An East-West Conversation

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“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

An Old Love

mom and dad

Every night before they went to sleep, my dad would kiss my mom. Even during his final month of life, when he was feeling weaker by the day, the last thing my dad did before he fell asleep was kiss my mom goodnight. They would pray and then he would kiss her. He knew that time was running out and so he got his kisses in before death came and separated them.

My dad was 91 when he died, my mom 89. “I’m so glad we had nothing between us. There were no regrets.” My mom has a far off look in her eyes as she tells me this. They were one in body and spirit, a tremendous heritage to give those who come after you.

Their love was an old love, but it hadn’t always been that way. Old photographs showed their young love, crinkled with time. A faded wedding picture, honeymoon pictures of a young couple by a lake and that same couple climbing a mountain are all evidence that they were young once.

But the years came, and with them five children, then daughters and son-in-law, grandchildren, and finally great grandchildren. Before they could catch their breath, they had an old love.

Old loves are free from the false expectations of youth.  Old love passes by newsstands featuring glossy magazines with covers that guarantee sleek, well-chiseled bodies, amazing sex, and “real love”.  While the images suck others in like dust in a vacuum, old love is oblivious. The world’s obsession with “young lust” and “young love” does not faze them. They travel as beloved ones in their own world, a world that knows better.

I will remember these love gifts forever.  The look my mom would give my dad, a look that whispers so confidently of care and shared understanding that even strangers would know this was born of a lifetime of loving. Or my dad, his formerly strong body broken, still looking out for my mom’s safety.

Theirs was a love that had died a million small deaths to self and false expectations. It was a love that saw others as better than self, and gave people bouquets of forgiveness, something far more costly than roses. It was a love that understood the hard process of aging, and the losses that come with it.

My eyes mist over as I remember their old love; wordless stories of a lifetime of sacrifice and trial; hurt and healing; misunderstanding and forgiveness. Their old love may have limped at the end, but it shouted of strength.

There are many times when my dad wistfully talked about an inheritance and how he wished that he could leave his kids and grandkids more money.  But he left us so much more. He left us a lifetime of loving my mom and that is enough.


 

A Valentine’s Day Warning: Don’t Let Corporate America Dictate What Love Is

Happy Vlantim from Egypt – Source unknown

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I have mixed feelings about the day, but there’s one thing I know. It is far too easy to let corporate America dictate what love is to the eager masses. For weeks we have not been able to escape glossy images and advertisements about true love and how it’s best expressed through material things. From jewelry to roses, we are subject to a false understanding of love and relationships.

So here are some basic dos and don’ts about the day.

Some Don’ts

  • Don’t judge your relationships by Hollywood standards.
  • Don’t get swept up in what is purely a profit making machine.
  • Don’t get angry at your partner because they didn’t get the subtle and overt messages of what you wanted for Valentine’s Day.
  • Don’t walk around rejected and dejected because you aren’t in a relationship on a day when everyone is supposed to have somebody
  • Don’t confuse real love and tried and true relationships with the false image that will dominate the day.

Some Dos

  • Celebrate the people you love by letting them know you love them
  • Accept what comes your way with a gracious spirit
  • Realize that a partner washing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen is a much more difficult way to say “I love you” than buying a cheap box of chocolates.
  • Let your single friends know that they are whole people and don’t need someone to complete them.
  • Ponder the difference between real love and fairy tale romance
  • Some reading on love and Lent and Ash Wednesday

Most of all, do realize that you are God’s beloved, and nothing in the world will change that. No chocolate, no roses, no candlelight dinners can ever replace knowing that God loves you in the depths of your soul.

Valentine’s Day does a great job at communicating love for one day, but it lacks the impetus or mechanism to help us do the hard work of love. And one thing required for the hard work of love is a repudiation of the very things that keep us from loving well. Ash Wednesday, with its accompanying fast, is that repudiation. – Juliet Vedral

Advent Reflection – To Love is to Hurt

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS Lewis – The Four Loves


It’s early Monday morning and the house is dark and quiet. I wake up slightly anxious with what I know to be a Monday morning dread. I turn our Christmas tree lights on as watchful cats curl up on the couch, nocturnal beasts carefully observing all around them.

It has been a full weekend. Baking, cleaning, readying our home for an annual open house to reconnect with friends from our different worlds; introducing dear friends to Eritrean food; connecting with our younger daughter over delightfully shallow Hallmark Christmas movies.

It all crashed down on me well after I was supposed to be in bed and asleep. Despite the full weekend of connecting, I’m caught in a vice-like grip of worry for those I love. Crashing against a tired body was a tired heart, a heart lost in tears that quickly dried leaving salt on my cheeks, only to come again with more force.

And it came to me again, like it has thousands of times in the past, to love is to hurt. To love my kids is to hurt for their pain, to rage at some of their choices, to delight in their successes, to weep at their tragedies. To love my adopted country means to weep that terrorists attacked a church, killing and wounding the innocent. To love my dad means to hurt that he is gone. To love my friends means to share in their trouble, to laugh in their joy. To love means to get tired from caring, to feel weary from listening. To love is to hurt.

During my childhood, I often heard about the disease called leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. This disease is not well-known, but growing up in Pakistan, I knew that there were places called leper colonies – places to quarantine those with leprosy. The disease carried a huge stigma and much was unknown about both causes and treatment of leprosy. The main thing I knew about leprosy was that the nerves were damaged and affected people’s ability to feel pain. Since they couldn’t feel pain, they would end up with sores and burns on their bodies, particularly their feet and hands.

Even as a little girl, through knowing about leprosy, I knew that pain was a good thing. Pain was a signal that the body’s nerves were working. 

I think about this as I think about the pain that I feel when those I love hurt. I think about the pain that God feels when his creation suffers and hurts.

Despite the tears, despite the inability to ‘fix’ things, despite the paralysis that often comes with these feelings, I will pick the pain of love every time, because I know the numb apathy of an ice-cold heart and ultimately that is far more damaging. This pain I feel is proof that my heart is alive, alive with God-given feeling; proof that my life is full, full of people and places that I love.

This pain is proof that I desperately need God. God, who reaches through pain and worry with a promise of redemption. God, who takes sleepless nights with tears and turns them into joy in the morning.

This pain is proof that I need Advent, I need the coming. I need the incarnation. I need to know that God became man to walk where we walked, to know our pain, to comfort us in the dark of night and in the light of day.

I need to know that my tears are heard, my heart is known, my pain is valued. 

On Friday, I read this from Ann Voskamp, and on this Monday morning when reality bites a little harder than it did yesterday, I leave it with you:


“You are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. You are not alone. 

Because he says to everyone with their unspoken broken: Come. 

He says to the unlikely: Beloved

He says to the weary: Rest

In a brokenhearted and beautiful world, His grace is the only pillowed relief for the tired soul to rest in this season — making all broken things into resurrected things.”Ann Voskamp

I Like Family – Family is my Favorite

In a faded, old photo album I read the words “Family makes you feel whole and strong – vibrant and needed.” The words are typed on an ancient typewriter, long gone in our travels and moves from house to house and country to country. The pictures that surround the words have lost their color and appear true vintage with no filter.

I typed those words when we were living in Islamabad, Pakistan – miles from blood relatives. I wanted to create something special for my husband, a photo album of our family at the time. We were young and had a boy and a girl. We were all quite perfect in those days. Pretty and fresh-faced, without the weathering that life brings with its hard fights and its days of no return.

The truth is that in this age where family often loses its meaning, I like family. Family is my favorite. I more than like family – I love family.


We have just returned to Cambridge from a family wedding. My niece, Allison, married Paul. Paul comes from a large Italian family and I instantly loved his mom, Patty, and his Aunt Joan. They are women I would go to war with – or at least gossip with at a family wedding.

The wedding took place outside in a rustic setting, on the shoreline of Irondequoit Bay.  Chairs were set up outside beside a small dock, while the dinner was set to be served at the waterfront lodge, with stunning views of the Bay. A sudden, and violent summer storm had all of us scrambling and rearranging the ceremony venue to take place in the lodge. It was a picture of a family willing to go with whatever happened, determined that marriage would win over weather every time. A more brilliant metaphor for marriage is not possible and I know in my gut that these two will make it.

My niece was dressed in classic vintage – lace, a netted veil, and stunningly beautiful. She walked down the unexpected indoor aisle, and the ceremony began.

Who gives this woman? 

‘Solemn vows that none of us can possibly keep without the grace and mercy of God.

Readings from the Songs of Solomon and Wendell Berry.

Rings exchanged.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The sacramental pronouncement of a union authored by God, ordained by God, kept only by God’s goodness. 

You may kiss the bride. 

And then wild cheers and the song “Will the Circle, be unbroken, by and by Lord, by and by?”

A celebration followed where there wasn’t enough time to talk to everyone that we wanted to; where we enjoyed great food and amazing company; where family gathered, at one with each other and the spirit of the day. Even a nest of bright, blue robin’s eggs joined in the celebration. Not a sacrament, but a symbol of our God’s love of beauty and life.

In a world that is fearful and cynical, a world where marriage is discarded for something far easier and less permanent, a world where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have little to do with daily life, I once again bear witness to a family willing to live counter-culture. I once again witness the proclamation of the truth of marriage, once again hear vows that are humanly impossible being promised. 

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, in health, to love and to cherish, until death parts us and we are ushered into something even better then the best marriage possible.

I fell into bed that night in happy exhaustion.

Because I love weddings and the families that go with them. Because family does make me feel whole and strong, vibrant and needed.

So, Yes – I like family. Family is my favorite. 

Beloved

Due to a WordPress error – the date of this is wrong. It is actually Monday, December 5.

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A light snow is falling as I exit the subway. It’s so beautiful. I stop for a moment and watch the flakes. They are all different, I’m told. Not one the same – each one a beautiful reflection of the Designer’s creativity. Just one more sign of a Creator’s love.

*****

I work with a diverse group of people. One of my colleagues, an African-American woman has become a friend and unknowingly, an educator. Every time we have a conversation I walk away challenged in the best possible way. My friend helps me understand a different perspective – a perspective based on the color of skin and therefore, a life experience that I do not share.She challenges me without even knowing she is doing so.

Last week, we were sitting together at a meeting. As I looked over at her, I noticed that just below the hairline on her neck was a small, delicate tattoo. The tattoo was one word – the word beloved. On the way back to our office I asked her about the tattoo. She smiled and said “It’s just to remind myself of who I really am.” When people want to dismiss her, when they want to deny her humanity, and not allow her a voice, she still knows at her core that she is beloved. When the headlines tell a story of prejudice and discrimination, my friend remembers she is beloved. She knows who she is, and no one can take that away from her.

Beloved – that beautiful word that tells us we are cherished, treasured, owned by love.

Amid the crazy that has become Christmas in the Western world, there is a story that calls us into calm, that calls us into adoration and worship. It’s a story that has lasted centuries, a story that won’t die. The heart of the story is a small baby come into the world – God become man. The soul of the story is a conquering of death – but that story comes years later. The heart of the story is a God who so loved us that he chose to walk among us, chose to confine himself to place and time, to experience the joys and struggles of a life trapped inside a human body. He, who was and is eternity, restricted to impermanence and transience.

He did this to show us how much he loved us, to call us his beloved ones.

It is branded on my friend’s skin permanently; may it be branded on our hearts eternally.

*****

The snow is still falling on a city that is both beautiful and broken. I sigh and move forward, resolute and ready to live as a beloved one.

“The engaged mind, illuminated by truth, awakens awareness; the engaged heart, affected by love, awakens passion. May I say once more – this essential energy of the soul is not an ecstatic trance, high emotion or a sanguine stance toward life: It is a fierce longing for God, an unyielding resolve to live in and out of our belovedness.” ― Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging 

 

Living as a Beloved One


We spontaneously dropped in on friends last evening. This area of the United States is not fond of spontaneous visits. Much better to plan. But planning gets wearisome and so we decided to go against the cultural norms. We arrived on our friends doorsteps as they were finishing dinner. 

We picked the right people. We were welcomed with arms open and ended up staying for over two hours. 

Soon after we arrived, their youngest child, Francy, came into the room. Francy hasn’t seen us in over a year and she is little. She walked into the room, took one look at us, and ran up to us bursting with smiles. Golden ringlets falling over her face, she jumped into my husband’s arms, hugging him tight. 

I watched, astonished. Here was a child completely secure and utterly loved. She had no fear of rejection or dismissal. She jumped into Cliff’s arms with complete abandon, certain that she would be welcomed. 

In recent weeks I’ve been thinking about God’s love.  Intellectually, I know God loves me. I know, by heart, verses that confirm this. I know it as fact. But as life has become more and more complicated, my heart does not believe.  I do not trust that I will be welcomed with open arms. I do not throw myself, with utter abandon, into the arms of God.  Rather, I approach him as I approach New Englanders; tentatively, warily, uncertain of the response.  

Francy’s entrance reminded me that it hasn’t always been like this. My approach to God hasn’t always been wary and uncertain. There was a time when I, like Francy, threw myself into the arms of God. In those moments, my head and heart connected — the verses that I knew by heart became a living reality. I knew, in the deepest place, that I was loved. 

What if I truly believed– and lived — as one loved by God?

What if I walked in the security and confidence that a child, secure in the love of a parent walks? 

I know instinctively that my life would be different.  Delight, goodness, warmth, compassion, joy, honesty, truth — all those would be characteristics that flow from a life lived in light of the love of God. I would not do things to gain favor. I would have no need of self-promotion. I would walk in security. 

How much I am missing

This weekend I have time to reflect and pray. Time that I haven’t had in a while. As I reflect on God and his love,  Francy’s face keeps on popping up in my mind, like a slideshow on repeat. 

“God, help me to be more like Francy. Help me to walk as a beloved one.”