Pen & Ink drawing from Annie Rebekah Gardner.
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.”*
“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.
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
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!
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 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
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 ~
Putting the Tanga before the Horse; the Bicycle before the Rickshaw by Robynn
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.
- Round the World in a Rickshaw – Guinness Book Attempt (prweb.com)
- Time to Say Goodbye
- A Common Prayer
Image credit: yogeshsmore / 123RF Stock Photo
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.
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.