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