On Needing Grace During Transition

We have been back for 10 days and it’s already beginning to feel like Kurdistan was a dream that never really happened. A dream with a few nightmare like qualities, but a dream nevertheless.

The last time we went through a period of transition of this magnitude was when we returned from Egypt with five children, 26 suitcases, and a gorgeous Egyptian Siamese cat called Pharaoh. It was not an easy transition and it was months before we felt settled. I am trying to see this as a different time and situation, but the memories of how incredibly difficult that season of our lives was tend to pop up. I push them down, reminding myself that this is not then, we are not the same people.

Before leaving, we had decided to take July off to debrief and reconnect with family and friends. While it is a good decision, the current reality of no jobs and not knowing where we will be living next is heavy. We live in a culture where your worth is measured against what you do, not who you are. This is an inescapable fact and we have much empathy for those whose circumstances have put them into a place where they are unable to work. Work is a gift, but it should not be an all encompassing identity.

Many people are well meaning but somewhat clueless as to our circumstances. “So glad you are safe!” Said in slightly breathless tones is the default comment. It is kind and it is also somewhat irritating. Particularly because it usually comes from people whose daily lives hardly revolve around our safety. The second comment is “So glad you are home!” Strangely, though in the past this comment would have unnerved me, in this season of transition it feels deeply comforting. Before I left for Kurdistan, I realized that Cambridge had indeed become home and I was grateful. It took such a long time to be willing to attach myself that once I finally let go of my fears and hung my heart in place, a backpack of “where is home” baggage fell off of me and I experienced deep peace.

The back pack is filling once again. Cambridge is no longer home. We packed it up a year ago. Can a place be home when you make a conscious choice to leave it in its entirety? These philosophical questions are hardly useful in the midst of transition, but I ask them anyway.

In all of this I want to beg people to give us grace, to be patient with us during this transition period but I lack the words.

A friend who is transitioning back to the U.S. from Bangladesh recently wrote this and I am grateful to use her words:

It’s the small things about being in America again that feel weird. Enormous stores and all the options in the world.

People saying things like, “it feels like you never left” and feeling totally misunderstood because it feels like a whole new foreign world to you, not like you never left.

There are a ton of little things that give us joy…But there are also just as many things that should feel like home but don’t and that feels disorienting, it hurts.

Please, give grace to the people in your life in transition (of any kind). It feels like living on another planet. We don’t mean to offend or to act strange or cry for no apparent reason. We aren’t sure where the new normal is. But we will get there eventually.” Nicole Walters

Like Nicole, I too ask for grace. We will get there, but we don’t know when.

During this transition time of decisions and indecision, our Rockport cottage is welcoming us with the joy of ocean walks and the beauty of Rockport gardens, to slow days of grandchildren and long evenings of connecting with adult kids.

There is much to decide, and much that needs to happen. We will be in transition mode for a while. After last summer’s major uprooting it will take time to reroot. It will take time to find jobs and a place to live, time to reorient to life on what sometimes feels like a different planet. ⠀

For now, there is the ocean, Rockport, friendship, family, and our marriage. Jobs seem trivial in comparison. We are too fortunate. ⠀

Ladies Day Out

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I am driving from the downtown area of Rockport when I suddenly decide to stop and sit a spell by the ocean. The day is perfect September, all blue sky and mild temperatures. It is low tide and the beach has lost the crowds of summer, leaving pristine sand and so much space. I easily find a bench to sit on and pull out my notebook and pen.

It is then that I begin to observe a group of ladies gathering at the beach. They come in a large group and they are every shape and size. They unpack beach bags and bring out books and suntan lotion. Older wrinkled bodies are revealed without embarrassment, just relaxed satisfied smiles and pure delight in their surroundings. They are short and tall with dyed hair and grey hair. They pull large caftans off of fat bodies and beach coverings off of thinner ones. Their bathing suits seem to perfectly reflect their personalities – the one with dyed hair made up to perfection with the loud Italian voice has a bright coral suit with splashes of white flowers adorning it. The one that struggles to walk has on a black suit with white piping, unremarkable in its style.

Their canvas, beach chairs face the ocean, their backs are to everything but the cool, blue sea. Because really – nothing else matters.

There are no kids. There are no husbands or boyfriends. Just a group of contented women, enjoying a perfect September day on a ladies day out. Their conversation is lost in the waves, but their laughter is loud.

“Look at us!” it says. “This is a day that asks us to leave all our troubles behind. It asks us to enter in with joy and abandon, to splash in a cold, late summer sea; to squint at a bright sun; to smell of coconut lotion and salt water.”

Not all days are like this. Many days require great patience, others require tears, still others ask for anger. But this day? This day says “Welcome! Feel the joy and sand. Feel God’s pleasure. Take it in. Let it revive you. Let it heal you. Let it sustain you!”

And then?

Then go out into this world with strength for what comes your way.

This group of women? They are seasoned and spiced with life. There are undoubtedly countless tragedies among them. Tragedies of broken relationships and marriages; tragedies of death and separation; tragedies of selfish choices and unkept promises – because this is our broken world.

But tragedies are not a part of today’s outing. No – today’s outing is suntan lotion to make them feel young again, ocean waves to cool wrinkled feet, laughter and joking over seagulls stealing sandwiches, and maybe – just maybe a little frozen rosé to sweeten a near-perfect day.

I sigh as I leave these ladies of a certain age. Unlike them, my responsibilities are calling hard today, and I have already ignored them to vicariously participate in this ladies day out. I am rapidly becoming one of these women, and one day soon I hope I too will gather at the ocean with all my friends. Our bodies will be exposed with lots of flaws and little embarrassment. Our laughter will echo across Front beach so all the neighbors will hear and envy us.

I will be the one in the coral suit.

This piece is for the two Carols, Karen, Amalia, Suzana, Leslianne, & Poppadia Paula – with so much love. 

We are Too Fortunate


This weekend we walked along the rocky coast, a bright sun beginning its journey to set and emerge on the other side of the world. It was so incredibly beautiful. “We are too fortunate!” I thought to myself.

Too fortunate.

The words are not original to me, but they came into my vocabulary a number of years ago through an artist’s pottery shop in the town of Rockport. On this Monday, where my Sabbath rest collides with my daily reality, I want to remind myself of those words “We are too fortunate.”


Travel to the end of Route 128 in the North Shore of Boston and you will end up in Rockport, Massachusetts – a charming town on the rocky Atlantic coast, where art galleries mix with unique shops and beautiful gardens.

Rockport is at the end of the railway line and there is not a better ending to that particular train journey.

Some of the well-known landmarks in the area include Bearskin neck jutting into the sea and the main tourist area of the town and Motif #1, an old fishing shack that is said to be the most painted site in all of the United States;

A number of years ago there was a small pottery shop in town called Too Fortunate Pottery. I first discovered this shop years ago when, wanting to escape the madness of an American mall at Christmastime, my husband and I chose to do all of our Christmas shopping in Rockport. Wandering in to the pottery shop I wanted to stay forever.  The shop was filled with light and creativity. It wasn’t just the pottery itself, beautiful though it was, it was the peace and the space transporting me to a world  beyond my current reality. Perhaps it was the timing since we found this shop in the middle of a critical process of culture-shock, experiencing our first Christmas in ten years in the United States after moving from Cairo.

On one of my future visits to the shop I began speaking with one of the owners.  I asked her about the name of the store. She looked at me, paused, and then replied “One day, as we were working and creating, we looked at each other and realized that we were too fortunate to have this shop and do what we loved all day long. The name came to us that day – Too Fortunate Pottery.”

I have never forgotten this conversation and this window into the creativity and gratefulness of the artists.

Perhaps it’s my limited view, but I see fewer people passionate about their work. I can’t think of many who could put up the sign “Too Fortunate” to describe their life’s work and calling. There are also many who may not be willing to give up their retirement plans, yearly raises, and that critical 2-week vacation that the west understands as the American Dream to do what they are passionate about. For others, it is finances and life circumstances that dictate their work, demanding attention to jobs that are not their life choice.

This is what makes the work of the artist so critical and desperately needed.  Because artists create spaces where the rest of us can relax and enter into places where time doesn’t matter and peace radiates all around.

In the words of another, art becomes essential not decorative* so that we too might consider ourselves too fortunate.

*Bono on The Psalms

This post was revised from one written in 2011. 

Windows in Rockport

RockportFor our family, Rockport is a place of light and peace. It is a part of our lives that symbolizes rest and renewal. From walks along the rocky coast, to walking through the art galleries, shops, and restaurants in the small center of the town, Rockport provides solace in a world that is often too busy and chaotic.

On a recent weekend as we walked through the town center, I took these photos. They are not professional, but they do give a glimpse through the window of why we love this place.

May they bring peace to your weekend.

What are your places of peace? I would love to hear about them through the comments. Thanks for dropping by.

Windows Rockport

        

When Nothing Else Matters but the Stars

Stars

We arrived late on Friday night. We arrived after the traffic from rush hour had died down, while people were out to eat or settled in front of televisions, ready to relax for the weekend.

We arrived when the sky was turning dark and the first thing we noticed were the stars. They were magnificent. The sky was clear, no clouds blocking the incandescent bodies. There was no light pollution, just quiet, dark, and stars.

We walked over toward the ocean in wonder. The ocean was behind us, the stars above us, seeming to get bigger and brighter with each step.

And suddenly nothing else mattered. The comings and goings of the past weeks, the conflict of a relationship that hurts the soul, the tiredness of my body and spirit, the work load and boredom of my job, the various hurts of friends and kids — none of that mattered. Suddenly it didn’t matter whether anyone ever read my blog again, whether my book ever sold another copy, whether the conference I am planning is successful. The things I think about and worry about seemed small, lost in the vastness of a clear spring sky. In one glorious moment, looking at those stars in the dark night, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything but the Heavens and the One who created them.

All that mattered were the stars. All of life made sense. My entire body and soul relaxed under those bright, beautiful stars. The easily identified Orion’s belt was directly above me and, though slightly turned, I thought I saw the Big Dipper to my left.

We knew the moment wouldn’t last, knew it was impossible to hold on to these moments of wonder, when all of life makes sense. But we still walked back slowly to the cottage, willing the moments to linger as long as possible.

But even that didn’t matter. All that mattered were the stars and their Maker. Long ago, halfway across the world in a different time and place, I had committed some words from a Psalm to memory. I memorized them in a place where the stars were so clear you could touch them, I put them in my heart when life was simpler, and trusting my Creator seemed easier. The words came to my mind as the only appropriate response to all that glory, and in saying them suddenly life became as simple as it once was:

Lord, our Lord,

how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory

in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants

you have established a stronghold against your enemies,

to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens,

the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars,

which you have set in place,

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,

human beings that you care for them?

Verses from Psalm 8:1-4

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/sky-star-trees-light-night-710569/

When the World Rushes too Fast

I went to my closet to pull out clothes to wear, going for the long pants and a warm shirt. “No”they screamed! “Don’t pick us! It’s too soon!” And I screamed back “It’s cold outside you idiots! I’m picking you.” 

Cold makes me a little crazy as evidenced by the conversation with inanimate clothes detailed above. And the world is rushing too fast! Summer should not be over. Not yet. Too soon.

I close my eyes and relive clear blue sky and perfect weather; long walks and talks with good friends; a fire on the beach with ocean waves breaking over rocks in the background and us roasting marshmallows and putting the hot, melted mallow over bits of chocolate, sandwiched between two graham crackers; laughing until our sides hurt and telling ghost stories with adult children.

Some summers are made to last forever, and this one was one of them. In a world that rushes too fast and puts productivity above relationships it is a gift to stop, look up and around, relax and enjoy.

When the world rushes too fast I need to stop. Because in the midst of that rushing I will miss things that are important. I’ll get the urgent things done, but I’ll miss those things that are truly important.

When younger moms ask me how to slow life, how I’ve negotiated the work/home dance I give them only one piece of advice – I tell them “Always ask yourself when you’re thinking about a job, about a change, about demands on your time – ‘who do I want to like me when I’m 80?’ because the answer is rarely ‘my work.'” 

And this summer I danced that dance and my family took the lead. There are times when I do have to give a bit more to work, and that’s okay. But overall, my priorities are, have had to be, home and family.

And so when the world rushes too fast, when it shouts its demands through loud emails, edicts, and busy schedules, summer is a time to retreat.

But now, the summer retreat is over and warmer clothes are screaming from the closet.

So we have said goodbye – goodbye to a summer of long evenings on the porch, walks to our favorite rocks at the end of the earth in Rockport, conversations with our kids shared over wine and cheese. We have entered a new season – an open season for us.

But when the world rushes too fast, as autumn gold chill replaces summer sunshine, when cold, grey winter comes with its melancholy, we still have our memories of summer.

Take a look at this video created by my daughter Stefanie! It captures some of our summer beautifully! https://vimeo.com/104361637

Summer. from Stefanie Gardner on Vimeo.

How do you stop the world from rushing too fast?

Wrapping up the Week ~ 6.01.13

It’s hot. It’s as though all the passionate pleas for warmth during winter gathered in the Heavens and sunshine and heat have come in abundance. I love this weather with all its sweat and lethargy. The whirring fans spell ‘h-o-m-e’ and the heat takes me to palm trees and dust, to Pittman’s house in Karachi and Addleton’s in Shikarpur, to Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Cairo back to my couch in Cambridge. I love this.

The cottage 3And today we unpack ‘place’. A small cottage-condo by the sea will be ours for the summer until fall rolls round and new renters sign a lease. Rockport is a special place for our family. Rockport means slow weekends with no internet or television, piles of books, long walks by the rocky coast, and art projects galore.

And so my blogging schedule will change. I will be posting Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, Robynn will continue on Fridays, and Saturday wrap-ups will go on hiatus until the fall.  Any extra time will be spent enjoying summer life and working on a two book projects – one with Robynn where we explore more of our TCK roots and compile what we’ve already written and add fresh, new material; and another that is shaping in my head with input from my husband and brother, Dan.

Onto wrapping up the week….

On Photography: My brother Stan has submitted a photo to the National Park Photo Contest in the United States. Stan is a superb photographer and this picture does not disappoint. Take a look at ‘Realignment’ and pass it on to others. You can share on Facebook as well as vote on it.

On getting rid of books and moving on: All of us know what it’s like to go through that gritty, difficult passage from one stage to another. Sometimes it happens through moving countries, other times through other life events. In a NY Times op-ed Stanley Fish explores this in a piece called Moving On. He begins the article on looking at what it was like to get rid of books and look at empty shelves but moves it from there to looking at retirement. A quote from the piece:

“I’m not going to go on forever. I avoid this realization, even as I voice it. I say, “I’m not going to go on forever,” and at the same time I’m busily signing new contracts, accepting new speaking invitations, thinking up new courses, hungering after new accolades. My books are clearer-eyed than I am. They exited the stage without fuss and will, one hopes, take up residence in someone else’s library where they will be put to better uses than to serve as items in a museum, which is what they were when they furnished my rooms.” from Moving On NY Times May 27,2013

On writing: I was delighted to be asked to be a monthly contributor to A Life Overseas. I’ve contributed two articles to A Life Overseas and love the perspective I see from other authors there. They are working through thoughts and feelings on poverty, nationalism, saying goodbye, having household help, and faith with passion and strong voice. I feel privileged to join them on this journey.

On the amazing book by my bedside table: It continues to be Americanah and oh I am loving this book. The descriptions, the attention to detail, notions of home, flawed and fully relatable characters  – all of it wrapped up in a great package. I don’t want this book to end quickly so I’m taking it in sips.

And to you who read….last night I met someone at a wedding who reads Communicating Across Boundaries.  I had met her only once before and she found the blog through a link on someone elses’s site – so humbling and wonderful to meet her. That’s how I feel about you all – it’s an honor that you read and share. Thank you and see you on Monday!

In Which it is Always Ten Minutes Before Two

We have a clock in our cottage in Rockport. It is a beautiful, handcrafted Provence style clock in blues and yellows;a perfect signature piece for the cottage. We purchased it a couple of years ago on a whim and a sale and have no regrets.

When on display in shops, clocks are often shown with the short hand pointed at the two and the long hand pointed at the ten. I’ve been told this is how you show a clock to its best advantage. (Who knew?) Since this was a battery operated clock, and unwilling to be stuck like a child on Christmas morning who longs to use a toy only to realize his parents have forgotten to buy batteries, we stopped and purchased a pack of AA batteries – Duracell for good measure.

When we arrived back to the cottage and I was ready to place it on that perfect spot on the wall, my husband and I looked at each other and made a decision: we would never put a battery in this clock. The time on this clock would never move. In the cottage in Rockport it would forever be ten minutes until two in the afternoon.

And so it has stayed. We have had guests come and go who have longed to put batteries in our clock, but we won’t let them. In a world filled with demands and stresses, productivity and deadlines, we have a place, a space where time stops. We will forever be at ten minutes before two.

It’s summer now, not the official summer that comes with solstice and a June 20th date, but the practical summer that begins on Memorial Day in the United States. Every day we have a little more time as it stays lighter longer. And in summer we need time to stop a bit, need life to slow down, need to take walks on beaches and stay up late on porches. I am so grateful to have a place this summer where it’s always ten minutes before two in the afternoon, where time stops and life happens; where we are given the grace of slowing down.

Do you have a place where time stops? Where you can relax so well that time no longer dictates your life? Would love to hear about it in the comment section.

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Autographed at Eight Bells

8 Bells, Rockport, MA

On Bearskin Neck in Rockport, Massachusetts is a shop called 8 Bells. The shop mixes a vintage charm with a beach feel and has everything from uniquely designed vintage door-knob bouquets to pictures in weathered frames. Old window panes stenciled with lacy white templates are beside vases and signs showing off the talent of an inspired artist. Despite the small area, 8 Bells is a shop you can stay in for hours just for inspiration.

On the front desk in a container are copies of  a book called Night Swimming” holding their own inspiration. Inspiration for making life happen when you believe you don’t have much to lose. The author of the book, Robin Schwartz, is also the owner of the shop and is as unconventional as her created character, Charlotte.

The first time we visited the shop, Robin looked at us as we left and said “You’re not going to buy anything?”  She was incredulous and her incredulity was guilt-inducing.  The next time we didn’t leave until I had picked up a copy of “Night Swimming”. Robin autographed the book for me that very minute. The autograph reads:

Dear Marilyn, Thank you for coming back. I think you will enjoy Blossoms blooming. And as she swims, may you get lost in laps of laughter and reflection. I hope you come into 8 Bells again and again and I hope Night Swimming rings your bell. xoxo Robin Schwartz

On this rainy weekend, as I read the  book in two sittings while curled up on a couch,  I did get lost in laughter and reflection. It is a delightful account of a woman living a boring, quiet, predictable life in a small town in New Hampshire. The protagonist Charlotte Clapp, who is eating her way into oblivion, gets bad news from her doctor. Actually terrible news. Her blood test results show that at 36 years old she has cancer and only a year to live.

Her response to this news is to promptly go into the small town bank where she has worked for 15 years and quit her job. Following this she robs the bank and cleverly disappears from town with two million dollars, reinventing herself along the way in her last year of life.  What the reader knows that Charlotte doesn’t is that the physician got the blood test results mixed up with another woman by the same name from another town in New Hampshire. She’s not dying. But even as the FBI becomes involved in searching for her, she is busily oblivious on the opposite side of the country, spending the two million dollars and living out her final year of life so she has no regrets. The reader leaves behind any predisposed views on justice and punishment and prays that the FBI will come up empty-handed as they go alongside Charlotte rooting for her.

So why does the book resonate with me? For two reasons. One is that it makes me wonder what I would do if I was told this was my last year of life. It wasn’t a morbid thought so much as a healthy self-reflection. The other is recognizing that we all get to points where we need new beginnings. Charlotte, although her means were unconventional, actually went for this. Deciding that she had nothing to lose, she bought a luxury apartment in Hollywood and began discovering who she really was.

In Charlotte’s character is something that will resonate inside many women. That deep desire to develop our true potential and learn how to love in the process.  So if you go into 8 Bells, make sure you tell Robin that you read about her book here!~

Rockport, Blueberry Pie & the Cottage

I am back in Cambridge after a weekend that was made for poets and artists. Sun-filled days, ocean waves, and the rocky coasts of Rockport, Ma were my scenery, blueberry pie was my dessert, and “The Cottage” was my resting place.

“The Cottage” is actually a condo across the street and down one block from the ocean. It is located in the Pigeon Cove area of Rockport,  surrounded by old New England homes with big porches, hanging plants, and bay windows.

We found “The Cottage” three years ago, and taking a huge risk decided to purchase on a short sale. Thinking back on this I think we were both a bit crazy but I’m so glad we were. We had made a cross-country move only 6 months prior from Phoenix, Arizona. This move, made in the middle of winter where sun and palm trees waved us goodbye and the worst winter in five years bid us hello, was a tough one. For weeks we said “Right Move – Wrong Time” to each other as we battled through a job search and mid-life crisis for me; a teenage daughter whose “Life was ruined!”; and a search for the right school for our 6th grader.

We exchanged cathedral ceilings, designer paint, and a master suite for a Cambridge condo that had us occasionally pining for space and light. Into our lives at this time came the opportunity to buy this condo-cottage in Rockport – a place that for over twenty years of marriage had been a destination of peace and light. Rockport is an old artist colony and sits apart on the North Shore of Boston with its eclectic people, unique homes, and charm. We had always dreamed of having a place like this. A place that we would not only use as our get away, but a place we could offer to others  for those times when life feels too hard, and peace feels too aloof. So we did it…we risked practicality and finance and bought “The Cottage.”

And this weekend, yet again, we remember why we did this. For after a few months of stress and uncertainty in both of our jobs, a house full of people all going various ways and inevitably colliding, after 85 inches of snow and a daughter going through a revolution in Cairo, we set up “The Cottage.” Basking on ocean rocks in beautiful sunshine, eating blueberry pie, playing games, and talking for hours with some of our best friends we fell in love yet again with “The Cottage”.

Back in Cambridge, as we prepare for a busy week ahead, reality bites, but we look at each other, sigh, and say “At least we have
The Cottage!”