There were no ceramic pumpkins on the table this year to mark the occasion. We didn’t eat off of grandma’s white plates with the brown flower pattern around the edges that were just retro enough to be cool again. There was no playing in the yard after dinner, the crunching of autumn leaves under our feet. I didn’t hear the sounds of football games playing in the background, the predictable soundtrack of Thanksgiving.
There were crucial traditions missing, vital family members absent from around the table. Perhaps it was the most unconventional holiday meal we’ll ever have as a family. But still, those old familiar smells lingered in the air when the covers were taken off the foil trays. If you closed your eyes with the smell of sage and nutmeg hovering in the air, you could easily pretend we were in my parent’s kitchen.
Instead, we were bumping knees around a tiny table in the back of an ICU family waiting room. Thanksgiving Day was still a week and a half away but in two more days I would be on a plane to the other side of the world again and this would be another memory in this dream-like break from reality.
All that week my shaky smile answered the frequent questions of, “are you happy to be home?” The answer was too complex to unpack in the kind of casual conversation most people wanted to have after seeing me for the first time in a year. Those who knew me well enough to stop for the deeper story knew not to ask that question.
Happy was a loaded word. My arms were finally able to lock around my sister after days of weeping and longing to be near to her. I was grateful to be able to be at her side instead of 8400 miles away. My heart was heavy when the first tearful words we exchanged in person were about her husband’s second emergency surgery after his aneurysm less than a week before.
Home was a loaded word. I expected to feel strange driving for the first time again, seeing these streets that were so empty compared to the overcrowded ones I had become accustomed to in South Asia. But I easily navigated the roads as if on autopilot, quickly fell back into step with my old life. I expected to feel at home in the presence of my parents but I couldn’t completely relax when my family was fractured. I sat on the other side of an 11-hour time difference, waiting by the phone to talk to my husband and kids in the tiny snatches of time when both sides of the globe were awake.
This wasn’t the holiday any of us dreamed of. My sister said we’d cancel Thanksgiving dinner this year. How could we celebrate when days were spent in a waiting room and half of our family was missing?
It was the holiday God had given us though...
I leave more than the stale air of a thirteen-hour plane ride behind in the airport bathroom stall. When I emerge into the terminal in Istanbul, I feel like a new person altogether.
I had walked off the plane still wearing the evidence of the life I left behind in Bangladesh. I wore a salwar kameez, the three-piece traditional outfit of my adopted South Asian home. The ample cotton dress, baggy pants, and orna (scarf) across my chest spoke clearly about the place where I had boarded the plane.
I place the salwar into my carryon bag and change into jeans I haven’t worn for a year. I feel a bit scandalous in these first few moments as I walk around with my backside and chest not covered by a second layer of clothing.
I observe people walking by, certain they too must think me inappropriate. When no one stops to stare, I peel off the grey sweater I had been clenching tightly around my chest. I had forgotten what it feels like to wear Western clothing. I push my shoulders back and notice my stride becomes a little stronger.
I love the colorful clothing I get to wear in Asia. I find dresses with my beloved paisleys and gold embellishments. I delight in bell-shaped earrings and bangles that tinkle as they move on my wrist. Not all foreigners who live where I do wear the local dress but on many occasions nationals have commented how honored they are that I respect their traditions.
Every now and then I notice though that I carry myself differently than I did in America. I make myself appear smaller, trying to disappear under my orna, when I walk past the staring men at the tea stalls. I avert my eyes from fruit sellers that I am not going to buy from that day and hunch over to watch my own feet navigating the cracked sidewalks and avoid the tail of another street dog. I feel small in a city of millions. I am someone else in that place, someone who doesn’t belong. Am I still me?
I was plunged unexpectedly into change when I booked a ticket back to America because of a family crisis. I am still reeling from the expediency of it all and from the newness I feel. Or is it oldness? Familiarity? I am someone again that I forgot I could be.
I hold my head higher and meet the eyes of men that pass by, nodding at them. In my hometown famous for its southern hospitality it is rude not to acknowledge passersby with a rhetorical “how are you?” or at least a smile. I quickly put back on my old self, appearing more outgoing, feeling more confident. I haven’t felt this bold in a year. It feels vaguely familiar and disturbing at the same time.
These thoughts swirl around my head along with the words I read just a few hours earlier as my body fought sleep in the plane cabin. “If to change clothes can be to change one’s sense of self; if to change clothes is to change one’s way of being in the world; if to clothe yourself in a particular kind of garment is to let that garment shape you into its own shape,” writes Lauren Winner in Wearing God, “—then what is it to put on Christ?”
I laugh at the instant real-life application of those words and I wonder at the authenticity of how I carry myself in my many worlds. Am I the same person to new friends in South Asia as I am to those who have known me my whole life in America? Do I live with the same honesty online as I do in my face-to-face friendships? I want to be a person of integrity, consistency. But I feel different here. Do I act differently too? Do I always reflect Christ? Or do I put him on and take him off like an orna? Do I clothe myself in him day in and day out or when it is convenient?...
Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. -1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her short hair swoops across her forehead and her smile looks easy. She appears certain about her place in the world, about what lies ahead.
In the photo taken a year ago, she blends into her family. Their matching black shirts and denim say they are a unit, one. She’s like a puzzle piece that has always fit in a certain place, next to them.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture. My short hair was too hard to manage in the South Asian humidity so it has been growing out, now twisted in a little bun at the base of my neck. A headband has become a permanent fixture over what is too unruly. My cheeks are less full, the more natural diet I eat these days and the miles I walk around this massive city erasing some of the pounds I put on in the past few years. Any clothes I brought with me in our move stay relegated to the early morning hours before anyone might visit our house. After that I wear local clothes, a scarf draped across my chest.
I stand alone with sad eyes, a piece without a puzzle. I’m only part of a picture that once existed. I’m not her anymore. I’ve been reborn as someone else in this place.
I don’t recognize her anymore. Her eyes were hard and her mind was closed. She saw the world in white. She didn’t know a world of diversity existed out there. She saw the world in black. There was the truth and everything else, and she was to convince others of the right way.
In the photo taken twenty years ago, she stood opposed to her family (and a lot of other people). Her heart was in the right place but her methods were all wrong. She wanted to love but she didn’t know how.
When I look in the mirror now I see a different picture....
For a moment, as the sunlight filters through our red paisley curtains casting a warm glow across the tile floor, I forget. It’s just a split second though before the sounds of the city pierce the morning and I am plunged into the day ahead. I remember that I am simultaneously home and 8000 miles from home.
We’ve lived in South Asia four months now and our flat has a warmth to it that feels like a haven when we walk in from the crowded streets. It is home. But the teeming masses outside our door, the culture that surrounds us, and the language that engulfs us—it all still feels so far away. Our brains live on overdrive, trying to process all the newness and the words we know we have heard before but can’t place. Studying a complex and hauntingly beautiful language simply makes me tired…all the time.
For the first few months, I held onto everything I could because I’d let go of so much already—frequent calls to family and friends, TV, anything familiar. And I especially wanted to keep up my blog and writing commitments. It was my tie to home, to who I had been and wanted to still be. A couple months into full-time school there was a tugging at the back of my heart that I didn’t want to face. I was stress and overwhelmed. Instead of finding joy in what awaited me in the day ahead just managing normal life felt daunting. Writing deadlines on top of that felt like torture.
The tug wouldn’t go away. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to let go of something tethering me to a place that I wanted to be but was no longer. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I spent the last three years building my passion for writing into something that defined me. For a long time, I didn’t dare call myself a “real writer.” Each published piece gave me more confidence. Seeing my name on essays published in several books, I finally boldly claimed the title author, writer, editor. It is my writing that opened the doors for us to move to this particular job overseas and I will be working in communications down the road once we get some grasp on language. But it’s my personal writing, the places I show up every month and the communities I love (Mudroom, SheLoves, Ready Magazine, Redbud Writer’s Guild) that I didn’t want to loosen my grasp on.
In the middle of a particularly low week when I could barely lift my eyes to heaven, one of those online communities I love posted this blessing by Jan Richardson:
That each step
may be a shedding.
That you will let yourself
That when it looks
like you’re going backwards
you may be making progress.
That progress is not the goal anyway,
to the feel of the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you
in each place it makes contact,
to the way you cannot see it
until the moment you have stepped out.
Each word was a knife to my heart and a salve to the same wound. Through the tears I typed an email to all my editors and told them I need to take a step back for right now. It feels like a little death, letting go of my writing even for a time. It may be for a couple months. It may need to be longer. It’s another thing that I worked hard to build that I am tearing back down, like the home we sold, the people we left behind. It makes me feel so lost.
But maybe being lost isn’t such a bad thing. Perhaps this shedding of parts of myself is exactly what I need right now, to be fully dependant on God for who I am and what gives me worth. Not deadlines. Not readers. Not even the joy I get from telling stories. For right now, I need to just be present where I am and being obedient to just this one day. Maybe I need to live the story for a while before I have the space to write it.
You may not see my words in the usual places over the next few months. It feels like going backward. I have to believe it isn’t though, that it is progress to wherever it is God wants to take me…and you next. So thank you for showing up, for reading my words. I hope you will stick around and this conversation will continue soon. It will shift and change. Life always does.
But when you are feeling lost, maybe these words that spoke to me will be a comfort to you too. Know that you may not feel like you are accomplishing anything. But if presence is the goal, then be where you are. Be fully there and believe that someday…maybe not soon, maybe not when you expect it…but someday, you’ll step out into something new to realize God was accomplishing something great in you.
Shut tight, it was closed against the outside world.
It wasn’t so much to keep out that which offended
though I would have said that was the intention back then.
The reason was much more that I didn’t trust myself,
didn’t know how to stay on the straight and narrow.
I was so afraid of making the wrong choice,
of not being enough to earn the acceptance I so desperately craved.
You’d yell and say I was close-minded,
that I couldn’t see anything outside of the safe little world I’d created.
It wasn’t my mind that snapped shut in those early years of faith though;
It was my heart.
I couldn’t open it to anything that threatened to destroy what I’d found.
If I just kept my head down and my eyes straight ahead,
maybe I’d earn this love I ran towards with all my striving.
The cracks were small at first, just tiny rays of light shining through.
It was moment stopping to cross myself at the altar with tentative hands.
Could I be contemplative and contemporary at the same time?
It was a piping hot cup of green tea and silence.
Was it okay for me to be here with you, learning about meditation?
Fissures followed, all I’d built being torn down around me.
The walls tumbled down and I could finally see…
There’s been this growing sentiment in the world of social media and online writing over the past couple years. There is a feeling that whether we speak up or are silent, either way is losing. If we are vocal about an issue outside of our social context we risk being called out for a “white savoir complex” or jumping on the social justice bandwagon. If we are don’t speak up about a growing injustice in our country, then we are called careless and complicit in our silence.
Solidarity is a hard line to walk in today’s world. Do words on social media really mean we are standing with another anyway? They are just words, so easy to toss up on a screen without much effect to our lives. On the other hand, there are those that call us to speak up for them with the influence we have and there is a feeling we have to tread lightly, afraid to bring down ridicule, scared into silence. I think of a friend who has been the loving hands of Jesus to a local refugee community and who recently felt afraid to let her all-white community know of her passion.
Issues of justice weigh heavily on my heart and I’ve struggled to know how to use my words and my life to answer God’s call to be a peacemaker. Slavery, oppression of whole people groups, the needs of refugees—these things are more than token issues to me. I have lived in places where my neighbors live these realities, put myself in the way of these issues so that they had a face.
I have wrapped my arms around a beautiful South Asian child whose face beamed with joy despite his disability and homelessness. When I asked about him later I couldn’t even name the grief that washed over me when my friends told me he was missing, likely sold into slavery bringing a good price as a deaf beggar.
My heart has ached over the anxiety in my new friend’s eyes as I tried to teach her to make chocolate chip cookies. Everything in an American kitchen was foreign to her. She finally had to leave the room because, between the language barrier and not understanding anything in her new country, she was just too overwhelmed.
Yet I, too, have been afraid to speak out sometimes.
More and more I am convicted about the way solidarity is more than words, how we need to act on the needs we see. We can’t say we love if we hoard the cup of water we have access to while our neighbor goes thirsty. But we also can’t say we love if we don’t use our voices to speak truth into the dark places where justice is denied. Standing with someone means using our hands and our voices to support them. Solidarity means both speaking and acting.
One of my favorite quotes when I speak to groups about the slavery I have seen in South Asia and the ways we can stand in solidarity with those who are denied their basic human rights is, “We are none of us free if we are not all free.” An American poet named Emma Lazarus wrote these words. You’ve probably never heard her name though I guarantee almost all Americans, and many around the world know these words of her most famous sonnet, The New Colossus:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
I hadn’t heard of her until, wanting to attribute the quote to the right person in a presentation I was making, I looked up who said it and started reading about Emma Lazarus. I couldn’t stop...
He fought the urge to close his eyes and shut out the fear rising up in his chest. The salty smell of the sea overtook his senses as the chill hit his waist. The growing sound of the waves drowned out the gasps of the people watching in amazement. His own heartbeat roared in his ears as the water reached his shoulders. He held onto the promise that was his lifeline.
They had come this far, seen the hand of God leading them at every step. He remembered the blood-red Nile, the cries in the night when they huddled in their homes holding their own firstborn sons like their very grips on them would protect them. He looked back one last time at the thousands on the banks, watching him with wide eyes. He couldn’t see a way through the sea yet but the Miracle Worker who brought them here said to go. So, Nashon breathed one last deep breath before plunging headlong into the unknown.
I’ve been submerging myself in the words of Exodus these days, after several gentle nudges from God. A friend would mention stepping into the Red Sea before it parted as encouragement to keep the faith that all of the unknown in our lives right now is leading to a chance at greater obedience. The haunting words of an old Sara Groves song kept coming up in the shuffle of my playlist … “I’m caught between the promise and the things I know.” So, I returned to the old familiar stories of the Children of Israel whose entire lives were changing with every step they took towards the sea and all that lay beyond it.
In searching for what God was trying to show me, I read about Nashon for the first time. His name is one of those I have glossed over a dozen times in the Bible, one in a long list of names that have a place in God’s story that we only glimpse in passing. Nashon was brother-in-law to Aaron, one of the leaders of the tribe of Judah that left Egypt for the promise of God waiting beyond the sea. Mentioned again in the genealogy of Jesus in the New Testament, we learn that he was exactly halfway in the direct line from Judah and King David.
It is in the Midrash, the ancient Jewish commentary on the Hebrew scriptures, that we find the rest of Nashon’s story...
It’s funny that the changing of the seasons speaks of consistency to my soul. Our lives may look a little different each fall, but there will always be the smell of cinnamon in the air.
My heart skipped a beat when I saw a little hue of red peeking through the green leaves this year. The first colors of fall are appearing even though the sun is still high and hot in the sky. The yellow butterflies that show up this time of year are dancing across my vision and the mornings are getting a little more brisk. I know my favorite traditions are on the horizon, such comfort comes with the taste of pumpkin and the smell of hay. Except that this year, each falling leaf is speaking to me of something else, a haunting reminder that like the seasons that we can’t hold back—my life is changing forever.
I am trying to create every fall memory I can to sustain me because I know that next year changing leaves will be replacing with the latter monsoon rains. My family is preparing for an international move to a place where there is no autumn. Next year there will rickshaws instead of hayrides and new faces instead of family. Continue Reading
A journey through old photos of my life will quickly reveal something most people who know me could tell you—I am a restless soul.
I have a hard time staying in one place too long without at least an adventure or two. I love exciting, new beginnings and want to be a life-long learner. I guess my passport would tell you that, too. I am most at home in cultures not my own and love venturing out into the world to learn all I can about a new people, a new place.
It’s evident in those photos of me through the years that I love change—just look at the constant evolution of my hair.
When I was a kid all the adults in my life loved my stick straight, bright red hair. Other kids would hurl the typical “carrot top” insult my way though. While other nicknames cut me deeply, this one bounced right off. I didn’t mind that other kids teased me for my unusual hair. Every adult in my life adored it because it was so unique, and so I, too, loved my fiery hair.
But my restlessness kicked in early and I begged to cut my hair that was long enough to sit on by the time I was ten years old. I don’t know how long I had to beg to wear my mom down, but the photos tell the truth. My formerly curled or crimped locks gave way to a pixie cut that made me resemble Peter Pan. I hated it with a passion. (But I never told my mom that. Remember the years of begging? I couldn’t admit I had been so wrong!)
Flat-ironed straight. Layered with side-swept bangs. Permed (so big!). Short and spiky. A stacked bob. Every couple years there has been a new look. A reinvention. I couldn’t stand my hair to be the same style for too long. I get bored with it after a while. My husband learned this quickly when I chopped off the curls he loved so much the very day we returned from our honeymoon and replaced them with a short-spiky look. I am not sure he knew what he was getting himself into!
My life has often been a reflection of this reinvention. I lived in only two homes during my entire childhood, in the same area my whole young life. As soon as I was on my own, I set out to explore. In the six years between graduation and marriage I lived in six different homes, spent significant time in five different cities and visited my first three countries. Then there was marriage, an international move, a move back home, and all the changes starting a family brings.
Not much has stayed constant in my life. But as much as I like new beginnings, I love stability, too — something I can count on in this wild and ever-changing world. That has always been my family...
Today I am over at SheLoves reflecting on the changes in my life and the constants that anchor me to home. This month's theme is "hair." Come see how old photos and memories are speaking to me of what is constant in this world.