Tears in a Bottle

I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned.

Bettie Addleton

I wake to bright sunshine, a stark contrast to a couple of days ago when it rained as if it would never stop. This is our life – one day is wet and gray, drops of rain falling down like tears on the face of a mother who has lost her child. Overnight the sky changes and I wake to sunshine and glorious colors. One day is so full of grief that one’s heart feels it can no longer beat; the next day you wake up to a heart that still beats and the laughter of children.  One day there’s a party and the next day there’s a funeral. Grief and joy, coexisting under the umbrella of grace.

Our world feels full of tears. In a news article I read of an Italian family in New Jersey who has lost three members to the coronavirus in the past week – the mother died not knowing that her son and daughter died just days before her. The death toll in Italy rises, so high that it feels like numbers instead of people.

Years ago during the SARS epidemic, my sister-in-law and I were talking and she mentioned that SARS was changing the way people were able to grieve. Isolated, unable to bring family and friends together, their grieving and mourning was trapped by physical and social distancing.

This virus is causing the same difficulty, grief trapped outside an isolated hospital room, where a loved one is being cared for by capable strangers. Trapped during that intimate and difficult moment of death, unable to reach out and touch, grieving instead through heavy glass barriers as hospital staff with masks and gowns care for the person you love as they take their last breath. A heart monitor flatlines while a family watches through a window. Death is never easy, never convenient but orders for isolation, lockdowns, and shelter-in-place make it even more difficult.

Our own family is experiencing the difficulty of grieving during the time of coronavirus as last week we had to postpone my brother’s memorial service. It was the right thing to do, but I cried deep tears of mourning. Our time in Thailand was precious as we grieved as a small group, the love, tears, and laughter evident in all our interactions. But there are more family members and friends who need to grieve this man who lived well and died too soon.

Sunshine sometimes feels incongruent to the world news, as though rain better represents life during these days. Rain collecting on city streets creates a sloppy soup of cigarette butts, paper leaflets, and garbage – a broken mess of life. Rain hides the tears falling down my cheeks, gives me grace to weep tears that I don’t want seen in public, but that I can’t hold back until I am in private. But just as I think I have cried all the tears possible, that the grief will never stop, I wake up to sunshine.

A few years ago I wrote about tears and my friend Bettie responded:

Sadness, grief, pain, disappointment, pleasure, joy, happiness, and other emotions turn on the tears. We cry at weddings and we cry at funerals. Like torrents of rain or an uncontrollable flood, and even slow and haltingly, they flow, bringing cleansing and as you say redemption. I have chronic dry eyes, a condition when the eye is unable to produce tears. It is not healthy. My vision is affected. For good eyesight, the production of tears is necessary. I think it was in Syria that we saw some interesting little bottles in a museum. We asked the guide about them and were told that they were bottles to collect tears from those who mourned. Bring on the tears for they have redemptive quality.

Tears in a bottle, tears redeemed. Permission to mourn. Tears that renew my vision and enable me to see the marks and manifestation of God-breathed redemption.

God of Loss

Just Your Faithful God of Loss

It is the time of graduations, moves, end of fiscal year budget crunching, and expatriate turnover. Sometimes moves are expected, and other times they come like a dust storm over the Sahara – with complete surprise leaving grit and dust in their wake. The grit and dust of grief and loss, of unexpected change. It’s the time when the bones of past losses that we thought we had resolved, or at least buried, come together and like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert – they come alive.

Last year at this time, my husband and I were in the middle of an interview to come to Kurdistan. It was completely unexpected but so welcome. On our return to the United States after the interview, we made the decision to leave our home in Cambridge of 10 years. We arrived in Kurdistan at the beginning of September and it has been a year of joys, challenges, trials, unexpected horrors, and equally unexpected delights. It has been a paradox.

When we left the United States we left with the plan that we would be here for two years. While we knew this was not completely in our hands, we assumed that it would be a decision made by both us and the university. It was easy to talk about holding our time here with an open hand when we felt we had control.  Now, unexpectedly, a government decision made at the beginning of May means that I no longer have my job. Additionally, my husband’s job has been reduced to half his salary. It is a decision with broad ramifications that affects some of our Kurdish colleagues and all the foreign staff, not only at our university, but at universities throughout Kurdistan. It looks like our time here will come to an end far sooner than we expected.

I am feeling this deeply. While we still don’t know specifics of when we will leave, it is 90 percent certain that we will leave. For so many years I longed to return to the Middle East. Now, it’s seemingly being taken away and at a great personal cost. I feel the loss of what I left behind to come, and I already feel the loss of the small niche we have been carving for ourselves in the city of Rania.

There are many, many losses in this life. Every relationship we have on this earth will end in loss. Every single one. Either they will die, or we will die before them. Whether you stay rooted to one place your entire life or you traverse the globe, the two things you can count on are loss and change. You might think you can control these only to have them surprise you with their insistent persistence. While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.

In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.

I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 20 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so was life itself?

I thought of this game today. I feel like I am playing this game. I have arrived at the table with the cards that say either “Job” or “Job Loss” and I have picked the wrong card. The job loss at the university feels unjust and unfair. I love my colleagues and there is so much that we want to do together at the College of Nursing. My beloved Dean, Dr. Sanaa, is not only my boss, but also my dear friend. I have learned so much from her and have grown from her vision. This decision made by an anonymous government has hit me hard. It’s like going through the game we played during freshman year of nursing school, and I am losing.

Loss is peculiar. As if it’s not enough on its own, every time we experience another loss, seemingly buried past losses and griefs are resurrected. Even if I think I’ve healed, I bear those traumas in my soul and they resurface, sometimes as monsters, sometimes as mosquitoes, but always unexpected and always difficult.

So what of this God of Loss? And what is God in all this loss? Is he the author? The creator? The healer? Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?

In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites.

I come to the conclusion that I came to at a young age, away from all security, alone and crying in the early morning hours as I lay on a bunk bed in a boarding school. I felt loss then. Loss of a mom and dad. Loss of a home. Loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it.  Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me.

In a song called “God of Loss” by one of my favorite bands, I hear words that tell a life story of loss. It is hauntingly beautiful and I listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The words go through my head and find a home and resting place:

Yes, we will leave here without a trace
Take a new name and an old shape
I’ll be no outlaw, no renegade
Just your faithful god of loss

Darlingside

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

A Cracked Mug – Memories & Loss

Eight years ago, my friend Mary gave me a giant mug as a hostess gift. She had come from Egypt to Boston for a conference and our apartment in Cambridge provided a perfect place and easy access to the conference. The mug was not just any mug – it was from the Starbucks country collection or “You are Here” mugs, so along with being 16 ounces, it also had a picture of the pyramids and the word ‘Egypt’ in large letters across it.

It quickly became my favorite mug. Curling up every morning with a homemade latte, a journal and pen in hand, is how I have started most mornings since the week she visited. It has been my routine wherever I’ve been in the world.

It is a routine that easily transferred to my life in Kurdistan. While I can’t get the same coffee and my foam maker burnt out within a month, I’ve found substitutes and it has been a wonderful comfort as I adapt to life in Rania.

Until this morning….

As I poured the hot coffee into the mug, it began leaking out the bottom. Startled, I ran for a saucer. There above the coffee mark was the unmistakable sign of a crack, and clearly a deep one. I transferred the coffee to another cup and took a look. The crack was beyond repair. My beloved mug was finished. I would no longer be able to use it for my morning coffee.

All of Life’s Cracks….

I sighed and then I cried. The tears fell freely, as if they’d been trapped too long and they needed an excuse. In all of our lives there are items we own that represent people, places, or events that are much bigger than what you see on the surface. This mug not only reminded me of one of my favorite places – it represented my life before Massachusetts. It reminded me of a world that was hidden, visible only through photo albums and occasional retelling of old stories, told a thousand times before. It reminded me that my life in Egypt was a significant period of time – a time of birthing babies and young motherhood, a time of learning what it was to live overseas as an adult, a time of joy with a growing family. It reminded me of my friendship with Mary, the one who gave me the mug. Mary was present at the births of my two youngest children. We were nurses together in Egypt and our kids spent hours playing together while we solved a good number of the world’s problems.

To see that mug crack made me feel all of life’s cracks and broken pieces. I felt all over again the hurt of goodbyes and the long process of new hellos. I felt the intensity of starting anew and the difficulty of keeping up friendships faraway. I felt the sting of misunderstanding and cultural adjustment. I felt the sadness of living between worlds, the diaspora blues of being – “too foreign for home, too foreign for here, never enough for both”*. I felt the emptiness of lost friendships and the scars of ruined relationships. All of this came over me as I surveyed the spilt coffee and the cracked mug.

I felt so, so sad.

It’s now several hours later, and I still feel myself on the brink of tears. What I wish I could do with this old, beautiful Egypt mug is to mend it with gold, the Japanese art of “kintsugi”. Instead of throwing away the object that has cracked and broken, this restores the piece, making it even more interesting and beautiful. The focus becomes the cracks and the scars. My mug deserves that sort of care, deserves to be an object of interest and pride, like a mended tea pot that I have owned for years and carried around the world. The teapot was broken into many pieces, but painstakingly mended with large metal clips and a metal bottom put on it to make it stronger.

Though broken and having little of its original beauty it is so much more interesting and represents so well the human condition.  Despite the original break, despite the cracks – it continues to be useable and stronger than if it had never been broken.

I won’t be able to do that, but I will keep the mug. Instead of using it every morning, sipping my morning coffee as I begin the day, I will put it on my desk. I will use it for pencils and pens – a re-purposed memory bank. It deserves at least that. And, like the teapot, it will serve as a continual reminder that the circumstances in life can crack and mar us, but they don’t get to destroy. They don’t, and never will, have that kind of power.


When the Japanese mend broken objects they aggrandize the damage by filling the cracks with gold, because they believe that when something’s suffered damage and has a history it becomes more beautiful.


http://www.iskandar.com/waleed911/griefwalterstorff.html

*https://www.theijeoma.com/

A Fog of Tragedy

There is a fog over the Charles River. While the sun is trying to burn through the mist, the fog is heavy and solid.

I wonder if this is what it is like for those families affected by another school shooting. The fog of disbelief and anger so heavy; the gut-deep sadness and nausea overwhelming. Everything a blur of loss and tragedy.

Where is the sun in that fog?

While most of the country was focusing on chocolate, roses, and chalk hearts with stupid sayings, a community was facing a nightmare of violence.

This is America’s true brand of terrorism, but we clothe it in politics instead of common sense and being on the same side – the side of life, the side of protection, the side of making hard choices.

I am more and more convinced that the “individual rights” that are so highly valued in our culture are dangerous. Both my intuition and my experience tells me what is really important is community and caring for others; what is really important is giving up my rights and my right to be right for the sake of others.

But no matter what I think, there are people who are hurting and planning funerals. Young life is extinguished and parents and friends are hurting. They are broken in their grief, and even though I don’t know them, I must stand with them.

I stand with them as one who mourns a broken world and longs for redemption. I stand with them as one who cries for the moms who will no longer hold their children; the moms and dads who would beg for just one more hug, one more ‘I love you.’ I stand with them as one who prays that the sun’s light will penetrate the fog, a glimpse of God in the midst of a fog of tragedy.

Our world is not as it should be. And though we see beautiful glimpses of redemption that startle and amaze us, we still face all that is part of this broken world.

So I stand as one broken – broken by sorrow of death and loss, by pain, by the weight of difficult relationships. And in the silence of the broken I know God is near.

If you are weary of sorrow and pain, if you are face to face with tragedy and death, with the broken bones of a weary world, know that you are welcomed into the arms of God.*

Everyone’s Gone!


Sun shines through lace half-curtains, creating a whimsical shadow on the floor. Through open windows, birds are loudly and happily communicating the joy of what life brings to them. 

It is a picture-perfect day – and it is also absolutely quiet in our home. 

Everyone is gone. 

For the past eight days, there have been many people in and out of the apartment.  One daughter, who flew from Chicago to help me post surgery, my gorgeous grandson, with his crinkled nose and interest in all of life, other adult children, friends, visiting nurses, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. Toward the end of the week as my youngest son’s graduation came closer, even more people arrived – my parents and my brother. 

Yesterday, graduation day could not have been more beautiful, and we proudly watched our son, first deliver the Valedictory speech, then walk across a stage to shouts and cheers as he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hellenic College. 

Recently I remarked to my husband that we are at the stage of life where things are not going to get easier and better. I think for years people think “When this happens, then we will feel settled” or “When I’m in my [insert age] then life will work itself out.” Those sentences can be substituted with a plethora of different scenarios, but the underlying assumption and expectation is the same: Things will get better. Life will get easier. 

My epiphany with this recent surgery and the assault on my body and emotions is quite simple: things won’t get easier. Life won’t necessarily get better. 

I don’t write this with any sort of pessimism or self-pity. I am profoundly grateful for life’s gifts. I am acutely aware of the shortness of life, of some of life’s tragedies. But now is the time to take each day and recognize that the health and strength I have today will at some point weaken, simply because of the aging process. The activity I can keep up with, the common good I can seek will inevitably become smaller and less significant. 

There is, in all of this, a profound sense of loss. That which I have been given, I slowly lose. It is the Old Testament book of Job that  bluntly reminds me of this reality: 

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:20–21).

So this post surgery time comes as a tremendous gift – a gift of healing for the body, a gift of rest for the soul, a time of contemplation of losses. 

I read these words from another: “Nothing is a given — everything’s a gift.”

Who am I to complain in losses when what I lost wasn’t mine to begin with? – Ann Voskamp

Everyone is gone. At first, the words feel sad and empty. But the longer I sit in the quiet, the more comfortable I become relaxing and meditating in the gift of now. 

A Brief Reflection on Airports and Life


I am bleary-eyed at the Orlando airport. There’s a reason why the infamous “they” tell you to get to the airport early – long security lines extended far into the lounge area. We sighed as we inched our way through, a bright green electronic sign informing us that the process would take 35 to 45 minutes. 

Earlier we dropped off a rental car. As I handed the gentleman the keys, he asked me if I was Parisienne. I smiled “no” pause “but is that a compliment?”  “Oh yes!” He replied. My children laugh at me as the glow of an early morning compliment radiates off my 57 year old non-Parisienne skin. 

And then we trudge our sleepy way to security. Unfortunately, the compliment did nothing for a bad hip, so my ego has been kept in check. 

A busy, international airport is an odd way to end a family funeral. You go from familiar to anonymous; from engaged in conversation to people-watching; from significant to one more passenger in an enormous travel machine.

Yet somehow it works. It’s a bridge between worlds, and I am not expected to communicate on this bridge. I simply cross it. 

Death and funerals are a pause in life’s paragraph. A pause before continuing into more sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. They are an important pause, sometimes changing the rest of the story. Many resolutions based on the brevity of life have happened at the death of a loved one. 

Many would voice sadness over this – the question of why it takes something as permanent as death to make us pause and reflect. I think it is a gift. We are usually far too busy with the ordinary to realize that perhaps change is in order. But then, in the middle of the ordinary, the everyday chores stop so that we can remember a life, and in remembering reflect on our own. 

So in this airport moment between worlds, I stop. I pause. I pray. 

I thank God for the gift of life, and the gift of death – the circle of a broken world on a journey to redemption. 

The moment passes, the flight is ready to board. We are on our way home. 

Memories of a Chatty Cathy Doll

photo nostalgia

When I was eight years old, I got a Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. Chatty Cathy was the first talking doll. When you pulled a ring on her back, she would say one of ten or eleven phrases. Sometimes it was “I love you!” Other times it was “Let’s play!” It didn’t matter, when I pulled the string, my Chatty Cathy would talk to me and I was over the moon.

Chatty Cathy was not available in Pakistan anywhere. The only reason I received the doll was that another missionary family had left Pakistan and had sold their children’s toys. The family had twin girls, Becky and Kathy. They were older than I was and, I suspect, had outgrown their dolls (although who ever outgrows dolls?) They had two of these talking dolls, and had sold one to my parents for me, and one to Bettie Addleton, mom of my best friend Nancy.

In the middle of the Sindh desert of Pakistan, because of Becky and Kathy Elkins, Nancy and I got Chatty Cathy dolls. It was a magical Christmas.

This past Friday, Becky Elkins died. I didn’t know Becky well, but I do know she died too soon, and too painfully. She died of lung cancer in Colorado. I saw Becky at our Pak Reunion just one and half years ago. My friend Janet let our community know through social media that Becky had died.

When you are part of a community that shared so much of life together in a place where we were all foreigners, you grow deeply close. Even if you didn’t know each other and were years apart in age, you know there is a connection that goes well beyond normal neighborhood relationships. We were part of a small community that lived counter-culture in both our adopted country and our passport countries. We lived apart from blood relatives, and so those around us became relatives in proxy. We inherited each others houses, cars, clothes, families, and dolls.

I can’t stop thinking about Becky and that doll. I loved that doll so much. Memories, filed away in my brain like index cards, come to mind. I remember the surprise of unwrapping the doll. I remember pulling the string so much that she stopped talking for a while. I remember Nancy and me playing with our dolls, surrounded by the innocence of childhood. The sights, shapes, sounds, and people who shaped my life are spread around the globe, and faded memories have taken their place. The index card memory box emerges as I read about Becky’s death. And I know that the sadness I feel  is combined with the ache of loss for a time that no longer exists.

In Between Worlds, I write this and I think about it today:

“For many of us, the only thing we feel we have left are our memories. We cannot go back to the place that was home. Either it does not exist, will not let us in, or danger and cost prohibit a casual trip to indulge the times of homesickness. In its place is memory. Our memories may be biased, or relayed in a way that would make our mothers say, “That’s not quite the way it happened,” but they are inalienably ours.”*

and then:

“Pieces of childhood are important foundations to building adults. Whether it be the doll, the bear, or the book, it’s part of the story of our lives. The pieces of childhood bear witness to times and places that helped shape us into who we are today.”**

The Chatty Cathy memory is inalienably mine and I find strength in remembering. I smile when I remember that doll, and the two girls in Pakistan who daily pulled the string to hear Chatty Cathy say “I love you!”

*From Kebabs in Jalalabad essay in Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging.

** From Pieces of Childhood in Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging.

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/en/photo-photographer-old-photos-256887/

Filed under “Why?”

There is a file in my brain and heart with the label “Why?” It’s where I file the tragedies that make no sense. Some of these tragedies happened to people close to me, others far removed — but no matter. The thing they share is the “why?” 

The file started when I was young. Why did Lizzy Hover’s dad die?  Why did the little baby from the sweeper colony die from a freak accident? 

Growing up, we faced many tragedies,  And one of the ways I chose to cope is to create this file.  The file grew as I grew. Why did my friend lose her husband on their honeymoon? Why did Amy Jo die!? Why did  a beloved pastor fall to his death in Cairo?  Why did my brother face such extreme loss at such a young age? 

And then there’s the looking back in time. Why the massacre of the innocents by Herod?  The weeping and grief of mothers captured by an artist in the 16th century, a brutal reminder that has lasted through the centuries. 

The file sometimes stays closed for a long time, and then it opens again with an angry roar. That’s what it did yesterday. A young man, new husband, newer father dies. It makes no sense. The tears flow for his young wife and the child who will know him only through pictures. 

I put these things in the “why” file because they make no sense to me. Discussions on a broken world, on evil, on the goodness of God don’t help. 

The only thing that helps is the face of Jesus, God incarnate. It is the icon of the Pantocrator that I weep before. “He had compassion on the crowds,” I’m told. And I beg for his compassion, his mercy. 

A poem from long ago comes to mind and I alternate between that and the Jesus Prayer. 

“I lay my ‘whys’ before your cross, in worship, kneeling. My mind beyond all thought, my heart beyond all feeling. And in worshiping realize that I, in knowing You, don’t need a ‘why?’ “

The file stays, and it won’t be open until I see the one who can make sense of all of it. Until then, I’m allowed to grieve, I’m allowed to weep, I’m allowed to lament. And I’m allowed to have a file labeled “why?”  Because at the feet of Jesus, it will all make sense. And I stake my life on that. 

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

1 Corinthians 13:12

A Life Overseas – Reconnecting the Head and the Heart

I’m at  A Life Overseas today – I’ve rewritten a piece that I did a long time ago. I hope you’ll join me after the preview!

Photo Credit - Stefanie Sevim Gardner
Photo Credit – Stefanie Sevim Gardner

I heard difficult news last night, and suddenly all the world is blanketed in loss. I can barely breathe from the heaviness. This loss — it suffocates so it is all I can see, all I can think about.

There is so much loss in a life of movement. There are the tangible, concrete things like packing up and leaving material things and houses behind. That favorite stuffed animal that just couldn’t fit…because your child had so many other favorites that you packed instead. That doll house, now sitting on your friend’s shelf, ready to be presented to her daughter on the next birthday. The books that, in the absence of close friends, were your best friends for a while. The family pet, unable to go because the next place you will call home has strict quarantine laws.

Then there are the intangible losses. Loss of place. Someone else will live in your beloved home. Someone will have your bedroom, look out your window, wander in your rose garden. Someone else will take your place in a small group. You will hear about new people coming and your friends will tell you “You would love them!” You laugh and say “That’s great!” but inside you think how can I be replaced so quickly, so finally.

All of this piles on me as I drive, looking out on a dark world of winter. What is it about winter that accentuates the losses? All the world feels loss in winter. Wasn’t that the horror of Narnia under the spell of the white witch?“Always winter and never Christmas.”

I know in my head that God is the answer. I know in my head that God, personified in Christ, knows the pain of loss. That Jesus came willingly, gave up all that was rightfully his, “emptying” himself our scriptures say. But connecting the head and the heart? That’s my struggle.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas! 

How do you reconnect your head and your heart? 

A Blessing For Those Who Journey

A Blessing for those who Journey by Robynn.

Last week I got a sweet facebook message from an old friend. This friend, Jen, used to work with us in India. She knows the life we lived. She’s lived it. She also has made return trips back to visit. Jen understands full well that a return to India is also a return to self, to memory, to pain, to old joys and old sorrows.

She deeply understands that this is more than a trip. It’s a journey back.

At Communicating Across Boundaries we know about loss and longings and the particular lonelinesses associated with leaving. Travel and Transcience is our specialty –we might not like it, we might not enjoy it…but we’re good at it. It’s what we do. We also intuitively understand the raw vulnerabilities that surface as we step off airplanes into spaces that unearth so much of who we are. Or who we were.
Jen’s message, together with the O’Donohue poem she quotes, are my new prayer for all of us.

We travel together at Communicating Across Boundaries. Journey well sweet community.

A blessing for you, my friend, in your journey deep into the sorrows, joys, newness, memories, and baffling moments of India . . .
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
~ John O’Donohue ~

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Putting the Tanga before the Horse; the Bicycle before the Rickshaw

Putting the Tanga before the Horse; the Bicycle before the Rickshaw by Robynn

tanga

Blogger’s note: For those unfamiliar with the mode of transportation called a tanga – it is a less fancy version of a horse-driven carriage.

Many of you have tracked our family’s planned visit back to South Asia. It’s where we were for the first 13 years of our marriage. It’s where two of our three children were born. It’s where we left, in 2007, thinking we’d be returning after an extended sabbatical, but we never did.

And so we’ve been planning this return trip for a while now. It takes a long time to save up the amount of money needed to fly all five us there and back. It takes a while to organize all the details surrounding such a trip: time off work, time away from school, passports, visas, pet care, house sitters. It’s a pretty big deal. The pre-departure to-do list is daunting. But we believe in this trip and so we wade through the quagmire of particulars with our hearts set on travel.

I’m so excited. Going to Asia always feels like going home to me. I was raised in Pakistan. I was newly married and mothering in India. These places contain my heart and my memories. I step off the plane and I’m instantly at home, comfortable, at ease. I know how life works there. I love it!

Pieces of me, places in my soul, that lay dormant while I live on this side of the ocean, suddenly pop back into life on that side of the sea. I’m going back. I’m going home.

I’m also curious and anxious to reconnect our children with that place. The older two have plenty of their own memories. Bits and pieces of stories flit through their minds. A certain nostalgia rises up in them as we talk about our time there in that ancient house, in that ancient city on the banks of that ancient river. But the youngest one doesn’t remember much. It agonizes her. You can see it in her eyes and on her face. All three of them learned to walk on cement or marble floors. All three of them spoke their first words in a foreign language simultaneously to their first words in English. The Muslim call to prayer, the gongs and bells of Hindu temples, the cacophony of Bollywood music crackling over jerry-rigged speakers –these were the lullabies that lulled them to sleep. They awoke to the sounds of the dhobi washing clothes on the river rocks below our windows or to screeching monkeys fighting over stolen bread.

Ironically, Connor our firstborn, came into the world in a small private hospital located in a narrow alleyway famous for selling boom boxes. All through the laboring and the delivering music blasted from the street below. The shopkeepers advertised their stellar wares by blaring Bollywood tunes at full volume to entice and convince shoppers of the potential of these amazing sound systems. Connor entered the world to “Pardesi, Pardesi, jana nahin, muje chorke” — foreigner, foreigner, don’t go and leave me!

And we went and left all of it.

You’d think I would only be experiencing great joy at the prospects of returning to so much of what I love and even, to so much of who I am. But there’s another emotion at work in me these days too. I’m embarrassed to even admit this but as much as I’m looking forward to our trip, I’m dreading leaving there again and returning here. The dread is so large it’s threatening to overshadow the joy of journeying. I’m dreading the re-entry process. There is a growing anxiety in me at the prospects of a grey January, the let-down after the excitement, the sadness after the joy, the clean up after the carnival, the dulldrums of depression at the prospects of purposeless, pointless existence again.

There is a tangible choking in my throat as the uncried tears build up, filling my head and soul with sorrow. I’m not sure how to reconcile it. It nearly makes me want to cancel the trip.

But that’s ridiculous. That would be like refusing to get on a roller coaster because you’ll be so sad when the ride’s over. That metaphor doesn’t really work for me…. Because the only emotion I’d be feeling when I got off the ride would be complete and utter relief that I had survived. And that’s how many of my mono-cultural cohorts might think of such a trip too. They gear up for it. They pack survivor snacks and hand sanitizing gel in large bottles, emergency toilet paper and bottles of drinking water. They take a deep breath, board the big jet and get through it. When the business is over they return to their homes relieved that they survived, exhausted by their own paranoia, full of anecdotes of crazy driving and insane room service. The ride is over. They can relax now.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I want to go on this trip…I’m just not sure I want to come back. Here. To Small Town, USA. To Mondays and the mundane. To grey days. To the long winter of the Spirit.  I know in part it’s because I remember what reentry feels like and it’s not pleasant. I have flashbacks of how long it took me to settle in here, to finally (6 years later!) begin to feel at home here. I’m nervous to disturb that. I’m afraid to mess with my fragile reality, my frail routines.

I don’t know what the answer is. I know it has something to do with being present and living in the here and now. I suspect it involves trusting the God of Journeys….He leads people on trips all the time. He “shall preserve (our) going out and (our) coming in” (Psalm 121:8). If he can be trusted to lead people away, certainly he can be trusted to lead them back again and to settle them back in again.

Sometimes mountains can be stomped down to molehills. The ever-growing mountain of dread that is casting shadows on the joy of this experience needs to be stomped down. That saying, “The devil is in the details….” may have something to do with it. If he can erode my joy looking forward to this trip…and going into that plane…he’s set me up for my flailing (and his success) in January.

The poignancy and pungency of Autumn call me to be present. The crisp colours underfoot crunch as I walk in my Now. The bushes all around me burn with red and glory and gold and they call me to the holiness of Here.  Green leaves on the trees in our yard begin to slowly transform into colour—they speak to me of God’s faithfulness in the midst of transition. He who leads leaves from green to gold and back to green again in the Springtime can surely lead me from here to there and back to here again.

Image credit: yogeshsmore / 123RF Stock Photo

(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.

How Do You Handle a Split Heart? – A Life Overseas

 

“How do you handle a split heart? What are the things you miss the most about your home country? What will you miss about your host country?”

Heidi Thulin wrote these words in a beautiful post called “To Love Two Places” over at A Life Overseas. I read it Friday afternoon – and knew it would resonate with so many of you. So I send you to A Life Overseas now – Take a few minutes on this Saturday to go over and share Heidi’s heart.

Here is an excerpt:

It’s been nine months now since the airplane’s wheels lifted off of our beloved Minnesota soil and I felt arrows of sorrow shoot through my chest. My heart was already heavy, burdened with the faces of goodbye, and I struggled to swallow as the mighty Mississippi River shrank into a ribbon and then disappeared behind a cloud.

And that was just the beginning of the heart pains.

Eight months ago, I took off my wedding ring and hid it away, because I didn’t want the streets of Nairobi to steal it from me. But my finger’s nakedness is still stark and shrill.

For three months, we rode matatus, those reckless, necessary public transit vans that added color and anxiety to our days. But despite the sunburns, blisters, and tears, we grew. We learned how to walk the streets like everybody else, we started to recognize the people we passed each morning, and we gained camaraderie with our fellow vehicle-less man. We started to belong

Now that we found a car and have settled into a sensible routine, the pain comes in a different way. The kite bird that caws like a seagull reminds me of our favorite vacation spot on the shore of Lake Superior. The still, warm evenings fill me with the longing to have a bonfire in a backyard covered with crackly leaves. And the road that circles our neighborhood ­­­­and serves as our nightly walking path makes me wish that the football field in the middle was a lake teeming with goslings and that my best friend was chatting beside me.

This homesickness sneaks up on me, startles me. Read more Here! 

“It’s a fine art, I’m realizing, to live in the present moment, to take each heart pain as it comes and pray that it won’t last long.”

Heidi Thulin moved to Kenya in October of 2012.

Wrapping up Quite a Week…..

20130408-213015.jpgToday’s wrap-up will be short and sweet. It was a long week beginning in Istanbul and ending in Cambridge lockdown. How different life looked for so many a week ago? Boston will slowly heal on the outside but I am of the unpopular opinion that to heal on the inside takes more than time and therapy; it takes a Saviour and the miracle of redemption.

So today I am primarily going to highlight posts on Communicating Across Boundaries that you may have missed. But first let me send you to the happiest, funnest, truest post that I read all week. I’ll include a few paragraphs so that you are drawn in and can’t wait to finish it over at Huffpost. It comes from my favorite blogger, Djibouti Jones and is called Turning Black and in this week of sorrow – you need to read this! Trust me!

“We’ll turn black pretty soon,” Maggie told Henry. They sat together on the front steps of our home in Somaliland. Henry tossed pebbles at the neighbor’s goats grazing on the weeds in our yard and Maggie brushed her dolly’s hair.

I was trying, unsuccessfully, to coax green bean plants from the rocky soil beside the house. I beat back locusts, fought off goats and sheep, drenched the soil with bottled water, anything for a bite of fresh green vegetable, but the plants would not grow. I leaned back on my heels, listening to the twins’ conversation.

“I know,” Henry said. “Probably on our birthday.” We had been in Somaliland for five months and they were six weeks away from turning 3.

“You won’t turn black,” I said. “You’re white, like Karisa.”

Karisa was another American girl living in our village. Her dad taught history at Amoud University and worked with my husband Tom, a physics professor.

“Karisa isn’t old enough to turn yet,” Maggie said. “She just turned 2.”

“White mommies and white daddies make white kids,” I said. “Black mommies and black daddies make black babies.” I pulled the skin of my forearm. “So you are white.”

Henry shook his head. “No. Jack and Negasti are black.”

Jack was Somali-Chinese and Negasti was Ethiopian and they lived two hours away, in the capital of northern Somalia, Hargeisa. They were adopted by Americans, a white mommy and a white daddy. Jack was 7 and Negasti was 5.

“They turned black on their birthdays,” Henry said. Be sure to read the rest here at Turning Black – Why My Kids See Race Differently.

For the rest of the wrap-up check out these posts from the week if you haven’t already – particularly the one on Loss by Robynn.

On Tragedy:In the midst of tragedy – A Call to Pray

On Loss: Robynn’s article on loss should not be missed so I am linking to it again to make sure you get it. Read it here

On Lockdown: Yesterday was spent in lockdown. Around 2:30 in the afternoon we phoned Trader Joe’s desperate for milk and eggs, but to no avail. The intrepid Dunkin’ Donuts was, however, open – making me proud of Boston! Here are my thoughts on lockdown.

May you rest today and through the weekend. I’m signing off until Monday. Thanks again – for caring enough to read in the midst all the other information online. I never take it for granted. 

Guest Post: “Longing for the Other Place”

Today’s post came by way of a comment on the post Saudade. It resonated deeply with me and I asked permission to share as a blog post. It is written by Anne Alexander, a fellow TCK. You can take a look at the end for a short bio.

I hope you enjoy this post and may your Sunday be a welcome rest from the chaos and busyness of life. 

Yesterday I went to a funeral for a dear friend. It was a true celebration (the most joyful, Christ-honoring I’ve ever attended), but that couldn’t stop the tears, even in worship.

As funerals and farewells often do, this one brought up the pain of losing my brothers in childhood, and all the related pain of leaving relatives and friends on both sides of the ocean time after time after time. It brought up the longing for the ‘other place’, whichever one I wasn’t in, and the people I love around the world.

TCK lives are filled and colored with losses of all kinds.

Some of us stuff feelings really well for a long time (for me, until middle age), but some of us are blessed, unable to do so.

In the long run, the ‘expressers’ are less likely to develop physical or mental aberrations because ‘the truth must out’, and our pain is truth to us.

The angst the world feels because of the God-shaped, Heaven-shaped longings implanted when we were created for Him hums in their experience like an irritatingly loud refrigerator– sometimes softer, sometimes louder, but ultimately ignorable until the margins of our lives are used up.

As TCKs we live with less margin most of our lives, continually pushed into areas of growth, change and challenge. We may disguise the irritation and angst of being  between homes and Home, but we can’t hide it any more than a person with 3 arms can hide it under a 2-armed shirt.

Growing up, we’ve sampled more fulfillment and full-use of our potential, more of and varied pleasures and experiences, more pain and loss, than many of our passport-country friends do in an entire lifetime.

We are accustomed to adrenaline in traffic and true life-threatening experiences, to fox-hole friendships with those we work and worship with, to ‘relatives’ closer in spirit, purpose and faith than any blood relatives we could find in our passport country.

We have lived life without the bubble wrap, warfare without boxing gloves, and the exhilaration of seeing God come through when it really matters.  And we know it’s more than just making the next traffic light green so we can get to work on time.

Is it any wonder that we grieve the distancing from LIFE that sometimes seems to accompany return to our passport country? Is it any wonder that we long for friends and ‘relatives’ like those with whom we grew up, or worked with in our country of adoption?

Thank God for a word like ‘saudade’ that helps us express the inexpressible longing for that remembered world of discovery, friendship, growth and possibilities. We are not alone. And there will at last be a place where all potentials will be realized as they were meant to be.

But until then, my heart will go on singing (even if sometimes the minor key spirituals of hope);
But until then, with joy I’ll carry on (knowing that even if no one else understands, my Creator, Companion and Burden-bearer does)–
Until the day my eyes behold the city,
Until the day God calls me Home. (Until Then chorus by Ray Price)

And in the meantime, that third arm comes in handy for all kinds of tasks, like wiping the tears I sometimes can’t hide, or helping a friend in need.

Kindergarten in Mandarin was TCK Anne Alexander’s introduction to Taiwan, and for 44 years she has called Taiwan home. At present she’s teaching and researching Bible storytelling in Mandarin for a doctorate from Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies.