I bristled when I received a message from an editor at a publishing house asking if I was working on any projects.
“I can’t write a book now,” I thought. “I’m still living in this messy space of transition between Asia and America, between old dreams dying and not yet discovering the new. Standing on this shifting ground, what advice can I offer a reader?”
As I debated my merits as a writer, I listened to a podcast in which poet Zach Savich taught about what he called “memoir from the middle of things,” writing about events that are still unfolding. He talked about living in moments that aren’t tied up neatly with a bow and writing from that place of unknowing.
I realized all I had been seeing was my own uncertain path as my husband and I struggle to know what starting over looks like. We moved around the world and back again and found ourselves unemployed, uncertain, and feeling terribly alone. But then I looked outwards and I saw it—unfinished stories, life lived from the middle, everywhere I looked...
“You just can’t see it yet like I can,” she said, gesturing toward the kitchen counter she promised would boast a pantry big enough for all our needs once the project was finished. She was right; all I could see was the room of storage boxes and suitcases, tools and paint cans piled high in the corner. My friend whose basement apartment was slowly being transformed into our new home had a vision of what the place could be; I could only see endless days of unpacking and building.
My friend has a gift. She can walk into a space, strip it down to the bare bones and clearly picture its potential. She is perfectly comfortable ripping down walls to find every nook of space that can become a new shelf, building barn doors to create new rooms, and dreaming about projects that will continue to transform the imperfect space into the picture she carries around in her mind.
Me—I am one of the unbelievers. I feel the panic rising in my chest at the sound of the saw ripping through the flesh of the wood that means living in the incomplete a little longer. I despise the feeling of living in a construction zone, of my already shaky hold on normal being upended. The pantry project lead to a laundry room remodel, new counters and a sink. My husband promised it would be completed by summer’s end, but I didn’t believe it.
I can’t see what might be; I can only sit in the rubble and lament the mess that currently exists.
It’s not remotely a stretch to relate these feelings to the rest of my life. The way I feel about my external space is a laughingly clear reflection of the battle going on inside. If I can keep every room in my house sparkling clean, I can avoid the reality that my insides are a jumbled mess of contradictions that constantly confound me.
The two renovations that are occurring simultaneously are God’s real life object lesson to me. The ever-slow learner, I don’t like the lessons...
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.
In the middle of that moment with the cold seeping into joint and marrow, in what felt like an endless night, we couldn’t imagine being warm ever again. We had been hiking down the mountainside all day. The expansive view of the Ozarks still fresh in our memories, we descended into the absolute opposite landscape. My family and eight others had been hiking for four days already. Bone weary, hungry, and exhausted we stood in front of the mouth of a wild cave with our hearts beating loudly in our ears.
We walked into absolute darkness and total silence, overwhelmed with the experiences of the past few days and all the emotions they stirred inside of us. That stillness was harshly broken the moment we stepped out of the cave to find a downpour had begun in the valley. We quickly got to work, easily falling into the teamwork we had built. Those best at building shelters set to work with the tarps, finding the few places of flat ground to stay for the night. As soon as one shelter was set up just high enough for us to crouch under, those who had gathered whatever wood they could began stacking it for those of us with knives. Quick but methodical, we shaved off the soaked bark until we reached something inside that was dry enough to burn.
Hours later we stood huddled near the fire, arms around each other as much for warmth as to keep ourselves standing. Together we’d succeeded in building a fire in the least ideal conditions. We devoured the food prepared over it, grateful for both the warmth and the sustenance the flames had provided. We coughed as smoke gathered in our tiny shelter. We alternated between keeping warm and turning our faces outward to gasp for clean air.
At three in the morning, we wept together as we recalled the past few days. We had done things we never imagined ourselves capable of. We had seen such darkness in ourselves as we grappled for certainty in the wilderness. We glimpsed such light in each other as we banded together as family to carry one another when we didn’t believe we could make it. We felt the deepest cold imaginable as the rushing waters flooded the valley where we stood. We felt the warmth of peace as we sang hymns together and reminded each other that God gave us the strength to press on. Whenever I stare into the flickering glow of a fire, I remember that night. I remember what it feels like to know I can overcome.
In the middle of this moment with the numbness of depression sapping the energy from joint and marrow, in what feels like an endless night, I can’t imagine ever being warm again. I have been stumbling through the day and finally have a quiet house to myself. The expansive view of a new adventure on the horizon fills my memory. My family had been working towards our international move for years. Bone weary, alone, and exhausted I have descended into culture shock that I never saw coming. You prepare for it. You read about it. But you don’t think it won’t shake your whole world. Then it does...
I'm at SheLoves Magazine today sharing how my experience in one valley mirrors another, how I know God gives us strength for whatever we are facing. Whatever challenge you face today, will you join me in choosing to believe God can overcome?
People think life overseas is one big adventure. It’s not.
It’s still just life, lived out in an unfamiliar location. You quickly forget the exotic and get into mundane patterns of existence. The rains that flood the streets whenever there is a downpour aren’t interesting anymore, but just an obstacle that makes the kids’ bus two hours late coming home from school. You make the mistake once of trying to go out before Iftar and learn the hard way that you should stay home after four o’clock for the entire month of Ramadan to avoid the standstill traffic. You trudge down the same sidewalks and past the same half-erected buildings day in and day out because going much farther than your small section of the massive city drains the remaining energy that the sweltering heat hasn’t already taken from you.
Many days you stare at the same walls as you stay inside, too tired to battle it all. You look out over a sea of green you noticed as beautiful when you first came but the beauty is lost on you. You see the exotic looking banana trees but only to notice they have all grown down into cracking sidewalks, pushing their roots through the bricks constantly in need of repair. You may be able to see a small, luscious yard but it is behind the gated walls of one of the few verandas dotting the sea of high-rise apartments. Your territory has become concrete walls and barred windows, looking out over a section of the earth that feels very small despite its millions of inhabitants.
Maybe the view out your window looks very different than mine but I have the sneaking feeling you might have looked at it in the same way at some point. I have literally and figuratively felt trapped a lot in the last few months. Our tiny space inside the vast city we inhabit has felt like it is closing in on me. My legs long for spaces to stretch out, my heart yearns for a place to allow my children to run. My soul too longs for room, for wider prayers and for someone to hold space for me.
I’ve had the joy of a few intimate friendships that have deepened over time and which fueled my life and kept me going. In their absence, I feel like the grinch whose heart has shrunk a few sizes. My mood, energy level, and prayer life all are evidence of a heart and soul that feels only the restrictions on my life and doesn’t see the beauty anymore.
The counselor I have been talking to over email tells me I am right on schedule, a textbook case of culture shock and that these feelings are normal. They don’t feel normal. They feel stifling and overwhelming with a side of shame. I have always been a proponent of asking for help when you need it. But it still took me weeks after I received the counselors email address to actually reach out to her. Feeling completely exposed in front of a stranger is a new place for me, an uncomfortable and messy one. A necessary one...
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