Finding My Way on the Freedom Trail

This morning I met with a dear friend at a coffee shop along the wharf in Boston. Blue sky and warm temperatures had us both exclaiming with delight as we sat outside drinking coffee and eating croissants. Our conversation went from Afghanistan to Islam to culture to cultural schizophrenia to the U.S election to Boston and back around again. Though much younger than me, we share our hearts during these times together, finding solace in mutual understanding.

We said goodbye by the bridge that separates the North End of Boston from Charlestown and I headed back home.

I soon found myself in an unfamiliar park and was just about to check my phone for directions when I spied the brick path that identifies Boston’s famed Freedom Trail.

Family and friends who come visit Boston always ask us about the Freedom Trail. Boston’s Freedom Trail is not a hike in the woods as some mistakenly think when they first arrive. Instead, it’s a path that winds through the city taking you to famous sites along the way. Every step of the path leads you into a story from the past and you find yourself immersed in America’s beginnings and fight for freedom.

Churches, museums, graveyards, and a ship are just a few of the treasured sites along the way. The trail begins at Boston Common and takes you 2.5 miles to an ending point at Bunker Hill Monument, an 11 minute walk from our house in Charlestown.

I smiled with relief as I found the Freedom Trail. I now knew where I was! I had a reference point and could follow the path. Instead of feeling a sense of confusion and disorientation, I felt safe and secure. If I just followed the brick path I knew exactly how to get home.

As I walked I thought about how weary and lost I have felt. I thought about the disorienation and lostness I feel when I sink into the abyss of discontent fueled by social media and the isolation it can create. I thought about how tired the world feels with this pandemic. And then I thought about the freedom that a known path allows, even when it winds and twists and turns.

I think a lot of us are feeling lost. We don’t know how to plan and how to walk forward. While the pandemic and the changed plans that it has brought is part of the reason, each of us have our own private reasons as well. These public challenges just make our private worlds more complicated.

Weary. Lost. Frustrated. Sad. Angry. Confused. Disoriented. These are just a few of the words that I have shared with friends and they have shared with me about this time. How do you find your way when there are so many twists and turns?

This sense of feeling lost is when I know I have to go back to the beginning. My life is recentered by remembering that my story, small as it is, is important and fits into a bigger story. As the Freedom Trail is to American history, so is my story to this bigger story. It’s small, but remembering it can remind me how to get home. I have churches and graveyards, ships and museums in my story as well.

As I remember my story, I remember who I am. More importantly, I remember whose I am.

The solid brick path of the Freedom Trail showed me the way today. Somehow, it also centered me in my story. As I walked the trail, I remembered who I was. The Freedom Trail brought me home.

Talking Together Makes Wise

In a book titled Tomorrow, God Willinga Norwegian anthropologist writes from her experiences befriending a family in a poor neighborhood in Cairo.  The book gives a portrayal of life in Cairo, primarily through the perspective of Umm Ali (Mother of Ali) with others from the extended family lending their voices to the narrative.  It is one of my favorite books for a variety of reasons, one of those being my love for the city of Cairo and Egyptians.

The prologue quotes Umm Ali saying: “I like talking with people, Talking together makes wise. Where had we humans been and what had we understood if we did not tell each other what each of us thinks and feels….it is a life necessity to be able to talk.”

She then proceeds to invite the author into her world, a world of loss and tragedy, poverty and joy, anger and love and then communicate those stories on paper.  She gets the importance of ‘talk’ in communicating the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.

The back streets of Cairo are an unlikely setting and Umm Ali perhaps an unlikely source of wisdom, but wisdom it is. She viewed talking as a gift to “purge you of sorrow/anger and invigorate your soul.”  This quote is from an Egyptian woman living in poverty with no formal education.  In light of a media frenzy over the power of words over people, Umm Ali recognized their power in the best way possible.  To communicate in order to express her feelings and life story and in doing so create understanding between people who don’t live or think in the same way that she or those around her do.

Cairo is a city of over 16 million people. That’s a lot of voices and a lot of stories but sometimes  one story is all it takes to “make wise.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom of Umm Ali in recent weeks. It’s been quiet on the blog because I’ve realized that too often in the past I’ve been quick to react, and much slower to really read and understand different perspectives. I’ve far too often made the narrative around the world about me instead of about others and the stories and perspectives that create their world view, the history that creates their living reality.

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

Max warren

What I hear loudest in the discussions that are taking place both on and offline is the plea to listen, to study, and to take a step back. This sits well with the words of Max Warren, a man described as a “perceptive historian” who lived from 1904 through 1977. He said this about approaching people:

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.‘”

Max Warren – 1963

I love these words, and I desperately want to be someone who reflects this reality – for the places I am approaching are holy.

[Picture credit – Image by Ahmed Sabry from Pixabay]

Life as Story

bible as story 1

“In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people’s minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life maybe empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves.

Early this summer, I read the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston-based doctor, researcher, and author, famous for books that have transformed the medical world, specifically The Checklist Manifesto, Better, and Complications.

Being Mortal is the first of Gawande’s books that I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. He is a brilliant, gifted story teller, and the stories of people at the end of their lives that are woven through Being Mortal touch the deep parts of my soul. In short, he accomplishes what he sets out to do: recognize what it is to be a human, designed for life but trapped in a finite body.

But this post is not a review of what is without doubt a fine book; instead I am struck by his emphasis on life as story.

At one point while I was growing up, there was an emphasis at my boarding school on finding the “perfect will of God”. As a teenager, this became incredibly important to me. How could I find that perfect will? How could I know that my every decision would lead me into that perfect will of God? I prayed fervently and breathed deep sighs of relief during those times when I felt I had “found” that perfect will. Like treasure buried deep beneath the earth, one had to dig hard to find that perfect will. It was elusive. Others seemed to find it, but not me.

In later years I came to see this from a completely different perspective. I came to see my journey with God as far bigger than finding God’s perfect will. Because who of us can know that perfection? We are told in the scriptures that we “see through a glass dimly” and “know in part”. I began to realize that finding God’s perfect will was not what the Christian life or Gospel message is about. Instead, it is understanding that life is story, and God in his infinite love has us and redemption at the center of the story.

When our lives are reduced to a quest for a perfect will or a series of decisions, they become mediocre. As Gawande says “Life is meaningful because it is a story.”

When my Christian life is reduced to a series of dos and don’ts, then it becomes mediocre and joyless. Just as I struggled in high school when I was anxiously searching to find the perfect will of God, I struggle thinking that if I don’t do the right thing at the right time, I will fall under God’s disapproving stare. I will then either anxiously try to do the right thing to please him, or I will ignore him alltogether. Neither option is palatable. They are both exhausting and defeating.

Because here is what I’ve come to know: God has written a story, a love story, and that love story has people at its center. Our lives are a story within the Greatest Story. While dos and don’ts diminish the story, understanding the Author’s great love for us enhances it.

Life as story is deeply comforting. It takes pressure off me. I stop seeing life as a series of events and choices, of dos and don’ts and begin to see the beauty of a narrative. When I reclaim my Christian faith as a story, I re-discover its beauty.

It makes me want to live the best story possible. 

“There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics [in the Bible], of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it.” NT Wright

bible as story

Everyone Has a Story

Everyone has a story

It came up again this weekend: the ‘where are you from?’ conversation. The conversation starter that has third culture kids squirming and sweating, eager to leave the room and the conversation.

A while back Cecily Thew over at Cecily.Mostly talked about laughing at a statement in the book To Sell is Human by Daniel H. Pink. He writes this:

“I often ask people ‘What do you do?’ But I’ve found that a few folks squirm at this because they don’t like their jobs or they believe that others might pass judgement. This question [where are you from] is friendlier and more attuned… it opens things up rather than shuts them down… it always triggers an interesting conversation.” 

To which Cecily responded in writing “Hahahahaha.”

As well she should, for if you want a conversation stopper and confuser for third culture kids, just ask them “where are you from?” No matter how sweetly and kindly you ask the question, it throws the TCK or CCK (cross cultural kid) into a confused jumble of words.

Someone astutely commented that it should be “What is your story?” and the more I think about that, the more I like it. The question “What is your story?” is not just for those who are displaced and exiled, but for everybody. It opens up the window to real conversation, to important information, to fostering understanding.

When we care enough to ask someone what their story is, we are having an ‘I-Thou” conversation. In his classic book I and Thou, the author Martin Buber speaks of the “I-thou” as a dialogue rather than a monologue; a dialogue of equality and empathy, where there is genuine interest for the other and their story.

While not everyone has a job and not everyone has a home, everyone has a story. Their story is uniquely theirs and cannot be taken from them. Stories define us, they tell the listener how our experiences made us who we are today. Telling a story invites questions, and questions invite more of the story.

So today – take a chance, and voice the question “What is your story?” to someone who you don’t know. Then sit back and watch what happens. You may be astounded by the response.

A Routine Visit

A Routine Visit by Robynn


There really is no such thing as a routine visit to the dentist, or to anywhere for that matter. Every experience is rooted in a bigger story and that changes things. Yesterday I went to the dentist for a filling. This should have been a routine visit, a simple procedure, but I was full of anxiety and fear. It might be because my own personal dental history is full of the stuff of spy movies: political intrigue, characters who disappear in the middle of the night, scenes that mirror torture, long bus rides, foreign currency, dark rooms. It seems like none of my visits to the dentist have ever been routine.

Growing up in a boarding school tucked up and away in the Himalayan foothills just north of Islamabad (Pakistan) meant we had no easy access to dentists and dental care. Brushing our teeth was mandatory. Toothaches were taken to the school nurse. She’d poke around in our mouths and determine whether a trip to the dentist was necessary. The dentist office was a two hour ride down the winding hills from Murree to Islamabad. It was an endurance test at the best of times. Tooth pain and motion sickness don’t marry well. Those trips to the dentist were often unbearable.

At some point in my childhood it was determined that I needed orthodontia. My parents decided on the renowned Dr Bhajva. She shared a practice with Dr Zafar Niazi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s personal dental surgeon. One day we showed up for an appointment and there were a strange and mysterious hush over the office. Dr Niazi, previously arrested while Bhutto was on death row, had now gone into hiding. On another routine dentist visit we had made the trip down the mountain to see Dr Bhajva, only to discover that she too had disappeared. Her self-imposed exile didn’t last long but it did interfere with my braces being adjusted!

A few years later when I was in high school I developed a toothache. The school nurse, then the lovely Miss Njaa, took me to the nearby Military Hospital to see the dentist they had on staff. It was a dark nearly empty room with a single dentist chair in the center. Maybe the melodrama of the moment has altered my memories, but I seem to recall a single naked light bulb hanging by a wire over the chair. The dentist determined that would I need to have the tooth in question extracted. Miss Njaa asked if there would be anesthesia. Yes. Yes. No problem. She stood by me kindly, offering reassurances, while the dentist left the room to prepare for the procedure.

Upon his return he brought several assistants with him. One of them sprayed a fine mist into my mouth. Miss Njaa explained this must be a numbing liquid before they gave me a shot. Much to our surprise that spray was all the numbing I would get. Each of the assistants stepped forward and held down a limb. When Miss Njaa and I began to protest, the dentist stepped in with a stainless steel tool of some kind and reached into my mouth. He worked hard, straining, pushing, pulling, grabbing. I tried not to panic. The assistants kept my limbs out of the way. Miss Njaa, completely out of control and out of her element, repeatedly asked them to stop. After much effort, the dentist successfully removed my tooth. He packed my mouth with cotton and it was over.

It was just a routine visit to the dentist!

Each of our lives are rooted in a broader story. Capped with history, filled with memories, these experiences of the past colour our present day moments. Yesterday I admitted to Dr Smith, my dentist, that I was anxious about getting a filling. She sat back in her chair, took her mask off, and asked if I knew where that anxiety was coming from. I briefly told her the story of my visit to the Military Hospital in Murree. Her eyes grew round and large. Her eyebrows inched up her forehead. She shook her head slowly and said, “Oh my. That will do it!” She promised to be gentle and she was. She checked in with me several times, making sure I was okay. Hearing a snippet of my story increased her empathy and care.

It was a sweet reminder to me to inquire after each other. We have stories that make up who we are. Pulling a moment out of context might provoke us to roll our eyes: It’s just a routine visit to the dentist! Dr Smith asked after my fears. She cared enough to remove the mask and sit a few moments. It didn’t take a lot of time, but it meant the world to me, and it changed my experience in the chair.

 After all, it really was only a (slightly redeemed) routine visit to the dentist!


Be Okay With the Process

book-shelf brene brown quote

On Sunday I connected with a third culture kid younger than me, Tayo Rockson. We talked by Skype for an hour. It didn’t matter that the video portion was not working – it was a gift to connect with this man. Tayo had asked me to do a pod cast for him on third culture kids and there was not a single gap in conversation. We connected immediately through the common experience of wondering where home is and the challenge of identity. He has walked a journey from country to continent and city to city. His countries include Vietnam, Burkino Faso, Sweden, the United States, and his passport country — Nigeria. Tayo has a passion to use his global identity to make an impact in the world, to challenge other third culture kids to use their identity, to see it as a gift.

The questions Tayo asked were valuable and challenging. He began with the question “Where is Home?” We laughed about this – how could he, a third culture kid that knows how paralyzing this question can be still begin the interview with this question? But he did and he wouldn’t back down. We talked about many things — my journey, homesickness, identity, challenges, and successes. At the end he asked an important question: “What advice would you give others?” What would you say to others who are uprooted and live between worlds, never feeling completely a part of either? Through this blog I’ve written a lot about what I would say, but it can be summarized into this: Be okay with the process. Relax and allow room for change, change in your feelings, change in your sense of belonging, change in your connection to your past and all it holds. In the days since the interview I’ve expanded that to be more specific: Be okay with the process of owning your story.

Periodically I teach a train the trainer course on chronic disease self management. It’s an intense and excellent 4-day training. One of the things I say many times during the four days is “It’s not about the content, it’s about the process.” I do this because there are people who want more substantive content, they get restless. The principles we put forward are not rocket science, they are practical and simple and participants begin the course by wanting more. But sometimes practical and simple is like rocket science. And it struck me the other day as I was speaking with Tayo that the advice I would give to a third culture kid is the same: “It’s not about content, it’s about process. Be okay with the process.” The process of adapting to the country that claims you as citizen, even if you don’t claim it. The process of growing and feeling like a chameleon, bright with promise one day and grey as a stormy sky the next. The process of figuring out those big words with bigger meanings like home and identity, belonging and culture. “Be okay with the process of owning your own story.” 

We are people of flesh and blood, feelings and longings, hopes and dreams. And each of us has a story. Your story is unique to your background, your family, all the moves and places that shaped you and hold your heart. But knowing your story is one thing, owning it is another. Owning our stories takes time, it’s a process. And so I’ll close with a quote from Brené Brown: “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story & hustle for your worthiness.” May we learn to walk inside our stories. May we learn to accept that we are a people in process. May we be freed from the bondage of hustling for our worthiness.

What advice would you give to third culture kids or the person who lives between worlds? It doesn’t matter whether you’re a TCK or not, we still want to hear from you! 

Here are the questions that Tayo posed to me that may help you as you think about process, as you think about owning your own story, as you think about walking inside your story. And if you would like to hear the podcast, here it is! Home is Where Your Story Begins – Episode 5 

  1. Can you map out your third culture/ nomadic experience and tell us why you moved so much?

  2. Where is home?

  3. Favorite country you enjoyed living in the most and why?

  4. Were you ever homesick and how did you deal with that?

  5. When did you first get a sense of an identity crisis and how did you deal with it?

  6. What was your journey like to being comfortable with yourself

  7. Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced growing up and how you dealt with them

  8. On the flip side how did it help you succeed?

  9. What is one piece of advice you can give to a TCK’s

  10. Where can we find out more about you and what are you up to?

*Picture credit –

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