaching Our Kids to Kill)

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Fractions of Understanding

Every once in a while I am given the gift of understanding a fraction more about the incarnation and incarnational living. Over this past holiday I experienced one of these fraction gifts.

Prior to going to Cairo we were asked many times “Is it safe?” “Are you sure you should go?” The queries grew more urgent in tone as Egypt began making news headlines the week before we left. While I believe that safety is a relative term, I appreciated the concern.  But safety didn’t enter into our decision. We wanted to see our oldest daughter and experience her world. Where did she live? Shop? Eat? Who were her friends? What was daily life like? What are her current joys and struggles? We wanted to experience these because we love her. We don’t want to be absent from or oblivious to her world.

It was this epiphany of sorts that struck me as I entered gladly into her world. That God, in his love for us, wanted to experience life as it was like for us with our human bodies and boundaries. That he entered gladly through the person of Christ to live out the joys and struggles of life locked within the limitations of the human body. This is the story of incarnation.

Through visiting Annie and entering her world I know more than I ever could from talking with her. I have met her friends – I know their names. I have seen where she lives – I know she is on the 9th floor with a view of the Mokhattam Hills. I know she has an elevator that can break down and send the passenger into a raw fear. I know the places where she eats and shops, I have seen the faces and eyes of men who ogle her and know the blind rage that she has felt at being seen as an object, nothing more than a piece of meat. I experienced the boundaries she lives with as a single woman in a predominantly Muslim country. I saw the limitations she has in the area of the city where she lives, where barbed wire and walls are placed without notice blocking movement. I felt her frustration with the nonstop crowds when she feels she needs space. I learned about her world. I felt what she felt, saw what she sees, ate where she eats and walked the steps that she walks. I had the joy and struggle of being locked in her world.

I have not just heard about her life, I have experienced her life, walking with her through her neighborhood and beyond.

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was the father of Robynn Bliss who readers know from several guest posts. Another was a friend of ours who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.  In a poignant letter describing the event, she tells of her response. “I had always thought it was ‘hard-nosed’ of God to allow His son to be offered as a sacrifice for us and experience the pain and death of the cross instead of us”. She went on to say that in that moment, protecting her child was her greatest joy, the thing she wanted to do more than anything. To save him despite the cost to her  – a severe injury and punctured lung. In wonder she realized that it is God’s great joy to send Jesus – who wrapped his body around us as it were, so that we would be saved from the sin shrapnel that would kill us.  The cost for her was great, but nothing in comparison to the joy of saving her child.

The wonder of incarnation – whether understood through walking in the shoes of a daughter and understanding her world, or protecting a child at the cost of great injury and potential death. All of these are picture gifts to help me in my finite mind and ability to understand a fraction more of  the mystery and wonder of the incarnation – to comprehend a bit more of the ultimate love that walked this path willingly. Fractions of understanding – not a full picture but an important piece of the whole.

He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all–how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Romans 8:32

Memories of an Expatriate 4th of July

It will be six more years before I have spent as many fourth of July’s in the United States as I have overseas.

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 were 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. 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 Marriot 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.

Painting Pakistan

If you have followed my blog, you will see that this week Pakistan has figured significantly into my posts. From Masoor Dal and Boarding School Bedtime Stories, Pittsfield to Pakistan and Baby Switching,instead of going on the usual tangential trajectory, my writing has kept this theme. Perhaps it’s the whirring of the fan signifying summer has come to Cambridge that reminds me of warm Pakistani evenings and the ever-present sound of the Call to Prayer or perhaps the significance of my father’s birthday and seeing old friends.  Regardless of the reason, in keeping with this unintentional ‘theme’ of the week today I offer something far better than my words: Pictures!

Most in the west will never have the privilege of seeing beyond the headlines to the world of people, scenery, food, and hospitality that was and is Pakistan. The pictures below are a snapshot of a country that has faced more than its share of crisis and catastrophe. They show life in various parts of Pakistan and I hope they will resonate with readers bringing a human side that is not from a journalist or the news media, but from a virtually unknown blogger. We are told that pictures paint a thousand words. My hope is that this poetic saying rings true for the viewer.

The photographer is primarily Tim Irwin. Tim grew up in Pakistan, son of one of my closest high school friends, Marty. He returned in May of this year and used his significant skill with a camera to take some beautiful shots of the country and people. Jason Philbrick, a friend from Pakistan took the shot of teapots at a Chai stall. Enjoy this trip to a world of paradox.

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An Expat Lady & a Ramadan Baby

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was the middle of Ramadan and earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a woman in transition and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

Two babies were born in those hours just past midnight, as the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night. The last azaan, calling the faithful to pray, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast.  At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains..

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a “first class” hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toe’d, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing this blogger labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff  in by two’s to see “the engraze who had her husband in with her during the delivery.” Something unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebi’s and barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras, ensuring a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy, which, though not very much, was a huge thing to publicly acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes, and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.  Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life. 

Relief or Revelry?

At 11:28 last night I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. Minutes later I was listening to a live feed from President Obama as he gave brief details confirming the news that Osama had been found and killed in a gun battle in a large compound in the city of Abbotabad, Pakistan. Abbotabad is not far from the capital of Islamabad and, like many other places in Pakistan, figures significantly into my past. My sister-in-law grew up a few miles from the city, a best friend from childhood often invited me to spend weekends at her home in Abbotabad, and our equivalent of ‘Junior Prom’ was held in a local hotel. At the time it was a lovely cantonment city with wide tree-lined streets and a feel of modernity as compared to some of the more remote locations in Pakistan.

News of his capture and demise brought me back to the hours following 9/11 when my daughter and I sat in a town outside of Boston watching television, praying that the day’s events hadn’t been orchestrated by Muslim extremists, only to discover moments after that Al Qaeda was claiming responsibility and the figure of Osama Bin Laden rose to world-wide notoriety. And it’s been a long road since then for victims of 9/11, victims of wars, moms and dads of victims, and tired citizens. One of my colleagues from a previous job lost her daughter on 9/11 – she was engaged to be married and had visited her parents, returning to her fiancée in New York that morning. My sense is that she is experiencing deep relief and perhaps closure as she takes in the news of last night.

Perhaps my personal feelings most resemble those I felt earlier in the evening while in a theater watching Hanna – a movie released only a couple of weeks ago. There are a couple of truly evil people in the movie and as I watched their ruthless actions and disregard for human life I wanted them dead. I felt relief when they died and could no longer hunt for a teenager who, seemingly through no will of her own, was trained to kill. I felt relief and satisfaction for justice served. In real life as I watched the news I was well aware that while a man, significant in orchestrating tragic events and becoming the face of evil, was now dead the problem of evil remained. Later as I watched reactions through pictures and video I was struck that there is a difference between relief and revelry, something of the frat party variety. Revelry makes this seem like cheap entertainment of the B-movie genre as opposed to a real act in a real world with real victims. Revelry seems to spit in the face of a creator God – not willing that any should perish. Relief as in pain taken away and distress relieved, particularly for those directly affected seems right and proper. And when I drill a little deeper, my relief is colored with sadness of lives wasted.

So relief or revelry? What’s right? A friend of mine dug deeper than I this morning and put her feelings into these words: “Pleased that justice is done. But it disturbs me to see rejoicing in the streets over the death of human life. How can we condemn others for rejoicing in the streets over death of Americans if we’re doing the same thing? She goes on to quote this: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?…..For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” Ezekiel 18:23, 32

Coats too Big, Shoes too Small – Shopping as an Immigrant

“When Cesar modeled his new coat, my father nodded his approval and remarked that my brother would surely grow into it. It would surely help him survive his first American winter. Alas, the opposite proved to be true. The coat was so large it shielded him far less effectively than one his own size. It was as if, marooned in America, we had lost our perspective, our sense of proportion…” from The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World by Lucette Lagnado 2007

Who of us that have made our homes in different countries do not relate with this poignant picture of a family, struggling to figure out how to live, shop, and survive in new territory?

Our first winter in New England after living in Cairo and Islamabad was painfully cold as two of my sons walked around in jackets 3 sizes too large. “But they were on sale!” I exclaimed to my husband, completely overwhelmed with the task of clothing a family of seven for winter. Gone were the Cairo winters where it rarely reached freezing, where honeysuckle and magnolias came out in early February lining the streets with a color and fragrance that dramatically indicated spring was upon us.

Not only were the coats too large, the BOGO (buy one, get one half off) Payless Shoes filled our entryway with only one problem. The shoes and boots bought in the midst of culture shock were too small – the tightness causing blisters on the uncomplaining feet of kids who were completely flexible and thought this was normal.

I tried to explain some of this recently at a workshop on ‘Culture & Healthcare’, the words to articulate failing to come. How could I find words to describe how badly we wanted this new country to work for us? How silently desperate we felt, not wanting to seem as outsiders or ‘other’ but failing so miserably at the minor tasks in life that the larger tasks were pushed hopelessly aside, our angst obvious.

The more I failed, the more defeated I became. I sensed I could never make this work and like the Israelites who wandered in the Sinai wilderness I had the unspoken memory of “the fish I ate in Egypt at no cost!” * ‘Take me back to Egypt where I belong’ was my silent prayer.

Years after those first traumas, I found Lucette Lagnado’s poignant portrayal of her family’s journey from Cairo to the United States. I felt like I was going to bed with my friends every night as I read chapter after chapter, not wanting the book to end. The pictures that she created with words were a salve, a precious ointment, soothing my memories and the hidden wounds I had sustained during those first years of arrival to the United States. They mirrored our journey and experience despite being of a different time and the move to the United States being for different reasons.

Just as Lucette’s family left Egypt with 26 suitcases, so did our family consolidate our years of living as a family in Cairo  down to 26 suitcases and the backpacks on our shoulders. Just as they felt lost, displaced and without context in their new world, so did we.

The shopping experience was merely a symbol of the far greater adjustment to a country whose lifestyle, beliefs, and values would create in us a conflict and discomfort akin to the cold from a coat too large, or blisters from shoes too small; our consolation and solace coming from those who understood – whether in person or through a book.

*(Numbers 11 verse 5)

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