Symbol of Strength


Gloucester, Massachusetts is a fishing town. It is one of the oldest settlements in what became Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Through the years, life in this fishing town has not been easy. The town has seen more than its share of loss and pain, of lives disrupted. The fishing industry would rise and fall like the tide, one year providing a living wage, the next year leaving a family with barely any money. Storms would take fishermen when they were too young, leaving young widows with small children to make their way alone.

The ocean, beautiful to tourists and residents alike, cannot be tamed or controlled. It is master over fishermen and their families.

Along the waterfront on Stacy Boulevard is a statue called the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, paying tribute to all those who died at sea. It was built in 1925 and is famous throughout the area.

But the statue I love best has not been there for very long. It is a statue a few yards away from the Fishermen’s statue. The statue shows a woman looking out to the sea and pays tribute to those left behind: The wives and children of fishermen. I love the strength of the statue. I love how the woman is carrying one child, while another holds onto her dress, a gesture that women around the world understand. I love everything about this statue.

Most of all, I love that it honors these women and children, recognizing that the sacrifice of families is great.

Yesterday, as we passed the statue, I thought of all the women and children who are refugees or displaced because of the war in Syria. I thought of the many women that I met in Iraq, the stories I have heard that are barely a page in the volumes of stories that are present from the Syrian war and the disruption of family and community by ISIS. I thought of the women and children I have met who teach me what it is to be strong.

The statue is a symbol of the strength of women, of grief being pushed aside as they move forward with stubborn endurance.

Today I think of these women and children – and I thank God for their strength and pray for grace to move forward.

See A Practical Response to the Syrian Crisis for ideas of how to help.

The Autumn of My Parents

It is a poignant irony that most of us don’t understand or empathize with the humanity of our parents until later in life. Until then they are ‘other’ and we can’t quite believe that they have the same sort of emotions that we do.

It’s this I think about as I look out on the golden glow of Autumn. All week I have been traveling in state for work. I have been traveling to Western and Central Massachusetts. As I looked out across the picture-post card landscape of a New England fall, every shade of yellow, orange, or red with splashes of green set against a stunning blue sky I suddenly caught my breath. For this is the autumn of my parents.

Both my mom and dad were raised in Massachusetts. In summer they had mountain laurel, green grass, and trees galore; in spring they had every shade of green in the budding trees, and every version of flower in gardens and parks; in the winter it was bare trees, warm homes, hot cocoa, and sledding down hills with friends.

And in Autumn they had the colors I now see every day, until a November chill wind would come, blowing all the leaves down, readying them for winter.

But my mom and dad left all that. For 35 years there was no Autumn. There was slightly chilly, warm, warmer, and warmest – the warmest raised the thermometer to the 120 degree Fahrenheit mark and above.

And I realize how much they must have missed these days of Autumn. How much they must have longed for the crisp apples and crisper mornings. I realize how much they must have missed family – my grandma – the only living grandparent; my aunts and uncles who were their brothers and sisters; my cousins – their nieces and nephews; and all that is New England. They left their world of Autumn and went to a region of Pakistan where Autumn didn’t exist.

So every Autumn for the last seven years I have enjoyed the Autumn of my parents. I have come to know a few things about the world and landscape of their childhood into their early marriage. I have driven the roads they logged so many miles on in old Chevrolets and Ford station wagons. I have stopped at Inns and eaten hot clam chowder, I have gone apple picking coming home with apples of every type, polishing some for a bowl on the table and peeling others to go into beautiful pies and other desserts. I have passed old churches with tall steeples and specially marked parking spots for the minister, the choir director, and the church organist.

I have learned a bit more about their world and the beauty of where they were raised.

It was a few years ago when my husband confronted me saying “You don’t want this area to be a part of your life – but it is a part of your life.” And he’s so right. And I’m so glad. There is the Pakistan of my life, the Egypt of my life, and the New England of my life. They are woven together, tapestry-like in the picture they create.

Removing this part of who I am, of where my parents were raised and what went in to making them the people they are, would sever the tapestry and it would be incomplete.

And ultimately – this story, this tapestry is woven by Someone far more creative than me, by Someone who knows how each thread, each part is woven carefully so it becomes a tapestry of complexity and beauty. Perhaps lovelier in some places, and more worn in others, but incomplete without all of it.

My parents are no longer in this place they love. They have moved on to a new place. And as I look out on the physical Autumn around me, I’m so grateful that where they now live they still have Autumn. And they are in the Autumn of their lives – the place where life becomes even sweeter as they realize the road behind them is longer than the road ahead.

And I am so glad that in this Autumn in their lives they still have the colors. 

Evidence of Grace

It snowed yesterday. Huge flakes came down and painted the world white and fluffy. It was that perfect sort of snow. The light, pretty, I can see each separate flake kind of snow.

The fact that I just wrote the word ‘pretty’ in the same sentence as ‘snow’? This is evidence of Grace. My attitude toward yesterday’s snow is evidence of Grace.

When we left Massachusetts to move to Phoenix in 2003, I wiped the snow off my boots and vowed I would never see a snowflake again. Snow represented all that is cold and hurtful. It represented a place that didn’t like me. It represented alienation and pain and crisis after crisis. And I stepped off the plane in Phoenix into sun and expansive blue desert sky and all that was behind me.

And then five years ago we moved back in the middle of December. Back to four feet of snow. Back to the cold.

We moved back and I was terrified. Terrified that I would once again feel alienated in a cold Northeast world.

So yesterday, as I walked slowly to the subway with frequent stops to catch the beauty of the snow, was evidence of His Grace. This transformation — this would never have happened without some deep soul-work, like a surgeon with a sharp scalpel cuts into the skin and carefully removes the diseased tissue. It is, without doubt, the work of God in me – and the evidence may seem silly, but to me it’s miraculous. I stop and I take pictures of snow. I smile as the snowflakes hit my nose and make my scarf wet. I don’t hate where I live.

This is evidence of Grace. My delight in the snow all around is evidence of God-given Grace.

Where do you see evidence of Grace? 

“When he arrived and saw evidence of the Grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”. Acts 11:23










The Politics of Sick

I sit in a straight-backed chair in the small, sterile examining room at a nearby Urgent Care Clinic, my daughter facing me; her chair softer and more comfortable. A tiny needle from an IV is set securely inside her vein, medicine slowly entering her body, drop by drop by drop. The liquid is deceiving, for though it looks clear it is full of Clindamycin, an antibiotic we know will make her well. Despite the setting we are calm and relaxed – it is a relief to know that we are in a safe place and she is getting good care.

We didn’t know how sick she was. None of us. She arrived in Chicago from Cairo a week ago and came down with a fever and sore throat soon after. My children will tell you that despite (or because of) being a nurse, I am hesitant to go to the hospital, feeling far more confident in the more comforting and lasting value of home remedies and good hot tea than in the sterile but MRSA ridden hospitals of our time. But I also have a sixth sense and though I desperately wanted to be able to home treat, I knew she needed eyes that were objective, a more professional lens.

In a medical system known for it’s bureaucracy we went seamlessly through registration, stopped only by one question: “Do you have insurance?”

And no, my daughter does not.

She has been a student overseas and aged out of the Massachusetts law that says a mother or father can keep their child on their plan until 26 years old.

But. We are in Massachusetts. And so the question didn’t fill us with fear. As first in the nation to undergo tedious and imperfect health care reform we have a system that doesn’t fill us with fear. Yes, there are hoops to hurdle. Yes, it has a long way to go – but when you’re sick and you need care, you show up and a financial counselor walks you through the process, sending your information into a computer system that will come up with an insurance plan you can afford.

At that moment neither of us were thinking about politics, or political affiliation, or socialized medicine, or debates. We were thinking about getting her care, a professional opinion and hopefully medicine so we could be on her way.

When as a nation did we allow politics to co-opt our health, to feed us misinformation about insurance and that terror-producing term ‘socialized medicine’? Truth is the term ‘socialized medicine’ is a made up phrase. It was first heard in the early 1900’s but came into wide use when the American Medical Association fought against a national health insurance plan proposed by President Truman. It conjured images of a hammer and sickle approach to health care that would lead us down the slippery slope to communism. That was in 1947 folks – and it was a public relations coup for in the six and a half decades since that time we have allowed the term to rule us, to be thrown around willy nilly to produce fear and anger, obnoxious and ignorant voices often leading the way.

And as the cry rages around us, people are sick. They are like us. They walk in not knowing how sick they are. They have avoided the emergency room and doctor’s offices successfully, sometimes for years, because they have no insurance. And when they show up, it’s not pretty.

It’s the breast cancer lump that has ulcerated and eaten away the flesh of a breast; it’s the persistent cough, ignored and treated with over the counter cough medicine until it’s so bad that you haven’t slept in weeks; it’s the gnawing indigestion and bloated feeling that you know will just go away only to find that it’s cancer eating away at your colon – fully preventable had screening taken place early in the disease process.

Being sick is not about being Republican or Democrat or Independent or Green Party or Libertarian. Being sick is about being human, living in a fallen world where illness and death and “pre-existing” conditions are a reality. Being sick is not about politics. Being sick is about needing care. Being sick is about the need to be cared for without fear of bankruptcy and debt, without the need to plan a fundraiser to pay the cost of chemotherapy. Being sick will happen to all of us, some time, some way, some how. When will we in the United States get that?

We’re off to the clinic again this morning. And there are still hoops to go through to make sure the insurance goes through. But the hoops are small in comparison and my daughter is slowly getting well.

And today I am all the more committed to doing my part in fighting the politics of sick.

Update: For an in depth look from a woman who was opposed to Universal Health Care, largely because of her stance against abortion, who comes to an appreciation of access for all take a look at this article: How I Lost My Fear of Universal Health Care

Jazz and Jack – Celebrating Jack Kerouac’s 90th Birthday

Birthday Cake in the shape of Jack's typewriter

Lowell, Massachusetts, birthplace to Jack Kerouac, the well-known author of “On the Road” and other perhaps lesser known works that include poetry and prose, has been the hub of several events this past week, all toward one purpose – that of remembering the 90th birthday of  Jean Louis Kerouac, better known as Jack. Even the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has joined in the celebration by declaring today, March 12, Jack Kerouac Day.

So Saturday night we headed from Cambridge up the highway to Lowell to join in the festivities of the evening at a Jazz club. It was Jazz and Jack. We knew it would be fun, but we had no idea just how fun. In a room full of strangers we ended up sharing a table and having drinks with Jack’s oldest living friend, bodyguard, and pall bearer at his funeral – a handsome, 85-year-old Greek gentleman named Billy Koumantzelis, or “Uncle Billy” to many. The evening was itself like something out of a novel.

A local jazz band started off the evening, followed by a monologue from a play done on Jack’s life – this too from local talent. The playwright then read two short scenes from the play followed by more jazz. The real story, for us, was in talking and sharing with Billy.

When you’re 85, you’ve seen a lot of life, and Billy has seen his share. He knows Lowell. He knows the good and the bad. And he knew Jack – the good and the bad. To say Jack was a tortured artist is probably being somewhat kind, for he had his demons and they were not hidden. It is the never-ending complexity of life that where there is great talent there may also be great dysfunction. There is Jack the writer, whose writing inspired many, who felt he was created to write. And there is Jack the man, who made some poor choices and had to live out the effects of those choices. Jack the writer, who wrote of a generation that was lost after the Great Depression and the war. Jack the man, who lived a lost life.

And there is Billy K.  his friend, faithful and never aspiring to fame, but receiving it by default because of our celebrity cult culture. Billy, who lived with his wife and six children in Lowell, and stood firm at Jack’s funeral – Jack a young 48-year-old, Billy barely 44. Billy, who sometimes gets sick of being known simply as Jack’s friend. Billy, who is a first generation Greek gentleman and rescued Jack from many a bar brawl. Billy who was the one person in the room who really knew that we shouldn’t celebrate everything about Jack’s life, but we could still celebrate.

Is it any wonder that our evening was that much richer because we were able to hear memories from a real person so we could go beyond just the idea of a man? An idea made over by speculation and artistic license of authors and poets so that what remains may barely represent reality.

We ended the evening after midnight, a midnight lighting of birthday candles and singing Happy Birthday in French in honor of Jack’s French Canadian heritage. We are the richer for the evening and have an invitation from Billy to come up to Lowell when it’s “quieter and I’ll show you Lowell” — Uncle Billy, we can’t wait to take you up on it!

Billy - good friend to Jack Kerouac, Genevieve - Billy's love, Myself and Jonathan
In honor of Jack's heritage as a French Canadian!

Accent Angst

“Is she dumb, or does she just sound that way because she’s from Alabama?” This question came from someone we interact with at a business level about someone we know on a personal level. Thankfully my husband was wise enough to not tell me about the interaction – if he had, I would possibly have ended up in police custody. The friend she was talking about is a lovely woman with a Master’s Degree who is unfortunate enough to have a southern accent while living in the Northeast.

What is it about accents? They raise fury and assumptions in people. Just recently I spoke to a woman on the phone about breast cancer. She was irate that “someone with an accent had the audacity to ask ME if I was an American citizen, obviously she isn’t one, otherwise she wouldn’t have an accent”. Wow. While I understand that people, particularly those whose relatives came on the Mayflower, don’t like to be asked about their citizenship, it’s a standard question in my line of work, and if there is one thing we should understand about a nation of immigrants, it’s not about the accent. I can take you to the North End of Boston tomorrow and introduce you to 50 Italian grandmothers who have lived here for years but speak English like they just stepped off the plane from Sicily.

Accents cause angst. In Arizona accent angst has led to a ‘policing’ of accents in the public school system. While defenders of the activity claim it is critical that teachers know English so they can model this for their students, those who filed the complaint with the Federal Department of Education argue that knowing English well, and speaking accent free are two different issues. Checking the English level of a potential employee for a school system that operates in English is valid and can be justified; judging the accent alone cannot. The argument is that an accent is only one variable of many measures that can assess language skill and fluency.

Let’s look at the accent in Massachusetts, and the inability to pronounce the ‘r’ sound. Here, my last name is not Gardner, it’s Gahdnah. Yet, to my knowledge, no accent police are forcing teachers from the area to change the way they speak. Or how about the mayor of the city of Boston – a born and bred native. His accent, thick with years of living in Massachusetts, makes it difficult to understand what he’s saying, yet no one accuses him of not speaking English well (except maybe our family)

At dinner a couple of nights ago we got into a discussion on this topic. My husband, whose relatives are from the south, was raised with the view that those with Massachusetts accents were educated, elitist snobs and didn’t understand the rest of the country. By contrast, many of my husbands’ colleagues hold fast to the view that if you have a southern accent, you don’t have a brain. You are the idiot that is missing from the Texas town. An acquaintance of Cliff’s, a former chaplain from Harvard University, in talking about accents stated “And what’s up with South Carolina? It’s too small to be a country, but too large to be an insane asylum”. True story.

As humans we have an amazing capacity to find differences and exploit them. When we’re little it may be the color of eyes or their body size. As we get older, the measures change to accents or skin color. We become more sophisticated (or not) at hiding our exploitation, but continue with the childish trait of considering “difference to equal inferior”.

Arizona’s law is under examination. A civil rights lawyer has brought the accent policing policy into the courts and it is being scrutinized as various civil rights abuses are uncovered. But the former Harvard chaplain, right here in Cambridge? He just gets to go on making stupid remarks with no court date in sight.

Tornadoes & Politics

Massachusetts residents, used to discussing disasters in other areas of the world, found themselves in the middle of tornado watches, warnings, and actual happenings on Wednesday evening. High winds started up late afternoon and at the end of the day, over seven tornadoes had touched down, primarily in Western Massachusetts. Like many weather catastrophes people affected are somewhat in a daze at what has hit them, not quite comprehending the enormity of the damage but knowing they have to move forward, clean up, file insurance claims and reclaim their lives.

For many not directly affected, the image of tornadoes funneling to earth with astonishing power was a sight most had never seen. One somewhat humorous story to come out of this came from a work friend. His wife was driving from Connecticut back to Massachusetts on I-84. As she drove she saw two things:  on one side of her a tornado heading toward land, on the other,  Sarah Palin’s ‘One Nation’ tour accelerated down the highway. The two juxtaposed were quite an image.

To me, this is a picture of what this next year will hold for the average American. A tornado like force of politics and partisanship. While I would love to feel the wonder and excitement my freedom to vote, especially given the Arab spring and ‘self-determination’ as my daughter aptly described in a recent article in GOOD magazine, I dread the devastation that these tornado like politics bring. Partisanship, scandal, meanness, incivility, outright lies….these are all the tornado of American politics and it’s not a pretty picture. The process itself is so long that though we are months and months out from the actual election, already media sources are focusing on real and potential candidates. Other countries sit back and watch in amazement at the skewed process that has us sitting through hours of debates, more hours of advertising, and the daily onslaught from our favorite journals of front page and cover stories on politicians. We do this even as we struggle to pay our bills, keep our kids studying calculus, and worry about pink slips arriving via email. It’s a tornado but while tornadoes speed through our cities and towns, politics is like a violent rotating column of hot air that doesn’t speed through but makes its way slowly across land and pits neighbor against neighbor leaving all in a daze.

Just as it is advisable to keep on hand food, water, matches and candles should there be loss of power or water in weather catastrophes, I think I’ll do the same as I face this next years tornado of political promise. I’ll head to a figurative basement bringing with me candles and Lindt‘s chocolate, pretending that the electricity is off and the television and radio aren’t working. That way I can ride out the storm and think of it as an adventure, picking up the pieces the day after as I blog.
Take a look at this footage of the physical tornado. Footage of the political tornado to follow! Stay tuned!