A Childhood Erased

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood is closing its doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night with my younger daughter and husband I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend Paul. I got to experience the thick fog of Jhika Gali, and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class will graduate. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

The closer the closing ceremony comes, the more I feel an urgent sadness that needs to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that this day would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school has dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had. Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

Fellow MCSers, what are your stones of remembrance?

Murree Memories Part 2 – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 2)

My friend Jason continues his Murree Memories in today’s post. For those of you who missed last week’s post on Murree take a look here.

I’ve been back to Murree several times in the past few years, and each of these visits has given rise to mixed emotions.   Sadly, the old feel of the place is gone.  It’s no longer an out-of-the-way resort town moving at a leisurely pace.  The town has been grossly overdeveloped.  Innumerable hotels, all uniformly ugly, are built over the hillsides to accommodate the influx of domestic tourists who now come in great numbers from the populous and bustling cities down country.  Traffic jams choke the roads.  Many of the old buildings remain, but are now either derelict or crowded about on all sides by the new grotesque tourist hives.  A garish Post Office has replaced the old building, and an enormous new hotel towers behind it.  The old colonial air is much fainter now.  Public waste bins, painted hopefully with the words “Use Me,” stand overflowing and unattended.

And yet I found some features of the place had the power to cheer and still charm me.  “Tikka Alley,” the short and narrow street famous for its barbecued fare, remains much as it did decades ago.  Skinned chickens and cuts of beef and mutton are hung outside the eatery doors, then skewered and grilled above open coals.  Aromatic curried smoke fills the alleyway, burning the eyes and arousing the appetite.

In Murree, as elsewhere in Pakistan, the warmth of many common people is endearing.  Nearly every “Asalaam aleikum” I’ve said is matched with a cheerful “Waleikum asalaam.”  Striking up friendly conversations with shopkeepers remains easy, and it seems natural that in a few minutes they often freely share details about their families and sometimes invite the stranger-become-friend home for a meal.

On one visit to Murree I took high tea at Sam’s Restaurant, an old Mall landmark, which I suspect may be dated to British days.  The confectionery came on fancy tiered serving trays.  The elderly waiter backed away from the table deferentially. I hoped it was merely an act of simple respect and hospitality, and not something learned from an uncle who’d served the Raj and been forced to bow and scrape in the presence of the foreign overlords.  In any case, the gesture was touching.

(In the late 1950s and ‘60s Sam’s hosted dance competitions held to swing music.  My older brother tells me that the pleasing strains of the horns wafted across the Mall and could be heard during Evening Prayer held at Holy Trinity.  The “worldly” music was of concern to the congregation’s more mature members; to the youth it was like the whiff of some forbidden intoxicant—of which they dared not partake.)

In 2007 I spent a few days in Murree.  I was working elsewhere in the country and needed a getaway weekend.  The changes I witnessed since my previous visit several years before were shocking.  The town was almost unrecognizable in places.  Unhappy with the haphazard overdevelopment and throngs of noisy tourists, I left feeling dispirited.

Still, over the next couple of years I found myself back in Murree a few more times.  In my walks down the Mall I was barely irked by the cacophonous vacationers.  How could I begrudge them a few days of fun in their own country?  I made an unplanned visit to the dorm room I occupied when I started boarding school in first grade.  One walk took me past one of my family’s old rented homes, now in a state of terrible disrepair.  I met and spoke to my old childhood playmate, still living next door, and reflected on the many disparities between his life and mine.

Murree figures prominently in my memory, integral to innumerable experiences. Murree as a place gave character to those experiences, and in so doing helped form my character.

In Murree I learned how to speak and read and write.  I learned of the world outside and the neighbor next door. Life in Murree, more than anywhere else, taught me the value of family and community, of loneliness and camaraderie, and of the deep spiritual needs and capacities we all have.  Murree taught me of the dissonance and wonders of cross-cultural interactions, and something of what it means to have a good earthly home and yet see that home as transient.

I left Murree the last time thinking, with a little melancholy, that the dear old place has been overtaken by events.  The innocent halcyon days—if they ever existed—are gone.  Murree too is caught in the eddying currents of troublous modern times—unchecked population growth, political instability, rising prices, a poor economy, power shortages, and an uncertain, unpromising future.

I thought too, on that occasion, of how St Paul was keen to impress upon the readers of his epistles that the new life brought us in Jesus Christ supersedes past experiences and old sources of identity—ethnicity, tribe, culture, religion, nationality, and place.  These truths first came to me in a significant way while in Murree in my youth.  As I departed the last time I felt ambivalent.  I was glad I’d been able to visit again,sorry I couldn’t stay longer.

As I left I remembered Paul’s words to the Philippians:  “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  Murree helped teach me that, too.

Thanks, Murree.  I’ll always be in your debt.  And you’ll always be one of my home towns.

Murree Memories – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 1) is a guest post by a childhood friend – Jason. Jason was born in Pakistan in the mid-1960s to American parents who worked in the central part of the country.  Jason spent most of his grade school and junior high years in Pakistan.  In adulthood he has returned to the South Asian country to help with earthquake recovery and healthcare projects.

It is a fitting post for ten years ago on August 5 there was a terrorist attack against our boarding school in Murree leaving 6 dead and many more wounded. It deeply affected people associated with the school and the community. Jason takes us to Murree through pictures and words put together like poetry. Enjoy a look into this unique place that brings back so many memories.

Like a few hundred other children over the past five-plus decades, I spent a number of my growing-up years in a boarding school in the alpine Murree Hills of northern Pakistan.  Little did I realize at the time how the place would figure in my development, not so much academically, socially, or spiritually, but how it would give me a sense of place.

The town of Murree was established in the early 1850s as a “hill station” by and for the British Raj.  Here, at 7,000 feet, the salubrious climate provided the colonial masters respite from the repressive heat of the Indian plains.  Murree came to be an administrative center of British India during the long summer months.  Several clubs and societies provided entertaining social diversions.  Well-dressed Britons attended plays and dances, played croquet on lush lawns, ate cucumber sandwiches and scones with their tea.  Social standing was maintained with a promenade down the Mall, and especially viz a viz the Indians—the street was off-limits to the native population.

Of course Murree changed after Independence in 1947.  And yet it seemed the town was reluctant to shake off many of the trappings from colonial days.  In particular the names of buildings and roads were slow to lose their British titles.  In the 1970s, when I spent most of my childhood in Murree, the charm of bygone British days was still poignant.  My family lived in Dingley Dell, Braemar House, and the improbably named Utopia House.  (My brother was born in Utopia and says “It’s been downhill ever since.”)  Friends lived in Forest Dell, Bexley House, Marsden, and Park House.

En route to worship at Holy Trinity Church we walked down Mall Road past shops selling walking sticks and Golden Syrup.  A quaint, aesthetically pleasing General Post Office building dominated the intersection at the center of town.  The square steeple of Holy Trinity loomed above the shops halfway down the Mall.

Blogger’s Note: Murree more than any other physical location gave many of us a sense of ‘place’, of belonging and connection. Paul Tournier, a noted Swiss psychiatrist speaks of place – searching for place, finding place, enjoying and occupying place and then being willing to move on to the next place. Murree was the beginning of that circle of life.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 where Jason will give us more word pictures and detail. )

So.Many.Stories – The Trunk that Traveled the World

Today’s lovely post comes from Annelies Kanis. Annelies is a fellow third culture kid and we share Murree as a common denominator, all be it a generation apart! In this post she looks at a piece of luggage that has been on the journey with her. Read on….

The trunk that traveled the world now sits in our bedroom. It’s retired. It holds extra pillows for kid’s sleepovers, a sleeping bag that once went up the Kilimanjaro and posters from museums that will never find a spot on the wall, but that I can’t bear to throw out.

The trunk is old. I’m guessing it was made around the 1920’s, but maybe that’s just the period that I would like it to be from. A time when women had just gained their rights and there was a world for them to discover. And when they did, they packed all their lovely dresses into this trunk and danced the night away in exotic destinations.

When my parents moved to Pakistan to work with Afghan refugees in 1985, they needed trunks to carry our belongings. I was nine, ready for a big adventure and ready to discover the world. Not many people move half way across the world with two kids, a blond Labrador and a lot of stuff. Most people go away on trips for a few weeks. They pack a bag and credit card for the things they forgot to pack. My parents had lived in Bangladesh years before and knew exactly what they’d miss. And those were the things they wanted to take along; items that didn’t fit into suitcases or backpacks. But where do you get trunks if people don’t use them anymore?

Before we left, my dad was director of a nursing home. He knew a few other directors and asked them whether they had trunks up in their attics; trunks that were long forgotten, much like the trips they’d made. Eight trunks came our way and on a sunny day my dad and a friend stenciled our names on them and gave each a number. A few months later they were packed and shipped. And after a rather long stay in customs in Karachi (and a very angry father), they arrived in Peshawar with most of our things intact. We were excited and happy to see all the things we’d packed away months before.

Then came March, and my sister and I went to boarding school. Two of the trunks were packed carefully with all the items on the boarding list. Everything had my name on it and all the clothes were clean and whole. We could never take all the toys we wanted, there were restrictions, so it was carefully determined which toy got to come along. The trunks made the trip up the hill to Murree with us and lived in the attic of the hostel once we’d unpacked. I have vivid memories of 8 girls in a room unpacking all their trunks at the same time. I don’t remember who carried the trunks up to the attic, but I do remember the excitement of seeing each other and later the many tears on that first night away from home. I never cried, I loved boarding. But it’s tough hearing all your friends sob themselves to sleep.

The excitement returned at the end of term, when our trunks came down the stairs from the attic and we literally stuffed all our things in them, ready to go home.

After three years of travel between home in Peshawar and school in Murree, the trunks went back to the Netherlands, filled with Afghan carpets, gifts for family and friends and many memories. My parents still have one or two and a drum filled with Pakistani and Afghan clothing.

I don’t think my trunk will ever travel again. While I plan on travel, I don’t plan on moving overseas and I now prefer Samsonite. And though we want to redecorate our bedroom and the trunk doesn’t fit into the scheme, it is staying. Not for it’s beauty, but for the stories it tells.

Annelies Kanis works as director of programmes at an NGO for children in the Netherlands and developing countries. She lives in Leiden with her two sons and husband. Annelies holds a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from Leiden University and has lived in Pakistan, New York City and Zambia.  

For more on the So.Many.Stories project click here.

The Train Party

In May of last year the International Business Times wrote an article marking the 150th anniversary of the railway system in what is now Pakistan.

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

On May 13th, 1861 the first engine left the station in Karachi to an astonished crowd.  One of a kind in the region, locals were shocked as John Brunton, the Chief Engineer of the Karachi-Kotri Railway, drove the steam locomotive for its first trial.

The Karachi natives were astounded.  I drove the engine myself of course at slow speed – the natives thronging all around, I was fearful of some accident.  At last I thought I should frighten them away, so I blew the engine steam whistle loudly.  Instantly, they all rushed back from the ‘Demon’ falling over one another.

I smiled as I read the article, for train travel and my childhood go hand in hand.  Some of my earliest memories include trains and the rhythmic sound of train engines chugging their way through the country side of Pakistan. To this day, when I close my eyes on the subway in the morning en route to my job in an ugly, institutional grey building in the heart of Boston, the rhythm of the train transports me back to another time and another place.

By the time my parents arrived in Pakistan in 1954 train travel was well established and the most common way to get from place to place in the country. It was safe, it was cheap and it was relatively comfortable.

Those of us who lived far away from the school, in the southern areas of Pakistan, used trains as the means of transportation to the school. Earlier than I can remember it was decided that it would be wiser to band together and send a couple of chaperones with all the school-age children on a train to the train station at Rawalpindi. This organized system would make sure that every parent did not have to make the long trip. On arrival, the school would send the solid army-green school bus, bearing the name and emblem Murree Christian School, to the station to transport us the remaining journey to the school. This trip was affectionately called “The Train Party” and it was only later in life that I found out how difficult this could be for the parent chaperons.

My time to join my older siblings on this “Train Party” came at the tender age of seven, during the latter half of first grade.  I had heard it mentioned so many times that the images in my mind had taken over.  A party, games, food, and most of all friends!  “What could be better?” I thought!  I dreamt of the day that I would get to go and join the ranks of missionaries children heading off to Murree Christian School.  It was a rite of passage – it was the “Train Party”.  We would arrive at the station with trunks, small carry cases, and bisters, large green canvas carriers that held all our bedding. Along with this would be the food our moms had lovingly hand prepared and packed for us, no doubt aching as they packed sandwiches, cookies and carrot sticks, knowing they were sending us far away, where they would not be a part of our daily life.

I remember standing nervously with my older brothers, aware that this was a big moment and already feeling a shyness come over me in relation to these brothers who I lived with, played with, ate with and fought with. I somehow knew that the train party would usher us into a world where it wasn’t always easy to acknowledge siblings, where home and sibling connection grew farther with each station and each rhythmic sound of the wheels on the track.

The “party” would begin in Hyderabad, making stops along the way picking up children of various ages and sizes from their winter homes, all with the ultimate destination of boarding school. The trains snaked their way from the desert to the lush Punjab, ultimately arriving at the busy Rawalpindi station. “The Ranks” were a group of motley and assorted children of missionaries from all over the world – Meg, Lizzie and David from the UK; Nancy, David, Jonathan from Atlanta, Georgia; Bill, Paul, Phil and Tim – 4 boys from the Midwest with a mother who I loved and of whom legends are made; Alberteen Vanderveen and others from Holland, and the list went on.

The train party was not without its significant moments.

“Help, someone’s lost a thumb” was the cry that rang out through the compartments one time when I was in elementary school. We all looked in horror at our own, now precious, thumbs. Evidently the Someone had been on the top bunk of the compartment, where small fans whirred dangerously close to heads to keep air circulating. She had accidentally reached up during a shaky point in the normally smooth ride and the result was the tip of a thumb off and a lot of blood flowing, making the accident far worse than it was.

A thumb was not the only thing lost as the train sped its way up-country through brown desert and green fields. Some things were lost intentionally, like hardboiled eggs thrown out the window; other things were lost unintentionally, like sleeping bags, and one time we almost lost Lizzie Hover as she leaned out the window so far that we had to pull her back inside to the safety of the compartment.

The 18-22 hour train ride provided much time for catching up with our friends, all who had spent their winters in equally isolated locations throughout the country.

Stops at stations were opportunities to buy hot tea, purris and halwa. Station food tasted to us like gourmet cuisine. Shouts of “Chai, chai, garam chai” (Tea, Tea, Hot tea!) and “Undae, Undae, Garam Undae” (Eggs, Eggs, Hot Eggs!) were heard at every station, promising food that was tastier than the food at the richest of homes.

The trip ended just as it became almost unbearable for the adult chaperones. At that point we were unloaded with baggage only to be loaded on the school bus and make our way the last two hours of the journey to Murree, 7500 feet above sea level, and begin the spring boarding term.

The first evening was always a combination of chaos and excitement as trunks and bisters found their way to our bedrooms and unpacking began. We were allowed bedtimes a bit later than the normal, strictly enforced, hours and we began to claim drawers, dressers and beds. I don’t remember a lot of fighting over this process. Perhaps it was because it was the beginning and always exciting to be together again. The night ended with a meeting in the apartment of a houseparent, closing with prayer as we traipsed to our rooms, ready at this point for a nights sleep in a real bed on solid ground instead of the small bunk of a moving train.

It never failed that I would wake up early the next morning, disoriented as soon as I opened my eyes to my surroundings, not knowing where or who I was. As I slowly woke to my reality, tears would begin to fall. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being there as much as I realized that I had left the safety of the unconditional love of parents and home and was in a place where my daily world was those as immature as I. It was a realization that as much as I loved her, my substitute mother for the next three months would be a houseparent who had many others to care for, all away from the moms who had birthed us, all needy of her love, care and patience.

As I wept silently, tears flowing, it’s as though an invisible strength would enter me. As though God himself was reaching to me through my tears whispering the words “I am here, I am here for you”. Those words whispered in the early morning hours were stronger than any Biblical text and rooted themselves deep in my sub-conscious giving me strength to get up and begin the new semester.

Guest Post: “But God Moments”

Every time I read a “But God…” verse in the Bible I am startled. I’ll be reading about something horrible, or evil, or sad, or something just plain wrong, and then out of nowhere comes a “But God….” moment.  Like a good movie plot, I know something has changed, the story is taking an unexpected turn.

This post by Sophie at Little Gumnut grabbed my heart. May you enjoy this today and find your “But God” moments, those moments where God steps in and the plot changes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I woke up this morning to early morning mist clinging round the buildings, bushes and trees and I sighed with happiness.  It might not seem the best weather to you but that mist brings back memories of Murree monsoon weather, of my beloved Himalayas, of summer holidays and autumn back to school when Mum was up in the hills with us for the summer.  In fact just looking at that mist I am transported back to sitting on my bed in the house in Ospring, reading a book with a hot cup of coffee and watching rain drift gently down outside.

I needed that moment this week, I needed that feeling of security, that reminder of my childhood.

We lost our house and car keys on Saturday.  The only set that work for either house or car.  Mmmhmmm, inconvenient to say the least.  Frustrating might be another word.  Panic inducing at times.  And they’ve stayed lost for four and a half days.  We’ve hunted high and low and cleaned cupboards that haven’t seen the clean side of a jay cloth since we moved in a year ago.  (Shameful, but true.)

It’s perhaps not just the keys being lost that is the big deal but I have been struggling with homesickness and wondering what the purpose of us being here, on the other side of the world, when things aren’t always easy and life doesn’t just flow naturally…… Read more here at Little Gumnut Blogspot

Would love to hear your “But God…” stories! Share them at Sophie’s blog or here or both!

Reader Response: Tea and Soul Care


Tea matters
. The responses from readers on tea gave personal pictures from Laos to Pakistan to South Africa of what tea means and why tea matters. All the comments were rich with memory and feeling, but I’ve picked one that spoke to my soul today. It’s one of the reasons I love blogging – I am the recipient of wisdom and challenges through reader comments. I have turned this one comment into a post and pray that it will speak to your soul the way it spoke to mine.“Tea and Soul Care”  is penned by Ruthie McCurry Dutton, a former class mate from Murree. We reconnected this past year through Facebook and blogging and it makes me want to see her again in person and share a cup of tea.  Ruthie has lived a nomadic life and offers a glimpse of her life in this piece.

Tea–my “go-to” for every occasion and metaphor for qualities that I find important. Tea meant comfort and happiness in my early memories of Pakistan: sweet and milky, sitting in my beloved nanny’s lap; a strong brew capping off my first exciting day at boarding school; the mad rush at break, when I was finally old enough to get my tea from the hole-in-the-wall stall across the road.

As a newly married bride, my mother-in-law introduced me to ritual and reverence through the very rare occasions when we used her exquisite collection of bone china cups. We carefully warmed the pot while boiling the water. We added just the right amount of leaves and waited patiently for it to steep. Aaaah….the perfect cup.

When life and ministry took me to the frontiers of Laos, I traded delicate cups for floral- patterned china mugs each one unique. They reminded me to look for the beauty all around me—be it the landscape or in the variety of people with whom I shared a cup. Each person and scene had a beauty of their own to be savored and appreciated.

In my newly nomadic life, a delicate china mug accompanies me. I love sipping from it as I share the pre-dawn hours with Jesus. This delicate mug, so easily chipped, reminds me of the importance of soul care. Each reverent sip is an in-pouring of the Holy Spirit, a source of strength for what my day brings. Now, instead of my beloved nanny, I feel the warm embrace of Abba Father.

Crossing both the globe and the span of time tea remains my constant companion, its symbolism and meaning growing and changing. For today it means warmth and comfort, sacred ritual, unique beauty, and God’s goodness. Life is richer over a cup of tea.