Hanging Our Hearts Around the Globe

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Through all the travel and all the moves, I’ve hung my heart a lot of places around the globe. But none is so special as Pakistan.

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind for ever.”

Over the weekend we visited Pakistani friends in San Diego who are very dear to us. Rehan was my husband’s best friend during college. The friendship continued strong through marriage, kids, and now adult kids. We don’t see them often enough, but when we do it is non stop talking, eating the best Pakistani food in the world, and laughing hard. The conversation moves from one topic to the next without a gap. We interrupt each other, go off topic, and we’re loud.

It is always delightful, and this time was even more so.

Beyond the blue skies, Palm trees, and ocean was a house alive with warmth and hospitality. I didn’t want to leave. My heart was so full! Full of friendship and Pakistan; memories and curry. But too soon the visit was over and I’m now sitting back in Boston, in a house that feels cold, with a heart that aches with the leaving.

When you’ve lived across the globe, you end up sharing your heart with a lot of people. Each one of them holds a small piece that makes up the whole, rather like a mosaic with bits of colored tile that an artist fits together to create a beautiful piece.

But when you’ve left your heart in so many places, it’s also hard to come home, especially when home feels cold and lonely. Edward Said talks about exile and the “unhealable rift” between humans and their native places. My native place was Pakistan, a place far from the one marked as legal on my passport. So when I experience these times of connection, no matter how short, that unhealable rift is filled with the salve of understanding.

That’s what I feel right now as I sit on my couch. A lonely cat is cuddled as close as possible to me, willing me to never leave again. I know how she feels. I hate leaving those I love. I hate the loneliness I feel when I walk in to a cold house in a place where I have to work so hard to belong. My heart is a dead weight, my sighs fill up the silence.

Frederick Buechner says this about loss “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” I read it, but right now I’m not sure I believe it.

The thing with feelings is that they can change in an instant. So I sit with a heavy heart filled with memories of those I’ve loved around the globe. Some gone, some still present but far away. These feelings will pass, my heart will feel lighter, my memory bank fuller.

But right now, I sit, holding on to archived memories to give me strength.


* Edward Said ‘Reflections on Exile’

In Memory:Ralph Edward Brown, June 7,1926 – October 24,2017


On June 7th, in 1926, a baby boy was born to a family in the city of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was fourth in the family, joining three sisters, a mom and a dad. Two years later his youngest sister was born and the family was complete. He was named Ralph Edward Brown and he is our father and grandfather. 

His mother–the original Annie Hall–struggled to nurse him. He seemed unable to take either breast milk or regular formula and almost died. It was the milk man, aware of the concern of the family, who suggested to Annie that she try sweetened condensed milk. Having nothing to lose, she diluted this in a bottle and to everyone’s astonishment and as though ordained by God, he survived and thrived. All his life he claimed that he owed his love for sweet things to his early diet.

At four years old, tragedy struck the family with the death of his father during a hospitalization for a broken leg. Annie, left with five children and a broken heart, raised the family with grit and grace during an era when life was not kind to a widow and her children. He recalled a community of friends and relatives, many from Morningside Baptist Church in Pittsfield, who walked alongside the family during this time.

Ralph grew into a young man with a personality and character as large as his smile. He entered the Air Force branch of the military on graduation from high school, but instead of flying planes and braving enemy combatants, by his own admission he spent his entire military experience in bureaucratic paperwork, filling out tedious forms in triplicate. Two years later thanks to the GI bill he was able to attend Gordon College, at the time a Bible college in the Fenway area of Boston, and it was there that he met his life-long love, Pauline. Pauline evidently stole his heart after a couple of “Joyces” and perhaps a “Ruthanne” – he has never been totally clear on this. They were married in 1951, sixty six years ago this year, amidst mountain laurel and a host of relatives and friends.

They welcomed their first-born on March 16th, 1953 – a boy, Edward Ralph and a year and a half later their lives dramatically changed. 1954 had them taking a 3-week journey by ship to a country that would become their home for the next 35 years, the country of Pakistan. Ralph became as comfortable sitting cross-legged on the floor in a Marwari village and eating onion curry as he was preaching from the pulpit at Morningside Baptist, followed by a pot-luck church supper. Over the next few years, they also added Stanley, Thomas, Marilyn and Daniel, followed by seventeen grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren — so far.  

In 91 years of life there are many stories. Some are known by your children, while others remain untold. If we wrote all our stories and memories, this memorial service would be tediously long instead of a loving tribute. But there are three things that our dad and grandpa has held to in his life. His love of God, his love of family and his love for fun. From his legendary ability to swish a basketball through the hoop from the midway point on the court to his absolute consistency in an alcohol-free lifestyle; from discussing ordination of women to discussing infant baptism; from his first granddaughter Melanie to his last grandson, Jonathan, he has remained a steady, Godly example and force in a world that often shifts with the wind.  

In his years since moving to Rochester, he has settled in here, made many friends, and treasured and valued many friendships that he found here. The whole family is so thankful to the people at Ridgeland community church, for giving them a church home, and for Browncroft Community church for giving them a second church home. 

During the nine months of struggle with the illness to which he finally succumbed, Ralph continued to treasure the friends, family, and all of the fellow believers who together have made a home for Mom and Dad here in Rochester.  

While his last months were a struggle, he got to see his youngest grandson graduate from college, his granddaughter get married, and to see two great grandchildren that he hadn’t yet met. 

Every night, his good night began with words of thanksgiving. And, while his last words were ’Tom, I don’t think I can make it’ (meaning to the breakfast table), we know that in those last steps and last breaths of his life, he was carried to eternity in the arms of his Lord. He lived out the words of one of his favorite hymns:


In Christ alone my hope is found;

He is my light, my strength, my song;

This cornerstone, this solid ground,

Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.

What heights of love, what depths of peace,

When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!

My comforter, my all in all–

Here in the love of Christ I stand.

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. 


“This is My Fate” – A Lesson in Cultural Humility

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

Fate - Homes in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. [1500x1000] - Imgur

(photo credit)

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, I self-righteously reasoned, if this had happened at a laundry facility in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back.

But, I was not in the United States.

Looking back on the event, I cringe in embarrassment. I don’t even remember what the clothes looked like – but I will never forget the sadness and resignation on Rehmet’s face. She looked as though she had been kissed by a Judas, betrayed by one she thought she knew.

I began to apologize. My speech, so articulate while angry, suddenly lost any semblance of cohesion. I was fumbling over my words, over my grammar, most of all over my ugly heart.

She looked at me with tired, brown eyes, her gaze steady and unyielding. Then without pause, she shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is my fate.”

I went cold. I would rather have heard anything but this. I would rather she yelled, screamed, got sarcastic, quit the job… anything would have been better.

I, the person who talked long and wrote hard about wanting to empower people, had taken advantage of what I knew to be a cultural value – a servant is subservient to the employer. In a culture where she was a minority as a woman and as a Christian she would never have other opportunities, this was her fate. Even if she wanted to walk out on the job, she couldn’t have. Rehmet did not have choices and I had used that against her. I had taken advantage of education, relative wealth, and influence in my ridiculous reaction to a simple mistake.

And I had done this, subconsciously knowing that it would pack a mighty punch. That is what made it so painfully wrong. My white-skinned entitlement and privilege made me cringe. Who was I? Why had I reacted this way

It was important to confess – to Rehmet, but also to God. For I had acted in a way that hurt another, had wounded knowing she had no recourse.

Rehmet and I were able to repair the relationship, largely because of her generosity of spirit and sheer joy in life. In her bucket of life experience, this was small change and she would not remain low for long. But the story has stayed with me, for it reminds me of how important it is to have cultural humility.

For cultural humility demands a process of self-evaluation and critique; a constant check of attempting to understand the view of another before we react and recognizing our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up a role as expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.

It’s a hard subject that demands honesty but what do you do when you have caused offense? When you have wounded in a place where you are a guest? When you have exhibited cultural superiority instead of cultural humility?

Note: This article was first published in A Life Overseas

My Ramadan Baby

I remember the day like it was yesterday. The Islamabad sun, hot and bright, burned down on my mom and I as we walked to the hospital with my first-born – Annie – in a stroller.

It was May of 1987 and it was Ramadan, only a couple of days before the huge Eid celebration that would mark the end of this long month of fasting for Muslims around the world. We had been living and working in Islamabad since January and I was 9 months pregnant with our second child.

After a false start a couple of days earlier, my mom and I headed out to my  regularly scheduled prenatal appointment.  After examining me, my doctor said “Sometimes we need to push the horse and cart!” Which was code for “I’m going to give you something to speed up this delivery.” I was more than willing to oblige.

It was a text book induction and just after midnight on May 25th I gave birth to a gorgeous, blue-eyed, fuzzy-headed baby boy. I was smitten.

I wrote about my Ramadan baby 6 years ago, when I was a new blogger. As I reread the piece I wrote, I realized it communicates the story exactly as I remember it, so I have reposted it below in honor of my Ramadan “baby’s” 30th birthday!

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was toward the end of Ramadan and this showed significantly in the absence of staff in the hospital. Earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry aloud that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a pregnant woman in transition (me) and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered, we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

As the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came (and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night) two babies made their way into the world.  The last azaan, calling the faithful to prayer, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast. At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains.

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a good hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toed, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff in by two’s to see “the white lady who had her husband in with her during the delivery,” something that was unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebis, barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras. This ensured a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. 

We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy which, from a cultural perspective, was a huge thing to acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes – and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.

Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.

Passages Through Pakistan – An Excerpt

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The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear
one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

We moved from town to town during my childhood, but I was unfazed. My constants were my boarding school, based in a solid stone building in Murree, and my parents, who, though flesh and blood, seemed equally solid and immoveable. Pakistan was home. She adopted me, a foreigner, and took me in. I belonged. I belonged in the family and in the community into which I was born. I belonged in the country where I took my first steps. Legal documents might say otherwise, but they were unimportant to the reality of my experience.

I learned early on of the beauty and hospitality of Pakistan. My eyes captured landscapes that the best photographers in the world could not capture, and the music and colors are etched on my mind. I was welcomed into homes and churches, played in courtyards and on canal banks.

In my childhood, the Pakistan I knew was a place of color and life: bright oranges, reds, yellows, and greens of spices and fabrics. I knew the ready invitations to come for tea that brought smiles to my face and delight to my heart. I knew the best food in the world – mouthwatering and piping hot pakoras; kebabs purchased in the middle of the bazaar in the afternoon; spicy, red-orange, charred chicken tikka with naan and fresh lemon; the cold tang of lemon squash; and chicken masala’s thick, onion-filled sauce that made my nose run through an entire meal. The tastes and spices lingered long after the meal was over. I knew Pakistan as a place of food, music, colors, and laughter.

This was my home, the setting of my earliest memories, my first steps, my first kiss, my first love. I literally cut my first teeth in this land. Pakistan was a place of life and faith. I was surrounded by Pakistanis who loved me and put up with the immaturity of my childhood. This was where my physical  and faith journey began. Would I ever love another place so much? I didn’t think so.

Later, I would come to know the complexity and contradiction that defined this homeland that had adopted me, but in early years I knew only the good. I would later discover more of her history. I would learn of a Pakistan birthed in violence and tragedy, a land that continues to face crisis after crisis – some at the hands of other governments, and some of its own making. I would learn of the difficulty of a country that struggled to find her identity apart from the larger Indian subcontinent. I would see the struggles in my friends around marriage and family and learn of the massive disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Later, I would learn that in addition to the beauty of friendship and hospitality there was also the horror of violent fundamentalism. I would be introduced to and angered by the one-dimensional Pakistan of Western perception and media. I would understand that alongside stunning landscapes of high mountains and clear lakes was the dirt and raw sewage of cities. I would later face disease, high infant morbidity and mortality, inescapable poverty, and the light hair and big bellies of malnutrition. I would grow to see many dimensions of this beautiful, complex land.

But the Pakistan of early childhood was a beautiful home, and I loved that home.

Excerpt copyright from Passages Through Pakistan, Doorlight Publications, March 2017, Pages 29-30

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On #InternationalDayofTolerance – Fight for Asia Bibi!

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I’m angry. 

A Christian Pakistani woman is sentenced to death in Pakistan. Her crime? She is allegedly accused of insulting Islam after a group of Muslim women did not want her sharing the same water bowl as them. She offered them water and they refused stating it was “unclean.”

I wish this was hyperbole. I wish that I didn’t have to write this piece. But I’m angry. I’m angry that calls for tolerance don’t include the likes of Asia Bibi. I’m angry that Christians, Muslims, or non religious people who care about human rights are not standing up for this woman, insisting on her release. I’m angry that to date, very few people have signed the petition requesting her release.

Her life is clearly of no value to the United Nations, to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to Human Rights Watch international, and Amnesty International. This should be headline news every single day until she is released. This should not be allowed to happen. The last article I have seen on this from Amnesty International is from 2014. That’s ludicrous for a group that purports to care about human rights.

Asia Bibi has been in jail since 2009. That is seven years!  But obviously, her life as a woman, as a minority, and as a Christian is not something that people who generally fight for these things are willing to fight for. 

Today is the International Day of Tolerance – and yet I saw nothing about Asia Bibi. I saw a lot of rainbows, I saw hands held ad nauseum across the globe. But no one is speaking out for her.

My question is: Why? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance include the likes of Asia Bibi? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance look at the plight of Christian women throughout Pakistan?

They have no voice. They have no rights. There are many like Asia Bibi who day after day are discriminated against without anyone paying attention.

Christian friends – will you speak up?

Muslim friends – I will fight for you, and speak up for your rights any day, hour, or minute of the week in this country because it is the right thing to do. I care deeply for you and your community. You are my friends,neighbors, and colleagues. Will you speak up for Asia Bibi.

Other friends – will you speak up and sign a petition for a woman who has nothing and no one fighting for her?

Here is what I am going to ask you to do:

  1. Sign this petition
  2. Email others to sign the petition.
  3. Share this post

Here is the summary: 

Asia Bibi is a Christian wife and mother awaiting execution in a Pakistani prison. She was accused by Muslim coworkers of blasphemy. More than 150,000 Christians in Pakistan signed a petition protesting the injustice against Asia and other Christians in their nation. Now there’s a way for people around the world to add their voices to those Pakistani voices, through an online petition at http://www.CallForMercy.com.

I just signed the petition, and I hope that you’ll click on the link and sign as well. As of today, 702,760 people have signed. The goal is to have one million signatures to deliver to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC.

Please add your name and speak out on behalf of Asia Bibi.

Folks, this is 2016 and a woman is sentenced to death because of a poorly constructed blasphemy law. We can’t sit silent on this International Day of Tolerance. 

Blogger’s note: The bigger issue is the huge problem with the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan which has come under severe attack but nothing has yet been done to change it.