The Magic of a Picnic


When our children were small, and our bank accounts smaller, we would look at each other, laugh, and say “At least we can picnic!”

And picnic we did. On lawns and in front yards, at rivers and on beaches, in play grounds and even indoors – there was always time for a picnic.

Picnics have captured a corner of my heart. Just the mention of them makes me smile. I love the packing and planning. I love deciding on a spot. I love picnics.

In my childhood, picnics took place on the banks of dusty canals on the outskirts of Ratodero, Larkana and Shikarpur. We would find spots beside the desert brush of Sindh, lay out a quilt and unpack food fit for palaces and kingdoms.

I have memories of egg salad spread between two slices of my mom’s home made bread, home canned pickles adding just the right crunch. There was often chocolate cake for dessert — a depression-era recipe called Wacky cake that takes no eggs, no butter, and no milk.  It was a never fail recipe in a place where some ingredients were difficult to find, the tastes even more difficult to replicate.

Sometimes, while traveling, my dad would buy curry and chapatis at a local truck stop. We would sit, grease dripping down our chins, our eyes watering and noses sniffling from the pungent spices. With tummies filled we would pile into the car and head off on our journey.

As an adult, picnics have taken place at the base of the Great Pyramid and on huge wooden sail boats called feluccas; in back yards and on play grounds. Wherever we have lived we have found our favorite spot for picnics.

In recent years, we have picnicked in a place called Millbrook Meadow; a beautiful park with trees stretching up to the sky, providing shade and comfort. This meadow is a hidden gem in Rockport. While others crowd into the tiny beach across the street, we prefer the meadow where there is ample space to spread out. Out come sandwiches or fried chicken, potato salad or chips, and green or red grapes that pop in our mouths.

At times, our picnics have become more sophisticated with wine, special cheeses, olives, and fruit bites. Despite the sophistication, they retain the essential ingredients of relaxation and joy.

Picnics are multicultural and ageless. I have seen families that are Pakistani, Iraqi, Egyptian, Indian, Mexican, Turkish and so many more gather in all corners of the globe to picnic. Wherever they take place, picnics bring with them a certain magic and child-like fun.

In this life journey, picnics are a chance to forget the worries of daily life and take back lost moments.

So, next time life gets complicated – go on a picnic. 

A Lonely Planet

I’m sitting at Gate 97 in the International Terminal of San Francisco’s International Airport. It’s evening and weary travelers are staking their claim to prime seating locations — the areas with booths and plugs are going first, followed by side seats near plugs. Our electronic age demands above all that we keep our gadgets powered, at the ready for use.

I arrived this morning from Portland, Oregon. I came to speak at a conference and my time has been busy and rewarding. A group of third culture kids has once again wormed their way into my heart and I am better for it. 

I have been in more airports and logged more travel hours than I can count yet travel still  brings out an introspection in me — I sit and I wonder about the lives of all those I see. I wonder who they have left and who they are going to see; what tears have been spilled over hard goodbyes. I wonder what brings them to this particular flight on this day. For 13 hours we will share a space in the sky – but most of us will still leave as strangers. 

We live on a lonely planet. A planet that needs tragedies to bring out the humanity in people, a planet increasingly connected even as it is increasingly divided. We sit in airports the world over, waiting for flights, passing time, tired and often lonely. 

We need each other more than we know. Our DNA is wired for connection, for human companionship and intimacy. More and more, researchers are concerned about the loneliness that manifests itself in so many, a loneliness that affects our emotional and physical health. 

Yes – we need each other more than we know. 

An announcement comes over the intercom, alerting us that our flight will be boarding shortly. 

I think of those I am leaving behind for a brief time. Those I love the most will be on a different continent for the next ten days. I am acutely aware that anything could happen. I say a silent prayer, reminded once again that I cannot live this life without God, without faith in a God who is ultimately good and merciful. 

My introspection is cut off, interrupted by a young woman who asks if she can share my space and plug in her computer. 

I smile and say yes, connected for a brief moment and I am grateful. 

Those Jam Lessons!


Surprisingly last week I discovered some profound lessons in an unlikely teacher. I was making jam and as I grated and stirred it struck me there were a lot of significant ponderings preserved in that simple process.  I know it hardly seems possible. But allow me to explain.

Unexpected opportunities

Two weeks ago Lowell was visiting friends in Wisconsin. They sent home a bag full of quinces. I had never heard of a quince before. It’s a beautiful golden orb, smooth to the touch. I gently put it to my nose and discovered a floral fragrance, not unlike a ripe guava. I wasn’t expecting a bag of fruit to come home with Lowell. The gift was the fruit but it was also the invitation to be a part of the work to process that fruit. It was a call to creativity!

Often the fruit is unknown.

I had no idea what to do with a quince. It was outside of my experience. So I did what any modern kitchen amateur would do: I googled it! I looked in a couple of old cookbooks. I gathered information about quinces. Initially I was a tad bit intimidated by this unknown fruit. Choosing to step over my fears allowed me to engage an unusual subject with unknown outcomes. What had seemed daunting now felt a bit like an adventure!

Don’t be quick to make assumptions

Although the fruit smelled like a guava, and was smooth like a pear and round like an apple the quince was entirely it’s own species. Apparently you cannot eat a raw quince. They are far too astringent. One bite and your entire mouth will feel like it has been turned inside out. Information gleaned online instructed me to cook the quince. Had I proceeded on instinct I would have taken a big bite of the mysterious fruit but the gathering of facts persuaded me to not rely on my assumptions. It was important to enter the world of quinces, as in all other worlds, humbly as a learner.

Grate finely

Chunky quince jam probably wouldn’t have been the most pleasant of outcomes. Every recipe I looked at suggested grating the quince. There’s something to be said about breaking down impossible situations into more manageable pieces.

Sweeten to taste

I know I’m an optimist, but I still think it’s safe to say, that sugar added liberally is never a bad idea. There’s usually a way to soften the moment. There’s often a sweeter way to approach a situation—with grace, kind words, respect, honor. For six cups of quince I added four cups of sugar!

Lemon juice courage

Each recipe suggested adding some lemon juice. I settled on one that recommended adding a ¼ cup. It felt brave to add that much acid. It took faith and trust. Recently I was a part of a group where I felt the need to speak out against the generally shared opinion in the room. It felt brave to add that much conflict. It took faith and trust. It also took restraint to not go ahead and throw in the whole bag of lemons and oranges!

Simmer for 50 minutes

These things take time. There’s no hurrying through to the end. There’s no fast forwarding to the desired outcomes. It takes time to bring the pot of grated fruit and sugar and lemon to a boil. One has only to turn the heat down, stir often and wait. Patience can never be rushed.

Know when you’re done

I suppose a person could let the jam simmer forever. At some point it’s good to evaluate and know when you’re done.

Can the jam

Pouring the hot jam into hot jars and sealing them with hot seals and rings preserves the jam for winter days ahead. It seems to me to be a good idea to contain the outcomes, to bring things to a close, to store it away in a clean jar.

Enjoy the fruit

I’ve quickly discovered a new favorite bread-spread: quince jam! I baked up a batch of fresh biscuits that same evening. A thin layer of melting butter and a thick layer of quince jam made for a delicious Saturday supper. I had worked hard…and the labor had not been in vain. I think it can be like that with much of life too. You can push your chair away from the table, satisfied that you worked hard, that you finished the job. Even if the jam isn’t exactly one you’re familiar with it’s pleasing to know you finished what you started. I rose to the challenge. I stepped up to the plate. There was tremendous satisfaction in that buttery quincy bite!



She Lived a Large Life

The best thing I did all week was attend the funeral of Chong Wright. Chong and her husband, Wilbur, attended our church. Wilbur, a once tall soldier in the US army is now slightly stooped, his shoulders humbly sloping toward the earth. His Korean bride of fifty-one years, Chong, was tiny. Her legs were slightly bowed. Her sweaters, hand knitted and pastel pink, always bunched up on her small frame. The two of them would hold hands and hobble along.

Whenever Chong saw me, her eyes would light up. We would greet each other and have a short little conversations. English wasn’t the language of her heart but she made such an effort, in tiny sound bites, to communicate. What she couldn’t speak with her mouth she shouted with her eyes. They were always bright and welcoming. She looked into you and you knew she was happy to see you.

On Monday morning I read the notice of her death and the announcement that a memorial service would be held that very afternoon at a funeral home just around the corner from us. I wanted to go to tell her husband and their one child, Mary, what a bright spot their loved one was. I wanted them to know she would be missed.

Maybe thirty people gathered in the funeral home’s chapel. The strains of a recorded piano playing, Edelweiss, wafted over the group as we waited quietly in the pews. There were several pictures of Chong on the front table framing a large bouquet of pink and white flowers. Chong and Wilbur—at their wedding, while stationed in Germany, with their daughter, with their grandsons.

During the service I learned more about Chong than I had ever known. Chong Wright was born in Sinuichu, Korea on December 26th, 1940. When she was still quite young both her parents died. She then went to live with her grandmother. At the start of the Korean War, when she was ten years old, they fled, as refugees from North Korea to the safer South. Her grandmother died when Chong was thirteen years old and she went to live with an uncle and his family. Three years later, when she was sixteen, she enrolled in beauty school. Using her own resources she trained to become a beautician.

On September 8, 1964 Chong and Wilbur were married. Not all of Chong’s family was supportive of her marrying an American soldier. One family member told her that if she married Mr Wright, she’d be so poor they wouldn’t even be able to afford toilet paper. This began a personal commitment to paper products! Chong’s daughter, Mary, said that they always had great stockpiles of toilet paper, paper towels, and paper napkins. Long after Mary had married and had children of her own, Chong continued to supply them with paper products!

Wilbur and Chong were stationed in many places before coming to Fort Riley, Kansas. That’s where they were stationed when Wilbur retired from the Army life.

Whatever Chong did she worked hard at it. She was frugal and managed to pay off two homes and two cars. She was generous and good hearted. She was a good mother and a devoted grandmother. Both grandsons spoke of her generosity to them. On Thursdays she gave them money. They played games with the boys. They attended every band concert, school play, choir concert, musical. If the boys were there, so were Wilbur and Chong.

Last December there was a band concert at the mall. The seating was insufficient. I had gone early to save seats for our family. Just in front of me I saw Chong and Wilbur saving seats for their family too. At one point Chong turned and saw me. Her entire face lit up in recognition. She bobbed her head in greeting, her eyes beaming.

Chong Wright’s circle was small. There weren’t a lot of people at the funeral and many that were there came because of love and friendship with her daughter, Mary and her family. It might be easy to dismiss the significance of a person like Chong Wright—unknown, an immigrant, she couldn’t speak English very well. But Chong made a difference in the lives she touched. Her life mattered. Her circle wasn’t large but it was deep. She lived with integrity. She loved well. She made an effort to connect in the ways she knew how—playing with a baby, greeting those she knew, giving to her family. She was loyal and faithful until the very end.

It was such a profound moment for me. I have this relentless longing for a larger world. I want to go places, meet people. I want to make a difference. I want to have a global impact. But here was Chong– Her world, at the end, might have been little and yet her impact was undeniable. She will leave a large hole in the stories of her grandsons, her daughter, her son-in-law, the few at church she smiled at. Her life mattered. The breadth of her experiences, the suffering she had endured, the places she had traveled–for being a person of small stature she lived a large life and then settled into a small space. And she did so with grace.

I would do well to live…and die… Chong Wright.

A Routine Visit

A Routine Visit by Robynn


There really is no such thing as a routine visit to the dentist, or to anywhere for that matter. Every experience is rooted in a bigger story and that changes things. Yesterday I went to the dentist for a filling. This should have been a routine visit, a simple procedure, but I was full of anxiety and fear. It might be because my own personal dental history is full of the stuff of spy movies: political intrigue, characters who disappear in the middle of the night, scenes that mirror torture, long bus rides, foreign currency, dark rooms. It seems like none of my visits to the dentist have ever been routine.

Growing up in a boarding school tucked up and away in the Himalayan foothills just north of Islamabad (Pakistan) meant we had no easy access to dentists and dental care. Brushing our teeth was mandatory. Toothaches were taken to the school nurse. She’d poke around in our mouths and determine whether a trip to the dentist was necessary. The dentist office was a two hour ride down the winding hills from Murree to Islamabad. It was an endurance test at the best of times. Tooth pain and motion sickness don’t marry well. Those trips to the dentist were often unbearable.

At some point in my childhood it was determined that I needed orthodontia. My parents decided on the renowned Dr Bhajva. She shared a practice with Dr Zafar Niazi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s personal dental surgeon. One day we showed up for an appointment and there were a strange and mysterious hush over the office. Dr Niazi, previously arrested while Bhutto was on death row, had now gone into hiding. On another routine dentist visit we had made the trip down the mountain to see Dr Bhajva, only to discover that she too had disappeared. Her self-imposed exile didn’t last long but it did interfere with my braces being adjusted!

A few years later when I was in high school I developed a toothache. The school nurse, then the lovely Miss Njaa, took me to the nearby Military Hospital to see the dentist they had on staff. It was a dark nearly empty room with a single dentist chair in the center. Maybe the melodrama of the moment has altered my memories, but I seem to recall a single naked light bulb hanging by a wire over the chair. The dentist determined that would I need to have the tooth in question extracted. Miss Njaa asked if there would be anesthesia. Yes. Yes. No problem. She stood by me kindly, offering reassurances, while the dentist left the room to prepare for the procedure.

Upon his return he brought several assistants with him. One of them sprayed a fine mist into my mouth. Miss Njaa explained this must be a numbing liquid before they gave me a shot. Much to our surprise that spray was all the numbing I would get. Each of the assistants stepped forward and held down a limb. When Miss Njaa and I began to protest, the dentist stepped in with a stainless steel tool of some kind and reached into my mouth. He worked hard, straining, pushing, pulling, grabbing. I tried not to panic. The assistants kept my limbs out of the way. Miss Njaa, completely out of control and out of her element, repeatedly asked them to stop. After much effort, the dentist successfully removed my tooth. He packed my mouth with cotton and it was over.

It was just a routine visit to the dentist!

Each of our lives are rooted in a broader story. Capped with history, filled with memories, these experiences of the past colour our present day moments. Yesterday I admitted to Dr Smith, my dentist, that I was anxious about getting a filling. She sat back in her chair, took her mask off, and asked if I knew where that anxiety was coming from. I briefly told her the story of my visit to the Military Hospital in Murree. Her eyes grew round and large. Her eyebrows inched up her forehead. She shook her head slowly and said, “Oh my. That will do it!” She promised to be gentle and she was. She checked in with me several times, making sure I was okay. Hearing a snippet of my story increased her empathy and care.

It was a sweet reminder to me to inquire after each other. We have stories that make up who we are. Pulling a moment out of context might provoke us to roll our eyes: It’s just a routine visit to the dentist! Dr Smith asked after my fears. She cared enough to remove the mask and sit a few moments. It didn’t take a lot of time, but it meant the world to me, and it changed my experience in the chair.

 After all, it really was only a (slightly redeemed) routine visit to the dentist!


What Would the Midwives Do?


My husband and I were in a conversation recently about something we are struggling with. As we were walking and talking, reflecting and observing, I suddenly said to him “What would the midwives do?”

We both laughed. I was referring to the show Call the Midwife where real life happens and grace abounds. Where values and beliefs are solid but love trumps all.

It’s really the truth and grace dilemma. The argument that goes on in my mind when I’m faced with that which I can’t agree with, that which I believe to be wrong. One part of me shouts “But it’s wrong. I can’t condone it! I hate this!” The other responds, quietly but insistently “But what about grace? What about love? How should you respond now that it’s a reality?”

In almost every episode of Call the Midwife real life happens. And life in the East End of London in the 1950s is not pretty. There is poverty, squalor, death, conflict, abuse, abortions, incest, domestic violence – all of life in its broken horror. But every show a baby is delivered – “God’s opinion that the world must go on.”* And with that baby comes hope and new life, new chances.

At the end of the day these midwives do all they can to preserve life, to preserve the dignity of human beings, to protect, to build relationships. Truth is never compromised but Grace is always given. That is their mission in this tiny slice of life in the East End. I have friends who are midwives and I was fortunate to have a midwife at the birth of my first child. Whether in Haiti or Pakistan, the Appalachian mountains or Chicago this is how I see them live, how I see them work. They do all they can to preserve life, to preserve the dignity of human beings, made in the image of God, to preserve relationships.

So when I posed the question “What would the midwives do?” to my husband that is what I was asking. What is Truth and Grace in this situation? What preserves life, dignity, and relationships?

It’s “what would Jesus do” with a midwife twist. 

*Quote from Carl Sandburg

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