A Slice of Life in Charlestown – Volume 2: Death, Debts Forgiven, and Fitting Rooms

Two years ago today my father died. There are times in life where you remember exactly where you are at a pivotal moment. I was at work, chatting with my dear friend and colleague, Suzana. My dad had been declining and we knew the end of his life was drawing closer. Still, no matter how much you expect it, you never really expect it. That thin line between life and death; between heaven and earth. It’s a mystery.

I remember him today. It’s a beautiful day here in Charlestown, and he would love where we live. It is Boston at its prettiest in our neighborhood, with gas lamps that shine their light day and night, and neighbors who say hello to each other.

So I remember my dad today and I pause in gratefulness for his life and legacy.

Debts Forgiven

I am always on the lookout for a good story. There are plenty out there, but unfortunately we don’t always hear them. But on Wednesday I heard a great story on forgiven debt.

Evidently a group of churches in Chicago have decided to help almost 6000 people pay their medical debts. The total cost? Around 5.3 million dollars. ⠀ ⠀

In the next few days, each person will receive a letter in the mail with information on the payment and these words “⁣may you have a beautiful, wonderful holiday. Your debt has been forgiven. Enjoy Thanksgiving.”⠀ ⠀

I grow weary of bad news and cruelty, of incompetent leadership and lies at high and low levels of government. I grow weary of petty meanness – in others, yes – but in myself even more. Then I hear a story like this, and I know it does not stand alone. I know there are other churches and other people doing work that matters, living out their faith in actions big and small. And I am convinced that these small acts matter in big ways. These small acts make a difference, and we may never really know of their true impact. ⠀ ⠀ ⠀

One of the ministers from one of the churches involved in the debt relief effort said this about the decision: ⁣”Well, I began to cry because I knew what it would mean for – it was exactly 5,888 people. I’ll never forget that number. I knew what this would mean for them, that it was a new start for people.”⠀ ⠀ ⠀

A new start. Your debt is forgiven. What amazing words those are! The link to the full story is here. You’ll be glad you listened.⠀

Warning: You Are Entering the Fitting Room!

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I believe that fitting rooms need a warning sign. A warning sign that says “The mirror may reflect things that surprise, shock or astound you! Please refrain from sudden outbursts!”

Here’s the back story: We head off to a family wedding in Florida today. I love weddings, I love family, and I love palm trees so I’m looking forward to it.

In thinking through what I would wear, I realized I’d like to look a little firmer. You know that thing called gravity? It creeps around and through you in the oddest ways!

I had limited time, but I was armed and ready – or so I thought. I picked up a few things from the rack of undergarments and headed toward the aptly called “fitting room.” Five minutes later, busy with Lycra and straps, I caught sight of this stranger in the mirror! I shrieked! “By God, who is that? Who is in my fitting room and what is she wearing?” Thankfully the store was short-staffed, so no one came to my aid, because the moment after I screamed I realized that the chubby, wrinkled person in the mirror was me.

How did I get to be HER?

What? How could this be? How could the beautiful, lithe, me who I thought I was be Her of the Stretch Marks and Muffin Top? I gasped in horror. Where is the me who I thought I was?

While those of us who are of a certain age have our own challenges, any female who has reached the age of being able to go to the fitting room alone knows the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” that are part of the shopping experience. Too often we women drag along men, expecting them to  make a potentially self-esteem damaging experience easier. It rarely happens and I can’t count how many couples I have watched in the same scenario.  It goes something like this:

She: You don’t like it. (in flat tones) He: I didn’t say I didn’t like it. (in defensive tones) She: But I can tell – you didn’t say anything. If you had liked it you would have said something. He: It’s not whether I like it, it’s whether you like it. She: But I need an opinion. He: Look, I don’t know women’s clothing. I guess I like it. Maybe you need something that doesn’t have stripes. She: I knew you thought I looked fat(in an accusing and hurt tone, eyes welling up). He: I did not say that. She: Let’s just go.

It’s a set-up for failure of both parties. We are desperately looking for words of  affirmation and have a completely unrealistic expectation of what those will sound like. 

But back to my experience looking for undergarments. As I laughed at the stranger in the mirror, I thought about our bodies and our souls. How one can be revived daily, and one is daily losing something. What if I spent as much time on my soul as my body? There is so much to think about in that statement. But I’m not going to unpack it here and now. I’m going to leave you with the vision of me screaming at the me in the mirror. “By God, who is she and what is she wearing?” The person in the mirror started laughing, and strangely – so did I.

Routines & Nesting

We are settling into something of a routine here. Though there are boxes in our cellar, this has become a good place to call home and nest for awhile, and we are loving the neighborhood and this little red house. We have begun family dinners with my daughter, son-in-law, and nephew and we have already had a couple of overnight guests. This is a true joy for us. The neighborhood provides beautiful walks, sunrises, and sunsets in a truly historic area of the city. What a gift!

Kurdistan is close to our hearts but far from our bodies and in moments of honesty we confess to each other how difficult that is. We pray and talk about our friends and Kurdistan all the time, and we are with them in spirit during this difficult time of history.

If you’d like to read more on the Kurds, this is an excellent site: The Time of the Kurds.

I began this post with death, and I will end it with the same by leaving you with a quote from the highly acclaimed novel – Laurus.

“⁣Each of us repeats Adam’s journey and acknowledges, with the loss of innocence, that he is mortal. Weep and pray, O Arseny. And do not fear death, for death is not just the bitterness of parting. It is also the joy of liberation.”

Laurus

Learning Our Enemy’s Stories

Everyone has a story

“An Irish proverb says, ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.’ We can give shelter to each other by telling stories of what it means to be human, and by listening generously.”*


A few years ago I had a long conversation with a physician. The physician was ethnically Indian, but had moved to the United States, become a citizen, and had built up a primary care practice in a suburb of Boston. She came up to me after I had given a talk on the importance of culture and health care.

She relayed the story of some Brazilian patients that came to her practice. “I didn’t like them” she said. They were noisy, always had a lot of questions, and came to appointments with lots of family members. She would dread it when she looked at her daily schedule and saw that one of these patients was coming. She just knew that visits from these patients would put her behind schedule and cause chaos in her brain and her office.

Then one day, she unexpectedly had a bit more time. She stepped away from her computer and stethoscope and into the realm of human dialogue with a Brazilian woman. This wasn’t the first time she had cared for this patient, but it was the first time that she had asked her about more than her symptoms. She ended up in a conversation about family, about Brazil, and about how the woman came to the United States. Instead of the appointment ending in a sigh of relief that it was over, she found herself reluctant to say goodbye. The next time the patient came, the doctor did the same thing. She ended up learning more of the woman’s story, and then the story of her family. She stopped seeing these patients as a bother, and began seeing them for who they were and the stories they carried.

It wasn’t long before the entire community had learned that this doctor was different. This doctor cared. This doctor liked them. Go to this doctor, they said to each other. She’ll take good care of you.

Our world faces a massive empathy problem, an inability to listen to, much less like, those who see the world differently. The story of this doctor shows that when we take a step back and really listen, really get to know someone, our attitudes can change. It is not the only story like this one. In fact, there are many more that tell of how perceptions and feelings toward people changed, once they heard the story behind the person.

A recent article in the Plough quarterly called Meet a True Story talks about the resurgence in storytelling in the United States. The article begins with these profoundly true words: “Technology feeds our insatiable hunger for stories, but fails to satisfy our need for human connection”

The article goes on to talk about a couple of different storytelling programs that serve to help build empathy. One of these is a program that helps people inhabit another person’s story. The idea is simple: You listen to another person’s story – not with the intent to respond to it, but with the intent to retell it as your own story in first person pronoun. It changes the dialogue completely because in order to do this you have to live in the story of another; often another who you don’t agree with or like.

Dismantling our enemies requires at least three steps: proximity, curiosity, and humility. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more than we already do about the other’s story, and humble enough to wonder if perhaps we’ve been wrong about the other all along. If we can….get close enough to hear the story of our enemy, we may be able to subvert the narrative of fear that has controlled us for far too long.

There is a lot of fear in our world. I see and hear the fear every day. It is fear of the other, it is fear that “our way of life”(whatever that may mean) is going, and it is fear that the views of others may hurt our tightly held beliefs.

In the case of the doctor that I relayed above, her life and her practice became richer as a result of her willingness to move from prejudice to really getting to know someone. In really listening to her patient, she began to empathize. When she stopped seeing her Brazilian patients for the chaos she felt they caused, and instead entered into their stories, her attitudes and behavior toward them changed. The last I heard, she had decided to break down a wall in her practice to make more room for family members to come to appointments. She is beloved and trusted in the Brazilian community.

This can be us. If we take a step forward to listening to the story of another, we can learn and grow in respect and love for those who are different from us. We can begin to love the respect the one who is other and love the one who we used to fear. People are more than the views they hold. They are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and co-workers.

As the quote above says, there are three ingredients. We must be close enough to listen, curious enough to want to know more, and humble enough to admit when we might have been wrong. The ingredients are simple, but the work is hard. Can we do it?

If we want to change the current climate, I don’t think we have a choice. 


*From Plough Quarterly “Meet a True Story” – I highly recommend this article. It is excellent and goes much more in depth on what it means to hear and inhabit the story of another.

#OnlytheGood – Christmas 2017

It’s Friday and I’m sitting by our Christmas tree. I could sit here all day, just writing, thinking, dreaming, and reading. I know that December 25th is a constructed holiday, that most probably the birth of Christ did not happen in winter, yet I am so grateful that we have this joy to brighten days that could feel too long in their gloom; too sad and cold and lifeless. Instead, for a brief time we get tree lights and the Advent, the anticipation of a birth that changed the world.

I miss my dad this Christmas. It’s the little things – talking to him on the phone, ordering an LL Bean sweater for him, buying him small gifts. He was a wonderful man to buy gifts for – always appreciative, always surprised. I miss his smile and his enthusiasm for life. I miss his presence. Those people who we lose are never too far from us. We can be reminded by the smallest things that they are gone. Tears come unexpectedly, but I am reminded in these thoughts and memories that to love is to hurt.

We usually have a houseful, but this Christmas it will just be a few of us. These are the times when I’m grateful for good friends to share Christmas Eve, grateful that through the changes life brings, there is a foundation of faith – not in an outcome, but in a God whose very character is consistent. In the words of my sister-in-law, Tami, he is “Utterly faithful and completely unpredictable”.

In this Christmas edition of #Onlythegood, there are a few lovely things to share.

The first is this beautiful piece by One Voice Children’s Choir. My brother Stan shared it and I’ve listened to it several times. I’ve included the words for you to ponder.

Starlight shines, the night is still
Shepherds watch from a hill
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Perfect child gently waits
A mother bends to kiss God’s face
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born
Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing
Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King
Emmanuel, Prince of peace
Loves come down for you and me
Heaven’s gift, the holy spark
To let the way inside our hearts
Bethlehem, through your small door
Came the hope we’ve waited for
The world was changed forevermore
When love was born
I close my eyes, see the night
When love was born*

A baby born on a Pakistan International Airlines Flight! 

On December 12th, on a flight from Medina, Saudi Arabia to Multan, Pakistan a woman gave birth to a baby girl. The airline staff handled it beautifully and all is well. The baby girl will fly free for the rest of her life!


My friend Rachel has a book deal! She will be writing the story of Annalena Tonelli!

Plough Nabs Bio of ‘Somalia’s Mother Teresa’

“Sam Hine, acquisition editor at Plough, took world rights to the first English-language yet-to-be-titled biography of Annalena Tonelli, often referred to as Somalia’s Mother Teresa. An Italian native, Tonelli’s story features her work in East Africa, including tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment campaigns, establishing special schools for deaf, blind, and disabled children, and ultimately, her murder in 2003 which remains unsolved. The book will be written by American expat and journalist Rachel Pieh Jones, and it is expected to be published in fall 2019.”


New York Today: Alone in an Empty City

This is a beautiful essay about New York City when everyone leaves.

“Computer screens gone dark. Unanswered emails. Co-workers hauling luggage to meetings so they can head straight to Grandma’s. And for some of us, the unglamorous response to the question, ‘Where are you going for the holidays?’

Nowhere.

At first, we feel a pang — the kind that sets in as we hug loved ones goodbye at airport security or watch their taxi pull away, only to remember we’re going home alone.

But then we become the lucky ones.

We get to watch the city boil down to its barest form. And, like a candle burning brighter as it melts away the wax, this empty New York becomes more radiant than ever.”

Quote from my friend Jo: 

I thought you might like this quote from a book I’m reading (Crossing Borders) by Sergio Troncoso a Mexican American writer who writes about his two cultures.

“I am in between. Trying to write to be understood by those who matter to me, yet also trying to push my mind with ideas beyond the everyday. It is another borderland I inhabit. Not quite here nor there. On good days I feel I am a bridge. On bad days I just feel alone.”


Lastly, my husband and I went to see the Star Wars movie last night. It is non-stop action, tension, and humor. The best line for me was this one: “You don’t win by fighting what you hate, but by saving what you love” said by a lovely new character – Rose.


And with that I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas. May it be a time of contemplation and joy that is much deeper than happiness. It’s hard to believe that 6 years ago I began writing. Thank you for reading, emailing, sharing, and making this into a space on the interwebz that doesn’t hurt the world.

With love to all of you,

Marilyn ♥️

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Christmas on Beacon Hill

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Photo Credit: Suzana Alves

Just a short walk from my workplace is Beacon Hill, a historic Boston neighborhood with narrow brick streets, antique gas-lit lamps, and row houses. Beacon Hill is beautiful and quintessentially Boston. Visitors from around the world walk through the streets, finally making their way back to the red-bricked Freedom Trail that winds through the city and highlights famous places and events.

At Christmas time, Beacon Hill is a local favorite where twinkling white lights beckon and classy green wreaths with gigantic red bows adorn doorways. Beacon Hill is an expensive area of the city to live, but there is no cost to walk through it and dream. It represents a fairy tale sort of Christmas and leaves one with starry-eyed longing for a past that never was.

My childhood was lived on the other side of the world from Beacon Hill and yet, one of my favorite childhood Christmas stories was a story from Childcraft called “Christmas on Beacon Hill”. I remember only vague details of snow, lampposts casting shadows on streets, large bay windows in a Beacon Hill home, and a little boy named Benjy. In the story, I think he wore knickers.

My mom would read us the story as we lounged on couches and chairs in the southern area of Pakistan, where our reality was worlds apart from the story’s setting.

We had sunny Christmases with Poinsettia blooming bright in the winter desert. The sounds of ox carts and camels replaced any sleigh bells and instead of church bells we had the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. Our Christmas trees were sharp Palm fronds stuck into a clay container, homemade and heirloom ornaments hanging precariously on the dusty palms. Christmas carols would play from an old cassette tape or a turntable in the corner; songs that we knew by heart, even if our surroundings had no white winter wonderland. Even if white Christmases were only in our dreams.

On Christmas eve, carolers from the local church would come at midnight and the strong voices of people joyously belting out Joy to the World in Urdu still stays in my memory.

Despite this, when we would sit down with hot cocoa at the end of the day and listen to my mom reading, I was drawn to this faraway place called Beacon Hill, where brownstone brick houses sat side by side, and snow fell on Christmas day.

My mom’s words brought me in to a distant world, covering me like a thick blanket with longing for something I had never known. She knew about Beacon Hill and snow sparkling on sunny, winter mornings. She knew about sleigh bells and bay windows, about Christmas holly and snowmen. There must have been times when New England winter memories held deep, unspeakable longing. She passed on these treasures through reading, through the tone of her voice, through her love for place.

Some traditions are not portable, and to try to replicate them will only frustrate and cause more longing. Other traditions can be transported across oceans and cities. Mom discovered that reading is a portable tradition. Reading can bring us into worlds and places that we have never seen. We walk on streets we have never traveled; we enter doorways of houses where we have never laid our heads; we laugh with people who don’t exist. Sometimes we even grow up to live in places that we only knew in books.

It is now many years later and every day I walk close to Beacon Hill, close to those row houses with their beautiful wreaths on the doors. And at Christmas time I think about that story read to me so many years ago, and I miss that brown desert world where Poinsettia bloomed bright. I miss that home a world away where a mom from New England raised five kids to live between.

Good Stories Behind Bad Headlines

The headlines chase us down, taunting us with their urgency, telling us to how to respond. They never stop. We may sleep, but the headlines don’t. 

And they don’t want us to – not really. The person who is first to share or tweet a story gets the prize.

Behind the bad headlines are some poignant stories of reconciliation and redemption. They don’t get attention, but they should. Condemnation is newsworthy. Redemption is not. Miscommunication is newsworthy. Communicating across boundaries and finding a point of connection is not. Hate is newsworthy. Love is not.

Today I want to remind us of three good stories that are pushed under bad headlines. They are not all recent, but they are newsworthy all the same. 

The first comes from a picture that I first saw on social media. In her own words, a woman describes how a stranger, a police officer, gave her a moment of hope. I’ve included the picture here, because it’s best in her words.

story of hope

The second story comes from a few years ago when Chick-fil-A dominated the headlines. People were being urged to boycott the company because the chief operating officer, Dan Cathy, had made some public comments against same sex marriage. For a week, this fed the news. Anger and hatred on both sides erupted. Chick-fil-a was branded, forever it seemed. What people don’t know is what happened later.

While the U.S. was embroiled in the controversy, Dan Cathy telephoned the founder and executive director of Campus Pride, the group that launched a multi-million dollar campaign against Chick-fil-A, Shane Windmeyer. This was the first of what would be many phone calls and meetings between these two followed by other executives of Chick-fil-A. It resulted in an unlikely, but amazing, friendship between Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer. In Windmeyer’s own words:

“Through all this, Dan and I shared respectful, enduring communication and built trust. His demeanor has always been one of kindness and openness. Even when I continued to directly question his public actions and the funding decisions, Dan embraced the opportunity to have dialogue and hear my perspective. He and I were committed to a better understanding of one another. Our mutual hope was to find common ground if possible, and to build respect no matter what. We learned about each other as people with opposing views, not as opposing people…….I will not change my views, and Dan will likely not change his, but we can continue to listen, learn and appreciate “the blessing of growth” that happens when we know each other better. I hope that our nation’s political leaders and campus leaders might do the same.”

It is an amazing story of friendship, forged despite deep differences in beliefs. It’s a story of hope behind a headline that breeded controversy across social media.

The third story comes a Christian college, and headlines that painted the college as Islamophobic. The headlines were based on an incident where a professor at the college donned hijab to identify with Muslims. The administration of the college reacted and the professor and Wheaton College “parted ways.” I have my own opinion of this college professor deciding to don a hijab, but that’s not what this article is about. The headlines of the Chicago Tribune are loud and clear: Wheaton College demonstrators launch fast to spotlight Islamophobia. 

The story behind the scenes looks quite different. Months before the incident, Wheaton College students and professors were meeting with Muslim leaders in the area. They were forming friendships and having dialogue with Muslims, seeking to better understand each other.

A Wheaton professor writes an outstanding article about this in the magazine First Things:

“I will admit to losing hope that the media can hear any of this. My colleague Noah Toly and I related nearly all of these facts to a reporter who, to our absolute bafflement, could still not shake the assumption that we were “Islamophobic.” But it really doesn’t matter if we’re misunderstood. We will keep engaging our Muslim neighbors, because we’re not just meeting with them in order to be recognized for doing so. We’re doing so because we believe in the God who does not just have love—but in the community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—he is love. We believe one person of that Trinity, Jesus, took on human flesh, was crucified and rose from the dead. And in the mystery of his risen life he is with those who are maligned and marginalized and misunderstood—and so we see our Lord Jesus in the faces of our Muslim neighbors. To hate you, therefore, would be to hate him.”

So, what do these three stories tell me? What should they tell all of us?

Perhaps we need to step back before we react. Perhaps we need to give the headlines some time, so that other stories can emerge. Stories that defy the headlines and give us some hope. 

 

Four Types of Stories

At a workshop I attended last week, we talked about story as it pertains to race. Through a framework developed at Barnard College, we learned about four types of stories and how knowing and hearing these stories can help expand our understanding of culture, ethnicity, and race.

As we went through the exercise, the types and explanations of these stories were a catalyst to important conversations happening in the room.

Because I identify as an adult third culture kid, I thought about this framework through that lens. How can this be adapted to help those of us who are third culture kids? How can we use the material to better understand ourselves and others? How can this help us to relate well with the world around us?

To answer those questions, I decided to do this blog post and focus on these types of stories and how they translate into the TCK world. Disclaimer – these four stories are critically important in the race conversation, and this piece is not to dismiss that, but rather to see the framework as something that works in other situations.

Stock Stories: These are the stories that are most common, the ones we hear regularly, whether or not they are true. These stock stories for TCKs generally fall into two categories: The amazing TCK and the maladjusted TCK. The amazing TCK is the story that says life was amazing, we got to travel, learn different languages and cultures, have a broad view of the world, etc. The maladjusted TCK is the story that says we’ll never really fit into our home countries and cultures, we have feelings of loss and grief that are not resolved, we will forever miss the worlds where we were raised. There are elements of truth in both those stories. The problem is that neither of them make room for nuance and complexity. As Chimamanda Adiche says so well: There is a danger of a single story. No one is a single story. 

Concealed Stories: These are the stories that remain hidden. They may be sad or beautiful, they may tell a story of connection or disconnect; but they remain in the shadows. These stories challenge stock stories because they give a broader view, another perspective. They increase the complexity of the TCK. These stories are the ones that give family history and dynamics, that give the background to some of the experiences that the TCK has had. An example could be the story of evacuation, when within a couple of days, the TCK lost everything that they knew because of a war in their adopted country. The TCK keeps it hidden — after all, they were safe, they didn’t have to experience the horror of war like their national friends. But it’s a concealed story that, once shared, reveals many things about resilience, grief, and belonging. Sometimes the concealed story is the one that makes us third culture kids. The story about living in multiple places and multiple cultures – hidden because it’s easier to say “I’m from Kansas.”

Resistance Stories: These are the stories that challenge the status quo. These stories say “Don’t put me in a box that I can’t escape.” They challenge parents, teachers, and decision makers on the stereotypes that can block growth. These are the stories that say “I’ll use my sense of being ‘other’ to help me be more empathetic to the marginalized, the outcast.” “I won’t let stereotypes define me – I’ll fight them.” The resistance story fights for the research that has validated the TCK experience, and defends terminology when others are critical.

Counter Stories: These are new stories, stories that build on resistance stories and counter the stock stories. These are the stories that say “I can use my ‘best of’ skills and do well wherever I live.” These are the stories where we take our background, our past, and use it to find a niche that works for us as adult third culture kids. These are the stories that we write, not the ones written for us. Stories that combine both stock stories to craft a stronger, more honest picture of who you are as an individual and as part of a larger tribe of TCKs. It could be the story that says “Yes I grieve, but I also love what I experienced, I love that I am capable of complexity, capable of understanding multiple world views.”

In all of this, the strongest message to me is to own our story, to walk inside that story and not let others write it for us. Brene Brown says that “You either walk inside your story and own it, or stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” Understanding these types of stories can help us do just that.

As you read this, what do you think? Where do you see these types of stories working in your community? If you are a TCK, what are the stories you could tell that fit into these categories? Join the conversation! 

Why Stories Matter

typewriter quote

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
― Joan Didion

As a public health nurse, I live in a world of quantitative data and quantifiable results. Two times a year we must demonstrate to funding sources that our preventive health program works. We need to show that the money we spend translates into more women getting mammograms and pap tests, to more women and men getting colonoscopies. If the numbers don’t show it, it isn’t working.

But I’m a story-teller. I’m a person of stories living in a world of numbers. A person where time is of no importance while I listen or watch a story being told. I am a story-teller and lover of stories that works in a world that gives money to the efficient, that weighs and measures importance based on data driven by numbers.

Numbers mean little to me. Tell me a thousand have died and I will feel sad; tell me the story of one of those who died, tell me about the mother that hugged her child goodbye that morning only to find out by noon that she would never feel the warmth of that child’s body again and I will weep. Tell me the story of one little boy, whose body washed up on the shore of the sea, and I will act. The story helps me make sense of the numbers; the story makes the numbers real.

Stories move the heart to act. Stories cut across cultural divides. Stories connect us to each other. Stories help us to understand ourselves and others better. There’s a reason that Jesus told stories. He could talk all day long to hard-hearted humans and give them commandments and rules, but they would have dismissed him and gone on their way. Instead, he gave them stories. Stories of people like they were, stories that used the context of Middle Eastern village life, stories of shepherds and fields and Samaritans and Pharisees. And in the stories, they saw themselves. 

So keep on telling stories – yours and those of others. And keep on listening to the stories of others – Because when we stop telling stories, we will stop being human. 

“Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”*

A life story is written in chalk, not ink, and it can be changed.*

*[Source: Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality]

The Stories of Others

Learning to tell our storiesSince writing in a public space I have done a lot of reading and thinking about story – specifically writing the stories of others. I think about this as I come back from Iraq, full of stories, and I begin to tell these stories in this space.

Indeed, there is a lot to think about. The first question is if I even have the right to tell the story of another. Should I tell the story or not?

For help in sorting this through I have read several essays but the writer I continually come back to is Katherine Boo.

Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes about poverty. She writes stories for those with no voice. In 2012 she was interviewed by Guernica magazine. The interview is a thoughtful, long-form piece and I encourage you to read the entire interview. What I love about her words is that she honestly addresses the struggle of writing with integrity. She addresses the criticism of telling the stories of others and the soul-searching that a writer who tells those stories goes through. While the topic she specifically writes about is poverty, it holds true for other stories as well.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Guernica: At a lecture at American Academy, you recounted that during your reporting on that evacuation shelter for The New Yorker a woman told you, “Wait, so you take our stories and put them in a magazine that rich people read, and you get paid and we don’t? That’s some backward-ass bluffiness, if you ask me.” She seemed to sum up the moral dilemma that reporting on poverty raises. Can you speak to some of these ethical questions?

Katherine Boo: She said it better than I did. We take stories and purvey them to people with money. And in the conventions of my profession, which I try to adhere to, we can’t pay people for stories. Anyone with a conscience who does this work grapples with that reality, and if they don’t, I’d worry. I lie awake at night, and I think, “Am I exploiting them? Am I a vulture?” All of the terrible names anyone could call me, I’ve called myself worse.

But if writing about people who are not yourself is illegitimate, then the only legitimate work is autobiography; and as a reader and a citizen, I don’t want to live in that world. Because if you take a kid like Sunil, who’s been denied the possibility of an education that allows him to write his own story, and all of the people who lack the means and access to do so, they go down the memory hole. They’re lost. What it comes down to is, the only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all. My work, I hope, helps people understand how much gets lost between the intellection of how to get people out of poverty and how it’s actually experienced. 

There’s more to this than the telling. It’s also how we tell the story.

If someone is entrusting us with their story and has given us permission to share the story, it means we have an obligation, a responsibility to tell it the best way possible. If we are telling our own story or the stories of others, we have a responsibility to tell the narrative with integrity and truth. But we also have a responsibility to write and tell stories as well as we possibly can – and that means with descriptive language, with passion, with sensitivity. We have a responsibility to write so that people want to read and want to share. We are the voice for the one who doesn’t write. We are custodians of the story.

In the next few posts, I will be telling some stories of those whose voice would otherwise not be heard. I write, both grateful and fearful. Grateful, because I was able to sit with people and hear their hearts. Fearful, because it is important that I honor their story, and in an online space that is not always easy.

But if you as readers have shown me anything, it’s that you honor stories. So I hope you’ll join me as I tell some of the stories that I heard in Iraq. Thanks for reading along.

Developing an Empathy Quotient

old-books empathy quote

“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” Henry David Thoreau

This is the quote that begins a marketing video developed for the Cleveland Clinic. It’s a video they call “Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care.”

It is a well done short film that shows us many different patients in the health care system, superimposing their stories in script beside their images. At heart it’s about seeing beyond the surface, understanding the story behind the person.

When we know someone’s story, we are more likely to have compassion, to see them as human, subject to all the joys and tragedies that being human brings. Empathy is part of what makes us human. 

So how do we take this idea of seeing beyond the surface and begin to increase the collective empathy/emotional quotient or EQ in this country?

How can we teach kids to step into the shoes of others?  How do we develop an understanding – an emotional connection to their circumstances. How can we teach adults how to enter the story of another – without judgment, without expectation, just listening and learning about the experience of another?

A couple of weeks ago I posted a short video of a little girl in Iraq named Myriam. At the end of the video, the videographer thanks Myriam for her story, for her perspective. She responds by saying “And I thank you.” He asks her why, what has he done for her. “You have felt for me,” she says. “I had a lot of things to say and you let me say them.” These words from a child are remarkable. As young as she is, she recognizes the importance of story, of allowing people into our stories. She recognizes the importance of empathy and thanks the person who is interviewing her for his empathy.

In a short film about empathy versus sympathy Brene Brown talks about the research of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. Dr. Wiseman researched empathy in different occupations and came up with these four characteristics of empathy.

1. Perspective – the ability to take the perspective of another, recognizing it as their truth.

2. Staying out of judgment.

3. Recognizing emotion in other people.

4. Ability to communicate that emotion with people.

Brene Brown goes on to say that empathy is a choice and that it is a vulnerable choice. To be willing to be empathetic we have to be vulnerable and find in ourselves something that connects us to the pain, the circumstances of another. That is not easy.

Perhaps that’s why we saw such a dearth of empathy on the deaths of two black men in recent months – those of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Because no matter what you think or don’t think about the justice of each case, there is a place for deep empathy. Empathy with parents who have lost a child, with a woman who has lost a husband, with children who have lost their father. It seems many of us are unable to connect these tragedies with something inside ourselves, inside our souls.

Is it the same dearth of empathy that allows for rudeness and incivility in comments written at the end of online articles? The same lack of empathy that allows people to be unmoved when they see someone crying on the street? The same absence of empathy that has made bullying in and out of schools such a massive societal problem?

Or is it more complicated? Is it also because, as Leslie Jamison says, empathy is perched “precariously between gift and invasion?” Perhaps we struggle to voice empathy because we feel the person may not want us to ask questions, may not want us to connect at the heart level.

I think it’s partly about seeing people as less than as opposed to equal to. If we can see people as “less than” it is easy to dismiss them and dismiss their experience, dismiss their pain. If we acknowledge their humanity it becomes far harder to treat them poorly.

I don’t know what the answer is to developing an emotional quotient. I am a bleeding heart and can end up paralyzed by the pain of others and that’s not true empathy either. That’s being a trauma thief. But I think the process begins with watching, listening, and then being able to connect back to something in our own lives, remembering when we experienced something similar.

And then we ask. We ask them more about their story, more about their feelings, we learn the event behind the feeling. We think about how we might feel in the same situation. We let people tell their story, without judgment or fear of repercussions. Only then can we begin to see beyond our reactions into the heart of the person who hurts. Only then can we raise our emotional quotient and offer compassion and love.

What do you think? Do you think we have an empathy problem? What do you think would help? How do you teach your children empathy? 

I wish empathy was less ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’ & more of ‘believe the experiences of those who walk in shoes different from yours.’

 

*quote from Twitter

Saturday Travel and Travel Quote

Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday afternoon
Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday afternoon by Stanley Brown

“Harry kicked off hard from the ground. The cool night air rushed through his hair as the neat square gardens of Privet Drive fell away…..He felt as though his heart was going to explode with pleasure; he was flying again, flying away from Privet Drive as he’d been fantasizing about all summer, he was going home….For a few glorious moments, all his problems seemed to recede into nothing, insignificant in the vast, starry sky.” from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, book five in the Harry Potter series.

I travel today and like Harry Potter, I feel my heart will explode with pleasure. I leave for Turkey on an evening flight out of my favorite Terminal – Terminal E. I can hardly wait to hear the call to prayer, to drink tea while taking a ferry ride across the Bosphorus, to see the skyline of Istanbul. More than that, I will be with my brother and sister-in-law – two of my best friends.

But the trip is a bit more than all of this.

For some of the time I will be working with refugees at a health education center as well as a refugee camp with a small team of people. I am incredibly privileged to be going on this trip. My heart has been with the refugee situation for a long time, and to do something concrete is balm for the soul.

I have packed items like prenatal vitamins, wound care supplies, a portable machine to hear baby heart beats in pregnant moms, other medicines, and so much more into a large, soft-sided suitcase. This trip is way beyond me so I go with my heart humbled and open.

And I look forward to sharing pictures and stories on my return! One of the things my husband and I have often said to people as they return from a trip is “Tell your story! You need to tell your story!” So it is a gift to know that I have Communicating Across Boundaries as a venue for telling those stories. I will have limited access to email but Robynn, as the amazing writer/person who she is will be watching over the blog and Facebook page.

Here is what you can expect: 

  • Monday – a piece by Bronzi Bliss, Robynn’s lovely, youngest daughter, on being a TCK. You will see that the writing talent runs in the family!
  • Tuesday – my mom, Pauline Brown, writes a beautiful piece on friendship.
  • Wednesday – Robynn will continue with her excellent series on suffering.
  • Thursday – leaving this open – perhaps I’ll be able to post something from Turkey.
  • Friday – Fridays with Robynn continues
  • Saturday – the Travel Quotes will continue. I love them so keep them coming!
  • Sunday – the Sabbath rest so no blog post.
  • Monday – Pictures from Turkey
  • Wednesday – series on suffering continues
  • Thursday – I’ll be back to regular blogging. 

Your generosity in reading, commenting, and sharing is a gift. And to those of you who have purchased Between Worlds, thank you!

Speaking of Between Worldsif you buy the book for yourself or a friend during November all proceeds will go to refugees in Turkey. The refugee situation gets more difficult by the day and cold weather is coming. With that cold weather comes an increase in need for resources like blankets, heaters, tents and more. Along with that are the myriad of health needs so I’m thrilled to be able to send any royalties to a cause like this. It seems appropriate given the topic of the book and where my heart lies.

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging can be purchased here: 

Read reviews of Between Worlds here: 

So thank you! And have a great week. 

Interview with Tamara Lunardo – Editor of What a Woman is Worth

What a woman is worth picture

On April 1st the book What a Woman is Worth was released. Today I’m excited to introduce you to editor and writer Tamára Lunardo. In today’s post she talks about birthing the book, weaving her own story throughout and what she hopes readers will take away from What a Woman is Worth. Read more about Tamára at the end of the post. 

 

1.  How would you describe the book What a Woman is Worth? It’s a diverse and unified gathering of women’s voices to challenge and inspire people’s understanding of the value of women and girls.

2. How did you get the idea for the book? The responses I got from people who read my blog post “What’s a Girl Worth?” made me realize that I wasn’t alone in my hurts and questions of worth– so many others were struggling too. So I wanted to create something that would say to the world, “Women and girls need to hear a better story of themselves.” 

3. Your story is the common thread that weaves these diverse essays together–can you tell us a bit of what this was like for you? It really messed me up in terrible and necessary and beautiful ways. I thought I was going to just put together other people’s stories and that would be that– very sanitary. I’m a professional.

But the thing is, when you allow someone else’s story to get into your heart, you come face to face with your own– heart and story. So it delayed production for about a year because my story began to change as I acknowledged and interacted with it. And it was far from sanitary– it was messy, because that’s how hearts are, and our stories are our hearts. So now a lot of that developed story is woven into this book. And a lot of it will become a book of its own.

4. What do you hope women who read the book will learn or gain? I hope they will see that they’re not alone in their experiences, questions, or hurts and that who they are is intrinsically, unshakably valuable.

5. How about men– why might it be important for men to read WAWIW? The book has a female perspective on a universal issue because that’s where I come from. But I don’t think we have to have the same perspectives to learn from each other’s stories; in fact, we often learn more from those who see from a different vantage point.So this book is important for men, first, because the question of worth is one that every human is faced with and, second, because they have so much power in the world to make it better for everyone. I want them to see how women get such wrong messages about their worth, and I want men to step up and take part in sending better messages.

6. As a writer what’s next for you? I told my awesome agent, Rachelle, about the journey my life has taken throughout this book process– the frightening self-discovery, the painful divorce, the upending yet comforting of God’s good voice, the surprising, beautiful new life ahead. And she said that it’s a story I have to write because other people need to know what I’ve learned, which is that you only get to meet with God when you show up as your real self.

7. Any last thoughts about WAWIW to leave with readers? It’s terrifying to become vulnerable in front of the world. And I want you to know that the 30 women, plus me, who dared to shared their most personal stories could only have done it for a damn good reason. That reason is you.

We would love to hear from you! Leave any questions about the book or thoughts in the comments.

Want a copy of What a Woman is Worth

Order a paperback on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/p2z7hrsOrder a Kindle version on Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/qdrqywv

Tamara thumbnailAbout the Author: Known for her disarming honesty and humor, Tamára is the editor of What a Woman Is Worth, a monthly contributor to A Deeper Story, an award-winning, syndicated blogger, an essayist appearing in several anthologies, and a copywriter for a large, child-focused anti-hunger organization.She holds a degree in English from the University of Florida, and her five kids, when they let her; she almost never holds her tongue.

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One-Dimensional Stories

No one is a Single Story

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete.*

I was introducing myself at a party when the woman I was speaking with interrupted me and said “Oh, I know you. You’re that woman who….” She went on to describe one event that she had heard about from one of my acquaintances — someone who I wouldn’t have even described as a friend.

I was stunned. 

This woman thought she knew me. The conversation was closed. She went on to greet other people who were beside me but our conversation was over. She knew what she wanted to know and that was the end.

A single story robs people of dignity.

I felt robbed — robbed of identity, robbed of meaning.  In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I felt robbed of dignity.

As angry as I was over that interaction, the unfairness of the interruption, the gross simplification of who I was based on one event, the fact that she didn’t know anything, really, about me — I realized on analysis that I have done the same.

I have acted as though I knew someone purely on hearsay. I have made assumptions based on stereotypes. I have dismissed based on unverified stories.

We do it all the time, don’t we? Look at nursing homes in the west, full of the elderly. The residents are reduced to a single time of their lives — old age. Reduced to wrinkled, toothless, scattered, and forgetful. We forget that their lives are rich with memory and meaning. That they were once teenagers with rebellion on their hearts and stars in their eyes. Twenty year olds who could change the world with a single action. Thirty year olds struggling under the weight of toddlers or singleness. Forty year olds learning that life doesn’t last forever. Fifty year olds with the first quiver and fear of old age. Sixty year olds where they looked in the mirror and, for the first time, didn’t recognize themselves. Seventy year olds facing a future without a spouse.

We see one dimension. A woman in a bleak room with clouded eyesight and a shared bathroom.

There is a problem with one-dimensional stories.

It’s a problem with the old, it’s a problem with the young, it’s a problem in the city, it’s a problem with the homeless.

And it’s also a problem with mission trips and short-term stints overseas, including blogging trips, and I’ll say it loud and clear – it’s a problem with North American journalists in Sochi. The one-dimensional stories consolidated into 140 characters and labeled #SochiProblems display a troubling ethnocentrism, failing to give valid critique and thoughtful response to a city and an entire country. One article states that Russians are calling this “”zloradstvo,” or “malicious glee.” All of Russia is reduced to a single story called #SochiProblems.

“As faves and retweets on @SochiProblems explode, it’s clear that the meme is based on cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance: The posts reflect actual issues that directly impact the quality of life of Russia’s 143 million people.”* 

It’s not the full picture. It’s a one-dimensional story. And one-dimensional stories are problematic.

I can picture these journalists cramming notes into small, moleskin journals, crafting their words – not to give honest and credible story and critique, but to gain a following, to see how many will pass retweet their one-dimensional views.

When we are visitors we must above all be honest. We must be clear that we are rookies in our understanding, babies in our assessments. Recently I read an interview with Adam Klein on a book he edited called The Gifts of the State.  It is a selection of stories penned by Afghan writers. At one point, in talking about the disconnect between the East and West, specifically Afghanistan and the west he says this:

“It was a dusty night in Kabul. I had lived in Muslim countries for 8 years. I saw a man on his bicycle with a scarf wrapped around his face. My first thought was “if this was the cover of Time magazine, I would think ‘terrorist'”; in fact, it was a sand storm.”

A single story says terrorist, a more complex look at circumstances shows a far more realistic picture.

So as I ponder this and shake my head over my own telling of stories and the often one-dimensional view I give to them, I think about the master of story telling, Jesus.

Because that’s what I love so much about Jesus – he saw people fully, he saw their outside actions, and he knew their inside thoughts. He, the ultimate story-teller told three-dimensional stories so that those who had ears to hear would hear.

And I pray that I will learn to be more like this Master Story-Teller, better understanding the complexity of the human experience, the human heart, telling stories with humility of heart and pen.

What about you? Have you been robbed of dignity because someone reduced your story to a single event? Have you done this to others? How do we learn to hear and tell stories honoring the complexity of the human experience? 

*from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story

Blogger’s note: The Onion did a great job a couple of weeks ago writing an article called “6-Day Visit to Rural Africa Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Pictures” —  Like most satire it exposes an unfortunate truth.

***************

For a critical look at #SochiProblems see the article “#SochiProblems is More of an Embarrassment for America than it is for Russia.”

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Stories & Resilience

What's your story

“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.”* 

There is much written on stories, the power of stories and their ability to connect us and help us learn and grow. In fact, recent research has shown that children who know their family story are able to withstand more of life’s troubles than those that don’t. In a word, they are more ‘resilient’.

The research comes from two psychologists out of Emory University. They developed a tool called “Do You Know” that asked children to answer 20 questions about their families. They found that the more a child knew about their family the higher their self-esteem and their ability to withstand stress, to function normally. It turned out to be the “best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Because it is about being a part of a bigger story, being a part of something larger than we are.

I think about this, about resilience and the family narrative and look back on some of the chapters of the story. In my story there is the chapter where “Grandma K” lost Grandpa, he was only 50 years old. My mom was thousands of miles across the ocean and received the news by telegram. My cousin Leslie Ann was there, remembers his stomachache, how they all thought it was about something he ate. But it wasn’t – it was a heart attack. Grandma K weathered her grief and loss with grace, moving on to welcome many more grandchildren, and then great-grandchildren into the family narrative.

There is the chapter where my oldest brother almost drowned in a canal in Pakistan, a family friend rescuing him and my mother doing CPR – something she had just read about in a Reader’s Digest, praying all the while that he would live.

There is the chapter where my mom stood on the roof of our home in Ratodero on Christmas Eve, deeply discouraged, lonely and alone. Friends from a town 45 minutes away on a dusty road drove to surprise us, singing Christmas Carols to announce their arrival. Another chapter where my oldest brother, but 28 years old, lost his first wife to cancer, leaving behind both him and a beautiful 4-year old – Melanie Joy.

There are too many chapters to count – one goes all the way back to John Howland of the Mayflower.

And then there are the chapters that my nuclear family have written, are writing. Those chapters include Pakistan, Egypt, Istanbul, Essex, holidays, plane rides, arriving in the United States with all our earthly possessions in 26 suitcases and an Egyptian Siamese cat, pictures of Yassar Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in a heart-shaped frame on our mantle, tea-time on winter nights, curry and kusherie, lots of goodbyes, a wedding….and that does not include crazy traditions and inside jokes that are all a part of the story.

The narrative continues day after day, year after year where we are a part of both a bigger, extended family unit, and our own smaller unit. Woven through the years in both these narratives are the good times and the hard times, the richer times, the poorer times, the times of sick and the times of well. The tapestry is made up of joy, grief, anger, peace, strife, reconciliation and laughter….always there has been laughter. 

But for me this is about more than research, more than resilience from a family story. It’s about being part of a far bigger and far greater story – a story written by God himself. A story that tells of redemption and restoration, that gives me something greater than a family narrative, bigger than any earthly memories.

It’s this story, a story that tells of people willing to risk all because they believed, a story that gets bigger and better and truer each passing day, that gives me resilience, that tells me I am part of a narrative that is larger than all I am and all I have.

Because the story I’m in now, as good and as hard as it sometimes is, is just the beginning of that Great Story where “every chapter is better than the one before.”

“But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” from The Last Battle by CS Lewis

*From “The Stories That Bind Us” by Bruce Feiler published in NY Times “This Life”.
Image credit: convisum / 123RF Stock Photo

Guest Post – Witnesses to Our Lives

Lately I’ve been missing stories. Somehow my world has been too narrow, too tired, my ears too closed. It’s as though my eyesight needs healing and my ears need cleaning, for there are stories all around me.

Over a year and a half ago I posted on The Power of the Narrative. In that post I said this:

“I think that the power of the narrative, the story, needs to be revived in our country. We hang ourselves on sound bites and 140 characters and have lost the ability to concentrate on stories that are longer than a 500 word blog post. How often can the tweet of 140 characters make you feel and cry, rejoice and laugh, rage and empathize. Stories do. Narratives of life lived and our response to how it was lived. There is a power in stories – a power in the telling, and a power through the listening.”

The responses on that post were wonderful. They gave witness to the impact stories had on readers and why they were important.

It is one of those comments that I am posting today – a powerful reminder of why we need stories.

It’s a reminder I need today. 

Join Pari Ali – a long time reader of Communicating Across Boundaries in “Witnesses to Our Lives”

There is always a story. Each life has many short stories, a few plays, innumerable anecdotes and at least one full length novel. People always tell me their stories, even in the rest room. Maybe that is my big story. I have this face that invites confidences, a face that invites stories.

English: View from Kuwait Marina Mall

Some I will not forget – they are so unexpected. There I was in the restroom of one of Kuwait’s malls, Marina Mall and the attendant was a Sri Lankan woman. As I washed and dried my hands and brushed my hair, she told me about herself, how she was from a well to do family but had married a poor man of another religion against the wishes of her family and they had broken all relations with her. This man had later deserted her and here she was– forced by her circumstances to make her living cleaning out the toilets.

When I was admitted to the fever hospital for malaria, there was a lady in the next bed who worked as a maid for a Kuwaiti woman. She had just returned from India like me and also contracted malaria. She spoke Telegu and Arabic, my Arabic was not good and Telegu non-existent but that did not hinder her telling of her life story.

She had married the man she loved only to lose him three months later to a snake bite. A young widow, she then discovered she was pregnant. After delivering her son she had to leave her infant and come to Kuwait to earn a living. She began working for a Kuwaiti family but soon after the husband divorced his wife who also had a small baby. The two women became close and 11 years later she was still working for the same employer who took great care of her.

One day I was going home in an auto, it was raining very heavily, I saw a woman standing in the rain fully drenched waiting for a bus, I wondered what was her story? Rich or poor? Educated or illiterate? Town bred or country-bred? Each one of us has a story. All that is needed for them to come out is some compassion and interest.

Why do we tell our stories? I think because we need witnesses to our lives or perhaps a desire to leave our mark that says we were here, came, we felt, we suffered, we enjoyed, we loved, we gave, we received, but most of all we lived and in all that we did and all those we met we left our mark.

What about you? What are your stories? Do you believe we need witnesses to our lives? 

About the author: Pari Ali is a poet, a writer, and a photographer. She now lives in Kuwait with her husband and two daughters.

Stories from a Refugee Clinic

I am sitting in a sun-filled room in Uskudar – an area of Istanbul on the Asian side of the city. I heard the Call to Prayer a half hour ago telling me that it is late afternoon and we will soon be getting ready for the evening activities.

I am tired in the best way possible.

The day began in chaos. It was the first night since arriving that I did not sleep well. Carol (my sister-in-law) and I were heading to a refugee clinic on the European side of the city and we knew we would be late. We ran to catch a ferry from Uskudar to Kabatas, and slid into seats by the window, breathless.

The morning was beautiful, partly cloudy but sun spilling through at odd moments, reflecting off a blue-gray Bosphorous Sea.

“This is a beautiful city” – the same words came to mind that I had said to myself and aloud all week. Beautiful. Breathtaking really, with Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia on a hill, the Blue Mosque back a bit creating the picture perfect sky-line that is Istanbul. And the ferry rides were perfect places to slow down and experience the view and the city.

Arriving at the dock, we headed to an underground cable car, taking it the rest of the way to Taksim. As we set off in search of the clinic, Carol remembered that Google maps doesn’t do construction. This is fact.

But no matter – we were determined. And determined won, as it usually does.

We found the building and after walking down a dark hallway, trekked 4 flights up a set of stairs. Istanbul is not a city for the short of breath.

The room we entered was full of language. Turkish, Farsi, English, Arabic – it all melded into indefinable verbs and nouns, participles and dangling. It was a gift to my ears.

One of the side rooms was designated as a nurses room and we did a quick survey of medicines and equipment. It was quick because there was none (apart from Sarah Goodwin’s 2 year expired antibiotics from Michigan). No blood pressure cuff, no stethoscope, one thermometer, and medicine that fit into one 8 by 11 plastic container.

Our first patient was an Iraqi refugee. With rusty and wanting Arabic I asked her what was wrong. I barely made out the words headache and chest pain when the interpreter came to my rescue. And the story came out. Bit by bit by bit. The head ache – but really the heartache; the chest pain – but really the stress and a heart broken. The words gave a picture of a family exiled. Refugees. Forging a new home in a new place.

What is the remedy for a broken heart? A life cracked by circumstance?

We had so little to offer. A small packet of Brufen (Ibuprophen), and encouragement to drink a lot of water, an offer to come back if the headaches worsened, if the headaches were accompanied by blurred vision or dizziness.

She was followed by more people, children and moms, more symptoms and more stories. And these were only the tip of a Titanic size iceberg of stories.

For years I have said that stories matter; stories give us a bigger picture, a narrative into which we offer our hearts. And these stories – they matter. They matter to the clinician who attempts to distinguish, with no equipment, symptoms that need physical medicine, those that need emotional, those that need both. They matter to the interpreter who skillfully takes the words and decodes them for the listener.

Most of all they matter to God; a God who needs no interpreter and no story-teller, a God who was present in the room with us, caring for all who were there. A God who gives eyes to see and ears to hear the cry of the heart.

The sun has almost set and the Call to Prayer was now over two hours ago. As I close my computer and type the last words, I whisper a prayer for the people I met, and those I never will; for stories I heard, and for the millions I will never hear.

20130411-215640.jpg

Bearing Witness

English: The Witness Cairn The Witness Cairn.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about surviving these past weeks. The blind rage I have felt for victims who haven’t survived, the incredible respect I have for those that survive and enter into healing – they have occupied my mind, my heart.

And though I have never been raped or attacked, though I can’t begin to understand that deep agony of body and soul – I have learned one thing. When we bear witness to the stories of those who have experienced the wounds of rape and violence, we help in the healing process.

Conversely, when we dismiss them, we become part of the attack, part of the abuse.

When we hear people’s stories, when we are present through listening to events in their lives, we are bearing witness. Bearing witness to the moment that changed their lives. Bearing witness to why they have pain. Bearing witness to the deep struggles of the soul that come out in stories, not in facts.

Bearing witness means that we are showing by our existence that something is true. To listen to the survivor of rape and abuse without judgment but with love is saying to them – “I believe that this happened. I believe that you bear the cost”. To listen to the refugee with their story of losing home, family members, walking miles to safety, finally arriving at a crowded, disease-ridden camp is to validate their experience.

Bearing witness is more than just hearing the stories. It’s entering into stories. Entering in with body and soul. Entering in with empathy and kindness. It’s entering in, and in our entering offering hope and healing.

Bearing witness is a good phrase.

Whose story will you bear witness to this day? To a friend who has tried a hundred times to tell you of their pain, but you have dismissed them? To your child who longs to communicate something about who they are, but is afraid to tell you? To an old woman who once lit up a room with her dance step and her smile? To a paralyzed young man who is dismissed, ignored because he sits in a wheelchair? To an angry coworker?

Who has walked beside you as a witness to your stories, so that you can move forward with purpose and hope?

Blogger’s note: Might I suggest this excellent op-ed piece from the NY Times: After Being Raped, I Was Wounded – My Honor Wasn’t

Sometimes I Want to Put Them All In the Tub

English: Little girl hanging up stocking by fi...

On Christmas day in 1989 we had three pre-schoolers. The anticipation of Christmas, the magic of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in Cairo, stockings at the foot of their beds — it was all new, exciting, magical.

They were beyond excited.

At the crack of dawn they were in our beds. Tousled heads, Superman and batman pajamas, soft small bodies opening up stockings. By 8 we were around the tree reading the Christmas story and opening gifts, by 9 we were eating scrambled eggs and a cinnamon roll Christmas tree with bright green frosting and sprinkles.

By 10 they were a mess. The sugar, the excitement, the gifts – it was all too much.

So – I put them all in the bath tub. In warm, soapy water they played and relaxed. The bath time toys were familiar, nothing new. The warmth and relaxation calmed them down and all of life was okay.

It is now 23 years later. And sometimes I wish I could put them all in a tub. All in warm, soapy water where they can relax and have the cares of the world dissolve like all the bubbles surrounding them. Where there is nothing in their world that can’t be solved with hot water and bubbles. Where troubles wash off like the dirt on their bodies.

But. That would be weird. Because they are adults and as adults I am no longer able to solve all of life’s problems with a bath.

And this is where my thinking becomes flawed, needy of reprogramming. Because I am not the Saviour, I am not the person who can make life okay. I am not the person who can whisper in their ears that I will always be there. I can’t scrub off dirt and wrong and sin with a soft, soapy cloth.

I am one, startlingly imperfect, mom.

And that T-shirt (or sometimes plaque) that says “God couldn’t be everywhere and so he created moms” Well that’s a loaded lie right there and unfortunately that thought comes and roots its way into our heads by way of our eyes and ears and we’re duped.

But in my startling imperfection, in this tired, soft body of mine that has more dimples and wrinkles by the day, is a God who knows all about the lies I believe. He gently does the reprogramming, sometimes tenderly, sometimes more firmly. And I’m reminded that His all-sufficient, powerful presence is that much stronger than a tub of soapy water.

But I still sometimes want to scoop them up and put them in the tub.