On Matters of the Heart

One of the fringe benefits of my mom and dad’s move is receiving some gems of books. Some are old favorites, others are brand new. I began reading one of my new treasures this weekend and, as sometimes happens with books, found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is An Uncommon Correspondence, described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy and Love”. It is a book that would be deeply appreciated by anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries.

It is a series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth, but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, a third culture kid, also a professor, who is living and working in England. The correspondence spans a one year time period from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered, the pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets.In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to appreciate more and more some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stress no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

For as long as I can remember I have analyzed and thought through both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love,marriage and friendship. I have often felt  the west displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the east, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life. This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it, like I would to a person; it gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen and felt.

Full of insight, wisdom and some humorous moments, this book challenged me to think further and farther about love, marriage, intimacy and friendship across oceans and cultures. Is it that there is something better than what both sides of the globe present? Can those of us who want to seek a better way; an attitude that transcends both cultures? As Margaret says in the introduction, being offered a different perspective can be disturbing. And it can also be “profoundly liberating”.

What do you think?

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It Was An Old Love

It was an old love.

I don’t know how I knew it. I just did.

Maybe it was the way they held hands, less with a spark and more with a sense that their hands belonged together, that to separate them would be like severing a vital organ. Or maybe it was the way his arm went protectively around her as they left the subway station and walked up crowded stairs, holding firm against the onslaught of bodies that bumped and jostled.

They passed by a news stand featuring glossy magazines with covers that guaranteed sleek, well-chiseled bodies, amazing sex, and “real love”  but while others were sucked in like dust in a vacuum, they were oblivious. It was as if our world’s obsession with “young lust” and “young love” did not faze them. They traveled in their world; a world that knew better.

Her – graying hair and a nondescript shirt, still agile but a careful agility.

Him – balding with the salt and pepper remains of what had once been a full head of hair. Taller than she, protective, aware, solicitous for her well-being.

Perhaps it was their wordless communication, their comfort, their lack of self-consciousness that told me it was an old love.

I have seen this kind of love in my parents and have observed in wonder. The look my mom will give my dad, a look that whispers so confidently of care and shared understanding that even strangers would know this was borne of a lifetime of loving. Or my dad, his strong body subject to the inevitable aging process yet always looking out for my mom’s safety.

My eyes misted over as I watched the couple, these with the old love, going their way. Misted because an old love is evidence of sacrifice and trial; hurt and healing; misunderstanding and forgiveness. A love that limps but still shouts of strength.

I turned away, thinking that as I age and my marriage ages with me, whether they see us on busy city streets or ocean rocks, I hope they will say “That is an old love.”

Related Articles: For a beautiful and complementary post take a look at Young Love from Simple Life of a Country Man’s Wife. 

So.Many.Stories – So.Many.Proposals!

When I announced the So.Many.Stories idea as a celebration of Communicating Across Boundaries I did so a bit like one plans a party – excited but fearful that no one would come. But come they did! I am delighted to launch the series beginning today and continuing every Friday. Our first post is a delightful post by Amy Brown.

Amy is a self-professed white girl not just living, but thriving in SE Asia. She spends her time with Autistic children, baking things, and taking pictures of the aforementioned (and other things). Though she doesn’t know where she will be or what she will be doing in 4 months time, she is at peace knowing that God has something amazing in store. She also enjoys ending stressful days with a glass of chocolate milk. (Amy is also an amazing cook but that’s for another day)


I am no stranger to marriage proposals. But they probably are not the kind of proposal that you may be thinking of. No one is down on their knee, there’s no fancy ring, and definitely no romance. I’m talking about the kind of marriage proposal you get when you are a white woman living in West Africa.

Over the course of three and a half months, I received dozens and dozens of marriage proposals. From cab drivers to random men on the street to friends of my host brothers; it was hardly a rare occasion for me to hear “Will you be my wife” or “Marry me?” I don’t know if you have ever been proposed to by someone you would never ever consider marrying, but it leads to a very awkward situation. The first few times, I would stumble around for words saying, “Um…uh…no…?” To which I would have to deal with a failing attempt to convince me otherwise (most notably, one man spent 20 minutes explaining how he would make a living for himself and not bother me after I moved him to America and got him a green card).

Obviously a straight up rejection wasn’t going to be the best plan of attack, so I decided to take a different approach. Polygamy is quite common in Senegal. Many men have multiple wives and families, though it is strictly taboo for women to have multiple husbands. Luckily, Senegalese people have a good sense of humor, and it becomes a joke to talk about the possibility of a woman having more than one husband. In the face of a marriage proposal, my response soon became, “I’m sorry I’m already married”. When they asked about my husband I would tell them I actually had two, to which the response was, “It’s ok, I’ll be the third!” Then we both just laugh it off and move on with our lives.

As someone who generally likes to avoid awkward situations with strange men, I would try to avoid any situation that may end up in a marriage proposal. I must say that it is rather difficult to do this when you are constantly being thwarted by your own host mother. Yes, my host MOTHER. A vivacious woman in her late 40s, not married and with no kids, my host mother was amazing. But she spent about half her time trying to marry me off. In fact, by the end of the six weeks I spent with her, she had married me off seven times. SEVEN.

That’s more than one husband a week. The youngest was at the ripe age of six months and the eldest nearing 70. Somewhere in there was a cab driver.

I knew the mother of my youngest husband-to-be quite well, as she spent much of her time at our house during the day. On my last night in the village, she called me into the house to give me a gift. It was completely unexpected, so I had no idea what it was going to be. I went inside and was presented with a rather scandalous piece of Senegalese lingerie and bin-bins (strings of beads that are worn around one’s waist and only seen in private settings…). I was utterly speechless, trying to figure out if she was serious or joking. To fill the awkward silence, my future mother-in-law chuckles, “This is for your wedding night when you come back to marry my son.” We spent the rest of the evening laughing and they watched as I put the skirt on over my jeans and pranced around the compound.

As much as I appreciate the effort of my host mother, I think I will be just fine finding my own husband.

Amy and her husband-to-be (the 6 month old!) and his mom!