“No Such Thing as Mundane”

Photo taken by Stan Brown on February 4, 2020

“Wonderful! No such thing as mundane!” The caption is typed over a picture of a book titled Glory Happening: Finding the Divine in Every Day Places. Of the many things that have struck me these past days, I keep on coming back to this caption – for it captures my brother and his view of creation and the world.

My brother Stan is my second brother of four. Growing up, Stan was the life of our family with a quick wit, a fast tongue, a quick temper, and a passion for all of life. He was a spicy child and a spicy teenager. Both of us could raise our parents’ wrath more quickly than our siblings could. We did not fear conflict; we often looked for it. The story goes that our siblings looked on at the grief that we caused our mom and dad and decided “it’s just not worth it.” So if you look at it that way, Stan and I were real gifts to the family.

When I was in junior high, Stan came to me in a rage one day. The boarding school grapevine had relayed to him that his little sister had been smoking. He didn’t come to confirm whether it was true or not. He knew, of course, that it was. He looked me in the eye and he said to me “If you don’t write and tell our parents that you’ve been smoking, then I will.” “Okay” I sniffled “I will!” And I did.

In high school, Stan’s favorite jeans got two holes in them. One on each butt. How he managed that is extraordinary, still more extraordinary was that he cut out two perfect round patches, about 4 inches in diameter made of bright Sindhi Ajrak. He sewed the patches with tiny stitches all around. To the family, it was a work of art. Not only were his jeans now wearable, but they had these bright butt patches that were incredible. His work was uniquely unappreciated by staff and he was sent to the principal’s office and told he was indecent. When our mom found out, she was mad. Why on earth didn’t they appreciate the careful stitching and ingenious patches? Indecent how? He won that round with our mom, which was good as it turned out to be a far longer lasting relationship than that of the teacher who turned him in.

Stan’s passion for justice and advocacy began early. He was quick to see injustice and to stand up for it. I benefited from this on more than one occasion, but the one I remember best was when he took my 11th grade Physics class to task one day, including the teacher. It was an all male class besides me, and usually I tolerated the teasing fairly well. But not this time. This time it sent me into tears. It was one joke more than I could handle about my body or my brain. Stan, who was volunteering at the school during a year off from college, marched up to the Physics lab and told the teacher off. Though I don’t know exactly what he said, his words packed a mighty punch. I know this because that was the point where my teacher’s treatment of me changed, and the class – ever the adolescent boys of hero worship, followed their master.

Life moved on and we both became adults. I was the first family member to meet his wife, Tami, in Chicago. Stan introduced us and then left for California. As hard it was for them, for me it was a gift. Tami became a friend before she became my sister-in-law. Stan was smitten and on a rainy day the following August, Stami was born. He had found the one who his soul loved, and his life changed.

Through the years, being able to see each other became more of a challenge as life took their family to Kenya, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Colorado and our family to Pakistan, Egypt, the US, and Iraq. Yet always when we did connect, it was the gift of being with a person fully alive and fully present.

On the past couple of years, Stan has had this uncanny ability to show up and surprise us. At one point we looked out our window in Cambridge and there was Stan! Peeking in our front windows like a wanted man, except that he was grinning from ear to ear. He did the same thing three days after our daughters wedding in September. Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the home we had moved into less than a month before. It was Stan! It would be the last time I would see him on this earth.

Siblings are a precious gift, a solid geological formation* in the midst of a world that is constantly changing. Friends may come and go, but family has to be there. It’s the law. And it’s a given that we take them for granted – we just know they will always be there. Until suddenly – they’re not. Until suddenly, they are gone with a phone call. I used to think everyone got “the phone call” once in their life. But I don’t think that’s true. Most people I know have not. In my sleepless nights I wonder “Why us?” Why were we the ones to get the phone call. What I’m really saying is “Why did you leave us? We miss you so.”

And then I think of all the times I missed telling him I loved him. All the times I thought “I need to call Stan.” but I didn’t call him, because he’s a sibling, and he’s always going to be around, and I knew he’d still love me if I didn’t call. Even my call to him before he left for Thailand came after he had boarded the plane and went immediately to a voice mail message.

My last text to Stan was horribly perfect. He had sent a screen shot of the weather here in Chiang Mai. It was 79 degrees, a clear starry sky, and Valentines Day. I texted back “I love you. I hate you.” It was the day before he died.

The tears come at odd times and they flow like they will never stop. The hole he has left is enormous. The collective grief and loss without doubt, but beyond that is the deeply personal, unshareable grief and loss of his beloved wife, daughter, and son. It is too deep to grasp, and yet, the God he loved is deeper still.

My brother’s life on earth is over. His life now has a dash in it: 1956 – 2020. The most important part of our lives is in the dash between – told and untold stories, lessons learned, people loved, all of life in a single dash.

It was back in December when Stan posted the cover of the book on glory. And though it was about a book, all of his pictures, indeed his life, reflected the tension of seeking out and searching for that glory in the midst of a broken world that groans.

This was Stan. From a leaf on a tree to a beloved grandchild and everything in between, nothing was mundane. The gift of Stan was a gift indeed. A gift from God, to and for the glory of God.

Note: People around the world have stories of Stan – this is just one of the many that will come out in the months that follow his death.

*Our son Joel first used this when speaking of his brother Micah. I love this description of siblings.

Reflecting on October with my Mother

My mom recently told me that the last leaves to turn are the Sugar Maples. They turn a brilliant red, an impossible color to describe. She tells me this as we meander our way through a state park on a perfect, October day.

I don’t remember growing up with brilliant Octobers, though my Pakistani childhood in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range must have had some sort of fall. As I travel back in my memories, I remember pristine snow-capped mountains and tall pine trees that whispered in the spring wind, roared in the summer monsoons, and lay heavy with snow when we left for winter vacation. Fall colors are not in my memory. Fall colors feel quintessentially New England and the October I now experience is the October of my mother.

She grew up in New England. Until she moved to Pakistan she lived in a world of seasons and colors. White, mountain laurel in the summer, golden, red, and orange leaves of the fall, cold snows of the winter, and buds peaking over picket fences in the spring. Or so I imagine.

It was a delight recently to spend time with her – not in New England, but in New York where she now makes her home. My mom is 91, a vibrant, lovely 91. She is an example of aging with an attitude of intentional flexibility. She looks and acts younger than many 75 year olds that I know.

“How are you doing?” I say to her on the phone. “A bit achy,” she replies and then goes on to tell me that she took her walk this morning, finished up a chapter of the book she is writing, and went to Bible Study. She has aged with intention, yet has made room for the inevitable change and losses that come with the word and the reality of a body that is destined for a better world than the one where it currently resides.

Her home is now with my brother and sister-in-law in Rochester, New York. Rochester has its own beauty and the recent weekend that I visited her in October was not a disappointment. We made plans to go to a state park, where miles and miles of roads and untouched beauty are there for pure pleasure.

We meandered along, stopping occasionally to look over a gorge or take pictures of the cascading trees that bent toward the road below. We had lunch at an inn, savoring the food and the time together. We looked out over a waterfall, the spray reaching high above even as the water fell far below.

It was beautiful. These days with her are slow and reflective. We spend time reading her old diaries, talking about our different current realities, and eating at least one decadent pastry during our time together.

Anyone who has walked the journey of watching a parent age knows the bittersweet realities of time together. We watch as a process beyond our control takes away too many things from the person we love. We watch, and inside we sometimes shudder. It is too close to home. It will come for us too. Though not yet, it will come. This we know. This we can count on. But to step away from the shudder, and into the beauty of an aging life is so worth it. To laugh, read old diaries, sit comfortably in the shadow of an Autumn evening, and eat pastries with more whipped cream than a cardiologist could possibly approve of – these are times that won’t be forgotten, times that we will look back on with immeasurable gratitude.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Lucy Maud Montgomery

It was Lucy Maud Montgomery, creator of the beloved Anne of Green Gables Series who wrote that quotable phrase for all of us to use through these years. As I reflect on my October weekend with my mom, I think “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers and my mother.”

A Slice of Life from Charlestown – Volume 1: A Map of New Beginnings

I’m sitting in the window seat of our little red house in Charlestown. I love that I have already discovered this sweet space for writing, thinking, staring off into space, and yes – even crying.

My view to one side is of fall mums, birds of all kinds, and fat squirrels that shamelessly steal the bird seed. To the other I see our favorite books, arranged meticulously by country. It is a wonderful sight and the treasures and stories that rest in our bookshelves are remarkable. It would take me more than the lifetime I have to read all these books, but I press forward anyway.

It hurt a bit to write the title of this blog. I loved writing my slice of life from Kurdistan posts, bringing you into both the joys and struggles of our world so many miles away. But I am grateful to you who read, because you have not stopped reading just because I have returned. You read Communicating Across Boundaries before I left, you read it while I was away, and you are reading now that I’m back. I may feel deeply that I’ve let you down – but you certainly don’t communicate that back to me. From my heart I thank you.

I have felt my third culture personhood acutely these past weeks. From getting lost to struggling with identity, I have lost my reference points. I am finding this to be a major task in this new space – to find my markers, to establish my map of yet another new beginning.

A week and a half ago, our younger daughter got married. Friends and family came from around the world to celebrate on an island in New Hampshire. It was a privilege to be a part of this. Brilliant weather and a crystal clear lake created a stunning setting for this beautiful couple. There were so many times during the weekend when I watched my daughter’s (now) husband reach out his hand to lend support or wrap his arms around her in complete love. It was more than lovely – it was extraordinary. ⠀

Watching my adult children gather around their sister in love and support was also extraordinary. There are no guarantees in raising children that they will grow to love and support each other, and like any family, we have had our share of fights and anger, of miscommunication and “how dare you”s. But gather they did, helping in every conceivable way. We brought the celebration to a height through a family dance to Mamma Mia, a twist to the traditional father/daughter dance. I looked at my kids during the dance, all of us singing at the top of our lungs in pure joy. Words fail as I try to describe this, but the memory is enough.

How many times in a mom’s life do we want to press the pause button, rewind, and record? Capture the beauty and sweetness for those days when the tears fall and our souls ache with the collective grief of our kids?

During the wedding weekend I longed to press the pause button, freeze frame the joy and relaxation we had together. That wasn’t possible, but breathing and pressing into each moment was possible. There was no manipulation, no desire to control the way we moms sometimes do. Instead, minute by minute passed by in delight and joy. 

After the wedding I lost a full week to sickness – fever, cold, weakness and fatigue knocked me down. I’m slowly getting back up, but beyond that, things are still not clear. I have a few consulting jobs, but I find myself embracing those only in so far as they help pay the bills. Perhaps that is enough right now, a friend reminds me.


I am in my map of new beginnings. I find that though I try to use the old maps, each new beginning has a different map. While some markers may stay the same, the topography changes. Where are the bumps and the traffic problems? Where does this detour go? Do I do this or do I do that? Do I go here or do I go there? What landmarks can I rely on? My personal experiences and bearing witness to events in places creates memory landmarks. I find yet again that it is all about connection to place. While some of these are the same, many are completely new. Not only that, I have changed by being away, and my community has changed as well. This changes the map.

There are spiritual implications to this map of new beginnings and I find myself clinging to my faith. This is a landmark I understand. Though I have doubted in the past, I have always returned to this light. It doesn’t change the feelings, but it does provide a solid foundation where the feelings can rest and find a home.

In this map of new beginnings, my heart knows that I will find my way. It will take time. There will be tears and I will get lost. But today, as I made my way to a coffee shop to meet with an old friend, I didn’t look at a map.

I found my way there and I found my way home.

Celebrating a Quiet Life

Ask anyone about my father-in-law Richard Gardner and they will tell you that he was a quiet man, a listener who married a talker. He had simple tastes and led an uncomplicated life.

On Saturday we gathered in beautiful rural Georgia to celebrate his life.

My father-in-law died in November, the day after our grand son was born. My husband received the news in Kurdistan. He was alone with no family to sit with him through those initial numb stages of grief and loss. Our Kurdish friends stepped in, sitting with him through the evening hours and inviting him to meals for the next few days.

Richard Gardner was a quiet man and a good man. He served in the US Airforce until retirement, including tours in Vietnam, Germany, and many parts of the United States. He worked hard, sometimes working not only his airforce job, but also others in order to provide for a family of five growing boys.

My father-in-law made sacrifices and so did his wife and family. His family particularly felt the absence of a father during his military tour in Vietnam. They moved across the country and the world, uprooting a family of seven many times over. Their orders came from a military machine and when they said go, you packed up and you went, no matter if it was the middle of the school year.

In more recent years he had developed Alzheimer’s and his memories of the past were more current than his memories of the present. The stories of long ago would surface as treasures found under the sea of a long life. One particular story was when he arrived back from his service in Vietnam to the west coast. Vietnam was not a popular war and the ones who lost in the game were soldiers who lost much only to return as unsupported veterans. The story my father-in-law told was of arriving late to the commercial flight that would transport him back to Florida, where his wife and four young sons anxiously waited for him. He ran to catch the flight and the flight staff opened the door for him. As he walked in, out of breath and tired, every person on the plane stood up and clapped for him thanking him for his service. He told the story with eyes full of tears.

This story came from a man who was a listener. The rest of the family are story tellers, but Richard? He was a listener. This made the story that much more poignant and beautiful.

In a world of platforms and influencers we desperately need to recognize the value of a quiet and faithful life. As a story teller myself, I am slowly learning that some stories can only come in the quiet, that honoring stories means you have to wait for some of them to be told.

In a world that talks far too much, we need the quiet listeners. We need to learn and grow from them, to wait quietly for the stories to come.

There will be no more stories from this man. Those are saved for eternity when we will be caught up in that great story of God that feels more precious every day.

On Saturday we said final goodbyes to this quiet man, a man who was ready to die. At his memorial service my husband quoted these words from the Russian novel Laurus:

Your body has become unsuitable, prepare to leave it; know that this shell is imperfect.”

Richard’s body had indeed become unsuitable. My husband went on to talk about the thin veil that separates life from death. One minute we are breathing, the next we are gone.

Richard Gardner is gone. We are still here. May we storytellers and talkers learn from the quiet men and women around us, and in doing so may we be changed.

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/

“Mawage is Wot Bwings us Togeder” Thoughts on 34 Years of Mawage

 

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam… And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva… So tweasure your wuv.”

In the beloved classic Princess Bride, there is a wedding scene where the villain, Prince Humperdinck, is attempting to rush his marriage to Princess Buttercup. Like the rest of the film, the scene is funny with a questionable priest talking about “Mawage and twu wuv”, a coerced princess, and an egotistical prince. It’s all part of what makes a fabulous fairy tale satire.

Mawage brought my husband and I together 34 years ago. It was a glorious sunny day in Chicago, neither too hot nor too cold – just perfect. And unlike the fictitious Buttercup, I wanted to be there. My farm boy’s name was Cliff, and he wasn’t the quiet “as you wish” type.

We celebrated with people from Cyprus, Lebanon, Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Saudi Arabia, China,Taiwan, and the United States. At one point we looked out on the crowd and saw people from three different countries in conflict sitting next to each other – they were smiling and in that snapshot, we suddenly knew the ceremony was far bigger than we were. The top of our wedding cake was an edible globe of the world – a sweet reminder that we wanted our celebration to reflect God’s world and his sacrificial love for the world.

While the Princess Bride ceremony was satire, our ceremony was serious. We knew the vows we took were bigger than we were and represented a mystery and sacrament that we did not fully understand.

Fast forward 34 years and marriage is still a mystery, still something we stand by as hard and good and brave. Much has changed – five children, significant others, and arguably the cutest grandson on ever earth. We no longer have the bone tired joy of parenting toddlers, we have the wakeful nights of loving, and sometimes not understanding, adult children.

We still don’t completely understand the vows we took. We will never fully get the mystery of marriage this side of eternity. But what we do know makes us tremble in its impossibility and stand in awe of its delight and difficulty.

We will be the first to say that if it was about us, we would have failed many times over. This journey, which began in an impossibly sweet and unconventional ceremony, took us on roads and trails, into airports and houses, entering countries and territories with a lot of laughter, a fair share of anger, and heartbreak that only God could repair.

In one of my favorite books, Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, Hannah talks about looking back on marriage:

“When you are old you can look back and see yourself when you are young. It is almost like looking down from heaven. And you see yourself as a young woman, just a big girl really, half awake to the world. You see yourself happy, holding in your arms a good, decent, gentle, beloved young man with the blood keen in his veins…..”

She goes on to talk about how this man and this love are going to disappear into a “storm of hate and flying metal and fire. And you just don’t know it.” While she is writing about war, many of us could write about how this love and this man are sometimes going to disappear – disappear into a storm of ill spoken words and unthoughtout actions, a storm of misunderstanding and just plain meanness – and you just don’t know it. But you keep on living and you keep on loving, because some day it will get better. And in the better that comes you rest easy and joyful, you laugh and talk as though the world can never stop your words or your love.

And that’s us on this day. We’ve both spoken words we regret. We’ve had sadness and meanness. We’ve struggled to make it. But we just kept on living, and praying, and then a new day came and we began to love again. This is life and marriage in its circle of hope and defiance of its critics.

So we stand today declaring the value of a brave marriage and ready to face the next chapter.

And with humility and excitement we announce that our next chapter will take us to Northern Iraq where we will be working at the University of Raparin in the city of Rania. It is unexpected and yet so welcome. For the past five years we have wanted to spend more time in the Middle East. Whenever we come back from short trips we enter back into the U.S. with a longing to return as soon as possible to the Middle East. The prospect of being able to come alongside this university in our professional roles of nursing and grants administration feels like a tremendous gift.

So this anniversary comes with gratitude and expectation for the next chapter of our brave marriage. We hope you’ll continue to follow along!

The story is not over; the journey continues….Some days, it feels as though it is still just beginning.*

*from Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Dear Dad, I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday….

Dear Dad,

Soon after you died, I began planning Mom’s 90th Birthday. As I planned, I would periodically panic – something seemed to be missing. Now I know that something was a someone. It was you. Normally I would have talked to you about it, talked to you about what you would want to add, talked to you about the place and especially, the food! But that was impossible because you’ve been gone these seven plus months.

I remember last October how she told you she was going out to buy a dress with me and Stef.  You looked right at her and told her to buy two – one for your funeral and one for her 90th birthday. Even in the midst of your hard last days, you knew there needed to be a celebration. I think she knew you weren’t long for this world at that point – you were so willing to let go of money. Where you were going you wouldn’t need it!

I wanted to write to you today because I miss you and I think you would have loved Mom’s birthday.

We got together at an inn in Fairport, right near the Erie Canal. Family came from as far as Thailand, Kazakhstan, Istanbul, and Greece to as close as downtown Rochester, because movement, even with its high cost, is in our family’s DNA. The area was perfect and the weather even more so. The Inn on Church is at the corner of Church Street and South Main. The rooms are spacious and lovely, boasting all their original character with new amenities. There is a large wrap around porch with plenty of rockers and a sign that  invites people to sit a spell and join the “Porch Sitter’s Brigade”. Inside was enough space for 42 of us to congregate, first for breakfast on Saturday, followed by a late afternoon tea – something that you know Mom loves.

You would have loved the breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and a gorgeous frittata with bacon, potatoes, cheese, and just enough spinach to look healthy. We laughed and talked over breakfast, so much to catch up on since we last saw each other at your funeral. There was time and space to walk, go kayaking, sit and read, or play croquet in the back yard.

Early evening came and we gathered for a high tea of scones, bread, ham, salads, and cupcakes made by one of your granddaughter’s. The head table’s unseen guest was not Jesus, but you.

And then we celebrated Mom. We went through her life with poems, songs, skits, memories, and prayers. We laughed a lot and choked up some as we thought of you being gone.

It’s a long way from small town Winchendon to celebrating a 90th birthday, but it happened! Some of your grandsons began the program with a tale of Mom’s life until she went off to college. Your granddaughters did you proud as they reenacted the young Polly with a crush on Ralphie. There may have been references to a former girlfriend – Joyce – but they were quickly squashed as Aunt Ruth and Aunt Charlotte remembered your wedding and Aunt Ruth led us in singing “Saviour, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. Her voice is beautiful; her spirit more so.  Still more of your kids and grandkids went through stages of her life – Pakistan, 8-Acre Woods, South Hadley, and then retiring in Rochester. A couple of your kids remembered you as a couple, one in a rhyme that would make your heart swell with pride. Singing and prayers for the past, present, and future finished the program.

Our hearts were so full – full of the joy of memories, full of the time with each other, full of the love that you and Mom so generously gave; the love that she continues to give.

And oh how we missed you. You would have loved celebrating the 90th birthday of the love of your life. These past months since you left us have not been easy for her. Losing you was like losing a couple of limbs and half a heart. Those losses would make anyone limp a little. No matter how much the rest of us love her, we can never love her quite enough, never love her the way you loved her.

But though she lives with these missing pieces, she still radiates joy, wisdom, and strength. She continues to pray for all of us; continues to reach out to others and allow others to reach out to her.

Toward the end of the program, your grandson, Michael, sang a hymn. He sang it with his beautiful, strong voice and though I know where you live there is extraordinary beauty and singing like we’ve never seen, from our still limited perspective his song was a taste of heaven.

I’ve included a verse for you, because I think these words may best express what your dear Polly is experiencing.

What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?

So what can we say? It was amazing, but we sure do miss you. 

Losing My Umbrella – Some Thoughts on a Father’s Death

img_0490

I am looking through old pictures when my eyes begin to blur with salty tears. So many of the pictures I’ve been looking through are pictures of my father.

Whether summer or winter, there he is – his familiar face with his ready smile. My dad smiled from his bones. It was never fake, never false, it was who he was. I look at pictures from years ago and pictures from last summer with seemingly little difference. He is there, he is strong, he is fully present, he is smiling.

When your father dies, say the Irish

You lose your umbrella against bad weather.

This is the beginning of a poem by Diana Der-Hovanessian that describes how different cultures express what happens when your father dies. It’s a good beginning. Anyone who has lost their father can write their own when my father died moments. In honor of his birthday coming up on June 7th, here are mine.


When my father died, I lost a rock, someone who was steadfast and secure in a shifting world.

When my father died, I lost the offer of a bowl of icecream whenever I visited.

When my father died, I lost someone who asked me every weekend of the summer “Are you heading up to Rockport this weekend?” How he loved Rockport!

When my father died, I lost the ability to say “Hi Dad!” and hear his strong reply “Hi Marilyn!”

When my father died, I lost his well-worn jokes, told with so much laughter he could hardly make it to the punch line.

When my father died, I lost a piece of enthusiasm and love for life.

When my father died, I lost a birthday and a father’s day. There will be no more cards to send, phone calls to make.

When my father died, I lost one grandfather for my kids. I lost his earthly prayers, but his heavenly ones remain.

When my father died, I lost pieces of my childhood, now buried in a piece of earth.

When my father died, I lost my umbrella, my raincoat, and my hood. He was all those things and more.

When my father died, I lost his presence, but I kept the memories and they are sweet.

When my father died, I lost him, but I didn’t lose myself – because he never wanted me to be anyone else.

When my father died, Heaven became a lot sweeter and a bit closer.

When my father died. 


SHIFTING THE SUN by Diana Der-Hovanessian

 When your father dies, say the Irish

you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh

you sink a foot deeper into the earth.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians

When your father dies, say the Canadians

you run out of excuses.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Indians

he comes back as the thunder.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,

he takes your childhood with him.

May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the British,

you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.

May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,

your sun shifts forever

and you walk in his light.

Memories of Home

Chai Chai Garam Chai

Murree Christian School
P.O. Jhika Gali,
Murree Hills,
Pakistan

I can picture the scene as if it was yesterday.  I am lying on the top bunk in my dormitory. The louvered windows allow a mountain breeze to come through and the sun shines brightly through pine trees.  It is springtime in Murree and I am seven years old.  In the distance I hear the sound of musical scales in major and minor keys being played on old pianos, slightly tinny and out of tune. The players are disciplined, but clearly young with limited skills. Pungent smells waft through windows from the large kitchen two floors below alerting me that today our lunch will be curry and rice. The sounds of Urdu, Punjabi, and English meld together, a kaleidoscope of diversity unrealized until I am older. As the memory returns, I close my eyes and I am completely content.

Two distinct places come to mind when I think of the place and concept of ‘home.’ The first is that of several different cities where my parents lived in Pakistan during my childhood. The second place is the more constant: My boarding school near the town of Jhika Gali, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan range of mountains in the country of Pakistan.

…it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love…

My memories are strong of the place that shaped me, that formed me into who I am today. I was six years old when I first went to boarding school. I could barely tie my shoelaces; much less navigate the sometimes cruel environment of an institutional setting. But it was in the institutional halls of boarding school where I encountered the God who I would grow to love.

For three months at a time, I would share a bedroom with seven roommates supervised by a housemother struggling to meet the needs of 20 to 30 little children. Children, who needed to eat, brush their teeth, bathe, dress, study, and sleep. Along with the practical needs were the emotional and spiritual needs. These are the unseen needs that satisfy the deepest of human longings; namely love and belonging. It was a seemingly impossible task, but we would not know this until much later in our lives.

The first night away from home, I was always exhausted and sleep came quickly. I woke early in the morning, disoriented and unsure of where I was. When I remembered, the blur and taste of hot, salty tears clouded my vision and lingered on my tongue. I dared not show my tears; it was not safe. We were all small, all facing separation and loss, all experiencing the first of many times of homesickness. We were surrounded by others as young as we were, by others with the same tears and fears, the same deep sense of loss.

No one heard or saw my tears; instead, they fell silently, invisibly.  Soon others would wake, and happy chatter would overshadow the sad. We were already a family of sorts, complete with the aunts and uncles who served as our dorm parents. But each time I entered boarding school, the early morning scene would repeat itself, from the time I was six until the day I graduated from high school.

A cold, metal-framed bunk bed and the living God were my only witnesses. The one captured my tears, the other comforted them.In that tiny, private bunk bed space my first fervent prayers for comfort went up to an unseen God in a Heaven that seemed far away, and I experienced his comfort and presence. It was in a bunk bed that this unseen God responded, an invisible hand reaching out to comfort a little girl far from her parents who held fast to a stuffed animal.

My boarding school years are long past and, like many others who grew up globally, many places in the world have become home for a time.  Indeed, for me a recurring life-theme has been on place and home. But those early memories of boarding school still evoke in me tears and a deep sense of gratitude.  There have been many places where my faith grew, where I met the big and hard questions of life. One of those places was surely a boarding school bunk bed, an icon of sorts, a solid witness to a faith that is written on my heart by God’s hand.


Worlds Apart v2Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey is now available wherever they sell books!


barnes and noble

amazon logo

books a million


This piece was first published here

Photo by Jason Philbrick

Christmas on Beacon Hill

img_3706
Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

Masala Dhaba Memories


Sights, sounds, and smells can transport us to places we love in mere seconds.  I hear the Call to Prayer and suddenly I am in Pakistan, walking the dusty streets of Shikarpur. I smell curry and shut my eyes – I could swear I am at the Marhaba in Murree. But I’m not, I’m in Central Square, the fragrant smells of the Indian restaurant wafting across the street luring me back to my childhood and begging me to enter. 

The imagination is a wonderful, terrible thing. 

In the novel Anything Considered Peter Mayle takes his character back in time through his sense of smell:

Memories often return through the nose. As he inhaled the odor of sanctity, a blend of ancient dust, mildewed prayer books, and crumbling stone, Bennett was taken back instantly and vividly to his school days.”

Last night I refilled my masala dhaba, My masala dhaba is a spice box that my husband gave me seven years ago. It was one of the loveliest Christmas presents that I have ever received. Yesterday, as I took spices out of their boxes and bags and put them into my masala dhaba, I was like the character in Mayle’s book: vividly transported back to my childhood.  

I wrote the piece below after I had received the gift and I offer it today – a tribute to spice, color, and memories. 


For years I have kept my Pakistani spices in a large Tupperware bowl with a red lid. The kind that you use to bring the gargantuan pasta salad (that no one will eat) to a potluck dinner. The lid is sticky with the years that the bowl has held spices and (sometimes) dust. Christmas 2010 I received a proper spice box as a gift. Not a western spice rack, but a genuine masala dhaba (spice box) of stainless steel.

Yesterday, while making a chicken curry, I transferred the spices from the Tupperware to the masala dhaba. It was like someone had told me I had won the lottery. I can’t stop looking at it.

It is shiny and beautiful, full of the colors of Pakistan – yellow/orange turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, red/orange masala spice, light brown coriander, darker brown garam masala, and to add a Middle Eastern flare – green/brown zahtar.

The spices sit like contented children in a circle, satisfied in their round stainless steel bowls. A small spice spoon pokes out of the bright orange-yellow turmeric in the center. The lid is see-through so the colors are visible even as the spices keep fresh. It is magnificent.

These are the things I love about where I was raised. The simplicity of colorful spices, the feel of a dupatta over my shoulders as I wear a colorful, silk shalwar kameez; the smell of curry cooking, and anticipation of hot naan and samosas to come; the glitter of bright-colored bangles in a shop at the local bazaar. 

I love being able to duplicate these small things even as I look outside and hear the sounds of my current reality. Sounds that make me feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz as she realizes she is not in Kansas anymore. 


On Birthday Cards and Aunt Charlotte

mail-box-1309470_1280

Each year for as long as I can remember, I would receive a birthday card from my Aunt Charlotte.

It didn’t matter where I was in the world – that card always came.

While other aunts lived in nice suburban houses with picket fences and bay windows, Aunt Charlotte lived in the city – New York City to be more specific. My first memory of visiting her was when, at four years old, my parents took me to the World’s Fair. At that time Aunt Charlotte lived in the heart of the Bronx, a place as foreign to me as Pakistan was to her.

In early years of living overseas, when we would travel by boat, Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Les would accompany our family to the New York City Harbor. Aunt Charlotte would bring goody bags for each of us kids – a treat to open each day of the journey. It was magical. There were hugs and kisses and more hugs and more kisses. Then, under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty, they would stand and wave goodbye. We would watch until they were only small specks against a massive horizon.

It was during a hot summer in July that I first got to experience city life with Aunt Charlotte.  At this point, she had moved to Brooklyn and my cousin Judi and I were invited to spend two weeks in the city. I was sixteen years old, in the midst of the angst of adolesence made more difficult because of a strong personality and trying to unsuccessfully negotiate a life lived between.

While my aunt and uncle worked during the day, Judi and I explored the neighborhood by timidly venturing to a local McDonalds, only to come quickly back and sit on a rooftop eating burgers and drinking milkshakes, trying not to be overwhelmed. We walked on streets steaming with the smell of hot tar to a city pool, cooling ourselves in sparkling blue water that was crowded with kids, all on summer break. We ate icecream and red jello, and Aunt Charlotte spoiled us with treats.

Aunt Charlotte was and is a city girl through and through. Nothing scares her about the city. She traverses subways and streets – going to work, shopping, meeting friends, exploring. Though raised in the small Massachusetts town of Winchendon, she has a city savvy that I envied when I was younger, and emulated when I was older. Though small towns can be wonderful, Winchendon was too small for Aunt Charlotte – she needed a city.

And through all those years, those years where she lived on busy New York streets, and I lived in cities around the world, those birthday cards would come. I would open our mailbox and smile, knowing immediately who the card was from as I saw her characteristic handwriting on the envelope.

Perhaps it is only as we age that we realize the worth of these simple acts. For it is now that I realize the great gift of those birthday cards. They were never fancy, that wasn’t the point. They were more than cardstock and picture, more than sweet sentiment. They were the gift of recognition; the acknowledgement of a person’s worth. Simple cards that radiated the sentiment “I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist.”  

Today is my Aunt Charlotte’s birthday and I did not send her a card. I wish I had. I wish I had taken a fraction of the time that she took all those years, writing out those simple words “Happy Birthday,” licking a stamp, walking to a city mailbox that says “Pick-up – 1:00 pm” and dropping it inside. It is my daughter Stefanie who seems to have inherited this gift, who has the ability to create cards and send them, letting people know she is glad they exist.

As for me? Instead I write, thinking and hoping that perhaps this can serve as my birthday card to her, my acknowledgement of her worth.

So Aunt Charlotte, I wish you a Happy Birthday. I’m glad you were born. I’m glad you exist. And thank you – thank you for all those cards, your love letter to your nieces and nephews. 

Dear Dorothy – A Letter to my Mother-in-Law

Tomorrow I will board a plane and travel to Florida for my mother-in-law’s funeral. Since we found out last week, I have been thinking about death – how final it is, how permanent it seems, and how unreal it is until you are actually back in a place where the person lived.

I read these words in an article on grief:

“Dying is not a technical glitch of the human operating system; it’s a feature. It’s the only prediction we can make at birth that we can bank on. Everyone will die, and it’s very likely somebody we love will die before we do.”*

They are true words in an otherwise mediocre article.

Memories have resurfaced – some that make me laugh out loud. My mother-in-law was a force of nature. It’s impossible to compress a life into a blog post, and I won’t try, but I want to share some memories of this force who was Dorothy. Thank you for reading.

*****

Dear Dorothy,

On a hot July Saturday in 1983, I received my first phone call from you. I had begun dating your son in February, but he headed off to the Middle East on a study trip in May. It would be a long summer for me; an exciting one for him.

So on that July day, your phone call was welcome. You introduced yourself to me as “Clifford’s mom” and I remember voicing surprise at your southern accent.

“Well, what did you expect” you retorted! “That I would talk like a Yankee.” And that was my introduction to your quick wit and comebacks, something you passed on in no small way to your sons.

In late summer, after Cliff returned from the Middle East, we took a trip to Florida to meet the family. We arrived on a gorgeous day and went straight to dinner at a restaurant.

I was nervous until you looked at me and said:

“The service has been terrible at this restaurant the last 12 times we’ve come.”

“Then why do you keep coming back?” I said. It was the perfect opener to help me relax.

Later that week, as I came into the kitchen ready to head out for a trip to Disney World, your eyes took in my outfit from head to toe, and you said “Well Cliff’s safe with you. No truck driver is ever going to pick you up in those pants!” Cliff looked at me and confirmed your opinion. No one had ever told me how bad I looked in them. Thank God I found out sooner rather than later.

Through the years, you amazed me with your artistic and creative ability. Whether it was China painting or sewing, you knew how to do it. My children wore sweatsuits with embossed designs, drank tea out of tiny china cups that you had exquisitely painted, even admired china cremation urns that you were making for a funeral home.

There are two memories that still come to mind after all these years. The first was a time when your youngest son, Greg, and your husband, Richard were sitting in the family room discussing the weight of football players. I could hear them from the kitchen.

“Did you see the weight on that guy? Wow! 240 pounds! How about that other player? He’s 300 pounds!” And on went the discussion by two men who didn’t have one extra pound on their bodies.

Suddenly I heard you come up behind me. You were laughing so hard you could barely speak. You finally stopped long enough to whisper in my ear “Did you hear them talking about weight? Thank God they don’t know what I weigh!”  I joined you in laughing. Both of us had a struggle with weight that wasn’t easily managed, and having two thin men discuss body weight just added insult to what was already difficult. But laughter was something you did well, even when it was at your own expense.

The second memory makes me smile hard. Again, I was in the kitchen and Cliff and the kids were resting somewhere in the house. It was early afternoon, and you had gone out to do some errands. I heard the living room door open, and then heard a “Psst.” You repeated it. I went to the opening between the kitchen and living room area, and there you were with two beautiful boxes.  You slowly opened them. In each box was the most delectable fruit tart that I have ever seen. The perfectly fluted crust was piled high with cream, then fruit, then more cream. They were magnificent.

As I surveyed them with shining eyes, I realized that there were only two of them.

“Shall I call Cliff?” I asked, thinking that you had bought one for him.

“NO!” you retorted! “This is for you and me! I didn’t even buy one for my son!”

We sat at the kitchen table, like two naughty little girls, savoring a stolen treat. We laughed and whispered, eating every single mouthful and then wiping the cream off of our upper lips. It was heaven.

Something about that moment has stayed with me all these years. Any mother and daughter-in-law combination has its challenges, and ours was no exception. There were times when I fought hard and you fought back. But the shared treat of that moment was a communion of understanding — understanding that sometimes moms need to forget the needs of the rest of the family and eat rich and creamy fruit pastries.  Perhaps also, understanding that sometimes the mother-in-law, daughter-in-law relationship needs those occasional moments away from the rest of the family to forge a bond.

Your life was not all easy, and there were times when I saw glimpses of that.  By the time you were in your early twenties, you had four active boys and were raising them all over the country followed by the world. You knew what it was to pack up and move multiple times, say a million goodbyes, and leave places you would never see again. Yet you made sure that those kids were able to see every sight possible during those four years in Europe. I imagine these last few years with increasing health problems, a husband who is struggling with his own health, and a scattered family were some of the hardest. But every day, you got up, and sometimes that’s all any of us can do.

And now you’re gone. It’s not real to me yet – it won’t be until I see Richard alone at the funeral. Your quick answers won’t be a part of this weekend’s gathering. You won’t be chiming in with opinions and laughter. But you will be there, because we will be celebrating you and your life. We will be celebrating the creativity, laughter, quick quips, tenacity, and personality that were uniquely yours.

I hope I will get to eat a creamy, fruit tart and as I do, lift my eyes to Heaven and thank you.  I love you and I look forward to the day when I see you again in another time and another place. Perhaps you are already saving a fruit tart for me.

*Time Magazine, 4.24.17

Honoring the Past; Rejoicing in the Present

img_2491
I woke up tired – tired in the best sort of way. How do you capture an event that weaves your past and present together, giving you a tapestry that includes not only memories, but also a sense of being grounded in your current reality?

This weekend brought together a group of people aged 16 to 90. Some danced with the grace of youth while others shuffled with the wisdom and reality of aging. Some came with extended families while others came alone.

Old friendships were rekindled and new friendships were formed. Conversations went deep, and laughter was around every corner.

The only thing that everyone of us had in common was a connection to, and a love for the country of Pakistan and a sense that we did not end up connected to the “Land of the Pure” by chance. And with those two things in common, the rest followed.

I have begun to see what a gift it is to honor my past. To accept the hard and the good that made me who I am today. This weekend was a chance to honor that past and not be stuck in it. It was a chance to renew friendships based on who I am today, not what I was yesterday.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples experienced an extraordinary event. They caught s glimpse of the eternal as they saw Jesus communicate with Moses and Elijah.  They desperately wanted to hold on to the glory of the event. “Let’s build shelters,”they suggest to Jesus. “Let’s capture this! We don’t want it to end!”

Can anyone blame them? 

When you have experienced something of the eternal, you want to hold tightly onto it, afraid for what might happen if you let it go.

This morning, I wanted to hold onto what I experienced this weekend. I wanted to hold onto the contentment, laughter, joy, and belonging that were in abundance. Like Peter, James, and John – I wanted to build a shelter. (Although my Peter, James, and John looked more like a Debbie, a Eunice, and a Joan, or a Leslie, a Marty, and a Suzi.) But the idea was the same.

“Let’s capture this, never let it go, make sure we protect it so we never lose it!”

But that did not happen on the Mount of Transfiguration; nor did it happen today.

Instead, Peter, James, and John gained a greater understanding of who Jesus was.

And I leave my reunion with the same. Through honoring the past, and rejoicing in the present, I get a glimpse of the eternal and it is a gift.

A Marriage and a Mirror


This past Friday, my husband and I celebrated our 32nd anniversary.

Along with our anniversary, we celebrated a milestone – we met our first grandchild. There was something deeply moving about holding this small bundle of baby, knowing that he has no idea how beloved he already is. He is born to  parents that wanted him, planned for him, and love him deeply. He has come into the world to an extended family of uncles and aunts; grandparents and great grandparents; cousins and friends. With him comes a new identity for us – we will be Pop Pop and GiGi for the next generation.

Our wedding was in Chicago, and our grandson was born in Chicago. So along with the joy of meeting him, we went back to the campus of North Park college, the site of our celebration so many years ago. The gazebo that framed our wedding party is gone, vandalized by students who obviously didn’t know the significance of its pristine white frame to so many couples. But the earth below it has not moved and the grass is as green as it was on the day of our wedding. We searched for the statue of a woman that my husband remembered and found her, guardian of many secrets and the only campus witness to our wedding vows.

The usual clichés come to mind as I think about it.

Where did the time go?

We were so young when we got married – just babies really.

How could it be that we are old enough to have a grandson? 

How did it get so late, so soon? 

But in truth, while some years zipped by like days of summer, full of grace and light, others were  slow and hard, with winter clouds hanging low. It has only been recently that I wanted to stop time, put it on pause for a while so that I can catch my breath. Moments have become precious; Saturday mornings curled up with coffee and a book are a gift from the heavens. Summer evening dinners on a porch, with warm breezes blowing are treasured times.

Marriage and faith — both are mysteries. Unexplainable, and yet — we try so hard to explain them. They both take work, they both take effort, they both bring unbelievable joy and earth-shattering doubt.  They both begin as babies, but if either are going to survive, they must grow into adulthood.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about marriage. I looked back at it today, realizing that the words I wrote are as true today as they were when I first wrote them.

*****

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book of the wildly successful Harry Potter series. Chapter 12 in the book is called “The Mirror of Erised.” The “Mirror of Erised” is an ornate, magnificent mirror hidden away in an unused classroom. It’s as tall as the ceiling and has claw feet. But this is more than a beautiful mirror — the person who looks in the mirror sees the “deepest, most desperate desire of [their] heart.” So when Harry, an orphan cared for by a dreadful aunt and uncle who hate him, looks in the mirror he sees his entire extended family waving at him, loving him, letting him know he belongs. His dead parents smile back at him from the mirror, large as life. And when his friend Ron, just one more boy in a huge family with nothing that stands out about him other than his flaming red hair, looks in the mirror he sees himself as head of the Quidditch team and head of the house.

You see that which you long for most of all.

And for most of us our wedding days are a bit like that. The Mirror or Erised is held in front of each couple and we look inside and we see untainted love that lasts through the ages. We see bodies that will never grow old and a love that will never die. We see joy and hope, we see plenty and laughter. While we may say the vows “for better, for worse, for rich, for poor, for sick, for health….” we don’t see those things in the Mirror of Erised.

The Mirror shows us that which we want more than anything – eternal love and happiness.

And then the guests go home, the cake in the top of the freezer gets freezer burn, the money from the beautiful cards given on that wedding day runs out. We want to stand in front of the mirror again, just to get a glimpse of that beauty, that glory, that hope.

But more stuff happens – kids come along and with them nightmare tantrums and learning disabilities, weight is gained and lost, houses come and go, unemployment rears its ugly head, family and friends die. Love is tested morning and night.  Sometimes there is betrayal or wounds that are so deep you think you’ll never heal; other times it’s just life – and marriage has grown oh so old. All the while we remember that mirror in the unused classroom – but it just sits there.

In the Harry Potter book as Harry goes for the third night to see the mirror, he finds Dumbledore sitting off in the shadows. Dumbledore talks to Harry about the mirror and exposes it for what it is “….this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”  Harry is sobered as he heads back to his dormitory room.

Last Friday was my 32nd wedding anniversary. 32 years of so much good and so much hard that it defies description. And on our wedding day, we like so many couples before us, looked into the Mirror of Erised. And we loved what we saw. We wanted to stay in front of that mirror forever — a cute, young couple with adventure on our hearts and fire in our souls. It would never end. It couldn’t as long as we had the Mirror with us.

But like all couples, the mirror was wisely hidden away. In its place was a real mirror – a mirror that reflected back a couple that would grow and age, that would sometimes hate what they saw looking back at them, but keep on going anyway, keep on loving, keep on living, never giving up.

“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that….” says Dumbledore. Some of our dreams were realized, others were lost, but we have learned to live, really live. While the Mirror of Erised reflected wishful thinking, our real mirror reflects a brave marriage forged on hope, faith, and grace that could only come from One far greater than us. 

And today I proclaim again the truth of a life of commitment. I proclaim the truth that marriage is really very little about love and very much about something bigger. Today I speak against our Hollywood Mirror of Erised notions of magic and romance; I stand against a culture of quick satisfaction and selfish sex. I speak up for an unpopular view that marriage is so much more than two people falling in love.

For in 32 years never have I embarked on anything so costly and so worthwhile as marriage. Never have I faced the awful in myself so closely and so viciously, never have I needed the grace of God more profoundly. We do not have a Mirror of Erised marriage – We have a marriage born on idealism and hope, weathered by storms, challenged by crisis, tempered by love, sealed by God above. 

And so I wish another Happy Anniversary to the man I said “I do” to. I’d do it again this side of the mirror. 

 

The Story of a TCK Friendship

Friendship

The first picture that was taken of me with my friend Lois was on the shores of the Dead Sea. There we are, two little girls – one blonde, the other dark-haired; one taller, the other shorter. We are holding hands with our fathers and we are oblivious to the fact that our lives are already intertwined, that we are experiencing the world in a completely different way than our peers in our countries of origin. After the picture was taken, we went back to our respective homes – me to Pakistan, her to the Kingdom of Jordan.

We would not remember or think about each other until I was 18 years old, beginning a nursing program on the edge of Chicago. At that point, we were destined to become friends.

Our friendship began in earnest that year as we dealt with classmates, Freshman nursing instructors, the cold of Chicago, and the business of being third culture kids who were trying to fit into their habitat but finding it was a bit of “square peg meets round hole.”

There was no word for us at that time. We were missionary kids and the expectation was that we settle back in and make our missions and our parents proud.

She had a year up on me in negotiating life in the West – she had already been through a year of college – but we were still fish floundering on land, trying to breathe through gills that were created for water. I remember going to a wedding together where we were supposed to do the guest book. “What’s a guest book?” I remember thinking. A few years later, my husband and I would find out we were actually both at the same wedding. “I always wondered why there was no one attending the guest book!” he said with surprise. My guilt was absolved when he said that it was not the right job for two third culture kids. We stood by the guest book for five minutes and then abandoned our posts, uncertain on how to respond to the small talk of rural Pennsylvania and clearly out of our element in both dress and responsibility.

Our conversations covered Pakistan, Middle Eastern politics, the Iranian revolution, and which restaurants in Chicago served the most authentic Pakistani or Middle Eastern food.

When we graduated from nursing school, Lois went on to work in a refugee camp in Somalia, while I moved for a short (though oh so long) year in Massachusetts. She was learning how to function in tents with limited supplies and overwhelming problems; I was learning how to survive a head nurse who took such an active dislike to me that she accused me of overdosing someone with morphine.

I was at her wedding a year later, celebrating her union with Dave – a blonde haired, blue-eyed man who had captured her heart. A few weeks later, I flew to Pakistan to work as a nurse, only to return a few months later and meet the man who became my husband.

My husband and I moved overseas, while Dave and Lois moved to the woods of Maine. Children were born. Then more children were born. All the while, Lois and I would talk by phone every time I was in the United States. She would come visit me in Massachusetts at the home we lovingly called “Eight-Acre Woods.” We visited their growing family in Maine, where we found a Pakistani restaurant and ate off of styrofoam plates, our forks sticking into the sponge as we inhaled a chicken curry. They came to Egypt, where we visited the famous Pyramids of Giza and had the most memorable visit of our seven years in the country. Between us, we had five kids and a baby and as the sky turned a grainy yellow, we knew we were caught in a sand storm. We stumbled along, trying to appreciate ancient ruins while protecting our eyes and our children’s from the blowing sand, the gritty particles getting in our mouths, our hair, and our ears. I remember muttering meanness at my husband, even as I tried to behave for the sake of our visitors.

Lois and I knew what it was to grow up Christian in Muslim countries; to struggle with the missionary kid identity, even as we burst with pride at who our parents were; to grieve goodbyes and multiple losses; to have adventures that people would never believe; to long for places and people with an indescribable ache – and yet to not regret how and where we grew up. We learned early that this third culture kid life was a life of complexity and contradiction; that faith was a struggle worth the pain. We always argued whether the sky over the ancient ruins of Petra or the sky at 7000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range had the best stars. (My husband, who has been both places, says without doubt that it’s Petra.)

Through the years, my friendship with Lois has seen me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. I can’t imagine having walked the journeys that I have without knowing Lois was there. We have never lived near each other since that time, but the friendship has survived.

Despite living miles apart since our Chicago days, Lois has walked me through distorted theology, anger, and deep grief. Mingled throughout have been times of laughter, eye-rolling, head-shaking, and pure joy. Because anger and grief go down easier when you know joy is around the corner.

We still have our “diaspora blues” — times when we know  we don’t fit in here or there, when we realize we will always be “too foreign for here, too foreign for there.”* Despite this, we have both found our niches in our passport countries.

The thing with Lois is that I’ve never really had to say goodbye, because I know she’s always there. Maybe that’s what makes her so special.

*Diaspora Blues by

On Making Recent History

I leave my Cambridge apartment mid-morning on a Friday. Usually I would be walking, but I am going to a store that is too far so I pull out of my driveway in our small, city car.

The first person I see is our neighbor, Christopher. I wave and he waves back, a smile on his face. Just steps away, So is walking toward her apartment that sits across from ours. She too smiles and waves. I stop and roll down the window. “Can I steal your mint again this summer?” She laughs. “Come anytime! You not stealing.”

On my right, John is watching as little Peter draws in chalk on the sidewalk. We have seen him grow from newborn baby to a seven year old. This week is school vacation and the weather is fully cooperating, enabling this city kid to enjoy the outdoors.

I drive slowly, marveling that I know my neighbors. But I need to move on – in the afternoon we will host a rehearsal dinner for a friend who will be married on Saturday, a dear friend I met when we moved to the area seven years ago.

I realize something. Our history is no longer just with people from “there,” no longer just with people from our past homes and lives. We have made history with people here.

Cecily Paterson’s excellent post Seven Stages of Reentry Grief takes the reader through the stages that Cecily has identified in order to survive and thrive in our passport countries.

Stage Four of Cecily’s post is called “Making Recent History.” She says this: “….I found that memories from 10 years ago appear more faded than memories from say, two years ago. ….” 

It is liberating and wonderful to realize that we’ve made recent history; that we can now look at people who we regularly see and say “Remember that time? Remember that Christmas Eve? Remember that holiday? Remember that small group?”  Photographs and stories have not only captured the old memories, but they are capturing the new. The album of our life story continues to fill, new pages added, recent history recorded.

My thoughts echo Cecily’s words: “Just by continuing to breathe and eat and live, I’d been able to make my own ‘recent history’.”

I smile and I drive on. Staying in one place for eight years has had its challenges. There are times when I have climbed the walls, and then rearranged the furniture; times when I couldn’t wait to head to Terminal E. But this day? This day I delight in recent history and in knowing the names of my neighbors. This is what it is to live in the present and I am grateful.

When Faith Roots Go Deep

book-743199_1280.jpg

I sit in church, watching as children file slowly up to the front of the sanctuary. It is Easter Sunday in my parents church and the children are playing in a bell choir.

The strains of “Just as I am, without one plea” begin coming from the speakers and on cue yellow, red, and blue bells begin to chime. I am transported back in time and I shake my head at the mystery of memory.

I am back in Pakistan at my boarding school, listening to a Danish evangelist speak during weekly chapel. He would come at least once a term and present the gospel message in compelling words. The service always ended with an altar call and the hymn “Just as I am.” And we would all go up, repentant, teary, the impact of the words and song hitting our souls with just the right amount of emotion to compel action.

During those altar calls, when all present were singing “Just as I am,” I was acutely aware of my sinfulness and the beauty of God’s forgiveness. For some reason, no one explained to any of us that we needn’t go up to the front over and over again. So every time the evangelist came, up we got and down the aisle we went.

A wave of emotion hits me as I remember that time and my faith, a child’s faith, so easily shaped and molded.The memory is not negative. Rather, it is a part of childhood that I now better understand, a faith journey that has matured and grown.

My faith roots go deep. They go back to boarding school and early childhood. They twist and turn, much like the roots of a Banyan tree. There is something deeply comforting about my roots. The soil where they grew was rich with love and grace. There were mistakes – no life grows free of mistakes. There was sadness. There was misunderstanding. But that doesn’t take away from the deep roots. Adversity made them stronger.

So I sit and I watch small children, the same age as I was in boarding school, play “Just as I am.” They can’t know what it fully means, but that doesn’t negate the importance of what they hear.

We are told to come to God as children, expectant, joyful, and innocent. As I sit and listen to bells chime a song of my childhood, I feel like a child, wrapped up in God’s abundant love and grace.

And I thank God for the mystery of memory and deep roots of faith.