It’s so much to take in—the cacophony of sounds that is never-ending in this place. There is never silence in our swelling, overcrowded city. The sounds are becoming familiar to our Western ears these days.
Allahu Akbhar. The musical nature of the call the prayer lulls the children to sleep.
Briing. Briing. We have come to expect the jingling melody of bicycle rickshaw bells. We hardly notice the yelping of the street dogs anymore, the clanging of aluminum rice pots in the early mornings. These are the sounds of life in the most densely populated city on earth. We feel our place amidst the noise, but a speck in this teeming sea of life.
But it is when I try to fill this space with my presence that I become even more aware of my smallness. The language I long to speak sounds like just another noise to my untrained ears. This language has existed in some form for thousands of years, descendant from one of the most ancient tongues on earth. This language is the pride of its people, shaped the very foundation and form of this nation.
Friends who’ve learned what feels impossible to me know tell me the first step of learning the language is listening, teaching your ear to recognize the rising and lilting sounds of Bangla. They call it the listening phase. For the first couple months full comprehension isn’t the goal, but recognition.
I hear a word that stands out in a string of melodic words, can recognize one or two and fill in some of the rest based on context. I know enough to get around town (sometimes) and talk to our house helper (about some things). I stumble my way through a sentence or two. A glimmer of joy passes through her eyes when she feels understood and our normal communication of gesturing and sounds becomes something a little bit more.
Dhonnovad. Thank you.
Onek Shundor. Very pretty.
I recognize so little. Understand even less. I long for my listening to produce the fruit of knowledge, of separating noise from language. I want to cross the bridge into familiarity instead of everything feeling exotic, unknown, other. But it takes time. Lots of it. It takes discipline, work, repetition—and always listening.
I’ve been working for years to understand another language, the language of the Spirit. Silence. Communion with God. I’ve been struggling to separate God’s voice out of what feels like the din that is ever-growing around me. Sometimes I feel a glimmer of recognition. I feel progress in hearing, experience His Presence. Other times His voice seems as unrecognizable as the curls of the Bangla script to this bideshi’s eyes...
The walls of a monastery have held the echoes of my thoughts for the past few New Years. The cold, smooth stone became the embodiment of silence and peace for me as I reflected on the year behind, dreamed of what lie ahead. I have always been able to hear God so clearly in the silence carved out by the Benedictine Brothers that have informed so much of my spiritual life for the past few years. I crave this kind of silence in my daily life but outside the abbey walls it seems unattainable.
This year my New Year’s Reflections were anything but clean and cool and silent. We were traveling by train outside of our new home in the most densely populated city on earth, where silence is but a dream. I was thrilled to be in a rural area over the weekend that stretched across the New Year. I dreamed about sitting under the stars that I can’t even see from the hazy capital city sky. My aspirations of a tidy time for reflection were met with disappointment as yes, the moon and stars were beautiful, but I could only sit under them for a minute before the mosquitos drove me back inside. Yes, I was in a place of beauty but even in this wild area of jungle and tea gardens, voices and songs filled the night with noise.
So much like my desire for the perfect place for reflection, my daily spiritual life always feels lacking. My works-focused evangelical faith has often provided a goal, an unachievable standard. I can say I believe in grace all day long but still try to heap up works that prove how much I love God. If I can’t seem to hear God’s voice in prayer, I give Him the silent treatment for days to follow. If I can’t have my ideal 5 am quiet time of silence and journaling, prayer and Bible reading, I just throw in the towel all together and call myself a failure. Nothing is ever enough. It was striving, burned out faith that led me to seek out contemplation and silence in the first place.
On my weekend away I started reading Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms, hoping to find a little peace. It was like I was reading my own journal: “Our longing for a way of life that works is most often met with an invitation to more activity, which unfortunately plays right into our compulsions and the drivenness of Western culture.”
I said I was giving up resolutions a couple years ago but never really let go of my unattainable aspirations of perfection. I dressed them up as a Rule of Life, something that felt more holy. But they were still goals with a timeline attached, something to strive for—something to fall short of. Every broken promise was a reminder that I couldn’t seem to change my life.
I started choosing one word to guide my year as a means to focus less on goals and more on what I wanted the year to embody. In 2016 I chose the word practice, exploring spiritual practices that I hoped would draw me closer to God. It was a year of leaning into silence and contemplation but I felt like all my learning never turned into something that could sustain me.
In 2017 I felt exploring led way to establishing, rhythm becoming my guiding word of the year. I hoped to establish unforced rhythms in my life, take some of what I was learning and make it part of my every day (practicing examen instead of just reading about it, finding ways to weave silence into my daily practices). But 2017 was a year that would prove to bring the most upheaval into my life I have ever experienced. Changing plans, shifting dreams, moving four times and finally settling 8000 miles from home—my plans to grow deeply rooted felt thwarted when all I knew was uprooted over and over again.
So tired of feeling like a failure at the end of every year, worn on from the striving, I settled onto the train to return home on the morning of the first day of 2018. I watched a world so exotic to me roll by. Women precariously balance jars of water on their heads as men plucked the rice plants from the water logged paddies. Extraordinary to me. Utterly mundane to the people who live day to day in these villages stretching out before my eyes. It seemed the whole of humanity passed before my eyes in those hours. Beggars and the lame. Children and the old. Women in their best getting ready to board the train for a holiday. As I watched them I thought God are you here? Are you with them as you are with me? Are you with me?
Something breathed into my spirit and in the least silent moment I can imagine, God met me there, assuring me that He was with me. That He was in this place in more ways than I can possibly imagine. “Solitutde is a place inside myself where God’s Spirit and my spirit dwell together in union,” says Barton. I was truly alone with Him on that ride and for a few minutes I could let go of my need for the perfect. I was just there. So was my loving Father.
My 2018 word settled into my soul in those moments. I am done trying to drum up the perfect plan, with the striving, the goals, the failure. I can’t hear Him if I am running ahead all the time. I can find a still place in the noisiest city on earth, in my always-churning thoughts.
I just want to be where I am. I just want to be where He is. Present.
Join the conversation: Do you have One Word you have chosen for 2018 and what ways are you weaving it into your life this year? What ways do you find to let go of your perfectionism? How do you find stillness in a chaotic world? How do you find ways to be present each day?
I’m a sentimental person by nature. I love gifts that have a personal meaning, heirlooms, and reminders of the ones I love. Other than my wedding ring I don’t own any fancy jewelry but I do own pieces that are absolutely priceless to me like the small diamond necklace that belonged to my grandmother that I wore in my wedding or the ring that my sister got made for me out of a piece of Gram’s silverware.
I am however also a person who loves order and organization. When my mom, whom I learned my sentimentality from, gave me an envelope of childhood items she had kept for me, she was disgusted that I didn’t plan on keeping many of them. Sure that cute picture I drew in kindergarten is nice to show my kids but do I need every report card I ever got in school and every newspaper clipping from the times I made the honor roll?
My distaste for clutter and my love of memory often collide and I am conflicted in what truly matters enough to keep. So I am trying to find a balance with my own kids and the difficulty is compounded as we downsize to two suitcases apiece that we will take with us in our move to South Asia next month.
When we lived in the Middle East before we had children we packed as light as we could. I remember in moments of culture shock and homesickness how I longed for something to remind me of home. Maybe I am erring on the side of taking too much now as we look at paying for a couple extra bags but I don’t want to regret not having those items that connect us to home. That pillow made for our kids by the teacher who cared for them after school since birth, the dollhouse lovingly made by my childhood best friend for my own daughter (even though it weighs twenty pounds), those stuffed animals given as gifts that they cuddle with each night—all going.
I’ve tried to catalog memories in such a way that we will actually relive them one day. I have boxes full of old-school photo albums that I do actually revisit from time to time (You know, when we used to actually print photos and stick them in books? Many of mine are actually Polaroid’s, gasp!) We don’t have many photos of my husband’s childhood because most of his were lost years ago in a flood. I regret not having those every time someone says how much our son looks like his dad.
In the busyness of life I had gotten behind on making the computer-generated photo books I have made for each year of our children’s lives, so I spent hours in the last few weeks before our big move pouring over pictures from the last three years. I met my goal of getting the books done but those books were bulky and expensive and I didn’t want to risk losing them on the move, so straight into storage they went. Knowing how much the faces of the people we love would bring comfort, I set out to make a smaller book of family and friends to take with us.
I was surprised at the pictures that gripped my heart and I felt like I needed to include...
At night these mostly bare walls with fresh paint echo more than they used to, bouncing each memory of the past six years back through my unquiet mind. The crickets and tree frogs sing a melody that is as commonplace to me here as the call to prayer and honking cars was when we lived in the Middle East. I haven’t stopped to notice it in a long time but in these still moments it is blaring in my ears, reminding me of all we are leaving behind.
A long-held dream is possibly just weeks away (the nature of overseas moves is always a little uncertain as we wait on visas and funding and a house to sell). I keep myself busy every waking hour but not just because my list of tasks to accomplish is long. If I sit in the quiet too long, the conflict inside begins to rage.
I see it in my daughter too, her sweet eyes filling up with tears when she asks for another doll accessory and I remind her we have to be selective in what we buy as we’ll only have so much room in the two suitcases each that will carry all our belongings with us to South Asia. We’re giving up a lot of things, sure. But what about the experiences, the people, the opportunities that we are leaving behind? I know the truth—that we will gain as much as we lose. My heart doesn’t always believe it though.
For sixteen years now this dream of living overseas has tumbled around inside of me. Fueled by five international trips in the past three years, fed by the stories we’ve heard from our refugee friends nearby, the dream has only grown. My husband had the seeds planted in his life early too when his parents hosted international workers in their home. The stories of faraway lands seemed otherworldly to an eight-year-old boy but the fire was ignited just the same. We’ve been working towards this for years.
Last month every event seemed to be a last one. We didn’t make a big deal of it to the kids, didn’t want each day to be colored by, “oh, this is your last dance recital and tomorrow is your last Independence Day parade and next week is your last time to that friend’s house!” After a beautiful week with our best friends at the beach house where we have vacationed every summer for eleven years now, we made the long walk to our cars. It’s always hard to say goodbye to them because we live states apart anyway.
The pain didn’t grip me though until the moment I wrapped my arms around my friend to say goodbye. We knew each other when we were just foolish college kids. Life hasn’t turned out like we thought it would. In most ways it is so much better than we imagined though some realities are harder than we dreamed. I kissed her two precious girls goodbye, feeling like I was placing my own children in their car seats. I lingered a moment to whisper “I love you” to the little boy growing in her belly knowing I won’t get to hold him when he’s still tiny. He will be born a month after we leave. The ache claws at the back of my throat and I can’t look at her with the tears burning my eyes, so I quickly turn away...
The miniature plastic house hung limply between two pine branches, the words “Our First Home” engraved on the side. We had brought the Christmas ornament with us to the first home we rented after a year and a half of marriage in which we lived with a friend.
The tree looked like it came straight out of Charlie Brown’s Christmas and the only other signs of celebration in our fourth-floor flat was a bright red poinsettia. Nothing about the day felt like Christmas because even though the Coptic minority celebrated the holiday, the Orthodox Christmas occurred later in January.
After we opened a couple gifts to each other—an onyx encrusted hand drum purchased from the tourist market and a grey flowing robe that local men wore called a gallabaya—we caught a cab to a nearby café that felt a bit like home.
The ancient culture had called to us back when we were living in the Southern United States. We imagined living in the land of the Pharaohs as this thrilling adventure and weren’t disappointed as the melodic Arabic call to prayer became the first soundtrack of our new lives.
In country for three months, the newness had worn off. We learned to say “we aren’t tourists; we live here” in Arabic to street vendors who tried to charge us more than we knew items were worth. But the truth is the dusty landscape didn’t feel much like home yet. We huddled in the cafe, isolated from those around us as we sipped our lattes and nibbled tomato and mozzarella sandwiches that Christmas afternoon, longing for the comfort of something familiar...
The Home series is a reflection on Jen's newly released Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, May 2017).
Home is something that is on my mind daily in this season of my life, something that holds deep meaning and intense longing. As we pack up our home of six years, as we look towards a new home overseas, as we say good bye to those things that anchor us to what home has meant for most of our lives ... we are constantly reminded that God gave us a longing for place and how to find home in this world and long for it in the next.
Jen Pollock Michel's new book Keeping Place couldn't have been more timely for me and I believe it will be for you as well.
"Home is our most fundamental longing. And for many of us homesickness is a nagging place of grief. This book connects that desire and disappointment with the story of the Bible, helping us to see that there is a homemaking God with wide arms of welcome – and a church commissioned with this same work..."
- Jen Pollock Michel
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