A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.

ROBYNN BLISS

May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

A Final Note for Those in Crisis

sanctuary

I thought it fitting to write a last word on the crisis piece. The comments in the piece Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis hurt my heart. And so this piece is for you. All of you who wrote in the comments – thank you for your heart. Thank you for your vulnerability. This one’s for you.

Know your safe people and cry and laugh with them. Be kind to those who aren’t safe, but don’t let them into your sanctuary.

There is being vulnerable and then there is being safe. Can safety and vulnerability coexist?

I think they must coexist. Particularly at different points in our lives. Only when we feel safe can we be vulnerable. When we are in the midst of a crisis, not matter what the crisis is, it’s difficult to be vulnerable. Because all of our safeguards are gone.

When we let people who are not safe into the sanctuaries of our souls they tend to break things. They take those fragile pieces and treat them poorly, throwing them around, tossing out words and behaviours that shatter our safety. And when those fragile pieces break, it can take a lot of work to put them back together. Trust is broken easily, but repaired slowly.

Several years ago I heard a story about a public school in New York City that wanted to take down the fence around the school yard. I’m not sure why, perhaps they wanted children to feel more freedom. But the opposite happened: instead of more freedom, children huddled together in the middle of the play ground. They were afraid and they could not move freely. When they had the fence, they could run and play, there was safety around the perimeter and it made all the difference. The fence, instead of constricting, gave freedom.

We need fences in the sanctuaries of our souls. We are not made to be emotionally naked with everyone, everyone is not safe. But with proper fences, we have freedom to be vulnerable. 

So know your safe people, and be vulnerable with them. But keep proper fences, not walls that cannot be penetrated, but fences that allow freedom around the sanctuary of your soul.

Lastly, can we learn to give grace to those who mess it up? Give grace to those people who muddle through their own discomfort with crisis and loss, and say things that are stupid? I think this is something that I will work to learn the rest of my life, but they too are deserving of grace. The time comes into everyone’s life when they will suffer crisis and loss. No one is immune to this. Some have far more than their share of loss, others seem impervious to even raging storms. But the human experience includes loss. Every relationship ultimately ends in loss. When that person, the one who used the wrong words, goes through loss, may we be the first to give grace. 

If you are just coming by, you may want to take a look at these two posts:

Note: The content in this piece is largely taken from here.

A Safe Sanctuary

sanctuary

The snow is blowing all around us. 8 feet of snow piled on every side. When we open the back door it piles through the doorway. No one is even bothering to shovel because there is no where to put it.

By contrast the inside of our apartment is warm and dry. Bright daylight pours through the windows. Warm blankets fall over couches, evidence of their recent use. Pillows sit haphazardly on chairs, ready to be arranged by the one who sits down.

A well-stocked refrigerator, hot drinks, plenty of fruit and vegetables — all of these are present.

We have a safe sanctuary away from cold, wet, snow, and ice. In this space we are impervious to the elements that rage on the outside. Security and safety are all here, within these walls, in this space.

I think about this, and about safety. In a moment it could all change and I know this. Safety is something of an illusion. On Sunday night I saw this yet again as I heard the news that a beloved priest was tragically killed in a car accident. He leaves behind his young wife and six children. He was driving home from his Parish when snow began to fall and suddenly with no warning driving conditions were no longer safe. Nothing could have prepared the family. Life changed in a moment for them. 

Safety – what is it? We can be in dangerous places and yet safe because we know who protects us. We can be in secure places and feel frightened. Physical safety is relative.

I think about storms that rage, whether they be physical storms or emotional storms, and how important it is to have a sanctuary, but also how having a sanctuary is a privilege. A huge privilege.

Know your safe people and cry and laugh with them. Be kind to those who aren’t safe, but don’t let them into your sanctuary.

I wrote the words above in a piece called “Dear New Mom” and as I think about safety and sanctuary, I revisit them.  Where does vulnerability fit into all of this? A heart surrounded by ice, thinking the ice prevents it from being broken, is little good to anyone. A friend reminded me of the words below by CS Lewis. She wrote them in response to my piece on connecting the head and the heart.

‘Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket of selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change, it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.’

There is being vulnerable and then there is being safe. Can safety and vulnerability coexist?

I think they have to. Particularly at different points in our lives. Only when we feel safe can we be vulnerable. When we are in the midst of a crisis, be it a marital or other crisis, it’s difficult to be vulnerable. Because all of our safeguards are gone.

When we let people who are not safe into the sanctuaries of our souls they tend to break things. They take those fragile pieces and treat them poorly, throwing them around, tossing out words and behaviours that shatter our safety. And when those fragile pieces break, it can take a lot of work to put them back together. Trust is broken easily, but repaired slowly.

Several years ago I heard a story about a public school in New York City that wanted to take down the fence around the school yard. I’m not sure why, perhaps they wanted children to feel more freedom. But the opposite happened: instead of more freedom, children huddled together in the middle of the play ground. They were afraid and they could not move freely. When they had the fence, they could run and play, there was safety around the perimeter and it made all the difference. The fence, instead of constricting, gave freedom.

We need fences in the sanctuaries of our souls. We are not made to be emotionally naked with everyone, everyone is not safe. But with proper fences, we have freedom to be vulnerable. 

So know your safe people, and be vulnerable with them. But keep proper fences, not walls that cannot be penetrated, but fences that allow freedom around the sanctuary of your soul.

Blogger’s note: Just a note that the first couple paragraphs of this was written in the middle of a snow storm. There are no snow storms raging around me right now, and for that, I am grateful!

When Fear is Your Currency [aka ‘Is it Safe?’]

erasing fear

“But is it safe?”

My friend stopped drinking her Skinny Vanilla Latte ala Starbucks. She was truly concerned. It was back in late August and I had just told her about the trip I was going on to India in September. I had described what I would be doing, spoken with excitement about the place and the possibilities, but this was her spontaneous reaction.

This is the number one question that I’m asked whenever we travel. Over and over again people ask me those three powerful words: “Is it Safe?”

They say it with doubt as to whether they will trust my response. They say it with much skepticism, and I know as they voice their concern, that the one asking the question will not believe my answer.

I understand the sentiment behind it, we are all products of our upbringing and the media. Unfortunately the way the media portrays life outside the United States is never as safe; it is always ‘not safe’. If one is to believe media reports, whether it be newspapers, online news sources, or television, everything outside the United States is suspect – it is ‘not safe’.

This of course is ridiculous. And yet I know what I felt while sitting in Egypt, reading news from the United States — I was terrified. Evil people kidnapped kids in the United States! Gunmen entered elementary schools and shot innocent children. The United States was a place where the phrase ‘going postal’ became synonymous with violent attacks; a place where random shootings and gang warfare threatened you and your children.

From far away the United States was terrifying. At least, that was my perception. 

Indeed, when we moved from Cairo, Egypt with 26 suitcases and a cat, living temporarily in a small apartment near Capital Hill in Washington D.C, I was beyond afraid. The neighborhood was known as a high crime area. We had left a middle eastern city of 16 million people where I felt safe and at home. Now I had five children, aged one to eleven, and felt I couldn’t go outside for fear of being mugged or hurt.

Robynn in her post “Lessons from Kansas on Living with Storms” makes a profound point: the storm you have is better than the one you don’t. One of the readers of that post gave this illustration: “a few years ago we met a group of Floridians who had just returned from a trip to Northern Iraq. It was a year with a lot of hurricanes in FL. While in Iraq, a dear Iraqi man asked them sincerely, “Florida??–isn’t it dangerous to live there??!!” It is a matter of perspective!”

While I don’t believe we are all called to go into war zones, and I believe we must exercise discernment and wisdom, particularly when we have others who we are responsible for, I do believe that no matter where we are and what we do, when we live under fear, we are using bad currency. When we make decisions based on fear, we go bankrupt.

When fear is our currency, we cannot live effectively. Whether this be around parenting, around work, or around where we are called to live, this is truth. When fear is our currency, we forget that safety is not about where we live, or work, or play.

Safety is about knowing where our security lies, what we’re called to do, and who we’re called to be.

Allison Krauss, the bluegrass-country singer, has a song that speaks to me around safety, reminding me that it’s faith, not fear, that should be my currency. It’s these words that have come to me at times when fear creeps in and threatens to own me, to run my life, and it’s these words I offer to us today:I’d rather be in the palm of your hand, though rich or poor I may be. Faith can see right through the circumstance, see the forest in spite of the trees. Your grace provides for me.” 

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gingerbread muffinsAnd today’s muffins look incredible! Here are Dark Chocolate Gingerbread Muffins for #Muffin Monday. Stacy says this: “Before I left Dubai, I baked this week’s muffin but I was definitely channeling cold weather and the coming of Christmas.  I made gingerbread batter to which I added melted semi-sweet chocolate for an even richer muffin.” Thanks again Stacy for giving us so many creative choices.   

Image credit: raywoo / 123RF Stock Photo