A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

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

CALL THE MIDWIFE, SEASON 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a few things that may help: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROBYNN BLISS

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

On Soft Landings and Waiting

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.

What a time they have, these two

housed as they are in the same body.

Mary Oliver

We arrived yesterday on a flight from Doha, Qatar. It was a long flight full of people and movies. We were greeted so well by our dear friends – friends who have walked us through several centuries of joys, sorrows, moves, and changes. They are our people. They brought a truck to transport our many and heavy bags. They fixed dinner and gave us Moscow Mules as we waited. They took us on a walk and they stocked our fridge with food. They are our soft landing after a long six weeks of up and down emotions and decision-making.

I woke to unfiltered sunshine bathing our cottage in light and joy. A bird outside sang an endless song of contentment, begging me to do the same. The joy and grief that have been entwined in my body for weeks have reached a pinnacle – so much joy at being back, joy of Rockport, joy of reunited friendships, joy of return. And so much grief – grief of missing our friends, grief at being away from our beloved Kathy, grief at missing the call to prayer and the Kurdish sun, grief that the Middle East – where my body and soul feel connected in indescribable ways is again no longer home. The poem I quoted at the top of the page is my heart and I am grateful to a friend for reminding me of it.

I wrote this on social media, and I rewrite it here – more as a reminder to me than anything else.


It’s been a long journey. From the time we heard about the edict from the ministry of finance, to the fight to stay, to the realization that we had to leave, to the bag packing and apartment cleaning, to the getting rid of stuff, to the trip to Turkey, to the inevitable trip back to Kurdistan, to the hours of movie watching in a plane, to the hugs of dear friends on arrival at Boston’s Logan Airport, to the full truck of our luggage, to walking in the front door of our beloved cottage in Rockport. ⠀

We took a risk when we bought this cottage 11 years ago, and every year we look at each other and say “It was worth the risk!” Never have I felt this more than today, as I wake up. ⠀

The sun shines in and it is perfectly quiet. A bird outside is joyfully responding to its surroundings. Our favorite books and pieces of home surround us, and dear friends have given us a soft place to land. ⠀

There is pain – it is inevitable when you say goodbye. There is anger and a desire for revenge for a situation poorly handled. There is the sting of unemployment in a culture where your identity comes from what you do. But those will be put on the table and dealt with in time and through counsel and prayer. ⠀

Right now there is sunshine and peace, and a bird whose joy is contagious. ⠀

All is well as I wait.


A few years ago I wrote about waiting in an essay that ended up in my first book. In this new season of waiting, I reread the words and I rest.

Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in and orchestrates our plans, our movements.We may never know the reason for the waiting. It may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God. In waiting we join hundreds of others who waited before us. Joseph, sold into slavery, waited years to be able to say the words “You meant it to harm me, but God used it for good.” Abraham and Sarah, waited for so many years to have a child that Sarah laughed cynically at the idea. Noah waited aboard a boat full of antsy animals, with no land in sight. Those are only a few in a long list of ‘waiters’

And so I wait in Rockport thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.”

Hard Goodbyes; Sweet Hellos

Sometimes I think my writing flows best when I am at the airport. It is here where my thoughts and feelings find a space in my brain, and the words come naturally.

They are not forced but rather, like a pianist who knows her keyboard so well that her fingers fly, so do my words trip over each other just wanting to get out on the page.

We are in Istanbul’s new airport waiting for our flight to Erbil. It has been a busy two weeks. Hard on the body, but good for the soul. I have been in seven cities and taken eight flights; my ninth boards shortly.

I saw my beloved mom, celebrated Pascha, saw our beloved Priest and Poppadia, reconnected with best friends, enjoyed seeing four of our five children, hugged and played with two grandchildren, saw our godson, celebrated the quiet, significant life of my father-in-law, and had countless meaningful conversations in English. It was a gift.

Goodbyes are never easy. A sign high above me at the Istanbul Airport states it bluntly under three airplane windows: Hard to say goodbye. Living on the other side of the world you say hard goodbyes on both sides of the globe. In saying hello to one set of loves and lives you say goodbye to another. We have only been gone two weeks but we have missed our Kurdish friends greatly.

There is anonymous solidarity here at the airport. I join countless others who have said goodbye to those they love. Some said goodbye in early morning hours, just after breaking the newly begun Ramadan fast. Others said goodbye in the mid afternoon with the sun shining brightly high above them, church bells echoing the noon hour. Still more hugged goodbye after the last call to prayer, heading off on journeys unknown. Now we wander through airport malls, browsing here, picking up something there, grabbing coffee in the in between spaces of our lives.

Airports are liminal spaces, spaces between hello and goodbye. They are spaces where little is required and much is anticipated. Airports are bridges between places and the people who travel through them are the bridge-builders.

We who spend many hours in airports are both richer and poorer through our travel. Richer in experiences, but perhaps poorer in settled spirits. For one thing this life does to you is place you on a path of always being between and there is an inherent restlessness in that space.

As hard as these goodbyes are, it is such an honor to live in a place that is not your own, to be welcomed by a group of strangers and invited to share their lives. This is the mystery of travel and cross-cultural living. The mystery of learning more about communicating across boundaries; the mystery of living in the spaces between.

So I acknowledge the sign high above me in the airport even as I press forward to the joy of what awaits. Hard goodbyes and sweet hellos are hallmarks of the journey. At this moment I wouldn’t trade this. There is so much grace in the space between.

The Goers and the Stayers

We arrived at Logan Airport at 6:30 in the evening after an 18 hour day of flying. We were tired and bleary-eyed, but also excited. We got through immigration in record time and then waited with other weary travelers for our luggage.

Four pieces later we were on our way to pick up a rental car.

The road to our friends home never felt so long. It had been too long and now we were almost there.

We turned the corner onto Essex Street in Hamilton and drove up the dark road. We could not see the beginning signs of spring, even though we knew they were there. We also knew that just ahead was the home of a couple who have walked through life with us for many years.

A few minutes later we had arrived. There in front of us was an unassuming Cape Cod style house with a yellow garage. This was the house where a friendship had flourished for many years. A house that had hosted more hours of talk and laughter than we could possibly count. This house spelled comfort in some of my darkest days and provided refuge from many a New England snow storm.

But what is a house without the people who make it a home? Our friends have stayed as we have gone. They have continually offered shelter and friendship to our wandering feet. They are the roots to our wings and the solid wisdom to our sometimes too restless souls.

They are our stayers and I could not love them more.

The goers need the stayers. The travelers need the port. The ones who pack up and leave for far off places desperately need the ones who wait for them, encourage them, love them, and welcome them back. This couple does that for us and I am so grateful. They have been in our lives for 23 years and they will continue to be our people until our lives on this earth are over. If you are a traveler, find your people and never, ever forget how precious they are.

If you are a goer, find a stayer. If you are a stayer, find a goer. We need each other more than we know.

Someday I will be a stayer, and I will remember how much the goers need me.

On Longing

Longing. What is it? How would you describe this word? Not the dictionary definition, but your own heart definition?

A couple of weeks ago I asked folks how they would define “longing” on the Communicating Across Boundaries Facebook page. Your responses did not disappoint. The thing that made them so significant to me is that I know some of the stories behind these responses. I know the ones with chronic illness who fight against pain and don’t complain, longing for a day when that pain may go. I know the ones who have lost a son or daughter and carry that cruel act against the natural order of life in their hearts. I know the ones who have said too many goodbyes, the ones who have experienced significant loss of place and people. So as you read these, know that they come from hearts and lives of those who have suffered but continue to live. And to you who read this, may you feel hope in our shared experiences of longing.

The ache that lives somewhere between the fossa jugularis sternalis and the solar plexus. It both hurts and comforts – like Chopin’s Nocturnes (see below). It needs no solving – as it cannot be “fixed” from the outside. Only the soul can move things in such a way that longing gets released – either into sadness or into action. – Eva Laszlo-Herbert

I am reading a great book right now, Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life by Phileena Heuertz. She has an entire chapter titled “Longing” and here is one of the ways she describes it: “Longings are like growing pains in that their origins can be difficult to trace, and yet they give indication of something deep and profound, something immediately true of us. In that respect, noting our longings and looking more deeply into them can function as a sort of ‘thin space’, in which God pierces our desires and then redeems them with a more devout understanding for how we can live in relationship to God, one another and all creation”. – Dana Miller Baker

At times it feels like a dull ache and at times it feels like a stab in the gut. It is a soul hunger that is ever present. It is both hope and despair. – Joyce Lind Terres

Longing is feeling the distance between where you are and where you want to be – a place, a time, a person, a community, a stage of life, a depth of relationship, or even a version of yourself. – Tanya Crossman

A feeling of being distant…but yearning to be close to something or someone that makes you feel like your most authentic, truly alive, living your purpose self. – April

At the moment I would describe it as an unquenchable ache in the very fibre of my being that sucks the joy out of life. I find it hard to pinpoint where longing ends and grief begins as longing is such a large part of grief. It physically hurts to think about how much Im longing for five more minutes with my mum. – Jo Hoyle

Yearning can be animated or subdued. I sense ‘longing’ as something that might be initially inexplicable because it is “subconscious” in nature, and under the radar of our overly expressed emotions. – Brooke Mackie-Ketcham

A yearning…perhaps for something or someone lost to you, or for something you are working to accomplish. – Betsy Merrill

It’s a reaching with every fiber of your being… – Laurinda McLean

A deep desire for something someplace or someone that doesn’t go away. It is always there consciously, and or sub-consciously. The desire is more than just in your head, it’s in your soul and deep in your bones. To put it in the words of the Psalms, it’s in your innermost being. – Susan Haglund

Missing something so badly it hurts inside. – Laura Keenan

SaudadeLinda Janssen & Annelies Kanis

What do they mean by Saudade? I’ve written a lot about this word, as have others who have lived mobile lives. It’s a Portuguese word that originated in the 13th century by Portuguese diaspora who longed for the places and people they had left behind. 

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.


A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

I’m so grateful to those of you who shared these soul-deep responses. What about those who are reading? How would you define longing? Please share through the comments, and thank you – as always – for the gift that you give in reading and being a part of this online space. I will never take it for granted.

Evil and a Challenge

There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’.” Laurie Penny

I arrived in the country of Oman one day ago for a short vacation. Right now I am sitting in a small slice of heaven on earth. I am surrounded by incredible beauty – palm trees and blue sky are above me and a pristine beach surrounded by a slate-blue sea is in front of me.

Waves from an infinity pool splash behind me and there is just a touch of a breeze, enough to create a perfect 78 degrees.

The ocean is far below me, down some steep steps. It’s a small lagoon surrounded by craggy rocks. Palm trees are scattered across the landscape. There are no flies, no ants, no bugs of any sort. It is as near perfect as life on this earth will ever get.

I am sickeningly aware of the sharp contrast between this landscape and that of the carnage in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a community is grieving after being targeted in a terrorist attack. They were targeted as being unworthy to live. Because that’s essentially what terrorists do – they decide that a group of people are not worthy to live. True, they have their own skewed ideology that tells them this is okay, but that doesn’t make it any less evil. And that’s what it is. Evil. They destroy life, deciding to eliminate that which God created and called “good”.

I spend all day every day with Muslims. They are my colleagues, my friends, my cultural brokers, my students, my community in Kurdistan. Five times a day the Call to Prayer goes off at this mosque behind our apartment. Five times a day I’m reminded of my own faith because of the faith of others.

And so I am deeply saddened by what happened in New Zealand.

If you are as well, challenge yourself to reach out to those who don’t look like you, believe like you, think like you, and behave like you.

Ask a Muslim co-worker how they are doing.

Find out if there is a mosque in your area and call them, expressing your sorrow over what happened in New Zealand.

Call out evil when you see it. Commit to kindness and giving others a chance. Embrace beauty, create beauty, look for the beauty in others.

Communicate across boundaries. It’s not easy, but it will change you and challenge you. You will be better for it.

It’s not enough to write a meme or cover your social media profile with a statement. We must do more.

And remember, evil won’t win.

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan: Volume 3

I woke up this morning to bright sunshine creating shadows on the walls. It is almost spring in Kurdistan. While indoors it is still brutally cold because of concrete buildings and lack of insulation, all of nature is breathing signs of spring. From goslings to buds on trees, life is bursting forth.

We have heard that March is a spectacular month in Kurdistan. It is a month long celebration of life and the new year. Nowruz (Persian and Kurdish New Year) is celebrated on the 21st of the month and we have heard that people picnic both that day and all the days surrounding the celebration. Winter has felt long here, even without snow. The rains come and seep into your bones and through cracks in the walls so that your body and your environment are constantly wet. It’s a bit like monsoons in Pakistan. With the dryer, warmer weather all of life feels easier.

A Daughter Visits…

Our younger daughter visited us this past week and in her presence we felt once again the joy of belonging. We rearranged our schedules to maximize our short time together and let her experience as much as possible.

We visited Darband and looked out onto a brilliant blue lake with snow capped mountains in the distance. We hiked up a small mountain behind the university and took in the expansive views of the area. But the highlight was a friend driving us up a steep mountain road where hairpin turns and switchbacks had us gasping and wondering if we were all going to die. We didn’t die and as we stopped to take in our surroundings it was all worth it. The view from above was magnificent. The sun was setting and the entire area was bathed in shades of fuchsia, gold, orange, blue, and grey. We could see where the lake detoured into smaller pools and rivers. We saw mountains beyond mountains and hills beyond hills. Almond trees dotted the landscape, their small pink blossoms whispering the hope of spring. Kurdistan’s beauty was on full display as if to say “I’m so much more than people realize!”

And it is.

In addition we were invited into homes of dear friends who showed Stefanie the warmth and hospitality we have been bragging about since we arrived in Kurdistan. It was an incredible gift to have her here with us and to show her why we love Kurdistan so much.

Beauty & Kindness of the People,
Stunning Landscape,
Generous Hospitality

There are times when I feel like our life resembles a National Geographic magazine article. Surrounded by adventure, beauty, and uncommon experiences as compared to the Western world, we find that each day holds a story or ten. But far more than that, what I long to communicate from our time here it is the beauty and kindness of the people, the stunning landscape, and the generous hospitality that is shown to us at every turn. I long to challenge stereotypes and show people how much they miss when they are locked into media perceptions. This is why these slice of life posts are so important. They are read all over the world and I can only pray and hope that my small words will make a difference.

But my words are inadequate to describe the beauty that we have seen, so I will leave you with pictures. Enjoy and as you look at them, think of Kurdistan.

img_0350

img_0341

img_0341

img_0233

img_0236

Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

A Slice of Life – Kurdistan

“Write more about Kurdistan! I want to hear more about your life!”

This text came from my younger daughter recently. I realize I haven’t written much about my new normal. Perhaps it’s because my new normal sometimes seems so far beyond what I ever imagined that I can’t find words. Other times it feels so similar to my past lives in Pakistan and Egypt that I feel I have stepped back in time.

My work at the college of nursing is difficult to describe. Every day is different and every day I learn something new. The route to my office is changing as the weather changes. These past few days as I walk to work I don’t revel in the crunchy, golden leaves of fall in Boston. Instead I see mums, a cactus, and a palm by our plant store along with an open fire boiling tea for students and faculty as they pass by.

Yesterday I went with the 4th level nursing students to the village. I have spent a good deal of time with the community health teachers, as that is my specialty, and this is the second trip I have taken with the group. The first was to one of the primary care centers in the city of Rania. Like the United States, Kurdistan has worked hard to strengthen its primary care infrastructure. The result is that every district has several primary care centers. This takes the strain of preventive and regular care off of a hospital system, and puts non-emergent care into clinics. Vaccines, sick visits, well-child visits, physiotherapy, tuberculosis care, and more are all done in out patient settings. The students visited the center and had an introduction to everything the center does. They then split into groups to observe a specific area of the center. Yesterday, continuing in the vein of community health, we went to one of the villages outside of Rania to do home visits.

We traveled by bus along a winding road that, if taken far enough, would eventually lead to Iran. The weather was cloudy and the mountains surrounding us have ground coverings of green from the recent rains. On the way we passed orchards of pomegranates and figs, the pomegranates bright red as it is late in the season. You could see people going about their daily lives in every village we passed. Two women in Kurdish house dresses chatting at the side of a road, men sitting and eating sunflower seeds and drinking steaming cups of tea, children on their way to school – all normal activities for this time of the morning.

About 25 minutes from the university, our bus driver found a gravel area to park off the side of the road, and faculty and students got off the bus.

I stood there for a moment looking at my surroundings and found the whole situation surreal. It was quiet and you could hear birds chirping, whether in Kurdish or English – who could know? Here I stood in a village in Northern Iraq with thirty some nursing students and three other teachers. I was surrounded by mountains, winding roads, Kurds, and Kurdish. I shut my eyes for a moment, trying to comprehend my life. I couldn’t. If someone had told me a year ago that I would be in this position, I don’t think I would have believed them! I think I would have said “In my dreams, maybe, but not in reality.” Yet here I am.

The students divided into groups of four and headed off to complete questionnaires through home visits in the village. I followed along with one group and another teacher. We stood on a balcony overlooking the street while the students sat and asked questions of a mother and her daughter. Culturally, this is not easy for the students. To go to a stranger and invite yourself into their space, to ask questions about their family, to find out things about their health and their living situation – none of this is easy. But it is part of learning about a community, part of learning about the health of the community. In what I have learned is typical of Kurdish people, we were all invited inside – Come for tea, come for a meal, come stay! But the students came with a specific purpose, so we refused all but the tea. The tea was most welcome, served hot, strong, and sweet in small, decorative glasses with saucers that matched.

Soon after we hugged goodbye, but not without promising to return. We headed back to the bus but first had our prerequisite group picture, standing on an incline near the village school.

That’s just as small snapshot of my life. As I said, It feels at some points unbelievable, and at other points unbelievably normal. That’s what strikes me each day.

I get up every day and I sit in my living room to reflect and wonder and pray. I sit and watch the sun’s light grow brighter on the mountains that I can see from our living room window. I drink my coffee and think about life, what it means to live, to redefine success from my narrow view; what it means to live here in Kurdistan.

I think about how my life has changed and what it is like to continue living in a paradox, my worlds so far apart. I think about living between worlds, how hard and yet how rich it is. I think about how I am an outsider here, and yet sometimes it’s easier to live as an outsider here than it is for me to live as a supposed insider in the United States. I think about the dilemmas that we between worlds people feel and face, how the complexity of these feelings never really ends, but we learn to be content within them. We learn to be satisfied with life in the in between.

I think about all those things, but most of all, I think about what it means to love God and love people a little more each day.

So that’s my slice of life today. Who knows what tomorrow may hold? 

Rania – Reflections on Place, Work, and Travel

I walk up the three flights of stairs to our apartment and unlock the door. I step inside and breathe a sigh of gratitude. No matter where you live, you need a home base. This is why the displacement and refugee crisis of our time is so important to care about. We are created for place. What happens to us when place is disrupted, creating fear and insecurity? This is the question trauma experts will be called on to answer for decades.

This one bedroom apartment has quickly become our place and haven. The apartment is on the third floor and has a bedroom, living room, large kitchen, sunroom and balcony. With high ceilings and a chipped marble floor, it is built for a hot, dry climate. It is cooled by a desert cooler, a system of cooling that works best in dry places and is far more economical than air conditioning. The electricity is based on a local and national system that we don’t yet understand. When the local electricity goes off, the national comes on. We’ve only been without electricity a couple of times.

We brought a few touches of home but have also gone to the local bazaar and purchased some household goods. Pictures of our family and friends stand on a large window sill, reminders that movement has a cost, but also surrounding us with love, our grandson claiming his prominent place in the line up.

The work week begins on Sunday and ends on Thursday afternoon. We are reminded at every turn that the culture we have moved to is relational above all. Any question we have is met with a “I can take you!” Or “Let me show you!” Or “Come to our house and my mother will help you.” Coming from Boston, this is a shock! We have a joke in Boston that the reason people don’t use their turn signals is because it’s none of your damn business where they are going! Here? Here it is everyone’s business. We are not alone. We have help at every corner and beyond!

I am reminded of desires today, and the years of longing that have led me here. There are frustrations for sure, but above all, we are so grateful. We are so lucky that we get to do this, to have our world turned inside out and upside down; to be in a place where we need people to explain everything to us; to grow and learn and be changed.

As I finish this week and head into another adventure this weekend, I am reminded of the oft quoted and beloved words of Pico Iyer. Perhaps you too know them and love them:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

In Rania, I have fallen in love once more.

Peeling Pomegranates in Rania

pomegranate

I wake to a sun-filled room in Kurdistan. It is Friday and we have slept late, still catching up from hours of lost sleep in the last couple weeks of packing and moving. Friday begins our weekend in this part of the world, and the mosque behind our apartment reminds us that it is a day of worship and rest for Muslims.

Our kitchen is mostly set up and I quickly navigate it, the unfamiliar space already showing signs of home.

We have enjoyed extravagant hospitality and I have not yet had to cook a full meal. This is extraordinary. I know visitors to the United States who have never been invited to an American’s home, yet every night we have been invited to enjoy amazing food, laughter, and conversation.

I head to the refrigerator. A bag of fruit was kindly purchased for us before we arrived. I look inside and pull out a small, perfect pomegranate.

Without a thought I cut it in half and begin peeling it. Peeling pomegranates is a skill I have had since I was a child and we would put fresh pomegranate seeds into fruit salad. It’s one of those invisible skills, seemingly unimportant. But once you begin to do it again, it feels like a gift from the past.

I chop it across the middle and all the seeds are intact. I slowly pull back and peel off the thin membrane, popping dozens of seeds into the bowl. The sun shines on my face, the work feels holy and reverent, peeling a pomegranate and popping the bright, red seeds into a bowl. As I peel I think about culture, about the past and the present converging together in a pomegranate. Most TCKs acquire skills that are useful in their childhood but often end up as hidden parts of their lives when they are older and living in their passport countries. Suddenly this ability to peel pomegranates feels important. Growing up in Pakistan and acquiring the skills that were not needed in the U.S. has uniquely prepared me for living here.

I think of the rich fruit, full of antioxidants, bright red, vitamin C laden – a gift to food, like different cultures are a gift to life.

I think about God and his creation – from pomegranates to people, his stamp on all of it. The beauty and wonder of peeling a pomegranate and the beauty and wonder of learning about a new culture intertwine in my kitchen in bright red seeds of hope.

Because I am who I am, and culture is what it is, there may soon come a day when all this doesn’t feel as wonderful; where culture clashes and peeling pomegranates feels like hard, hard work. But today I am not there. Today I feel hope and beauty in this act.

The pomegranate is ready and I add it to our fruit salad, an extravagant addition of memories, grace, and hope.

Enlarging our hearts in Ranya ڕانیه

View from our front balcony/sunroom

It’s difficult to believe that we have only been in Kurdistan for 48 hours.

Our flight from Qatar was uneventful. We connected with another new faculty member just before boarding the plane. The fact that she spotted us so easily was a reminder that we are westerners and everything from the way we talk to the way we walk identifies us as such.

We flew into Sulaymaniyah, also called Slemani, a large city two hours from Ranya. The way the plane entered the air landing strip allowed us to see the entire area before landing.

The airport in Sulaymaniyah is small and customs and immigration was easy. We had our pictures and finger prints taken and temporary visas stamped into our passports in record time, then on to retrieve our eight large pieces of luggage on the other side.

A faculty member from the university was there to greet us and load our luggage into a truck and we took off on the two-hour journey to our new home.

Ranya is a town of 230,000, established in 1789. It is surrounded by a mountain range called the Kewa Rash (Black Mountains) and, for lack of a better word or because my thesaurus is not loading properly, nestled by a beautiful lake called Lake Dukan. Driving up a hill, you know you have arrived in Ranya when you see a large concrete statue of the number five. The statue commemorates March 5, 1991 when Ranya boldly rose up against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Though the most notable recent uprising, it is not the only time in Ranya’s history where they defied the ruling authorities. Indeed, this is part of Ranya’s story since the early 1900s. Because of this history, many Kurds refer to the city as Darwaza-I Raparingateway to uprising. It feels particularly important for me as a newcomer and stranger to acknowledge both the history and wounds of this place where we will work and make a home.

The University of Raparin (literally the University of Uprising) is at the edge of the city and we saw the buildings immediately after passing the commemorative statue. Going past the university, we arrived at the apartment complex where we will be living. Our apartment building is one of six buildings built specifically for faculty at the university. We arrived and were graciously welcomed by university staff. They also graciously carried our heavy luggage into the apartment, no small feat!

We walked up three flights of stairs and opening the door crossed over into our new home.

Earlier today I sat in a sun-filled room, listening to Georgian chant in a town in Kurdistan. An hour later I embarked on the task of heating water for a cup of tea for a guest. While this sounds simple, it didn’t feel simple. Still later, we made our first trip alone to the bazaar and the triumphal feeling of shopping in a language I don’t know in a city that is new is akin to giving birth. I, indeed, am Woman! Hear me roar – in Kurdish, no less.

The enormity of all of this converges with how normal it feels and I feel yet again how beautifully complicated Home can be.

But though all of this has expanded our hearts and minds, nothing compares to the conversations, afternoon snacks, and meals we have shared the past days. In just two days our hearts have grown larger and I marvel at the new friendships, primarily with young men and women who are our kids’ age. They are the future of Kurdistan and we are so honored to be with them during this time.

I will write more specifically about some of our new friends later, but for now, I am filled with gratitude and my heart is enlarged in the best way possible.

Next Stop Kurdistan

We head to the airport in Doha Qatar early in the morning. Already the air is heavy with heat. Humidity is high and my husband’s glasses fog up as soon as he steps outside.

The majority of Qatar is not Qataris but those in Qatar for work or travel. It feels like a fascinating and sometimes depressing convergence of worlds. We talk to guest workers and find out some of the stories behind their work. Most go home only once every two years. Their longing for home and family does not have the luxury of tears and emotional paralysis; instead it is submerged into working many hours a day and sending as much money as they can back to those families.

I look out the window to barren desert and palm trees, those trees that are so symbolic to me of home. I’ve had no time to process, and suddenly we are almost to our new home.

We go through a special transit line and are quickly through security.

Though early, the airport is busy with travelers, some bright and ready, others bleary-eyed and travel worn. Airports are the bridges and we travelers are the bridge builders, connecting worlds by traversing through them, sometimes settling and other times moving on.

We are in the second leg of our journey to Kurdistan, the place we will lay our heads for awhile.

There has been so much to do in the past weeks – packing up a Life is not for the faint hearted. We have experienced many grace-filled moments, always when we most needed them. There has not been time for feeling and emoting; instead, it’s been doing and acting.

But at the airport as I hugged my younger daughter, the one of our five who has always lived bed close, the feelings found a place of release in tears. We hugged tight, not wanting to let go. There will be so many miles between us and I am not ready. No matter how many fancy communication tools we have, nothing takes the place of face to face conversation and wrap around hugs.

And now, because of modern air travel I am already thousands of miles away.

This is not a forced displacement, yet it still comes with a cost, and that cost has names and faces. It’s those names and faces that made us think carefully about the move; those names and faces that keep us praying and looking for creative ways to communicate.

We grab a coffee at the airport and wait to board. It is surreal. For many years I have longed to return to the Middle East, and I shake my head in disbelief. I get to do this. I get to live in Iraq, specifically Kurdistan. Despite the tiredness, the emotional impact, the fact that those I love most are far away, I am filled with gratitude.

About Iraq….

“Now, about Iraq….”

We wish we had money for every time someone has asked about our future plans with that sentence!

There are a number of questions we’ve been asked and a number that we have overheard, so to simplify things here is a list of frequently asked questions.

  1. You’re moving where? We are moving to Northern Iraq or Kurdistan. It is officially called the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and is an autonomous region. We will be living in Ranya, a city located about two hours from the capital, Erbil.
  2. What will you be doing? We will both be working for the University of Raparin, a public university located in Ranya. I will be working for the School of Nursing, and Cliff will be working on grants and research administration.
  3. Why are you going to Iran? We aren’t. We are going to Iraq, again specifically the Kurdish region and called Kurdistan.
  4. But…isn’t it dangerous? In talking with people at the university and others who live there, we are confident that it is safe to live and work in the area. We will not be foolish, and we will respect and learn from those around us as we navigate the area, but we are not worried and we are not afraid. One of my favorite quotes on safety comes from an essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear” by Rachel Pieh Jones. “Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.” This quote perfectly sums up our feelings. The closest we have ever been to a bomb attack is Boston and the Marathon Bombing when we were in lockdown for 12 hours in 2011.
  5. Why are you going to Iraq? In 2015, we had an opportunity to go to Iraq for a humanitarian aid trip. Cliff had gone earlier in the year, and the area had made a mark on his heart. The same thing happened to me. When we returned from that trip three years ago, both of us confessed our desire to return. It is a miracle that we were both offered jobs at a time that couldn’t be more perfect. My journal reflects this desire over the past three years, a desire I was afraid to voice.
  6. Aren’t you leaving great jobs in Boston? Yes. Yes we are. Again I’ll quote from Rachel: “Sitting in an armchair and watching the world implode on the 6 o’clock news, that felt more damaging to our souls than the risk of moving to Somalia.” (In our case, than the risk of leaving good jobs and moving to Northern Iraq).
  7. How long will you be gone? Our contracts are renewed yearly and our personal commitment will be two years and then look at what is happening at the university and with our family.
  8. What do your kids think? Our kids are incredibly gracious. They know our heart love for the region, but even as adults, it’s not easy losing a home base. Many of you have read about our cottage in Rockport – we are keeping Rockport and plan to be there for 2 months every summer. Cambridge and Rockport will be our home bases.
  9. You’re SO brave! (Said with admiration) No. No. I promise you, we are not brave. We are excited, and we are adventurous, and we like to think we have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but no – we aren’t brave.
  10. How will we communicate with you? The same ways we communicate now – email, WhatsApp, Facebook, this blog already has a section linking posts about our life in Northern Iraq. Our world has amazing ways to communicate and we will take advantage of those.
  11. How can we help? Thank you for asking! First off, if you are someone who prays, we would ask you to pray for us. Second, we still have a lot to do before September second, we would love to have you get involved by donating $25 to two projects at the school of nursing. You can read more about them here.

So, we are incredibly grateful to you – readers, friends, and family for going on this journey with us. Part of the joy of the journey is finding traveling companions – and that is you.

That Magic Word – Home

My younger daughter was recently in Toronto at the wedding of a friend. On return she had some difficulty with her ticket and had to go early to the airport in order to clear it up. As she was talking to a woman in security, she said “I just want to get home.”

Responding with wisdom, empathy, and an accent that indicated she knew the truth of her words, she said: “Somehow I understand that magic word – ‘Home’”

Throughout childhood we hear this word, used in various ways and forms.

Are we home yet?”

“How long until we get home?”

“I can’t wait to get home!”

“I hate leaving home.”

“It’s so good to be home!”

And then adulthood comes, and home becomes more complicated even if you don’t mean it to be. Is home where you grew up? Where your parents live? Where you now live? Where you are raising your family, or all of those combined?

You return home and home has changed, as have you. You leave, unsettled and discombobulated, happy to be leaving and sad that you are happy.

As life moves on, you become the one responsible for creating home, and in that space, home sometimes loses its purity and its magic. When we were little, magic and home happened. When we’re big, someone has to create it. Yet somehow along the way, most of us figure that out. We learn that home and what Wendell Berry calls “membership” are an incredible privilege, and we grow to protect that privilege. We learn that our connection to place matters, and our keeping of that place is vital for mental and physical health. Home may no longer feel like magic, but it has become so much more.

It is our anchor in a world that is fickle and our bridge that equips us to cross over to the outside.

Home. That place where we learn our first stories, where we lose teeth and grow inches, where we play and fight with siblings and grow nostalgic over time. For some, it is geographic; for others it is people, memories, and events that span the globe.

And one thing is sure–there is never more magic in the word then when we’ve been away, and we get to go back.

Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place, but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go.”*

*Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye

The View Becomes More Precious

Days are passing by quickly, and in every situation I am keenly aware that life as we know it is ending.

The other day I sat on my porch in early morning. It has been hot and sticky, with little relief. The small air conditioner in our living room window combined with multiple fans on in full force are no match for the heat wave that has people lolling in lethargy. I looked across at the apartments and houses of our neighbors. So, Christopher, Maria, John, Peter, and the guy that owns the Comedy Club at Harvard Square. It all feels incredibly precious.

I have lived in this condo longer than I have lived anywhere. Ten years ago we traded a house with designer paint and a sparkling pool for a rented condominium in a city. We tried to fit big furniture into small spaces, and laughed hard as we realized it couldn’t be done. We moved from perpetual summer to four seasons; from having to drive everywhere we went to a space where everything is in walking distance; and from not knowing neighbors to using our upstairs neighbor’s space every time we had our family visit.

Each day we have lived here our view has become more precious. And as transition closes in, our view becomes even more precious. I watch the morning light, ever-moving as the shadows and sun dance in perfect harmony. I peek out the window and observe a morning conversation. I hear the sounds of the two little boys next door. I watch, I wait, I observe and I shake my head at the beauty of all of it.

The view has become so precious; the sounds are sounds of Home.

Life has taught me that loss and her accompanying grief are constants. It has also taught me that beauty and daily grace walk beside the loss, pausing to pick me up, always there to comfort and hold the tears that come when I least expect.

I have shared before in this space one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, but it is worthy of repeated sharing:

“The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” CS Lewis The Problem of Pain

I am so aware that the calm and grateful heart, the precious view I have now are a temporary gift, a respite from transition chaos. Like a child, I will take this gift with joy and abandon. The yearning for permanence will come soon enough, the moving boxes downstairs are multiplying like baby rabbits and the walls will soon close in on me.

But today? Today the view is so precious.

Mountains of Transition

I’m on a balcony in South Carolina looking across at a lake and then mountains. There are mountains, and then more mountains, and beyond that, there are even more mountains.

My view is stunning and soul-quieting; soul-quieting during a time where my soul deeply needs rest and my heart is beginning to feel the deep loneliness of transition. I feel it most when I wake up. A feeling of disorientation surrounds me and I am lost. It’s as though something or someone has died. I lie quiet for a moment, breathing through the panic. And then, it’s gone. I sigh and hold out my hands, the Jesus Prayer on my lips.

A Haitian proverb says “Deye mon, gen mon” – “beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This afternoon, as I quiet my soul and look out towards the horizon, I realize that transition is like this. One mountain after another to be climbed and conquered, or at least climbed. Mountains of change and mountains of moving; mountains of decisions; mountains of goodbyes and ‘see you laters’; mountains of letting go of what I hold so tightly and don’t even realize. Mountains of explaining and re-explaining; of prayers and laying all at the mercy of God.

And that mountain of loneliness? For me, this is the biggest mountain of all. There are both universal and uniquely individual components to this loneliness. I am humbled as I recognize those attributes. I realize that many in our world understand these feelings, yet they are still deeply personal, still difficult to articulate.

In a recent piece on “Going Home“, Tanya Crossman ends with these words:

Right now the best I can manage most days is just getting by. Take small steps toward building a life here. Celebrate tiny achievements. Look for little moments that encourage me, that tell me it’s going to work out and one day I’m going to find my feet here, in this new life. Transition is hard. It’s exhausting. But it’s also worth it.”

Small steps.

Tiny achievements.

Little moments.

It’s going to work out.

Yes, beyond the mountains are more mountains. Taken all together, the view is beautiful, but the steps are overwhelming. But taken one by one, reaching out to others in the journey, I just might make it.

What about you?

3 AM in the First Class Lounge

I have never been in a first class lounge before. This hits me as I sit in a chair at three o’clock in the morning at a first class lounge in the Qatar Airport, my head resting on on of those brilliant, semi-circled plane pillows. We are here because of an extra long layover after an extraordinary, though quick, trip to Iraq.

The lounge is nearly empty, but an hour ago people from a multitude of cultures and countries converged on this space. Women in black abayas with bedazzled hijabs loaded plates of food for kids of all ages. Blonde-haired Europeans with skinny jeans and sweatshirts lounged on modern furniture scrolling through smart phones, their faithful links to the world’s they left behind. Tall and short men of varying ages, some eating, some drinking tea or coffee, still others snoring, oblivious to anything but the deep sleep that consumes them.

And then there are the staff, so attentive in their caring for weary travelers, yet so weary themselves.

A large, unavoidable screen gives airline information in vivid white, a reminder that we are only temporary sojourners. Each of us will leave this room, for it is merely a temporary resting place. We will never be fully comfortable here, but it does provide respite for a time.

How like our life on earth! The invisible but unavoidable screen of mortality reminding each of us at that our time on earth is limited.

If we let it, travel ushers us into reflective humility. All these travelers representing individuals, families, countries, cultures, languages, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. All these travelers, and I am but one of the millions that are traveling throughout the world today.

We are so small in the big scheme of things, yet so utterly beloved by our creator, without exception. The person I may despise the most is deeply and completely loved by the same One who loves me. It is beyond my ability to understand yet at three in the morning, it is deeply comforting.

A little girl has fallen asleep nearby. I smile, memories of traveling the world with my own children coming back to me. They would have loved to see the likes of this lounge.

I am so grateful for these moments. In a short time I will be on my way, the humility that travel affords too quickly replaced by my everyday erroneous thinking that I can control my world, replaced by my pride. But I thank God for the moments.

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C.S. Lewis